Beauty found in unexpected places 

By Barbara Black

David Johnston with the new screen in Etudes françaises. Magnifying glass

David Johnston with the new screen in Etudes françaises.

David Jhave Johnston makes art in his bathroom. He uses a pocket-sized camera to shoot detritus and humble objects. Then he manipulates the images to create mysterious videos accompanied by processed sound that he recorded while he was shooting. He superimposes enigmatic bits of text over it to make digital poetry and distributes it on the web. His goal is to find beauty where we least expect it.

His work is free, downloadable under a creative commons license.

“I believe strongly that digital art that is capable of being distributed and copied freely should be given away,” Johnston said. “Art is service. Many video artists try to navigate the difficulty of making a living with media that is so easily copyable by making so-called ‘limited editions,’ but I feel there are alternative economies that emerge.”

Johnston is doing a PhD in the humanities, and was asked by his supervisor, Ollivier Dyens, who is chair of the Departement d’Études françaises, to be the first artist featured on a screen installed on the sixth floor of the McConnell Building to show off the multimedia work of students.

He uses a pocket-sized Pentax Optio WP 30 and “heavy-duty” photo lights. “The subjects are mostly to be found in my bathroom: I film in the toilet, bathtub, sink. Crumbs, hair, dust, bubbles, bruises, ink, shampoos, creams . . . whatever is available.

“The sound is asynchronous. The video works are constructed from clusters of clips that feed dynamically into a browser. So the movies are recombined as they load, and the rhythm changes according to network latency.”

Johnston came to Montreal from Ontario. He took a computer science degree with a minor in what was then the Digital Image and Sound program (now CART and IMCA).

Dyens contacted him in 2000 after seeing his work online. He began inviting him to conferences and to help as programmer-artist on a couple projects. It was the beginning of what was, and continues to be, a mutually rewarding relationship. He finished his Master's degree in Vancouver, but returned to Montreal.

“Concordia has a wealth of people working on interesting digital art and media theory,” Johnston said. “[Professors] Chris Salter, Sha Xin Wei and Jason Lewis, who is one of the pioneers of digital poetry, really offer a depth of knowledge and experience and sensibility.”

Johnston added that the interdisciplinary humanities program is rare in its capacity to accept art, at least to some degree, as research at the doctoral level. He has FQRSC doctoral funding for three years.

In an effort to put a theory around what he is doing instinctively, he is looking at the way digital phrases and words can be combined and recombined. “It makes a computational language collage. The verse explodes into fragments that are in orbit around a display, and an algorithm can decide which set or sequence get displayed together.”

Although he’s an agnostic, he says, “I feel the spiritual impulse is as fundamental as sexuality. God, for me, occurs in those moments when humans open to the opportunity to see beauty and experience love and unity in anything. I consider myself an experiential conduit, offering aesthetic experiences that include words.”

The idea of establishing a multimedia vitrine for students in the LB sixth floor came from professor and award-winning poet Marc-André Brouillette, who wanted to make the department’s adventurous spirit more visible. You can view Johnston’s work there or at


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