Interview: Artist Quayola on Synthesizing Reality

At Art Basel Miami Beach, Switzerland's Vallée de Joux came life to life through digital manipulation

For anyone who shudders at the thought of video art, London-based Quayola might offer reason to revisit the medium. Video is one of several ways the artist explores his relationship with the world—and he has a mesmerizing way of undercutting reality while celebrating it. During Miami Art Week, Quayola premiered “Promenade,” a 4K drone-shot film of impeccable beauty. Commissioned by Audemars Piguet, the work winds through and above the forests of the Vallée de Joux, Switzerland near the brand’s historic watchmaking facility. In waves of interconnected footage, it translates documentation of the landscapes into digital art drawn from various technologies. It succeeds in a deep dissection of form.

Quayola employs scanners—some widely used in engineering, architecture and even autonomous vehicles. The technology is common, but his attempts to misuse it led to the art within his videos and sculptures. While “Promenade” was presented in the Art Basel Collectors Lounge—and in the Collins Park Rotunda between The Bass Museum and Tomás Saraceno‘s “Albedo”—we had an opportunity to speak with the curious creator about how he works.

You’ve used the words “digital synthesis” to describe “Promenade.” For us, it was even digital mapping or plotting. How have you worked with language to help people understand what you’ve made and what you do?

A lot of my work deals with exploring different ways of seeing. That’s what drives the discovery of new aesthetics and new visual languages. I am very interested in collaborating with machines to expand how we see. This is what I bring forward in my practice. A way to study things with the eyes of machines. On the other hand, my work is rooted in tradition and history. There’s a connection between what I am doing and some kind of historical work of art or inspiration.

What is the allure in addressing an Old Master or iconic sculpture with your own work?

To be honest, it is not necessarily the object itself. What interests me is the tension between the old language behind it and the new language I help discover. That’s what “Promenade” is about. It’s not necessarily about this new visualization of the land. It’s about the tension between these very different visualizations. It’s about comparing it all.

Are you a translator, then, of reality?

When you translate something, you can’t help but reinterpret it in your own way. There are certainly some processes of translation in my work. There is a special piece of equipment that takes high-precision measurements using a laser in the forest. It is essentially translating these real geometries into a set of data which I then work with. In my photographic series, “Remains,” it is the imperfections, the errors from this translation process, that makes the art.

Limitation brings out the expression

This is all related to the limitations of the machines. They cannot see perfectly. That fascinates me. If you imagine impressionist painting, you are reducing the resolution. You are not aiming for perfection. Limitation brings out the expression. I like this connection to history. I do the same but with a very different technological apparatus.

What about the soundtrack to your video work? You affix sounds to things that have no discernible meaning, like a crystalline tinkling to animated graphics. Where does this come from?

Sound is an important component. Sound takes you on a journey. I wanted these ephemeral graphics to be very physical in a way. The sound work synchronizes with these effects. They cannot be separated. You get into a more tangible experience through the sound.

You employ different effects in different segments within your video work. Is there something that triggers the transition from one exploration to another?

It’s a constant kind of promenade, a walk. There are arcs within visualizations but generally it’s about jumping from one to the other and this interplay. There’s nothing resolved. You never know when it begins or ends. At some point you do not even know if the real footage is real or computer generated.

Do you find the aesthetics beautiful? Is that a goal?

Aesthetics are a big part of what I do. I obsess over them. It is difficult to define what beautiful is, but personally a lot of choices in my work are based on visual language and aesthetics set to my personal sensitivity. It’s important that if you do not know what you are looking at, it still tells a story.