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The White Wall: An Essay on Performative Illusion

by Pierre Bal-Blanc

 

At public conferences, I usually introduce my curatorial practice by referring to two simple examples that illustrate the two axes—the abscissa and the ordinate—through which an exhibition takes place. The first axis is spatial. In his Short Treatise, Spinoza gives the simplest of formulas, the example of the “white wall.” The philosopher proposes to consider a white wall: as long as nothing has been drawn on the wall, nothing is distinguishable. Rather, we see only an expanse of white. If we draw two figures on the wall, however, we can discern one in contrast to the other. We are thus in a position to differentiate. Yet there is another way of making distinctions. And Spinoza, without answering directly—no doubt in order to leave an indelible impression by evoking the obvious, otherwise concealed by the everyday—leaves the reader with the task of discerning this other possible way of apprehending such figures. The answer is given in the fact that there are degrees of whiteness. If we vary the intensity of the light or the quality of the wall’s surface, we arrive at another way to approach these figures. This example has the virtue of establishing the foundations on which the exhibition of a work or a figure rests, as well as revealing the essential role their context and its degree of intensity plays in the appreciation of an exhibition. This part, at first glance the least visible, is what makes full visibility possible.

The second axis is temporal. In order to ascertain what is at stake, another philosopher, Henri Bergson, advances the most trivial of experiences: a “glass of sweetened water.” In order to distinguish between time, succession, and duration, it is enough, Bergson explains, to add sugar to a glass of water. To obtain sweetened water requires duration. We do not proceed from pure to sweetened water by way of a temporal succession; rather, we have to wait until the sugar dissolves. This is the difference between temporality and duration. A succession of activities or movements constitutes an aggregate of parts in an artificially closed system. These are states or instants, temporalities, that, severed from each other, remain spatial. In contrast, duration is the lived passage from one state to another, as irreducible as it is to either state. According to Bergson, science studies phenomena by isolating them, rending them away from the whole. In a closed system, time does not escape, for a thread nevertheless secures the whole: “Though our reasoning on isolated systems may imply that their history, past, present, and future, might be instantaneously unfurled like a fan, this history, in point of fact, unfolds itself gradually, as if it occupied a duration like our own.”1 In other words, real time goes on regardless. It is duration, or real time, that connects us to the whole. Context and duration are the two cornerstones that allow us to escape classical reasoning based on isolation or abstraction in the full sense of the term. They avoid the tendency to take a privileged stance toward a particular phenomenon in order to adopt a modern, plural relation that explains the abstract by way of the concrete and not the other way around. In some ways, it is like experiencing the passage, which Deleuze describes, from a disembodied “I think” (je pense) to an “I endure (je dure) inscribed in the historical, social, and political environment.

Recently, I had the occasion to repeat Spinoza’s and Bergson’s experiment in front of a white wall that the choreographer Noé Soulier had erected for at the Kaaitheater in Brussels, in March 2019.2 It seemed to me, however, that only the play of figures engaged throughout the performance in the activity of putting up and taking down artworks from the collection of the National Museum of Modern Art at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris followed Spinoza’s example. The degree of variation on the wall otherwise went entirely unnoticed. One might disagree by evoking the play of light during the performance, but the variations in intensity of light only entailed a differentiation among the works themselves.

In terms of duration, the choreographer presented a variant in his transformation of a series of exhibitions into a spectacle, which amounted, in fact, to a series of temporal successions: a team of art handlers installed each work (sometimes in several stages), before inspecting it and taking it down. It is no exaggeration to say that, as a curator, the French choreographer Soulier obeyed a purely formal logic in the choice of works, to which, moreover, the spectator had only limited access. It should also be noted that the hanging was clearly influenced by the display techniques of contemporary art fair booths and department stores. It was not surprising that Hermès happened to be one of the performance’s production partners, being the hallmark for the history of window display in the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris (for example, the ways in which luxury brands operate through soft power).

Soulier’s strategy was to reverse the balance of power that has grown between the museum world and that of the theater through the introduction, in exhibition spaces, of bodies and dance practice: “How to shift the equation? And what if artworks rather than bodies conformed to another space? What if objects entered the realm of performance art?”Furthermore, Soulier identifies with a number of artists and choreographers (Xavier Le Roy, Tino Sehgal, and Boris Charmatz) who have sought to question both the dematerialization of the artwork and the reification of performance. Finally, Soulier understood his project as a contribution to the realm of institutional criticism—notably in the efforts made by the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris to bring together the museum’s various administrative departments and live performance. Not only was the resulting selection of artworks from one of the world’s major public collections of modern and contemporary art puzzling, but furthermore Soulier claimed in a few brief lines of his press release to have succeeded in the critical approach that his artistic choice raised.

Firstly, I will focus on showing the different aspects of the white wall that Soulier concealed, either voluntarily or involuntarily, in his project. Secondly, I will discuss the false sense of duration that the unfolding of the performance proposed. If, in Paris, the site-specific aspect of the work presented at the Centre Georges Pompidou during the Paris Festival d’Automne in September 2017 focused on successfully bringing together the museum’s otherwise notoriously isolated departments, the version in Brussels, despite taking place at the Kanal–Centre Pompidou, took a different turn. Firstly, how was Soulier able to single-handedly procure loans from the Centre Georges Pompidou’s National Museum of Modern Art, with the support of the department of live performance and the Festival d’Automne, to do his “shopping” (a term used to describe the activities of stylists who supply content for the fashion and design sections of magazines).

Considering that the public collection should remain available for any interpretation, the question is not whether Soulier was justified in obtaining permission to borrow works from the national collection; to my mind, an employee of the art handlers’ company, for example, or a technician at the Centre Georges Pompidou has just as much a right to do so as Soulier does. Rather, the question is why him and not somebody else?

What took place in the handling of artworks onstage, in the guise of the art handlers’ meticulous and diligent gestures, was rather a dance of power, which nevertheless remained obscure, without explanation. Furthermore, any reference to the institution’s public engagement or to the learned and educational role of its employees appeared to have been discarded in favor of a formal, codified game, the celebration of commercial display as the norm of the contemporary art exhibition. More was needed here than merely including Jenny Holzer’s LED messages in order to stage a critique of spectacle; on the contrary, the American artist’s Truisms  (1977-1979) appeared like so many slogans on a Gucci T-shirt celebrating the anniversary of the events of 1968. A little more critical acumen toward the artworks from the collection and political irreverence toward the museum as a national institution would have been welcome.

The performance at the Kaaitheater in Brussels came close to being offensive. In the wake of the controversy over the Belgian authorities’ support for the Centre Georges Pompidou franchise—at the expense of local institutions—indifference to the surrounding social and cultural context, which had nevertheless been repurposed for the occasion, came across as a form of denial. With the complicity of the museum’s curators, Soulier implied that curating an exhibition is a purely formal undertaking, one that takes place in a vacuum: a rational calculation to be constantly renewed using common cultural resources, yet not freely available to everyone, since restaging the performance in Belgium raised the question of national identity. By shifting the paradigm of the white cube—which already tends to isolate artworks from their national, social, and historical contexts—to the theatrical stage, Soulier did not take into account the absence of these relations; on the contrary, he underscored the white cube’s tendency to isolate the works it contains. This was not an apology of profanation, in the sense that Giorgio Agamben defines the term (to return to citizens for their free use what had previously been removed from the sphere of human), but rather an apology of separation by way of the theater’s coercive power.

While it can be said that museums and exhibitions serve the capitalist system, the spectacle is its custodian: “If, as we have suggested, we use the term ‘spectacle’ for the extreme phase of capitalism in which we are now living, in which everything is exhibited in its separation from itself, then spectacle and consumption are the two sides of a single impossibility of using.”4 This is further complicated by the fact that the exhibition is reduced to a solely visual affair (a purely “retinal” experience, as Marcel Duchamp once described it), which denies the body its kinesthetic perception—although this is obviously not the fault of the choreographer, trained in ballet and taught to maintain a relation, from the stage, with “the outside” (l’en dehors).5

On the contrary, it is rather an unfulfilled political project, which attests as much the more one scrutinizes its method. Soulier places himself on the side of hierarchical power, in that, in his performance, he adopts an administrative role toward those he employs and, as such, restores behind the scenes the very divisions between intellectual and manual labor, disciplines and skills, that contemporary exhibition practice has otherwise sought to challenge and dismantle. Soulier purports to have produced a time-based exhibition, although, in fact, it merely constitutes a succession of spatialized sequences, which excludes any durable interaction with artworks, otherwise delivered as if from the pages of an online catalog. By remaining indirect, the choreography creates a confusion between movement and space. If the space covered during the performance was essentially divisible (installing, viewing, and taking down artworks), the movement itself remained irreducible to it. Combining movement in terms of the space covered, as Soulier implies, did not permit an understanding of the art handlers’ actual movements and, consequently, an experience of the same duration as they experience.

As the art handlers converse among themselves on stage, they point to the inexorable sign of a human condition that cannot be silenced, insofar as verbal exchange is not separable from other instrumentalized activities. If Soulier sought to avoid instrumentalizing the artworks, as he claims, he did not show the same consideration for the persons engaged in his performance. The choreographer’s gestural readymade is based on the realism of his employees’ skills, relocated from the exhibition space, where the former usually work, to the theatrical stage. The art handlers are, above all, present for who they are: as a real sign of their profession and not as actors playing a role. They are required to perform their professional activities; in other words, they are strictly present in their functional role and, as such, reduced to undertaking a particular task. Aware of the history of “task-based activities,” inaugurated by Anna Halprin in the 1950s and later pursued by Yvonne Rainer, Soulier situates his readymade activity in reference to their prior work. Yet it is doubtful if he infused his own performance with the same critical or subversive intent as did the older generation of American artists—that is, as a means to break with narrative continuum either by highlighting contextual elements or by placing the dancer in the same durational continuum as the spectator.

Rather, Soulier merely reaffirmed the illusionist logic of capitalist realism: a flat world, where the market paradigm operates without horizon and thus without a perceptible limit. Indeed, he turned the art handlers into silhouettes rendered in three dimensions. Such a display of fetishized movements has nothing in common with the experience of curating an exhibition, which entails intellectual and verbal dialogue, as well as a richer and more complex emotional engagement than merely moving furniture. Soulier gave the illusion that an exhibition is a strictly controlled, aseptic environment where everyone is assigned to his or her designated place, subjected to the whispering imposed by the church, the factory, and more recently the museum. In addition to a gender complementarity that divides male art handlers from female art restorers, and which thus reinforces rather than challenges the purported complementarity of gender stereotypes, the modification of speech—made all the more conspicuous by the soundproofing of the theater—echoed as an insult to the working class. Indeed, at the level of speech itself, the choreographer’s instructions accentuated rather than condemned class domination. I can speak from my own working-class experience: murmurs like these are part of the fear that no doubt inhabits every working-class child who has seen and heard subjected to similar humiliating experiences in the presence of a figure of authority who has come to supervise a given task.

Moreover, I have experience mounting exhibitions at all levels. I therefore understand what it means to disregard those who are characterized in such a way (and not just those on stage), and who come with a diversity of experiences and backgrounds, including artisans, artists, students, immigrants, refugees, et cetera. Not limited in their communicative input, they fully engage in their work with artworks, along with the institution and the hierarchical structures to which they are subjected. Soulier experiments with the workings of dance, without, however, questioning the workings of society. He shows what happens when a practical task is stripped of its purpose and transformed into a performance without questioning the usefulness of the task itself. In his performance, bodies were instrumentalized for the sole purpose of giving a material form to the value of the art object. As he explains: “The care taken by the art handlers—with their white gloves, protective coverings, and conservation tools—reveals the ways in which an object is treated and the value it represents […] Value is a relatively abstract, imperceptible notion; a complex process dependent on a market… where value can be truly experienced. I find it interesting to give a tangible form to this question.”6

As the philosopher Simone Weil, who chose to take time out from her intellectual life to experience the conditions and daily life of workers, states: “In manual labor and in productive work in general, i.e., work as such, there is an irreducible element of servitude, which even absolute social equity can not erase. This is due to the fact that labor is governed by necessity, not by purpose.”7 Indeed, in the language of the factory, the succession of segmented and isolated tasks is not referred to, according to Weil, as “rhythm” but rather as “rate”; this is because, as she explains, “succession is the opposite of rhythm.”8 Rhythm is reserved for those who determine the aim of the work. For Soulier, as we have seen, the aim of his performance is to subordinate the value of objects to their actual handling. Yet who maintains the value while others work to make it tangible? Those in power beyond the stage where Soulier acts as their delegate.

During the inaugural performance in Paris, the theater at the Centre Pompidou might have otherwise served as the backdrop for a critical reflection on the conditions to which bodies are subjected in the neoliberal era and a sensuous experience made possible with the aid and resonance of works on loan from the National Museum of Modern Art. The Centre Pompidou combines the three archetypes that make up the enunciative regime analyzed by Michel Foucault: “sovereign power” (the theater), “disciplinary power” (the museum), and “bio-political power” (inscribed in the open-space architecture that the Centre Pompidou embodied before the center’s administration divided it into separate economic regimes and, in so doing, restored ostensible “load-bearing” walls). In Brussels, the configuration of the Kaaitheater and the former Modernist car factory that currently houses the Kanal–Centre Pompidou should have inspired Soulier to rethink his performance in light of the Centre Pompidou’s strategy of valorizing national cultural capital on an international scale. Instead, Performing Art transformed exhibition practice into theater and shamelessly placed the body in the field of performativity and economic output (the Centre Pompidou as a brand name). As such, it follows other examples that produce a performative illusion, that serve to “spectacularize the exhibition” and likewise restore illusionism, hierarchical relations, and the role of the artist’s hand, indeed in very different ways from those that Yvonne Rainer describes in her No Manifesto. 9 From a curatorial perspective, for example, Performing Art offered nothing more than a series of arrangements installed by housekeepers in bourgeois homes. I am reminded here as well of Clément Cogitore’s film Les Indes galantes (2017), based on the opera-ballet of the same name by Jean-Philippe Rameau. Despite receiving wide acclaim, this “exhibition as spectacle” consisted of appropriating, isolating, and subduing a vernacular dance (the krump) divorced from its marginal status and transformed into a style complicit with the format of a filmed spectacle and its hyperbole, which the original practice otherwise sought to resist. Furthermore, in so doing, it risked perpetuating the references to slavery that Rameau’s libretto ambiguously evoke. As Achille Mbembe writes, in reference to Édouard Glissant, “the durability of our world […] must be thought from the underside of our history, from the slave and the cannibal structures of our modernity, from all that was put in place at the time of the slave trade and fed on for centuries.”10 Or, again, Anne Imhof’s “exhibition spectacles,” which appropriate theatrical practice by heightening the use of special effects and repetitive music in order to distract from the actors’ performances.

Each of these projects is supported by major public institutions that represent the prevailing standard: the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Paris Opera, a national pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Each work in its own way mobilizes one of these state apparatuses embodied by an architecture, speeches, and practices that these artists superimpose on another apparatus in order to create an overriding dramatic tension: for example, theater and exhibition; opera, film, and street dance; concert and exhibition, and the like. This procedure is not, in itself, critical. It is not the lever that serves to question the institution’s modes of subjective alienation and “machinic enslavement”;11 rather, it merely serves to expand the unrestricted aims of economic liberalism updated today in its neoliberal guise by markets and government policies that adhere to its values. In short, this entails blurring certain limits while creating others and promoting a double movement of privatizing the public realm and publicizing the private realm. It is not my intention to determine whether these works are good or bad. Rather, my aim is to understand their political consequences: Do these works achieve what they say they do? In what sense are they performative? Or do they unintentionally reveal something else altogether? In other words, do they sustain the principles of domination that they claim to unmask? The security fences and guard dogs that surrounded Anne Imhof’s German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale were not enough to be meaningful; rather, they merely added to the general ambience that perpetuates “the power of being acted” upon at the expense of “the power of acting.”12

As the French legal scholar and labor law specialist Alain Supiot explains: “The resurgence of allegiance as a topical form of social relations is undoubtedly an irresistible trend in the emerging historical period.”13
Numbers become the basis upon which individuals come to agreements, which in turn become programmable, and management gives way to regulation. “Objectives are thus rendered indissociable from numerical indicators […] that measure performance. Subservient to these ‘objective indicators,’ the worker is cut off from the experience of the reality of the world on which he or she acts and is locked in speculative loops.”14

In 1967, at the theater of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris, the audience seated in the auditorium was invited to contemplate four paintings displayed on stage by the artists Daniel Buren, Olivier Mosset, Michel Parmentier, and Niele Toroni (BMPT). In the program distributed to the audience, which detailed the technique and dimensions of each of the artists’ paintings, one could read: “Obviously, it was merely a matter of looking at paintings…” Obviously, it was merely a matter of reading a text.

 

[1] Henri Bergson, “Creative Evolution,” in Bergson, Key Writings, ed. Keith A. Pearson and John Mullarkey (London: Continuum, 2002), 176.

[2] The performance Performing Art was presented at the Kaaitheater in Brussels in March 2019.

[3] Noé Soulier, press release for Performing Art, 2019.

[4] Giorgio Agamben, “In Praise of Profanations,” in Agamben, Profanations, trans. J. Fort (New York: Zone Books, 2007), 82.

[5] L’en dehors (the outside) is a term used to describe a founding technique of French classical dance. According to Isabelle Ginot and Marcelle Michel, “just as there is a need to place the king at the center of action and space, so too is it an essential element of ballet composition. The scene is conceived as a canvas with lines and planes organised along a central axis on which the viewer’s gaze is focused. Such a vision of the body turned towards the viewer is called ‘l’en dehors.’” See Ginot and Michel, La Danse du XXe siècle (Paris: Editions Bordas, 1995).

[6] Soulier, press release for Performing Art.

[7] Simone Weil, “Conditions premières d’un travail non servile,” in Weil, L’Herne—Cahier Simone Weil (Paris: Editions de l’Herne, 2014): 10.

[8] Weil.

[9] “No to spectacle. No to virtuosity. No to transformations and magic and make-believe. No to the glamour and transcendency of the star image. No to the heroic. No to the anti-heroic. No to trash imagery. No to involvement of performer or spectator. No to style. No to camp. No to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer. No to eccentricity. No to moving or being moved.” Yvonne Rainer, “No Manifesto” (1965).

[10] Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, trans. Laurent Dubois (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 181.

[11] Maurizio Lazzarato, “La machine,” http://eipcp.net/transversal/1106/lazzarato/en.

[12] Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1988), 27.

[13] Alain Supiot, Governance by Numbers: The Making of a Legal Model of Allegiance (London: Bloomsbury, 2017): 1067.

[14] Supiot, Governance by Numbers, 1064.

 

Pierre Bal-Blanc is an independent curator. He lives between Paris and Athens.

Translation: Dean Inkster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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