With films, photographs, prints and more, Éric Baudelaire’s work focuses on historical events and political conflicts that question the order of modern societies. He won the 2019 Marcel Duchamp Prize for his exhibition Tu peux prendre ton temps (You Can Take Your Time).
Before being an artist, you were a researcher at the Harvard Kennedy School (United States). How did your move from one field to the other ?
I came into visual arts late, because I’d thought for a long time that tools found along an academic path were what I needed to satisfy my interest in world history. In the area of political science to be precise, with a regional speciality for the Middle East. But it wasn't easy for me to constrain myself to one point of view, which would be a specific theory or discipline. Fairly early on, I wanted to broach problems which interested me in a less restrictive way than that which needed a scientific approach. It took me a long time to turn towards the visual arts, because it wasn’t until I was 30 that I did my first serious photographic work, and 35 for my first film. Today I maintain a methodical – or even ethical– form of rigueur, related to research, which stems from my academic experience.
Would you say that your approach is similar to that of historian, journalist or sociologist ?
Those working in these disciplines may be interested in the same subjects as me, but the approach would be different. A journalist would focus on the here and now, a historian would rewrite the event in the long term, while a sociologist would use his specific analytical tools. I allow myself to use all these approaches and more besides. What matters is that the form created be in line with the way I understand a problem. This may be translated through the exhibition of a correspondence, through photography or by shooting a film.
The secession of Abkhazia, the story of the Japanese Red Army, jihad... What are you looking to convey by covering these political conflicts in your work ?
Fundamentally I don't want to “convey” anything, my role is not to teach. The themes that interest me are knots, difficult questions because they challenge a certain order to the world. It is interesting to step into these cracks. Not to “convey” a certainty. That’s not the role of art. Maybe simply to take someone who’s come to see an exhibition by the hand, and lead them to explore certain breaches in the system in place. I feel that it’s the start of a work of careful analysis that a visitor could decide to go into more afterwards. With certain perspectives I could have put forward through the forms exposed, perhaps.
Your latest feature film, A Dramatic Film (2019), was filmed over four years with secondary school pupils in St Denis / St Ouen. How did the project come about ?
Originally, it was a commission for 1% artistique, a programme that links the creation of public buildings with artworks. The aim was to create a piece to accompany the opening of the Collège Dora-Maar lower secondary school in Seine-Saint-Denis. Normally the criteria of the selection process are that you submit a public work that will exist in the place. I wanted to reverse this logic by proposing a work in which the place would exist. I had submitted the idea of working with a group of 11-12 year old lower secondary school students to create a film that would start by a film about them, then gradually become a film with them, and which would become a film by them four years later. That was the theoretical proposition. In concrete terms we met up with twenty or so voluntary students in a community centre for two hours every 2 or 3 weeks. We talked about images, and filmed. Then the students began to take the cameras away with them to film at home or outside. That produced a lot of footage from which we first wanted to put together a series of 8 episodes, before opting for a feature film lasting around two hours. The result is a piece whose story is that of its collective construction, the way it was made, entitled A Dramatic Film.
Why did you hand the camera over to these young people ?
I wanted to see how they would imagine film, in a raw way. I never told the students what to do with the camera, how to frame. They filmed without any instructions, by inventing. It’s a methodology that seemed interesting: give them the chance to do what I do too, that is learning by doing, as I also taught myself. And then this choice seemed obvious because most often, the films broadcast about certain suburbs are not filmed by those who live there. It’s bound to be falsely represented. So we worked on self-representation, with an open approach that needed effort over time.
You won the Marcel Duchamp Prize for the exhibition You Can Take Your Time, based around A Dramatic Film and unveiled at the Centre Pompidou in Autumn 2019. What does this award mean to you ?
It underlines that this film, produced collectively, was art that could be shown in a museum, even if in principle its format, length and the way it was produced didn't make it easy. In a Duchamp-esque spirit, I liked the fact that we might have shifted the boundaries of what we call “art”. The children were touched that their “little stories” would be of interest to a wider audience.
For the second consecutive year and the second time in the entire history of the award, the Marcel Duchamp Prize has been awarded to an artist using video. Is this the sign of a new force in this medium ?
Video has been considered an art form present in the context of a museum for a long time. What’s different today is that there is a convergence between film and the museum space. Ten years ago, we didn't necessarily show two-hour long feature films in museums. On the other hand, you could watch Hiroshima mon amour by Alain Resnais at the cinema. I doubt that Resnais would find financial backing and a distributor for that film today. Not in conventional commercial circuits anyway. There was a migration of this type of film, “for research” let’s say, from the film screen to art centres. Films like mine, which do not stem from industrial film, don’t have a natural home on the commercial circuit. They are shown in festivals and most often travel through biennales, galleries as well as museums, where it is possible to have them dialogue with other works, in other media.
Éric Baudelaire took part in the 2021 Night of Ideas in the 24 hours of Night and Ideas streamed event organized by the Institut français.
An annual meeting devoted to the free movement of ideas and knowledge, the Night of Ideas is coordinated by the Institut français.
In 2008, Éric Baudelaire was selected to spend time at the Villa Kujoyama, a residency for artists in Japan supported by the Institut français.
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