At the invitation of the Museum of Art and History in Saint-Denis, as part of the Chapelle Vidéo programme, Guillaume Désanges has come up with a two-part exhibition titled “Ma’aminim”, whose second part, “Or il fut un temps passé où le futur était present” [There was a past time where the future was present], has just been completed. Rather than confine himself to highlighting the rich collections of the departmental art fund, the curator has preferred to delve into the vast trove of works of all sorts contained in the oh-so-“red” territory of the suburbs adjacent to and ringing Paris, greatly marked by the social movements which have marked their history. The result is a proposal which gives pride of place to documents and films, while at the same time making plenty of room for new forms of commitment and their artistic counterparts. The exhibition, offering visitors a chance to walk at their leisure inside a diverse range of forms and formats, questions the persistence and development of the aesthetics of the struggle, together with their relative decline and their capacity for re-invention. There follows an interview with a curator who is wary of any inclination to nostalgia, and who, on the contrary, prefers to grasp the future making of these forms from a decidedly critical and forward-looking angle.
Could you tell us how this project about the history of political struggles and their recording on film, amateur and/or other, came into being? Does the context of Seine-Saint-Denis, which, to say the least, has a distinct social element, lie at the root of it?
This project is the result of a commission from Seine-Saint-Denis to put on an exhibition using their video art collection. In response to it, I made them a more intuitive counter-proposal working with militant forms, associated with the political and social struggles of the 20th century, and seeking out, both locally and elsewhere, not only films, but other works and documents, too. Needless to say, the specific “93” context [93 being the number of the Seine-Saint-Denis département] was inspiring. I was already acquainted with Seine-Saint-Denis by having worked there for several years, and I knew about the existence, for example, of somewhat rare works of French social realism, which I’d found interesting. Based on that, I started out “blindfold”, without any precise ideas about what I might find, or even look for, using institutional collections (the French Communist Party, the CGT trade union, the Museum of Art and History, the Museum of Living History, the “93” Departmental Archives, the CGT Institute of Social History) but also private collections ( the SLON/ISKRA fund created by Chris Marker and Inger Servolin) and lots of other sources which enabled me to put together these two shows the way I wanted to. The idea was to feature the many different interactions between industry, immigration, social struggles, urban development, and the post-colonial situation, in a kind of cyclical rhythm, shifting from idealistic outbursts to twilight moods.
The cyclical character of the struggles you refer to in the introductory essay describes a recurrence of social movements. Isn’t this time-frame in the process of disappearing following the recent upsurge of neo-liberalism, the trade unions’ loss of influence, the decline of working-class culture, and people’s lack of interest in social conflicts, not to say their complete rejection of them?
I think that the energies of the social struggle, which may perhaps have become a little dulled at times, are still ready to be rekindled and reincarnated in new forms with every generation. I don’t think that these particular forces just come to a standstill, even if history has seen certain especially active and visible moments of collective action. We mustn’t be nostalgic; rather, we must take a look at those moments to detect further possibilities of revival. What’s more, trade unions and political forces don’t have a monopoly on the struggle. This is why, in the exhibition, there are lots of objects hailing from autonomous movements, which, at times, are not even directly political, from Kiki Picasso to the anti-globalists, by way of the Bérurier Noir punk band. As such, there’s a resistance with a capital R, not “resistance to”, but just resistance, period, intransitive and global, which dominates these exhibitions. A priority election of struggle rather than a selection of priority struggles.
There is, nevertheless, a powerful sense of nostalgia released by the exhibition “Or il fut un temps passé où le futur était present”, as if the great age of struggle (or Resistance)—with all the lyricism and expressionism going hand-in-hand with it—was a bit behind us, but perhaps the presence of many film archives (black-and-white oblige) heightens this impression. What place have you given to movements closer to us, and to the media which correspond to them (films made with smartphones, the presence of social networks, and so on)?
There was a relatively limited period between the end of the 1960s and the early 1980s when militant cinema went through a collective phase which produced particularly powerful forms, both poetic and political, and during which, as Patrick Leboutte has so rightly put it, “forms of struggles” are inseparable from “struggles of forms”.1 It’s true that that fascinating period forms the core of the two shows, because of the content of the archives I had at my disposal, and the difficulty, nowadays, of finding such an impassioned spirit at the crossroads of the political and aesthetic arenas. Now I hope that it’s possible to look at those forms without any nostalgia (that’s precisely what I was keen to avoid), but rather in a critical and speculative way. Meaning, trying to see what has become of those questions, and whether there’s a way of rekindling them for today’s senses and intelligence. The presence of Jean-Gabriel Périot, a contemporary film-maker who refers to the form of “cinetracts” by updating them, a bit like the Lebanese thinker Jafal Toufic saying that it’s important to revive the document itself, if it’s still present, and the Getaway collective exploring certain blind spots of history and pronouncing that “other pasts are possible”, are all heading in this direction, it seems to me. Rather than nostalgia, I won’t hide the fact that there’s a certain feeling of bitterness, “dark” fever and ill omen that I’ve tried to portray in the second show in a metaphorical way, with the presence of Jean-Luc Moulène’s Soleil Noir, Marie Voignier’s tremendous swarms of migrating birds in Le bruit du canon, and the disquieting paintings of Toyen and Jean Amblard.
In the introductory essay for “Ma’aminin”, you say that social movements should be incarnated in an aesthetic, without which they end up orphaned and risk missing their target, and crumbling. In “Or il fut un temps passé où le futur était present”, the exhibition comes across more like an unrestricted stroll through a selection of documents to be activated by yourself, rather than like a classic show with a well marked out itinerary. This flexible “à la carte”-like aspect refers to the smithereening of “resistance” movements, and their extreme diversity. This said, this approach also pinpoints the problem of an aesthetic unity: in the present state of the struggle it’s hard to see that unity which you reckon to be necessary for its identification and, beyond that, its recognition. The comparison with the film archives which are plentiful in the exhibition sheds light on this state of things. Can we talk in terms of a crisis of representation?
Political movements are incarnated in aesthetics which are different, even if there have in fact been moments of grace where, by being collective, action and reflection have produced recognizable forms. This is so, for example, with the films distributed by SLON/ISKRA, some of which, though made by different auteurs, make use of a common film grammar, in an aesthetics of urgency and efficiency akin to the magnificent “cinetracts”. This is also the case with a certain type of montage, at once pop and violent, to be found in South America, with Fernando Solanas, but also in that rare film by João Trevisan, on view in the exhibition, and rediscovered by Catherine Roudé. So yes, it would seem that those collective principles which saw a challenge both to aesthetics, means of production and methods of film distribution have all disappeared on that scale. Crisis of representation… I’m not sure, but a smithereening, definitely. I like thinking about the history of representing political struggles after the 1960s in the form of “anabasis”, a kind of at times erratic comeback of a lost war front where different groups take diverging paths after the great coming-together. This, incidentally, is a bit the thesis of Razmig Keucheyan’s book Hémisphère gauche,2 which I found very interesting. In a curatorial sense, I’ve betted on an organic continuity of those heterogeneous events in the reign of belief. What is shown is a family “put back together again”, which displays tensions and traces a cognitive and affective nebula rather than an analytical and aesthetic grid. As in any group show, for me there’s a poetic and narrative order at work more than a discursive one, whence this idea of unrestricted strolling, invisible links, and formal breaks.
In these two shows, haven’t you tried to rekindle the political dimension within (contemporary) art? Isn’t invoking that past the best way of trying to re-inject politics into a scene which has been considerably abandoned by politics, at least in its most head-on forms?
Yes, there’s a subliminal motivation behind this programme: by summoning these militant forms, trying to rekindle desires and passions for these issues within art. Because if most of the films and objects on view in the exhibition are not indebted to contemporary art, I’ve re-placed them within an art system, and it’s from that place that I observe them and re-show them. This is in order to touch all kinds of public, including the art public. I think that it’s my goal, as curator, to bring these forms of the past back to the surface, not in a morbid archaeological logic, but to see how they can once again act and create relations, and awaken consciousness and desire. This, in any event, is how they act on me. These days, people are very suspicious of “militant” art, because we’re acquainted with the contradictions, dead ends and shortcomings it’s given rise to in past generations. Somewhere between aesthetics and politics, there’s a lengthy history of dashed hopes and mutual betrayals, which has sometimes left a bitter taste. But there have been moments when political radicalness is associated with a formal radicalness, in a shared intensity that’s bolstered both. It has to be admitted, furthermore, that some contradictions are beautiful, dignified and fruitful, whether they involve artists or activists. In the late 1960s, in a very direct way, Jean-Luc Godard expressed these dead ends and these contradictions, somewhere between the sublime and the ridiculous, even before the Dziga Vertov group was created.
Is it the same type of contradictions that inform the career of a curator when he moves from defending a militant, underground, popular scene to the programming of a space that’s very representative of the present-day ascendancy of major brands in the contemporary art scene, in this instance the Verrière Hermès in Brussels, where you’re the curator?
First of all, it’s different, because I don’t regard these exhibitions as resulting from a militant act, but from a curatorial horizon. What’s more, I see my different activities as complementary involvements within contemporary art, which, if well negotiated, can nurture each other. Contexts of display which are albeit distant are not watertight. For example, Nil Yalter, a feminist artist involved with political and social as well as formal issues, who was there in the Seine-Saint-Denis shows, is being invited for a solo show at La Verrière in autumn 2015. That venue enables me to offer artists means of production and longer working time-frames for at times risky experiments which will subsequently be able to exist in other contexts. Being in a position to be involved on different scales, in different time-frames and different formats, and in different economic contexts, while at the same time trying to remain critically intense, demanding, and curatorially free, is a chance I’ve been offered. I even think that these challenges interested the Fondation Hermès when they contacted me. A certain responsibility is implicit, and making sure of the integrity of one’s curatorial project, but such demands always exist, for every project, be it in public institutions, or private ones.
1 “Formes de lutte et lutte de formes – Pièges du formatage ou promesses de la forme?” / Coordinators : Jean-Louis Comolli, Patrick Leboutte, Marie-José Mondzain. http://www.vacarme.org/IMG/doc/Formes_de_lutte_et_lutte_de_formes.doc
2 Hémisphère gauche. Une cartographie des nouvelles pensées critiques, Paris, La Découverte, coll. Zones, 2010.
Chapelle vidéo 7 : “MA’AMINIM (les croyants)” , Musése d’Art et d’Histoire, Saint-Denis, from 5 December 2014 to 9 February 2015. With works by: Djouhra Abouda, Karel Appel, Werner Bischoff, Alain Bonnamy, Atelier Fabrizi, Neil Beloufa, Bérurier Noir, Claude Blanchet, Gérald Bloncourt, Canan Çoker, Michèle Collery, F. Coudert, C. Filion, Michel Fleurmont, Jean-Pierre Gallèpe, Gasquet, Kiki Picasso, Ladislas Kijno, Jean Kiras, Georges Lavroff, Jean-Partick Lebel, Yves Lorant, Chris Marker, Mohamed Mazouni, Sergueï Merkuroff, Anaïs Prosaic, Salah Sadaoui, Jean-Claude Sée, Orhan Taylan, Yusuf Taktak, João Silverio Trevisàn, Philippe Truchet, Jean-Gabriel Périot, Nil Yalter.
Chapelle Vidéo 8 : “Or il fut un temps passé où le futur était présent”, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Saint-Denis, from 27 March to 4 May 2015. With works by: Archives Getaway, Jean Amblard, Philippe Artières, Yto Barrada, Bernard Bazile, Michel Carrier & Jean-Louis Lorenzi, François Chardeaux, Collectif Cinélutte, Henri Fabiani, Harun Farocki, Valentine Hugo, Jean-Patrick Lebel, Jean Lefaux, Jean-Luc Moulène, Bruno Muel, Alain Nahum, F.W. Murnau, Matthieu Saladin, Paul Seban, Miroslav Sebestik, Jean-Pierre Thorn, Toyen, René Vautier, Marie Voignier.
- From the issue: 74
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- By the same author: Bouchra Khalili, Sophie Legrandjacques, Sophie Lévy, Christine Macel, Wilfried Huet / GAGARIN,