By Natasha Tauber
Artists Laurent Boijeot and Sebastien Renauld, together boijeot.renauld, work in “actions,” and their latest is a one month migration through the length of Manhattan, via Broadway. Having started in Harlem and unhurriedly making their way down, the French duo are inhabiting New York City’s public thoroughfare with the wooden tables, chairs and bed they’ve designed. The artists, together with partner Mélanie Heresbach, sell furniture but prefer you download the plans at no cost. “Do it yourself. It’s a simple model,” suggests Boijeot, a sociologist. He and Renauld, an architect, are accompanied on this trip by photographer Clément Martin who documents their outdoor living situation. In between moving their encampment, the trio rolls cigarettes, shares coffee in cups made by Renauld’s mother, and chats with passersby. CH sat down for dinner with boijeot.renauld on the evening they would sleep in Times Square to discuss living, performing and conversing in public spaces.
You’re based in Nancy, France and have conducted “actions” across Europe, in cities including Geneva, Venice, Dresden, Brussels and Basel. How are Americans different in the ways they use public spaces?
Sebastien Renauld: When you put a bed in Europe, ten minutes later someone comes to take off their shoes and does a real nap. It’s a kind of irresistible object. We had the question this morning, “Is it free of charge?” … because not so many things are free here. I think people question, “If I sit will I be charged?”
Clément Martin: Friendly people here are different than friendly people in Europe. The proximity and intimacy are not the same. The paradox is Europeans require distance to communicate.
Laurent Boijeot: We also speak Spanish; if you don’t speak Spanish in America you’re really missing something.
Renauld: It’s strange—in Europe there are tools, public squares, cafes, restaurants. Here you don’t have as many public spaces.
So what does it mean to “freely” inhabit a public space?
Renauld: For me, it’s most important to share the street. The street is humanity’s first space for being together. If you just use it only to pass, you miss something about the first stone of civilization. An open space, where you can have a conversation, is the most passive meaning of politics.
Boijeot: The Agora, the marketplace. We have a rule we never ask [for anything]. Here, people just come down the block to say “Thanks.” We get a lot of presents. We’ve had crazy breakfasts. We did a 10 day “action” across France and we were only offered two showers; here, almost every day we have an offer to take a shower.
For me it’s most important to share the street. The street is humanity’s first space for being together
Renauld: They understand we need, or maybe we want…
Boijeot: Or maybe we should take a shower?
People approach with a variety of assumptions. They want to know what you’re “occupying,” if this is a film set… Regardless of whether these actions are categorized as street, social, political, theatrical or performance art, what exactly are we doing here?
Renauld: Sitting here is not a contract. There’s no invitation.
Boijeot: It should be an offer and not a confrontation.
It destroys all social hierarchy. We have a chair; everyone knows how to use a chair
Renauld: It destroys all social hierarchy. We have a chair; everyone knows how to use a chair. We had a great conversation about life with the director of MoMA, and five minutes later, the same deep conversation with a woman who cleans the floor.
Boijeot: We don’t care about who you are when it’s free conversation. We can have the same high-level conversation with anyone.
How has constant exposure to public life changed your perceptions?
Renauld: We have the best drug: pure 24/7 reality. Reality becomes a kind of dance; anything can happen.
Boijeot: Situations develop a sort of logic. We heard an opera singer, and five minutes later a violinist performed.
Does this action collapse distinctions between performer and observer?
Renauld: We refuse the idea of an audience; we speak about inhabitants. The flow is a kind of city ballet: dense choreography, true intention, no makeup. We don’t know who the spectator is.
Boijeot: Many times people ask, “Where and when is the performance?” And we say to them, you are performing. We consider them co-authors of the piece. If they are not playing with us, this makes no sense.
Most of the time you’re contracted by a theater or public institution and you also self-sponsor those actions that “feel inevitable.” How is this different?
Renauld: Most of the time we work with public money. It’s your taxes. You work hard, so we have to take care to do something for you, to include you.
Boijeot: The Cultural Government of the (French) State said a few times, “We think your work is important. We want to help.”
Renauld: We always refused. Usually when the government gives you money, they want to tie your hands. We always say, it’s not interesting for us to take your money—we want to work with you.
Boijeot: On a conceptual level, we want to think together.
Renauld: So for this grant they said, “We just want to support you. You do a lot of action in France. It’s our way to say ‘Thanks.'”
How have these ways of traveling, living in an active crowd, surrounded by so many people—each with their own interests—changed your definitions of public and private space?
Renauld: It is 24/7 for 30 days. There is not only public and private space; there is the intimate space of a conversation. A conversation is a space to receive less stimulation.
Martin: There is a lot of information, sound, noise. You have to close your space sometimes. Read a book, listen to music… it’s like sleeping.
Boijeot: It’s tiring for the brain, but we never refuse conversation. I would say we are at home. It’s not dependent on the place, on the time, on anything. I am at home.
boijeot.renauld are in Manhattan, working their way down Broadway at a rate of five blocks a day until 25 October 2015. They crossed Times Square on the morning of Monday 12 October. A similar action will begin in Tokyo on 21 November 2015.
Images by Clément Martin