The pile of sand

1I am not going to speak about the way in which teaching philosophy changes between universities and art schools, but rather about my experience, by describing what my method is. In each of my classes, it consists in proposing a dramaturgy by drawing on the work I do elsewhere. I belong to the domain of philosophy: I envisage things from there, I bring things back there at one point or another. But I should say that I teach in a place where the students are not that interested in that domain. I should also say that they aren’t that patient, or present, nor do they put much trust in that institution known as the lecture, or respect it in some cases. Ultimately, they often have more important things to do: recover from the night before, go chat, laugh, read, and especially work in their studios, and besides many of them have part-time jobs, so they organize their schedules as best they can… That is pretty much the reality of the situation. Sometimes many of them come to my classes: this is because I go looking for them in their studios first of all, but it’s also because I really take my work seriously – not my role, my job, my function or my status, but my work and this moment in particular. And as I was saying, most of the time I create a dramaturgy by showing them several objects in relation to a particular problem. Of course, this is not very representative of what is traditionally done in a philosophy department, but it is representative of me. What I mean by that is that I always talk about what is important to me, trying each time to demonstrate why I like a particular work – a film, or a book – in order to explain my approach by constructing a kind of space where worlds can come into contact with each other. That space is a form of thought. And they probably like to enter that somewhat unusual space to relax or make new encounters, discover figures, be surprised by a gesture or come face to face with acts. And so, like all of my colleagues, my method consists to a certain degree in presenting objects to my students that they would probably never have seen otherwise, but always so I can say what I do with them. It is then up to them to decide if these objects affected them: to then use them as reference points and invent their own way of coming to terms with them. What I mean, actually, is that I do the same thing in class that I do everywhere else when I give talks: I invent a certain form and assert a position of thought. So that is how I see it, but of course that space actually belongs to those who experience it, pass through it, all those who want to take the trouble to share it.

2But if I have been happy teaching in an art school for many years now, it is also because the classroom is no more important than other places. It is no more important than the library, the computer room, the halls, the wood and metal shops, a large terrace where we often meet to have lunch when the weather’s nice, or to talk or smoke; it is no more important than an editing room or a studio. These in fact are the places where I spend most of my time "teaching." I spend less time in class than I do walking around from studio to studio, often accompanied by my colleagues like Hubert Marcelly in the past, and today Jean-Marc Chapoulie, Nicolas Tixier or Didier Tallagrand, in order to discover and then talk about the projects, films, sculptures, propositions or situations that the students are creating. And, of course, I learn a lot about my colleagues, but also about the students. What I’m trying to say is that teaching is ultimately something that is fairly ill-defined, including spatially, ill-defined enough that it can always be approached, asserted or invented differently. Most of the time this consists in talking, but also in just being there, paying attention to what is happening, what is said, to the modes of organization, and especially paying attention to the forms that appear. One of my former colleagues – Richard Monnier, an artist I greatly admire – used to go into the empty studio for first-year students very early every morning to see what was there: forms, experiments, little discoveries – the order and disorder of situations as they were being invented. He has retired, and according to what people tell me, he goes to his studio, a converted car storage unit, to work every day. He’s not asked to exhibit his work that much, but that doesn’t stop him from reading, writing, and creating all kinds of experiments that he can show friends or talk about with those around him. So there we have a way of paying attention to forms that appear, a way like many others. But ultimately, what I want to say is simply that art interests me in this place, in a school – of course, that is also true of art in books, in museums and everywhere else – but it interests me most particularly here because I have the feeling that it is a fairly anonymous moment of construction where there aren’t many other issues at stake, and that I constantly experience simple joys here. It interests me because this is a school where, ultimately, things are sufficiently ill-defined. Finally, it interests me because there are all these shared situations and experiences, and that one is constantly encountering forms, propositions, objects. So much for what I had to say to summarize things. Because the question for me was not really to say how the teaching of philosophy changes or what it displaces, but rather to talk about the objects or situations that I encounter.

3So now I would like to talk about one of those situations, a really trivial one. It concerns an adventure experienced by four students [1] who went to Lisbon for an internship, a few years back, as part of the Architecture Triennale. I bring this story up because many of us teachers, starting with my friend Naïm Aït-Sidhoum who brought it to our attention and whose argument and conclusions I literally repeat here, [2] think that it is a sign of what is done in an art school, whether you are a philosopher or not.

4These students left for Lisbon, invited by a collective of architects who were bringing a project to completion. Actually, the project was outside of Lisbon in Cova, a village that had been built without permits by a group of fishermen in the early 20th century. Since that time, the village preserves several special characteristics, as it is managed by an association in which the inhabitants are members. This was the setting in which our four students found themselves. After completing their projects, they suddenly decided to make themselves useful, as there was a playing field in the middle of the village covered in sand and broken glass, rendering it unusable and even dangerous. These students got the idea to clean it up completely and then repaint the lines on the field to help out the community. So they started by thoroughly cleaning the area, ending up with a fairly huge pile of sand that they got rid of by dumping it in the trashcans nearby. But the next morning, some villagers went off to look for them and explain the situation. The problem was that the village did not run its own waste management system; it had to hire a private company to do the trash collection. But when an employee of this company found the sand and broken glass, he left the trashcans untouched because that wasn’t covered in the contract, and he even threatened to never return if it happened again. The president of the association came to scold the students: nevertheless, he was conscious of their goodwill and their naïveté. To right the wrong they had done, our students emptied the trashcan and reconstituted the pile of sand. They had no idea what to do with this problematic heap. A woman in the village then suggested that they could spread it over the beach, but then they would have to sift out the glass. They started to do this, while realizing that it would take them a long time. Meanwhile, this whole situation had of course become the talk of the town: people chatted about this group of French students, really nice but very naive, who spent their time sifting sand. Then a lady came who had heard about it and asked them to bring the pile of sand as is, with the broken glass, to the road leading to her house. It turned out that the road was full of potholes and the pile could fill them, as the road was not maintained. So finally things were pretty much resolved and our students made themselves useful at last. The next thing to do was to repaint the lines on the basketball court, which they did one Saturday. But while they were doing it, they realized that the rival gangs in the village used the court every weekend as a battleground, throwing small rocks and empty bottles at each other. Things then became clearer, while these adolescents stood around waiting, somewhat at loose ends, unable to indulge in their favorite activity. It happened that there was one among them who became especially interested in watching our students repaint the court, but he was in fact the scariest one of all: he terrified the village, in particular for painting huge penises on the walls of houses. Through his interest for painting, maybe, or because he was getting bored, he offered to help the students, which really made an impression on the people in the village. After all, if this group of somewhat naive foreign students managed to make a painter out of their worst delinquent, maybe their actions weren’t so unimportant. The truth was, though, that the terror of the village was not very gifted or diligent: the lines he painted weren’t straight, and there were spots of paint all over the court that served as signs of his clumsiness. So the village had a new, usable playing field, but with the caveat that it had a strange appearance to say the least, with these crooked lines and these spots scattered everywhere.

5So that’s the story – as our students, left to their own devices, reported it to us – that I wanted to tell in conclusion, a story of a pretty burlesque, ridiculous situation where young people who wanted to do the right thing ended up creating a few problems around them.

6We are well aware of the method of architects and urbanists, but also more generally of people who talk, think or act on behalf of others. Fairly often, they don’t really carry out experiments: they mainly tend to identify a problem for which they already have a readymade solution. They import or impose problems so as to respond to them and, in so doing, they demonstrate their competence and the need for their activity in the community. Once we have identified this type of logic, and the presupposition it is based on, we have to draw some conclusions: these people and the world they bring with them are in reality perfectly useless. Like them, our students arrived, wanting to be useful, but they got things wrong. They came with a readymade solution but in reality they invented a problem that took the material form of a pile of sand. For this pile of sand is a form. Of course, it’s not a work of art, it’s not an urban planning scheme or an architectural proposition, it’s not philosophy and even less a political treatise, and yet this speaks to us about all of that at the same time. They didn’t resolve or respond to a problem in sculpture, but between the massive cleanup of a playing field and this pile of sand that travels from place to place like a cumbersome supplement only to end up filling holes in a road, we clearly have a form. They didn’t really help that population who, besides, didn’t need them, but they at least understood how that village was organized, and then ultimately that resulted in an irregular playing field. Moreover, I find that it’s a nice proposition in architecture and town planning – it’s not a matter of telling people how they should be housed or move around or what they should do, instead it’s a matter of burdening them with a pile of sand. All in all, what I mean is that this idea of the pile of sand is in a way stuck between all of these worlds, in an uncertain proximity – sculpture, urbanism, architecture, philosophy, politics – it is burdensome and this is why I feel particularly friendly toward it. In a way, this supplement ends up shattering a certain order of things, or rather it is bothersome and it asserts something – as an artwork or a book does, incidentally. But this story especially interests me because it took place on the periphery, in silence, off to the side, and because the participants are anonymous. They weren’t recognized architects, urbanists, philosophers or artists who took part in some cultural event; they were just young people who had ideas of art in mind. But while they wanted to do a good deed in a village they didn’t know, in reality they created a problem by disorganizing things a little. I mean they expelled the presuppositions or the certainties that they had when they arrived. For me, as a professor, a philosopher or a simple passerby, I say that’s fine with me. That’s fine with me because it gives me an idea.


  • [1]
    Amandine Pichon, Hind Chahoub, Marion Raimbault and Jérémy Lanchon.
  • [2]
    Taken from a lecture presented during the one-day conference organized by the Design et Espace department of the École supérieure d’art d’Annecy on 14 January 2016.