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On Telepathy and Philippines: A Conversation with Alexandra Grant and Hélène Cixous

Support Provided By

In partnership with 18th Street Arts Center18th Street Arts Center is an artists' residency program that provokes public dialogue through contemporary art-making.

Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest is a multi-faceted project by Los Angeles-based artist Alexandra Grant encompassing a series of public drawing sessions, reading groups, artist collaborations and an installation at 18th Street Arts Center.

Several years ago, the French writer, playwright, and philosopher Hélène Cixous gave me one of her books, "Philippines," as a source for collaboration between her text and my artistic practice. "Philippines" is based around the story of "Peter Ibbetson," a novel by Georges du Maurier, where two childhood friends are separated by class and country, reuniting as adults in a shared dream that takes place in a primal forest. Hélène describes the book as filled with "silhouettes of characters that seemed to have always been with me."

"We all have our treasure books, tales or fables, and they are quite unexpected. For Proust his secret book was [Théophile Gautier's] 'Le Capitaine Fracasse,'" Hélène says, and for Sigmund Freud it was Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book." Her secret book is "Peter Ibbetson." In a conversation that took place in late December 2012 in Paris, Hélène and I are discussing "Peter Ibbetson" as the inspiration for "Philippines," and "Philippines" as the genesis of the exhibition "Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest." The setting is quite intimate, as we are seated at her dining room table with her books and photographs lining the shelves behind us. We talk openly about receiving telepathic messages as points of inspiration ("Is this message for me? And in what language?").

Through exchanges with Hélène like the one documented here, I've made "Philippines" my own secret book and a path into the Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest, an art exhibition that is a place of dialogue, day-dreaming and encounters with the Other, "both good and bad." Hélène calls this exhibition "a place where passersby will suddenly discover that it's them who have been expected." She turns to me and says, "That's how it happened when we met."

And to you, the reader, "We've been waiting for you to join us on the telepaths into the 'Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest.'"

On Telepathy

Alexandra Grant: The first time I heard the text, I heard it, because you read it out loud. It wasn't yet published.

Hélène Cixous: In French.

AG: In French. At the Maison Heinrich Heine.

HC: Henry Heine.

AG: Henry Heine. Thank you. In this beautiful building, with gorgeous deciduous trees outside. And I remember during the conference, listening, and as one does, letting my eyes ramble while one listens. I remember hearing the texts and then the gift that you gave, of an advance copy, with even your notes, your handwritten notes, and having this wonderful sense of responsibility towards it, but also the other level of confidence that you had in me, where you said, "I want you to make work about telepathy." And I had this moment [that] I couldn't even conceal. It wasn't fear, but it was just the sense of, "Hélène, I don't know what that is." And it was tied a little bit to responsibility but also the sense that I wanted to understand what it was.

HC: I knew you could because your work is in the lines between matter, form, visual art and text which exchange perpetually. And this is exactly what happens with "Philippines," the other way around. That it is text that grows trees. And trees of text, et cetera.

AG: And then the almond becomes the mandorla of Celan, becomes the mandorla of art history, becomes the...

HC: But of course, this is archaic, otherwise you wouldn't have so many poems and artists and writers who react in the same way at those kernels.

AG: As I struggled to understand what does it mean as an artist to be in relation to those kernels? To follow the signs that are in a path that's an intuitive path, that have always been there before there was a soi, before there was a self or sense of self. You gave me the other gift of saying, "have you considered that telepathy is a further step than empathy?"

HC: Of course, you have empathy to help telepathy. But then you have to send the message. Telepathy is empathy sent. It's a letter. And this letter travels and reaches a number of addressees who receive something exactly as you received it. You think, but, "Is it for me? Or what is that? I'm not sure I understand it. In what language is it written?" And it works.

AG: I just adore that idea, that we do get messages and we don't know where they're coming from, who they're coming from. Are we ready to receive them? What do they mean? Are they intended for us? And how do we have a recognition?

HC: Eventually, they have basic messages which are vital to all of us. They have to do with life and death and evasion and how to free oneself, which, of course, all artists are determined by.

AG: You are a person who sends and receives many messages. And one of the things that really strikes me about your relation to writing is that it's... you're a playwright, you're a letter writer, you write in telepathy. It's not that you move between, because all these forms of communication are connected.

HC: The different shapes and forms of the writing, that is theater or fiction or more philosophical meditations, etc. The shape is decided by the interchange between the enunciation and the addressee. I must also say that I receive messages, of course. When I work for the theater, what I do is more trying to listen to voices, which are innumerable and that come from the world. And I try to understand what they say. I receive the emotion. And from different spheres, characters, etc. And I must say, that in most cases, what I feel is exactly what you felt, that is, I feel that I don't understand. I receive messages or cries for help, or on the contrary, confessions and I keep wondering what they really mean. And whether they are good or evil, etc.? First of all, I am in a state of... I'm puzzled. And if I'm not puzzled, of course, nothing happens. And I'm embarrassed, I don't know. I fear that sometimes I feel I'm not up to the situation. I keep, you know, as if I'm putting my ear to the chest of characters. And I wonder why do they do that? What's the matter? And it makes me have to work enormously in order to try and decipher the other. It's easier when it's me; when the other is me. When the other is me it's difficult. But I'm less in a state of anxiety, because when it's the other writers I'm always worried. I think that I don't understand, I will never understand.

AG: When I last saw you in March, I had shifted my anxiety, because of the dream of jet lag and wandering around Paris and understanding that I didn't have to understand what telepathy was exactly and who the perfect other was. But that I could create a space or use the space of an art exhibition to have a shared dream space. To have this forest, which is a symbol of the imagination, it's a symbol of the encounter with the other, both good and bad.

HC: Actually the encounter, I think it's the word. Telepathy is that. It's traveling to the scene of the encounter.

AG: But once I realized that it was about the encounter and that I didn't have to define with whom....

HC: Of course not.

AG: It shifted. And it made me much more... this is a very American word, a facilitator, if that makes sense? And it made me be more open to what was possible.

HC: But of course, because it's really making or creating a place where passersby will suddenly discover that it's them that have been expected. But you cannot decide in advance, of course.

AG: Of course. Isn't that interesting? We have been waiting for you!

HC: That's how it happened that we met.

AG: It's true.

On "Philippines"

Hélène Cixous: "Philippines" is a moment of discovery, excitement, and happiness in my writing and dream writing. It happened a couple of years ago when we had planned a conference with a number of wonderful friends. And, at that time, I was, I think, being fascinated by the apparition of both a book and a film, both of them called "Peter Ibbetson," who or which had magic powers. I couldn't read or see them -- or him, Peter Ibbetson -- without feeling completely haunted, moved, extraordinarily moved and haunted by the silhouettes of characters who seemed to me to have always been with me. I had the feeling that they had always been there, as some other characters who haunt me from forever -- mythical people. And the book and the film, as a forest of images, is something extraordinarily poetical, and a kind of place full of secrets. So I'd always known that if it had such power on me, as in a small number of books with whom I also had that strange magical connection, it's probably because it's a treasure cave. It's full of significance, of messages, which I received and had not yet read. So I started day-dreaming a long time, and to the surface started climbing, from the depths of imagination, memory, etc. or oblivion, quite a number of scenes, of primal scenes and traces, and signifiers. Signifiers, that is words or names that resonate very deeply.

On "Treasure Books" and Language

Hélène Cixous: So, one of the themes or treasures was for instance the fact that I know, by experience, and of course I share this with other human beings, that we all have our treasure books, tales, or fables, and that they are quite unexpected. That is, we all adore "the Odyssey." But they are very personal. For instance, it's a surprise to realize that for Proust, his secret book is "Capitaine Fracasse" that was written by Théophile Gautier, which is a very good book, but it's not exceptional. It's not the masterpiece in literature. It's simply that in "Capitaine Fracasse," probably the boy found his own secrets. Freud himself confided that among his favorite books there was, for instance, the "Book of the Jungle." Of course, it's very interesting if you start thinking of the "Book of the Jungle" from the point of view of psychoanalysis, but that was when he was a kid. And, among others for me, there was "Peter Ibbetson," which always made me want to cry and, at the same time, feel that I had lost everything and that everything could be recovered by a kind of "sesame" or something, a shibboleth. Of course, it's not a great book, and yet it is great book. It's not a book that has a very high literary quality, but regarding the unconscious phantasm or discovery... the discovery of ways of surviving, it's unique. And not only is it unique but it's also the only book that Du Maurier -- because it was written by Du Maurier - that Du Maurier wrote.

Alexandra Grant: I didn't know that.

HC: Yes. It's the only one he wrote, because he was not a writer. He was a designer, he drew, he was not a writer. And suddenly out came this book, like a flower. And not only that, he didn't want to write to this book because he knew that he wasn't a great artist in writing. So he went to James, to Henry James and asked him to write the book, and James had the wisdom or the prudence to tell him you write it, which he did. It's a kind of miracle.

For me it's a mixture of secrets of survival that are equal to what the pithy would transmit to the visitor who came to ask the old witch how to connect with the other world, or what is going to happen to me when I am dead. And landscapes. Forests, gardens, parks. And love, of course. Love lost and regained. But if it works, if it gives emotion and if it can revive you when you're dead, it is also because it is expressed through inscriptions in language that are very powerful, which are necessary. That's why I spoke about "sesame." You have to use the right words in the right way at the right moment in order for the underworld to open and let the dead come back. So among the signifiers in "Peter Ibbetson" -- there are a number of them -- for instance true dreaming or something that came to me accidentally and which worked powerfully for me, the use of the word Philippine, in English, whereas it is a French word. But it is a book that speaks French and English. The story of "Peter Ibbetson" is the story somebody who speaks another language in a language. And "Philippine" is extraordinary, it's a thing and it's a signifier, which is extraordinarily wealthy in reference. As a thing, one never knows what it is. Most of the people... if you use the word "Philippine" people don't know what it's about. And in French when you use the word "Philippine" people have forgotten - except a number of people who still have reminiscences, childhood reminiscences of what Philippines were: that is almonds, twin almonds, almonds, that I mean... really, the nut houses two twin almonds. If you find such a fresh almond there is a game which also kind of a magic game. You share the twin almond with someone you like or you dislike. And the game is that the next the first person who says Philippine to the other has won whatever you decided would be the stakes. And the image of the twin almonds is comparable of that of the androgyne... how do you say?

AG: The androgynous figure, I would say.

HC: There is one that has been cut into two beings who yearn for each other in such a way that that's the origin of love. They can never forget that they have been one and they want to be one again. This of course is in Plato. But Philippine is... it's this fruit, this tree, this almond tree.... And I realized that in my childhood I was always in Philippines without realizing it. For instance, it's only when I started studying around in a both blind and illuminating way, that I realized that I used to live... I was born and lived in a street in Oran which was called rue Phillipe. I never realized that before. Then Philippines looks like a French word but it's not.

AG: Where does it come from?

HC: It come from the German. And the origin of the word is the German words: viel and leibchen. Viel, liebe. A lot love.

To participate in "Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest" please email: interiorforest@alexandragrant.com

For classes or groups, please email: Pilar Tompkins Rivas, ptompkins@18thstreet.org

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Top Image: Alexandra Grant and Hélène Cixous. | Photo: Kevin Kane.

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