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Alternative art schools

Alternative art schools: The Cedilla that smiles

'La Cedille qui Sourit, Villefranche-sur-mer, France, 1967. Interior'. Photo: Jacques Strauch and Michou Strauch-Barelli..  Courtesy: Galerie Nelson-Freeman, Paris.

'La Cedille qui Sourit, Villefranche-sur-mer, France, 1967. Interior'. Photo: Jacques Strauch and Michou Strauch-Barelli.. Courtesy: Galerie Nelson-Freeman, Paris.

Martin Patrick on Robert Filliou and George Brecht’s collaborative shop project La Cédille qui sourit.

From September 1965 to October 1968, the Fluxus artists Robert Filliou and George Brecht conducted a modest yet highly significant art-life experiment, by collaboratively establishing a shop called La Cédille qui sourit (The Cedilla that smiles) in Villefranche-sur-Mer, a fishing village near Nice. Within its confines, the 'non-boutique' included among its wares Fluxus multiples and other small works. But it was generally closed, and the artists, along with their co-conspirators, might frequently be found elsewhere, such as in neighbouring cafés, befitting Filliou's belief in the 'café genius'.

Filliou and Brecht sought to create an International Centre of Permanent Creation which included such eminently purposeless activities as writing letters and poems, inventing games, telling jokes. In 1966 they created the Non-School of Villefranche and when they proposed relocating to the town's 13th-century citadel, the mayor didn't reciprocate their interest. The school actually didn't advance far past their loose yet inspiring motto: 'A carefree exchange of information and experience. No students, no teachers. Perfect licence, at times to listen at times to talk. Some of their projects were collected in a 1967 volume Games at the Cedilla.

As to the question of what the Cedilla amounted to exactly, in retrospect it seemed to simultaneously fulfill and thwart manifold definitions: a shop that wasn't a proper shop, a self-declared school which was adamantly non-institutional, and a performative artwork confounding many traditional aesthetic notions.

Predating by decades such contemporary art/pedagogical initiatives as the Mountain Bar, United Nations Plaza, or 16 Beaver Group, La Cédille did not exhibit either major connections with the art market or any major ideological or activist stance yet it nonetheless facilitated a quasi-utopian microworld of activity, consistent with so many of Filliou's other dialogical and collaborative projects. Filliou and Brecht's efforts served to disrupt entrenched hierarchical patterns of artist/audience, institution/public, art/life and teacher/student.

A Zen adept, Filliou used the characteristic model of posing opposites to show the unlikely connections between all things, and his research was often stated in counter-intuitive fashion: 'Creation becomes very easily for me recreation. Search - I search for happiness and joy - becomes research.' When $30 rent became unsustainable, the Cedilla's work as play continued in other versions, such as via Filliou's itinerant Volkswagon bus - the Genial Republic - which deposited the artist at Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum for a one-month residency in late 1971.

Themes central to Filliou's work harbour relevance for the current moment: questioning the economies of art, interrogating ecological life patterns, seeking empathic dialogue with others. Filliou's background offered a rather unusual path towards these notions: born in France, as a teenager he was involved in the French resistance, he later travelled to the United States, after working mundane jobs he eventually completed his degree in economics, and not long after defected to artmaking. If there are helpful models to be derived from Filliou's legacy today, they might include the capacity to incorporate liveliness, playfulness, and a joyful spirit into one's responses to politically charged times that unfortunately tend to appear all too foreboding, perilous, and unsure.

Martin Patrick

First published: Research papers March 2011

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