The Itch of Bat­tle (Thought Of­fen­sive)

Art Press - - ENCYCLOPÉDIE DES GUERRES - Ber­nard Blis­tène

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.

IMPROVISATION

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

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