Interview with Camille Henrot

April 14th, 2014 – , , .
Published in Le Salon.

Maaike Lauwaert: Your work Grosse Fatigue won the Silver Lion during the 55th Venice Biennale. It was a well-deserved price everyone felt. Yours was a work that mesmerized, that caught the attention and kept people in the rather small screening room for a long time. Grosse Fatigue was encompassing in terms of its scope but at the same time you never claimed to produce an objective truth. Rather, you set about telling one of the most fundamental and yearned for stories, through the “impossible” lens of excess information.

Camille Henrot: Excess is the way in which the universe appears to the subject. The universe exceeds representation. I was inspired by this quote of [French philosopher] Jean-Luc Nancy: “Our question thus becomes clearly the question of the impossible experience or the experience of the impossible: an experience removed from the conditions of possibility of a finite knowledge, and which is nevertheless an experience.” (The Creation of the World, Or, Globalization, SUNY Press, 2007, p. 65).

There is a contradiction between the intellect’s unlimited ability to make connections and the human need to realize the idea of totality into one limited object that we can “grasp.” I wished to emphasize the burden and the madness of such all-encompassing projects as well as the necessity for humans to build these representations. In the contemporary context of the endless dissemination of information, where over-communication and over-saturation must constantly be navigated, efforts to gather and structure knowledge in a totalized worldview resemble an artistic goal or artistic project. Subjectivity and imperfection are inevitably creeping in.

I knew that the only way to do such an ambitious project without losing my head would be to delve sincerely into the dark side, the madness of it. The ghost of obvious failure would be floating around as an incarnation of human arrogance and limited experience. Mixing very anecdotical and very universal references would be the only possibility to go over this limit because it’s what is the most personal that is often what connects us to the rest of humankind.

ML How did you make decisions? When or how did you know this image or that sentence was right for the film, the rhythm, narrative? While looking at your film, I kept wondering “how on earth was she ever able to choose?” And you made excellent choices. How did you go about this?

CH It is a mix of intuition and information. A little bit like the art of calligraphy: you practice a thousand times and then the actual action only takes a few minutes and has to be performed in a relaxed, intuitive but focused mood. After intense research, thinking, writing about the project I decided to follow my intuition, to be as free/unexpected as possible.

It’s actually more difficult not to make sense than to make sense because of humans’ ability to make sense out of heterogeneity. This is an impressive ability that can be observed in the whole divination process. We make sense out of a google search result as much as we do out of coffee marks in a cup, or the fold of a shirt or the wrinkles on a hand.

But editing is indeed a very long process when you deal with simultaneous images, the computer was very slow in processing the images. So I had to draw a sort of “map” in order to know in which direction to go in advance. The slowness of the computer thus forced me to build a kind of “scenario”, something I usually try to avoid when editing my films.

The solution I came up with was a sort of grid I designed. In this grid I had connected ages of man, ages of the universe, archetypical signs, technological inventions, and the evolution of animal species. It was extremely empirical: for example, the reptiles were connected in the grid to knowledge because of the reptilian brain (which is the most ancient part of our brain that has a binary coding (escape and aggression) like the digital binary language based on zeroes and ones.

ML Editing is obviously a big part of your work. Knowing what to choose and what not to choose. A large part of our twenty-first century lives consist of editing. What we read, what we go see, what we like, what we post, what we agree to work on etc etc. We are constantly, incessantly editing. How do you feel about this? Is this something you engage with consciously or politically? Or is it simply part of your working method? Walter Benjamin wrote about a “cataloguing psychosis”, we seem to exist more in an “editing psychosis”. Would you agree?

CH It depends if you have to produce something out of the information you are gathering or not. But I imagine that one can just enjoy contemplating the flux of images, ideas, moods, and have no desire to edit – no eliminating factor other than time (the most recent thing pushing the previous one into oblivion).

Personally I’m having a hard time with excluding, selecting. I am not a selective person, I like to keep the circle as open as possible. I realized this very strongly when asked to choose a topic of research at the Smithsonian Institute. I had interests for too many different fields and institutions and it felt frustrating to eliminate before even starting the research. I normally delay the moment of choosing as much as I can.

[French theoretician] Murielle Gagnebin wrote in her super interesting book Du divan à l’écran. Montages cinématographiques, montages interprétatifs (1999, Paris P.U.F.) about creation and described two steps: the maniac moment where the ambitions are excessive and the mourning where you actually have to resign to possibilities and accept reality and its limits, followed by the principle of the “final cause”, the preoccupation of the artist to match the idea to the social standards and expectations of the audience. If the final step is too strong the works may become too formal but if it’s too weak, the works can be obscure, unreadable or obscene.

I am trying to keep this “final cause” as distant as possible and am currently also experimenting with the idea of no editing. This is very much the experience I’m trying out with the upcoming exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery in London called The Pale Fox [February 27 – April 13, 2014].

ML Could you say something about the works you are currently working on? Are they engaged with comparable topics? Are they part of “your search” for, or fascination by, what you referred to in an earlier interview as what “lies beyond the limit?” of our knowledge and access?

CH The Pale Fox exhibition aims to show how the world of the digital era in which we live, promotes the perception of inclusion of nominal things (God, death, the history of the universe, the non-story), and phenomenal things (arbitrary cultural thing and events). The Pale Fox evokes the ambivalence of the desire of meeting, madness of grouping and collecting. Hoarding is connected to the museum’s collection, this aggregation to reproduce the FUNCTIONING of the universe, the idea of expansion. But it also builds an isolated world within the world. This can be perceived as a pathological relationship to the outside.

The Pale Fox refers to the Dogon [nomadic African tribe living in Mali] cosmological character of Ogo, the foxlike creator of disorder. The Dogon cosmology has been described in the seminal anthropology book The Pale Fox by Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen (Afrikan World Books, 1986). For me the expression “a pale fox”, refers to a being who embodies the sickly curiosity, a man in his guilty dimension, in his greed and impatience, in his insatiability too. Someone who wants to know, and accumulate.

ML What has been the effect on you of winning the Silver Lion? You have, for example, many solo shows coming up and you will co-curate a show with Ruba Katrib at the SculptureCenter in New York. These must be exciting times. On the other hand, I can also imagine the pressure and expectations. Is there a downside to winning such a price and being in the center of attention?

CH I’m not good at saying no, probably because I have problems myself admitting that not everything on earth is possible so I’m learning to do that as I go along. As for the pressure: I would lie if I would say I don’t feel it. But I was feeling so much under pressure when I worked on the piece for the Venice Biennale that I guess I got used to it. The reception of the film has been so great that I know people can only be disappointed by the new work I am now making. So I feel free to do something that is amusing and experiment with things I haven’t been able to do before.

ML And on a more practical, maybe curatorial note, how do you feel about the artist as curator? Is it something you have done before or look especially forward to? Do you already know what you will curate?

CH I am interested in making an exhibition because it helps me think about art. I usually never get to think about art in such a direct way. I like to think about all aspects of the making of objects – not only art-oriented. Curating a show helps me to understand what being an artist means, what the perception of a big exhibition with many different voices can be – a sort of polyphony. One work might not be my favorite work in the show but the “sound” of it works well with the other works and might as such support a work that is key to the show. Curating, I am finding out, is not about making lists of “favorite pieces”, but about building an open narrative that everyone can tap into. I feel there are still so many possibilities to be explored with this! Sometimes I even feel that it’s almost absorbing me too much, I can get more excited by the works of other artists than by my own work. I envy the curator position, he or she is a sort of “meta -artist” able to penetrate in so many different minds. I was also surprised to find out how different every artist is in his or her own anxieties and in the relationship they have with their work and the outside world.

As an artist it’s not easy to be a hundred percent satisfied with your work. I don’t know if it is even possible, or maybe it is, but satisfaction is not stimulating. If you are satisfied with what you have done, there is no energy anymore to keep producing. As in Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s famous sentence: “He who knows, does not speak.”