A conversation with French curator Pierre Bal-Blanc, now part of the team of documenta 14 after a decade of radical programming at the periphery of Paris.
Pierre, I have a personal affection for the images published in these pages, because one of them, the red Cornelius Cardew one, was the back cover of KALEIDOSCOPE’s very first issue. I’ve always been a great admirer of your bold and innovative curatorial work. Lately, I thought about you because of the great deal of media focus on the banlieue after the November attacks in Paris. From 2003 to 2014, you were the director of the now-closed CAC Brétigny, a contemporary art center in Brétigny-sur-Orge, an actual banlieue Parisienne. What has it meant to produce art while thinking in the periphery?
In my last big exhibition, “Soleil Politique,” held at the Museion in Bolzano in 2014/15, I evoked the banlieue through references the museum itself makes in ways both conscious (as a door between the ancient city and the modern) and unconscious (as a political inheritance). The Museion offers a clear view of the victory gate by Marcello Piancentini, the architect who Italianized the city during the fascist regime. For me, it was important to offer a formal and historical analysis of these places, acknowledging the architecture’s historical sources while enacting a spatial and symbolic reversal within the museum. Visitors were invited to explore the building, from the ground floor, restored as an exhibition space, to the top floor viewing terrace. This free space offered the viewer an alternative perspective to the one proposed by the civic museum of Bolzano in its reconstructed gothic tower, which extends over the victory gate. On the gate’s southern facade, there’s an inscription in Latin; roughly translated, it reads, “From now on, we educate the ‘barbarians’ in language, law and art” (Marcello Piacentini, Monumento alla Vittoria, 1928, Bolzano). The exhibition commented on the actual political reversal of that sentiment, as it’s currently directed by Northern Europe towards the south. Power always creates its outskirts and its barbarians.
My experience of the Parisian outskirts helped me to better understand the historical forces operating in South Tyrol. To me, doing a show is like committing an offense against these powers. I often refer to a sentence from Pasolini’s The Divine Mimesis, which served as the exhibition’s maxim: “I passed, like a gust of wind behind the walls and nearby the city, as a barbarian who came to destroy but became distracted, looking around and kissing someone similar to him before deciding to turn back and retrace his steps” (Pier Paolo Pasolini, La Divina Mimesis). This also applies to the CAC, which I left in order to join another outskirt—Greece—and its barbarians, to whom I now belong.
Power always creates its outskirts and its barbarians.
CAC Brétigny was an institution with a very strong identity and program, which also translated into a radical aesthetic and visual communication created by Paris and Kassel design studio Vier5. How did this collaboration relate to the CAC’s presentational strategy?
The partnership with Vier5 was about concrete strategies, developed to counter the teaching methodology that always surrounds cultural environments, which aims to address “everyone” but doesn’t reach anyone in particular. Intervening in this domain reserved for information and pedagogy meant choosing to stand on the side of creation, of what’s visible rather than what’s easily readable. It meant relying on the rhythm of the work and accepting the slow propagation of the message.
In working with the CAC, Vier5 faced the discourse, never the language: it worked to inspire a consciousness of language in the recipient rather than pretending to address him through a didactic discourse. The museum’s authorities regularly criticized the illegibility of Vier5’s posters, citing the CAC’s educational mission to reach a broader public. But my aim as artistic director was to redistribute the different creative, educational and teaching functions in diverse configurations, reflecting the artists’ projects rather than conforming to the norms of communication. The ways in which culture is organized should be constantly reinvented; they should relate to artists’ work rather than impose an administrative organization defined by obsolete (and thus arbitrary) criteria. The partnership between Vier5, CAC Brétigny and the artists didn’t obey any pre-arranged rules. Every happening created a new way of communicating: typographies varied according to the personal research of the graphic designers, and the center’s logo changed with each project. Liberated from the first principle of graphic communication—the identification of place or product through a stable visual presence—Vier5’s projects tried to reflect the space and its temporary inhabitants. The result was a graphic thread that constantly mutated, allowing for external content introduced by the artists. It was closer to a field of immanence that produces singularity than the visual identities used by the political and commercial fields.
You’re part of the curatorial team for the next documenta, which promises to pursue a strongly political agenda. Has your experience at CAC informed your current research?
Certainly. For me, the founding act of documenta 14 was the decision by Artistic Director Adam Szymczyk to migrate parts of the team from Kassel to Athens. I identify it as a performative act, a lateral step before reassuming the position. I share this practice, which manifests as a physical and spatial gesture, just aws I did at the Museion. In this case, we’re touching on one of Germany’s founding myths: the ancient Greek tropes that the political and artistic élites of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries appropriated to build German unity in opposition to the declining French hegemony, for which imperial Rome was the model. The visible dialogue between Baroque and Classicism in Kassel is extended in a conversation between the neoclassicism and modernism in Athens. We’re hoping to build a field of immanence propitious to the expression of new peculiarities. There’s the risk that something unconscious might emerge, which could be unpleasant to the moralists, but that’s what we hope to share with the visitors that
Pierre Bal-Blanc is a French curator and critic based between Paris and Athens. Director of the Centre d'Art Contemporain in Brétigny-sur-Orge from 2003–2014, he was the guest curator of Museion, Bozen, in 2014 and is now part of the curatorial team of documenta 14, which opens in 2017 in Athens and Kassel.
Alessio Ascari is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of KALEIDOSCOPE.
All posters designed by Vier5.
Vier5 is a Paris-based design studio run by Marco Fiedler and Achim Reichert. In addition to curating the visual communication for CAC Bretigny, it has designed for Busan Biennale; Johann Jacobs Museum, Zurich; and is now part of the graphic design team of documenta 14. Since 2007, the studio has also edited the fashion design magazine Fairy Tale and distributed a Vier5 clothing line. Their work is based on the notion of creating new, forward-looking images in the field of visual communication, with a focus on a radical use of typography.