Bertille Bak and the Almost Comic Futility of Most Labor

In the artificial gloaming of the galleries of the Jeu de Paume, Paris dedicated to artist Bertille Bak’s exhibition, “Abus de souffle” (“Out of Breath”), visitors wander into viewing areas, mid-video, with the awkwardness of late arrivals to the cinema. Screens go blank, speakers go silent, interludes allow for turnover or for settling in. The trick or hitch – or one of them, anyway – is that none of her videos have definitive beginnings or endings, much like the cycles of labor they depict. Rather, the emphasis is on redundancy and futility.

Bertille’s work confronts the subject of labor from the perspective of marginalized and largely invisible peoples and communities. Most often employing video with occasional multimedia augmentation that functions ironically like material, supporting evidence, she has developed, according to Xippas Galleries, “a body of work staging populations, rituals or situations that she subvert[s] with the close involvement of the protagonists themselves.”

There are no scripts. Bertille’s projects are immersive and evolve organically. For weeks or even months, like an ethnographer, she lives among, observes, and converses with her subjects, who range from, for example, Bolivian shoe-shiners, cruise ship workers, child miners, asylum seekers, food factory workers, and traditional craftspeople.

With Out of Breath, the French artist explores critical contemporary themes such as the cartography of globalization and its impact as well as, writes Xippas, “relationships of dependence and inequality.” Her aim is to highlight the propagation of connections or links between countries in juxtaposition with the “paradoxical obstruction of borders.” In other words, her aim is to demonstrate, for instance, how global capitalism has facilitated a radical rise in profits for multinational companies while exacerbating exploitative labor practices.

Fittingly, one of the first artworks with which viewers engage is titled, The Tower of Babel (2014). This 22-minute-long color video and its two companions, The Conveniences (2014), and The Tide Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (2014, a play on the similarly titled artwork by Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp), were produced during Bertille’s residency at the Grand Cafe Contemporary Art Center in the port city of Saint-Nazaire, France. She focused specifically on the shipyards and the labor and working conditions of the communities that keep them running. 

With The Tower of Babel, she examined life on a large cruise liner and the co-existence of leisure and work and the division of space in “a kind of regulated choreography.” The Conveniences zeroes in on sailors and the concept of “flags of Convenience.” In short, owners of ships seek to register vessels in countries where laws are looser, especially labor laws. In what look like souvenir wood marquetry plaques, Bertille has created small individual works with designs that mimic the flags of the desired countries using snips of hair from the sailors she met; they are literally contributing pieces of themselves to these shadowy companies.

The titular piece, a nine-minute, double-projection video, Abus de souffle (Out of Breath, 2024), was created specifically for the Jeu de Paume exhibition. Bertille traveled to Tetouan, Morocco where she has staged other works, this time to collaborate with, explains Jeu de Paume curator Marta Ponsa, “the last craftsman specializing in the making of the bellows used to kindle a fire, known locally as ‘rbuz.’” 

On one screen, an elderly craftsman can be seen in his workshop producing the devices. Minutes later, he is surrounded by them; they seem to have magically reproduced. Each one is unique, decorated with colorful designs, more collector’s items than tools. 

Later still, the ‘rbuz maker and about 30 other men stand on the walls of Tetouan overlooking the sea, squeezing the bellows so the air they emit travels out to sea toward an opposing shore. On the opposing shore, men push modern vacuum cleaners across the sand. In an alternating scene, various weather vanes turn in the wind. The bellows blow, the weather vanes spin, the vacuums draw the futility from the air and the sand from the desert. 

Bertille’s commentary on the almost comic futility of much labor is as witty as it is deeply disheartening. Does the work we do mean anything? 

“For Bak,” writes Ponsa, “this installation is conceived as a dialogue with the entire group of works on show, all of which question changing global cartographies, international trajectories and the inequalities these generate.” She continues:

Exchanges between countries are continuous, but their equilibrium remains fragile because they often occur within an asymmetrical relationship of domination and subordination.

Click image to enlarge.

Arguably the most powerful, emotionally-charged work in the exhibition is the video project titled, Minor Miner (2022). Five 15-minute videos run simultaneously on vertical screens installed in a horizontal band. The topic is child labor – specifically, mining – of high-demand materials in five different countries: silver in Bolivia, tin in Indonesia, gold in Thailand, sapphires in Madagascar, and coal in Indonesia. 

The child miners are basically captives. They toil for sub-poverty wages and often for excessive hours in all five countries. In Indonesia, for example, more than 4 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 work and 20% of them work more than 40 hours per week. 

In the parallel videos, the children have ascended from the mines to stages where they participate in what Ponsa calls “a disenchanted village fête.” They appear to be performing a play or singing a song. Ultimately, they begin dropping through trapdoors in the floor of the stages via low-tech, video-game-like effects. 

One by one, the children drop into transparent tubes and go spiraling back down, disappearing once again into the depths of the mines, “into the fearsome, sordid belly of the Earth.” When the last child has gone, the screens go black and their names appear, in stark white letters on a black background on the parallel screens, possibly the sole moment when they become visible, seen, real, alive.

Click image to enlarge.

The raw revelations of Bertille’s projects contradict a puzzling claim made by Xippas about the impact of her work, particularly with respect to her manipulation of images “using hacked and low-tech special effects inspired by arcade games or techniques from primitive cinema: “The result,” they observe, “is a light-hearted tone, contrasting with the depth of the subjects addressed.”

At the risk of seeming unnecessarily contentious, the artist’s use of parody never infuses her work with light-heartedness. Instead, rather ingeniously, it underlines the almost certainly, tragically fleeting lives of her subjects and the regimentation of every moment of their lives, including tiny, stolen (in the context of quasi-slavery) moments of joy.

Another stark exposé, Bertille’s project, The Brigade (2018-24), took her to the Bolivian capital of La Paz, where she lived among a group of men and women who make their living as shoe shiners. According to Ponsa, quite literally looked down upon as they work, “this fragile, stigmatized workforce… cover their faces with ski masks to avoid being recognised.” 

The Bolivian shoe shiners have, over time, established a ritual of “tapping on their colorful wooden shoe-shine boxes to attract potential customers.” Building on this playful, performative aspect of their work, in the 12-minute video portion of The Brigade, these sub-sub-economy laborers are dressed in festive garments and perform humorously choreographed dances and acrobatic feats as passersby either ignore them completely or stop, reluctantly, to be entertained. Not only are the shoe shiners suddenly visible, they have become three-dimensional.

In addition to the video, an array of wooden shoe shine boxes are displayed on utilitarian metal shelves in two of the galleries–one shelf facing the video screen. The boxes were decorated by the individuals with whom Bertille collaborated. They are colorful and clever; some reveal the considerable artistic talent of their makers. A fair number of them are painted to resemble vehicles – cars and boats – a means of, one imagines, ultimate escape. 

Three other video and multimedia projects round out the exhibition, focusing, respectively, on women of diverse nationalities whose lives are precarious due to their statuses as emigres or exiles in Pau (in southern France, on the border with Spain on the Atlantic side); low-wage workers in the ethnic tourism industry in Morocco, Thailand, and southern France who produce souvenirs that are wholly anachronistic but reinforce tourists’ expectations of exoticism; and women laborers in Morocco who prepare shrimp fished in the Netherlands and shipped frozen to them to be prepared before being returned to the Netherlands for sale and consumption.

All of Bertille’s projects require collaboration and consent from her subjects. She lives with the communities she represents but hers is not the ethnographer’s mission because, while she aims to illuminate certain aspects of their lives, from rituals to living conditions, her work is not reportage and it declares its subjectivity: the videos and the artworks are fictional stories written collectively. Xippas elaborates:

Far from neglecting their precarious living conditions, [she] highlights the realities so often distorted in the collective imagination, while giving those who are most directly concerned the means to represent themselves in other ways. 

There is a concept in contemporary art known as “the ethnographic turn.” Art historian Hal Foster wrote in 1996 about an emergent tendency in contemporary art, at least so-called “leftist” art, to situate the artist as an ethnographer. The danger of such a dynamic is the othering of a marginalized individual or community and the establishment of a position of omniscience and implied objectivity conferred on the artist-ethnographer. Then, an elite group – artist, curator, art institution, viewer – claims to speak for the marginalized or even implies that the project has in one way or another offered some amount of relief from the plight of the other/subject.

Without complicating matters, I offer that Bertille’s work provides an alternative model for socially-engaged projects like her own, bearing in mind that her works are representations among countless possibilities and, to the extent that it is possible, she invites authorial as well as participatory involvement. 

More importantly, however, the artist “claims the right to look,” to quote Nicholas Mirzoeff (“Introduction,” The Right to Look: A Counterhistory Visuality, 2011) and invites us to look as well. “The right to look is not about seeing,” Mirzoeff explains.

It begins at a personal level with the look into someone else’s eyes to express friendship, solidarity, or love. That look must be mutual, each person inventing the other, or it fails. As such, it is unrepresentable. The right to look claims autonomy, not individualism or voyeurism, but the claim to a political subjectivity and collectivity…

In this dynamic, there is an exchange. In the inverse, there is “visuality,” writes Mirzoeff. Authorities claim exclusivity to look, to control: narratives, information, ideas, histories, and so forth. Yet, it is possible to challenge that authority: by various means, claiming the right to look, a right to the real, which, in the context of Bertille’s work, is what the other has consented to. In this way, the dominant narrative of colonizers, global capitalists, and even of an art elite, can possibly be subverted. 

“Out of Breath” was on view at the Jeu de Paume, Paris from February 13 to May 12, 2024. The exhibition was curated by Marta Ponsa; design by Bertille Bak and Kevin Lebouvier. Bertille was nominated in 2023 for the prestigious Prix Marcel Duchamp. She is represented by Xippas Gallery.

© Debra Thimmesch (5/13/24) — Special for FF2 Media

Click image to enlarge.


Learn more about the  Abus de Souffle (Out of Breath) exhibit at Jeu de Paume in Paris.

Read more about Bertille Bak from the Xippas Gallery.

Read Adam Kleinman’s coverage of Bertille Bak, “A Meditation on the Work of Bertille Bak.”

Thanks to author Nicholas Mirzoeff, we have a free PDF of The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality (Duke University Press, 2011).


Featured photo: Assorted shoeshine boxes by various artists as featured in The Brigade.

First middle photo: An excerpt from the Out of Breath exhibit.

Second middle photo: An excerpt from the Minor Miner exhibit.

Bottom photo: A close up of one shoeshine box as featured in The Brigade.

All photos taken by Debra Thimmesch, on 4/13/24 for FF2 Media. Authorized for responsible use as long as user includes link to THIS post in photo credits.

Tags: Abus de souffle, Bertille Bak, Bolivia, Debra Thimmesch, Exhibit Review, Hal Foster, Jeu de Paume, Kevin Lebouvier, Marcel Duchamp, Marta Ponsa, Minor Miner, Nicholas Mirzoeff, Paris, Shoeshiners, The Brigade, Video exhibit, Xippas Galleries

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Debra Thimmesch is an art historian and critic, activist, independent researcher and scholar, writer, editor, and visual artist. She mentors graduate students in art history and is attuned to current endeavors to radically rethink, decolonize, and reframe the study and pedagogy of art history. Her work has appeared in Art Papers, The Brooklyn Rail, and Blind Field Journal.
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