WELCOME / FUCK OFF ! A DISCUSSION WITH FRANÇOIS PIRON — 2005
Published in the monographic catalogue Unité, 2005.
FP: So that we can pinpoint the kind of links existing between some of your pieces, we could start in a genealogical way. The obvious thing for anyone seeing your work as a whole for the first time – in this catalogue, for example – is that it has never had any stylistic unity. Each one of the pieces has its very own identity, and this fact it seems to me, reveals a desire for appropriateness or inappropriateness in relation to a certain “topicality” of art. I get the feeling that the diversity of your pieces is also connected with the plurality of the artist figures you are keen to get across.
BA: This absence of any stylistic, formal unity is so self-evident that every time I show my work to people who aren’t acquainted with it, this is the first thing I tell them, as if to get things the right way round from the word go – both as a given fact, or a definite assertion, and also almost by way of an apology on my part.
FP: This is an inevitable problem set. From a pragmatic viewpoint, we might say that it’s a weak point because there’s lack of identification, and because it’s hard to understand and gain access to the work. But with regard to so many serial, mass-produced models in art, leaving branches and fakes and forgeries on one side, it’s a strong point, underpinning this basic heterogeneity.
BA: In any event, it’s a pivotal feature of my work, and one that convinced me to choose this title of “Unity” for the catalogue. It’s a title which is incidentally also the title of a series of recent pieces. As far as the idea of reactivity between pieces is concerned, this was essentially how it was between the Actions-peu – produced over a lengthy period between 1993 and 1997, during which that was virtually all I did – and my first show at the Chez Valentin Gallery. At that particular time I was keen to react to the image that I was already starting to get stuck with as a result of Actions-peu, the image of someone doing things in public places and creating things that were ephemeral, poor, and discreet. From the outset I wanted to shatter all that, for example by producing Contrôle, which consists of sculptures and precious objects, cold, beautiful, polished, shiny, and clean, which make direct reference to a minimal aesthetic, and which clearly asserted their commodity status. In this instance, actually, there was evidently a direct and obvious determination to make a break. But in my subsequent work, I don’t think there has been this determination to make my pieces reactive in relation to each other.
FP: So as of now, how do you think this works between two consecutive projects?
BA: Even if, with time, a set of pieces has been formed, and even if lines of thought have been worked out and various things brought together, I still don’t reckon on anything being established or fixed. The things are there, I made them, I’m familiar with them, they’re part and parcel of my praxis and my history, but each new piece is almost like a new departure. The absence of style is part of a set of on-going shifts and displacements.
FP: I’m tempted to repeat my question, but your answer has to do with the autonomous identity of each piece, much more flagrant than with a lot of other artists.
BA: Yes, it’s at once something totally assumed and asserted, as well as something that in part eludes me.
FP: When and in what context did you decide to regard your work as the beginning of an oeuvre – a body of work?
BA: Two things, as powerful as they are naïve, lie at the root of the fact that I’m an artist. One has to do with refusal and rejection, the other with attraction. At a very early stage I viscerally rejected a certain type of studies, along with certain professions and lifestyles, because there was something very glaringly standard about them. In a way that was symmetrical with this refusal and rejection, I was interested in comic strips and drawing, essentially, as well as volumetric constructions, maquettes, and so on. All this quite simply prompted me to go to an art school, attracted by something, though I wasn’t too sure what it was, because I could only imagine it in a very vague way. At that time, I felt that art was essentially a place offering a tremendous amount of freedom, and I felt that this couldn’t exist anywhere else. That was what attracted me, that possibility of creating tremendous freedom.
FP: So when you were done with art school, you were quite sure that was how you’d carry on?
BA: Yes, it happened without any help from me, like something incredibly obvious. I was just quite sure that I wanted to do something which I didn’t really have any idea about, as yet. I knew there were certain forms which attracted me and certain artists who attracted me, and I simply wanted to do what they were doing. Like a teenager who’s a fan of rock music, but instead of just listening to it, he actually starts making music.
FP: The first work you decided to keep, the Actions-peu, is actually a reaction to a situation, as well as to a certain way of thinking about art?
BA: The reaction factor in the Actions-peu is pretty important, and it functions at several levels. First and foremost, it’s a reaction to actual studio activity, and at that time the studio didn’t suit me, either as such, or, and above all, with regard to what I was producing. I spent two years in my studio, going round in circles, making things that I found really awful. And hardly anybody ever came by the studio, so nobody saw what I was up to. And because things you don’t see don’t exist, the Actions-peu were primarily a reaction to the fact that my work wasn’t being looked at, and then a reaction to a sensation of total confinement. What was crucial at that particular moment was quite simply that my work did actually exist because people were seeing it, even if they didn’t know it was art. What mattered to me was that something existed, that it released energy and produced an effect. So I left the studio and went out into the street, and, in an extremely simple and intuitive way, I started to organize and disorganize things in space. And it was as a result of that work, and as a result of looking at it – still all on my own – that I became aware, after a while, of the sculptural aspects present in the work, whereas at the outset I certainly didn’t look at it from that angle. And later on this would lead me to other works like Contrôle and Abri.
FP: You decided to do something in the street, that fiercest of places in terms of indifference…
BA: Because I didn’t have access to places where people put art on view, I went where there were people, it was as simple as that. I was saying that the Actions-peu were a reaction to my studio activity, but they were also a reaction to a line of thinking to do with what public places and public sculpture are – who organizes them, who arranges them, who’s responsible for them, who’s entitled to do things to them, or not, and how they do them. Nobody asked anything of me, and I commissioned my own public sculpture, which I made with my own means, and at that time I didn’t have two pennies to rub together.
FP: The Actions-peu have had a certain amount of critical success and in France they’ve become an emblematic work of the early 1990s, that post-utopian period when people were interested in the “interstices” of politics, in a modest and somewhat “disillusioned” way. After the fact, though, we can see that this is a simplistic view of your intentions. But perhaps you also had scores to settle with the political attitudes often contained in the idea of doing things in public places, most of them hailing from a reading of Situationism.
BA: I discovered art under the twofold influence of avant-garde radicalness and modernist messianism. As a teenager and student, I was rather classically attracted by those movements which wanted to turn the world into something that was freer, more beautiful, and more poetic. But their diehard factor and their nihilism, essentially in the writings of Debord, incidentally, where art can only exist in its own excess, by exceeding or going beyond itself – that is, in its abolition as commodity, all those extremist and dogmatic aspects really didn’t suit me in the end of the day. And after a few years, mourning for an art which would revolutionize the world, plus my refusal and rejection of nostalgia, cynicism and formalism became simultaneously formalized in my work. Even if this was relatively unworked-out at the time, it’s something that lay at the heart of the Actions-peu, something which nowadays seems to me to be much more important than any relationship to public places. At that time I used to talk about that work as if it were some kind of “Soft guerilla warfare”.
FP: How do you define formalism?
BA: First and foremost, let’s be quite clear about one particular point: above all else, I create forms and I want them to be beautiful and powerful. What I feel to be formalist is forms which only refer to themselves, or alternatively only to other art forms. These are forms which have no necessity, and are completely dead, merely juggling with signs and re-combining them. Formalist artists are those who create forms whose sole aim is to look like contemporary art, or resemble the idea of contemporary art that artists create for themselves.
FP: You talk about mourning for avant-garde attitudes, but at the same time, as far as we can see, you aren’t completely turning your back on them.
BA: What I think I’m essentially keeping, in terms of avant-garde attitudes, is a certain vehemence in my assertions. If we regard Modernism as a long-drawn-out movement of conquest, aimed at freeing forms, and making them autonomous, with a belief in progress, we can contrast it with the avant-gardes of the early 20th century, like some anarchic guerilla campaign that’s non-linear and devoid of history. On the one hand there’s a belief, in Art and in Progress, and on the other these notions are prey to crisis and doubt. Otherwise put, we might say that the avant-gardes tend to be aligned with desire, while modernism tends to be aligned with will. What matters to me, today, is the act of creating which encompasses these attempts, while remaining aware of their theoretical and political dead-ends, and doing something about it. Always with a desire for an art which will nevertheless change the world, but which will also, and nevertheless, be sold in galleries, and end up in museums, and the like. These are inner contradictions, still complicated to deal with.
FP: These contradictions reveal a desire not to prompt any belief in radical, ideological grand designs – and a desire not to let yourself nurture any such belief. This also involves drawing conclusions from what has always been going on in history. With Conceptual Art, for example. I think that from the late 1980s on, for example, people started to have a clearer vision of what happened to Conceptual Art, by separating the reality from the argument of the artists actually involved in Conceptual Art: institutional criticism, dematerialization, and so on. People started to be able to see a fetishistic, museumized it, included within the market system, and, for all that, this in no way detracted from the poetic and offensive dimensions of the works produced by these artists. One term that still seems to me to be valid when it comes to describing your attitude is mistrust – mistrust of any kind of absolute belief in a given system, or ideological creed. The sole risk inherent in this attitude is possibly withdrawal…
BA: Withdrawal isn’t necessarily something negative. In any event, the term “mistrust” seems to me to be especially apt for one particular period of my work, around the time of the exhibition Oui, in 1997. At the same time, I produced that little leaflet which borrowed the form and style of those witchdoctors’ leaflets that are handed out at Metro exits, in which I introduce myself as an “artist unknown the world over” who “can’t do anything”. Once again, I think inner contradictions crop up at a very early stage. On the one hand I called my first show Oui – yes to what?… we might perhaps talk about this – and at the same time I introduce myself as someone who’s powerless.
FP: Even if Oui is a doubting yes, it’s still an affirmation. Does this type of title have a connection with the idea of going beyond the critical stage, beyond the artist who says no?
BA: That “yes” was a reaction to lots of “nos” that I was seeing in art at that particular time. Those positions of refusal, rejection and withdrawal still hold true today, and not only in art, incidentally. That yes was also an affirmation per se, a general guideline. And needless to say, that yes included the yes to doubts, the yes to contradictions, and the yes to a desire to work in public places, as well as the yes to selling works in galleries, the yes to making beautiful polished porcelain sculptures, and the yes to taping plastic bags on an air vent. It was a yes to mixtures and to heterogeneity.
FP: Let’s come back to the fact that the Actions-peu swiftly became archetypal of a certain politics of weakness.
BA: It’s true that the Actions-peu have been much interpreted and commented upon from this angle and I think I’ve also played on that a bit. There’s no doubt that at the time I was aware of those notions of interstice and disappearance, and I was aware that a certain desire for erasure existed in me, that occurs for example in Artiste BORIS ACHOUR and Une Sculpture. And at the same time in Actions-peu, there is “little” and “few”, but there is also “action”, and as Guillaume Désanges has observed, it is above all the word “peu/little” or “peu-few” that has been retained, and rarely the word “action”. Whereas for me it’s always been 50/50, both at once. Action does indeed mean that a subject acts, even if the Actions-peu are presented as anonymous and ephemeral.
FP: The Actions-peu aren’t a disappearance, they’re an appearance: they don’t head towards nothing, they start from nothing, which is quite different. The same ambivalence applies to the Artiste BORIS ACHOUR: it’s the disposable, throwaway object if ever there was, and at the same time it’s a CV. It’s the affirmation of an identity…
BA: And then introducing myself as “unknown the world over” is already a claim and an example of false modesty. It’s obviously saying that I really want to be known the world over.
FP: That leaflet included a quote from Bruce Nauman, which, for me, is significant, because Nauman is the artist who has never really been involved in any movement or group, and who has always reacted to his artistic surroundings. Just when everybody was leaving their studios and producing happenings and Land Art, he, for his part, went for the “studio artist” option, at the risk of being accused of being a reactionary. He’s also the artist who adopts the authority of the auteur’s word, saying: “Pay Attention Motherfuckers”, “it’s me talking now”.
BA: At the time of the Actions-peu, I was actually being strongly influenced by Bruce Nauman, whom I discovered immediately after I left art school. He is quoted in this leaflet, and even more directly in a piece I made for the exhibition Oui. This piece is a reversal of his Self-Portrait as a Fountain, where I’ve got my head under the water, and I’m blowing air. I think this was a rather obvious and brutal way of pointing to a connection and its switch. But we can also talk of non-influences as much as reactions. Around the period when I was at art school, between 1986 and 1991, the prevailing phenomena were free figuration (figuration libre), Anselm Kiefer, the transavanguardia, and neo-geo. I felt totally removed from all that and had no interest in it whatsoever. It was not until a while later that I managed to find affinities with people who were geographically and generationally closer, like Philippe Parreno and Thomas Hirschhorn.
FP: I think that some of the influences you lay claim to, like Nauman and Robert Filliou, don’t have to do so much with affinities of forms as with artist figures.
BA: They’re impressive guardian-like figures, with all that that implies in terms of elation and, at times, weightiness. But actually the influences are not very formal at all. With Bruce Nauman I see above all singularity and solitude. Above all, it’s their ideas about art that interest me, their way of thinking and their way of living their artistic praxis.
FP: You’ve often emphasized two literary references, Robert Musil and Witold Gombrowicz. I find this quite illuminating because the common denominator shared by these two authors is the fact that they are “begetters of worlds”, and their ambition is to create an overall cosmogony in their writing. With a completely contrasting position, nonetheless. On the one hand, Musil creates a world in the accepted sense of a plurality of voices, a polyphony which, according to him, can’t be turned into something abstract; Musil says that you can’t find an absolutely singular voice, and that people talk through the words of others. And on the other hand, Gombrowicz experiences this same situation in a much more conflictual way, and puts up with this polyphony like something polluting his subjectivity. Gombrowicz asserts that it is important to fight against the words of others, and reinterpret the world in a singular, almost paranoid way – in the solitary sense of the thing. I get the impression that you’ve borrowed from both writers, at once aware of the acceptance and having a desire for refusal.
BA: When I decided to get out of my studio and make the Actions-peu, the question was instantly raised about recording that work, and my initial reaction was not to record it. I wanted that work to be a kind of free act, beyond history, apart from the market. A pure gesture. But that only lasted a few moments, for the simple reason that I was an artist, and I had to keep some trace of it. Otherwise it was the act of a madman, not an artist. An artistic act is the idea of a possible transmission of something to other people, the idea of a communication, and possibly an exchange. Whatever else, it’s the desire and attempt not to be totally solitary. To answer your question more directly, I’d say that I’m in a midway position in relation to Musil’s and Gombrowicz’s conception of the subject. And by midway I mean something like a boiling-point of contradictions, definitely not something calm, restful and stockstill, I mean it like a place of tension into which I put what I believe in and what I’m heading towards, as well as what I don’t like, however, things I don’t agree with and things I disapprove of. For me, all this has to be part of the work. Générique is a fine example where this point is concerned, both in the overtly manipulatory filming device and in the spoken text itself. This text permanently wavers between the statement of a subjective voice and media-related and cultural jamming. In this work what is clearly involved is the function of art as a tool used to construct a subject, just as much as the transformation of this notion of self-construction into a cultural dictate. The indecisiveness of Générique seems to me to be much more interesting than any acceptance or any refusal.
FP: Your work also contains a commentary on the position of art in culture. You’re quite lucid about the fact that art is totally incorporated in culture, and that there’s no way out of this situation. What’s more, it’s not desirable, barring being blinded by nostalgia. As a result of this I sense in your work an aggressiveness towards the position of an art that comes across as critical of culture.
BA: This incorporation of art within culture is actually undeniable, and produces problematic and interesting effects. It seems to me that apart from a rather rare reaction, involving a total rejection of culture and market alike – in a nutshell, a denial of reality – and entailing an almost nil visibility and the impossibility of making a financial livelihood from your art, artists are left with just two options. Either they play the integration game all the way to the hilt, and become mere producers of cultural objects designed to fill museums, fairs, magazines and biennials; or they only partly accept all this, and here things seem to me to become interesting, because a tension has perforce to be created. The conflict between the artist’s desire for freedom and singularity and his institutionalization, by both culture and market, can turn out to be extremely rich and productive, artistically speaking, if it is embraced and used as a driving force behind the work, rather than as an element of resistance. This is what Warhol managed to implement in such an exemplary way. Otherwise, I’m not interested in art which has its sights trained directly on criticism and politics. In addition to its frequent formal and conceptual poverty, this art seems to me above all to be thoroughly ineffectual as far as the anticipated goals are concerned.
FP: Quite a few forms of contemporary praxis, which we might call post-Pop, rely on the appropriation of mass-cultural signs, and are aimed at effects of recognition and connivance, which, to my way of thinking, tend to artificially soothe conflictual relations between art and culture. And I think your work is never seeking a mode of connivance with the onlooker. The signs that you import and use are invariably problematic.
BA: The things I use are problematic both as signs and for their own particular qualities, their forms and their histories. If they – by which I mean them or the use made of them – do seem problematic, this is because they are by nature complex, or alternatively because the manipulations they are subject to, and their association with other elements, lead to their decontextualization and the exacerbation of qualities that are an intrinsic part of these objects. The flowers made of wire and tights in Jouer avec des choses mortes are acknowledged as the product of creative craftsmanship, mother’s day presents, or bakery window decorations – so already culturally devalued forms – and what is more, their slight oversizedness and their brownish colour range tug them towards something lewd and obscene that is not naturally associated with childhood or creative leisure activities. The Lambada tune hummed by a large pink shape in Cosmos is used because it’s at once a worldwide hit, a digest of adulterated exoticism and eroticism, the music for a fizzy drink advertisement, and an acoustic object which, has spread to dime store spinning tops and dolls, but also quite simply because the fact of humming it turns it into a rather quiet and tender nursery rhyme.
FP: Back in the early days, each piece you came up with was very individualized, addressed directly at the onlooker, with whom you made a date which was met in quite a classic way in a relationship to the work, in the present. And I think that this has recently become more complicated…
BA: Actually, I started off making autonomous pieces, even if I attached a great deal of importance, in my first solo shows, to the relations which can exist not only inside one and the same piece, but also between the different pieces. This importance that I attach to the exhibition also stems from the attention I pay both to the objects I use, and to this determined desire never to regard them as neutral. The form of the exhibition is itself one of the non-neutral ingredients of present-day art. In my recent shows, the onlooker is not longer confronted by one or more objects, but immersed in a space and a time where many stimuli exist side by side – these stimuli may involve sound, light, and/or visuals, and diverse effects of materials, colours, scales, type-sets and so on may be at work in them… This is why I regard my latest exhibitions like landscapes, a term which refers both to an extremely classical and codified notion of art history, but is above all, for me, something within which you move about. I don’t regard the landscape as something you place yourself opposite to, and observe, but rather as a space in which you happen to be and inside which you move about. And this movement entails a time-frame. The fact of making what I call landscapes means that the features they are made up of form an ensemble while at the same time retaining an autonomy. This also makes it possible to juggle with things near and far, and with scales.
FP: The time-frames have also become more complex now that your relationship to the work has shifted towards a relationship to the exhibition. In this latter, the objects which make up the exhibition lose their autonomy and turn into transitive markers that the viewer will have to put together. The meaning and the affects tend to be situated more in the relationships and the co-existence of the elements. In this sense, I won’t describe your recent exhibitions as environments or installations. What’s involved is more a way of thinking about the exhibition, where you put the onlooker in a space-time context that has many different dimensions. It’s no longer the here and now of the work; it plays with waiting and expectation, time limits, and effects of echoes and reverberations.
BA: I think questions about time have been present in my work for a long time, be it in all those looped videos like Démeurs, Zooming and Passage, or, in a different way, in pieces like Rempli, Stoppeur and Sommes, which were frozen time-frames. But as you observe, these problem sets are actually becoming more and more complex, and this process is happening at the same time as a shift is going on from the relationship to the work to a relationship with the exhibition. When you talk about this reduced autonomy of the elements which go to make it, and this need to put them all together to have access to meaning and affects, I get the impression that I’m hearing you describe Gombrowicz’s Cosmos. In the novel, the various elements and clues are only meant to assume their meaning in the way they are inter-related. Obviously enough, the line is being constantly broken, there are leaks everywhere, and the resolution is being forever pushed aside, so that in the end it never comes to anything. This description could just as well apply to the exhibition Non-stop paysage, which combined pieces of a certain age and others created for the occasion, all with very different textures. It was a transposition of the video-clip format to the format of an exhibition: every quarter of an hour, for four minutes – the average length of a song – the exhibition came to life, light sculptures flashed, an automatic door opened and closed at random, and everything was driven by a huge, organ-less head hanging upside down and spinning on its own axis while humming the Lambada. The walls were painted all over in the colours of those Japanese shops that are open around the clock. There was another time-frame, more steeped in metaphor, that linked up with the first. And depending precisely when the onlooker arrived, he or she would find themselves in front of inert sculptures, or else in the thick of an improbable son-et-lumière show. In Jouer avec des choses mortes, in addition to the sculptures the exhibition included a one-hour film, projected on to one of the sculptures, which showed people handling them in the actual exhibition space. By way of the film, the nature of the sculptures became blurred, and they turned into kinds of props with many different functions. And viewers ended up in a somewhat ill-defined space-time where the images seemed to stem from an event that was more forthcoming that past. Several time-frames existed side by side: the time-frame of the stroll through the exhibition venue, the time-frame that each viewer allotted to the screening of the film, and, last of all, the time-frame of the film itself. In a general way, the time limits, twists and turns, and time-related echoes of these exhibitions create effects of floating and indecision for the spectator, and these effects complement the one that I want to produce through the heterogeneity of the materials, the differences in scale, and the saturation of signs.
FP: They require the onlooker to undertake a reconstruction with regard to a whole set of things which come across as being intentionally eclectic.
BA: The idea of deconstruction has been very present in my latest works, and it was the obvious and pivotal subject of the exhibition titled Flash forward. For a long time I refused to admit to the reactive part of my work, but that was because I saw it solely as something negative. But reactivity also means constructing on deconstruction. What you were saying about my work being a reaction to a given context – more or less immediate, more or less broad, more or less artistic, more or less political – is simply an attempt to understand the conditions of a position within a period. For me, this involves proposing actually within a piece or exhibition something that has to do with deconstruction, and at the same time involves simultaneous reconstruction. For me, the one cannot do without the other. Flash forward was split into two rooms: in the first, all you could see was pictures, and you weren’t to know that this was a deconstruction, until you’d seen the same things, in the second room, being put together and overlaid in an animated film, in a kind of combinatorial chaos, with neither beginning nor end. If I conceive of a show like a landscape, this also has a great deal to do with the décor, and with the idea of confronting onlookers with the work’s production process. This process is deconstructed, laid out, and reconstructed at the same time.
FP: Conceiving of the exhibition in these terms also helps to see it in the form of a spectacle, or show. Non-stop paysage and Jouer avec des choses mortes both summon such referents as the theme park, the end-of-term school show, the shopping mall, the television set, and so on. Over and above their formatting, and the impoverishment of their imagination, which, whatever anyone might say, everyone is thoroughly aware of, these spaces do, in spite of everything, convey an idea of festiveness and togetherness. And so they are also places of happiness. Incorporating these references in your work also means emphasizing a share of supposed entertainment…
BA: Precisely. Even if Operation Restore Poetry tended to empty the room of viewers rather fast, because of the volume of the sound, this is no longer the same type of rejection at all as the full hand of Rempli or the sofa which you can’t sit down in. I actually think that for some time my work has been developing an aspect bound up with entertainment, and that a playful aspect has appeared which didn’t exist at the outset. I’m very fond of the idea that minority art works with culturally majority forms, not to criticize them but to crystallize their strangest aspects and come up with alternative extensions, kinds of parallel worlds, a bit like what David Lynch did with Twin Peaks. The notion of entertainment, in art, like the notion of decoration, incidentally, is sullied by suspicions of impurity, and just as it is nowadays admitted that art may quote culturally devalued forms, so it seems to me that a truly entertaining art is invariably received in a problematic way.
FP: Let’s talk about your work method. You produced Jouer avec des choses mortes at the Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, and I remember how you changed the project as you went along – the film with the sculptures being handled by people wasn’t part of the initial project.
BA: My way of working isn’t a result of studio activities, or, at best, has very little to do with that. Things are constructed almost in real time at the moment of the exhibition. And this way of working perforce entails a form of reactivity, because, in practice, I only work on the basis of contexts which are exhibition proposals. And between the original idea and its execution and realization there can be quite a long time lapse. As a rule, the longer the time lapse, the more the project evolves and changes. Material restrictions are added to the whole thing, so you have to juggle with all that. It’s a way of operating that I like a lot, even if it’s sometimes quite stressful.
FP: At the same time, it’s hard to say that you’re really reacting to exhibition proposals, because you don’t provide any answer to a context, and you’re not in the logic of the project, either…
BA: This is quite simply because an invitation to an exhibition is a kind of trigger, or tripping device. And because what I’ve been doing for a while now calls for a certain demonstration, or unfurling, in space, it’s only when there’s an exhibition that the things I want to try out can become visible. In Non-stop paysage there was a whole set of modules which were laid out. Some already existed, and were of a certain age, and others had been made for the exhibition. In Jouer avec des choses mortes there were modules, too, but they had all been made for the occasion. In the end of the day, however, it all comes to the same thing, in so much as it’s a matter of putting things together. This relation can only exist in a space of a certain size. And often, in fact, the pieces and exhibitions introduce new desires, new questions, and now ideas which will be developed at a later stage. And if the gestation period is quite long, they will even be developed actually within a project, as was the case with Jouer avec des choses mortes.
FP: This issue of connections and relations and associative functioning crops up again and again in your work: a kind of “horizontal”, non-hierarchic deployment of disparate things. The archetypal piece of this method of conglomeration is the Cosmos video club.
BA: At the very beginning it was a question of editing and montage. There are always at least two things that are associated: a column of plastic bags on an air vent, and aluminium foil on a post in the Actions-peu. In Contrôle, I put a form and a material together; in Abri, a form and a material from the public place end up together… in the early works, this montage was synthesized in one piece. It was subsequently spread out, and unfolded. Today it is still being synthesized in pieces, but it also exists in the relationship between pieces, so it’s become fractalized.
FP: Montage is the symbolic form of the avant-gardes! In your early pieces like Contrôle, the montage played a more discursive part than it does today. There was something explicit in the assembly of a form and a material. Today, the fractalization and expansion of forms means that you can completely explode the idea of a message.
BA: I really hope that there’s never been any message…
FP: It was possible to read pieces like Contrôle and Abri using the yardstick of a relationship to social conditioning, to the alienation of the normative order… All the same, this wasn’t a far-fetched interpretation. If only by virtue of their title, these pieces clearly prompt this kind of reading.
BA: Maybe, but nevertheless it was a matter of colours, forms and materials, and connections between these elements. This said, I think that at that particular time I agreed less readily to talk in these terms about the formal aspect of my work, and I think I had a tendency to favour those political aspects. Since then, the work has evolved, and I feel freer…
FP: I think you’ve gradually accepted the idea of personal imagination. If we talk of collage and montage, with all that these words presuppose by way of heterogeneity and non-hierarchization, we are nevertheless prompted to raise the question of the iconographic choices you make, for example for Flash forward: how does this work, qualitatively and quantitatively?
BA: Quantitatively, I often try to introduce systems involving overload, excess and saturation. It’s a fairly simple but invariably effective method of going beyond the authority of the Work, of the Piece, but it’s also the assertion of a determined desire not to fight against the superabundance of signs and images, but rather to play with it. In Cosmos, for example, this gives 200 video cassette boxes placed side by side on a shelf 40 metres/130 feet long. Or the 100 extracts of dance music, lasting a few seconds each, assembled one after the other in Totalmaxigold
machinemegadancehit2000. There’s also another way of dealing with the quantitative aspect, the way I did in Zooming, and in all my loop-based videos. These videos give rise to a suspended time, there is no progress in time. It’s another way of increasing the number of elements and putting them all on one and the same level. Now, from a qualitative viewpoint, I think that what’s involved above all, and once again, is common elements, even if they come from different arenas. To take one or two examples from Flash forward, who could forget the live image of that little Colombian girl who lay dying for several days in front of all the world’s cameras, and what art-lover isn’t familiar with Bruce Nauman’s Self-Portrait as a Fountain, and who would miss the association between yellow-coloured faces and the Simpson family? In a general way, the images that I use waver between general and particular. They hold good for themselves, but they have also become cultural signs, and icons.
FP: I regard the smooth, polished texture of the images in Flash forward exactly as I do the perpetual zoom forward of Zooming, which never moves through any window that would permit a narrative to begin, as relations to the surface of things. Which is to say that each eventually interchangeable image merely re-states the same surface as the previous one. This never goes any deeper.
BA: There’s even more obvious going on with Ici et autrefois et ailleurs et maintenant. This piece is made up of a very large number of teenage bedroom posters, on which negative hand prints are drawn, with a marker pen. There is at once a covering up of the image, a negative appearance of the hand, and a caress of this image. This is something that’s extremely naïve, a possibility of belief in the image. As if by touching the image you could touch what it represents, all those objects of desire: motorbike, coke bottle, pin-up, Michael Jackson, Che Guevara, and kitten…
FP: This is an extremely fetishist piece, because the hand refers to rock painting as the origin of art, like a very first trace of human gesture. A fetish is a dead object that is loaded with a power, to make it alive, and this belief is enacted in this piece. Regarding the image, I’d like to bring in Remix de la performance Jaizu de Chris Burden, that performance you put on, whose intentions are explicit in the title. Jaizu is described by Chris Burden as follows: “Dressed in white and wearing sun-glasses, I was sitting opposite the entrance door. Visitors were admitted one by one. They had a feeling that I was looking at them, but in fact the sun-glasses had been painted black on the inner surfaces, and I was more or less blind. I sat there motionless, not saying a word, throughout the whole performance. A lot of people tried to engage me in conversation: one person behaved aggressively towards me, and another started sobbing hysterically.” The documents about this performance consist of this factual description and a photograph. Here I’m interested less in the question of the remix than in the fact that it’s not a matter of repeating the experiment set up by Burden, but simply of working with the image we have of things. It would probably have been ridiculous to try and recreate the performance, so you just reproduced the picture and performed with the same sun-glasses with the painted lenses, sitting on a chair but in front of an audience, like a deceptive spectacle.
BA: I had a desire to test this experiment with passiveness in front of an audience, and feel the absence of communication, not to say aggressiveness that could come across. It also interested me to play with the radical nature of that performance art of the 1970s, but to play with it through the image as go-between. I was referring the onlooker more to a déjà vu than to the actual here-and-now-ness of a situation. The experience we have of 99% of art comes about by way of reproductions, catalogues, the Internet… There are thousands of works that I’ve never seen, and which I’m nevertheless acquainted with through their reproduction. They’ve given me the reality of their image. So when I say that I make reference to works, I’m often referring to images of those works rather than to the works themselves.
FP: This is something that you’ve assimilated, including in the way you produce forms and objects, which are conceived like images.
BA: This is because I essentially use things which are already known and familiar to us. From this point of view, whether they have volume or not is actually of little importance. This is why I don’t like using the term “popular culture” to talk about my work; I prefer the term “common culture”. What I use is common, both in the sense of banal or common-or-garden, and in the sense of something commonly shared or belonging. When something is an image, or has become an image, it’s lost its vital substance, and this is actually one of the issues that interested me in Jouer avec des choses mortes. The dead aspect of these objects resulted in part from their overall look, already there, and it was reinforced by their image status.
FP: I’ve got several other topics to talk about, but we can deal with them all by talking about just one piece. Let’s take the Stoppeur, which encompasses several factors of interest to me. To begin with, I’d like us to discuss its title, and the relationship it develops with language. In the way you title your works and, in a more general way, use language in your work, you make use of what I’d call an intransitivity. What’s more, you often use direct, deictic terms (Oui and Ici et autrefois et ailleurs et maintenant…), which, when decontextualized, involve this same intransitive relationship to language by preferring the performative statement over a language of communication. This relationship to language also prefers an imperative of action over its possible objective: this would be desire, rather than the object of desire.
BA: Like my pieces, my titles often summon up several sources, and several worlds. For Stoppeur, it’s very straightforward: it’s one half of a hitch-hiker (French auto-stoppeur), so a hitch-hiker without a car) But this title also has to do with Duchamp’s Stoppages-étalon, the Standard Stoppages. Un monde qui s’accorde à nos désirs is also half a quotation. The first half of Bazin’s sentence is missing, so it would otherwise read: “Le cinéma substitue à notre regard… un monde…”, “The cinema replaces our gaze with a world that matches our desires”. I think this intransitivity that you describe tallies with what I used to call an attempt “to go towards” and push away at one and the same time, which occurs in pieces like Stoppeur, Scrupule, Rempli and even Les Femmes riches sont belles. I didn’t put it at the level of language, but directly at the level of the meaning of the pieces themselves.
FP: The figure of the Stoppeur is ambiguous: we don’t know who is being “stopped”. We can also understand auto-stoppeur as a reflexive term: the “stopper” who is “stopping” himself, or the hitch-hiker hitching a ride from himself. The figure of the auto-stoppeur/ hitch-hiker is an unstable one, but it is at the same time motionless. Is he someone who can “stop” something else, or someone who “stops” himself? It’s a very strong figure: the auto-stoppeur/ hitch-hiker is someone who asks for something but has no change; he demands absolute trust, with no guarantee.
BA: This is all that art asks for. Not only a belief, but a total commitment, on the part of artist and viewer alike. Everything you say is an interpretation of this work which I agree with, but I don’t feel like stating a preference for one meaning in particular. It’s me “stopping” – i.e. hitching a ride from – myself, me “stopping” the gaze, me who’s “stopped” because I’ve turned into a poster, an image with a connotation vaguely to do with advertising. And this picture contains what we were talking about just now: the flatness of the image, its surface, its link with desire and death.
FP: For me, the Stoppeur is a piece which works like an enigmatic, stylistic, rhetorical figure. It is neither an allegory, nor a metaphor. You summon the onlooker to look at the image as such, and he can recognize the figure, he knows what it is, but at the same time, what is he being summoned to by looking at it?
BA: The only “good” onlooker or viewer is the one who lets him/herself be invaded by the image and by what it contains in terms of trouble and disorder, and strangeness. It’s a bit the same question that applies for the Actions-peu. What value do these works have when someone passing in the street sees them? When someone who doesn’t receive them as art comes across them? In this case, in addition to the imaginary share they give rise to, what matters most to me is the way they upset the apple cart, as it were – disturbing the order of things.
There’s a constant factor in everything I’ve done in public places: be it with the Actions-peu, Les Femmes riches sont belles, Stoppeur, or Ghosty, there’s nothing to say that art is involved when such works are seen by passers-by. It’s just a question of something that’s not quite right, a disorder. the fact that these works are not received as being art allows a possibly more neutral and essential way of looking at them, freed from the questions usually associated with art in public places, as well as its social role, its relation to politics, and the way it is incorporated in a site… When passers-by come upon Ghosty, a guy wearing a mask who says nothing, I don’t know what they feel, but I really don’t think that they’re imagining that art is involved.
FP: Especially the people who phoned the police station!
BA: And the people who wanted to smash his face in! Some guy got out of his car and wanted to hit him. I think Ghosty came about as a result of a comeback of aggressiveness.
FP: Several pieces like Ghosty, Jaizu and the Sommes develop a figure of passiveness. I’m also thinking of the head of Cosmos, autistic and humming, and what Robert Filliou said, which you quoted in the first issue of Trouble [Paris-based art magazine first published in 2002]: “Sit quietly doing nothing” [“Rester tranquillement assis sans rien faire”]. Michael Fried talked about Tony Smith’s sculptures in terms of human presences. For you, what’s involved is a reversal of this statement, where you regarded the human presences like minimal sculpture. Something passive, indifferent, polished and reflecting. This could almost be a definition of sculpture according to Donald Judd.
BA: Once more, there’s a degree of reactivity. For Ghosty, Jaizu and Hypnos, it’s partly a matter of thwarting a request in a slightly silly way. I was invited to a performance festival. Everyone had a quarter of an hour, and took their turn, with people waving their arms here, there and everywhere… I, personally, came up with the idea of hypnotizing everybody, with me in charge of everything for a quarter of an hour. When the moment arrived, needless to say, nothing happened, and the evening carried on without further ado. Ghosty was created in response to an invitation to a sculpture biennial in the public place, where each artist would place his work in a corner – with the work shown on a plan so as to create a route in the city. On the one hand, therefore, there’s a naughty boy reaction – where the boy decides to stay stockstill when it’s suggested he puts on a performance, and also prefers to create a character and have him walking round the city for three months, when it’s suggested he make a public sculpture.
FP: Disappointment is also a stimulus.
BA: A slightly immature desire not to want to play the game. A punk the wrong way round: instead of making a fuss and breaking everything, I don’t move. This could possibly be expressed in another way: these pieces are pauses. Sommes is also a moment of calm, a quiet sculpture. Even if I regard these photos as being extremely violent. Violent in the way they agree to espouse the form. The violence of Ghosty lies in his silence, and his expressionless face, the fact that he doesn’t respond to things being asked of him, and that he’s beyond sociability. When I redo Burden’s Jaïzu performance, there’s a respectful silence to begin with, but after a few minutes, you start to hear the noises of chairs, throats being cleared, and then people start to laugh in an awkward way, until such time as they’re really fed up because it’s boring looking at someone who’s not moving. It creates a situation of violence, especially when there’s just one person facing a group. What you call a passiveness, and what I’d tend to call a withdrawal, is a way of giving rise to situations of tension.
FP: This asocial situation is as well a viewpoint on the auteur’s position. It’s a kind of amorality.
BA: It’s above all an attempt to be in a permanent to-and-fro between norm and subversion. In art, as elsewhere, subversion is always quite swiftly assimilated, and at times the passiveness is considerably more pronounced and effective than action and provocation. And this figure of passiveness and withdrawal seems to me to be quite effective in the deceptive subversion that it gives rise to. Here we’re touching on a point that is, in my view, essential, and it has to do with present-day relations between the artist and society. There’s a huge fantastic projection of society onto the artist, by way of an effect of proxy and catharsis: society invariably transfers its inhibitions and its forms of repression onto the artist, urging him to be free, unusual, critical, rebellious, different, and someone who produces something new, so stopping it from becoming as much itself. And even if these exhortations are today no longer earmarked solely for artists, because everyone is now being called upon “to be themselves”, to “realize” themselves, and be “unusual”, I think that the figure of the artist concentrates them and crystallizes them to a very considerable degree. The artist is a proletarian person whose powerful unusualness and singularity are extolled by society. And because it seems to me to be impossible to deny and refuse this state of things, the sole solution seems to me to be to play and juggle with it. And here we come back to the motionlessness, inertia and passiveness of Ghosty, the Stoppeur, and the Autoportrait en Coyote…
FP: These are catalyst figures: they give off virtually nothing, but they condense things, like black holes.
BA: Yes, they are almost neutral elements which permit a reaction to take place. My most recent works, like, for example, Jouer avec des choses mortes put the onlooker in a position that is quite close to such notions. It is no longer me or the work stemming from this nature, but the onlooker who finds himself withdrawing, into a somewhat passive position, not to say one of exclusion. This also goes for the automatic door in Cosmos: it is autonomous, it opens and closes, whether an onlooker is there or not. This notion has perhaps been slightly altered: at one moment, it was directly incorporated within the work, but now it has shifted to being an address to viewers.
FP: The automatic door also in the end of the day contains a violent element: in a way it is saying: “Welcome, fuck off”.
BA: That might be a good title for this interview, mightn’t it? Welcome-Fuck off!
(translated from french by Simon Pleasance)