Sabrina Ratté: Surfaces in Space

This essay on Sabrina Ratté was first published in BlackFlash Magazine.


Since the advent of the Portapak video recorder in the 1960s, the tools for video have been increasingly accessible to artists. The images taken by early video equipment were markedly imperfect; faint and ghostly records of flat grey forms. New movements were pushing toward conceptual and performative art, and many artists would use video as a tool to bear witness to, and give evidence of, this newly evanescent art.

In contrast to the documental use of video, pioneering video artists such as Nam June Paik and Steina and Woody Vasulka would alter their images with synthesizers, shedding the documental act to reveal an electronic signal prone to beautiful abstractions—a signal that was malleable and might be stretched and distorted to reveal further dimensions buried within the flattening plane of the video frame. But video technology evolved toward a finer approximation of conventional realism, with analogue giving way to digital and tape formats giving way to memory cards and higher resolutions.

In the present, the documentary tradition continues alongside a range of other styles. Artists concerned with the dominant aesthetic language of filmmaking are demonstrating wit by their use of digital editing and effects. Others are acclimating to the newest iterations of high-resolution video by pushing the boundaries of its containers, as with data-moshing, where compression artifacts are welcomed as signs of video’s material interior. Still other artists are finding inclusive directions that parcel and reconcile the analogue and digital processes of video and computer art.

Though working in a climate of diverse concepts and forms, Montréal artist Sabrina Ratté is a unique figure. Her work is deeply aware of its historical roots in video and computer art, yet she has built a highly individual aesthetic on the themes of architecture and landscape, and on a collision of analogue and digital signals. For Ratté, the video synthesizer—so central to her predecessors—remains an essential tool that she combines with its descendent digital effects to cause shapes and lines to turn and bow on their axes.

Video, taken as either a document or generated image, is drawn by such synthesis into a realm of spontaneous transformation; a video image that can be rearranged in time. These processes break the existing signal down into components with which to improvise. That improvisation is at the core of Ratté’s art, whether her source material is the recorded video or photograph or an electronically generated environment, and whether her work manifests as single-channel video projection, installation, or audio-visual performance.

Ratté first began her work in moving images while pursuing her BFA at Concordia University in Montréal, where she worked with Super 8mm and 16mm film. It was not until 2010 that Ratté’s exploration of video began in earnest. Her first works include L’entre-deux (2010) in which video had not yet been synthesized out of the realm of realism. The resulting work bears a certain resemblance to the psychodrama tradition in experimental film.

In the years since, Ratté has produced a vast and rapidly growing body of work increasingly concerned with the generation of a digital environment contrived from reality, but distinctly unreal. In addition to her single-channel videos and installations, Ratté has made music videos with Boxcutter, Cooly G, Tim Hecker, Plaid and others, and performs in live collaborations with musician Roger Tellier-Craig under the name Le Révélateur. In addition to this collaboration, Tellier-Craig has also scored many of Ratté’s films.

Ratté’s mature video work began with Transit (2011) in which, according to the artist, “an illuminated map of Paris becomes a landscape.” This source is indistinct, and from its first instant the resulting image (even without the aid of this note) resembles a horizontal landscape more than a topography, broken and recomposed by horizontal bars that part from the centre of the image to reveal new iterations beneath. Triangular wipes and approaching “zooming” interior frames later complement these transitions.

She followed this with Station Balnéaire (2011) in which scenes taken along Italy’s Almafi Coast are subject to video feedback that draws perfect, stylized forms over the subjects and emits a colour cast that spans from neon to the cosmic and infernal. The images are alternately refined and coarse in line, and intermittently, the image pauses and a scanline comes down from the top of the frame to serve as an erasure that exorcises the horizon for her next sequence.

These videos establish not only the artist’s preoccupation with environment and vista, but also the ways in which her interference in the image is itself architectural, reimagining the signal as a cavern navigated by digital transitions and the echoes of video feedback.

Activated Memory I and II (2011) follow in the same visual order. In Activated Memory I, a still and translucent wilderness is seen first on the walls of a rotating cube. Eventually, the eye enters the cube, and the frame begins to pan to the right, fractured by glowing bars of feedback. A black monolith arrives, multiplies and departs as an echoing corridor of light gradually punctures the wilderness like a bellows. Ratté uses this feedback to construct standing forms in serene, green fields. Those fields become increasingly closed and symmetrical. In Activated Memory II, Ratté takes a building as her subject, a vertex of its roof entangled with its seemingly endless doubles, panning through one another. As feedback introduces a new range of neon colours, the building’s orientation is repositioned so that it enters the frame from all directions, its architecture translated onto conflicting, warping planes.

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The “Experiment” series (2012) is a quintet of video feedback and synthesis studies in which solid colours interact with faint and ambiguous traces of images, cleared frequently by digital transitions that eclipse and enfold them, each component part a work of video plastique unified by seamless transitions. These techniques persist in Aurae (2012), in which Ratté broadcasts an environment by manipulating the signal of a single photograph. Her frame drifts around geometric forms, turning the suspended instant of her source photograph into a thorough study of forms that suggest an art deco edifice. Aurae clarifies the role of frontal perspective in Ratté’s work. By her debts to architecture, these images become the reredos behind an altar, glimpsed in fragments, curved by her transmissions and gilded by the glow of the signal.

The project of environment building first realized in Ratté’s Activated Memory works,continues in The Land Behind (2013). In a generated environment, the frame is host to a vanishing horizon populated by jutting, triangular forms. As the frame begins to track forward toward the vanishing point and with no apparent destination, it is derailed by continuous wipes and grid forms that eclipse or reset the frame. These interruptions form a cosmic rhythm and contain fragments of the same forward-tracking gesture.

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Ratté would again use the three-dimensional animated environment at length in Visites Possibles (2014) a study of a large and modular generated space populated by moving panels. The frame pans and occasionally stalls to witness apparitions of video feedback, porous in contrast to the geometric refinement of the space.

In her most recent work, Ratté has used these generated environments to venture into increasingly unrealistic territory. The realist referents that passed through Activated Memory are absent from works such as Portals (2014) and the “Sightings” series (2014). In Portals, pale bars infringe on one another, recalling the pure forms of Plasticien painting as they move in time to the sounds of Tellier- Craig’s synthesizer. The resulting work is one of pure geometric abstraction. The extension and retraction of these pale lines is made cosmic by the score of percussive, electronic tones that emulate industrial- mechanical sounds. As this gives way to overlapping forms, a range of new and bright colours are introduced and the image stutters to a flickering halt.

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In further resistance to realism, the “Sightings” series is comprised of three parts. In Littoral Zones, doors manifest to vibrate, multiply, and shift along a horizontal axis, flickering in their passage from left to right. In Landfall, striped parallelograms become launchpads, pyramids, and conductors of light distortions in an environment without a horizon but dominated by a glaring light. Finally, in Habitat, this same environment is muted, yellow-tinted and intermittently concealed behind vertical lines, panning steadily to the right and culminating in a series of downpours of video noise that perfect the illusion of water.

These “Sightings” are to date the apotheosis of Ratté’s explorations of video as environment, having stripped away the crowding movements of her earlier work. Architecture and landscape had served as themes, as literal presence and vista, and as highly symbolic allegories. While their influence as perspectival modes remain cast over the work, Ratté now constructs her environments as acts of pure invention freed from the bonds of realism. These videos are undeniably of architecture and landscape, but they dwell in the house of the Signal to map the interior of video itself.