Luc Courchesne on the rise of digital arts: A pioneer received the highest visual arts award

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Luc Courchesne has always cultivated an inspired and avant-garde artistic approach. Emeritus professor at the Université de Montréal, member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts and founding member of the renowned Society for Arts and Technology (SAT), where he directed (2004-2014) and co-directed (2014-2017) the Metalab research laboratory, the Montreal creator is the first digital artist to win the Prix Paul-Émile Borduas. This achievement was made possible by a revision of evaluation criteria, which now acknowledge outstanding contributions to the visual arts, crafts or digital arts in Quebec. The use of communication and information technologies, whether computer, electronic, digital, sound, interactive or Web, is now recognized, which makes it possible to submit applications from fields that were not previously qualified.

Courchesne is mainly interested in the field of media and interactive arts. He has assimilated the new knowledge necessary for the invention and realization of his devices, such as spatial theatricalization. He also designed the signage system for Quebec parks, still in use after more than 40 years, as well as the famous Boule bag (1976), whose production (in Quebec) has never stopped. “I have always found a way to pursue my creative process and follow the thread of my curiosity; my approach remains the same: art must touch,” begins the Quebec creator. He likes to evoke the spark felt during Expo 67, when he visited the memorable Telephone Pavilion and its cylindrical screen, which recreated the principle of panoramas, very popular at the end of the 19th century. He predicted that it would become common, without suspecting the level of technical difficulty that this realization implied or the importance of the point of view it represented. Courchesne studied at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where he met the famous Michael Snow. He then moved on to a confidential circle between Halifax and New York, and then to the legendary laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, dedicated to meeting the arts and technologies. He met the sculptor Christo, the French visual artist Catherine Ikam, and saw new creative possibilities.

A great artistic challenge

Courchesne’s approach is distinguished by his interest in panoramic and spherical photography. “I have kept the visual arts approach even though the frame has become a window of some form,” he says. “Because of the fragmentation of the screens, the great artistic challenge is to convert this frame into a door and make the viewer pass it on with us.”

It is much more a question of field experience than representation. “The transition from analogue culture to digital art has given new access to artists, who have been able to invent other creative tools and initiate original reflections in a different way. The difficulty is to find a balance between the serious and slightly dry formal research and the narrative aspect, also called storytelling in the field.”

In his films, his longtime friend François Girard controls the viewer’s rhythm and attention; what he does not show is often more important than what he shows. “While in immersive art, we create worlds in which the focus of the participant’s attention escapes the creator,” Courchesne explains. “We become architects, we create worlds and this transition from the second dimension to the third, in real time, is what characterizes digital practices,” says the Quebecer, whose fictional work Portrait No. 1 (1990) is a determined encounter with a character who made a name for himself in university programs around the world after winning the Grand Prize at the first Biennale of the NTT InterCommunication Center in Tokyo (1997) and the Award of distinction in the Interactive Art category of the Ars Electronica Awards (1999) in Linz, Austria (see photo). “Now that technology has become integrated and anecdotal, it’s all about art and that is what matters,” adds the Montrealer.

The Prix Paul-Émile Borduas surprised Courchesne. “This medium is still stealthy, it has no audience or economy; we are almost all teachers,” explains the digital artist, who was the first to conduct his research while establishing his tenure, according to a process equivalent to that established at the Faculty of Science. “I met some extraordinary students and if I left the Université de Montréal in 2013, after teaching design for 27 years, it was to give all the time I have left to my practice.”

Courchesne does not want to lose contact with young people. He will continue to give conferences and get involved in projects – they always know more than you do and they keep you up to date, he says. “I am also a grandfather and in addition to the spectrum of my creations, there is now the construction of huts.”

Curious? Visit the artist’s website at www.courchel.net or enjoy Naked in Paradise, a dynamic and exportable exhibition that recalls the life and work of Luc Courchesne at the Pierre-François Ouellette Contemporary Art Gallery from Nov. 9-Dec. 21. www.pfoac.com

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