|m/m: french landscape 1.0 in guggenheim magazine, vol. 13
text by alison gingeras
|Le Quotidien or the notion of the everyday has been a dominant concept used to interpret much of French post-war cultural production. Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre sought to analyze the effects that ensued from the rapid importation of American-style consumer culture into France during the Reconstruction period. Introducing a new set of critical categories and terms, Lefebvre's Critique of Everyday Life (1958-81) sought to address a new form of capitalism that had seeped into the banal registers of daily existence. Everything from the brand new kitchen appliances to the multiplication of cereal brands flooded French homes. Commodities transcended their previous insignificance; as mediators of socio-political change, every prosaic object could become the fodder for serious analysis. Since Lefebvre, politicoaesthetic avant-garde groups such as the Internationale Situationiste to intellectuals such as Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard turned their critical attention to the proliferation of objects to examine a new quotidian that was drowning in boredom, urban alienation, and an eroding social order. Despite twenty years that have lapsed since Lefebvre's coining of the term, the ebb and flow of academic fashion allowed for the notion everyday to infiltrate the field of visual culture. Cultural critics, art historians, and curators alike have raised the " everyday " to the level of a gros signe. Much of the literature has elevated this theoretical concept to make an overarching characterization of the occupations of French writers, artists, filmmakers, and designers since the early 1960s. At first glance, the images that graphic design team M/M (Michael Amzalag & Mathias Augustyniak) submitted in response to the Guggenheim Magazine's request for a profile on the state of contemporary design in France might easily resonate with the critical discourse surrounding a 1990s quotidien. The usual suspects are absent. Instead of a mise-en-page of Philippe Starck chairs, Martin Szekely's Perrier glasses, and Barbara Bui's fashions, M/M offer a suite of ambiguous landscape, occasionally punctuated by anonymous design objects.
Seven images unfold in cinematic progression, suturing together disparate styles and subjects. Alternating a snapshot aesthetic with straightforward still life, M/M confront us with their perverse humor in their take on the banality of everyday life. An old-model blue Renault is in the central frame of an archetypal banlieue* landscape, absurdly nestled next to home-entertainment satellite dish. Cut to the butcher, an anachronistic but persistent figure in France, even in the age of supermarkets. Is it his moustache or the dripping slab of meat in his hand that competes for the viewer's attention? A nondescript middle aged woman is caught dozing off on the TGV** as the French countryside zips by the window. To her left: a send-up of classic still life form using a birthday party relic. A bouquet of balloons in varying stages of deflation sits placidly in front of deliberately out-of-fashion wallpaper. A collection of corporal products ends this sequence. Arranged with sculptural precision, tooth-shaped bottles of Aquafresh toothpaste vie with Tessie Croc dog bones: a possible nod to the limitless range of inane products that so occupied Lefebvre's analysis.
Thumbing through these pages, an over-arching eclecticism begs a question: what unites these images? However cryptic or evasive, each image smacks of the planned obsolescence that drives consumer-culture while entirely couched in a marvelous deadpan sense of humor. M/M sense of play is manifest in their minute attention to sign-value. They are not the big signs of history, domination, or alienation; their commodity-speckled images are able to hone in upon the tiny signs, moments of rupture, changing speeds, lines of flight. Drawing out incongruities through strategies of juxtaposition, the fizzling balloon "sculpture" stands in static defiance to the ideologies of speed and progress implied by the TGV scene. Through a cultivation of this kind of visual contradiction, the codes of banality are prevented from taking on their usual bleakness. M/M's French landscape is far from a lesson in pure alienation.
Perhaps the opening image, Bébé avec Deleuze, holds a textual clue to unraveling this photographic rebus. The diaper-clad child while clutching the alien toy reaches up for a copy of Gilles Deleuze's Pourparlers (1990). Published in translation as Negotiations, this selection of interviews with Deleuze from 1972-1990 is united by a continuing theme each text poses the question, how does philosophy act as a means of resistance? Deleuze begins to answer this question on the very first page, " Why bring together the texts of conversations stretching over nearly twenty years? Negotiations sometimes last so long you don't know whether they're still part of the war or the beginning of peace [philosophy] has nothing to communicate, and can only negotiate. Since power isn't just an external thing, but permeates each of us, philosophy throws us into constant negotiations with, and a guerilla campaign against, ourselves. "*** It is very telling that our baby is not reaching out for Barthes' Mythologies or Baudrillard's Simulations, never mind anything by Lefebvre. If nothing else, the conscious reference to Deleuze confirms one thing: this is not a passive reportage on everyday life. M/M actively negotiate everyday life from within.
Alison M. Gingeras
*Banlieue is the French word for suburb, though it slightly differs from the American class implications of the term. The rise of the banlieue also coincided with the period of post-war modernization, offering inexpensive housing to proletariat classes and new immigrants from the ex-colonies.