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Untangling remarks on
Firozabad Glass Tubes Production
Installation by François Daireaux

The situation at first glance

From the outset, the white wall draws its ambient veil of welcome through the special historical sedimentation that has made it seem normal as an ideal in our collective imagination: asocial, smooth. There is a surprise, however, with the repetitive falling stream of glass tubes and the ineluctable pile they create on the floor—we can clearly imagine the visual impact and emotional charge of what will ultimately become a small mountain of entangled tubes. There is nothing more to see than this wall exhibiting a strict frontality barred by a slit, from which the stream falls in an apparently regular cadence. A seemingly ceremonious piece of machinery and nothing else? Or nearly so.

In process

Those who have seen François Daireaux’s film Firozabad [1] will easily recognize its principal motif, these slim tubes of glass that are used to create the small ornamental beads in the eponymous city/factory. The artist bought a ton of golden ones, about 200 000 tubes, and had them transported from India to this exhibition space in Europe. The tubes fall, at a rate of one every two seconds, during the entire period when the exhibition is open to the public. What could be more familiar now than this eternally renewed dialectic from local to global, than the trajectory of a material, transformed and produced in Asia for example, purchased wholesale and then transported by sea or air to wherever markets (near or far) require them?


And yet we must note that these tubes are not initially the sort of objects manufactured for a global consumption, in contrast with ornamental beads. And this installation, with its enigmatic functioning, seems to mimic the allegory of a gesture of mechanical production, even as it is situated at a point in the social biography of glass tubes habitually used for consumption. This return to production conforms even less to the apparently figurative process, as it seems akin to a movement of accumulation weighted by the gravity which invalidates in fact any usage other than the symbolic. And besides, what does the installation actually produce, other than the sound and image of a vain and random accumulation? Is the glass tube merely the only element that undergoes this fall? What is this whole piece doing, in point of fact?

Glass for glass

François Daireaux has already greatly distinguished himself by his attention to processes of material transformation in a socially situated environment. He explains that he works “in a motif” rather than on or with a motif, inverting the point of view of the painter to a point of view that isn’t without evoking the consequences of ethnographic turn once defended by Hal Foster [2] to qualify, amongst other things, the idea of “participatory observation” claimed by certain artists, but also an attention to the cultural in the sense intended by the social sciences, as well as the affirmation that maintaining a position of exteriority in regard to late capitalism had become untenable. When we look more closely, we see that Daireaux works in fact like an ethnographer, negotiating his entry into a territory that becomes the object of a vast investigation, and the resulting works allow for a rise in generality specific to the act of theorisation, not in a discursive mode but in a resolutely artistic one.

With the film Firozabad the artist had already decided to create a collection of the physical gestures of the workers who produced glass bangles. Through his use of framing, filming and editing, he drew attention to the precision, repetition and intensity of their labor in the infernal heat of the glass-works, as well as showing how they were caught up in a very sophisticated tissue of social relations. For the conception of this new installation the artist returned to India, to a glass-works factory that produces the glass tubes from which ornamental beads are manufactured. While Firozabad is a film that follows the bodies of workers inside the chain of production, another film currently in production, Bhagwati, will explore the point of view of the employers. Over a period of several months, François Daireaux has managed to film a multiplicity of interactions that occur within the sight-lines of the surveillance screens in the office of the factory manager (conversations, negotiations…), emphasizing in this instance shots that allow us to see the workers in moments of pause or while waiting. It is difficult to say precisely at this point how and in what way this new film project informs the installation, but let us still note the characteristic back and forth nature. The artist is accustomed to these kinds of effects of displacement and friction: hadn’t he already tried, in his own words, to “blow one production into another”, when he spoke of his experimental project that consisted of importing hundreds of packages of glass bracelets from Firozabad to have them blown by the master French glass-blowers of Meisenthal? Sometimes at the risk of failure.

The erased figure

In sum, with this installation as with many of his other works, François Daireaux seems to appropriate as his own the logic described by the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai [3], that any artifact is caught in a social trajectory that causes it to submit to variations of usage, form(s) and meaning, justifying the project of a biographical approach to objects. Each object is then only a practical accomplishment. Now glass is undoubtedly one of the few materials that renders this accomplishment relatively visible (its transparency placing it there, rather than on the side of any type of essential plastic qualia) and any displacement of it will necessarily be accompanied by processes of social transformation and trans-valuation. In these circumstances, how can we then not see that these glass tubes are exemplary examples of goods [4] ? They are even “goods by destination”, to use the typology established by Appadurai. However this installation, with its mock nature, effectuates a transformation of the tubes, making them supportive of the aesthetic apparatus they participate in and which breaks the linear line of their social biography. An execution of sorts. And not merely symbolic. A theatricalized, or spectacularized agony. Perhaps even a sacrifice...

And yet something seems to be missing in this piece. Something hidden by this hypnotizing visibility of the cold and repetitive installation or by the immensity of the accumulation on the floor. A very provocative philosophical essay appeared a few years ago that invigorated the debate of Marxian studies, from a close reading of the young Marx’s Manuscripts from 1844 [5]. in which the author demonstrated that the process of alienation that accompanies the emergence of industrial capitalism consists in the erasure of forms of life or powers of action by abstract and unnameable reifications, a condition of their rehabilitation in the market space. Accept then this detour of thought, then look again at this installation. Concerning Firozabad Glass Tubes Production, a question remains, if one can imagine considering it according to this negative perspective: of what erased figure? does it draw the portrait? Which hidden and yet perfectly socialized worker activates this machine that accumulates emptiness for the duration of the exhibition? Who is it? What do we know about this person, other than that he works and earns an hourly salary (like any other worker) with the objective of giving life to the installation? Isn’t globalized capitalism stained with this propensity to render invisible the work of production? By analogy, the performative dimension of the piece is reduced to an activation that is made invisible, a means of production kept secret by the monopolization of vision effectuated by the installation itself. The tension between the social biography of objects and the erasure of workers on the global horizon is a field that can thus become the object of an artistic investigation. François Daireaux show us that it can be a success.

Cyrille Bret

English translation by Liz Young


[1] Firozabad, 2013, color film with no dialogue, 64 mins.

[2] Hal Foster, « The artist as ethnographer ? », The Return of the Real : The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1996, p. 303-309

[3] All of the following thoughts are inspired by Arjun Appadurai’s recent essay, The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition, Paris, Verso, 2013, in particular the first chapter, “Merchandise and Politics of Value”, pp. 19-78. Rereading Marx, Simmel, Weber, Baudrillard, Geel and Kopytoff, the anthropologist develops extraordinary analyses of the situation of commodification in the global era.

[4] Op. cit., p. 29 : « Op. Cit. p. 29: “I propose defining the situation of commodification in social life of any ’thing’ as the situation where its capacity (past, present, future) to be exchanged for any other thing is its most pertinent social character.” »

[5] Anne-James Chaton, L’Effacé, capitalisme et effacement dans les Manuscrits de 1844 de Karl Marx, Paris, Sens & Tonka, 2005.