La fabrication de forêts futures: a meditative journey into synthetic forests

March 21, 2024

Main text of post

Presented as part of the International Festival of Films on Art (The FIFA), the video projection La fabrication de forêts futures (“the manufacture of future forests”) by Montreal-based multidisciplinary artist Vincent Charlebois depicts AI-generated forest landscapes. In this work, the artist explores and inspires viewers to ponder disappearance and regeneration. Charlebois told us a bit more about his unique digital creation.

A text by Sara Fauteux

What is the genesis of this work and how does it fit with your artistic approach?

The starting point for this project is technology, but it actually arose from a very physical experience, which is fairly representative of my interdisciplinary practice, in which I take equal interest in digital technology and performance. La fabrication de forêts futures comes out of my experience as a tree planter. When I would go spend several months working in remote corners of British Columbia, my friends asked me to share images from my tree-planting life. There was a lot of curiosity about this relatively unusual job. So I started documenting the landscapes around me and posting the photos to social media. I got a lot of comments about the beauty of the images, which seemed strange to me because these were devastated landscapes – forests that had been clearcut! Year after year, I kept taking photos, and eventually I had a large body of photographic work documenting Canadian forest landscapes – or what remained of them.

A few years later, in 2016, I took an interest in artificial intelligence as a tool for my artistic work. I took a course to familiarize myself with the technology, and one of the things I learned is that to train an AI model you need a corpus of thousands of images, at minimum. These images “feed” the model so that it can create new images. And I realized that I already had just such a corpus!

The AI that you used is called a generative adversarial network (GAN). What’s unique about that kind of AI and why did you choose it for your project?

It’s a technology that was developed in Montreal about a decade ago. Of course, I’m not a software engineer, but to put it very simply, the generative adversarial network is one of the first AI models capable of generating synthetic images that look reasonably realistic. The system comprises two neural networks. The first is the “generator” and the second is the “discriminator.” The one generates images and the other determines whether, based on its knowledge of the corpus, the generated image is plausible. The interplay between these two networks is the “adversarial” element.

The GAN was interesting to me because, among other things, it’s now slightly outmoded. I like the idea of working with a system and an aesthetic that are on the way out! In addition, newer systems use much more power, and I can’t run them independently on my own computer. So the “old” system gave me a lot more control. I could feed it my own images to make it produce an infinite number of new ones, and I didn’t have to use a giant server that would have taken my images and added them to its own corpus.

So what does La fabrication des forêts futures look like?

It’s a video work that displays synthetic forest images, invented from real images of the forest. The resulting images are almost naturalistic, but they also have what I would call a psychedelic feel. We recognize nature, but at the same time we sense the artificiality of the generative process that created the images. It’s a meditative voyage into synthetic forests.

What is the message of your work?

Superficially, I’m using images of clearcut forests to highlight how human beings are destroying the planet. But I don’t think reality is quite that simple, and I want to push the thought process farther. At the start, there’s the forest, then the forest destroyed by machines, then the forest destroyed by machines as seen by machines… There is also the destroyed forest regenerated by tree planters. Of course, the forest that we plant is only a pale facsimile of the natural forest, because the forestry industry only plants profitable species. But there’s still a kind of reconstruction going on. With this work, I situate myself at the centre of the dance of the synthetic, the natural, the man-made, the man-destroyed, the mechanically recreated… I think that ultimately, I want to show that something new always emerges from loss. My work is also an invitation to contemplate and celebrate the ephemeral.

La fabrication de forêts futures by Vincent Charlebois
Part of the Festival international du film sur l’art (FIFA)

March 14 to April 14, 2024
Sunset to midnight
Façade outside Saint-Laurent metro station

A co-production of the International Festival of Films on Art (The FIFA) and the Quartier des Spectacles Partnership.