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Translated by Anna Knight

La Centrale: Choosing Distance

by Carin Klonowski

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An art space whose name you think you’ve heard before. A big space, with a waxed concrete floor, why not on old industrial premises. You haven’t got it all wrong, but you’re nevertheless far from reality. There’s something hard to grasp, almost evanescent about La Centrale. Is it a real place? Are exhibitions really held there? You find a lot of images and documentation online, but no address, no living soul in the photographs… As soon as you think you’ve identified something, the trail immediately goes cold.

If you imagine the centre as an in-between, then you’re getting closer to the true nature of this exhibition space. Because distance creates La Centrale’s dynamic and conditions of visibility. Based on the principle that we – as well as exhibiting artists – perceive a large proportion of exhibitions through their written and/or photographic traces, Nicolas Tourre and Magali Brénon, the founders of the space, have put distance and documentation at the heart of their project.

Described soberly as an artist-run space (you’ll find nothing more, either on Facebook or Instagram1), La Centrale was created in 2019, and has now presented nineteen exhibitions by both French and international artists. Each of them lasted a fortnight and was mainly documented on social media, as well as on the website of Éditions Naima.2

If you still doubt the space’s existence, you can nevertheless probe its contours through the photographs found online: two white walls and two glass walls form a green sheet-metal cube perched on piles in the middle of a natural landscape containing few industrial remains. La Centrale is therefore situated somewhere, that is, in Ardèche (but we won’t tell you exactly where, that’d be too easy), on the premises of a functioning sand quarry, and more specifically, in a former concrete mixing plant whose extraction activity ceased in 2007. This infrastructure, once cleaned, redesigned, and restored, changed its function and gave its name to the artist-run space.

Although the site does have a physical, material and documented reality, the fact remains that its accessibility and mode of operation render it – inevitably – remote. Besides its mysterious and somewhat isolated geographical situation, Nicolas and Magali’s choice to preserve the independency of the space – self-run by volunteers and without funding – informs the way in which the exhibitions are organised, mounted, and open to the public. With an economy beyond lean, shared between them and the guest artists – a condition communicated to them from the outset – transport and installation are organised in a familial way, most often without the artists in attendance, and therefore by Nicolas and Magali. Artists, author, editor, and teacher, they take the period of the school holidays to shift their activities to Ardèche to devote themselves to the exhibitions, conditioning in this way the temporal economy to two weeks of visibility. The installations generally take place on videocalls with the artists allowing room for a genuine dialogue despite the distance. Also, there are no press releases, no public openings. “It’s stark and not convivial.” But that gives way to something else…

Being outside of constraints, stereotypes, and institutional funding has an aspect that is as fragile as it is liberating, and makes the functioning of the site very lively. The production and curatorship are free, the artists are invited without necessarily having met Nicolas and Magali beforehand, based on an interest in their work, a desire for exchange, and by surprise. The artists are given free rein and everything is constructed through precious moments of discussion.

Once the installation is over, no opening fanfares follow. Visits are possible, either because people already know the address, because they’ve asked on social networks, or because they are headed that way to buy building materials, but never by coming across it on a stroll. To enter, you must ask. Far from being a gimmick, the surprising context and this constraint of opening up instead invites discussion. Since the sand quarry is still active, there are trucks and customers going by, and La Centrale makes a wonderful incursion into this reality, with which it creates frictions, encounters, and formal comparisons that people are quick to mention.

But unless you’ve been there, you’d have no idea. Because what you see on Instagram and Facebook are photographs carefully framed so that no bleak winter light or fluro truck interferes too much with the artworks. Nothing is phony, however, simply adapted to the medium of dissemination and this context of perceiving exhibitions, which are increasingly experienced on-screen, especially after a year of closures due to the health crisis. The exhibitions are also accessible via digital booklets, created by Magali and distributed on Éditions Naima’s website. They only exist in this location, always “after”, once the exhibition is over, far from the ambitions of a press release. They are small publications, testimonies of something that happened. Despite the online archiving, the idea of an exhibition experience as something ephemeral is therefore preserved by these visual, geographic, and temporal discrepancies.

Created barely a year before the advent of remote communications and online exhibitions, La Centrale suggests providing an in-between of the exhibition experience, both in situ and online. Connections, encounters, events, and a workplace thus truly enter into a dialectic with distance, and emerge all the more charged by it – even more so if you make the trip to the former concrete mixing plant to experience them.