Making films, sculptures and installations informed by his rejection of hierarchy and unapologetic mix of influences, French-Algerian artist Neïl Beloufa has an intense 2016 ahead of him, with a major institutional show coming up at NewYork’s MoMA along with exhibitions in Los Angeles and Shanghai. We visited him at his studio, a messy warehouse in suburban Paris populated by a busy crowd of collaborators and fellow artists, and took a sneak peek at Hotel Occidental, the setting of his ambitious, soon-to-be-released movie.
Having a conversation with Neil Beloufa feels quite like experiencing his work: the flow is swift, the ideas are atomized, the connections are uncertain, the tone is candid, and the information doesn’t follow any kind of hierarchy—or any order, for that matter. Aby Warburg casually meets Angelina Jolie in the course of a retort: you feel confused at first, but in the end, you realize that everything boils down to a cohesive and sharp argument.
The French Algerian artist (b. 1985) has an off-putting ability to bring together the customary disenchantment of his generation with a sincere belief in alternative systems. “I spend 60 percent of my time stressing out about money, which is sad,” he says, underlining the ever-present concern that put him through a dauntless search for productive autonomy. “I’m trying to find a way to reach independence so I don’t depend on people to produce my projects.” Obviously, Beloufa has no issues whatsoever talking about money, a necessary convenience he constantly re-injects into the production of art—“taking and making,” as he puts it. The time he spent in the United States (he studied at Cooper Union in New York and at CalArts in California in 2007 and 2008, respectively) almost certainly has something to do with his openness towards mundane economic matters. In conversation, Beloufa turns, somewhat surprisingly, to the Wu-Tang Clan. Indeed, his ideal business model takes its cue from the American hip-hop crew that launched the careers of a number of affiliated artists, collectively known as the Wu-Tang Killa Bees. “They laid down a certain number of rules to create a hip-hop dynasty that would last for centuries,” he says. “They didn’t depend on the market or on institutions, but rather on one another. It would be great to imagine a similar system for the production of artworks, with established artists helping younger ones.”
Just as the Wu-Tang was associated with Staten Island, Beloufa settled in Villejuif, a suburban area south of Paris (and, like Brooklyn, likely a future fiefdom of gentrification). At first glance, his studio—a 7500-square-foot warehouse—looks more like an industrial garbage dump than a proper production platform: piles of resin foam, remains of plywood walls, screws, nails, blowtorches, houseplants tangling with MDF, Coke cans and coffee filters melt into a merry chaos that leaves the outsider dumbstruck. Soon enough, though, one finds a human presence, crossing paths with (and probably bothering) a busy crowd of collaborators who cover a substantial spectrum of skills: from builders to film editors, set designers and cooks to movie extras and multitasking artists, the team seems efficient, forceful and totally hermetic towards outside interference, be it a visiting collector or a pizza delivery. Apart from direct collaborators, parts of the studio are sometimes rented by fellow artists, a list of whom reads like a veritable Who’s Who of the young French scene: Camille Blatrix, Jonathan Binet, Mohamed Bourouissa and Oscar Tuazon, to name a few, have shared space, and possibly beers and ideas in the vast and unheated former car factory. In October 2015, during the last edition of FIAC, Beloufa took advantage of the studio’s ongoing remodeling by organizing a temporary exhibition in the space, gathering the works of all the artists that passed through the workplace, from interns to long time collaborators. Beyond the outlandish sight of museum directors, advisors and collectors stepping out from the Villejuif-Léo Lagrange subway station for the opening, the show was notable for its generosity: with its open roster, it was a true “proposition,” a refreshing format for the Parisian landscape, which is sometimes fossilized by a constant craving for hierarchy.
I work with failure.
As outlying as they might seem, the gravitating systems Beloufa builds are not completely disconnected from his practice as an artist stricto sensu. “In the studio, as in my work, I address the notions of work protocol, authority and human relations.” Beloufa has spent the better part of the last decade thinking about what is at stake when one apprehends reality and its representation. The main raw material of his films, sculptures and installations is what actually exists and how it is interpreted, a subject he explores without moral judgment, cultural cynicism or any kind of irony. He places himself on the same level as the images he is catching, playing on their ambiguity, promising them a new fate and, in the process, scrambling the lapsed dichotomy between fiction and reality. He establishes an implicit pact with his viewer, who agrees to play the game of credulity, just as we do when responding to everyday media stimulation. For his 2012 solo exhibition “The Functions of Light” (Balice Hertling New York), he stated, “When Superman puts on his glasses, nobody recognizes him as Clark Kent, even if it’s obviously the same person.”
By accurately grasping and controlling his viewer’s suspension of disbelief, he manages to bare the processes of representation that make ground for contemporary stereotypes and conventions (People’s passion, lifestyle, beautiful wine, gigantic glass towers, all surrounded by water, 2011). In many of his films, Beloufa sets one simple rule as a formal constraint, creating situations in which characters convey things that may or may not have happened. He then steps aside and watches the situation unfold and run idle until it becomes something else, until his object’s status is transformed and put back into play.
In one of his earliest works, the fourteen-minute video Kempinski (2007), Beloufa lights his subjects with neons that are visible onscreen, the beams of light appearing like laser swords, leaping from function to fantasy. Along the same lines, he asks his subjects, ordinary Malians, to speak about the future in the present tense. The effect of these simple tweaks of tense and lighting is eerie and dystopian: our exotic expectations (cinematic and otherwise) are unsettled as science-fiction reveals an odd form of truth about what’s going on outside of the screen rather than inside, underlining paternalistic Western expectations (of the viewer) and the circumstances of the filming (of the artist), stressing our permanent speculation on situations rather than giving a hint to any documentary attempt.
To go one step further, the films often literally operate as a “reflection,” as they look at themselves through the very exposure of their own illusory codes, reinforcing the conditions in which they were produced. In Brune Renault, a 2010 video shot in a typically French low-tech teleplay aesthetic, four teenagers flirt and simper during a car ride over a Johnny Hallyday soundtrack. As soon as the viewer notices the shabby off-camera special effects included in the frame, the car becomes a sculpture and the video becomes a comment on the making of an artwork. The fiction, the commentary on the fiction and the commentary on the making of the fiction overlap into a dizzying meta-discourse, confusing the boundaries between documentary and fiction, blurring unrealism and credibility, and ultimately breaking any remaining norm or convention.
I don’t like authority.
Beloufa’s movies have both the strength of sharp observation and the unobtrusiveness of an approach that refuses any position of authority. He asks us to engage with his propositions, removing himself as if to say, this is your problem now, you deal with it. “I don’t like authority,” he says. “My movies are neither true or false, and I try not to communicate my own view of the world. They put the viewer in a free but uncomfortable position that should lead to thinking about what is shown instead of believing it.” It is indeed quite uncomfortable to step upon visible wires or pass between unsteady plywood rails, to try and embrace a moving image diffracted and atomised between several supports. Beloufa embraces such strategies of installation to challenge the authority of the black room/white screen theatrical convention and deny the lure of the cinematic or simply photogenic—integrating and fragmenting his videos into irregular environments that are either meticulously detailed or arbitrarily mismatched, in which precarious sculptures, pop-culture references and everyday objects become the frame and setting for the video projection. “We’re in a world in which there is no more hierarchy between images, content, and sources,” he notes. Reflecting a landscape wherein Google, Wikipedia, and YouTube are the models of a horizontal platform in which films, objects, viewer and artist are placed on an equal flat level, the artist insists on a similar reception for his work. “My shows should be a mess where you can decide what you want to look at.” Indeed, his presentation is a visual cadavre-exquis, including items as eclectic as frames without a surface, tubes, balls of glue, plants, cigarette butts alongside tubular steel structures, shelves and hangers. The status of the objects is similar to their position within the space: unstable, shifting and fragile.
Beloufa’s gestures employ a vocabulary proper to the practices of our information processing era, often defined by the hackneyed term “post-Internet.” Although he participated quite early in setting such standards, he denies that any specific style or aesthetic has ever defined his work. Though his pieces are, at this point, quite recognizable and starting to constitute a proper and cohesive body, Beloufa’s practice is not about mastering one single form that would become a signature. Quite the opposite: as soon as he is comfortable with a material, technique or format, he will actively put himself at risk, challenging his own systems in order to move forward. He goes fast—earning him the apposite nickname “Beloufast & Furious”—and is not afraid of failure. “I’d rather fail doing something I like rather than succeed doing something I don’t believe in,” he says. “I work with failure because I don’t know how to succeed. I like when things get stuck, when there is something to unblock. As soon as it fits in, I need to move on.” From docu-fiction to fiction, from plywood to wire sculptures, from Beyoncé to cigarette butts and from wooden volumes to resin foam, Beloufa’s practice expands while remaining manufactured within the studio, flawed and man-sized, as a form of resistance to some sort of industrial and mass produced superego.
Beloufa is often considered the heir apparent of artists like Pierre Huyghe or Philippe Parreno. Having studied art in France in the 2000s, he was obviously influenced by their input: their experimentations with exhibition formats, as well as the rehabilitation of the viewer as an active subject and a vigilant presence in a given space, are things Beloufa has absorbed into his own practice. Describing Huyghe’s 2013 exhibition at Centre Pompidou in the French magazine May, he wrote: “Moving through the exhibition, one perceives that the pieces that one recognizes have changed in nature through contact with the others and are muddled… They have given way to more open-ended forms and combinations, like a musical score played freely by someone who knows it so well that they can attempt to reinvent it, even to the point of forgetting it altogether.” But this might be where Beloufa parts ways with his elders: as far as he’s concerned, the pieces have to exist independently of context, exhibitions or otherwise. He doesn’t consider the exhibition as a medium per se, although he acknowledges that, like his films, it can become a meta-work, a self-generated system responding to a constraint, technical, financial or formal. For his solo show “Les inoubliables prises d’autonomie” at Palais de Tokyo in 2012, his challenge was to integrate the conditions of making of exhibition (the institution, the budget, the PR requirements, the communication) into the exhibition itself. Each gesture in the show connected back to a sense of meta-narrative about what it was to produce such a project, and what it was to challenge and reverse that system by using a pirate economy.
His current work in progress is a movie. The ultimate achievement—or is it? “It isn’t so much about making movies as about having art allow me to make movies,” he explains. “I like inverting the system.” With his team, Beloufa transformed his studio into a hotel set to shoot Occidental, a long feature entirely self-produced (and self-commissioned) and currently in post-production. Although cinematographic attempts would sometimes poke out in previous works, the formal challenge here was to create a popular object, a film with a narrative continuity from the beginning to the end. “I think there are good movies and bad movies, but I don’t think there are art movies and cinematographic movies..” The issues raised by the plot are a clever metaphorical combination of the ideological debates appearing through his other works—surveillance society, religious and ethical expectations, gender representations—but this time, the dialogues are scripted and the actors are casted professionals. “I don’t think there is a difference in value between a beautiful mannerist image and a goofy close-up, as I don’t think there is a difference in value between a Robert Bresson movie and NCIS, except that most of Bresson’s movies are good and most NCIS episodes are bad.” This would explain the unapologetic mix of influences that discretely transpire in this new work: from references to Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk in the scenery to Alain Resnais in respect to the distantiated stage direction and spontaneity of dialogue, as well as some goofy French teleplay gimmicks echoed in the DIY special effects. When asked about artists’ longstanding fascination with movie production, Beloufa retorts, “It’s the last job that glitters. Artists want that, the same way filmmakers wanted to be artists in the ’70s.”
It is quite funny to hear him speak about the glitter and the glam while cultivating a constant escape from any outward sign of achievement. His singularity—a word he loathes—probably makes for such a lucid view of the world that he rarely takes anything for granted. He is that severely opinionated guy who frowns at compliments, who uncomfortably makes jokes to deflect questions regarding his upcoming solo show at MoMA. Raised between Algiers and Paris, he somehow kept the je ne sais quoi of overrunning humility that comes with “that” identity. He is the kind of artist that can strengthen, if not restore one’s faith in the art world; not so much for the goodness of his intentions but for the truthfulness of his enterprises.
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.
Myriam Ben Salah is Associate Editor of KALEIDOSCOPE. A curator and writer based in Paris, she has been coordinating special projects and cultural programming at the Palais de Tokyo since 2009. As an independent curator, her recent exhibitions include “Shit and Die” in Turin; “Dirty Linen” at Deste Foundation, Athens; and “Like the Deserts Miss the Real” at Galerie Steinek, Wien.
Images: Installation view at Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photo: Brian Forrest; Entre-temps, Brusquements … et ensuite, 2013; Installation view at 12ème Biennale de Lyon; Occidental, 2016 (film stills); Hopes for the best, 2015. Photo credit: Andreas Rossetti; Kempinski, 2007, video still; Data for Desire (installation view), 2014. Photo: Rita Taylor; The Dancing One, Secured Wall Series, 2014; Late Lady dating, curve, on voicemail, 2013. Photo: Gaea Woods; Belief, Definition, Architect, Puzzled Bliss, 2014; Hammer Projects: Neïl Beloufa, 2013; Installation view at Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photo: Brian Forrest.