Echomuseum

Olivier Marboeuf

  • U+1F453-001

    Glasses

  • NOUVEAU A BRÉTIGNY SÉLECT OPTIQUE 👓

    Logotype

  • w.n.

    Print, 2,6 × 6,3 cm

  • Brétigny Notre Ville, p. 22

    05.1978

A dual memory. Angélique Buisson points it out to us right away, like a warning that does not reveal its whole meaning. Like a kind of enigma. What she tells us of her experience in Brétigny is marked by a dual memory. In order to grasp it, we must make our way in and across the shapes that she places before our eyes, following a practice that brings together, in no hierarchical order, artworks, documents, artifacts and poetics – or, to put it differently, proof and invention, the facts and the circulation of legends.[1] A fairly horizontal set-up where meaning is free to move around and spread by capillarity. A crime scene where all the elements (weapons and protagonists) are there, but require a careful investigation in order to reconstruct what happened.

To this end, we must choose a purchase and a starting point, a camp and a reader’s head, in other words a spatio-temporal vehicle. In Western museography, it has been customary to take objects from various places and arrange them like the faithful reciters of a “ventriloquized” history that brooks no detractor. This order of things was meant to frantically fill up the gaps and absences among the artifacts, documents and images, creating the paved continuum of history in the large sense.

But as we know, everything about this particular history is dual, and even the objects selected by the author from a private collection are excessively caught up in this duality syndrome. Occasionally they become quite unreadable, their normal usage being hidden behind new uses, citations, and the echo of war matériel. The prize certainly goes to the pen made from two bullets welded together at the base, a loud metaphor of the desire to inscribe the history of violence in every available space. Hard to tell whether that history is triumphant or deeply melancholic.

However, the objects are not the only ones to be endowed with a narrative function: we must also consider how Buisson’s film installation catches the clumsy manipulations of the pieces in the collection. Here something takes place, something is revealed, a story is literally unpacked. While echomuseums tend to favor scenes from popular culture rather than isolated objects, their function is always limited to the amplification of the use value of the artifacts through their spatial distribution and relation to a body that is in turn frozen and determined by a gesture, a function, or a dress code.

In this investigation at the heart of dual memory, let us rather focus on bodies and on what they tell us beyond the narrative itself, in their way of speaking and existing with and within what they say. Witnesses should not be thought of as mere conveyors of information, but as entities that affect and are in turn affected by their own utterances. Let us think of bodies as an echomuseum, a space for the inscription of a constantly overflowing living archive. The memory that interests us is a trajectory that revisits the past, not in order to repeat it but to replay it in a spiraling movement that takes us to the heart of a diabolic echo chamber – to use the musical metaphor coined by the Nigerian theoretician Louis Chude-Sokei.[2]

This memory will sound differently then depending on the environment in which the music is played. For if we decide to consider the body as the echo chamber of a return of history, it must be configured dually, i.e. according to a dual nature and rule. The constituted body is a singular body. On the one hand, we have a conceptual and hard body that produces an institutional history. On the other, we have an affected body that transduces[3] a perceptible and fragmentary narrative to another body. The first body, be it the State or one of its representations – in this case, a military body – works to produce a reified and echo-less collective memory, whose sonorities are absorbed and arranged in the cluster of a political injunction. The second, singular body that interests us here diffracts signs and sounds that are not quite controlled, and thereby tells us something about the spectral history that haunts its flesh and affects. However, this is not about rendering a private memory sacred, but about hearing and observing, like a viral force, living matter, what it produces on the surface of the uttering body and in the folds of the tongue that is attempting to articulate it. We are on the lookout for what this unpoliced memory is not telling us, but which still appears on the margins.

Buisson’s proposal adds one further loop to the spiral by connecting us to private witnesses and narrators that are, however, affected by and caught in the nets of a militarized space; the perceptible memory of war in one case, the framework of military training in the other. These are bodies and we perceive their flight between the civil and military dimensions, subjectivity and the loaded instruments of legal violence.

Among the different materials and transmission situations that the artist chooses to bring together, let us consider these two mutually echoing groups that she places in dialogue, viz., former conscripts of the Algerian War and young people who are part of the French Voluntary Military Service. In both cases, beyond appearances, the intention remains to summon young bodies that have experienced past and present violence.

In the first, rather simple piece, veterans of the Algerian War describe the peculiar situation of a conflict, which, by remaining unnamed, is suspended in a status that is at once absurd, distressing, and undecided. In their effort to recall, these old men are transported back into their past body as they share a narrative regulated by the feeling of a lost youth whose fresh glow and most basic emotions they try to recapture, the surprise before a desert horizon, sudden fear, or deep boredom. Their status as conscripts is highly significant, as it composes a military body of weak intensity, in transition, casting a distant look on the war and focusing not only on the enemy but also on the foreign environment where it has been transported. This will not shield these men, absolutely unprepared for such extreme experiences, from the horrors of war. Their narratives still let transpire the indecisiveness of a body that is at once caught in a framework and lost in a violent and deadly space.

They unexpectedly echo their interviewers, the young members of the French Voluntary Military Service (SMV) based in Brétigny, who are at once confined and adrift in the waiting room of a life damaged before it has even started. The SMV is a military vocational integration system aimed at young people in great difficulty who want to pick themselves up through strict training and a rigid framework, according to the definition of this last-resort facility. In a way, this remediation space transforms the violent and troubled body of a dangerous and unproductive youth into a tool regulated by military order and imagery. Although the aim of the training is not to turn these young volunteers into soldiers, it does plunge them into the army’s multiple rituals, in a symbolic journey to a ghost nation in lieu of policies for freeing them.

In order to grasp the degree to which we can see in this understated system a sounding board of history, it is worth pointing out that the SMV is a recent mainland version of the Adapted Military Service (SMA) created in 1961 in Overseas France. This consideration helps us trace, if need be, the borders of the inner and ghostly empire of France’s disadvantaged urban areas, with their gamut of exceptional systems for the administration of the body and space – an echo of colonial times. Unsurprisingly, among the young volunteers filmed by Buisson, we find a vast majority of French nationals issued from postcolonial immigration, whose “ghetto” accent is in itself a sedimented form of the history of French minorities.

The artist offers them an alternative memory space. In pairs, they unpack the pieces of a private collection of war-related objects. A crucifix decorated with bullets, an engraved flask, a set of knives, and a pen that turn ammunition into something more than decoration – a form of polysemic camouflage that redoubles the violence. The camera is placed above them, tightly framing an operating table where relics and other inert bodies infused with meaning and history are being exhumed. It is an autopsy of animistic tokens. The clever framing shows only the four hands of the protagonists as they manipulate the parcels. This show-and-tell reminds us of the colonial album that is paged through in Filipa César’s film The Embassy (2011), where the double meaning oscillates between what the historical artifact inevitably says and the point of view of the witness who, being all too savvy about what is going on outside the frame, cannot help saturating their viewing experience with a personal narrative. In the scenes shot by Buisson in Brétigny, something different is at stake. It is rather the protagonists’ ignorance that allows the narrative to insinuate itself, unsteadily, between word and object.

The volunteers’ hands begin by unpacking the items; a moment that reminds us of the incongruity of the return of history, loaded with the circumstances of its own appearance and replayed in a new light. Later on, the same hands turn the items over, inspect their surface and stitching, looking for signs, secret passages, and hidden meanings. As suggested by the German filmmaker Harun Farocki, you have to go round and round to see what images are hiding behind the obvious. You need to dig beneath the surface of their dazzling sheen, experience their dark side and vertiginous depth. The same goes for these objects of memory, whose meaning amounts to a suspended moment and will be revealed in the course of a tentative conversation during which these young amateur archeologists with their fragile knowledge negotiate various versions of the events.

There the image of a helmet engraved on a knife, a weapon featuring a crescent, fractured geographies… here an inscription, the confusion of a date, or the sleeve of a military uniform, entering the frame. The device is understated yet powerful because of the items it shows us on the margins. Just like the volunteers’ tentative words, unfolding a different political landscape around this ceremony of perusal of war instruments, their intrusions into the frame function as negative hands pressed against the wall of national history. They remind us of a diversity that hasn’t been talked about enough and sacrifices that have been forever underestimated. The present bodies echo the absent ones that did not make it into the great national narrative; it is unsettling to find their doppelgängers as they rummage through the vestiges of the past.

To the careful listener and the attentive observer, more than the long accounts of the war, it is something else that generates a dual memory in the whirlwind of echoes on the surface of a table. A living memory pierced by forgetfulness, still looking for its own place. And body.

Olivier Marboeuf, June 2018.

 

Notes

[1] I talked about how contemporary artists relate to artifacts and relics in my 2015 lecture Le faussaire, l’amateur et le braconnier (The Forger, the Amateur and the Poacher) at Frac Besançon, in conversation with Jean-Charles Hue and Benoît Maire. http://www.pointligneplan.com/document/faussaire-lamateur-braconnier/
[2] Louis Chude-Sokei, “Dr. Satan’s Echo Chamber,” Chimurenga Magazine 1997.
[3] I am borrowing the notion of transduction from the field of genetics to describe the way in which a narrative is shared among agents as if it were a piece of the narrator’s DNA, carried by a viral vector that affects it and is in turn affected by it. Transduction is also a form of translation that considers the effects of orality on the narrative. This method is different from algorithmic systems of transmission in that it emphasizes the sense and sensitivity effects produced by the body of the speaker.