words by Luca Cerizza
“The art of storytelling is coming to an end,” wrote Walter Benjamin in the opening section of his essay “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov.” Published in October 1936, the essay is a touchstone for any consideration of narration and storytelling. His central argument is that the art of storytelling is in peril due to specific historical developments: the crisis of the very concept of experience, whose transmission is at the core of the art of storytelling; the decay of the economic system that created and transmitted oral forms of narration (the sedentary and slow condition of artisanal activity); the rise of the modern novel; and, finally, print journalism’s diffusion of unexampled amounts of information.
More than seventy years after the initial publication of his essay on Leskov, one cannot but notice that Benjamin missed some of his targets. Because he did not recognize the moral ambiguity of narration, he could not connect the rise of Nazism to the party’s ability to seduce the masses with captivating narratives. In his defense, he could not have foreseen that, because of the technological and social developments of our times, storytelling would be increasingly relevant, spreading into seemingly unrelated facets of social life, like politics and marketing. If the postmodern era has witnessed the fall of the grand narratives, it is no less a time of pervasive and continuous storytelling.
In recent years, narrative has also become one of the central themes in visual art, which artists have employed to engage in a dialogue about the very definition of visual art. By conceiving of their work more as an oral and spoken creation than a visual one, some artists question the identity of the work of art and authorship, while for others the narrative forms themselves are the preferred media for their work. It is a transnational phenomenon, but the French art scene seems particularly keen on what can be called the “discursive turn.” The recurrent use of the written and spoken language, using forms like the lecture, conference and guided tour, characterizes the work of such artists as Alex Cechetti, Jochen Dehn, Benoît Maire, Mark Geffriaud and Louise Hervé & Chloé Maillet.
Hervé & Maillet in particular focus on the activity of storytelling, relying on narrative forms derived from videos, films, radio-dramas, lectures and guided tours. More generally, the core of their interest is the different incarnations of spectacle. Hervé & Maillet’s work is an investigation of the forms used by humankind to capture attention, to create illusion, to seduce the listener as the spectator. With a humorous and witty touch, they scrutinize radio, cinema, visual art and storytelling in order to underline their seductive potential. They do so through careful and in-depth research, a practice that perhaps reflects their study of art history. In fact, the two met while attending preparatory classes to enter the Grandes Ecoles and, in July 2001, they founded an association called I. I. I. I. (International Institute for Important Items) as a platform for their projects in various fields and a production company for their films.
Hervé & Maillet consider Google an important tool and source of materials and stories, but they also remain staunchly loyal to the book. So it was no surprise that the duo arranged to meet me in front of the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal in Paris. The wooden, elegant rooms of this small historical library (which still hosts the weekly meeting of the Oulipo members) function as a second workspace, along with Chloé Maillet’s apartment. Like another French duo, Bouvard and Pécuchet, the main characters of Gustave Flaubert’s last, unfinished novel, H&M (which hereafter will stand for the artistic duo and not for the clothing brand) are attracted to the book’s capacity to contain various forms of knowledge and its ability to reveal new worlds. But if B&P were trying to apply knowledge acquired in books to the real world outside them, H&M superimpose and link together different layers of knowledge and narrative in order to create new narratives. As careful collages of apparently minor and insignificant information and stories, H&M’s narratives combine historical episodes, cultural facts, scientific discoveries and biographical details in new scenarios and extravagant plots. A recent performance at the Castello Sforzesco (a Renaissance castle located in Milan) featured Saint Ambrose, patron saint of the Milan, Henri-Marie Beyle (Stendhal), horror movie director Dario Argento and a plot in which emotional and sentimental details are given the same importance as historical facts.
If H&M’s stories are assembled in a fashion that reminds us of traveling through the Internet, they are also like maps we can use to reorientate ourselves in the labyrinths of history and discover surprising new trajectories. Acting as museum guides in the rooms of culture, H&M use the fragments left over from the fall of history to create new stories.
As they told me about their latest project, Restoration totale, a 30-minute radio drama, I detected the same compelling rhythms and alternation of voices that is peculiar to their performances. Broadcast on April 10, 2011 on France Culture (a branch of Radio France), Restoration totale is a fictional story in the form of a radio program, revolving around the difficult restoration an archive of old radio transmissions. As in their video Un projet important, H&M draw clichés and ideas from science-fiction imagery to develop a story that actually ends with the archive’s triumph over the living. In this work, the idea of a future dominated by the archival dimension symbolizes our dubious capacity to store and control the immense amount of information and data that we have at our disposal everyday. H&M belongs to a generation of artists that has found this informational surplus to be at once a useful source for research and intimidating Moloch, whose ambiguity one must eventually confront.
In “Où l’on incendie le diorama,” their first solo show in an institution, opening September 22 at La Chapelle (Frac Champagne-Ardenne, Rennes), H&M explore opportunities to entertain, move and seduce the spectator, investigating forms of illusion and spectacle. The show will take place in the rooms of an old Jesuit chapel and is conceived as a series of three lectures. In front of a trompe-l’oeil painting of a stone wall, commissioned by H&M, a guide will tell three short stories written by the artists. The first one focuses on Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851), who in H&M’s short story is first of all the inventor of the double-effect diorama (1834), which utilized a complex arrangement of paintings and lights that created the appearance of moving images and is considered to be a predecessor of cinema. The other two stories are focused on John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987), which takes place in a chapel, and the Hollywood horror movie House of Wax (1953), the first 3-D color feature produced by a major American studio. The duo constructs plots through a dialogue with the context in which the work will unfold—in this case the city of Rennes, which hosts a famous school for trompe-l’oeil—using a curious mix of high and low cultural references that run the gamut of kitsch and humor.
Hervé & Maillet will continue to explore this mix of cultural references and narrative form in the project they have planned for their solo show at Braunschweig Kunstverein (March 2012), a horror film starring Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher and mathematician. In the spirit of “swords and sandals” films and B-movie genres, H&M’s film is a humorous meditation on our future that makes use of historical, horror and science fiction jargon. If the pastiche of stories and styles that characterize H&M’s plots reminds us that the hybrid form is not exclusively contemporary, it is also true that in the time of Google and infinite archival possibilities, storytelling is being transfigured by new conditions that may very well yield a fluid form somewhere between fantasy and imposture, permeating our everyday life.