Interview with Emmanuel Verges

Cultural engineer, co-director of the observatory of cultural policies and director of the Office, France. Interview by Sandrine Desmurs, Cefedem Auvergne Rhône-Alpesaccordi, 28.04.2021.


Emmanuel Verges, cultural engineer, co-director of the Observatory of Cultural Policies (OPC) and director of the Office (France) discusses trends towards the uberisation of industries and asymmetric relationships, as well as the growth of commons building and self-regulation. He further touches upon the importance of user-friendly tools and warns against the instrumentalisation of art by business and politics. Verges advocates for arts educational training that focuses on awakening possibilities rather than dogmatic approaches to art, and building the relationship between the creative process and the techniques that enable it.


May I first ask you to introduce yourself and to describe your job?

I am Emmanuel Verges, I always had several working hats and today I have two. I can’t easily describe my job so instead I call myself a cultural engineer, in a more general way. I got a diploma on IT engineering from a school in Toulouse in the 1990s and today I work in the cultural sector where I do engineering work. I help cultural institutions transform their production and organization modes in line with a number of revolutions that have been emerging since the 1950s and 1960s linked to the increased use of digital tools. Digital tools have deeply impacted the cultural world.

I have been doing this for about thirty years. I started at the Friche Belle de Mai in the mid-1990s. I was supporting the development of digital cultural practices in the production of art. For more than ten years now, I mostly work on cooperation projects. Today, I have two formal positions. Firstly, I am co-director of the Observatory of Cultural Policies, since last month, in Grenoble. It is a national observatory overseeing the development of cultural policies in the territories. Secondly, I am still active within the Office, a structure that works at the national and European level on issues of cooperation on digital tools in the cultural sector.

I keep these two hats to make and to think, to make and to support.

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How would you describe your professional relationship the Higher Art Education Institutes?

I have accompanied several conservatories and the Cefedem, as well as other structures and universities, on a double thinking: what can continue to build a “common” world, meaning what still justifies the existence of an education institute in a world that moves forward with a multitude of new learning spaces and learning intermediaries; and what makes an education structure or its function legitimate? It is a question that institutes ask me but I think it is a non-issue because we always had learning and conveying spaces with a collective dimension such as the artistic education structures are today. However, it is an interesting question because all the learning tutorial that can be found on the internet might question the position of the teacher. Therefore, we see a transformation in what these institutions represent. That’s why they ask me what they should do with these digital revolutions and what is their role. That’s a bit the background.

In parallel, I work on the form: how do we organize ourselves, how do we organize the teaching, what do we teach and how do we work? Pedagogies evolve in function of the political, social and economic states of societies, the democratization of practices. Therefore, how we train and what we train for are also questions at stake.

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Looking ahead, how do you think this relationship between yourself and these Higher Art Education Institutes will evolve in the near future?

I insist a lot lately that we are all living, on a global scale, a rather historical moment due to these successions of long confinements for the Covid 19 pandemic. They have come to settle a number of practices, including distance and digital practices. What we have been working on for the last twenty years and the experiments that have been carried out since the end of the Second World War have proved useful in society for maintaining the connections during periods of confinement. It was a moment which revealed a certain number of things, and which made it possible to accelerate the reflections, among other things on the questions of homeworking and the questions of distance practices. Before the pandemic, we were talking about virtualization and dematerialization technologies, whereas during the pandemic we are talking about remote technologies. These technologies have become much more embodied and are therefore described differently. There have been quite a few semantic shifts, practical shifts, things that have proven to work.

Before the pandemic, for this type of interview, I would have come to Lyon, we would have installed the cameras, it would have taken much longer. But now we take an hour one morning to do it remotely, you’re in Lyon and I’m in Marseille and it works, the exchange is effective. There are a lot of contextual elements that make it possible. It’s not only thanks to evolution of technologies but also thanks to a change of practices. There is something that is changing today in the understanding of digital technologies, of the relationship to screens that we have all been confronted with. These transformations in our way of thinking also impact the relationship to teaching and teaching organizations. We are trying to understand what is being transformed and are likely to share much more collective experiences. If we take the example of the Cefedem, you have been trying for a year to organize the teaching in this particular context, including the use of digital tools and other things. I make the hypothesis that we are going to find ourselves in a phase, in the next five to ten years, that we will want to share collective experiences again.

As a result of this crisis, many cultural organizations are setting up media outlets. This is quite an interesting phenomenon. Twenty-five, thirty years ago, cultural institutions began to think that they needed digital spaces. Little by little, in twenty years, all the cities have wanted their own Third Location. Then, in the 2000s, social medias developed, and all the cultural institutions wanted to rethink their relationship with the public through these social medias. Today, we create media outlets.

During the pandemic, we experienced something quite astonishing: culture was mostly experienced through platforms. For instance, we understood that from now on cinema would probably be massively channeled through Netflix, that the logic of purchasing would go through Amazon. So, we’re asking ourselves the question of the function of culture, and the function of cultural policies which for the last 50 or 60 years were based on providing an alternative to television. Cultural democratization policies have been built on this idea of an alternative to television.

Suddenly cultural organizations are creating their own media and seeking to get a place in this media space because it has become a legitimate space for cultural practice. As we have seen during these different confinements, there has been interaction, concerts, choirs, etc. I am thinking that maybe we have a chance, since we all had this experience at the same time, to renew professional relationships to try to share common experiences.

Moreover, since this moment was shared by professionals and students, it will be easier to defend the idea that tomorrow’s institutions will have to take into account differently all the people involved, that is to say, the professionals but also the beneficiaries of these cultural institutions.

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This brings us to the question of the role and impact of art. From your point of view, today but especially tomorrow, what is the role played by the artist, art and creative work in society?

This was a question that kept coming up in the questionnaire and I thought to myself, what I expect from an artist is to be an artist, to make art.

I have just read a book by Fred Turner. He is a really important author when it comes to digital culture issues, he is published by C&F Edition, he had released in 2012 a book called Aux sources de l’Utopie Numerique (“From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism”) which deciphers all the cultural bias of the construction of digital tools and in particular of the internet. These are analysis that Fred Turner shares with Dominique Cardon, Lawrence Lessig, Philippe Breton and others. He recently published a new text, De l’Usage de l’Art (The Use of Art), among others, the experiences of Facebook and Google at the Burning Man festival, the laboratory experience and artistic residence within Facebook. He points out the permanent instrumentalization of art by companies. He shows that there are two approaches today in the United States concerning this instrumentalization of art: on the East coast, companies continue to finance art for their own influence, their own aura, which is what France does with its cultural policy abroad, companies value artistic excellence to shine; and on the other side, when Google sends its troops to the Burning Man Festival, a self-managed festival, we see that on the West coast of the United States art is instrumentalized as a means of creative management. The artist is no longer instrumentalized for the benefit of the company itself and its capital, but for the benefit of management policies and their uberization.

This lecture sends me back to a more critical reading of everything that has been deployed and developed in the relations between art and companies, art and management, or art and society for several years. Why should art be instrumentalized by society?

The autonomy of art was attempted to be constructed by saying that it would allow companies to be more creative, society to be more together, education to be more playful or more sensitive. Today, I asked myself this question. I don’t have any assertions, but I wonder if we shouldn’t leave art where it is, meaning in its capacity to simply be art. That doesn’t mean that it should be confined to some people who are called artists, but that it should be taken out of any institutional process and therefore from any process that would aim at seeking an effectiveness or a performativeness of art. I add to this a somewhat problematic element, why do we evoke a requirement of effectiveness, of productivity with art when we are within a sensitive dimension? These are things that make me wonder. Five or six months ago, I would have answered that artists are indeed fundamental to society, and we must admit that they remain radars. I am currently reading the works of William Gibson, author of cyber culture, and he remains for me a radar on the society of tomorrow, as do many other books and artistic works that tell us about and awaken us. However, how do we keep the sensitive nature, meaning the deeply universal and individual nature? How can we keep a nature that allows each and everyone, not to look for a direct relationship in his or her own becoming, but to let themselves be penetrated, crossed by these things, in a much more inexpressible way? To keep something that refers to what is greater than ourselves.

The companies, the economy, the organization of society are not greater than we are. However, in our humanity, in our love, in the question of what is sensitive, what moves us, there is something greater than us. There is something in art that belongs in this idea.

I find it difficult to continue thinking today with all the speeches we have had about creative industries, creative cities, etc. We have a deep instrumentalization of art and I am more and more uncomfortable with that.

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And in relation to the economic sector, behind the word artist or the word art, there are indeed economic models. How does it work today for the art world?

Let’s talk about art from one side and about economy from an other side. The economy of art is one thing, it exists and obviously is necessary. The question of economy is related to the idea of exchange, of trade.

On one side, there is an exchange in the relation to the art work which is a sensible and an artistic exchange. It is the exchange that I was mentioning before, that is greater than us and cannot be monetized. Otherwise it means that we monetized our humanity and it worries me.

On the other side, there is the necessity to monetize the objects, the work. Obviously, there we meet the economic dimension. Art cannot escape the three canons of economics: the market economy, the public economy and the economy of contribution and of donation. With that, how do we build our relationship to economy? It is different from artistic creation. The fact that Netflix sells subscriptions or that Facebook hires artists to make its teams more efficient are one thing. These are identified contracts and I do not judge them. However, I do not consider them to be an artistic space but a place of trade and of economy. Also, when we choose artists to make war memorials, we build public symbols funded with public money and we give space to art. That’s very important. It is similar to when we fund libraries and museums, or when the State buys art work. It is great and necessary, but it refers to economics and cannot be considered art.

It is the economy of art

Emmanuel Verges
Yes, it is like when you talk about cooking and taste. You can sell your cooking, but taste will never have a price.

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You were mentioning in your background working with artists. What is the impact of this work on your own expertise and competences? Where do you put yourself, when working with them, in relation to what you said above?

As I was saying earlier with William Gibson, I fell into the cyber culture when I was little, like Obelix in the magic potion. Reading art, looking at art, go to museums, to festivals, etc. all of this feeds me. It feeds my thoughts, it feeds me individually. I keep being surprised when I read again today L’identification des Schemas from Gibson, his capacity to imagine Youtube four of five years before it existed or to propose the term of cyber space in the 1980s when all of this was very new. I am astonished by the ability of artists to be radars, to show us the world with a different eye. Art provides me with a unique viewpoint on the world.

Now, what does this have to do with what I develop? I feed a lot myself with artistic readings. All this will constitute a base, a fertil ground which will help me to build tools, methods, etc. but there will not be a direct link between an artwork and what I do. There is no relation between a work and a thing. When I summon the memory of an artwork or the relationship with an artwork, I summon a personal space of testimony, not a space of a thing. It isn’t : “that artwork taught me that and so I’m going to do that”. No. But : “this artwork made me look at this thing in such a way, that I will be able to share it with you and to testify to it”. I would like to continue to assume this profoundly singular relationship to the artwork. The fact that I can testify to it or I can share it, or even summon other viewpoints, is also to take into account its so-called universal dimension. At least to consider what exceeds simply the simple relation that I had to the arts

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According to you, what are the general trends, the most influential evolutions today and in the near future? What do you see coming?

I see two or three macropolitic trends today, that I build from the micropolitic digital practices and especially in the relation between us and the access suppliers.

The first one is the instrumentalization of some technologies by companies to create paid services. This trend is part of the market economy logic. The extreme ultra liberal example of this trend are the blockchains and cryptomoneys, which are serving deeply decentralized economies. Some say that it cannot be regulated because the States and the companies can’t negociate. It is similar to when monopolistic companies apply their own economic rules, it creates huge asymetries in the society. More generally, a strong logic of « platformization » and uberization of work is developing due to these monopoles. This is one trend of instrumentalization of technologies that aims at generating asymmetric relationships and at reinforcing the potential to make us the product of these companies.

One of the things that we should be very careful about today is this idea that Facebook is not a social media but a supplier of advertisements, it is a place of trade. Google is a research tool with a huge economic power. How do we become aware of the reality of these services and of these asymmetries due to the fact that with globalization these companies can easily avoid taxes? There is a tendency to consider that big data is fundamental. There is a certain number of big technologies that are oversold: the internet of objects, the cloud, artificial intelligence, cryptomoneys and blockchains. We have seen this coming step after step. In the 1990s it was the introduction of internet, in the 2000s it was the bubble and all the related services, and today it is these technologies that pretend to help us apprehend complexity.

Then, we have another strong trend linked to the non-confidential and common side of the internet …

In the first trend we need to have a discernment on the economic question and the question of uses (what do the services produce?). On the second, around free cultures, we need to continue to anchor and legitimize this part of the development that will go through collaboration and cooperation.

And then, there is a third very interesting trend, on the question of the relationship to the public thing and to the collective organization. What do we do with digital tools in our societies? On the one hand, we have technological standards that allow us to manage infrastructures, rather in free cultures, and we have entrepreneurial processes that will generate growth and economy. What do we do? What is the responsibility of collective organizations? Whether it is a cultural organization, whether it is a mayor, whether it is a state. How, at some point, are these digital revolutions used or not?

While in the first trend there is the question of being attentive to “platformization”, to uberization; in the second trend there is the idea of being attentive to the question of the common; the third trend looks at the use of technologies by organizations, which typically happened during the confinement. There is the question of the notion of conviviality that comes from Ivan Ilitch. Ivan Ilitch talked a lot about the relationship to technologies. He talked about the Tools of Conviviality, meaning how a tool comes to serve us. That is, how is a tool useful to us? And not, how we come to serve a tool. This can also be applied to an organization. Meaning, how, at a given moment, do we stop serving an organization so that it is the organization that serves us? This means we need to reverse the process.

To say that the tool would be neutral is a lie. The tool is not politically situated, it is not of right or left, libertarian or capitalist. A tool it is going to be its use. So what is it for? Companies have already deeply integrated the real innovations of digital practices (decentralization processes, intelligence in peripherals, etc.)? Today in the rest of the world, in a way, we have an extremely vast field of work on this notion of usability of tools.

This is the third major trend that we need to address. It’s the macro on which we can even go to the micro, for instance, when you’re with your family on the couch with a tablet, how do you discuss the use of the tablet? The question is not whether the State said that, Google said that, Amazon said that or Siri said that, but how, in intimate spaces, we discuss, we instruct a slightly different way of thinking about the conviviality of the tool, of thinking our own conviviality also through the tool. This is played out in instances that are both micro-political and in much larger spaces of society.

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In relation to your job, how do you accompany these trends? How is your job evolving within these three trends ?

Obviously it has evolved a lot. At the beginning of the 2000s, I had done a thesis titled “Back to the future“.

Obviously there are many things that have evolved in the last twenty-five to thirty years but I keep this idea, somewhat linked to my first intuitions that digital tools were going to change the relationship in the organization modalities. What I’ve been digging for the last twenty or thirty years is the connection, the popularization, the democratization of these reflections. It was done little by little, it began we were a bunch band of geeks in the cybercafé, then it became a digital project, then it changed into national networks which thought the relation between art and culture, etc. And today I got to the point that I am co-directing the Observatory of Cultural Policies on a national scale on these issues.

Today, what is deeply changing in this area is that we see connections between the digital cultural revolution, the authoring process, and the cooperation processes or the issues of gender equality for instance. They are all part of the same revolutions. All these movements initiated since the 1960s belong to the same approach to develop an alternative to the completely patriarchal-bourgeois model that the western society has imposed for 300-400 years. Therefore, there is an exciting thing happening here: we are in the process of having the tools, which we connect with thoughts that were said to be counter-cultural, with methods that come from the depths of the ages, and with anthropological models. For example, the feminist revolution has opened up a whole field of study on the questions of matriarchy and patriarchy, and we realize that these questions are not so different from those related to the processes of competition and decentralized models of organization that can allow us to think of alternatives to uberization. This point of view starts to be heard and we realize that we need to think about these things in a much more connected way than before. Where my job evolves is that we manage to connect these reflections and thus to take into consideration a certain number of movements that are gradually trying to transform the processes of emancipation of individuals and at the same time of constitution of social collective organizations and their capacity to transform themselves through competitive and cooperative processes.

We are able to grasp the intuition of researchers in the 1940s and 1950s, particularly after the Second World War the beginning of Earth’s photos from satellites, that from the moment we live in a globalized world, we must be equipped to live on a global scale. Today, the internet and digital tools allows us to think the cultural revolutions that took place all around the world in the 1960s, on decolonialism, feminism, technological questions, revolutions also of emancipation of economic processes and emancipation of information, the emergence of citizens’ media, etc. on a profoundly global scale.

This transforms our engineering jobs, our political jobs, because we have to think, not only on this global scale, which is the counter fantasy of the most radical and traditional people who in reaction want to close the borders, but on the contrary on all scales. By living on a world scale, we are forced to go from the micro to the hyper macro scale, taking into account that we have only one earth with limited resources and that we must think of another way of trading and producing.

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I’m going to bring you back to the role of the artist and the art education institutes in all these trends, how art and the places where artists are trained participate in the evolution of these trends? The contributions, the possible levers?

I make a distinction about learning artistic processes and being an artist. Just because I went to an art school doesn’t mean I’m an artist when I leave. Because in this case we produce an instituting device of what an artist is and I’m not sure that we need to. Despite that, the art education institutes are more than necessary for the transmission and the evolution of the techniques.

With that in mind, the question of the place of art education institutes as well as the place of artists, for me, is linked to how we will be able to give form to the intuitions, to the revelations that we have in our heads. What will be the forms of the awakening? Art has a fundamental place in our lives and in our societies on the question of the awakening, of the enlightenment, to carry the glance somewhere, to assume the completely subjective part taken by an artist on a way of seeing and of looking at the world. Here we have something deeply necessary that we must continue to support, invest in this possibility to make sidestep. The art education institutes should contribute to teach on the forms that art takes. Instead of teaching the dogma by saying how art should be, trying to understand what the artist wanted to tell by making art using digital tools, artificial intelligence, etc.

Art education institutes are also the place to teach about art history, and where technologies find themselves today in this history. When I was working at La Friche Belle de Mai, we had more relations with people from the theater who made puppets and people from the street arts, than with visual artists and video artists. This was due to the problematic relationship video artists and visual artists had with technologies and that is explained by Walter Benjamin when he talks about the loss of the aura of the work with mechanical reproduction. Instead, puppeteers have a friendly relationship to technology, because they will use technology in their own creative processes. They will not undergo the process of mechanical reproduction, for example of artworks on photography, as being a process of loss of aura. Art education institutes should enable to clarify this relationship between what is the production of art and what is the technique that will allow this process of production of art. Technique after technique, technology after technology, the forms of art evolve and these evolving forms will be inscribed in a period of history. I need an art schools to help me put a form of art in a specific historic period.

On the other side, we should consider also something which for me was a deep aesthetic shock when I entered the reproduction of the Chauvet cave and that I saw its works which were painted 35000 years ago. It is a scale of time which is unimaginable, one cannot apprehend it. And in spite of that, I am in front of artworks that touch me deeply. What these women, these men, these children did 35 000 years ago, and imagine that we are four times before the emergence of writing and sedentary societies, tells me a story. This to me is really art and it exceeded time, space, exceeded the cultural questions, etc. I felt connected to these people that made these drawings. This is something we need to be able to tell. The use of digital tools in art is a behavior that belongs to a specific period in history and art schools need to teach that. These schools exist to allow us to access what has been done before in the history of arts in order to continue to produce our own processes of emancipation and transformation. It is not only about recalling the past, it is to understand it, to discern the deep movements which allowed to produce art until now, and today to teach the techniques to produce art that we will be part of history tomorrow.

The trends that I mentioned earlier must enable art schools to constitute a pedagogical corpus in which one comes to question what it means to teach on the substance and on the form. Art schools must teach on the vertical use of today’s techniques and on the horizontal way in which one is going to situate the technique and the technological learning.

Art has a very carnal relation, sensitive to technique that we must free to accompany and support the student to find their place in a process, a movement, which in fact does not depend on the art schools, but on society, on societies.

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Now, I ask you to get out your crystal ball. I would like you to draw the utopia of Emmanuel Verges in twenty-five years, the beautiful version of the future.

Then I’d like you to draw the dystopia, where things might have gone wrong.

UNESCO has worked a lot on the issue of cultural diversity. In particular, it has done some fascinating work on cultural rights, which I think is quite fundamental, and linked to the question of conviviality that I mentioned in the third trend.

There is something that interests me deeply in the link between social culture and technology, and in the fact of thinking that cultural rights can allow us to constitute the different tools, different devices and different services, whether in the private or public sphere, at regional or European scale, in order to create spaces for dialogue, education, cooperation, which will allow us to permanently deal with the conviviality of the tools. There is a form of utopia in trying to constitute a strong relationship between free culture, cultural rights and cooperation. The implementation of this type of relationship could lead our institutions of higher education of art to constitute processes a bit like the one that has been set up, rather procedural but exciting, in the decree of the Belgian cultural centres.

And the dystopian version?

The dystopia would be linked to a capture of the totality of the uses of the Internet by one of its components, notably through the processes of uberization and “platformization”. These are the dystopias that we see a lot in science fiction books that tell of a profound commodification of the uses of the Internet, which Fred Turner denounces in his latest book.

Also, the dystopia would be an authoritarian drift of the States. That is to say, an Internet that is completely controlled, monitored. The dystopia that one of the components of the society takes the power on the totality of the society.

In his beautiful book The Shockwave Rider, John Brunner tells how this tool of dialogue, of conversation that is the Internet, is a profoundly deliberative tool that changes the modalities of organization at all levels. It would be a shame to take away this dimension.


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