Lili Reynaud Dewar
You just won the Marcel Duchamp Prize, so I’d like to begin there. But I’d also like to talk about the “Gruppo Petrolio” project, which is what you’re working on at the moment and will be showing the first part of at the MO.CO in Montpellier this March. Could you talk about the transition between the installation you produced for the Prize, Rome, Ist and 2nd November 1975 (2021)—which is a project you began working on at the Villa Medici in Rome, about the last days of the life of Pier Paolo Pasolini—as well as how your interest in him has extended to your current work with “Gruppo Petrolio,” which is inspired by the book Petrolio (Petrol, in English), an incomplete literary work, as Pasolini was assassinated just as he was finishing it? I’m also really interested in the correspondences you see between this book and the present day.
I started Petrol when I first arrived at the Villa Medici in September, 2018—I was familiar with Pasolini’s writing but wasn’t necessarily a fan of his fiction—just as I was preparing to shoot the choral film which depicts the last day in the life of Pasolini, and is based on Abel Ferrara’s 2014 biopic film, Pasolini. In my film, Pasolini and his lover, Pino Pelosi, who has taken the blame for the murder, are played by my friends; only three scenes from the Ferrara film are remade. In Petrol, the main protagonist, whose name is Carlo, is divided into two protagonists at the beginning of the book: an engineer who pursues a career in the petrol industry and becomes increasingly compromised politically, and an erotomaniac, a sexual predator. These two protagonists exist parallel to one another and at different points in the book, they transform into women. This is what inspired the idea to have Pasolini and Pelosi played by people of alternating genders. I decided to schedule several short shoots each month, staging them against backdrops that I built onsite at the Villa, including the reconstitution of Al Biondo Tevere, the pizzeria where Pasolini had dinner the night he died. During the entire period of filming, and during that year in residency in what were pretty ideal conditions, I kept thinking about my return to, let’s call it ‘civilian life.’ When I’m not in residency I have to work, I’m a professor at the HEAD school in Geneva, and I always feel this need to recycle everything. This is how I end up re-installing the pizzeria backdrop at the school in Geneva upon my return in September 2019; I use it is a classroom, and I ask the group of students I work with to use Petrol, which is a work of fiction,to carry out an investigation on the murder of Pasolini. Because there’s this idea going around that the motive behind the murder—unsolved to this day—could very well literally be found within the pages of the book. To carry out an analysis of Petrol is to analyse certain political events going on in Italy at the time as well; the Years of Lead, strategy of tension, it’s like a history class. Forming connections between literature and contemporary history is something I’d already started doing by holding readings at the school of the works of writers like Guillaume Dustan and other authors active during the Aids crisis. I also organized a trip to Rome to visit the places mentioned in Petrol and the sites of the murder: the pizzeria, Ostie, EUR (the neighborhood built by Mussolini), etc. At one point as we’re visiting this really nice neighbourhood where there’s an aqueduct, in the Southern part of the city near the Via Torpignattara, we start reading Petrol. In his descriptions of people, Pasolini has this way of always linking things to consumerism and its effects on the working classes. Suddenly, we realise that we’re in the same exact spot which is described in the passage we’re reading. That’s when one of the students, Caroline Schattling Villeval comes up with a really great idea. She says: “We should make a film where we read passages from the book in exactly the same places that are being described.”
You sent me nine episodes, each about an hour long. For an art film, this is really long, whereas if you were to think of them as episodes of a new Netflix series, well, then you’d just binge watch them ! A kind of complication arises; it’s difficult to show so many hours of a film in a museum, because very few people are going to sit through the entire screening, and yet, the way we consume audio-visual content has completely changed because of the Internet. So, can you talk about your process for “Gruppo Petrolio”?
Going back to January 2020, we’re in Rome and we’re reading, in different places—this is really the basis of my teaching method, group readings. There is generally only one book for the whole group, which requires an effort from whoever is listening. I don’t like the method where everyone has the text and follows along on their phone, it’s a small detail but still very important. So this student comes up with an idea. We decide that since the book is so long, we’re not going to read the whole thing. Still, we realize that our film is going to be long and contemplative; we’re completely fine with it. Then an important event occurs: COVID, and then lockdown happens. The trip to begin filming in April gets cancelled. Do we go on with the project? And how? So I get together with Victor Zebo, the director of photography I’m working with for the project, we start coming up with references of very long films. Olga Rozenblum, a friend and also the producer of my very first films, mentions a Rivette film: Out 1: Noli me tangere (1971), which was filmed very quickly in Paris with actors from the director’s circle of friends. This is a film that was made to be serialised for television, but of course, it was not at all accepted by T.V.! It’s all about this group of young people planning a sabotage together. It’s a really inspiring project—though I have to admit I’m not really into watching T.V. series, I think they have a tendency to be very normative. So, as it turns out, the idea of cutting the film up into episodes becomes self-evident. While still able to be called a film. I like to make use of the methods and theories of film production, (especially those of experimental cinema) its techniques, while keeping them within the realm of art; I’m not actually interested in making cinema per se. I come from the world of exhibitions, it’s what I’m comfortable conversing with people about. Seeing people together at the Centre Pompidou, watching and sharing the same space, I think it’s such a wonderful thing. I try to forcefully introduce these types of long-form films to the exhibition space. In a way I’m quite indifferent to the question of time, but not to that of space: how to make a space more comfortable so that it makes you want to stay—because I do think that viewers who fall outside of the norm exist and are ready to take on the challenge.
So then at some point, you decide to make things easier on yourself—you’re going to shoot the film in Grenoble, which isn’t far from Geneva. But that’s not all; you realize that Petrol has a lot more in common with Grenoble than it does with Rome!
Petrol is a book about the petrol industry, its power and influence, the conflicts of interest, the fallacious political discourses surrounding it. An important aspect of Petrol is the critique of progress. This is what I find so fascinating about Pasolini in our contemporary context. Pasolini is an anti-modernist. He criticises the young proletariat in Petrol; they’ve been transformed by capitalism and consumerism. Petrol is of course not always present everywhere, so what Pasolini critiques more than anything else is extractivism, colonialism. There are parallels in Grenoble because all of these natural resources: the water, the geographical elements, the mountains, everything is used to produce hydro-electricity, within a capitalistic model. Grenoble is a tech town, with an eco-friendly reputation to live up to, and yet it has also proudly been at the forefront of nuclear research since the Second World War. So this connection is clear to me, though I mostly keep it to myself at first. I do give hints to the students, by pointing out that there are quite a few anti-capitalist groups in Grenoble; this puts them on the trace, and also I talk about how in recent years there have been a series of arsons carried out at ecologically-damaging capitalistic sites; all of those symbols of modernity and ecological transition that characterise surveillance technologies: 5G towers, Eiffage developments, certain town halls, etc. So I mention this to them, and then I say, “Maybe it could be interesting to make a transposal here.”
In the first few episodes of the series, there is a character inspired by you, who is obsessed with the book Petrol, and forcefully reads passages from it to a group, which ends up irritating them. They start to think you’re a little unstable, so it’s funny to think about this transposal that you just told me about. There’s this whole back-and-forth going on with regard to intention, where you’re ridding yourself of intention entirely; you create a protocol and then allow situations to arise.
Also, I’m realizing during this conversation with you that in my teaching projects, I often play the role of hostess—like when I met with students in my hotel room, or in the pizzeria backdrop. In this case, I’m inviting them to my city. In a group setting, authority is continually being called into question, and in this case, I transpose it. I’m not hosting in my pizzeria any more, or in my hotel room, but I am hosting within my everyday life.
In “Gruppo Petrolio” I noticed there is an effort to bring up topics that generally aren’t discussed very often in Western art. Concrete political issues are raised, such as ecological transition, in this case. You are also depicting the provinces, which is an area that is often neglected in political discussions. Recently, you and I were discussing the gilets jaunes, (yellow jackets protests) who were largely responsible for making these territories visible. Can you tell me a little about what it’s like to be an artist in a context where so many subjects are appropriated or distorted—in particular by the political far-right, and also within the French pre-election context?
How to stage scenes with characters who play their role, but only partially? Here’s an example—we took a real occupation that took place at the second school I worked at; the ESBA, Montpellier, and made it a bit more developed than it actually was in reality. So they supposedly occupied the school for a year, having appropriated all of the possible means of production, kicked out all of the instructors—my ultimate fantasy. I really want my students to kick me out (laughter). Reality is a starting-off point, then it gets deformed, transformed, and then we’ve got to come to terms with all of the real protagonists who truly involve themselves politically, through activism. There are so many resistance movements taking place right now, in Grenoble and elsewhere, and students are at the head of these groups, as well. Because there really is a rise in fascism at the moment, that’s where it’s interesting to highlight the parallels with Petrol: there are lots of protests—anti-fascist, fascist—described in the book…Can an artistic work represent political protest and resistance? I can’t really say that I participate in the resistance, by the way: I rarely go to general meetings or demonstrations, but it’s a big question. Is it a form of reification? It’s worth mentioning that students nowadays are very dedicated to their artistic work, to their careers, they can’t spend all their time on “Gruppo Petrolio”, dedicating themselves to the cause. There is a lot of turnover, the pressure mounts, and all of these neoliberal, individualistic undercurrents tend to have a counterproductive effect on the causes we’d like to stand up and fight for. Our response to this was to form a collective, to participate collectively. I am invited individually to take part in an exhibition in a hegemonic institution like MO.CO but the project is nonetheless a collective one; anyone involved can choose to participate in an exhibition under the “Gruppo Petrolio” moniker. It isn’t a Lili Reynaud-Dewar project, it’s a “Gruppo Petrolio” project. Anonymity is a strategy used by militant groups, it’s protective, of course, but it’s also a means of finding other methods of working. Which is the polar opposite of the way art is conceived and produced, the way it circulates nowadays: always attached to a name, an individual, coherent whole. What we are demonstrating is that all of these protagonists are debating amongst themselves, they are not all in agreement with one another. In one of the episodes, by the way, one of my Grenoble friends criticises the group for jeopardising the actions of real groups, for using their status as artists to gain access to these places. He claims that it’s going to set off a repression which would threaten future actions taken by these groups, things that have been being planned for some time—this is an actual comment that was made to me.
I love how you betray yourself here: you’re searching for ways to escape your own reification. That’s what makes the project so experimental. There’s all of these layers, it’s a bit of a slog to get through, with all of those hours of film, a shaky foundation…there’s a kind of ‘rock in the shoe’ feeling to it, with the parallel with Pasolini who is making a real critique of society, and in the film you actually do have a real position with regard to ecological transition, for instance! After all, it is one of the most important themes at stake in our current times…I don’t necessarily think we need to revisit heroic notions of courageousness but artists could really stand to implicate themselves a bit more. I’d like to conclude by saying that I hope you won’t end up assassinated like Pasolini (laughter).
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Head image: Gruppo Petrolio, Season 1, Direction & Script Gruppo Petrolio, 9 films, variable length, 4K, color, sound. Production Fondation Bullukian, Head Geneva, Moco.Esbam Montpellier and Lili Reynaud-Dewar