Interview with Non-breaking space, La Tôlerie, October 2018.
Sophie Lapalu: Non-breaking space is an umbrella association of local associations who have managed La Tôlerie, Clermont-Ferrand’s municipal art centre, for the past two years. Each of the associations came with its particular expertise and resources: Artistes en résidence (residency site) often accommodates artists programmed at La Tôlerie in their apartment; Les Ateliers (artists’ workshops) lend a workspace as required; and In Extenso (the associative art centre that produces La Belle Revue) opens its pages to you!
Non-breaking space: Three years ago the city council wanted to change the modes of operation and management of La Tôlerie. Since 2003, the council had managed the site and its programme was notably based on invitations extended to independent curators, chosen through a call for projects to devise and organise two sets of exhibitions per year. The site was also used for the Vidéoformes festival. In order to call this modus operandi into question, the city council turned to part of the local ecosystem. We started to put our heads together. Firstly, the chairs and directors of the three structures, then the brainstorming was expanded to include all the members. We’d wanted to work together for a long time but without a shared location or subject, it wasn’t so easy… We didn’t want to merge into a single entity. La Tôlerie space enabled us to come up with an organisation, to outline a project. We wanted the three associations to remain autonomous and for them to preserve their activities; not to inject them as they were into a project at La Tôlerie but instead to create a ‘side-step’ altogether and dream up a specific programme among ourselves. Hence the creation of a fourth association – Non-breaking space – which is made up of the associations Artistes en Résidence, In Extenso, and Les Ateliers. The three organisations do indeed make their resources and tools available for the project undertaken at La Tôlerie.
SL: When you occupied the space in 2017, how did the idea to strip it bare come about? The space is huge but there are no picture rails, no exhibition visit or circuit. It was all laid bare from the outset.
NBSP: We were entering a place that already had a history: as a garage, then the municipal art centre since 2003. We went through lots of phases. At first we devised a project in which we partitioned the space with a box in the middle that formed the gallery; we wanted to use containers… Gradually, we simplified our ideas. It’s a space that we love and we wanted to see and present it. Everything gradually unfolded sort of at the same time, by comparing notes about the space itself and the association. The name that we’d chosen for the association also went along with the idea of entering and seeing the space in a single block, without compartmentalising it. Non-breaking space, under its abbreviated form  , is an html tag that defines an unbreakable space. This is the space that, inserted between two words, allows them to stay together on the same line.
SL: While the space is unbreakable, you have nevertheless constructed your project in rubrics. What are they?
NBSP: We publish a newspaper three times a year, which is as much an autonomous object as it is a mediation tool. It adds to the programme in the space and was a determining aspect in structuring the project. There are a lot of us and that is possibly what enables us to harmonise this polyphony of perspectives and suggestions. We decided that we had to be able to create recurring, regular events. The days of the full moon – our exhibition opening period – thus provided us with a cyclical and autonomous touchstone.
The rubrics, inherent to the newspaper, also contributed to this gridwork. We wondered how they might function in space and what form they could take. One of the first ones was the slideshow rubric, which is presented over time. We wanted to bring out the serial aspect of artistic work in a striking way. There is another rubric reserved for painters, who report on each other’s work. The teaser rubric echoes a project, like a spotlight often focused on another associative activity. In spring, with the Papers Day, we wanted to bring together various editorial initiatives. We also worked with the likes of Concern, La Salle de bain, and Grand Lux. With Julie Portier and Pierre-Olivier Arnaud, we thought about how to create a link with La Salle de bain, in Lyon. The Florence Jung exhibition gave us the chance to suggest that she take charge of the newspaper. She considered it a space in its own right that allowed her to extend her project and she published small classified ads in relation to her exhibition.
We also wondered how to convoke things outside of the art field. That’s when the borrowings rubric made its appearance. We borrow things that seem to be curious objects at La Tôlerie. They emerge as stories to tell. The newspaper contains the observations of the lenders (shoemaker, CNRS researcher, botanist, railway worker, etc.). Once in the space, the concept of the ready-made makes the thing ambiguous. When we discover the shoes borrowed from shoemakers, we might see them as art objects, when really that’s not how they got there or necessarily what they’ll take away with them.
SL: They pose the question of the art object and oblige the spectator to refine their gaze.
NBSP: The questions constantly asked are: how can our habits be shifted? How can we alter what an exhibition can be? How do we attract audiences coherently?
SL: All of the avenues do seem to be explored: for instance, there’s Sharif, a fictional character who speaks at every full moon, like a gallery director would do except that he’s an actor who reads out what you have collectively written for him; coordinator and mediator Marie L’Hours’ office is in the space, which was designed by Olivier Vadrot; or the borrowings that are there to pose the question of what we are looking it. We end up doubting the status of everything that is presented.
NBSP: Yes, starting with the lights, floor, and walls that will come later. The three seasons of Lumière! in 2017, Sol in 2018 and Murs in 2019 divide the experimental time of the space into three interconnected parts. Thinking about the space allows us to reflect on what it is made up of. That’s how the seasons came about. What interests us in that is its dual status: at once an artwork but also something utilitarian. Both a discourse that fulfils its function as such, inaugurating an exhibition opening, while at the same time, it is slightly biased. We asked ourselves the question on full-moon days: how should we approach receiving the audience? How can we make the association visible to its members, without going so far as to curtail the identification of an individual and this presentation that we hope will be welcoming? From there came the idea of “the project actor”, Sharif, who personifies and represents the association. But it also introduces a mystifying element!
SL: It is nevertheless mediation in the traditional sense of the term.
NBSP: It’s true that in terms of mediation, the very notion of days of the full moon mean that we’re playing with form. The newspaper is also devised as a mediation tool. We are very concerned with this question and at the same time we want to invest the forms and statuses of all that. Sometimes it’s ambiguous; it’s less direct, less immediate than a more traditional mediation. At the same time, the elements are still there. There’s an experimental dimension. We also try to leave room for the individual experience. Sometimes, we realised that the public was taking over. Obviously there are things that escape us, between the writing of the project, the story, and unforeseen elements. There can also be losses but we always try to maintain the connections. The fictional dimension of the project helps to lift us out of reality. It’s a constant pivoting point.
SL: You tempt fate by inviting exhibition curators and critics (Mathilde Villeneuve, Karim Ghaddab, Mathieu Copeland, Marion Delage De Luget) to do guided visits without any background info!
NBSP: Yes! The experience takes precedence. The members involved in Non-breaking space do not think of themselves as curators necessarily. Marie didn’t train as a mediator, but she has had an experience of it, Sharif is a total fish out of water as an actor, projected beyond his usual working rhythms; he’s constantly put in situations of extreme urgency, which is how we roll… We are all living on the edge, never in our comfort zones. We have to constantly readjust. There is no stability. Fortunately the project is very text-based and structured, which allows us to constantly evolve within that, trying not to stray from the point. The guest curators invited for the guided visits also accept a set of rules that shifts their practice a bit.
SL: There is great trust placed in the spectators. You give them an array of propositions; if they read the paper, then there are keys for comprehension. The artworks are explained in it, Sharif often repeats the elements in the paper, and Marie also does this job when she guides visitors. But you trust them: there’s no signage, no room-by-room breakdown.
NBSP: It’s true that we trust them; the elements are there and accessible for anyone who wants to take them. On site, Marie is always present and her mediation covers all of the public opening hours. She can tell if a person wants to be alone or guided during their visit. It’s up to them.
SL: Your exhibitions do not respond to a thematic or question. You do not research a specific subject to invite the artists in relation to that and do not give a title to your various manifestations. Things are built up through affinities, invitations, and relationships. Of course, there are the Lumière!, Sol, and Murs seasons, but you seem to invite the artists to respond according to the place and context.
NBSP: The place was our starting point. That’s the subject. We created a concept over three years with a programme that enables us to think through things within a framework. It also allows us to react via the programme that we’ve put in place, to devise things through something that we all wrote together. Without that, it would be more complex. Within this programme, there are paradoxes, we must readjust, we are stuck to the space while, at the same time, there are many things that are constantly evolving.
SL: The carte blanche given to Jan Kopp during the recent full moon (23 November) departs slightly from the usual framework, for instance.
NBSP: There is also all of the empirical dimension. The first carte blanche that we tested was with Fabrice Gellis. It so happens that, initially, we hadn’t invited him for a carte blanche, but things changed. It became coherent as we became more familiar with his work; allowing him extra room to manoeuvre, giving him the possibility of inviting others in turn, and letting him steer the entire full-moon soirée. His work suited it. We find it interesting that, based on an artist, a whole programme can be constituted and branch off through the questions that interest that individual. For Jan Kopp, the carte blanche travelled. He decided to answer the invitation with his Suspended spaces collective to share a specific experience at La Tôlerie from his summer in the Amazon. That brought in a lot of overwhelming things – experiences. Carte blanches also enable the artists to take control of the rubrics, some of which are deliberately left open so that they can invest these areas that are usually devised by the association.
SL: Most of you are artists and have committed to this experiment for three years. How do you work out how to work together, with no hierarchy? What does this specific format give rise to?
NBSP: Not all of us are artists. Some are more used to the management of a place from a curatorial or programming perspective. Let’s say that the personal experiences of all the association’s members do seem to serve as waymarkers in our way of dealing with things. We try not to lose sight of the fact that our accessibility and reception of the artists are often necessary for them to be able to go as far as possible. The more structural questions contribute just as much and are conducive to comfortable working conditions.
We hold weekly meetings and bring together as many of the voluntary members as we can. Decisions are made together. It takes longer, but works thanks to a desire to share our skills and views. The programming is based on proposals by members and their networks, which we are trying to expand. Sometimes we invite artists we know, sometimes artists we don’t know personally but whose work we want to discover up close. Then there are the calls for projects for the three seasons. In that case, we inverse things a bit. It helps us to elicit surprise.
SL: I was wondering how the artists react when they realise that their work will inevitably be read in interaction with all of the others?
NBSP: They’re prepared. When we invite them, we can’t ignore the history and the context. A discussion takes place beforehand to tell them about the project and its specificities. We try to be very precise because these are always specific invitations. There is also the fact that La Tôlerie remains open. The artist at work is there for all to see. When we say non-breaking space and a single tenant, it is also a matter of acknowledging a degree of frankness with respect to this workspace. It isn’t sealed off during the installation periods or for meetings. This is an important piece of information for the artists: they will not be in the intimacy of their work, they will also be sharing all of that. So far it has worked rather well; some of the artists have had genuine encounters, sometimes sharing the same accommodation – there’s an element of exchange, encounter, and cooperation in working methods, which adds to the whole thing.
SL: Has there been a memorable encounter between a painter, borrowed objects, an installation, or a performance?
NBSP: There have been many! The opening already set something in motion. We invited Élisa Pône to accentuate the space with a pyrotechnical intervention. It was a super slow, almost deceptive combustion that became a kind of epiphanic thing, firing on all four cylinders. It was anything but a fireworks display and that established a rather unusual tempo. Then the Orchestre d’Auvergne played symphonic overtures and that was quite different. For the second full moon, we invited Volmir Cordeiro. It was incredibly powerful: he worked with the percussionist Washington Tìmbo, doors wide open and music blasting. That also surprised us. We saw a dancer activate the space, to the extent that we thought to ourselves at one point: here’s a body that’s revealing the space. The Balinese gamelan from the Indonesian embassy (Puspawarna) was wonderful, the instrument had a kind of sculptural aura. It also had to do with the landscape; all of a sudden the moon entered the field while they were playing. There was also Dector and Dupuy. They worked on a guided tour around La Tôlerie and met people from the neighbourhood. For their research, they’d asked for help from a heritage guide, but the Bien Assis neighbourhood does not belong to the established tour, it is a neighbourhood that is between two zones and not very touristic. The guide from the tourism office accepted to improvise a tour. On the day, the guide followed the artists’ tour. The roles were reversed!
SL: There is a kind of de-hierarchisation. You learn from one project to the next, the artists are teaching the guide, the music has sculptural if not pictorial qualities – I’m thinking of the performance by Julie Vayssière, Paint Song, in which she selected songs that talk about painting, and that she got musicians from Clermont to play: Damien Chauvet, François Doreau, and Frédéric Girard (TACT) – as for the paintings, they are covered over and vanish, the borrowed objects question the status of the artworks present, the artworks leave the premises… The white cube is an ideology that is shaken up here. The format is constantly being exploded. I was wondering, has that changed something about your own personal work?
NBSP: Yes, the collective dimension is really strong. It shakes us all up, since we’re not basing things on our personal practices; it shifts our ways of thinking.
SL: At the CAC Brétigny, when Pierre Bal-Blanc was the director, he’d created the “Projet Phalanstère” [Phalanstery Project]. It was an architectural programme that was deployed through a series of artworks specifically developed for the site and exceeding the duration of their temporary exhibition. They were designed to encourage the development of this site of creation and experimentation. Here, besides the works by Veit Stratmann for the lighting and Miguel Angel Molina for the floor, are some of the works here to stay, like Tony Matelli’s bronze weeds, that seem to have sprouted up between floor and wall?
NBSP: All of the works have different temporalities. There’s Marie’s ‘sentry box’, designed by Olivier Vadrot, which will be permanent. The works by Tony Matelli will be there until the end of December. There are remains from previous artworks all over the place: Élisa Pône on the façade, Anne-Lise Le Gac’s chewing gums that are gradually decomposing, the cut-out door, the leak in the roof and rigging by Fabrice Gellis, the holes that served to fix the bamboo and bronze architecture by Christophe Meier and Nicolas Pecoraro, the hook… The floor also bears marks: there is the phantom of Bastien Mignot’s circle and red peeping through. There too, on the wall, a red line that must correspond to Christophe Cuzin’s intervention that dates from before we arrived, and the ghosts of the picture rails that we removed…
SL: In the newspapers, there are still photographs of past events, a retrospective work that is very pleasant for readers, who then have an idea of what they’ve missed or can remember a moment spent together. So, you’re thinking about x-raying the canvas that all the painters worked on. I was wondering if you were going to do the same with the whole space of La Tôlerie? Are you planning to do a retrospective that that will recall the whole project once it’s over?
NBSP: We’re still discussing this and the questions remained unanswered. Many things have been evoked – it’s in process, so we can’t answer that yet. Everything that happened there, our working methods… Will it be necessary to attest to that beyond the three seasons Lumière!, Sol, Murs? What will become of La Tôlerie  ? We’re just starting to think about all that.