Vertical Horizons: The Expeditions of Laurent Tixador and Abraham Poincheval

  • Publish On 11 January 2017
  • Laurent Tixador

“At a rate of a meter a day, we will remain sealed in for twenty days, and despite everything, this will indeed be a journey. I have always argued that the quality of a journey is primarily linked to the means of transport that it employs and not necessarily to its destination,” Laurent Tixador quips to Nicolas Bourriaud during an interview on their practice as artists-explorers.

Laurent Tixador is a performance artist and modern day explorer. Explorations represent a form of studio in his work and he has thereby conducted a great many exploration performances.

Nicolas Bourriaud is an art historian, art critic, theorist and exhibition curator. Since 2016, he is the director of the future Montpellier Contemporain (MoCo).

An artist duo, creators of a common oeuvre, the lesser of the paradoxes of Laurent Tixador and Abraham Poincheval is that they do not live in the same city. The former was born in Colmar in 1965 and now lives in Nantes; the latter was born in Alençon in 1972 and is now based in Marseille. As if movement, the concept of distance, and travel were part of their DNA as “adventurers of post-modern times.” Their approach, which they explain in the following interview, is staged—tested out—in their various projects that are often conducted in territories that are seldom “visible” ranging from the French countryside to the topmost floors of skyscrapers and the underground world. For instance, L’Inconnu des grands horizons [The Unknown of the Great Horizons] was a 2002 bike ride from the neighboring cities of Nantes to Metz, via the very distant Caen; Total Symbiose [Total Symbiosis] consisted in various residence projects conducted in “fake” extreme survival conditions, in Terrasson or the island of Frioul among other places; Plus loin derrière l’horizon [Further Away Behind the Horizon] was a journey in a non-motorized dinghy between Saint-Nazaire and the distant inland village of Fiac, in Périgord, in 2004. All these projects were human adventures during which they crafted small objects, reconciled entropy and dynamism, and produced a new form of expedition, which is more attached to the way of traveling to the destination of the journey.

"Horizon moins vingt", simulation du projet, 2006 © Laurent Tixador et Abraham Poincheval

Underground travel, one meter a day

Nicolas Bourriaud: As artists, you are first and foremost explorers. For your current project, Horizon moins vingt [Twenty to Horizon], you are going to dig a twenty-meter long tunnel, filling it in behind you as you progress. You will therefore be walled in alive. Beyond the experience of survival in such a confined environment, what are the aesthetic stakes of this project?

Laurent Tixador: Horizon moins vingt is the result of a series of movements throughout space. This project complements the previous ones and asserts their diversity. Every single time that we have been somewhere, we used a means of transport that we had never practiced before. It is a way to create a new possibility of serendipity and discovery. For this project, we set high expectations because not only is this new to us, but nobody has ever tried to dig a tunnel and fill it in behind them as they dig forward. Which explains why the preparation phase is so long. It is also the first time that we have worked so much on the preparation. The objective is to live for a distance of twenty meters, while keeping all the necessary supplies stored in the habitable space—twenty boxes of daily rations and an orgy of plumbing for the breathing apparatus.

At the rate of a meter a day, we will remain sealed in for twenty days, and despite everything, this will indeed be a journey. I have always argued that the quality of a journey is primarily linked to the means of transport that it employs and not necessarily to its destination.

Travelling as a way to transform situations

Nicolas Bourriaud: One could say that expeditions have become a format per se for many artists. Travel is at the very core of your work. But is expedition a form for you? A method? A figure?

Laurent Tixador: Without a doubt, a method. It enables us to be in a space of discovery as simply and naturally as other artists in their workshops. The big difference is that, unlike them, we are continuously bombarded by elements that are external to our daily lives and habits. That is why we do not normally prepare a lot: we want to retain the possibility of a shock. With the exception of Horizon moins vingt, of course. But in this case, there are so many unknowns that we will never be able to consider the whole set of parameters…

I love the idea that expeditions have become a format per se. This brings us back to painting, and that is actually what we are preparing to do in the immediate future. In a few days, we are going to cycle for a month or two and this time our goal will simply be to draw a circle on a canvas, by transmitting our coordinates as we move around. The drawing will be traced in our absence, during the exhibition, and yet the authorship will remain ours. In this case, our bicycles serve as brushes.

"L'inconnu des grands horizons", 2002 © Laurent Tixador et Abraham Poincheval
"Journal d'une défaite", 2006 © Laurent Tixador et Abraham Poincheval

Nicolas Bourriaud: You say that “the quality of a journey is primarily linked to the means of transport that it employs and not necessarily to its destination.” Artists such as Joseph Beuys, Panamarenko, or Gordon Matta-Clark have insisted at the end of the 1960s on an idea of the art as a vehicle, and not as a destination. And others, such as Hamish Fulton, Richard Long, Bas Jan Ader, Cadere, and especially Stanley Brouwn have used movement in a natural or urban environment as a form of art. What is your relation to these artists who have placed walking at the center of their work?

Laurent Tixador: Richard Long leaves a trace in the landscape: he marks his passage. The other artists soak it up or bear witness to it. In our case, the landscape does not count, nor does the physical movement itself since we have also carried out three projects called Symbiose [Symbiosis], for which we lived in complete self-sufficiency, in absolute statis. The important thing for us is the situation that, all of a sudden, transforms us in other things. We also chose to walk in a straight line in 2002, which could bring us closer to the artists you just mentioned but our objective was different, since it was just to reach a given point in space. We set off without a map and used a compass to recreate an unknown situation and adventure. The landscape was simply turned into an aggravating factor. In other words, behind each new horizon, we discovered new obstacles: rivers, highways, unwelcoming villages, etc. There is no ecstasy in our relation to motion itself or to nature: we simply experience a sort of temporal hole in our daily lives. It is for that reason that I find Verdun so touching: it is not due to the quality of its environment, but simply because it is a place that makes us want to leave. It is a place that people typically only visit because they have to and that really makes us want to go back home.

"North Pole", 2015 © Laurent Tixador et Abraham Poincheval

Expeditions objectified

Nicolas Bourriaud: The objects that you introduce in your exhibitions have an ambiguous status: some are preparatory documents or models, others serve as souvenirs. In a sense, the artistic work is either upstream or downstream of the project.

Laurent Tixador: If most of these objects seem ambiguous, it is only because they were made in moments when we could no longer consider ourselves as artists but just as uprooted individuals with no other desire than to return to their ordinary lives. Such is the case of a series of ships in bottles or old shell casings etched with the words “Verdun 2002.” Retracing this moment of the journey, these objects indeed act as keepsakes but were made with the prevailing material of that moment in time. Historically, such objects were always crafted in difficult situations by sailors, soldiers, or prisoners that were moved by the instinctive feeling that they were making them in order to bring them back home. What was a great discovery for us is that without having anticipated anything, we were guided by this very same archaic instinct.

We also exhibit our equipment before the project is actually carried out, in order to confront our point of view on the future situation with visitors. Our gear is generally also as new as we are unseasoned. It is an area of open dialog that allows us to speak of the project by gleaning information. By including both objects we took back from the journey and objects that we prepared at the very start of it, we create an interstice. This is the moment that creates the artwork but also the exhibition.

Returning to primal instincts

Nicolas Bourriaud: I find the concept of archaism important. For example, for the project Total Symbiose [Total Symbiosis] (2001), you claim to have rediscovered the gesture of prehistoric artists by instinctively feeling the need to inscribe the images of desired objects on the rock face of the mountain. In your case, these weren’t buffalos, but M&M’s. In what context do you place this “instinctive” aspect of your work? For instance, do you think that art should in a sense help discard social conditioning?

"Total Symbiose 3", 2006 © Laurent Tixador et Abraham Poincheval

Laurent Tixador: This instinctive aspect is what we are looking for when we change our condition. For a human being, when the situation changes, new reactions and new habits emerge. Artists are no different. For now, that is the way we try to investigate the act of creation as far as we can. In that regard, I feel closer to William Burroughs than to Richard Long as we explore the extreme cavities of the brain. We are no longer truly in control. Our thoughts go right toward their objectives when we are high. That said, there may very well not happen anything. Boredom also generates unconscious gestures that we can capture and ultimately control. That’s how the M&M’s mascot appeared on the rock of the island of Frioul. In the moments where our mind is too busy, we have no other choice than to use ideas. In other terms, unlike a natural response, it becomes a form of work. When Dubuffet defined art brut (outsider art) he said, among other things, that it was a “non-professional art that was unscathed by artistic culture.” Abraham and I will always have a little too much of that to be outsiders but we try to get as close as we can in order to free ourselves from our conditioning and the whims of fashion.

Nicolas Bourriaud: When we place ourselves in a different relationship to civilization in this way, do we gain insight into our social, economic, political and cultural frameworks?

Laurent Tixador: I personally forget them, but then I am happy to reincorporate them afterwards and to take away a new way of doing things (as the case may be) and enough aloofness to let myself enthusiastically be reclaimed by society.

Beyond the horizon…

Nicolas Bourriaud: The concept of the horizon forms part of the vocabulary of watchmen, or perhaps even of the avant-garde, of Modernism… What are the new potentialities of this word for you, in the context of your work?

Laurent Tixador: The horizon, that is what I have attempted to reach and trample on by going all the way to the geographic North Pole in 2005. This is of course only a utopia—it is impossible to achieve. That is what makes the word so interesting. It points towards a part of the world that is not a place. It refers to a goal that always hides a new one. The horizon is the mobile boundary of the unknown. As long as it is not reached, we do not know what hides behind it. We can expect that something will emerge behind it like a watchman does, like a sort of fisherman who expects fish to come to him, or we can go see to what hides behind it and start over and over again. In this case, it is avant-garde work in every sense of the term, it is scouting.

Nicolas Bourriaud: With Horizon moins vingt, do you not produce an earthwork in the same vein as those that Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson created in the heyday of land art, but in a “secular” manner? That is to say, isolated from the framework of the artistic radicalism of the twentieth century? Moving away from the “great stories” of the Modernists, what would the story in which the forms that you produce unfold be?

Laurent Tixador: It is true that in this project, the only radicalism stems from the engineering. We have worked on this for almost two years and I do not think we have realized even the slightest act of creation yet. It will probably happen down the way. If we have enough time, and the desire to do so, if digging proceeds easily, and if we find conducive moments to do so… We have never thought about producing an earthwork, just about experiencing a novel situation. Of course, what is new for us is not necessarily new for everyone else but our interest lies only in accumulating diverse life experiences and imagining new ones. We investigate everywhere and unsurprisingly, we eventually get to a point where we also go underground.

Taken individually, each of our past actions is closer to other work of artists, but also to those of explorers or of all sorts of adventurers. This has no impact on our decisions. We do not know what we are looking for and we never change anything simply because there may have been precedents. The mere emergence of a distinctive feature is enough to satisfy us. During the twenty days that Horizon moins vingt will last, nothing will be noticeable on the surface. There will just be the air pumps and a heap of rubble corresponding to the space that we will be living in. This action will only acquire its visibility when we arrive, when we will rush toward the buffet and exchange our first impressions with the public. But I think it will be much more interesting, emotionally speaking, during the time when we will both be missing. It is an important stage of this performance. Then there will be a video, a story in the form of a diary, and photos, and perhaps a series of objects crafted during the journey. A whole category of traces will be visible over time but they will mainly have helped us dig our daily meter by reassuring us on the usefulness of this activity.

Nicolas Bourriaud: How do you the constructions, constructs, and wander lines (or “lines of drift”—Deligny’s lignes d’erre) of your practice relate to one another?

Laurent Tixador: All the components that we build, define, or prepare in our projects primarily serve to lead us further away on this line of wandering that you mentioned. The entire preparation (or non preparation) aims to get us as lost as we can. In the case of Horizon moins vingt, we produced an overabundance of models and studies (we had never done that before), only because our survival rests on it. For this project, we cannot afford to forget even a screw or to neglect even the tiniest detail; but the fact that this is a novel journey will necessarily confront us to all kinds of unforeseen events. This time, we will no longer need to cause these events by remaining naïve: they will come to us in spite of our research and our highly theoretical “experience.”

"Total Symbiose 2", 2005 © Laurent Tixador et Abraham Poincheval

Last year, we lived in the middle of a pasture in Dordogne for a month and a half. Our goal was to artificially create a period of natural evolution, and our first concern was to build shelters. As we only had access to the soil of the meadow, just as the Inuit only have access to the ice beneath their feet, we built igloos. The situation was as interesting as a journey because we found ourselves immersed in a completely different world. A radical change of scenery is in itself a journey. For Horizon moins vingt, we are going to build a shoring system that will be very present during our entire stay underground. It will also be a habitat and a life context though with motion. For twenty days, we are going to be moving a form of troglodytic trailer.

Published in Stream 01 in 2008.




Gelitin’s travel to Sofia, an interview with ourselves

“If you look at a map, there are about 700 km between Vienna, Austria and Sofia, Bulgaria. Making this trip on small mopeds may seem completely silly. But what a beauty to travel at the speed of a butterfly! Go East! ” Gelitin is a group of four artists living in Vienna and New York.


Nike Town: a Corporate Situationism

Friedrich von Borries


Nike Town: a Corporate Situationism

Since the late 1990s, the world’s leading brands have used sophisticated communication techniques to give their image a set of values, an attitude, a way of life. Nike is one of the international brands using the branding techniques theorized by Naomi Klein in 2000 in the book No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (ed. Knopf Canada, Picador, 2000). Nike approaches these techniques by mimicking counter-culture and discreetly taking possession of the urban space. In the era of intangible capitalism, are Western cities not the commercial achievement of the Situationist conception of urban space which condemned the disenchanted urbanism of the modern functional city and intended to “affirm the city as a laboratory of a playful revolution in everyday life “? Friedrich von Borries is an architect, curator and professor of design theory.


TRACTATUS ECONOMICUS -ARTISTICUS. The art and manner of Julien Prévieux, adventurer in economics.

Artist and user: this could be the corporate title of Julien Prévieux whose work uses, solicits and questions the complexity of our contemporary world, and notably the economic systems and uses that comprise it. Because he is not satisfied with simply creating artworks and ex nihilo objects but more because he reactivates and incorporates pre-existing and codified elements, he adopts the figure of the user and stages his use of the real. Here, he has intervened as a commentator on this essay, a panorama of a practice of over ten years, having numerous economic ideas as its center. Clément Dirié is an art historian and art critic, curator and editor specialized in contemporary art.