PRINT December 2005

Eva Svennung

A BEAUTIFUL EARLY OCTOBER DAY IN PARIS. The hottest (in degrees centigrade) of any fashion week this season has just begun, and the annual FIAC extravaganza is about to open in its frenzied wake. Yet as tightly scheduled fashion shows spread from the Louvre’s commercial annex to more spectacular venues throughout the city, and as fair exhibitors add the last touches to their booths, a particularly loud and massive throng crashes all the parties, threatening to paralyze the city and disrupt the international buyers’ carefully tailored agendas. A day and a half of strikes in the public and private sectors, along with a series of demonstrations, is in full effect. They start, as protests often do, at Place de la République and follow the traditional route along Boulevard du Temple to Place de la Bastille, brandishing the usual artillery—smoke, megaphones, flags, and banners.

But the demonstrators fail to incite the usual rendezvous with chaos. The new minimum-service policy that’s being tested on workers in state-run companies proves to be effective. Or is it simply that a majority of people doesn’t even bother trying to get to work—or even to demonstrate—since daily chaos, labor strife, and resignations are overwhelming enough to make them just stay home? In any case, the Parisian art and style crowds make it to the fair on time—with a hint of indecision over the various fashion parties and exhibition openings. And so do several agents of the cultural authorities, including the prime minister himself, with briefcases full of fiscal promises and encouragements directed toward French collectors. Just a few days after all this, in a neighborhood bookshop on the same boulevard where the protesters were marching, philosopher Jacques Rancières presents his much-awaited La haine de la démocratie published by La fabrique, while a day later Fresh Theory (a pop anthology of texts enhanced with artworks and published by Léo Scheer) is celebrated at the headquarters of a notorious pastis brand. Well, isn’t this combination of overlapping events, this flow of releases, just how you’d expect a decent French kiss to feel? Or at least a quintessential Paris tale that could be wrapped up from the heights of a Ferris wheel—such as the one that happened to be installed inside the imposing nave of the Grand Palais throughout these harried festivities?

What else could one list as far as recent events Made in Paris? Nothing that one couldn’t find in any other European or North American capital. Over the span of a year a dozen young galleries opened, their only surprises being the uncanny fact that nothing differentiates them from their elder brothers (other than their smaller size), and that they only seem to reproduce the same frigid models and artistic formats over and over again. These are nonevents, as are most institutions and the few corporate spaces that have emerged in the city, striving only to fill spaces, programs, press junkets, and didactic missions, paraphrasing the market beneath a touch of corporate varnish—nowadays a force of legitimization—rather than working to produce contexts, situations, critiques, and identities (not just visual ones), while backing up artists in such endeavors.

But such possibilities seem to be emerging outside Paris. At the fair’s opening party at the Grand-Palais, in the midst of an exhilarated crowd of thousands running from an artist-designed open bar to a Jean Prouvé construction that people seem to think is a bus stop, I run into Pierre Bal-Blanc, head of the suburban Brétigny Contemporary Art Center (CAC). I ask him about his entanglement in the discreet fuss (not being covered in the French newspapers) over the current project by architects Francois Roche, Stéphanie Lavaux, and John Navarro of R&Sie(n), and he invites me to come to the art center to see for myself.

Arriving at Brétigny after a thirty-minute train ride southwest of Paris one experiences the ambivalent feeling of awkwardness such off-center art-world sites can trigger. Director of the CAC since 2003, Bal-Blanc has made his primary program the commissioning of artists to produce specific projects that successively alter aspects of the art center’s spaces. As part of an agglomeration incorporating a media library and theater space, the art center’s intervention alters the building’s use not only by its audiences but also by its future invited artists. Adding up with time, these seemingly minimal interventions subtly inform the ongoing and rather unauthorized history that is effectively being written between the walls. David Lamelas, for example, constructed a concrete corridor for a film installation, which stretches outside the premises of the center and has become a permanent sculpture after the show, while for Common Grave, 2005, Teresa Margolles brought waste water all the way from Culiacán, Mexico, to cast the concrete floor of the CAC. By pursuing such long-term, durable projects, Bal-Blanc has effectively devised a curatorial strategy that opposes the inscription of a cultural institution within the whims of local politics and vacillating community support.

This summer R&Sie(n) pushed things a bit further with “The Void,” a project involving not just the CAC but the transformation of the surrounding urban area. Appropriating the consultative urban-planning procedures used by public authorities, R&Sie(n) launched “The Void” with a public survey concerning the development of the no-man’s-land of a parking lot right outside the CAC, itself located between a high school and a field. As it turned out, most residents wanted the area to remain a parking lot, although improved with trees. Next an urban-planning proposal based on the results of the study was presented on a large billboard installed in the middle of the actual dead zone. The sign, on view as part of the project until the middle of this month, reads in French, “If you don’t like this world, you should make other ones” (a twist on the title of a 1977 Philip K. Dick essay), and announces an experimental biotransformation operation including a “phytoregeneration” of the cultural center. A digital rendering shows the CAC covered by what looks like a giant bush and a parking area modeled on and functioning as several giant skateboard ramps.

Quite unexpectedly, R&Sie(n)’s project triggered an Orwellian-Wellesian panic among some of the local inhabitants who immediately turned to the authorities for explanation. If the initial intention behind this more or less fictitious scenario was to capitalize on an existing urban “void” in order to sponsor dialogue between the population and its elected representatives, the latter responded with unjustified offense and threats directed at the CAC for having trespassed the limits of its mission. Incapable of reappropriating the debate (let alone the project) to their advantage, the politicians opened up a more blatant void in discourse than there had been before. And whether or not this conclusion—already inferred in R&Sie(n)’s script—was predictable, it played out at the expense of the community. Nevertheless, the political fracas flies in the face of those who might decry the futility (or better, the fiction) of contemporary art outside larger cities with manifest cultural ambition. The project created a public incident, a situation the bigger institutions in Paris and elsewhere are largely incapable of—or not interested in—producing.

There is undeniably a certain schizophrenic inertia in the institutional air right now. On the one hand, there is the cultural tourism industry (also known as the French Cultural Exception), which evinces a certain fascination for Anglo-Saxon, arty-entrepreneurial success stories, and whose underlying ideology was easily summed up in a statement uttered by LVMH impresario Bernard Arnault at the opening of his new Vuitton flagship store on the Champs-Elysées: “Luxury is the French Microsoft.” On the other hand, there is the apparatus of cultural tools available (the French Ministry of Culture, its stipends, production or research grants, network of art centers, etc.), which was originally created in a quite different spirit and is currently trying to resist mounting pressure from within.

In the meantime, on a domestic scale, this tension spreads a serious confusion whereby contemporary art, in order to be capitalized on, must necessarily take the form of proliferating consensual events. Nuit Blanche in Paris, for instance, showed us how to consume most of the city’s annual cultural budget in an orgiastic one-night stand of art in the streets—a populist intercourse ready-made for live broadcast on public television. The fiction that such packaging creates is also evident in more international gatherings, such as the Biennale de Lyon, which this year was boldly titled “Expérience de la durée” (Experiencing Duration). We might compare events like these to the much less schizophrenic and longer lasting total experience found in projects such as Thomas Hirschhorn’s “Swiss-Swiss Democracy” at the Centre Culturel Suisse. Here Hirschhorn once again demonstrated an artist’s capacity to take charge of a complex issue politically and aesthetically through a one-monthlong marathon that included an exhibition, a play staged by Gwenaël Morin, conferences and readings, and the publishing of a daily newspaper.

Another example of engagement taking place in the shadow of institutional glamour is the program of an independent art space located in the old center of Lyon. In a few years, La Salle de bains has distinguished itself with concise but sharp solo exhibitions alternating between French artists (including Ingrid Luche and Agnès Martel, Pierre Joseph, and, soon, Bruno Serralongue) and debuts in France of more well-known international artists (such as Jeppe Hein, Pae White, and Kelley Walker). As elementary as it may sound, La Salle de bains proposes a straightforward frame or context that one can relate to simply—a surprisingly precious refuge from the ambient confusion of event-making genres that most of the time preempt the actual visibility or experience of artists’ projects.

This conflict between artistic practice and (its) representation is perhaps one explanation for the sudden appearance of ghosts haunting exhibition spaces around town. Quite coincidentally, this past year the much-anticipated shows of Loris Gréaud, Saâdane Afif, and Rirkrit Tiravanija (featuring Philippe Parreno and Bruce Sterling) all summoned this spooky figure as procurator for the artist, avatar of the work, scenographer or guide. Drawing on a well-justified urge to escape ready-made formats (exhibitions or otherwise), this inscription of the artistic endeavor and spectatorship within other space and time unveils a sense of timely detachment. And, perhaps ironically, it might even make some of us want to turn toward the more live and disturbing fringe of self-declared zombies. Here let us pay homage to those exemplary kids who have lately turned out quite fearlessly on the streets outside Paris.

But for those who still like to believe in the materialization of local artistic scenes, Paris certainly remains confounding, although I’d be tempted to say relevant, in its lack of clear signals. However, two drastically different exhibitions—and stories—this winter might help you make up your mind. First, “Le voyage intérieur,” an exhibition on the subject of decadence, that included both Paris- and London-based artists, curated by Alex Farquharson and Alexis Vaillant, opened last month at the bourgeois Espace Electra (the French Electricity Foundation). Then, this January, Nicolas Bourriaud and Jérôme Sans will throw themselves a farewell party in the form of a (still secret) thematic show gathering artists who have emerged in France during the ’90s. Hopefully, this new year (and era for the Palais) will make way for more demanding and reflexive situations—a confrontation audiences certainly deserve.

Paris-based critic and curator, Eva Svennung is editor of the free French and English quarterly Pacemaker.