The Itch of Battle (Thought Offensive)
The exhibition Comment se faire raconter les guerres par un grand-père mort ? (How to get a dead grandfather to tell you about wars), put on by Jean-Yves Jouannais at Villa Arson, Nice (April 13 through June 8), is an extension of his L’Encyclopédie des guerres, a cycle of talks given at the Pompidou Center since 2008, and at the Comédie de Reims since 2010. This “Encyclopedia of Wars” is a haphazard alphabetical trawl through every conflict from Troy to World War II. It is also, the author notes, “An enterprise involving both fiction and science, in which, more precisely, fiction tries to produce knowledge.”
It has become a ritual. Every month, the Petite Salle at the Pompidou is packed with regulars. Familiar faces, the odd newcomer. Five years this has been going on and it won’t stop any day soon. The credit sequence is the same. People playing at war. Then the lights come on. A word appears on the black screen. Jean-Yves Jouannais says bonsoir and picks up where he left off. Or rather, wherever he feels like starting. The “Enclyopedia of
Wars” isn’t overly tied to alphabetical order. It’s all about something not understood and what is not understood is always ambushing us, so Jouannais is constantly starting again. There’s always something to add. Surely, you’d think, the audience must get mad. “Still on bloody F! Will it never end?” But why should it? I sometimes think that Jouannais would keep on even if the room were empty. This encyclopedia is like an infinite conversation. But then the room is never empty. Jouannais has a hit on his hands, his talk is becoming the Cantatrice chauve de nos jours. Where that play ran and ran in the Latin Quarter, so Jouannais’s talk just keeps on keeping on, like an ongoing challenge, a landscape within the landscape, an object among objects. Jouannais himself is the sole actor in this “theater without theater,” the teller of an unlikely tale in which truth and fiction endlessly intertwine and it doesn’t much matter which is which, where stories and anecdotes meet and sometimes repeat, where unlikely quotations and elliptical descriptions create a bricolage aesthetic which, as we know, leads to magical thinking. Here, then, is Jean-Yves Jouannais the unlikely anthropologist! A kind of Karl May but with no news of the paleface Old Shatterhand or the Apache Winnetou. A kind of Karl May but with a very different destiny. A “lecturer,” I was saying. A performer, too. There’s a lot of them about these days, of course, but Jouannais, need I add, was one of the pioneers. The lecture-cum-performance is a total artwork where all disciplines and forms come together. By its heuristic mode, the lecture/performance is a modern genre, but the Jouannais style is plain, classical. No rhetoric or sophisms. He just has a few notes on the table, and you wonder if he really uses them or if they aren’t just part of the fiction. An alternation of words and sometimes truncated phrases and images from all over, excerpts from films and things garnered here and there: L’Encyclopédie des guerres is a vast work in progress. Perhaps a life’s work. Sometimes—well, often—our man wonders how and why he came to this pass. A question that his audience is no doubt asking, too. I prefer to think that there’s nothing random in all this and that Jouannais, a writer, art critic and curator, among other things, knows perfectly well where he is speaking from, and to whom. The world of contemporary art, perhaps? Certainly, L’Encyclopédie des guerres is a modern, a contemporary project. Quintessentially so: it challenges the encyclopedia with the impossibility of ending, for it is a random exegesis, a project without limits. We know that modernity is by its very essence an unfinished project. More than that, L’Encyclopédie des guerres is a protocol. On the stage, the table is lit by a simple lamp. The typed notes are like pretexts for endless digressions. The author apologizes for these, but adds at once that they are essential. On the screen, a word calligraphed in red seems to initiate a chapter that the images will then set out to subvert. An assistant sitting in the front row controls the images. It looks orderly, rehearsed. It is a bit like a modern version of the magic lantern, the magic show. True, L’Encyclopédie des guerres does not seek out logic, nor does it try to make its stories coherent. It is a tangle in which textual or narrative excerpts generate a host of commentaries. It is a succession of fragments and notes which are like parentheses in a text packed with pretexts and paratexts, a sui generis form of which is Jouannais is an eminent proponent and initiator.
THE WAR OF WORDS
L’Encyclopédie des guerres is thus a protocol that we might think related to known forms. It would be simple, except that our (solitary) hero has made it into a unique form. You have to see him on stage, sadfaced, weary-eyed, stunned by the weight and impact of what he has to tell. Offering apologies for having to return to a chapter, a word, a letter, to the extent that we almost feel he resents our “intrusion into his story.” Adding an incongruous entry to other, even more unlikely ones. For L’Encyclopédie des guerres is not built according to what we would like to be an established vocabulary. Few of the words, perhaps even none, refer explicitly to the subject. The words are on the margins, in the wings perhaps, feeding the tale of “forking paths” (a great text, that!) and vanishing lines that are miles from the subject. So what is Jouannais talking about here? What encyclopedia, a form we know to be impossible? What war, since most of the conflicts he cites seem beyond the memory of many? And whose shoes is he standing in, this usurper of the role—yes, “role”—of historian? So what is Jouannais talking to us about, if not—this we soon understand—himself? But also, no doubt, the way any mental creation is constructed, the realities that border it and the fictions that assail it. What is said and shown every month at the Pompidou Center is no more the history of war than that of peace, it is the history of the war with our own selves, the war of words and of the crea-
tion of an artwork. L’Encyclopédie des guerres is a unique form, an accomplished mixture. It is likely that it can only be at home in a place where multidisciplinarity is so much a part of the setup. It is likely that its attraction lies in the fact that it is not so much a form as a combination of all forms, all forms of knowledge. L’Encyclopédie des guerres is an apparatus, and no doubt an important piece of contemporary art, of which Jean-Yves Jouannais is both the author and the interpreter, the director and the set designer. His war constantly oscillates between major and minor form, between drama and derision, fact and anecdote, evidence and lies. His war is not so much other people’s war as his own, and no doubt the expression of a conflict with his own self. L’Encyclopédie des guerres is, at bottom, the simple expression of the conflict that any author has with his subject, put before an audience that is bound to want more. In Diderot’s Paradox of Acting, one speaker asks the other why people go to the theatre. Stéphane Lojkine, one of the leading commentators on Diderot (along with Michael Fried—contemporary art, again!), adds: “We go to see theatrical performances in order to receive the affirmation of a presence that is expressed only by means of a dispossession, the repeated implementation of a technique.” In the half light of the Pompidou Center’s Petite Salle, an author wages war with his subject. Go and see it! It’s the bomb.
Why be more interested more in war than in peace? As you know, I am not more interested in war than in peace. I am not interested in either. In fact, I have never accepted the idea that the subject of war might interest me. In War and Peace, the kind, naïve Count Bezukhov, who is so eager to see the battle at Borodino, gets caught up in this difficult definition of the kind of curiosity we feel about the realities of war: “’I have come… well… you know… it interests me,’ said Pierre, who had repeated those empty words ‘it interests me’ so many times throughout the day.” The epigraph chosen by Malaparte for The Skin comes from Paul Valéry: “What interests me is not always what matters to me.” Everything about these words is clear, except that it is more exciting, more convincing, a little bit beyond its relativistic logic, when it tends to signify that nothing of what interests us matters to us. Also, it sounds like “having an interest in something.” We are expecting a return on our investment. As if there had to be an incentive in the fact of being interested, a more or less long-term calculation that corrupts our sense of curiosity. Taking an interest in something is an untenable speculative position. As it happens, I find that I am disgusted by this blunt cultural saw which says we should be interested in everything. Because we are all potentially “interested in” and the only finality of this consumerist tendency is the mummified survival of our last cultural pretexts. All I want now is to be irritated, annoyed, not interested. Annoyance should be the unique motor of desire and the only pedigree of appetite. Being aggressed by objects and discourse that you would expect to be impossible to take in, works that are unbearably new, that jangle our nerves and pollute us. This faculty of annoyance is, I think, the only way of signaling artistic experience, whereas interest is merely a term—and one that also happens to be ambiguous with regard to attrition—denoting the placebo of cultural sticking plasters. And that is exactly how, today, this subject of war occupies me: by the discomfort it causes, the unease, but not at all in terms of the harmony of elective affinities. What made me realize this was a discussion I had a long time ago with my friend Gilles Barbier.
Why forbid yourself the subject of contemporary wars? Of course, like everyone else, I am obliged to take an interest in a lot of information every day, as a consumer and as a citizen. And contemporary wars are one of these events in which I am obliged to take an interest. Along with climate change, the spread of racism, sports results, the future of Europe, a handful of more or less local elections. But to come back to L’Encyclopédie des guerres, I could never have imagined spending the rest of my life on a subject that merely interested me. This apparently arbitrary break has a touch of schizophrenia to it, I can see that, but I can’t go against it.
In the course of the sessions, it seems that the intertwining of truth and lies that ran through the first evenings has receded. Have I just grown inured, or have you changed tactics? You may be right. I am inclined to trust you on that one. Personally, I haven’t noticed anything. But I have always thought that I was not best placed to grasp the spirit of the undertaking. L’Encyclopédie des guerres lives its own life, beyond me and at my expense. Nothing I do is premeditated. As you know, there’s no plan, no program. It’s a long drift, a very slow movement that aspires to be like an epic of errancy and may just be an aberration. Invention occurs accidentally in the midst of this improvisation. There has been only one exception to that, in the entry “Decorative (Motif)”: the invention of the character Peter Aloysius Tromp (1671–1742). That must have been in autumn 2009.
What has L’Encyclopédie contributed to the show at Villa Arson, Comment se faire raconter les guerres par un grand-père mort? The show is the result of much discussion with Éric Mangion. A first version of this show was put on at the Printemps de Septembre in Toulouse in 2012, under the artistic direction of Paul Ardenne. The cycle of talks in Paris and Reims forms a kind of trunk from which a certain number of branches can grow. Two of these have now become relatively autonomous. Firstly, the department called “Conversion d’une bibliothèque de non-guerre en bibliothèque de guerre” (Conversion of non-war library into a library of war), in which I swap books in my personal library for books about any aspect of all the wars from the Iliad to World War II. Secondly, the exhibition Comment se faire raconter les guerres par un grand-père mort, which is evolving over time, reflecting the growing number of entries and talks. The Toulouse version had a little over seven hundred entries, the Nice one, about eight hundred. The cycles of talks tries to invent a connection with its public over time, to build up an understanding in the form of an oral feuilleton and to obey the rule of ephemerality. The protocol of the book exchange, and the exhibition itself, are two experiences that are different in nature but still obey the same rules. The exhibition brings together the elements constituting L’Encyclopédie des guerres. It is constituted as a “Department of Heritages” and inventories the information and documents that my grandfather, Jean Jouannais, purportedly passed on to me so I could talk about wars. Now, because I never met the man—he drowned in 1945, aged 31—I am inventing the heritage on my own. Like a geographer inventing a country so that he is free to spend the rest of his life imagining its climate, its geology, its hydrography, its fauna and its ecosystems. Comment se faire raconter les guerres par un grand-père mort is like a bit of ventriloquism, but ventriloquism that is not illusionist. In that sense, the undertaking confirms Derrida’s hypothesis of a “hauntology” that is much broader than ontology, placing spectrality at the heart of thought. That is why I cannot do otherwise than come back to it, again and again, dragged along by revenants.
Translation, C. Penwarden
« Comment se faire raconter les guerres par un grand-père mort ? ». 2012. Sculpture (polystyrène, résine, peinture), feuillets, escalier de consultation, dispositif sonore (enregistrements des conférences de « l’Encyclopédie des guerres »). Exposition « L’Histoire est à moi ! ». Le Printemps de Septembre à Toulouse. 2012. (Court. galerie G.P. & N. Vallois, Paris ; Ph. N. Brasseur). Sculpture (styrofoam, resin, paint), paper, ladder
« L’Encyclopédie des guerres ». (Photographie du grand-père mort). (© Centre Pompidou / Ph. Hervé Véronèse). Photograph of the dead grandfather