Following from my review, published in S No.4, of Ceci tuera cela by Annie Le Brun and Juri Armanda, I have translated the following recent interview with Annie Le Brun, conducted by Bertrand Burgalat for the magazine, Technikart (No.256, February 2022).
Some of the observations Annie Le Brun makes in the interview about her surrealist friend and collaborator, Toyen, might equally be applied to herself: “Never giving up on her revolt or her dreams, she has never allowed herself to be held back by anything that confines one to gender, role, ideology…”
As I have stated in my review of Ceci tuera cela: “Although Annie Le Brun has long distanced herself from the surrealist movement, in whatever form it might be conceived today, I think hers remains one of the most powerful and truly surrealist voices, with an incisively critical verve and originality, one that deserves to be more widely heeded…”. However, it is regrettable that only two of her books are available in English translation, Sade: A Sudden Abyss and The Reality Overload.
ANNIE LE BRUN: “THE ILLUSION OF A LIMITLESS FREEDOM…”
What has been brought about by the encounter of luxury with contemporary art, and of algorithms with what you call the ‘dictatorship of visibility’?
Annie Le Brun: Whether we like it or not, nothing now exists other than what is visible. The Internet has succeeded in establishing this ‘dictatorship of visibility’, in which an image exists less by its content than by the number of times it has been seen – particularly as the immateriality of the digital image allows us to repress this kind of onslaught. This is one of the reasons why, in our analysis of this unprecedented phenomenon, Ceci tuera cela, Juri Armanda and I talk about ‘smart colonisation’ which, through a constant deluge of images, gives the illusion of a limitless freedom, whereas we are trapped in a system where the merging of profit and surveillance leads to the commodification of everything. From this point of view, it is certain that the collusion of contemporary art, the luxury industries, and algorithms, which appeared in the 1990s with the financialisation of the economy, has considerably helped to establish this first dictatorship without a dictator. Can this be doubted when, from one country to another multinationals set up the same franchises with the same products, the equivalent similarly applies to cultural investment, multiplying the same exhibitions of the same artists all over the world, making each of us a spectator dazed by the violence of money working to liquidate our sensitive night? Better still, to make us participate in the great spectacle of the transformation of art into merchandise and of merchandise into art. In Paris, most of the major exhibitions are linked to the luxury industry, right down to the themes presented. The department stores themselves are becoming museums without artworks, such as the old Colette boutique, visited on Sundays like the viewing platforms at Orly in 1960. Are we condemned to what you call ‘airport beauty’? Unfortunately, it seems so. And this is even proof that Capital, always in search of new markets, is increasingly attacking what is supposed to have no price – starting with beauty, which has always been its symbol and which the fashion and luxury industries are still subjugating, through an ‘aestheticisation of the world’ that has become one of the driving forces of its frantic commodification. Each airport, home to the same conglomerate of the most profitable brands, is an exemplary concentration of this enterprise of aesthetic formatting. Moreover, we’re far from seeing that this is a system aimed at making people forget about exactions and problems and, equally, at replacing what is being definitively destroyed or deteriorated with a growing number of products and services, to the satisfaction of the majority – in order to impose the international lie of a synthetic beauty that annihilates any trace of singularity.
For a long time, luxury being aimed at the rich, there was a form of redistribution. Now it is targeted at the poor, and not only through perfumes and cosmetics.
This is because, to continue destroying, distorting, and eradicating what has no price, it’s necessary to go through this managed falsification of beings and things, places and individuals. The tourist industry, like plastic surgery, is part of this same cosmeticisation of the world, which redoubles its disfigurement. From botoxed lips to the gentrification of cities, nothing exists other than to be what never was, teaching us to live in ersatz ways so as to accustom ourselves to the ersatz life of a present without presence. If there is a ‘trickle down’, it is in this general ugliness that runs through our societies from top to bottom; we no longer buy products, but the fraudulent value attributed to them by the image. In this respect, the L’Oréal advertisement – “I’m worth it” – is genius, in that it constantly reiterates the acceptance of Capital’s objective: the intrusion of money into self-image. And this swindle impacts upon the poorest, through the racket of influencers who make a fortune selling images of false social markers and identity crutches. One thinks, of course, of the wretched Vuitton bags, the original ugliness of which hardly differs from the slightly more ‘cheap’ ugliness of their innumerable copies, which are equally part of the same unprecedented pollution that is inseparable from this ‘mass luxury’. The novelty is in this uglification of the world through its deceitful aestheticisation, which everyone is called upon to obey in accordance with the different ‘lifestyles’ that Capital ceaselessly harasses us with.
With the deployment of the Metaverse, prized by Zuckerberg, we will spend even more of our lives ‘in’ our screens, fine-tuning our digital forms, dressing up our ‘avatars’… An absolute horror for you?
Not horror, but it’s certainly a cynical plan, through which our current space is now threatened by a troubling technological alternative. It is, in fact, a degree never reached by Capital in its dynamic of exploitation, since the project is to relocate the space of our lives from their organic environment to the artificiality of an image constructed from A to Z. This is not in any sense a naive way of escaping polluted nature to reach the ‘pure’ space of the image. Nor is it the idea of a ‘dream’ house in which we can live an ideal parallel life, but a serious proposition, based on the already well-established alliance of Capital and technology to generate a new socio-economic space. This is how, these days, the American rapper Snoop Dogg, in collaboration with the platform The Sandbox, launched his own Metaverse, and of course, immediately afterwards, someone decided to buy a virtual plot of land next to the virtual house where the virtual version of Snoop Dogg lives. The land was sold in NFTs for $450,000! Despite appearances, this is hardly a game of Monopoly! Rather, this is proof that the virtuality of Metaverse now has its own means of authentication, which gives it real economic quality and value: one must pay a lot of money to access this space within the image. But isn’t it crazy to spend so much money on plots of land that don’t exist? Is this a new form of economy, this investment in what doesn’t exist? We shouldn’t forget that the first digital artwork – the original of which doesn’t exist – was recently bought at auction for 70 million euros in NFTs and thus ranked third among the most expensive by a living artist. When everything can become an image, even the space we try to live in, we have definitely entered the dystopian process of a screen-world. We should recall ‘pixel tracking’, this empty digital image, which is used solely for surveillance. This is because, in contrast to this miniature image forbidden to the imagination, there is now the Metaverse which, as an augmented virtual reality, is the technological promise that we can move our existences into the image of space. It is no longer life in space but life in the image of space. But what are the advantages? Beyond the false assurance of finally possessing the ‘personalised space’ that Capital continually sells to us, a question arises: in this image of space, what is left of the breathable air which, because of its transparency, cannot be subjected to the processes of visualisation? A strange, programmed asphyxiation that is becoming the ideal lifestyle that can be bought at a premium price.
In Ceci tuera cela, you talk about the relentlessness of the stars of contemporary art in attacking the very idea of the original. They are no less pernickety about copyright. What do you think of NFTs?
The recent advent of ‘digital art’, consecrated by this very auction of a work reduced – it must be stressed – to the assembly of 5,000 interchangeable images, is the event that has established the definitive equivalence of the image and money. Its record price for a living artist speaks volumes about the seriousness of the matter, made possible thanks to the ‘blockchain’, a new technology for authenticating cryptocurrencies and the origin of NFTs. Namely, these ‘non-fungible tokens’ which are, for digital objects, the equivalent of title deeds. This changes everything. This is because it reverses the thesis developed by Walter Benjamin in 1936, in The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility, according to which technology destroys the aura of the original work of art that it reproduces. Today, rather, it is technology that produces the original, insofar as, thanks to the transaction by NFTs, provided by the blockchain, any digitised image can be converted into an original. A complete reversal, through which the aura of the original becomes the aura of money. In this respect, we can measure the pedagogical role of so-called contemporary art, when, for years, its stars (from Kapoor to Banksy to Damien Hirst) have systematically worked on annihilating both the original itself and the notion of materiality that was its essence. Such is the meaning of the mock-destruction of Girl with Balloon, at the very location where it was put up for sale, after a shredding mechanism installed in the painting’s frame was triggered by the start of the auction, which Banksy, on 5th October 2018, made the whole world witness. The scene immediately went viral. And if the representatives of Sotheby’s, like the art critics, immediately declare that, as a result, Banksy has not destroyed a work but has created a new one – which, incidentally, was acquired for twice the initial estimate – it’s obvious that this isn’t the case at all. It’s about the transformation of an image from before the dictatorship of visibility into its ghost, now defined exclusively by the number of times it is viewed – beginning with those of the three million spectators who were witness-participants in this digital dismemberment of the image, considered to be the nec plus ultra of contemporary art. Indeed, there is not a single prominent artist who has not proposed the dematerialisation of the image – including, recently, Cattelan’s banana – which immediately went viral and was sold for 120,000 euros before it was even eaten, constituting a high point. Finally, I would stress that each of these ‘artistic events’ is inseparable from its conditions of sale, for these have become both the subject and the object of this “art of the winners for the winners” – as the art critic Wolfgang Ullrich has fittingly defined it – to such a degree that this would be its sole raison d’être, like a rite celebrating the subjugation of the image to the omnipotence of money.
Guy Debord’s texts described the 1980s and 1990s well. Do you find them relevant for 2021?
No doubt his analysis of the second half of the 20th century is most relevant. But it’s obvious that the progressive adaptation of Capital’s exponential dynamics to those of digital technology has made his critique partly obsolete, given the new status of the image, which Juri Armanda and I have correctly insisted upon when we talk about the ‘distributive image’. Namely, from the moment that digital technology made it possible to distribute an image as soon as it was produced, as was the case with smartphones, it immediately became the object of algorithms, making it the prey of numbers, as well as the agent of Capital. A radical change: from now on, the image no longer shows, it shows itself, making each of its viewers both an object of profit and an object of surveillance. The result is a new economy of the gaze, which has become an energy infinitely more precious than oil because it is infinitely renewable. Like a worm in the apple, the number has lodged itself at the heart of the image, to the point of annihilating all traces of imagination as well as all negativity. We no longer live in the ‘spectacle’ defined by Debord in 1967, nor in the ‘integrated spectacle’ that in 1988 he saw as resulting from the convergence of the ‘concentrated spectacle’ of authoritarian regimes and the ‘diffuse spectacle’ of consumer society. There is no longer even a spectacle, now that we are besieged by billions of images that surrender us to the growing control that feeds on them, thanks as much to the eyeless gaze of eye tracking as to the invisible image of pixel tracking. We are much closer to the vision of Günter Anders who, as early as 1956, attacking the media, announced that “the world as such has disappeared”.
What have you retained from surrealist writings and from André Breton?
Even if Debord owes an enormous amount to Surrealism, his desire for mastery will have kept him away from Breton’s crazy wager, as well as from most of those who Breton had been able to gather around him, each of them pursuing their dream, even to the point of risking body and soul. I am convinced that there is no poetry outside of this way of being, starting from the most human of revolts faced with the immensity of the desires that we each carry within us, and the little that this world allows us to live. This tragic awareness is something that every teenager perceives deep down, should he or she not yet have accepted conforming to the order of things. But it was Rimbaud who was the first to state its importance, declaring in 1871 that from now on “poetry will no longer give rhythm to action, it will be in advance of it”. A reversal of perspective: poetry is affirmed as the highest degree of awareness of what is at stake between nothing and the infinite, to reveal that a word, a look, a gesture… are sometimes able to respond, if only for a moment, to this “insatiable thirst for the infinite” of which Lautréamont speaks. It is up to Breton, and to Surrealism, to have made every possible effort not to fall short. Everything else is anecdotal…
You are preparing a Toyen retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris. This surrealist painter, by her refusal to conform to existing canons, seems to anticipate the present era and yet she is its antithesis.
Starting with the fact that Toyen has repeatedly said that she is not a painter, let alone a woman painter. Never giving up on her revolt or her dreams, she has never allowed herself to be held back by anything that confines one to gender, role, ideology… One cannot imagine anyone more opposed to all the caricatures of freedom that the current commodification of ethics furnishes us with. Like Rimbaud, she is elsewhere. Singular in everything, she made her life a voyage on the high seas, during which painting has been a pretext for her to venture into the continuous shifts of representation, and more particularly those of the amorous night through what binds together desire and the invention of freedom. It is time to discover her visionary gaze.
Are you still in search of the Marvellous?
If the essence of the Marvellous is to manifest itself wherever and whenever we least expect it, it is always furthest from the places of power, as well as from the world’s mad rush. In any case, it is an unexpected form of freedom. It is up to each individual whether they want to find it or not.
The original interview in French can be found here.