In order to probe contemporary procedures for producing, distributing and circulating images, Bruno Serralongue commissions his own images from himself. His method begins with the collection of information from the media, which he uses as if they were dispatches from his own news agency, of the kind regularly sent out to newsrooms.
Based on this information, which in his case has been preselected by the editors of the various media, Serralongue then makes his own selection and, when he finds an event that particularly intrigues him, travels out to cover it. However, what interests him is not the event as such, but what happens on the margins, backstage. Beyond the event, his works and images concentrate on the interstices of information.
The exhibition at Jeu de Paume
features some hundred images, covering his work over the last few years. The photographs are organised by subject and location, but also highlight recurring themes that, according to Bruno Serralongue, inform the problematics of how information is presented.
A REPERTOIRE OF COLLECTIVE ACTION"
Bruno Serralongue, Marta Gili, and Dirk Snauwaert in Conversation.
Excerpts from the catalogue published by Ringier and éditions du Jeu de Paume
I think that we ought to start this conversation with a discussion of your particular working method. Its a significant part of your discourse and the starting point for your artistic practice. Can you explain it?
My method consists of drawing on information published and broadcast in the news, whether in the newspapers, on the internet, on TV, or on the radio. You could compare it to press agencies like AFP (Agence France Presse), which receive information and transmit it to news desks on a daily basis. I have my very own AFPall the news formats available to readers/viewers. So I dont have access to the raw information in the form of news wires, but rather to information sorted and selected by news desks. I then make my own selection in turn, and if the information refers to a forthcoming event, anywhere in the world, that I find of interest, I try to get there by my own means to take photographs.
It seems as if you are trying to maintain a certain degree of critical independence by developing such a precise procedure. But independence vis-à-vis whom or what? The agencies, the media, photographers, or the event itself?
(...) The question I have always been interested in asking is, Who produces the image? The method I have established allows me to ask it, because it doesnt address the subject of an imagewhich is often the same for amateurs and professionals alikebut rather its production, which is always unique and is the photographer's real signature. The point is not to maintain critical independence, then, but to construct it.
Photo agencies have been in decline for a number of years now, and the situation is getting progressively worse; they are undergoing a real economic crisis which started out as an identity crisis, I quite agree. Apart from the fundamental question that you have raised about the production of the image, can't the concepts information and event be said to be undergoing a similar decline?
One of the French Presidents advisers stated in an interview printed in Le Monde on January 8, 2008, that media coverage of presidential events had risen by 450% since Nicolas Sarkozys election! Is that a good thing? It appears that media presence is what counts. Your time on air is time that is not available to your opponents. So if the concepts of information and event are in decline, its because everything is now a media event. As Jean-Charles Massera said, the information society organizes time, true to its mediatized experience of history treated as the present, on a model of time reduced to eventful moments. Everything is an event, because thats how we live in the information society. You have to be in the event. We are told that there is no choice. As the philosopher Jean Baudrillard said, We are in the world screenin other words, we are susceptible to emit and/or receive events/information. But the risk is then failing to spot which events could have long-term historical significance.
What stance does your work take in relation to the event? Why did you go to the Chiapas in 1996 and Calais between 2006 and 2008, for instance? To be at the heart of the event?
Since 1995, my work has been guided by the notion of community. What I found interesting was placing the photographic site at the heart of a community rather than at the instant of the event. Then I very quickly realized that the two things were, in fact, the same. That is how I ended up in southeastern Mexico photographing the Intergalactic Encounter for Humanity and against neoliberalism, organized at the behest of the Chiapas guerrillas (the Encuentro series, 1996).
I only produce a few series every yeartwo, sometimes just the one, with a small handful of photographs per series, from five for Destination Vegas (1996) to 22 for Calais (20062008). There are links between the events, which echo each other, even if they are several years apartfor instance, Free Tibet (1998) and Tibet in Exile (Dharamsala) (2008). Since they are chosen with reference to specific criteria, they represent both a point of view on some key social issues and conflicts of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, given a planetary audience and echo by the media, and a highly individual cartography of my own interests.
A network of references and figures is created from series to series, to the point of forming a repertoire of collective action. Ive taken this expression from the American historian and sociologist Charles Tilly (19292008). While I was planning the exhibition at the Jeu de Paume, I was thinking about the significant repetitions that eventually built up a repertoire. It was only recently that I became aware of the repertoires existence. First of all it had to build up gradually, in the shadow of the series. But still, I believe that it was present as a project from the outset, even if Im only expressing it clearly today. That is what pushed me to produce photographs at the heart of collective events.
Another reason for my approach is linked to my interest for the history of art in general and photography in particular. I came to photography through my university studies. I can sum it up in the words of Christian BoltanskiPhotography is photojournalism, the rest is paintingquoted by Michel Nuridsany in the catalogue for the group exhibition Ils se disent peintres, ils se disent photographes that he curated at the ARC Paris in the late 1980s. What I find interesting in this quote is really the affirmation of a field of action proper to photography. Nuridsany begins his text with this quote and concludes by modifying it slightly, replacing photojournalism by reportage. Photographys field of action is indeed reportage: photojournalism refers to a profession, while reportage refers to photographys own specific regimen.
Is the creation of this repertoire driven by the desire to describe or identify phenomena of collective actiona descriptive quality which is the core principle behind photographyor can it rather be seen as a desire to re-define the notion of the historical moment, in the sense of a shift from the moment toward a sequence and repetition of events and actions? What then becomes of the notions of bearing witness and proof associated therewith?
Bearing witness, proof, historical documents, archives, and description are all contained within the technological systema skilful combination of optics, chemistry, and electronicswhich has been in constant use since the first half of the 19th century and which is known as photography.
The artist makes choices which sort through this common heritage to bring out certain notions at the expense of others. They may all remain constantly present, but they may be dormant, like sleeper cells of terrorists or spies. Which means that the work resides not solely in what is shown, but also in the potentialities of meaning that arise from the conditions in which the picture is takenthanks to which a new work can emerge from a very narrow set of possibilities. Which means that two photographs can be taken at the same instant at the same event, maybe even of the same person or the same scene, but if one is taken by a journalist and the other by myself, the former will be information, the latter counter-information. Im not fascinated by the event. Can you be fascinated by a press conference? Im not obsessed with being at the heart of events, which is something that certainly drives a lot of photojournalists. They put themselves into situations where they can create photographs that can have a historical impact and bear witness to History. Some photographs have achieved that. In my case, the conditions are not there for that to happen to me. On the other hand, my photographs are historical documents. In other words, they are relative and ambiguous.
With reference to the repertoire of collective action, do all the images that you wrested from their series to give them a shared theme for the exhibition, like a flip book, take on a new political or aesthetic status when they are reorganized?
I dont think so. They are the same photographs, after all! Still, it is a possible effect that could be due to the shift in attention. The aim is indeed to shift the gaze that the viewer brings to the work. To shift the gaze of viewers who are already familiar with my work, but also my own gaze at the same time. The viewer might feel an impression of disorder on discovering the way the works are hung, since it is neither chronological nor linear. No picture rail has been installed, so no order of visit is imposed. Visitors can cast their gaze round and take in the whole exhibition. Ive noticed seven sets in my series that can be included in the repertoire of collective action: press conferences, rallies/meetings, demonstrations, fireworks, fires, portraits, and works to be read.
The initial hypothesis for the Jeu de Paume exhibition was to juxtapose photographs taken at different events which were not necessarily connected, but which reveal resemblances and constants.
The question thrown up by these montages is the nature of the proximity between these series, for example between the machines set on fire by striking workers at the New Fabris factory (New Fabris, Châtellerault, 2009) and a dying camp fire where huddled migrants try to keep warm in the depths of a Calais winter (Calais, 20062008). Is it the fire? Im tempted to say, thats not much to be going on! Actually, I think that such juxtapositions refer to a political structuring of the world and power relationships as expressed through the media. I think that the necessity of being in the world screen causes a rarefaction of forms of struggle, to the advantage of visual figures, which are compulsory but nonetheless effective in their own way. The New Fabris workers gas canisters were empty and were not connected to any detonator; they were visually effective but had no destructive power. Yet the bluff still worked. At least in part.
My plans for exhibitions are influenced by whatever Im reading at the time. An interview with Jean Baudrillard published in Le Monde on May 28, 2005, served to formulate the hypothesis for this exhibition (and so what if Baudrillards emphatic style is open to mockery): We are no longer critical TV viewers, which presupposes the continued existence of a space of intelligence and of distance. We are no longer in the society of the spectacle, in staging, in alienation by screens, etc. We are no longer in front of a stage; we are in a network, we are the network. The current hegemony of media power is such that there is no more domination by the spectacle, but rather a form of tentacular homogeneity that is not even imperialist. And we are immersed in it. We are in the world screen. Our present merges with the flux of images and signs; our minds dissolve in a surfeit of information and the accumulation of permanent topicality which digests the present itself.