Is It So Reasonable?

La BF15 was christened in 1995 in a smoke filled restaurant by a friendly group of guests while eating rather nondescript French fries. The name was suggested, just as the project itself had been, with the flippant attitude of friends who act without thinking through the whys and hows. It was nothing more than a desire. The motives that cause one to engage in art are always complex and somewhat suspect, despite the obvious need to engage with both the symbolic and a reality outside the commercial realm…

This project had emerged from the pleasure principle alone: the desire to show what wasn’t being shown - in a direction separate from museums and galleries - including a certain number of works by artist friends, and the desire to no longer be content with the role of the critic (in my case) or service provider (in the case of my graphic design associates) but to take part, to affirm something that would engage both the activity of aesthetic choice and public responsibility.

The shared passion, within an enlarged circle, for this type of promotional activity, of which the exhibition is the most visible form, has allowed the project to continue over time. The goal of professionalism was reached when, in 1999, I accepted a proposal from the DRAC Rhône-Alpes to run an exhibition space in the Place des Terreaux in Lyon; great news! a proposal complete with operating funds.

The initial group having disbanded, the first team of volunteers was entirely replaced in 2000. But the spirit of openness and adventure continued by way of the name, as it was christened, and - I hope - in the program and content of the proposals.

La BF15 is a recent - hence, contemporary - variety of potato, which certain chefs consider the finest, as it can be served in a variety of ways: fries, purée, gratin, or steamed, etc. The exhibition space is thus defined as an “all-purpose” object. This particular vegetable consumed in times of crisis asserted itself as a symbol in a period of political cohabitation that saw Philippe Douste-Blazy as minister of culture. The latter had the indiscretion of opposing Paris to the provinces, an indiscretion that most probably included Lyon - and all the potatoes - in the latter category.

Moreover, the “mathematical potato,” a vague diagram found in French elementary schools, has the knack of integrating a diversity of elements into a given whole - in a certain sense, the outline for a cultural project! What’s more, this particular choice of tuber has given rise to innumerable puns, allowing journalists to amuse themselves, and yet, at the same time, maintain a sense of abstraction and objectivity. For those puns on food in which the literal meaning is instantly grasped are quite rare. Beyond its given name, la BF15 is difficult to pin down - being neither a gallery (as this would imply a commercial activity it lacks), nor an “art center” (due to the modesty of its scale and its willingness to differentiate itself from the institution). Without being boastful or making a judgment, simply as a matter of fact, one might speak of an “art fringe” as opposed to an “art center.” Yet the term doesn’t sound particularly eloquent. It does, however, point to the question of art’s visibility, such a frequent preoccupation of the artist, as well as an integral part of every artwork. The term “laboratory” would correspond perfectly to certain exhibitions and it does represent the mindset that motivates this space in its devotion to artists: a mindset that is open to accompanying (even if the means to do so are lacking) innovative art forms as they are proposed. Placing a work in the (art) center can sometimes cause it to be overly-defined as something it’s not, and this becomes prejudicial. 
From the perspective of public funding, which presides over the fate of la BF15, in other words, the Ministry of Culture through the intermediary of the DRAC, the City of Lyon, and the Rhônes-Alpes region, la BF15 falls within the category of a “network of small spaces.” This creates an amalgamation of various spaces: municipal, associative, artistic and amateur. Admittedly, the smallness of the exhibition space and the limited funding respond to the adjective; but, otherwise, I have always felt that the term seems to undermine an accurate perception of the ambitions and stakes involved, both on a creative level and in terms of cultural agenda.
It appears to me, today, that a “glass ceiling” has arisen, separating associative initiatives (even the most well supported such as ours) from public institutions. And this can be seen in contrast, for example, to the way things are run in Switzerland: perhaps more generous towards art practices, and where the institution, the collective and the private gallery can function as three facets of the same structure. Caught between the constraints on selling works, the lack of patronage in France, and limited public resources, la BF15 is still in search of funding. And here I cannot overstress the importance of volunteers in a context that doesn’t permit paid employment: the paid staff amounts to one person hired under a youth employment scheme.

Is it therefore reasonable to aim, and then maintain, a professional level with non-professional means?

Before giving a detailed description of the artistic program, it is important to outline the cultural agenda, conceived as a measured response to my experience of art in public space and following the specificity of the site. The Place des Terreaux is the paradoxical heart of Lyon: it is bordered by the prestigious Town Hall and the art museum, embellished by Barthold’s famous fountain, but it is also the place where the sentier (the hill-side path), a distant cousin of the canut (the Lyonese silkworker), and the slopes of the Croix-Rousse come to an end. The Croix-Rousse is a very popular neighborhood, working-class in essence, and almost a suburb in the center of Lyon. Throughout summer and winter, all facets of society pass through the square: the young “homeless” camped on the edges of the fountain, right up to the gallery entrance, strolling families and tourists, local councilors and workers from the surrounding offices, inhabitants from the slopes of the Croix-Rousse, including many young artists who have chosen to remain in close proximity to the neighboring art school. Christian Drevet and Daniel Buren’s renovation of the Place des Terreaux has transformed it into a symbol of architectural modernism. Facing the town hall and the museum, at the intersection of art and politics, we have come to place the flag of contemporary art.
The agenda is to extend this public space, in every sense of the term, in creating as indiscriminate a public venue as possible: everyone passing the storefront window of the BF15 can experience one facet of the exhibition turned towards the exterior; just as they can drop in every time they cross the Place des Terreaux: free admittance is essential here. Moreover, a number of visitors return in order to show a friend a work that has particularly caught their attention. And certain artists have set up interactive installations for which several visits is not obligatory but recommended.
Time appeared to me to be an essential element in determining the project’s framework: the Place des Terreaux is a regular and frequent meeting point; and the dynamic that this small space can create is reflected in the rapid exhibition turnover. And if the current funding constraints discourage us from continuing the monthly cycle of exhibitions (something which I regret), la BF15 upholds the idea that the voluntary act of visiting an exhibition should take place as an everyday activity if art is to become an integral part of life. Entering the gallery shouldn’t necessarily be premeditated: it is a spontaneous and ordinary act. It is up to the works and each visitor to enter or not into a dialogue and to escape an all-pervasive consumerism. The reception and information made available to the visitor is there to facilitate this.
This perspective reveals the importance of creating original works, and the most interesting artists have allowed us to understand and accept this specificity - even to be seduced by it. They have thus proposed site-specific projects that they couldn’t produce in an institution or commercial gallery. The site and what it offers has presented itself to them as a space of freedom, something which, to us, represents a sign of legitimacy - a conformation that the direction taken as a compliment to the existing promotional network has its role. The other form of recognition has come from public success, and this despite the local press, no more interested in contemporary art than the average French media, in other words, with rare exception not particularly curious and which appears to have declined over the years. Luckily, a reputation developed rapidly on a national scale, often due to artists.
This is not the place to draw up a topology of the artists who have exhibited: whether just starting or already
established, Lyonaise or international. The choices made are a result of artistic concerns and if reading the index reveals a strong presence of French and Swiss artists this is due, above all, to a geographical context that fits the extent of our funding.

August 2003

Claire Peillod artistic director of la BF15 from 1995 to 2003