Linked by its status to a fine arts school, a residence and a media library, the Villa Arson highlights relationships between artistic creation, teaching, research and experimentation. Exhibitions are the result of either internal projects or collaborations with external organisations and rely on the presence of artists in residence. Invitations are also extended to researchers wishing to conduct original experiments on site, as was the case in 2010 with Jean-Pierre Cometti’s seminar and exhibition "Double Bind / Arrêtez d'essayer me comprendre!"read
Jean-Pierre Cometti interviewed by Eric Mangion
Eric Mangion: In recent years there’s been a lot of talk about research in art. Not so long ago we were still using the terms experimenting or experimental art to say the same thing. What are your thoughts about these three “companion” expressions, which in fact may not be as companionable as all that?
Jean-Pierre Cometti: It seems to me that the word “research” started being used when it was decided that art schools would become part of the LMD system (the Licence-Master-Doctorat organization). “Experimenting” dates further back and refers more to the circumstances in which artists turned towards new approaches, or having the reputation of being new, and whose signification was related to the issues they were raising in various and hypothetical ways, without necessarily culminating in an object capable of containing and exhausting its meaning.
Nonetheless these expressions are “companions”, as you say, since experimenting in general, and “experimental art” in particular, are also a type of research, which could be defined as practices striving to answer a specific problem opening onto various possibilities, whether concerning fields of knowledge or practical – even formal – inventions. However, even though these words are “companions”, I’m not sure that the ways in which they are used always are. Research today, in science or industry, has to fulfill goals that, as we know, rarely correspond to what scientists call “fundamental” research, which should be free from any predetermined, constraining goal, catering to limited interests. This results in an exaggerated concern for performance and in selection, in the name of a profoundly instrumental logic of excellence. This aspect is certainly the one which artists should be the most wary of. But the main problem lies elsewhere. My biggest concern is with our habit of blindly opposing, in various situations, intelligence or understanding on one hand, and sensitivity on the other. So that what we fear in the notion of “research” would be a kind of obligation that one considers as being contrary to the artistic process and to what one sees as the “sensitive”. One will never have done stressing the damage brought about by this word and the dichotomies that have sprung from it, and firstly the opposition between art and knowledge, or even thought, as two distinct and antagonistic extremes. But we don’t have intellect on one side and sensitivity on the other. Art is no more a stranger to knowledge than science is a stranger to invention and imagination. One must eradicate these false oppositions.
The proposal to do research, once the risks incurred at the hands of leading authorities and dominant interests have been clearly understood, can also be a great opportunity, a challenge. In 1910 a perplexed Robert Musil observed the negative reactions of most writers regarding the image of scientific thought, for reasons that were more or less the same. “We holler in favor of feeling against the intellect, he wrote, and forget that without the intellect, and with very few exceptions, feeling is nothing but air.” It would be a shame if such an invocation to do research were to lock us up in a similar dead-end. At any rate it would be better to meet the challenge than to shrivel up into an attitude of defiance and withdrawal perpetuating oppositions that art has in fact long considered of no consequence. But I fully realize that this doesn’t answer the question of defining research or experimentation in art.
EM: “Neither revelation, nor religious ecstasy, nor surpassing of thought or language, nor sensitive side of the concept, nor allegorical experience or utopian pre-figuration of a world rid of every instrumental form of rationality”, you claim that art happens through “experiences”. On a concrete level, what are these experiences? And in what way do they contribute to what we know as experimentation?
JPC: Indeed I would say that art happens through “experiences”, but in the sense that it is nothing more than that. But I’m already going too far, because it seems to me that one should exclude any essence and any essentialism. There will always be people surrendering to all sorts of vaticinations. Even though they did not always refrain from this, the avant-gardes have at least enabled us to understand two things. Firstly the vanity of what we project onto art, I mean the contingency of what we put in it, without it even occurring to us that things might be different; secondly, the fact that what we call art is a series of non-exclusive practices and approaches, which are not exhausted by producing an object through which they could accomplish themselves and establish their sublimity and their status. These practices are experimental, the approach is that of experimentation, in the sense that they open up and test possibilities that do not answer a pre-existing model, nor do they answer norms predetermining a system of means and ends. The difference with what we usually call “experimentation”, for example in science, is that this kind of approach is not directly geared towards producing knowledge; but this does not in any way signify that they don’t pertain to knowledge. One can easily be convinced of this. In science and in philosophy, we have what are called “thought experiments”. A thought experiment means introducing an unrealized (counterfactual) possibility in the reasoning process, and estimating its consequences were it to be realized. This type of approach makes it possible to open up the concept of knowledge and to enrich it by allowing for wider and more inclusive forms of understanding. This is the privilege of fiction, and also of art. An interesting approach or work (obviously they are all interesting to some degree) resembles a thought experiment, including when it isn’t dealing only with thought. It introduces and experiments possibilities allowing for a re-constellation of beliefs, habits, and experience in general. Knowledge does not reside only in the well delineated field of facts and concepts backed by reasoning and science. However I would like to say one more thing about what I’ve called “experience”, concerning another aspect of the problem. An “experience” is a specific configuration of feelings, perceptions and thoughts which come together in a given “situation”, at a given time, and in a specific context. Art, no matter how you look at it, can only be understood and appreciated in a context, through the “experience” that it provides to a given audience, at a given time and in a given context. Should this “experience” be considered to be of a one and only kind ? I shall leave this question aside for now. In any case it seems to me that an art center provides or should provide (I don’t know) the following two possibilities: a possibility for experimentation, including through any kind of research that can be implemented (historical, documental, interpretative or theoretical), and the possibility for visitors to have “experiences”, in an open and active way, as an answer to its own experimental programs.
EM: Do you agree with Nelson Goodman’s famous theory in favor of “when is art?” rather than “what is art?”? Does this mean that art can only be read through its surrounding parameters: its critical analysis, its exhibition context, its relation to a market or to its modes of production? And if this is the case, wouldn’t such a reflection pertain more to anthropology than to aesthetics?
JPC: I do agree with Goodman’s preference for the question “when”. The question “what?” has only led to dead ends or misunderstandings. Beyond this preference, however, lies the question of what is the best way to understand a work of art — but this question deals with judgments and evaluations concerning it, in other words essentially with art criticism — and the question of clarifying in a more general way the kinds of conditions that are implicated when we grant artistic signification to an object or action; the modes of acknowledgment that are at work, the interests and values invested in this acknowledgment, as well as the behaviors, the beliefs and desires related to it. These are questions that we may consider as philosophical, but as you suggest they do require a sociological and anthropological viewpoint. Perhaps art criticism can do without such a requirement, although that would be exposing itself to a certain blindness concerning the conditions implicated in its own approach. “Aesthetics” – if this word refers to the fact of reflecting upon art and upon the practice of art — cannot, for that would be giving in to outmoded theories that are unfortunately still weighing down the philosophy of art. If we believe in the possibility of reflecting in such a manner as to lead the way to a higher consciousness — or even better knowledge — of its approaches and what is at stake, I think this is unavoidable. But here I am only skimming over a few aspects of a field of reflection and research which includes many others, and firstly the study of the process in itself and the way in which it becomes inscribed in the wider context of other practices and other interests to which they might be linked, as is often the case. It seems to me that art centers must open up to these issues, at least if we believe that knowledge and the enrichment of knowledge is also a part of it, on top of the missions of experimentation and research that we discussed previously. How can this be done? This is obviously another question. To conclude on Nelson Goodman’s suggestions, perhaps one should specify that Goodman’s philosophy does not go that far, not because of some sort of incapacity, but because Goodman’s reflection concentrated on the logic behind the workings of a work of art. The kinds of questions that I have stressed are a complement to his reflection: an anthropological complement, in fact.
Jean-Pierre Cometti, philosopher and translator, is the author of several studies on art and the current state of art.
Eric Mangion is currently Director of Villa Arson art centre. He’s also art critics and curator. He has curated several exhibitions held in France or abroad. Since 2009 He has been leading research into disappearance as an artistic gesture (erasure, destruction, theft, covering, vandalism, loss…)
The invitation to rearrange the contents of this web-based collection, reminds me of the passing down of a great Naga necklace. As if each slideshow, web-performance, video, text, or audio work, were loosened from a cotton thread, and laid out on a taut cloth, like carved white conch shells, brass bells, red carnelian, bone, and blue-green glass beads, waiting to be newly strung. As I read and listened through the contents, I began to dream of jewelry setters. And so here I tell, if you wish, a decentralizing story; not decentralized, but one whose claim has the capacity to make the centre, come to seem estranged.
After crossing an arc, at the eastern edge of India, is a hill region bordering Bangladesh, China, Southern Tibet, and Myanmar. Among the states of this area, is exquisite and troubled Nagaland, with its innumerable cultures, united under the word ‘Naga’ and yet with communities, each with differing and exceedingly democratic models of government, and different material culture. Its worldviews that have the potential to open new ways of thinking about art are preserved in fragments of remaining material culture after the onslaught of proselytism and modernization. Among them is the philosophical linking of ornament with society and individual ethics. In ancient times, and still practiced by the conceptual works of the artist Veswuzo Phesao, is the right to decorate one’s bodies, clothing, or one’s home, based on a system of being able to calibrate individual merit as value: which was always somehow, value earned within a community, through codified rituals of generosity. Status came from having always individually earned it. A warrior, or one who fed his surplus crops to the village, these were the terms under which one was given permission to decorate one’s home. After passing on, one’s children could not inherit the ornamentation; they again would have to individually earn the right from society.
Over 2007 and 2008, I spent time in this region, writing about its contemporary art, and have been going back ever since. Hekali Zhimomi, the then director of a government-run art centre, the North East Zone Cultural Centre, told me of her own research into jewelry and value. In Ao Naga culture, she explained that when a work of jewelry is passed down, or purchased, before buying it, the new wearer must hear all the stories and merits of its first maker and past owners. It is through their personality and deeds that the work of jewelry could accumulate value. The work of jewelry has ethical provenance. And the character of its past wearers, is a strong determiner of its value, translatable into a shop price, but in reality a contemporary oral tradition of storytelling in continuance – where a graduate degree may be a new determiner of social achievement. For the Naga communities, jewelry – like all aesthetic and ritual – has been over time coded, eroded and re-coded.
It is a lens and a trope through which to perhaps read the particular form of value, in the efforts of such a website – to hold together the fifty centres d’art contemporain across France in one light website: whose entries are arranged by center, by author, or by the materiality of response. The series, and resetting of the series, gives the impression that there are also infinite subjective arrangements possible. The invitation to four editors from far-flung parts of the world, to restructure the contents of the website, with a new editorial over the course of four seasons, implies a seriality ricocheting within the content, like a musician within the set notes of a raag.
But our carnelians and glass beads here, as the first stringers would tell us, are the many turns of the die, an encounter with an idea and its potential. In this sense, what has accrued, are the ideas. The rituals of handing down jewelry, something always a little intimate and formal together – have the weight of history; at least of those small histories of people in the air. As if all those souls were summoned to the jewelry box. Conch shells, carnelian and glass beads remind me of ways of approaching biography and the lives of artists, of pedagogy and the ways we have of passing through and accruing knowledge, and the many ways of approaching value. But in focusing on biography, there is a ringing sense of missing colours and beads. I cannot speak out here for all that is absent, yet perhaps we could leave space in the necklace for all those ideas that come from biographies of differance, still to be strung in the centres d’art. With this thought, I pass this necklace on to my colleague, and friend, across the Nagaland border…
* * *
1. Inheriting ideas
Presented by the Centre d’art contemporain de Brétigny, Matthieu Saladin writes a text to accompany an exceptional sound score made in 1968, ‘LIKE A CLOUD HANGING IN THE SKY?’ by the group AMM. The group in turn had made this work in response to a prose work, ‘Sextet: The Tiger’s Mind’, by one of its members, Cornelius Cardew. What is key to my own arrangement, is the way Saladin’s text approaches artistic inheritance. In Saladin’s own writerly and artistic engagement with a double inheritance of the two works, he emphasises how ‘Like a Cloud’ was not a performance of ‘The Tiger’s Mind’, but an engagement with it, through new experimentation.
Emmanuelle Pagano’s ‘NIGHT-LIGHT’, at Espace de l’art concret is a writing experiment. It is a novelist’s selection of works from the Albers-Honegger Collection that performs a similar function in re-stringing works, by new criteria. These objects handed down to us – works of glass, a globe of light – are given emotional life, through the biographic form of storytelling, by which he links the defiance of gravity by an astronaut, with that of the glass blower.
“I am a glass blower, like my father, like my grandfather, my great grandfather. I love working with glass, it becomes full of life under heat. From this magic material it’s possible to make so many things, endlessly fashion it, give it any shape. One only has to stop it from yielding to gravity, Earth’s crushing call. In our family we have been defying gravity for several generations…When younger I wanted to be completely free from it, from gravity, I wanted to become an astronaut.”
2. Glass beads and the oral tradition
‘Glass does not forget anything.’
It is Thomas Golsenne who writes in his text about the relationship between the artist and the technician, called ‘THE HEART AND SOUL OF GLASSWORKING’ written for CIRVA – Centre international de recherche sur le verre et les arts plastiques:
“However, in music, the difference is that, if the musician plays a wrong note, he can always make up for it with the following note, whereas, in glass-blowing, it is impossible to make up for mistakes: everything has to be perfect from the moment when the glass is gathered in a furnace to the time when it is placed in another, less hot furnace, to allow it to cool. Glass does not forget anything.”
Nicolas Floc’h writes with beauty in ‘DEEP IN THE HEART OF THE SUBJECT’ for Centre d’art Le Pavé dans la Mare. In his writing, the glass becomes the material of philosophy. In a passage he compares glass with wine-making, referring to the passing down of technique, of knowledge, and ideas. “The secret of the process probably owes… also to a human chain of know-how and knowledge involved from grape-harvesting to the wine-making process.”
The oral tradition is in continuance, within contemporary art. In this case he also talks about the technicians being the ones to carry down the knowledge they have of glass, to the next artist entering the studio. To the triangles made between artist, audience and curator or institution, is the welcome addition by Golsenne of the role of the technician:
The artist “discovers the enormous furnaces, which give off air so hot that it makes the lamps swing, hanging from the ceiling several metres above. He discovers the material and its different states: small white beads (pellets) at the beginning, then a soft red-hot mass when it is gathered in the furnace and handled with the blow tube, and finally a solid, transparent volume when it has cooled down. He especially discovers these characters, these masters of the art of glassmaking, who have given everything for their passion, who hold all the secrets of the technique, and who are nevertheless there, simple and modest, listening to his words, wishing to please him, ready to go with him on a journey to the unknown in this future project.”
3. Questioning the biographic voice
Aymeric Ebrard, uses an alacrity of visual and aural description, in an autobiographical narrative, to capture being split: in this case, between two different residencies, in Lithuania and Morocco, intercut with each other in close succession. The text is a double view, titled with the cinematic ‘The Kuletchov effect’, suggesting something else arises from the combined meaning of two vivid and dissimilar images. What it captures, is for me, a form of writing in whose own poetry is wrapped a deeply clear, political voice. Take this sentence on Saïdia, at the Moroccan-Algerian border: “On either side, the run-down buildings would prance their social housing pealing volumes next to the camp pavilions owned by the Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports.” Ebrard writes within ‘MODELS OF PRODUCTION’, at Centre d’art bastille. I am reminded, in my own insistence in listening for the first person, poetic voices, of Helene Cixous’ writing, and many others – that taut, crystal, political gleaning that accompanies each double-entendre.
‘I AM ALL WORDS’ is an extraordinary work by Adva Zakai, using the medium of a website, to convey her own métier, choreography. The curator of Le Quartier, Centre d’art contemporain de Quimper has written, “I’m now inviting you to pursue the project of ‘becoming an art centre’, but within the virtual space of Internet.” In an imaginatively intimate form of address, Zakai uses the first person, or the biographic approach, to tell the audience, the immediate precedents of where they are and what they are viewing, “opening is a solo where you stand on a table in a corner of the exhibition space. Your hands touch the walls, and very slowly you raise one leg. While you’re trying to keep a balance, you tell a story which could be your biography, the history of the space or the story of the director.”
In a series of letters, Guillaume Pinard and David Evrard discuss themselves, their own personalities, in ‘NOBODY CAN ESCAPE ART’ for Maison des Arts Georges Pompidou. From their lively writing, we hear a self-reflexive discussion of value and consumerism, gift-exchange, and collecting.
The director of La Galerie – Centre d’art contemporain de Noisy-le-Sec, Emilie Renard, corresponds with the art critic Sinziana Ravini in ‘DEAR SINZIANA V. DEAR EMILIE’.
These exchanges, seem to speak directly to the problematics posed by the necklace. Their exchanges question the biographic approach, the biography of the artist as a value within the reading of the work, and on gift-giving exchanges and translations between value systems. In candid writing, they analyse and reflect on the use of the first person as a fictional device, or as an autobiographical style, which they comment on as different to the “theoreticians from October”; a style that runs at odds perhaps with a scientific analysis of artworks. “Now I think the big issue of our time is the complete opposite of all that, the need to reclaim art discourse for the emotional domain, that mysterious theatre of the unconscious that’s there whether we like it or not. But to do that you have to be ready to expose yourself, lose your way, make mistakes and most of all, exaggerate.”
From this perspective, is also Aurélien Mole’s use of a futuristic, exaggerated, biographical voice in ‘HIATUS’ written for Parc Saint Léger.
“Based on the documents and oral sources that I collect from the area surrounding the Parc Saint Léger, I am virtually able to reconstitute what the art centre’s whole programme had been, both inside and outside of its walls. Other historians will use this information to extrapolate a sense of what cultural life was like in Europe between 2000 and 2075, and thus attempt to rewrite history from its margins.”
Jean-Pierre Cometti’s ‘BUT THE MAIN PROBLEM LIES ELSEWHERE…’ is a beautifully written work for Centre national d’art contemporain de la Villa Arson. Cometti writes revealingly, of how art needs to be located within context – what he sums up productively as “when is art?”
“The difference with what we usually call “experimentation”, for example in science, is that this kind of approach is not directly geared towards producing knowledge; but this does not in any way signify that they don’t pertain to knowledge. One can easily be convinced of this. In science and in philosophy, we have what are called “thought experiments”. A thought experiment means introducing an unrealized (counterfactual) possibility in the reasoning process, and estimating its consequences were it to be realized. This type of approach makes it possible to open up the concept of knowledge and to enrich it by allowing for wider and more inclusive forms of understanding. This is the privilege of fiction, and also of art.”
4. Valuing the political voice
“Even if I think that art is all about context (does not exist outside a certain place, a certain time, a certain onlooker) and all about audience (it is in relation to the audience the artist determines what has to be done), I think art is also all about the intention of an individual, the artist” writes Dora Garcia in “I UNDERSTAND MY ACTIVITY AS A RESEARCH” for 3 bis F – centre d’art contemporain. She gives the example of “The Beggars Opera” 2007, which she defined as “theater play in real time and public space”- for Münster Sculpture Projects.
“In this work, I created a tool to dismantle the conventions of art in public space…The work consisted of a character, Charles Filch, a secondary character from the Bertolt Brecht play and novel The Three Penny Opera, which “came alive” in Münster and became a citizen of the streets of Münster during the three months of the exhibition. It had all the qualities one should ask of an artwork in public space (existed in public space, changed the perception of it), and at the same time it was obviously a person- personnage and to reduce it to the condition of a number on an outdoor sculpture map was absurd.”
The most art historical of all the texts, is possibly, that of Gilles Drouault, who recalls brilliantly in the video, ‘THE WITNESSES’ at Centre d’art contemporain d’Ivry – le Crédac, an exhibition of particular value to him, and he explains generously why. To him, this exhibition on industrialisation in the last century; was pertinent to its location in an once billowing industrial town of Ivry. Intrigued at how film and industry developed at the same time; he conjectures, that what has been most compelling about the 20th century, has been the development of the industrial world and the worker; premising that what was siginificant to the 20th century in particular was the worker as an individual with rights, worker’s strikes, as capable of forming trade unions. One of the achievements of the Western European system has indeed been the welfare of workers.
5. Necklace of strategies
The political subject matter in Alexandre and Florentine Lamarche-Ovize in ‘LAMARCHE-OVIZE, A COLLABORATION PROJECT’ for Micro-Onde, centre d’art de l’Onde, show a work dealing with women’s prisons. Antoine Marchand in ‘LET’S MEET IN TROYES, AUBE’ at Centre d’art contemporain / Passages, discusses being invited to devise ways to dispose of nuclear waste, and the ability of an artist to respond, or give value, to such a residency. Fabien Faure in ‘THE TIME OF SITE’ at CAIRN, centre d’art, writes of mining and its relationship to land art. Yet, there is also political strategy latent in the writings, for example, of Olivier BossCentre rhénan d’art contemporain, has a moment, where so as not to be surveilled, by the number of webcameras one takes in the subway, is suddenly a face, painted like the dazzle-pattern used in submarines during the First World War. It gives a moment to delve underwater and dip into art history, as something actively working as strategies in a politicized world – if one thinks of cinema, then terrifyingly and increasingly used today. In another discussion of cinematic effect, ‘EMPOWERMENT’, at Jeu de Paume, Antoine Thirion a critic, responds to an artist Claudio Zulian, who has been using cinema as a political tool, using historical re-enactments, and repetition as a strategy. I end this arrangement, with a performance: Emma Dusong makes the web-performnace ‘DOOR’ for Centre régional d’art contemporain Languedoc-Roussillon.
Bolstered by its success and visibility, uncoupdedés.net is restarting and subjecting existing content to new voices. In 2014 and 2015, several personalities from outside France will be asked to become our editorial writers for one season. Their task will be to place the contents of the whole magazine in perspective, presenting them differently through the prism of their subjectivity and their own work contexts. Catalina Lozano (Colombia), Zasha Colah (India), Moe Satt (Myanmar) and Manuela Moscoso (Brazil): each guest editor will reformulate the actions of the centres d’art, various aspects of which they will have been able to perceive through the magazine. Each editor-in-chief will “roll off” a cross-cutting text, presenting an original re-examination of the resolutely fluid geography of the centres d’art. uncoupdedés.net repeats the challenge from the poet Mallarmé, resurrected in the cinematographic art of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet (Every Revolution is a Roll of the Dice, 1977). The guest editors, coming from a variety of disciplines, will widen the circle of expression even more. Choral and fragmentary, uncoupdedés.net takes just as much after puzzles as it does after memories, and naturally calls for cut-outs of every kind…
Zasha Colah co-founded ‘blackrice’ in 2008 in Nagaland, and the Clark House Initiative in Bombay in 2010, after studying art history at Oxford University and curatorial studies at the RCA, London. She was the curator of modern Indian art at the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation at the CSMVS museum (2008- 2011), and was head of Public Programs at the National Gallery of Modern Art (2004-2005) in Mumbai. In 2012 she co-edited ‘In Search of Vanished Blood’ a monograph on artist Nalini Malani for documenta 13, and she curated two exhibitions of Burmese art, ‘Yay-Zeq: Two Burmese Artists Meet Again’ at ISCP New York and ‘I C U JEST’ in Kochi.