Clément Cogitore : Augmented Availability

Jean-Michel Frodon

Something happened. It doesn’t really matter what. What matters is observing the effects and trying to position yourself in terms of them. Clément Cogitore’s artistic gesture lies in the association of these two questions: What’s happening, right now? What stance to take in terms of what’s happening? A submarine filled with weapons disappears then reappears, its captain found naked on his knees, mute (Archipel, 2011). Wolves roam through a foggy playground (Memento Mori, 2012). A couple grows old in their Moscow apartment surrounded by the greatest Renaissance paintings (Bielutine. 2011). A young man trying to cross a closely surveilled border contrives a means of survival in the woods with the acquaintances he’s made (Parmi nous, 2011).

These are situations. They summon a story, a geneology which isn’t voiced. They stimulate associations of images and ideas which remain unformulated, free for the person encountering the works to imagine or reflect upon.

There are holes, many holes. Sometimes these are ellipses, huge ellipses taking on the dimension of the risk of nuclear war; sometimes they are gaps, gaps between images and sounds, between verisimilitude and affirmation, between realism and stylization. Faith, of course… but which faith?

The fullness of Clément Cogitore’s work, and partially the difficulty of grasping it as it presents itself today, hinges on his way of tackling the issue of faith (what artist doesn’t, one way or another?) without considering whether we understand what the term means. In other words, he embodies a change of era that could be symbolized by the comparison of his film Bielutine. with Orson Welles’ F for Fake. For Welles, it was a question of the playful or even cunning movement back and forth over the boundary separating true from false. And for Welles, the question is posited from an identifiable place, that of the creator (Creator), artist or falsifier, artist and falsifier, artist because falsifier. In Cogitore’s film, shot in 2011, these attributes and divisions of the world and ideas have disappeared. The boundary between true and false is no longer dealt with whatsoever, and the artist has been replaced by collectors, depositaries – though we’re not sure how – of objects we can no longer question in terms of true or false.

Also not dealt with is the fact that the objects themselves, which in the former value system would be priceless treasures with an exceptional aura, seem no different from the knick-knacks filling the elderly couple’s apartment – not to mention the cats, insistent reminders of Giacometti’s remark about what to save in case a museum burns. But that would still be thinking in terms of dichotomy (“life” vs. “art”), whereas here it’s a question of a whole which is both unique – including what binary thinking has distinguished – and much more multifaceted.

What makes these infinitely disparate elements (a Rubens, a cat, a toy, an elderly woman, a crow, the history of Russia) hold together is in fact faith. But once more, it’s difficult to assign a place to it right off the bat, because this faith isn’t that of the viewer, nor of the filmmaker, nor that of any sort of authority who professes to speak the truth or to share the illusion of reality. It is all that and more. It is constructed randomly and erratically, in a manner that can only be actualized for each individual when he or she finds a stance and distance. Clément Cogitore practices an art which does not correspond to any known definition, insofar as he sets up – with technical and sensorial means – a proposition which undoes its own established place, which we might call the place of mise-en-scène, giving the expression as broad a meaning as possible, well beyond its usual connotations in theater or cinema. If the mise-en-scène were the construction of a point of view, a distance and an angle of approach, Cogitore’s process aims to, on the contrary, dislocate such a procedure, to fragment it and bring into play a multitude of viewpoints, reference systems, approaches or distances, displacements or immobilizations – something which is done for every “spectator”, a word we’ll use for lack of a better, but which isn’t appropriate since it refers to other practices and stances. This fragmentation in no way means dispersal or scattering, but on the contrary the establishment of a multidimensional mental space, of which the polyptych Cohabitations (2008), with its three panels of images and its panel of sound, offers a “simple” example, or in any case a more explicit one in terms of construction.

Critics commenting on Cogitore’s work have rightly underscored the importance of rituals for him. Indeed, the different practices that tend to generate the flow of belief which bodies and things get caught up in are systems aiming to engender faith. But they are only one of the possible ways to create a favorable sensory state. One of Clément Cogitore’s oldest and shortest videos, Burning Cities (2009, 5 minutes) may provide not the key – for there isn’t one – but at least a crystallization. This montage of nocturnal sequences lit by fire and flame stimulates the imagination in a way that doesn’t rely on any established procedure. A great many fire rituals exist, but fire itself is not a ritual, and the encounter with blazes, bonfires, explosions and various fires does not obey any rules or organization. It’s the absence of rules itself which unleashes faith, contrary to (always possibly) manipulative strategies of any kind of propaganda or mise-en-scène.

Because the issue here may seem to stem from a play on words, yet is powerfully and disturbingly profound: the possibility of believing without having to believe “in” anything at all – what all ritual points to. Clément Cogitore offers a literal illustration in the odd translation of a line from Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar. Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) asks, “Mais vous ne croyez donc en rien?”  (literally, “don’t you believe in anything?”), while the English subtitle in a DVD version reads Do you believe in nothing?, which is not the same thing. The possibility of believing in nothing (instead of “not believing in anything”) is made explicit through the way Cogitore uses it as a screenshot appearing in a layout of six images, a composition that accompanies the diptych Noli me tangere in this publication and explicitly calls to mind the theme of faith in relation to touch and physical contact. This is literally what is at stake in Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, echoed by two other stills from Bresson: the hands of the lovers from Balthazar which don’t touch, and the active, adept hand of Pickpocket, a flesh and bone manifestation, living puppet on the “strange path which had to be taken” towards grace.

Believing in nothing is not not believing, quite the opposite. It means being open to the indecision of the world. It means anticipating the adventure of the missing submarine without being assigned the police work of deciding whether the captain had a mystic experience, or was hypnotized by the Russians or Chinese, or struck by a Martian ray, or whatever else. It means watching and listening to Ely and Nina Bielutine in their lair filled with treasures, stories and animals without pulling out your lie detector or truth serum. It means accepting the wolves roaming through the fog and the echos of Monteverdi or Bossuet in a state of augmented availability which the reframing by a more explicit system at the end does not devalue, but on the contrary pushes a bit further still. It means entering a complex dance of attempts and abandons by Amin, the main character in Parmi nous, with the necessary knowledge of the fate of the illegal immigrants around Sangatte as well as another receptivity to bodies, lights, movements which, far from minimizing the difficulty of situations, redeploys them differently in a way to share them with people who haven’t experienced them.

Instead of “minimizing”, I almost wrote “estheticizing”, since this verb has become pejorative, heavy with opprobrium that would reduce (?) a state of facts to its formal stakes. No doubt we should worry about redeeming this word instead, particularly for what Clément Cogitore does. By showing the extent to which such an endeavor of densifying the formal dimension – far from reducing its scope or what it offers the senses – can in some cases, on the contrary, augment and deepen it. Take the loop of Passages (2006) which lasts 4 minutes and is never-ending: the capacity to, in one sole (lateral and majestic) movement, make the ensemble of sensations and metaphors associated with ideas of prison and ruins, religion and museum, memory of the Last Supper and industry interact, with such little technical means and artifice, is an amazing feat which serves, indeed, a kind of faith.

Devoid of any systematism, yet another affirmation of the creator’s preeminence (“my” point of view, “my” form, “my” rhythm), each proposal offers a form which is particularly powerful and at the same time particularly respectful of those it addresses, in the paradoxical construction of the remote contacts (Noli me tangere) that enable the “situations” which Clément Cogitore’s work engenders. Each one in its own way sets out a relationship to the world impalpably shot through with an unprecedented re-illumination which, beyond its unique stakes, the double journey of the projector and the moving screen in Travel(ing) (2005), or even better the movement of the luminous globe in Angelu(s)x (2008), would already be, and once and for all, the official trace.

Translation : Michelle Noteboom

Jean-Michel Frodon
He is a film critic and historian. He writes for Le Monde and Cahiers du Cinéma where he was editor-in-chief from 2003 to 2009 and currently teaches at Sciences Po Paris as well as the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland.