Bertille Bak: Faire le mur
18 January - 2 March 2014
Review by Catherine Spencer
In his influential 1996 polemic ‘The Artist as Ethnographer’, the critic and art historian Hal Foster warned against what he identified as ‘ethnographer envy’ among contemporary artists. He argued that the apparently self-reflexive adoption of anthropological and ethnographic strategies in their practices actually caused them to replicate the binaries of observer/observed, reinforcing rather than deconstructing the spectre of the ‘primitive other’ that has been central to anthropology’s development as a discipline.
Rather than sounding a death knell for the intersection of art and anthropology, however, Foster’s essay helped spark a lively continuing debate. Many commentators have pointed to the ways in which artists - particularly those working in film and photography - have pushed anthropological and documentary approaches into engagements with the legacies of colonialism and neo-colonialism, the politics of urban space, migration and globalisation, and the creation of long-term community and activist projects. Bertille Bak is one of many artists - including practitioners as diverse as Ursula Biemann, Sharon Hayes and Camille Henrot - operating at the intersection of these concerns.
Her current show in Edinburgh, organised by Collective in association with LUX, consists of her 2008 film ‘Faire le mur (To The Wall)’, displayed alongside a series of tapestries made by the participants in the film. ‘Faire le mur’ can be read on one level as a fieldwork study of Bak’s familial hometown Barlin, an old mining village in the north of France. In an attempt to reverse Barlin’s post-industrial decline, the local government decided to redevelop the town. The resulting rise in rents threatened to push inhabitants from their homes, and fragment the local community - an all-too-familiar narrative of designed ‘gentrification’ orchestrated by public-private partnerships. Bak’s film follows the members of this community attempting to resist the opportunistic top-down reconfiguration of their environment, studying their group rituals and interactions as they plot a series of rebellions.
Far from presenting a straightforward documentary, however, ‘Faire le mur’ experiments with fictions and fabrications. A barrage of projectiles fashioned from newspaper is enough to see off an encroaching digger. The residents hold an elaborate lottery to select the garish colours that they will paint the walls of the stark new developments with, as a pointed leaving gift for the new occupants. In Bak’s Barlin, people communicate through a child’s fantasy of speaking tubes, and houses exhibit dream-architectures such as multiple doors. As they imagine their insurgencies, we see the inhabitants of Barlin correspondingly embellish tapestries of iconic paintings representing resistance, rebellion and martyrdom, such as Goya’s ‘The Third of May 1808’. The tapestries become emblems of collaborative work and shared time, another element in the residents’ arsenal.
By combining anthropology and social geography with humour and imagination, Bak not only implies that creativity is a vital part of communal life, but also complicates the model of an anthropological ‘study’ to be held at arm’s length. Instead, ‘Faire le mur’s fairy-tale elements lend it an archetypal quality, positioning the example of Barlin as having wider relevance to everyone who lives in a shared built environment, and cares about issues of equality and integration.
Indeed, Bak’s display of the tapestries made by her participants alongside the film, several of which have been specifically commissioned from the now-dispersed members of the Barlin community for Collective’s show, assume the status of banners in a call to arms. At the same time, as Angela McClanahan notes in her accompanying essay, the tapestries are also examples of ‘salvage ethnography’ - artefacts of a lost community that warn against the cyclical, even inevitable replication of similar destructions elsewhere. Bak herself has underlined this by following ‘Faire le mur’ with works such as ‘Urban Chronicle 3’ (2010), a fiction drawn from her study of the Polish community in New York, and ‘Safeguard Emergency System’ (2010), which focuses on the inhabitants of a condemned modernist apartment block in Bangkok.
The latter work featured in the 2012 Paris Triennial curated by Okwui Enwezor, entitled ‘Intense Proximity’, which took the problematics and productivities of the ethnographic encounter as its organising theme. In Edinburgh, ‘Fair le mur’ appears as part of the year-long ‘Factish Field’ project organised by Collective and Lux, which addresses the connections between artists’ film, anthropology and documentary. Bak is moreover the first artist to be displayed in Collective’s new space in the city’s long-disused observatory dome on the top of Calton Hill, a marker of the city’s own shifting built economies. In ‘Faire le mur’, and within this wider dialogue on the interrelation between art and anthropology, the power imbalances that have long structured fieldwork come under question, as part of a wider attempt to both record and instigate interactions between communities. This is by no means to suggest that the problems disappear, but they are engaged rather than dismissed.