Des territoires

The blind men would have had quite a time with this elephant called “Des territoires.” Among its salient features: an iconoclastic interdisciplinary seminar on the impact of globalization, which has been meeting at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris every week for the past seven years; a journal reporting on same (five issues to date);a student photography workshop initiated in 2000 to put the theories of the seminar into practice; and most recently—the tip of the elephant, so to speak—a public exhibition and film program. All of which, cumulatively aimed at exploring and redefining relationships between art, information, and world events, have attracted hundreds if not thousands of faculty, students, guests, auditors, and viewers.

The events in question extend from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the Gulf War to the attacks on the World Trade Center but include as well the daily events, the psychic events, the nonevents often overlooked by the worlds of art and information alike—housing, rural life, immigration, biogenetics, gender relations, prisons, and so on. Over the years, the seminar functioned as a living laboratory where artists, writers, filmmakers, researchers, journalists, activists, and other professional gadflies from every walk of life were invited to present their work. To cite just one example: a recent session organized around the photographs of seminar veteran Marc Pataut brought together (in order of appearance during the marathon five-hour discussion) an anthropologist, the director of a drop-in center-cum-writing workshop for the homeless, the former editor of a street newspaper, a psychoanalyst, and two members of the French farmers' movement.

But as the prime mover behind the seminar and its offshoots, art historian. critic, and Beaux-Arts professor Jean-François Chevrier readily acknowledges, exchanges between such different worlds don't come easily. Very early on, the idea of channeling interactions into concrete form gave rise to the “kiosk project,” aimed at introducing “artist; information activity” into the public space via a contemporary nomadic version of the traditional kiosk structure. But in the face of technical obstacles, the kiosk was, somewhat paradoxically, “reterritorialized” (as Chevrier puts it) into a projected exhibition at the Beaux-Arts.

Which brings us back to the tip of the elephant: “Des territoires,” conceived and coordinated by Chevrier and independent curator Sandra Alvarez de Toledo with the participation of twenty-seven artists and two filmmakers who passed through the seminar as well as twenty-three students from the photography workshop. Intended as a kind of progress report on the seminar, “Des territoires” was similarly informed by an ambitious search for alternatives to the mentality and practices of an increasingly globalized culture industry on the one hand and the ghetto of “political art” on the other. As in the seminar, the focus was not on isolated artworks but rather on “activities” occupying hybrid territories variously defined by geographical, political, social, mental, and/or psychic borders.

As a result, the exhibition itself became a territory of artistic territories, an ingenious spatial reconstitution of disparate activities carried out over time. Visitors were thus greeted at the intersection of the different exhibition spaces by an exile's-eye view of the New World Disorder in the form of Amal Saade's Maison ambulante (Itinerant house), 2001, anenormous metal scaffold on wheels fitted out with mental vestiges of the artist's childhood home outside Beirut-a fountain in the center and a neon floor plan suspended from above—plus three video “windows” showing street scenes from Beirut, Rio de Janeiro, and Paris, the cities where the artist has lived since the outbreak of the war in Lebanon and where, on closer inspection, she was seen to be walking continuously from one monitor/city to the next.

Inside the main gallery, a Benjamin-like passage offered in turn two flaneur's-eye views of Paris and New York as capitals of the twentieth century: on one wall, Patrick Faigenbaum's photographic tableaux of the Paris neighborhood where he grew up, grouped together under a title taken from Mallarmé, La question des gares et des cimetières (The question of train stations and cemeteries), 2001, and on the facing wall, Mikael Levin's Walking City, 1995–2001, diarylike photos taken within walking distance of his New York studio (and updated for the occasion with pre-September 11 postcard views of the Twin Towers). But ringing this central axis, behind and beyond the streets of Paris and New York, were the “territories” of the periphery, staked out by projects as different as Marc Pataut's traveling installation of photos and video created with and for the inhabitants of the Limousin farming region, and Majida Khattari's performance-fashion shows featuring improbable “clothing sculptures” that evoke the situation of women in Muslim societies with equal doses of insight and irony. Or, literally behind the scenes of Paris and New York, additional works by Faigenbaum and Levin—the former's somewhat unexpected inquiry into urban “renewal” on the margins of Barcelona and elements from the latter's book/installation War Story, 1995-96, which retraces his father's journey from Paris to Prague fifty years earlier as a war correspondent reporting on the liberation of the Nazi death camps (and which placed Faigenbaum's “question of train stations and cemeteries” in a markedly different light).

Notwithstanding a final section confusedly devoted to arte povera, anti-psychiatry, and postmodern “applied arts” (within the logic of the seminar, the space could have been out to much better use for video/film projections and reading materials), “Des territoires” succeeded not only in making its case for what Chevrier calls the “concrete utopian of a political/poetical art à la Broodthaers's famous world map but also in bringing out the singularity of the means involved: a perpetual balancing act between objectivity and subjectivity, distance and proximity, public issues and personal sensibility. And, judging from student workshop projects like Sakma Arrar's photos and texts on the memory of the Algerian War in France, ”Des territoires" provided a compelling defense and illustration of the seminar method as well.

Miriam Rosen is a writer living in Paris.