Writing with Art

Nora Sternfeld / Emmanuelle Lainé

Emmanuelle Lainé, Where the Rubber of Ourselves Meets the Road of the Wider World (detail), 2017. Photograph, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist.

September 30, 2019

Once a month, art-agenda and TextWork, editorial platform of the Ricard Foundation, jointly publish a Meta text. Here, Nora Sternfeld and Emmanuelle Lainé reflect together on Sternfeld’s essay on Lainé, “Working Conditions.”

Art-agenda: Let’s start from the beginning. By pairing a writer and an artist who were not previously connected, TextWork invites them to embark on a sort of blind date. What were your expectations for your meeting?

Nora Sternfeld: One summer day, out of the blue, I received a phone call. It was Emmanuelle Lainé. She presented herself as an artist from Marseille, with a growing interest in political questions and she invited me to contribute a text to a new project called TextWork, where an artist and a theorist meet. She asked me because, reading my situated writings, my positions seemed relevant to her, maybe even more to where she wanted to go than where she stood at that point. The outcome, she said, could be open and experimental, but should be a text that takes her work as a starting point. I did not know her work then, but her interests and ways of thinking, as well as the open and precise way she approached me, immediately caught my attention. When Emmanuelle asked me to join the project, I was interested in this unexpected encounter with an artist and her work. Of course, I was also hoping that I would not be disappointed and that I would be able to contribute in a meaningful way. I wondered if there would be an intersection between our practices, our references, directions, and imaginations? But I trusted her artistic choice of me as an author; I guess it was also flattering. So I decided to take this on as a challenge to write differently, not about an artist and her work, but as an opportunity to think together, to think with the work. We decided to meet in Paris. We spent a few dense and interesting days together, full of thoughts and discussions, shared references, and new readings. Also, we just had fun together.

Emmanuelle Lainé: That first encounter with Nora was certainly one I will not forget! And yes, in a way it felt a bit like a blind date at the beginning. An adventurous encounter in a comfortable public space. Two people, surely a bit nervous, assuming that this first meeting would be the beginning of an intimate artistic relationship that will lead to a text.

It’s very rare to meet someone you instantly know you are going to get on well with. It’s often about recognizing something familiar. I don’t know if it’s because we were both born in the same pre-internet time, but after an amazing evening full of thoughts and laughs we ended up taking selfies in an old-fashioned photo booth. The next day was the most awkward for me, I remember meeting Nora at the Palais de Tokyo and using a stupid excuse to let her visit the show on her own. When we met again later she was smiling, she said, “I like it, Emmanuelle. No really, I like it very much… oh… I’m so relieved!”

aa: Emmanuelle’s 2017 exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, “Where the rubber of our selves meets the road of the wider world,” functions as a force around which Nora’s article gravitates, which is also why the text feels lively and concrete. Nora, how does an exhibition become the starting point for the discovery of an artist’s work and how is the physical experience of visiting it subsequently rendered into a literary approach? Do you remember the feelings, impressions, and associations you had during your visit?

NSt: Indeed, I had some time to see the show alone, to walk around in the installation, between objects and the trompe l’oeil photographs that serve as wallpaper. I felt invited into a world of things that were full of care and generic at the same time—which is of course a contradiction I couldn’t grasp immediately. The space gave me this uncanny impression of emptiness, filled with strangely abandoned things as well as with me, the viewer. I found myself imagining stories, experiences, ways of being and acting with the things. And when I realized that the little stories in my mind related to labor, productive and reproductive labor come into contact with this work. I wanted to write, not about this work of art but with it—and what it engendered seemed related to work. So I had the idea for a title: “Working Conditions.”

aa: These working conditions seem to relate to collective processes, something that emerges both from the epigraph by Ivan Illich at the beginning of the text, “A convivial society should be designed to allow all its members the most autonomous action by means of tools least controlled by others,”1 and the different voices of factory workers and artists that make their way into the text. Was this an intentional method, your own text as a way to give voice to these other people?

NSt: The people, their conditions, and their bodies are missing and very present at the same time in many of Emmanuelle’s installations. As we talked about allegories in the sense of Walter Benjamin in our long and animated conversations, I thought about the relationship between references and representation and how it can be related to the reality of someone speaking for him/herself. It seemed obvious to me to look for a form of writing in which the concrete working conditions of people and their care, their relations to their tools and to each other, their concrete conditions of exploitation and neoliberal despair would be explicit, where they would speak for themselves.

aa: Emmanuelle, has Nora’s text made you see aspects of your own practice that you haven’t considered before? Or pushed you in new directions?

EL: Oh yes, for sure! I had hoped we would push each other in new directions in both our practices, by the way. This summer, Nora was invited to write for my show at La Friche la Belle de Mai in Marseille, “Suspension Volontaire de la Crédulité” [Willing Suspension of Belief], and again we agreed that it would be not about show but with the show. This time within the show, she performed the text she wrote as a guided tour, raising her voice questioning her position in the show as an art historian and critic, as a long-time exhibition mediator, as an art object, or even a source of value.


Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (London: Fontana / Collins, 1975), 33.

Labor & Work, Interviews & Conversations

Nora Sternfeld is an educator, curator, and cultural theorist. She is documenta professor at the Kunsthochschule Kassel.

Emmanuelle Lainé is an artist living in Marseille. Her work has recently been exhibited in solo shows at La Friche la Belle de Mai, Marseille (2019); Hayward Gallery, London (2018); FRAC Champagne Ardennes (2018); and the Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2017).

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September 30, 2019

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