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Arles Festival 2019: “How to find beauty in a disaster zone?” by Michel Poivert

Arles Festival 2019: “How to find beauty in a disaster zone?” by Michel Poivert

A photoreporter for major magazines, Philippe Chancel spent a number years exploring sites that had fallen prey to world’s upheavals. This activity gave rise to Datazone, an immense and timely project which Chancel carried out in China and the United States, as well as Africa and Europe. On the 50th anniversary of the Rencontres d’Arles, the project will be presented to the public for the first time in its entirety.

What is project Datazone?

Philippe Chancel’s project Datazone is an exploration, spanning fourteen years, of places around the world which saw major civilizational upheavals. Our civilization, in the global sense of the word, experiences an ecological disaster: Chancel traveled to the Antarctic and the Niger Delta, but also looked at localized changes, like in the town of Flint, Michigan, confronted by deindustrialization, or in China, where he observes the gigantic scale and the permanent risk of pollution. What he’s doing is neither reportage in the classic sense, nor a long-term documentary project. What we have here is the singular approach of an artist who uses investigative techniques to convey harsh realities. He captures that moment of vertigo when you begin to wonder if our world is at the edge of a precipice or if we’ll manage to make it. I would say that the most striking thing about Datazone is not geopolitical analysis, but rather the attempt to delve into present-day human sensibility and ask, how do we take images of all that and, above all, why is it so beautiful? Datazone is at the heart of the whole history of photography, namely how the gravity of an event or of a situation can generate something spectacular or beautiful.

Philippe Chancel, Datazone #06, South Africa, Marikana, 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Melanie Rio Fluency

Is it this duality that interests you in particular?

This duality is part of the whole history of photography. It has informed the debates about how to photograph wars, famine, or natural disasters. I believe that photographers have always been very unhappy about the beauty they captured in their images. I’ve always been interested in this “unhappy consciousness.” Datazone is interesting because it is, in my view, the representation of ailing beauty. The project confronts the public with this extremely troubling aesthetic and asks, how can we find beauty in a disaster zone? I think it goes to Chancel’s credit to have explored this issue, accumulated documentary evidence, visited places that are perfect examples of the profound paradox that society is today. It’s a photographic oeuvre first, and a geopolitical study second. 

Datazone is at the heart of the whole history of photography

On that note, how did the project get constructed?

It’s a rather programmatic body of work, that is to say, Chancel knew he would need to travel to some fifteen locations if the project were to mean anything. Some places were, I think, an obvious choice because he had worked there before, like North Korea or the Emirates which were loci of world transformation. Then every year he would work on new locations and on new issues. Datazone is not just the fruit of fifteen years of labor; it’s the synthesis of Chancel’s work.

Does the exhibition condense Datazone or does it bring a new dimension to the project?

The exhibition featured in Arles represents the completed form of the project. Datazone did not exist as such until now. Datazone is all the places together, with a prolog and a conclusion. What is interesting is that this exhibition will bring the viewer into contact with each of the locations. The visitor’s relationship will be of course visual, but it will also be volumetric since we will have spatial views mapping the routes to follow into each Datazone. The exhibition space will be occupied by Datazone. I think it’s rather beautiful.

Philippe Chancel, Datazone #14, France, Marseille, Northern and Southern districts, 2017 et 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Melanie Rio Fluency

What was your role working with Philippe Chancel on this exhibition?

I’ve often helped Philippe Chancel edit his work. He makes a lot of images and, more importantly, a lot of good images. Here, we started out with the same formula: I would review each Datazone and cull about fifteen photographs from the ample corpus. This editorial work was fairly traditional; on the other hand, the location of the exhibition is very unconventional, because it is set up in the Church of the Frères Prêcheurs, which is an incredible space. Philippe Chancel wanted a scenography and hired Studio Adrien Gardère, which has a history of working with museums. A three-way collaboration was thus put in place, between the artist, the curator, and the scenographer. The latter was very attentive to how I envisioned the space and how some fifteen exhibitions could be made to coexist. A book publication is forthcoming from Photosynthèses, for which I brought together a very particular selection of texts.

Do you have a surprise in store?

Not really, but let’s just say that the big difficulty in terms of the theme was figuring out what writing could bring to such an ambitious body of work. And what we decided to do was to pair this project with a work of fiction. The editor and the artist both agreed. This was a daring proposition, since the idea was to talk about all these places in such a way as to make the viewer feel that this world is our future and that we must look at it through the eyes of someone who does not belong to our time in order to understand it. So I imagined a time-traveler who goes to all these places and who writes about what is going to happen to people in his own time. It’s a uchronia of sorts.

Interview by Coline Olsina

Philippe Chancel, Datazone, Église des Frères Prêcheurs, July 1–September 22, 10am–7:30pm, Arles

Datazone, Preface by Michel Poivert, Éditions Photosynthèses

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