The Festival at Fort Boyard

Another gem in the Chopin library is a tiny brochure for an imagined collaborative art fair in the late 1960s, Festival de Fort Boyard. Don’t let the unassuming cover fool you; the inside packs quite a punch.

Fort Boyard is a 19th century fortification that lies about 5 kilometers off the French Aquitanian coast, between Rochefort and La Rochelle. Originally intended to defend against maritime attacks from the British, Fort Boyard never saw much combat.  Since the turn-of-the-century it has been left unattended.  But the fort would reenter the French imagination in 1967, as the final scene of Les Aventuriers was filmed there.  Later in the 1990s a game show, also named Fort Boyard and a sort of precursor to “Fear Factor,” was shot on location.  And its lesser-known claim-to-fame, of course, was playing host to an avant-garde art festival extraordinaire in the summer of 1967, organized by our very own Henri Chopin, Serge Beguier, Antonio Berni, Gianni Bertini, Julien Blaine, Gil Wolman and others.

Fort Boyard, off the west coast of France

Program for June 10th

With ferries leaving from Rochefort on the hour for spectators, the festival ran a new program each summer weekend.  The book is a collection of the programs, various related (and seemingly terribly unrelated) images, and a history of the festival, written by Chopin from the year 69000000000000. In it, he remembers the legendary and ongoing event which “defies time,” and likewise his fellow future citizens fondly extol the one art show that flouts “idiotic traditions.” He insists that no monument, not the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, nor any natural wonder has been able to resist impoverishment by humans the way Fort Boyard has. And he explains why: “In 1967, a few anti-establishment, anti-culture, anti-festival pioneers thought there needed to be a festival that didn’t actually exist.”  No wonder it has held up so well.

What goes on at an art festival that doesn’t exist?  A lot, apparently: Each week was carefully curated and programmed, featuring multimedia performance/installation pieces, some that, naturally, do not seem physically possible to make.  For example, Dom Sylvester Houedard enacted a “typing ballet” by writing a poem live on an enormous typewriter that required him to jump, leap, and stride from key to key.  This was accompanied by a Beguier’s “barometric color show,” or a collection of paintings that shift in color with atmospheric changes.  A week later, Gil Wolman’s program is described as “During the night of June 14th and 15th, Wolman will fill the bottles drank during the night of June 14th and 15th,” and this sentence repeats several times.  The week after that, Bertini would project 15 of his paintings onto a curtain of smoke at sunset, while Chopin performed sound poetry. What each piece has in common is there ephemeral, irreproducible quality; they do not exist.Photograph of a projected image

For Chopin, the Festival thought experiment was the “total work of art, the perfect work, the unprecendented child, beauty everywhere, absolute purity. . . . The true masterpiece after 20 centuries of trial and error.”  While Chopin and his collaborators clearly poke fun at the bloated arrogance of the art world and its obsession with consumer materiality.  In that vein, it seems this group successfully carries out a defense of plastic expression. The true work of art is the idea itself, the practice of imagination, and the fearless sensibility.  And the beauty of an art that does not exist is its total freedom from hegemony.  Mutiny in the barracks!

**Blogger’s note: After having studied this piece repeatedly, I was still unsure if this event actually took place or was conceived never to happen.  It did not occur, was never meant to, but one could entirely believe that it did. And I suppose that says it all.


Henri Chopin, part deux

Chopin’s library contains all kinds of quirky and fascinating volumes.  Many are collections of dactylopoèmes (examples of which mentioned in last week’s post) complete with wonderful titles, like: Passementeries (Trimmings), Riches heures de l’alphabet (The Alphabet’s Heyday), Folles folies des follies (The Foolish Folly of Follies), and Squelette du verbe et alentour (Skeleton of the Verb and Elsewhere). Other examples provide a colorful glimpse into Chopin’s wide network of friends, like Pour parler et pour cause, dedicated and written by fellow avant-gardist Gianni Bertini.  Inside the front cover lies a check from the “Banca della felicità et dell’amore” (Bank of Happiness and Love) made out to Chopin for 365 days of happiness. In one interesting passage, Bertini compares the act of writing a poem to a butcher wrapping meat–first it is cut, blood oozing, then weighed and swaddled tightly in sturdy paper. “We wrap words so that they cannot escape.”

Still other books attest to Chopin’s imaginative talents and neverending stream of multimedia projects.  Here a deeper look into The Cosmographical Lobster, a poetic novel.

The Cosmographical Lobster: slim volume and bright red sleeve

The Cosmographical Lobster opens with a nonsensical sum, alerting us to the novel’s playful relationship to conventional logic: 
22 + 8 + 7 + = 987678432 + 5 + 7 + 8 = 3 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 7 + 9 + 7 = 4789765456765536543423341
and insisting : THE ANSWER’S RIGHT.
He then goes on to introduce the novel’s key characters: ERnest (age 222222, 000000, 6666666, 888888, 4444444), the President of the World Government, and Mr. X, Governor of the Ciphered People.  For eons, the Ciphered People had lived without the WORD: “The word as such was of very little account – its function, which had previously been indispensable to the misunderstanding of human beings…” The ridiculous authors who had used it, Shakespeare, Molière, Plato, were “old museum pieces.”  Their favorite TV program, a masterpiece, was a “0” on a white background. For the Ciphered People there was no more need for philosophers, poets because all of metaphysics could be summed up with  ” + added to – = “.  “It was strictly imperative to listen to the speech of the Head of the Universe,” writes Chopin, “but of course it was strictly forbidden to comment on it or to understand it. In any case, understand means nothing.”

Lobster-esque dactylopoème inside front cover

But ERnest, the enlightened, craves to live once more among the Word. And so he quests to recreate the Universe because, as it is well-known, “In the beginning was the word.” With each of his succeeding thoughts and movements, ERnest regenerates the Cosmos, the Earth, and all living creatures. In a spaceship hurdling through time and space, the difficult voyage continues oward the rebirth of the word, attempting to reverse the damage of history: “Humanity, that had become dumb in the twentieth century, was thrilling to life once more.”  At last, the final proclamation: “THE SOUND OF THE UNIVERSE WAS HEARD.”
Throughout the novel, Chopin strings together entire paragraphs without spaces, spells words backwards, launches into rhyming tangents, makes verbs out of friends’ names (heidsiecking, gysinning) and employs scattered spacing, among many other puns and disruptions.  Naturally, the loose “narrative” is often occluded and hard to follow.  But it is a fun meditation on humankind’s simultaneous devotion to and repugnance for language.  The Word is at once fundamental to the universe and completely meaningless, a theme undoubtedly present in his sound poetry and typewriterpoems.  It seems Chopin also makes reference to the terrible power of language to influence the masses; he saw firsthand how propaganda and political rhetoric had ended in catastrophe in the 20th century. Perhaps, then, The Cosmo Lobster is a cautionary tale: we must be careful with words and appreciate the sounds proferred in the universe, lest we lose them. 

Henri Chopin: An Introduction

At left: Chopin at a sound poetry performance. At right: sample dactylopoème or typewriterpoem.

General Modern has recently acquired the library and archive of the late Henri Chopin, avant-garde artist and poet (1922-2008).  Following on the heels of French lettrisme, Dada, and Surrealism, Chopin is probably best remembered for his contribution to the budding discipline of “poésie sonore” or sound poetry.  Among other techniques, Chopin might swallow a microphone and record the minute vibrations of the human instrument, often layered on top of other recorded sounds, producing such works as “Throat Power,” “Digestion,” and “Interplanetary Rocket.”  He used very basic equipment and often tampered with the tape path by, for example, pasting matchsticks on the reel bed to create purposeful distortions.  (He would also perform his works, which is quite fun to watch; check it out here.)

By passing the same sheet of paper through the typewriter multiple times and at varying angles, Chopin achieves this design.

But throughout his 50+ year career, Chopin was prolific also as a painter, graphic designer, typographer, and film-maker.  He published dozens of volumes of his audio-visual magazines “OU” and “Cinquième Saison,” as well as many original books, collage works, installation pieces, and writings.  While he was careful to remain unaffiliated with any particular grouping–he called Lettrism “a dictatorship”–and cherished his artistic independence, he nevertheless collaborated and corresponded constantly with other leading figures of the European avant-garde.  A big portion of his collection are various books, letters, and art pieces dedicated to him by the likes of Raoul Hausmann, Brion Gysin, Francois Dufrene, William Burroughs and Gianni Bertini.  His connections across Europe and disciplines reveals he was a major point of contact on the international post-war art scene, and through tracking this network we can index the ever-shifting preoccupations of the avant-garde.

Underappreciated in mainstream art historical dialogue, Chopin’s work plays with and challenges conventional notions of speech, language, music, sound, and semantics.  His sound poems and dactylopoemes shed previously held verbal or symbolic value, to focus instead on purely sonorous or decorative qualities.  The latin alphabet, he insists, “is more geometric than calligraphic for our vision,” and “consists of constructivist forms.”

An ode to the dynamism of the sound recorder, here depicted as the Paris metro in a series called “Tubes.”

By manipulating modern-age technology, Chopin seeks to access the primal expanse of communication, the infinity beyond symbolic meaning.  The tape recorder makes possible the elongation and elaboration of sound shapes, makes audible the normally inaudible.  Similarly, the typewriter, in its perfect repetitious typescript, showcases the “architectural skeleton” or pure form of letters and words. In this way, Chopin simultaneously engages the mysterious archaic and the mechanical state-of-the-art.

From his “Concerto en Zhopin mineur,” a simultaneous play on the “z” sound and the “z” formation.

Perhaps this interest in the intersection of modern and primal can be traced back to Chopin’s experience of the Nazi regime, with its prehistoric violent warfare and hatred in a modern technological context. After France fell under German occupation, he was captured and sent to a POW camp in the Czech Republic from which he managed to escape.  After spending time with the advancing Red Army, he was recaptured by German forces and sent west on a Nazi “Death March.”  It was then he discovered the power of “extra-verbal communication.” He also lost two brothers in the war, both, like him, renegade spirits who didn’t share Henri’s luck.  The sounds he creates, then–from vibrating nose hairs, to farts, hisses, and labial snaps–become profound expressions of human existence, made possible, perhaps, by his very own humanity having been called into question. Beyond the obvious quirk and hilarity in his work, there lies beneath a deeply poignant creative act.

Much of his library (around 500 books) is catalogued and available for study, and his amazing archive forthcoming.