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Jean-Luc Moulène continues to be recognized more for his photographic work than for his objects and drawings, which he only began exhibiting a dozen years ago. Some of his pictures are better known than their author, such as his Objets de grève, a photographic inventory of objects manufactured on the assembly line by workers on strike and sold on the black market to help finance their cause, the workers thus re-appropriating their skills and inventing a parallel circulation and economy. Both the economy and the circulation of objects are themes that arise frequently in Moulène’s work. His thinking on the subject of the circulation of images has led him on multiple occasions to occupy the pages of wide-circulation newspapers, such as the Brazilian daily on the economy, Valor, or Le Monde in France, and also to produce numerous publications in collaboration with writers in whom one discerns a kinship with his own practice, which is anchored in the literary legacy of Antonin Artaud, Georges Bataille, Alfred Jarry, and René Daumal—writers who have produced a body of work both irreducible and accessible to many fields of knowledge, texts that are at once open to their immediate surroundings and founded on the radical negation of the world as it appears to us. A discussion with Jean-Luc Moulène involves a game of paradoxes, watchwords, and improvisations. Moulène’s rhetorical choreography fashions thought on the tongue and constantly redefines a line of conduct that seeks, above all, to avoid being tied down.
I became interested in art during the 1970s with the practices of body art, sociological art, or what was called “non-art” or “anti-art.” Photography was important to this work as a record of a performance. I also became aware at that time that I had no taste for putting myself on show, or for occupying even a trace of the symbolic position of an author. I told myself that I would be a long-term performer, in the sense that presence is my goal, but my concern is to authorize rather than to be an author.
Culture consists in the coexistence of the singular and the commonplace. The movement to singularize the artist-individual, certainly necessary in the 1970s at a time when society was undergoing a process of normalization, has nevertheless today become concrete in capital, and consequently must be reconsidered.
My notion of art comes from this period of the 1970s, when it was thought that the work was an enigma to everyone, and not just a secret reserved for a few, and thus ought to be open to the whole of human knowledge—to aesthetics, to history, to psychoanalysis, to sociology. The work of art is a focal point of all disciplines; it is shot through by them without belonging to any of them. Today, I claim that non-knowledge is richer than knowledge of a discipline, in terms of its capacity to bring together elements belonging to separate fields.
I am above all discontinuous rather than heterogeneous, and in this discontinuity I find a critical convergence with present-day modes of knowledge, which favor availability to the detriment of experience. I have never thought of my work from the perspective of a coherent whole. I think of my shows as group shows. As Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes said, “Me and me, that is millions!” I am interested in the work without art, rather than the artist without the work. I work on this hypothesis. I make works, but I am “on strike from art,” and by the same reasoning, obligated to it.
A good proportion of contemporary art consists in introducing popular practices into a separate world. Art ennobles and celebrates these popular practices. Historically speaking, it was photography that forced art to take up a position: whether to regain the work by introducing the vernacular, or to withdraw from it into the self-sufficiency of radical abstraction. Photography forced the world into art, and the history of its practices is more interesting than the history of its authors, since most of its practices are anonymous. It might even have been considered a form of Outsider Art that had not been identified as such.
For my part, Outsider Art interests me because its productions, its works—if they have
an aesthetic and an intentionality—exist prior to being regarded as art. This has to do with
my own practice, in the sense that I consider my images and objects as tools, articles of use:practical above all else.
The point of departure of my work consists in images that have found a support in
photography. I am not saying that I do photography, but that I make images, in the same
way as I make objects, not sculptures, because sculptures are only a typology of objects.
What are the conditions of the work? My criteria are that it should be complete in itself, separate, and that it should bring with it, in such a way as to be plainly visible, all the conditions under which it was produced. But also that it should have a direct link with what it has been separated from, which is to say, the world. This separation I speak of is not pathological, but liberating. It is in being as impersonal as possible that I try to keep looking at the world. To separate oneself is first and foremost to elude the temptation of realism, of moralizing. My wall images play on representation, while my objects play on presence. To go into the sense of impression or expression doesn’t interest me; rather, it is the tension between the two that matters to me. A work is an affirmation and, at the same time, a negation. It is a battlefield.
Duchamp said that he didn’t choose his ready-mades, but that his ready-mades chose him. Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” posed the question directly: who decides? In this
decision, there is a suggestion of faith; there is even something weirdly divine about it. As for me, I avoid believing. In the same way, there is a double manner of thinking in Duchamp: if the ready-made is an additional object in art, it is also an object subtracted from industry. The decision Duchamp took may possibly involve both aspects: to show, in art, that an object has been taken away from the world. But he was very careful to not make this explicit, and this enabled him to avoid making works that bore an ideological stamp.
I do not attempt to control the discourse and analysis of my work; on the contrary I try to surrender all control. Nevertheless, this does not mean that I do this work before having the work invaded by different disciplines. No one discipline can entirely encompass a notion of the world, not even history, law, or economics. In my work, I attempt to cut diagonally through different regimes or separate spheres that divide the world into the areas of economics, politics, and culture. And these diagonal cuts enable me to obtain another figure. This kind of diagram helps me a lot. In tracing this figure, I try to strike hard enough for it to produce a swelling on the world. There resides my ideal for a work, as well as this idea of separation: a swelling, bearing witness to a blow, situated on the outside of the world, like an excrescence. One only has to hit hard and up it comes. I never use the word “project” concerning my work; it is always simply a matter of practice. Becoming aware of your own practice is retrospective. There is no art, and no theory, that comes before practice. It is only when you become aware of your practice that you can begin putting something into form. When the first phase of the practice is of the order of feeling, allowing a return into the area of perception, it is then that a conceptual space arises through the act of forming. The act of forming is of the order of technique. Academicism in painting consisted in finding a proper equivalence between a technique and its subject,and this problem is still present in my own work. Technique does not come first, and yet technique is necessary, closely linked to the problem of the subject that it put in place. To tackle a technique does not imply mastering that technique. Such knowledge does not concern me, except when it becomes a matter of construction, not of discipline.
The difference between art and other fields that require technique resides in its method: whereas the scientist or the mathematician publishes the results of his experiment, an artist has to produce something that is not merely the result of an experiment, but must also render the experiment available to others. This means that to create a work, having done the experiment, he has to go back to his sources, and the form created must make it possible to perceive and re-open a sympathetic space. The work consists in a descent back toward sympathetic space, toward the observer.
The form of a work has no stake in the game other than to make experience possible; it is a kind of rhetoric that helps to communicate thought. That’s why what is common interests me far more than what is singular. I share something with the other, and that shared something is my playing field.
Thought, to my mind, is an act that forces one out of oneself, not an imposition of personal singularity. This means that I must take into account even what I reject. It is by starting from the center, not the periphery, that one can gain an overall view of what goes on in the world. Photography is an instrument of frontality.
I am often reproached for my seriousness. Whereas I work very seriously to manufacture artefacts (which is, after all, a scam), to savor a dirty trick that hits the right spot. A dirty trick is this admirable, surprising, unexpected, and successful space in which one encounters truth: like a set-up, in fact. I would say that my works lie on the side of serious farce rather than grim ardor. My works examine the evidence, which is something really close to imbecility. Robert Filliou and George Brecht are members of my family, and with them I share the aspiration to create works that make me ashamed. The ones that make me most ashamed are, in the long run, the truest.