Interview with Mathieu Pernot by Jean François Chougnet published in “The Atlas in motion” edited by Textuel, 2022.
JFC — What led you to work on the issue of migration? And how does this project, The Atlas in Motion, fit in with your other series or, more generally, with your career, which involves the frequent revisiting of certain motifs?
MP — When I start a project, I never imagine that it might take a different di-rection than the one that was initially planned. This revisiting of a subject – reworking it and giving it a new meaning – emerges as a necessity at a given moment. A project is never originally envisioned with this intention. This is all the more true for The Atlas in Motion and the works I have opened up on this issue, that I wanted to be silent and invisible in the first series. For example, this is the case with those I made in the Calais Jungle, or of the people sleeping on the footpaths of Paris. I found it interesting to avoid making any commentary, to leave the observer the possibility of imagining, of not immediately seeing what was being shown. And then, quite often, I realise that there is an absence, without really knowing what that absence is. At some point, I may find an answer, an element, but rather than continuing my work as it is, I will dismantle it so I can reassemble it in a different way. This was true of a project I carried out in 2016, which was commissioned for the memorial for the Rivesaltes camp. I worked with a group of migrants from Calais and I gave them notebooks to write down their stories in their native language. The texts I received were written in Arabic, Kurdish, Dari, Oromo and Tigrinya, the latter a very ancient syllabary script that I discovered at that time. I then realised that I had a lot to learn from these people, that they were the repositories of a unique knowledge and culture, cultures whose objects had already been preserved in our museums. Beyond the collection of stories, I felt it was necessary to propose a history of the writings and then to build scholarly and poetic bodies of work that could transcend disciplines. I wanted to invert the perspective of how these people were represented and to work with them to build an object that had an encyclopaedic dimension, which would teach us as much about the world as about their personal stories.
JFC — What role does the photographic material play in this ensemble? You allude to school notebooks, for example. Is this a way of gradually moving away from your initial artistic point of departure, which was very much present in most of your previous series? It seems that something else emerges with this proliferation of materials. Did this come about because of the subject matter, or is it a similar trajectory to your other projects? MP — The approach is particular to this project, even though I have always liked to mix different bodies of photographic images to establish a dialogue between them. But here, the question was posed differently, and it took me a long time to find the answer: how could we record the stories of these migrants? Using what medium? What form could it take? The answer came during a French lesson given by the association Français Langue d’Accueil. When I saw the school notebooks that the migrants were using to learn French, I recognised something that was familiar to me – I had written in these very same notebooks as a child – and, at the same time, there was a dimension that felt foreign to me: their transcription of the words into their language, which I did not understand. In talking with them, I realised that these types of notebooks are almost always found among the few objects that migrants take with them on their journeys. The exercise book pages then took on an important role and became the main medium, the one where people’s personal stories would be written. The school notebook evokes an individual and collective memory: it is an object that we have all, at one time or another, come into contact with. This medium of otherness and empathy is something that is common to all of us; there is no need to understand what is written inside it. While I was collecting these stories, I thought it would also be interesting to expand the body of images even further, to not limit it to photography.
JFC — In a sense, is this also a way to escape the saturation of shocking images about migrants that has prevailed in recent years? This is not a criticism but an observation: photography, especially photojournalism, has played a large role in raising awareness. We remember Alan Kurdi, the Syrian child who died on the Turkish coast, or other extremely violent images. Doesn’t the use of other, apparently more neutral, materials allow you to distance yourself from the spectacular character – in the bad sense of the word – of the image that is so often associated with the phenomenon of Mediterranean migration at the moment?
MP — Photographs showing migrants are very often taken by people who have not experienced their situation, who document and show what they see from an external point of view. I wanted to build an iconography that would be created with them, so that they would not be subjected to images made by others. Each time I met a refugee who wanted to participate in this project, I had to consider what we could do together. Ali is a Syrian astronomer, Maryam an Afghan doctor, Meron a young Eritrean without any specific qualifications. Together we had to find a way to produce a form that would bear witness to their stories while at the same time summoning a portrayal that would engage everyone. And so, the atlas gradually appeared of its own accord – under Ali’s sky, in front of Marwan’s nature, within Maryam’s anatomies, etc. I think it is important to say that the bodies of work that make up this atlas are not the result of a pre-established programme but of chance encounters and the history of each individual. Beyond these images that were created as a partnership, there is a complexity and diversity of production methods. There are photos that I took, there are images that we constructed together, and there are forms produced by others for which I am only the conduit: this concerns both the work of refugees that I felt fit perfectly into this atlas and videos made by migrants, which they sent me by WhatsApp. I had met some of them in the Mória refugee camp, where they were making these videos about life in the camp or about other events they were experiencing or witnessing. These are incredible documents in terms of the reality they show and the nature of the perspectives that capture this reality. They are both the eye that sees and the body that suffers. The images tremble, stutter, but they resist the violence being suffered by those who make them.
JFC — The word “atlas” can be understood in its original sense, in the sense of the geographical atlas in the library at middle school – where there was always an at-las – but it can also be seen as a reference to Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, where the idea of montage predominates.
MP — This geographical dimension of the atlas in the classical sense can indeed be found in The Atlas in Motion, probably because I have a passion for maps. They appear in different forms in several parts of this book. There are those that depict the borders of a person’s country of origin and others, drawn in the exercise books, that reproduce the route from people’s points of departure and their places of arrival. The sea maps identify the location where certain migrant boats have sunk, which I have reproduced with factual descriptions, as they have been reported in the media. But for me, the atlas is intended to create a tension between different images. I was highly conscious of Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, and, more generally, of the question of montage, which Georges Didi-Huberman also mentions. However, for me, there is something very distinctive about talking about a specific population that at some point must leave the place where it is, that migrates and then arrives here. Once they are here, I wonder what we can do together, and how we can tell this story.
JFC — This is not by chance because when Warburg chose the word “atlas”, it was in reference to the first atlases of the sixteenth century, when the atlas was often a compilation of various documents by what were then called cosmographers. There were not only maps in these atlases, but also drawings, documents, etc. Reducing this concept to only cartography is a much more contemporary phenomenon. This broad cartographic imagination of the Renaissance inspired Warburg when he chose the word “atlas”.
MP — The term “Mnemosyne” as used by Aby Warburg refers to the question of memory and the survival of certain images in our imagination. For him, it is the montage and the new iconographic connections that are formed that create movement. In The Atlas in Motion, it is a question of a moment in time where everything is in motion; the images, of course, but also what they show: the sky, the sea, nature, people, everything is linked to the question of movement.
JFC — To go into the details of how this atlas was assembled, can you tell us about the structure of the different chapters? Why did you start with the illustrated astronomical plates?
MP — The study of the celestial constellations has helped humans to orient them-selves, especially during their ancient travels, and the various bodies in the universe are themselves in perpetual motion. Arab astronomy made great scientific advances in the understanding of the universe, as evidenced by the magnificent manuscripts that were produced. When I met Ali, a Syrian astronomer from Aleppo, I realised that the atlas had to start with representations of the sky and its history. Ali had to flee a city destroyed by constant bombing by the Russian and Syrian air forces, which were operating in a sky that was then a permanent threat. Could he see anything other than this danger when he looked at the sky he had loved to observe and study before the war? Threatened with arrest, he had to flee from Aleppo to try to reach Paris where a colleague and friend, an astronomer, was ready to welcome him. He told me about his journey, and thanks to a software program, we reconstructed the views of the sky as it corresponded to different moments and places along his route. He took the names of constellations and representations of the Earth as seen from the sky and translated them into Arabic. He is the one who leads us into the atlas by recreating a space that is beyond this period of suffering humanity that has engulfed him. The atlas is permeated by intermittent representations and movements. Its chronology unfurls different forms that enter into dialogue with each other and con-struct a narrative. In my opinion, it constitutes a visual poem in which images rhyme and clash. The montage begins with what is a common experience for all of humanity (being “under the stars” or “in the wild”) and concludes with the biographical accounts written by those who have succeeded in reaching the end of their journey (“getting somewhere” and “telling one’s story”). In between, the events where a part of humanity is “forced to leave” because they are faced with the impossibility of staying at home (“life debris”, “destroyed cities”) are given a form. In the movement that drives the journey, humanity is reduced to its greatest destitution and is confronted with essential questions regarding the actions that need to be taken and the trials that need to be overcome: “forced to leave”, “taking to the sea”, “testing one’s body”, “a roof over one’s head”. The tension that runs through this atlas lies in the following paradox: all living things are animated by constant movement, but the human species is the only species with a portion of it that is prevented from moving freely.
JFC — Let’s go back to the genesis of the project. The moment when it began to crystallise was when the Collège de France extended a rather unusual invitation to you. Were you the first artist to be invited? Was this the first step, the first time this work came into perspective?
MP — In 2018 the Collège de France organised a major conference on migration issues. As part of this conference, the administrator at the time, Alain Prochiantz, asked the Musée National de l’Histoire de l’Immigration to lend four artworks, including two that I had created, Les Cahiers afghans and La Carte de Jawad. Following this conference, he wanted to meet me and expressed interest in the project, noting the links between my research and that being done by certain professors. This is how the first artist residency at the Collège de France came about. I then asked to work in the same manner as the professors at this institution, that is, by presenting my research as it progressed. A wall was built in their forum, where every two months I displayed my work in progress. It was during this residency that I met migrants who had benefited from the PAUSE programme, a university initiative to accommodate researchers or teachers who can no longer work in their country of origin. I was able to meet Ali, the astronomer, and Marwan, a biodiversity specialist. The last exhibition was called The Atlas in Motion; it was a precursor to this broader crossing of disciplines. The Collège de France had become a place where migrants regularly came to present the things they produced. This generated encounters between them, the professors and the students at the Collège de France, and gave rise to some very surprising exchanges.
JFC — In the meantime, you were carrying out other projects, notably the one you did for the Fondation Cartier-Bresson award, La Ruine de sa demeure [The ruin of his home], which was the subject of an exhibition in the spring of 2022. Are your projects completely autonomous or are there intersections?
MP — The atlas is the great crossroads where a lot of things come together, including trips to the Middle East that I made as part of a project related to the history of my father, who was born in Lebanon. I photographed cities that had been destroyed and that were places where immigrants had left. The atlas also includes work I have done elsewhere, notably in Lesbos. At the Mória camp, located in the south of the is-land, I found Syrians who had come from Aleppo and Iraqis who had come from Mosul. The atlas allows us to re-map the places they came from, through which they passed, and where they arrived. That’s what fascinated me about this work: things that might have been done at different times can dialogue with each other and redeploy a new narrative.
JFC — After the exhibition at the Mucem, what form will the atlas take? Will it spread? Will it give rise to autonomous chapters that will flourish on their own?
MP — I don’t know. I don’t speculate. Sometimes I am possessed by projects that I can describe in great detail but that I will never actually create; and conversely, things that I never imagined possible materialise. What is certain is that this atlas will never be finished. The movement that drives it must remain infinite.
JFC — Would you go so far as to invite other photographers to use it as a matrix? For the moment you are the only photographer working on it. But could you give the atlas away? It could be passed on, could other photographers take it over?
MP — There is one thing that Michel Foucault said about his work that I really like: he saw it as a toolbox. I like the idea that what we do can be reinvested, can serve other discourses. The possibility of a second level of circulation carried out by others strikes me as very interesting. I don’t feel like I’m inventing anything; I seize a reality that exists, and I simply try to find the right way to show it. I make history without being a historian; by producing photographs today, I show a present that will constitute the archives of tomorrow. By putting them in dialogue with images produced by others, I create new forms of narratives. That’s why it’s important not to consider my point of view alone, but to bring together different perspective.
Interview with Mathieu Pernot by Jean François Chougnet published in “The Atlas in motion” edited by Textuel, 2022.