You won't easily find the place. There is no presence on the catalogue of the Rencontres d'Arles or the Off. There are no posters stuck on the walls. There is a discreet invitation to go to a private place. One enters through an impressive gate in a small street that winds between the town hall and the newly renovated Muséon Arlaten. As is often the case in Arles in its bourgeois houses, the staircase is a masterpiece. Photographer Jean-Christian Bourcart takes you quickly into a first room. There is no light in this part of the flat, so you have to be quick to look at the images before nightfall. You see them on black and white prints. These were made by the Nicéphore Niépce Museum in Chalon-sur-Saône. And the surprise is total when you discover sixty or so images from the Farm Security Administration's photographic campaign. The whole adventure of Jean-Christian Bourcart, this photographer turned meaning seeker, begins with the discovery of black holes. The time travel he proposes takes us back 80 years, explains the French photographer, "to a great photographic campaign carried out throughout the United States from 1936 to 1944 to document the living conditions of farmers during the Great Depression and the government's efforts to improve them". The photographers hired by the Farm Security Administration included Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Gordon Parks, who produced icons of documentary photography.
Consulting the archives of the American Library of Congress, Jean-Christian Bourcart is stunned to discover images in the FSA collection that have been pierced by a violent punch. A series on a sow suckling her offspring and then just after two young boys, one crouching, the other standing, the punch at the height of their sex, and then a woman and her daughter sitting gracefully in a park, with the punch in their midst, rather below. Further on, sumptuously empty landscapes with the huge black sun of the punch radiating insolently from America in the process of being invented.
If the photographer knew the story of Roy Stryker, the project director who, during the first years of the project (1935-39), destroyed with a hole punch the negatives of the photographs he judged unworthy of exploitation, nothing had prepared him for the aesthetic shock that these mutilated photographs [...] provided.
In pursuing his research with a documentalist at the International Center of Photography in New York, he discovered the work entitled Killed: Rejected Images of the Farm Security Administration by William Jones (PPP Editions in 2010) on the same subject. Jean-Christian could have stopped his own investigation right there. Yet the photographer observes that the selection of images made by William Jones is very different from his own. It's as if we didn't see the same body of images, he says. Each of us only saw what we were looking at.
And so, refocused around specific bodies of work, the adventure resumes its course augmented by these photographic flashes. A large part of his selection appeared to him as an enormous visual lapse. It becomes a body-to-corpus, he feels in the killer's punches, a desire to harm, to hurt, pedophilic tendencies, a scopohilic perversion.
Jean-Christian Bourcart's photographic machine for exploring the torments of the world begins to operate at full speed. It is beyond Traffic, Stardust or Camden. The photographer has now entered Roy Stryker's unconscious. Or is it his? How can one objectively decide whether Stryker had consciously symbolically killed the poor people depicted or whether it was my own projection, my shadow that appeared there like a missing nose in the middle of the face?
The photographer becomes an investigator. He notices that very few faces had been obliterated, killed. This would validate the version of a non-random punching. Yet the photographic investigation alternates between the black holes of the negatives and the mysteries of his own skull. Who between Styker and himself is the repressed pervert? Jean-Christian directs his research towards the moral disturbances that Roy Stryker might have had through his political positions, his private life or his relationships with the photographers he hired. But nothing is conclusive, except for technical choices: Styker did not like the model to look at the lens, he did not like blurs, tilted photos and other too modern framings.
Finally, the real killer is revealed: the killer of the images was just a standard American, a man of his time in the heart of the country that became the first world power. Jean-Christian Bourcart places his investigation in the collective unconscious of his time to put this series of photographs in the context of the relationship between the making of images and the making of power, as Williams Jones had written. In a flash-forward from Clockwork Orange, so many other American images come back to us, from those of Indians by Edward Curtis to those of prisoners by the GIs in Abu Graib.
The French photographer then becomes a prosecutor and charges America. For me, Styker's misplaced punches are a very big punctum that points very hard at this society that instrumentalizes its poor to make them fight wars with spurious motives, to make them eat packaged shit, to make them forget to what extent their health and dignity are stolen. Styker's big black hole is the blind spot of the American dream, an anal society for which money is the king.
And if one no longer dares to dream of a happy ending on the prints of the holes it reveals... Yet there are not only misplaced holes in this story. Some seem to be just there, anachronistic, lost, or as if to signal a certain image full of poetry, of softness, [...]. Some punches seem to be the focus of attention of the people photographed. Others wander from one photograph to the next like a big balloon or a playful black soap bubble.
Jean-Christian Bourcart then joined William Jones, who wanted a debate on the corpus gathered on the FSA's killed images, which he considers to be one of the most important sets of artistic works produced in the United States. The American researcher's wish was granted when the debate continued in a private location on a small street in Arles during the Rencontres 2021.
The debate that has moved from the Californian places of analysis to an exhibition where the punches like William S. Burroughs' scissor-scalpels, bring to life the reflection of a Jean-Christian Bourcart fascinated by the impossibility of concluding.
Transmuting the research into action produces an NFT icon
And yet a sheet of paper placed on a piece of furniture seems to propose a radical conclusion. It indicates a handler @jcb25. It allows access via foundation.app to an animated digital object entitled Unconscious Puncher which brings together all the images determined by Jean-Christian Bourcart. The object takes us through the black holes of the FSA's American propaganda, like Alice down the rabbit hole. Addictive as hell, the NFT gives a disturbing answer to the mutation of time. For, in a century, the visual tools of manipulation are no longer fixed in still images, but rather inscribed in the movements of the moving image.
By creating what will undoubtedly be the first digital object to be shown in Arles, the researcher Jean-Christian Bourcart, who has become a photographer and artist once again, synchronises the images of propaganda and transmutes them into a contemporary icon.
Didier de Faÿs, Arles juillet 2021