Sylvain Couzinet-Jaques is a French Visual Artist and Filmmaker. His creations push the boundaries of visual art, combining elements of film, photography, and installation to create immersive experiences that resonate on both an emotional and intellectual level.
Can you tell us about your background and how you became interested in photography and visual arts?
What immediately fascinated me about photography was its direct relationship to the present time and the fact that this medium can inscribe forms of subjectivity in the visible world. There is a poetic form, so to speak, in the principle of documenting the present time. There is an engagement, a tension: the poetic is the contrariety of the document.
What feeds my practice, which is not necessarily photographic, is the consideration of the document, the value we give it and the concept of truth. We all have different affective relationships to the objects of the world, to history, and to politics in the broadest sense. However, there are devices that bring us together to share sensitive states, be they architectural, with language, images and imaginaries, etc. In trying to document these situations of coming together, I realised that the role of the artist is also to create moments of collective re-enchantment by subverting pending situations.
Documentary photography has given me this awareness of displacement, and the possibility to bring an open critical form to the gathering. A question constantly arises for me: what place can and should the artist have in society, in his own community? How to tell with one’s own sensitivity about social phenomena that concern us all, that we witness and are sometimes affected by. Today, the projects I work on are conceived collectively, within communities, groups of people, territories, etc. I do not only have this position of a distanced observer, I question my own position as much as that of the people I work with.
Your work combines photography, film, and art with political themes. Can you talk about your creative process and how you integrate these different mediums into your projects?
A question constantly arises for me: what place can and should the artist have in society, in his own community? How to tell with one’s own sensitivity about social phenomena that concern us all, that we witness and sometimes are affected by. The question of the medium is necessarily linked to the themes and stories I wish to tackle. I have been trained in photography, its history, its ethics, and its techniques. I would even say it’s ontology. But even if I consider myself fundamentally a photographer, by inscribing myself in its history and its extensions, I try to find a new approach, a grammar to say the things of the world. I am currently working on several projects that are not only visual. Some projects involve deep learning and neural learning systems to analyze large amounts of textual documents. One project is about creating off-grid communication networks in deprived areas, another is about music composition, etc. Each project I am working on has its own specificity.
Each project I work on has its own logic, its own technique, to be as close as possible to the feeling and the story I want to share. They have their own temporality – they are in fact part of long periods of several years; they are usually part of circumscribed territories.
If the documentary part is essential for me, the projects are not literal. They involve complex mechanisms with the territories and their historicity. I make few pieces per se, I have only produced 4 in 10 years, and some are still in progress like the Eden project. The projects are attempts to explore the processes of re-enchanting realities. I work closely with communities, there is an agreement between us that allows us to do this.
You have traveled extensively to capture images in various locations around the world. How does travel influence your work and approach to photography?
I am interested in the concepts of ‘post-documentary’ and virtuality as they impact on individual and collective identities. We are living in an unprecedented situation where we are witnessing a strong retreat of communities, states, etc. and simultaneously living in the global world where experiences are shared in real-time. The global world of late capitalism, so well described for years, annihilates cultural differences: cities look the same, but so do attitudes and imaginaries. And yet we see acts of resistance: I am looking for these spaces.
You seem to be especially drawn to the US and Spain. What fascinates you about these places?
Circumstances led me to work in both countries and to spend several years there, I also work in France.
Can you tell us about your project Sub Rosa? How did the project come to happen?
Sub Rosa is a 12-hour video that shows teenagers in Madrid in a transitory time and space. The film is presented as a multi-screen video installation (up to 12 screens) with a constantly evolving generative musical piece. The film was shot over a period of almost 4 years, at the foot of an abandoned monument built by Franco, only at the end of the day and before nightfall. The project was born during a year of residence in Madrid when I was a member of the French Academy – Casa Velazquez. I was doing research on Spanish youth, and how they could reappropriate the symbolic space of a charged history and build with it, in spite of itself. And at the foot of this monument, it was obvious when I saw this memorial to a fascist era, in ruins, surrounded by expressways. An island of concrete where young people came to meet, like a tribe.
From that point on, I tried to show the beauty of these young people and their delicacy, which contrasted with the violent history of the memorial. For me, they were a form of gentle resistance, just by their presence. I started by taking photographs, but that didn’t work out, so the film format became necessary. I imposed strict rules on myself, filming vertically, no post-production, no staging: something very direct from which beauty could emerge through the accumulation of shots. It took nearly 250 hours of video and 4 years of work to arrive at the final version. The very long editing time brought complexity and nuance to the project.
How do you see the role of art in addressing political and social issues, and how do you hope your work can contribute to larger conversations and movements for change?
I think that artists can have a significant influence on social change, but I also know that the mechanisms that allow this to happen are currently fuelled by capitalist culture, which I am very wary of. As a result, I think I have an experimental approach that can sometimes appeal to a wider audience than the art world and its audience, but that’s almost by accident. What is essential for me is to listen to the people I work with, and to co-construct counter-narratives with their complicity. If the works become influences or motors for others, I am obviously very happy and I tell myself that their path can have a wider visibility. I’m not looking for an immediate impact, nor am I looking to keep up with current events.
Your work has been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world. How do you approach the curation of your shows and the presentation of your work?
It’s a question of encounter, trust, and exchange. I put the same intensity into a small exhibition in a somewhat isolated art center as I do into large museum installations. I don’t make a distinction.
Unfortunately, for the past few years, I have had to regularly turn down projects because I don’t necessarily have the time for them, but I would really like to be able to honour them all.
Each project has to follow a curatorial logic, and I find it exciting to be able to work with other curators. A lot of the exchanges are done by e-mail, which is a shame because you lose the spontaneity of ideas that can come from a conversion, but it’s great to work together.
Can you share a moment with us that significantly impacted your artistic journey?
I feel like every project I’ve had the opportunity to do has changed my life. They bring me things I never knew I had, and I am so grateful that I have been able to do them. You can’t do anything on your own, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet some great, bold, and demanding people along the way, without whom I would be nothing. Each encounter is a journey that I hope will last as long as possible, of friendship and mutual support. This is essential for me.
What is the story behind the ‘Eden’ project?
Eden is a long-term project anchored in the town of Eden, North Carolina, USA. Initiated in 2015, it is collaborative in its form and has no predefined format.
In 2015, I was nominated for a photographic prize that had just been created “Immersion” by the Hermes Foundation and Aperture Foundation, among a dozen other artists. I had just finished a long work of several years on the effects of real estate speculation in Spain, which had led to my first solo exhibition at the Bal in Paris. This first exhibition of my work had been a strong moment in my work, trying to engage the public with a device that went beyond the sole framework of the photographic exhibition: the exhibition room was strongly lit by a luminous device of UV lamps, harmful for the photos and the spectators. I wanted to physically engage the audience in my vision of the effects of the crisis, its antagonisms, and the violence of its effects.
By proposing a project to be carried out in the United States, I wanted to pursue this commitment and these reflections. The territory of research of the Eden Project was defined by the purchase of an abandoned house in a working-class neighborhood of a small town of 15,000 inhabitants. Formerly named The little red school house, the house, and its surroundings became the epicenter and the means of this long-term project still ongoing today, developing both in a plastic, aesthetic, and theoretical way.
The building was acquired for $1000 in 2015. It has become the point of view from which I questioned the mechanisms of a lasting economic crisis. It is also a place of social interactions, where the notion of private property, and the mechanisms of integration of a foreigner within the community are questioned. Eden, therefore, re-enacts some of the great American myths from a European point of view. The city of Eden is a southern city, marked by successive economic and industrial crises as well as by its history.
The Eden project considers shifting the post-documentary approach towards a co-constructed subjective approach of different problematics, dominated by the notion of crisis and private property. Seeking approaches that elaborate new narratives and counter-narratives as well as specific interfaces for their sharing, Eden is a space for political and social exploration, which induces new forms of representations. By acquiring this private property, which happened to be a former public school of the city in the past – the domestic house raises as a symbol. It becomes both a transactional and symbolic space, where the physical place merges with its relational aspect and its representations.
Through multiple invitations over the years to other artists who have come to meet me at Eden, the project has become collaborative, human, and experimental. The familiarity of the city’s inhabitants, their support, and their benevolence have allowed it to be a long-term project. A few miles from the city is the famous Black Mountain College. Black Mountain College (1933-1957), nourished by the European experiments of the Bauhaus and espousing the ideals that John Dewey developed in Democracy in Education (1916), practiced what one might call true “liberal” and independent thinking. Recognized by artists and intellectuals in its day, Black Mountain College attracted and created non-conformist minds, some of whom became well-known and extremely influential figures in the second half of the 20th century. Among them Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Josef and Anni Albers (who directed the institution), Buckminster Fuller, Jacob Lawrence, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Cy Twombly, Susan Weil, Vera B. Williams, Franz Kline, Alma Stone Williams, Philip Guston, etc. and many others who had a significant impact on art and its teaching during the 20th century. The principles of co-construction, integration, autonomy, and avant-garde have made Black Mountain College a historical marker of artistic utopias.
Eden has drawn on the history of Black Mountain to construct its own narrative, both a tribute and an autonomous, organic project. Eden is a space of experimentation both social and aesthetic. Photography is a tool for documentation in this place, not an end in itself.