Sculpting the Imagination : an interview with Raymond Gervais

In the spring of 2001, the contemporary photography exhibition centre Dazibao gave you “carte grise. ” With this invitation, you curated an exhibition combining photography and phonography, hence the title  Phono Photo 1. Is this exhibition an extension of your own work?

Raymond Gervais : Absolutely, and in another context I could just as well have organized an exhibition on the theme of phono-sculpture, for example. Phonography is vast and inexhaustible. You could also take certain elements from the Dazibao exhibition and examine them in relation to sculpture. What connections, for example, could a train have with sculpture? Is the sea a sound sculpture? (Nature doesn’t make art, we do, and like Fluxus, we might just as well decide to “sign the sea,” or a volcano) Could the fart Marclay recorded be viewed as an air sculpture? The tape recorder on Rober Racine’s camera tripod or the letters that shift and blur on Richard-Max Tremblay’s mirror could also be read as sculpture. The idea of phono-sculpture implies the notion of sound sculpture, a category that already exists for people like Tinguely, the Baschet brothers, Duchamp, Beuys, Bertoia, Jones, Morris, Jean-Pierre Gauthier here, and many more. Jean Cocteau already had this intuition when he expressed the desire to hear the music from Picasso’s guitars. There is also Nam June Paik who produced interactive sound sculptures with records and record players— they were exhibited in Broken Music at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal in 1990. One can see the record player itself as a “sculpture.” Some record jackets are remarkable three-dimensional objects, sometimes with photographs of sculpture on them; some sculptors are also musicians. In short, I think the subject can make an interesting exhibition.


You make installations and performances, and you write. How do you define your relationship to sculpture?

I see myself as a kind of conceptual sculptor. I intervene very little or not at all on the materials I use. It’s the situation that I “sculpt,” the context that I mould, carve and form. I sculpt the idea in the work. The result of this process is very visible. The imaginary needs a tangible support to manifest itself, to spring from: a poster, a record jacket, a verbal score…


As objects, vinyl records and laser disks, and the devices for playing them, like turntables, have been the main visual and audio material for your work since the beginning. How have these popular cultural objects become essential to you conceptually?

As you point out, the record and the record player are objects of popular culture. They gradually supplanted the piano in homes after the Second World War and, along with radio, introduced a completely new audio culture in the West. As a teenager, I quickly realized that the record player sparked the imagination and helped distance oneself from a certain reality or everyday life. Records were a form of entertainment, but also a doorway to dreams, to the unknown, to the fantastic, a stimulation for the imagination and the intelligence, a textual, visual, and aural object with unprecedented poetic potential. In 1964, Marshall McLuhan wrote, “the phonograph is an imaginary music-hall.” 2 Groups were formed through collecting records. You could belong to a club, a phonographic family, exchange ideas, share tastes, take pleasure in listening, develop as a person. In this respect, my encounter in 1964 with the great record collector, Michel Décarie, was a decisive factor. A record is like a book in a way, and there weren’t many books at home. I had records instead of books. They became very important to me, the record as a cultural object helps one establish an identity. The situation was similar for many, whether one was a potential artist or not. This doesn’t explain why I have used the record player so much in my work. Perhaps it’s because I was surrounded by records professionally for a few years. In 1968, I worked for a record distributor, taking inventory and filling out orders all week long— it was the year of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous recording where they posed nude on the cover and created such a scandal. At lunch hour, we often played hockey or frisbee with the records in the basement. Then, from 1969 to 1971, I managed a record store called the Warehouse on Saint Catherine Street at the corner of Crescent on the third floor. I think this was the first record store in Montreal specializing in jazz. There were thousands of new and discontinued jazz recordings (used records weren’t sold in Montreal then). Rows of bins filled the space and shelves lined the walls — a little place was given to classical and traditional music. The CD didn’t exist yet and we didn’t sell tapes (they appeared on the market around 1964-1965). Collectors, musicians and artists came here looking for treasures. I spent my days listening to records and evenings at home as well, even all night sometimes. I was a real “record junkie” (live music as well), jazz mostly, but also Varèse, Cage, Ives, Bartok, Takemitsu, Indian, African, and electronic music, and so on. This kind of store couldn’t last long in Montreal: it closed in the summer of 1971. I then sold my record collection and travelled for six months to the Middle East and Asia, abruptly breaking my frenetic listening habits.

When I began practising art full time in 1973, (as a member of the atelier de musique expérimentale, with Yves Bouliane, Robert Lepage, and Michel Di Torre) the record became a tool and an indispensable reference. I organized concerts, wrote music and played saxophone in a house trio; records nourished these activities without being collected objects as such. It was then that I met Jean Papineau who worked in the record store l’Alternatif on Saint Denis in Montreal. He also had a passion for all kinds of music and the avant-garde, like Schoenberg, Cage, Reich and so on. In 1975, when I made my first video at Vidéographe, I asked Jean to participate in a circular sequence, in which our actions — me on the bass clarinet, in the center, and Jean on percussion, on the side like a head shell— suggested the operations of a record player. The following year, my installation 12 + 1 = for thirteen automated turntables was dedicated to Jean. It’s essentially an encounter between two ex-record dealers, a philosopher and an artist, who carry on a dialogue about music frozen in vinyl, but freed somehow, by the simultaneous interaction of the thirteen record players, and so recreated differently. Thinking back on it now, I see that it was quite natural and that I had no particular strategy in using record players in my work, it just happened.


In 1975, artists presenting sound works in Quebec were quite rare. Weren’t you a pioneer back then?

Personally, I don’t consider myself a pioneer. There’s a history of artists making music in the 20th century (Russolo, Duchamp, Dubuffet). We know much more about it now than we did at the beginning ofthe 1960s. We had very little information or books on this subject, and even fewer records. Ursula Block and Michel Glasmeier documented this history of artists’ recordings very well in the catalogue for Broken Music, the exhibition I mentioned before.3 In 1961, when Pierre Mercure presented the “semaine internationale de musique actuelle” in Montreal with John Cage and Yoko Ono (and Varèse, Stockhausen, Kagel, Carpi, Feldman, etc.), I was busy discovering jazz with an uncle who had a passion for the great swing orchestras. I certainly didn’t have any idea then that John Cage and Yoko Ono (of Fluxus), and Sun Ra, were performing in Montreal— and all that this implied! I was fifteen and I lived in another world, somewhere between opera and jazz. Armand Vaillancourt, the sculptor, worked with Pierre Mercure to create a sound piece for that festival: Structure métallique no. 2. Edgar Varèse’s Le poème électronique was also played with two of Jean-Paul Mousseau’s light sculptures. Later, in 1964, Pierre Mercure was to compose the sound track for Jacques Giraldeau’s film. La forme des choses (NFB), using recordings of actual sounds made at the site ofthe first Montreal sculpture symposium. Mercure’s friend, the painter Charles Gagnon, also created sound works, as did Richard Lacroix of the group Fusion des arts. Elsewhere in the world and in Quebec, artists had preceded me with respect to sound art. I consider myself part of the artist-musician filiation, broadly speaking and in this specific context. It wasn’t so much through the activity as by the tools I used, and the materials perhaps, that I stood apart — in spite of myself— in the mid 1970s. It is true that nobody here, to my knowledge, used turntables and records as insistently and systematically in the visual arts. Sometimes people referred to me as being “obsessed with record players,” or as the “music-loving artist.” One couldn’t put a label on me; at times, this created some uneasiness. As for myself, I never had any preconceived theories about what I was doing, about sound in general, or about sound art. I learned by doing, as I still do. Except that now, with hindsight, I can see some things more clearly, such as the course and implications of my practice and the specificity of my choices over time. I can’t explain it. I just see it after the fact.


For Phono Photo, you chose to exhibit records, and their jackets, without the possibility of hearing them. Your last installations also fall into this category. However, you have not always created works that make one think about sound through silence because you have also produced many sound installations.

That’s right. From about 1976 to 1989, most of my installations had sound. 12 + 1 = , mentioned earlier, is a key work in this sense, with its thirteen record players playing thirteen different selections of music simultaneously. Sculptor Roland Poulin photographed this piece in situ in 1976. The following year, for the catalogue of the 032303 event,4  I composed a work inspired by Roland Poulin’s 7 – 4 – 3, which I called Sculpter un espace par Ie son (a conceptual work attempting to produce a sound equivalent to the sculpture). At the time, I wasn’t thinking of making a soundless work. Déjà là (1977), Où je suis (1980), Cap T (1985), Henri-Rousseau le tourne-disque et la recréation du monde (1987), L’enclos de verre (1988) and even the first version of Claude Debussy regarde l’Amérique, presented in New York in 1989, are just some of my installations where sound plays an important role. Les concerts de l’imaginaire in 1986 and Elementæ Musicæ in 1987 were my first silent works about sound, music. In my audible works, I used objects that produce sounds (metronomes for rhythm, electronic tuners for sustained sounds, tape recorders), but for my silent pieces, I resorted to mute objects that evoke sound: a music stand, the bust of a musician, a musical instrument, a cylinder, and accessories such as a mute, a drumstick or a bow, to name a few. We forget that the first recordings were originally cylinders, three-dimensional objects. As such, the metronome may be seen as a small sound sculpture, if not as a percussion instrument in its own right.5  When Man Ray gave it an eye in his 1923 Objet à détruire, he turned it into an installation, giving it a body and a look; he made it go from sound to sight to silence. In the same vein, one can see phonographs, radios, and tape recorders as anonymous, mass-produced “sound sculptures.” How we look at an object gives it its significance. Similarly, one could also think of a music stand or the bust of a musician as a “silent sound sculpture.” Musical instruments have always fascinated me this way. As silent objects, I find them captivating: they suggest endless imaginary sounds.


Your “records of the imagination” made their appearance when silence became an essential component in your work.

Yes, that’s true. The imagination implies the immaterial. If sound is matter, then what is silence — silence being inseparable from sound? Sound is invisible, yet it is real. In its way, it sculpts our lives every day, our relationships to others and to things. Silence, too. This attraction to the immaterial prompted me to sculpt with light in some works (Où je suis—1980, Chanson perpétuelle—1990, Boîte de nuit—1999), with the wind (the wind on a record, in photographs, and actual wind as well, with Le vent tourne, in 1993), with the void, absence (Oneliness in 1986, and my cut out photographs since 1997), and mirrors, which retain nothing. Silence in the context of sound or the invisible in the context of the visual, like absence and emptiness, are extreme poles. They make it easier to find one’s place as an individual and as an artist, to define one’s approach, one’s point of view, to sculpt one’s life — John Cage’s 4’33” is emblematic in this sense. You could say that silence is to sound what day is to night, what the visible is to the invisible, and what reality is to the imagination.

My disques de l’imaginaire that you referred to are visible as boxed scores, but invisible as records. As sound is invisible from the start, all records are also a support, a “pedestal” for the invisible — I am thinking here especially of Manzoni’s 1961 Socle du monde. Sound is as invisible as the air that carries and transmits it. My imaginary record called Marcel Duchamp respire partly targeted this aspect. All sound sculpts air, and because there is no life without air, there is no life without sound. The invisible sculpts by definition. One can put on a record anything that is acoustic, without restriction, everything that a microphone can capture, like breathing for example, but also indirectly, the whole realm of the inaudible that results from resonances in the imagination and that is none the less real and inseparable (breath implying inspiration and expiration — life and death — which evokes the spirit, the soul, that other part of oneself that is invisible and inaudible). Aural imagination always springs from reality, from visible, legible, and real elements. Duchamp sculpted air, but also art and thought. He sculpted his audience. The disques de l’imaginaire, for me, are works in progress, unfinished by definition. I have produced hundreds of similar objects in CD form since 1995. Unlike standard records where the sound is fixed, these lend themselves to the infinite. The imagination of sound is an immense evolving site, it reaches in all directions and intersects all aspects of life, all categories — science, art, literature, sports, the environment, and the rest. It is difficult to speak about it generally, superficially: it is too complex, you get lost. Take instead a precise example that involves a sculptor: Constantin Brancusi, also a violinist on the side. In 1995, I made an imaginary record in his name: Constantin Brancusi, violon solo. Brancusi never recorded, but I would have liked to hear him play. I think he also sculpted time with his bow. So I designed the jacket — the score of an imaginary record that enabled me and the public to imagine it, to dream about it. Les disques imaginaires are not concerned with “good” or “bad” music and an amateur always has a place there — whether it’s Samuel Beckett at the piano or Man Ray on drums. In 1997, I invented a second imaginary record about Brancusi called Duo, Constantin Brancusi, violon — Bird, saxophone alto. The “Bird” refer of course to Brancusi’s famous sculpture and simultaneously to the nickname of Charlie Parker, the great bebop improviser. These two very real 20th-century avant-garde artists really played these instruments. Everything is true, only the situation is invented. These artists are no longer alive, so I feel I can use them in this project. What is really happening on this record? This is open to all the possibilities of a human relationship; I can even imagine that they don’t play their instruments, but simply talk to each other, or they might play alternately, individually, together, or remain quiet and listen, and so on. Ironically, Rober Racine later lent me a real CD that he had just bought in France called Brancusi et la musique.6 The disc comprises a great variety of music (classic, jazz, folk) compiled from the records that Brancusi collected, testifying to the artist’s eclectic taste. By extension, this disc is a kind of sound self-portrait by Brancusi. So, if we can’t hear him play the violin, at least we can hear what he listened to, “hear what he heard.” Brancusi and Satie were good friends. I think we can develop a connection between Brancusi’s Endless Column and Satie’s repetitive 840 Vexations 7 (the first complete solo performance, at the international level, was by Rober Racine). A formal and spiritual kinship is expressed between these two key modernist works, between the silent sculpture and the sound composition. Another sculptor inspired me to produce a work about discs and CD cases: Alberto Giacometti. The work, Tous les vivants étaient morts, is influenced by a text Giacometti published in 1946.8 In this text, Le rêve, le sphinx et la mort de T., Giacometti recounts a surreal dream he had about a yellow spider, the death of a friend, and other frightening incidents. Then he tells how he attempted to exorcise them by drawing a horizontal then a vertical disk, which he changed into an object. Giacometti never completed this project; published as a text with drawings, it appeared to me as a score to be produced in the form of an installation (or phonographic sculpture on the wall). I reread this text many times, always having difficulty with the same passage: “tous les vivants étaient morts” (all the living were dead), which seemed to sum up Giacometti’s vision. I set up this phrase on a series of CD cases on the wall (one letter per case) in a long line, and beside it, like an echo, a small imaginary disk with Giacometti’s name and the title Le rêve, le sphinx et la mort de T. The record concept drawn by Giacometti in 1946 became, in appearance, a real disc, from which you could imagine the artist himself reading his text, pronouncing and repeating at intervals: “tous les vivants étaient morts.” On paper, his silent project had become a model disc, a sculpture for the ear.

In the same vein, I transposed a painting into a sound sculpture with Piano descendant un escalier, a 1986 performance where I attempted to make the sound equivalent of Duchamp’s famous painting, Nu descendant un escalier. Thirteen identical out-of-sink recordings of a solo work for player piano by Duchamp were placed successively on the floor in the shape of a staircase. From another painting, this time by Douanier Rousseau, I tried to sculpt an entire space with one colour, jungle green. The Mexican objects in this piece (a jaguar mask, a serpent-like flute) could just as easily have been works by a Rousseau “sculptor.” One could read all my multidisciplinary work from the viewpoint of sculpture. For example, Cap T, presented at Aurora Boréalis in 1985, sculpted Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question as a large question mark in space. With Claude Debussy regarde New York in 1989, I tried to sculpt an idea of America through Claude Debussy’s photographic eye. Cantor, in 1992, sculpted the idea of a turntable with a series of busts of J. S. Bach in a gyrating sequence on the floor. Roto-univers, in 1994, attempted to sculpt the idea ofthe cosmos in the Galerie Rochefort windows, with various objects rotating on several record players. Boîte de nuit, in 1999, sculpted the idea of night itself in a tomb-box in homage to Cole Porter. And so on. Since 1998, I produced a few works based on a figure that I think embodies this issue of sound versus the visual: Helen Keller (1880-1968), who was deaf, mute and blind. I tried to sculpt the space of a little empty room using just the three words —deaf, mute, and blind —, reproduced on three CD cases placed on the walls. The work enabled people to identify with her, to enter her world. Helen Keller sometimes visited exhibitions. She was allowed to touch and feel the sculpture so she could see it. Similarly, she had to touch a musical instrument or the lips and throat of a singer to hear them. And what could she hear? Sound for her was above all tactile, had volume and form. In her eyes, sound was “sculpture” because it was silent. This is an extreme situation, a paradox, just like my most recent work, Via Charles Ives, exhibited at the Orford Art Centre this summer.8 It is extreme in the sense that, in my opinion, it functions even when there is nothing to see. It then becomes what you might call a mental sculpture. It is not so much a question of hearing Ives’s actual work (The Unanswered Question) as it is one of taking the musical score and visualizing its placement outside, around the pond at Orford. The ultimate creation occurs in the mind, through each person’s own imagination. Via Charles Ives is a sculpture of the imagination, a poetic synthesis of culture and nature in the mind, the public psyche, the public as sculptor of its own imaginative landscape.

Translation: Janet Logan


1. Phono Photo, Catalogue, Dazibao 2001 (includes the works of Christian Marclay, Rober Racine, Michael Snow, David Tomas and Richard-Max Tremblay).

2. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: the extensions of man, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. 364 pages.

3. Broken Music, Ursula Block and Michael Glasmeier, Daad galerie, Berlin, 1989.

4. 032303, premières rencontres internationales d’art contemporain, Median et Parachute, Montréal, 1977, p.97.

5. For the use of the metronome as a musical instrument, listen to Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes by Gyôrgy Ligeti (1962), Éditions Michael F. Bauer, 1989.

6. Brancusi et la musique, Centre Georges Pompidou, France, 1997.

7. Erik Satie, Vexations, Reinbert De Leeuw, piano. Philips.

8. Alberto Giacometti, Écrits, Savoir sur l’art, Hermann, Paris, 1990, p. 27 – 35.

9. Bruits de fond was an exhibition on the banks of the pond at the Orford Arts Centre, Quebec, from June 27 to September 30, 2001. The curator was Gaston St-Pierre.