A conversation about laziness, decision-making, success, and presenting the spectator with questions rather than explanations.
You don’t listen to music, at least not unless you have to dance; you buy a coat only if you’re cold, and then only in the nearest shop; you’ve long resisted looking for color in your work. So at what point do you make decisions in your sculptures? When do you actually take pleasure?
As far as music is concerned, when I was in junior high, I realized that music was a way to affirm my identity. But as my listening habits proved restless, constantly changing, I became aware of the fact that I didn’t have specific tastes. So I just let it go.
Later, taking the underground, I would see people listening to some epic, very emphatic music; it allowed them to space out and forget their banal circumstances. It seemed to me a way of controlling people. I think it explains why the English were so effective in pop music, Beatles-style: it deadened people into a lord system; it justified Margaret Thatcher. It’s like Woodstock during the Vietnam War, driving people to go to gigs and “protest” through music rather than protesting for real. At that moment, I truly agreed with my adolescent choice.
Now that I don’t care so much about “radical” positions anymore, it’s too late to get back to it; a whole musical education would have to be set up, and to be honest, I’m too lazy. I do love music when it’s there—I just don’t want to be responsible for what’s being played.
Regarding clothing, for long time I tried to be cool, but it didn’t work. So I quit caring about it and focused only on the function of what I wore. At present, I like having a dress code that’s perhaps not approved socially but always easy to recognize. I like to think Obama’s trick is to choose neither his clothes nor his meals, in order to eliminate those decisions from a day already filled with decisions.
I can actually ask you the same thing: what does it mean for you to steal the accessories of ultra-chic barbers while you’re completely beardless? Is it more enjoyable to have a barber kit when you have no beard, or to have a beard and no kit, simply because you don’t care? To me, it’d be a trick, reproducing some romantic cinematographic figure through your actions and accessories. For instance, you might see a Starbucks cup in a film. For you, that becomes a romantic image, a virginal and new relationship without questions of consumption and corporate product. As I include myself in my practice, you include yourself in yours, and just as I never differentiate between what’s true or false, fictive or real, pop or noble, the same is true for you. The only difference is that I invest everything with political value, whereas you charge everything with an emotional one.
I completely agree—although if I don’t regularly shave my “non-existent beard,” I’ll end up with a terrible preteen goatee. I’m obliged to shave every day to look my age. If I had a real beard growing, not just three hairs, it might give me a bit of the refined, careless artist look that you have. Then, the kit would surely be obsolete. This brings up something that has always fascinated me in your work: your ability to achieve a real productive force using ineffective tools.
My sculptural practice is that of an assembler rather than that of an artisan; it’s more about putting together forms and ideas than about technical skill. This way, a pragmatic condition takes over an aesthetic one. I think that when one masters a form, when the form becomes too seductive, it leans towards communication, manipulation and industry, which to me are the enemy. I do the same in my films: I want the viewer to able to see how it is made. I reveal my aptitude to spectators so that, in the end, they’re not able to believe me.
Getting back to your first question, regarding the choices I make in my sculptures: one of the roles of art is to have a critical distance from the world and its phenomena, allowing us to see, to be neither completely in or outside it. As I truly believe this, making decisions in a work of art is a heavy responsibility. In the beginning, I tried to eliminate them as much as possible, especially as they relate to communication’s disciplines (design or pop music) and all the other things I reckon one should view with suspicion. But the problem is that this tough position never lasts very long. In mastering a technique, you get a formal pleasure from what you produce, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It took me a long time to understand that a major part of art’s social role is its being able to hang in people’s places, which I now accept with pleasure.
I wonder whether one can grow older without getting sweeter.
I think it takes too much effort not to get sweeter. Roughly, you either choose to be part of society and consequently be less binary—which is the position I chose—or you refuse it completely, which leaves you to suffer and fight all the time. When I read interviews with some “great people” at the end of their lives, tears come to my eyes—I know that I don’t want to resemble to them. At 90 years old, Godard keeps on addressing the institution as the enemy; Orson Welles said that Hollywood destroyed him. Nicholas Ray ended up homeless. It’s interesting, though: I have the impression that there’s less of this violence and sourness among old great artists.
In the end, I think the ideals of youth always stay with us, growing less severe, more pondered and measured. It may be puerile, but I don’t want to lie to myself: I know I am part of this world and its systems, and that deep down, I’d love to have a Porsche and a house with exterior glass walls, were it possible.
Your father made an important film in Algeria at the end of the ’70s and then stopped abruptly. Your career started with a short film you made as a student in Africa and never stopped; ten years later, you keep on linking things together without a break. I have the impression that rather than just a cool pursuit of success, you’re in fact motivated by a fear of failure. Am I wrong?
Failure doesn’t bother me. I love it, because it’s motivational. I actually have a productive neurosis linked to my history and those close to me which makes me value the act of doing something, the absolute merit of work, above all else.
I am afraid of not being able to do things anymore, or of not being allowed to do things anymore. I am aware that nothing lasts, that it’s a privilege to be able to do what I do, although I do get bored or frustrated at times. But again, I think that I’ve calmed down quite a bit and fixed these issues over the years.
In a James Bond film, would you more likely be the villain seeking revenge, or James, who wants to succeed simply in order to hang out with girls and have drinks?
I don’t really want revenge—what I want is not to be disturbed. Nor do I particularly want to succeed. I just don’t want to stop. And in the end, I surely want to hang out with girls and have drinks as well. (laughs)
But when I ask you how is it going, you usually reply, “C’est la guerre,” a French idiomatic expression that literally means “it’s war” and describes a feeling of constriction as if an interfering force (even laziness) may prevent from accomplish a task.
I often use a slightly strong, almost militaristic vocabulary in talking about production. Generally, I think my practice is often driven by feelings of constraint and urgency, which allows me to do things directly instead of thinking what I should do, which can often lead to depression. It allows me not to let doubt interrupt my projects. It also forces me to accept that certain projects are not worth it, which is not bad in the end. This is my method at the moment. I often wonder how it would be to have less to do, but honestly, I don’t know if I’d be able to work pushed only by my self-motivation.
You’re able to summarize a book without having read it, and you have an extremely personal theory about anything you discover. At times, I have the impression that you work the same way as you speak, as if you were offering an illustration to look at, through the immediate construction of shapes and your rhetoric on world and society. It’s a very pictorial attitude.
I love to see art as a laboratory of “uncultivated” sciences; there’s nothing to know, nothing to search for, but it’s still done. I’m fascinated by the functional systems of the very simple things in our society, always with some representational tricks, a bit of politics and a perverse loop. Today, for instance, I think that those games on iPhones in which you can pay to be stronger than other users are very perverse. They describe a violent neoliberal society where those who win are usually those who already had the most effective means to begin with. This is not set as a basic rule in the society—it’s not written in the American Constitution, for instance, that the person with the biggest resources will be president—but in reality, that’s undoubtedly what happens. So these smartphone games affirm something extremely harsh, something that goes against the very notions of game or sport.
I feel that my work is not an illustration, but rather a sort of mirror, a bricolage of phenomena that interest me. I show the system as I perceive it, but since I never fully understand it, I present it to the spectator as questions rather than an explanation.
Speaking of mirrors: you spend half the year in hotels, due to exhibitions or fairs where you present your work; then, once you’re back at your place, you construct a hotel in your studio as a film set.
Put simply, it’s quite fun. It’s basically ground zero of representational art: you reproduce what’s in front of you. I saw an interview with Scorsese in which he was asked why he was not showing Italian bad boys in his films anymore. He replied that at the present time, when he opens the shutters and looks out of the window, he doesn’t see gangsters—he sees his garden and some deer in it.
At the same time, I love hotels as places—they’re at once neutral and politically charged. The touristic resorts are all a bit like this, but they have magniloquent names: the Imperial, Best Western, Continental. They’re all sort of symbols for the replacement of imperial systems by mass tourism—they’re now suffering due to the emergence of Airbnb, just as the occidental societies economically suffer from “Uberisation,” and so on.
Do you wish to talk about your film, its purpose?
This film, Occidental, is the biggest project I’ve engaged in my whole life, but it’s also one of the first projects that I’ve undertaken with no specific purpose in mind. I’m tired of always producing for things—an exhibition, a context, an opportunity, a fund. What I wanted to do with this project was to break the traced path. No one is expecting the project, there’s no recipient, no one asked for it nor sponsored it. We self-financed the project, and though it has been done slowly, it’s been done on our own.
This is the project that’s taken up the biggest amount of my time, energy and stress. When you produce within the “hell circle,” you slowly start to interact with an audience, which I find dangerous. Here, I tried to embrace the risk, which could allow me to produce in order to produce, and ensure that the conditions necessary for my project to exist were those enacted by the project itself, autonomously. It’s a way of defining a form of independence from the artistic practice: it is not the work of art that needs the institution to exist, but vice versa.
My hope is that this work becomes a little popular. It would mean making a fictional film in a pirate system which could be seen by all, and which addresses the constrictions of the industry without having been constrained by them. I want it to come out publicly. I want it to live autonomously, without having to lean on the art context, and that people laugh, cry or are frightened while watching it.
Usually, in my projects, there is neither empathy nor the vocation to move people. Here, there is. I know that despite the effort, it’s possible that the film will be a big failure, and that it will stay on my personal computer. I’d be disappointed, of course, but at the same time, that’s what this system allows: to be satisfied with having made it, having tried. Its “public” success (or lack thereof) won’t change that.
If an end should come, a sort of revolt in the Beloufa studio, what would it be like?
It happened already! I found myself all alone, like a fool, in my huge studio with no electricity.
So what did you do?
I waited for the end of the day on the couch.
Neïl Beloufa (French and Algerian, b. 1985) is an artist who lives and works in Paris. He is represented by Galleria Zero, Milan; Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo; François Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles; and Galerie Balice Hertling, Paris. He was nominated for the Duchamp Prize 2015. Upcoming exhibitions include “Project 102,” part of The Elaine Dannheisser Projects Series at MoMA, New York, from 12 March–12 June; as well as solo shows at Pejman Fondation, Tehran, and Mendes Wood DM in September; at K11 Art Foundation, Shanghai, in October; and at François Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles, later in 2016.
Camille Blatrix (French, b. 1984) is an artist who lives and works in Paris. He is represented by Galerie Balice Hertling, Paris. He has exhibited in several international venues, including the Palais de Tokyo, Paris; Centre Pompidou, Paris; and Sculpture Center, New York, and won the Prix d’Entreprise Ricard for Emerging French Artists in 2014.
Photography by Léonard Méchineau.