Secret Thirteen Interview - Nicolas Bernier


Audio-visual installation “Frequencies (Light Quanta)” by Nicolas Bernier

Until the arrival of modernity, art always charmed the audience with its inexpressible grace, its accomplishment and a comprehension of the techniques that great artists once applied. A swift change in the arts happened alongside with technological developments and revolutions: there were some great men, whose lofty artistic aspirations were effectual, and who would have enough power of word to change the perception of what art is. This certainly did not deny the importance of the classic techniques or tools nor this kind of art in general. The evolution of the human world just rendered ingenuity and a wider selection of tools, techniques, some of which are just as difficult to overcome as those of classic painting and sculpting.

Indeed, some of the modern day art simply makes you wow and indulges in an ardent passion to figure out ‘how and why?’ That was the case when Secret 13 was acquainted for the first time with Nicolas Bernier and his work. This is a serious and exquisite kind of contemporary art, and it is Nicolas, who endues it with life and deserves to be talked about.

Interview with Nicolas Bernier

Nicolas Bernier. Photo by Francois Laflamme

It would not be so accurately descriptive to say that Nicolas is only a sound artist; his works include installations, video art, dance, theatre, and performance – he is an interdisciplinary art voyager, so to speak. This leaves no doubt that his intellectual capacity is indispensable. Nicolas’ well thought-of concepts, beautifully and with the greatest diligence executed works, speak louder than words. The awards won and the number of shows, performances and lectures under the guidance of Nicolas also acclaim to this. Speaking of lectures, the artist was appointed as a professor in the digital music department at Université de Montréal. It seems that the younger generations of Canadian sound artists are in good hands!

The artist confesses that when he is engaged in one of his creations, he would always try to avoid hastening the process and would spend hours upon hours reading, contemplating on the work, accumulating all of the bits related to the main idea, visualise the final picture before starting to really actualize it. For example, the latest project “Frequencies (Light Quanta)” is based on the studies of the quantum physics theories, “the metaphorical relationships between basic quantum physics principles applied to the audio-visual creative process”; or BOÎTE, which was the aftermath of his mind becoming replete with ideas about Italian futurist Luigi Russolo’s “The Art of Noises”. Neither Einstein nor Russolo, who inspired Nicolas, created their masterpieces overnight. This long period of time, during which the ideas were thoroughly considered, and mental exertion that was invested might be few of the reasons why their works are held in the highest esteem.

Audio-visual installation “Frequencies (Light Quanta)” by Nicolas Bernier

The way people perceive the sound would purely depend on every individual: it is impossible to avoid other interferences of the environment, or to avoid clinging to associations, recollections, dreams, fears and other humanly sensations. Yet, revealing sound that is invisible by linking it to light, or by disclosing the structure of the instrument that creates sound, the artist can in a sense, decide what to emphasize and which direction to guide our ears, eyes, and therefore our mind.

Nicolas Bernier’s works are like the dose of a good action movie. Just like Russolo’s noise, it “has the power to bring us back to life.” It is intriguing, interesting, intellectual and modern. Moreover, in every respect only for the artist’s skills and competence it is worth to call his works Art in its primary and contemporary definitions (and we have so many of them!).

Nicolas does not lack words to convey his organic ideas and perceptions of the world; because of that and because of his candour and likeable personality, it is a pleasure to introduce you to the interview with Nicolas Bernier about “how and why?”

Milda Batakytė: What would be your description of music and what would be of a sound?

Nicolas Bernier: I do not think we can define music: each individual will make his own definition according to his own culture. But for me music is simply movement, and everything is movement. We can look at the gesture of a dancer and perceive it as music. We can see the people crossing streets in the Time Square as a giant cloud of particles, like grains of sound would spread in granular synthesis software. So everything is music, nothing is music, everything moves.

MB: Would you say you create sound or music?

NB: It depends. But I would be tempted to answer that I am making sound creation… that borrows in part to the music principles. When working on an artistic project, I do not force myself to work in a precise discipline, this is why I have been quite comfortable to work in different fields like video, photography, animation, design and visual art even though I find it more modest to say I am a sound artist as this is the world I am initially from. But for me, with the terms music comes a burden: centuries of developing a system like the tonal system in occidental music. And I try to stay away, as much as possible, from any systematic approach in my search of developing a personal language. In the meantime, I love organisation of things, and organisation of sounds. So in that sense, there always is a musical, a compositional side in my work. Therefore, music is for me tied to pre-established codes while sound art would be a freer form.

Live electronic music performance “La chambre des machines” by N. Bernier and M. Messier

MB: Your art making tools require a high level of knowledge, do you proceed a theoretical research beforehand? Or you are an empiricist that would learn about the things during the process? What is the order of actions when you are creating something?

NB: I am totally empiricist. And a reaaaaaallly slow learner. So I work very hard and I progress really slowly. Just doing things here and there, talking to people, exchanging, reading, learning bit by bit with trials and (lots of) errors. But in the meantime, I am quite conservative, not attracted at all by technologies and new tools so I am not always trying to work new software and stuff. My thoughts are more directed towards the organization of things, objects and the conceptual notions that I already know, that I have slowly accumulated and collected over the year.

Concerning the different steps in a process, these are never the same. I have to adapt to the challenges of every project. But the thing that is consistent is stage 1: the phase where I dream about the project for years. In this stage I am basically reading around a topic, collecting books. I am a book lover, and for me this part is really important even though it is just about being soaked in this topic. This is an abstract process that will unconsciously merge in the project in the creation phase. So there always is this first long step, and then the “real work” (or what people would consider to be the real work, but for me the real work is reading and dreaming) have to be done quite quickly in the urge of the moment, so stay really in it, doing/thinking only about one thing (the project) without loosing the momentum.

MB: The concept of your latest work is based on the theory of quantum physics, what is the main idea that fascinates you the most? Perhaps it is the possibility of one particle to be in a few places at the same time, or is it the secret relation between these smallest elements that exist? Else?

NB: I think what fascinates me the most is just the simple fact that everything (like everything!) is made out of particles. From these finite molecules emerges the infinite universe. Infinity = vertigo and vertigo is at the same time frightening and fascinating. But crazier is the principle of discontinuity: these particles (the one that make our material universe) are not just moving following a path. They will start at point A and then be at point B without having to do the travel between the two points. It is like we can say that the material is full of holes, our world is full immateriality.

On a more pragmatic level, there is the duality notion that states that the light particle (the photon) is a particle and a wave at the same time. In the installation, the light (which is a metaphor for the photon) is flowing like a wave in the structure but also jumping from one point to another like a particle.

MB: Would you say that your work is as much about the technological possibilities as about the nature? Is it a kind of depiction of natural processes that are unseen for the naked eye?

NB: In general, the main topic of my work is (nothing original in itself) to propose ways to materialize sound composition. But if I go in the direction of your question, I think my work is rather about eliminating the boundaries we make between nature and culture, and then between the old and the new technologies. A bit like I was replying in the first question: everything is everything, and everything is connected. And as much as I like to organize things into boxes, as much as I think that it is important to be aware that a lot of things do not fit into boxes, I prefer to play on those fine lines. But it is not about the technological possibilities, it is actually quite the opposite: I do not see my works as technological works, just as WORKS, that is it (works that is part of the culture I live in, and tools are just a part of this culture).

But, I mean, there is not big political statement in my work. It is just a reflection on these networked ideas that I am attracted by. On a more technical level, it is a way to explore the relationship between sound and light, which have been my main focus in the last couple of years.

Sound performance/installation “Frequencies (a)” by Nicolas Bernier

MB: What is the terra incognita within the field that you are working in now, which you would like to explore more and transform it into the art of performance?

I always am in this terra incognita in some way. As an artist, if I feel I have understood something, it is probably the time to move on to the next challenge. For now, the biggest challenge is in producing coherent sound performances. I think that we are just at the beginning of the sound performance era, even though it has been an active field since the inception of electronic sound in the late 40’s. I think this search for performing sound with objects or invented apparatus, other than the traditional instruments, is still a tremendous challenge. What kind of gesture does one use to produce a kind of sound? What kind of instrument should one build? What is the correlation between the sight and the sound? How does one is entangling all the disciplines in one coherent discourse? How can we go further than having a technological discourse? I think we still have a few years before finding the key formulae to the practice of these kinds of live sonic performances.

MB: Your works are tour de force and now you are well-known artist worldwide. How difficult it was to break through the ice when you started creating? Was the art market as competitive as it is now?

NB: It is all a matter of being at the right place, producing the right work at the right time, and we do not have any control on this. In a way, it was not that difficult to “breakthrough”, and on the other hand, it WAS extremely difficult. Let me explain myself. There is absolutely NO reason for an artist to be not active. There will always be things to do, events to invent, situations or dialogues to create; whatever field you are into, place where you live, or tools that are accessible. There are a lot of exciting things going on in the underground. And there is always a way to make your work accessible to the public, whether it is showing an exhibition in your own bedroom open to your friends, or at the most important museum in the world.

In that sense, without especially looking for a success, I have always been active, always doing things, founding labels, participating in various events, whether they were “under” or “over” ground. So, in a way, I never saw the dissemination of my work as something difficult to achieve. I started to produce work that was presentable quite early in my “career” (I do not really see this as a career but anyway). At the time in the early 2000’s, I was mainly working with video, and this network was based on a “call for works” model. I soon started to send my stuff everywhere, literally, spending tremendous amount on shipping fees but with the results of having the work presented from time to time, even in these first years of artistic practice. But this was done on virtual platform, as my work was traveling but not me. I was also sending music to many labels but they were not really responsive. I was unknown and I arrived right at the point where there was already a really well established experimental electronic music scene, without an important need to welcome any newcomers, I guess. Beside, the hipness of electronic experimental music was declining, big festivals were happening less and less and labels were closing down one after another.

On the other hand, a shift happened from the laptop performance to the physical performance and this research on sound materialisation. Over the years, I developed quite an extensive experience in that field and this is where I fell in the « right time / right place » category. From there, everything went well.

But I do not take anything for granted and I am actually quite naïve about being known or not (it always depend on who you are comparing to). So I simply continue to create the same way I was doing 15 years ago, without thinking if a work will tour or not, taking creation really modestly.

MB: What is your opinion on Contemporary Arts? Is there anything left to create that would surprise the audience and would be worth to be called original work of art?

NB: Can we really say that something is original? What is originality? Because everything is made of what already exist, isn’t it? Again, it is always a matter of culture, and comparison with the world that surrounds that specific thing. What is original for my mother-in-law is not necessarily original for me.

I do not think one should worry too much about being original; he should only worry about doing what he feels he should be doing. The only true originality is honesty, so if a work is honest, it will find it’s way, whatever way it is. But then, can we really be honest if we are influenced by the commercial culture that surrounds us? I will leave that question open ;)

Sound performance/installation “Frequencies (synthetic variations)” by Nicolas Bernier

MB: Is there a person or a collective that you aspire to and would like to collaborate with?

NB: I must say I am quite an independent mind. To be associated with a group of people is not really important for me. But there are, of course, a lot of people I would like to collaborate with. Like with the Need company or Romeo Castelluci in theatre field; with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker or Hiroaki Umeda in the dance field; with Herman Kolgen in the media arts; with Dubmtype in interdisciplinary … or with The Dillinger Escape Plan or Old Man Gloom in the music field. Man I would like to work or just remix these guys! In the sound arts, I would really like, one day, to make a project either with Tristan Perich or with Sébastien Roux. And I promised myself that one day I will get in touch Marc Ribot, the guitar player. I also have this little fantasy to release a record on Raster-Noton as they definitely made an influence on me.

But my biggest fantasy for the moment would be to find something to propose to Invada Record founded by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow. Definitely one of the most interesting labels out there these days in my humble opinion, especially with the work by Beak and Drokk.

Life will show…

MB: What is/are your current project/projects that you are working on?

NB: The list of projects is endless. I would not give any details, because I would feel a pressure to do what I say and I do not want any pressure. I am not working with any deadlines, I like to take the time that is needed for a project and every project demands own schedule that develops while you work on it. Let’s just say I will still continue to explore sound, light, physicality that integrates the discoveries of the past, as well as those of today.

On the other hand, I just started a new thing: I am now a professor in digital music/sound art at the University of Montreal. And this is really interesting to follow the work and to discuss with the younger generation. Quite an interesting challenge!

MB: Your works are rather hypnotic (kind of), how do you find yourself after a day working on one or other project?

NB: (Laughs) I must say I never really saw what I am doing as hypnotic but now that you say it. When working on audio, I will regularly clean my ears with music, listening to a lot of different stuff, and especially not hypnotic stuff like free jazz, punk rock, grind core or hip hop. So it helps to stay awake and jump back into the more hypnotic sound.

MB: Provide us with the name of an artist/artists in whose works you find your peace and joy?

NB: I could provide an endless list here but it would sound like I am namedropping so I will try to concentrate on just another couple of artists besides the one that I named in the previous questions: Morton Feldman, James Turrell, Dan Flavin, NoFx, Alain Bashung, Serge Gainsbourg, Timber Timbre, Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller, [The Users], Ryoichi Kurokawa and Bill Orcutt, just to name a few.

But what is really making my joy these days is something else: skateboard. I do not know why I did not do this when I was in my teens. Actually, yes, I know: I was too busy making music. I am a bit old for that now…but man I am so addicted!

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About Author

Milda Batakyte is an artist and a writer focusing on the contemporary art scene. Her unique perception of the phenomenon of art was shaped while pursuing knowledge in history, political and social sciences and working in cultural institutions in several European countries.

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  1. Pingback: L.E.V. 2015: the fusion of psychical sound and contemporary art | Secret Thirteen

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