At work
Nathalie Travers
in Catalogue "Crossing values", Rennes Biennial, 2008

Marie Voignier was commissioned to make Au travail [At Work], a film which keeps a record of experiences enjoyed during the setting-up of the Biennial. It was Art to be’s wish to be in on the initial stages and processes which constitute the stuff of artworks, and form the invisible weft of the event. The film was constructed little by little over the six-month period preceding the exhibition time, focusing essentially on the SouRCEs—a residency programme and core of the Crossing Values project. Au travail is an artist’s look at an experiment that involves other artists and their work systems. Marie Voignier elected to film in situ, in these companies which opened their doors for the first time. Au travail strives to show this confrontation between art world and corporate world.

Her film presents, more particularly, three artists, in a context fairly similar to a production line.

The opening images show Alain Bernardini, camera in hand, with employees who are transformed, during a break, into actors in a scene orchestrated by the artist. The atmosphere is loose, and there has clearly been an exchange between employees and artist. Questions and misunderstandings linger, but the artist, who goes out to meet the employees, replies to them, and explains his status, his work, and what he’s doing there! All this unfolds under the management’s eye, in the hope, as the directors explain, that it will help “to move the company forward”, and “put some power in the engine”.

We then discover Damien Beguet, in a quite different relationship. The employees, as people, do not really concern him. He is there more as a ‘creative’ person, busy inventing a new recipe for a pancake that will be handed out at the entrance to the Biennial. He is interested in the company both as model and as an aesthetic which he plagiarises, with this question: “If the artist works like the company, does this really upset the rules of play and the boundaries?” Within the company, we see above all the creation of a new link in the production line: cutting up bananas.

Lastly we follow Claudia Triozzi walking through the factory flanked by a boom operator and a cameraman, accompanied by the boss. In a performance which introduces something extraordinary into this setting, she acts out a physical interplay with the employees, who are busy with their tasks (the production line keeps moving), and herself, physically at close quarters with them, and questioning them.

Marie Voignier rightly emphasises the possible pitfalls of these residencies: employees navigating their way between their subordination to a boss and the more or less desired state of being the focus of an artistic project. Anne, the switchboard operator, expresses things quite well when she answers the invitation to be photographed: “If I must…”. The film sheds light for us on the balancing act facing the artists, and the difficulty for the employees to appropriate their project. The artists, whose residency is paid for by the management, must negotiate their autonomy and win the employees’ trust. Concurrently with these filmed situations, sequences have been written based on different exchanges witnessed by Marie Voignier. These words compiled by her, mixed and then re-played as voice-overs for elliptical images of gestures and work areas, express more personal reflections, and refer the spectator to the film process and its hybrid quality of both archive and critical fiction.

By small touches, Au travail outlines the contours of a meeting that is in no way self-evident. If certain exchanges between artists and employees seem promising, the film questions the role that might be played by the former within companies, and the rightfulness and validity of organising the latter’s cultural life. It sheds light on the doubts and the mutual curiosity of the artists, the employees and the managerial staff, and, despite various uncertainties, reveals the benefit derived from this programme by the company executives. In it, with unwavering pragmatism, they recognise a creativity that is very much in vogue in contemporary management, a stimulation for their teams and also an original enhancement of their image. The artists, for their part, find therein a research terrain that is usually not very accessible, and the wherewithal for production.

And what about the employees? How do they cope with this experience? What memories of it do they retain? The film illustrates the special singularity of each one of the residencies, and the intimate, and thus hard-to-grasp, nature of the encounter. The employees’ interest nevertheless seems to lie in the challenge to be taken up, for many of them at least. This is probably the reason the experiment merits being pursued. At a time when patronage is tending to become a not insignificant source of funding for art, when employee discontent is forever on the rise, it is perhaps as well to re-assert art’s calling as something of general interest, and the importance of its presence at the heart of the challenges of our society.