Sylvielin's Blog

Interview with Philippe-Alain Michaud

Posted in about Art, about Video Art, Interviews with Curators/Museum Directors by sylvielin on August 1, 2010

(Interview made in July 2006, Paris. Michaud is Director of the department of film of Centre Pompidou & Curator of The Movement of Images Exhibition)

Work by Alexandre Calder in "The Movement of Images/Le Mouvement des images" exhibition. Photo©Sylvie Lin

Q  You are the director of the department of film of Centre Pompidou. Please introduce the collection briefly and the new directions you would like to carry out under your directorship ?

A  I am the curator of the collection of films of the National Museum of Modern Art. We are gathering avant-gardes and experimental films since the opening of the Centre in 1978. Now there are about 1000 films of very different lengths in the collection (from one minute to six hours), of different formats (S8, 16 mm., 35 mm.) covering the whole 20th Century. We are still completing the historical collection and at the same time, we gather works made by contemporary filmmakers.
Now the situation has changed. Today, not only filmmakers make films but artists as well, who produce their works in limited edition, which change the conditions of acquisition. The conditions of showing the works have changed too. Now films can be exhibited in galleries or projected in theaters. So we present regular screenings in the different theaters of the Centre and “exhibit” films in the galleries of the museum. The new presentation of the permanent collection called ‘Movement of Images’ was an opportunity to experiment new ways of showing films in the open spaces of the galleries.
Q  Just as you mentioned, today the cinema is not only shown in the darkrooms as it was traditionally, but also in galleries, museums and exhibitions. In your view, what are the new possibilities brought about by the change in relation to art-making and the way we perceive cinema or moving images?

A  During the 20th Century, that particular kind of cinema which is called experimental have been presented in theaters. In a way, the cinema, intended as a space, was the transposition of the theater’s stage. Theatricality has remained the rule for the presentation of films during the 20th Century. And feature or fiction films, which are in way a transposition of the theater play, remained, during the whole past century, the very model of the cinematographic experience.
But experimental and avant-garde films, or the films made today by artists, are truly emancipated from the theater experience. It changes radically the conditions of perception of the films to show it directly exposed on the wall, but I don’t think the exhibition of the films will replace the experience of the screening. Exhibition and screening are two different experiences, both temporally and perceptively. I don’t think the exhibition must imitate the projection of the film in a darkroom, which is perfectly suited for the feature films. For le Mouvement des images, we chose to present a series of 13 short experimental films, mostly silent. We have digitalized the films, in high-resolution, and projected it with HD projectors. The quality is absolutely outstanding. As the films have been scanned image by image, we have kept the very texture of the film inside the digital device. So the films directly projected onto the walls are shown like paintings : I think it’s a new and very promising way to explore and exhibit the films. It is a way to show that cinema has the same dignity as the other arts and to produce new effects on the viewer, because in this way we are more aware of the purely visual qualities of the film (the colors, the composition, the frame, the lights…) and one can see it exactly like a painting, a drawing, or a sculpture.

Q  Is it one of the reasons that films in the exhibition ‘Movement of Images’ are displayed in a way differing from the traditional film-screenings in the separate darkrooms but are rather being deployed in the long spaces of galleries? In a way you intended to create for the visitor an experience of walking and of moving instead of sitting on the seats.

A  The idea was to create a gallery of films. In the beginning of the 20th Century, with the appearing of the classical screening, the modern spectator staying still on the seat and viewing images in one direction was born. What disappeared at the same time was the movement of the passer-by which was usual in the panoramas of the 19th Century conceived as promenades in the middle of giant painted canvases representing exotic or romantic landscapes. What we are attending now is the reappearance of the passer-by transformed into the visitor of the museum : the post-modernity is rejoining the archeology of the cinema : before the birth of the screening and of the cinema intended as a theater, the visitor was moving through or along the images, and that is what we rediscover now with the exhibitions of films. In the 20th Century what probably took place was the development of a particular experience of cinema, restricted to the theater and dominated by the feature film. Now cinema is expanding outside the walls of that theater.
Q  How did you come to choose the four themes for the exhibition : Succession, Projection, Narrative and Montage?

A  “Experimental” is probably not a very good term, because it is too restricted. Only a part of the kind of cinema we call ‘experimental’ is really experimental. It tries to elucidate essential components of the cinematographic experience. At the very end of that elucidation, there are four concepts left, essential to the definition of the film, that’s succession (the unwinding of the print in the camera and then in the projector, projection, narrative and montage. If you cancel all of them, there is no cinema anymore. In different kinds of visual arts, you can find these components acting independently, taken in different agencies. For example, in sculpture, in the 30s , we attend the emergence of projection in sculpture, with Constantin Brancusi and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy notably, who are trying to redefine the sculpture from the interaction of light and volume in space and not from the outlines of the figure anymore ; or succession becomes an effective concept in painting or sculpture with the adoption of seriality in the 50’s, with Joseph Albers’ Squares in particular : that use of seriality will spread in the 60’s and the 70’s in the minimalism (with Donald Judd or Carl Andre) or in the pop art (with Warhol’s silkscreens)… The Cut-outs of Braque or Picasso, at the beginning of the 10s, are already developing phenomena of montage and there is narrative in the drawings of Robert Longo called Men in the Cities, inspired by the esthetics of the film noir, or in the crashed car of Bertrand Lavier, Julietta, which he calls a pathetic readymade. So it is possible to take the cinema as the red thread to decipher the arts of the 20th Century.

Q  There is an element of Performance or Action in many of the works shown in the exhibition, like in the works of Saburo Murakami, Richard Serra, Chris Burden, etc. How do you interpret their works under the framework of the exhibition ?

A  Photographs or films are the only trace left of the performance. They are essential to the transmission of it. Without these images or traces, the performance would disappear.
Several installation works are shown here for different reasons. In the main allee, there is a group of four works : the broken screens of Saburo Murakami, the scratched film posters of Jacques Villeglé, the crashed car of Bertrand Lavier and the Auditorium of Franz West. These works were gathered to express the exploding of the physical space of the classical cinema, which is the theater. The seats, the sofa, the screens, the car (intended as the narrative element of the film) and the poster are displayed like the memories of the classical projection : the idea of crash, torn screen, scratched posters and the auditorium made with old carpets – all these elements are showing a sort of decay of the traditional experience of cinema.
In Murakami’s work, the idea of breaking the screens and of going through the screens is a remake of the last image of Entracte by René Clair, where we see the painter Francis Picabia and the musician Eric Satie passing through the screen on which the word End is inscribed. I think Murakami is repeating that gesture which remained a lasting symbol of Dadaist attitude through the XXth century. Auditorium is a place where films are shown. West’s Auditorium is made of 72 sofas which you can display as you wish ; you can show part or all of them. In a way, we reorganized the space of the Auditorium in the specific space of the museum. We made the experience of watching films a museographic one.

Would you like to talk more about the performance/action element in the works of Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman or Chris Burden in the exhibition?

A   All these performances are in a way mirroring the cinematographic display or a property of the film : in Hand catching lead, Richard Serra reproduces the running of the film through the projector : the hand trying to catch the pieces of lead thrown in the frame by Philip Glass (a musician), mimicks the closing and the opening of the shutter and the discontinuous movement of the print ; Bruce Nauman, walking on the perimeter of a square, forwards and backwards, circumscribed the space of the frame and imitates the running of the film ; Chris Burden, asking a friend to shoot a bullet in his arm, is playing on the different meanings of “shoot” and on the superimposition of the camera to the gun… We could multiply the examples.

Q  How to interpret the work of Claude Levêque in the context of the exhibition?

A  Cinema is inscribed deeply in the work of Claude Levêque. All his works are influenced by the filmic experience at several levels. Since 2000, he is producing spaces with various effects of light, smoke, sound and movements, he is working on the reflections and the surfaces… The backgrounds of most of his installations are about the cinema, even in its narrative dimension : for example, the title of one of his installation is borrowed to a film of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Le droit du plus fort”. The work shown here, Valstar Barbie, is like a set of a film. The idea was to reconstitute that set inside the exhibition. here are the props with the big shoe and the giant shimmering rings, which are the sign of the glamour culture, the colored flickering lights, like a sign on the window of a theater, the music, the movement of the fans behind the veils, like a poor special effect… There is also that feeling of immersion inside the space, the effect we feel when we are watching a movie.

Q  Experimental films compose a major part of the exhibition. In an interview, you mentioned that experimental film is a genre that counters the mainstream cinema as well as art history. Would you like to talk more about this ?

A  Before the 1920s, there weren’t many experimental films. But since the 1920s, filmmakers started to work on the margins of the cinema industry without the means of production. So in a way, they were working by themselves like artists in their studios without any financial support. At the same time, they were resisting to the art world and to the art market. They were isolated. It is a very particular culture : there is an audience for the experimental cinema which is not similar neither to the audience of art history nor to the one of commercial movies. That kind of cinema has been left on the side by the dominant trends of art history, but on the other side, these people who work with films in the margins of the industry fill the gap between the world of art and the world of cinema.
One of the purposes of the exhibition is to reconstitute the missing link between these two cultures and to show that the experimental cinema is a way to understand how it circulates between cinema and art during the 20th Century. In addition, as cinema is at the very center of the practices of the artists now, we have to reconsider from the present the history of the cinema inside the history of art of the 20th Century.

Q  From there, do you think the contemporary practice of video or media art can also represent a kind of resistance to the mainstream trends of art and of cinema ?

A  I don’t know if it must be interpreted in terms of « resistance » : it’s rather a way to enlarge our conception of cinema, in opening it to new kinds of perception, duration, or relations to the other medium. The XXth Century restricted the experience of cinema : we are now rediscovering in the light of the films and video installations that that experience can overpass the limits of the theatricality.

Q  The exhibition ‘Movement of Images’ has a subtitle ‘Art, Cinema’. How do you define the relation or boundary between art and cinema?

A  The title doesn’t say ‘art and cinema’ : there is a comma in-between. It means that it is a confrontation between cinema and the other, so called “static” visual arts as well as cinema is an art : it is shown in the exhibition on the same level as the others. Symbolically, the idea of showing the films in the main gallery was to organize a show that takes films as its centre, and to reconsider its relation to the different arts, and his position among them.

Q  When the Nouvelle Vague appeared, it proposed to compare filmmaking to writing. What do you think to be the radical innovations of this genre?

A  Jean-Luc Godard is a good example, because he was inventing a new way to make films in the 1960s. Nonetheless, he was totally unaware of the experimental filmmakers who were working at the same time. On the other side, the experimental filmmakers didn’t care about the films of Godard. There was no relation between their universes.

Q  You are the curator of the exhibition ‘Comme le rêve, le dessin’ held in Centre Pompidou in 2005. We see an effort to juxtapose the classic, modern and contemporary art. Do you think there exists a boundary between contemporary, modern and classic art, which is a general point of view? Q  How do you manage to overcome such boundary?

A  In Paris, the Louvre Museum covers the art history until the 1850s roughly, the Musée d’Orsay covers the period afterwards until the 19th Century, and the Centre Pompidou takes over the art of the 20th and the 21st Century. The organization of exhibitions usually follows the separation of the collections. But it’s purely artificial. There is no reason to limit exhibitions according to the aims of the collections. That’s the first point. The second point is that chronology is not the only way to show the works. We can produce effects in juxtaposing works coming from different periods of time, that’s a way to use montage, a cinematographic device to conceive exhibitions. The third point is that moving the works, from their “natural” setting to an other place is a way to produce effects.
Since long, contemporary works have been shown in the Louvre Museum. But classical works had never been shown before my exhibition of drawings in the Centre Pompidou.
Abruptly, we had the opportunity to discover how these preparatory drawings from the XVIth century were experimental and how they were raising the same questions as the contemporary drawings. The contemporary drawings activate something in the ancient drawings in putting a different light on it.

Q  In making an exhibition that crosses over different periods and diverse disciplines, you create ideas different from the traditional points of view of art history. With ‘Comme le rêve, le dessin’, you have proposed the idea that sketch is not to be seen as of a preparatory stage.

A  Usually sketches are seen in the light of the finalized work, in the light of painting mostly. If we look at the preparatory drawings for themselves without thinking of them as preparatory, one can see appear very interesting phenomena. Contemporary drawings allows to see sketches as achieved, because in contemporary drawings, the idea of preparation, of a first draft leading to a further step doesn’t exist anymore ; all the drawings are achieved, because the first impulse as a value in itself. And when we see these ancient drawings, thanks to the contemporary ones as achieved, then we can see appear visual properties which are really close to the phenomena described by Freud in ‘Interpretation of Dreams’.
So the idea was to use the ‘Interpretation of Dreams’ to decipher the drawings : not the meaning of the drawings but the processes of the making, in comparing drawing work to the dream work. Roughly said, there are three points : the sketches are not preparatory, and to see drawings in this way, you need to juxtapose contemporary and ancient drawings. From here, we can see appear in the drawing work something similar to the dreamwork.

(The inteview was originally attached to a report on The Movement of Images exhibition. Chinese version of the interview was published in Film Appreciation journal ( published by the Taipei Film Archive in Taiwan ), July-September, 2006, issue 128, pp. 51~57. )


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  1. […] Artexhibition held in the Pompidou Center in 2006. See Sylvie Lin’s interview withMichaud: Also, see Lin’s another interview with Michaud, “The Disappearance of […]

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