Sandy Amerio interviewed
by Yvane Chapuis
Yvane Chapuis: You've just published a book and had two exhibitions, one at the Espace Paul Ricard in central Paris, the other at the Laboratoires in Aubervilliers. These three projects can be seen as focalizing your investigation of storytelling, a business practice that involves using professional storytellers to acquaint employees with a company's corporate philosophy and to generate certain kinds of behaviour in periods of crisis. When did you embark on this project?
Sandy Amerio: Just over two years ago. There were several phases. By chance or almost: I was already working on issues relating to economics. I came upon a storytelling website, and found that it offered a point of convergence for my interests in the new organization of work and in narrative structures. Until then I'd been concentrating on the documentary form in different ways and was looking for a new focus. I wasn't crazy about the idea of filming a storyteller, even if some of them are great performers. Storytelling calls up an imaginary domain which I felt should be situated elsewhere, rather than presented in the context of a company session. I set out to provide as complete a run-through as I could of the storytelling question. The film, like the book is illustrative and the idea that was there throughout the project was to provide a personal view of storytelling: to test it exhaustively. I also had the idea of putting on a performance, but ultimately this went into the book too, in a different form.
Y.C: What were the triggers for your research on the Net?
S.A: I don't recall exactly. It must have been work and narrative. In any case those were the areas that interested me at the time.
Y.C: How did you organise your research?
S.A: The starting point was research on the Net, but then I refined it down. I read books on storytelling, like the one by Steve Denning, a storyteller whose clients include the World Bank: The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations published by Butterworth Heinemann in 2000. Before that I didn't know there was such a thing as storytelling. I'd read stuff about corporate group therapy — J.L. Moreno's Psychodrama and Group Therapy (Mental Health Resources, 4th edition, 1994), for instance — but storytelling seemed to me to be something quite different and original. After that I got in contact with some storytellers.
Y.C: What was it about storytelling that fascinated you?
S.A: Its structure, which is ultimately fairly free because it can be reappropriated. You only have to watch what storytellers do with it each time a new question arises. It's adjustable and malleable, it's a concept that in the final analysis is flexible because all sorts of stories can be included in it. I didn't want to put storytelling down or settle for some crude representation. I used it as a basic structure for something else and tried to become a storyteller myself.
Y.C: You speak of storytelling in terms of questions. How would you sum up those questions?
S.A: As the relationship between the generic and the particular. Storytelling has all sorts of applications and each one is specific, in that it depends on the storyteller's personality and the way the company functions. At the same time it can be understood in general terms as a management concept that involves telling stories within the company in order to generate certain kinds of behaviour. For me the questions are to be found along the path from the general to the specific. What I undertook in the film was a reappropriation based on my own questioning, and not a process of denouncing storytelling as a practice.
Y.C: What did the book help you explore further and what did the film help you expand on?
S.A: The same thing, but in different areas. My fore most concern was not to limit the storytelling issue to the business world. In the film this is done by evoking the events of 9/11 and a passage from Chapter 19 of the Book of Genesis: the latter recounts the story of Lot who, with his wife and two daughters, was fleeing Sodom, which was about to be destroyed. Lot's wife lacked faith, and when she turned to look back she was punished by God, who turned her into a pillar of salt. Lot continued on his way with his daughters, who took turns to make him drunk and lie with him in order to give birth to a new people. The film led me to reflect on the question of belief. We rarely stop and ask ourselves if the voice-over in a film is telling the truth or if the subtitles do justice to what the actors are saying in another language. This is something I'd already tried out in Waiting Time / Romania (30 min, 2001), and I wanted to come back to it this time via the voice-over, as the events of 9/11 have always been shown to us accompanied by a voice-over, by a commentary. On the other hand the book explores a host of different avenues, because corporate culture programs are always impinged upon by external events or other spaces. In both cases, book and film, I would say that his enabled me to explore different kinds of narrative structure and make play with all kinds of digressions, some of them metaphorical.
Y.C: Why didn't you follow up the performance idea?
S.A: The presence of the body, acting directly, is closely linked to politics in the history of performance. This is why I first got interested in the form. At the same time I have the impression that it's been watered down in contemporary art. I also dropped it for reasons of time. It's a discipline I haven't mastered at all. In the book I was able to include as many characters as I wanted, and above all work an imaginary vein via what's not said or described; when you're doing things live everything is visible, whereas the book form meant I could play with ellipsis. What's more, it would have been difficult, not to say impossible, to fit in certain aspects of the book, or certain processes. To cite just one example, the arrival of the Hummers, the SUVs derived from a military vehicle, would have been quite expensive.
Y.C: The book really struck a chord with me. It came as an artist's book and I found myself with a short story, a plunge into a world whose events make projection possible. It's not an analytical work, nor a critical or documentary approach to storytelling as a practice. It's a form in its own right. What takes place inside it is really dynamic and full of contrasts. And the writing is literary. Is this a new way of working for you?
S.A: It's a way of working that began with the first issue of the review Trouble, in which I published How Mitsubishi is trying to win against the whales in Mexico. My earlier texts were more analytical, film criticism mainly. I always write about my own films too, but writing isn't something I do every day. I need a project to get me going in the writing field. Here I really enjoyed myself, even if I found it hard because it was something new to me. I got the same enjoyment out of writing for the film. I wrote the first bits of the book in Los Angeles when the film was being made. Curiously, it was the film-editing process that really triggered the writing. In the book I kept a narrative thread but with the aim of including mechanisms for writing about everyday life: text messaging, for example, which is intruding more and more into television broadcasting.
I also worked on the graphics with Daniel Perrier, notably on a system of real-time translation. It's a carefully designed text, based on overlap between different methods of writing: some parts use cut-ups, as for the body language section inspired by descriptions of management classes; others are totally made up, as in the love poem and the couple arguing at the back of the room. I also asked professional storytellers to write a text either on storytelling itself or on the way they would relate a story in a company context. I left my instructions fairly general because I knew I'd be able to fit the results into an open-ended structure. I also knew there would be a lot of characters, which is harder to do on film, and they evolved together as the writing advanced. There are all sorts of material in there and bits of my life as well.
Y.C: What made you opt for the index form?
S.A: It seemed important to me that the reader should be able to access the book via terms like "corporate culture programs", "body language", "gallery opening", "real time" and so on. It's a reactive index, not something fossilized like a dictionary with its alphabetical order, for example. It's plastic in both the literal and figurative senses. It served as a way of introducing terms I had something to say about without actually developing the ideas. This gave me the possibility of putting forward points of view, asking questions and generating discussion; of indulging in a kind of schizophrenia by, for instance, setting up a round table for which I drew extensively on remarks I'd heard from other artists and which I didn't agree with.
Y.C: The vision of the United States given by your film Hear me, Children yet-to-be born notably via the timbre of the voice-over, the setting and the male character, the "winner" who goes off the rails and starts seeing himself as a divine emissary and humiliating his wife- is that of a empire plunging into decadence. Doesn't this confirm in a way the image often conveyed by the French media, especially the press, and in particular since the beginning of the Bush presidency? Don't you think there are other possible visions of the country and its people?
S.A: My film isn't metonymic; however things might look, I never intended to offer a vision of the United States via this character. The last election proved that there's at least a split within the country. I didn't know the United States before leaving for Los Angeles to make my film. L.A. is a weird, complex city for a European. A permanent film set. Death Valley is an unlikely collage of landscapes-salt lakes, sand dunes, canyons-in an intricate geological interweaving. Death Valley is not John Huston's desert. It's not just a desert that symbolizes conquest, it's also a place of doubt and almost of perdition. It's no coincidence that Gus Van Sant set Gerry, his story of two young men who get lost, in Death Valley. And it's interesting, too, to think back to Antonioni's Zabriskie Point which is also set there and in which the property developers, who think in terms of conquest, see their project wiped out in a gigantic, interminable explosion. Death Valley is a point of fracture which for me symbolizes the relationship with its history, or its desire for a history that America ceaselessly reappropriates via its film industry. If there's a deliberate portrayal of the United States in the film, it has to do with the Americans' ability to rise above what happens to them, like the 9/11 terrorist strikes. The country is a functioning machine, one able to tum out concepts for overcoming problems and for justifying its own inconsistencies. This is equally true of storytelling in the company context. We can say, for example, that concepts like Huntington's "clash of civilisations" are strangely apt given what's happening in Iraq and fit perfectly with the notion of an enemy to be fought against.
Y.C: Who are the Americans you're talking about? The three hundred million people making up an ethnically very mixed population, or a kind of monolith that we apprehend via the foreign policy of successive United States governments?
S.A: I think it's possible to point up a given people's shared traits without indulging in spurious comparisons or oversimplification. United States foreign policy is one of a number of factors contributing to an understanding of the country. My personal vision draws equally on American intellectuals, literature, my experience there, the people I met and even their relationship with their bodies-all things that don't necessarily have anything to do with foreign policy. In fact there are as many Americas as there are states, and it's important to set the film in the context in which I made it: Death Valley and Los Angeles, where Hollywood is ever-present. I'm not sure whether the film is about decline or self-destruction. The character is chiefly caught up in psychoanalytical complexities. I don't see him as decadent. The film's leitmotif is keep going, a boundless determination to continue moving ahead, and it ends with this character still forging on, just like the United States in Iraq.
Y.C: Whatever the case, in the work titled After Work: Epilogue you're much gentler with the employees of the OCT company, who one day found themselves out of work because of a relocation and whom you asked to tell their story, than with the imaginary character of the company director.
S.A: The film is also an interior discourse, raising the question of a solitude that leaves no room for love. It's like a dream, and I'm not sure that we actually love in dreams; things are situated on another level. These are meta-characters and actually the emotions emerge as pure constructs as meta-emotions, which is very different from caricature. What's involved is more an identification block. By turns we're "over" and "under", in the same way as the camera that glides so often among the actors and the landscapes in the film. There's a question I often put to myself regarding the fit between my work and my personal culture. I think that the way we construct an argument or a criticism is specific to each individual's history. It's true that I identified with the employees. What's not seen, timewise, in this installation is the media handling of the situation and the way, as so often happens, it imprisoned people in a set form of behaviour and stereotyped what they had to say by recording it fragmentarily. I might also say here that there's a question of respect involved.
Interviewer: Yvane Chapuis