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A Tale for Creating A Legal Precedent

Sunday 4 January 2009

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Written in french by Patrick Bernier in 2004, translated by Simon Welch, published in Untitled, n°43, Autumn 2007.


At the Administrative Court of N., on the morning of 20th September, a foreign woman whose situation is irregular, and to whom the prefect has served a deportation order, rises to address her final appeal to the judge.

Your Honour, I appear before your Court to contest the deportation order that the Prefecture of N. has served on me. If you uphold this order, I will be deported to the country that I managed to escape from only at the cost of painful sacrifices and at considerable risk. The Asylum and Immigration Tribunal of your country did not believe the reasons that forced me to leave and refused me asylum. Today, returning would represent an infringement of my private life and a danger to my life itself which seems inadmissible. Regardless of my esteem for you, I have no hope that you will be susceptible to my arguments, given the political and economic relationship that your country is currently cementing with my country of origin: everything is fine there now, your Honour, everything is fine there! However, before you give the green light to my deportation, let me warn you that I will not be the only one to leave the territory, because I carry with me an artwork conceived in collaboration with P., an artist from your country. Don’t bother lowering your eyes to my belly, you won’t learn anything : I am not pregnant. I am not expecting a child whose birth would give me the right to remain in this country. My relationship with P. is merely friendly and artistic. He has confided his part of the artwork to my memory; I am its guardian and interpreter, the co-author insofar as my memory effects it. This artwork is a story : the story of an artistic project and its effects. Please listen to it as I tell it today, I will tell it differently tomorrow.

Some time ago, an exhibition curator of international renown invited P. to participate in a shared curatorial experiment. He invited him to select ten works by different artists who would be exhibited along with others in a well-known London gallery. A few days later, P. read in the press that a 28-year-old Iraqi had died at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel, crushed under the truck he was trying to hang on to in order to reach England. This fatal attempt struck him as being like a photographic negative of the curator’s proposition. The invitation to present works across the Channel was superimposed on the impossibility for some people to cross this little stretch of water. Henceforth, when invited to send artworks, how could one send people instead? Now, P. had recently begun working with a storyteller to whom he confided his artistic experiments in order to publicly transmit them, the storyteller modifying them according to his know-how and his own memory. Thus was formed the idea of creating collaborations between well-known artists and people in transit ; conceiving works that would not take the form of an object, a piece of writing or any other tangible form but would retain an immaterial aspect so that it fell to their guardians to reconstitute them by employing their own faculties such as storytelling, playing an instrument, dancing, singing or giving instructions! The presentation of these works of art in London would necessitate the crossing of the Channel by the co-authors and exclusive interpreters of these original artworks. These works would thus confer on stowaways the status of couriers.

He contacted artists, researchers, choreographers, film directors and composers whose research and approaches seemed to correspond to this proposition. It seemed important to him to go beyond mere sponsorship, it should be a real collaboration which would enrich everybody. Artists responded and the collaborations with “undocumented people” started with the help of refugee support groups. A choreographer showed a sequence of movements that he had observed in the recent history of contemporary dance to a young Kurd who then performed it and completed it with new gestures. A composer created a piece of music for an instrument that an Afghan had constructed during his journey. A conceptual artist evoked a sculpture in a few words for a Nigerian woman to subsequently sculpt using other words that were tinged with nostalgia.

The carriers of artworks wrote to the French and British authorities to obtain the right to enter Britain and honour the invitation to present the work of which they were the co-authors, guardians and interpreters. They received no reply. The artists then wrote to obtain passage for the people carrying their works so that they could be presented in London. The prefect replied that, given the irregular situation of the people in question, it would not be possible to comply with their request and reminding them that any help with entry or residence extended to a person in irregular circumstances constituted an offence. P. wrote, as assistant curator of the exhibition, to request permission for the passage of the ten people carrying the works that he had selected. He received the same reply with the reminder that the penalties for the aforementioned offence are at least doubled when committed by an organised group. The main curator wrote that the refusal of transit of the ten persons concerned would eliminate important works from his exhibition. He received a letter from the British authorities explaining that it was not possible to comply with his request because of bilateral agreements signed between the French interior ministry and the British Home Office. The director of the gallery did not write because he was afraid of the reaction of his State sponsors.

None of the couriers were authorised to enter Britain. On the day of the opening in London, the public found ten title cards for the absent works next to the works selected by the other assistant curators. The titles of the artworks were displayed along with the names of the coauthors accompanied by a text explaining that the French and British authorities had refused to grant passage to the author-interpreters of these works and that the organisers regretted not being able to present them. Visitors were invited to send a letter of complaint to the authorities. Many did so but none received a response. Some of the artists who had collaborated with the couriers were present. They were put under pressure to present their works themselves but refused, speaking instead of their experiences. The story circulated. A boycott was organised that united the disgruntled artists unhappy at seeing their works enriching those they would rather denounce. Musicians who wished to free themselves from the major multinationals, authors avoiding publishing (because it is mostly in the hands of arms dealers) and artists disgusted with feeding a speculative market, all decided to no longer publish, exhibit or represent things. They remebered that, in order to allow forbidden works to continue to circulate, men and women from a literary resistance movement each committed a work to memory and recited it to anyone who wished to hear it. Ready to return the favour, now that it was no longer a case of books circulating hidden under coats but rather men hidden under trucks, our artists were prepared to entrust their latest creations to the memory of those without documents and without rights whose very existence was denied. They banned any tangible form of their artworks (whether books, films or discs) that might lead to the circulation of the work without the guardian. The works were necessarily collaborative, the guardian adapting the work to his or her memory and enriching it with his or her own history and knowledge. The guardian reconstituted it as he or she wished, in a more or less whole, fragmented, hybrid or original manner.

At first, the illegal situation of the carriers of artworks obliged presentations to take place during clandestine meetings. One day a woman was arrested. Her situation was irregular as she was an “undocumented person”, but she was also the guardian of an artwork. The court did not consider that the fact of containing a piece of intangible national cultural heritage constituted an obstacle to deportation and upheld the deportation order despite the protestations of the artist co-author who happened to be present and who appealed, a bit inconsequentially, to the inalienable rights of authorship. During her detention prior to deportation a number of enthusiasts requested visiting rights to hear the work. The detention centre switchboard was saturated with calls from people asking for information about visiting times, making the place resound like a performance venue.

The number of collaborations increased. It was no longer just artists who entrusted their creations to the memories of “undocumented people” : scientists confided their discoveries, the venerable their memoirs, and chefs their recipes. The very memory of the country was gradually exiled at the same pace as the deportations.

Their fame crossed borders, despite the absence of artworks and individuals. Artists of all countries put pressure on their authorities to allow entry to foreign carriers of works of art. Refusal by the authorities gave rise to a feeling among local artists that they were out of touch, new things only arriving in bits and pieces reported by travellers who may have heard the work in another country. Often the story was second-hand or transmitted via several people and thus by various memories. They became fabulous, combining embellishments encountered in various exhibitions or conferences. The art world started to desert the closed countries. The artistic buzz crossed frontiers. Transit camps of foreigners mutated into art centres, while artistic institutions in closed countries withered away. So, to avoid collections being hit with obsolescence and museums with lethargy, consultants from these countries softened up and made exceptions for the passage of people carrying artworks. But they are still waiting for a judge, who could be an aesthete, to break the deportation order issued against one of them.

You’ve been warned, my thanks and greetings.

Judgement under deliberation.


The exhibition “I AmA Curator” was conceived by Per Hüttner for the Chisenhale Gallery in London in November 2003. The project as described was not accepted by the gallery and has remained in the planning stage.

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