Established in 2011, art research at ESACM invented itself – and continues to invent itself – collectively, by increasing the number of research mediums, developing its own subjects, trying out new methods and renewing methods, producing space-time projects and many types of research: study days, meetings and discussions, books, films, events, performances, exhibitions, reviews, telecasts, etc. The issues currently tackled are continually defined and redefined and inform all ongoing programmes and projects.
Initially, research is based around the lecturers’ shared areas of interest, as well as the specific features of the region in which the school is located: with a strong connection to landscape. This combines a reflective approach and the experience of existing natural forces, awareness of the omnipresence of human activity, which transforms, exploits and alters landscape, and the idea that the landscape is the place in which individuals are “spatially situated”, where social relationships are built and expressed. United under an initial theme entitled “Space in Landscapes”, these questions were addressed through a series of study days (published in a work by the same title) and research programmes (a research programme is a group of research lecturers and students united around a common research question). These provided a pretext and opportunity to confront different landscapes and situations involving ‘otherness’, through group experiences involving trips and overnight stays: Vercors, Marseille, Role (Collages in France), Marfa,Texas (The experience of landscape), Cotonou, Bénin (Import-Export, displaced landscapes), as well as fictional journeys (Robinson/Vendredi), which led to the development of shared forms and research methods.
Since 2012-2013, and inspired by the local environment and history as well as by a reality impacted by the world economic and financial crisis, a second area of research entitled “Worlds of Work” tackled the problematic of artistic endeavour – that is, activity that has the potential to emancipate— as well as questions relating to economic activity, which is often experienced as a constraint but is also as an essential part of social relationships. These questions were the subject of an inaugural discussion and the publication of Work at Work.
At a time when “creativity, initiative and invention are at the heart of the manufacture and consumption of goods in what is known as “artistic capitalism”, and in which a new momentum inflicts deep transformation on workplace organisational structures and the world; at a time when dreams of a different, as yet uncertain, future are trying to emerge, carrying out art research not “on” but “with” work, certainly involved observing work but also involved observing ourselves at work. Numerous programmes addressed and explored these different aspects, particularly basing themselves on fiction (cinema, literature): Un film infinit (travail) [An infinite film (work)], Machine Pollet (in collaboration with the Rhin, Annecy and Nîmes Schools of Art); discussions: Artistes en travail [Artists in work]; attempts to chart intersecting research through the design of an ephemera La pelote et la trame (The Ball and the Frame).
The research undertaken to date has often relied on methods that rely on cinema and live shows (which are equalisers due to their public nature), books and publishing (both as a source and research method), echoing the strong influence of literature in our work and in the development of forms of rendition and sharing that form one or many of the narratives of the research itself.
At the heart of the various programmes and projects carried out by researchers, research has been developed “hands on”. If the two important listings Espaces des paysages (Landscape spaces) and Mondes du travail (Worlds of Work) initially served as a point of reference for developing programmes and research projects, they have progressively been overtaken and displaced by developments in the research projects themselves, which introduced new questions and perspectives. This is particularly true for projects currently in process: Des exils [Exiles], Léviathan [Leviathan], Figures de transition [Transition Figures].
For this reason, these no longer seem effective and we prefer a broader shared question with undefined but stimulating boundaries that we can, no doubt maladroitly, sum up as: “How to feature (in) the world?”.
Informed by the critical approaches of science and human science, cinema, literature and all artistic expressions, we focus on working toward revising our sources and knowledge. Today, using approaches from different “environments” (Mediterranean and Central European, sub-Saharan Africa, American Midwest), our research addresses issues linked to migration and life in exile, identity, cultural interactions, forms of economic and political resistance. We use specific tools and methodologies: reliance on fictional works (film, novels), micro-histories versus textbook history, spoken word, public writings, etc. These tools and methodologies allow us to construct relationships between groups and individuals and the realities of the environments they encounter, in particular during the travels that they help structure. The latter force us to rethink what we say: the risk of exoticism, the pitfalls of the tourist viewpoint, the reproduction of a dominant view must all be continually taken into account. It is not simply a question of visiting or travelling across places, but of putting them into practise; of working “with” rather than “on” them. This way of doing things leads us to productively chafe against our hypotheses, our scenarios, and the lived, shared and narrated experiences that disrupt and displace them; to think in terms of objects rather than conditions of research.
Whether they are “light”, interim or more substantial, the many methods created are also tools for ongoing research and do not pre-emptively define the research’s method of “rendition”. It is about making the research methods and processes, stages, errors, corrections, comments, doubts, etc. more transparent and accessible.
We move forward through action, even when we have not preconceived or anticipated the outcome of our actions. We try to invent new ways of acting. Of exposing ourselves, bringing ourselves into play. Of accepting too, while embracing whatever happens to us, as well as the things that escape us.
Starting from a renewed interest in contemporary African art, from Clermont-Ferrand which is linked to Cotonou Ouagadougou, Transition Figures is created by Jacques Malgorn (artist and assistant researcher at the Cooperative), J. Emil Sennewald (critic and philosopher, ESACM lecturer), Camille Varenne (artist and assistant researcher at the Cooperative) and Enrico Floriddia (artist and assistant researcher at the Cooperative), in close partnership with Farah Clémentine Dramani Issifou (film curator, researcher and independent critic) and Dao Sada (production designer and curator).
By situating ourselves at the confluence of the practises of artists who wish to become the authors of their own images, we argue that “contemporaneity” of art creates inertia and barriers, and reproduces the social and political inequalities by enabled society to be created. Our art research leads to the serial publication Epokä: a collaborative and evolving work in which, from one journal to the next, after meetings and exchanges, each contribution can be reproduced, commented and expanded on, or extended. In this way, it is the object, its methods and its consequences that guides researchers rather than the inverse: we do not produce research works, but we work to put our questions into action. Under the title “Exhibition – exhibiting”, Epokä questions the conditions under which exhibitions bring art into existence, in particular in the Afro-European arena.
By being aware of the rules that operate when exhibiting, and the challenges involved in translation, transformation and transition, we challenge the actions that recreate and reconcile exhibitions that try to camouflage postcolonial imperialism. Unlike condescension, Epokä aims to deconstruct levelling policies, to renounce the development of a neutral viewpoint, which exists nowhere, in order to do the opposite and identify hybrid terrains where being together is reinvented at a starting point that is resolutely subjective and unique. Pursuing art by becoming, we seek a shared space – one that includes that which is experienced, living and active – through meetings, discussions and critiques.
The research group Exiles involves lecturers, Michèle Martel, art historian, and Jan Kopp, artist, researchers and ESACM undergraduate students. Everyone unites around the need to question the viewpoint of artists and researchers confronted with a world context in which the issue of mobility, humans as commodities, has become a major geopolitical challenge and source of disenchantment.
Europe only seems capable of building new fences that spring up from tired democracies often held hostage by a return to crypto-fascist ideologies. By contrast, neo-liberalism ends up rupturing certain cultural, economic and social ties. We make the hypothesis that new “shared” forms of art can arise if we extract them from the “desire for enclosure” (Achille Mbembé, The Politics of Intimacy, 2016) and if we look closely at the numerous strategies and methods invented by artists and authors to represent and/or go beyond neo-liberal structures and their nationalist corollaries.
In order to test our hypothesis, we put in place research methods that are designed to create this “shared experience”. Repeating, restating, rebuilding, means we are able to speak the same language as others and create continuous dialogue between self and other. This integration brings out different, less unequivocal, meanings than those created by an analysis that springs from a reading grid, typology, etc.
If our tools can be found in human and social sciences that are enriched by the “peripheral” understanding of post-colonial, queer and feminist studies as well as the text and proposals put forward by artists and writers, our main tool for testing our hypothesis lies in reiterating a displacement. It is that of A. the main character in the Angelopoulos film “Ulysses’ Gaze” (1995). A film maker exiled in the United States, A goes in search of a series of undeveloped film reels shot by the Manaki brothers, or Manakia, which are said to be in Albania, Greece or Romania. During the journey, A revisits his family history, his family’s arrest and subsequent forced exile, as well as the current war, with his journey ending in a Sarajevo under siege.
If we have chosen to re-tread this path, it is because it triggers an emotional, identity and artistic crisis in Harvey Keitel, who plays the role of A., and because, at the end of the 20th century, the displacement of the Manaki brothers and their works, now claimed by at least five countries from Romania to Bosnia-Herzegovina, is repeated; this of course raises the spectre of Ulysses and his “incredible voyage”. Angelopoulos shows that this geographic region, today often seen as being at the margin of Europe, is able to strongly resonate with past and present – something confirmed by the migration routes of the early 2010s.
- 1) Moby-Dick, research novel:
This project is based on individual and group (re)readings of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, or The Whale, published in 1851. In this account, which is the account of a search, two seeker “figures” merge:
– The one known as Ishmael (who has a demonstrated ability to observe, speculate and base knowledge on experience, which is why he is on board); he calls himself the “teacher” but his identity is unknown; he is a sort of errant “stand-in” for Melville).
– Ahab, the captain of the Pequod, who obsessively hunts Moby Dick. Fascinated by the object of his search, he loses all perspective and dies, literally “tied” to him – strangled by the line of his own harpoon.
– And then also, gradually, up to the last three chapters that are dedicated to the hunt itself, a third “seeker” emerges: Moby Dick himself, who converts his pursuers into prey – a spectral figure that seeks us out during the search while allowing himself to be pursued.
From the beginning of the narrative, the novel becomes, as Melville writes to his editor “a strange type of book” that makes obsession the driver behind human action: from Ishmael’s gentle “ocean dream” to Ahab’s vengeful passion, and the whale’s raging pursuit. The elements of knowledge called upon (the profession of teacher, the novel’s opening lines, the asides on cetology that pepper the narrative) appear more and more derisory the further into the text one progresses, as though reason succumbs to Ahab’s overwhelming passion and the entire crew’s participation in this quasi “sect-like” project: all-consuming to consume the whale.
This outlay at the heart of the story signals a type of search, of quest, that is not capable of systematic, positivist articulation, but is a foray into the depths (the dark depths of the ocean), the blind spot, the invisible that lurks beneath…
- 2) Leviathan:
Biblical teratological figure, “pre historic” monster, an animal that escapes Noah’s “archive”, the Leviathan is also an allegorical figure from a political utopia imagined by Hobbes: the Leviathan as a representative of the State, versus the Behemoth, a representative of anarchy.
By titling this project “Leviathan”, we are aware that, from the outset, the weight of the “monster” rests on our shoulders. By choosing to, in brackets, add “working title” at the beginning, we try to evade this weight rather than deny it – in the sense that evasion is a “combative” strategy, whereby our own actions are triggered by (but not conditional on) those of our “adversary”. We respond to the biblical monster with our ghosts and desires; to the literary monument with the uncertain outcome of our enterprise; to the beautiful order of political utopia with our doubts and concerns. Because the end goal of these searches, through (re)readings and the creation of conditions and methods, is that of attempts to explore, of modern day political, social and economic challenges, which already exist in Melville’s novel, either connected to or against the novel’s epic dimension.
The whaling ship contains a society that is outwardly ordered but diverted from its original goals, “disordered” by its own captain. The tool of production is diverted from its economic function in order to placate Ahab’s passion, a pure “outlay” that consumes him and ends up consuming the ship and the entire crew along with him.
It is exactly this tension (between connecting and/or opposing), between free-market economy commodity manufacturing and the economy of affects, of the sublime, which is the backdrop, the “meta problematic” of this research project.
- 1) Confirmation of reading as an issue of passion; the book as a template of methods, a “map” of territories to be explored:
The visions that arise from reading, the construction/deconstruction of the text, the extraction of passages, words, facts, all is done to perhaps first create the conditions needed to share “one’s own” reading.
It is about sharing one’s experience of the text with each person using his/her own tools: performance, the written word, fixed and moving images, volumes, installations, etc. This sharing is carried out in “real-life” conditions: whales aren’t cut up on a desk, a whole deck is needed. In this way, we must test our passions in actual space.
To do this, we work to create conditions, circumstances: group readings, solitary readings… as though we were encountering a living contemporaneous experience (including the imagined ideas and passion that these readings rouse). To create reading conditions, we must research the “terrains”.
Group research meetings are in fact designed according to the places in which the imagined ideas, the readings, come alive. Reflection occurs through contact with the text and in contexts.
- 2) Obsession as method and temporality:
We are driven by “the thing that seeks us”… that is, the “mirages” pursued by Ishmael from the first chapter; the “fervent visions” that sometimes fill his dreams; Father Mapple’s stormy sermon; Captain Ahab’s relentless obsession… To that which moves invisibly in the obscure depths, haunts us and sometimes emerges – exhaling, white terror, blind.
Logically, this project therefore involves numerous research topics. The first topics put forward and pursued as a group are, specifically, the following:
– Trauma: a retrospective on the history of capitalism, which is a continual series of crises (Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine)
– Energy: light as method, story, a challenge (in the past, before petrol, whale oil was used as a source of energy and to produce artificial light)
– The “animal issue”: what industrial manufacturing does to the relationship between humans and animals – Ahab is resistant to tearing apart Moby Dick’s physical form and craves one to one contact, in direct contrast to the way whales are usually butchered impersonally and with a focus on production.
The programme’s temporality, determined by each researcher’s personal rhythm of work, is not seen as a succession of “subjects”, but rather as a rolling effort that initially resembles ocean waves and the manufacturing “chain”.
The way the research develops, based on experiences pursued, meetings and exchanges, and the methods produced, determines the next step in our process, always guided by Moby Dick, just as Pequod’s voyage was guided by Ahab’s ship’s log and maps, as well as by the responses of the sailors to his insistent question: “Have you seen the white whale?”.
3) Like the narrative, the project has multiple voices:
The novel is written in a number of voices and the same is true for our readings. Using each individual’s unique exploration of Moby Dick, we enter the group as though it were a receptacle and a force that is simultaneously centripetal and centrifugal in terms of the questions asked. Each person explores the novel from his or her specific areas of interest, or obsessions, working on “his/her” chapter. Sharing the unique fruits of research, which are both similar and vastly different, already envisaged or yet to be discovered through work or imagined like points on a distant horizon. These “terrains” include the city of Detroit (Michigan), which went bankrupt following the 2008 crisis, and is a first “stop”.
Moby Dick and Detroit are somehow connected in the deep and swirling shadows at the site of a shipwreck, that of the Pequod, that of the city (there’s not much difference between ‘shrinking city’ and ‘sinking city’). It is not about again submerging into the observation of a catastrophic event, as offered by the vivid, ruin-porn images of Detroit. Concerned for a disaster that has already taken place (Maurice Blanchot), in Detroit we are closer to the “post-apocalypse” (Philippe Jaworski), something the city closely shares with the Pequod and its crew after its slow descent into ruin and bankruptcy – and which the writer Alexandre Friedrich attempts to prove is not “the future of Europeans”.
In Detroit, the “drowned”, having emerged from the catastrophe, are, like Ishmael, the first witnesses. They are also agents of the first “post-apocalypse”. Have they “seen the white whale”? Can they answer the question, “where is the ship”?