Sophie Lapalu: In 2010–2011, you took the Masters in Arts and Politics (SPEAP), then joined the School of Public Affairs at Sciences Po. The presentation of the programme is as follows: “This course invites students to confront their knowledge and methods to concrete problematics posed by society. The challenge is to succeed in exploring new forms of representation for controversial political, economic, environmental and/or scientific issues.” What motivated you to embark on this Masters programme? What issue did you work on? I mean, how did your artistic skills contribute to creating a “new form of representation” and how did you make use of them? What I’m interested in understanding here more generally is the vision of art as expressed in this course.
Simon Ripoll-Hurier: The heart of SPEAP at the time was to experience, in an experimental mode, the pragmatic political model that Bruno Latour was developing based on John Dewey or Walter Lippmann, centred on the notion of public issues,1 which the various actors concerned come to be involved in. In this model, the artist’s tools must contribute to producing new representations, so, to reassembling the problem in a new way and therefore advancing the political, diplomatic process, etc. It’s very convincing, except when the figure of the artist envisaged is very far from the reality in the field. I think that the problem with this programme – at the time, at least – was precisely the fact that there was no vision of art per se, other than a very theoretical notion, a bit like a machine for producing representations. It is as if the incredible investigative work that Latour had undertaken in laboratories, at the Conseil d’État, or in so many other fields, he did not deem useful to undertake in the field of contemporary art (irrespective of what this term might refer to). Also, in his Enquête sur les modes d’existence,2 if I remember rightly, the only mode relating to the activity of art is [FIC] (fiction) – that’s not really enough. Of course, this does not invalidate his system, which is not sealed off, but it does indicate something about a potential lack in this area. However, there have been some very fortunate counterparties, such as for instance the obsession on the programme with the “field”, in the sense used in the social sciences and particularly in anthropology. I think that we can say that SPEAP, along with many other things, contributed to infusing ethnographic tools into the forms of contemporary art of this past decade. For me, that has been a valuable movement.
SL: Can you specify what your field has been exactly, your practical experience and how you have brought in your “tools of the trade” as an artist?
SRH: This term “as an artist” is problematic, since it is because you are engaged in certain kinds of practices and attention to the world that you engage in these “fields” somehow, not “as” an individual “from the field of art”. At any rate, having spent five years at the SPEAP (as a student, as a technician, then as a tutor), I saw around thirty or so of these “commissions” go by (that was the term used, borrowed from François Hers and the Nouveaux commanditaires, and referring to a specific relationship in which the stakeholders of a given field became “commissioners” of the project) and I can tell you that the best-performing of these were always precisely the ones for which the field was the most clearly defined and engaging. As a student, I had worked with around half a dozen people on a re-enactment of a climate summit (COP15) that was held at Sciences Po. We had developed an ethnographic method of monitoring several delegates and members of the secretariat and the GIEC1 (whose roles were all played by students at Sciences Po), and we had made a film screened at the opening and a document for the closing ceremony. At the time, my tools had mostly been used for this opening film, which replayed quite a few of the issues of the time for me: questions of editing, of the use of images found online, of speech…
SL: You are absolutely right to bring up this ambiguity; I was stressing the “artist” status to name various methods from a different field. Have the tools of art seeped into anthropology? But in the end, I’m realising that your questions (editing, found images, speech) might equally be those of citizens. Your film Diana, which you completed in 2017, is an investigation that starts with the abandoned radio telescope in the Parc de la Villette. The Association des Radioamateurs de Paris is practising sending signals to the moon, which then rebound off the asteroid to return to Earth, but in an altered state. Unable to use the radio telescope for utilitarian purposes, the exchange is reduced to the phatic functions of language – messages that mainly serve to establish or interrupt communication, to check whether or not it’s working. This led me to meet people seeking to make contact with ghosts (The Silent Keys, 2015) or amateur ornithologists imitating birdsong in order to observe them (Losing The Bird, 2015)… The investigation is a working method, yet the filmed images are left unexplained – there is no outcome or conclusion to be obtained from them. It resembles a documentary, but the voiceover is mute and you detect stagings that come to disrupt the distinction between what comes from fiction and what doesn’t. In the end, the antennae moving on the rooftop of the UIT2 in Geneva or the ghost evacuation operations in the basement of an American military base appear just as made up as the sound of the fife at the Basel carnival, the scenes of drummers parading in a basement or the nighttime monologue of a history professor.
SRH: The usual question of the fiction-documentary distinction doesn’t interest me much. Once you’ve acquired the obvious fact that all images are fabricated, you enter into the more interesting question of how they are fabricated and then into the one, which I find central, of how different images interact among themselves. In Diana, there is an overall aesthetic unity that affirms something quite pictorial, or staged, we might say. But what we have to bear in mind is that these images started to be fabricated well before I arrived (amateur radio has been fine-tuning itself for a century now, bird watching for an eternity, not to mention the Basel carnival, which is the oldest in Europe…). These practices brought together in Diana don’t need me or anyone from the outside to represent them. For me, the work consisted of collating them and, particularly, in tracing a series of lines between them. Themes are repeated: each time, seated bodies emit signals through various technical apparatuses. They are all addressed to invisible creatures: invisible because they are distant in the case of the ham radio operators, because they are hidden for the birdwatchers, and because they are from another world for the ghost hunters. After the transmission, there is the expectation of a response, which is always a signal to be deciphered amid a host of parasites (crackling of radios, stridulations of cicadas, hum of the fan in the basement) and that involves very specific listening abilities. Each practice, in its own way, questions the subject of telecommunication in relation not only to DIY, but also to belief. During meetings with the various protagonists, I always tried to be as transparent as possible about my intentions. And it was striking to observe that, most of the time, the connections that I was making seemed pertinent to them, it was acceptable for them to see themselves associated with these other communities that they didn’t know anything or much about. This research was really a task of association.
SL: This interest in radio was also associated for a long time with your involvement in the editorial committee of *DUUU, a web radio founded in 2012 and dedicated to contemporary creation, which numerous artists and critics contribute to. In 2016, after the Paris attacks, the DRAC launched a residency mission in Gennevilliers, an artistic job offer that asked the resident to “commit artistically to an experimental approach for the purposes of cultural democratisation, using the most powerful of pressure points: that of artistic and cultural education.” Your candidacy was successful and you were based at T2G; how did you respond to this “mission”? What did that involve for you?
SRH: Our proposal tried to be as clear as possible from the outset, by affirming itself not as a project, but more as a presence. We suggested simply being there, and developing the activity of the radio on the Gennevilliers territory and in relation to the “inhabitants”, whatever that might mean. The only coherent thing was the medium. We were very pleasantly surprised to be chosen, because it went against preconceived ideas about this kind of commission and “the art of mounting a project”. We tried from the start to be clear about the fact that we were getting to set up situations, while trying as much as possible to involve the “target audiences” (and in particular what they call the ‘non-public’, this fringe of the population that escapes all radars of the social and cultural framework). But from then on, there was no guaranteed result – not that we weren’t sure to manage it, but because that shouldn’t be our problem. It’s always a bit strange to feel as though in situations where national education seems to fail, where the police struggle, where social workers feel powerless, etc., artists are called in to rally round. We even heard someone basically tell us once that if there was an artist in each stairwell there would be less dealing. But beyond these general questions and a few initial misunderstandings, we really played the game of this very local work and it was all done with a very good understanding with the city’s services, with the theatre that hosted us, and with all of the participants in all these things that have taken place in recent years. And all of these people make up a very nice and completely heterogeneous assembly, which was brought together on 18 January 2019 for a big meal shared in the hall adjoining the theatre.
SL: Stage director Jean-Pierre Vincent published an opinion column in Libération on 4 October 2018, in which he rails against a non-existent cultural policy, which doesn’t concern itself with the active role of art in society. He quoted Benedetto Croce, cited by Antonio Gramsci: “art is educative as art and not as educative art; because as educative art, it is nothing; and nothingness cannot teach.” Jean-Pierre Vincent then affirmed: “Artists – who, once again, take care of a considerable amount of work in society – are nevertheless not social workers, or law enforcement agents. Let’s hope that they are and remain agents of disorder, lucidity, and critical thinking.” What freedom do you have within this framework to remain agents of disorder?
SRH: What is always complicated with these big speeches is seeing with what disarming tranquillity they use the singular everywhere. Art, Disorder, Critical Thinking… It is very good to hope that artists remain agents of disorder, but it doesn’t hold a lot of water, in the sense that it is also basically what Emmanuel Macron declared when he hosted the Parisian art world at the Élysée during the last FIAC. As long as artists remain the agents of disorder, we know how to handle it, to confine it to a white cube, a stage, to projects in public space. It is surprising how, often, these columns on cultural policies stem precisely from people who produce them. It’s as though they’re settling scores with their financial backers. So, of course I share this virulent critique of Macron and of course we can’t delight in a loss of credits for art or culture, but generally speaking, I find all of these discourses that position the art with or without political commitment as a rampart against barbarism, against capitalism, or whatever else, to be terribly reactionary. It essentialises its function, whereas artistic activity is no more nor less complex than the world in which it takes place. To me, art – whatever this word refers to – is not really in danger, even if all the institutions that currently support it were to disappear. Kind of in the same way that climate change doesn’t threaten life with a big L, but certain forms of life in particular. That doesn’t diminish the seriousness of the threat, but it decentres it a bit.
SL: You’re right to highlight the impasses of such a discourse; it’s true that Macron also talks about “the undisciplined”. I don’t know whether Vincent is proposing art as a rampart against barbarism; I read his text more like the desire to defend the much-touted notion of “freedom” of art. What interested me there was thinking about art in terms of its effects – and the inevitable impossibility of evaluating them. You belonged to the Orange Rouge programme, which, at the initiative of artist Corinne Digard, invites artists to work on the creation of a collective work with teenagers from ULIS classes (Unités localisées pour l’inclusion scolaire), disabled individuals. How did you respond to the request made by the association?
SRH: The ULIS classes bring together teenagers with very diverse handicaps, which creates very different groups from one class to the next. When we compare our experiences among the artists who participated in this, they are often completely different. In this respect, it is very complicated to imagine something beforehand. So I wanted to start with a very broad question, to see how they could appropriate it and how we could build on that. I suggested they think about the notion of an alarm signal. What would it look like? What would its purpose be? What reasons would there be to sound this alarm? etc. Everyone arrived with a series of ideas and the whole thing looked a bit like a collection of worries. Then, with the help of a keyboard that I’d brought along and digital synthesisers, each individual composed their own alarm. There was one in the event of collision with the Moon or a meteorite shower for instance, or if ever churches were to disappear, or air, parents, oneself… I also showed them a lot of graphic scores (Cornelius Cardew, Max Neuhaus, Walter Ruttmann, etc.) and very soon they had become quite the synesthetes. We played a lot with that on the whiteboard, drawing live over projected images, and that’s what led to the final arrangement. It was very beautiful to feel this convergence of focus and see this world that was starting to emerge between us. And I was fortunate enough to happen upon a very welcoming and enthusiastic team.
SL: The risk of instrumentalization is very high, both for the students and the artists, and the goals announced by the association are questionable (for the teenager, “to find recognition in the benevolent eye and judgement of artists, the teaching staff, and within the family, notably through the public showcasing of the work during the exhibition”; for the family, “parental pride”; for the artist, “promoting their practice among different audiences”)… What do you think of the programme? Does it give itself the possibility of being a collective tool for emancipation?
SRH: In a certain way, this gets back to this story of art “as rampart”. Its corollary is of course art as an instrument of emancipation. It is entirely possible, yet falls within a particular ecology, in a collective struggle within which artistic activity is just one element among others. It cannot function as an abstract notion with no solid grounding. Imagine an artist answering a job offer and finding themselves confronted by a group who never chose this and who didn’t even chose to be put together (an intermediate class, for instance). Can collective emancipation emerge in this situation? It’s beyond improbable. However, a beautiful relationship can settle in, possibly even a beautiful work can result from it – and that’s already better than nothing. Eventually we can also tell ourselves that, by intervals, a vocation might emerge… But the rhetoric of Orange Rouge that you’re talking about refers less to emancipation and struggle than to something of the order of personal development, rather American-style, and we also sense a lot of self-legitimising and elements designed to please the funders (who must always convince themselves that what they are funding is in the public interest). What is problematic is possibly the discrepancy between these intentions and the programme’s tendency to name-drop major artists from the French scene, without really first establishing, for instance, their “benevolent judgement” with respect to these teenagers (what does that actually mean?). However, I would strongly relativize the risk of instrumentalization you mentioned; all of this remains very modest. In any case, that was not my experience. Orange Rouge funded the project and put me in touch with the class, but it basically stopped there…