Interview by Pierre Huyghe and Hans-Ulrich Obrist

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: My first question is, to begin with the beginning, what prompted the transition from film-based experiences to the new work you showed me when we met last month. Is there what Matthew Barney calls a new desire for non-mediated experience? In a postmedium condition, what is your medium?

Olivier Bardin: Ever since I first entered art college as a student at the beginning of the nineties I have thought of exhibition as a medium. In the first instance, I made use of the closed space of the college as a means to produce and mediate my work, my concept of exhibition involved a stage which contained its own means of production. Exhibition is, for me, the opportunity to create a physical encounter between myself and a spectator, and between spectators. In a context where experience dominates, it is left for me to construct the scene. What I create, the formal element which can be transmitted and reactivated, is the set-up itself. The system is fixed, it is an architecture. I don’t tell how it should be occupied, but the visitor is immediately subjected to its influence. The constituent elements of the scene lie in the choice of a location, its proportions, the sense of movement around it, the presence of one or several people, and, depending on the circumstances: my presence, the materials in the space, a spoken word, a speech, recording instruments.

Pierre Huyghe: Exhibition is, for you, a system which redistributes roles and reinvents the status of the image. It takes place in the present, in an exchange between you and visitors who are treated as protagonists, and it often operates through dialogue or a game rule. The image is the site where representation is transformed into play. Is exhibition a necessary path – albeit a dangerous one – to self-reinvention within the context of a shared image?

Olivier Bardin: I would say yes. The situations I create contribute to the development of a community, bound together through the use of the gaze, which goes beyond considerations of class, social group, generation, and language. The visitors at an exhibition are images which move around, observe each other, and engage in interactions with each other. This is something that cannot occur in television, cinema, theatre or dance, only exhibition makes it possible.

Pierre Huyghe: It seems to me that you have always been interested in the moment of reconfiguration of power, in the moment when roles are being redistributed, where a change of representation is taking place. I am thinking of your fictional role as director of the Bordeaux École des Beaux-Arts in 1994 when you were still a student there, of your first exhibitions in the college’s gallery created during a single night with other students invited by you. You reconfigured the space of the exhibition by using what was already there. I am also thinking of Une télé pour la télé (A Television for Television) in which you invited individuals in a television studio to control the equipment which recorded their own images, I am thinking of Robespierre’s speech on the origins of the French Constitution (Sur la Constitution à donner à la France, 2004), or again of your most recent exhibitions which put the spectator on show.

Olivier Bardin: My early projects involved the organisation of exhibitions according to strict rules. Already, in 1996, it was the relationship between me and another artist, while producing a piece for an exhibition within the short time-span of a night, which was more important than what we were going to produce and be able to display the next day. The work was being created and it was enthralling, but we were the only ones to be involved in this very intense moment. The mediation of the moment was impossible on that occasion.

It seemed to me, for this reason, that television was the medium which would best allow me to give form to such a moment. Real time, the continuous flow of the transmission, the studio, the guests, the means of transmission, are the parameters of television. Combined, these elements generate an unusual situation which obliges participants to invent a character, a role, a new mask for themselves. Now, there exists a period of latency, of adaptation, during which an individual is feeling around to construct a new mask. This latent period corresponds to the duration of the broadcast itself and it is this revealing moment which I attempt to capture. My television projects began with your invitation in 1997 on behalf of your channel in Dijon, Mobile TV. At that time I created six programmes called A Television for Television, which invited young people into the studio individually, asking them to create a live half-hour broadcast which would take account of the technical features of the broadcast, of the set, of my presence, and of the real-time transmission to viewers who could see us, but with whom interaction was, by definition, impossible. I was greatly surprised by the attitude of these young people who were content simply to be present in a studio. They were there, with no personal statement or message to convey, not wanting to speak to anybody. The transmission of the image of their bodies, of their presence, was all they required during that half-hour. My research and productions for local television stations continued until 2004 and the exhibition at the ARC Museum of modern art in Paris, where I was invited by Hans-Ulrich to present a sort of overview of the whole.

For the Liverpool exhibition I propose a new piece. In an empty white room, which visitors are obliged to cross in order to continue their visit in the rest of the museum, I am installing out nine identical armchairs (of the sort to be found in an English gentleman’s club) facing the entrance to this space. On entering, you immediately see these iconic armchairs in which visitors to the exhibition are seated, in other words the viewer become the object itself of the exhibition. But you also see the space which you are going to occupy, a moment later, when you yourself sit in the chairs. Once seated in the chairs, you watch, as in the theatre, a ballet of spectators who appear suddenly on the stage, are surprised at being observed, and are obliged to become both participants in the exhibition and its objects. Both those who enter and those who are seated display themselves and observe each other in a choreographic tension which is defined by the movement of their bodies or the expression on their faces. The choice of furniture, the dimensions of the exhibition space, the lighting, and the distance between the armchairs and the entrance are essential to the staging, they determine what visitors see and the moment of their awareness. The number of seats is limited, it is for each individual to decide whether or not to give up a seat, in other words, to work for the balance of the whole composition. Each visitor’s responsibility is brought into play, each self-image then interacts, as you said, with a communal or shared image.

Pierre Huyghe: When we understand that we are on show or when we look at somebody else on show we put ourselves in the other’s place. In your work, representation always seems to have a political or psychoanalytical dimension – we find it in Dan Graham too – there is a process where the construction of the subject is transferred.

Olivier Bardin: The risk we take in exhibiting ourselves must necessarily happen in relation to the other, to a receiver, a spectator. It is an intimate and unique experience. If there is no desire, bringing with it the possibility that curiosity may triumph over uneasiness, then spectators are in danger of moving across my exhibitions without seeing what is to be seen, frozen in their own images. But once I offer an inter-subjective experience, desire is produced by a relationship, and it is, indeed, very close to the psychoanalytical concept of desire. It is a means, not an end. It is not embodied in a thing, but is instead a tension. This desire is not new, but with the (art)market, we have become accustomed to measuring desire against the merchandise.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Is time your medium?

Olivier Bardin: I think that my work can certainly be understood through the concept of temporality. Time is the property of each spectator. Through the conditions which I set, I make it possible for time to belong to each individual. Time is the necessary condition to understand the full complexity of the images of others. If we initially perceive individuals as objects, when they first declare themselves on show, we then need time to recognise them as subjects.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: How to document time-based work?

Olivier Bardin : The question of time is just as important in the photographs I take. I preserve, in films or photographs, facial expressions or arrangements of bodies in space which have been influenced by one of my systems, such as a speech, for example Lou Castel under the influence of a speech by Robespierre. I prefer still photography to film. A photograph is an object which complements an action. Such images show the ways in which people exhibit themselves. What is seen in the visual record cannot be captured in the action. Films or photographs thus appear as objects which complete and prolong action. The recorded image is accordingly never simply an archive document.

Pierre Huyghe: Are spectators not also witnesses? Could we not consider them as a means of recording or transmitting experience?

Olivier Bardin: The spectators who exhibit themselves at my exhibitions often express spontaneously what they see or feel, some also take photographs or make video recordings. The intersection of the words and images extends the event and indeed allows it to be transmitted to others. I think that these words and images are testimonies. Each one bears witness to an experience in the present moment and communicates that experience to other viewers. In principle, of course, we testify to a past experience. Testimony has the status of proof, it allows us to reconstruct a past reality, but from a single viewpoint, that of the witness. In that, it seems to me that the time of direct experience and the time of its recording cannot be separated in my work, and that the encounter between the two is the condition of its transmission. I propose a frame of experience, but I do not control in any way the words of the witness, who remains entirely free.

Pierre Huyghe: You invent systems, game rules which authorise, and, in a certain way, oblige subjects (often spectators in an exhibition) to bring into play their own image, their role in the situation in which they find themselves; by having to participate they exhibit themselves. What happens in that moment of self-exhibition? Can you take us back over such situations, such systems?

Olivier Bardin: What Hans-Ulrich has referred to earlier, following our discussions last month, and what you and I have been discussing a great deal recently, is the series of exhibitions which I created in museums where I asked that the spaces should be completely emptied. I wanted to allow visitors to move from the status of exhibition viewers to that of exhibition objects, and then subjects. In Vassivière, Nuremberg, and Geneva, we designed an invitation card, we invited people to come and view an exhibition for a few hours in a location which was intended for exhibition but was empty. I was present and I would say to spectators: ‘You are in an exhibition space. For there to be an exhibition something has to be exhibited. Who wants to exhibit themselves?’ When a spectator said that he would like to do so, and it is easily the case in this empty space, the exhibition would begin.

The others would look at him, go up to him, sometimes even touch him, then they would move away, move around him, adopt the pose of a museum visitor; all of them found it very easy to make the connection between their own experience as exhibition-goers and what was happening at that moment. But the person who was exhibiting himself was alive, he could use his eyes, move his body. This person on show had also come along as a spectator like everybody else and everyone remembered that the question had been asked of all of them. All the participants then became conscious of their own images and of being on show themselves, each becoming in turn the exhibited object. These spectators had simply come to see an exhibition and as a consequence of the precision of the system, its effectiveness, they became the exhibits. Each of them was thus compelled to play two roles at once, that of spectator and that of exhibit. Nobody could hide, be in the position of a voyeur, for example: we were all subject to the gaze of others. The gaze is egalitarian and free. Two visitors to an exhibition can experience the loss of their own masks and discover each other’s image. The system allows a balance between all the participants and avoids all forms of judgement about others.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Can you please tell me about your yet unrealised projects? Projects which are too big to be realised, to small to be realised, forgotten projects, self-censored projects, censored projects, concrete utopias and utopias?

Olivier Bardin: My projects are born in the course of encounters. This fits with the principle that the museum or exhibition is a specific site for encounters. Each day, I imagine the organisation of potential encounters, in museums, in different countries, in political or religious institutions, at historical sites, etc. I sometimes reorganise their spaces, imagine what might be done to encourage people to look and make that moment individual. It is also a matter of scale and means, you can’t approach encounters with individuals and vast audiences in the same way. I enjoy being challenged on different scales.

There is, in my work, the idea of acting everywhere that it is possible to act. I imagine setting up my systems from Japan to Brazil, via India, that is, provoking ways of looking which take account of the particular organisation of personal relationships in each of these areas of the world. There is no relationship without a mask, and that is common to all societies. The process of losing and finding masks occurs everywhere.

Olivier Bardin, Interview by Pierre Huyghe and Hans-Ulrich Obrist in The Fifth Floor: Ideas Taking Space, Editor Peter Gorschlüter, Liverpool University Press

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