Born in 1983 in Arras, Bertille Bak lives and works in Paris.
Through videos, installations, photographs, sculptures and drawings, Bertille Bak stages communities in which she has previously immersed herself in order to grasp their codes, customs and rites. From a Gypsy group in Ivry-sur-Seine, to a community of Polish immigrants in New York City, to the inhabitants of a Bangladeshi apartment building doomed to destruction, Bertille Bak draws her inspiration from these fragile populations to question the notion of living together and the excesses of contemporary society. Far from miserabilism, mixing reality and fiction, she uses her particular relationship with these minorities and her practice to show us their daily struggle and resistance. A humanist activist, Bertille Bak collects and archives the traces of these marginalized groups, these “invisible” people, to create filmic narratives, works tinged with a certain poetry, which in no way blurs the violence of human conditions. The result of this work oscillates between documentary, ethnographic research and investigation.
Originally from Arras, she devoted her first works to the mining towns of northern France. In 2007, she directed T’as de beaux yeux tu sais, her final year project at the Beaux-Arts de Paris, then in 2008, Fais le mur, a film in which she recounts the revolt of the inhabitants of the city n°5 of Barlin, a town in the mining basin, to contest the rise in rents and their forced exile.
A humanist activist, Bertille Bak collects and archives the traces of these marginalized groups, these “invisible” people, to create filmic narratives, works tinged with a certain poetry, which in no way blurs the violence of human conditions.
The discovery of the damage caused by silicosis, a disease caused by the inhalation of dust, caused her to feel a sense of injustice and brought her back to her personal history. As the granddaughter of a miner diagnosed with an abnormally high level of silica in his lungs, she wanted to work with this endangered community. She brings their memory back to life and gives a new look at these miner’s cottages, symbols of a bygone era. In 2017, she directed the film Tu redeviendras poussière (You will turn to dust again), to tackle the struggle of these silicosed men and their widows.
By taking up a ten-month residency at the Pinault Collection in Lens, one of the main urban centres of the Pas-de-Calais mining area, which has left its mark on the area economically and socially, Bertille Bak intends to deepen her research in a world that is dear to her and for which she has been fighting artistically for many years.
Before your residency in Lens in 2019-2020, you studied at the Le Fresnoy – National Contemporary Art Studio in Tourcoing, in 2007-2008. Had you been back to the north of France since then? What did you think about living here for an entire year?
The particularity of this residency is its location in a former mining town. In fact, the Louvre-Lens was built on the site of mine number 9 in Lens. And this mining territory already formed the basis of my artistic practice. I worked together with inhabitants of the area, knitting and unravelling this territory, stretching it out and playing with it to find a new and different way to talk about their past, present, and future. I’ve often come back because my family lives nearby. The last time I worked on a project that involved staying in the area for several months was in 2017. I worked with retired face miners about silicosis, an illness many of them contracted while working in the mines. So, the prospect of spending another year here to me seemed like a homecoming, a return to a known world, a sphere of familiarity that is enveloping and also comforting. I was very excited to see how the identity of this place had evolved as a result of a major museum landing here.
Being in residence isn’t a compulsory order of residence, and yet you were in residence during the first lockdown in France, from March to May 2020. How did this period impact your production?
This year made me want to dive back into the history of my own family’s involvement in underground mining, as I had at the start of my artistic practice, but I wanted to expand my research to include the contemporary period. My ancestors were miners who were already headed underground by the age of 13. I thought a lot about these sacrificed childhoods, of having to engage at times in one of the worst forms of work there is. So, what I wanted to do while I was here was come up with a non-exhaustive inventory of child labour in mines across the world. I wanted to develop a project with these “minor miners.” Children still today seem the ideal labourer: docile, cheap, able to worm their way into the narrowest spaces.
I spent the first months of my residency focusing on researching the different kinds of mining. I also got in touch with a number of associations. When they announced the first lockdown in France, I was in Madagascar, where I had initiated an initiative together with children who had worked in the sapphire mines. I had to come back early. I was supposed to head on to Bolivia for silver mining, India for coal, Thailand for gold, and Indonesia for tin. Everything came to a grinding halt, as it did for everyone else. The main limitation of my work is that it can only exist by “making with.” It proclaims and believes in creating together. But how can we feel as one without seeing one another?
This never-ending pandemic and the complexities of travelling still today led me to reconsider certain aspects. I kept on creating bonds, obviously at a distance and not in person, and I tried to create new construction networks, that is, to establish new collectives that can go into the field, entrusting them with making the images that I dreamt of incessantly during all those months – all in the hope of coming back to a kind of simplicity where the dynamic is ultimately an aesthetic one.
Did you reside full-time in Lens, or was Lens your base camp for exploring other places? If so, which ones?
At first, my residency in Lens was in fact supposed to be a springboard for these other expeditions. The fact of being boarded up at home led me back to an old project in which I used drawing to catalogue all the corons, or miners’ houses, before they were demolished. The very regular lines of these homes, symbols of our industrial heritage, actually reveal the most subtle differences. There is a kind of discreet personalisation by the former inhabitants of these masses of bricks, where each house initially appears the same in every way.
Among the artists awarded a residency in Lens by the Pinault Collection, Enrique Ramirez (in 2007-2009) and Hicham Berrada (in 2013), like you, also studied at Le Fresnoy. Did you know them? Did you talk to them before or during your residency about the area, the workshop, and the tools at your disposal?
I knew Hicham because we studied at the Beaux-Arts at the same time. Enrique and I were in the same graduating class at Le Fresnoy. We talked about the residency and its possibilities right away. But once I got here, the neighbours provided much more of a reference point; they provided an assistance that was specific to this place and which I thought had gone lost. It was as if they felt a duty to make sure that the new resident would be fully integrated.
The Lens residency is located in the heart of a former mining region, the Artois, which is still marked by this heritage, economically, socially, and topographically. Did this mining and industrial culture influence your production during the residency?
Together with the artist Charles-Henry Fertin, we had the opportunity of responding to a request that came from the museum’s neighbours as part of the Nouveaux Commanditaires initiative. This program allows groups of individuals to sponsor an artistic production that follows specifications that they themselves establish in function of their own interests and concerns. These neighbours had requested that their neighbourhood be included in the general foot-traffic pattern of visitors to the museum next door, the Louvre-Lens. These decrepit miner’s houses, which have been left waiting and waiting to be renovated (something that they were told was imminent already a decade ago), don’t necessarily provide the most uplifting image of the city today. And yet, this quirky expression of their identity, the architectural uniformity of their homes, could in fact become a draw for museum visitors, because it is such a prominent symbol of the area’s industrial heritage.
Our project, which will be implemented in the city in 2022, will combine the power of this past culture with its improbable metamorphosis at the hands of this major museum that has sprung up in this mining area. We don’t want to limit this area to a nostalgic vision stuck in the past. Instead we want to look at this part of the city as it exists now, because of this transformation. The project is called Les galeries du temps [“The galleries of time”]. It will unearth the part of the mining era that has been buried, and at the same time, it will mobilise actors in the current space to participate in a collective creative endeavour. The project looks at different time periods and different eras within this demarcated, circumscribed territory.
You identify, collect, and archive traces and testimonies of communities on the margins with whom you work: Polish immigrants in New York, a group of gypsies in Ivry-sur-Seine, and inhabitants of a building slated for demolition in the suburbs of Bangkok, among others. Did you apply the same protocols and investigations of living together and of social bonding during your residency in Lens?
To be honest, collecting testimonies or capturing the real isn’t really part of what I do. It certainly constitutes an essential material that I look at and receive during the extensive amount of time I spend with these groups, but what comes out of it is never an archive of the real. The work we do together is the result of new rules that the collective establishes to say things differently. Yes, we make use of these reserves, this wealth that the group has, but the idea is to reconstitute this reality, to reshape this raw material. If I had to define a method, I think that the common thread to each project is the succession of coffees shard on a daily basis in the place where the groups I work with live. In this sense, my residency in Lens is no exception to such a “protocol”. At the same time, having conducted projects for several years with the inhabitants of these neighbouring mining areas, I didn’t want to repeat my work on this very specific sense of community that I had studied down to its last detail.
Can you describe something that you created during this residency in Lens?
Mineur Mineur [“Minor Miner”] is the project that I conducted with children at five mining sites in different countries. It seeks to X-ray the ground, to shed light on these young people who were shoved into the veins of Mother Earth. It consists of installation of five screens that takes the opposing view of this dramatic situation; the only reference points in the images are to daily objects of a carefree childhood. The culmination of these five simultaneous videos is a joint initiative taken with all the children, a kind of disenchanted outdoor fair that compels them once more to meander underground as chronically invisible beings.
What did you expect from the residency? What had you planned? And what did you accomplish?
Being in residence means anchoring oneself to a territory, and sometimes, the immediate surroundings drive the research. This was the case in Lens, both because of the project commissioned by the neighbours, and the way it led to other, faraway territories that are also marked by their mining heritage. There was no obligation to complete a production. I spent this residency basically doing research for these specific projects, as well as imagining ways of exhibiting the work ahead of time, not after, once the pieces are completed. The residency also allowed me to make an artist’s book.
What are your next projects for the coming months and years?
In the next few months, I will open shows of my work at the Louvre-Lens, at the Mario Merz Foundation in Turin, and at La Criée in Rennes. The work I developed during my residency will weave a connection between these various sites.
The residency is both a studio and a home. What was your experience of this live-work space?
This is already how I live in my Parisian suburb, because my studio is right next to where I live. In both cases, it is psychologically important to have to go outside to move between the studio and the house, that these two spaces are not totally enmeshed. That might just be a personal thing, since I struggle to keep my personal life and my work separate.
Melissa and Aaron S. Davidson started a vegetable garden in 2016 in backyard of the residence, and Edith Dekyndt buried fabrics there that ritualised a practice she had begun in Tournai and in Berlin. Did you devote any time to the residence’s backyard?
Not at all. I just left that big space to the three chickens who kept me company during my residency.
What was your favourite season?
Did you go see a match at the Bollaert stadium?
I’ve gone there often, but not during my residency, for the same reasons that kept everyone else at home for more than a year.
Do you have any advice or recommendations to give to future residents?
Buy a barbecue. Contrary to the myth of the north of France as engulfed by polar temperatures, Lens is often basking in sunshine.