Forms of life and ecosystem of an artwork. Interview with Franck Leibovici by Grégory Castéra (translated by David Pickering)

Monday 10 a.m., in the kitchen of an apartment

Grégory Castéra  Good morning, Franck.
franck leibovici  good morning.

GC  We’ve never seen each other this early.

FL  yes, it’s hard.

GC  Do you have a lot of other appointments today?

i was born tired.

GC  Let’s get started. Would you like some tea?

FL  no, just water.

GC  Are there any clarifications you’d like to make regarding the notion of forms of life based on early responses to the survey?

FL  perhaps there is one point that has to be clarified. the survey is not in anyway based on a request for autobiographical confession or a causal explanation – it isn’t, on the one hand, “i had a child and it changed my life,” or, on the other, “the art market is terrible, the economy dictates everything.” these are two types of answers that miss the subject. because a “form of life” is linked to practices and implies interactions, it is necessarily always already public and collective. that is what we’re asking artists to describe. we aren’t looking for an explanatory model (the grand reasons) – if we did we would fall into fairly weak sociologisms. we simply want to explore an otherwise obscure terrain of which we know neither the composition, nor modalities of production, nor modes of functioning. basically we are asking artists to take us on a walk through their ecosystem.

GC  If I understand you correctly, you’re asking them to describe an ecosystem rather than give practical explanations about a practice. Instead of the example you give, “I had a child and it changed my life,” you want them to describe how the relationship with the child constitutes their practice – I’m thinking for example of the relationship to learning or putting aside time to take the child places.

FL  you could put it that way. in your example we’re trying to see how the practice includes the child, rather than making the child the theme.

GC  Does forms of life include ways of producing a work collectively? I’m thinking of modes of production in performance, but it seems to me that this remark could apply to all artistic practices. Actually, defending the idea that an artistic practice is necessarily a collective endeavor is one of the pillars of our project as directors of Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers.

FL  you’re right. in the last few years performance art may have made these particular modalities more explicit and more prominent (when you paint a canvas, these elements are more often implied or implicit). however they definitely apply to all artistic practices.

GC  Yes. Beyond the process of “manufacturing” a work and the people directly involved, the ecosystem you’re referring to might materialize through the knowledge and practices utilized in that process. I am thinking of reformulating a project each time i present it and of certain attitudes that develop more or less tacitly and contribute to creating “a working atmosphere” – speaking and listening to others speak (which implies handing out roles within a collective) and day-to-day changes in the way artistic research is “nurtured.”

FL  absolutely, but how do we represent an “atmosphere”? how do we make it explicit, beyond writing the chemical formula of the gases it contains? i remember, a few years ago, google created a little application called zeitgeist. i guess i would say it tried to answer the question: “what about you? if you had to represent the spirit of the times, how would you go about it?” google tried its best to answer that question using its own tools.
but our survey isn’t only intended to represent a rigid state, frozen in time. it involves a whole range of questions that try to take stock of a process: what is required to keep an ecosystem going? what kind of care does one have to give it? the french talk about maintenance but the english term “sustainability” is better. how to make it sustainable? how to make it viable? we could also formulate things in terms of exercises. which exercises do your practices require? exercise, whether spiritual or physical, possesses that everyday quality that is integral to an ecosystem. another possible formulation might be: what type of discipline do your practices imply? if we take the term discipline in the widest sense (an athlete has a certain asceticism, meaning a diet, a schedule, etc. and so does an artist).

GC  Do you want some more tea?

FL  water, actually.

Tuesday, 3 p.m., a telephone conversation.

GC  Hello, Franck.

FL  hello.

GC  Do you have a minute to continue yesterday’s discussion?

FL  uh-huh.

GC  Yesterday we talked mainly about the production of works. Your project involves forming a community of practitioners who will discuss their forms of life and produce documents describing these forms of life. What will the project entail from the public’s point of view?

FL  i’d say the public is at the very core of the project, even if the road is long. beyond appealing to artists to mobilize these capacities for inventing forms of representation, we’d like to succeed in modifying ways of “seeing” an artwork. on the most basic level, we would like this project to modify and heighten the viewer’s “sensitivity” to an artwork (the predisposition to be sensitive to it) so that standing before an artwork triggers routines other than the standard operation of reduction of the object. instead, we want the viewer to ask the question, what form of life is behind or around the work? what bigger picture is this object a part of? that way we can form another idea of what an artwork is (create forms of life) – and that other way of “seeing” will also constitute a discriminating criteria. formally similar works might then be completely reevaluated and radically distinguished.

GC  Though looking at artworks as ecosystems allows us to attribute less importance to their form, doesn’t the approach disqualify any Universalist dimension of the work, making it necessarily dependent on its context?

FL  it’s not that less importance is given to the work’s form, on the contrary. what the project points out is that the form of the work is not what we think! the form of the work cannot be reduced to just the exhibited object – it is the form of the entire ecosystem. if such a large misunderstanding exists it is because we don’t know how to represent this ecosystem. it remains baffling; we don’t know what the form of such an ecosystem would look like. in plain language, if the definition of an artwork includes the practices it incorporates, then we don’t know what an artwork looks like and that’s a problem for me because i don’t know what i am supposed to be looking at, or how far i am supposed to be looking. this question of universality versus context is moot. the point isn’t to prove that context is everything; the point is to follow practices, mediations and narratives. when i am told that a work of art transcends all that, transcends its ecosystem –all right, but where does it go from there? i would just like to know what an ecosystem looks like because this form of knowledge allows me a more discriminating relationship to works than knowing that they transcend one another.
actually, if we look closely we can also brush up against the definition of what an object is. it is no longer a fixed essence, existing for all eternity, but is defined by its uses. it becomes a sort of continuum across which a cursor can be moved. the object re-attains a certain ontological plasticity. in reality this is nothing new, it has always been the case, but let’s just say that modernism has a tendency to make these mediations on what comprises an ecosystem invisible. the aim of this project is to make them explicit, make them more opaque, and then, more palpable.

GC  Thank you. What would you say to writing down this exchange in the form of a dialogue? A sort of reconstitution of the form of life we’ve established in our work together?

FL  it’s true that the project has developed in a large part through conversations with artists who have received the letter. it actually began with conversations paresseuses with christine macel… see, you’ve stopped counting your cups of tea. it’s a work method that is both rich and flexible. its resource is the time we spend together. oh, i’m almost out of batteries and my telephone is turning into a microwave oven for my ear!

Interview published in Le Journal des Laboratoires May-August 2011