Interview with Soraya Poulin and Coralie Gourguechon
AiR artists talk about their residency experiences
Soraya Poulin is a trained graphic designer and illustrator based in Switzerland. In her residency project for AiR in Prague, carried out in collaboration with the Mistra-EC researchers at Charles University, she explores the relationship between humans and nature in the city, and their various power dynamics, through a collage of paintings, photography and drawings.
Coralie: I have a background in industrial design and I have been mostly interested in the environmental impact of electronics. I have been addressing this topic in different ways in my work, and now, it is the first time that I have the possibility to investigate the beginning of the life cycle of electronics, which is mining for minerals. That is what I am doing in Uppsala during my residency. We have an interest in the conflicts this creates, and a specific interest on the European project of relocating parts of the mining industry in Europe.
How is life in Uppsala? You are coming from France, right?
Coralie: Yes. I am coming from Marseille, so it is much, much colder here, but also there is a much more forest. Here, I have the possibility to work at the campus, which is located in the outskirts of Uppsala. And I have a bike to do the trips from the place I stay to the campus. And that is nice, actually.
Great! Soraya, let us now hear from you.
Soraya: I have a background in graphic design and illustration, and I completed my degree last year. Yet, I have never worked in a company as a graphic designer. The first thing I did after my studies was an artist residency. There was an open call from my city, and I applied. In general, I am interested in expressing different philosophical concepts through visual artworks, mainly with traditional techniques like painting, collage, and drawings. So, in my first residency, I was interested in showing the emotional links between people and their environment, based on different philosophical concepts, and spiritual beliefs, such as Buddhism.
During AiR in Prague, I am trying to observe and express the different relationship dynamics between people and nature in the city, where the nature is represented specifically by birds.
How is life in Prague for you? Have you been in this city before?
Soraya: Well, I come from Switzerland, the French-speaking part of Switzerland, and I live in a small town. I had never been to Prague before. I like the city. I usually like living in big cities. This one is very touristic, so that is kind of a downside, but I go and explore different places, non-touristic and touristic… So, I like it. And the time goes too fast really, two months is too short! (both chuckle)
How did you get involved in the AiR programme? What motivated you to apply?
Coralie: In fact, I had never heard of the research field of environmental communication before. Though it makes a lot of sense, once you know that it exists. I think the AiR call was at the intersection of two of my interests. I have been working on the theme of communication before, and I find it really interesting, but also super dense, really hard to explore! At the moment, I am also back at the university. I am doing a master’s in ecocriticism, writing about our relationship with nature. So, the residency was at the intersection point of these two interests. I guess I have always been interested in ecology as well, and it was a good meeting point, I would say.
The project I proposed for the AiR in Uppsala involve this kind of a new perspective for me, both in terms of its focus on mining minerals, and in terms of the scope of communication tools. Therefore, it has been a great opportunity to be able to work on it.
How about you, Soraya? What motivated you to apply to AiR in Prague?
Soraya: I was interested, first of all, in its focus on communication, and also on the environmental issues. I have an interest in that area: environmental issues, and how to create awareness about these issues, by using art as a way to raise public awareness.
That was really interesting for me, the environmental theme of the residency.
Could you tell us a bit more about your residency works? We are now half-way into the residencies. How are your projects developing?
Coralie: During the first month, I have been digging a lot into this mining project. I am studying specifically a place in Sweden, where an important mining project has been going on for 10 years.
So, I have been mostly researching about the technical details of how mining would happen, obtaining information about the specific place, and information about the conflict that is ongoing about this place. I have done a lot of e-mail exchanges and interviews to try to get different perspectives. I have taken one field trip that was linked more to an historical place, and one field trip to the place, where the project is supposed to happen.
I think, I am still processing that big amount of information (chuckles). This week, I am trying to remove my head from the computer and make something out of these materials.
Good luck! How about you, Soraya? Could you tell us a bit more about your residency project? How is it developing?
Soraya: It is really going step-by-step. In the first phase, there has been a lot of brainstorming, and sketching. I developed some main ideas about how to represent these different concepts, and how to classify the information I could obtain about the relationship between humans and the nature in the city, focusing on the animals, and more particularly, the birds. I did some research about what has been done about these animals in the city, and more broadly, in other countries. I still continue to learn. I see images, and then go to do a little bit of research about those. For instance, I found that, near a hospital in Prague, there is a big herd of mouflons grazing around. Actually, there are a lot of animals in the city of Prague!
For my residency project, I have been particularly observing the birds, including pigeons -how they are seen, how they interact with people. I go around the city, observing pigeons, and people, and seeing how they interact. If they interact positively or negatively… Sometimes both. I am not a bird professional (chuckles), but when you start observing them a little bit every day, you start to recognize the certain patterns or the certain schedule that they have. Even outside my window, I always see the same two pigeons, and the same two or three other birds, the blackbirds... In the city, I have also been observing the traps, the bird traps. In some places there are a lot of sticky, pointy traps. There are more of these traps in certain places, for instance in religious places, so that is something I will do some more research on.
All this time, I have been in touch a lot with Nico, my academic host for the residency, as well as Gerardo and Elizabeth from the team at the Institute of Communication Studies and Journalism (ICSJ) at Charles University. We meet, exchange ideas, and talk about my observations. It is kind of brainstorming together.
Currently, I am doing collages and I have completed some. I have also taken some photos, and now I am in the process of putting all together.
How is it for you, as artists, working on a project focussed on environment?
Coralie: I think my work has always been linked to environment, particularly to the e-waste problem: the problem of electronic waste. In this residency, I wanted to do something more directly related to environmental destruction. And yes, it is really interesting! Then, I think I have this tendency to spend a lot of time behind the computer, researching. It is about the subject of my project, as well. But when I was listening to Soraya, I thought I should also be going out more, and be in contact with the nature (chuckles)!
How about you, Soraya? From an artist perspective, how is it working on an project focussed on environment?
Soraya: I think it goes hand in hand with the actual situation in the world. So, it is kind of a natural response. Currently, in the art scene, a lot of projects are related to environmental issues. I hope that this starts to raise awareness about the role of art in the society, as well. Because part of the society considers art either as a hobby or as a business, like art in art galleries. There is a whole business around it. But, art is actually for saying something, and wanting to make things change in the world, and in the way people see the world. So, it is important that artists touch this subject.
Coralie: It seems like the context is pressuring us, too. At present, it is important and relevant to speak about environmental issues. I have been thinking about this myself, too. I would say that I have interest in loads of other subjects for future projects, but it also feels like some questions are more critical to address than others. This does not mean that the others are no longer relevant. Just that it feels like it is important to have priorities.
Yes, I understand. And how is it collaborating with researchers on an art project? Is it different from your earlier experiences?
Soraya: I had never collaborated with researchers before. It is super nice, because I learned a lot of things. I do not come from an academic background at all, so it is very interesting. In our conversations with the research team at ICSJ, I learned a lot about the social and economical aspects of the relationships between humans and nature. In these conversations, we share different point of views. They are also interested in my philosophical or spiritual way of seeing things and how I apply these to my project. It is always a process of learning, about how we see things, as artists and academics. But, it is also kind of stressful for me as an artist, too. I put some pressure on myself to produce good work (chuckles). But it is nice!
In general, these collaborations are also important for art, to show that art is not about making some beautiful stuff -it calls attention to some issues and conveys ideas about topics that are important for us all.
How is it for you, Coralie, collaborating with researchers on an art project?
Coralie: I have found it really interesting, too. For instance, some designers use the process of interviewing for creating new objects. This is something I have not been trained to do, but I think it is important and relevant. So, in our informal discussions with the Mistra-EC associates at SLU, I have been mostly trying to learn about these. I have also met with people specialized in various interesting subjects: collaborative processes, mining, and so on. The work of Sofie, my academic host for the residency, is specifically related to art and environment. So, I have been part of some online sessions with curators, where we discussed how art can convey environmental issues differently. And it is very interesting, because academics go much deeper into these questions…
In general, I think interdisciplinary approaches are always fruitful. There is always something to learn from looking at how someone else, from a different area or discipline, is working on similar subjects. There are things to learn for both sides.
Could you tell us a bit about the plans for the rest of AiRs? Do you already have a plan for the showcasing of your works?
Coralie: Until now, I was too deep into the project that I have not really manage to share it visually (chuckles). Right now, I am planning to display some of my work outside the office. I will install something -nothing big- in the corridor at the Department of Environmental Communication here. To make my research more understandable, and also to generate some interaction, perhaps, by showing what I have been doing. At the moment, I am making some mock-ups of ways of presenting ideas, like paper objects.
There will be also be an event, a working lab with curators, about how art can convey environmental messages, and I will be running one session. It will be on October 25, during the Mistra-EC Programme Meeting organized here, at SLU. The idea is taking this opportunity to create a conversation around the topics that are the focus of my work, with an interactive presentation that also utilises the different perspectives and backgrounds of people joining.
How about you, Soraya? How are your plans for the rest of the residency?
Soraya: My residency comes to an end on October 25, and I would like to display my work ideally in the last week, and outside the gallery context -in the form of printed collages hung at different locations around the city. It is a project that aims to be more in contact with the general public, so it is important for me that they are displayed for anyone to see it. This week, I will make some contacts for these displays, to locate possible exhibit spots. I have already talked to some, and they responded really nicely!
My last question is related to the point Coralie just mentioned, about the role of art in conveying environmental messages. What do you think about the role of art in communicating environmental issues, and its limits, perhaps?
Coralie: Well, It is a very heavy topic... What Soraya said is interesting, though. Do you display in a gallery, or not? I think, in both environmental communication and art, there is the problem that you are often speaking to a specific crowd. And generally, you are speaking to a crowd that is already more or less aware about these issues. I think the struggle for everyone is to reach out to others. For instance, street artists are managing to reach a different and more diverse audience. Still, people would not have the same attention span to give to your work, if they are just passing through. So, it is a big topic...
Soraya: Yes, it is also tricky.
Coralie: I guess you can never reach everyone with one single type of work.
Soraya: Yes, and arts is a very general term. There are so many types and genres, like music, sound art, installation, visual art... I guess these different kinds of art also appeal to different crowds.
Thank you Soraya and Coralie, for accepting this double interview. It was very nice to talk to both of you! Wishing you the best with your work.
Coralie: Thank you.