Simon Quéheillard was in residency at the Politzer School in Bagnolet (93) throughout the 2012/2013 school year, as part of the Departmental Educative Program in the Seine-Saint-Denis. After this year of experimentation with the students of the 5th SEGPA (with whom he made a series of photographs and a video), and in the form of a letter to Dominique Bourzeix (head of this residency program for the Department), Quéheillard offers his thoughts on teaching the idea of the image, which he sees as an exercise in non-fixation and the place of the artist as movement between an established framework and the acceptance of the unexpected.
My residency at the Politzer School in Bagnolet has come to its end. I’m writing to you today to prolong our exchange since I was unfortunately unable to attend the group meeting last February because of my residency in Cracow, Poland. This letter will also be the occasion to relate some of my experiences and to offer you different reflections that the demands of the workshop (within the structure of the PED) engendered. The workshop ran for a year and was marked by two distinct phases of work. The first phase, dedicated to photography and the idea of a remake, was for me a period of presentation and encounter with the students, a manner of establishing myself in the organization, a sort of introduction. But the defining moment occurred when I returned from Poland and the workshop took a decisive turn, which coincided, like a form of reciprocal engagement, with a strong implication on the part of the students. Planning a series of exercises is comparable to writing a scenario for the cinema. And we know what frequently happens: the resulting film doesn’t resemble the original vision.
The very first encounter was on Tuesday October 2nd. I had the idea that day of introducing the workshop with the word « experiences ». A means for me to establish a program and to operate without the word « art », a source of much confusion today (art as synonym for luxury product, or something inaccessible, or of social success). To begin this session dedicated to the remake, I sometimes supported my point by using the chosen object and circulating a photograph around the class. At first the artist was never mentioned as a separate entity, but only, if you see what I mean, as a “guy” or a “friend”, with no other precisions. From my first steps through to the present, I have always retained this quote from Dubuffet: «The best moments in Art are when it forgets its name.» But what is an experience? I asked them. Answers: « To know (in French savoir) what something is ». « To know if it’s true or false. » « You mix products to see (in French voir) the colors. » And my response was : « you can see now that in the word savoir (to know) is the word voir (to see). » It was a first step towards a visual education and a sensorial approach to knowledge. It was this session that I recalled when, a few months later, we had to find a title for the film we made during the workshop. The film is called: Ça voir 5è7 (a homonym for Savoir 5è7, which translates roughly to Knowledge 5th 7, 5è7 being the name of the class). Doing things to ça voir, 5è7, being the name given to this ça voir (knowing) elaborated throughout our year together (as we might say Operation Swordfish, for example).
We set up our ‘playing fields’ on the terraces at the foot of the mercurial tower blocks, a ten minute walk from the school. The different elements brought into play in the workshop included architecture and urban infrastructures, the wind, as well as a collection of disparate objects such as cardboard packaging, empty plastic bottles and all sorts of rubbish. One of the principles of the workshop, in its relation to territory, brought to mind the quasi-mythic scene of modernity in a city, where children play with abandoned objects in a deserted lot. It’s a recurring scene in films from the sixties. The workshop was guided by the question of play as a primordial pedagogical form. To play with things in the state in which they are found. In each session the students were presented with the same bag full of abandoned objects, a sort of toy box or tool box. Objects that no one uses, no one sells, no one buys… Liberated from their utilitarian and functional dimension, they unfold into a space of invention through this new existence, which is neither goal nor end-oriented. By the intervention of these objects, the opportunity for play exists not only in designated spaces, imposed from the outside (playgrounds, toy stores). Play creates its own rules. To begin with, the students approached the objects with a sense of repulsion and showed a certain reticence to touch them. But I noticed fairly quickly their disinhibition, as well as a certain desire, especially for the plastic bags and the sort of intoxication procured by watching the bags circulate in currents of air. It is interesting to observe this liberty in regard to the constantly evolving representations over the course of the workshop. At the final presentation, we again had to deal with a degree conformity on this subject with students in the third form. I asked them the following question at the end of the film: «what would you like to play with? » The question remained unanswered. Quite probably this question of attraction/repulsion could be added to the file on visual education.
Before each lab, time was set aside for the enunciation of a rule or protocol that would serve as the structure for conducting an exercise or game. One day I confessed to the students my total lack of imagination, and that the elaboration of the workshop had resulted firstly from the observation of an already there, such as the architectural elements situated around the school or the collection of rubbish in the street. I realize the gently provocative nature of such an affirmation. Cézanne spoke of his ‘hatred of the imaginative’ regarding a painter’s work and more particularly his paintings. Knowing that I was an ‘artist’ and that they were implicated in an ‘artistic project’, the students manifested their surprise. “You have to see things first so as to imagine them later,” I answered. Questioning the imagination without the notion of fantasy requires preliminary consideration of how to see, how to observe. Without this preparation, imagination will only result in the production of pre-established representations, like pre-cooked meals. In order to see things, we made a film.
From the nucleus of the workshop, ideas germinated. I had to learn, to adapt. What to do with this proliferation? My approach to pedagogy consists of accompanying students, individually or collectively, in a process of elaboration that we cannot know in advance. This means teaching things that you do not know. Questioning yourself, in terms of your capacity to respond, see or hear. What we think collectively in the presence of the students is thus the occasion to experience that which we could not do alone or without them. And for both the students and the pedagogue, this discovery must be reciprocal. This way the teacher finds himself in contradiction with his intention, questioning this discrepancy, accompanying this burgeoning singularity for which there is no pre-existing model. The sense of the workshop is invented as the workshop unfolds.
The students in the SEGPA class are characterized by the presence of great learning difficulties and, nine times out of ten, these difficulties are related to problems in the family. I observed that some of the students had problems with verbal expression. And yet it seemed to me that they understood the sense of the workshop, judging by their enthusiasm and their implication at the final presentation of work on June 18. But it remained difficult for us to obtain ‘grammatical’ explanations from them, which in other situations is how we make an evaluation.
We spent a good part of the year considering the question of the burlesque (Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Roman Signer, Erwin Wurm). I would like to stress here the importance of laughter in the workshop sessions. An avalanche of laughter during the projection of the Erwin Wurm film, The man who wore a bowl on his head for two years (which parried the avalanche of commentaries made during the film by the lecturer from the Pompidou Museum.) The verb to gag in English is onomatopoeic, replicating the sound of the strangling of speech. « It is suffocating in the way laughter suffocates. In other words, it is one of the rare experiences outside of language, or more exactly at the edge of language. A gag is never centered on language, but on a gesture» (Fabien Vallos). It is probably enough to say that the gag is something that can be shown but not spoken. Its time of glory was the era of the silent film. This came up at the very beginning of our film when a student, while trying to remake a scene from Charles Chaplin, cried out to conclude the scene. But «Charlie Chaplin doesn’t talk» one of the other students commented. «Why? » the students asked (and the adults also). The question led to a gag and dissolved in the irruption of laughter that followed. Marie-Hélène Mitram, the directress of the SEGPA section at the Politzer school, stressed to me the importance of joy and enthusiasm in the act of transmission, emotions that were revealed in the students’ manner of being, their defense of the film, the way they presented it to others.
On the day of the final presentation, the students experienced the sacred moment that is part of the ritual of presenting a film, their film, and the importance of the ritual in the process of transmission; when laughter spreads like contagion in a cinema, finding a form, a weight, a structure. One student, however, expressed his discouragement to me, as some students in the third form had shown reticence after seeing the film. «That often happens in the life of an artist, » I told him. This “deception” seemed to me to be an absolutely positive reaction. It was the manifestation of a desire, a form of complicity with and attachment to the finished work. I interpreted it as the transcendence of shame and the will to take a risk, which was the real stake of the workshop. In this sense, visual education meant the possibility for each individual to see him/herself differently. A different self-image, an image which must never be definitive.
It was while making my film The pedestrian’s work that the questions which follow first came to me. And so the workshop progressively presented itself to me via the dialectic of order and disorder. That is to say the relation that order never ceases to maintain with the inherent disorder that necessarily accompanies it. An overflowing, the excesses of adolescence, perhaps even, we might say, amplified by the prism of dispersion. Dispersion as method. This questioning inevitably leads to the relation to a context, a framework: the educational context is replaced by the directing context. The camera is the pedagogical tool. In the relation between the pedagogue and the director I learned how to approach the students by creating a framework. The workshop functioned, in its direction, in accordance with rules similar to those used when I made my other films. Establishing a context, first of all, by giving the instructions for the day. But also creating a context by discussing what we had already experienced. During the actual workshop, the pedagogue must retreat and let the camera determine the context, the frame. It is then that things happen, spontaneously. The teacher must accept his non-mastery of the unfolding of the session and subsequently understand his relation to this non-mastery, accept the necessary humbleness it entails. In the eye of the camera, the disorder inherent in the confrontation between the students and the multiple factors encountered outside the confines of the school becomes the matter of dramaturgy. Visual education falls under the domain of this dramaturgy inherent to the film. The dramaturgy is itself an act of self-questioning. It allows us to look at ourselves differently from the image or representation we normally have of ourselves, without this (new) image ever appearing as definitive. It is an exercise in non-fixation, non-obsession. Fixation in an identity always involves injunction as order. From the philosopher Alexandre Jolien’s pen comes this strange phrase, translated from Sanskrit and initially attributed to the Buddha in a book titled The Diamond Sutra: « The Buddha is not the Bouddha, that is why I call him the Buddha ». If we apply this formula to our subject we have: «Adolescents are not adolescents, that is why I call them adolescents. » This formula is the expression of a doubt, not a certainty, about what a student is, both for us and for the students. At this point only and not before, naming becomes possible. For us it is the possibility of naming without definitively holding on to the representation. In my opinion the role of visual education resides principally in this exercise of non-fixation
I wanted to thank you for the confidence you placed in both me and the Espace Khiasma, throughout this year, and remain at your disposition for a future meeting.