What If, Why Not?
Philippe Parreno’s artistic practice embraces conversation as a way of affiliating different narratives or realities. His work is an open exploration of various protocols of interaction, from copyright law, to exhibitions, to football games. His film Zidane, un portrait du 21e siècle, made with Douglas Gordon follows recently retired football star Zinédine Zidane, capturing his gestures with seventeen synchronized cameras trained on him for the duration of a single match. Volume recently spoke with Parreno about fictional realities, conversation, and Zidane.
BC: You often work between reality and fiction, or with fiction as another reality. We spoke recently with your sometime collaborator Francois Roche about the use of fiction in his architecture. How does fiction function in your work?
PP: Francois’s work reverses the plan by entering into the project through fiction, and allowing fiction to become a little bit alienated by everything else, by the social complexities of the situation and by his own rigor.
For me, the distinction would be that you can produce a fiction, while surely you cannot always argue that reality itself produces a fiction. I am talking about fiction, not illusion. My work always starts with a ‘ritournelle’, not a scenario. The Zidane portrait is about What If / Why Not following one protagonist moving through a story. A character begins to be built through the relation you start to engage with him just by spending time looking at him. The stories you start to tell are your stories, and you begin to produce your variations. It’s like driftting, I guess.
BC: How does that happen in the process of creating the film, in how you approached it, the technique and how you made it?
PP: The Zidane film started with a conversation between Douglas Gordon and myself, about ten years ago. And then somehow in the intervening time, the discussion became more of a record, to the point where the ideas of the film convinced us, I think. So then about five years ago, we approached Zidane, and I approached at the same time the director of photography Darius Khondji. There were many practicalities we had to consider in order to concentrate on trying to produce the contours that would lead Zidane to make the film with us. We finally met him, and we figure he must have liked the ideas and our approach.
I knew what I wanted to achieve, but how – that was challenging. How to engage with a fiction without total understanding? How to commit as a viewer to an experience? There was no fascination for reality. We wanted to focus more on the affective particularities of the character, and out of the observations people have of Zidane, as aTV star, to develop a kind of empathy. Cinema is a fantastic machine to incarnate. We talked with Zidane about this approach, about portraiture.
BC: Does empathy relate to the part of your practice that is constantly involved in different kinds of collaboration?
PP: I never make drawings for my projects, I always talk or write. That’s how I function. I call up someone, I talk about an idea, and that’s how it starts. It always starts with a conversation.
And if you don’t have anyone with whom to speak, you do what the poets in Greek mythology did and create muses or water nymphs in order to talk to someone, to address the work to someone. There is always a kind of narrative dialogue that an author engages.
BC: I’ve heard you talk about this before as a kind of polyphony or a musical score. Why do you find the need to create these protocols for relationships in your
PP: I grew up with art centers or cultural centers. For me, art was something produced in art centers, in a space dedicated to exhibition making. A space without a collection and therefore a space where you could not only question the object-making but produce an exhibition.
Pierre Boulez remarked that anybody could buy his scores, but in order to play them, you need to have something that he defined as the score of the score. And I think that could be true for exhibitions as well. The exhibition involves a series of relationships. So you can imagine how that connects with the object the protocol of that connection. Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist, talks about ‘phenotropics’, or ‘phenotropic computing’. Essentially, he questioned the idea of ‘protocol adherence’ in software development. I like to imagine that exhibition is working on protocol adherence.
That’s how I function, always starting with this kind of game.
BC: First you write something, and it starts from this single motif, question, or issue. What would be an example from a particular project?
PP: For Zidane, the question was: What If / Why Not following one protagonist going through a story.
For the Boy From Mars with Francois Roche, it was: could we imagine architecture producing a film and film producing an architecture and its reality?
With Annlee, it was: could we take a sign that does not mean anything anymore and come to see that sign as defining a community?
And so on…It could be a fun game to keep going like that for all the projects. Fun, and a little bit boring.
BC: The loophole seems like an appealing figure for you, as a case of exception in a protocol, like in copyright for example. How do loopholes create an opportunity for you to work?
PP: I think we have read the notion of copyright in a straightforward way through Annlee, but also in a way inspired by one of the first statements of the nouveau roman, when Alain Robbe-Grillet asked how you could create the condition by which you never stop telling the story. I think that’s one of the drives for this project, to say we have this sign, or whatever you want to call it, and then the question is how we can project the desire for the sign to never stop producing meanings. So of course, in the first film I did with Annlee, the character was introducing itself, which is a kind of political role. But even as an introduction it was a way of building up the ideas and inputs that would allow her to take on her own life as a sign.
BC: When you allow the stories to continue to keep telling themselves, you produce the possibility of an afterlife of the work, and afterlife of Annlee, or the afterlife of the image in Fade to Black (...).
PP: A never-ending story. With Fade to Black (...), I first created a series of real events or situations. Those events become a series of images. I printed these with photosensitive ink and applied a photochemical removing mix so that the image would slowly become less visible and the memory of it would start to be more and more blurred and affected. So the more the work is shown, the less visible it becomes.
And I like this notion that we know how the project starts, but not how it ends? With movies you always wait for the ending and somehow art has always avoided that question. In a way, through Fade to Black (...), we tried to produce the possibility of an ending. A happy ending.
BC: It opens up onto the possibilities of invisibility. I’ve read you studied math, which is sometimes considered a form of knowledge that uniquely bypasses visibility. How is invisibility at play in your work and do you think your art practice relates to your studying math?
PP: The relation to math is that I’m always seeing structures. Whether I look at a visual art work, or a movie, or a novel, or an essay, my interest is always in reactive structures and cool ideas.
Invisibility relates to the moment in the discussion, not only in collaborations but when you’re trying to produce anything, when you can see that something starts to be there, which means I can close my eyes and still see it, still imagine it. In that sense, it’s a definition of reality, because it remains even if I’m not there to look at it. And somehow, when you produce work that way, the moment when you start to know that relation, you begin to see a sort of quasi-reality. The quasi-reality of a quasi-object, if you accept one definition of reality as what stays when you are not there to look at it.
In art, you learn from your practice. Before the Zidane film, I had never addressed the idea of portraiture, because I thought it was a remnant from the past, along with other genres of painting like landscape and with Velazquez. I had to make the film to understand the notion of portraiture. Because I made the film, I was able to look back at the paintings and they began to have new meanings for me, when before most of them were just chocolate box covers.
BC: In the Zidane film, his figure seems to become a particular point in a reactive structure, that all of these relationships pass through him. It is a very particular idea of portraiture, but do you think these structures are shared by other forms of portraiture?
PP: Have you noticed that when you go in a museum all these eyes of dead people are still following you? Spooky. Anyway, yeah, portraiture creates a set of very specific relations. When you look at an image, even in tabloids, of somebody really focusing on doing something other than being aware of being seen by you, you necessarily start to have some empathy with that person.
In the Zidane film, it is not only two pairs of eyes, but also the co-director Douglas Gordon’s eyes. After two years working with somebody looking at the face of somebody else, you start to look at the other as if it’s you.
BC: In Zidane, it seems like you’re presenting an environment in which media imagery and physical space capture each other in an intense involvement. What are the implications of that kind of space for architecture now?
PP: I think architecture is dealing now with questions that might also involve the issue of time, the relation where, if you’re not able to find the time-code, you’re not able to operate in your life.
For example, a museum has restaurants, offices, elevators, theaters, exhibition rooms with exhibition programs. All those spaces operate in different time sequences. There should also be expiration dates on projects.
I worked as a night watchman in a central post office when I was a student. Since then I look at architecture and space in a slightly different way. I would like to see a building which is a central post office during the day and a haunted house theme park at night.