Dossier | Collecting, the Collection, and the Collector | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | Collecting, the Collection, and the Collector

  • Raphaëlle de Groot, L'art d'accommoder les restes, Centre d'art contemporain de Quimper, 2008. Photo : Dieter Kik
  • Raphaëlle de Groot, Collecte de poussière, 2000. photo : Raphaëlle de Groot

Collecting, the Collection, and the Collector
By Dominique Abensou

Raphaëlle de Groot’s body of work is fundamentally structured by the research and experimentation she’s undertaken since 1996. Her quest — sustained by an active interrogation of the artistic process and the conditions within which a work emerges  — has led her to act alone, but also to invest in the worlds of others in several ways: by intervening in a convent, a factory or a school, or by bringing together the members of a vaguely defined community (library users, the owners of embarrassing objects). She is interested in the material traces generated by human activity within and outside the field of art. Equally produced by intentional and involuntary acts, these traces take on all sorts of forms — words, images, sounds, objects — that can be studied, moved, exhibited and stored. Collection and inventory, both of which are associated with reflexive and performative practice, are among the strategies the artist particularly favours.

Even her earliest collections were attended by a rigorous process. Eclectic, they are nonetheless marked by a concern for detail. In 1998 she inventoried a collection of which the Director of Montreal’s central library was unaware: that of the prints readers leave on book covers. She arranged to have them lifted, studied them under a microscope, and then reinterpreted them by drawing their patterns. She archived the results of her research in two albums: Collecte d’empreintes and Lectures (1998-2000). At the end of this project, she began Collecte de poussière (2000-01). Bringing together various dust samples, she made an inventory of these particles too. This collection, unsuspected by those viewers fortuitously present at the collection site (1) would elicit donations that subsequently enriched it, as well as remarks that the artist would place in a notebook with the preserved particles. In accomplishing these tasks, the artist’s actions borrowed from the methodologies of forensic investigators and archaeologists, but could also be seen as those of someone on the conservation, classification or presentation teams overseeing a museum’s collections. In her next project, Microcosme (2000) (2) her museological activities spread to include documentary research. This time de Groot took on a pre-existing inventory; she reconfigured an information storage system. Her project consisted of taking the data in Chicoutimi’s phone book and reorganizing it by street name and address number. The map of the city’s inhabitants would become the focus of an exhibition. This new system’s economy overturns data hierarchy into the absurd; to locate a sought-after person, one would have to sift through the whole city. On the other hand, access to a neighbourhood’s geography facilitates closeness, which could improve connections between the inhabitants of a street or area. In interpreting her data, the artist produced an apparatus that revealed performative potential.

Undoing hierarchies and experimenting with unusual ways of inhabiting the world are important parts of the artist’s practice; her collections attest to this. If the first of them had their own kind of coherence, or held to a principle likely to define recognizable categories (fingerprints on books, sampled dust particles, the names and addresses of the inhabitants of Chicoutimi), since 2008 her building of other sorts of collections seems governed by only one guiding rule: bring together “anything.” In fact, random or heteroclite objects are brought together, some previously destined for the trash, others held on to, but with embarrassment.

A first collection of objects, L’art d’accommoder les restes (3) (2008) was assembled by art school students whom the artist asked for the “remainders of their work”: materials not used, or unusable, spills, residues, surpluses. This stock was studied in-studio via a series of actions or manipulations — make, unmake, remake — which allowed one to sort, inventory and experiment with the potential of the things collected. The last work session, held in the exhibition space itself, allowed her to present a “still image” of the process behind an installation the public could “unmake” by taking away those objects that were of interest to them. Such methods might well make our museum curators a little nervous from the point of view of collection management: treating an exhibition as a research tool is a common enough practice, but organizing the dispersal of a whole collection of objects radically challenges the mission of museums. Nor is this de Groot’s first effort in the area; that same year she meticulously destroyed pieces of her own work, reducing them to dust during an action entitled Le dessein des restes (2008). (4)

Her second such collection, begun in 2009, was assembled by the -artist following a call for anonymous gifts of embarrassing personal objects. In this effort she relieved her donors of Le poids des objets (5) [the title is a French pun on “the weight of objects”]. The performative exercises allowing her to study and evaluate these objects included measuring herself against them and, more concretely, encumbering herself: she carried them, wore them, moved with them through various situations. In the diversity of her exhibition set-ups she also tried to play the objects against one another in order to test their capacity to make meaning or be signs. Unlike her earlier collection, the artist has conserved this one; she took responsibility for storing it, as there was no alternative other than spreading it around multiple places and countries, which would be, in terms of its management, unhelpful.

During these projects de Groot appropriated museological practices and used them in unorthodox ways. Could she have decided to provoke a crisis in museum institutions and the art system? Certainly not. Even if her collections present vast disparities and muddy categories, they do not open up a fictional museum in the tradition of Marcel Broodthaers’ Musée d’art moderne département des aigles. (6) On the other hand, they may have affinities with other “museums without walls” such as the Musée des nuages, an enterprise directed by the artist Sylvain Soussan, (7) or the Musée du point de vue, invented by Jean-Daniel Berclaz. (8)

Like those practices, the collections created by Raphaëlle de Groot are uncommon. Far from the image of a collector searching out the rare, the exceptional, the unobtainable, and above all, the authentic, far from the figure of the gleaner hoarding finds in a cabinet of curiosities — she dedicates her investigations to ordinary objects, those without any special qualities, and to the most commonplace gifts or insignificant leftovers. She treats them with the greatest attention, skilfully pulls them from invisibility, patiently observes and preserves them. In choosing, on one hand, to collect abandoned or rejected objects with no value beyond their usefulness and by adopting, on the other hand, the principle of acquiring “anything,” the artist applies two criteria specific to the collector-ethnographer’s practice as it was defined by Jean Bazin. (9) While de Groot is quick to adopt roles and positions from fields outside of art, her collections nonetheless do not try to document the history of either lost or living civilizations. Still, her research brings into play many people who invest more or less time and effort in her projects; readers in the libraries, passers-by at the collection site, the inhabitants of Chicoutimi, the students who worked on L’art d’accommoder les restes, the donors of the embarrassing objects. What, then, are the real motives behind these collections? The answer to this question is perfectly clear in one of de Groot’s oldest projects.

In 2004, de Groot assembled archival data as part of a project entitled 8 x 5 x 363 +1 (2002-04), conducted at the Cerruti textile factory in Biella, Italy. The experiment involved contact with the 363 employees of the factory via modest means: asking them to fill in cards and deposit them in a mailbox, or to find words to describe their work, or to take photos in response to the artist’s questions.

What remained of this process of engagement after her six-month stay at the factory were signs, words, images and a few sound documents preserved by the artist. These traces were treated like fifteenth-century incunabula; they were collected, preserved and classified with meticulous care. An exhibition of them at the factory would not leave the workers unsurprised. But what surprises is not so much the content of the presented elements as the extraordinary attention given to them. These documents have little intrinsic interest, except in as much as they are precious instruments, the objects or witnesses of a thread of relationship woven between the artist and the workers. It is these relationships, composed of fine details and little gestures, which have been invested with such great care. This archive takes on another dimension and the status of its component elements becomes more clear in the working process: by creating an interface between two heterogeneous spaces, that of the artist and that of the workers, they assume the role of transitional objects,10 a role shared with the objects in the artist’s other collections. One should note here that de Groot does not merely exhibit an archive of the traces left behind by the exchange, but rather the gears of an entire system — a relational system — whose workings we cannot entirely grasp.

In reconsidering the ensemble of collections constructed, conserved, dispersed, and even destroyed, by Raphaëlle de Groot, or by other -participants, a final question remains unanswered. Would the fictional museum of her research be a Museum of Systems? Of systems of objects, information systems, thought systems, production systems, hierarchical systems that govern ways of being and acting — and that the artist invests in, counteracts and sometimes perverts?

[Translated from the French by Peter Dubé]

(1) Samples collected during the L'algèbre d'Ariane event organized by Dare-Dare in vacant stores in Montreal's Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighbourhood in 2000, as well as at the Gestes d’artistes event organized by Optica, Cabot Square, Montreal, 2001.
(2) Microcosme, Le Lobe, Chicoutimi (Quebec), 2000.
(3) A project realized as part of the Chantiers exhibition, which I curated (the Quartier, centre d’art contemporain de Quimper, in collaboration with the École supérieure d’art de Quimper, 2008)
(4) Action at the Galerie B-312 (Montreal), during the Le moment de la déprise exhibition, 2008.
(5) Action at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery in Lethbridge (Alberta) in 2009, also undertaken in Quebec at Lieu, and in Italy and Montreal in non-exhibition contexts.
(6) Created in 1968, Musée d’art moderne département des aigles is a “political parody of art manifestations” through which Marcel Broodthaers sought to critique the institution and subvert the idea of art.
(7) Sylvain Soussan, “museum supplier,” borrows the codes and vocabulary of the business world in order to ask questions in the form of services. Since 1989 he has been the perpetual secretary of the Musée des nuages, a nomadic museum dedicated to our heritage of air and water and whose data is analyzed to raise awareness of the environment.
(8) Jean-Daniel Berclaz inaugurated the Musée du point de vue in 2001. An artist’s project that is—simultaneously—a name, a brand, a portmanteau word and a business producing social ties and reflection on the landscape through events like Vernissages de Points de vue, organized in the urban environment.
(9) Jean Bazin, “N’importe quoi,” Le Musée cannibale (Neuchâtel: Musée d’ethnographie de Neuchâtel, 2002), 273.
(10) The idea of transitional objects was developed by Donald Woods Winnicott (1896-1971), a British pediatrician, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst.

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