Transforming Landscapes: An Interview with Isabelle Hayeur – NMP

Port Richmond

NMP: Your photographs compel viewers to question our society’s relationship to our environment, both natural and human-made. What sparked your interest in exploring this relationship?

Isabelle Hayeur: I have always been concerned with the transformations that landscapes undergo. Growing up in a suburb, I was faced with the spectacle of urban sprawl and the disappearance of so many things in its path. Like many people of my generation, I watched TV programs with Jacques Cousteau and David Suzuki. At age 21, I also worked for Greenpeace for about year, and I became more conscious of the state of the earth.

NMP: I watched your video installation Ascension in a Toronto church during Nuit Blanche. What was your intention for this installation? What is it like to show your work in this kind of environment – where hundreds or thousands of people are walking around at all hours of the night, out to “see art”? Did you get the response you were hoping for?

IH: My intention was to create an installation in response to the architectural space of the church. I tried to address the specific context of a church; both the visual and the sound design echoed the space. I wanted to create an artwork that was intimate, meditative and mysterious, but also spectacular. The visual was a replica of the main arch of the front of the church and the audio component incorporated several different sounds, including clavichord and organ sounds. Sounds and visuals played randomly throughout the night. I thought it was a wonderful experience, and the public response was really good. We had almost 7000 visitors; I think most art projects get a lot of visitors at Nuit Blanche.

NMP: Do you use a digital or film camera? What did you begin your practice with and which do you prefer?

IH: I began my art practice in video in 1996 and then I started my first series of photography around 1997. I now use a digital camera, but I used to work with film. I like both, but I must say that the digital technology makes my life much easier. Digital photography is a faster process and you can see the result immediately.

NMP: Can you talk a little about your Underworlds series? What led you to start taking photos underwater? Technically, was it difficult to get the results you wanted? Is it this an ongoing series and if so, how do you plan on further developing it?

IH: This photo series is an ongoing project initiated in the fall of 2008. It began during a stay in southern Florida when I made some exploratory shots with a small submersible camera. Leaving crystal-clear waters to vacationers, I preferred to capture the turbid waters of navigation canals. Since then, I have acquired a watertight tank that allows me to photograph underwater environments of all kinds. I dive into troubled waters of dubious, uncertain origin. Underwater worlds are fascinating and spellbinding. While seductive images of tropical seas readily come to mind, what I seek to show is something altogether different, playing on the sense of wonder usually associated with underwater shooting.

This inquiry has its point of departure in a personal experience. For over twenty years, I have lived by the shores of a river that has become very polluted. I have long been observing the transformations of this stream, the changes in its ecosystems, as well as the disappearance of some of the animal species that used to live in it. I wished to create a body of work that would bear witness to these man-made upheavals. Ecological disasters such as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or the garbage slates forming on the oceans are becoming more frequent. Massive urbanization and industrialization have resulted in impoverished bio-diversity; they also bring risks for human health. The declining state of bodies of water certainly counts among the most worrisome environmental issues. Technically, it is not difficult to get the result I want but I need to carry a lot of material and to wear a suit, so most of the time I work with a assistant.

NMP: For many of the images in your Excavations and Model Homes series, you flawlessly blend two very different photographs into one image for a particular outcome. In some cases you have added or modified details (graffiti, garbage, windows and doors). Did you begin with a particular idea of what shots and locations you wanted to juxtapose, or were these images developed more arbitrarily?

IH: Some images were developed more arbitrarily and in other cases I had a specific idea in mind.

The photomontages from the Excavations series result from a union of landscapes which seemed to me to have opposite or contradictory significations. I worked with conservation sites rich in natural and human history, then with disturbed sites and their forms of disappearances. The works contain new housing developments combined with UNESCO World Heritage sites. I also combined fossiliferous sites with various landscapes shaped by economic needs, such as garbage dumps and mines.

The images from the Model Homes series were constructed using photographs of suburban houses and model homes. I photographed different types of dwellings, modest homes as well as more upscale residences. They mainly come from the new housing developments popping up on the periphery of Montreal, and from the facilities of a pre-fab home manufacturer. Using Photoshop, I alter each house and then re-position it in a new context. Each of my models is a portrait that develops a different aspect of the relationship between our societies and the land they use.

NMP: What is your technical process for manipulating photos and details in one image? How did your photography practice move in this direction?

IH: The image Roxane was originally photographed in the parking lot of a model home manufacturer. Using Photoshop, I removed the front door and a window, and added a satellite dish. I created the landscape around it from several different images taken in Cape Cod and in the suburb where I grew up. All the images where taken during the day, but I wanted to create a night scene, so I played with lightning effects to create a night ambiance and added a blue light in the remaining window of the house (like a TV).

I have worked on a computer since the beginning of my art practice, and I was always interested in the constructed image. During my BFA studies, I started to cut photographs with scissors and make photo-collages; then Photoshop was the natural next step. Since then, I have considered myself an image-based artist more than a photographer or a videographer. I find that on a computer, distinctions of medium tend to disappear. I have made videos only from photographs and I have used images found on the Internet in my photomontages.

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NMP: Through this kind of manipulation, you create startling realities in stunning images. You assemble dramatic scenarios that seem to risk being overshadowed by the beauty of your photos. The viewer is required to consider the political underpinning of your work to fully grasp the intention of every detail you create. Do you think that your objective is sometimes overlooked?

IH: I like the viewers to have a first look at my images and then to realize what they are. Usually people look at them and then read my artist statement. This is important for me because we then become conscious of what we actually don’t see. I am using the reality effect to show what often goes unnoticed. We live in a highly manufactured world, and it sometimes becomes difficult to distinguish the natural and the man-made.

NMP: Much of your work points to economics as the force behind the devastation of our natural environments. What are your reactions to the Occupy movements mobilizing around the world right now? What do you think these movements have the possibility of achieving?

IH: I am totally enthusiastic about these movements. I went to Occupy Montreal for the first four days to document the occupation, and I was enchanted by what I observed there. There is a spirit of resistance of course but also of community. More and more people are joining them right now. People want to create a better world, they want more social justice, more equity, less poverty, less greed, less consumption, no wars, and a greener world. It has been said that this movement is lacking focus but I don’t think so. It points to a complete change of attitude toward humankind and toward the earth; there is so much to do. It is the first step to get people together and to send a message to governments and corporations around the world. Now people can really see what can be achieved if we work together.

NMP: You have written that you grew up in the suburbs outside of Montreal, and that now – because of all of the building developments – you have a hard time situating yourself when you are home. I know that many of my childhood memories are mapped on and through the landscape surrounding my neighbourhood and small town. Do you find that suburban developments are not only contributing to a loss of a natural history, but also to a loss of personal and community history by destroying the land that holds these memories?

IH: Yes, and natural history and human history are connected but we don’t always realize that. Rural areas that became suburbs have lost most of their memories. Urban sprawl is the dominant model in North America, generating landscapes that are surprisingly similar. These generic territories reflect the unprecedented standardization of our lifestyles and are indicative of the trend towards homogenized cultures and experiences. Today there is a generalized shift from the distinctive and local to the uniform and global. Urban sprawl contrasts sharply with the city of the past, which resulted from sedimentary processes, embodying a collective memory. But our new suburbs are no longer just soulless places – anonymous, standardized and uniform – they have in fact developed their own identities. But these identities are fashioned from whole cloth, like movie sets. Vast tracts of land are now placed in the hands of developers, whose vision is inspired by the strategies of commerce. Developments usually have no connection to the original context of the sites where they are built; they are amalgams of cultural, imaginary and borrowed identities. The housing in these places suffers the same fate and is full of grafted-on symbols and references to histories that have nothing to do with our own. We are witness to the appearance of simulated villages, a style that could be called fake-authentic, a pastiche of vanished ways of life. Picturesque features are fabricated, pseudo-heritage values are invented, and the target is clients who like to think they are buying something special with a local flavour. This generates false perceptions of who we are.

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Isabelle Hayeur is an image-based artist, born in Montreal in 1969. She holds a Bachelor’s (1996) and a Master’s (2002) degrees in Fine Arts from the Université du Québec à Montréal. She is mostly known for her large-size photomontages, her videos, and her site-specific installations. Her artistic practice was initially centered on video. From 1997 to 2001, she belonged to Perte de signal, a collective dedicated to emerging work in media arts, being one of the founding members. Around the same period, her practice in photography was gaining in importance and she began to show her work regularly. The artist’s works offer a critique of recent urban and environmental upheavals, by showing territories that appear “natural”, though they have been created artificially. Her art proves to be both political and poetic, constantly striving to defy simplistic interpretations so as to highlight the ambivalence of our relation to the world. http://www.isabelle-hayeur.com