IMAGES SEEK MODELS
Interview with Fabienne Ballandras by Florence Meyssonnier
Translated by John Doherty
In Sentimentale Intellektuelle, french Institute of Stuttgart's edition, 2010
Your two latest series clearly go beyond the question of representation, into that of the communicational act. Taking their origins in facts that belong to History, they exploit the mechanism of transfer from real facts to information.
For some years I've been interested in the images of firms, and the industrial conflicts that are so prominent, with the result that codes related to communication (brands, signs, hoardings) naturally found their way into my work. The reference points that embedded these images in current events were gradually forced out by a modelling process. Their interpretation, more than that of their predecessors, takes place in "the historical", but it's history's "transformation into images" that interests me, in the first place, and particularly scenes of protest, in that they develop complexity, a system that exposes language.
One of the most obvious signs of this "transformation into images" – this theatricalisation – is the slogan, for example in the series Du fric ou boum ["Cash or boom"].
What this series is concerned with is a transfer from the real fact to its staging. In order for an image to actualise a fact, in the continuous flux of the visual, it must "play" the fact and give it a form that will condition its interpretation. The media image that makes the slogan public combines language and image in the same space.
The slogan has a well-defined role to play in conflict situations. It enunciates claims, and expresses states of mind. It can be violent, funny, despairing... But taken out of context, it has an evocative power that goes beyond its original function. It can be an historical touchstone, like Il est interdit d'interdire ["It's forbidden to forbid"], or an odd phrase that may be freely interpreted by the viewer, such as Tiens t'es radié ["Hey, you're out"].
From the slogan to the personal apprehension of a space, in Sentimentale Intellektuelle, there's a question of occupation, in other words an incorporation of individual histories into present time.
The slogan's a free form of integration of an individual or group into collective space. More than an object of transmission or media exposure, it's become a "mediatisation". Du fric ou boum essentially explores images of the alert as a crude form of communication, the dramatisation of a threat rather than a threat as such. Within this logic, On veut la prime ["We want the bonus"] is the most representative photograph.
In other words, injecting these images into public advertising space seems to me to be a further perversion that's interesting to use. With the photographs of cells in Sentimentale Intellektuelle, my approach was different. The world of prisons involves the absorption of individuals into a place that's been chosen by society. It's a locus of constraint, of common usages, of authority. Here, the individual's made manifest by his quasi-absence.
In Sentimentale Intellektuelle, the historical referent seems like a necessary starting point that was also very quickly left behind by the question of mediation – or mediatisation.
Taking the history of the 1970s as a basis for reflection, the transmission of political commitment always has to be put in perspective. In France, it's May '68, and the particular relationship we have with demonstrations... In Germany, I thought it more appropriate to look at a different form of opposition through the activity of the Red Army Faction and its major figures: Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ensslin, etc. Beyond the confrontation between the state and an armed group, the most interesting thing was the war they waged in the media, and particularly in Stammheim prison, which for some years was a centre for debate and mutual manipulation, appealing to public opinion. Closed in on itself, it has given rise to collective fantasies. And this was the central point around which I gradually constructed the project.
How does the treatment of prisoners' individual experience come into this neutralising process ?
I asked the prison authorities if I could send the prisoners a questionnaire in the form of a strict protocol. I asked them to give a simple description of the space around them, and its constituents. "What are its dimensions ? What colour is the floor? What is there on the wall ?" And so on. Six of them sent back replies, and I used their descriptions as a basis for the production of maquettes, which were then photographed.
This is a setup that abstracts the position of the individual. It makes the prisoner's presence indispensable to the implementation of the work. His viewpoint determines that of the viewers, but the position it assigns them also makes them invisible. In terms of its inner workings, the series doesn't seek to deal with the private aspect of the prisoners' lives. On the contrary, the point was to enter into the domain of "the intimate", as Mickaël Foessel defined it, in other words as a linkage to exteriority (1). By its very nature, prison takes this away from the individual, who, as far as possible, projects it onto the walls and impregnates his day-to-day life with it. And it's in this respect that prison's a political space.
Your work has to do with the circulation of images rather than their origins, and you've taken this context as a new impetus to modelling (whose status, in your work, is methodological as much as conceptual). Your initial drawings and paintings of very precise details had storyboards without actors, and gave shape to an absent reality.
Without actors, and without narration... Let's say that the place became a generator of images from different origins – archives or fiction. Redrawing sets from Uli Edel's film Das Baader Meinhof Komplex, and with photographs that closely reframed objects from everyday life, or from prisons, I put together a group of neutral elements that didn't describe the context of a story, but constituted a corpus with multiple, and increasingly autonomous, entry points.
In the transfers that take place within this project, and in the relationships between the different media, the question of representation, or simulacra, becomes irrelevant: it's the more general format of the contemporary image that's in question. So without being really habitable, these different works exert a strong, disturbing power over the viewer.
It's true that I felt it important to maintain an interlinking of readings between the various media used in Sentimentale Intellektuelle. But for me, the heart of the work is still to be found in the photographic reconstitution of the maquettes, partly because the use of photography creates a form of continuity with my work as a whole, but also because it gives a more accurate expression of the ambiguity between fantasy and reality. All the images have the same referent, but in this case photography's performing an "action". It's discovering an autonomy it never before possessed. The other elements are in a sense satellites with different roles: the drawings and paintings weave a tissue of images that blur and intensify the relationship to the place of reference. The two "cell" sculptures, as deployable, manipulable spaces, once more display the attraction of modelling, evoking the proportions of the two types of cell that are to be found in Stammheim. Through the interior-exterior relationship, they convey the experience of utilisation, gesture and sound. And finally, in the same logic as Du fric ou boum, the video Everybody talks about the weather... gives new life to the slogan, which has already been appropriated several times as a demonstration of the scope and autonomy of language.
1. "A world without intimacy is a world in which the reserves of protest decline." In La Privation de l'intime, Paris, Seuil, 2008.
By Anne Giffon-Selle
Translated by John Doherty
In Sentimentale Intellektuelle, french Institute of Stuttgart's edition, 2010
A photograph of a Krupp or GEG factory reveals practically nothing about the parent firm, but insists on serving as a basis for the active construction of something artificial, something fabricated. Bertold Brecht
Fabienne Ballandras's photographic series generally have dual access points: a spatial, and therefore formal, problematic, but also one that is event-based, reflecting or announcing more urgent issues. She initially worked in the landscape genre, focussing on ecological questions well before they became all-pervasive in political discourse. More recently, Transfert d'activités questioned the physical and collective space of work, reconstituting the theatre of socio-economic events that were making the headlines: insider trading, closures, relocations, etc. The latest series – Du fric ou boum ("Cash or boom") and Sentimentale Intellektuelle – go further, with two possible spaces of social, and therefore "public", anger: the kind of exterior space in which protests take place, and the interior, restricted space of Stammheim prison in Stuttgart. In both series, references to current events hark back to a previous historical period: the slogans and declarations in Du fric ou boum (as in Transfert d'activités) naturally recall those of May '68; and it was in Stammheim that the leaders of the Red Army Faction were held in the 1970s. Finally, the slogan that can sporadically be made out on flags in the film Everybody talks about the weather... was used by the German railway company in the 1930s. It was appropriated by the left in the 1960s, and provided the title for a volume of Ulrike Meinhof's writings, published in America. Ballandras interweaves temporalities – past and present – not in order to provide an apologia for a troubled historical period, but to "slow down" the images, to counter the immediacy that generally characterises them, and to further add to the semantic stratification.
The works do not, therefore, take a "stand", but a "position", as Georges Didi-Huberman has expressed it (1), so as to reactivate history and memory, and to reinject time, whether historical or simply chronological. Sentimentale Intellektuelle alludes to a very precise location – Stammheim prison – but unlike Du fric ou boum it was not intended as a response to a live issue. The prison, in this instance, represents a locus of duration, dilated time, a slowness whose productive potential might be called into question.
So far, Ballandras's visual sources have essentially been media images that she has reconstituted in the form of maquettes. (2) It might be supposed that the materiality of this slow elaboration makes it possible to bring to the surface of the image the "fecundity of the document" which, according to Walter Benjamin (3), modern photography addresses. But there is no documentary purism here: though well informed about her subject, Ballandras is not looking for authentic documents or original images. In order to render a work more substantive, she does not hesitate to introduce further heterogeneity, or to multiply different viewpoints on a given surface, while complexifying the protocol of construction of her images by diversifying the sources and media, and placing new filters between the work and its subject. Thus it is that she obscures the question of origins, replacing one form of expression by another – photography by painting or drawing, language or text by photography or sculpture. More than ever, her sources are second-hand. She had not been to Stammheim before starting work on the project: her first drawings were based on photographs of sets from the film Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, and the reconstitutions of the cells relied on descriptions provided by prisoners.
This heterogeneity has enriched the works, while allowing the artist to place her subjects at a distance without having to sacrifice her humanity. The images remain generic, but the explicit materiality and mixed aesthetic of the maquettes suggest the real fragility – or derision (because humour is not absent) – of the manual intervention involved. (4) The two latest series were built up around another instrument (also fundamental) of control over the world, namely speech, and its corollary, writing. "Photography is mute", recalls the artist Marc Pataut. "It lacks speech. And speech is a way of working outside photography. It is also a way of bringing in the body (sculpture) – a way of recovering its use, and reclaiming it." (5) It is this reality of bodies, this otherness, that reintroduces, obversely, the slogans of Du fric ou boum, and the Stammheim prisoners' descriptions of their cells. Over the course of time, and with the advent of the economic crisis, the social spaces that Ballandras has explored since Transfert d'activités (workplaces, precarious accommodation, prisons) have become coercive, "substractive", in that they subject the body to the violence of privation (that of security, privacy, etc.), or to a dispossession of the self. The Red Army Faction produced a considerable amount of theory on places of confinement and their physical or perceptive repercussions. (6) The drawings, paintings and sculptures of Sentimentale Intellektuelle focus perception on the visual elements that signify this situation: latches, bolts, spyholes, hatches, bars, reinforced doors, etc. This, like other works, shows us places of radical retrenchment (whether prison, factory or tent) which, by extension, question the positioning of art, and the space it occupies, constructs and holds.
Fabienne Ballandras shares with artists such as Sophie Ristelhueber, Jeff Wall, Thomas Demand and Bruno Serralongue an ability to grapple with reality in its conflicts and history. Her protocols and formal dispositions "give back to images their capacity for political insight and invocation" (7), while bringing about a displacement of perception and the body, in the kind of salutary deviation that art can still make possible.
1. In Quand les images prennent position, 1/ L'Oeil de l'histoire, Editions de Minuit, 2009.
2. See my two previous texts, "Transfert d'activités" and "La marchandise imaginaire".
3. In "The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction".
4. This material quality is quite different from the technical prowess, smooth surfaces and ideational abstraction of Thomas Demand, to whom Fabienne Ballandras has often been compared.
5. In Dominique Baqué, Pour un nouvel art politique, Paris, Editions Flammarion, 2004.
6. Ulrike Meinhof wrote a great deal, not only about her own imprisonment and the resulting perceptive alteration, but also about supervised educational institutions for girls.
7. Georges Didi-Huberman, op. cit.