Performing in a Palatial Parisian Playground
Cédric Fauq delves into the intricacies of our ecosystem through antibodies, Grace Jones and lockdown.
Embarking on a new adventure at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, Cédric Fauq (b. Evry, 1992) is the youngest curator of Europe’s largest centre for temporary exhibitions of contemporary art. Appointed by the institution’s new President, Emma Lavigne, Cédric returned to France earlier this year from the UK, where he has been based for the last five years. Previously Curator at Nottingham Contemporary, Cédric worked on major shows including ‘Sung Tieu: In Cold Print’ and ‘Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance’ as well as performances with artists Lou Lou Sainsbury, Okwui Okpokwasili and Steffani Jemison. In addition to institutional projects, Cédric has contributed extensive essays to Mousse Magazine and recently devised exhibitions for galleries such as Nir Altman, Munich and Sophie Tappeiner, Vienna. Prior to this, Cédric was co-director of clearview, a project space in London, and from 2017-18, was a member of the Baltic Triennial XIII curatorial team.
On a sunny, August morning, Fauq and I met for a conversation on the Palais de Tokyo roof terrace. We discussed his return to France, what initially brought him to contemporary art and his ongoing commitment to disrupting representation in arts, ethics and museums.
His forthcoming projects include an exhibition responding to the lockdown experience and the adoption of social distancing called Antibodies and an exhibition thinking about performance, race and gender through Grace Jones.
How has the move to Paris from Nottingham been?
Quite troubled. I was meant to move to Paris in late March, but obviously that was not possible. The whole move was delayed, and I did not get the chance to say goodbye properly.
Did you jump straight into your new role as curator at the Palais de Tokyo, or was there any kind of break?
I started at Palais de Tokyo from the first of April. So for the first month and a half, two months, it was remote working, which was quite interesting for me because I was able to focus on what I wanted to propose and really take the time to think about what it meant to work for such an institution, especially in relation to everything that was and is still happening. So yeah, the pause was actually quite fruitful for me – to not directly dive into the institutional machine – but actually have a bit of distance from it beforehand.
As the museum closed its physical doors, were there any changes to your role as a curator?
Well, I think that we are dealing with it differently, ecologically speaking. Our job entails lots of travelling which is not possible for the foreseeable future in the way it was before. So, the method you encounter people and artists is definitely changing. But, I think maybe that slowness is one of the interesting things that is happening. I mean, I’m saying that, and at the same time the first project I’m working on for Palais, that is emerging from the COVID-19 situation, will have been conceived in less than six months, which is very fast. So, it’s a mix of those two things. I think institutions were asked to be very responsive, in relation to spaces closing down, by sharing content and supporting artists through alternative avenues rather than presenting works in physical spaces. So, there are definitely many challenges for curators.
Was there pressure to be involved with online projects?
Not here. I understand the urge to address or respond to the crisis, or to do something so that activity does not stop all of a sudden, but at Palais de Tokyo we didn’t feel any pressure at all to produce such content. Instead, what we are coming up with is an exhibition that is going to open in October, ‘Antibodies’. And it’s not only an exhibition: there is also an online platform that we have devised as a delocalised site of the exhibition. There will be texts, videos, and more.
Can you tell me more about the name of the exhibition and where that came from? Was that directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Yeah, like many peers and institutions, the whole programme schedule was disrupted. Specifically, one exhibition, the carte blanche to Anne Imhof, had to be postponed. We quickly had to consider what was going to happen instead. As we were entertaining discussions with the curatorial team, we thought: okay, let’s maybe think about a project that is directly responding to what we are living through in this moment. It was very interesting for me to arrive and be able to already activate a certain methodology and way of working and thinking, for a show that would open in such a rush, six months later – that never happens in an institution. You never have that kind of reactivity.
Yes, of course.
So, the main ambition was to think about distance and touch on both a poetic and political level. When it comes to the title, I think that what we were interested in was the kind of language that was used by politicians in relation to the crisis, which was very martial. The French President kept saying that “we are at war” with the virus. It was interesting to look at the way military vocabulary was used to justify the closing of the borders and the lockdown situation. Also, the fact that people in France had to get paperwork filled in to be able to go outside. The crisis, ‘état d’urgence’ [state of emergency], was directly projected onto people’s bodies, and that vocabulary was also used to speak about our immune systems and how we had to protect ourselves from other people. So, that is what inspired the title. Obviously, it has a double meaning, I mean, you can see antibodies as how our bodies are actually reacting to “foreign bodies”. But the way antibodies are activated can also be read as a learning process, something tender, like a big hug. So we were interested in that double way of reading it: the fact that antibodies can be seen as positive and negative.
In this exhibition, there are seven curatorial colleagues working together, which reminds me of something like a biennale, where multiple curators unite semi-autonomously to realise an overall outlook or theme. What are the benefits and obstacles of working with that approach?
For me, it was interesting because the team has been working together for quite some time (they actually did curate a Biennale in Lyon last year). We’ve had two new people joining the setup at the same time earlier this year (François Piron and myself), and I saw it as a chance to interact with my colleagues, understand how they work, and also introduce my ways of working and thinking. As I have been saying, it’s the fact that we were not able to be together in the same space that pushed us to work collaboratively. Obviously, there are things we don’t agree on, different points of view, but hopefully that’s what is going to nurture the show and what it is trying to say. I always tend to go against the idea that group shows are meant to be in some kind of harmony or work well in their composition; I think of them as something more aggressive, where tensions between works can be felt, not only analogies.
Will you be working with artists that you already have relationships with as well as artists that you haven’t worked with before?
Most of the artists that I invited to show work in ‘Antibodies’ are artists that I was in touch with previously. For instance, I just wrote a text on Carolyn Lazard’s practice. The thing is, we did not have the time to really do research; we had to rely on practices that we knew and people that we had relationships with. Some artists are producing new works for the show, so they had to be very responsive, and we already had to have an idea of how they work. The only artist that I did not know so much about is the experimental video-maker Len Lye, who is the only non-living artist in the show. His work is directly responding to the title ‘Antibodies’. It’s an animation called ‘Tusavala’ (1929), which depicts the antibody process.
I wanted to segue and ask a more general question: what initially brought you to contemporary art? Was there a defining moment?
Yes, there was! I was 16 years’ old and studying mostly literature at the time, and a friend of mine called Mukashyaka Nsengimana suggested that we visit a contemporary arts festival. I was living in Toulouse and it was a one of a kind manifestation called Le Printemps de Septembre à Toulouse, which took place all across the city. It recently moved to a biennial format, but at the time it was taking place every year. Quite often, the artistic director would change. For two years in a row, it was Christian Bernard (in 2008 and 2009), who used to work at the Villa Arson and is the founding director of MAMCO in Geneva. I didn’t know anything about contemporary art or what curating was, but I was blown away by the festival, it had a huge impact on me. I never had a desire to be an artist myself. I was interested in the role of the person that put everything together and wove that narrative around the works.
Were there any standout individual artworks that caught your attention?
Yes, there were some huge sculptures by Sylvie Fleury near La Garonne and a great video work by Cyprien Gaillard. I have vivid memories of works by Laurent Faulon and Delphine Reist too. All of it was very visceral, I specifically remember Faulon’s tree trunk covered with Vaseline in ‘Désirons sans fin (Let’s desire endlessly)’, 2008. I was like, what is this! Then, I got completely obsessed with Joseph Beuys and Matthew Barney because of their use of Vaseline as a material.
While enjoying your recent essay for Mousse magazine that looked comparatively at the work of Abbas Zahedi, Cameron Rowland, Carolyn Lazard and Ima Abasi-Okon, I came across two terms I had not previously seen; ‘transactionality’ and ‘unworlding’. I was wondering if you could elaborate on these ideas?
Yes, what I have been trying to do in my work, through my research and working with artists, is to undo the way blackness has been dealt with in exhibitions. So, that essay is directly related to another one that I previously published in Mousse called ‘Curating for the Age of Blackness’ (2019). In focusing on those four artists, I wanted to delve into the strategies that they put in place, which somehow embody what I was trying to say in that previous text where I spoke about the idea of unnaming, for instance, and how to disrupt the idea of representation. Transactionality is a useful concept to qualify artworks that are always pointing at something other than themselves, and that also inscribe themselves in some kind of exchange, while speaking or referring to that interchange itself, or the process of the exchange. So that’s why I was not using the term transaction or transactional but ‘transactionality’, to emphasise that reflexivity. It’s a transactional process that is thinking of the transaction itself. I have a background in philosophy, so I’ve always liked to play with concepts and words in general, and I think it’s often a useful tool to speak about art, if it doesn’t go too far. ‘Unworlding’, on the other hand, is very much related to this idea that if our world and the way we live today is based on capitalism and slavery, can we refute or refuse that world? And how can we unmake it? I consider transactionality and unworlding as strategies that aim to enact politics of refusal. Many artists, curators and writers are thinking along those lines. I’m not the first one to use those terms; I’ve used them specifically to analyse those practices, but unworlding also has literary routes. Transactionality sounds like an economic term, but to use it in a more poetic way is interesting, I think.
Mentioning your use of those terms to lay the foundation for future thinking, I was going to ask if you saw essay writing for publications as informing your practice or vice versa? Do you believe these ventures could form the foundation of a future exhibition?
Yeah, definitely. It’s interesting to think about that question because, quite often, as curators we write in response to a show. I’m one of those curators who has a long-standing commitment to specific threads of thoughts. But, I don’t believe in the idea that there is a solution to what I’m trying to do. I actually like to occupy the very crux of the paradox of working with contemporary arts, which is very violent. It is an interesting thing to me to think about that contrast and try to battle with this idea of representation which is surrounding the art world. For me, it’s very much a political question. It’s also asking how democracy is functioning based on a certain idea of representation and representativity. At this stage, I don’t know what’s going to be the next step in relation to my writing, but it’s definitely a useful tool for the development of my own practice and, hopefully, for the artists I work with as well. I do hope it enables them to look at their works differently, and create affinities with other people.
As we know, public institutions and museums are in very troubling times, many will not reopen or are becoming bankrupt. Many staff have been laid off, often BAME staff and lower-paid or part-time staff are most likely to be at risk. I know you’ve been critical of the Anglo-Saxon museum model and also about how notions of intersectionality and identity projects are appropriated and manipulated. I wonder if you could expand on that?
Yeah, I mean, I don’t have a solution. It’s just interesting to see how the UK compares to France, who have their own problems in relation to this idea of colorblindness and in not having the adequate? tools at all to deal with identity and race. We don’t have statistics here [in France]. On the other hand, one thing that really struck me at my arrival to the UK, was when I started to study at the Royal College of Art, I was asked to tick my sexual orientation and ethnicity. I do think that this can have some value, specifically to address inequality, and then put in place devices and programmes to change that. But in the arts, it became a bit of a trope that didn’t do any good to programming or what’s being presented in museums. I think it actually replicated a certain way of dealing with identity that is quite violent. It’s also questioning who is looking at that information, often exoticising, fetishising and objectifying certain bodies and identities. Historically speaking, there’s definitely work to be done – to go back to certain generations of artists of colour, queer artists and women artists – and that’s something I’ve also tried to reflect on in a project, ‘Still I Rise’, I also believe that we need to undo the way we think, speak about and work with artists that we say are part of a so-called minority. I mean, we need to question identity politics and the language around them, as well as this idea of representation. It’s trying to break that down, to understand how things could be done differently. And I think contemporary art is the perfect kind of place to do that work. So, it’s not so much of a problem related to Anglo-Saxonism, I think it is very much embedded into western culture. France is also problematic here. We just need to be always inventing, always questioning.
Alongside your role as Curator at Palais de Tokyo, are you able to lead projects independently?
Yes, I am able to, under certain circumstances. Obviously, my main job is here and I want to dedicate my time and attention to that the most. But I’m often asked to write for other exhibitions and catalogues, which I often say yes to, when it makes sense to me. There are certainly things I cannot do. It’s case by case. I’m not going to be able to put on a show for another institution for instance, unless it’s a partnership. Commercial galleries are also a tricky subject because of potential conflicts of interest, although Palais de Tokyo isn’t a collecting institution.
At Nottingham Contemporary you curated a show dedicated to Grace Jones, ‘Grace Before Jones: Camera, Disco, Studio’, and it is opening very soon. It sounds really exciting and I’m very much looking forward to the exhibition. Can you tell me about what drew you to Grace Jones as a figure?
If I wasn’t obsessed with her before, I am now! My own research revolves around gender, performance and race, and I was trying to think of a way to deal with those issues while also bringing them to a certain audience. Grace Jones seemed to be perfect for that. Also, because of her relationships with artists, she evolved in so many different spheres: music, fashion, cinema, advertising. The problems that making such a show posed to me were also very interesting. It was not an easy one because we are not the Victoria and Albert Museum, so it’s not going to be a show with tons of Grace Jones costumes and lots of photographs of her. What I was trying to do, and hopefully it’s going to work, is to use her as a carrier, exploring the problems that are surrounding her image and how it was manipulated. The show goes well beyond her persona, it’s not only about Grace Jones. It’s more of a show that is thought through her and with her rather than about her.
That’s what I wanted to ask. So, I assume not all of the works in the show directly reference Grace Jones, but the works in the show reference the ideas that Grace Jones conjures?
Yeah. So for instance, there’s a whole reflection on black image making. To me, there is a relationship to the camera that ought to be questioned in regard to colonialism: as much as the fire gun was used to oppress colonised people, the camera was as well. There is also the whole relationship between sculpture and fashion, for instance, which I am very interested in; how Azzedine Alaïa was actually trained as a sculptor. It’s an experiment in many ways, but I really believe in the project, and I think it is going to have the potential to touch people that usually don’t go to contemporary art exhibitions. It will hopefully be fun to experience as a show, but what I am trying to do is prompt people to come out of the exhibition with more questions in their head about Grace herself.
Was there any concern with mounting an exhibition associated with one monumental figure? Did you want to have a dialogue with Grace Jones herself?
Yes, I spoke to her once about the project. But the show is not a biographical exhibition; there is a book and movie already doing that. I was thinking about what more an exhibition could bring. It is about collaborations with people, but also trying to add up certain aspects of her self and question the idea of identity. It has an interesting relationship with identity politics because she completely refuses that herself, and so, I like to say that there are many Grace Joneses.
I just have one final question for you. A lot of DATEAGLE ART’S readers are young artists and they have seen a lot of opportunities disappear because of the COVID-19 pandemic, from degree shows being cancelled to spaces not being available to hire. Would you recommend self-organized exhibitions as a way of developing their practice and getting attention and interest from curators?
Yes, I mean it is definitely an important tool. I think to not rely entirely on the institutional landscape is very important. It is interesting for me to speak about this because, not so long ago, I was co-running a project space in North London ([clearview (2016-18)]). So, the jump has been quite dramatic from that to Palais de Tokyo today. But, it’s often the most interesting projects that are happening in the shadows, with no money. To me, there needs to be a double practice which advocates for fair pay, fair rights and fair treatment from institutions and demands better distribution of resources. Organise yourself to be able to get that money from places such as Arts Council England and learn from each other to be successful in getting grants and residencies. There are also lots of young and talented curators out there that are waiting to meet artists to start their career. When I was just starting, I was always in studios. That helped me shape my practice a lot, and I’m definitely growing with the artists I started to work with a few years back. Although I am already pigeonholed in a certain way, I am hoping to be able to surprise people with what I am going to do at the Palais de Tokyo.
Words by Laurie Barron