It was springtime in Paris, but the usual chestnut blossoms had been replaced by something more unsettling.
In a dark underground room at La Gaîté Lyrique – a gallery Le Figaro newspaper once called a “temple” of digital art – fat purple hydrangeas exploded like hand grenades. A series of roses looked tired as if from playing too much PlayStation. The ferns were experiencing a coding glitch.
All this tortured foliage was part of a solo show and career retrospective of sorts for the Montreal artist Sabrina Ratté. Plant life never does get a free ride in Ratté's work, which can feel like a visually sumptuous assault on the perceived border between the natural and digital worlds.
In the series of prints, videos and 3D experiences that make up Floralia (2021), Ratté puts those hydrangeas and roses through the wringer, or rather, through a computer. They fragment and reconstitute themselves in a gravity-defying dance, so that the viewer finds herself wandering alone in a secret, postapocalyptic garden.
Because Floralia is best experienced on a virtual-reality headset, Ratté may have officially produced the most beautiful thing to ever exist in the metaverse. Against the grain of a Silicon Valley culture that is busy constructing online universes as sterile as they are profit-driven, Ratté injects an otherwise drab technology with the wild and verdant.
That subversive move – both an argument about the fudged line that divides tech from its human users, and an arresting aesthetic sensibility – is starting to make her an art world star. On top of the Gaîté Lyrique show last year, she had an exhibition at Arsenal Contemporary Art in New York last fall, and will have another one at its sister gallery in Montreal this summer. There have been smaller shows and installations at Tokyo’s wonderfully named UltraSuperNew Gallery and Berlin’s Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, among others, while her dazzling video piece Contre-espace was projected on one of the marble façades of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts every night last summer. She won a Sobey Art Award in 2020.
Her apartment and studio in Montreal’s Rosemont neighbourhood offer a window into how Ratté manages to “paint with electronic light,” as she says. The equipment is different, for one thing. There is a sort of coat rack in the foyer that is hung with dozens of USB and ethernet cables – maybe the equivalent of palettes.
The living room is dominated by large computer monitors – her easels – on which her canvas is mounted: Blender, the free and open-source 3D illustration software. Here, Ratté can use her mouse to adjust the metallic tint in the iridescent chrome fungi growing out of abandoned motherboards that feature in her most recent piece, Inflorescences.
“I’m always in dialogue with machines,” she said, sitting at her console. “They have an impact on me; they have agency in a way.”
Ratté found her medium – video – and her subject – dystopia – around the same time. After studying film at Concordia, where physical celluloid was held up as the more serious and authentic form, she was on a boring tropical vacation with her parents and started making playful digital videos to pass the time. She found it liberating and didn’t look back.
At this point in her 20s she also started reading science fiction, including some of the seminal works that influenced tech geeks like Mark Zuckerberg and Avi Bar-Zeev to remake the world. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, which first used the word “metaverse” and inspired Google Earth, sits on her bookshelf. To this day, her imagined worlds crackle with weird delights for the eye, but also serious thought about the digital future.
“It can make you dream to live in virtual space, to not be constrained by gravity, to go play with time. You’re immortal: It gives you freedom,” she said. “But at the same time there’s something very anxiety-inducing and nightmarish about it.”
Her first 10 years of experimentation recently found an outlet in Distributed Memories, a multimedia piece that filled a large room at the Gaîté Lyrique show. With collaborators – including the artist Guillaume Arseneault – she created a bank of video sketches from her cutting room floor and built a program to project them in a randomized sequence on old TVs, small tablet screens and all over the walls and floor.
They fill the space with images that are halfway between organic and synthetic: pixelated flowers, Francis Bacon-esque sides of meat exploding into video-game gore, a writhing jellyfish – or is it a melted VR headset? Speakers emit sounds, produced by the composer Roger Tellier-Craig, that could either be the drone of insects in a meadow or an audio track from an underground house-music concert.
The ambiguous interplay between tech and its users is heightened by a button in the gallery that allows viewers to change the configuration of image and sound. An old stop-motion scanner also reads the room with a little red laser to determine how many people are present, changing the order of the projected videos accordingly. Assorted pieces that had been “sleeping on my hard drive,” as Ratté says, are brought to hypnotic life by a combination of the artist, the public and the agency of machines.
Before returning to Montreal recently, Ratté lived in France for the past six years, dividing her time between Paris and Marseille. In the land of revolution and malaise, she became even more fascinated by failed utopias, embodied by the country’s so-called new towns. Launched in the postwar period as experiments in suburban living – and immortalized in films of yuppie ennui by Éric Rohmer – they are now often fallen into mossy decay.
The fragility of society’s physical architecture both haunts and animates Ratté's recent work. Contre-espace, projected onto the neoclassical northern pavilion of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts last summer, gave the illusion that the building’s white marble columns were dissolving in a tidal wave created on Microsoft Paint. In other words: All that is solid melts into code.
This apocalyptic imagery and digital triumphalism should be depressing. Who wants to root for the computers, much less look at art that depicts a world where they’ve won? Ratté's Montreal gallerist, Christine Redfern of the excellent, downtown Ellephant, has a theory for why the work remains so “seductive,” not to mention saleable. (Institutional buyers in Ratté's home province such as Hydro-Québec have been snapping up her stuff.)
“I think in a lot of ways it captures what we all live now,” said Redfern. “We live between the real world and the virtual.”
Ratté certainly has something compelling to say about the dystopian present, about our ever deeper immersion in virtual realities. Even her tools are of-the-moment, as she experiments with artificial intelligence, which can illustrate on command, according to certain specs, as the world collectively grapples with what these programs mean for human originality.
“With AI, I can just write ‘concrete with pink’ and it’ll produce it,” she said.
Still, the reason I think Ratté remains so beguiling, despite her gloomy themes, is a suggestion about things to come, rather than any statement about the here-and-now. The stubborn painterliness of her work, with its sense of a strong human hand behind the tech, hints that maybe creativity can survive dystopia. Dabbling with AI has been more about play and inspiration, she says, than for the high finish of her technically accomplished major pieces.
You strap on a VR headset and, instead of being confronted with the abandoned-mall atmospherics some users have described in the corporate metaverse, you see dancing hydrangeas and drunken ferns. They are doing odd, unpredictable things and their movements catch in your throat. You think: If someone has to design our digital future, maybe we can trade Mark Zuckerberg for Sabrina Ratté.