Saâdane Afif and Yasmine d'O. in search of the Heptahedron

Interviews 25.10.2022

Based in Berlin, recipient of the Marcel Duchamp Prize in 2009, Saâdane Afif is what one might call a multidisciplinary artist, or rather an undisciplined or post-conceptual artist, because the subject of his work is not so much musicality, which nevertheless runs like a red thread through his exhibitions, performances and texts since 2004, but rather the place given to aesthetic perception, to the gaze of the other. Appointed artistic director of Bergen Assembly 2022, the Bergen Triennial in Norway, in the company of Yasmine d'O., whom he has appointed as curator, he talks about his career, the genesis of the project and the seven-sided object whose quest will temporarily end on November 6.

John Cage said: "One way to study music is to study Duchamp". Knowing your project The Fountain Archives (editor's note: based on the work Fountain (1917) by Marcel Duchamp) and your interest, to say in an indifferent way your fascination or your passion for Marcel Duchamp, did you arrive at the musical creation by the intermediary of this tutelary figure?
Saâdane Afif: Not at all! Well... When I am asked about the relationship of my work to music, I start by reminding people that it is not music that interests me. I am not a musician. I have always used sound as a material among others, but it is rather a particular attention to conceptual art in its relation to language that led me to dismantle the process of song creation. It happened through the text and, as often happens, through the shaping of an intuition. In 2004, on the occasion of a small solo exhibition at the Folkwang Museum in Essen, I was invited to present existing pieces. This was not very inspiring and a bit frustrating at the time, because as a young artist I was mainly interested in trying new things. Stuck between a paltry budget and an uncooperative curator, I devised a simple protocol to still get a rewarding experience out of this uninspiring context. I asked the artist Lili Reynaud-Dewar, whose literary talent I knew, if she would write four song lyrics based on the four works I was presenting. Of course, I had no idea how important this gesture would be in what was to come. Since then I have repeated the experience more than two hundred times, a large part of these texts are published in the book Words. But, at that precise moment, the idea was to produce a form of shifted commentary and above all to find a strategy to include other presences in the space of the work. I had to find a solution to avoid remaining in the imposed figure of the artist alone in front of his work.

Is it the collaborative aspect of the music that interests you?
Again I'm not a musician but I was for a few years a very bad drummer in a band. A basic pop rock band, guitar, bass, drums. Like many amateur bands, everything happened during rehearsals. We didn't compose, nothing was preconceived, we didn't read the music and yet magically something coherent would emerge from this magma. A piece was built. Yes, this collaborative form of creation is intoxicating and I may have tried to reintroduce some of this experience into my work. But it is indeed through a reflection on art and not on music that this return took place. These songs that I commission only make sense because they are part of an art history. There is a filiation. They are born from a precise protocol. They allow me to air the work, to nourish it, to open it to the imagination of the other. Above all, they raise the question of the place of works of art in our societies, of the way we look at them. To join Duchamp, these song texts give a form to what happens in the mind of the viewer when he makes the painting. This question of perception is a collective, collaborative exercise that is played out between the artist, his work and those who look at it. I deliberately chose the song format, a popular format, on the one hand because it is a poetic form, not an explanation, and on the other hand because, for everyone, a song has a subject, so why not a work?

It is said that your practice is rooted in music, in its components, its vocabulary, its nature - duration more than space, but also in its materiality, its instruments as plastic objects, as you have arranged them in some of your installations. Is it the plastic and visual dimension of music, that is to say the dimension that does not make the nature of music, that interests you?
These song texts, which have in fact become material for my work, have also allowed me to take unexpected directions. The question was quickly to know how to embody them and give them life. At first, the most obvious thing was to entrust them to musicians. So I started to explore for the first time performative forms linked to musical creation. I first proposed exhibitions based on rehearsals, concert exhibitions, exhibitions that show all the stages of production of a record, and finally some time ago I exhibited at Wiels, with visitors performing the songs themselves in a studio designed for this purpose. The production of a song, from the writing of the lyrics to the moment when they are articulated on a stage or elsewhere in the mouth of a performer, is a chain of interpretation that transposed into the field of visual arts becomes a powerful tool of representation, an allegory. So to come back to your question, it is rather the conceptual process of creation of the music, the temporalities at work, the possible combinations of energies and its modes of transmission that interest me much more than its plastic and visual dimension, even if it has its charm. I pushed the detail to the point of setting up a label, Lyrics Records, which is both an archive of the projects and an object of exchange with the musicians. But I could paraphrase Magritte and say "this is not a record".

With this label you are like a music producer. And the invitations you send out to artists have a very curatorial dimension... What about your curatorial role at the Bergen Triennale or Bergen Assembly 2022? How did you get there?
Bergen is a long story that started before Bergen. For the Marrakech Biennial, I conceived a performance, without the work-text-music system I just mentioned. I asked them to find a teacher who would agree to give geometry classes in Jemaa el-Fnaa square. The teacher arrived every evening with his flipboard, totally immersed in reality, i.e. there was no sign that his class was an art project. He would take his place among the acrobats that populate the place and start "Today the triangle...! And he too managed to create a circle around him, a circle of people with very different levels of vision. There were of course visitors to the biennial who were informed; people from the mountains, fascinated, who had never attended a class; educated Moroccan tourists from the big cities, astonished, who wondered why and how this professor had come to teach in the square. Muslim Brothers also showed up, suspicious. In the Arab world, if you touch geometry, you touch God. In short, passers-by wondered what he was doing there, and at the same time they followed his geometry class as attentively as they were doubtful. Geometry as a universal language is a bit like the ultimate ready-made. Geometry, the mother of all forms, was standing in the middle of Jemaa el-Fnaa Square among the snake showers and fortune tellers. I told myself that a new adventure was beginning. 

We can feel that you are still developing a work in several episodes...
Exactly. To stay on the subject, it's like producing a record, first one song then two, then you put it all together to produce an album, then you do a tour, videos etc. To extend this story of Marrakech I wanted to tell in the form of fiction how this performance could, could have or has transformed what surrounds it through those who have witnessed it. Once again, the questions that motivate me - which are also in the text-song format or in the Archives de la Fontaine project - is our relationship to art. How does a given society produce art? To whom does this art belong? Is there a universal art? But also how do we look at it? How do we include it? How does it transform the reality that surrounds us? How does art interfere with our systems of thought? Because all this is not self-evident.

Is this where Yasmine d'O enters the scene?
Not yet, but she is coming soon! So to follow up on this performance, I commissioned the writer Thomas Clerc to write a play... I formulated the commission in the following terms: "One day in Marrakech, a professor came to give geometry lessons in the public space of the Jemaa el-Fnaa square. Some time after this event, unusual things happened, some typical characters of the square started to speak in Geometry ". They developed an ornamental language. One could see but especially hear at the bend of the alleys of the medina, or at the terraces of the cafes which border the place, conversations of a very high abstraction. The text of this play will serve as a basis for the development of one or more future exhibitions.

In fact, you gave him a similar order to the one you give to an author for a song text from one of your works?
Exactly, in fact we could call it a method. Thomas accepted and we went to Marrakech where I showed him the city and the typical characters of the place. And that's when the first Yasmine appeared, but not yet Yasmine d'O. The original, let's say. Together, we visited the House of Photography in Marrakech, and I came across an amazing picture of an Arab woman playing French billiards in Paris. The photo was from the 1950s, it was obviously from the 1930s. There was a mistake on the cartel. I began to research and discovered Yasmine d'Ouezzan, the daughter of a notable woman from Valencienne and a sheriff from Ouezzan whose life spanned the last century. She was said to be an adventuress, but rather a woman who sought her emancipation by many means, including billiards. Her lover was Vincent Scotto, the lyricist of Tino Rossi and Josephine Baker, a star. I asked Thomas if he could add her to his character list and then waited. Once the order is placed and accepted, I have no idea what I'm going to get and I never interfere in the creative process. A few weeks later, I had the pleasure of reading L'Heptaèdre in which Yasmine d'Ouezzan became the heroine, Yasmine. So appears the second Yasmine, the fictional one. The plot is simple, it is a quest. Yasmine is looking for a shape, a seven-sided solid, a heptahedron. To find this shape, she meets seven characters who are: the Professor, the Salesman, the Moped Driver, the Fortune Teller, the Coalman, the Acrobats (who are two but one), and the Tourist. The play is in 49 acts, the dialogues are fast and come out of the theater of the absurd. Without being a draft, it left a lot of space for the imagination. Thomas' response was perfect. I didn't want to stage the play, I wanted to use it as a support to develop something else. I had a basis.

Did you want to use it as a score?
Once a protocol is launched, it often becomes a score. You just have to be attentive to what it can produce. I had the text, the characters, this second Yasmine of fiction. At that time, I didn't know Bergen Assembly. We are in 2016-17. I was preparing a first exhibition at the Kunsthalle in Vienna where I presented Thomas Clerc's text on a surtitle machine like those used in the theater for translation, line after line, and I confronted the text and its heroine Yasmine (the fictional one) to the real life of Yasmine d'Ouezzan. The exhibition is on panels and presents a set of documents, press clippings, photos, notebooks and pressbooks: an austere format that can be found in documentation centers or city hall halls. I then worked with Starstyling, designers from Berlin, whom I convinced to base their public collection on the seven characters of the play. There is now this Solid Figure collection from Starstyling inspired by the Heptahedron . These garments are not the costumes in the play, they exist in a completely different economy than mine. And yet each ensemble bears the name of a character. It's a first production whose actors are Starstyling's clients. In the collection, there are a few hits, like this cap with Tourist written on it that you see quite a bit in the street. Then I was offered the position of convener - which I translated as artistic director - of Bergen Assembly 2022...

In 2011 or 2012, I met Solveig Øvstebø in Bergen who had just published The Biennial Reader which was a kind of meta-biennial, an anthology of speeches about the format of the biennial in permanent reinvention. One always has the impression that the curator of a biennial wants to reinvent the model or is asked to reinvent the model. An artist might be in some ways more qualified than a curator. In 2022, it was interesting to follow in stereophony the work of two French artists curating a biennial: Kader Attia at the Berlin Biennale and you in Bergen. What was your approach as an artist?
That's probably why I was chosen. Now I had to formulate a project, I was given six months to develop it. At the same time, I was working with Thomas' piece. Things are always under your nose. Bergen Assembly is the idea of putting things together. I had this piece that tells the story of someone who is looking for a form - an artist is looking for a form, a curator is looking for a form -. She meets seven characters who in the end come together to become this form. Everything was said. Initially, I wanted to make an odyssey of personal exhibitions from this text, why not make it in Bergen as part of a triennial by inviting other artists? So I decided to use the piece to build the curatorial project of Bergen Assembly. This idea, born in Marrakech, began to migrate slowly to the north of Europe. Shared, it would hybridize and grow in contact with other contexts.

It's funny because it's the opposite journey of Peer Gynt, the eponymous character of Ibsen's play set to music by Bergen-born composer Edvard Grieg, whose odyssey goes from Norway to the desert of Morocco.
Indeed we could have crossed paths on the way... And it is on the way that I invited a third Yasmine, Yasmine d'O. the curator of the exhibition. This homonymy is a coincidence. It is with her that we set up the principles of the exhibition. There would be seven exhibitions, each dedicated to the seven characters of L'Heptaèdre, presented in seven locations in the city. Each exhibition would bring together the works of three artists. To follow the theatrical vocabulary, Bergen is the stage, the exhibitions are the characters, the works of the invited artists are the actors who give life to the characters and the main role, the most important one, that of the character of Yasmine, is assigned to the public who is invited to replay her quest. And what remains in the head of the visitor is the Heptahedron, it is what he will have built from his perception of the whole.

Without doing psychology, does this semi-fictional character allow you to take on what is not you? Is it a way of veiling yourself? Or is it only a superfiction ? Or is it a literary and artistic pretext that is a bit more inspiring than a traditional curatorial statement?
I would say all of the above at the same time. Yasmine d'O. is a semi-fictional person or a semi-real character... Without her, without the intimate relationship she has with this story, with this quest, nothing could have happened. We even tried to have two salaries...

It's clever... to make fiction come true. Unfortunately, it remained only a fiction.
Yasmine d'O. would have been satisfied with a semi-real salary... but it was not possible. However, it is the work of two people that was done during these three years.
Not to mention that she is also the editor-in-chief of Side Magazine, the publication dedicated to the characters. 

In the section of The Coalman, we find the presence of Claude Debussy. My question is how this presence manifests itself. How do you display the music? It's interesting to have your perspective on this question. Seeing images of this part of the exhibition, I think in retrospect of the panel exhibition at the Kunsthalle in Vienna that you were talking about, the kind of ecomuseum documentary exhibition.
Even before I was invited by Bergen Assembly, I started to develop ideas around the Coalman for an exhibition that didn't happen. What is coal? It's a very ambiguous thing, which brings us back, at the same time, to progress and comfort, and to the history of mining, colonization, and the hardest workers' struggles, and then to the disastrous ecological situation we know. Coal is a drug as addictive as heroin. In Germany, 50% of the lighting is still provided by coal. What can we do without light? We still can't do without it. I wanted to talk about this complex issue, not from the militant angle of political ecology, but in a poetic way. I discovered this piece by Debussy, Les Soirs illuminés par l'ardeur du charbon, his very last piece for solo piano, whose title is taken from the poem Le Balcon by Baudelaire. Debussy wrote this piece in 1917 and died in 1918. He was poor and very ill and, in the middle of the war, the supply of coal was very difficult... as it is today. His impresario had given him the contact of a coal merchant, who asked him, in exchange for his fuel, for an autograph, an original signed score. Debussy thus composed his very last piece for this coal merchant in exchange for his goods. There is a correspondence between the two men. The story is beautiful and says a lot about our addiction to fossil fuels, to comfort. Debussy's piece is also very beautiful because it is full of a twilight melancholy. The exhibition documents this story and a piano is available in the hall. Piano teachers have been invited to rehearse the piece with their students. 

Are the associated events (concerts, performances or talks) finished at Bergen Assembly so far?
We are in the process of organizing the last two weeks which will culminate on the weekend of November 5-6. It's still a bit improvised but you should check the program online. One of the venues for the triennial is a small club. In Bergen everything is smaller in scale but everything is at international standards. In The Fortune Teller section, among the three invited artists is Jessika Khazrik, a Lebanese artist who went to MIT, where she did research in ecotoxicology. She is also a producer of electronic music and also creates works. She was entrusted with this club to become its soul as a fortune teller. There have already been two nights and two parties on October 21 and 22.

In Bergen, there is the very strong presence of the composer Edvard GriegYou can visit his house and especially his composition hut. In the suburbs of Oslo, the Heni Onstad Kunstsenterincorporated into a large environment, enjoys a prestige similar to that of Black Mountain College, with a collection of Fluxus works and historical links with John Cage. And in Norway, black metal is also very strong. Did you work with local dynamics for the program?
Yasmine and the Seven Sides of the Heptahedron is an off-ground story that came to land like a spaceship on the city of Bergen. But we were particularly careful to ensure that some of the works or performances of the invited artists were part of or interacted with local structures. Of the 21 projects presented, a dozen have this function and among those, three are musical performances. Composer Augustin Maurs produced Nothing More, a piece for choir and organ, and an installation in The Coalman section for the occasion using voice extraction as a source of sonic and political resilience. The second musical project is Jessika Khazrik's The Fortune Teller , mentioned above. And in the section The Tourist, the third musical moment is a concert by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster's group, Exotourism formed with Perez that took place on the evening of the opening in connection with the presentation of the whole experience Exotourism: an unprecedented room plugged into the historical environment, presented in 2002 at the Centre Pompidou on the occasion of the Marcel Duchamp Prize.

But it is important not to explain too much, to leave the works in all their wildness, not to try to tame them. It is above all to the eye that they are addressed. It is up to the latter to make them exist. A work that is not looked at does not exist or it remains at least mute. This is why this main role, that of Yasmine, was given to the public. 

Interview by Tristan Bera

Gallery 1
Saâdane Afif, performance Là-bas & Ici., concert with Pierre Peres. Photo © Semiha Cebti
Saâdane Afif, performance Threads: A Fantasmagoria About Distance, final concert Candee with Train Collective. Photo © S.A.
Saâdane Afif, performance Ici. & Là-bas., concert with Anas Maghrebi singing Ici. Photo © S.A.
Gallery 2
Saâdane Afif, Blue Time (Sunburst), lyrics Lili Reynaud-Dewar. Photo©Jens Grädtke-Christina Kerkenrath
Saâdane Afif, LR.001-Blue Times, 2016
Saâdane Afif, Blue Time (Sunburst), 2004. Photo©Jens Grädtke-Christina Kerkenrath
Gallery 3
Saâdane Afif, daily performance Souvenir: The geometry lesson with professor Dahmad Boutfounas, 2014. Photo © Mahdi Messouli
Gallery 4 and 5: drawings © Anna Auch, Neue Gestaltung Berlin
The Heptahedron, boxed set of the complete eight issues of Side Magazine published as part of Bergen Assembly 2022 Concept by Saâdane. Photos © S.A. Werkstatt.


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