Material Traces: Video, Sound and Drawing by Nikki Forrest – Mél Hogan

Nikki Forrest

Nikki Forrest

Nikki Forrest

Nikki Forrest

Nikki Forrest

Tract Title: Excerpt from improv evening


: BêTEs NocTurnes :
16 decembre 2009
at Bar De Courcelle
St Henri, Montreal

Martine H. Crispo
Magali Babin
Nicolas Dion
Nikki Forrest
Anne-Françoise Jacques
Nancy Tobin

Nikki Forrest is a multidisciplinary artist, born in Scotland, raised in Saskatchewan, and based in Montreal. Her work explores ideas related to memory, perception, and failure. After nearly 20 years of working with video, her practice has recently expanded to include drawing and sound. This winter, we spoke about some of her interests and recent projects.

MH: What interests you as an artist?

NF: Resistance has always been a preoccupation. What are some of the different forms resistance can take? Can this include small gestures or ways of thinking? Material processes? Silence? These questions interest me.

I’m also very interested in perception. How do we know what we think we know? How do we work with assumptions to interpret our surroundings? And how are the senses shaped by assumptions?

As an artist is it possible to create situations or gestures where those assumptions are challenged at a sensory level – or at least made visible. Is it possible to create ruptures in the surface and flow of apparently seamless structures.

I’m interested in how the senses are one of the primary ways of interacting with the world and with other people. These ways of knowing are under-acknowledged and probably under-used. So many things are set up to disconnect us from our embodied physical self and to dampen our senses.

I’m also interested in those things specific to art-making, which differ from other types of communication, for example, material processes and how ideas are transformed when materialized or worked through in some kind of physical way.

Failure is an interesting part of this kind of production. This is where creativity comes from, and goes against mainstream ideas about success, or, at least, the appearance of success and “keeping it all together”.

I read this thing on an online discussion about drawing recently, taken from a book by James Elkins’ on the nature of seeing, called “The Object Stares Back.” One chapter of the book talks about the pathology of blindness as a way to think about visual perception. Elkins writes, “A mark is born in blindness, and as pictures are drawn they slowly emerge from blindness without ever leaving it behind. There is partial blindness in every drawing as the image hovers between the real and the imaginary, and a finished drawing preserves that balance.” I like this idea of hovering between two things – never complete, absolute or definitive. For me, art comes from a desire to communicate, especially through the senses, and the understanding that communication in whatever form is never complete and always partly a failure.

MH: Can you expand on how failure ties into your work… is it about content or process or both? How do you know failure? What does failure look or feel like?

NF: Failure looks incomplete but full of potential. I’m thinking about it in terms of both process and content. It’s a productive part of process if it’s experimental and transformative, which it has to be if the work is going to be interesting. In terms of content, if you think about something like memory: failure, loss, repetition and change are features of memory that interest me. These elements are things I try to work with formally and materially in video.

Instead of telling a story about memory I’m more interested in trying to find material processes that enact it in some way. The residue of that enactment becomes the work. I don’t usually think about form and content separately.

From my own experience, an example is immersion in an unknown language. You can’t really communicate, but there are so many interesting things that arise out of that experience. As you learn more of the language, and you begin to communicate more, you loose some of the other heightened perceptions that came from the inability to communicate verbally.

As a proper adult woman, I’m a complete failure in so many ways! But that just implies that categories are too narrowly defined. Being a failure in terms of traditional definitions usually provides an interesting perspective.

Something like silence could be understood as the failure to communicate or it could be thought of as a very specific form of communication, or as a specific answer, or type of response.

MH: Based on this idea of memory as process, talk to me about your video work…

NF: I’m interested in how a video can enact rather than represent a concept. Beyond the limitations of narrative and storytelling, which can also be really interesting, what are some other ways to work?

My older work used a lot of text and voice-over. I was attempting to use it in a poetic and associative, rather than descriptive way. I’ve gradually moved towards more abstract, non-narrative and other conceptual approaches.

For example, is a recent video called “School Colours from Memory”. As a starting point, I was thinking about how we remember something like color, especially when it’s associated with a particular time and place. Without looking at a reference, I mixed colors in a video editing software to produce a series of blank color screens with very slow dissolves between each one. A lot of other shades, tones and digital artifacts arise out of the dissolves. The translation of the original colors, through memory and then through technology, produces new information. The sound track is based on pure sine waves, using frequencies that are roughly equivalent through a mathematical translation to the frequencies for each color. Again, long slow dissolves between each sound, produces additional tones, noise and interference. My intention is that the end result is somehow meditative and emotionally engaging, as well as evocative of the way memory works.

MH: Why is resistance important in your work? Does this stem from a feminist or queer politic?

NF: Yes, for sure. Growing up queer in the 70’s in Saskatoon I really felt like an outsider. There were some threatening aspects to that. When I finally got out of high school and into University, I became involved with this “alternative music society”. This was basically a group of outcasts, punks, queers and a few art students. We organized concerts, and hung out in one of the local discos, which happened to have a slightly alternative DJ. This was really a big thing for me. Queer was not the focus, but we all identified with the idea of “alternative” around music and DIY aesthetics. But queer was ok in that circle. Nobody cared. We were into Bauhaus, Cabaret Voltaire, Joy Division, The Clash. It was around 1982 – 83. Eventually through art history classes, I started reading feminist theory. I was captivated by things like bell hook’s, “Choosing the Margin as a space of radical openness”, which I somehow related to the more idealistic possibilities of Punk. There was a kind of freedom and openness in our little Saskatoon version of “Alternative”, which was a lot of stuff mixed together. I’m not sure if this happens in the same way in larger cites. Obviously, some versions of punk were/are very homophobic and misogynistic, but for us, it meant a lot of creative play and experimentation with identity/appearance/aesthetics. I love local small town versions of things like that.

If you were a punk, a mod, or a new romantic, you might be the only one, so you could really make up your own version. In fact, you had to! I think play and nonsense can be powerful forms of resistance. I’m still very idealistic!

MH: What inspires you to create?

NF: A desire to communicate and my failure to communicate in other ways. A desire to stay in touch with sensory ways of knowing. Also, a basic interest in material processes: the pleasure of working with images, sound, film, drawing, etc, the transformation of my own thinking that happens.

I also want to make things that people like at some level: I want to touch people and make them feel something.

MH: What are some specific projects you’ve been working on?

I’ve always been interested in sound as part of my video work, particularly how sound operates with images, and what happens in the space between the two. Recently, I participated in a couple of collaborative performances with a group called, “Bêtes Nocturnes”. Nancy Tobin initiated this project for a show at La Centrale last summer (2009).

I was really inspired by this collaboration. I understood something new about live performance and collaboration, and about listening, playing together, and how the whole can end up being a lot more than just the sum of its parts.

MH: So is collaboration fairly new in your practice? How is it different from working solo?

NF: I have tried a few times. It does not always work, but I’d like to do more. When it works, it takes my thinking somewhere new, and shows me new ways of looking at what I’m already doing.

MH: What are other projects you are working on right now?


Another series is loosely based on the idea of portraits: portraits of places, portraits of ideas and self-portraits, and the idea that portraits are never complete.

I’ve been collecting video footage in public parks in different cites. I’m interested in, for one thing, the limits of what you can still do in public space. When will someone tell you to stop recording and why? It’s quite different in different cites.

Trying not to be obtrusive to anyone’s privacy or personal space, I set up the camera as a kind of frame for observation. What happens if you look at one thing or in one direction for a long time, with a kind of detached but present and focused observation? I thought of this as an experiment in looking and occupying public space, and I would go back to the same locations many times. I wanted to find out the kinds of rules and limitations would ensue, and how the public space of the park was controlled, and how it was like a “stage”.

This video series is based on studio performances exploring perception and space. They are experiments where you can observe yourself, wondering and questioning which way is “up”. It’s pretty obvious what’s happening in some of the sequences, but what’s interesting is to observe your brain and your perception in action: knowing, wondering, questioning, and being confused.

MH: Tell me about these drawings.

NF: I started drawing again a couple of years ago. After working so much with video, I wanted to do something more direct and less technical. I like how drawing is a trace of process, of activity, of time, or of a thought. I’m interested in processes like repeating one kind of mark to build up a structure. I’m looking for different processes that are linked to ideas, like self-replicating systems, patterns and mutations, and marking systems that allude to some kind of blur or hybrid between man-made and “natural” systems.

MH: You had mentioned that the BEAST theme appealed to you. Can you tell me more about the role of the beast in your life and work?

NF: I’m fascinated by the idea of an unknown creature.

The part of you that is animal and that “knows” through the body and through the senses, and the part that exists on the edge of everything structured, controlled, and socialized.

I also recently had this strange experience. I caught some kind of parasite and saw first-hand what happens when you don’t meet the established criteria of the medical system.

If there’s something wrong with you physically and you know it, but it’s not immediately apparent or visible in a recognized way, people start to think it’s all in your head, imagined, a psychosis. It’s interesting.

Even if your symptoms are visible, some people will see something while others will see nothing even though they are looking at the same thing. Perception is shaped to a large extent by assumptions; by whatever knowledge systems the person is working with. It becomes hard to think, or to see anything outside of that system, unless you are really open, and tuned into your senses.

What I experienced is really nothing compared to what many people go through. It just gave me a small glimpse at some of the assumptions and power structures in the medical system. A lot of artists have worked on this in great depth. I’m not sure where to take these thoughts yet; it just makes me see the whole system in a different way.

Where is the beast, anyway? Inside? Outside? Is it in me, or is it me? Is it a self-replicating system? A pattern, a virus, a techno-cellular mutation? Or am I just trying, like everyone else, to negotiate living in its belly.

MH: Will your future art confront the beast?

NF: I’m not big on confrontation, but I’m interested in exploring this blur between “natural” and “technological”, as well as the part of us that is “animal.” The beast is always there, one way or another.

Nikki Forrest is a video, sound and visual artist based in Montreal. Her short experimental videos have been shown at festivals thought North America and Europe including The Oberhausen Short Film Festival (Germany), the Mix Festival (New York), Space Junk at The Lux Center (London), and Signal and Noise (Vancouver). Her 2009 video “Fall / drop / crawl / flip” will be shown in March 2010 at the Festival International du Films Sur l’Art (Montreal). She will also present her work in conversation with curator Nicole Gingras in February 2010 at Group Intervention Video, Montreal.

Comments from old site:

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 03/06/2010 – 12:18.

These images are very special…

Hope to see more like this in the future nmps.