Interview with Yves Citton

Director of the University Research School ARTEC for Art, Digital technology Human mediation and Creation, Paris 8-Vincennes - St Denis, France. Interview by Sandrine Desmurs, Cefedem Auvergne Rhône-Alpes, 26.05.2021.


Yves Citton, Director of the University Research School ARTEC for Art, Digital technology Human mediation and Creation, Paris 8-Vincennes – St Denis, (France) discusses the critical role that arts education plays in shaping the artistic landscape of tomorrow and argues that art schools have a responsibility to train students not only in technical skills but also in critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration. He touches upon the idea of “research-creation”, the rapprochement between the academic and artistic worlds and highlights the importance of cultivating a sense of curiosity and exploration in students and encourages art schools to embrace interdisciplinary approaches to education. Citton further discusses the potential of art to address pressing social and political issues, and emphasizes the need to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion. He also invites us to be more humble


Good Morning Yves Citton, thank you for accepting this interview. To start, I will ask you to introduce yourself and to describe your job.

I am originally from Geneva, Switzerland. I studied literature and did a PhD in literature in Geneva. Then I had a job in a French and Italian department in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. I spent a dozen years there. I was very fortunate, because from the moment I taught something in French theoretically, it must have been 18th century literature, but from the moment it was in French, it fitted into a lot of programs so I had a lot of freedom, to do things in literature and political theory and whatever else I was interested in. Then I came to France to the University of Grenoble for about fifteen years. I had a job in 18th century French literature but I continued to do things that interested me outside that specialization.

Since 2017, I am at the University of Paris 8, Vincennes-Saint Denis, which has a tradition of doing somewhat heterodox teaching and inviting artists to the university. As soon as I arrived in this university, I was asked to lead a project, which then became a Program, because it was financed by the ANR (the French National Research Agency), which is called ArTeC. The Programme integrates different institutions: two big universities, Paris 8 and Paris Nanterre, the CNRS (The French National Center of Scientific Research) and cultural institutions such as the Pompidou Centre, the National Librabry, the Assembly of National Museums, the Arts Centre of d’Enghien, the National Centre of Dramatic Art, the Gaiete Lyrique, etc., different institutions focused on artistic issues.

Together, we are trying to set up programs that range from a two-year Master’s degree, to a pre-PhD or post-Master’s program, to some PhD research grants, to research programs for academics, researchers and artists with a budget of about 1.6 million per year over a ten-year period. These are projects that are financed over a limited period to try to get things started. We started in 2018 and it will end in 2027. I’ve been running this since the beginning. We’re a whole team and I’m the executive director until the end of this year. ArTeC is an acronym for Art, Technology, Digital, Human Mediation and Creation.

The general idea is to encourage or finance projects in which academics, who do research in social sciences, in computer science, in a whole series of fields, collaborate with artists or work on artistic projects on these different types of questions: digital issues, human mediation, it’s very broad. The practice of research-creation has been, since the beginning and more and more, at the heart of the specificity of this EUR (Graduate Schools of Research). About thirty have been created in 2018, like us. Most of them are for hard sciences and we are one of the few Graduate Schools of Research working on social sciences, humanities, and artistic practices with reflections on technology.

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In relation to these artistic practices, how do these collaborations and this link between research and artistic practices come about, in particular with the partnerships you have mentioned and that, if I am not mistaken started even before 2018?

Absolutely, EUR ArTeC is the result of previous programs. There is one called LABEX, also financed by the National Research Agency, a laboratory of excellence which worked especially in Paris 8 with Arts-H2H on human sciences and artistic research and was financed for 5 or 6 years. There was also IDEFI-CreaTIC, which was for the Master’s level about coupling academics and artists to see what they could do together.

The National Research Centre has been funding these types of projects for the past ten years, but in Paris 8 it exists since the 1970s. One of the original features of Paris 8 was to bring into the university students who didn’t necessarily have the baccalaureate, who didn’t necessarily have a diploma, who were workers or artists, etc., and teachers who didn’t necessarily do university research but who were artists, filmmakers, etc. There are about fifty years of accumulated practices in the University of Paris 8 with, in particular on the digital, people like Jean Pierre Balpe, poets, literaries, who were really the pioneers of digital art, of literature that uses computers, etc. Therefore, we have a whole tradition that tries to bring together academic practices and artistic practices.

So how is it working? It’s perhaps clearer to talk about it by distinguishing the different levels.

First for the Master: it’s a selective Master’s degree, unfortunately we can only take about thirty people. We try to bring in students who have a Bachelor degree and at the same time an artistic practice. To register at ArTeC, we ask them to have a project that they wish to carry out during the two years of the Master’s degree. For two years they have their experimental project and we offer them different lessons and workshops to refine, to read, to experiment, which will be an experimental project that will be the subject of their Master’s thesis at the end of two years. The students themselves are student artists. The teachers are, for the most part, university professors, but we try as much as possible to make workshops in which musicians, people from Ircam (Music Research Institute), theatre directors, actors, filmmakers intervene, so that the students interact in the form of workshops or Master Classes with these invited artists. The art department of the University of Paris 8 has a lot of artists, people who have a thesis but who have an artistic practice as important as their publications of articles, etc.

For the PhD it’s a bit the similar. Unfortunately, we only have three PhD students per year, which is very few. Personnally, what I do in ArTeC is mainly related to the pre-PhD or post-master’s program, where we have about thirty or forty applications each year. We take about twenty people with whom we work for a year to refine their creative research project. The tragedy, and I think it’s important to say this in your context, is that we have about fifteen potential PhD candidates or artists who have prepared something of very high quality, while in France the number of funded thesis in creative research is very low. There is CERGY, ArTeC, SACRE… There is a gap between the demand and the possibility of funding for PhDs.

It’s really a course that tries to gather artists and academics and develops research projects where we try to make scientific agendas and artistic practices collaborate.

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There is a debate going on in the arts community about the intersection of art research and academic research. These are forms that intersect and clash. How does it work for you?

I’m a director and I’m responsible for this so I should say that everything is fine, but my experience is that it’s not fine. It’s going badly despite all the goodwill in the world, the university presidents, the colleagues… We realize that a university is not an art school. If we pretend that by making programs that bring in artists, like ArTeC does, we can do what art schools do, we fool ourselves. It seems to me really important that academics like me who try to cross, to hybridize things, realize that one cannot make an art school in the universities as we know them in France today. For very concrete things like, for example, the type of premises. We have been doing ArTeC for three years, we have been looking for something in our universities that is not an office, not a classroom, but a workshop. Places where student artists can come and spend a week painting, rehearsing, leaving their scenic materials, etc. That we don’t have. It doesn’t fit in the university buildings. So, we try to rent places, like for example the POUSH building in Paris which is a building in the process of being rehabilitated. Therefore, the first difficulty we have is to find some kind of squats or places like that where we can improvise an artist’s studio, and that took us three years.

The second difficulty that makes it hard for us to be like art schools is that the academics have been trained to teach. We continue in our universities to think of the learning process as a transmission of knowledge. As a teacher, I know and I give you knowledge. This is what we are trying to change in ArTeC, and we are not the only ones who want it to change, even if it is a very deep-rooted habit in the way we train teachers. I never went to art school and I probably have a very utopian idea of the reality of art schools, but what I think I understood in a utopia of art schools is that on the one hand there are teachers who are artists, who have their studio, and on the other hand there are student artists who come to develop their project with the advice, the follow-up, of their mentor teachers. We need to make our university colleagues understand that they are not supposed to build a speech and just speak but that they are supposed to come without knowing what they are going to say because they don’t know who is going to be in their class and what are the needs of the students in their class, to start by keeping quiet, to listen to the needs of the students as to their competences and their projects and to say that what we are going to do as a university teacher is also to accompany researches that are planned and dreamed by the students. What we are going to do together is to follow a variety of research, to do what we can to accompany them, to guide them, to advise them or simply to be attentive and discuss with them. This transformation is as difficult as finding suitable premises. It is very difficult. We manage to do it but again it takes us three years to understand what we should do and what we should tell our colleagues to make it possible in a university. For me, it really says how far we must get for universities to be able to pretend to do creative research.

Personally, I have no artistic skills or artistic education, I am a pure academic and I think that research-creation can also be quite dangerous. For instance, on the American continent, what is called today research-creation was really done in a context either to try to control what was happening in the universities, or because the social sciences were too dangerous (in line with the McCarthyism of the 1960s) and we wanted to put artists to moralize all. In Canada, the development of research-creation led to the closing of the art schools and their transplantation in the universities. Research-creation made besides very beautiful things there but that was built against the art schools. I think that art schools should beware of all this. I’m an academic, so it’s not my issue. For me, research-creation is really very useful to try to reshape the universities from the inside by inspiring ourselves on what we hope is going on in the art schools. Maybe not for all university teaching but in the field of social sciences and humanities we would have a lot to gain by adapting our research-creation practices in universities to the practices of art schools.

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Thank you, I will pursue on the question of the contribution of art. From your point of view as an academic, what is the role of the artist and of art in society today?

First of all, since we are French, I would be wary of any talk about art alone or about culture alone. For me the first step is to say, I don’t know what “art” it is and maybe I don’t want it to exist. There are artistic practices and experiences, there is aesthetics and many other things, but in general we shouldn’t talk about THE culture in opposition to what is not the culture.

I find it less connotative for art, and I understand the need to gather what you do when you make music, when you look at a painting, when you watch a movie, etc. I totally understand that there is something that could be called “art”. But if we try to think about society, culture, art, I would say first of all that there are “artistic practices”, and that their differences and their heterogeneity are at least as important as what could group them together. We will have to ask ourselves, what is what we call cinema, visual arts, painting, music and realize that each time there are things that are not necessarily translatable. It seems to me necessary to enter into categories a little more precise than “art”. For example, there is a practice of the art of images, a practice the art of narratives, which goes as well for TV series, cinema, novels, etc.

It would be too simple to say that all arts give us the opportunity to think. Indeed, we reflect on what it means to tell stories, in artistic contexts, we reflect on what images represent, we reflect on the use of words, on the creation of sounds, etc. Therefore, we can identify art with a kind of reflective practice, but it seems to me that this is much too intellectualized. As if art was only “meta”, we think about what we do. Whereas in art in general there is also something quite sensory that does not exclude reflection but is still very different. It would not be enough to say that art is reflection. It is also experiences, emotions, perceptions and affects (to use Robert Deleuse’s terms), which include moments of reflection but also moments without any reflection. If we decide to gather all this under the term “art”, we can find gains in terms of social function, understanding and reflection on what we do to each other by telling stories, showing images, making sounds. There are explorations of unthinking. These sensitive experiences that we have through artistic practices make us feel things that we are not at all able to think with the vocabulary, with the concepts, with the analytical categories, that come from the universities.

That’s why it’s really interesting to introduce artistic practices in universities because it’s in line with the real research: what do we have as a concept, as a means of calculation, etc. and what do we feel in our bodies that makes us think that there could be something else, that there is something that exists beyond what we manage to describe. These are sensitive experiences, which can be deployed in everyday life, and in an even more thoughtful and controlled way in artistic practices. To discover what we could not think of, what we had never seen before. The sensory in artistic practices is the unthinking and the unthinkable that we begin to imagine. This journey, between what we can think, what we can imagine and what we can feel, will enrich the different poles and I think that this is the stake of the artistic practices in our societies.

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Listening to you, what speaks to me in particular is that we feel that these are places of research. You put an idea of research behind the artistic practices. What do you think are the most influential general trends and developments in society today? We will take the word society in its broadest sense, with a focus on the artistic question.

I made a book with Jacopo Rasmi, about collapsology and collasponauts. Collaspology is not something new, it was already considered by Diderot with his Encyclopedia which was aimed at that moment when humans would be almost extinct to allow humanity to start again based on the knowledge found in the Encyclopedia. However, collapsology is evolving and today it is based on the unsustainability of our production and consumption modes. Things will have to change drastically. Unfortunately, I don’t see this change happening in a progressive, soft, reasonable way. I think that it will go through collapses and crises and therefore thinking about future trends is often thinking about ruptures. This makes it all the more difficult to envisage future trends. However, in this unsustainability of our modes of production, we can reflect on how artistic practices can be relevant. It’s clear that there is an important part of people who enter ArTeC’s PhD, and the art world in general, who conduct a reflection on ecological, climate, low tech living issues, etc. Art schools and universities will have to rethink artistic production, which is essential, and the pollution it can cause. In fact, art practices have been at the forefront of these reflections for quite some time. That is, reflection in terms of a critique, which can be called capitalism or consumerism, etc., of the exponential consumption that is ravaging our environments. This critique is not new among artists and it grows more and more. The question for art schools is to ask themselves how they can anticipate what it will be necessary to give up doing or what it will be absolutely necessary to do and start doing it before it is imposed by an external constraint.

The ArTeC project mentioned the ecological issue in a small section. For me it was obvious that it should be a more transversal issue but even for a small unit like this it has difficulties to reform itself in terms of carbon footprint. We want students to travel, we want to give them experiences abroad, we try to make them take the train, but there are so many habits, so many ways of working that continue by their inertia that we have to ask ourselves each time how to change. It is possible but it takes time. You need to have twice the manpower to both do the work and to ask yourself how to reform the way you do the work so that it is less destructive. We can’t do that, we have to do the work before all.

Unfortunately, I am rather pessimistic about trends that would allow us to have progressive mutations for the future. In addition to the ecological question, there is the question of inequality. This is also something that I see in ArTeC in an absolutely dramatic way, namely that we are a program in universities like Saint Denis and Nanterre, which are definitely not the most elitist, and yet the people who enter the ArTeC Master’s degree do not reflect a great social diversity. We can see very well, by looking at the files for admission to ArTeC, that for families coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, artistic careers are not put forward because they will prioritize studies where it is considered easier to make a living after.

It seems to me that in order for future changes to be successful, the problem of inequality must be solved. To reduce inequality, all levels of society must ask themselves how they can become less elitist. Today, the statistics are not very good on who we manage to include in our programs in terms of social diversity. And here too, it takes time, for example, to by going to schools in disadvantaged areas and to bachelor’s degrees to encourage people to make art. We have not prioritized this aspect enough and today it is difficult to add it to the work we already have.

It is frustrating and at the same time, in the trends, I think it will be necessary to free up working time to fight concretely against inequalities and against the environmental ravages for which we are also a little responsible in our institutions because we do not reform them enough from the inside. Whether it is universities or art schools, we have to realize how necessary all this is, to avoid the worst and how much more important it is than, for example, end of year results and short-term funding. Until we understand this, we will have problems.

Indeed, the artist is an actor in society and therefore has to embrace societal issues.

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What struck me a lot in your book Faire Avec, is precisely this observation that things are finally there and that rather than spending our time opposing them, how can we make them cohabit. So that we don’t tell ourselves that the next step is a mountain, but that it is step by step and in the encounter with the other that we must approach things, that we should also take into account for instance the artistic approaches developed in the suburbs for instance.

How can we, as institutions of higher education, work on this terrain of the imaginary? How do we bring this battle of the educational community in the broad sense?

I’m bouncing back on what you were saying. In fact, it’s not a question of saving young people from the suburbs by making them study Fine Arts. With Jacopo Rasmi and others, we worked on a text that seems to me very important by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney called The Undercommons. For them, the undercommons are, in the United States, all the populations that have come out of the slave trade, that have been subjected to discrimination laws, that continue to be in the majority in prisons, in poor neighborhoods, etc. In these groups of population there is an obvious incompleteness. It is the sharing of incompleteness that becomes a condition of survival. The opposite of this is any claim to sovereignty and control. It is this claim to sovereignty that is destroying our environments. We can therefore say that it is precisely on the side of the cultures of the poor suburbs, to speak of France, or more generally of the cultures of Undercommons (culture in the sense of certain values, certain solidarities, certain gestures and creativity, which must not be idealized either) that there is something to learn. Perhaps the best thing we could do in universities would not be to say that we are going to save young people by teaching them how to do economics, or other subjects, but by listening to them on how we can survive because it is there that there are forms of culture and creation that are the most promising, of hope, of the future, of wisdom, of knowledge, of science, etc.

The deputy director Julie Peghini is an anthropologist who feeds herself and us with African artists and performers. Everything we discover in artistic practices in sub-Saharan Africa is transformative in its richness and in the way it speaks to us. This year was supposed to be the year of Africa, a bit disrupted because of Covid, but there is a lot going on in this area. I think that there is really a listening and a humility to have. Our so-called mastery, our sovereignty has done many wonderful things, but also many problems. We need to have the humility to learn what we have unlearned and violently ignored in the ways of the Undercommons.

Your question was about imaginaries, and here there is a whole imaginary. It’s not just what we’re going to dream, but rather how we conceive of what power is, power between men and women, young and old, etc. To design is both to think and to design, to put in place. It is the imaginary of mastery and sovereignty versus the imaginary of sharing incompleteness. This is really something fundamental for me that I learned from reading Moten and Harney, and I think it is important to spread it around.

It connects a lot of other things, like Starhawk’s ecofeminism, or cancel culture. There are things to learn from these claims, which are sometimes radical, sometimes aggressive, while hoping that they will also beware of their own temptation to mastery and sovereignty. In all of this we find a sharing of the imaginary of incompleteness. I think that especially in universities, where there are forms of mastery at all levels, and that’s actually what I’m doing now by giving my speech, it’s essential and difficult to try not to be satisfied with that. It is a way of being that would benefit from being reformed.

To come back to the artists, there is this imaginary of the romantic, solitary and gifted artist (like Victor Hugo or Pablo Picasso) which undoubtedly has a reason to be and to make us dream, but the recent decades made emerge alternative models of collective artists, artists who try to erase themselves and who are rather in the sharing of the incompleteness.

There are musical movements, such as free jazz, that have inspired Moten for his reflections on the Undercommons, who saw their creativity, their necessity, their political virtue. There have been certain developments in artistic practices that are a source of inspiration for these alternative imaginaries.

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What technology do you think will be important in the future?

I will answer in two steps. First, from the side of the collapsonaut: the low tech. We should always think in terms of low tech. How we can do what we do with less consumption of technologies, simpler, or without them. I refer to Alain Damasio when he talks about Techno Cocoon. Let’s value this. Not an autarky where we would be autonomous, master of everything and dependent on nobody, the incompleteness is precisely that we are always interdependent. How can we take in ourselves and in the groups to which we belong powers of action, empowerment? To take into oneself competences to act is to get competences, habits, and skills, just as for a musician to play the piano is to spend a lot of time thinking about the fingers, until you don’t need to think about the fingers anymore and you can think about the melodies. This incorporation of habits is the first technology. You have to realize that it is a technology of the body, it is a form of low tech and it is realizing that you can do a lot with little, like with the Swiss Knife.

However, what I wouldn’t like is if we only put the emphasis on this and say that digital technology is surveillance, it’s totalitarianism. No. A computer has an unimaginable power, it allows to do incredible things, like to talk and see each other at a distance, to do research. It’s not about giving that up at all.

There are really two things, on the one hand the digitalization of the world which is always problematic because the world does not digitalize itself. It is always humans, human practices, human interests, human conflicts that digitalize this or that more or less well. On the other hand, there is the computation of these digitized things which is also programmed by humans with their own interests. But it is an incredible collective power to act.

In ArTeC, we are translating a book by Benjamin Bratton, a media and design theorist from San Diego, USA, who for three years has been holding a seminar in Moscow at the Strelka Institute on terraforming. I am translating it, even if it says things that horrify me, because I consider it to be the counterweight of collapsology. He is convinced that it is a fast development of technological and technical solutions that we will help us to face the ecological problem better and more equally on the whole planet. According to him, we are incapable of solving climate change by reducing consumption, and by saying that he has a point. Therefore, we’ll have to resign ourselves to things like geoengineering and nuclear solutions, while I spent 60 years being anti-nuclear. He’s putting in place a reasoning that relies on the development of high tech.

We will have to rely on these two solutions, work on everything, both on the most intelligent but also the most threatening technologies, especially in terms of surveillance, and on low tech solutions. Bratton considers that we are missing out on the power of digital technology by being trapped in individualization. It is a similar criticism to Moten and Harney who say that we think everything in terms of individuals, of individual freedom. All the computation is focused on the scale of individual histories while the very notion of climate change exists in our discourses because there is a computation on a planetary scale, which by the way the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) does by using high tech for its monitoring. There is a whole design and artistic work around that.

I work a lot with Gregory Chatonsky on these issues of terraforming. He uses neural networks to produce forms that we have never seen, to dialogue, to hear human dreams passed by machines. It is a kind of human society that dreams through its machinization. It is thus really in the high tech. I find what he does absolutely great and absolutely exciting. Other friends, Raffard and Roussel, a collective of artists, after a breakdown of their printers ask themselves how it works, why it is necessary to bring ink in cartridges, etc. They then build a printer from spare parts; they tried to make ink from the plants they find in a radius of 5km around their home. These two currents, Chatonsky and Raffart and Roussel, are two currents as beautiful, as in touch with the contemporary and with the trends to come. With relationships to technologies that are never simple and never black or white, low or high, etc.

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With a look that allows us to reflect on the society in which we live. We are twenty-five years away. Can you describe for me the utopia and the dystopia, the best version of society and the worst version?

Let’s start with the worst version. I have a whole part of my wife’s family living in Calcutta, Bengal, which we know is going to be one of the most devastated cities by climate change because its whole water basin depends on the highs springs coming from the Himalayas and is very close to the sea. So, either the oceans will rise and salinize the region, or the glaciers will dry up. There are hundreds of millions of people, including my family, who in the next twenty, twenty-five years will have an impossible life with the impact that this already has in terms of political radicalization, and the impact on the lives of our loved ones. We are going to have absolute horrors on a planetary level which will destroy hopes for a normal life either because of the displacement of populations or because of the new living conditions in some regions. This is the collapsology side, with what it generates in terms of survival modes, which are not necessarily dramatic or cruel. The big problem will be social tensions. The limits of resources in relation to needs that are disproportionate could be quite easily regulated. But what will make it complicated is the mix between the limitation of these resources and inequalities that will be extreme and intolerable for some.

Now, a little more hopeful scenario. We realize that all our habits are difficult to reform but we can still try to tackle the inequalities first and try to establish other relationships between humans, both locally and more generally. We realize that it is inevitable to make sacrifices of certain things that are not necessarily that painful, and therefore the very notion of sacrifice could be questioned. We wonder how we can guarantee a level of potential and creativity, which makes us want to live with much less, much better shared. There is a whole field of pleasures that cost nothing or very little. The technologies that have been in place for quite some time now allow us to have enormous, infinite aesthetic pleasures, in terms of the number of objects and their intensity. We have enough to fill our lives with infinite aesthetic dimensions and shares of aesthetic dimensions. These possibilities could very well be put in place with all the constraints that were given earlier.

In my opinion, there is a utopia that was formulated by Gabriel Tarde, one of the fathers of sociology, around 1880, which is called Fragment D’Histoires Futures. He imagines the future of humanity in a context of glaciation. Humans have to bury themselves, but they don’t mind because they have all the aesthetic pleasures one can imagine. There is so much to do with a library that you can spend your life 100 feet underground and still have a good life. It’s also to make fun of the futurists of his time, he’s very funny, we talked about it a lot during the lockdown. It’s a bit like what I could imagine for a funny future, even if it seems to be sad.

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