Q&A: Alternatives – Thierry Geoffroy (part 1)
THIERRY GEOFFROY is a French practitioner based in Copenhagen who also works under the name of Colonel. For the past 25 years he has created a series of conceptual formulas to initiate events and temporary installations. These projects involve many participants – often several hundred – to address the social psychology of issues such as conflict, collaboration, hypocrisy and commercialisation. Using these ‘formats’, he creates stimulating and highly discursive activities in a diverse array of contexts that span major art biennales, museums and cultural projects globally.
Thierry Geoffroy works with an ever-changing range of media from newspapers, radio and social media to parties, music festivals and the fashion industry. He has made several programs for the Danish national television station DR2, including ‘Capitain’ (1999), ‘Immigranten’ (2001), ‘Photographe’ (2002) and ‘Protest Underwear’ (2005).
THIS IS PART 1 of the Q&A ‘Alternatives’ interview with Thierry Geoffroy. To jump to Part 2 go here.
Do you think of yourself as an artist?
Do you think an artist has a particular role or responsibility in the world?
He is part of a community living together with others, sharing space, accepting she or he is not alone. An artist can help an old lady to cross the street, if they want to cross. She or he can just care for the surroundings.
How do you see your role?
I don’t ‘see’ my role, but I have defined it through a decision, a direction for my efforts. I try to stimulate people to train their ‘awareness muscle’; I try to be ‘in advance of the broken arm’ [to avoid accidents by prevention].
I create formats where participants can train their ‘awareness muscle’; the awareness muscle is like a ‘memory muscle’: the more you train it the more it grows.
And how does your role function?
My role is not to have a function.
I don’t understand.
A vacuum cleaner has a function to clean, but it doesn’t have a role.
Today, we can see artists being used as tools, like a cleaner: to gentrify cities, ‘cleansing’ them of junkies or gypsies, helping to raise property values; some are commissioned to protect borders, some to speed up integration. Artists are very often used – misused.
I don’t want to have a function like a vacuum cleaner. I don t want to be useful for such things.
In 1989 you published a manifesto that was to set the course for your future practice. Its emphasis is on contingency, participation, mobility and conviviality. What lead you, as a young artist, to decide on this direction for your practice?
I wrote down what I had been doing, and what I wanted to do. I was mostly interest in creating an ‘oeuvre’. A manifesto has the potential to contain within it all the desires for an oeuvre.
Has the reality of your subsequent practice turned out the way you expected when you set out the theory in your 1989 manifesto?
Actually, yes. For example Emergency Room [discussed below] corresponds to ‘La Moving Exhibition de Type Semi-bourgeoise Conviviale’ described in the manifesto.
I feel the manifesto was done well and, without sometimes realising, I continue to follow it.
Have you always had this focus on emergency in your work?
I have probably focused my practice on this since I have had a family and must look a little more broadly than my own personal problems issues.
You have coined the term ‘format art’ to describe what you do. What is an art format?
An Art Format is constituted on the basis of a formula or prescribed format. The format contains a number of constant elements that create the framework for the participants but other contextual factors change each time the Art is activated.
I am interested in the methodologies of the TV format, although I strongly disagree with the current aims of those TV formats as they are focused on a spirit of ‘hatred with a smile’. Indeed, I think they are responsible for global apathy.
My Art Formats involve several hundred participants and aim to train the ‘awareness muscle’. In these formats the audience debate and exhibit work about current or approaching emergencies. They do it today, because tomorrow will be too late. Formats include the Emergency Room, the Awareness Muscle, Critical Run, Protest Fashion, HQ and the Biennalist.
Each Art Format is based on a prescribed formula. The formula contains a number of fixed elements that establish the framework for the participants. Within this formula other factors change with each new activity. The relationships between the Art Format, space and time also change. For example, an Art Format staged in a museum would differ slightly from one presented in a gallery. Other external factors such as political climate also impact on the Art Format; the same Art Format mounted in a totalitarian state and a democracy would be different in outcome. Art institutions wishing to use an Art Format must agree to use the prescribed formula including the title, methods and spirit defined by the format artist.
How do you see this approach operating in relation to the emergencies it seeks to address?
An Art Format is an art work in itself. It is related to conceptual art but has an increased focus on becoming widespread. Art formats are the strategic answer to globalisation and aim to expand into a global artistic movement. As soon as a given Art Format has proved successful it can, with permission from the artist, be ‘activated’ any number of times as long as the formula is respected. The process incorporates psychological and sociological aspects that arise in the relationships that develop between the participants. Thus, an Art Format becomes a frame of interaction, form and expression; visually, socially and conceptually.
Can you give an example of your work that illustrates this concern for the future?
The Emergency Room art format aims to activate debate immediately – now – before it is too late.
If at least some contemporary art becomes ultra-contemporary and pertinent to ‘now’, we may be able to face some of our problems before it is too late to do anything about them.
What is The Emergency Room and how does it work?
The Emergency Room is a format for artists who burn with a desire to engage in urgent and necessary debates. It is a circular space where artists make and present work about emergencies today; tomorrow will be too late…
…Tomorrow they will make and show new work about what is happening then.
Artists are thermometers for the dysfunction of society. They are expert in detecting problems immediately, or even in advance. In Emergency Room, artists are asked to identify dysfunctions and to propose solutions. What they feel or know has to be exhibited now, today. Ordinarily, an artist must wait months or years to exhibit in an art institution, negotiate funding and find collaborators. This severely limits an artist’s ability to respond to the contemporary; the art work becomes a delayed comment on yesterday’s world. Emergency Room is a format that permits immediate intervention, stimulating immediate debate with the public and through distribution channels such as the mass media reporting on the event.
In Emergency Room the participative power of the debate involves both creators and viewers, who are all asked to become involved in the circular space. The format deliberately seeks to mix diverse aesthetics – for instance cross-media artists with abstract painters or sculptors – and established and emerging artists from different cultures as a form of ‘biodiversity’. In this environment, artists evolve new unexpected methods, often resulting in significant changes in the praxis of participants and, in so doing, the aesthetics of emergency art as such.
Every large city should have a permanent Emergency Room, now.
IN PART 2 of this interview with Thierry Geoffroy, he talks about a critical debate staged whilst the participants are running and explains why he thinks the big international art biennales are dangerous. To read Part 2 go here.
 In French, ‘oeuvre’ can mean the total output of a life and not simply the corpus of art objects created by an artist that might, perhaps, be found in art fairs and the like.
 The Emergency Room has been successfully staged at Galerie Olaf Stueber, Berlin 2006; Nikolaj Contemporary, Copenhagen 2006 ; Ileana Tounta Contemporary Art Center, Athens 2007; MOMA/PS1, New York 2007; Galerie Taïss, Paris 2008; PAN, Napoli 2009; University of Fine Art, Hanoi 2009 and 2011; marking the Polish European Presidency, Wroclaw 2011.
Images (from the top):
Thierry Geoffroy ‘Stop Using Artists as Vacuum Cleaners’ Biennalist HQ, ZKM museum, Karlsruhe 2011
Thierry Geoffroy / Colonel ‘The Manifeste Moving Exhibition’ 1989 printed as poster in May 1989 for ‘An Exhibition In 4 Acts’ in Copenhagen
(Horizontal composite) Arts Formats: Biennalist, Copenhagen 2012 ; Awareness Muscle, Reykjavík 2012; Awareness Muscle Press Conference, Reykjavík 2012; an artwork from The Emergency Room ; Critical Run, Cairo 2010 ‘Who Decides What Is Freedom?’
Design for the Emergency Room Hanoi [room designer: Jean de Piepape]
(Vertical composite) Artworks from the Emergency Room