Celebration François Piron

A few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall at the end of the socialist era in one half of Europe, France celebrated the bicentenary of its Revolution, an emblematic event for the country’s national cultural policy, in several ways. The procession/parade, the staging of which was entrusted by the Ministry of Culture to the advertising executive Jean-Paul Goude on French National Day, July 14, 1989, as well as the address delivered at the Pantheon mausoleum in Paris by president François Mitterrand, represented two events which have had lasting effects. The first for the introduction of the fashion and advertising worlds—Goude was known for colorful video clips and fashion ad campaigns—as popular and festive vehicles, into a political event, thus transforming the notion of commemoration into one of celebration; i.e., shifting the stress toward the present rather than the past. Or rather replacing a possibly critical and analytical look at the past by a tradition-free celebration—pure spectacular rhetoric focusing on imagery. The second calls for an historical reminder. In 1981, when unexpectedly elected to his first term as France’s president, François Mitterrand, the first left-wing president of the 5th Republic, instituted in 1958, initiated a symbolic walk with his supporters through the streets of Paris, leading eventually to the Pantheon, wherein he spent a solitary while in contemplative silence. The march-cum-event had an off-the-cuff feel to it (neither the journalists nor the police all around Mitterrand had any knowledge of the route he would take), and Mitterrand had chosen the Pantheon as a lay monument, against which he symbolically gauged himself, setting himself on a par with the historical republican figures whose bodies have been preserved there since the French Revolution. It was then logical that Mitterrand should return to the Pantheon in 1989, but the event was quite differently organized. Cannily orchestrated by TV cameras, in front of a motionless throng of elected personalities, the presentation of the presidential speech was choreographed down to the last detail by the TV film director Serge Moati, with the president himself appearing in a glass cage, meant to protect him from the cold. There he stood, transfixed, hieratic, almost mummified, lit and filmed from angles forming geometrical shapes. Though this time devoid of any festive spirit, this event, the final one of the bicentenary celebrations, and the counterpoint to Goude’s parade, was also created entirely for the imagery it produced.

It is from that date on that the word “celebration” has become, in France, a keyword for major goings-on in the country’s cultural policy, encouraging the organization of events with the accent essentially on self-celebration, thus taking over from reflection and the construction of lasting tools. In the contemporary art arena, the decentralized network of production and diffusion structures set up in the early 1980s suffered from a gradual backing out on the part of the State from the mid-1990s onward. In the form of a progressive withdrawal of its financial investment, justified by a desire to shift responsibilities to partner regions, it was nevertheless contradicted by a kingly policy, whose stipulations, as well as the appointments and dismissals of those directing these institutions, were decided mainly at the Ministry of Culture. It was amid a climate of growing anxiety among these institutions, confronted as they were by a development of their situation that was being obstructed by a lack of money, that the Ministry organized, in 2003, an operation to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Regional Contemporary Art Collections or FRACs, borrowing their masterpieces acquired over those two decades, and showing them, in a symbolic gesture, in Paris. In the end, under pressure from senior regional officials, the large exhibition was eventually divided up and shown in the cities of Strasbourg, Nantes, and Arles. Not one institutional director was asked to write an essay in the deluxe catalog. Preference went to a shrewd mixture of art critics not known to be familiar with those structures (Greil Marcus, Alison Gingeras, Alexis Vaillant), and unquestionable left-wing cultural critics (Antonio Negri, Fredric Jameson, and James Clifford), who helped to defuse the possible denunciation of a celebration aimed at disguising the policy of the day then at work beneath a mask that was at once critical and international.

The architectural policy for culture over the last few decades in France also results from a certain logic of self-celebration, combining monumentality and heritage. While the creation of the Centre Pompidou in the 1970s linked a progressive type of cultural structure with an innovative, yet polemical, type of architecture, the tendency, henceforth, has been veering more toward the renovation of patrimonial buildings, most of them gigantic, which are subsequently assigned to the cultural arena. So the glazed nave of the Grand Palais, in Paris, an edifice built for the 1900 World Fair, now accommodates essentially vast art events, like the International Contemporary Art Fair (FIAC), and events orchestrated by the Ministry of Culture, among them the national triennial exhibition called La Force de l’Art (The Strength of Art), and a program of site-specific projects named Monumenta—two operations whose names already say a great deal about the glorious ideologies presiding over their conception. The last one, whose title combines the idea of monument with a word calling to mind the Kassel Documenta, though quite unconnected with this latter event, commissions artists to make a one-off piece in scale with the venue—to date, Richard Serra and Anselm Kiefer, towering figures now well accustomed to monumental commissions and this type of format-driven spectacularness. Unfortunately, none of these problematic notions (national exhibitions, site-specificity, gigantism, relationship between artwork and patrimony, etc.) are challenged or questioned there, but seem to be taken for granted as part of an official vocabulary of cultural entertainment which is self-celebratory as much as uncritical, and therefore ignored most of the time on an international level.

It is nevertheless noteworthy that, in tandem with this celebratory aspect of French cultural policy, there developed during the 1990s a generation of artists who have likewise appropriated the vocabulary of celebration, though in a singularly more problematic and issue-ridden way. This generation, whose leading figures in France are Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno, and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, along with the curator Nicolas Bourriaud, founded a part of what now endures under the term “relational aesthetics,” upon a liturgy of works transformed into events designed to give rise to temporary communities. Though placed by Bourriaud under the auspices of Situationism and the Marxist thinking of Louis Althusser, relational aesthetics is broadly defined as an optimistic version of postmodernism, replacing the idea of programs with the “scenario” concept, to borrow the terms used by another artist in on the foundation of this movement, Liam Gillick. Otherwise put, according to his definition, a transition from “the idea of forecasting (the modernist, communist, or early capitalist model of social planning) to the production of scenarios used in the late capitalist system, based on possibilities: a free trade economy constantly readapting itself to the needs of an audience.” The demonstration by children brandishing banners reading “No more reality” organized by Philippe Parreno in 1991, one of his earliest works, was contemporary with the theses put forward by Jean Baudrillard about the simulacrum and the disappearance of the notion of reality, developed in the book The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. And the introduction by Pierre Huyghe of a celebratory ritual in a new town in the United States, looking like a socially homogeneous gated community, with Streamside Day (2003), seems, at the end of the day, to confirm the thesis developed by the French philosopher. That is, a movement toward unanimity and toward a refusal of negativity, typical of celebrations, but a refusal, also, of a movement of acceptance, widespread in France, of any “end of ideologies” following the fall of the Wall. The patent melancholy of Streamside Day, and of Huyghe’s work in general, nevertheless spreads a form of dissatisfaction with regard to this desire to believe in a politically-instituted, ongoing present.