Hou Hanru — I’d like to talk about the genesis of your artistic output, about how you define it and how it connects with ‘ordinary everyday life’.
Daniel Firman — I started in the nineties with work based on pliage. It was a theoretical sort of process. At the same time as that, I was reading and learning all I could about dance in the 20th century – Isadora Duncan, Rudolf von Laban, and then Merce Cunningham… That really laid the foundations for my work – the relationship between the body and space, my interest in architecture, and in dance, and also in Utopias, especially Monte Verità and Black Mountain College. I’ve actually visited both of those places.
I also got interested in sculptural architects like Antoni Gaudí, André Bloc, Jean-Louis Chanéac, and proponents of organic architecture like Pascal Hausermann and Peter Vetsch. And I looked at the work of idiosyncratic artists like Étienne Martin; I’ve always been fond of his Demeures. Outsider art – Ferdinand Cheval, the French country postman… And around that time I was very close to the Lyon artist Henri Ughetto.
Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Dan Graham were influences, too.
All those artists have a Utopian side to them or, at any rate, a Utopian side to their projects. They see the individual in his environment as potentially self-sufficient, whether the environment is space, time, movement or even inner visions.
Folding a sheet of paper in two and standing it on its edge was an architectonic design that queried the notion of sculpture. In the same way, querying the notion of ordinary everyday life is nothing more than that: the transformation of nothing into an experience.
After the pliage, which always stemmed from an activity, the body became central and the object came next, not as an analysis but as a tool for questioning the structures of living things. I wanted to use these activity processes simply to create residual forms.
All that was a kind of methodology, a way of thinking, and an approach to simple elements all around us, which led me naturally to an interest in anything to do with the logic that goes into the construction of things.
From there, I began a series of performances where I featured myself, using my own body as a central structure able to produce shapes. The thing that interested me in doing the exhibition at the museum was re-activating some old pieces, in particular the Kinésphères series. They were pieces formed with a mass of clay in which I enclosed myself and which, by means of a simple gesture (pushing the mould out from the inside to find an extension, an escape), were an attempt to grasp the edge of the body’s personal space.
H.Hanru — That’s exactly what I find interesting in what you say: Utopia and extending the way the body is used in space. I get the impression that you are looking for a self-sufficiency for construction, a sort of protocol or prototype for certain things that have a metaphysical quality in which architecture acts as a support for a sort of model of Utopia. And at the same time you say that you use the body as a process of escape into space. Are you talking about relationships with other people – social space? If so, what is that relationship?
D.Firman — I don’t really go for the idea of social space (in the society sense), but more for the idea of contemporary space, to stick with your notion of spatialisation.
Time (I mean the here and now) is a dynamic that has no duration. It’s slightly paradoxical, but I think it’s one of those things that are the hardest to control. So, as far as I’m concerned, not everything to do with duration is necessarily connected to time. Consequently, a procedural sculpture produces a Utopian residue of ‘stationary’ duration.
Yes, I do design things starting with the protocol. The process of escape interests me because it demonstrates the flexibility of the interpersonal space, which is already in itself a space that leans towards the ‘other’ (what you called ‘social space’ in your question). For a visitor looking at a sculpture in the Attitude series, the attitude is more an interpersonal relation than a social one.
I don’t see it as a conflict; it’s more like inter-relational spaces with an extra quality that is very hard to define; I mean empathy.
Empathy is a matter of saying that there’s no such thing as an unknown body (I mean ‘human body’). But at the same time, its function is tangible because it’s something specific that intervenes at inexpressible moments. That’s why I am interested in neuroscience and in the architects who advocated self-build.
You might wonder what the connection is… In both cases there is autonomy. Autonomy of construction is central to my work.
Take, for example, the series of figures carrying easily identifiable objects (Gathering series). It relates to a text by Laban which distinguishes between the two ancient actions of Scattering and Gathering. Those are two constant gestures that we’ve been performing since the beginning of time. The first stage is to manipulate the objects then to combine them and fit them in to one another. The collage takes shape through gravity, first as a simplified approach, then using internal combinations of structural and filling materials.
All that depends on other forces and it always has to be negotiated with what one might call ‘the real’ and ‘the constraints’. Quite often it gives rise to a slightly fanciful, Beckett-like vision of our relationship with the world. But I like the idea that a Utopia sometimes reveals a flaw or the paradox in our condition, the way a romantic criminal might do.
H.Hanru — The Utopian dimension, at a philosophical level, often finds expression in forms related to the idea of ‘anti-gravity’. Everything is suspended with a potential ability to fly. I find it a pretty strong image with regard to these ideas. How do you set about going beyond that banality, that globalness?
D.Firman — I imagine ‘ordinary’ banality as something increasingly global. It gives rise to a levelling out of everyday actions. But in spite of everything, it does keep coming up with new systems, through the networks and the various ways information is transferred.
Not having any objective vision about what is really going on, my commitment is in a very reduced and local field.
One is always seeking the shortest and the quickest paths. If you jump from three feet, you will feel lighter than if you jump from nine feet. It’s silly, but you can take it further than that: if you don’t move at all, you’ll begin to get a feeling of anti-gravity. Let’s say you can fly longer with your feet on the ground if you allow confusion between the physical and the psychic worlds.
This approach is permanently there when I work with a model. For the Attitude series of works, which just looks like poses of men and women tangled up in their clothes, for me in fact there is a soothing or tempering effect. What I mean is that time in this case has gone into suspension in a choreography where the feet are firmly on the ground and the body leans its elbows against the wall, in a leaning position that I call a ‘deflection’.
H.Hanru — I frequently see a sort of interference with the culture of the image in your work. In spite of a tendency to leave aside direct experience of the social aspect, there is still a relation to the ‘technology of the image’.
D.Firman — Yes. Taking for example the Attitude series and the earlier Gathering series, they both started out essentially as performances. Photographs (images then) are the trace of the performances. After that I got interested in contemporary images of the body. Then clothes became important in their narrative form, in the sense that they neither appeared as objects nor as an element of the body. It was after 2005 that I really took up a position on the identity of clothes, and that gave me a privileged connection with certain fashion designers. Superpôleposition, for example, was a collaboration that came out of meeting Christian Lacroix. During that period, I started making those moulds of figures with empty faces, the kind of vacuousness that you see in magazine pictures or fashion pictures. Media images (brands) found their way into the sculpture via the transfer of the mould. And the impression is stopped by the clothes covering it. In itself, I think it goes back to the original polychrome sculptures, to a certain vision and technology in the representation of the body.
It also appears with all its paradoxes in pieces like Bug or Butterfly, when all it is is the Apple (Macintosh) pictogram that comes up when you open an application or a download via a technological system. Often it indicates a waiting time that corresponds to the hypothetical time of a suspension, similar to the poses that I ask the dancers and the models to adopt.
Otherwise, what is these tools’ material space? I mean the processors, not the components. When people say that a computer file has a weight, it’s a figurative way of understanding something. My connection is to the illusion of an image that I’ve materialised with neon, which is a vintage material, the material for shop signs, an urban material.
H.Hanru — When you speak of this use of images through computers, it reminds me of something… These days there’s a lot of talk about 3D printing. Actually, it’s not just a matter of blindly turning a 2D image into 3D. I would say it’s another way of thinking about the whole question of creating the world, something, for that matter, that nobody has ever managed to do in history. You physically translate an idea or a concept into something which brings about a new social use, which also generates another way of producing the material world…
D.Firman — The arrival of 3D printing is really interesting, I think. If it works the way people hope it will, it certainly could become another way of approaching the world. For the moment it’s still in the early stages: the way the technology is developing is very uncertain, so are the materials, the colours and the dimensions (for the moment it’s all very limited). But also, actually, it’s not a completely new means of production. I find it pretty close to factory systems.
In the mechanical engineering industries, they’ve been using files for automated production for some years now. But what’s very different and interesting is private use of this production technique. It’s going to mean a loss of control across frontiers, by the customs too, perhaps, because physical transportation will be by computer file. There are experiments in the United States to try and make weapons by printing them. I think the real headache is perhaps the impossibility of any controls over something that’s just the same as a file download, but this time in material form.
In a text I wrote in 2008 for a magazine special issue, I suggested a César de-compression, on the same principle as unzipping a file, as a way of putting the use of files into perspective, a process or performance of stocking things that would be a relief from the opaque, physical dimension of the sculptural form and would commemorate the period.
Apart from the deviousness of potential pirating, I’m really interested in the arrival of 3D printing. Transporting the stuff is fascinating; it’s both physical and conceptual. It’s also a key element in my work: man carrying things, moving around and actually creating the very structure of our exchanges.
H.Hanru — So, the way this development is heading is in danger of removing the body aspect from the equation: the making, the transporting, the movement, the physical effort, and participation in a whole system of working based on the body. I ask myself the question, and I’m wondering whether it isn’t going to go in a completely opposite direction to what you would like and what you are used to doing… ?
D.Firman — This development is just one more kind of automation in the world of production, it’s not going to take the place of everything else. It’s one more tool, certainly a more important tool than we imagine today (a sort of first step towards the teleportation of objects). But I’m thinking about the question of content, and it seems obvious that in the process it’s rather the opposite.
I work with dancers on forms that are increasingly performative. I don’t think 3D printing can cope with human contact or even be linked to it. I would even say that the effort, the transport and the movement that go into work that has a physical and material objective act as conductors of everything that is perceptible in the end. I’m thinking here about a piece that is on display in the museum. Its title is Duo and it was made rather like a ‘cadavre exquis’. That’s a piece that could function in the same way as this idea of a download. In Duo, a first dancer takes up a position and defines an action. Then a mould is made of this action and a second dancer comes into contact with the resulting figure. It’s as if the first started out as a genuine, physically experienced action. The moulding process and the making of the figure become a material transfer of the passing of the actual performing body into sculpture. It’s like sending a file that would be 3D printed somewhere or other. There is something akin to making the mould and reconstituting it exactly, since, each time, there is a central hinge which makes it possible to make this group. So, I could scan and print every element as a different piece or fragment somewhere else; it would be like sending a fax page by page.
The fax comes to mind because it must be the origin of these feelings that production is being dematerialised. Quite a few artists, since the minimalists, have used this means of separating themselves from the material production of their work when they send the plans for their piece to a craftsman or an engineer. An important aspect of 3D printing, mind you, is that you get a guarantee of exactness that has nothing to do with the skill of craftspeople, and I think that makes a big difference. It’s a new spatialisation of technology and skill.
H.Hanru — Talking of the link with technology and space, I get the impression that, in your work, there’s a sort of tendency to be constantly thinking beyond the notion of gravity. So what does gravity mean to you?
D.Firman — Something that you can never really get away from… Gravity is responsible for weight, and weight, through flow transfer, is responsible for movement.
Weight is one of the constituents of dance. It’s probably one of the most important because it presupposes a fall as a liberating element. You mentioned ‘technology and space’; that’s a combination that I find interesting. It’s, in a way, a meeting of weight, time and energy in an enclosure called ‘the space’. To that I would add the ground, which is very much used in dance, as it is also in sculpture, even though in dance the performers sometimes leave the ground. Using the ground could be called ‘a mandatory step’.
I really like the psychic aspect of the word, and thinking of it as a material is very revealing of the fact that the world of production is often made up of invisible elements. Something Strange Happened Here is a sentence written in neon tubes, and it refers to the gravitational aspect, both physically and psychically. The sentence turns the place into a theatre, enveloping it in a perceptible utterance which can be activated from one’s own experience.
To be there is a link to the present. It’s paradoxical, but as far as I’m concerned it’s a piece that has strong gravitational potential.
H.Hanru — So, being an artist is a grave and weighty business?
D.Firman — I’ll give you a direct answer because the question is curious. But I’d like to pick up on the idea of weight in the question to try and approach it in a personal way.
I like the idea of ‘free-fall’. It’s very apposite to what the artist does, even though I think constraints are a necessary part as well. My piece Chute libre (‘Free Fall’) is made up of two masses: the inert mass and the heavy mass. The inert mass is the one that provokes a resistance in proportion to its weight, while the other mass emphasises the gravitational field in proportion to the amount of inertia. The weight, i.e. the heavy mass, is defined as a force. None of these things is visible and yet they are constantly in operation.
That provides a pretty good idea of the artist: the artist’s visual activity has an impact way beyond the concrete form. Whether all gravitational phenomena can be interpreted with reference to what is shown and what is perceived in such a balanced way as those two masses remains to be seen.
I would say there is gravitational potential in every sense of the expression, but it depends on how you look at it.
Hou Hanru is an international art curator and critic based in San Francisco, Paris and Rome. He is the artistic director of the contemporary art musuem MAXXI in Rome, Italy.
The interview between Hou Hanru and Daniel Firman was published in Daniel Firman’s catalogue for his exhibition “La Matière Grise” at the contemporary art museum – MAC in Lyon, France.