text by Rune Gade (2002) for the book "Avoir l 'air " published by NIFCA

‘But his wife is Danish…’
     - on colonization, being colonized and Colonel

Already at the outset he urges me not to mention that his wife is Danish. That’s what they all write, he tells me: ‘But his wife is Danish’. The many column inches expended on him by the Danish press are invariably spiced with this seemingly insignificant item – behind which, for all its banality, lurks a cluster of issues that goes to the very core of his artistic practice. For what is the significance of the fact that his wife is Danish? But of course…that he is one of us. Or as good as. French…yes, but only partly – not amounting to more than a charming accent, an ineradicable phonetic vestige. For when it comes down to it, he might as well be Danish – his wife is Danish, he’s one of us. A good sort.

It’s this conflict-shy Danish affability and its way of smothering any difference, of embracing, occluding and subduing anything that might jar, any incipient threat, that Colonel would appreciate being spared this time round. His wife is indeed Danish, but that’s beside the point. For even though his production in all its multiple ramifications is driven by an autobiographical impetus, his wife is seldom directly involved (although sometimes she is). Rather, it has all to do with himself, with Thierry Geoffroy, alias Le Colonel, commander of an unvanquished one-man avant-garde movement, whose agenda includes the reorientation or détournement of the very notion of art. Or, more accurately, it has to do with the various personae assumed by this biographically real individual. Autobiography, the documentation of lived life, serves here as a springboard for a clutch of humorous and poetic practices revolving on the issue of identity, often starting from Colonel’s own experiences but always in an interplay with others. Work with identity involves transmutations and exchanges, which serve to mark differences.  Certainly, Colonel’s practice subversively effects confluences by highlighting those aspects of identity that resist identification in terms of discrete strands in an unambiguous and perspicuous separation between one thing and another. In Geoffroy/Colonel it’s a question – yes, right down into the name – of ‘both’, rather than’ either/or’, which is to say an intermingling of diverse identities, Me Against Me.

A pivotal issue in the treatment of notions of difference has to do with national identity at the level of the individual. What is a Dane? What is Danishness? Colonel has executed important works in this area, latterly brought into sharper focus in the Danish context through the alliance of the new right-wing liberal-conservative government with the strongly xenophobic Danish People’s Party, a party not scrupling to invoke ‘Danishness’ as a banner in their angst-ridden demagogic anathemas issued against ‘overseas incomers’. But what is the Danishness to which the rhetoric of patriotic national romanticism appeals? And what makes a person Danish? Again, what is a Dane? Colonel raises this provocative question in a suite of works whose provocativeness is no whit diminished by the fact that it isn’t posed as a straight question but is performed, exhibiting, rather, an array of candidate answers. Characteristic for Colonel’s method is that artistic practice takes the form of a species of activism, an engaged and dynamic anthropological or sociological project played out in a social arena, i.e. in interaction with other people. The aim of the exercise is not, then, the amassing of objective data, but the power of the particular instance, which by means of interventions involving other people little unsettling crystallizations of social practices are mediated.  

I want to look Danish, I want to look like you (avoir l’air d’eux) is the name of a work from 1999. In the pathos of its sheer basicness the work thematizes the issue of integration. Colonel accosts people in the public park Kongens Have and asks if he may borrow their clothes in order to look like a ‘real’ Dane. Once sartorially transformed he gets the lender of the garments to take a photo of him posing in front of the Danish flag extended across some bushes. We find him in such poses in the guises of Danish painter, Danish businessman, Danish student, dishy Danish girl – garbed in a diversity of emblematic ‘costumes’ or modes of ‘national dress’ that never succeed in concealing the obvious: that the person who, unchanged, hides behind them all remains Colonel throughout. If integration, as its etymology dictates, means making whole, drawing parts into a unity, it can hardly be said to have succeeded here. Colonel demonstrates what ought to be obvious, but isn’t, namely that Danishness is not a question of clothes, even though clothes are one of the signals we tend to use in identifying nationality and ethnicity.

Colonel’s integration is parodic but figures as such only because it is ultimately predicated on the logic underpinning integration proper, responsibility for which – without trace of irony – is assigned to Denmark’s Minister for Integration. It is the logic that requires of the incomer that he or she identify with ‘the Dane’ and by taking on the characteristics of Danes become Danish. Integration, on this definition, is synonymous with the blotting out of all difference, an alchemistic exercise that would transmute one individual into another without residue. Colonel’s seances involving sartorial switches show that any such species of integration is a virtual nonstarter. The differences prove all but ineliminable whatever the efforts made by the incomer to apply a disguise using borrowed clothes and adopted behaviours. In Colonel’s exemplary display the clothes just don’t fit – the disguises become comical through their accentuation of the permanent and indelible presence of difference. This raises the question of who is exposing whom in this work. Colonel’s radical mimetic practice makes conciliatory use of exaggeration to show how identity is not susceptible to decree, precisely because it’s not about putting on a different set of clothes or other visual badges of Danishness, but concerns, rather, a complex psychological process, whose labyrinthine ramifications elude glib political prescription.

Posing before the vertical flag with its cross standing out like that of a crucifix behind ‘the immigrant’, Colonel resembles the sacrificial victim, the colonized ‘alien’ who has been corporally annexed by zealots for the integrationist cause – who, confiscating his thoughts and his entire identity, force him into the vestments of Danishness. He has been co-opted; Danishness is his cross. And yet the most striking impression is that of Colonel as the clown who has us laughing at our own inanity by holding up a mirror that allows us to see ourselves with new eyes. What goes through the mind of the disrobed Dane, finger on the button…and confronted by the active immigrant’s disconcertingly literal appropriation of his or her image, appearance? Colonel’s aspiration, the obsessive ‘I want to look like you’ seen through this lens looks most like an alarming intrusion into the personal integrity of the passer-by, a colonization of ‘Danishness’, an identification too far, while not going far enough.

Colonel works performatively using interventionist strategies, and so as far as that goes he may indeed be considered an activist artist. But first and foremost he is a documentarist. None of his social ‘performances’ goes undocumented and the bulk of them are clearly designed to be caught on camera.  In contrast to many other artists who work with fleeting artistic forms such as performance, Colonel does not document for the archives. His innumerable photographs and video recordings are instead transposed into new works, destined to achieve their autonomy in fresh contexts, and so conducing to an ever-proliferating mise en abyme. If anything is a hallmark of Colonel’s artistic practice it is surely that instead of being finally concluded, the works are constantly sustained in movement – used and reused in yet new forms and variations. His works are forever in motion, remaining fugitive because even qua documentaries they metamorphose still. Colonel’s singular documentary practice turns that very notion on its head by continuously engendering new works that feed into new ecologies rather than aiming at conserving time, preserving the transient.  

The radical transitory and hybridizing character of Colonel’s works, co-existing, moreover, with hectic levels of productivity, if not a policy of outright exponential escalation, makes them intrinsically difficult to fix – and no less so when it’s a matter of critical appraisal. It’s part of the fluid nature of the works that they resist any ‘hemming in’ inasmuch as they themselves possess a peculiar obstreperousness, a (in a positive sense) droll quality which repels any attempt at discursive closure. We are presented with an object that eludes control, and in that sense there obtains a deeper, conceptual resonance between working practices and work themes: if the works often thematize the situation of expats and exiles, it could be pointed out that that same status of peregrinator, vagabond, is shared by the works themselves. They are homeless without being exiled – are simply unsettled, wheeling, free-floating ideas in fluid ecologies where they are put to work – operationalized – in ever new ways. This mobility is most literally perceptible in the project Moving Exhibition (abbreviated to ‘ME’ – as though to underscore the biographical connection) which throughout the years since its inception in 1988 has involved a raft of mobile ‘exhibitionists’, persons who become actively engaged in Colonel’s artistic project and are the ‘bearers’ and purveyors of the messages he seeks to communicate. Through the many subsectors of the enterprise such as Flying Exhibition, l’impermeable and Sport Art, the strategy has demonstrated its fruitful, generative and mobilizing powers.  

Colonel’s practice takes the form of scattered local offensives that fasten on a particular place, a particular moment. Over the years such site- or discourse-specific interventions have regularly figured as media infiltrations, with newspapers, journals and television networks more or less (in)voluntarily giving over space to Colonel’s episodic contrivances in the form of Mediatique Post Cards or similar subtle phenomena, so that thoroughly convention-bound mass media are harnessed as conduits for singularly unconventional ideas. Most impactful to date has been his most recent series screened on one of the national Danish television channels, DR2. Under the captions Capitain and The Immigrant the Colonel confronted a mass audience with brief episodes or social performances prosecuted in the guise of ‘funny sociologist’ as he calls his persona at one point. Among other episodes challenging ‘Danishness’, the series took in one that builds from the production I want to look Danish, I want to look like you (avoir l’air d’eux). But others included the development of a perfume devised to endow him with a distinctive Danish odour, or his launch of a search for the Danish notion of ‘hygge’ – that much-cherished Danish notion of congeniality and warmth. These subtle and entertaining episodes succeed in showing how humour enables radical avant-garde strategies and broad popular appeal to be combined. The implicit grid of art-historical references – primarily to Marcel Duchamp – are an extra fillip to be relished by the connoisseur, while in no way alienating the uninitiated. In contrast to Duchamps’ elitist irony, which perhaps, centres primarily on the internal problems of the art institution, Colonel draws on a comedic tradition which actively engages the audience – indeed, turning the latter into co-creators of art, thus making of art a social event, an encounter.

If the remark that ‘his wife is Danish’ can be said to constitute a key to Colonel’s artistic practice it is not because the themes that his art repeatedly presents us with, namely cultural encounters, are already anticipated in the private cultural encounter represented by an intercultural marriage. Rather, it is because the remark’s discursive effect – in the public arena – marks out a kind of colonization of Colonel’s alien status and so says a good deal about the forces he is up against in querying and challenging the stability of identity. However, in his artistic practice it’s the other way round, for there Colonel makes foreignness his strength, his weapon. He avails himself of the anthropologist’s detached ‘objective’ slant on the host culture while tempering that persona’s cool neutrality with participatory involvement. Colonel is, as he calls himself, a ‘professional tourist’, i.e. deliberately alien in all cultural environments. He presents an attitude of bemusement and allows this often comically naïve puzzlement to serve as a springboard for encounters between different cultures, different identities, different people.

It’s a method which, perhaps better than any other, better for instance than the critical dissection of the intellectual, lays bare the second-natured and second-naturing properties that are identified as personal features in an individual, or as national features of a people. Through the calculatedly naïve confrontation with what is ‘alien’ in Danish culture Colonel points out that those features that through the unconscious national consensus get to figure as a national essence, inter alia in the form of the much-bandied ‘Danishness’, are in fact a cultural construct, the product of anachronistic emotional investments in the ideology of the national state, an imaginary community. So for all that it might be said that Colonel wages a form of war against the blunting effects of the prejudices induced by such cultural constructs and the illusory notion of community, his strategy is never one of didactic exposure or condemnation – rather, Colonel, the active immigrant, works through the immediacy of human contact, social processes, using aesthetico-pedagogic initiatives. Colonel reveals to us the ‘alien’ in ourselves and gets us to laugh at our fear of it. No mean feat.

His Danish wife’s husband is French, but forget about that, for what’s fundamentally disturbing about Colonel’s artistic analysis of ‘Danishness’ resides not in the circumstance that he’s married into Danish culture but rather in the fact that through his personae he simultaneously insists on both marking and blurring a difference from Danish culture. The undermining of the stability of identity that Colonel thus engages in is by no means limited to the works focusing on ‘Danishness’ but pervade his entire oeuvre. With relentless consistency Colonel works in the border territory habitable only by the expat. Assuming this marginal and yet encompassed position enables him to render visible certain social and cultural dynamics that would otherwise pass unobserved. Colonel’s status has this strength because it remains dubious – we don’t know quite where we have him. He moves, as it were, between the positions of colonized and colonizer in an attempt to illuminate the power relations that are played out between them. And this ‘play’ does not proceed on the descriptive level; Colonel does not content himself with offering commentary on cultural processes from the sidelines through a conventional work practice. On the contrary, he puts himself into play, enacts himself, operationalizes himself in the work, in that he actively enters into the relevant cultural processes, lets art take the form of an encounter, a confrontation between differences. It is this irenic struggle in which Le Colonel is engaged.