Fleeing what is often mortal danger in their home countries, exiles continue to seek refuge en masse in Europe today. Amongst their ranks, a mix of ages, sexes and conditions, there are also artists—those with proven careers or ones who become so through exile—and like others denied the conditions to exercise their profession, they have twice as much identity to lose. In Paris, artists Judith Depaule and Ariel Cypel established a structure for them, the Agency of Artists in Exile, and a festival, Visions d’exil. An interview with Judith Depaule, theater director and the agency’s co-director.
Christian Rinaudo: You direct a theater company that was created in 2001, Mabel Octobre, which operates at the intersection of performing arts and digital technologies. There you uphold a certain way of working, close to research, centered on documentary investigation, whose results are reproduced in the form of creative writing. Where does this way of working come from?
Judith Depaule: It probably carried over from my family. Both my parents were researchers in the human sciences, and I probably adopted a modus operandi that I applied to my artistic practice.
I need to approach subjects from concentric circles until I feel like I’ve exhausted them: I try to meet witnesses, if there are any, I film and record, I ransack the archives, read, watch, etc. I pretty much conduct my own “field investigation”. I tend to make a theater of facts, but I also give myself room for invention. I like to take time for research and my investigations change subject, even if they have common concerns or some form of logical evolution.
CR: There is also an important aesthetic dimension to your work. You are interested in new technologies, which you integrate into your dramaturgy. What is the meaning of this approach, and how do you articulate aesthetics and politics, both of which are central to your practice?
JD: I’m trying to create a spectacle, in the sense that I want to make an artistic object that will stimulate one’s attention and provoke reactions. Aesthetics and politics are closely connected and in my opinion, cannot be dissociated. For me it’s hard to say something without a frame, without taking into consideration space and how it’s organized. Using new technologies responds to this desire to speak of a world in evolution, but also to find other possible modes of narration. Our relationship to new technologies modifies our perception, and therefore our practices. I often think in images.
CR: You are preparing a doctoral thesis in Performing Arts on theater in Stalinist camps, so practicing art under extreme conditions. You also lead workshop-performances with detainees at La Santé prison. The deprivation of liberty, imprisonment, zones of non-existence, are all recurring themes in your work. Is this also connected to your work with artists in exile?
JD: I would see it the other way around. Because I have always been interested in these so-called zones of non-existence, I also wanted to take action for artists in exile. I started my first phases of research for this thesis in the late 1990s, which enabled me to interview over 40 former prisoners who had done theater in the Gulag based on the material I collected, in 2004 I created a piece called Qui ne travaille pas ne mange pas (“Those who do not work will not eat”). And this is what drove me to lead workshop-performances with detainees at La Santé. I was looking for a field of practice comparable to my research. Art is absolutely essential in staving off the effects of imprisonment. I’ve been involved in other initiatives: supporting sans-papiers (undocumented persons), joining the struggle for a more cooperative and sustainable freelance artist statute, respect for gender parity in culture, etc.
CR: You launched the Agency of Artists in Exile with Ariel Cypel in the summer of 2016, and its first spaces were inaugurated in September 2017, after the Calais Jungle had been dismantled. How did this initiative get started? What has your stance been and what are your guiding values?
JD: In September 2015, with Ariel Cypel, I had just joined the artistic directorship of Confluences (grassroots space in Paris that was cleared in November 2016). We decided that urgent action needed to be taken with regard to Syrian migrants. This coincided with the first major outdoor camp that was sprouting up at Porte de Saint Ouen and the release of Aylan’s photo, the Syrian child who washed dead ashore a Turkish beach, spat out by the Mediterranean after having attempted to cross it with his family. We launched a call to our metropolitan-area colleagues to open cultural spaces and decided to take in refugees at the theater, transforming offices into guest rooms and assisting them in their efforts to obtain papers and “integrate”. In February 2016, we programmed a pluridisciplinary festival, Péril Syrie, during which we met some artists in exile. Their personal accounts confirmed the lack of professional conditions for them to practice their art and the challenges in understanding the mechanisms of a new cultural world. During the festival, through an initiative by the Office national de diffusion artistique (The French office for contemporary performing arts circulation), we organized a first salon of artists in exile, a moment to meet and exchange between artists in exile and professionals. The success of this initiative, the access to a professional and institutional network, building up an extensive database of artists living in exile on French territory, proved there was a need to create an organization dedicated to accompanying artists in exile.
As for the word ‘values’, I prefer ‘convictions’. Our convictions stem from a longing for a different world.
CR: Ever since what happened in Calais, “migrant” or “uprooted” artists and artists “in exile” have been the topic of much media coverage, which has the benefit of bringing visibility to this category of exiled persons, but also casts a shadow on all the others. Together with the researchers, they set a “good example” for who to promote and nurture, those for whom we should mobilize. But what about those who are not fortunate enough to be identified as artists? How do you see the risk in selecting between “exemplary” and “undesirable” refugees?
JD: We have been criticized for working only on behalf of artists in exile. We act in our own field. It’s up to those in other sectors to build agencies for other professional categories of people in exile. There are indeed “good” and “bad” migrants. You could put most head cooks in the first category. The other becomes acceptable through the prism of research, art and gastronomy.
I’d say we should take advantage of the former’s good image to change how the others are seen. Artists especially alter our worldview through their artwork, they push us to see things less frontally and find a breach. They can work toward positive contamination. The dichotomization of “good” and “bad” refugees is patent, but also sterile. In order to reinvent itself rather than fossilize, Europe needs all kinds of migrants, no matter what is assumed to be their added value.
CR: The Agency of Artists in Exile is an initiative by two artists, Ariel Cypel and yourself, who were collaborators until 2016 in Confluences, a space for socially engaged art located in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. Does the fact that you are both artists help to create a special rapport with the artist members and the cultural actors you work with?
JD: The fact that we are both artists enables us to dialogue about the common experience of creation, and to anticipate needs before they are spoken. We feel legitimate in giving advice related to our experience, to give feedback on what we see and hear, but we also try not to overstep on what we imagine is each artist’s singularity. And so we can tell a conteur that they aren’t audible, or to try using the space differently and rethink their relation to the public, to think about what drives them, how the story is built and what direction it takes, all while respecting the proposition.
We organize technical workshops or artistic exchanges for artist members, we give them advice about professional training programs. Many feel the desire to branch into other disciplines and polish their skills. Artists naturally evolve as individuals in their world, even more so in this de-territorialized world where they have not yet mastered the codes. We try to give them the keys without pushing them into fixed templates. As to the other cultural actors, they listen to our experience and to the quality of the dialogue that we propose.
CR: The Agency of Artists in Exile today hosts more than 200 artists from various disciplines (visual artists, dancers, dramaturges, actors, musicians, photographers, videographers, stylists, illustrators) from many countries in Africa, the Near and Middle East, Maghreb, Asia, Latin America and Europe. What are the criteria for becoming a member and what are the different profiles of the artists currently involved?
JD: To become a member, you have to be living in exile, either voluntarily or because you were forced to leave your country in order to escape intolerable living conditions. On rare occasions, we accept persons who have been living in exile for more than 10 years, but we focus mainly on new arrivals. One must be an artist, which has forced us to establish definitions and categories, all while leaving a lot of wiggle room. Is a “professional” artist defined by producing artworks, by know-how or skills acquired through artistic training, by experience and recognition, by their market value, or because art is their primary form of expression? Here we can see all the pitfalls of such criteria. We make the effort of reconsidering these things for each artist; sometimes our view on things is mistaken. An artist in exile is an artist that can no longer return to their country because their life or activity is under threat. The notion of a professional artist (someone who is only dedicated to their art) does not have the same meaning depending on one’s geographical origin. Some countries have an easily identifiable cultural system, others have incomplete, broken or non-existing infrastructure. Others do not even have formalized art teaching; art is transmitted rather than learned. We have 4 major groups of artists: the so-called professionals with established careers who wish to continue their activity; the semi-professionals or “experienced amateurs” who wish to perfect their training in order to professionalize; artists-in-the-making; artists who became artists through exile.
CR: Since the beginning of this adventure, you consciously chose to connect this place of administrative and artistic support with a festival, Visions d’exil, which recently finished its third edition in November 2019 and which allows, in particular, artists from the Agency to be programmed. How did you conceive of this link?
JD: It was quickly obvious to us that we should set up an artistic event oriented toward the public so that the artists we support could be discovered in a festive setting with many interesting things on offer, and to really question ourselves about the notion of exile and its consequences. It was hard for us to envision accompanying these artists without making their work resonate and reach others. So we decided to approach exile from a different angle in each festival edition. In 2017, barely a month after our inauguration, we decided to explore the notion of passing from one country to another, one life to the next. In 2018 we aimed to shine light on the ways in which a foreigner, and their image, is viewed. In 2019, we delved into the topic of “language and exile”, as language is one of the ultimate barriers to be crossed. For us it’s a way of alerting the public and deconstructing the stereotypes propagated by European laws on migration.
CR: For three years you programmed a performance entitled Je passe during the festival. It consists each time of 7 stories that you staged based on accounts gathered from artist members of the agency. 21 stories in total, in which political and social questions construct a viewpoint that is embodied two-fold: by the artists in exile that the audience can see thanks to a video installation, and by the actors who are their voice. Is art a political tool for you?
JD: Art is a political tool in its ability to shift things. Each individual has a unique reading. This is why the multiplying and multi-disciplinarity of the agency’s propositions, particularly during its Visions d’exil festival, increase the opportunities for these shifts to occur. Plus, whether consciously or unintentionally, exile modifies and politicizes an artist’s production. Their artistic language is restructured and renewed. You could see this as a process of resilience. Exile, which displaces bodies and so many other things along with them, is paradoxical: it is both loss and liberation, pain and emancipation.
Je passe derives from artist members’ stories of exile, spurred by one common question: the precise tipping point at which they decided to go into exile and make preparations to leave. Every story is different and yet, they all recount a state of the world become unlivable. The audience is divided into groups spread out through the space, all the stories play simultaneously, but each group only really hears one at a time. People in the audience might be more receptive to one story in particular, however it is the sum of stories that creates a shift and brings out the unthinkable. The audience begins to think and see differently.
For me, it was important to specify to whom each story belonged, by having each one followed by a performance or video offered as a gift by the artist.
Excerpts from the stories:
“[…] When I was freed from prison, I decided to leave Syria. Once free, I knew I couldn’t stay, that I had to leave. I’d been arrested once; I didn’t want it to happen a second time. This fear never left me for the 2 years after I was released. I couldn’t unburden myself from the weight of prison, I had to get far away, I was constantly afraid, I couldn’t feel free, it kept me from thinking, from working, from imagining the future, from studying, it all came back to this fear. You’re afraid to see other people, to leave the house, to move, it’s a fear that annihilates you. I stayed in Daraa for 3 months, locked inside, I didn’t feel alive anymore. I left Damas because there was nothing I could do there. There was no more life for me in Damas. Every day I face the same challenges. You take the bus, you’re afraid; you walk in the streets, you’re afraid; you go to school, you’re afraid; you’re afraid of anything. You only want one thing: to go an entire day without this fear. […]”
“[…] A friend decided to cross the Mediterranean. Two days later, there was a shipwreck and over five hundred deaths. My friend was on that boat. The coasts began to throw up bodies, bodies half-eaten by fish, some missing their legs, women without their breasts. Most of these people turned white, you couldn’t tell anymore if they were Blacks or White, their skin was coming off. I thought: I’ve suffered a lot, I’ve seen so many people die, whether or not I live or die, I have to get away […]”
“[…] He took us, with the children, to the train station. There was a man waiting for us there who led us into a compartment. He said: sit here, you won’t be able to get out, if you need to use the bathroom, call me and I’ll open up and accompany you. You should not get out for any reason. We were like wild animals being transported in a cage. You look out the window and cannot call anybody and you don’t even know where they’re taking you. Are you going to be killed on the road? You only have one wish, to close your eyes and have it over with. You only stay strong for your children’s sake […]”
CR: The Agency of Artists in Exile and the Visions d’exil festival are now in their fourth year of existence, in a world that still remains governed by the logics of exclusion, closure and narrow-mindedness. Artistic support can take different shapes, some, over time, keep artists in a protective cocoon, or turn the agency into a place where artists become professionals in the French society where they live. What are some of the directions you see for the future?
JD: We want to strengthen the artistic and professional support, consolidate each artistic pole by having a person with those competencies take charge of making propositions for each particular discipline. If we take music, for example, we could go deeper into the work with each group, following their rehearsals, asking about their needs, getting them in touch with other professionals, finding them opportunities to play, to have residencies or recording sessions, and give them visibility by creating a YouTube channel or any number of other things. But we also have to unite the poles and individuals and offer each artist high-quality personal guidance. Considering the diversity of needs, the growing number of artists and external solicitations, we’re still short on time and manpower. And there is so much more to imagine! With our 10-person team it’s a modest staff, we rely on a lot of volunteers, without them we wouldn’t be able to move forward. We also try to integrate artists to the agency’s staff, we find it important that they invest alongside us: many have all kinds of other skills (social, technical, language and organizational skills), they understand how the space functions, they know production work and above all, they understand the members. Their experience is an enormous asset.
We’re also thinking of setting up in other cities and other European countries to build a much larger network and offer even more mobility to artists who are held back. It is hard to avoid becoming a protective cocoon, but like Derrida says, a refuge-house tends to lock people in, but for an artist in exile who has lost everything, this space is a home where they can put down their bags. Of course we must also envision a chrysalis.
Translation by Maya Dalinsky
Cover : Ahlam Jarban, Resident in France, installation during Visions d’exil festival in Cité internationale des arts, Montmartre, Paris, 2019 © Anne Volery