Interview with Night of Philosophy Creator Meriam Korichi

April 6, 2015 | By Dorothée Charles

A Night of Philosophy lands in New York this April, after its 2010 Paris debut and subsequent editions in London and Berlin. The 2015 program includes 62 lectures, 12 performances, and 6 art videos, all taking place from 7pm to 7am at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy and the neighboring Ukrainian Institute of America on the Upper East Side. The program is being curated by Mériam Korichi.

Korichi studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, at the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Paris and at Harvard as a Visiting Fellow. She has published several books including a biography of Andy Warhol, and has also worked as a dramaturge and stage director collaborating on the staging of the Précieuses ridicules by Molière, the Grande Magia by Eduardo de Filippo and recently the Tragedy of Hamlet at the Comédie-Française. She translated into French and adapted for the stage The Comedy of Errors and Richard III by Shakespeare; and she adapted Ubu Enchained by Alfred Jarry.

Intending to challenge the frontiers of her two areas of work, she has conceived and curated night long Philosophy events around the world: Paris in 2010, London in 2013, Berlin in 2014, and now New York this April.

Dorothée Charles (D.C.): The first edition took place in Paris in 2010. What was the origin of the Night of Philosophy?

Mériam Korichi (M.K.): Monique Canto-Sperber, the director of the Ecole Normale Supérieure at the time, wanted to organize an original evening event that celebrated academic philosophy. She asked me to take charge of the project because I am both a philosopher and a theater director. So I invented a special format for a nocturnal event, Une Nuit de la philosophie. It lasts all night and takes the academics out of the universities. It gives an outside perspective on their discipline and practice, inviting participants to confront another temporality and another kind of performance. I wanted to question the connection between philosophy and art from the perspective of performance.

D.C.: This is the fifth edition of A Night of Philosophy, a program that reinvents itself each year. Why New York City?

M.K.: What more symbolic, more central Western city could we choose to put performance into perspective today? It is a sort of homage to John Cage and to his piece Theater Piece No. 1, also a remembrance of how Merce Cunningham simultaneously occupied multiple stages, organizing a perceptual overflow, the impossibility of seeing everything, while the audience experienced the feeling of being in the center of overabundant activity. There is also no doubt an inspiration taken from Andy Warhol and his way of transforming quantity in a profusion of formal propositions. I am, in fact, specifically referencing a “Warholian” spirit - I wrote a biography of him. Finally, there is the desire to question and to reverse the relationship between art and philosophy as analyzed by Joseph Kosuth in his seminal essay Art After Philosophy (1969). I realized that I was trying to create “Philosophy After Art”, and since then, I have been trying to develop this idea.

D.C.: How were the philosophers selected?

M.K.: Since the event is conceived as a happening and not at as a colloquium, it is not a selection in the academic sense but rather a sample. The guiding question is the following one: what are academic philosophers working on in universities? Each academic philosopher has the right to answer this question. Thus each philosopher is free to choose the subject of his/her presentation.

D.C.: Which artists have been invited to the New York edition?

M.K.: I came to New York for two intensive sessions of work, one in September and one in January-February. These "immersive sessions" aimed to take the pulse of the city, in order to find artists to collaborate with and thus reflect an aspect of the contemporary New York art scene. In September, I met Eve Bailey, David Colosi, Julien Bismuth, all artists living and working in New York. I presented the project to them, and we discussed the possibility of site specific performances. When you meet someone you can work with, you know it. In this respect, it is like what Nietzsche said about taste, it is "the Yes and the No of the palate". When I returned to Paris last October, I had also the idea of a performance evoking the philosophical origin of the environmentalist and Occupy movements. And then I met Stephane Thidet who had a piece on show at the Palais de Tokyo. I told him about the project and he told me about his unfolding sound project: "From Walden to Space", a hybridization of Walden by Thoreau and the first reactions of mankind seeing the Earth from the space, in the Mercury Seven space capsule. Stephane told me that he wanted to create the sound performance in a scale 1 wood replica of the historic space capsule. And here we are, Stephane Thidet will be performing all night in his capsule, currently being built in Brooklyn... In January, when I came back, I realized that I had many types of performing artists, but no one exclusively doing performance art. So I looked for performance art on the New York scene, and I happened to see a performance by Clifford Owens at the Smack Mellon Gallery, and there again, it was "the Yes and No of the palate"... Also, when I heard that the event would not only occupy the Cultural Services of the French Embassy but also the adjacent building, the Ukrainian Institute of America, I was struck by a fascinating parallel: in 2012, I had rewritten The Fixer, a novel by New York writer Bernard Malamud, as a melodrama (for two voices, with piano improvisations). It follows a Jew in Kiev in 1911, reader of Spinoza and subjected to persecution... The coincidence was too fantastic not to have it revived here in New York at the Ukrainian Institute of America under the title of Spinoza in Kiev, with the great classical pianist and composer Karol Beffa accompanying the reading of two actresses, like a recital... Well, that's a few examples; there are twelve performances and each of them has its special story.

D.C.: How is the night orchestrated?

M.K.: The night is organized according to a very tight schedule, with the essential help of volunteers who will play the role of stage managers, like in theater. Each philosopher is given a 30-minute timeframe for his/her conference, which itself cannot last more than 20 minutes. The timing is very strict. Rhythm is important.

D.C.: The profusion of events throughout the night pulls philosophy away from its usual settings. Does each "Night" displace philosophy?

M.K.: Yes, each edition suspended some preconceived idea. There is also an important core element of philosophy experienced in the event thanks to the suspension of a daily time and routine that leaves no room for “useless” thinking. It’s the same context as Plato’s Banquet. I remember reactions from certain philosophers invited to previous editions, waiting for their performance in the dead of night, towards 3 or 4 in the morning. I remember their puzzlement at seeing such a large audience in the middle of the night, while “the university lecture halls are empty”… That puzzlement is stimulating.

D.C.: What is the role of the audience during the event? 

M.K.: The role of the public is central, quantitatively and qualitatively. The entirety of the program is there to respond to, or to provoke, the profusion of people who become the center of the event.

D.C.: Do the "Nights" and their ephemeral qualities have different echoes depending on their location?

M.K.: Each event resembles the city where it is happening, or at least, I endeavor to make it so.

Interview translated by Naomi Lake

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