by Eleonora Milner

© Isabelle Hayeur, Looking Back from the series 'Desert Shores', 2015-2016

Hello Isabelle Hayeur, could you tell us about yourself?

Isabelle Hayeur (IH): I am a photographer and a videographer; I have been working since the late 90s. I have studied at Université du Québec à Montréal - UQAM (BFA 1997 and MFA 2002). Since 2012, I have been living in a rural area, in Rawdon (Quebec). I grew up in a Montreal suburb and this had a lasting impact on my artistic practice. As in many suburbs in Quebec and, more generally, in the industrialized world, the landscape there has been subjected to perpetual transformation. I became interested in the state of this landscape, altered as it is by the array of technologies at man’s disposal.

Tell us about your last project 'Desert Shores (Lost America)' from 2015-2016. In America, photography’s development coincided with the exploration and the settlement of the West. Their simultaneous rise resulted in a complex association that has shaped the perception of the West’s physical and social landscape. Your image of the West is completely different compared to the first pioneer, such as Timothy O’Sullivan, Carleton Watkins or William Henry Jackson. In your opinion what is the role of photography in shaping our collective imagination of a landscape?

IH: The early photographers who ventured into the American West were confronted by unexplored, wild and untouched territories. They were motivated by a pioneering spirit which sought to "discover" and appropriate new spaces. It was a perilous mission which found its justification in the desire to bring back images of sights and things never before seen. Often sent by the government or by railway companies, these photographers produced images which conveyed useful and precise information on the geography and geology of the new territories as well as on the indigenous people who inhabited them. Early photographic processes such as the daguerreotype which was also called "the mirror with a memory" were used in this period. These photographers sometimes produced a sublime and spectacular representation of what they saw and some of their images were instrumental in the creation of national parks - another mode of preserving a reality frozen in time. Beyond their usefulness, the photographs contributed to the creation of a mythical representation of America with its vast virginal spaces, full of promises and riches, where everything was possible, where everything was to be built. In my mind, these representations also served as a foil to the harsh realities of the industrial East and of the Civil War. 

Brown’s Landing, Rice Creek. Photo by William Henry Jackson, between 1880 and 1897 © Library of Congress

Your artistic approach examine the relations between nature and culture, a somewhat critical eye on what American society had become. How about the Salton Sea area? Do you believe in photography as a medium to reveal a different (and critical) point of view?

IH: Our attitude towards the world is ambivalent: there is a desire to control it as well as a desire to become immersed in it. My work examines the relation between nature and culture in a world where their (false) opposition is the dominant ideology that still structures Western societies. When the principle of utility ranks higher than other values and the economy is king, territories are viewed simply as “resources” and as sites to occupy or exploit. Today this instrumental logic tends to invade every area of human activity. The forlorn landscapes surrounding the Salton Sea are loaded with social, political, environmental and metaphoric implications. They seem to mirror a lost America, an era in which everything seemed possible and accessible to all citizens. These strange lands give us another, unflattering, image of a nation more divided and unequal than ever. They are like so many other areas of dire poverty that can be found all across the United States, an embedded Third World where the most destitute have to live for lack of a better alternative. My photographs attest to this inverted reality of American society. For me, Salton Sea is emblematic of those underprivileged regions of the United States, be it the Rust Belt, or East St-Louis or Camden, New Jersey. Salton Sea offers such a convergence of significant events that it allows us to see what awaits us in the future environmentally, socially and politically. The site is well known and has attracted the attention of many photographers and filmmakers. I never had the impression of doing something new by going there, but I thought it was pertinent to show it as it is now. The site is in constant evolution and this is underlined by the new graffiti, which are regularly added. Those graffiti are one of the features that captured my attention in this project. The ones found at Salton Sea express a lot of suffering, despair and anger. Young people chose this site to leave their mark because it reflects what they themselves were living. I went to Salton Sea on two occasions, and it was before the American elections. In certain places, one could see posters put up by supporters of Donald Trump (but also criticisms aimed at him). In an interview published recently, Chris Hedges reminds us that people are suffering and have been betrayed by the elites. We have to begin recognizing that suffering because, until we do, we will go nowhere. 

© Isabelle Hayeur, Divided We Fall from the series 'Desert Shores', 2015-2016

© Isabelle Hayeur, Your Loss from the series 'Desert Shores', 2015-2016

In 'Desert Shores' the image titled Exposure (a blinding light enter through a broken window on an abandoned site) introduces another concept: photography couldn’t be entirely a neutral objective act or impersonal record because it is always a subjective vision, a personal interpretation of the subject. How about this image?

IH: I am glad that you asked a question about this image because it is one I especially like in this series. For me this image was the perfect expression of the suffering endured by people in America today. It depicts an empty, collapsed house. There is an empty chair with a hat and a pair of boots on the floor. At the back, the window shows nothing, only an empty canvas bathed in a very bright white light as if someone had been erased. It represents the desertified landscape of the mind. I wanted to express absolute dispossession akin to what those people must feel.

© Isabelle Hayeur, Exposure from the series 'Desert Shores', 2015-2016

You have documented industrial areas, tourist sites and abandoned places. Did New Topographics influence your aesthetics in some way?

IH: Yes, The New Topographics have influenced my art practice. They were very influential on photographic practices regarding landscape around the world. They had a critical and sometimes ironical perspective on what America was becoming at the time. They photographed the man-made landscape, the altered, the industrial, suburbia... They showed that something had shifted and that we were entering into the era of the Anthropocene. The American myth was deflated, and turned on its head. It is interesting to see that, on a visual level, their images were constructed with great simplicity and stripped of anything superfluous which recalls the photography of the early pioneers of the American West. The New Topographics photographers also went out there to ascertain something: that something had changed.

Your vision maintains order and beauty despite all the fragmented landscape. Reporting photographer Robert Adams’s words: «By Interstate 70: a dog skeleton, a vacuum cleaner, TV dinners, a doll, a pie, rolls of carpet... Later, next to the South Platte River: algae, broken concrete, jet contrails, the smell of crude oil... What I hope to document, though not at the expense of surface detail, is the form that underlies this apparent chaos».

IH. This is an interesting observation. The form that must be distinguished among the apparent chaos, isn't it perhaps simply what is going on in the landscape? The underlying force that molds the landscape? What I mean to say by this is that it is impossible to consider the landscape without taking into account how our actions - and that of industry - have transformed it. The landscape is now inhabited everywhere and everywhere one can find traces (scars) of our having been there. The non-spaces and no-man's lands are sites of movement and change, rootless; they are invested with our presence and with our absence: we transform them, but we don't inhabit them. Our contemporary condition finds perfect expression in these dehumanized places, chaotic spaces that stretch out from the edges of our cities, but which often go unnoticed. Caught between the city and the country, but being neither, they abound in disconnected events. These spaces show us the tension, conflicts and losses that mark our social and urban fabric. They are forms of urban dis-organization that speak of our time, emphasizing the different types of malaise inherent in our societies.

© Isabelle Hayeur, Monument anonyme 3, 1999 from the series 'Incertain Landscapes, Drift and Foundations'

You explored also Video medium. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

IH: I often work parallely in photography and in video. Furthermore I can do that now with the same equipment, which is very practical. I have produced twenty-three experimental videos to date and ten video installations. For 'Desert Shores', I chose to present in the same exhibition several photographs and a 36 minute video. Photography and video can reveal different things but they are very complementary mediums. My approach to video is often very close to my photography: I favour static shots and leave enough time for the spectator to look and analyze them. The capacity of photography to reveal details is essential to account for certain realities. Video allows the possibility of sequencing and establishing links between these realities in order to develop a narrative, an analysis, to show cause-and-effect relations. Of course, sound is an important element that is absent in photographs.

© Isabelle Hayeur, still from the video 'Castaway', 14', 2012

You have also actively participated in international artists' residencies, in Europe too. Tell us about one of these impressed you more.

IH: I can give two answers to that question: I did, indeed, do a lot of residencies and I find it very important because it allows me to experience different realities, and to meet people. It forces you to get out of your comfort zone. There are all kinds of residency programs and it is important to choose well. I enjoyed enormously the Rauschenberg Residency because the conditions there were excellent and the site is inspiring. I will go back there for a second time in October 2017. My best residency experiences have not always coincided with good conditions however, sometimes it depends on what you find on site. In autumn 2015, I was in France for a residency and the terrorist attacks of November 13th happened just as I arrived. I remain ambivalent about my experience because while I am happy with the work I did there but then, I would have preferred not to have had to do it. Maybe photographers who document zones of conflict feel the same.  

Is there any show you’ve seen recently or any contemporary artist or photographer that you find inspiring?

IH: I could name many, but I will mention Richard Misrach because his project, 'After Katrina', and his book, 'Destroy This Memory', have left a deep impression in me. He documented the event with a small pocket digital camera capturing among other things the messages left by the evacuees. Then he produced a beautiful book, 'Petrochemical America', still about New-Orleans but focusing on the sadly famous "Cancer Alley".

© Richard Misrach, Untitled (New Orleans and the Gulf Coast), 2005

What’s ahead?

IH: I am presently working with a group of citizens in my region who are opposed to the building of a high-voltage hydro-electric line. I am interested in citizen involvement, a particularly important phenomenon in the times we live in. This is in continuity with my work on the territory, but it is also a relatively new approach for me. My practice is in constant flux and I am constantly trying to find new avenues of investigation. This project will be presented for the first time in the art museum in my region in the summer of 2017.


Exhibition 'After Katrina' by Richard Misrach at The Museum of Fine Arts Houston
Richard Misrach, in a video produced by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, describes photographing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the book it produced, 'Destroy This Memory' Review on The Nyew Yorker of the book 'Petrochemical America' 
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