A Fred Forest retrospective
by Priscila Arantes
If there is more than one path for the electric current to flow between two points and if the voltage between two points also runs through each path, then there is a circuit in parallel. Metaphorically it can be said that a parallel circuit symbolizes the constitution of a network of connections which take a different path in relation to the trajectory of a previously established circuit. It is about a strategy, an action which, despite making use of the same mechanisms of the official circuit, works at the edges, at the limits, at the extremities, placing in the scene the deficiencies and fragilities of codes accepted by society. It is also about the formation of networks, of intersubjective actions which are developed in continuous flow and in the ephemerality of time.
Parallel circuits: A Fred Forest retrospective comprises six modules which reach back to the first works of the artist Fred Forest, passing through his interventions carried out in the press and in other communications means, through his actions developed in Brazil, bringing us up to his most recent projects of net art. Despite the great number of pieces presented, as well as his thematic diversity, the common axis of the exhibition is designed from the perspective of circuits in parallel. One glance, among other possible ones, at the work of this pioneering artist in mediatic art.
Born in the 1930s in Algeria, by 1967 Forest, two years after Nam June Paik appeared on the art scene with his video experimentations, presents La cabine telephonique/The Telephone Booth, one of the first video-art works developed in France. Two years later he carried out, incorporating closed-circuit television, a video-installation named Interrogation.
Lying on the border between esthetic creation and social experimentation and relying on a vast production, Forest carries out grandiose and often polemic projects such as Bourse de l’imaginaire/The Stock Market of the Imaginary (1982), Le territoire du m2/The Territory of the Square Meter (1980), Avis de recherche: Julia Margareth Cameron/Missing : Julia Margaret Cameron (1988), among many others.
His actions generally include the appropriation of communication means such as newspapers, TV, radio and the Internet to create circuits parallel to the established mediatic circuit. He often draws attention, creates strategies which subvert and place in evidence the hidden games of the media. But not only this. The use of communication means for Forest is not only about a strategy of resistance regarding the ideologic-mediatic discourses, but foremost draws attention to the fact that our own reality is forged and built from networks, communicating veins which are contextually established.
Art for Forest is before anything an attitude; an action. Its raw material is not the paint or the brush, but reality itself. Far from being a self-enclosed object, Forest’s actions are communicating circuits, intersubjective relationships which mimic the communicative capacity of society.
It could be said that Forest’s method is similar to those of the neoconcrete artists. It is built within a phenomenology of action, which entices the public to enter into dialogue with the piece. If we begin with the presupposition that communication is a touchstone of social organization, we can fathom that to give the public the possibility to form part of his actions and not only contemplate his piece, is in parallel to take this idea, from the field of art, to the field of everyday experience. That is, it means, to postulate the idea of a less passive posture, on the part of the public, before the space of the social reality. Projects such as Vídeo-troisieme age /Video-Third age (1973) are evident in this regard.
Fred Forest is a parallel circuits constructor. He uses communication means, destabilizes established circuits, and interferes with reality. He builds collective spaces of intervention. In doing so he activates, or as Walter Benjamin would say, he produces a spark, a short-circuit, uma iluminação profana/a profane illumination, which makes the individual wake up and look at the reality around him.
Participating in many individual and collective displays and exhibitions, such as São Paulo International Biennial (1973), Venice International Biennial (1976), Documenta de Kassel/ Documenta VI, Kassel (1977), Fred Forest is also a theorist and researcher. In the 1970s, along with Herve Fischer and Jean Paul Thenot, he founds the sociologic art collective. In the 1980s he creates, with Mario Costa, the presuppositions of the esthetics of communication: one of the first theoretical-conceptual movements to reflect in a systematic way on the employment of telecommunication technologies as a source of artistic expression.
The Brazilian context
Fred Forest’s relation with Brazil, on the other hand, is particular. He develops a series of actions in the 1970s and 1980s at a time when experimentations with new means such as video, computer, photocopying, and silk screening, had begun to boom in the country. His participation in the XII and XVI São Paulo International Biennial, Passeio sociológico ao Brooklyn/Sociologic Walk in Brooklyn (1973), Biennial of the year 2000 (1975), Autópsia da Rua Augusta/Autopsy of Augusta Street (1973) and Branco Invade a Cidade/Blank Invades the City (1973) are some actions which marked the artist’s passage through Brazil.
In 1973 he participates, at the invitation of Vilém Flusser – with whom, in fact, he develops the video Lês gestes dans lês professions et la vie sociale/Gestures in professions and social life (1972) – of the XII São Paulo International Biennial. It is worth remembering that this Biennial, in the middle of the military dictatorship witnessed a fever of experiences derived from neoconcretism and its successors, interested in breaking with the notion of the stable piece, contemplated passively by the spectator. The idea was to stimulate the public making them able to interact with the proposed works. The set of these works, in general installations and environments, was reunited in the Art and Communication segment which included, among other, projects by Waldemar Cordeiro (1925-1973). Within this segment, Forest developed a series of actions creating a parallel circuit of free expression at a time marked by silence and by ideological doctrines of the national political scene. One of his actions consisted of obtaining blank spaces in newspapers with large circulations in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro for the public to draw or write messages in. These texts were, later, incorporated into the Biennial. Another action consisted of placing telephones at the disposal of the public and amplifying what was said at the exhibition venue. The set of these actions not only revealed an attempt to entice the public to the Biennial, but also, at the same time, to create a parallel circuit of expression at a time when freedom of expression was limited.
Besides being situated in the confined space of the museum and of the gallery, Forest’s actions, often, are developed in the space of everyday reality, in parallel circuits, beyond walls, postulating a questioning of established territories and using the city as the protagonist of the esthetic manifestation. In a way these actions take us back to the political and esthetic program of Situationists who defended the union of esthetic dimension with the social and political experience. Within this perspective it is worth remembering O Branco invade a cidade/Blank Invades the City (1973). The action consisted of going around the center of São Paulo - from Largo do Arouche to Praça da Sé – simulating a protest march with some 10 people carrying blank signs. Hundreds of onlookers joined ‘the march’ blocking the traffic for several hours. Forest was arrested by DOPS, and the organizers of the Biennial and the French Embassy had to intervene in his favor.
In an analogous way, during the VII JAC (Jovens Artistas Contemporâneos – Young Contemporary Artists), in November 1973, the artist organizes at MAC-USP the event entitled Passeio Sociológico pelo Bairro do Brooklyn/Sociologic Walk in Brooklyn. Followed by students transporting their individual seats and having equipment of TV Cultura at his disposal, he recorded meetings of the group with passers-by in the street and in establishments, creating situations of “guerrilla video” and dialogs unexpected for a state of restrictions to the freedom of thought. The unusual episode of art/communication was watched by the police.
In Brazil this practice, to flow out of the institutional circuit taking art to the streets, not only revealed a rupture with established territories, in an evident criticism of the confined spaces of art museums and galleries but, concomitantly, gained a militant outline of a crying out for freedom – be it esthetic or political. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Brazilian groups carried out similar works, taking the urban context as a support for artistic – mediatic projects, as in the case of the group 3NÓS3 and Viajou sem passaporte.
Information circuits: insertions in mediatic networks
Taking the Theory of Information as a basis for the analysis of Forest’s works, Mario Costa states that his actions have a great quantity of information precisely because they act against that which is expected. The concept at the base of information theory states that the quantity of information contained in a signal is inversely proportional to the probability of the signal itself. A predictable signal is expected to possess a small quantity of information but, on the other hand, an unusual and unexpected signal possess a large quantity of information.
Forest’s actions operate precisely with the unpredictable, with the unusual, disturbing the established circuit. The blank spaces developed in the 1970s in the newspaper Lê Monde and repeated in other newspapers worldwide, the interruption of television transmission for 1 minute (on a French channel, in 1972), La photo du téléspectateur/The TV viewer’s photo (1976), the actions on radio stations such as those carried out on Jovem Pan (1973), Télé-choc-télé-change/TV-shock-TV-exchange (1975) – an experimental TV program based on commentaries on objects sent by the viewers – or even Apprenez à regarder la T.V. avec votre radio/Learn to watch TV with your radio (1984) draw attention in the mediatic universe, whether because they develop differentiated operations in relation to that which is usual, or because they allow the public to participate in the programs.
As in a kind of ready made action, Forest creates parallel circuits, actions, interferences in communication means to place them again in circulation. Precisely because of this he makes noises in the established circuit, drawing our attention to the mechanisms of information production.
Imaginary Circuits: anthropologic dimension
Forest’s operations often result in a criticism directed toward the power of information manipulation and toward the ideological-mediatic context. Projects such as La Conference de Babel/Babel’s Conference (1983) and Fred Forest president de la T.V bulgare/Fred Forest president of the Bulgarian TV (1991) are evident in this respect. But not only this, often the public are stimulated to participate actively – and not passively- in the information circuit. This is the case of Bourse de L’imaginaire/The Imaginary Stock Market (1982), one of the most audacious works of the artist. Carried out at the Pompidou Center, the idea of the project was to mount a context similar to a stock exchange, equipped with information means (computer, video, telephone, speakers). Instead of proposals for the selling and buying of shares, Forest’s Stock Market proposed rates for facts (imaginary or real) sent and written by the public.
In Avis de Recherche:Julia Margaret Cameron/Missing:Julia Margaret Cameron (1988) the action consisted of placing, for several weeks in newspapers and in other communication means, news about the disappearance of a fictitious character. The public was invited to write about the person going beyond the barrier between real and imaginary.
Besides creating a collective circuit of information, both projects enticed the imagination of the public, placing in the scene the fact that we form part of a communicative society. In a way, these projects take us back to the experiences of Orson Wells such as the classic War of the Worlds (1938) in which he simulated a Martian invasion of planet earth. But in the case of Forest’s actions, they are not only about denouncing the potential and the power of the transmission of communication means but about, concomitantly, creating situations in which the public can give a voice to their own simulations, to their own imaginary circuits using, for this, communication means.
Commercial circuits: art and market
Parallel circuits does not operate only in the dimension of a criticism of information networks or of the creation of intersubjective clusters of communication as in Images-Memoire/Images-Memory (2005), a net art work which discusses the collective memory through the creation of an image databank. In this regard Forest’s actions approach, frequently, questions intrinsic to the contemporary art debate. Questions which relate to the questioning of the confined space of the museum, the role of institutions and of the commercial circuit of art production.
In 1979 Forest published in the Liberation newspaper a space in which was written “artist’s certificate”. The idea for the project was to criticize the art market and the established art circuit and to declare his repudiation at not having been invited to participate in the exhibition “10 Years of Contemporary Art in France”. In another action Forest opened a case against the Pompidou Center. The art market system, Forest said in an interview to Jornal de Brasília on December 6th 1995, has imposed a form on art, stipulating values. Institutions, such as museums and galleries, simply adhere to this art market, without objection. They therefore fabricate the values regarding what art is. Each exhibition at one of these institutions has, by law, to stipulate a value for a piece. Knowing this Forest requested from the Pompidou Center the price of works of art by the artist Hans Haake. They refused. He then went to the commission responsible for administrative documents (CADA) and the museum was invited to reveal the values.
Territoire du m2/Territory of the m2 (1977) denounces the speculative practices related to real estate and art. For this, the artist, through the creation of the Sociedade Civil Imobiliária do Metro Quadrado Artístico/Real Estate Civil Society of the Artistic Square Meter, publishes an advertisement to sell “artistic” plots of land – of 1m2 – from a total of 20m2 – situated on the border with Switzerland – in the economy section of the newspaper Lê Monde. The artist was summoned to answer, before competent entities, charges of real estate fraud which resulted in the prohibiting of the selling of the shares, leading to the artist selling – in a type of auction – at the Espaço Cardin of the Hotel Lê Crillon in Paris – the non artistic m2 – blank canvases signed by the artist.
In all of these projects what can be noticed is the parody and the criticism of the economics and marketology operation mechanisms involved in the art circuit. These actions take us back to works such as Árvore de Dinheiro/Money Tree (1969) by Cildo Meireles – or even to Porco Empalhado/Stuffed Pig by Nelson Leirner. It could be said that these actions approach the thinking of Jean Baudrillard, mainly those developed in Lê systéme des objets/The system of objects (1969) regarding the symbolic questions of sign-value exchange.
These ideas run though several of the artist’s works from those developed in the 1970s to more recent ones such as Territoire des reseaux/Territory of Networks (1996) and Parcelle Reseau/ Parcel Network (1996). In the latter the idea was to make, through an auction at FIAC - Foire International d’Art Contemporain/Fair of International Contemporary Art – a parody of the ownership of works of art in digital media, through the selling of a net art work.
A Fred Forest Retrospective
To bring Fred Forest to Brazil is essential in various ways. Firstly, because Forest is a pioneer in mediatic art. He reveals, in his trajectory, an irreverent view in relation to the mechanisms of information production, which flows into the more recent productions of net art. On the other hand, he has taken a particular course in the national art scene.
Despite the national scene being very diverse in relation to the first time that the artist was in Brazil, to develop a retrospective of Fred Forest in the year of the Biennial – whose honored artist is the neoconcretist Hélio Oiticica – and of a political election – places us minimally in harmony, in a “parallel circuit” similar to that which was developed in the 1970s.
Parallel Circuits : a Fred Forest retrospective does not only look into the rearview mirror – as Marshal McLuhan would say – but points toward the future in the sense that, through the work of this artist, more general presuppositions of the mediatic art on the contemporary scene are placed under debate.