Claire Fontaine: In conversation with Leonardo Araujo and Alex Flynn

‘Pour écrire ce texte qui parle des rapports entre l’art et la lutte, j’aurais besoin d’une langue étrangère dans la langue, une langue de saltimbanques qui matérialiserait la possibilité de danser sur la corde raide et de combattre, mais je n’ai au contraire que des lambeaux de mots usés pour rapiécer les problèmes’ – ‘Carta a A’.


How has this langue étrangère developed? That is, in your textual-artistic practice, have you found this critical vocabulary? What would be the characteristics of such a lexicon if it indeed existed?

The research of the foreign language within the language is a horizon, something that moves as we do, it isn’t a goal to reach, but a process that we inhabit and that inhabits us. This idea comes from Deleuze and Guattari’s analysis of Kafka’s writings and the concept of “minor literature”. Seeking a foreign language within a language isn’t a matter of acquiring a wider vocabulary (especially a critical one), it is a journey into unlearning, an abandonment of certitudes and notions that structure us, in order to find what Deleuze and Guattari also called an “inner Third World”. It isn’t in fact an enrichment of any sort, neither is the acquisition of a mastery, but the discovery of a new form of powerful poverty that allows all the foreignness and deprivation of the present to resonate and express their disruptive meaning, so that the world can finally improve.


‘Grandes barricades placées entre l’art et la vie, entre l’action de savoir et celle du vivre, cathédrales érigées à la gloire de la masturbation mentale, les universités encore coupées du marché qui devaient offrir asile, au moins pour quelques années, à des jeunes en quête de recherche et les préserver de l’enfer de la marchandise, n’accueillent plus aucun conflit dans leurs murs productifs et matraquent la jeunesse qui pose trop de questions’. - ‘Carta a A’


How do you feel about the academy, having participated within it? What are its limitations? How do you compare the production of, for example, anthropological knowledge with artistic knowledge? What are the differences in their practice and their epistemological location, if there is a difference at all?

We have never actively participated in the academy, we suspect that universities are different in different countries, although their logic and organization have been widely homogenized over the past years within Europe. From what we know and have witnessed there are no universities in which the relationship between the knowledge transmitted, students’ present and future and the political context is analyzed or even discussed. Under these conditions, places that should provide an education for young adults appear perfectly dishonest, even more so when they are ruled by elitist principles or they are private. It is obvious that transmitting love for freedom and cultivating the passion for political commitment isn’t the priority of the academy at the moment and it hasn’t even been on the agenda for a very long time, there is no sense of responsibility towards society, no priority given to the mission of protecting it from the ravages of private interests or despotic political power and even raising these questions explicitly inside universities can be very risky for students.

“Artistic knowledge” is a term that doesn’t make any sense to us: there isn’t such a thing that can be unified and described like that. Let’s say that the position of the artist can at times coincide with the one of the anthropologist, but there is a central difference between them, which is that anthropologists need a distance from their object that could even be detrimental for artists if they tried to apply it to what they do. The other main difference resides in the relationship to truth: anthropologists owe loyalty to the truth they can produce, grasp, recognize, otherwise there is no point in researching, artists don’t have any tie and any debt to truthfulness, they have absolute freedom.

In the Letter to A., at one point, you write that metaphors cannot rebuild history as they demonstrate the inadequacy of language to do so. From this point, and in a logical sense, the narrative thrust of the letter therefore itself moves from an intellectual prison to a prison of revolutionary practice, whether that be one of militancy, rampant violence, love or the unknown. Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations”, asserts that each person’s world is comprised by the limit of their own experiences, because these experiences are explicitly linked to language. Language in this sense is not knowledge of the world, but precisely the world that knows itself, it is the world in and of itself.
By contrast, the letter to A states: «Le réalisme a toujours été une question de traduction, une construction faite de codes, mais, aujourd’hui, pour croire à la réalité nous avons peut-être besoin d’images et de mots libérés du présent, parce que le présent est fait de marchandises et des affects qui en dérivent». 
Following on from this, it’s clear that what one wishes to express is not necessarily easy to make plain, and that’s without even thinking that language itself might not have the capacity to express a given concept. If today’s revolutionary call continues to be universalised, generalised, and Eurocentric, is it not the case that adjectives, materiality, and nouns will continue to be placed in a hierarchy that is structured by a pre-determined ethical and epistemological order? How can we be conscious of this order and not take action through language? My thoughts turn here to a revolutionary insurrection, whether it be aesthetic and political, anonymous or legitimate, as something to be glimpsed in our daily lives, a reality that is still in code.

This question is long and complex, we don’t agree with all the conceptual turns that it entails. We maintain that today people’s experience of the world isn’t so much shaped by language – Wittgenstein lived in a very different time – but by their income and their capacities to navigate different social worlds and ephemeral contexts, which are of course all gangrened by race and class problems, all burdened and infected by patriarchy and reification. To reconnect with the question of the foreign language within language and also with the type of knowledge available in schools and universities, we are living though a time of extreme misery – which means that between language and life forms there are very loose ties, in this world ethics and aesthetics run playfully around each other in the generalized indifference to any sort of coherence. Even the idea of a call for revolution seems laughable given the little meaning that life objectively has today and the surreal idea, that we all share in order to survive, of what individuals and subjects are. Human beings have rarely disrespected each other more deeply through daily commercial transactions, online profiles that we visit and connect with, relationships of absolute economic and social brutality. We are at the lowest possible point ever reached in Europe if we consider the amount of displaced and dispossessed people that we ignore on our territories – we ignore them as human beings and as a political force, as carriers of important tragic experiences and meaning, as people seeking freedom, we secretly see them as mouths to feed, beggars at our doorstep, people deprived of dignity and importance because they are deprived of wealth and social status. The hatred that feeds and is fed by politically pathetic terrorist acts, the insulting and destructive level of surveillance that we are submitted to and the type of repression that “democratic” countries use against any type of protest, made us internalize the criminality of believing in social change and forget the necessity of protecting private and public freedom. What kind of vocabulary could save us from this situation? Language in this state of things has fallen beyond the “hierarchy that is structured by a pre-determined ethical and epistemological order”, it is useless if it doesn’t find a successful “agencement” with power that extracts it from the impotency of the politically correct. We need practices that don’t even see themselves as radical (this fantasy even is somehow polluted), we must block the disaster urgently and keep thinking whilst we are doing it, we can think with our hands, with our bodies, with colours, the movement of 77 thought us a precious lesson, at times language must be de-functionalized and then poetry can become more efficient than any political convention. Letter to A is a reflection about consuming the mourning for a certain idea of radicalism, the way we saw ourselves living through it, being subjectified and saved by it. We need to do better than that, we need to rethink freedom and life, like feminism does, outside the logics of binary antagonisms.

It became clear during our conversation that you may not necessarily agree with the vision of politics being put forward by The Invisible Committee. Despite an initial position that emphasizes the potential of insurrectionary communes as opposed to centralized revolutions, their second text, ‘To Our Friends’ puts a marked focus on how ‘revolution always seems to choke off at the riot stage’. Firstly, do you believe in this differentiation between insurrection and revolution, and secondly, how would you comment on, or respond to this difference? Does the Invisible Committee represent a backward step (their emphasis on organization, the need to develop a “strategic intelligence of the present”), a falling back to orthodox positions?

We must admit that we haven’t studied their two books in depth. Generally speaking – despite the diversity of the two publications - we see a desire to seduce, to entice, to involve in some sort of murky complicity and invisibility the reader. That isn’t a new literary device but if it was to be taken as political strategy of a group, it would be simply suicidal and somehow the absurdity of the Tarnac case proves that power is keen to believe stories, it can go to crazy lengths to criminalize in a completely nonsensical way people that just correspond to the romantic description of this threatening life forms, accuse them of having written the book and of having supposedly enacted things that the book described (as if the people who lived in Tarnac had invented insurrection and sabotage, they “owned” them, and The Coming Insurrection contained some magic recipes for revolution that couldn’t be found by thousands in any public library). Coming back to these writings, some things are beautiful but we see them more as literary works that as political manifestos. To Our Friends comes after the Tarnac case and many waves of unrest and repression across the planet, it is somehow wiser and less ingenuous than The Coming Insurrection but it still feels as if it wishes to magically generate upraising and spark social change with a tool that is totally obsolete and inadequate to the ambition.


‘Désapprendre les gestes, les mots, les rapports. Libérer par là les corps et les esprits, transformer les subjectivités’ – Sally Bonn, ‘Ressonância’, introdução do livro Greve Humana.


This question refers to what has become known as the ‘subjective turn’ in social movements and mobilisation worldwide and how this impacts on the way we envision new worlds. Maple Razsa, an anthropologist, portrays how alterglobalisation actors seek alternative worlds by shunning utopian ends and centralised authority in favour of forms of direct democracy that enact a prefigurative politics. In his analysis, subjectivity emerges as a key site of conflict and creativity as activists independently “seize the means of producing themselves as subjects” (Bastards of Utopia 2015: 12).
How might your practice interpolate such an understanding? And how would you respond to alternate configurations of the emancipatory potential of art, if indeed you believe that art has any such potential?

Art’s potential is something that can’t be measured, what the encounter with an artwork can do to a subject, how the freedom trapped in a sculpture, a painting, a statement can influence a singularity and masses cannot be said. That also explains our position: we don’t have any superstitious belief in the immediate political efficacy of our work, this is somehow not our main worry, artworks hopefully survive artists and the time for our work to truly touch people might not even have come yet. Like any artist we work because we need to, it’s our way to stay alive.

In our research we depart from the same diagnosis as Razsa – which is not such a new analysis – subjectivity is the weapon and the battlefield these days. It’s obvious that the practice of freedom has prevailed everywhere within social movements on the logic of liberation, that is a wonderful thing politically and personally for each one of us, certain forms of authority and social gregarious dynamics don’t seem attractive any more to people and that is an incredibly important political progress that we should all value and protect at our own level.

In opposition to Maple Razsa’s emphasis on the creative potential in social mobilization that underpins the previous question, Armen Avanessian has put forward a theorisation of ‘post-contemporary art’, in which he argues that contemporary art has become a highly systematised industry, and that its emancipatory potential can now be most productively imagined in its interstitial position between the fields of marketing and branding. Given such degrees of insertion, how do you critically respond about the appropriation of, for example, the writings of Tiqqun, in recent works of art by artists such as Bjarne Melgaard in the Berlin Biennale of 2016?

Everything is an industry these days: sex, motherhood, death, every single moment of our lives or every single action or practice enters somehow a commercial dynamic, even images can now be posted, exchanged… every whatever moment can be sold, kept, immortalized, accumulated basically stolen from the transient disquiet of our lives. The loop of the so called society of spectacle has been closed by new technologies: advertising (and pornography) don’t need life as a model because life is imitating and merging with them on facebook, instagram, tinder, grinder and in the streets of our cities. How the hell something as traditionally precious and valued as art could escape this over intelligent and pervasive system of subsumption? We think there is a frightening form of indifference to meaning within parts of the artworld, an undermining of concepts, treated like signs in an attempt to generate abstraction, or to recompose – sometimes randomly – the surface of reality. I think Melgaard, who has also used the invisible committee’s writings, was making fun of an attempt to fight meaninglessness through these books by reducing them to hollow signs in a fashion shoot. I don’t know if his will is explicitly nihilistic, I think probably Melgaard has never read these books and he is just trying to scandalize the five people of the artworld who have or maybe he doesn’t even know what he wants to do. Anyhow people have already forgotten about it.


Before commencing his explanation of the state of exception, Giorgio Agamben, to structure his point of departure - in the division between public rights and public facts and between the rule of law and life - puts forward an assertion: “if the law employs the exception – that is the suspension of law itself – as its original means of referring to and encompassing life, then a theory of the state of exception is the preliminary condition for any definition of the relation that binds, and at the same time, abandons the living being to law”. What the author is proposing here is an intellectual trajectory, one in which there is an implicit separation between ‘dispositif’ and subjectivisation. However, it seems to me in your text, “Footnotes on the state of exception,” you identify these two processes as inseparable, and this conjunction is practiced right throughout the text, as a basic presumption. If what makes us unique is the way in which we are subjectivized by others, (and therefore there is a pre-definition of who we are, before our own process of subjective construction), then the only thing we have, is a mere contemplation of that which is lacking in us, and not a grasp on the sensory present. Thus, if there is only one possible way of life, common to all, and without escape, “this is the reason why we can not fight this war in the territory of images or iconoclasm…”, then what could be the potential of a reconfiguration of an ‘exception’ for a life of images, with its imaginative and experiential possibilities, as opposed to a governed life, reliant on jurisprudence and institutional logic?

First of all, Agamben’s conceptualisation of the relationship between life and law is parallel and deeply related to his description of the relationship between bios and zoe, in fact speech, the social, supposedly meaningful and political life we share conceals within itself the mute and animal biological life, our intellectual activity includes it and excludes it at the same time, that’s what law does with life, it includes it in order to exclude it and exterminate it when necessary, that’s why the state of exception isn’t the opposite of democracy but it’s somehow always included in it as a hidden possibility.

There isn’t “only one possible way of life, common to all, and without escape” as you state: juridical structures and law have very strong historical ties with patriarchy, which is far from being the only way we can live together and be subjectified: right now foe example it’s undergoing a major crisis all over the planet. There have been important feminist movements centred on the idea of extraction of life from legal and juridical processes, that departed from how these devices mutilate and deform lives – especially women’s lives. We can’t eliminate power, but power has a history and it can function and affect us in many different ways, there is always a possibility to oppose power, to deviate its trajectory, to be crossed by it differently and gain strength from it. The women’s bookstore in Milan published a book that we often quote, in Italian its title sounds like Don’t believe you have any rights; the social contract, the way we live together is – and must stay – negotiable all the time, it’s up to us to protect social dynamics from violence and exclusion (that are complementary to each other). The different balance we are interested in is obviously the one that doesn’t have contempt for biological life but gives it the dignity and the importance that it deserves, which shows us instantly childhood, old age, women’s life and the planet’s destiny under another light. In other words there is no anthropocene, there is what patriarchy has done to the world through capitalism and mass massacres and the discourses and practices that help keep it the way it is or oppose it.


In the text “Footnotes on the state of exception” the unmentionable meaning of love is given as follows: «l’amour n’a pas de cause spécifique ni de raison communicable. Ce que l’on aime chez l’autre est l’agencement social possible ou réel dont il est porteur, son potentiel de liaison et de liberté qui fait que nos sentiments puissent surgir et perdurer.» In “Nous sommes tous des singularités quelconques”, you continue, «C’est la possibilité de découvrir que nous sommes tous des singularités quelconques, également aimables et effroyables, prisonniers des mailles du pouvoir, en attente d’une insurrection qui nous permette de nous changer nous-mêmes ». 

As such, these two explanations attempt a potential definition of love, or rather, this form of feeling without form, which somehow can be reflected by Maurice Blanchot. In “La Communauté inavouable” the author discusses the terms communism and community: “concepts déshonorés ou trahis, cela n’existe pas, mais des concepts qui ne sont pas « convenables » sans leur propre-impropre abandon (qui n’est pas une simple négation), […] qu’en est-il de cette possibilité qui est toujours engagée d’une manière ou d’une autre dans son impossibilité?»

The question requires, because of its terms of ‘possibility’, that is, what Blanchot justifies through immanence, the creation of a subversive practice in the order of life. Thus, it is possible to agree that before any encounter there is always a disposition to love (in your understanding) community for its basic conflictual nature, or better, that to love is also to render oneself to the division of the self as communion? Would such a positioning not place us once again amidst the tired asepticism of our daily lives as structured by a classical politics, and the martyrdom which this might entail? Or is there in this uniqueness of a love of communism a subtraction that is no longer from life, but from that which has already departed, our lived life in the present?

Blanchot is a very inspiring author, his writings can be meditated upon for years, but in terms of providing a line for action and precise ethical instructions (that you seem to be seeking in this questions) he isn’t the clearest philosopher ever. We don’t think that “before any encounter there is always a disposition to love”. There are affinities, antipathy, antagonisms, complexities that cannot be denied between people - and never have been within the history of revolutionary movements, even inside the hippy movement - these are very important and they are also part of love in its different forms. In We are all whatever singularities we try to unmask the affective nature of our social and political existence, to give it a voice, a hopeful one. But love is work, it isn’t a fusion, something that transforms the “division of the self [into a] communion”, patriarchy tells tales and then women get beaten up, raped and killed every minute by their beloved ones. Love isn’t an instinct, it can be a penchant but it doesn’t continue with its own initial steam if it isn’t cherished, cultivated, accompanied, understood, corrected and fed continuously. It isn’t an unchangeable force we can count on, it’s something as necessary to life as oxygen is but no one teaches people how to preserve it and the first place where it gets sick and dies is inside militant communities, where all the incapacities emerge and the stakes are too high. People feel better off with an unambitious and mediocre affective life and they are, as it so much work just to keep a family together and alive. But who intead lives “amidst tired asepticism”? Nobody’s life is aseptic, life just can’t be; the love for communism, whenever we can keep it alive for a few weeks, months or - if we are lucky – years, intensifies life and makes it exactly as we feel it should be: this cannot be denied by anyone who has experienced it, it doesn’t subtract life from anywhere, it creates a real, full, luminous present.


‘C’est juste que la terre sur laquelle nous marchons a changé de valeur et nos vies avec elle’ – ‘No family life’.

A question about temporality. Claire Fontaine’s writings and practice have expanded and developed over a substantial period of time. What has changed from 1999-2001 (the epoch of Tiqqun) to the theoretical orientation of the collected writing of your book, ‘Grève Humaine’?

First of all the people composing Claire Fontaine are not all the same that were part of Tiqqun. Tiqqun, the magazine, was the concretion of a collective process. Writing somehow wasn’t the focus, we were part of a social movement around 1997 in Paris that questioned the notions of work, employment, the use of time and the distribution of wealth, amongst other things. It was an interesting movement because it assembled lots of subjects with no professional or social qualification, it was a movement of whatever singularities that questioned the organization of society, the class structure, the way people were professionalized and formed inside universities – we used to meet in an amphitheater in Jussieu every day, but it wasn’t a student’s movement at all. There we realized that the practice of our being together and discussing all the time wasn’t creating a common language and that this continuous and daily assembly wasn’t going anywhere in terms of building a political lexicon we could all agree upon. So the first motivation to write Tiqqun was to group a series of concepts such as Bloom, Jeune-Fille, the Imaginary Party to quote some of them – the term of human strike appeared in Tiqqun 2) – to define things and phenomena that didn’t have a name but were present. Then the political, social and human situation we lived through changed enormously: Tiqqun 2 reflects this change and a certain amount of despair that came when the times we are still living through announced themselves on September 11 2001.

Claire Fontaine is a collective artist, she isn’t a political group, she isn’t born out any political ambition of the sort, we make art and we write, we are not trying to provide the next generation of revolutionaries with a conceptual and visual toolbox: that would be very pretentious. Our writings are born on the side of our visual work, what we do is a completely different operation from Tiqqun (1 and 2). Claire Fontaine was born from the diagnosis of political impotency, we used to say that some artists at the end of the Nineties and the beginning of the Two Thousand were political refugees within the space of contemporary art; that might have changed too during the past ten years, refugees don’t stay refugees forever: art isn’t a camp.

by Leonardo Araújo, Alex Flynn and Claire Fontaine
Cara a cara | 11 October 2016 | Claire