November 2011: Interview with Alexis Valliant

Maurico Cattelan, Mini Wrong Gallery, 2005, Des Hughes,1999-2001
©Mairie de Boredeaux Photo: F. Deval

I’m sitting in an enviable position. I’m upstairs in the vast, sky-lit museum office foyer - the very opposite of an anteroom, of the CAPC musée d’art contemporain in Bordeaux sitting across from Alexis Vaillant, chief curator for the museum. Vaillant was appointed to the position in December 2009 as part of the museum re-organization by director Charlotte Laubard. We speak about his background, his beginnings and how he appropriates things in order to transform stimuli into experience and questions. 

Alexis Vaillant: I studied both art history and philosophy in Paris, art history at L’Ecole du Louvre and philosophy at Paris 8 University, it’s a university created by Foucault, Deleuze used to teach there. It’s a place in Paris where philosophy is taught not as a history of philosophy but where thinkers come to deliver their research. I was not okay with both of them (laughing) because philosophy was really philosophy and art history at l’Ecole du Louvre is very scholarly, it goes very fast and you have to learn so much about objects, that you become a machine, so I was asking how knowledge can produce something when mixed between thinking and looking at objects. I had to appropriate as many things as I could to transform what I was listening to and looking at into something I could experience. It was also unconscious and a lively way to use knowledge to make something out of this mix. It’s something I realized a bit later but this is how I escaped or did something with my studies afterwards.  I did a thesis at the Collège International de Philosophy which is not linked to the ministry of education but the ministry of research, it’s a research diploma. The topic was the development of the museum of contemporary art on political, sociological, aesthetic and philosophical levels. The main filter was the work of Robert Smithson, the American artist; everything was filtered by his ideas.  In ’95 I went to Mamco (Geneva museum of modern and contemporary art). The team was very new and nothing was very well structured. Before I left there, I was working with Marc-Olivier Wahler who is the current director of Palais Tokyo. I stayed there for 4 years, then I went back to Paris and I created a non-profit organization (The Toasting Agency), I was totally dependent…

Jane Boyer: …or independent (laughing)

Vaillant: …and independent but super dependent, which is an equivalent presentation of independence in the arts.  So The Toasting Agency… toasting is a word which comes from Jamaican culture. “To toast” is to talk on a microphone. In the 50s the island of Jamaica was submitted to a very strong dictatorship and people used to express themselves from one garden to another, first it started in the house then from one house to another, then from one neighbourhood to another, it became bigger and bigger. They used to talk with a mic on existing songs, so there was this dimension on top of this already existing recorded song. The idea was to use this mechanism and activate it within the exhibition field. Considering in Paris it was very dense, very compact, there was no space left. If you look at the context [of Paris] as the recorded element, it becomes fixed and if you want to play within this context you have to take the mic, which is a metaphor for making exhibitions inside existing spaces; that’s why we called it The Toasting Agency. There was nothing, there was only a phone number and an email, it was super dematerialized. Our first show took place in a hair salon; the show was totally invisible inside the hair salon. Each month a haircut was proposed and activated by the artist, who was the hair dresser. So this social thing became very attractive and people were seduced by this. We didn’t have any money to start and so we had to use what was available. The structure of some businesses can be appropriated by others, without any serious danger for them, to use their tools to activate people to say something else. In a few months all the media were super excited by this and we had kind of this standing in people’s thoughts. People were very surprised and disappointed because they thought we were doing haircuts, but we didn’t care one second about haircuts – (laughing) that wasn’t the point. It was more about the Duchampian dematerialized show, I mean there was this readymade discourse from the art point of view but there was this social situation. Parallel with this we were organizing lectures in driving schools because everything was there, you had projectors and seats. We did lectures with Baudrillard, so we had fifteen people inside with a queue of 300 people outside. That was a kind of a panic, it was a sub-comment to the fact that the context was blocked by a lack of space and a lack of money and we didn’t want to make the sacrifice to entertain a grey cube, that would be dirty to play like a classic gallery or a mini-museum with no money and no clear orientation. You can imagine all this kind of art action was not financially viable or productive. It was a kind of business card and this became a name to curate shows – “care of”. “Care of” means you can curate and finally you have institutions and more money there.

Boyer: In BigMinis and DYSTOPIA, your first two exhibitions as chief curator for CAPC, you made the decision to place historical works in context with contemporary works. What was behind that decision?

Vaillant: Um, many reasons why this is interesting. The first reason is to say something new is connected to the past but that past can be seen, can be considered as something new, so it goes both ways. Bringing historical works into contemporary context provides the idea that past and present and future, they are not so separated the way we think they are. That is why it’s interesting to put them together sometimes, because it’s the official vision that separates. I mean, it’s like your question, it’s a way to think that things, whatever their age, remain available for the thinking, for the vision. It’s another part of context, The Tempest (by the 19th century English painter, John Martin) has been unframed downstairs, it’s exhibited on black walls, and certainly it becomes more rock ‘n’ roll with the video by Dan Graham next to it, and it’s interesting to see it very close to the Japanese faces by On Kawara; this is from one catastrophe to the other. It is the classical catastrophe, I mean, that was the idea to have the archetype of a catastrophe, but it’s also literally used or activated here. It’s not exhibited like at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux, they are going to re-exhibit it in a few months. It’s the idea of availability and suddenly it becomes like a monstrous treasure, it’s history, it’s using art. If you consider artworks as available to say something different, something else that is appropriate and useful, it becomes great – and playful.

Installation View, Dystopia , ©Mairie de Bordeaux, Photo: F. Deval

Boyer: It’s really wonderful that you included that historical work because it made the viewer reconsider what that work was, what it meant, what it means now, what it means bathed in the fluorescent light of Dirty Martini by Blair Thurman, which is also the colour of the flame in the painting. It activates the painting. 

Vaillant: In BigMinis, for instance, you had a small painting like this (demonstrating the size with his hands) by Picabia it’s called Tableau du Voyage, of course it’s a political work, but in a very decadent way. He did those paintings only as tableau de poche, pocket paintings. He did a show, I think with twelve of them, in 1942 in Cannes, right at the moment when the Germans were occupying France, right before the whole occupation. It was for rich people in Cote d’Azur just before general escapism. So if you had to escape and leave everything you had…it’s a kind of a critical vision of rich people; to save something from that context, it would be the pocket painting. So this was dramatic from one side and so very interesting and influential on the other historically for BigMinis.  Duchamp used to say the artwork doesn’t exist, only the artist. When he said that it was a moment when he had the feeling that everything was concentrated on the artwork and not on the ideas that the artwork was promoting. It was, I think, his main regret that the artwork always was considered as an object. That’s the story of the readymades, because Fountain has existed for 40 years as a photo not as an object. It was photographed in 1917 but then it disappeared as an object. Duchamp became the master of repetition when he declared all the originals were lost and he asked his dealer in the 50’s to put back eight copies on the market and sign them R. Mutt with the date. The photo of the object became the guarantee of the object. The idea, it was a rumour. That’s what photography is, it is something between people, it’s why we can talk, it’s not like “okay bring the Fountain here so we can talk about it” (as he gestures playfully to the empty floor next to where we are seated). No, we have the image and the image of the object becomes mentally fixed in our brains and then we can talk about the object, but the object is not there, there is no model, I mean the model is mental, it’s the photo. That’s the idea of keeping the availability of something, they can be exhibited in other contexts and that’s their force. It is very difficult, you know when a work has been identified as an object with a specific discourse, just to say, okay well this is it, but this is also that. It’s a story about that and if you put it in this context it becomes something else; that’s how it really becomes interesting. So that’s why historical works are always useful in contemporary art shows. They keep their own identity. It’s not only about a kind of appropriationism, or post-appropriation or even cynicism. It’s not to give more weight to a contemporary art show; it’s not to say contemporary artwork is not sufficient enough to produce a strong statement. It’s not a relationship of dependency, it’s more like a compliment and it’s always very interesting – always.

Boyer: I found your choices to be very courageous actually. I do, I find it a very courageous thing to take something historical and bring it into present time, saying this is something which needs to be reconsidered perhaps, or will be reconsidered because I’ve presented it to you. It’s very forceful.

Vaillaint: For instance the work by On Kawara downstairs is a kind of shock for everybody because this work hasn’t been identified, it’s like a new work but it comes from ’55 and it was not considered by the artist himself, before ’95 when an Italian-Swiss printer decided to transform those thirty faces as a portfolio. It’s a portfolio downstairs, but people don’t know, is it a ’95 work or a ’55 work? Is it a document, is it cartoonesque? This is so strange because On Kawara, who sent postcards and only produced big paintings, why did he do that before? So it’s a way to reconsider the whole work. When you put the detail central, then it feeds the whole work and it re-questions something that has become a fossil, so that is interesting.  I went quite far when I did a show called RAW- Ruins of an Automatic World, in the Netherlands, I concentrated on the idea of contemporary ruins, that was in 2007. One room in this show had only damaged works. It was quite complex to consider because works were not exhibited. It wasn’t to make fun of them because they were destroyed, but the question was three dimensional in the sense of damaged artwork cannot be exhibited anymore, not because it is damaged but because the picture of it enters into a kind of contradiction with its passport for eternity. The image of an artwork is a guarantee of the artwork into the future. It’s quite complex to deal with because it’s difficult to find. It’s difficult to find broken and damaged artworks in public collections because you have this critical understanding of our job, you know, it should be restored, but that is funny because a work that is back to life or which is restored is kind of in a totally opposite position when you consider it on a contemporary level. It’s worth discussing.

Boyer: Essentially you are validating time and the fact that these objects, that have become damaged, have existed in time and have passed through time. You’re validating that and saying, that’s part of it.

Vaillant: Even if it’s not easy. I mean, I’m not for or against or being hesitant, it’s just asking what do we do with them. What do we do when we restore something? The stories were crazy and super interesting, often more interesting than the original.

Boyer: You have noted the tendency by artists to compile documents as part of their research or in the recording of their transient work. Do you see them as historical documents or as part of the creative process, part of the creative output perhaps?

Vaillant: ….both. No, no I don’t have a clear vision, I mean, why so many documents and to document what? That would be my first question when confronted with a document of something which is out of the frame. Sometimes it’s there and it’s an easy thing, I mean, it looks like a document but it’s the work, it’s the moment. It looks like a moment or sounds like a moment but finally it becomes the work. And then you have documents which have become aestheticized. You have to go to the project of every artist just to understand why.  And then you have documents because the thing doesn’t exist anymore and these are clear documentation. Then you have non-existing documents and non-existing works…

Boyer: Explain that.

Vaillant: Well, for instance we have a section in the museum called Archives. It’s an important project for us because we put sections on the website. Our next exploration of Archives is an exhibition that took place here in ’95, called Traffic, by Nicolas Bourriaud. It’s a show with no archives – and so what do we do with that? I mean, it was an important exhibition, you have the book, it was before internet, usually you have faxes or correspondence but it seems that nobody has kept anything. So this is an interesting moment where a show has to be promoted in a certain way to become, let’s say, something available as a show. People have to enter a new thing and when you enter a new thing you don’t care about the archives, it’s just the promotion of that thing projected into the future of whatever is happening out of this projection. That is the point, so we are going to produce the missing archives today, going back making interviews; we’re going to make lectures because there is nothing left. It’s not because there is a lack of archives, but because the archives don’t exist, yet. This is quite interesting in terms of exploration. People will come here just to talk about what they remember, so it’s a recreation, it’s another level.  It’s true there’s a kind of aesthetical documentary thing at the moment, which I don’t know, it’s very important. Maybe it’s a guarantee of something, maybe it’s a way to escape the culture of the image or the object, it’s very oppressive also…

Boyer: Is it a way to guarantee the process perhaps?

Vaillant: But the process of what?

Boyer: Creation.

Vaillant: I mean is the documentation the result of something or the process of something? Is it the process when you read or when you look at the so called documentation? I mean, it’s difficult to say, and how it is presented, how you can use it? If it is documentation, what do you do with that, from that? So finally the questions are similar to the artworks. Most people think the artwork has to deliver a message, some people think they have to do something from the artwork. Hopefully the second one is here because of the first one. So the artwork is a question, it’s the question “what do you do for me?” If you would identify an artwork as a person, you would say, “what do you do for me?”, “what do you do with me?” There is a good sentence by J.G. Ballard, who said, "what you see depends on what you are looking for".  If you don’t look for anything, it is difficult to see anything. But do you count on anyone to explain that or will you recognize that? At this moment, at this particular moment you are in front of this or within that space and you are empty. If you don’t look for anything, then what can anyone do for you? That’s a good question.

Boyer: It is a good question; it’s almost an ultimate question.

Vaillant: It’s a sort of question of responsibility, I mean, it’s not dramatic at all, but it’s the responsibility of your own way of looking at things, the way it’s useful for people to produce this or that or to live with or continue to be fascinated or angry in front of art, with art. All this is very mental at the same time. I like to think that an exhibition - it sounds like a very stupid way to sum up curatorial practice, but the exhibition is first an experience. I mean, curating a show is to propose an experience, not to bring or set up a final proposal which has to be judged. It is unknown; it is difficult to be confident in it or just to be curious enough to escape your own doubt. It’s automatic for me, but I admit it’s not for most of the audience.

Installation View, Traffic, ©Mairie de Bordeaux, Photo: F. Deval. Copyright : Frédéric Delpech


Jane Boyer

Jane Boyer is an artist, curator, critic and committed peripatetic. Her formative years, which she believes are still in progress, were spent bouncing back and forth between California and the Southern US and most points in between. In 2005 she became an Irish citizen. She now lives in France, overlooking the Gironde Estuary and travels to London frequently for her practice.

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