re:future Lab featuring
Gaël Charbau is a french art critic and curator, active in France and Asia. He regularly organises exhibitions in Europe and Asia and collaborates with various institutions and patrons such as Palais de Tokyo Paris, Friche Belle de Mai Marseille, Drawing Lab Paris and the Fondation d'entreprise Hermès. Since 2015 he is artistic advisor for contemporary art at Universcience (Palais de la Découverte & Cité des Sciences at La Villette, Paris). Engaged with the young French art scene for almost ten years, Gaël is a member of the selection committee for a number of awards including the Audi Talents Award. He is the founder of Editions Particules - a publishing house specialising in the conception and production of exhibitions and works in the field of contemporary art, where he was editor-in-chief for seven years. He was artistic director of the White Night -Nuit Blanche Paris 2018 and guest curator for the 2020 edition of Art Paris. From now on, he is artistic director at ZAC Olympic and Paralympic Village Paris 2024.
Artists must be fully involved in the vision of tomorrow's world
Gaël Charbau, 2019
In your opinion, what is the mission of contemporary art and what is the role of artists in society? What influence can art have on social change? Can artists stimulate personal and social change?
This is probably a subject that would merit a long discussion, but I believe that art has no mission to fulfill and that artists have no role to play, in the utilitarian sense in which it could be understood.
Of course, the encounter with art can literally change lives. Works of art are a bit like germs spread around the world. They are carried by a wind that today takes the form of an art center, a museum, a gallery, an artist run space, a crossroads, a smartphone screen or a village square. But the nature of the artistic gesture, its impulse, its inner necessity cannot be linked to any utilitarianism. Art expresses our relationship to the complexity of the world, to the mystery of being here. To be a little caricatural, we can therefore consider that it is the same continuous movement that links the Lascaux frescoes to the latest installation in augmented reality by a young artist in an emerging gallery. This necessary uselessness of art is fundamental, since it permanently maintains this force of emancipation in our daily lives. Since an artist can authorize himself to make any work, with any material - but having been measured every second why he does it like that and not otherwise - then it must be possible to constantly see this world differently.
To imagine it differently, to go beyond it, to start over again. It is this permanent projection that art offers us. And of course, as a laboratory without purpose, as pure aesthetic and intellectual speculation, art feeds all sectors of society, whether it be through form or through thought.
Given the disasters and crises that characterize our world today, is it even possible that we dare to hope for and imagine a better future? What role does narrative play in times of great crises and upheavals?
I would rather say the plural narratives and stories... For indeed, recent history in the West is that of a single great dominant narrative, based on the idea of progress based on a capitalist logic. As we have not found a model of society that would ensure the perfect equality of each one of us before death (our common horizon), we develop and adhere to different narratives that compensate, as it were, for this inequality.
The narrative makes it possible, through a mysterious movement, to pass death into the background, to shine a light on an ideal. But above all, narratives are writings, styles, therefore aesthetic questions!
To answer the first part of your question, I think we have completely devitalized our relationship to forms, particularly in the decorative arts, in architecture, in urban planning... Children are very poorly educated to exercise their gaze, not because of a lack of motivation on the part of teachers, but because the place given to the culture of forms is almost non-existent in the official education curricula. Thus, a large majority of dynamic young executives have not had to cultivate their gaze since, at best, middle school. Indeed, one does not build oneself up solely in accepting or rejecting the forms in which one has grown up. This, in my opinion, is what explains this impoverishment of urban forms, for example, this systematic standardization of city centers. Our visual culture is becoming impoverished and 'elsewhere' is a setting in which we vegetate for two weeks a year, jumping into the air-conditioned cabin of a low-cost company.
At the same time, however, we see a great vivacity of artistic practices charged with political, ethical and ecological considerations that invent aesthetics that no longer have the ambition of forging definitive major programs, but that settle into the pragmatism of what can be done, here and now. These practices answer immediate questions: what form to give to a collective garden, how to occupy an industrial wasteland, what to do with virtual reality technologies, how to transform, for the time of an exhibition, an art center into a political forum, etc.
This is what seems to me to be the most singular thing in our time, this standardized world that nevertheless bears an overflowing wealth of creativity. The future is here, in the thinking of forms, in the ecology of forms and the meaning they carry. And artists are, of course, at the forefront of this process.
What form could a dialogue between art and other disciplines take in order to promote social change and shape the future? What other disciplines would you like to interact with? What new impulses and ideas might emerge?
I believe that this dialogue is already largely at work, but it is not assumed. Art and culture are all too often the singular surface varnish, the bit of an extravagant touch used to give a clear conscience to economic or political choices. In the residency programs that I have been involved in, I have seen how fertile the relationships between artists and craftsmen can be, and how they can lead to innovations or conceptions that were previously unheard of. I am convinced that in the future - and if this awareness spreads - artists will be much more involved in all areas of society. This dialogue is already at work in the fields of architecture and urban planning, for example. My mission as artistic director of the future "athletes' village" – that piece of city that will emerge from the ground after the 2024 Olympics – allows me to think a lot about these issues. But it's not a question of planting sculptures in parks or roundabouts, as if the city were yet another exhibition site. Artists must be fully involved in this vision of tomorrow's world, in its very thought. They are not decorators. The proposals germinating in their works should not be shown as if the urban space were a showcase or a jewel box. They must, together with architecture and spatial thinking, constitute this new urban terrain.
Finding new beginnings in literature and learning to read art
Assuming that a better world could be built on the ruins of the old world - what would it look like in your opinion? What do you personally wish for a better future?
Obviously, a more egalitarian world... But who, apart from the microscopic minority of those who have too much, could hope for the opposite? Of course, equality is not only about material goods, access to drinking water or health care: equality in knowledge is paramount. But rather than brush over broad generalist considerations, I prefer to focus on a point I mentioned before, namely equality of the culture of the gaze.
I do not feel specially qualified to speak about the world in general, and no doubt some cultures are more sensitive to this subject. For what I know best, education here in France, it is essential to develop considerably, at all stages of schooling, this historical, visual and sensitive education. Learning to 'read' art, to feel it, to surround it with words, and to help us understand the particular humanity of artists.
It is often said that the special power of art lies in the courageous and fearless pursuit of the new and always starting from scratch on a blank piece of paper. What strategies, rituals or techniques do you personally use to find your way into a new work and start from scratch with a new project?
For my part, it is most often in reading that inspiration comes to me. Many of my exhibitions are based on verses or nods to the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud in particular, which has fascinated me since I was a teenager. I have never met such a dazzling author, so plastic in his words, so capable of literally provoking new visions in the reader's head. I am crazy about his writing. Can you imagine that he produced all his revolutionary work before the age of twenty? I hate the term 'genius' and the emphasis with which certain women or men are sometimes described, but Rimbaud is truly an exception in my personal pantheon. His writing and precociousness are certainly supernatural... So, I very often immerse myself in his writings and sail through them as if I were in an ever-churning ocean. It's a huge toolbox. Rimbaud is in my eyes the prince of renewal and new beginnings.
And one last question: Who else do you think should be featured in the re:future Lab interview series?
I suggest you give the floor to Grégory Chatonsky, an artist and friend whose words are extremely inspiring on the question of the relationship between art, technique and ecology.
Dear Gaël, you have a very busy agenda, so I am more than happy, that you could arrange to answer my questionaire. Thank you very much for your inspiring contribution!
The interview was conducted in May 2020
Text and interview: Madeleine Schwinge
Translation from French: Cécile Nebbot