The ideal of an artists’ community revives some old fantasies: autonomy and independence in the face of social rules or professional norms and a desire to do things differently and in different places. Very often tested, the track record of the community would have us believe that it is utopian. More often associated with poetics and aesthetic sublimation, it is only with great difficulty that it becomes compatible and viable, when it comes to its establishment within a broader social reality in practical terms. Through the examples of Monstrare Camp and Bermuda, two community experiments with different aims, the artist Maxime Bondu and his companions are nonetheless trying to see how the poetic and the radical could merge at the heart of a concrete organisation.
Benoît Lamy de La Chapelle: Can you retrace the origins of the Monstrare Camp project?
Maxime Bondu: The Monstrare Camp is the continuity of the Monstrare initiative that started in 2007 at the Beaux-Arts de Brest when we were students, and that aimed to launch our experiments and research concerning the presentation of artistic practices outside of the school. After a few exhibition projects, the initiative evolved towards a certain kind of radicality and a communal commitment, with the opportunity of occupying a rather hostile site, in a former tufa limestone quarry, later converted into a mushroom bed, then abandoned in the mid-1990s. It was a private domain located in Dampierre-sur-Loire, near Saumur. It belongs to my father, who has lived there for about a decade. The site spans nearly 30 000 m2 over three levels with very different atmospheres. The ground floor, with the main access, has a large open concrete surface, and opens onto cavities with light shafts and 15th century troglodyte homes. The second level is a forest area leading out to Saumur-Champigny vines, and the basement level is a gigantic maze of pitch-dark galleries. This site is powerful and we often describe it as “dominant”, like the alpha of a pack. In fact, we don’t occupy it; it hosts us.
BldLC: Your activities are already in their fourth phase; they have happened differently each time. How did they get organised? How did they build from one another? What was their common denominator?
MB: The first version of the camp in 2012 was obviously fundamental and was supported by the Neuchâtel Art Centre, which was relocated to the Dampierre-sur-Loire site for a month in mid-winter. A meeting was held before the session began and an exhibition was presented at Neuchâtel afterwards. The session was tough, as the place is hostile, and the experience for the team was difficult but it was at that time that we were able to establish the camp and its objectives. We started by installing trailers in front of the caves, like a base camp, which enabled us to start exploring the site and begin to organise and renovate it. The site was full of objects of all kinds; we use what’s there. The first important and almost subconscious gesture was to name the various areas then to undertake renovations that would interconnect the three levels via what we baptised Point Zéro. The second and third editions allowed a certain autonomy to be affirmed, establishing the camp over time and setting up its “core group”, who organise the sessions. The fourth edition, however, had a similar structure to the first, in response to an invitation made by La Chapelle Jeanne d’Arc Art Centre in Thouars. By refusing the idea of organising a collective exhibition, we made use of a tool that could be used by all the people who’d been invited on the visit, who produced the content of the exhibition, and who ran the session over a two-month period. A mobile camera, with 300m of cable, was constantly filming. The video broadcast was transmitted to the basement of the Chapelle, rebounding over four screens, and an image from the broadcast was printed every five minutes. A device on the ground floor level of La Chapelle thus allowed a unique publication to be produced of what was happening in the caves. So all kinds of actions became possible, from documentary to fiction, photography or installation.
BldLC: What are you looking for with activities like these?
MB: I would say that the camp is primarily a collective imitative and that, in quite a simplistic way, the primary aim is to build friendships. Finding each other and meeting on this stone giant, exploring, tinkering, and thinking within it creates some powerful bonds. It’s an experience that attempts to counter a certain individualism that you can sometimes find among artists, or that is taught in certain art schools. Long-term thinking and practice are also very important elements of this action. Time allows for changes in opinion, repetitions, and establishing new connections. We very often have time constraints in the production of our work and in responding to an invitation to exhibit – the Monstrare Camp tries to do the opposite.
BldLC: Is “camp” a term that would be more accurate that that of community? Do you think that a new paradigm for working and living together has emerged through the camp’s activity?
MB: During the first edition and after hours of discussion between the participants, concerning questions about holding residencies, becoming an institution, community organisation and autonomy, we decided that the camp would be a temporal and spatial marker, without any obligation to produce anything, in which the participants at the sessions would be invited to return from one year to the next and where others would be invited to join us gradually, through filiation or co-option. This principle enables the experience to be deepened over the long term. We don’t want to welcome the public on site, either; the site is closed to visitors and has no financial support other than that of the participants. There is of course the support from the CAN and La Chapelle Jeanne d’Arc, but they are institutions that deal with the concept and action of presentation. The camp can therefore take on many guises: it is a place for research, a hermitage or shelter, or, conversely, it can become a place of production or intense and very physical renovation.
BldLC: In some sense, this project is an “inner circle” in terms of its social practice, a somewhat sectarian community (co-option, filiation, closure to the public), which could however take advantage of its experience to propose a viable socio-political model to a wider community...
MB: It’s true that groups that gravitate around a particular field often seem, from the outside, hard to penetrate and will rapidly be perceived as elitist. But that would be a misjudgement. The field of art is one of the most open of all fields and allows infinite variations of collaborations with other areas of research and other techniques.
Contrary to that, from a different point of view, circles of likeminded individuals seem important to me. It’s a means of reciprocal recognition with respect to a group, a family. In the case of the Monstrare Camp, the principle of filiation should be taken in a very broad sense and without restriction other than that of the individual’s ability to adapt to a hostile environment. What is amusing is that the principle of filiation is based on an exponential curve: one person who is invited will invite people, who will invite more people. Sharing ideas and proposing socio-political models – if there are any – can also be done in that way, as it’s a wonderful vector of propagation.
BldLC: With a quick overview of a few artistic communities, starting with the Ecole de Barbizon, then the Pont-Aven group, or the communal experiences symptomatic of modernity, some of which – such as Monte Verità in Switzerland, or, the lesser known but significant the “Kindred of the Kibbo Kift” by John Hargrave in Great Britain – were unfortunately undermined by totalitarian politics, we find in all of them a constant search for mysticism as a common denominator. We find religious sentiments (and not a religion, which Fourier would have liked to create, for instance), a return to the origins, a kind of magic. There is also the fact that, like yours, they delight in “natural” sites, highly charged with energy, involving a re-education of our relationship to nature. Do you recognise a connection with these experiences?
MB: Firstly, you have to be able to define the moment when a mystical-spiritual contribution becomes a religion. It is a question of scale and of what might govern the micro and the macro. It’s a complex question, because it could be said that our societies are already based on a mystical-spiritual contribution, through the three main monotheistic religions, which have themselves changed in scale, but that, from the outset, spread a certain amount of proselytism and desire to conquer (unlike Confucianism, for instance). All three also claim to act with the aim of improving the relationships of human beings in relation to their environment and to each other.
Once the danger has been named, it seems to me that the spiritual does play an important role in the conception of thought. It is an ability to render abstract, which could allow – if it doesn’t become a constraint through dogma – the development of abstract concepts that the sensorial experience cannot reveal. In this respect, cosmology, the analysis of the birth of the universe and quantum physics are very similar to spirituality and can seem related to the mystical. Without necessarily falling into New Age thinking, positioning oneself in alignment with these experiments seems like a good path towards striking a balance.
BldLC: Nevertheless I would tend to think that the question of mysticism and spiritualism exists outside of the religions that frame and govern it. It liberates itself from them easily. In the end, religion really doesn’t come into it when it’s a question of our direct (physical and mental) relationship to the world, to nature, and the cosmos. Have you witnessed any paranormal phenomena inside the cave?
MB: Yes, of course, this question exists outside of the context of religions but also sways very quickly towards dogma. Quite a lot of things happen on the Dampierre site that we might describe as strange and that, with a bit of sensitivity, could constitute a number of elements that could inspire dogmatic texts. It also weaves a narrative framework with strong fictional potential that is useful to us in generating new sessions. For instance, the ghost of a little girl who we occasionally encounter on the basement level sparked our recent two-month session filmed over 24 hours (we haven’t finished watching all the rushes, incidentally), just as the fox will open the next edition. As for the rest, you’d have to experience it...
BldLC: Do you think it’s still possible for artists to handle the existence of their work beyond the relationship with institutions and the market? Is that what artists want? Do they have to give up one in order to access the other?
MB: Talking about a common desire for artists seems quite complicated to me given the heterogeneity of the milieu, practices, and objectives, and the idea of the existence of a work with no relationship to the institutions or the market is a complex thing to evaluate.
At the same time, I don’t want to fall into the trap here of “talking up” disinterested artistic work, in which art would only be “true” once it has disentangled itself from the dominant system in which it exists, is represented, and communicated. Although it’s a very seductive idea, in my view it’s rather simplistic, it has been tested many times, and has itself become, through a quest for authenticity, a product of the market. As for the possibility of existing alone, for oneself, as art in and of itself, that strikes me as an imposture. But I fundamentally believe that this “taking charge” of the existence of artistic work must be able to be shared and move around within a number of systems – which have yet to be invented, in parallel – so that a way of thinking can subsist without necessarily being subjected to the market and the institutions.
BldLC: You were also behind the project Bermuda, an artists’ workshop project based on a collaborative model, at the French-Swiss border. From a distance, and if we compare the two projects, we could see the Monstrare Camp project as an idealist and poetic version, whereas the Bermuda project seems to be the more concrete counterpart, anchored in reality (professional and economic realities, etc.). Can you outline Bermuda for us? And if there is a connection, how would you relate it to the spirit of the Monstrare Camp? Do you consider it as an alternative way of showing art?
MB: The Bermuda project probably would not have existed without the Monstrare Camp. Both in terms of its communal philosophy and owing to the team who initiated it. All of them stayed in Dampierre and some even met there. Eight of us became associates (five artists, a curator, an architect, and a programmer) in order to acquire a piece of land and build on it, and that construction will be organised in phases. The design is underway and depends on our final budget – the idea is to build a certain number of modules that will be arranged around a central square like a village. They will be equipped technical studios that are open to the public, individual studios, a residency area, communal living areas, as well as versatile spaces that can host conferences and co-working situations or be used to assemble monumental works. Two thirds of the building will be open to the public; the last third will be workspaces for the eight associates. Rather that an alternative for presenting art, the project aims to rethink production, transmission, and presentation through a collaborative and autonomous model. The idea is also to find the way to perpetuate economically fragile artistic practices and support production.
We are trying, at every phase of the project, to question the complex systems such a project involves, from the legal framework to the funding and architectural design, the method of construction and the life of the project once it has been built. At the heart of Bermuda, we find notions of autonomy and cooperation, artistic practices, research, and transmission, with a hint of schizophrenia. The construction site will begin in September 2017 with the opening scheduled for the following summer. It is obviously a more complex counterpart from a legal and economic perspective, but these two initiatives, both the Monstrare Camp and Bermuda, should be seen from the perspective of their endemic nature, in the sense that, owing to their forms, functions, and creative processes, they are artistic responses to their environments.