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Télérama Sortir No. 2875/February 16, 2005 : « A la carte »

« Did you say ‘Grand Magasin’* ?

No easy task to define the work of this artistic collective. Two intrepid journalists had a go. Here’s what they picked up at the shop…
This is what one finds on the shelves of the grandmagasin.net website: a compilation of sounds recorded on Japanese public transport; a revolutionary audio method for learning how to dance a “multiplex ballet” in one’s living room; a book of “1,600 words, this title not included”. And, at the head of the aisle, some information on the ‘happening’ of the moment: the 5éme Forum international du cinéma d’entreprise (5th international Forum of corporate cinema)**. But what is really hiding behind the Grand Magasin (GM) marquee? Disaffected employees from the FNAC [editor’s note: a large French retailer specializing in music, video, books and entertainment products and services]? Upwardly mobile managers who have crossed over into the cultural business? The latest subsidiary of General Motors? As we pursued our research, we discovered a trio of artists. Herewith, a portrait of an atypical cultural undertaking.
**(Which isn’t concerned with either cinema or corporations. To find out more, see “What is their objective?”)

Who are they?

After a few seconds of perplexed silence, there comes a unanimous reply: “We are people.” More precisely, François Hiffler, Pascale Murtin and, since 2000, Bettina Atala. And for the 5th Forum they are joined by three collaborators: Christophe Salengro, president of the Presipality of Groland [editor’s note: the name of an imaginary land over which Salengro presides on “7 Days in Groland”, a show produced by France’s Canal+ television network], and part of the GM inner circle for 20 years; Etienne Charry, composer-performer for the Tricatel label, and the enigmatic Manuel Coursin, a sound-gatherer.

What do they do?

Pascale: “We make shows…full of life.”
François: “Or experimental comic theater…”
Pascale: “Or perhaps mime with objects and words. Like Marcel Marceau, but without the make-up or the special costume, and with a chair and words. It’s not easy to explain…”
At any rate, a Grand Magasin show isn’t something that’s told, but rather savored. So perhaps it’s best that we stick to their own self-styled promotional slogan: “We aspire – in spite of our near-total ignorance of the theater, dance and music (and their history and techniques) – to create shows that we would dream of seeing ourselves. In this respect, they are very successful and stir our emotions. Our ambition is based on the belief that it’s possible for others to share this enthusiasm.”

What is their background?

Pascale: “François and I are dancers by training, but this constant business of virtuosity, of sweat, of daily training – it got on our nerves…”
Bettina: “When they were doing that, I was just starting first grade.”
François: “We had a sort of joint epiphany: we had to put an end to this constant training. It had become dogma. We had to lose this. To lose the suppleness…”
Pascale: “…lose those dancers’ habits, those automatic bodily reflexes that dictate that the dancer will hold the coffeepot [she grabs hold of the coffeepot sitting on the table] exactly like this and in no other way.”
François: “So we created Grand Magasin in 1982. The first thing we produced [Par les cheveux, an extended version of Bluebeard] was performed in a room that measured 43 square feet. To compensate for the lack of space, we decided to replace movements with words. We learned the tale of Bluebeard by heart in order to tell it.”
Pascale: “It was the first time we were using speech ( in our performance). This approach seemed to offer a wealth of possibilities since we were able to express tons of things without having to budge.”

What is their objective?

For the past five years, Grand Magasin has striven to create “invisible shows” [See “What are they trying to make?”, below] in which, as François puts it, “you barely have the impression of having seen something.” On the other hand, you find yourself laughing a lot and, depending on our intellectual motives of the moment, you’re also given pause for reflection. That’s because, under cover of a pragmatic mock gullibility and a deadpan sense of humor, the trio tackles concepts as light as space, time, simultaneity and the differing perceptions we each have of reality…During their 5th Forum…, GM attempts to make several realities – both linguistic and gestural – exist side by side; wonders about the discrepancy between that which is said and that which is done; crams a three-hour evening performance into 10 minutes; and tests cloning before a live audience.

What are they trying to make?

Unidentifiable theatrical objects: from the megalithic oratorio (Prehistory of music) to the hagiographical survey (The life of 99 unknown male and female saints), by way of a mock retrospective of all the shows GM could have made (Our complete works).
Invisible shows whose idea, for example, is to…list various ways of using thought to escape the present (Transport yourself in your mind to an oil-drilling platform), or to investigate what’s happening outside the theater during the show through the use of telephone callers.
Tongue-in-cheek music-style videos such as English Song, a self-explanatory clip of a minimalist song whose lyrics talk about…the process of composition.

With what rules of conduct?

On the face of it, a GM show seems to consist of next to nothing: an orange chair, an artificial green plant, a sports bag… “We were very quickly labeled as dunces,” says Pascale. In fact, every GM production comes with very strict specifications.
Reference-hunting: “Intellectual connivance is something that’s always annoyed us. We forbid ourselves from making references to things that are unfamiliar to 90 percent of people. That’s how we came up with the name Grand Magasin: because it is accessible for everyone, for the masses.” (François)
Basic accessories: inexpensive, practical, available at any hypermarket. Simply put, objects that are neutral enough to evoke everything and anything. “For instance, here s Aladdin’s lamp,” says Pascale, once again grabbing hold of the coffeepot.
A bare minimum of description: “We wanted to tell a story, but we didn’t succeed. We are not ripe enough yet.” (Pascale). In any case, Grand Magasin “has trouble with stories that are too well described. We feel like prisoners of a text, not free to let our imaginations wander.”
An instruction manual that fits the product: to avoid any misunderstanding, the GM troupe has adopted the wise habit of doing what they say and saying what they do. Even if, at the 5th Forum, they’ve granted themselves license for a few departures from the rules… Cathy Blisson and Florence Broizat

* (editor’s note: ‘Grand Magasin’ is ‘ Department Store’ in french)

“The 5th international Forum of corporate cinema”, from February 17-19, 8:30pm, Feb. 20, 5pm (6-10€); retrospective of the films of Grand Magasin, Feb. 19, 6pm, Centre Pompidou, place Beaubourg, 75004, +33 (0)1-44-78-12-33. (3-5€).

Photo captions:
Page 1: Lively spectacle, or a miming act with objects and words?
Page 2: Experimental comic theater or “invisible” shows…


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