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Emmanuel Guillaud | November 2018

14th November 2018

performingborders (Alessandra Cianetti): Emmanuel, with this interview we are exceeding the realm of performance and live art to talk about your international visual art projects on borders and displacement. However, in our conversation this summer, you described your multimedia installations as ‘performances of projections’ referring also to the concept of phantasmagoria. Would you mind to expand on the performative aspects of your work?

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Installation view of the first room of burning abysses, version 2017 at Plateforme, Laboratory for contemporary art, Dunkirk, France

Emmanuel Guillaud: Well, for long, I thought I was a photographer. Yet, I never exhibited prints. Rather, the very first time I was invited to exhibit my work, I instinctively chose a somehow outdated format: slideshow. With this early show, my visual vocabulary was set: image-filled light dancing in the dark, pictures projected roughly at human size. Photographies became just raw material to create theatres of light and shadows.

If we look back at history, it is clear that from their very inception, slideshows were thought as performance during which projected bodies mingled with those of the spectators. Made of synchronized slideshows, my labyrinthine installations are just the descendants of 17th century lanterna magica and 18th phantasmagorias. Although their invention is highly disputed, the first written record of lanterna magica is attributed to Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens: his sketches show drawings of the Death moving, taking off his head, to be projected at human size to mesmerize the audience by its realness. So, from day one, projection was about creating bodies that interact with that of the audience: projections (of drawn images, actual bodies of performers or, sometimes, of insects) appeared so vividly embodied (on dark screen, fog, etc) that they created astonishment and stupor.


Etienne Gaspard Robertson’s phantasmagoria show, engraving from his Memoires, 1831,  and installation views from until the sun rises, version 2015 at Pavillon Vendôme and version 2011 at Singapore Art Museum

The movie theatre screen, its seated spectator (whose body is neglected) historically came much later. I believe that what fundamentally distinguishes installations of projection from the cinema screen, what makes it close to traditional performances, it is its real-time encounter of bodies and the shared space between the spectator and the projections. On these matters, I am greatly indebted to American scholars Noam Elcott and Jill H. Casid for their enlightening analysis that helped me understand my own practice better.

In the English language, the word most used to name my work status is “visual artist” – but it feels very awkward to me. So many things are key beyond the visual: the touch of the screen material, the feeling of space, the sound of silence… Recently, I had a wonderful discussion with French critic Florent Gaité who campaigns for the use of the French term “artiste plasticien”, with plastic here referring to the ability to constantly create new shapes, as when we speak of the plasticity of the brain. I think it resonates well with the way artists try to transform matters, structures and genres beyond their original state, beyond pure visual categories and fixed media.  

performingborders (Alessandra): In the last few years you have been working internationally with refugees, migrants, and exiles on complex visual art installations and projects co-authored with all the people involved. I’d love to hear about how the art market has been responding to this ‘shared authorship’! Also, would you mind to tell me more about the process of creating works such as (brûler les abîmes), Dunkirk, 2017, and the one* you presented in Malta as part of the to be [defined] exhibition? (*Not finalised yet at the time of writing)

Emmanuel: The art market … has responded, well … with indifference I believe! To be honest, art market has never been a target I am thinking while I am building works. One day, I very consciously decided to devote my life to art. That day, I recalled an interview by Felix Gonzales Torres in which he was saying that he believed it was key for young artists to have a side job to ensure creative freedom, and escape market pressure. I followed his advice and never thought about it again. 

I say indifference because of the very unsellable installation format, the exile topic and, yes, the shared authorship. About the latter, resistance could be even more appropriate than indifference. Not only the market, but the whole art world seems to be organized around the paradigm of the almighty, god-like individual Artist, as if we cannot escape Picasso’s shadow, a century later. The only accepted alternative is the collective. It is a constant struggle to impose that my co-authors are credited, that their bios appear in catalogues. So often they end up lost during editing or translation. Obviously, when co-authors happen to be migrants, conscious and unconscious biases make them be overlooked even more. It is a constant fight. Probably, we lack some vocabulary to signify what is neither individual nor collective.

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Installation view of the first room of burning abysses, version 2017 at Plateforme, Laboratory for contemporary art, Dunkirk, France

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Video still of the « movie with images” My name is Daniel, part of the installation burning abysses, version 2018 at Fondazzjoni Kreattività, Malta

Bruler les abimes / burning abysses started in the most unexpected matter. I was invited by a great artist-run space, La Plate-Forme, a Dunkirk-based contemporary art laboratory, for a residency devoted precisely to projection and I intended to run some formal research about the ways rays of images encounter / crash on / are changed by the screen’s matter. 

On my arrival to Dunkirk however, I saw the so-called “anti migrants fences”: kilometres of barbed wire. I knew about them but seeing them bare was a shock. I could not think about anything else. So I left my aesthetic goals aside and started a field work to try to understand and, in very small, limited ways, help. I could have done just that, but a personal exhibition was scheduled for six month later. Faced with ethical questions that seemed insurmountable, I started writing a list of what I will not do.  The first one was: no pictures. No portraits. No visual surveys of the camps. No photographs of details. Cultural productions tackling issues related to refugees seem torn between overflow and scarcity. An overflow of images. An overflow of discourses by Europeans. Overflows that make all too obvious the scarcity of interventions in the public debate by the most concerned citizens: refugees themselves. 

In residence I was hungry for knowledge. I read, listened, met activists, scholars, but mostly refugees. Understanding the geopolitical reasons of exile is key because once you realize that exile is the direct result of history (the colonization and its post-independence perpetuation), then welcoming refugees is no longer about kindness or charity but a very straightforward question of justice. 

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Installation view of the first room of burning abysses, version 2017 at Plateforme, Laboratory for contemporary art, Dunkirk, France

I also went to a number of university-led seminars and talks, only to be stunned by the fact it is always the power-sanctified white scholars that lecture, assigning second grade roles to exile participants.

In the end, Burning abysses is a modest attempt at creating a space for voices of exiles. 

When refugees share with you some of their life stories, it immediately become obvious that they are the exact opposite of the miserable, begging image portrayed by the mass media. Each of them is a hero who defied death, oppression, turmoil. Each of them could, or even should, be the topic of an old school American style action movie. So it is almost exactly what I did, minus the Hollywood style and, most importantly, directed by the involved refugees themselves.

Burning abysses consisted of a first room made of ambiguous, multilayered video flows projected on walls and reflected on mirrors, intended to unsettle visitors, to lead them in a humbled state into the second room. There, a dark, meditative space was lighted only by four iPads. Visitors were invited to take the tablets and immerse themselves in «films without images», four text-only movies written by persons in exile. Through those films, the four exiles assumed the status of authors, lecturers, heroes. They did much more than sharing their life-stories, they taught audiences about geopolitics. Hopefully, when visitors passed by the first room again, its meaning had changed for them.

In Dunkirk, the movies were written by Daniel Dedou, a young aspiring chef coming from Cameroon, Mohamed Abakar, a young artist coming from Darfour, and Deo Namujimbo, a journalist originally from Congo. For the Malta version, a fourth movie was written by poet and student Emad AlAhmad, who I met in Malta. But Daniel also acted as an advisor for the installation set up. I also invited artists in exile, Mohamed and four others, to exhibit their own works. Finally, I scrapped the planned invitation postcard and replaced it by a collaborative mail-art. Hundreds of people from the Dunkirk area received in their letterboxes works of art (poems, video-stills, pictures,…) and texts (political and theoretical) created by people in exile. It was another way to diffuse voices – ranging from the angry to the passionate, the political, the beautiful. In many ways, what was supposed to be a solo show ended up as a collaborative one – and in progress too because the set up evolved during the period, with performances and talks led by artists in exile.

performingborders (Alessandra): In other works of yours you have been touching on subjects such as queerness, gender, dance, movement. How do all your streams of research relate to each other and what projects does the future hold for you?

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Emmanuel: Yes. My first major work, until the sun rises, was a sprawling series of installations deployed in various site specific versions (Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; Singapore Art Museum; Pavillon Vendôme, France; etc…) based on pictures I took during long wanderings in places where, at night, men hide, cruise, ramble alone with their hidden desires and, mostly, wait. A wait with neither resolution nor end. I guess, at the core, I am interested in the feelings of being part of a discriminated minority, how this is experienced bodily. How freedom is an extremely difficult, probably partly vain, life-long battle. 

Dance and movement started infusing my work without me realizing it. As a kid, my first aesthetic shocks had been precisely linked to stage art – notably Japanese multimedia and dance group Dumb Type. Since then, the interweaving of movements of light, images and visitors interest me greatly. In until the sun rises, version 2015 at Pavillon Vendôme, Clichy’s Contemporary Art Center, I started thinking in terms of choreographing visitors’ shadows, so they merge into projected pictures, become part of the work.

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Installation view of Until the sun rises, version 2015 at Pavillon Vendôme

My next project will relate exactly to these concerns. I will team up with Takao Kawaguchi, dancer, choreographer and member of Dumb Type. He was part of the team who left the indelible impression I mentioned just before. We met when I was living in Tokyo. From this month, we will work together at the Villa Kujoyama artist residency to pursue both our research on political and aesthetic issues of desires and bodies. We already briefly collaborated two years ago in ONE Archives at USC, Los Angeles, when Takao created Touch of the other, a performance based on the research of sociologist Laud Humphreys that sought to document male-male intimacy in public toilets. 

In Kyoto, we want to interlink two strands of research: how could a formal investigation on the encounter between contemporary dance and installation art be the vehicle to question the connection between the intimate and the political, to imagine new ways to articulate desires?  In pre-modern Japan, emotional, sensual, physical relations between men were common, documented, celebrated, varied, associated with virility and martial values, known under a vast array of terms (男色 the male colour, 若衆道 the path of youth, 美道 the way of beauty 念者 the lover, etc).

Unlike in today’s society, where we are bound by the rigid identity politics surrounding sex and sexualities, love was rather freely exchanged without any phobia against same-sex eros. Gods, emperors, samurais, poets, legendary heroes had desires which danced through sexes and sexualities. This fluidity is expressed aesthetically by constant transformations between sex, genders, humans and surreal creatures. In the 12th century classic Torikaebaya, brother and sister swap roles and gender becomes so much a performance that the noun for ‘woman’ has its own verb form! In Nenashigusa by Kaibara Ekken (17th century), the King of the Hell is firmly a lover of women. But stunned by the surreal beauty of a boy, he ends up ordering water spirits to invade male bodies and diffuse in them erotic desires for other men! In the 18th century Blue Cowl by Ueda Akinari a monk goes so insane for grief at his young lover’s death that he eats the flesh of the boy and other corpses… 

We wish to dig into this rich but forgotten glossary of visually thrilling stories, reactivate ghosts hidden in Japan’s past, play with them in performances of images and moving bodies.

Based in Paris and Tokyo, Emmanuel Guillaud creates labyrinthine installations, theaters of shadows that immerse visitors inside poetic and political wandering. 

Sprawling series of installations until the sun rises was deployed over several in-situ installments at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (2010), Singapore Art Museum, (2011), Pavillon Vendôme, Clichy’s Contemporary Art Center (2015). 

Nominated for Pictet Prize, series Untitled (after Piranesi) is an exploration of subways as monstrous mechanism of control et was exhibited in space specific setting at Yumiko Chiba, Tokyo (2012), in collaboration with  leading queer Japanese photographer Takano Ryudai, Tokyo Wondersite (2017) and a large projection in a garden installation at Institut français, Tokyo (solo show, 2017). 

Among other works, Untitled (lines), was a homage to forgotten lesbian artist Moss (Point Ephemere, Paris, 2015) and Untitled (traces) was presented at ONE National LGBT Archives, USC, Los Angeles in 2015.

Burning abysees was originally created during a residency at La Plate-forme, laboratory for contemporary art, Dunkerque (2017, solo show) and exhibited, in new, site-specific versions at Chateau Coquelle, Dunkerque (2018) and  Fondazzjoni Kreattività, Malta, part of the group show [To be defined] at the occasion of Valetta European Capital of Culture 2018.

Winner of Tokyo Wonderwall award for emerging artists (2005), laureate of Villa Kujoyama (2018), Emmanuel Guillaud is represented by Yumiko Chiba and Associates, Tokyo. 

Featured image credits: Installation view from burning abysses, version 2018 at Fondazzjoni Kreattività, Malta. 

All pictures, courtesy the artist and Yumiko Chiba & Associates, Tokyo

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