Double Trouble. Interview with Pierre Bismuth

This interview was published on the 5th of October 2010 in the issue # 1 of THE LAST POST, the free weekly newspaper and incremental catalogue of The Last Newspaper exhibition at the New Museum, New York.

OUR LONDON CORRESPONDENT LORENA MUNOZ-ALONSO CAUGHT UP WITH “THE LAST NEWSPAPER” ARTIST (AND OSCAR WINNER) PIERRE BISMUTH ON A CAFE TERRACE IN BELLEVILLE, PARIS

You are taking part in ‘The Last Newspaper’ at the New Museum in New York with several of your pieces from the ‘Newspaper’ series that you made between 1999 and 2001. Is the series still ongoing?

The ‘Newspaper’ series is definitely an ongoing project. I actually never finish a series; I never close a period, which is kind of complicated because it is somehow like having lots of children and having to be a good father to all of them. I still have a newspaper piece that I need to do, and I very often buy two newspapers because I feel there is always the potential for a piece there.

So tell me a bit about the principle of the series

The ‘Newspaper’ series is all about the duplication of the image. Duplication is an important method because I think it completely warps the moment of understanding. The images do not refer anymore to reality but they refer to each other, as if one image was copying the other. As a viewer you tend to forget they are addressing some real matter, you just wonder, why are there two of these? So it is a short circuit in your head.

Pierre Bismuth, First human embryo is cloned, say scientists (2001). Courtesy: The artist and Bugada & Cargnel, Paris

Does this isolation of the image from reality account for why you always focus on really iconic social or political news, like the Sarah Payne murder or the first clone of a human embryo, for example? Is it to make even more blatant this rupture with understanding?

The reason why I started to do this series was that I was at a moment of my life when I had been doing lots of film and I really wanted to stop using video or film for a while, even though I still wanted to explore the idea of duration, of time-based work. So I thought, okay, if I put two images together, I am addressing the idea of duration as well. Two images are frames, anyway. I like this idea of suspending a moment.

At the same time, I think that this series very openly tackles recurrent concerns of your practice, like issues of perception, how we perceive and process information and how to complicate those paths.

Agreed. At the same time I realized, in a more formal kind of way, that one image on top of other refers to a sequence in a film, and one image next to the other refers to stereoscopy. The sequence is the idea of the same moment with a fraction of second of difference. Stereoscopy is the same moment with a slight difference in angle.

Also what excited me a lot about this work was having to look at reality, having to have contact with it, because when you are an artist you tend to live very much in your own world. So to me this series is also the perfect excuse to keep in touch with what is going on in the world. And when you look at the work, it also gives you information about the context in which the piece was made, and I find that very interesting.

‘Newspaper’ series ready for hanging at the New Museum. Photo: Latitudes

It becomes a sort of time capsule, which is something that interests me a lot, the idea of preserving and retrieving time. But speaking of time, you started this series in the late 1990s, when the internet was not used on the same scale as nowadays. We can definitely say that the way we access and consume information has changed due to the internet, and because the New Museum show is called ‘The Last Newspaper’, I am wondering if you think the newspaper as such is in decline?

Do you think the curators have titled the show like this, implying it is in decline?

I am not sure about that, I am just wondering…

I don’t believe it is the end of an era for newspapers, I don’t think they will be that quickly replaced. It seems that the internet it is killing television at a faster rate, because I think somehow that newspapers will always do a different job at informing people than a website. Did television kill the newspaper? I don’t think so.

You might have a point there. But going back to your practice, why is the idea of repetition so important in your work?

I see repetition as a disappointment device that forces you to deal with what was already there. I’m fighting against this idea that artists have to present something new every time.

And why are you so interested in disappointment?

Because I think it has a real potential for emancipation. When you stop believing that something is going to save you from something, you have to start dealing with what you have and making something out of it, rather than thinking that something is going to come and change everything for you.

That is quite interesting because as an artist this anti-idealist attitude pretty much puts you in the position of questioning everything. The agency of art, to begin with.

True, but is that a bad thing?

Pierre Bismuth, New ground in battle (2001). Courtesy: The artist and Bugada & Cargnel, Paris

No, I don’t think so.

I just don’t like art that tries to take you somewhere else. I have a problem with art that aims at providing entertainment and dreams. People don’t need art to dream. Everyone is dreaming already. Everyone is already creative. The artist doesn’t have the exclusivity of being creative in society.

So what is the privilege of the artist then?

The artist has a special way of addressing questions with a special ability with form. Even if contemporary art has moved on from appraising technique like it was in the Classical period, I still think that an artist is someone who knows how to deal with things formally. An artist is someone who knows how to do things. An artist has to make questions about reality within a particular historical and artistic context. And an artist also has probably a particular logic and irrationality in the way he or she addresses his or her own questions about reality.

So which would be your own set of questions?

How to extract freedom from systems that seem to be closed and regulated? How to find room for manoeuvre in situations that seem already determined?

Your newest work, presented at Bugada & Cargnel gallery, in which you copy the gallery desk and put it on a stage, is that some form of institutional critique?

Yes, in a certain way it is.

Are you interested in Institutional Critique?

Well, I was interested the some of the artists that were doing it back in the days, yes.

How successful do you think it was, and I am thinking of Hans Haacke or Michael Asher for instance, in terms of gradually being co-opted by the institution itself?

Well, I recently read an interview with Pete Townsend where he was being asked about political music and songs, and if they’d had any practical effect, and I really liked his answer. He said, “I am not sure how successful it was in terms of actually changing things, but the music was definitely reflecting the fact that people had those issues”, and I think it is exactly the same with art. It’s already good enough if art can simply show that some people have some problems with some issues. It records the fact that a problem was addressed at a certain time, which is quite something already.

Repetition and questions of perception are concepts very often employed in music theory. Is music a discipline you are interested in?

Music was my first love. I should have been a proper musician. I think I didn’t study music early enough in life. But when I am not doing art most of my time is devoted to listening to music and reading about music. And I think that popular music has not been historicized to the same degree as contemporary art, so there is lots of room there for research and discussion. It is not an overcrowded territory.

Pierre Bismuth, 500 Marines (2001). Courtesy: The artist and Bugada & Cargnel, Paris

Yes, definitely, and there is also lots of links between the two fields, like all that happened in New York in the 1960s, with Fluxus, John Cage, Tony Conrad…

Yes, fantastic! I love that entire scene.

Are you working again with film? [Pierre Bismuth won an Oscar with Charlie Kauffman for the script of ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’]

Yes, I am working on a film right now, but it is difficult to find the right people to work with. Are you sure your machine is working? [Pointing at the digital recorder]

Well, I hope it is. I love this recorder. It’s new and works great.

I have one as well. I use it to record my wife’s dreams. She has amazing dreams and, moreover, an amazing and funny way of remembering them and telling them. I myself have two strange recurring dreams. One happens when I am sleeping in hotels but I think-dream I am at home. I wake up and, because I don’t recognize the room, I think someone has changed all the furniture while I was asleep.

That sounds like one of your works!

Yes! And the other dream is exactly the other way around: I sleep at home and I wake up being sure I am somewhere else and that someone has recreated my very own room while I was asleep. There is always this moment in which I wake up and I marvel about the whole repetition. Again, it’s all about repetition, the repetition of my own space. And it is also funny how the brain works. If it looks like home, why do you have to think it is somewhere else? But you do. It is extremely complicated.

It’s like when you travel a lot and for a minute you don’t know where you are when you wake up the morning. It is quite disturbing. Let’s wrap up by talking about patterns. Your practice seems to be very focused on patterns, somehow imposing on yourself a set of instructions, restraining the options, if you like.

Yes, I don’t like having to make choices. I prefer when there are limitations. It’s probably because I don’t know what I want. What I surely know is that, on an ethical level, I don’t want to be part of the culture industry. It seems that nowadays art is more and more considered as a form of leisure industry, which is not at all why I started making art. If I can avoid that, even ending by doing an extremely boring exhibition, I will be happy to do that. It is not my job to amuse you.

The Last Newspaper is on view from the 6th of October 2010 till the 9th of January 2011 at at the New Museum, New York.

THE LAST POST is edited by Latitudes

Pierre Bismuth’s exhibition at Bugada & Cargnel, Paris, continues until the 6th November 2010.

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About Lorena Muñoz-Alonso

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One comment

  1. Matt Solomon

    Interesting article – I think repetition is really powerful and creates an element of transition, movement and disorientation that expresses something in the reality behind an image. I also like dreaming stuff like that and moving furniture – I sometimes move all my furniture until my flat seems like a different place altogether… I also had a dream where I thought I had woken up but hadn’t – I started thinking I had been to a strange party and taken some drugs…I eventually woke up.

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