Sitting as if he was in front of his desk but, this time, on stage in a small auditorium at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Jean-Yves Jouannais gives a lecture – or should I say – his ‘conference performance,’ as it is now commonly defined to a Parisian audience, as he has done approximately every month for the past three years. This exercise has been repeated, since October 2010, with the same frequency at the theatre La Comédie in Reims, in the north east of France, a symbolic context for Jouannais, as the city was mostly destroyed in 1914 by the German army.
The French art critic and curator, whose well-established reputation in France is due mostly to a handful of famous books, such as “Artistes sans oeuvres, I Would Prefer Not To” (originally published in 1997 and re-issued in April 2009) and “L’idiotie”, officially embarked upon a life-long research project based on the topic of war, from Antiquity to 1945, in the fall of 2008. Why he has elected to commit himself wholeheartedly to such a pursuit and not simply stick to the usual of contemporary art is something of a mystery. Jouannais gives no explanation, except the fact that the entire project is motivated by a personal story, one of his grandfather who died when he took a few days leave during the second world war. In fact, Jouannais says he has no particularly personal interest in war and yet, nevertheless, like most of us, the subject concerns him. His work does not follow a scientific process, nor a historical or sociological one. He gleans, in all sorts of published sources, whatever he can– words in quotations, films and images– and arranges them together in alphabetical order, sometimes returning in following lecture to a previous “entry” and complementing it with new reflections before moving on with the list. The presentation of each word is accompanied by either one or a series of images, and most importantly, a ponderously witty and idiosyncratically erudite commentary regarding its place and importance in the encyclopedia.
Going through novels, historical non-fiction, and technical reports, he develops his index by words he considers interesting, curious or relevant – “mushy” “tree”, “bee” “epitaph”, “pang !”, “boom !”– just to name a few, a method undoubtedly reminiscent of a lexicological research process inaugurated by Roland Barthes. His indexical principle both avoids and circumnavigates certain clichés and expectations that might be associated with an academic approach, since the most obvious words– those which issue from a military vocabulary or strategic analysis– have been simply omitted. Given that Jouannais’ war is not that of personal experience, his choices effectuate a subtle distance and attention vis-à-vis motifs which are far too abstract and unusual for him to usurp an established position of expertise. In other words, there is no glossary or discourse that he can easily consult, and, despite the vastness and historical density of his subject matter, he has managed to venture into some serious terra incognita.
“I finally have found,” he has been known to confide to those who question him after his lectures, “what will keep me busy for the rest of my life!” It is an endless project and he knows it. And yet, not having to constantly think about what comes next, he is perhaps happier this way. The Encyclopedia is turning into a full-time-job and, like an artist, Jouannais is regularly invited by different institutions to different places. He presents parts of the encyclopedia when he is not in the middle of exchanging books from his personal library with curious visitors, as in the case of the space of France Fiction or when he not deep in preparation for his upcoming exhibition at the Villa Arson, scheduled for 2012. I must confess, listening to the one and a half hour presentation is pleasant. Every session starts with a musical jingle and a series of images from a video game, ambiguously reminding you that you are still in the field of contemporary art, while at the same time, that you could be a member of a TV show audience, witnessing a live and direct event. At the end of session, the mind is liable to emerge full of conjectures and questions. Some would compare Jouannais to Lacan or Deleuze during their lectures, to how they developed a certain trajectory of thought while talking to their students, but Jouannais does not necessarily engender any specific theoretical discourse, at least not obviously.
You’ll certainly remember the experience but hardly retain its content. But does it matter ? Perhaps it would be better to concentrate on questions of form, and the extent to which it, form functions as a complete personification of its author. One could consider here a return to a specific kind of dandyism, in which the dandy seamlessly synthesizes his way of life with the object of his work, not to mention his literary style. Indeed, this in the sense of how a given subject is not constituted in advance but rather constitutes itself rather through a reflexive process, as Foucault described it in The Aesthetics of Existence. If Jouannais has deliberately forsaken a critical position, he has done so by trading in the specialist’s authority for the amateur’s search of meaning.