Lou Ferrand: The situationist concept of “psychogeography”,1 connecting the city to something akin to emotions or desire, and more specifically the book La Nuit by Michèle Bernstein came to mind when I was preparing this conversation. In this book, two characters wander for an entire night through a city that has become a maze. I’d like to introduce the concept by questioning you about the role the city and nighttime have played in your own experience.
François Durel: The dissection of urban space, enabled by its nocturnal discovery, came to me very early on as a chance to explore forms of existence that were hard for me to bring into cohabitation within a diurnal world. Nighttime allows for a kind of elasticity of discourse and actions, which radically differs from the disciplinary and organisational character of daytime, and hence represents a salvatory zone through which it becomes possible to give in to desires and practices that may not otherwise find their place. It is in this way that the night has enabled me to deepen certain facets of my identity and sexuality. The psychogeography theorised by Debord poses the practice of dérive (drift, errancy, straying) as an alternative to the rigidity of urban functionalities. Night, whose porosity allows the architecture to be deployed through infinite forms, represents a realm favourable to the reinvention of everyday life. The most tangible of architectures thus lose their credibility and reveal themselves to us in the promise of a subversion: the kind that strips perspective of its role as the sole mode of reception and understanding of spatial laws. It is in this sense that the night is sublime: it invites us to question the limiting certainties of day and transgress them through experience. For instance, it evokes the practice of cruising, which reached its apogee when bodies were rendered anonymous and the darkness altered the bond that unifies vision and discernment (I’m thinking in particular of the Cruising Pavilion2 project on the subject). The night resists, in my view, any theoretical interpretation that would lock it into a definition of space or temporality. So I prefer to use the word “zone” to refer to it, a more intangible notion that seems to resist attempts at narrow definitions or precise cartographies.
LF: Not considering the night as the only temporality would therefore allow what we learn by day to be replayed. The former would help us to think about the latter…
FD: Entering nighttime asks us to abandon all laws of causality that condition the world through a prism of narrow and binary thoughts, so as to move towards the complex, the paradoxical. It would appear that our desire for hypervisibility has invested most facets of our daily life and that, consequently, our fear of the unknown is inclined to align itself with an intent to overdefine, or overidentify. Nighttime invites us to do the opposite, by working on our psyche, a process of desacralisation of reason as the sole mode of perception of the world. Contradictory feelings that are therefore constructive towards the development of imaginaries and complex thoughts can then emerge. This is notably the case of the sense of the uncanny that defies the dichotomic laws that hope to define it through the moral prism of good or evil, meaning that it is a feeling that is neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Mark Fisher talks about it in his book The Weird and the Eerie. He describes this feeling, often used in cinema, in the creation of horror films, owing to its ability to subvert the unfolding of the action and thwart the narrative. It exists through the presence of an intrusive element that should not be there, or, alternatively, through the suspicious absence of an element that ought to be. This feeling thus plays a destabilising role and obliges us to confront our fear of the unknown by provoking doubt. It is this same sentiment that I try to convoke and extend into my sculptures.
LF: Sometimes, while looking at some of your sculptures, I can’t help but project a kind of personification and consider them almost as creatures that could be embodied. Perhaps that is exemplified by the fact that you sleep with them, which, I imagine, was also able to radically change your relationship to them?
FD: Clearly the fact of living and working in the same space as my sculptures largely contributed to endowing them with an empirical dimension, based on my experience of the city and my relationship to the night. Living with them has certainly had an effect on the rhythm and temporality through which I enable them to exist, within a quasi-ritualistic dimension, since I also mainly work at night. It is not so much a question of creatures as of quasi-phantasmagorical projections that would come to superimpose themselves onto existing forms and agglomerate on twisted and sharp metal rods. So they are endowed with sensations, amplified by my use of materials such as latex, which cannot withstand light since it makes it lose its elasticity. Meaning that this is in fact a material that can only be worn once night has fallen; so it has a powerful symbolic charge.
LF: Besides latex, you work with leather or fishnet – materials that convoke the imaginary of parties or clubs – which you sew onto metal structures. You confront these with elements such as the proliferating caster wheels of office chairs that seem to evoke, as you said, the image of a twisted, grimacing, or sick capitalism. As if you were suggesting a cohabitation between these two usually mutually exclusive worlds…
FD: The club is a non-place, a counter-space, as Michel Foucault calls it, in which a certain practice of freedom is exercised. So the connection between light and the exercise of power is altered by the diffuse and decentralised projections of rays of light, whereas the propagation of smoke contributes to the disorganisation of space and time. The club represents this poetic and salvational breach that does not seem to resist a certain form of amnesia when it comes to returning to our diurnal obligations. The uneasiness that separates the party from the return to the centralised light of day gives rise to a very strange feeling, as it places body and mind in an in-between state, a liminal dimension. This temporal scar smacks of truth. It’s something that greatly inspired me in my work and that explains, among other things, the fact that certain detached parts such as the office chair wheels cohabitate with materials like latex or leather, which involve a sense of transcendence for the wearer.
LF: “As I lift my head back up, I’m dazzled by the strobing lights of the advertising panels, whose brightness echoes the red traffic lights of the road. A signal for war.” 3 Like these words from one of your texts, through which you connect the city with a belligerent vocabulary, for me your sculptures evoke a state of hyper-vigilance, the idea of being on your guard, confronted by a latent threat. A more restrictive experience of the city, which becomes the prerogative of the society of surveillance or control, more than a peaceful zone of dérive. And this idea is exacerbated by what we’ve collectively experimented, that is the series of curfews, showing that our access to the night can be banned or revoked.
FD: The connections that link darkness with fear and vices take root as much through fictional as factual elements. According to the Theogony of Hesiod, Nyx, goddess of the Night, and her brother Erebus, god of the Shadows, are the first divinities deriving from primordial chaos. Nyx alone begat Thanatos, god of Death, and Eris, goddess of Discord. Our attempt to control the night through perpetual illumination finds its origins in a multitude of mythical and historic interpretations which have long contributed to stigmatising it as a dangerous or violent space. This desperate and almost demiurgical attempt attests, in my opinion, to a security-obsessed infantilisation, which, besides depriving the men and women who would like to experience it, reinforces the power dynamics already existing by day. And this has been exemplified during the curfews, which, through the absence of inhabitants, rendered much more visible the men and women who we usually don’t see (the homeless, exiles, precarious workers, sex workers), reflecting a reality entirely eclipsed by the powers that be. The multiplication of surveillance cameras in public space also contribute to creating a kind of paranoia that generates a source of latent anxiety, more than a sense of security, resulting from the asepticisation and behavioural control. In the text that you mention, I describe the experience of the antipathetic presence of cameras and billboards, which maintain us within a flux of behavioural loops and insipid activities. It goes without saying that nighttime is not the same in the downtown area as in the peripheral suburbs, in urban milieus or in rural milieus. I live in Saint-Denis, in the Parisian region, and the night is much more fertile and mysterious there than in Paris, where the ubiquitous public lighting can represent a real obstacle to the nocturnal experience and the subcultures that it harbours.
LF: How do you approach your writing practice? Is it linked to your practice of sculpture?
FD: There is a very sculptural dimension that exists in my way of writing texts. I do not dissociate one from the other, for me it’s the same way of approaching the conception of a poetic thought. It is not rare that my pieces exist in time and later cease to exist per se, to transform themselves through another piece. It is the same thing with writings: I write snippets of text that I rearrange and reassemble, creating a kind of cosmogony that emanates from these precise moments of my daily life. Nevertheless, in my texts, I never know what the final form will be, whereas my sculptures always start with a sketch. I then repeat one hundred times what may appear to be the same drawing, in such a way as to saturate my imagination, to enable it to evolve through new and autonomous forms. Then I try to bring these traits together in space, notably through the practice of soldering and couture. I recently thought of what this gesture of pricking dot by dot into the leather means, into what is likened to a skin, which was once alive but is no longer, and how this thing can come back to life in sculpture.
LF: Your artworks convoke a sensual world at the same time as something potentially more violent, by using only curves, and yet the line is taught and incisive. In this erotic dialectic that can seem rather dark, I see an attempt to ward off negative emotions in order to better re-appropriate them.
FD: My work does explore an ambiguity, that which consists of thinking that fears with which night and darkness are often associated represent all kinds of reasons to venture into them and lose oneself. This state of loss is inherent to the pursuit of a kind of truth which would be offered through withdrawal. I don’t think that art can exist in a safe zone, and these sculptures bear witness to the bonds that unite them to this thought.
1 According to Guy Debord, “la psychogéographie se proposerait l’étude des lois exactes et des effets précis du milieu géographique, consciemment aménagé ou non, agissant directement sur le comportement affectif des individus.” (Psychogeography proposes the study of the exact laws and precise effects of the geographic context, whether or not this is consciously constructed, acting directly on the emotional behaviour of individuals.) Applied to dérive, it enables the “observation de certains processus du hasard et du prévisible de la rue” (observation of certain chance or predictable processes of the street). Guy Debord, “Introduction à une critique de la géographie urbaine”, Les Lèvres nues no 6, Brussels, 1955, 6–7
2 Curatorial project initiated by Pierre-Alexandre Mateos, Rasmus Myrup, Octave Perrault, and Charles Teyssou on the occasion of the 16th Venice Biennale of Architecture (2018).
3 François Durel, 2021
- According to Guy Debord, “la psychogéographie se proposerait l’étude des lois exactes et des effets précis du milieu géographique, consciemment aménagé ou non, agissant directement sur le comportement affectif des individus.” (Psychogeography proposes the study of the exact laws and precise effects of the geographic context, whether or not this is consciously constructed, acting directly on the emotional behaviour of individuals.) Applied to dérive, it enables the “observation de certains processus du hasard et du prévisible de la rue” (observation of certain chance or predictable processes of the street). Guy Debord, “Introduction à une critique de la géographie urbaine”, Les Lèvres nues no 6, Brussels, 1955, 6–7
- Curatorial project initiated by Pierre-Alexandre Mateos, Rasmus Myrup, Octave Perrault, and Charles Teyssou on the occasion of the 16th Venice Biennale of Architecture (2018).
- François Durel, 2021