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Interview With Virginie Bobin, Editor of Composing Differences

Virginie Bobin is a curator and writer, with specific interests in experimental forms of artistic research, the role of art, artists, and art institutions in the public sphere, and education, performance, and publishing. Prior to joining Bétonsalon — Centre d'Art et de Recherche in Paris as associate curator and head of public programs in 2014, she has worked at: Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam; Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers; and Performa, New York. As an independent curator, she organized several long-term, collective projects across Europe and the United States, which publicly manifested as exhibitions, books, seminars, and workshops. She was associate editor of Manifesta Journal from 2011 to 2014.
Following ART²: An International Platform on Contemporary Art organized in April 2014 and initiated by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York with the support of the Ministry of Culture and Communication and the Institut français, Virginie Bobin was the editor of Composing Differences, the first publication of a series echoing this momentum. You can learn more here.

Dorothée Charles (D.C.): How was the project Composing Differences conceived?

Virginie Bobin (V.B.): When the French Institute and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York invited me to submit a project for the Art Squared platform, I asked myself: What urgently needs to be addressed by art professionals at this moment in time? The European art system we know, structured around public funding and the idea that culture is a public good, is slowly collapsing. How do we reorganize ourselves in order to make way for new, diverse models for the art world as a whole, for art workers, and for arts audiences? Immaterial labor is an important part of our activity. How do we account for this? More importantly, how can we, as both individuals and institutions, promote solidarity and the uninhibited sharing of knowledge and resources in a world full of competition and hierarchies? And since we create public projects (be they exhibitions, books, talks or schools), what kind of responsibility do we have towards the public? How can we ensure that the art world remains a hospitable place, where social and political concerns can be addressed through the help of imagination and conviviality?

I work amidst a young generation of curators, art historians, artists and researchers who tackle these issues in various ways, attempting to define their own conditions of work while building bridges between the arts and other fields; science, politics and education. I saw Art Squared as the perfect platform to put into practice their ideas and methodologies, and to initiate dialogue with New York-based speakers and institutions, all while raising awareness about the aforementioned questions.

D.C.: Can you explain the use of the two temporalities in the Composing Differences program? The first was an ephemeral week of lectures, workshops, talks, rehearsals, performances at MomaPS1, MoMA AV Recording Studios and e-flux in New York. The second was a publication, which will live on indefinitely.

V.B.: Composing Differences began as early as 2013 in the form of conversations with Glass Bead, Open School East, Council and the Performing Arts Forum (PAF), the project’s core participants. Associates from Open School East (a free study program for emerging artists in London) spent a few days at PAF (an arts space in the North of France where artists may work autonomously and practically for free) with writers Esther Salmona and Guillaume Fayard, for a workshop questioning the empowering effect of withdrawal and distraction on artists and art professionals. Encounters and exchanges were therefore happening long before we all met for a week in April 2014 in New York.

In New York, participants were invited to develop projects over the course of a week. Since this is a very short timeframe, it seemed important that the work and conversations developed in New York should feed into their general practice, rather than remain an isolated moment of discussion and discovery. Glass Bead worked on a radio and conference program with e-flux and MoMA AV Recording Studios, which was imagined as a prologue for their upcoming website and online journal. At MoMA PS1, Council initiated a collaboration between choreographer Noé Soulier and deaf architect Jeffrey Mansfield as part of their still ongoing program Tacet – On the diversity of hearing modes. Open School East associates met with Public School members or anarchist archive keepers. Philosopher Tristan Garcia delivered a new version of a seminar he had developed at PAF, drawing faithful listeners to three morning sessions at MoMA PS1. Events to enhance visibility and publicity were organized around these projects, culminating in a public event at MoMA PS1 on April 27, with contributions from New York-based Nova Benway (from Public School) and Triple Canopy, among others. These multifaceted projects all led to beautiful encounters and exchanges, not just between participants, but also with the different speakers with whom they interacted in New York.

The book was conceptualized as a continuation of these conversations, which were far from being concluded after our week in New York. The book took shape in very close dialogue with each of the contributors and with Marnie Slater, our wonderful copy-editor, who worked tirelessly to ensure that all of us non-native English speakers could translate our ideas in a legible way! My desire now is for the book to act as a stimulant for new conversations and to keep “composing differences”; this is why I invited curator Nova Benway (Public School) to moderate public events around questions in the book developed specifically for New York. Jan Ritsema and Perrine Bailleux will also use the book as a tool during PAF’s summer university this year. I am glad that the book can circulate and feed new offshoots of the project on its own.

My only regret so far is that, because of limited time and resources, we could not look beyond Europe and the United States in the framework of the project, and thus could not engage with some of the fantastic initiatives that are flourishing in other parts of the world. It’s to be continued…

D.C.: Who contributed to the publication, and how did you invite them to be part of the project?

V.B.: The book is structured around different types of contributions:

RESOURCE: theoretical texts by philosophers who were either inspirational to the project (such as Judith Revel, whose text, translated here in English for the first time, is an old companion of mine and lent its title to Composing Differences) or were commissioned to respond to some of the issues that arose from our conversations in New York. These include Géraldine Gourbe, who just published In the Canyon, Revise the Canon, a great book about artistic and pedagogical experimentations in California in the late sixties (Shelter Press), and Bojana Cvejić, who also just published a promising book, Choreographing Problems: Expressive Concepts in European Contemporary Dance and Performance (Palgrave McMillan), and is a co-founder of PAF. I am lucky to have engaged in numerous conversations with both women in the past, and they have certainly reshaped my interest in some of the ideas developed in Composing Differences.

ECHO: Contributions that are directly derived from activities and conversations developed in New York. Open School East’s Matt de Kersaint Giraudeau and John Hoskins continued their discussion with Public School’s Nova Benway about alternative school models and forms of instituting. Jeffrey Mansfield and Noé Soulier saw the book as an opportunity to reflect on their first meeting in New York and how their collaboration would continue in the future. Esther Salmona and Guillaume Fayard looked back on our retreat at PAF with Open School East. Their tone is more literary, poetic even, and experiments with differing levels of translation: it was important that the book navigate between different modes of writing and, thus, reading.

METHODOLOGY: Glass Bead and Council lay out the theoretical concepts and concrete modes of operation around which they organize their work. Triple Canopy (one of our speakers in NY, whose work I highly respect) divulges backstage conversations about their 2013 project Speculations (“The future is ______”). Noah Chasin reflects on various (Western) academic programs that bring together arts and social activism or issues of human rights, pondering the way large educational institutions can approach these topics.

And lastly, UNFRAMED: Intentionally unclassifiable texts that speak to our imagination or encourage speculation. In this section we find PAF founder Jan Ritsema’s provocative, almost manifesto-like text, and Perrine Bailleux’s (who had invited Tristan Garcia to PAF in 2013 to give the seminar that later travelled to New York with Composing Differences) children’s version of Garcia’s Form and Object, inspired by the well-known popular novel on philosophy, Sophie’s World. It seemed like a nice twist to conclude the book: the possibility of creating one’s own conditions for accessing and sharing knowledge, whatever form they may take.

D.C.: The word "common" has differing meanings in this book. Can you expand on these multiple uses?

V.B.: The way French philosopher Judith Revel uses “the common” has been very empowering for me in my daily work, and has shaped how Composing Differences was written. “The common(s)” have been extensively discussed in the arts world lately, because it provides an alternative to rampant privatization and neo-liberalism. To quote Revel:

“Faire-multitude is a problem that is both logical and organizational: What type of organizational system allows us to think the singularities and what it is they produce—a system that goes beyond them without overriding them; which, in fact, makes them singularly more powerful (puissantes)? The same can be said of the common: when not postulated as an a priori, a condition of possibility for the political community, but as the result of the ‘composed’ action of differences, the common must be both something more than those constitutive differences—the common is an exceedance—and anything but an erasing of differences as differences. To produce common—to common—is to create in the form of an excess, of a surplus of reality, something that allows differences as differences—all differences—to recognize themselves as a constituent power within it. It is the opposite of neutralizing differences through consensus building, or by superimposing a purely quantitative (and identity-setting) approach to diversity—quotas, systems of positive or negative discrimination, etc. The common is not the lowest common denominator but the greatest differential common: it is the name I give to the fact that what I produce increases my own agency (puissance d’agir) as well as that of others.”

The whole text is just as galvanizing.

D.C.: What are some projects you are working on right now?

V.B.: Immediately after completing Composing Differences in New York, I joined the team at Bétonsalon — Centre d'Art et de Recherche in Paris as Associate Curator and Head of Public Programs. Bétonsalon strives to develop a space in which to reflect upon society through exhibitions, workshops, performances, and more. Integrated within the Paris 7 University, it operates at the juncture of art and academic research, with the goal of questioning normalized forms of production, classification and distribution of knowledge. In 2016, Bétonsalon will open a second space dedicated to residencies and research programs, collaborating with several academic and artistic institutions in France and abroad. I am working on the set-up and future programming of that new space, in close conversation with Bétonsalon’s co-founder and director, Mélanie Bouteloup. Needless to say, the ideas developed through Composing Differences are proving extremely useful in this context, and they will continue to permeate my work in the future.