Interview with Pierre Rabardel, sculptor, photographer and ergonomist, for the website

Posted November 20 2020


Pierre Rabardel:

... you said earlier that you still feel like you’re in transition.


Heidi Wood:

I felt more and more like my practice was going nowhere. I’d set up a system that needed to be broken down.

My work had been grounded in a sort of alternative tourism. I’d visit unlikely destinations and then create offbeat promotion campaigns for them: down-at-heel suburbs of Paris, hidden corners of the ex-Soviet empire, deindustrialized areas, towns made accessible by low-cost flights… I’d create a set of pictograms to express the essential physical characteristics of the place, like subtitles. Then works would be made based on the pictograms. They could be poster campaigns in a city’s advertising space, souvenir plates, tourist trinkets or an imaginary visitors’ center, for example.

I practiced that studious tourism for ten years. In the end, I thought it was too simplistic given the complexity of the places I was representing. Systematically formatting them into pictograms weakened their specificity. It didn’t do them justice. Reading translation theory, with its distinction between target and source-oriented translations confronted me with the limits of my approach.

So I decided to take a year off and do the second year of a Masters program at Paris 8. I needed some theoretical baggage to move forward.


Translation theory?


When you do a translation you can either play to the reader - the target-oriented approach, which is sometimes seen as colonizing the original text – or to the source, even if it confuses the reader (i.e. source-oriented translations). This framework allowed me to question my utterly target-oriented way of working up until then. Making the source readable for the audience puts it at a distance. By working that way, instead of paying homage to these strange places I love, I was helping smooth over their specificities.
I realized there was an ideology at work despite my intentions, and that it didn’t match the values I felt I held.


That’s what I came looking for at university, as well as a fine-tuning of my written French. It’s a language that still isn’t mine after all these years and I wanted to use it in my work. The choice of French is dictated by the fact that I live in France. I thought my visual work could be better and more complex with the addition of words.


At Paris 8 I studied "Fish Story" by Allan Sekula, which was emblematic of the direction I wanted to take. Sekula makes a brilliant back-and-forth use of texts and images to study maritime transport and allow a subtle understanding of political context. He began the work in 1989 and it marks a break with his previous proselytizing work as a militant Marxist. He renews his language, seeking a more indirect way of pursuing class struggle in a post-communist era while integrating the rise of identity politics.


At the same time as this apprenticeship in academic writing, I began building a new hybrid language using elements gleaned from the world for a project specific to that year, called Cartographie d’une année sans voyages (Mapping a Year Without Travel). It includes, for example, extracts from the administrative correspondence to do with my naturalization and anecdotes about the occupation of Paris 8 by refugees.


The monthly diary I send out to my electronic mailing list is an extension of this written and visual language. It began with the yellow vest protests. I looked for traces of conflict in the streets, but I also explored the outrageous new means of surveillance involved in “evaluating your delivery man”. We’re constantly asked to police those who provide us with services. In the first diary, I juxtaposed these profound changes in relations between consumers and workers and the tensions revealed by the yellow vest demonstrations. Then Covid hit and it became my lockdown diary.


With the diary, words become part of your work.


Initially, there were no words in my work, then they appeared gradually to accompany my paintings. They were already essential to the work I did to earn a living: teaching English, translating and subtitling. There’s a convergence happening in my work at the moment. The work with words has infiltrated my art practice.

This “narrative turn” is a throwback to my Australian origins because Australia is a country in which people are suspicious of elitist culture. Few visual artists gain mass public recognition. The only cultural form that is acceptable in popular culture is telling stories.

Combining text and image is the way my work is heading now. I started with abstract painting, moved on to playing with the codes of communication (logos, signage, advertising slogans, etc.) and now I’m working on a language that portrays the world we live in.


How about your website?


After my year at university, I created a new website that was less predictable. It’s turned into a bit of an obstacle course with some kooky functions. For example, when you’re scrolling through reproductions of paintings, you might come across a Detour card. If you click on it, you find yourself on a new page. There’s a picture, a sentence or two, nothing very coherent. You flick through three or four of them and suddenly, you’re catapulted into a different place in the website. The Detours are absurd moments that unhinge the orderly visit of my archives.

There is also Oracle, a sort of electronic card game that randomly draws cards, generating combinations of Covid-era imagery with prophecies and snatches of conspiracy theories. It’s like a game of tarot but it’s not clear exactly what it is. I was trying to recreate the atmosphere that Covid brought about: the hunger for answers and the impossibility of getting any. It sums up the spirit of a particular place at a given time.


You left your gallery a few years ago.


The relationship was at a dead end but I couldn’t blame my dealer because I was less and less convinced myself by what I was doing. I was already at a point where most of my fundamental research took place on the computer. Only a few objects were made for the gallery based on that research. At one point, I offered a catalogue of virtual paintings that would only be made to order. Later I announced that all my paintings would be destroyed if nobody had bought them within a five-year period. It was a way of completely stripping the work of its aura. Maybe that’s why collectors weren’t interested. Now I hardly make any intermediary objects like paintings of framed photographs. There’s not much between the PDF files you can download from my website and the monumental works I make for public commissions.

With these big commissions, I put forward a proposal, which is only ever comes to fruition if I win the competition. The work starts out as fiction. The images made during the periods of research adapt to a context and an audience. If the project goes ahead, the visuals emerge from the computer and come to life in the urban environment. These projects allow me to earn a living and they subsidize new periods of research.


How do you see what lies ahead?


It’s hard to know. My life is on hold until the pandemic decides what it’s doing. For the last five years I’ve been moving towards something but I don’t know what it is exactly. I’ve come up with a method that needs to find an outlet in a more lasting form, in publications or elsewhere. Maybe my practice is more source-oriented now, moving back-and-forth between image and text to tell stories. Over the last year, I’ve missed the dialogue that art centers allow. I’m dying to exhibit again.



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