Exhibitionists·In Residence

Sabrina Ratté: 'I have always thought of video as a way of painting with electronic light'

Don't panic when you're watching Exhibitionists and your TV screen starts behaving a little strangely — those are just her hypnotic videos.

The Paris and Montreal-based artist uses hypnotic videos to create a 'parallel reality'

Sabrina Ratté's Radiances I. (Sabrina Ratté)

Don't panic when you're watching CBC Arts: Exhibitionists and your TV screen starts behaving a little strangely — those are just Sabrina Ratté's videos.

The artist, who splits her time between Paris and Montreal, is our Exhibitionist in Residence this week. Her videos marry digital and analog technologies while taking inspiration from architecture and painting, and the results are spellbinding.

We won't blame you if you find yourself hypnotized by the motions and colours — it's art for getting lost in. (Maybe to be safe, have a friend clap when you're done watching to snap you out of it.) In fact, Ratté says that creating a "parallel reality" through her work helps her navigate the real world.

We'll be featuring pieces from her Radiances and Biomes series on this week's episode — but before it airs, we chatted with her by email to find out more about the captivating worlds she creates.


​Your work is heavily influenced by architecture and real-life environments. What kinds of places and buildings do you find yourself drawn to?

In general, I would say that corporate spaces such as airports, hotels, movie theatres, apartment buildings and storefronts are a continuous source of inspiration. I am also drawn very much by parks and gardens — spaces where nature is organized and meet formal architecture — or any spaces that create a sense of contrast, a tension between aesthetic choices and daily life. Mostly, I am drawn by any architecture that leaves room for the imagination to wander.


You refer to the videos in both series as "video paintings" or "paintings in motion." What is it about paintings that you're hoping to capture in your videos? What parallels do you see between the two mediums?

I have always thought of video as a way of painting with electronic light. Using analog tools such as video feedback or video synthesizers reinforced this idea, as these are hands-on techniques — they react in real time to manipulation. By moving the camera in front of the screen or by turning knobs, you instantly see a colour change or different shapes emerging. The results of experimenting with these colours and shapes are sometimes very close to abstract paintings, constructivism or impressionism. I wanted to investigate further this parallel I saw with paintings in a more straightforward way by simulating the texture of paint digitally. I aim to create a feel that would be similar to a physical painting, while keeping a quality that is intrinsic to video. To include movement to the image is also a way of achieving this; it suggests the notion of temporality and a hypnotic feel to the image.

(Radiances V)

Your videos are usually meant to give everyone a personal reaction rather than communicating something specific, but what sort of feelings do the videos evoke in you personally? Are you ever surprised by how they make other people feel compared to how you were feeling when you were creating them or how you feel when you watch them back?

I intentionally leave a lot of space for the viewers to wonder and freely interpret my videos. I work with specific ideas in mind and I make aesthetic choices, but very often the "meaning" of a piece changes in the creative process, and my personal interpretation of my videos always evolves with time. What makes a piece of art interesting to me is to be able to revisit it a number of times with renewed perspectives and different interpretations. I see my videos as spaces to be visited, allowing for subjective projections as we unavoidably do everyday when wandering in the city, entering a building, going back home.

(Radiances IV)

You just completed your most recent series, Machine for Living, which was a very intensive project. Before you even started making the videos, you invested a lot of time into exploring the villes nouvelles in Paris (cities built in the 60s and 70s) and seeing the disconnect between the utopian vision they were built with decades ago and the dystopian reality of now. What do you feel like you learned through creating the series, both in those initial explorations and in turning them into the videos?

This project has been extremely formative for me in so many ways, and on so many levels. I could talk about the social and the cultural impact of these architectures — the way they impose a physical and a psychological behaviour, the ambitions of architects and what seems to be a disconnect with reality, the aesthetic choices and the craziness of some of these projects, the strong impressions one gets as a visitor and so on. To have had the chance to visit these spaces was definitely an eye-opening experience. I first discovered these towns from books, photos and documentaries, so when came the time to visit them in "real life" it was always such an intense moment! I would sometimes be disappointed, others completely blown away — but every time I discovered something unexpected and far from my initial expectations.

The creative exercise to bring back these places in the realm of images, mixed with my own techniques and interpretation, provoked profound reflections on the notion of the virtual experience in relation with the physical one, a central and recurring theme to my work. This project is incredibly rich in potential and themes; I feel like even though I have been working almost two years on it, I am just starting to scratch the surface.

(Radiances I)

You've said that video allows you to "create a parallel reality." Can you elaborate on that?

I feel that reality is a vast and wild canvas on which each of us project our own subjectivity. Video is, for me, a way to appropriate this abstract reality and make it my own, while leaving it open to new questions and interpretations. This parallel reality is in fact my own way of navigating this world, and creation helps me to open new doors and investigate new potential for reflections. I have nothing against escaping the world as it is a way for me to distance myself, and to help me think more freely about it. Distraction is not necessarily a negative thing — it can be the source of many fresh ideas to better come back to "reality."

(Machine for Living - Créteil)

Now that Machine for Living is done, what's next?

I am now working on the extension of Machine for Living as a 3D printed sculpture with video projection, as well as a new series of Plexiglas sculptures for Radiances. These will be presented in September as part of a solo exhibition at Ellephant Gallery in Montreal. I will also show a new print with video projection at the Papier Art Fair in Montreal, I am working on a commission for Vancouver's Decoy Magazine and I will have a few group exhibitions this spring in Montreal and Toronto.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Watch CBC Arts: Exhibitionists online or on CBC Television. Tune in Fridays at 11:30 p.m. (midnight NT) and Sundays at 3:30pm (4 p.m. NT).


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