uselessness and urgency

Gendarme – l’utile, le nuisible et le Suisse

By Nicolas Galeazzi Christina Stadlbauer

Q First, a bit of a self-check: What did we do? Was that in any way ‘necessary’, or even ‘urgent’? ‬

A We were invited to create a performative moment in a collective art event in Lausanne in response to an evolving sculpture proposed by the curators of the event, the two architects Diego Sologuren and Sebastien Tripod. The sculpture was placed at Rasude – an industrial site, that will undergo a complete restructuring in the coming ten years. Over several months the sculpture called, Strato-logique, shall connect outdoors and indoors through a skylight opening in the building and invite a variety of living organisms to live and settle in this inbetween space.

Q That sounds nice and an honourable approach to make an ecological discourse visible. Can you describe more of this context to which we reacted with our Performance “Gendarme – l’utile, le nuisible et le Suisse”?‬

A There were three layers. The top layer – air – is represented by a wooden nest box designed for the Martinet noir, a migratory bird that revisits its nesting site every year again. As these birds’ habitats are threatened, the Canton of Lausanne has passed a law to protect existing nesting sites and the buildings that host them. An audio recording is installed in the box that attracts these birds. ‬ ‪The next layer – ground – is a collection of plants that grow and climb along the metal structure. Courgettes, hop, clematis and blackberries form a mini-ecosystem that thrives in the semi-shade of the bird house. ‬ ‪The bottom layer – soil/incorporated – hosts the oyster mushroom in a mixture of lignin-rich substrate and coffee. The pyramidal bag was innoculated with the mycelium that grows in the darker layer hanging on the inside of the building. ‬

Q It looks to me like you are describing an artwork that tries to exemplify a possible positive interaction between human and non-human actors, like a miniature model of a possible ecological world? ‬ ‪

A Yes, somehow, that’s how I read it. To me, it was a sculpture of hope, penetrating the walls of the industrial construct. Of course, this remains in the spheres of the symbolic and like most contemporary artworks, the sculpture stays there only for a limited amount of time and eyes. This, as such, doesn’t fill me with a tremendous amount of hope, and the question immediately arises of the capacity of art to intervene in the making of history. ‬

Q That’s a very critical position towards the whole art sector! This sculpture was, however, not a singular act. It is situated at the centre of several curated actions, discussions and other works. Does this fill up your hope container, at least partially?‬

A Yes! It makes sense if we see it in the complexity of the multiple actions it generated. We should focus on the assembly of actions and their relations much more! The pure existence of this kind of relationship make life on earth for me to what is worth living. ‬

Q What kind of relations did you create? ‬

A We invited people to meet a common insect, the firebug, Pyrrhocoris Apterus, or in French, “gendarme”, also known as “le suisse”; you can find it all over Europe. We proposed a participatory performance to learn and adapt this insect’s approach to life. Together with Noemie Evequoz, an enthomologist who got excited to work with us on that animal, we learned that everyone actually knows this creature. There are many names for it in different languages, and everyone remembers having seen it in parks as a child. However, the scientific information that we could find was not very rich. The creature is particularly famous for its long-lasting sexual acts of at least seven hours to even days - but besides that, it is not understood as being particularly beneficial for anything, nor as a pest. This discovery was at first odd. An insect so widespread, with such a distinct look, colouration, and fake wings, cannot be classified as either useful or harmful – what is it then for? The birds do not have a liking for this fiery bug! Is it really just useless? Are there purely useless participants in the ecosystem? This is the relationship we got excited about. ‬

Q Tell me more about that bug! Its disposition seems personally to be very useful to me.‬

A I agree. It appears in groups but is rarely proliferating; it destroys its nutrition flora as it lives from the juice of rotting fruits, it doesn’t fart like kettle or attack our plants, and then this excessive joyful sexual behaviour! As mentioned, in French, the firebug is nicknamed “le Gendarme”. The story goes that the “gendarmerie de la garde du roi” (17th century) wore a uniform tunic that resembled the colours and design of the bug’s back. It is certain if the pattern for the tunic was copied from the bug or if the analogy was only noticed after the cavalry was equipped. Anyhow, this makes the insect somewhat more pertinent – a useless Gendarme? It’s so inspiring! ‬

Q Returning to the performance preparations: How did you approach the paradox that the ‘gendarme’ became somehow ‘useful’ for your artistic practice? ‬

A We tried to understand how to work with the tension between it being useless and, at the same time, so known, so beautiful, so particular in its esthetics. So, we decided to celebrate the animal – or better, organise a celebration of its uselessness. We wanted to make a ritual, a party for it, to prepare for its appearance, to call it, to invite it to join us. Inviting a ‘useless’ bug to an artistic celebration with an audience and all the other well thought, constructive artworks of the project – that was the idea. ‬

Q That sounds indeed necessary, especially in Swiss culture, which I believe has a hyper-utilitarian approach. Did this aspect play a role for you? ‬

A The Swiss mind is utilitarian – if not opportunistic – yes, but not only: it is as much identitarian as utilitarian, and that mix creates a powerfully absurd cute-appearing gamble. The Swiss identity is inseparably linked with productivity. Celebrating the uselessness of a bug called “Le Suisse” can surely be seen as an insult. Celebrating an existence that shows off prominently with its red marks but no visible productivity and which seemingly plays no role whatsoever in the entanglement of ecosystems is putting the Swiss raison-d’être in question. ‬

Q Concretely, how did you celebrate?‬

A It was easy. We love that bug! So we tried to become it. Impossible, but nice to try. We offered a public workstation in a back corner of a packing station of the SwissPost to facilitate the production of gendarme/”Le Swiss” uniforms. Not entire uniforms, but we designed first the ‘epaulette’. People helped us sawing and stamping, modelling and enjoying the time with us. Finally, we assembled a bug-looking scarecrow, decorated it with our epaulettes, and cursed with it in a procession throughout the building to place it onto the flat rooftop of the parking lot, where we invited everyone to learn the dance of the firebug. It was beautiful, touchingly ridiculous, non-sensical and fun. ‬

Q Final question… I don’t know if it will bring us somewhere, but I’ll dare to ask anyway: Can you tell me, whether, at the very end, we will know whether the ecosystem is universally useful? And if not, what then? Or better to ask, can you imagine a way to find out whether the terrestrially useful ecosystem needs its useless self-declared stakeholders? ‬