Thursday, March 29, 2012

Panel Review: Mediatic Networks in Postwar Paris

In conjunction with its Jesús Soto exhibition — Soto: Paris and Beyond, 1950–1970 — NYU’s Grey Art Gallery organized Mediatic Networks in Postwar Paris: Art, Sound, and FIlm in Motion, a symposium providing cultural context for Soto’s mid-century work. Though speakers presented on different topics at the March 23 event, the theme of postwar instability and uncertainty united their talks.
Following opening remarks, Serge Guilbaut of the University of British Columbia explored the role of the artist in postwar France. In his presentation titled “‘Leur faire avaler leur chewing gum’ [Make them swallow their chewing gum]: Violent Art Scenes in Paris, 1953,” the avuncular professor vividly described Parisians coming to grips with the previously unfathomable loss of their stranglehold on high culture. As Guibaut relayed, for some Parisians, the most disturbing aspect was the power shift to America, a nation known more for its “sexy” cars and Rockwellian dinner scenes than for its arbitration of good taste.
In a nod to the French Marxist theoretician Henri Lefebvre, Pratt Institute professor Agnes Berecz named her presentation “There really is no substitute for participation!’: The Techno-Geographies of GRAV [Groupe de Research d'Art Visuel].”  As Berecz discussed, and to quote Lefebvre further, GRAV aspired to challenge viewers perceptions of what constitutes art by getting them to “do more than just look.”  This was evident in their 1964 Buenos Aires exhibition La Inestablilidad [Instability], in which the group’s kinetic art was set in motion through audience interaction. With Une journée dans la rue [A day in the street], the group brought their work to downtown Paris. The 1966 street fest lured rush-hour crowds with its lo-tech, schoolyard-esque activities, turning a daily commute into public art. 
Tom McDonough of Binghamton University presented “No Success Like Failure: Exhibition Practices of the Situationist International, 1960-64.” The revolutionary group's unrealized exhibition would have involved a disorienting labyrinth installation that led participants into a dérive, a meandering walk through surrounding neighborhoods guided solely by the aesthetics of the terrain. Echoing the sentiments of GRAV, the SI aimed to shake up the modern urbanite’s expectations of, and experience with, his or her surroundings.
As highlighted by the panelists, the postwar cultural dominance of France, the primacy of painting and the practices of the spectator were all impugned. With Paris in upheaval and the city’s counterculture leading the charge, the anarchic era was a hotbed for the proliferation of new artistic ideas. 


  1. Nice treatment of the selected lecturers and their topics. The opening paragraph is thorough and straightforward, although I get kind of confused, even rereading now, when I come to “a strong current of instability and uncertainty” because I immediately relate that to the lectures, rather than the historic period, until a few words later. I also feel like by the end of the piece, I’ve forgotten that all of this is meant to be relevant to Soto’s work. You might be able to inject, either throughout the piece or in more detail at the end, links between the lecturers’ topics and Soto’s work and life, beyond the fact that he was in that place at that time.

  2. Nice work reviewing such a huge amount of material. I think that you touch on some interesting things in your review. I would maybe think of concentrating more on the talk and less on the work of Soto. I know this sounds weird but considering that his work was in some ways a small part of their presentation it might be appropriate. Most of the talks did pair a picture of tension in post-war France. They also described a very exciting time in European art history. I think that Soto is a great example of a very fun time in artistic production, when optimality and participation were used to oppose the academy.

    1. Good point. I've made my revisions with this in mind.

  3. I think you do a good job weaving together a critical narrative that begins to illuminate the political backdrop and social context for Soto's work. However, linking his work to the broader movement in more detail would clarify some of the ideas that you put forth. I agree with Judith in that I would like to hear more specifically about Soto's work and life in the context of GRAV as discussed by the panel of speakers. I also agree that the last sentence in the first paragraph seems a bit awkward. It’s not entirely clear whom the “instability and uncertainty” pertains to.