Printemps de Septembre

There aren’t many exhibitions that take you through winding medieval streets, over rivers and canals, or in and out of former monasteries, power stations, water towers, and lockkeeper’s houses. Then again, the annual Printemps de Septembre (September Springtime) is conceived not as an exhibition but as an itinerary of hybrid—and admission-free—encounters with contemporary visual and performing arts in and around the historic center of Toulouse. For its first ten seasons, this one-of-a-kind event was the Printemps de Cahors and really took place in the small southwestern town in springtime. But in 2001, divergences between local officials and festival organizers provoked the move to Toulouse, France’s fourth-largest city, along with the resulting changes in scale, season, and name.

This minihistory would hardly be worth recalling had the first September Springtime not coincided with two terrible events both engraved in the collective memory of Toulouse: the 9/11 terrorist attacks and, ten days later, the explosion of a local chemical plant that killed thirty people, injured over 2,400 others, and devastated entire neighborhoods. If the Cahors springtime was often taxed with trendy “Parisianism,” its September successor has, by the force of that circumstance, become grounded in realities at once more global and more local, as reflected in the sequence of themes judiciously proposed by Marta Gili, artistic director for the past two editions, with the “Fragilities” of 2002 giving rise to the “Gestures” of 2003.

Concretely, this Brechtian notion—the actor’s gestus as a series of attitudes directed toward the audience to elicit new reactions and relations to the world—was given form and meaning through the “gestures” of forty-three international artists, mostly young and mostly working with photography and video, but also through the gestures of Gili and assistant curator Fabienne Fulchéri, who were the invisibly omnipresent intermediaries between artists and public, grouping ideas and separating sound tracks in the ten different venues on this year’s itinerary. A centrally located but otherwise thankless storefront gallery, Espace Ecureuil, for instance, became the ideal setting for disparate works evoking war: On the street level, Paul Seawright’s large-format photos of barren postwar Afghan landscapes (Hidden, 2002) had maximum visibility for passersby, while the low-ceilinged, claustrophobic basement was fully exploited for Omer Fast’s video installation A Tank Translated, 2002, with its true-false interviews of young Israeli soldiers who had served together cooped up in a tank, and Florence Lazar’s equally claustrophobic videos of the ex-Yugoslavia, Femmes en noir (Women in Black), 2002. By contrast, Kutlug Ataman’s double video projection 1+1=1, 2002, a kind of “interior dialogue” by a Cypriot poet reflecting on her childhood war memories, had a room to itself in the out-of-the-way Musée du Vieux Toulouse. Sylvie Blocher’s La Sauteuse ( Jumping Woman), 2002, a literally breathtaking three-screen video loop of a trampolinist in action, found its way to the lockkeeper’s house on La Brienne canal along with six of the artist’s ongoing series of diary-like video “notes” begun in 1989.

How was such a fine-tuned itinerary put together? “Intuition,” replies Gili, the director of the Fundació La Caixa’s photography and visual-arts department in Barcelona. And a willingness to take risks, notably with the one-third of the works specially produced for the festival. This was the case, for example, with pho- tographer Hannah Collins’s La Mina, 2002–2003, an epic video installation interweaving the threads of a docu-fiction elaborated and reenacted by two Gypsy communities in Barcelona: What Gili had to go on was a cassette of the ninety-minute film, Collins’s first venture into 35 mm, from which the installation’s five channels came to be edited. Similarly, Andrea Robbins and Max Becher’s Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, 2003, a series of ten photos plus a short video, was no more than an idea when the artists were contacted in December 2002. But installed at the street entrance to the festival’s largest space, the former refectory of a Dominican monastery, the couple’s latest project offered a singular “gesture” of welcome to the local public, with emblematic images of French gendarmes, bereted café clients, and soccer players in the uncannily un-French environment of the Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon islands, a full-fledged department of France notwithstanding their location some twenty miles off the coast of Newfoundland.

In fact, such welcoming gestures—invitations to enter a space, an image, a world—are common to practically all of the otherwise disparate works. But what makes these works more interesting, and essential, than the user-friendly products of the culture industry is their insistent challenge to perceptions and preconceptions, not through statements, but through understatements. Or, to borrow the tongue-in-cheek title of Blocher’s video notes, “Daily Activities to Make Life Presentable.”

Miriam Rosen