Dijon’s Le Consortium is a burning core of artistic experimentation and investigation – the list of international and French artists who have shown there in the last thirty years bears witness to the unflinching vision of its curatorial team, comprised of Franck Gautherot, Xavier Douroux and Eric Troncy. Cindy Sherman exhibited at Le Consortium in 1982, Hans Haacke in 1986, On Kawara in 1990 … Gautherot tells the story of a venue for which nothing is forbidden.
How did you meet Xavier Douroux?
In the 70s there were a number of us ex-students in Dijon with a growing interest in contemporary art. Serge Lemoine was teaching history of art at the university at the time, and he used to invite many artists and critics to give lectures. We started by filming interviews with these people. In 1977 we founded a non-profit organisation called Le Coin du Miroir and started putting on shows in a small space above an alternative bookshop. There was a lot of tension with the people who ran the bookshop, and with the public who thought that contemporary art was just a bourgeois hobby. We were just starting out, we didn’t know much about contemporary art ourselves and having to come up with arguments in support of what we were doing, as we were doing it, was really useful.
Which artists were most important to you at the time?
The 1920s, constructivism, concrete art, American minimalism and conceptual art – these radical, often foreign, schools of thought. At the same time, we were showing Christian Boltanski, Annette Messager, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Urs Lüthi … We hated surrealism and Supports/Surfaces. And the French free figuration movement, which to us was an absolute disgrace. For a long time, we suffered for being this independent. People used to say that we were foreign agents … It took a long time before exhibiting international artists in France was accepted.
How did the Consortium itself come about?
The bookshop closed down in 1981 and in 1982 we rented out an old shop. There was a neon sign outside, and so we decided to keep it and the name it bore: ‘Le Consortium.’ One of the guys who had been working in the bookshop left for New York and came back a bit later with a punk group – they didn’t have a name, only a sign: a circle with an X. They stayed in Dijon for a while and we did a concert and an album with them. That guy went on to organise the first European tours for guys like Afrika Bambaataa. He then became a journalist and most recently took onLes Inrockuptibles – a French equivalent of Dazed and Confused. His name is Bernard Zekri and he was in that bookshop – he saw his first contemporary art shows with us! It was a fertile time in Dijon with a lot of cross-pollination. The Consortium became Xavier and I, and an artist called Eric Colliard. We carried on working together until 1995, when Eric was killed in a car crash. Eric Troncy then joined us in 1996 as co-director and Seungduk Kim followed in 2000 as associate curator and director for international projects.
I find it telling that you had such strong links with punk and rap – movements that are as fiercely independent as you are.
Music was really important to us and it’s true that we had that same DIY approach. At the beginning we had this stamp that read ‘THE ART GANG’ and we’d stamp everything with it. People thought we were kind of radical. It is a punk thing to say ‘We don’t give a shit and we’ll do whatever we want.’ And we come across this same idea all the time. When we met Yayoi Kusama, her credo was: ‘I have done and I will do what I please.’ Ignoring obstacles, just going straight ahead, regardless. You construct yourself in opposition to things.
How do you navigate the space between commercial galleries and public institutions?
From the outset we decided that we would allow ourselves to do whatever we needed to do. However the fact that we had a collection and that we sometimes sold works didn’t go down well, especially with commercial galleries. It wasn’t until we were invited to show our collection in the Dijon/Le Consortium.coll: Tout Contre l'Art Contemporainexhibition at the Pompidou Centre in 1998 that things began to change. For us, it was always about looking at and building things. When you do a show, you have to decide who you’re doing it for. One option is to work for the audience – to show the state of things as a journalist might. We weren’t interested in doing that – we were our own audience and if other people found what we were doing interesting, then great, but it didn’t change anything if they didn’t. Most art centres became public institutions, a kind of municipal service provider. And they were funded as such, whereas we had to fight for every last cent. This meant though that we were never dependent on anyone else. And we’ve always wanted this. Politicians like this, for obvious reasons, especially in an economic downturn when there’s no money around. And it keeps us free.
Has working as a small group been a strength for you?
Yes, it’s a strange kind of arrangement that’s been working for about thirty-three years. And no one really understands it. We don’t speak much – we bump into each other from time to time, but we don’t have meetings to make decisions. If one of us has an idea, they know the others will agree to it.
How do you build up lasting relationships with artists?
If someone comes to us with an idea, they can be sure we’ll listen to whatever they have to say, and artists have always understood this. They have led us to doing things we’d never really planned on doing, such as setting up the Presses du Réel publishing house in 1992, or the film production company Anna Sanders Films in 1997. When Eric Troncy joined the team in 1996, he brought a new generation of artists with him, including Liam Gillick and Philippe Parreno, who organised a group show entitled Moral Maze. Save for a few names, the roster of artists in that show reads as a list of today’s stars: Maurizio Cattelan, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Douglas Gordon, among others. A number of group shows served a similar purpose for us in forging our identity. Our first exhibitions, such asMise en Pièces, Mises en Place, Mise au Point in 1981 with, among others, Daniel Buren, Niele Toroni and Sol LeWitt, allowed us to figure out our relationship to conceptual minimalism – to come to grips with it in order to move on. The artists who came with Eric were younger than us and we needed to understand what they were about and where they were coming from. We discovered we had connections, a shared admiration for people like Michael Asher or Dan Graham.
Somehow you seem to be more like artists than like other art centres …
Well, we try, but it gets more difficult with age … Art gives you tools that allow you to understand, if not to appreciate, a whole raft of things. That said, there comes a time when being able to say whether something is any good is more difficult.
Didn’t you always find that difficult?
No, because things were – or at least seemed to us to be – set. With time, you become more attentive, whereas in the beginning you need to make hard and fast decisions. And then later on you realise that there were things you missed – Martin Kippenberger, for example. The Lynda Benglis exhibition we did in 2010 brought home to us once again quite how much the 70s had been rewritten by the white American male. Artists like Benglis were exhibited but somehow they weren’t seen, because they were more on the periphery. And it’s only now that we’re realising how important they were. If someone had told us, 15 or 20 years ago, that we’d be working with Kusama now, we’d have laughed in their face.
Your new building, the Usine, will open to the public in May 2011. Can you talk about that new space?
Architecture has always been a way for us to challenge ourselves. Shigeru Ban is the architect working on the refurbishment of this old factory, following plans drawn up by the Swiss architect Rémy Zaugg. Part of it is this ridiculously huge white cube. We needed something that we couldn’t quite handle, from the start. And it will be a challenge for the artists we invite to make work there too. There will be other spaces given over to Pierre Huyghe for his association des Temps Libérés, which he founded in 1995, after theMoral Maze show. We’re also going to host the Paris-based graphic designers M/M’s archives, as well as our own collection. We are donating the latter to the city of Dijon but will be able to carry on using it. For the opening, we’ll have a new work by Kusama, a piece by Richard Prince, a work by Cattelan will be reinstalled and other things. Making this space work is a big challenge – who knows, we might not be up to it. But as long as we’re having fun …