There was a time when, because we closed our eyes, we were invisible.

Philippe-Alain Michaud

There is something of the reporter in Clément Cogitore. His artist-filmmaker works, created on arguments and in a documentary style, seem to come out, first of all, from the journalist’s rhetoric: whether he treats a concert of trance music, events at Tahir Square where, with the fall of President Mubarak, the destiny of Egyptian democracy was played out, or the disappearance – real or fictional – of an English nuclear submarine; whether he films his visit in the apartment of the Byelutins, an old couple of collectors living confined in their Moscow apartment in the midst of their paintings or whether he follows, in the bottom of a grotto lost in the midst of ruins in Rome, the making-of of the photograph of a lamb taken – one knows nothing about it – for religious or advertising purposes, Clément Cogitore chooses his subjects and handles them like reports. To create his images, he builds a film idiom that corresponds to what would be free indirect speech in literature, which assumes the presence of a virtual, but never asserted narrator. In free indirect speech, the voices of the characters and that of the narrator are entangled, in such a way that one never knows who is speaking, and at what distance, from what angle.
The visual equivalent of this polyphonic superimposition of voices should undoubtedly be sought, in Cogitore’s films, in the almost permanent inscription of images that are seen inside the images, an inscription that takes on the value of a signature: by displaying their indirect character, the images show other images that thrust the real into a background that is ever more enigmatic, increasingly less accessible, and signals, as an indirect consequence, the presence of another view, located off camera, omnipresent and discreet: digital images first, disseminated by the cell phone screens that stud the concert’s dense crowd, through the TV set on which the panicked demonstrators on Tahir Square, dispersed by the police, are perceived, or through the monitoring screens on which the images shot inside the submarine by thermal cameras – one of Cogitore’s favorite scopic devices – which makes it possible to see what eludes visibility, appear and disappear. Images of paintings as well, which proliferate in the hallways and nooks and crannies of the Byelutins’ home where they form frames inside the frame in which figures appear whom the collectors address as though they were alive; paleo-Christian frescoes that become visible, fleetingly, in the light of a flashlight, on the walls of the grotto with the lamb transformed into a set on which a Christ scenography is replayed. In this way, disparate visibility systems are built, a metareality in which the indirect images – leafed through, reshot, reused, interrupted, reprocessed – invade the visual spaces with their oppressive and discreet presence, always function in a closed circuit to appear, ultimately, as the images of other images whose reality is definitively evacuated and that are replaced by an objectivity in the second degree.

Clément Cogitore has a preference for the night: the bluish night of a concert hall where the mass of spectators, compact and seemingly weightless, swept by the beams of the projectors, forms an organic cloud studded with cell phone screens while, as a subtitle superimposed on the shadows that cover the walls of the image, an elegy by Rainer Maria Rilke recounts the angelic nature of the vision; the orangey night of Tahrir Square on which one can make out, in a low-angle shot, the crowd of demonstrators being dispersed like ants; the black night of a submarine governed by a paranoid admiral that suddenly disappears from the radar monitors; the darkness of the cave with the lamb suddenly lit by flashlights and reflectors; the chiaroscuro of the apartment-museum where the Byelutins live out of time amid their painting ghosts that come to life through the light of candles with a fragile and artificial existence…
Therefore the night, but also its metaphors (that of sleep and madness, that of the darkness of history, both collective and personal), whose meaning is never completely revealed to us and that is shown in a fragmentary or enigmatic fashion, glimmers piercing the shadow like so many flashes of meaning: no explanation, only the narratives or tableaux laden with a meaning by turns dreamlike and mystical. It is in this way that these chronicles, whose invisible narrator Cogitore becomes, take on an irreal coloring that the artificial lighting with which they are bathed to escape, almost imperceptibly, their document destiny and to ultimately reveal their load of strangeness, accentuates: made of ellipses, enigmas, semi-narrative open forms oscillating without being able to decide between documentary and fiction, they are, like dream narratives, incomplete and partial. Like the image of the dream, the image of the film is not the image of what it shows: it is not a reproduction instrument, but one of transformation and displacement.

Clément Cogitore thus uses the documentary texture of the image to electrify, in it, its evocation power and question its analogous or reflecting function: his films take in charge, up to their aesthetic and imaginary consequences, the revolution the digital has brought about and the fact that the production of images is no longer limited to a single status: proliferating, migratory, they are no longer part of a simple system and questions the specificity of the signs of showing. These images, however, in their essential and intimate mutability, and even due to this mutability, are obviously dependent on a story: fragments of visual memory are brought together in them whose iconography taught us to trace migration through the history of forms and that continue to rise to the surface, like floating signifiers, in this basically labile universe that precedes and henceforth influences our experience of the real.

Let us consequently put forward the theory that Clément Cogitore’s five films, which compose this opus, rather than the separate works, constitute the five chapters or five movements of a unique body of work that describes the survival and migration of figures and vision systems through time – the time of the story whose eclipses and falterings Cogitore shows, but also the personal time of the singular subject who when the subject topples into sleep or insanity, sees burst forth from the darkness the crowd of specters whose appearance he organizes in a narrative. Image of bodies floating in the space of a concert hall that evokes the angel-studded clouds of baroque painting; allegory of the mystical lamb taken from the paleo-Christian iconography of the Good Shepherd; figure (nothing of which we will see but whose sole witness is the voice off) of the naked admiral kneeling at the bottom of his apparatus in front of a radio that evokes the representations of Saint Jerome in the desert…
This work on the time of the representation also concerns the formal components and the ontological determinations of images: as in the nonlinear perspectives of medieval painting, the Tahrir Square, owing to the irreal blurring created by refilming the television screen, seems to be an irreal and split space on which the police, separated from the demonstrators they are chasing, appear out of scale, like threatening giants; the Byelutins’ apartment seems crossed by an animist gust that makes the status of the painting figures that the collectors address as icons unstable. Between documentary and fiction, Clément Cogitore does not place his films in a specific representation system: using a deliberately loose style, he crosses all the registers of visuality without being configured by any of them, questioning the strictly reflecting and immediate function of recording and projection and, through this, the witness function of images; if one had to name his practice, perhaps the designation of essay would be the most accurate, with what this approach incurs of risk, experimentation but also critical elucidation, that is, a way of reinventing, each time, without masking its historical nature, the rhythms and fluctuations of the visible.

Philippe-Alain Michaud
Philippe-Alain Michaud est historien d'art, commissaire d'exposition et conservateur au Centre Georges Pomidou-Musée national d'art moderne.