The Cloud in Video: Notes on Isabelle Hayeur’s Aftermaths

The evolutionary span of Isabelle Hayeur’s photographic and videographic body of work is related to her capacity to cast an ever-deeper gaze at environmental issues (urban sprawl; the impact of the petroleum, housing, and tourism industries on the deterioration and destabilization of ecosystems). For fifteen years, Hayeur has been thinking and rethinking the image of the landscape – urban, agricultural, and natural. Recent publications on her work have highlighted one of her main aesthetic strategies for drawing spectators’ attention to this issue: the digital erasure of the contours of the image, which enables her to assemble various images in a single composition without totally dissolving its composite structure. Marie Perrault observes that Hayeur’s photographic images “expose the fragmented and constructed nature of any representation of the world,” thus denoting “the impossibility of describing a territory in a continuous way.”1 Franck Michel notes how the photographs – images “conceived through an accumulation of many shots,” but processed and combined virtually to form the appearance of a “single landscape” – act as an illusion that destabilizes the viewer’s expectancy of realism.2 Marcel Blouin calls them “true false images”; Bénédicte Ramade, “anxious images,” whose critical, even political, significance is that they sow doubt about unity among viewers.3 These observations are important. They reveal that the stake in any reflection on the environment, today, is to become aware of the absence of unity – of the intermingling of culture and nature, of all environments. They also illustrate that the image, in Hayeur’s work, acts on the viewer, to the extent that her photographs institute uncertainty about the realism of the image – an uncertainty that encourages the spectator to reflect on this intermingling. But is this true of her videographic works? They do share this aesthetic, but the recent video works function less on the register of doubt than on that of an affective dialectic between enchantment and disenchantment. Or at least this is true of Aftermaths (2013) – a 14:45-minute HD video projection presented at the 2014 Montreal Biennale that will be my subject here – and for her unique exploration of the cloud as an image that is not only emblematic of, but also acts on, the current ecological crisis.

Aftermaths is a video journey through the destabilized environment of southern Louisiana in 2013, eight years after it was hit by Hurricane Katrina, one of the most powerful, destructive, costly, and lethal hurricanes in the history of the United States (it is estimated that 1,833 people, most of them African Americans and the poorest populations in Louisiana, died due to the hurricane and the ensuing floods).4 We are therefore in the “after” of the disaster, in the long period of documentation of the economic, environmental, and social effects of the hurricane, and not in the event. The first still shots of abandoned houses and car cemeteries, presented one after another as a slide show, demonstrate this documentary impetus. They are somewhat reminiscent of the photographic work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, who were concerned with creating visual archives of industrial structures in the process of disappearing. But Hayeur’s images are also significantly different from the Bechers’, as the structures that she shows bear the scars of a catastrophe. The video also brings to the eye, and especially to the ear, the fact that life exists despite the catastrophe. This tension, subtle but continuous (it persists throughout the video), is crucial, as it bespeaks the need to document what is being lost, to designate the violence behind this loss, and to reject any teleological environmentalist perspective of the end. Structures have been destroyed, but nature has grown around them; grass is blown by the wind, cars drive by; we hear the sound of the wind, the insects, the birds, the water. We are in the after – in the documentation of the effects of a catastrophe – but also in the possibility of thinking about what comes next.

This tension between catastrophe and life is that of the indivisibility of enchantment and disenchantment. It is confirmed and becomes meaningful when Hayeur’s camera is set in motion after four or five minutes, leaving the ground and rising toward the sky to create a still shot that lasts about one minute. The shot isolates the sky from the ground and shows us a series of cloud metamorphoses. These clouds are transformed by the wind, but also by digital manipulation that links different cloud images. The pictorial effect of this sequence is striking: one might think one is looking at the hollow of a cupola by Correggio (Assumption of the Virgin [1526–30], for example, in which a spiral of clouds conveys the spiritual experience of the infinite) or a painting by Constable, in which the cloud functions as an “organ of sentiment.”5 Nevertheless, disenchantment follows this enchantment as the camera slowly descends back to a dumping ground for cars – passing from the Correggian idealism of heaven to the Bataillian anti-idealism of base matter. Aftermaths persists, for a time, in this disenchantment, as Hayeur segues through sequences of oil refineries, the nearby poor neighbourhoods, and polluted watercourses. One of the pivotal moments in this series of shots is when the camera captures refinery smoke mingling with the clouds, and then rises once again toward the sky to produce a second still shot of the cloudy sky. In this shot, the clouds in metamorphosis can no longer be seen simply as natural elements; we must now view them as entanglements of nature and culture, of water drops in suspension mixed with toxic substances emitted into the atmosphere by refineries. The spiritual dimension of the first shot of the sky doesn’t disappear, but here it becomes inseparable from the feeling of baseness. The affective register is involved as much in enchantment as in disenchantment, performing a tension that is amplified during the third and last rise of the camera, at the end of the projection, to end on a still shot of clouds dramatized by lightning and the sound of electromagnetic vibrations.

In his study Théorie du /nuage/. Pour une histoire de la peinture (1972), Hubert Damisch makes use of Brunelleschi’s early device (his celebrated tavoletta, designed in the early fifteenth century) to explain how, in Renaissance and post-Renaissance painting, the image of the cloud evaded perspectivist rationalization. The device is composed of two panels – the tavoletta, on which Brunelleschi painted the Baptistery of San Giovanni in the Florentine Dome, following the laws of linear perspective (which was in the process of being invented) – and a mirror. To use the device, the observer holds the tavoletta in one hand and places his eye against a hole in the back of the panel, through which he sees the painting reflected in the mirror that he holds in his other hand, facing the tavoletta. Significantly, the tavoletta does not portray the sky of the piazza, but “shows” it, as the upper part of the panel has been covered with a burnished silver surface so that it can reflect the sky and its clouds in movement – a reflection reflected, in its turn, by the mirror. Damisch notes that the device “has the force of an epistemological emblem . . . to the extent that it reveals the limitations of the perspective code for which the experiment provided the complete theory.”6 As the process demonstrates, “Perspective only needs to ‘know’ things that it can reduce to its own order, things that occupy a place and the contour of which can be defined by lines. But the sky does not occupy a place, and cannot be measured; and as for clouds, nor can their outlines be fixed or their shapes analyzed in terms of surfaces.”7 Today, excluded from the code of perspective because of its amorphous nature and absence of fixed contours, the cloud, in painting, has become something that evades rationalization – it is where dreams and imagination are deployed. Commenting on Damisch’s study, Raymond Bellour observes that video allows us to see the movement of the cloud, which can be only represented in paintings.8 More fundamentally than movement, nevertheless, clouds, in Western art (I am following Damisch here, who uses an expression coined by Bachelard), are “operators of elevation.”9

In Aftermaths, the images of clouds in movement (transformed as much by the wind as by the digital editing) appeal to this pictorial tradition. The first ascent of the camera institutes the cloud as an operator of elevation, but it does so only to transform it eventually into an operation of abasement: the camera descends to a garbage dump; soon, the smoke emitted by the refineries mixes with the clouds so that the sky shot that follows can straddle dream and disillusion, enchantment and disenchantment. This second shot of the sky conveys idealism and anti-idealism without one winning out over the other, showing how each is a part of the other, but also how the two perspectives – which are also two types of temporality, since idealism is an opening to the future that anti-idealism rematerializes downward – can form a dialectic to resolve current environmental problems.

We can appreciate the scope of such an aesthetic in a period designated by geophysicists as anthropocenic – a period that began around 1800 and the effects of which have been accelerating since the industrial revolution. Quickly, we are drawn to the conclusions of the 34th International Geological Congress in 2012 and the Third National Climate Assessment issued by the U.S. Global Change Research Program in May 2014. Over the last fifty years, humans have become the primary cause of global warming: they are the most important factor in changes to all drainage basins around the world; they are the predominant producers and distributors of nitrogen; “through deforestation, they have become one of the main factors in accelerated erosion; and, of course, their role in the carbon cycle has grown to match the immensity of their complicity in the extinction of species.” The ecological disaster of Hurricane Katrina – erosion of beaches, displacement of islands, transformation of landmasses into bodies of water, the loss of animal species’10 reproduction and habitation zones, the loss of human lives – is, we must remember, not simply a natural phenomenon. The dikes that gave way under the force of the hurricane had major fabrication faults, and oil from many refineries was spilled into different watercourses. Aftermaths is an aesthetic response to the Anthropocene epoch, for the tragedy of this period is also that of the image. Images appeal to dream and imagination, but, in so doing, they neglect the base matter; they foster dreams – notably that of progress, which is exercised by instrumentalizing nature. Oneirism, for better or worse, is part of the human condition – whence the need to find images that can guide us, as dreamers, to dream in other ways. What is unique about Hayeur’s Aftermaths is that she has reclaimed the pictorial tradition of the /cloud/ to invite spectators to dream by de-dreaming and to de-dream by dreaming the world, through the intermingling of enchantment and disenchantment.

Translated by Käthe Roth

 

Christine Ross is Professor and James McGill Chair in Contemporary Art History in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University, as well as Director of Media@McGill. Her books include: The Past is the Present; It’s the Future too. The Temporal Turn in Contemporary Art (2012); The Aesthetics of Disengagement: Contemporary Art and Depression (2006); and Images de surface: l’art vidéo reconsidéré (1996). She is co-editor of Precarious Visualities: New Perspectives on Identification in Contemporary Art and Visual Culture (2008) and The Participatory Condition (forthcoming, 2015).

 


  1. Marie Perrault, “Un trouble moteur d’attention,” in Isabelle Hayeur, ed. Pascale Bureau (Montreal: Dazibao; Quebec City: Vu, 2013): 10 (our translation).
  2. Franck Michel, “Plonger dans le paysage,” in Marcel Blouin, Michel Franck, and Bénédicte Ramade, Isabelle Hayeur: vraisemblances = verisimilitudes (Saint-Hyacinthe: Expression, Centre d’exposition de Saint-Hyacinthe; Rimouski: Musée régional de Rimouski, 2014): 7 (our translation).
  3. Marcel Blouin, “De vraies fausses images. De l’inévitable fabrication de la représentation,” in Blouin et al., Isabelle Hayeur, 14; Bénédicte Ramade, “L’efficience du doute,” in Blouin et al., Isabelle Hayeur, 21.
  4. Richard D. Knabb, Jamie R. Rhome, and Daniel P. Brown, “Tropical Cyclone Report Hurricane Katrina 23–30 August 2005,” accessed January 24, 2015, http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/data/tcr/AL122005_Katrina.pdf.
  5. Mary Jacobus, “Cloud Studies: The Visible Invisible,” Journal of the Imaginary and the Fantastic 1, no. 3 (2009): 219.
  6. Hubert Damisch, A Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting, trans. Janet Lloyd (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002): 124.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Raymond Bellour, L’Entre-images 2. Mots: images (Paris: P.O.L/Traffic, 1999): 6.
  9. Damisch, op. cit., 21.
  10. Bruno Latour, “L’Anthropocène et la destruction de l’image du Globe,” in De l’univers clos au monde infini, ed. Emilie Hache (Paris: Éditions Dehors, 2014), accessed January 24, 2015, http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/135-ANTHROPOCENE-HACHE.pdf (our translation).