The double life of Ouest-Lumière By Rose Marie Barrientos
What happens when business strategies are transposed into the artistic ground ? Is a merger possible between an electricity company and an artistic enterprise ? How can an artist expand a company’s operations ? French artist Yann Toma’s takeover of the Ouest-Lumière company demonstrates that everything is possible in the era of the corporation, where art too, may be a highly rewarding venture.
Ouest-Lumière first came into existence as a private French electricity company. It was founded in the early 1900’s to serve energy to the western suburbs of Paris (hence its name, “West-Light”). It was active until the end of Second World War, when energy was nationalized and Electricité de France (EDF) took over its operations. The company’s name was destined to fade into oblivion, as do company names when business structures undergo buy-outs, takeovers, and other reorganization processes that force them into new identities. Its buildings, which housed the administrative offices and the power plant, would also be gradually abandoned. In 1991, a few years prior to its demolition, Yann Toma discovered the old power plant while scouting industrial sites for artistic inspiration. As he would soon discover, Ouest-Lumière had not quite disappeared ; although the company had long ago entered the industrial past, some of its traces had survived the time. As he explored what remained of the site, he understood that it held within an important key to the expansion of his art. He decided to “occupy” the plant, a three year process that would lead to the artist’s appropriation of the company.
Digging up the history of Ouest-Lumière and bringing it to new light were part of the “adaptation” and “harnessing” phases, during which he studied the remnants of the former power plant, meticulously observing its atmosphere and the material signs that had been left behind. Archives and equipment were recovered and inventoried, energy fluxes gauged and secured ; the memory of the plant became the substance of Toma’s art. His early works were created and exhibited in situ, giving new visibility to the energy flow that previously circulated through the plant, reactivated as pure artistic energy. The installations, photographs and processes orchestrated by the artist featured electric meters, generators and high voltage cables as well as employee records, instruction notes, and other administrative files documenting the activity that went on at the site and the workers’ life at the plant. Having reactivated the memory of Ouest-Lumière, Yann Toma proceeded to the third and final phase of the occupation. In 1994, he acquired the rights to its name and merged his own signature with the company’s brand. Ouest-Lumière was thus retrieved from industrial and economic history and imported into the history of art.
Rooted in the past yet in tune with the present, the “new improved” Ouest-Lumière was reinvented in the image of the modern corporation. While energy is still the business of the firm, establishing a continuity with the industry sector of its ancestor, its artistic affiliation has profoundly altered the nature of its business. Since 1994, the company operates with the mandate of “obtaining, exploiting, purchasing and selling all dealerships connected to the application of artistic energy” , establishing an industry sector of a hybrid kind that deals with economic and aesthetic experience all at once.
If it were a real company, which by definition exists to generate financial profit, Ouest-Lumière would be forced out of business in no time. But although artistic energy is not exactly a lucrative industry, in the economic sense of the term, the company has managed to successfully survive by fully assuming its corporate identity and by handling the same issues that concern the business unit that inspires it. Everything is there to qualify it as the economic entity it purports to be. Corporate jargon, organizational maneuvers, and corporate procedures are some of the strategies used to build the elaborate structure of Ouest-Lumière. The Corporate Reinvention Unit is in charge of recycling economic language, adapting it to suit the artistic offer of the firm. On a more visible register, the Division for Artistic Devices conceives and promotes the company’s visual identity. The former produces what could be defined as the conceptual structure, the core of the business, while the latter produces its marketing material, such as the company logo, organization charts, business cards, and other corporate tools used for brand construction and communication purposes. Economic language and dreamlike imagery combine in Yann Toma’s discourse and in the products issued by his firm. Vectors of artistic energy include immaterial energy (Radion) and sensual experience (Shares of sensual pleasure), as well as tools allowing destiny control, teleportation, invisibility, prediction of the future, or forgetfulness. The credibility of the firm could be compromised by such a ludicrous offer, but Ouest-Lumière reassures its customers, asserting that if all the goods and services proposed are not yet available, they are certainly wished and hoped for by the company.
Self-proclaimed President-for-life, Yann Toma sees himself as an independent worker cumulating the functions of employee and CEO. He oversees his company’s daily operations and over the years has developed it into a successful and productive enterprise : a personal life-long project and a sprawling artistic experience. Conceived as a joint-stock company, Ouest-Lumière is run by a corporate executive committee and collectively owned by nearly 200 shareholders, who also head its different departments ; ninety subscribers and over 100,000 agents comprise the extended network of the firm . Shareholders detain real Ouest-Lumière shares, salvaged from the old site and kept, together with other remnants of the power plant, in an underground shelter located in the center of Paris. Ouest-Lumière shareholders are expected to attend General Assemblies and other events proposed by the President, and they may also participate in the definition of the firm’s objectives, benefiting from its radiance on a permanent basis.
Ouest-Lumière is indeed a fabrication, and part of the artist’s job is to keep the fiction alive, yet its existence cannot be denied. As shareholder, agent or subscriber, the spectator-customer is also invited to contribute to its veracity by collectively accepting the fiction and bringing it to life.
Aware that the image of the firm is what counts, Ouest-Lumière uses different media for marketing and advertising its brand. The obligatory corporate bags containing logo bearing pens and stationary, a Ouest-Lumière Zeppelin campaign, “free artwork” distribution, and other such devices are presented to the public in gallery exhibitions. But the firm does not confine its activity to art venues, nor does it hold the monopoly of its artistic production. In a recent venture, Ouest-Lumière externalized its production to India, confirming its “globalizing” inclinations while redefining this controversial practice. During this campaign, baptized Walls of Neemrana, the company displayed advertisement billboards in the streets of Neemrana to promote and celebrate the creation of a new agency in the Rajasthan region. Outsourcing its production to India did not however imply imposing its working methods to the local workforce. Local Bollywood poster artists were rather encouraged to utilize their own craft and experience, reviving a tradition that, with the arrival of digital billboards and the generalization of Hollywood aesthetics, is certainly bound to disappear. The Neemrana campaign lead to another project, Epopée, a series of epic paintings commissioned to one of the few ateliers of Bollywood artists still in activity. The Bollywood style paintings are literal representations of personal epics conjured by Ouest-Lumière shareholders. Epopée of the Ouest-Lumière Board Meeting, Epopée of the Protocol Department or Epopée of the Vice-President, to name but a few, give visual form to the internal structure of the firm while contributing to endorse its brand. As in all company-sponsored events, the name of the firm is visibly displayed in the paintings, a guarantee that the representation will be associated with the brand. The Epopée paintings and photographs of the Walls of Neemrana were later exhibited in the gallery representing the artist, an action that may be understood as strategic recycling of the India advertising campaign.
The production and marketing techniques employed by Ouest-Lumière are a further affirmation of its “corporate identity”, but they also indicate a new vision of art, one that thrusts it beyond the status it has upheld since it became obvious that it too, had been commoditized. The “art” produced by Ouest-Lumière begs the question by presenting itself as an incidental device that exists only as a referent to its source. All the services and products proposed by Ouest-Lumière are created to stand for the firm, to create value for its brand. As is the case in the business world and its extended market paradise, the image of the brand plays a determining role on the real and perceived value of the merchandise. In this system, the object appears as a mere promotional contraption, a byproduct ensuing from the main activity of the firm, which is simply being Ouest-Lumière. The art of Yann Toma exists through his company, it is the company.
At the base, this approach relies on business appropriation strategies, an artistic practice that goes back quite a while. As the modern corporation gained power and visibility, it also came into view in the artistic realm, attracting several artist’s who took it up as a “model” with aesthetic potential. Iain Baxter&, who was among the first artists to venture into the economic arena, created the N.E. Thing Company (NETCO) in 1966 and had it officially incorporated in the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. Adopting the corporate identity, he brought the status of the artist closer to that of the economic entity which was increasingly present in the background and progressively permeating all social experience. The modern corporation thus become simultaneously a system and a source for the production of art ; it became also, and perhaps foremost, a tool to shift the artistic ground closer to life. Functioning like a company allows the artist to explore the economic phenomena that underlie it and to derive artistic content from business notions, processes and procedures that concern society as a whole. The retrieval of the emblematic capitalist entity from its working frame and its subsequent implantation into the aesthetic sphere transforms it into a sort of post-modern readymade, one that comes closer to the economic preoccupations of our times. While several such “companies” were created in the 60’s, for a couple of decades they appeared to be off to a slow start. Since the early 80’s, however, artist-created firms have been steadily emerging and propagating across the globe, a movement that points at the increasing importance of the economic factor in our lives. Molded in the image of the corporation yet far from its business motivations, these critical companies, as they have come to be designated, embody the corporate structure while aesthetically reinterpreting the economic, ecologic and ethic issues that lay at its core.
For Yann Toma, economic phenomena are not just a theme to address through art. They intrinsically define the work, furnishing its raw material and its final forms. The modern business corporation is Ouest-Lumière’s model, its content subject, and the artwork itself. The economic thought of the artist is perceptibly at work here, revealing an active fault zone between the aesthetic and the economic realms. This collusion comes as no surprise in a world where the economy has become everyone’s foremost concern. Yann Toma might have found the right attitude to survive the times. In an interview, Ouest-Lumière’s President-for-life explains : “Corporations are the masters of the world, they organize our future and act upon the individual. In order to act upon the world, one must become a corporation” .
The official Ouest-Lumière website : www.ouest-lumiere.org
Yann Toma is represented in Paris by Galerie Patricia Dorfmann & in Berlin by Bourouina Gallery.