The Daniel Langlois Foundation: Where Art Meets Science in the New Technologies

By Holly Aylett


An interview with executive director, Jean Gagnon

Eight years ago, Daniel Langlois sold Softimage – the software package behind the revolutionary, computer-generated imagery of films such as Jurassic Park, Men in Black and The Matrix – to Microsoft. He then set up The Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science and Technology in Montreal. This pioneering institution aims to further the meeting between science and art in the new technologies. It also seeks to nurture critical awareness of technology’s implications for human beings and their environments, few of which can now be claimed to be entirely natural. It has acquired video and digital archives, funded a huge variety of artists’ projects, developed new software and on-line resources, and is now involved in promoting research into the conservation and documentation of media arts technology.  

Holly Aylett: In the eight years of its existence, the Foundation has established an impressive track record of artists’ projects, research and intervention in the wave of technological change which is transforming us. Is it significant that this has emerged in Canada?

Jean Gagnon: Canada was one of the countries where video art flourished early on in the 1970s. This is true of the new media arts as well. Canada is a country where communication technologies have been key to the constitution of the country, which is the second largest territory in the world but has a small population. So Canada was the first to launch a civilian satellite, one of the first to be totally cabled, and so on. Artists, as of the 1960s and through the influence of Marshall McLuhan, were fast in picking up on new technologies like video and later the computer. In addition, public funding for the media arts in Canada, despite its insufficient growth over the years, is still recognized as important compared with other countries, such as the USA, for instance.

Montreal is the birthplace of some of the digital tools for cinematographic, special effects. Softimage was founded by Daniel Langlois in 1986, and other companies like Discreet Logic were also based in Montreal. The city is the home of many organizations, companies, and university-based research labs. In terms of film production, it has also seen the production of some digital, high definition productions such as La Face Cachée de la Lune by Robert Lepage (see page 54).

HA: These digital technologies are now being used to transform indigenous, audiovisual expression in parts of the world which have so far been impeded by the expense involved in production and distribution. How important do you think that physical place, and geographical and social context, are in the development and use of this technology?

JG: The Foundation has an international mandate and we receive project proposals from countries both in the north and south. Ideas come from known, international media artists as well as from lesser-known practitioners, so we are well placed to observe the breadth of activities everywhere. As you can imagine, there is very little comparison between the situation for those of us in the north – in North America or Europe, and those in the south – in Africa, parts of Asia, or in Latin America, and I don’t think that technology can ever be neutral. We see many biases implemented and reproduced through our technologies, like, for instance, certain ways of ways of visualizing which have developed through photography and can be seen as a Western, cultural trait.

Technologies, like the Internet, often develop from research for military applications or for surveillance and purposes of control. Once a technology reaches civic society it then becomes a terrain whose exploitation is contested by commercial forces, civic groups and often by artists as well. This is happening right now, right before our eyes on the Web.

This is why the Foundation tries to favour the emergence of practices by collective groups and people like artists, so that input can come from different cultural frameworks and can help develop these technologies and how they are used. However, since this is a contested space, artists have to work within a context where their approach to working with these technologies is rarely supported by economic forces and markets, even the art market.

HA: But do you think, whether now or in the future, that access to digital technology will break down the barriers which currently exist for exchange between moving image artists? In 2004, in the UK, once you take out American films, or American co-productions, releases from the rest of the world accounted for just 2.7% of what was screened theatrically. Do you expect digital distribution will change this?

JG: In principle, yes. The development of the Internet and the Web, as well as other ‘portable’ or ‘personal’ digital technologies, is also opening new possibilities for artists and new networks to disseminate their works. And a lot of efforts are being made to develop alternative, secure and high-quality digital distribution of feature length films. Daniel Langlois has founded a company especially to develop this almost virgin market, called Digiscreen.

But how far digital distribution will impact on the circulation of film can only be guessed at. The statistics for exhibition are the same for Canada as in the UK. I think it is 3% here, perhaps with the exception of the Province of Quebec where Quebecois films are seen by a great portion of the population. In any case, the challenge is not only to cut off the Hollywood monopoly but maybe more importantly to create an alternative, so that remote communities can have access both to contemporary and historical cinema.

As we speak, the newspapers have announced that the Hollywood majors have agreed on a high definition, digital standard. They will probably try to monopolize the whole chain from encoding and compression systems to delivery and projector technologies. Maybe some independent entrepreneurs such as Daniel Langlois can also find alternative ways to develop these technologies which can be financially viable outside of the Hollywood model. But this is a real challenge, and the fight is still on.

HA: Alongside this challenge, there are also the questions of historical preservation of the old film-based archive, and of teaching, collecting and interpreting the enormous amount of moving image work which has been digitally generated.

JG: This is a very important field of research that involves many people and institutions, including the national archives of most countries. Technically it is a difficult field, although theoretically some promising things are being explored like computer emulation. But a lot of technological developments lie ahead of us if we are to solve this problem of longevity and future access to digital works. It is in the cultural and arts milieu that some research needs to be undertaken. Museums, for instance, are with a few exceptions, presently ill-equipped to face the challenge of conserving digital media works or other technologically based works. That is why this year the Daniel Langlois Foundation began a five-year research project entitled Documentation and Conservation of the Media Arts Heritage in order to develop, in partnership with universities and museums, approaches to preservation methods, cataloguing and database development, and restoration techniques.

HA: Looking back on the creative work which the Foundation has been involved with since it began, what sorts of changes in art practices do you see? Is it possible to speculate on how this new focus of energy for the moving image is now developing?

JG: The Foundation has been involved in many artist initiatives involving scientists or scientific techniques, protocols and language, projects such as Edouardo Kac’s biotech projects. Other artists, for example the London-based collective Proboscis, have been working in the field of distributed networks and responsive environments.  

In general, these new technologies also mean that our sense of the art work itself now needs to be redefined as it no longer operates along classical lines such as authorship, closure and unity. These works of art are often made collectively, they are open-ended and interactive. Some say they are non-linear, and so on.

However, in eight years now, it has become noticeable that novelty and innovation have decreased, and discourses about art and technology have become more realistic and less utopian. It’s as if the bursting of the dotcom bubble in the marketplace in 2000 had a sobering effect on those working in or talking about the field of art and digital technology. We have also become accustomed to seeing multimedia, interactive installations every once in a while, and we have started to see films projected on museum walls, filmmakers doing gallery installations, and artists introducing film material and film history into their works.

Surprises are rare nowadays. The excitement of new beginnings, of novelty, has somewhat vanished. A whole new generation comes at it and they make art and play with digital instruments to manipulate sounds, images, beats, and movement, with very little care for past languages of cinema or video, and their rich histories. In fact, outside of university laboratories, new media arts are still struggling for legitimacy. It’s similar to what happened with video during the 1990s.

HA: And given the accelerated pace of media evolution since the beginning of 1990, how would you evaluate the significance of the impact of these digital technologies on the way in which we think of ourselves and represent our diverse cultures?  

JG: I do think that the present digital revolution is of huge significance, and its importance goes beyond that of the development of photography and of the moving image.  

One of the reasons for this is that these technologies impact on all aspects of life, from the most mundane artefacts and environments of daily living, through banking and medicine and communication. Of course some of the facets of our present-day revolution have been prefigured by developments in the 20th century – cinema, radio and television – and this allowed thinkers, such as Marshall McLuhan, to write in the 1960s about things that would become reality just thirty years later.

The advent of these new digital technologies, of genetic code manipulations and all the similar advances in recent techno-sciences, marks the opening of an era in which the traditional frames of reference and boundaries in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and in the arts are collapsing, leaving us with little guidance to enter this brave new world.

In our age of hyper security and terrorism I sometimes wonder where all this is leading. Throughout history we have seen the same pattern repeating itself. Technologies that could benefit us are often used against us. At the same time we see these technologies, the Internet for instance, being used for liberating purposes and sustaining social movements against the forces of corporate globalization. We also see this same Internet being used by groups seeking to perpetrate acts of terrorism. It is a difficult task to ensure that these technological developments serve for the betterment of our lives, but my feeling is that artists have an important role to play here, although it is not always their role to act as the saviours of our world.

Daniel Langlois’ Digiscreen:

Daniel Langlois Foundation’s Documentation and Conservation of the Media Arts Heritage project: (Images above from the website)

Holly Aylett is co-editor of Vertigo, a senior lecturer in Film Studies at London Metropolitan University and Director of the Independent Film Parliament.