texts and interviews > 11.2002 divers - catalogue exhibition roland barthes

Marianne Alphant : Your choreography's secret reference is the work of Roland Barthes. How do you account for its importance?

Jérôme Bel : Reading Roland Barthes has been decisive for most of my pieces. It is not an exaggeration to say that without his work my work would not have been what it is. Not being very cultured and not having done any higher education, it was a bit apprehensively that I started to read Elements of semiology out of curiosity and thanks to the fact that a municipal library had opened in my street. At that time, in 1992, I was starting to work on my first piece, Name given by the author and I was wondering a lot what a show was, with the feeling that everything was as simple as that. I'm sure that R.B.'s work of analysis of language enabled me in my turn to analyse the show. The writing and the silence in The Zero Point of Writing made me certain that I wasn't alone. I mean that artistic productions is one experience (out of several) of solitude and what I have read of Barthes' writings has always been with me and… consoled me. When I no longer knew what to do, I only had to open one of his books to be stimulated and glimpse solutions to my problems. My technique was to replace the word “literature” or “language” with “theatre” or “show” (although Barthes was very interested in theatre, which is not, alas, the case of many thinkers of this scope) to get masses of ideas straight away and to see spectacular possibilities arising.

Marianne Alphant : For example ?

Jérôme Bel : Well, let's say… I literally tried to put a boundary round the zero point of dance and theatre. The result of this research was the piece Name given by the author (1994) I reified choreographic and theatrical codes so much in this piece that the only thing left is the structure of a show. It's a terrifying piece: there is no dancing, no acting, nothing except the bare bones of a choreographic production. All the two actors on the stage do is move objects about. There are no costumes, no lighting, only time (much too much!) and space, the minimum requirement for choreographic-theatrical practice! The piece got an atrocious reception, people in the audience went to sleep or left the hall; at one point even the whole audience left - we didn't know what to do…

That was a shock but I realised one thing that is in fact obvious and that helped me a lot later on, which is that for a show to happen you need an audience. It's a piece that was produced in 1992 but was only performed in 1994. For two years no theatre director would take it. We go on playing it, and in fact, it's taken ten years for it be understood, which I had expected a bit having read Pierre Bourdieu contrasting the slow publishing returns on Samuel Beckett's works and the fast ones on Paul-Loup Sulitzer. I had obviously identified with the great Sam.

Marianne Alphant : Have you any other examples of this influence?

Jérôme Bel : For the show Jérôme Bel, Sade, Fourier and Loyola were deciding influences, and saved me days of rehearsals when I would have had to try out different ways of staging the piece. Faced with the nudity and radical actions of the actors in the show, Barthes showed me the way by accentuating the meticulousness, strictness and order with which Sade's characters organised their orgies. Moreover, in this piece there had to prevail a state of “unsexual peace” that Barthes talks about when he spends his holidays in Bayonne. Shirtology is after Jérôme Bel. In Jérôme Bel everyone was nude, and so I decided for the next piece to work on costume. Obviously I took System of fashion (I wonder if I didn't choose the material for my shows so as to read Barthes). And then I came across an article which is published in his complete works and which shows the relation between language and costume: costume is everything that is there to dress up with; language is all the words that are there speak with; Barthes says that, to speak, every individual selects his words from within language, the spoken word, and in the same way, to dress himself he chooses clothes from within a given set, which is clothing. The idea came to me to use T-shirts which are both clothing and language because they often have words printed on them. So the essence of the work was to shop for three months, then to organise each T-shirt paradigm into a syntagmatic combination.

Marianne Alphant : What about The last performance ?

Jérôme Bel : I had made three shows and there still wasn't a single dance step, which began to worry me as a choreographer. I had worked on the bare bones of the show (the objects), on the instrument of the show (the naked body) on the body's relationship to clothes and after that it was quite problematical not to deal with dance. But I couldn't. So I decided to “steal” some dances. For legal reasons I understood it would be dangerous; I risked spending up to two years in prison. So I decided to beg, and to ask choreographers to lend me their dances. At that time I was either reading or re-reading Death of the Author. And it was then I realised what the challenge was: anyone who says “death of the author” is saying “birth of the audience”. I disappear as an author (all I do is copy) and I identify with the audience. I turn the theatrical process around. Generally, the audience is asked to identify with the actor, but here the actors are identifying with the audience. It was this that gave me The last performance. Then I pushed the boat out a little further; I got an order and I told the producer, “I've doneThe last performance, and I can't do anything more. I'm stopping.” He insisted a good deal and that's when I had this idea: O.K. I'll do a piece, but I'll only sign it and someone else will do the piece in my place. Xavier Le Roy agreed to do a piece that I would be the author of. That gave us a piece by Jérôme Bel stage directed by Xavier Le Roy. Nobody understood. That is unimaginable in the choreographic field. Obsolete concepts of subject or authenticity still prevail in the field of live arts. I could go on like that giving examples. I have while reading certain texts been moved to tears, moved by such intelligence which could only have reached such a degree through its extreme sensitivity. They say you only do things (such as shows) for two or three people. My shows are for him.

Marianne Alphant : Do you share the restraint and the reticence Barthes shows towards theatrical effect, or simply effect ?

Jérôme Bel : Absolutely. I hate effects, and when I use them it is to criticise those very effects. I like Barthes' severity and I hope my work itself is as severe. I can't stand spectacularising. That is no doubt why my aesthetic is often associated with minimalism. Barthes wrote a hilarious text in Mythologies about the actor, “Two myths about young theatre” that I can't help quoting: “We know, for example, that in the bourgeois theatre, the actor, “consumed” by his character, must seem to be set alight by a veritable blaze of passion. He must at all costs “boil”, in other words, at once burn and spill over; from which come the wet forms of such combustion, (………) so that passion itself becomes a merchandise like any other, a commercial object within the numerical system of exchange: I give my money to the theatre, in exchange for which I demand highly visible, almost computable passion.” Thus I have understood why certain members of the audience at my pieces regularly ask to be refunded at the end of the show, sometimes during the performance too, which is pretty irritating, I must admit. At the opposite extreme to this debauchery of oozing affects that the audience demands, Barthes talks of ‘ venusté' which he defines as the audience's erotic relation to the actor, inherent to the theatre because, and I quote again: “theatre, out of all the figurative arts (cinema, painting) gives us bodies and not just representations of them.” This ‘ venusté' is only possible in a theatre context, in other words, of people sitting in the dark watching others moving about in the light. This phenomenon seems a much more interesting one to me than the combustion of feelings evoked earlier on, by the simple fact that ‘ venusté' describes the audience's movement towards the actor and not the opposite…The person watching must pay not so as to consume something but to work towards defining what he desires.

Marianne Alphant : If Barthes has led you like this from the start, to go further and further, just where might he finally lead you?

Jérôme Bel : It's difficult to say. Today there is one thing he has that it would be interesting for me to assimilate, not just artistically but also politically and personally, and that is his idea of “amateur”. Such an idea rebels against the alienating aspect of work. The idea is to transform all workers into “amateurs”, those who love…