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.