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Marc and Josée Gensollen: Two Collecting the Intangible

— On collecting video art. A perspective of two LOOP committee members

Dan Graham, "Two viewing rooms," 1975
(Courtesy of the artist and Gensollen Collection)

Marc and Josée Gensollen began collecting contemporary art in the late 1970s. Since then, they have gathered a studied selection of works arranged in dialogue with their domestic space in Marseille, La Fabrique. As they state in the interview featured in I Have a Friend Who Knows Someone Who Bought a Video, Once
(LOOP Barcelona, Mousse Publishing, 2016), they are fully aware of the peculiarities and difficulties related to the production, display and conservation of video art.

Now, the whole interview avalaible in LOOP blog.

 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines intangible as “untouchable; having no physical presence; difficult or impossible to understand.” Having often been used to define the ethos of your collection, this term seems to constitute the common thread among the pieces you possess: early Surrealism, Conceptual art, performance, and video art. How do you relate to this notion?

The sublimity of art, which we place very highly in the hierarchy of human expression, is directly related to thought, to the idea, and therefore to the verb. This clearly comes from the contribution of the Renaissance and the great questions that were raised at the time, particularly those concerning the incarnation of the verb, from which our culture, and wider Western culture, originates. How can one represent the intra-psychic or ghosts, which are the concepts that make sense? Isn’t performance art the incarnated form of the artistic idea? Isn’t video art, in being closely linked to the artist’s perspective on the world, the imprint of this particular vision? It would be possible to inscribe all of this in a personal timeline that stems directly from our education.

How has your background in psychoanalytic psychiatry affected your experience as collectors?

The interpretation of dreams and unconscious phenomena is directly related to our psychoanalytic psychiatric education, and its expression in the artistic field has historically been expressed through Surrealism. Our profession has taught us more about the meaning of words, the critical distance and physical communication within networks of systemic interactions between individuals, than it has taught us about interpreting imagination. Ecosystems—that is, the theories derived from cybernetics and operating models—seem decisive. The observer’s place behind the one-way mirror (the camera) or the analysis of his or her own attitudes through autoscopy has certainly raised our awareness. Artists such as Dan Graham and Bruce Nauman have demonstrated the importance of this medium.

Regarding literary imagination, Sigmund Freud once said, “When it comes to their knowledge of the mind [creative writers] are way ahead of ordinary men, for they tread on paths that science has not yet opened.” Would this concept apply to the way you understand art?

Great artists are generally endowed with a certain prescience that allows them to be in tune with their times and even anticipate what will happen in the future. As creators, they possess a heightened sensitivity that allows them to perceive what others theorize in equations or formulas. Putting an idea into words presides over the formalization of the work, and nothing in the human mind is more essential than concepts and abstraction.

You never buy at auctions, and you don’t seem interested in reselling your artworks. Your collecting strategy is a very genuine and singular approach that aims toward a refined pedagogic effort. Could you expand on this?

All the works that we have acquired represent a specific path that we undertake. If the collection can be viewed as a discourse, then we can assign the value of a word to every single work in it. Once they are hung up, each one of these words articulates with the others and together they form a sentence that later acquires meaning. These sentences that build the collection act as a discourse that expresses the collectors’ minds, thus reflecting our personalities. Selling a work would mean subtracting a word, thus depriving the whole sentence of a coherent meaning. We only acquire pieces from galleries on the primary market mainly for economic reasons, but also because we are against speculation. And this is because we believe that it harms what we consider to be Art. We are indeed bad clients for major auction houses. We try to do everything within our reach in order to coach young collectors to make thoughtful choices when it comes to selecting young artists’ works. We do this so that they are not lured by the siren song that advises them to settle for strong gains in public sales.

The building that hosts your collection seems to reflect and embody that certain immateriality and rarefaction that is typical of the works you own, while it also is a vital center where your approach to collecting translates into a dynamic exchange with visitors and the local community.

The building that welcomes the collection is called The Factory. It was rehabilitated in deep collaboration with the architect Harald Sylvander. The aim was to restore dignity to its architecture, which had been very degraded, by making the necessary adjustments in order to show the pieces in a neutral and pared-down space. We also wanted to provide what was necessary for the collectors’ lives, the welcoming of the artists, the stakeholders, and the visitors interested in a guided tour of the collection. This aspect of the relationship with the public, who can only visit the collection by appointment, is very important to us. The content of the works strongly demands interpretation for neophyte visitors, and a dialogue with connoisseurs. Certain works that are intangible or only have an ephemeral presentation need an explanation. The relationship that we establish with the artists whose pieces we collect allows us to personalize our account, to put together a significant ensemble of their works, and sometimes to invite them to talk about their works to visitors. In some cases we invite them to freely intervene in situ. We strive to follow them, as far as we can, throughout their creative process.

Among the works you collect there are a significant number of videos. What attracted you to this medium that represents the aforementioned notion of intangibility, and that challenges the characteristics of classical reification?

Video emerged in the late 1960s and questioned the art that had been produced up until then. This medium does not require talent, any more than it requires aesthetic compositions or shaping pictorial material. Thanks to the camera, the artist is able to reproduce exactly what is observed, freed from the arbitrary and instant punctuation that he or she had been practicing for half a century through photography. The camera is, in a way, an extension of the artist’s eye. The artist wants to show us what he or she sees. What is interesting about this medium is its lightness. Whereas the first analog tapes constituted a much smaller support than films, the development of digital media has allowed artists to access significantly more manageable formats such as DVDs, and, more recently, USBs, an even more compact device that takes the dematerialization of art to another level. With these developments in technology, artworks can now be transmitted at the speed of light, from one corner of the planet to another. The lightness of digital media brings us closer to memory and writing.

Do you think that the reproducibility of artists’ films and videos somehow detracts from the works’ cultural value?

The reproducibility of artists’ films and videos does not alter their purely artistic dimension or their cultural value. Nevertheless, the copies of these artworks neutralize their speculative value and grant them a wider dissemination. It wouldn’t cross anybody’s mind that simultaneously reproducing the same artwork in several rooms decreases its artistic value. The first video artists, such as Bruce Nauman, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Vito Acconci, understood this fact and disseminated copies of their works without limitation through broadcast channels such as EAI.

Notwithstanding that video is now one of the most common mediums among established and emerging artists alike, there is still a lot to do in order to train collectors regarding its specificities—for example its technological obsolescence and preservation. What do you do to promote awareness among collectors regarding this matter?

Indeed, art lovers are reluctant to collect works whose materiality may deteriorate and whose memory may fade. However, conservation methods for digitized works is improving, and some solutions seem to be appearing. As for us, we do not always do what we should when it comes to transcoding analog videos on a computer system, or to storing masters, which can be degraded, on hard disks.

And what is your experience when it comes to the visitor’s perception of an ephemeral medium? What is their reaction to the videos versus other works in the collection?

Visitors don’t always understand the use of an ephemeral medium because the valuation of material artworks is still deeply rooted in Western culture. The importance of durability and of exclusively possessing an artwork prevents them from realizing that we are only temporary holders of art, and that all is vanity. Videos often frustrate the viewer’s sense of owning a unique work. But in the last century, Marcel Duchamp taught us to put the value of art objects into perspective. He reproduced several copies of Fountain after the original 1917 piece disappeared, thus teaching us that one’s relationship with an artwork is only a matter of context. Years later, Andy Warhol showed us that artworks could be confused with consumer goods. Then, Tino Sehgal raised consciousness regarding the intangibility of artworks by producing pieces that could only be conserved in memory, and via oral transmission.
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Marc and Josée Gensollen started collecting contemporary art in the late 1970s, focusing on Conceptual art in all its forms. Artists’ videos constitute a substantial part of their collection, which is located at their home in Marseille, The Factory, which can be visited by appointment.

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VV.AA., I Have a Friend Who Knows Someone Who Bought a Video, Once. On Collecting Video Art.
“Marc and Josée Gensollen: Two Collecting the Intangible”, interview by Carolina Ciuti, p. 54-58, Barcelona, 2016.
A project by LOOP Barcelona and Mousse Publishing.