– Interview with Claire Fontaine: “Historical Fiction as Realism”

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Historical Fiction as Realism – Interview with Claire Fontaine, 2008

german version

Claire Fontaine is a Paris-based collective, founded in 2004. Working in neon, video, sculpture, painting and text, her practice can be described as an ongoing interrogation of the political impotence that seems to define contemporary life. Therefore she experiments with collective protocols of production, Détournements, and the production of various devices for the sharing of intellectual and private property.

The interview evolved in reaction to the text ”Organising Realism”.

Realism Working Group: You call Claire Fontaine a ready-made artist, evolved from a general crisis of singularity. What does it mean to react to such a crisis in the art world?

Claire Fontaine: Ready-made artist is a concept of the same kind as Foucault’s plèbe, or Tiqqun’s imaginary party, Bloom, Jeune-Fille and is also somehow similar to Agamben’s concept of the whatever singularity. They are ambiguous, bipolar concepts, they include the possibility of the subjects that they define to change according to the events. They do not denounce the moral default of the other but they recall an undefined situation that also includes the author of the diagnosis. In this sense, being a ready-made artist is the ordinary condition of anyone finding oneself producing art today, and not the position of Claire in particular. There are several ways artists deal with the problem of the crisis of singularity or of the end of authenticity if you prefer, we could make a cartography of the different strategies but it’s not so interesting after all.

Since the expansion of the market always brings the necessity of a new taxonomy, artworks and their authors are now placed in a range of products in function of the type of desire they have to fulfill and there is, of course, lots of doubles, it’s inevitable.

Also in the case of the contemporary art world, this work of classification is now mostly done by collectors and dealers –the executive power and not the intellectual one, let’s say – so critics and artists do not have a real chance to institute hierarchies of values, and their opinion is secondary somehow. Why refusing to acknowledge this? It would just be suicidal. We react to it by saying it loud: we see things this way and we also see ourselves in the picture. Of course many people don’t like it.

RWG: In what way does Claire Fontaine challenge what you describe as “the domain of the production of artists?” How does this domain figure in present conditions of post-fordist production?

CF: Claire Fontaine does her job in a quite submitted way, after all, she provides her artworks in the formats that are compatible with the status quo, she does her auto-critical work, she embodies many figures, the writer, the interpreter, the translator, the technician, the secretary, the art critic, the curator, the serial sculptor, the camera operator and so on…the question is then where is the artist in all that? Is the artist all these gregarious workers in one person? Certainly through having to be flexible and competent in many different domains, the artist is a paradigm of self-exploitation and is a very interesting model for the post-post-fordist phase of capitalism that we live in. The analysis of Arendt about servile work remains very pertinent and so does its re-interpretation by Paolo Virno through the concept of virtuosity. Expression and not communication should be the main task of the artist but since in order to produce contemporary artworks one always needs the assistance of many people, communication becomes a very important skill as well as for any other tertiary worker. However there are many ways to disturb and deviate this process, human relationships are never only productive, they transform the world in one sense or in the other every single time they take place. So we try to value this aspect without any ambition of exemplarity. We are ourselves the assistants of Claire Fontaine, so…

RWG: Does Claire Fontaine help you as individual producers to gain critical distance towards your own production?

CF: Yes, in the fact that we are not individual producers anymore, that actually working inside Claire Fontaine means discussing everything we do, why and how we do it, so this generates a distance all the time, along with compromises and changes of the original idea – which is actually the best part of the process.

RWG: Is using the name “Claire Fontaine” more ‘realistic’ than signing the names of the people implicated in the artworks?

CF: It is, even though we suffer from not being able to display the temporary alliances that structure our works, but without wanting to identify the role of everyone we may have found a solution, you will see soon. It is a photographic one, Benjamin wrote that big group pictures attempt to disappear – we might bring them back.

RWG: Is Claire Fontaine a realist?

CF: If such a thing still exists…Foucault explained that there is no history but just fictions, fictions and tales told by the power, which contain luminous fragments of the expressions of oppressed people. We work in fiction too in this sense, an historical fiction. Maybe this is the form that realism can take today.

RWG: But isn’t the category of truth understood as an agreement about material and historical facts necessary for every form of politics?

CF: It is, yes. Fiction doesn’t mean “fake”, it is not the opposite of truth. There is always a political production of truth, a conflict to make “truth” a singular and not a plural word.

RWG: How exactly would you define strategies that challenge the reigning fiction of history and current regimes of truth-production?

CF: There aren’t so many options in a war, you must fight in the official army, or as a partisan, or hide as a dissident. When you choose to fight it becomes a matter of the means at your disposal, since one of the techniques of the enemy is starvation and embargo. In order to subsist you have to build a network of logistic support – you may consider this description as a metaphor or not.

Once your “side” is defeated the human beings that formed it still have to deal with their personal destiny: the disappearance of the collective elements doesn’t pulverize the singularity that used to be part of it. Our strategy consists in refusing to go and die in the countryside, refusing to believe that intellectual and aesthetic space are the private property of the entertainment industry, refusing to believe that a radical political position can only exist on the level of direct action and its tragic consequences, and that the rest is an opportunist and pathetic gesticulation. The period that we are living in is characterized by a growing penalization of any act of protest, especially in France. This repression is meant to generate a spiral of violence that we wish we didn’t have to be part of. So we try to displace the terms of the conflict through rejecting the racket to adaptation, which comes down to professional, personal and in the end political suicide or to the acceptance of the most mediocre survival conditions. For radical people our attitude is a compromise, for conservatives it is a fraud, this logic must be exploded: it is literally bringing people to suicide.

RWG: How do you relate to historical experiments on realism?

CF: It depends on the data bank you choose. Let’s say that we are interested in documentary film and sometimes in anthropology – maybe we are not answering here, but we are still saying something. Regarding art, today in the post-pop landscape we live in, maybe realism is not an easy category to use. For example you don’t mention, in the beautiful text you have sent to us, anything about the very German idea of capitalist realism. Richter used to say that Carl Andre’s sculptures were a pertinent example of realism and on this point we can agree with him.

In the context of the movie industries, DOGMA was an experiment that didn’t bring the results it could have brought, but we watched it with interest.

RWG: In the middle of the 19th century, realism emerged in programmatic opposition to romanticism. What kind of actuality do you see of this historical impulse of realism today?

CF: Not a big actuality, maybe we are too ‘Benjaminian’ and not so trustful about the taxonomy of art history, but today the aesthetic education has been taken over by the medias and their tools of communication. So Romanticism appears sometimes like an old fashioned almost involuntary reaction to the permanent mechanical and electronic change of everything, imposed by the fast evolution of technology. Here we mean that romanticism doesn’t appear, or doesn’t only appear, as a male egocentric conservative movement, but as a desperate attempt to humanize the environment that is totally colonized by the commodity and its signs – look at the punk movement that in the end has given birth to the luddite ecologist people that all moved to the countryside here in France.

RWG: In your writings you refer to the concept of ‘human strike’ as a revolutionary strategy, which is based on the rejection of activity. How is it possible to relate to such idea in the hyperactive art world of the present?

CF: One of the aspects of human strike is the rejection of activity, but this is somehow the aspect that the idea of human strike has in common with the one of general strike. Human strike is above all the interruption and the change of a behaviour that feeds oppression in an unapparent way. The movement of women is the best example: it fought amongst other things domestic exploitation, the implicit injunction to take responsibility for the care, the love, the infrastructure, the projections of male desires and so on. So human strike is the de-identification with one’s professional identity, which is a process that is always part of strikes, but that only becomes essential when the movement generalizes and when it reaches other categories of workers or people. This de-identification, de-subjectivation if you wish, is supposed to occur at the very first stage of the human strike in order to make it potentially general since the beginning and also immediately effective. The change is decreed and then other people join the struggle. It is maybe the only possible way to fight today for many.

RWG: In your writing you reference Brecht in this context, how does his (realist) conception of estrangement relate to the idea of human strike?

CF: It is obviously one of the main sources of the idea. We often have in mind the example that Brecht makes to describe the interval, the suspended time where in the middle of a play on stage the actors aren’t playing – so they are no longer actors – and the spectators don’t have anything to watch – so they are no longer spectators, it is a very beautiful picture of a moment of desubjectivization, a small human strike.

RWG: With works like “A fire is a fire is not a fire” (2006) or “Visions of the World” (Greece, Summer, 2006) you refer to the imagery of actual street clashes taking place in the most recent past. In the one case the riots in the suburbs of Paris in October 2005, in the other case you refer to the street clashes between police and students protesting neoliberal university reform plans in Greece. What does it mean to turn these media representations into the material of your artwork?

CF: It means doing something we do very carefully because we detest aestheticization of politics. For Visions of the world (Greece, Summer 2006) the reason for the choice of this image was its pixelisation, what is hidden more than what is shown. Because it is always like that with the media, every time they show scenes of social and political struggle we are immediately inside the cliché, in the register of visual disinformation; it’s the becoming iconic of the gestures, which we really are not interested in at all. For A fire is a fire is not a fire the operation we perform is supposed to display the mistrust we have towards that specific mediatic image of the conflict and also the gap that exists between the experience that the population has of the struggle and its representation.

RWG: And from this perspective, how would you respond to a statement formulated by Allan Sekula – “the old myth that pictures tell the truth has been replaced by the new myth that they lie”.

CF: It is a nice sentence. But pictures do not tell anything like truth and lies – they show. Truth and lies are concepts related to the kingdom of words not to the visual matters. Maybe here we enter a philosophical discussion that will not find its place in this interview.

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