Claire Fontaine interviewed by John Kelsey
JK: Claire Fontaine describes itself as a fiction and as a ready-made artist. What does it mean, from the perspective of subjectivity, to say that a contemporary artist has become something like a urinal or a Brillo box?
CF: Claire Fontaine doesn’t especially describe herself as a fiction; she is not meant to be a female character with a face, specific characteristics, or moods. She is a fiction in the way any proper name is a fiction. You use the strategy of the pseudonym yourself, and on two fronts, even, with Bernadette Corporation and Reena Spaulings. These two names designate two spheres of collective activity that do not necessarily conform to the formats imposed by the notions “artists’ collective” or the “gallery”, etc.
Next, there is this fact of being a ready-made artist…well, this doesn’t just concern Claire
JK: Given that you’re a collective practice, an artist populated by more than one, does the
CF: The division of labor is the fundamental problematic of our work. Claire Fontaine grew out of the impossibility of accepting the division between intellectual and manual work; the art world is the best adapted for fleeing this sort of hierarchy. Other sets of problems arise afterwards because it is no longer possible for anyone to be self-sufficient (unless this coincides with insularity), and so there’s the subcontracting of certain parts of the works, monetary relations. These are the terrifying dramas of capitalism and they are simultaneously present in the form and the content of what we make. Unresolved questions function as the motor and carburant of our artistic productions: we say all the time that if we could get down to changing this state of things we wouldn’t make art. But I think your question refers to an old discussion we had where you upheld that the content of an artistic work does not determine its political position, and that its strategic choices comprise its effectiveness and its coherence. I am not sure that the attempt to extract contradictions through a position of purity is very fruitful. Claire Fontaine doesn’t believe in exemplarity and the political and social relationships that flow from it. Even if it weaves political alliances and friendships, without which it couldn’t go on, all the time.
JK: Certain texts by Claire Fontaine contain theorizations on strategies such as the “human strike” and the aggressive silences Italian feminists assumed during the seventies. How does non-production function in your work? Where exactly does it not function?
CF: It functions like an omnipresent horizon one never reaches. Let me explain: the concept of “human strike”, as well as the feminists’ aggressive silences, were born out of militant contexts, in which some mobilize in order to block total mobilization. The human strike is meant to reveal the way in which the temporality of struggles is conditioned and colonized by the official temporality, and also with regard to affects, behaviors, daily existence, in short. Unfortunately, interruption and non-production are not always options: the human strike is a singular or mass form of behavior meant to break a harmful and politically reactionary dynamic; it changes according to circumstances. Most often this translates into zealous action, even if punctually. Silent persistence, opposition to those who claim to love us and act with our best interests in mind is already difficult and exhausting enough. Refusal is very important, vital, but after refusal it’s constructive action that poses new problems. Because, for example, in the seventies, once the feminists succeeded in explaining to mixed-gender militant groups that their public words were empty, incoherent, bureaucratic, or whatever, the groups disbanded. And now it’s often said that “the feminists screwed up the revolutionary dynamic,” when this had been the result of a repressive wave of police action that was disproportionate to the forces of the movement. The human strike is not a solution; it is an additional problem, for those who practice it and for those who are subjected to it. But it’s a displacement of the problem. In hypnosis, for example, one of the therapeutic options is to displace the patient’s symptom through orders given during sleep. The symptom then appears in an unusual situation and moment, and it suddenly seems incongruous to the sick person. Most often, their first reflex is therefore one of not succumbing to this untimely symptom, of controlling it, and through that, they discover a new capacity, a strength they didn’t think they had.
JK: How can we interrupt anything in the contemporary art world today? Art circulates at a growing rate of speed, perfectly synchronized with the movement of capital and information.
CF: The contemporary art world is several different worlds at once, all of which are concealed in the large stomach and intestine of Capital. Without even criticizing the criteria that one has to fulfill and the Caudine Forks one has to traverse in order to take part in the visible surface of this world, we can say, more basically, that everything that circulates in this society depends on economic flux. So, how could art be an exception? There is, however, a strange connection between libidinal and monetary economy in the art world, which goes beyond the simple question of fetishism and it’s quite fascinating. There are surely things that could be done with that, with this specific state of desire. If flattery and provocation were the two pillars of the avant-gardes of the last century, two ways of relating two old forms of power, we’ve now entered into a period in which one has to interfere with the concerns of those who govern and who are governed. Through all that, art doesn’t interrupt anything, it only expresses things that would otherwise be drowned out or simplified, it saves phenomena from the digestion and expulsion of the signifying field. Everything that appears as professionally connoted doesn’t interrupt anything at all, and that’s clear since the defeat of the workers’ movement. The interruptions will come from elsewhere, and, for us, making art is a way of staying awake until those moments occur. We will accompany them wherever they manifest themselves; producing them is not our ambition nor our power.
JK: What’s the intention behind the sentence We are all bad consumers, painted on Warhol’s Marilyns? A lot of contemporary art doesn’t only situate itself within the field of consumption but, in reality, proposes art as a unique style of consumption in itself. The
CF: The diptych We are all ready made artists and We are all bad consumers, which uses Marilyn as a support, is an example of the problems polysemy raises. At the beginning, we were thinking about the slogan “We are all German Jews”, and what it meant in ’68. That during the war we were all in danger, potential victims? That we are all in solidarity with those who were exterminated and their loved-ones? In fact, I think it was a gesture of desubjectivisation. In our case, desubjectivisation can henceforth only occur in a very controlled space, in a veritable slice of the market. At present, consumption is no longer an activity in itself, it coincides with the unfolding of our lives, it is not a choice or a pleasure. It is also a practice that interfaces with production in a sadly complementary and less and less dialectical manner. From the moment that consumption became an unavoidable aspect of the construction of our life forms, we lost the hope the avant-gardes had of using art as a means of liberating life. Once production is discredited, degraded, and delocalized, one can no longer moralize about anything concerning consumption. There’s no pride left in being a worker or someone who contributes to the general productivity, because we are first and foremost consumers who, by the way, can never obtain what they want (good enough or healthy enough products). I mean, it’s clear how the art world situates itself in relationship to this problem. Fetishism is the avowed motor of any transaction (including those with added intellectual value). Remixing as a paradigm of productive activity?… now, that’s pathetically banal. Everyone says that production takes place through assembly and the transformation of pre-existing fragments. That’s always been the case, but now we all have virtually free access to almost all forms of history and geography; creation has turned into an increasingly vulgar, idiotic, and a less and less magical activity. That’s one of the disenchanting effects of capitalism, what else can I say? It’s not up to us. These are also fair impressions of course, but they don’t stop collectors or challenge the art market in any way. So, appropriation… if such a thing exists it’s not what I am up to. Instead, I’m trying to practice expropriation, to create a sharing, an accessibility, a political reinvestment of what I am producing. I annex nothing of myself as a subject. I only steal to redistribute.
JK: People say that the most remarkable artists today are those who invent other ways of
CF: It’s hard not to have sympathy for pirates, bandits or thieves, these are romantic figures who’ve molded our desires for freedom since childhood…Creative types, on the contrary, are very shrewd and productive, calculating, much less sexy. Because if you are not shrewd and organized from the outset, the system rapidly changes you or spits you out even before it has had a chance to swallow you, and afterward, as we all know, you no longer create anything. So, no, these are not and never the same people. As far as information goes, I already consider it a by-product, pre-mashed gibberish that can also be found in bits with independent media, but as Walter Benjamin said, information is often accompanied by barbarism. Manipulating this shit can help to make works recognizable and reassuring or even produce some pedagogical effect, but I don’t think it’s interesting.
JK: How did Claire begin? As a feeling, an idea, a plan? What immediate conditions are you responding to?
CF: Claire started by chance, there wasn’t any strategy or career plan. Absolutely none at all! The initial conditions were a feeling of powerlessness, an incapacity to resist the things that affect us. Our main feeling at the time was one of political impotency, of the impossibility of deploying practices of freedom in our professional and personal situation. Claire came to us as a space of immediacy, where we stopped pondering the pros and cons, where we stopped saying: “but yes…and so…and then,” etc. We created a field of formal intervention, a shared language, simple needs to satisfy, no goal outside of the continuation of the practice that gives us strength and pleasure—an immaterial space of communism, in sum. It sounds very inoffensive, but in fact it’s a form of displaced struggle: it’s not easy to designate the enemy because that’s also part of who we are, due to our complicity in the system that produces us as subjects. It’s a kind of a guerilla in the field of subjectivisation. A practice that is meant to help us change ourselves.
JK: Claire Fontaine’s practice seems to revolve around the word “foreigner”… could you say something about this concept, if indeed it is one, and how it informs (infects) your activities and tactics?
CF: The series of neon signs “Foreigners everywhere” in several different languages, for example, is named after an anarchist collective from Turin that fights racism through its different activities. The ambivalence in their name made me wonder what might happen if it was physically and materially displaced into different sites and contexts. It’s clear now that immigration and emigration are not simple epiphenomena linked to the economy. They are existential and perceptual experiences in their own right. As for the strangeness that we can all feel when faced with a world that is entirely fabricated and governed by senseless logics, that can certainly be a driving force in the struggle. The idea of the human strike borrows a lot from Bertolt Brecht—from what he described as a process of “estrangement” within the power relationships that constitute who we are—in order to produce events in this interval in the normal flow of things. I don’t think there is anything coquettish about our use of different languages. It stems from the fact that we were born elsewhere and left for no particular reason, except perhaps the fact of no longer being at home. The contradictions, power relations, and violence that one’s own language buries or blunts become manifest when you use a language that isn’t your own. The struggle with meaning then gives form to what Deleuze and Guattari claimed to find in Kafka: the “foreign language within language”. Basically, this is what artists are trying to speak. The promise of community rests solely in this impropriety.
JK: Did you produce any art today?
CF: No, I would prefer not to.