To infinish learning

Jean-Christophe Bailly found a way to use the essay as an "extendable" form of writing that transcends literary genres and academic formatting in order to better explore all the resonances of his phrasing. He proceeds through rebounds and ricochets to try and amplify the movement of his formulations and attain what escapes his own momentum. This amplification of meaning, generated by anything introducing accidents into the method – an anecdote, circumlocutions, a slip – allows him to enlarge the range of beings, presences and voices that his writing can evoke. How has this writer, who appreciates logics of rebounds and ricochets, devised his teaching method? Bailly tells the Journal of the CIPH how the development of his method became one with the process of defining the school that welcomed him. At a time when French schools of architecture, art and design are conforming to the LMD model, creating doctoral programs and research units, he stresses here the importance of shielding artistic research from the world of experts and – in opposition to the logic of results – of defending the possibility of leaving room for trial and error, of infinishing education and of turning away from a productivist approach to learning.


Journal of the CIPH: You have been teaching for nearly twenty years at the École de la nature et du paysage (Nature and Landscape School) in Blois. Teaching the landscape does not involve teaching in a particular discipline: it allows for a journey through several fields of study, making it, as you put it, "a real factory of entanglements." How did you devise your teaching method?
Jean-Christophe Bailly: The school had just come into existence: given that it was finding its footing, the work of defining my own teaching was an integral part of the work of defining the school as a whole. I worked with very open-minded people and with an incredible director who had the utopian idea of offering an arc of possibilities between technical training and an aesthetic, sensory education. I was hired to create a course that was the equivalent of the general culture course in architecture schools, but with the idea of connecting it more closely to the question of the landscape. It was somewhat pompously called "History of the Formation of the Landscape and its Representations." In my mind, the word "formation" was to be taken stricto sensu: a historical and critical approach, a questioning of what formed the landscape as we see it and spend time with it, and as the students in the school, once they graduated, would find themselves intervening within it. The course was split over two years. In the first year, the students mostly worked on urban issues. I covered the history of the appearance and development of cities, starting from before cities, from the caves to today’s housing projects. I made much use of anthropology, literature and a few philosophical schemas. The trick was to always use extremely long genealogies, to always start from before, from a time when what was to come did not yet exist. To understand a house, you had to start from a world where there were no houses; to understand the city, you had to imagine a world where the city appeared, and so on. The year after, they worked on what is called "the open landscape," i.e. everything except the city: the wilderness, high mountains or forests. Here I dealt with problems more connected with humanity’s relationship to nature and to agriculture. I am not an agronomist, but agriculture is also a culture and a relation to the world. The question is to see how for each stage of the "human rocket" there corresponds a stage of development in agriculture, which varies from one region to another. You could say that my course was part history, part geography and part art history, on a foundation of essentially philosophical reflections.


Journal: I’ve never sat in on one of your classes, but I can imagine you recounting the history of land ownership, or the public sphere, by willingly starting with an anecdote and proceeding by ricochets. Have you taught like you write? Does teaching also mean seeking to tell stories differently?
Bailly: Absolutely. The work in Blois and the lectures I’ve given in many schools, especially at the École de la photographie in Arles, mean that I’m used to addressing a public, whether in a class or a conference. I’ve learned the importance of narration, the fact of relating, recounting. In order to keep people’s attention – but actually I wasn’t even thinking about it – I would spontaneously illustrate my words with stories or anecdotes. I often used an image as a starting point. I’d photocopy them all before the class, which forced me to be quite choosy. I would always start with two of them: the first presented an Aborigine drawn in the early 19th century by an engineer among the first explorers of Australia. The drawing is very beautiful
figure im1
Facing an empty, unspoiled, unexplored landscape – the Blue Mountains – the Aborigine sits calmly, on his side, in contemplation. These are Western schemas of representation, but at the same time there is in this drawing a respect for the indigenous gaze. I would also show them a spectrogram, the graphic translation of a sound sequence, in this case a phrase spoken by an actor. I would explain to them that if we took another actor, or if we changed a word in the phrase, or even took the same text and the same actor while using a different accent or a slightly different rhythm, the spectrogram would not be the same. This led me to introduce my main idea: phrasing, the landscape as a phrasing, with an infinite number of layers and locutions that result in the "phrase" that corresponds to the visible surface.
figure im2
What is fairly surprising in the history of the landscape – even though the changes are enormous, especially since the Industrial Revolution and even more so over the past thirty years – is that there were nevertheless some constants. For example, there is the relation that prehistoric people created between the place of their encampment and a source of nourishment nearby, which first led to the emergence of the trail, then the path, then the road, and so on. But the creation of a technical advance does not systematically erase what preceded it. We therefore have a stratification whose end product is the extremely composite nature of any landscape. I tried to make them conscious of that.


Journal: Your teaching has been accompanied by your work in publishing. Since 2003, you have been publishing the journal Les Cahiers de l’École de Blois, and one of your issues was in fact devoted to "The Teaching of the Landscape" (L’enseignement du paysage). In that issue, you insist upon what you have just said, the notion that considerations on the ways of teaching the landscape presuppose that one first looks into what the landscape itself teaches. Could you clarify what you mean by a "pedagogy of the landscape"?
J.-C. Bailly: I worked in publishing before I started teaching. It was even because I lost my job in publishing that I found this new profession. The director was insistent that the school produce its own publication, and I think he was right. At the time, the École de Versailles was already publishing Les Carnets du paysage (Notes on the Landscape), where each issue focused on a theme. So we had to do something else. The idea I had was to orient the journal more toward landscaping as a profession and to consider it as something like the school’s unfinished rough draft. This is why I really wanted the students to participate in the journal. On the basis of a few interesting final projects, we would manage to define a theme, or rather a focus for our thinking. The students’ work would be accompanied by contributions from the school’s professors but also, of course, by texts from authors outside of the school: anthropologists, geographers, writers, philosophers, etc. I would ask them to contribute texts in relation to the theme.
For the "Teaching of the Landscape" issue – my memory is quite clear on this – the title was deliberately ambiguous. It meant how you teach about the landscape but also what the landscape itself teaches. I preferred that ambiguity to "The Lesson of the Landscape," which seemed pretentious. The two ways of reading "The Teaching of the Landscape" came together in the problematic of the school itself. We tried to train students – this was the specific role of my class – to become acutely attentive to everything that produces, drives, energizes the landscape in its existence. We taught them to put nothing aside, to do fieldwork without preconceived interpretations. There was something anti-technocratic about the school’s logic. We paid for that, incidentally, but we didn’t back down. So I encouraged the students to listen to the landscape, since the landscape itself produces meaning, the thing to understand and interpret. Let me come back to that idea of phrasing. You have to know how to read the landscape’s phrase, and it is written in, or rather translated into, several languages simultaneously: the geologist’s language, the agronomist’s, the farmer’s, the painter’s, etc. We didn’t ask the students to master all of these areas, but to have in mind their existence and their intrication. This yielded excellent results, particularly with the final projects dealing with the rural environment where we noted a generalized curiosity, let’s say. What’s more, the school underwent a transformation. At the beginning, nearly all of the final projects were urban ones, then they focused more and more on the rural environment. There was a whole process of raising awareness and most of the teaching boiled down to that, developing their curiosity and attention to an impossible level. It’s hard because you notice that mindsets and ideologies associated with standardized training are extremely present and prevalent.


Journal: You have spoken of the school in Blois as a school of the gaze, where students learn to observe the existent before intervening. That makes me think of the task that Bergson assigned to philosophy: to expand perception, which is at the very origin of what one can conceive. In this sense, do you see your approach to teaching as a philosophical one?
J.-C. Bailly: I don’t deny that there is a relationship between what I write and what I discuss using philosophical questions. I have read some philosophy, I have friends who are philosophers, but I clearly see that they have an overall familiarity with the philosophical corpus that I absolutely do not. The number of authors who I have barely read is very large, too large, and I am somewhat ashamed of that. When I go to a philosophy conference, I take notes like a student, sometimes I get bored and doodle, but I have to remain very modest. It is also true, though, that in discussing schemas of the landscape such as the horizon, the "far," the forms of habitat, my approach has become more philosophical than I thought it was at the beginning. If you take a topic like the horizon, the near and the far, if you approach it while including the visual aspect, if you adjoin it to the history of art, and then if you take a saying from the most famous French landscape architect, Michel Corajoud, who says that the landscape is the place where the earth and sky touch each other, the ideas that you suggest in response necessarily become philosophical. But philosophical in a generic, almost spontaneous way.


Journal: But when you talk about the essay as an "extendable" form of writing, it could be said that you are trying to widen the scope of philosophical writing…
J.-C. Bailly: Yes, of course. There is the idea that what is thought or what behaves like a theoretical formulation can also and maybe must also be conjugated as writing. And conversely that writing, contrary to a certain gospel, enriches itself through being innervated by characteristics that come from philosophy and that are directly related to the concept. Obviously it is not a matter of establishing a sort of middle way, but of multiplying the contacts, the injections, the transplants.


Journal: I was thinking of someone like Benjamin, who tried to open philosophical writing to daily experience while distancing himself from institutional philosophy…
J.-C. Bailly: The form of thought toward which Benjamin was moving did not conform to the norms of German academia in the 1920s. Actually, it may have been a lucky break for him that he did not pursue his Habilitation and enter the university system. As a result, he learned his lesson: his creative capacities opened out like a fan; his theoretical imagination was set free. And what was holding that fan was precisely the question of the city, the history of the city’s development of its power to condense. Benjamin’s ideas are probably those with which I am the most familiar. When you read him, you get the feeling that there are no barriers, no separation possible between a sensation and a thought. And this is exactly what happens when you walk through the city: you go out into the street, it starts to rain and you have a kind of little thought. It could be related to the rain, or to a woman you’re happy to see again, or a cat sheltering itself in front of the door across the way. This little thought is neither eliminable (éliminable) nor pitiable (minable). It is part of an enormous register in which other forms put their signature: more developed, conceptualized forms. But those forms may in turn make way for anything that comes along, that emerges unexpectedly.


Journal: The need to call attention to that little thought is why it seemed important to me, as we said earlier, to try and recount it differently. Is encouraging a level of attentiveness that becomes sensitive to the equality between all forms of thought as they exist and manifest themselves (I am reminded of Plotinus for whom all life is thought) a gesture that could define a politics of teaching?
J.-C. Bailly: I don’t know about a politics of teaching, but ways of doing, yes, definitely. Ways of doing that favor a form of improvisation that grows more intense, until you yourself have a sensation of moving forward, of discovering detours, bifurcations as you move forward. I always insist on the connections, the rebounds, the ricochets, as well as on the capacity that concrete words have to designate things or phenomena (just like "ricochet") that make the spontaneous, dynamic nature of thought visible, almost palpable. Making something visible and making it legible are one and the same thing, as you jump from one domain to another, varying the sources, the echoes, the light you shed on it. The exact opposite of what specialists and experts do… As well as the opposite of mere dilettantism, you understand.


Journal: You make regular appearances in art schools, not just to give lectures but also to talk with students about their work. These discussions are the core of education in the arts. Art is taught and passed on verbally, perhaps more than by learning techniques: it takes language itself as material to be shaped. What do you get from these talks? Have they influenced your work as a writer?
J.-C. Bailly: At the school in Blois, I only had this kind of relationship with the students I was supervising as they worked on their final projects, which I really loved doing. It was very important for me to accompany the student to the site they had chosen. Since it was not my profession, not being a landscape architect, my relation to the issues raised by the site was not of the same nature as the project, so I could say just about anything that came into my head. I discovered many things thanks to that, which I ended up using in Le Dépaysement. [2] For example, seeing a spring and discovering to what extent a spring is an idea that resonates with the idea of gushing, of welling up. At that point, the dialogue with the student became fascinating.
In the art schools my relationship with the students is much more limited. I’m just passing through. At the photography school in Arles, which I visit regularly, I abandoned what could be called the magisterial aspect that I used at the beginning in order to focus exclusively on discussions. The students show me their work (photos, videos, small books) during these discussions, which are not one-on-one, but remain open to anyone who wants to participate. It’s an absorbing but fairly exhausting exercise. I see six or seven students per day, and the thing is not that it takes six or seven hours, but that each time I have to start from scratch. But in this school (école), which for now hasn’t sought to become a movement (faire école), the work is quite varied, different each time: one student wants to explore the seedy world of a nightclub, another takes a fairly formal black and white approach, yet another portrays sweeping vistas… and each time I have to start from scratch. It makes sense only if you put yourself in that situation. It’s almost like a theorem. If I have something to say immediately, that’s not a good sign. I need to be a little taken aback. It really corresponds to a theory of interruption. An image’s ability to interrupt the previous discourse of the person seeing it is proportional to its force. If an image applies a lesson, if it is obvious, you see what you can say about it right away. In general, I use a process of elimination, trying to narrow my comments, rejecting anything that seems imprecise or indulgent. It’s a very good exercise, but I don’t really know what I get from it. I have been doing this work in Arles for fifteen years. The danger for me would be fatigue, when you feel like you’ve exhausted your supply of stories, anecdotes, or even of concepts. In that case, you should maybe call it quits. If I felt like that, I would stop. Ultimately, at the Landscape School, I think I’ve come to the end.


Journal: You can learn with things, as Francis Ponge did, or with animals, about which you have written so much, experimenting with sensations beyond human existence and trying to get away from oneself. In the schools where the organization of studies is built around the development of a personal project, would the role of so-called theoretical coursework be less about teaching a particular content and more about encouraging decentering experiences?
J.-C. Bailly: In an art school, purely theoretical coursework would be absurd. But I think an excessively personalized curriculum is dangerous as well: it leads the students to treat the school as a mere base camp where they only stop by occasionally. Workshops [3] are a necessary practice but there is an ideology of the workshop that I am wary of. The transmission of content via courses or conferences remains fundamental, and I don’t see why it has to be opposed to decentering logics and experiences, on the contrary!


Journal: Until now, the focus has been on bringing the organization of study in art schools into line with that of universities. But the issue is almost never considered from the opposite perspective. In your view, what could an artistic approach to teaching contribute to university education?
J.-C. Bailly: The teaching method in art schools, as I see it, changes greatly from one school to another. There are schools where a trace of utopia still remains, sort of in the spirit of the Bauhaus or an idea of the Bauhaus, including in the relations between professors and students; then there are others where an overly perfunctory, fairly nonchalant atmosphere prevails. But there can be no question that the ideology that privileges the useful and the profitable above all else threatens the spaces reserved for trial and error in general, and those in art schools in particular. That started explicitly under Sarkozy and it is even more manifest today. At best, art is seen as an ornament, as decor, or as entertainment, but it is never taken seriously. It is or should be the main way to refine an experience, to enable an experience of things, but instead it is consigned and shut away.
You could say that there is open warfare between the world of experts and the world of experience. Today, the problematic in art schools is fragmented because there are experts, technocrats who want to guide it, orient it, force it into their preconceived slots. The example of the landscape school in Blois, even though it is not stricto sensu an art school, speaks for itself. In fact, the school no longer exists as an autonomous entity. It does not have a legal identity anymore. It merged into a National Institute of Applied Sciences (Institut National des Sciences Appliquées), where the watchwords are "performance," "excellence," "professionalization," essentially the opposite of what had been envisaged at the start. Gradually, the independence and spirit of adventure forming the bedrock of the school were whittled away. This is a widespread trend that also concerns art schools. The institutional formatting, and therefore the formatting of their modes of operation, supports this process of ideological conformity. Creating huge machines conceived as visible, self-proclaimed "clusters of excellence" is the exact opposite of what should be done. In order for art schools to have any meaning, they need to be very independent, preserved from formatting and standardization.
A regulation is not the same thing as a standard. The problem isn’t that there are operating regulations, that a course of study lasts so many years, that there are tests from one year to the next or required courses. That’s not what formatting is. You see it coming in art schools, the mentality of the artist who knows who Louis Vuitton is but not so much who Michelangelo or Francis Picabia were. I am only slightly exaggerating, unfortunately…
In art school, there is the beauty of youth. You have to leave it alone, accord it the right to make mistakes, to wander, to learn. The founding idea of modern art, not necessarily contemporary art as it is today, is the destitution of mastery. The master is himself an apprentice. Just think of Pierre Boulez, a composer and a great conductor: his book is called Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship. It is an idea that correlates with the idea of the unfinished work and the ideological critique of the masterpiece. As a whole, artistic creation is seen as a gigantic studio (atélier), [4] where things are crafted, then forgotten, then you come back to them, etc. It’s not a place where finished products are made, but a place – I quite like this neologism – where everything is infinished, where nothing is taken for granted. Which is the opposite of logics of pure and simple production.
figure im3
I’ve spent a lot of time visiting artists’ studios (ateliers). I’ve never wanted to be anything other than a writer, but I’ve always been a little jealous of artists. There’s not much to what a writer has at hand: a pencil, a pen, a piece of paper… you can amuse yourself with small matters of stationery, and now there are computers, but at the same time they remain fairly limited, the only material joy you get is from their design. On the other hand, I’ve always envied the materiality of what artists handle. Piotr Kowalski’s studio, for example – he taught for a while at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris among many other things, he had been trained as a mathematician and had real scientific knowledge – was a place whose disappearance I regret every day. There were car mechanic’s tools, high-end computer gear, small collections of pebbles and shells, books, workbenches. It was a place pervaded by a Faustian desire to grasp the world through knowledge: knowledge that is not taken for granted, but seen as a series of foldings and unfoldings that blur into experience. In places like that, form always comes later. This is why I called my book on painting L’Atelier infini (The Infinite Studio). Schools of art, architecture or landscape should be large studios first of all. And stay that way most of all. Instead of being loaded with "workshops" [5] that officially recognize skills, they should be buzzing hives whose guiding principle never strays from the primary function of the artist, which is to know how to find, identify and gather pollen.


  • [1]
    Translator’s note: a translation of Bailly’s neologism "infinir," where "finish" is negated with "in-" and simultaneously combined with "infinite."
  • [2]
    Jean-Christophe Bailly, Le Dépaysement: voyages en France (Paris: Seuil, 2013).
  • [3]
    Translator’s note: in English in the text (for both instances in this sentence).
  • [4]
    Translator’s note: "Atélier" can be translated either as "studio" or "workshop": in some cases here "workshop" would work better, but Bailly explicitly uses the English word in a pejorative sense in his comments.
  • [5]
    Translator’s note: in English in the text.