Collectif Scale is a collective of 12 friends, who produce music and light installations together. One of their first and most sought-after installations is called Ammonite, and it’s this installation that’s coming to the Illuminate Adelaide festival next month as an Australian exclusive. We talk to Joachim Olaya, one of the founders of Collectif Scale. Read our interview with him below.
I read on your website that you’re a bunch of friends who are passionate about what you do, and wanted to get off the beaten track. Mixing know-how in their spare time. How did you meet and what did you do professionally during the day before founding the Collectif Scale?
When we say it’s a group of friends, that’s really what it is. In other words, the founding members of Scale, including myself, met at school when we were 18. We studied the same subjects. And after our studies, we went to work in different networks and fields. I went to work in music and live performance. My colleague, the other founding member of Scale, went to work moreso in the world of motion design, dubbing and video.
We remained close friends and a few years after our studies, we decided to found the Scale collective simply because our primary objective was to have fun working in the world of visuals and lighting for stage shows and music concerts in particular. To use all of the experience we’d learnt from working before, and during, the creation of the Scale collective, because there were quite a few of us working.
When you come from the world of audio-visual production, when you’re used to working on stage, and so on, all that has given us a lot of experience and a lot of know-how in several areas. And the idea was to pool all that experience and know-how. The idea of Scale was to use the know-how of several people in very different fields: motion design, engineering, mechanics – even dance, because I used to work a lot in the world of dance, live performance, and so on. And we used all these skills in the same place and under the same name, Scale.
13 years ago, it was quite a novel idea, because people who were working on visuals for the stage, concert halls or live performance venues didn’t all have that kind of experience. We were trying to do something a bit new. Then, the starting point was really to work on the world of visuals for the stage. And then we developed many more artistic projects, for stand-alone installations as well as for exhibitions with my own music, with more original designs and so on. In other words, after video, we really developed our skills in lighting, architecture, design and also robotics.
Collectif Scale has been together for 13 years now. Having gone to school together, I suppose you’re all the same age?
No, because there are now three generations working with Scale. The old-timers, of whom I’m one, are five of the same generation, i.e. around 40. And over the last few years, we’ve welcomed a much younger generation into Scale. So today our youngest is 20. The idea is to pass everything we’ve learnt over 13 years through our work on to a younger generation. So, there are several generations rubbing shoulders, but it’s still a very family atmosphere and operation.
Tell me a bit about the Ammonite project.
We use the word installation – not too much a work – we prefer the word installation, it’s more hybrid. Ammonite is really Scale’s most emblematic installation because it’s the oldest we can show at the moment. It was created in 2017 and it’s still being shown all over Europe and the world, so it’s the most emblematic because it’s the one that’s been seen the most, the one that’s been shown the most on stage and in exhibitions, and it’s the one that certainly defines us the best.
The set-up is relatively simple. It’s a light design that’s animated and written to music. So the technical set-up is very simple. But the relevance of Ammonite is that the design is very powerful and the writing of the light is extremely precise. We spend an enormous amount of time programming and writing the light, as if it were a living object.
In fact, when people look at Ammonite, they no longer see a luminous work, they see an object that tells a story. It’s really our aim to tell a story using just one medium: light. And the second medium, of course, is music. In almost all cases, our work is built around music. It’s even the music that generally controls the lighting. In other words, firstly, we work on the music and then we program the lighting around the music. One of the ideas is to really be able to tell a story with light alone.
If it tells a story, does Ammonite have a message?
No, we don’t like to convey too many messages because we’re not that kind of artist. There are a certain number of artists who have a message, who have a discourse, who have things they really want to convey to the public. We don’t think like that. Instead of playing with stories, we try to provide emotion and it’s the people who tell themselves their own stories.
There are a lot of artists who draw a lot of their inspiration from a theme, from something, over a period of years. That’s not our approach at all. Our approach is to produce something that will be sensitive enough to arouse great emotion in the audience; people are free to understand what they want to understand. The important thing is that when they’ve finished watching Ammonite they’ll know that it’s moved them.
Ammonite, which we’re presenting in Adelaide, has music that isn’t by Collectif Scale; we’re collaborating with other artists. There will be several pieces of music presented, several shows in fact. And it’s with two different composers: an electronic music composer called Chloé, who is French, and a piano composer and pianist called Rami Khalifé, who is Lebanese.
Does Ammonite always feature the same pianist playing with you?
No, Ammonite has been performed in many different versions, sometimes with music by Collectif Scale, sometimes with music by Rami, sometimes with music by Chloé, other times with music by other pianists. In any case, in Adelaide we’re presenting it with music by Chloé and Rami Khalifé.
The approach is not to convey any message, it’s to provide emotion. And the project we’re presenting in Adelaide, we’ve been presenting all winter in Europe because we did an exhibition in Europe and it’s the same project we’re presenting.
People are able to stay extremely attentive for 15 minutes, and some even watch the show twice in a row because they’re so interested. People watch Ammonite like they watch a film. Some people have even cried in front of it, for example. That’s our greatest success. So someone can cry in front of it or smile. And that’s our greatest success.
So it’s very emotional.
This version of Ammonite is a bit less so than our other installations. But yes, the music by Rami Khalifé on the piano, for example, we chose a piece of music that I produced with him, which is very melancholy. If the music is beautiful and well played, and if the lighting complements the music well, something will happen.
Will the music be played live or recorded?
No, it’s recorded, it’s like a soundtrack because we’re proposing the project in its exhibition format, a light exhibition installation. But obviously, we’ve already done some live concerts with them in other configurations.
And why the name Ammonite?
All the installations at Collectif Scale are often found in nature, even though we’re a collective that produces highly technological installations. In general, when we’re looking for new designs, we draw more inspiration from nature rather than from other artists or from things produced by man. We like to think that the source of inspiration comes from an extremely natural form.
And so Ammonite is simply this crustacean, this prehistoric shell that is one of the first living beings on the planet, with its highly mathematical shapes. With this shell, you’d almost think it was designed by an architect, but no, it’s nature itself that is capable of designing these kinds of shapes and objects in a purely natural state. And that’s what inspires us so much. So we were really inspired by the shape of this shell called Ammonite. That’s all there is to it.
I saw that you have another installation called Flux that looks a bit like Ammonite.
In fact, Flux is Ammonite‘s little sister in the sense that it’s the same concept, except that the LED bars are motorised. So we’ve introduced robotics – in other words, in addition to the movement of light, we’ve added real physical and kinetic movement. So in terms of the possibilities, the effects of writing and rendering – we can go much further than Ammonite because quite simply the object moves physically. In Ammonite, the object doesn’t physically move, only the light does.
And then there’s Nautilus. It’s a bit like Ammonite but larger?
Yes, exactly. That’s why it’s called Nautilus. It’s very easy to understand. Nautilus is the prehistoric seashell. Ammonite and Nautilus were made almost at the same time. Nautilus is really the large format of Ammonite.
But in the end, people prefer Ammonite. That’s what’s surprising. We made Ammonite and then, a year later, we created Nautilus, which is even bigger. And people prefer Ammonite. That’s why we stopped presenting Nautilus.
It was a fluke, really. But this Ammonite design is so precise and so effective to look at. It’s as if you’re no longer seeing the LED bars, you’re actually seeing an object. That’s certainly what makes the installation such a success. As for Nautilus, it’s perhaps the design that’s been a little less successful, so it’s all very nice and everything. It’s a bit like a stroke of luck in our business. It’s true that there are things that work well and things that don’t work so well.
How long does it take to create an installation like Ammonite?
An installation generally takes a year to create. It’s usually a year’s work because the idea takes the longest. Ammonite used LED light bars, that’s the technical part. It’s easy too. Let’s say it takes two months to build the installation. But in fact, for our designer, it’s the object that can sometimes take the longest to be really sure, et cetera, before building it.
Then there’s the programming. The first time we did Ammonite, it took a year of work. We have created a lot of installations – not all of which can be seen on our website. There are a lot of things we don’t show these days. After 13 years’ experience, we’re getting faster and faster because we know what we want to see, we know how to do it more quickly, we know what we don’t want to see, we know what we don’t want to do.
But in general, it’s not just the time it takes because you also have to finance it. We must never forget that, money. Our installations cost a lot of money – all this equipment is very expensive. Even more so when there are motors and robots. We have to be able to finance these projects, so it takes time to find the money and work out how much it’s going to cost. Can we finance this installation? Is it too expensive? Because there are so many parameters involved.
Some installations may take even longer, particularly the next one we want to do, which we’ve been working on for two years. It’s called Quercus, and it’s also a kinetic installation. We’ve already been working on it for two years because we’re having technical problems, we’re having trouble solving certain technical engineering problems. We can’t do engineering every day because we also have to come to Adelaide and there are other projects, et cetera. But to make a good installation, it takes at least a year.
Who is Ammonite for? For everyone, I think.
That’s an extremely important question, because we’re absolutely determined that all our installations should be open to the public. When I say all audiences, I mean from the age of four or five. That’s really important. We’ve always worked that way because most of us are family people. I have two children, and so on. We love working for children. I know what a great audience they are.
We always work on the principle that if a child has fun and experiences something with the installations, an adult will too. For our last exhibition, for example, our sole objective was to be able to welcome children from the age of five all the way up to their grandparents, and to appeal to everyone. So, whether we can reach a 5 year old or a 70 year old, it’s extremely important because we do everything we can to achieve it. In fact, all this is really one of our main areas of work.
You said that you look for inspiration for your installations in nature. Where do the ideas for your installations come from in the first place? Is it from dreams, is it from looking at things in nature?
It’s hard to say, because often we’re talking about a final image of the object we’d like to see. Often, when we make an installation, a new idea emerges at the end. Because you say “we’ve done that, that’s good. But if we did this now”. We try to never do the same thing again, obviously. There are two axes: there’s the artistic work, and there’s also the technical work. That’s Scale’s speciality.
That’s why we’re real artists and fake artists at the same time. In other words, what interests us just as much is the art, the work of art and the artistic rendition. But it’s also about the technology. We try to work with new technologies every time. So, there’s this idea of trying to imagine a beautiful final image, a beautiful design object that makes use of one or more new technologies that we make our own, that we are able to control in our own way and divert in our own way. That’s how we often build an installation.
There’s no philosophical or reflective approach, which is a form of self-criticism in a way. A lot of artists go to some lengths to reflect on their work, but this isn’t the case at all. And we’re completely aware of that, which means that the important thing is the result. We think first and foremost about the result, about the shape of the object and its effectiveness, and therefore about the emotion and the stories it can tell, rather than about the substance of the project. For us, form is much more important than substance. Whereas there are artists who think first and foremost about the substance of the message, of the proposal, and the result can be secondary.
So there you have it, I think there are two types of artist, two types of school, two types of families of artists. And we think first and foremost about the result, the effectiveness of the result. That’s why our projects and, above all, our poetry, are going to pay off.
When you started your studies at the age of 18 or so, did you know that you wanted to work with light? And what did you study?
Not at all. In fact, it’s like I was saying, at Scale, some of us did the same basic studies. But the 12 members of Scale today went to completely different schools and studied completely different subjects. That’s the whole point of Scale, because no one at Scale really has the same profile, because otherwise it’s all the same and we wouldn’t be able to produce the things that we do.
So for me, for example, I studied image, video, motion design and above all sound and music because I’m also a music producer. So, I have a strong link with music and music writing. I work a lot in the performing arts, in theatre, in dance and in all those areas. So knowing how to tell stories with music, with gestures, with words and images. Other colleagues of mine really come from computer coding, for example, or 100% software development.
So the idea is to make the most of everyone’s skills and specialities. We get around a table and then we’re able to produce projects, especially like Flux, which requires a huge amount of technical skills as well as artistic ones. Moving a bar of LEDs on a motor is easy, really. But making it move in an extremely poetic, elegant way, to give the impression that it’s a living, organic object that moves, also requires skills in the right place and certain languages linked to the writing of the show.
In the studies, no [I didn’t do any lighting], the lighting work came after Scale started, because we really started Scale with video and image. That’s because at Scale our primary skill is video, motion design and so on. That’s where the light comes in, and then the kinetics and the motorisation words and the robots came in even later.
Why should people come and see Ammonite at Illuminate Adelaide this July?
I’m sure that if people come and see it, they’ll experience something. We’ve shown it so many times that I’m sure of that. People shouldn’t come to see a video installation. People have to come to have an experience, like taking part in a little show. They shouldn’t come to see a bunch of LED bars and light displays.
We’re certain, because we’ve had so much feedback from the public, that by using the simple medium of LEDs and light, we have this idea of providing emotions and a story, which isn’t the case for everyone, and I think people should come to experience something a bit like a show. I’m sure that people will be convinced by that.
Thank you very much for the chat and I look forward to attending Ammonite next month!
We thank Joachim Olaya from Collectif Scale for this interview.
KEY INFO FOR AMMONITE BY COLLECTIF SCALE
WHAT: The Ammonite installation by Collectif Scale at Illuminate Adelaide
WHEN: from 6pm to 11pm from 7 to 23 July 2023
WHERE: Queens Theatre, Playhouse Ln & Gilles Arcade
HOW: Just turn up – it’s free and there are no bookings required
HOW MUCH: It’s free!
INFO: You can consult the Illuminate Adelaide program here
For more installations and artists from France and the French-speaking world who will be at the Illuminate Adelaide festival, click here.