Interview with Olivier Bardin concerning exhibition "The exhibition? You are the exhibition." at the Kunstverein Nürnberg - Albrecht Dürer Society - from 03/12/08 until 30/03/08
This e-mail interview took place in April 2008.
Questions by Lothar Frangenberg for kunstaspekte art aspects. Translation from English: Anna Chudaska.
kunstaspekte: The primary task you give the visitors of the Nuremberg exhibition is to reflect the way how the individual appears as an exposed object and as a watching subject by confronting oneself/ them with a counterpart in changing positions. You deal with complex variations and interactions of real and symbolical actions in relation to the context of exhibitions by instructing the visitors to take part in a variable role play.
Do you notice any differences in the visitor's reactions or are there always similar behaviour patterns?
Bardin: “Rules” are almost always the same from an exhibition to another; I defined them to set the tension necessary to exercise one’s look. The following elements are essential to the exhibition: 1. The place. 2. The audience. 3. My presence or my delegate’s. 4. An opening statement expressed by me (or my delegate) in the local language. This statement is about the desire of self-exhibition and may vary depending on the context. 5. A duration, up to each spectator. 6. Possibly: sound and picture recording equipment.
The opening sentence of the show addresses everybody; it is announced that we are in an exhibition space, and that for an exhibition to occur something has to be exhibited. Then I ask if anyone among us is willing to expose himself. When somebody is self-designated, the exhibition begins. It’s very important that someone “says” the inaugural sentence; it’s part of the exhibition, and I can’t imagine to write an injunction on the wall for example. You have to imagine that it is possible to discuss with this person who says this first sentence, to include him/her in the exhibition or not but to take position. Starting from these permanent elements, the choice of the place, the choice of the audience change the exhibition in many aspects. It’s about cultural situation. Of course, some reactions are the same from one exhibition to another: spectators often start by considering the one who is exposing himself as an object; he/she remains sometimes silent; some spectators may feel like touching him/her. Then everyone takes a certain distance, turns around the one who is exposing himself: little by little the visitors get conscious of the fact that they deal with a person, somebody alive, a subject and not an object, who is looking at them too so that they are exposed through their own gazing. When the spectators realize that they are exhibited themselves, that they are looked at by the ones and the others, some of them take initiatives so as to be looked at more. And then the exhibition takes a singular and unexpected form; thus each exhibition can be distinguished from the others.
kunstaspekte: Do the visitors act as an "audience", do they actually "play" their own performance, their own simulation or do you suppose each visitor to be reacting authentically?
Bardin: First, they come as an audience visiting an exhibition in an art institution but in a second time, they become more distinctive and active. In the situation I set, the museum is a pretext for exercising the gaze. Anyhow, we never react authentically and I play on that: I think we all play roles in general. One builds a role of his own and adapts it following the circumstances. When you are in a new situation, you have to play a new role and you need time to imagine the kind of role you may play. This time is vacant: it is an “empty” time when you have to deal with the part that you play in general and the new mask you are going to invent for this new context. In the course of the exhibitions I propose, everybody is in that situation and tries to build something new under the others’ eyes. Because each one is waiting for the other’s new mask, and everybody wants to discover what you are able to imagine in this unfamiliar context. Everyone pays attention to the others and respects them, for they are themselves looked at by the others. For instance, once an Algerian came to the exhibition I set in the Centre International d’Art du paysage de Vassivière, in France. He was very surprised when he realized that the way he looked at the people around him in the exhibition corresponded to the way he was looked at in the streets when he arrived in France. A rather violent gaze. But in the exhibition, as everybody exercised his/her gaze the same way, a respectful balance could finally be found between the ones and the others.
kunstaspekte: Do you take a back seat as an artist in this project? Well, is there a change of the role between artist and observer? Are there any changes in the artist's role?
Bardin: I think that the main role for the artist is to imagine an object that helps the audience see, since we need time for watching what is around. In my project the audience doesn’t see exactly what’s happening at the beginning; step by step they figure out that the one who is exposing himself is a complex subject who tries to build something in relation with the others. In my case, the artist’s role is to imagine an “apparatus”, that is to say to determine a framework for the experience to take place. The apparatus needs to be constituted: it is defined by the choice of a place, a precise duration, a statement and considering the presence of the spectators. By contrast, my own presence is not fundamental: I can come to the exhibition but in fact, someone else could represent me and organise the show. The important point about the place is not its being an art institution, but a space dedicated to exhibition, where the exhibition of one’s self could take place. Such a place determines the visitors’ behaviour, given what they expect to see: everybody gets prepared and behaves properly until his/her own presence is at stake. So the place must have a determinate and immediately identifiable function. And as a matter of fact, the spectators I invite straightaway connect what is on view and their previous experience as exhibition spectators.
kunstaspekte: Have you got any special expectations of the participating and the viewing visitors?
Bardin: You can see that in the course of the exhibition, something changes. Sometimes some people in the audience comment on how the exhibition works. I like very much silence. I think it’s really better for looking around to stay in silence, to be concentrate. We don’t have to talk when we watch a picture but maybe it’s necessary to talk after, just to remember what you saw. The experience occurs in time, a very busy time: everybody fulfils two roles, looking at and being looked at, in a certain tension. The strange atmosphere of the exhibition sometimes prevents from seeing exactly how the image of the person is; besides you don’t really want to see yourself while trying to find your right image for this new context. So I take photographs as pieces of evidence: the photograph complements the experience, it is not a by-product. The picture shows a moment of suspense, the expressiveness of a gaze, the distance between people, the way the gaze is exercised, etc. and helps grasp what took place. In my exhibitions, many people take photos themselves, with their mobile phone and many other devices and it is indeed a frequent way of seeing; incidentally, in general they would have never taken photos of what they picture then. They find something outstanding where normally they would have never found anything. The photograph is the natural extension of the self-image. All that works in circles: from the self-image to the diffusion of that image and even its participation in an economy.
kunstaspekte: Do you consider the procedure as a rather rational or an intuitive act? How far does your control go, how many instructions do you give? At what point do you intervene in the action?
Bardin: When I began this sort of projects one year ago, I went saying many things after ten minutes like: “Look! This person is alive”, “This person is like you… see you too…” etc. But I’ve realized that the exhibition gradually takes shape thanks to the relationships between spectators, their gazes, passing time… and I intervene less and less. Sometimes a discussion begins, some people talk to me and ask me if they can be on view but of course, as I say in the inaugural statement, they are anyway on view.
kunstaspekte: Do you vary your conception during the show according to the behaviour and reaction of the visitors?
Bardin: First there is a rather incidental group of visitors, who get separated then, looking at each other; and at the end, a community forms, gathering persons who don’t know each other, based on the sharing of the same experience where self-image is at stake. This “society” takes form slowly and this is the object that I build in silence. I like very much seeing how the image emerges – the image of the whole then the image of each people. I don’t need intervening in that process either. I am always amazed by the apparition of image and I couldn’t determine its form a priori.
kunstaspekte: In how far do you as an artist reflect upon the visitors' behaviour?
Bardin: Reflect. Mirror. I see myself in the others.
kunstaspekte: Do you look for an increase of knowledge or are you just trying to present the exhibition business reduced to a basic structure?
Bardin: Exhibition is a medium. The point is to reduce it to its basic components, to use it in a reduced way, as a reduced means. I move in empty places, like a set. The apparatus is a set, that is to say a deserted place from where the image gets constructed. I conceive the exhibition as an opportunity for an image to appear. Everything about image could come at this time. It’s the last exhibition (the spectator’s one) and the first one at the same time; then the pictures that I take of the people show how the image comes up. Each photograph is an exhibition in one second. But we don’t really need to take pictures for making pictures. A space, a precise time, a small group of persons, staying in silence can be enough. I like to have many pictures of the exhibition as mirrors. All these pictures show people who are almost the same, share and compose the same community.