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REALITY: HERVÉ FISCHER AND JAN ŚWIDZIŃSKI
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Encounters 1 - Art’s context and social reality: Hervé Fischer
and Jan Świdziński
Created on Tuesday, 03 October 2017 12:55
Written by Juliane Debeusscher
The Centre Pompidou in Paris recently presented "Hervé Fischer and
Sociological Art", a retrospective exhibition synthesizing more than
four decades of activity of this artist, sociologist and researcher. Hervé
Fischer (1941) started to work in France in the early 1970s and moved
to Canada in the early 1980s. Both individually and as a member of the
Collectif d'Art Sociologique (Sociological Art Collective) which he
founded in 1974 with Fred Forest and Jean-Paul Thénot, Hervé Fischer
carried on an artistic and theoretical practice that addressed art's
ideological meanings and functions in society.
From his first artistic project recognized as "sociological art"
(Hygiène de l'art, 1971) till the mid-1980s, Fischer's approach was
informed by a materialist conception of the role of artistic production
and its impact on a specific context. It also included an important
pedagogical dimension that led the artist to foster different types of
participation and interactions with an audience that was not necessarily
familiar with contemporary art.
Hervé Fischer et l'Art Sociologique, Centre Pompidou, Paris.
Public performances like Pharmacie Fischer (1974-1977) –
a traveling pharmacist's desk where pills for all sorts of pains and dreams
were prescribed by the artist – and Bureau of Imaginary Identity (1976-1981)
– with the artist-bureaucrat filling an imaginary ID card for each person
willing to apply - reflected his will to intervene in what he referred to as
"the real world" and explore the social imaginary of specific places. Although
these performances took place in cities like Milan, Sao Paulo, Perpignan or
Calgary, they were not confined to urban centers but also traveled to smaller
towns and villages.
While Hervé Fischer's projects mostly relied on methodologies and tools
borrowed from the field of social sciences, such as surveys and fieldwork
research, they also entailed a poetic and utopian dimension, raising issues
like people's desires and aspirations and documenting their unpredictable
answers. Launched as a survey in a national newspaper, L'Oiseau-chat.
Roman-enquête sur l'identité québécoise (The bird-cat. Novel-survey about
Quebecoise identity) actually became a hybrid book collecting individual
narratives between reality and fiction of the self.
While this sociological approach aimed at exploring the relation between art
and its social environment; it also voluntarily moved away from large-scale
frames like institutional structures and state cultural policies, focusing instead
on the experience of specific communities and milieus (neighborhoods, social
groups). This perspective reflected in a sense the "community-based" work and
research many activists and social workers, as well as engaged film and
documentary-makers, were carrying out at that time.
Like many artists of his generation eager to communicate across the cultural,
linguistic and geopolitical divides, Hervé Fischer received and exchanged
information with peers from different places and latitudes. His name and
address appeared in numerous artists' mailing lists that were an alternative to
institutional communication channels. The artist's personal archive, conserved
in part in the Kandinsky Library (Centre George Pompidou, Paris), reflects
these international connections: letters, invitations, leaflets and publications
from different interlocutors in North and Latin America, Western and Eastern
Jan Świdziński at the Ecole Sociologique Internationale, Paris, 1977. Image
coutres of Hervé Fischer.
Among Fischer's contacts from Eastern Europe was Polish artist Jan Świdziński
(1923-2014), who was developing during those same years his theory and practice
based on the idea of contextual art.
Świdziński was the author of the manifesto "Art as Contextual Art" (1976),
published in Sweden in 1976, assembled with other programmatic texts in a
bilingual publication by the Remont Gallery (Warsaw) in 1977.
It is not surprising that the two artists were in contact, as their reflections on
art as a social practice shared important points (and differed on others). Fischer
and Świdziński had in common a well-articulated theoretical reflection about art
and artists' role - presented by means of statements or manifestos –combined
with an artistic practice that truly engaged with specific territories and social
milieus. They also vigorously escaped the dominant rhetoric of conceptual art,
especially its Anglo-Saxon version centered on art's analysis through linguistics.
Fischer criticized it for its idealistic and tautological perspective, which concealed
the existence of any external (meaning, ideological) conditioning.
According to Świdziński, "[c]ontextual artists oppose the whole tradition of
conceptual art, regarding it as an art which cannot be the answer to the
problems of modern civilization. They also oppose all modifications of
contemporary Modernism as being a stylistic version of art of the past." His
position was clear, situating contextual art out of the sphere of aesthetics:
"Contextual Art is a social practice. Theoretical generalizations do not interest
it. It is not concerned with the production of prepared objects for cultural
consumption. Contextual Art is a form of acting in reality, through the
following transformation of meanings: REALITY → INFORMATION → ART
→ NEW OPEN MEANINGS → REALITY as a pure sign, cleansed of stereotypes;
a sign which is filled by the present reality." A position shared by Fischer and
the Collectif d'Art Sociologique who were opposed to attitudes conditioned by
academic knowledge and discourse: "the concrete reality of the experiments
carried out. Our aim is neither art nor sociology, but intervention in the social
field. Art and sociology are only the means."
Beyond their own specificities and operating fields, contextual art and sociological
art undoubtedly shared a universalist, inclusive dimension in which, for instance,
the distinction between centers and peripheries completely lost its relevance. While
on one hand these practices could not exist as autonomous aesthetic productions
and, as such, remained out of traditional art locations and white cubes, on the other
hand this same condition gave them a very broad field of action, since they could
inhabit any context or environment without restriction. Being defined by the reality
in which they operated, these practices were not limited to a capitalist or a
communist society, they escaped any attempt to identify them as typical. They
applied atypical theoretical and methodological principles to act in specific
contexts. Differences and specificity lied in this relation and the responses it produced.
Jan Świdziński, Sztuka jako sztuka kontekstual/Art as Contextual Art, Art
Text 3/77, Warsaw: Galerija Remont, 1977.
Świdziński's manifesto on contextual art and its twelve points were used as a
point of reference by a group of artists consisting of Świdziński himself, Roman
and Anna Kutera and Leszek Mrożek. In 1976, they collectively exhibited at
the Gallery St Petri in Lund (Sweden) under the title "Contextual art". As
Świdziński recalled, they were particularly interested in realizing actions in rural
settings, arguing that these were the places where real "authentic collectivities"
still remained, as opposed to the cities where, according to him, the communist
system had fostered impersonal groups of proletarians in order to serve the
objectives of socialist industry. Artistic actions by Świdziński and his
colleagues in remote places like the Kurpie region (in the 1970s) or the small
village of Mielnik (1981) drew attention to the process of erasure of ancient
local identities and their replacement by a new imposed vision of the world,
"based on an ideology that did not take individuals' realities and interests into
account." These incursions into local contexts were not always successful, since
local communities could not react as expected. However, the possibility of failure
or inadequacy of artists' proposals for this context was an integral part of the action,
as Świdziński observed: "Our successes and our failures reflected in one way or
another, the context of the current reality."
Hervé Fischer, Sinalização Imaginària, intervention in the public space, Sao
Were these failures also dictated by the sociopolitical conditions of living under
a Communist authoritarian regime? Actions themselves did not explicitly refer
to Poland's situation. In some cases however, they could be interpreted as a
political commentary and the authorities promptly reacted by censoring them,
as in the case of "Freedom and Limitations", Świdziński's solo exhibition in
Krakow, which was cancelled due to the proclamation of martial law on December
13th, 1981. The only remnants were posters announcing the exhibition in the streets, showing the artist's name and the words Freedom and limitations, a statement that
was enigmatic yet meaningful in such a tense context.
Also in 1981, Hervé Fischer carried out with a group of art students a project for
the Sao Paulo Biennial. Sinalização Imaginària (Imaginary Sign System), which consisted of a series of posters displayed in public space, juxtaposing names of
city districts with concepts (Liberdade, Realidade, Consolação), with arrows
a – true or false? - direction. While the formal similarity of the two interventions
is striking, it should above all raise the issue of the "contextualized" reception and
the attributed meanings of this type of socially-oriented art. Did the display or manifestation of this abstract terminology have the same ambiguous and, eventually, politicized meaning in both contexts? Did it penetrate into people's reality in the
same way? Fischer had a position on this: "for me, in France, sociological art had
to remain interrogative, and not become a politically engaged art." However,
the transposition of his practice to other contexts ineluctably transformed its
meanings and social impact, as the very nature of "sociological" or "contextual" art implied.
In 1975, Hervé Fischer participated in the collective exhibition "The forms of
artistic activity", organized by Galeria Współczesna in Warsaw. He returned to
Poland in 1977 with the whole Collectif d'Art Sociologique to participate in the international conference "Art Activity in the Context of Reality", organized by Świdziński at the Galeria Remont, also in Warsaw. As he retrospectively observed,
while sociological art was received with interest in socialist countries, "they did
not like the word 'sociological' because with Communist dictatorship, that was
enough: above all, people wanted freedom outside the social institution. So the
concept of sociological art didn't work in Central Europe. The Pole Jan Świdziński,
who stayed quite often at my place, spoke more readily of a 'contextual' art."
The idea of a social, collective dimension was automatically associated with state ideology, provoking suspicion and rejection.
Poster of the exhibition “The forms of artistic activity” at Galeria Współczesna
in Warsaw, 1975. From Hervé Fischer's personal archive.
Exchange and dialogue were nevertheless maintained on a regular basis. In May
1977, Świdziński was invited to give a lecture at the École Sociologique
Interrogative (Interrogative Sociological School) in Paris, in the context of the
conference "Art et transformation sociale". Both artists also participated in the
conference on Contextual Art organized in Toronto by the Centre for Experimental
Art and Communication, in 1976. It is worth pointing out that Canada was an
important place for the two artists, where their work and writings circulated and
gained visibility through a multiplicity of channels. Hervé Fischer has actively contributed – and still is - to the country's art scene and its debates; until his death
in 2014, Świdziński was frequently invited to Canada to participate in events and
his writings were published under the form of articles and essays.
Despite their constant engagement with activities and debates relating to art and
society, both also recognized their marginality within the art world and market. The
term "marginal" here is not related to a geographical or geopolitical situation –
according a centre-periphery scheme which very often excludes a lot of degrees of
self-representation-, but rather to an art praxis that did not follow the law of market
and institutional recognition, and, perhaps most importantly, did not seek to go
against them or criticize them either. It was simply taking place in another space
of construction and reception. Curiously, and also quite ironically, this critical attitude
of sociologically and contextually-oriented art has been somehow forgotten or
neglected in subsequent readings, reducing their – also - experimental, non-object-
based practices in the 1970s to (post-)conceptual art, or a kind of "politicized conceptualism" which seems such an attractive concept nowadays.
 Hervé Fischer, "Signification de l'art sociologique", 1974, Hervé Fischer
Fund, Kandinsky Library, Centre Pompidou Paris. Reproduced in Sophie
Duplaix (ed.), Hervé Fischer et l'art sociologique, Paris: Manuela Editions, 2017, 60.
The exhibition Hervé Fischer et l'art sociologique/Hervé Fischer and Sociological
Art curated by Sophie Duplaix remained on display at the Centre Pompidou from
June 15th to September 11th, 2017. I thank Hervé Fischer for the information and
the images he accepted to provide for this post.
 Hervé Fischer, L'Oiseau-chat. Roman-enquête sur l'identité québécoise (The
bird-cat. Novel-survey about Quebecoise identity), Montreal: La Presse, 1981.
 On Świdziński, see Łukasz Ronduda, "Flexibility makes our existence possible:
the contextual art of Jan Świdziński", ArtMargins Online, 10 september 2008. http://www.artmargins.com/index.php/8-archive/88-flexibility-makes-our-existence-possible-the-contextual-art-of-jan-widziski ; Kazimierz Piotrowski, "Hommage à
Jan Świdziński", Sztuka i Dokumentacja, nr 8, 2013, 79-95.
 Jan Świdziński, Art as contextual art, Lund: Ed. Sellem Galerie S. Petri Archive
of Experimental Art, 1976. Jan Świdziński, Sztuka jako sztuka kontekstual / Art as contextual art, Art Text 3/77, Warsaw : Galerija Remont, 1977.
 Hervé Fischer, Théorie de l'Art Sociologique (1977), 15. Digital version: http://classiques.uqac.ca/contemporains/fischer_herve/theorie_art_sociologique/
 Jan Świdziński, Sztuka jako sztuka kontekstual/ Art as contextual art, 7.
 Hervé Fischer, Théorie de l'Art Sociologique, 19.
 The artists exhibiting were Zbigniew Dłubak, Józef Robakowski, Ryszard
Waśko, Wojciech Bruszewski, Henryk Gajewski, Andrzej Jórczak, Anna
Kutera, Romuald Kutera, Lech Mrożek, Jan Świdziński. The exhibition
was organized with the help of the Union of Polish Art Photographers.
 Jan Świdziński, "La pratique contextuelle", Inter, n°93, 2006.
 Sophie Duplaix (ed.), Hervé Fischer et l'art sociologique, 21.
 Ibid, 21.