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There was a time in the Past where the Future was Present
Museum of Art and History, Saint-Denis (Paris), from 27.03.15 to 05.04.15

With : Archives Getaway, Jean Amblard, Philippe Artières, Yto Barrada,
Bernard Bazile, Michel Carrier & Jean-Louis Lorenzi, François Chardeaux, Collectif Cinélutte, Henri Fabiani, Harun Farocki, Valentine Hugo,
Jean-Patrick Lebel, Jean Lefaux, Jean-Luc Moulène, Bruno Muel, Alain Nahum, F.W. Murnau, Matthieu Saladin, Paul Seban, Miroslav Sebestik, Jean-Pierre Thorn, Toyen, René Vautier, Marie Voignier.

Curator : Guillaume Désange

Associate curators : Marine Eric & Cybèle Mavrokordopoulou (Work Method)
Exhibition produced by the Département de la Seine-Saint-Denis, the City of Saint-Denis Museum of Art and History, and conceived by Work Method.

Matthieu Saladin, Calendar of revolts, Affiche, 60 x 84cm, © courtesy de l’artiste

Taking the context of la Seine Saint Denis as an emblematic melting pot of the political strifes that have agitated France over a century now, the exhibition accounts for the circular mouvement in the history of social upheaval in France, in a regime of repetition, refrain (ritournelle) and obstinacy of images. The exhibition is designed in the midst of some recurrent stages : seeing, protesting, fighting, living together, coming back, being disillusioned, etc..these sentences that switch continuously, in detail and at large, from scenes of jubilation and doubt, occupation and return to the order, hopes and disenchantment. Drawing on local data (mainly the archives of the department of Saint-Denis), and enhanced by some outside sources, the exhibition strives to feature, literally and metaphorically, a kind of return of a regular pendulum of revolutionary energies in the time of history. References ranging from strifes of the past to hosts of migrant birds, from history’s blind spots to specific points, from politics to poetics, this montage, free of artworks and documents, is burdened with a feeling of anxiety, like a « dreadful omen », between fever and dusky attitude. The bet this exhibition assumes is not that this endless loop is shut on itself, because coming back is nor the same, neither definite, and because this alternative dynamic of flow and reflow of history nourishes a stockpile of an eternally renewed political energy


Considérant le contexte de la Seine Saint Denis comme un creuset emblématique des luttes politiques qui ont agité la France depuis un siècle, l’exposition rend compte d’un mouvement cyclique dans l’histoire des luttes sociales, dans un régime de la répétition, de la ritournelle et de la persistance des images. Elle s’organise autour de phases récurrentes : constater, s’indigner, lutter, vivre ensemble, revenir, se désillusionner, constater, etc.. qui alternent, dans le détail et dans l’ensemble, scènes de liesse et de doute, occupations et retours à l’ordre, espoirs et désenchantements. Puisant dans des fonds locaux (notamment les archives départementales de la Seine Saint Denis), augmenté par des apports extérieurs, l’exposition s’efforce de figurer de manière concrète et métaphorique une sorte de retour de balancier régulier des énergies révolutionnaires dans le temps de l’histoire. Des invocations de luttes passées aux foules d’oiseaux migrateurs, des points aveugles de l’histoire à ses points fixes, du politique au poétique, ce montage libre d’œuvres et de documents se charge d’un sentiment d’inquiétude, voire de « mauvais présage », entre fièvre exacerbée et humeur crépusculaire. Il parie néanmoins que cette boucle infinie n’est pas close sur elle-même, que le retour n’est jamais ni au même, ni définitif, et que la dynamique alternative des flux et reflux de l’histoire alimente une réserve d’énergie politique infiniment renouvelable.

© Archives Getaway

Philippe Artières, Sans titre, photographie du Journal L’Humanité (mars 1963), contrecollée sur dibond, 120 x 120 cm, © Archives départementales de Seine-Saint-Denis - Mémoires d’Humanité

Philippe Artières, Sans titre, diapositive, 3 x 1,5 m, 1961, Image& texte : © Archives départementales de la Moselle, Saint-Avold


There was a time in the past when the future was present

The project Ma’aminim (The Believers) is inspired by the social and political identity of the Seine-Saint-Denis 93 department and by the relations that could directly or indirectly concretely and metaphorically stimulate to the image. The Seine-Saint-Denis department is not therefore the subject, but a circumstance, a prism of miscellaneous phenomena that inspire but do not determine the exhibition. Work on the project took place with the cooperation of local institutions : the collection of contemporary art owned by the department itself, the Saint-Denis Museum of Art and History, the Living History Museum, the Institute of Social History of the General Confederation of Work (CGT) and the department archive (which contains the archive of the French Communist Party, the CGT, and the production and distribution company ISKRA/SLON established by Chris Marker and Inger Servolin). This unique concentration of sources on the social and political struggles that took place in France offers an opportunity to cast light on several historical episodes by means of activist films, clips, objects, propaganda documents and artworks. Using these sources the aim was to organise an exhibition that, though pervaded by this context does not attempt to resolve it, and to create a free coalition between items found in situ or not far away, without anticipating the outcome, i.e. to determine whether the process of searching is as important as the final form. The history of the red Paris banlieue has been known since the 19th century and its character is still being shaped by its social, industrial and political legacy. We know what a burden of production the region had to carry and how, against its will, it found itself in the role of social laboratory in which it experienced waves of immigration, unexpected economic developments, both heroic and apathetic periods, vociferous aspirations and a disquieting calm. And we are thus in a position to understand why the most famous protest movements of the last century found their driving force here, from the Popular Front to the events of May 1968, from strikes against the closure of factories to the rioting of 2005, from the first concerts by punk band Bérurier Noir to the hip hop NTM, and how this region retained the potential to revitalise critical energy. At this exhibition we are interested in how these movements were accompanied by formal, pragmatic, artistic, poetic and political experiments.
The title “Ma’aminim” is taken from Hebrew and means “believers”1. In this case the believers are those who believe in politics, who fight for ideals, those who want to change the world through collective action and in every generation are exposed to the risk of having to confront reality. The believers may also be those who are disappointed, betrayed, those who compromise and have sometimes to renounce their faith. The exhibition moves unobtrusively from enlightened idealism to a mood of gloom. Situating the project in a chapel lends an added layer of meaning to the title and creates a concealed link between faith and political engagement. One religious precept written on the walls of the former monastery adjacent to the chapel points to the profound ambiguity of certain expressions : “We spend the whole of our life planning and need another life in which to realise these plans.” If we examine this from a Marxist perspective, it explains the problematic but essential inclusion of the revolutionary ideal in the time of history. It is activist art, and by extension this exhibition, that points to this problematic relationship between art and time. Political engagement is firmly associated with present and future time (and in a highly prescriptive way). In “The Believers” forms and actions are activated by a speculative charge, an anticipatory movement. This is a revolutionary tension that is focused on the future, which originates in intentions and claims in the best sense of the word. To observe the present critically and to divert the direction of history : this is the agenda of revolutionary thinking, its timetable. From the “singing tomorrows” to “change for life” proclaimed by the communal programme in 1981, the social struggle finds a place in the perspective of a single direction to history. But in the political imagination one of the characteristics of recent years is the feeling of a gradual reduction in questions regarding the present (not to speak of the future) and a concentration on the past. This is a generally widespread regime of convulsiveness, more resistance than projection, both in art and elsewhere, which clearly has its illustrious exceptions.
The speculative present is so alien to our times that it is spoken of with both fascination and nostalgia, as a kind of illusion. Political phantoms are just as elicited as caused. Sometimes we ask ourselves whether we are dreaming this world.
The exhibition arises from these ideas and develops them in two anticipatory films based on an indefinite insertion of discourses in time. Between these two dreamlike and nocturnal projections the exhibition includes documentaries set in the
present that operate as an echo chamber, directly and spontaneously, of events of that time.

© Ch. Delory

So near and yet so far

Our research focused on five themes around which everything rotates : industry, urbanism, decolonisation, immigration and politics. The five classical themes of the French banlieue that are “squeezed” into Seine-Saint-Denis by history. The vortex of pressing situations arising from the confused relations between cause and effect that forged the topography of this region and above all determined individual fates. Industry, urbanism, decolonisation, immigration : these are words that are no longer sociological abstractions or ideological imperatives, but become a concrete
fact within the environment and physical existence of people. This is another reason why political depiction alternately focuses on structural criticism and concrete situations, on the project and reality, on mass movements and compact portraits.
A change of fulcrum is involved, accompanied by another change, this time with the character of struggle, both local and global. If the exhibition Ma’aminim (The Believers) bridges what appear to be distant shores, then this is associated with a basic idea : that all radical political awareness naturally bridges all types of struggle. We see how both prior to and after 1968 in the Latin Quarter, Vincennes and elsewhere student demands encountered workers’, how decolonisation finds an echo in feminism, anti-capitalism in ecology, and how reports from Pinochet’s Chile and Salazar’s Portugal resonate on college campuses. Many commentaries were written on the artificiality of these comparisons and on the fact that between such socially disparate actors there existed a kind of hiatus that was manifest emblematically in the unsuccessful relationship between trade unions, students and workers in May 1968. Though this involves resistance with a capital “R”, this is not “resistance to” but simply resistance, absolute, global, which controls revolutionary desires. It involves more of an elective priority of struggle than a selective prioritised struggle. In many militant projects the signs of this principal universality are clear from the arrangement of anonymous images torn from their context and placed alongside one another without any kind of hierarchy.
The strategy is in operation when it comes to confronting disparate geographical and historical objects. The exhibition puts elements found during random encounters with a strictly curatorial approach into context. And at the same time it activates a documentary through a critical confrontation with other forms with the hidden hope of stipulating the differences, distinctions, as well as the affinities and intimacy that takes place between such diverse forms of political and artistic engagement. And finally it gambles on the organic continuity of these discourses, controlled by faith.
It shows that every art, in the sense of the negation of dominant forms of produced societies, is in part political, while every type of political engagement requiring some form in order to affect the others must embody a certain aesthetic.
The exhibition thus points to the importance of unclearly delineated, non-purist and powerful entities that are not the outcome of the abandonment of artistic claims but their natural continuation within social space. This repeatedly assembled group of
“believers” presents its tension without dialectical contradiction. By sketching more cognitive and affective nebulae rather than an analytical breakdown, more within a more poetic than discursive order, this partial and subjective connection sets out to connect the past, present and future and to transform nostalgia into critical anticipation.

1 - We encountered the term by accident in a book by the Lebanese thinker Jalal Toufic, Le Retrait de la tradition suite au désastre démesuré (The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster).

Guillaume Désanges, exhibition curator

A debt of gratitude for their valuable advice is owed to Olivier Hadouchi, Catherine Roudé, Aliocha Imhoff and Kantuta Quiros (Le Peuple qui Manque), Olivier Marboeuf and Tangui Perron.

© Ch. Delory

© Ch. Delory

Exhibition views in the Museum of Art and History, Saint-Denis

Download the exhibition floor plans ,

PDF - 242.5 ko

and the exhibition’s labels here :

PDF - 661.8 ko

Video footage, extracts from post 68 militant films on strikes in factories

PDF - 228.9 ko

Toyen & other metaphorical works

PDF - 167.8 ko

Jean-Luc Moulène & Mathieu Saladin

PDF - 205.9 ko

Philippe Artières & Bernard Bazile

PDF - 1.2 Mo

Harun Farocki

PDF - 153 ko

Marie Voignier

Also displayed in the exhibition space, Hito Steyerl’s text "Is a Museum a Factory ?" :

PDF - 590.1 ko

Consult more infos on the project of the Getaway Archives within the frame of the exhibition >>>