The Hysterically Fabulous History of Now
Erratic Discoursing with Anne Garde and Laure Vernièr
Anne Garde and Laure Vernière's recent visit to Bangladesh to work on a photographic project on ship-breaking provided Depart's Ebadur Rahman with an opportunity to chat with the duo about on their work and aesthetical and political ethos, that constantly shapes and reshapes the world.
Anne Garde is a Paris-based, internationally renowned photographer of industrial sites and architectonic structures whose 'Indian palaces,' 'Lido,' 'Niemeyer,' 'Bordeaux,' 'Paris Angkor Submarine Base' etc. are seminal projects that have been encapsulated in publications as well.
“…elle est l'auteur d'une oeuvre plastique et novatrice sur les sites industriels et les de mémoire.Son regard est une manière de montrer un envers du monde occidental qui échappe et resists à la globalization; une sorte de vérité somnambule.”
– Michel Nuridsany
Laure Vernière is an artist and writer. Her Polaroid portraits from all around the world have been published in various magazines.
Only in communication and in struggle do the powers of destiny become free.
Given the dominant academic grids, regardless of places as different as Dhaka, Delhi or Darfur, the reception of history, invariably, alludes to the dominant ways of knowing and thinking about the history of practices – an affirmation of the idealized, settled, schematic, and totalized transcendental signified generated by the power elites.
Can a woman be the ethical subject of History, then? Can the “Other”?
Can the Woman/Other create art within History or initiate her brand of “Art History”?
Can a Woman/Other be “absolutely modern” a la Rimbaud?
Since there was no access to a meta-modernistic overhang to allow the Other, from the outside, to confront or kowtow to the thrust of Modernism, a number of (wo)men artists were forced to borrow and utilize a lexicon of tools taken from the modernistic corpus itself to understand and absorb, and of course, to resist, Modernism's historical and discursive corpus.
Evidently all the borrowed instruments were not equally efficacious and the difficulty of absorbing Modernism/History couldn't be treated but strategically, through various culture specific, ingenious procedures and Action Féminine's strategy required to take into account the accumulation or body of effects and implicit references already instituted by other artists. Here, we might evoke Spinoza or Lévinas, vis-à-vis philosophy, who had come upon similar difficulties and were often forced to use, Greek signifiers – e.g., logos in order to give entry into something that essentially is not Greek – ideas of the Other. Lévinas in particular initiated a practice of constantly transforming strategic negotiation, a ploy that is essentially plural, differentiated, self-conscious about, and resistant to the network in which it finds itself caught.
I recall trailblazers, visionaries and artists like Lee Miller, Sonia Delaunay and, Valentine De Saint-Point etc. who discontinue with the telos determinedin advance– by the dominant narrative and reconstitutes a new body of effects and references, within the body of Modernism, and defy the violent traits of modernism.
These artists' soft and almost invisible entry, bypassing the usual channels of academic erudition and dispute by which past retains a place in future, into the adventure and annals of Modernism – the notoriously anti-anthropological, misogynist, anti-humanist, antagonistic and subversive movement that commenced a genealogy of provocation-staged-as-art since Futurism, Dada etc. – occasioned a strange and perpetual opening toward an indeterminate and indeterminable present.
I would like to urge the reader to maintain the lines of alignment and separation between these two contested, contrary, nevertheless, entwined palimpsest-sites of art/modernism/history which I would attempt to juxtapose in anecdotal and dialogical scenarios culled from a conversation with French artists: Anne Garde and Laure Vernière.
Anecdote, Walter Benjamin proclaims in the Arcades Project, 'brings things closer to us in space, and allows them to enter into our lives. Anecdote represents the extreme opposite of history which demands an “empathy” that renders everything abstract. Empathy amounts to the same thing as reading newspapers. The true method of making things present is: to imagine them into our space (and not to imagine ourselves in their space).'
Contra “history” and the dictates of the subaltern scholars, and by opposing history's cumulative and progressive mega-narrative, Benjamin proposes to let the Others inhabit our space and open the narrative up to a heterogeneous reconstruction, not of a monolithic past, but of a fluid and polyphonic present – the fabulous and hysterical history of now.
Advancing to justify the naïveté of my starting point, please , allow me to revisit my first encounter with Anne Garde's work – a series of photos with a massively ironical title: Bondage Chic, displayed on the windows of Galeries Lafayette, of all places– which offered viewers an instantiation of a very unfashionable, anti-representational politics by placing some of the photo's subject – an Indian Sadhu, for example – in a minefield of muted power relations, or, to invoke Foucault, in a 'lacunary and shredded enunciative field' where fragments of the stated and mostly, the silenced cut across modernist structure and construction of knowing.
Appropriating the theoretical apparatus that attempts to explore and examine the epochal Lustmord saga and, an amazing contemporary hagiography of Nan Goldin or Robert Mapplethorpe's exquisitely perverse photography– to “read” Garde, risks misreading and obliterates the radical alterity and difference between these photographers.
Unlike Nan's “monstre” in the sense Georges Bataille utilized the word Anne Garde hasn't produced an oeuvre of a relentlessly personal body of images that awaken deep empathy; Garde is more coldly strategic in inconspicuously placing herself in a lineage of “invisible” artists – a comparison with Valentine De Saint-point, lover and model of Rodin and Alphonce Mucha , a futurist theoretician who composed the notorious Futurist Manifesto of Lust (1913) and Manifesto of Futurist Women (1912), a photographer, composer and dancer really begs to be enfranchised – resisting the aggressive apparatuses of pouvoir/savoir by softly staging a promiscuous intertextuality and the interdependency between systems of representation at opposite end of hierarchy of western aesthetics and cultural value.
Put simply, Garde's polluted portrayal of the “not yet” people (and, places) – to cite John Stuart Mill who decried, Africans, Indians etc. are “not yet” ready for autonomyof the “rude” nations of the world, and from anterior to culture, sophisticatedly encodeand include--the hegemonic model and/or the aesthetic ideal(s) by which the self-image of the Occident has been illustrating itself as the definitive civilizational foci.
There is something not yet made explicit in the discussion above – Anne Garde's creative construction/documentation of the upheaval in the perception of social space: Garde's defiant charting of the disappearance of the city in Paul Virilio's sense– as a critique to the spectacle and economism of late capitalism.
A French revolutionary icon of the 1968, Guy Debord, in his critique of late capitalism states, 'The spectacle, being the reigning social organization of a paralyzed history…it is in effect a false consciousness of time …' In the meanwhile, Fredric Jameson pronounces, modernism is 'dominated by the categories of space rather than by the categories by time' preceding a new technological space-time, operating in space of a constructed social fabric, composed/decomposed by the transfer, transit, transmission system and transport and transmigration networks which displace the city – linked together by speed of commuting– in historical time signaling a unprecedented violence of a permanent war-time economism: the human body residing in the modern city produces value, consumes spectacle and is conditioned to the laws that are not ethical, but, economic.
The Critical Art Ensemble describes the modern city as one of 'liquescence' where the location of powerand the site of resistancerest in ambiguous zones without borders that dissolved under the auspice of 'multinational greed.'
Garde captures these interrupted and nomadic cities and its hellish intestine of historical and post-historical architectures in various form of (de)composition, evolution and (dis)use linking the perimeter of an “autobiographical universe” to an aesthetic vocabulary that attempts to revise the historically specific nature and role– of photographic reportage of place/space within the social field.
The following Interview introduces Anne Garde – where Laure Vernière fits in the role of her mouthpiece as she often does by lending a literary and theoretical framework in most of their artistic collaborations – touching on matters as the intersection of her personal biography and some of the main traits in her work.
'Je cherche à éclairer ce qui resté dans l'ombre . L'obre du souvenir,l'ombre du refoulé,l'ombre de l'histoire …'
Ebad: Your writing, though profoundly lyrical, gives the impression of being inflicted by certain attitudes and characteristics of the “nouvelle vogue” writers…
Laure: Well, I specialize in Contemporary French Literature; I did my thesis on Nathalie Sarraute.
Ebad: Interestingly, you both have strong roots; in the south-west of France …I seem to remember a Roland Barthes' quote you used, in one of Anne's catalogue reifying the light of the south-west …
Laure: Yes! Well, in Anne's case it's truer. As for me, South-west just happened, I happened to be there. I was born in the south-west. I stayed there until I was nine years old and then, my family went to Algeria…Algeria kind of inaugurated my political conscience. Then my father got a job as a professor at Bordeaux once more, but, I couldn't bear France anymore.
Ebad: You got your first job at Sarah Lawrence College as a Professor when you were, what, about 22 years old?
Laure: And I am still very proud! I taught at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence for some years. And then... well, I met Anne and came to know about he photography; at that point she was just preparing her first book on Bordeaux. The book was a very intense testament of Anne's feeling about the city with a certain kind of anguish linked with the industrial sites – specially the old submarine base of Bordeaux. I just felt that these photographs were extraordinary and I said to her, 'Do you want me to write a text for these photos?' She concurred. It was the first book we wrote together.
In the meanwhile, we met a specialist of colonial architecture and he gave us some interesting ideas that we could pursue together and he, in turn, was very influenced by and attracted to Anne's photography, Anne's architectural photograph. We were stirred to discover all these palaces, in a sense, because we were heavily into contemporary literature; so we had a list of cities and monuments, colonial monuments, and all these palaces that were influenced by…
Ebad: The cult classic Palaces of Maharaja came out of this process of re-discovering and re-charting Indian colonial architecture?
Laure: Yes, in that way…and, it was serendipity as well; we were in the right place at the right time. We were in India and we really liked the energy there… In Delhi, we met a man, Francis – a French businessman; Francis had a very broad understanding of culture and he gave us some addresses of places that, he thought, we should visit. One of the addresses was in Kapurthala; we just took the bus off to Simla and met the Maharaja of Kapurthala and he gave us a couple of more addresses and bit by bit we gathered momentum and found a different focus for our project.
Ebad: Did you go to Chandigarh, Le Corbusier's city?
Laure: Yes! we went to Chandigarh. Actually, we stopped there before we went to Simla because it was on the way. But very briefly…Anyways, that's how we started off. Like I said, the focus, in the beginning, was just colonial architecture but later it became the influence of European architecture and decorative art in India. And you know, it took us 14 years to finish that book and we had been travelling to India twice every year. Anyway, when the book came out in France, it was the first time such a book was published.
Anne: You have no idea! Even some of the French magazines were commissioning us to take photographs of India for them – the magazines were publishing very creative photos at that point! But, France has gone gray with hopelessness and desolation since then. Now, the Americans come in, and coo, we love Paris and start flashing their dollar bills and we are very happy a sell a different version of Paris and France which doesn't exist, and which is a figment of their fantasy.
Ebad: Lets talk about your Bordeaux book. The first thing I noticed about the book was, there were no people in the photographs! When you think about Bordeaux, you think about rue saint Cathrine, place saint Pierre , Jardin Publique etc. – none of these iconic places/landmarks made it to the book. At some point, I started to get the idea… What I really see in your photos are, actually, this juxtaposition: you re-chart Bordeaux by bringing in these newer structures, social spaces and scenes that evoke strong feelings, a new brand of feelings, disassociated with that place, and you juxtapose these with the architecture that has defined Bordeaux.
Laure: Yes, and the light of the south-west…
Ebad: In a way, the main theme of the book is light. As a young man I lived in New York and Berlin and I have intimately known the work of Nan Goldin and the works from Boston school people. I know what Goldin calls the snapshot aesthetics – you work is a departure from that aesthetics. You are intimate in a different way: Your use of the light is different! You are not a voyeur; the characters and the portraits are so innocent! You kind of capture a moment in passing, a moment that seizes the nakedness of the architectonic vista; you kind of open up the possibility of a naked vision in that moment, it's like an epiphany – you arrested the totality of the psycho-topology of Bordeaux for me. Laure wrote that you are wielding photography like a weapon of aggression and resistance.
Laure (translating from Anne's French): She was actually referring to your remark that there are 'no people' in the photographs and she says that, the humanity today is not very attractive for her, she doesn't like the way they are; She doesn't feel like showing people anymore because what it takes away from her photograph. Architecture is something complete in itself and she wants pure architecture, but sometimes as an afterthought there may be one or two characters in the background just to give you an idea of proportion of the structure and the solitude it evokes.
She really wants people to capture the photograph's feel and to recognize that there has been a presence of people who have just passed by or are going to pass by, which is why she doesn't show people directly; Anne wants to demonstrate: humanity has been “here,” and is going to be “here”! In our book on Japan, there is a sentence which says, 'to see and not to look' and she wants her audience to perform seeing. This is very important and this seeing is linked with a presence that one doesn't know the location of you know someone just passed through a door or was at the window but the reality hides the presence.
Anne says, actually photojournalism is very popular here, because you have more and newer things to say. With television, which shows an aura, and people get used to a kind of passive reception through what one may define as phantasmagoric representation; and after a while there is a kind of perversion and people almost get a pleasure out of itpleasure of seeing blood, seeing misery, seeing catastrophe, and people see something comic or something tragic and they can't tell the difference.
Actually, last year we were in Dhaka, for a couple of days and, we went to see the Chobi Mela and all these photographs…well, some of the photos were very good examples of photojournalism and on subjects that were very touching and strong; and there were few other photos that were interesting, but, most of the photos were mostly that: photojournalism! At least, as I remember it, and sadly it's true that photojournalism becomes a product of consolation.
Anne: I used to do a lot of nudes, very interesting nudes of man and women, but I find myself ready for carrying out another type of communication these days…
Laure: In Bangladesh, she did a series of portraits– of workers at the Chittagong port: Beautiful smiling faces. One of the things that really struck us is the similarities of the human condition, how the condition of the working class people, here, are almost similar to the working people we know from other places and, it seems many different times are simultaneously competing for prominence here.
Ebad: In your Bordeaux book, different time cohabitates the same space as well. Walter Benjamin used to say, the past is dead until the past is present in presence. When we say now, it's the meeting point of many pasts and many futures competing for prominence.
Another thing – when I mentioned you being products of the 1968 what I meant was: I saw two constant parallels in your work – one, you are always trying to create cultural connection; you are linking; you are photographing palaces in India but you are linking it with the colonial past.
And two, a 60's brand of resistance has remained the cornerstone of your personal politics! An interesting quote, actually, a paean to modernism from Guillaume Apollinaire (At last you are weary of this ancient world/Shepherdess, O Eiffel Tower, the bridges bleat this morning/you've had enough of living within Greek and Roman antiquity), has been cleverly utilized in connection with EXTRALIGHT. That poem was written in 1912– watershed point at the advent of the project of high-modernism – and imperialism; On one hand, there was this consolidation of capital in Europe, this total occidental hegemony of the world exemplified by the transmission of the first worldwide time signal form Eiffel tower, in 1913, which declared West's dominance of trade, territory and ideology; and on the other hand, it was a time of awesome resistance… for the first time after renaissance, the pagan broke on through to the “rational” surface of everyday societal transaction and perception: Antonin Artaud, Bataille, Celine, Simone Weil embodied this passion of resistance; Stravinsky's profoundly pagan Rite of Spring was fist performed in1913…I think, Proust's À la Recherché du Temps Perdue came out in 1913 as well… So there was this unprecedented violence of modernism and there was the spirit of resistance, the romantic-pagan refusal to submit to the rational, capitalistic violence for progress! I see the pagan spirit in Anne's work; I see the spirit of resistance that's there, and I see how she outflanks the western definitions and demarcations by re-discovering our common humanity, history. She finds links of the East and West.
Laure: That is a word she uses a lot, that kind of stages her politics.
Ebad: the word, “resistance”?
Laure: Yes. And resistance is absent in today's France. People have become tame and docile they'll accept anything. This is what really hurting us. You are right about the 68's spirit, actually I had been in the states in the 1968 but I came back to France in the summer to see my friends, my parents, my brother etc. So, I was not there when “it” happened exactly. But I was there a couple of months later and all my friends told me about it. Even in America the spirit was very much there.
Ebad: You absorbed the values of the 1968.
Laure: Yes! It was incredible. There were fights, people were thrown out. I was very lucky I got my tenure. I was the only one in the group of the young people who got in the academy just because I was French – the young French woman! So they couldn't imagine that I was really part of the resistance, you know but they found out afterwards; by then it was too late for them.
Anne: (Quoting Marguerite Duras) The more you refuse, the more you resist, the more you confront– the more you live!