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Paul Bernard*,
Camille Llobet

Interview
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* curator at the MAMCO Museum, Geneva, Switzerland
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Paul Bernard

To begin, I’d like you to tell us something about the workshops with the visually impaired you’ve been running recently. How did they begin and what kind of experiments do they involve?

Camille Llobet

Two years ago an association of visually impaired people got in touch with me to help document their trip to Cameroon, and I set up a workshop with them for describing things with sound. This meant getting immersed in an urban space and describing its noises and sound textures, but without identifying the source. After this really enriching experience we decided to do something similar with tactile descriptions.
For this I come up with an object strange and complex enough not to be immediately identifiable: a door lock, a tab from a ski boot, a labelling punch, a bit of ventilation pipe, a bicycle handlebar grip, etc. The object goes from hand to hand and each member of the group describes its shape while the others ask him questions. You get a succession of relatively abstract clues: you begin by speculating about an image that comes under challenge in the light of the clues that follow and you end up lost in a narrative tending towards the absurd. At first the descriptions are pretty approximate, then key words crop up and a specific vocabulary takes shape. The descriptive strategies differ: some people systematically talk in units of measurement, others work via comparison and association of ideas. For example, to describe part of the base of a coffee maker, one of the members gave as an image ‘a well sharpened egg, cut lengthwise’. I tried a series of similar experiments with some very young children; there the problem was not the visual side, but the lack of vocabulary. For instance, I asked them to describe a crack in a wall, and found that because they didn’t know the word ‘crack’, they used a whole string of adjectives having more to do with a state
than a concept. All these projects feed into my artistic research. Pinpointing the mechanisms of building a narrative or formulating something verbally lets me give concrete form to things which are indescribable — or, rather, which overtax description.

Paul Bernard

These experiments with description have to do with a handicap, a sensory shortfall. You’re also very interested in neuroscience and certain perceptual disturbances.

Camille Llobet

I’m interested in handicaps that modify information intake and processing. Coping with a shortfall generates new ways of apprehending the world: invented, improvised perceptual modes that operate outside the standard language codes. Oliver Sacks-style studies of neuronal dysfunction show us how the brain works: what channels does a piece of information follow in order to be integrated, and how can these channels be skirted when they’re defective? These symptoms and detours are the inspiration for some of my pieces. In the photograph Kastra-Faliro, there are topographical and architectural reasons for the visual disturbance; a compression of the layers that cancels out the depth of field. But this is also something you find in certain patients who can’t see colours: for them the world is visible only through a kind of fog, a greyish atmosphere. They can never be “focused”.

Paul Bernard

You get up close to these ways of perceiving things. This approach reminds me of Éric Duvivier’s medical films and Johan Van der Keuken’s Blind Child 2. There’s a form of identification that’s different from a distanced, scientific stance.

Camille Llobet

Van der Keuken says he uses his camera like a blind person’s stick, working by trial and error, breaking space up so as to mark it out. In his films the world is primarily approached as an arrangement of forms: he closes Blind Child 2 by saying to the child, Herman, ‘Bye bye, dear little form.’ Maxim Gorki wrote a lovely text when he discovered the movies in 1896; thoroughly awed, he defines cinema as the “kingdom of shadows” (1), describing the textures on the screen rather than the story being played out in front of him. It’s like an old poster you’ve had at home for years: you end up paying no heed to its meaning, and only seeing a jumble of abstract areas. To come back to this proximity with the subject, Van der Keuken also let his blind child look after the sound, as a way of getting closer to his actual sensations. You find this idea again in the films of Jean Rouch, who also works via successive approximations, in a very tight relationship with what he’s filming. In Black Like Me he gives the voice-over to his main character, asking him to comment directly — a way of showing a train of thought with its own language, repetitions and associations.

Paul Bernard

You’re also very drawn to the cinema of Robert Bresson and his use of fragmentation. In his Notes on Cinematography Bresson says that fragmentation is “indispensable if one does not want to fall into representation”, that it allows us to “see beings and things in their separate parts” and “render them independent in order to give them a new dependence.”(2) One of your pieces, Dallas, le 22 novembre 1963, brings hyper-fragmentation to an event that lasted only a few seconds: the Kennedy assassination as filmed by Abraham Zapruder (3).

Camille Llobet

Dallas is intended as an extremely meticulous description of what’s at stake in Zapruder’s handful of images. Any attempt at exhaustive description always verges on the absurd — like Borges’s map, which is so exact that it’s the same size as the thing it’s supposed to stand for. There you have a conflict between exactness and legibility. Unpacking in detail makes summarising impossible. I chose this event because everyone knows these images — Kennedy’s head exploding and Jackie in her pink suit crawling out over the trunk of the Cadillac. It’s true, those few seconds have already been endlessly dissected, giving rise to all sorts of speculation about an event that remains unsolved. But by pushing the description as far as I do, you exhaust the issue as such and plunge into abstraction. You end up achieving something that has the character of a memory. Using the work’s spatialisation of sound, you can move from one description to another, step by step. This is the principle of the blind man’s stick again. Clues gradually emerge as you move from one speaker to another, and with those clues you can mentally reconstruct the space.

Paul Bernard

In Dallas you also describe bodies impacted by an event that remains out of shot. In Décrochement you catch the movements of a fresh start after a halt Téléscripteur and Prosodie work with the relationship between speech in the process of taking shape and the way it’s embodied in the micro-movements of a face. Your studies of description, language and mapping always lead to speculation about the body and movement.

Camille Llobet

I’m particularly attentive to the body’s transcription of an inner state. One of the people I work with has been blind from birth; when she experiences something pleasurable, her eyes open very wide, her mouth opens in a broad smile, and shivers run through her body. As if her brain images were sweeping through her whole being. This is something that defies all control and all social codes, because she’s never been able to see anyone else express these emotions. In some of my works I show bodies so concentrated on the exercise they’re engaged in that they give off a whole gamut of micro-movements. Décrochement is the most explicit from this point of view. The idea came to me when I was in China: I was at a tourist venue, in the middle of a crowd of people who stopped for a few seconds to take photos of each other and then moved on. You really have the sense of something cutting loose, letting go. I tried to catch that elusive moment when bodies slacken slightly, free up, draw breath, before merging with the crowd again.

Paul Bernard

Décrochement shows situations caught on the fly, but in other projects you set up very specific transcription systems which, in a way, ‘drain’ your protagonists, reducing them to machines and teletypes and so on.

Camille Llobet

Bresson habitually had his actors — he called them his ‘models’ — rehearse the same scene up to seventy times, so as to achieve a reflex that was as close as possible to real life rather than to its representation. In my experiments I strive for similar principles of exhaustion. In Télescripteur the protagonists enter a circuit of machines: they watch a film on a monitor while their commentaries and movements are captured by a microphone and a camera. The speaking body is reduced to a mere reception/transmission apparatus. Things are happening so fast on the screen that the speakers don’t have time to be aware of what they’re doing. The experiment demands such intense concentration that all the facial expressions and linguistic mannerisms are involuntary. The longer it lasts, the more naive the words become — almost like a child talking. Sometimes, when they can’t find the right words or don’t have time to say them, they imitate a movement with their faces. Paradoxically, it’s by turning them into machines and cutting them off from the intellect that you re-embody a body and a language and lay bare all their separate phenomena. The same thing’s at work in Prosodie, where the issue is sound transcription. The body is reduced to ears and a mouth. I don’t ask the participants to be accurate in the noises they make with their mouths, but above all to be in synch with what they hear. They’re not beat boxers, so it’s really hard for them. They stammer and hesitate, but in the end they succeed in conveying intonations, densities and rhythms. You end up with something like baby babble. It’s said that these are the first things that make sense for babies learning a language: first of all they catch onto the prosodic contours and try them out in kinds of babbling intonations.

Paul Bernard

This search for a formal remnant also turns up in your Squelette de liste. You neutralise the transmission context and the meaningful aspects of these everyday scribblings so as to reveal an abstract residue. In Graffiti this process is almost reversed: you recite the letters, words and codes of urban graffiti — signs that are grasped primarily through their highly stylised drawing, with their actual semantics a pretty secondary consideration. This close scrutiny of minor details gives your methods a scientific or psychiatric or even police-type feel.

Camille Llobet

I have an inborn tendency to look at things too closely. For me the act of looking is more important than the overall picture. I like to be surprised by a detail without spotting the context it’s a part of. I pay more attention to the consequences of an event than to its cause. The historian Carlo Ginzburg speaks of an ‘evidential paradigm’ in referring to the epistemological model of today’s social sciences: a way of proceeding that stresses involuntary clues, and whose origin he finds in Freud’s psychoanalytical methods,
Sherlock Holmes’s investigations and the work of the nineteenth-century art historian Giovanni Morelli, who could identify old masters from insignificant details like ear lobes, nails and the shapes of fingers. A way of working that turns ‘any art gallery . . . into a rogues’ gallery.’ (4) To return to Graffiti, this mechanical reading of writings on walls has to do with my contact with the cities I discover, depending on whether I’m on foot or in a train. By reading the graffiti out loud I try to uncover something familiar in a language I don’t know. Which brings us back to the prosody aspect I was talking about. It’s the same thing in Squelette de liste: I spend lots of time copying, point by point, scribblings of no value at all. For me it’s a way of using time to test out what’s hidden in lines carelessly jotted on a common scrap of paper. The variety of clues turns these drawings into revelations, making visible the melody of some everyday thought process.
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NOTES

(1) Maxim Gorki, article on the Lumière brothers’ films shown at the All-Russia Industrial and Art Exhibition in Nizhny Novgorod. Signed J.M. Pacatus, the article appeared in the daily Nizhegorodsky Listok on 04 July 1896 and can be found in English translation in Gilbert Adair (ed.), Movies (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999), pp. 10–11.

(2) Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography, trans. Jonathan Griffin (New York: Urizen Books, 1977), p. 93.

(3) Abraham Zapruder became famous for having recorded the Kennedy assassination while filming
the presidential motorcade on 22 November 1963.

(4) Carlo Ginzburg, ‘Clues: Roots of an Evidential Paradigm’ in Clues, Myths and the Historical Method,
trans. John and Anne C. Tedeschi (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), p. 97.