needs (interview with Hanna Alkema)

HA : In 1999 you start a series of mundane interventions in the public domain which you class under the general heading "needs", faults which are spotted and fixed in the streets of the big cities that you frequent (Rome, Paris, Prague, Osaka…). You realise more than 20 until 2002, then intermittently until you suspend the series in 2006. During those 7 years you carried out diverse and modest actions in urban surroundings in a primitive yet level-headed manner, such as re-painting a pedestrian crossing, planting trees, building a birdhouse.... Could you come back to the genesis of this long-term project fluctuating between feigned pragmatism and poetry?  


DC : I started this project during my stay at the Villa Médicis in 1999. One day I visited the studio of a painter at the English academy, but the works didn't really interest me. I simply asked myself what was really important in that space. Above me there was a mezzanine with a railing. This railing, which was there to prevent people or objects from falling, seemed to me to be more fundamental than the paintings. From there I quickly realised that I wanted to create something like the railing. An unprepossessing object, the element that no-one sees. 


HA : Is it the invisibility combined with the essential nature of the object which appealed to you? 


DC : Yes, absolutely. It fitted with an ideal that I had: to produce something like a kerb. The kerb appeals to me with its humility, its invisibility, and the fact that it structures the pavement in a way that allows one to walk, dream, to think about anything other than not falling into the road. In a western urban landscape the kerb has a real purpose. The image of the railing, the kerb, but also the garden, which I explored during my studies at the Ecole du Paysage in Versailles, intertwined with and ultimately developed into the idea of a work which is both present and absent but, above all, essential. This realisation was so intense that I started the needs series the following day.


HA : Where did this demand for a hands-on intervention in the city come from ?


DC : Throughout my career I have been very conscious of everything that surrounds a work of art: where it would go, for whom it was destined, and the reasons for its existence. And I have always wanted the greatest possible number of people to take advantage of what I have to offer. During my studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts the idea of putting my work together in one format and one object to be stuck on a wall seemed like a dead-end.  In a museum people know that they are going to see works of art, even if they don't necessarily understand them. On the other hand, exploring a garden created by an artist is completely different. The artistic nature of the place is not immediately apparent. Doubt creeps in, and the artist can provoke questions in a place which is part of day-to-day life, namely a garden. That is why I went to the Ecole du Paysage, to take part in real life, to develop from an artistic viewpoint. I didn't become a landscape architect but I have continued to explore this interest for public and shared  spaces, initially through video. 


HA : In what way does this interest for public spaces come across in your first video installations such as A Journey With Some Of My Friends (1997) ?


That piece juxtaposes a landscape filmed on the motorway between Paris and northern France with a soundtrack made up of the favourite titles of a group of friends from that time. The video and the soundtrack were playing concurrently, each one exploring the   idea of a public space in their own way. The landscape was not particularly special or picturesque, but it was nonetheless a common space. In the same way the music described and created a space which was not physical, but subconscious. It's a piece of shared memory. To listen to music years later is to revisit intimate memories which evoke Proust's madeleine. The soundtrack of twenty songs represents a collective portrait at a particular moment in time and in a particular society. I continued with this idea of public space two years later with needs.


HA: It seems to me that, already in this video, you tackle the notion of public space in a very intimate manner, as is the case in needs where you take the initiative with private actions. Is there not a paradox between the impersonal nature of the public space and the intimacy which you install ? 


DC : At the time I wanted to look at the public space in an intimate way. It was nothing to do with my own personal viewpoint, but rather the intimate relationship between individuals and these spaces. We each have a very personal view of the city. We use certain streets or we go to certain areas because we like them, because our bodies are sensitive to certain elements such as the air, shadows, smells... The idea that developed with needs is that the city belongs to me, to us, to you, and we shape it according to the relationship that we have with the public space. I like this contradiction between intimacy and the public space in a city. A few years after starting needs, when I went to Japan, I discovered that the Japanese used the pavement in a completely different way to us. Their body language in relation to the ground is remarkable. In a house one does not sit on a chair but kneels on a tatamis. On the streets, lots of Japanese crouch down to smoke a cigarette, adolescents sit in a circle to drink or chat. In the West, people who sit on the ground are often on the edge of society. This confirms the idea that one can love the surface of the city and have a different kind of contact which has nothing to do with distance. 


HA : How do you go about finding the "needs" of a city? 


DC : I went on a mission. Sometimes I saw things by accident. At other times I made a conscious choice for urban reasons, an interesting configuration, a certain population... I worked mainly in big cities where anonymity rules. Spotting needs was always done on foot, but not just a gratuitous stroll. If I wandered off, it was nothing romantic but rather a sound, a smell, a place which had attracted me.


HA : Traces of your interventions were rarely visible. Except perhaps where you repaired a hole in the pavement with a mosaic of coloured broken glass. Yet in a city the passer-by is continually stimulated by a quantity of information, signs, posters... One would think that, in order to exist in that kind of space, actions have to be louder, stronger. Why did you choose, on the contrary, to melt into the background? 


DC : Precisely because I had the impression that there is enough stimulation. I did not want to compete with publicists who are commissioned to produce a strong visual impact. I wanted to put a message across in a different way. The needs series addresses another question : who am I as an artist, and what can I do in the world and in the city ? Rather than building a monument, I preferred to take a step back and use extremely simple actions which are just as important as erecting a monument. 


HA : As an artist how do you deal with this near invisibility? 


DC : While I was having fun repairing a hole with bits of coloured bathroom tiles it was precisely to play with this relationship between visibility and invisibility. There is no real need for an artist to add colour to a city. The action of artistic decoration here is pointless.  The majority of the actions in needs could have been carried out by roadmenders. The role of these urban actors interested me, as did the homeless. They have both developed a particular relationship with the urban space which we in the West are not aware of. They fear the city from a height of 30 - 40 centimetres, while they sleep at ground level. They have a different viewpoint and they can tell us things about the city that we don't see. When we are on a street we use it but we don't really see it. We have a haughty attitude to the pavement. But they are removed from society yet at the same time they are literally living the city. This series of needs attempted to consciously incorporate these skills and these lives. The subject matter of these pavements and these areas fascinated me. The city is a dirty place, its matter repulses us. It's as if on the surface it's not made to be loved. 


HA : You deny wanting to take the place of a publicist, yet in certain needs you usurp the role of people like roadmenders, whose job it is to plant trees in the city, repair benches or pedestrian crossings. Is that not contradictory?


DC : The idea is not to usurp but to highlight. needs often produced thankless urban activities, but I was focused on the urban space in the same simple way as a roadsweeper. 


HA : When you chose to repair things which no longer worked in the public space you were responding to your own private initiative on things that you had seen on the streets. What pushed you to react in what appears to be a completely unselfish manner?


DC : I particularly like the humility of the actions. I was responding to simple needs: I repainted a pedestrian crossing so that people could cross the road. I did it all with a certain amount of naivety as regards humankind. I didn't do it for me, but with others in mind. I believe in free gifts.


HA : But if the intervention is barely visible, where is the gift ? 


DC : In fact, I gave something to the city and to all its residents. For example, planting a tree pleases me because, after a while, the tree creates shade which is very much appreciated on a sunny day. When I repaired a bench I gave it back its usefulness. 


HA: Did you ever consider these actions as performances? 


DC : No, I didn't want them to be linked to an audience. I refused to let people assist. I did these things alone, or with a photographer and sometimes an assistant to stop traffic when I was repainting a pedestrian crossing. Above all I wanted to melt into obscurity, not create a show in which I was the centrepiece. I put myself into this position, to become part of the urban environment and carry out the related work, whether that be repairing a bench or planting flowers.  


HA : Why this refusal to have an immediate public when you were working for the benefit of others? 


DC : If I was working in the street I wasn't interested in hanging about waiting for somebody to come up to me and strike up a conversation. I didn't want to reach out to just a few people. If, later, this work entered the art world, it was because I wanted a wider public to ask themselves the same questions that I had been asking myself. The direct relationship with one person didn't really interest me. I found that too limited and too individualistic. I much preferred creating a situation and then leaving. In my work human contacts don't exist. When one performs this kind of free act, which is the definition of gift, one can not expect anything in return. 


HA : You spoke of the diffusion of your work in the art world. How did you imagine the re-transcription of these actions? 


DC : From the beginning I had a clear idea of producing a series. I had in place a shooting protocol, with precise formats. Initially I played with the idea of a video, then a slideshow. I had more ideas of possible actions than their actual rendering. I didn't like the idea of a narration with a beginning and an end, which would have been inevitable with a video. 


HA: Nevertheless, narration is very much present in the fixed images which you present today as the traces of needs.


DC : Precisely because I produced this work initially on video, which was the logical choice of medium for my work and which I used widely at that time. But with needs video threw up questions which were outside the scope of the work. The whole question of the relationship with the public space was discharged. All attention was focused on the action itself, which was often fussy and long. I then produced a series of 24x36 slides, but the sequence of images continued to suggest a narration, which I didn't like. I wanted to widen the contemplation of the action itself carried out in the public space by an anonymous individual. This explains my distance in certain photographs, the fact that I turn my back, or that I am far away. I did not want to be recognisable. I tried to erase that aspect through photography by appearing as a lambda individual. This allows the spectator to project himself into the scene and to question his own role.  


HA : Why choose such a large format for these photographs?  


A large format (96 x 122 cm) permits a rapid understanding of what is going on in the image, without the need for a commentary or written description. I wanted to achieve immediate understanding with one image per action. The wide angle takes the emphasis away from the moment of the action and towards a more general exploration of the urban universe of a Megalopolis. Whether the photo was taken in Rome or in Prague, the generic character of the city dominates. The image represents all cities. needs raises the following question: is it our role as individuals to look after the public space? Each photograph and each action represented a huge interrogation of this kind. I could have developed each action individually and in different formats. By producing a series of photographs in the same format with a generic title I chose not to water down the questions. Each need attempts to define what could be the attitude of an artist to the public space. I am aware that I have created some unseemly situations, but provoking laughter or a smile ultimately comes down to giving or affirming something. 


HA: These needs, which you define as naive, contain humour and a certain amount of second degree. 


DC : Yes, sometimes I react with humour. But certain actions wavered between humour and drama. Planting flowers in the street was both a decorative action and a tribute to those flowers which are laid at the spot where someone has died. The needs series began in Rome, where lots of people are killed on scooters and these types of flowers are often found at the roadside. In Prague I planted flowers in a kind of brick-making equipment. I wanted to evoke the Prague Spring. When I walked, the bloody history of those streets was always in the back of my mind. Somebody could have died there, but maybe, on the same spot, people met for the first time. Streets are the theatre of life and the city a manuscript. The potential contained in these places is fantastic. needs restored this mass of potential story-telling.  


HA: This potential narration is very present in the series of shots which you call Notes on a Project to Come (1997 to now), where you photograph situations which you see on the streets. Is this a kind of preparatory photographic notebook for needs ?


Notes on a Project to Come is a way of testifying to the wide range of actions that are possible in the city, to its vitality. I photograph things that I come across by chance. These things have not necessarily been created by someone, it could be a puddle for example. In any case, they show that the public space is not a smooth surface. 


HA: You also show that there are other actors apart from yourself in the city. 


DC : Yes, but people who act for themselves and in relation to their own use of urban space. That is the case for the benches I photographed, some of which are opposite shops or bars. I like watching the way that a novice makes a bench. I don't just get attached to an individual initiative, but to its positive aspect; these interventions reveal the extent to which the city is alive and filled with anonymous actors! Sometimes needs gives the impression that I want the urban space to be perfect. But in fact it is the opposite. I have used a pencil to restore fading graffiti in the streets of Rome. However, I won't be doing a project directly based on Notes on a Project to Come. It's more of a quasi-daily habit of photographing something which has caught my attention. But that doesn't make it a sketchbook. It's mistakenly referred to as working notes. 


HA : Certain videos or stills by Gabriel Orozco are similar to these images of banal observations (1). Do you recognise yourself in the work of artists of the same generation who are similarly preoccupied by urban space, attracted to daily existence or mundane disturbances ? 


DC : Yes, of course. Effectively, as far as Orozco is concerned some of our interrogations overlap, although in very different ways. The similarities between my work and that of Francis Alÿs seem quite obvious... Actions-peu by Boris Achour are regularly compared to needs. But his method of intervention is the opposite of mine. He used the city as a support for his precarious sculptural interventions and for the disparities that it produces in practice. Whereas I acted at the heart of the city. Our respective works are two possible directions for light-hearted interventions in the city. The direction that I chose corresponds to the work that I began on urban space at the Ecole du Paysage, where I came to understand that the city is not a completely free and open expanse. On the contrary, it is the result of decisions taken by a limited number of people. With needs, I seized this authority. But when I started the series I made no reference to any particular artist. These interventions are logically referenced throughout my career. Incidentally, I remembered recently that at the end of my studies at the Ecole de Paysage I was already working on interstitial landscapes! 


HA: And had you already started this series of Notes at the Ecole du Paysage ? 


DC : Those which I'm showing today began in 1995-1996, but effectively the first images date from my studies at the Ecole de Paysage around 1993-1994. Urban landscaping was my universe, I observed layout plans, the way of laying kerbs, benches. I've always liked benches for their links with gardens, just like the follies, niches and workshops of certain english gardens. These constructions are the vehicles of a great imagination, and are omnipresent in my work, even if they do not appear literally.  


HA : In needs a certain number of images are close to the Notes because we no longer see you carrying out the actions. You are out of the picture completely. What does this evolution correspond to?  


DC : At a given time, after featuring in about fifteen photographs, I no longer wanted to appear in the images. I showed certain of them without me or anyone else. The shoot had to be rethought. Until then I had been asking photographers with whom I worked to take lots of shots in order to have a wide choice and thus to find the most evocative images. No longer being in the shot allowed me to take a step back, but at the same time made the scene less obvious. Once again the spectator had to understand what was going on without my guiding presence. Consequently some of the images took on a more abstract feel. The tools and objects which are left lying around become the pointers. 


HA: Do you disappear from the images gradually over the course of the series? Is the image of the bench that you have repaired, where we see the bench after your intervention, one of your final actions?


DC : I don't appear in the image but the bench repair is actually one of the first actions. In fact, the first time I showed it I had chosen an image in which I appeared. Later I selected a different image. Yes, progressively, one could say that I am no longer in the picture. That can also be put down to the fact that, after a few years, the curators of exhibitions to which I was invited expected me to carry out specific actions in their cities. According to Tadashi Kawamata, an invitation from a curator inevitably involves changing the ideas that he has about one's work. And, effectively, from 2002 I really wanted to step back from needs, which was becoming a kind of label. 


HA : How did you do that?


DC : I did two things. Firstly, I asked other people to perform the needs for me according to my specific instructions, and the second was to script the actions without actually performing them. I had a pile of notebooks with project ideas for needs which I developed into a set of gouache painting exercises.  I produced three or four from scenes photographed in my workshop which I subsequently reproduced in an imaginary urban landscape. I didn't follow this up. Roman Ondak developed a similar project of putting his own work into an abyss by reproducing the shots of his exhibitions. During the same period my own friends carried out actions on my behalf. There are four, but I have never exhibited them. This series of needs appears very simple, uniform, accessible, but it was developed over several years with numerous attempts to transform it, stops and starts, and differing approaches. Incidentally I haven't used all of the images of actions that were carried out. 


HA : There is another type of action where you are even more anonymous than in needs, by leaving books in the city. Is this a project which has featured in your work? 


DC : Yes, I left books and photographed them in position, but I have never shown them. It has always been tempting to leave a book in the place where  it was finished, when that place is not home. But through this type of action I ran the risk of disappearing completely as the author, something which I didn't really want to do. needs addresses the question of the disappearing nature of my actions. As a direct result I considered becoming a social worker or a politician. This became more acute between 2000 and 2004, when I was working on a public project in Annecy and by necessity acted as a social worker. I was frequently called upon to meet with a group of residents and I often wondered how they saw my role. It was always very clear to me, however, that I was first and foremost an artist. 


HA : In 2007 Jörg Heiser invited you to show needs as part of a collective exhibition entitled Romantic Conceptualism (2). In what way is the term romantic conceptualism appropriate in relation to the work of  needs ?


DC : It's quite obvious, I'm interested in subjects which are very close to romanticism, namely landscape, which is a constant. Birds, flowers and trees are present in much of my work, such as I clandestini in 2002 where I transfer Parisian sparrows to Rome. And if I need to look for peers, certain belong to the conceptual movement like Douglas Huebler, Laurence Weiner, Stanley Brouwn, Jan Dibbets... I feel the closest affiliation with Bas Jan Ader on questions of landscape and disappearance. Another underlying romantic theme which runs through my work from the beginning is the relationship between passing time, inevitability, and death. Many works explore these subjects implicitly. Absence is a recurrent theme. needs are instances of past and probably vanished actions. A Wild Sheep Chase (2000) (3) is a quest for the unknown and death. But beyond these subjects which arise from romanticism, I think it is the way that I use them which connects me to Jörg Heiser's Romantic Conceptualism. I have never been personally involved in the things that I put in place. Jörg Heiser talks about the loss of identity, a subject about which I feel particularly strongly. The idea is to work consciously but with a certain distance, using familiar affects and exposing all-embracing feelings. In summary, a kind of public space emerges. The spectator is involved on a more personal level by a play on memories which in turn provoke feelings. In A Wall Made Of A Memory in 2000, a wall was covered with a layer of lipstick which conjured up childhood memories. Those memories do not need to be exposed in order to appreciate the work. On the contrary, everyone recognises the smell of lipstick, which is not without memories, always different, for men and for women. Heiser also connects romantic thinking with an almost political desire to change the world. The engagement which I showed was in the same style. However, I was aware of the vanity of my acts, which were inevitably doomed to fail. 


HA : Why have you stopped producing needs since 2006 ?


DC : The public space works in exactly the same way as a gallery or an artistic space, and maybe even more so today. I mean, artists today are aware of the urban, plastic, architectural and social details of these spaces and use them in the same way as spaces presenting alternative qualities, such as a « white cube » for example. The « white cube » induces a certain manner of looking at a work and it seems to me that the urban space similarly induces a certain way of looking at a work. For that reason, today I have no desire to intervene light-heartedly, or even to disturb more or less harshly, this space. I continue to show my work and will not be denying its existence, but I am distancing myself. Moreover,  I would be incapable of initiating a similar project now.  


HA: Why? 


Because public space is becoming increasingly private. When I started the series I didn't have that feeling. Today a whole group of people are taking over public spaces, starting with businesses who are appropriating the pavement, a space which we need in order to circulate, by the way. I don't like the fact that this common and necessary space is becoming a marketplace. In my current work I am more interested in designing a space, bringing it to life. Space, including the space for the exhibition itself, is a very important idea for me. That is what led me to stop the needs series. I no longer want to show framed photographs, but rather to concentrate on the space in which we live and move. But affirming these actions necessarily involves documenting them in some form, whether it be written, photographed, designed... Because it is the only way to make it exist. For that reason, ten years on I want to design public spaces, to see new spaces emerge for real living. I had already started to reflect on this for the Scenario Parmelan project in Annecy between 2000 and 2004. The most touching part of this project is that I succeeded in bringing to life a space imagined by an artist where the space in question was originally destined to be something completely different. The original project involved pulling down the existing buildings to build a football stadium, which was abominable  for this space, which could have become a social hub for the residents of the area. I worked to make it into a square, which was something missing from the neighbourhood. I insisted that that space, which was full of potential, become a space for living.


HA: How did you do that ?


DC : Initially the local authority invited artists to submit proposals for a work in the Parmelan area of Annecy. Rather than proposing an object I turned it around and proposed a space, calling into question the urban project which was in place and the football stadium which was already planned. When my project was accepted I offered to put it on hold while I consulted with the residents. From that moment on my identity as an artist was put to the test. I'm not a social worker. On the other hand, I could try to encourage the residents to think about the kind of place they wanted to live in, and about art. But, after a year, I realised that it was not my job to carry out that consultation, to engage a dialogue which led to a brick wall. Discussions with the residents were very conflictual. It allowed me to put the needs series into perspective and to reevaluate my naivety in relation to the public space. Beforehand I told myself that I was repairing a hole in order to stop myself from falling in. That becomes more complicated when you add a group of unknown people into the equation. It led me to ask myself a wider range of political questions, to debate whether such decisions should be imposed on a community or thrown open to public discussion. 


HA: How do you feel about the Scenario Parmelan experience today? 


DC : In some ways the Scenario Parmelan remains unfinished. The idea was to leave the space as open as possible, punctuated by several smaller layouts. Some things were not done, due to lack of funds. Those three years of discussions with the city and public services were exhausting. Even though I had finished my studies at the Ecole de Paysage I am not a landscape architect, it's not my job. But I'm very happy to have been involved with this project because I succeeded in creating a real space which is used today, often for parties and garage sales. The space exists in the day-to-day life of the residents. It exists independently, my name is not associated with it.  I like the idea that a work can exist without the artist's identity, like an architectural work which has been signed but not claimed. This project has encouraged me to repeat the experience. I wouldn't want to do only that, but the Quimper project (4), which I am presenting at the Galerie Fernand Léger exhibition, is a new attempt to create a previously unforeseen living space. The project was terminated but, in spite of that, the idea remains. I am presenting this as yet unrealised project in the exhibition as a model.  Today, I define my relationship with the public space through the creation of space and not through the performance of relatively fleeting actions. I say relatively because traces of certain needs still exist. The birdhouses, for example. The hole in the pavement that I fixed on rue de Belleville stayed for quite a long time, until the pavement was completely resurfaced. The city evolves and the photographs show that it existed. When I go past the birdhouses I tell myself that I should come back with a screwdriver to tighten them up, or that I should repaint them. Besides, even if needs is completely finished, I've still got a few ideas of places where I would like to do something...



(1)Notably the series of five videos  From Green Grass to Airplane where derisory urban scenes as observed by the artist in New York and Amsterdam in Autumn 2007 follow on in a circumstantial and unforeseeable movement.

(2)Romantic Conceptualism, in the Nuremberg Kunsthalle in Nuremberg and the BAWAG Foundation Vienna, united ca. twenty artists from different generations including Andy Warhol, Bas Jan Ader, Tacita Dean or Kirsten Pieroth.

(3)A Wild Sheep Case is the identical re-edition of an eponymous work by Haruki Murakami where all phrases referring to the narration and characters have been deleted, leaving a succession of blank pages with a skeletal mundane text. Only descriptive passages remain like a series of haïkus.

(4)A Tire Track Became A Line Of Flowers, A Paint Pot A Tree, A Puddle A Group Of Shrubs…, (2006-2009) is a garden project for the Médiathèque des Ursulines in Quimper