Exhibitions: reviews and interviews
Variations on a theme
Global Terroir
La belle revue in print
Portrait of an artist
Portrait of a place

Lili Reynaud-Dewar

by Lou Ferrand

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I met Lili Reynaud Dewar in Paris— an artist who is also accustomed to interviewing people— so she could tell me about the city where she has been living and working for more than a decade now, a city that I have never visited: Grenoble. Speaking of texts, political issues, love stories, travels, artistic collaborations and friendships, even other cities whilst creating an analogy with Pasolini's book Petrolio, the city of Grenoble manifested itself between us, albeit far from its surrounding mountains.

Lou Ferrand: From 2015 to 2020, you organised a series of private events entitled “Maladie d’amour”1 [Malady of Love] that took place in your studio in Grenoble. Can you tell me about the origins of the project? 

Lili Reynaud Dewar: At the beginning, “Maladie d’amour” was a project that I thought of so that my friends would come visit me in Grenoble. Since so few people came to visit, I thought that an exhibition would be even more impelling. At the time, these one-night shows were almost exclusively for me: they were private, with no communication, no posters. We would be three or four. Little by little, I met more and more people in Grenoble. Young people from the music and party scenes who weren’t really interested in art started coming to every “Maladie d’amour” event, which created unusual and bizarre situations, albeit with a very tight-knit group. Later in the spring of 2020, there was the Supérette, a project to occupy the Centre national d’art contemporain Le Magasin that was closed at the time for management problems. A truly mixed group of people had decided to occupy the art centre. The group included former students of the art school as well as groups of activists defending both the neighbourhood and climate… It went beyond questions of art and artists' remuneration, and was very different from the occupation of theatres and the Frac Sud during the same period. The questions were more to do with what an art centre represents within a neighbourhood: what purpose can it serve in a city, and for whom is it intended?

What impact did the occupation have on your project? 

At the time of the occupation, I had been living there for eight years. I had begun thinking that there was something superficial in showing artworks without knowing if people were really paying attention. I then decided to start organising conferences and screenings. Curator Olga Rozenblum came to speak about the work of writer and filmmaker Guillaume Dustan and organise screenings, for example. With another really young friend who comes from the skate scene and who now lives in Marseille, we had the idea of founding our own school. I wanted “Maladie d’amour” to evolve for people to come together rather than just organising openings with art works that you can simply ignore. In the end, I didn't do it because at the time of the occupation I realised that there are several more organised and efficient networks than myself, like the historical squats of Grenoble, the 38 and the 102. Since 2020, “Maladie d’amour” has been on standby, but I will surely take it up again one day. Things have always been inconsistent that way, which has never really bothered me so much. 

Were the “Maladie d’amour” events always site-specific? 

What was funny about “Maladie d’amour” was that we always spoke about it a lot without ever writing a text or manifesto. Those are the kinds of things that you think about after the fact, whereas when you’re in the moment you create without having any kind of discursive outlet: it comes after. It is only now that I better understand what some artists tried doing, or what they did. I’m thinking for example a project by Simon Haenni who explored the effects that gentrification has on language, with the idea of rounding off and softening authoritarian and institutional worlds by making truly round forms for cars and urban furniture which conveys a certain form of coercion and, at the same time, becomes very gentle. He was really interested in the "pioneer city" aspect that Grenoble can maintain in this kind of experimentation. I've always archived, but without any specific project. It was during the confinement that I decided to create a website that would bring together all the photos; eventually, I'd like to publish them.

What is it like for you to work in Grenoble? 

It’s really interesting. I have to say that it took a while for me to understand this city that I moved to for sentimental reasons… I nevertheless feel like the city has taught me a lot, notably from a political point of view. It's a city with very strong, well-structured militant organisation, without having much appeal: it doesn't have a great architectural or artistic heritage, firstly because it was difficult to access for a long time— surrounded by mountains, it was once a glacier— and secondly because it was subject to a lot of flooding before we discovered the power of dams. The city quickly became industrial and an industrial city raises political and social issues, since there are many working class people employed in the service of production. During WWII, groups of people wished to make Grenoble a research hub, and atomic energy found itself at its core; which is, of course, losing popularity today. There's also a big squat scene and an interesting musical history. That's what I've learned from: observing the territory around you, how it's made up, what kinds of political decisions are made, and how people mobilise to fight or question public policy and private investment. It's something I'm passionate about; it's a bit like learning from Grenoble.

Has the city had an impact on your work? 

Yes, and it's something that came to fruition recently, with a group of students from HEAD in Geneva, where I teach. I left Grenoble for a year to do a residency at the Villa Medici in Rome. I started reading Petrolio by Pier Paolo Pasolini...

A posthumous (published in 1992), sprawling and experimental book, written in note form, that is as fascinating as it is terrifying…

I’m not sure how I was able to get into it, but I quickly understood that there are entire chapters that you can skip. It’s composite. The book is also terrifying because it speaks about power, about masculinity. I think its only flaw is that Pasolini flaunts his culture too much— he shows that he understands literature perfectly, it's very exclusive. It was his big project and a lot of people say that he was killed because of Petrolio… because of what he wrote about. He evokes things that were surely known, but perhaps not articulated in a way that they were clearly understood. He shed light on the way that the state system protected private or financial interests linked to petrole, how people that had mysteriously disappeared were probably murdered to protect those interests, and how those interests were at the service of a project controlling society. I met a researcher named Flaviano Pisanelli who told me that Petrolio was published 16 years after the death of Pasolini, quite possibly because the copyright holders objected to publication, precisely because it quoted too many people by name. There is something truly paranoiac about Petrolio, as if it were dangerous to publish. When I started reading the book with my students, we decided to go to Rome to shoot a film in which we would read some passages from the book. Because of the pandemic, I ended up proposing that we shoot the film in Grenoble. Petrolio is a kind of proliferation of the neo-ville, of a certain architectural esthetic at the service of industry, of a production of goods and services. The book really helped me to appreciate the city, and vice versa.

And the film was shot entirely in Grenoble? 

For the film, I reused the decor for my film Rome, 1er et 2 Novembre 1975 that was presented for the Prix Marcel Duchamp in 2021— a replica of the pizzeria where Pasolini was seen for the last time with his lover accused of his murder. After my residency in Rome, I kept the decor and proposed to reinstall it in an empty room of the library at the HEAD. I also invited the students to read Petrolio in the pizzeria so we could try to figure out who killed Pasolini. The decor became my classroom in which we filmed some of the film alongside that which was filmed in Grenoble. I act in the film and make fun of myself, a 45 year old woman obsessed with Pasolini that drinks a little bit too much, who is annoying and intrusive. The students play a group of young activists that had gotten wind of some “arsonists”, based on a true story from Grenoble. Since 2017, one or several anonymous groups that were critical of technology and its repressive and controlling character set fire to symbols of repression and power, of the production of a certain privatised science. The arsonists wrote pretty crazy texts and set police stations and fablabs on fire. 

Was it considered terrorism? 

Yes, but there were never any victims. This created a stir in Grenoble's far-left alternative circles, as there were many searches and collateral damage, but no actual arrests. On the other hand, people living in squats were evicted as part of these investigations. Based on these events, which I told the students about, we imagined that, through contagion or imitation, young people would arrive in Grenoble and in turn spread the fires. This is the beginning of our fiction.

It's interesting that Petrolio can help us think about Grenoble, even though the connection is not very obvious at first... And in a broader sense, I find it very interesting to see to what extent Pasolini's assassination allows us to think about our current times, even though it seems to be a very contextual event, linked to another period and another country. And yet, it's a story that many have reappropriated, and which continues to inspire very different artists. I'm thinking, for example, of Kathy Acker's text “My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini” (1988).

I learned from Grenoble and I learned from Petrolio, and it is the articulation of both that helped me think about broader political issues, like how to live or survive under advanced capitalism. Petrolio is not so easy to read— the French version is particularly sophisticated— but you'll find that it's a kind of handbook for reading the transformation of cities and lives under ultra-liberal policies.

In connection with the question of Pasolini's disclosure of information, I was wondering about the public response to the interviews you conducted for the Prix Duchamp with the actors in the film you mentioned. There were biographical interviews which, for some of them, divulged quite intimate information that is usually kept quiet within institutions.

I had been really scared about the feedback for the interviews. I wanted the pile of publications in the exhibition to disintegrate gradually, for people to help themselves, for there to be a sense of disorder. I think this actually created something rather intimidating; you had to be part of an audience accustomed to institutions to feel comfortable taking, touching. I learned from the American artist David Robbins, whom I had invited to Grenoble for a project entitled Performance Proletarians. At the time, we were talking about the fact that in publishing or self-publishing projects, when you try to install your work in networks that go beyond the art world, without an audience, without an opening, you lose part of the reception. He explained to me that people aren't going to come and congratulate you on the quality of an interview at an opening, but that on the other hand, something remains, lingers in people's minds, and can resurface.

Yes, because you can reread them even after the exhibition has finished. In these interviews, I have the impression that something gossipy (when we talk about love stories, conflicts...) becomes almost political.

The notion of gossip came to me from the artist Ramaya Tegegne who has worked on the subject at length. She was also one of the people that was interviewed. I edited the interviews during the summer. When the Centre Pompidou proofread them, I understood that the institution couldn’t assume responsibility of publishing such things. The problematic passages of the interviews were reworked, which led to not only a week of intense negotiations during which I fought to change as little as possible, but also to many interesting discussions. They found it really shocking, for example, that so-and-so spoke of such-and-such gallery that never paid them, to which I responded that it was a common conversation amongst artists. It’s worth mentioning that I took advantage of the fact that the Centre Pompidou’s legal team was on holiday.

Which completely echoes Petrolio: you name names that shouldn’t be named, you put people in danger... 

Yes, and the funny thing was that in the end the legal department had no problem with it when they got back from vacation. It was interesting to see how people who work in institutions take on injunctions that are neither formulated nor real. I don't see these interviews as a place for freeing speech as such. I have the impression that it's more by describing precisely how certain projects were carried out that certain things will come to light. For example, one of the questions I asked in the Prix Duchamp interviews was whether people took the bus to school, or were dropped off by their parents - things that at first glance seem anecdotal.

As if the anecdote could allow for the telling of something more systemic? 

Yes, I think I was thinking more about individuals, although obviously it created a community. I've recently been reading the author M.E. O'Brien, an American trans theorist who has been very active in left-wing collective organising circles in the United States. She's written a book called Everything for Everyone, in which she imagines that following a global insurgency movement, individuals have organised themselves communally. Set in New York in 2171, the story is told in the form of a collection of fictional interviews. I'd be interested in setting this up with some friends: a kind of method, a workshop, in which we'd imagine whether the horizon of the issues for which these people are fighting and organising could reach that opening.

Is this what's going to happen in your future projects?

Yes, because I've got a solo show coming up in October 2023 at the Palais de Tokyo, which I'd like to split in two, with one part showing interviews conducted with people close to me, in hotel rooms. I'm only interviewing men, or people who identify themselves as such, and I'm meticulously reconstructing these rooms, taken from hotels that are on the verge of extinction as part of the Paris hotel investment and tourism project for the 2024 Olympic Games.

What are the interviews about?

They are quite biographical, even if less so than the interviews we were previously talking about. I try to articulate questions that have to do with private property and people's relationship to masculinity. For example, I interviewed my uncle, a theatre actor who was part of the FHAR2, who speaks in a very interesting way about what it's like to be a “folle”, the transformation of homosexuality in the 1970s or 80s, and the production of this very masculinist “leather” aesthetic... Another person, Yassine, a very good friend of mine (from Grenoble, in fact), who evolves in the squat milieu, tells the story of a family from an immigrant background, among other things. Or artist Paul-Alexandre Islas, who talks about his relationship with drugs, sex work, artistic production and so on...

So there won't necessarily be any dominant, privileged male figures? 

No, because I don't have many friends like that. I tell myself, for example, that there are very few straight men interviewed— I'm not looking for the representation of so-called “toxic” masculinities, even though that's the subject of Petrolio and a subject that interests me. But here, as so often, it's a question of working with those closest to me, my friends. It's not fiction.