Nota Bene

Interview conducted by Emmanuel Galland, 2005

(Translated by Jennifer Westlake)


EG : What’s your definition of beauty?

NB : Beauty doesn’t exist. It’s something we project onto objects, paintings, films, and experiences. Everything is inanimate; we are the ones who confer an aura on things. When this takes place, a sense of admiration—a sweet taste—is released.


EG : What is a good image?

NB : t’s when the power of evocation surpasses plasticity and resonates. Then, between the two—in a random back and-forth movement—arises an authentic complicity, an intention to create a meaningful synthesis.


EG : I knew you when you had a studio at la Galerie Clark, a place of artistic production, a place for your tools, for drunken parties, sofa beds (the studio as bachelor pad): all these worlds in one conclave. Today, in the new Clark centre your studio is a warehouse, while at your home your computer, ruling from its throne in the middle of your living room, seems to have become a studio-receptacle—a compression of your multiple fantasies and experiments. Fine handy work in a relatively sanitized environment has replaced the scaffolding surrounding what can be laborious work (woodworking, renovations, design, etc). What of the studio space?

NB : I don’t need it. My studio is everywhere I find myself, wherever my eyes turn. In this sense, it’s both vast and nowhere in particular all at once. Ideally, I would have a very large, airy space to hang things, test them out, to explore. It’s difficult to imagine, looking at a screen, how a photo will look full scale. All the same, that’s essentially how I work. This results in good and bad surprises once the pictures are printed in large format or installed. So, regarding my workspace, there’s lots of room for improvement.


EG : How do you respond to people who say that your work is just Photoshop 101?

NB : They’re right. I’m neither a sculptor nor a craftsman. All the maneuvers, from the moment a shot is taken, to later digital manipulations, are breathtakingly simple.


EG : In Quebec, Alain Paiement, Roberto Pellegrinuzzi, Raymonde April, Jocelyne Alloucherie, Geneviève Cadieux, Angela Grauerholz, Sorel Cohen, Lynne Cohen, Gabor Szilasi, Charles Gagnon, Serge Tousignant, Donigan Cumming, Evergon, Dominique Blain, Holly King, etc. preceded you as photographers who count in a period when photography took its place in the contemporary art world.

NB : I don’t see myself doing any better—better than what, than whom? If you’re talking strictly in terms of exhibiting, or sales, I’ll leave it to others to make those comparisons—or to you, if you feel like it. I don’t see any reason to force things; happiness certainly is not found that way. Where does this unhealthy need to make comparisons come from?


EG : What is the nature of your engagement?

NB : It’s of a poetic nature. I think that, with time and experience, poetry can attain a state of altruism.


EG : Could not one say that your creative process is simply an eternal, obsessive self-portrait of a young, white, North American?

NB : Why not? All the symptoms are there. That said, I only rarely photograph the places where I live. To the extent that I photograph the places or sites I find myself in, the photos are a selfportrait. Young? At what age are we no longer young? There are hardly any humans in my images, and when there are, they are less and less identifiable. You can put labels on everything, but what they say will always be the opinions of those who made the labels. Is there a particularly American way of doing things? Environments obviously communicate something, but which environments are we speaking of? Bathroom floors, snowy alleyways, abandoned garages, abandoned sites, a young man’s room, an artist’s kitchen, woodworking shops, forests, a sunny or shady wooded area, a turbulent lake, a jumbled bookshelf, the space where a flower dies, or one where a couple undo themselves, disintegrate on a planet of their own invention, a magnified cosmos, a frozen mountain, an inhabited sky, the space where a cat hides itself to die, freshly washed dishes, a sound that sends you to sleep and loses you, communicating vessels, etc. Are these spaces particularly occidental? If you have to label them, go ahead! I will leave you with that responsibility. There are no more dividers in my filing cabinets.


EG : What do you think of the big public art projects, the “one-per-cent” projects 1, like the large-scale work you made for the Integrated Engineering, Computer Science and Visual Arts Complex on the Sir George Williams campus of Concordia University 2?

NB : You have to be careful. There are very concrete risks in a project of that scope. The constraints are numerous, multiple constraints, and I’m not just talking about technical and economic limitations, I’m referring to the social burden, the pressure and subordination that comes from even the idea of a collective work (and from working with sometimes heterogeneous media) and from the initial project description (which establishes a relationship with those responsible for the space, with users, members of the public within a fixed, secure framework). You don’t get to create whatever you want to. Nor do you get to work quietly on your own. Note that artists are not the most gregarious of people. I’m learning. In the meantime, the lawyers are earning their fees.


EG : Is there a risk that, with the democratization of photography brought about by digital cameras, the value of the photographed image is being diminished?

NB : Not as long as the image lives. I’m harnessing the non-photographable and am looking for a tool up to that task. I’m interested in what is invisible to the naked eye. Observation, framing, and digital treatments are the meat of my work. The way I look at the world has more to do with the origins of photography (the micro, the macro, reaching or representing planets, the invisible and chimera, etc.) than with contemporary digital tricks. What’s great about digitization is that its immediacy eliminates even the very idea of work. The result is real consciousness: there is a more tangible connection with observation itself, a fusion of concept and practice, something more direct and more pure.


EG : You know that most of your photos are found in private collections, in some cases in the lofts and condominiums that are currently mushrooming throughout Montreal. Those remodeled industrial spaces, those revamped manufacturing buildings are the very sites where now ousted artists-artisans-art-workers used to work. Their studios are endangered by unscrupulous real estate developers… The new municipal slogan “Montreal, International Cultural Metropolis” and the city’s new cultural development policy can’t stop this galloping gentrification.

NB : There’s no such thing as clean money. And where there’s smoke, there’s fire.


EG : What do you say to people who claim that you’ll do anything, in any old way?

NB : Once again, they’re right. I don’t see any problem in giving my imagination and impulse free reign. I’m not a mathematician. There’s nothing exhaustive about my work, I go from work to work in a game of leapfrog. Reworking a particular genre or model until I’m done with it doesn’t interest me. I prefer to let myself go. I chose this profession because it allows for a lot of freedom. It’s an imprisoning freedom, exhibiting, facing oneself, naked. I don’t really have a plan, a path, or a program. I don’t want one. I don’t feel like building up a neat, high wall with orderly bricks. I don’t want any mortar (made up of too many explanatory documents and indecipherable premises) in my constructions. I prefer to build up an accumulation, a mass where the sum built total is built by entanglements, a precarious balance, by haphazard juxtapositions: a logjam, a little natural dam, or a village that’s been built up over time, without any planning, that doesn’t look like much, yet has everything you need.


EG : To what do you attribute the passage from your interior world (of work and domesticity) of the last few years to the images of nature that you are now working on: 1- the exhausting of your sources of imagery; 2- the call of the wild; 3- a desire to illustrate the “great Canadian landscape”; 4- funding from Parks Canada?

NB : It’s the same thing, the same quest; I don’t see any difference. I’m just working within the field of poetry, which is vast. I’ve only shifted the camera’s axis; I’m still planted in the same spot. In this exercise of continuous observation, time takes its place. It’s the relationship with the real that matters. I don’t have the sense of redoing the same “picture,” it’s more that it’s the same work, with variations. The emotive charge I perceive in a site, a jumble of

objects, or particular lighting that speaks softly to no one. That’s what’s important to me. EG : Since you got your start as a painter with precocious success in terms of sales while still a student (with your exhibition at the VAV Gallery at Concordia University), and continued by working with sculptural and digitally manipulated photography as a professional artist, will you wind up your career as a senior artist with new work in plasticine, or maybe knitting?

NB : Whatever. I could see myself returning to painting, sculpting with matchbooks, playing with clay… nothing is set in stone.


EG : Have you lied during this interview?

NB : Yes—but you’re the one who says so!


1- Québec’s policy of integrating art and architecture with public buildings and their surroundings, commonly referred to as the “one-per-cent program” (or, in French, La Politique d’intégration des arts à l’architecture et à l’environnement des bâtiments et des sites gouvernementaux et publics).

2- One of his collaborations with Cabinet Braun-Braën.