Soundscapes: International Garden Festival 2007

TEXTLola Sheppard

Quebec is quickly emerging as a test-bed of design in landscape architecture in Canada. The International Garden Festival, organized annually by the Reford Gardens in Grand-Mtis, Quebec, has played a crucial role in reinvigorating the discipline and has emerged as a critical launching pad for young offices, both nationally and internationally.

The historic Reford Gardens, located on the north shore of the Gasp peninsula, were originally created by Elsie Reford in the 1920s. Reford became an avid gardener and transformed the property’s 200 acres over a period of 30 years into a remarkable series of gardens. The International Garden Festival was started in 2000 by Reford’s great-grandson, Alexander, with the aims of expanding the discourse on contemporary garden design and landscape architecture. Each year, the Festival commissions five to six gardens to be mounted over the summer months, and carries forward an equal number from the preceding year. Historically, the call for proposals has been by open competition, but this year Artistic Director Lesley Johnstone has invited a number of architects, landscape architects and artists to develop gardens which incorporated the idea of sound, encouraging them to work with sound artists.

While sound is the underlying thread of all the projects, the gardens evince a diversity of other concerns. Several gardens explore the idea of the interactive garden, in which users must physically engage with the environment. Cat’s Cradle by Catalyse Urbaine with Gerard Leckey proposes a garden-size aeolian harp to be played by visitors, and Traverse by Emmanuel Madan and Thomas McIntosh of the firm [The User] involves an interactive water garden in which the act of walking on floating “rafts” or steps generates music. A bridge of sorts within a pond, the very act of walking creates an extended acoustic and experiential threshold. Sous-terrain de jeu, by Cdule 40, evokes vernacular rural and agricultural environments with an interactive garden in which visitors participate in planting the garden but find resistance in the earth.

Other gardens propose ambient environments and recall the work of sound artists such as Murray Schafer and Janet Cardiff. Soundfield by Doug Moffat and Steve Bates creates an aural experience in which electronically treated sounds of poplar trees are transmitted within a garden of these same trees. Jasmin Corbeil and Stphane Bertrand and Jean-Maxine Dufresne have designed an enigmatic bote noire from which children’s voices emanate. Given the associations of outdoor play and gardens, one imagines the aural memories that such an installation will evoke.

In the last few years, several of the Festival gardens have dealt with the idea of revealing the seemingly banal or overlooked aspects of gardens. Pomme de Parterre by Angela Iarocci, Claire Ironside and David Ross continues in this vein, proposing a garden in which the generic potato becomes a generator of light and sound, creating a visual and aural environment within the potato patch.

By their very nature, landscapes and gardens are perpetually in flux and hence call into question the notion of a fixed visual experience of the environment. The gardens of the 2007 International Garden Festival further subvert our dependence on the visual, asking the visitor to engage sound as a tool for remembering, experiencing and participating in the landscape.