ARTMargins Online Blog

Encounters 1 - Art’s context and social reality: Hervé Fischer and Jan Świdziński


The Centre Pompidou in Paris recently presented "Hervé Fischer and Sociological Art", a retrospective exhibition synthesizing more than four decades of activity of this artist, sociologist and researcher. Hervé Fischer (1941) started to work in France in the early 1970s and moved to Canada in the early 1980s. Both individually and as a member of the Collectif d'Art Sociologique (Sociological Art Collective) which he founded in 1974 with Fred Forest and Jean-Paul Thénot, Hervé Fischer carried on an artistic and theoretical practice that addressed art's ideological meanings and functions in society.

From his first artistic project recognized as "sociological art" (Hygiène de l'art, 1971) till the mid-1980s, Fischer's approach was informed by a materialist conception of the role of artistic production and its impact on a specific context. It also included an important pedagogical dimension that led the artist to foster different types of participation and interactions with an audience that was not necessarily familiar with contemporary art.[1]

 Hervé Fischer, exhibition view

Public performances like Pharmacie Fischer (1974-1977) – a traveling pharmacist's desk where pills for all sorts of pains and dreams were prescribed by the artist – and Bureau of Imaginary Identity (1976-1981) – with the artist-bureaucrat filling an imaginary ID card for each person willing to apply - reflected his will to intervene in what he referred to as "the real world" and explore the social imaginary of specific places. Although these performances took place in cities like Milan, Sao Paulo, Perpignan or Calgary, they were not confined to urban centers but also traveled to smaller towns and villages.

While Hervé Fischer's projects mostly relied on methodologies and tools borrowed from the field of social sciences, such as surveys and fieldwork research, they also entailed a poetic and utopian dimension, raising issues like people's desires and aspirations and documenting their unpredictable answers. Launched as a survey in a national newspaper, L'Oiseau-chat. Roman-enquête sur l'identité québécoise (The bird-cat. Novel-survey about Quebecoise identity) actually became a hybrid book collecting individual narratives between reality and fiction of the self.[2]

While this sociological approach aimed at exploring the relation between art and its social environment; it also voluntarily moved away from large-scale frames like institutional structures and state cultural policies, focusing instead on the experience of specific communities and milieus (neighborhoods, social groups). This perspective reflected in a sense the "community-based" work and research many activists and social workers, as well as engaged film and documentary-makers, were carrying out at that time.

Like many artists of his generation eager to communicate across the cultural, linguistic and geopolitical divides, Hervé Fischer received and exchanged information with peers from different places and latitudes. His name and address appeared in numerous artists' mailing lists that were an alternative to institutional communication channels. The artist's personal archive, conserved in part in the Kandinsky Library (Centre George Pompidou, Paris), reflects these international connections: letters, invitations, leaflets and publications from different interlocutors in North and Latin America, Western and Eastern Europe.

Jan Świdziński at the Ecole Sociologique Internationale, Paris, 1977..

Among Fischer's contacts from Eastern Europe was Polish artist Jan Świdziński (1923-2014), who was developing during those same years his theory and practice based on the idea of contextual art.[3]

 Świdziński was the author of the manifesto "Art as Contextual Art" (1976), published in Sweden in 1976, assembled with other programmatic texts in a bilingual publication by the Remont Gallery (Warsaw) in 1977.[4]

It is not surprising that the two artists were in contact, as their reflections on art as a social practice shared important points (and differed on others). Fischer and Świdziński had in common a well-articulated theoretical reflection about art and artists' role - presented by means of statements or manifestos –combined with an artistic practice that truly engaged with specific territories and social milieus. They also vigorously escaped the dominant rhetoric of conceptual art, especially its Anglo-Saxon version centered on art's analysis through linguistics. Fischer criticized it for its idealistic and tautological perspective, which concealed the existence of any external (meaning, ideological) conditioning.[5]

 According to Świdziński, "[c]ontextual artists oppose the whole tradition of conceptual art, regarding it as an art which cannot be the answer to the problems of modern civilization. They also oppose all modifications of contemporary Modernism as being a stylistic version of art of the past." His position was clear, situating contextual art out of the sphere of aesthetics: "Contextual Art is a social practice. Theoretical generalizations do not interest it. It is not concerned with the production of prepared objects for cultural consumption. Contextual Art is a form of acting in reality, through the following transformation of meanings: REALITY → INFORMATION → ART → NEW OPEN MEANINGS → REALITY as a pure sign, cleansed of stereotypes; a sign which is filled by the present reality."[6] A position shared by Fischer and the Collectif d'Art Sociologique who were opposed to attitudes conditioned by academic knowledge and discourse: "the concrete reality of the experiments carried out. Our aim is neither art nor sociology, but intervention in the social field. Art and sociology are only the means."[7]

Beyond their own specificities and operating fields, contextual art and sociological art undoubtedly shared a universalist, inclusive dimension in which, for instance, the distinction between centers and peripheries completely lost its relevance. While on one hand these practices could not exist as autonomous aesthetic productions and, as such, remained out of traditional art locations and white cubes, on the other hand this same condition gave them a very broad field of action, since they could inhabit any context or environment without restriction. Being defined by the reality in which they operated, these practices were not limited to a capitalist or a communist society, they escaped any attempt to identify them as typical. They applied atypical theoretical and methodological principles to act in specific contexts. Differences and specificity lied in this relation and the responses it produced.

Jan Świdziński, Sztuka jako sztuka kontekstual/Art as Contextual Art, Art Text 3/77, Warsaw: Galerija Remont, 1977.

Świdziński's manifesto on contextual art and its twelve points were used as a point of reference by a group of artists consisting of Świdziński himself, Roman and Anna Kutera and Leszek Mrożek. In 1976, they collectively exhibited at the Gallery St Petri in Lund (Sweden) under the title "Contextual art".[8] As Świdziński recalled, they were particularly interested in realizing actions in rural settings, arguing that these were the places where real "authentic collectivities" still remained, as opposed to the cities where, according to him, the communist system had fostered impersonal groups of proletarians in order to serve the objectives of socialist industry.[9] Artistic actions by Świdziński and his colleagues in remote places like the Kurpie region (in the 1970s) or the small village of Mielnik (1981) drew attention to the process of erasure of ancient local identities and their replacement by a new imposed vision of the world, "based on an ideology that did not take individuals' realities and interests into account." These incursions into local contexts were not always successful, since local communities could not react as expected. However, the possibility of failure or inadequacy of artists' proposals for this context was an integral part of the action, as Świdziński observed: "Our successes and our failures reflected in one way or another, the context of the current reality."[10]

Hervé Fischer, Sinalização Imaginària, intervention in the public space, Sao Paulo, 1981.

Were these failures also dictated by the sociopolitical conditions of living under a Communist authoritarian regime? Actions themselves did not explicitly refer to Poland's situation. In some cases however, they could be interpreted as a political commentary and the authorities promptly reacted by censoring them, as in the case of "Freedom and Limitations", Świdziński's solo exhibition in Krakow, which was cancelled due to the proclamation of martial law on December 13th, 1981. The only remnants were posters announcing the exhibition in the streets, showing the artist's name and the words Freedom and limitations, a statement that was enigmatic yet meaningful in such a tense context.

Also in 1981, Hervé Fischer carried out with a group of art students a project for the Sao Paulo Biennial. Sinalização Imaginària (Imaginary Sign System), which consisted of a series of posters displayed in public space, juxtaposing names of city districts with concepts (Liberdade, Realidade, Consolação), with arrows indicatit a – true or false? - direction. While the formal similarity of the two interventions is striking, it should above all raise the issue of the "contextualized" reception and the attributed meanings of this type of socially-oriented art. Did the display or manifestation of this abstract terminology have the same ambiguous and, eventually, politicized meaning in both contexts? Did it penetrate into people's reality in the same way? Fischer had a position on this: "for me, in France, sociological art had to remain interrogative, and not become a politically engaged art."[11] However, the transposition of his practice to other contexts ineluctably transformed its meanings and social impact, as the very nature of "sociological" or "contextual" art implied.

In 1975, Hervé Fischer participated in the collective exhibition "The forms of artistic activity", organized by Galeria Współczesna in Warsaw. He returned to Poland in 1977 with the whole Collectif d'Art Sociologique to participate in the international conference "Art Activity in the Context of Reality", organized by Świdziński at the Galeria Remont, also in Warsaw. As he retrospectively observed, while sociological art was received with interest in socialist countries, "they did not like the word 'sociological' because with Communist dictatorship, that was enough: above all, people wanted freedom outside the social institution. So the concept of sociological art didn't work in Central Europe. The Pole Jan Świdziński, who stayed quite often at my place, spoke more readily of a 'contextual' art."[12] The idea of a social, collective dimension was automatically associated with state ideology, provoking suspicion and rejection.

Poster of the exhibition “The forms of artistic activity” at Galeria Współczesna in Warsaw, 1975. From Hervé Fischer's personal archive.

Exchange and dialogue were nevertheless maintained on a regular basis. In May 1977, Świdziński was invited to give a lecture at the École Sociologique Interrogative (Interrogative Sociological School) in Paris, in the context of the conference "Art et transformation sociale". Both artists also participated in the conference on Contextual Art organized in Toronto by the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication, in 1976. It is worth pointing out that Canada was an important place for the two artists, where their work and writings circulated and gained visibility through a multiplicity of channels. Hervé Fischer has actively contributed – and still is - to the country's art scene and its debates; until his death in 2014, Świdziński was frequently invited to Canada to participate in events and his writings were published under the form of articles and essays.

Despite their constant engagement with activities and debates relating to art and society, both also recognized their marginality within the art world and market. The term "marginal" here is not related to a geographical or geopolitical situation - according a centre-periphery scheme which very often excludes a lot of degrees of self-representation-, but rather to an art praxis that did not follow the law of market and institutional recognition, and, perhaps most importantly, did not seek to go against them or criticize them either. It was simply taking place in another space of construction and reception. Curiously, and also quite ironically, this critical attitude of sociologically and contextually-oriented art has been somehow forgotten or neglected in subsequent readings, reducing their – also - experimental, non-object-based practices in the 1970s to (post-)conceptual art, or a kind of "politicized conceptualism" which seems such an attractive concept nowadays.


[1] Hervé Fischer, "Signification de l'art sociologique", 1974, Hervé Fischer Fund, Kandinsky Library, Centre Pompidou Paris. Reproduced in Sophie Duplaix (ed.), Hervé Fischer et l'art sociologique, Paris: Manuela Editions, 2017, 60. The exhibition Hervé Fischer et l'art sociologique/Hervé Fischer and Sociological Art curated by Sophie Duplaix remained on display at the Centre Pompidou from June 15th to September 11th, 2017. I thank Hervé Fischer for the information and the images he accepted to provide for this post. 

[2] Hervé Fischer, L'Oiseau-chat. Roman-enquête sur l'identité québécoise (The bird-cat. Novel-survey about Quebecoise identity), Montreal: La Presse, 1981.

[3] On Świdziński, see Łukasz Ronduda, "Flexibility makes our existence possible: the contextual art of Jan Świdziński", ArtMargins Online, 10 september 2008. ; Kazimierz Piotrowski, "Hommage à Jan Świdziński", Sztuka i Dokumentacja, nr 8, 2013, 79-95.

[4] Jan Świdziński, Art as contextual art, Lund: Ed. Sellem Galerie S. Petri Archive of Experimental Art, 1976. Jan Świdziński, Sztuka jako sztuka kontekstual / Art as contextual art, Art Text 3/77, Warsaw : Galerija Remont, 1977.

[5] Hervé Fischer, Théorie de l'Art Sociologique (1977), 15. Digital version:

[6] Jan Świdziński, Sztuka jako sztuka kontekstual/ Art as contextual art, 7.

[7] Hervé Fischer, Théorie de l'Art Sociologique, 19.

[8] The artists exhibiting were Zbigniew Dłubak, Józef Robakowski, Ryszard Waśko, Wojciech Bruszewski, Henryk Gajewski, Andrzej Jórczak, Anna Kutera, Romuald Kutera, Lech Mrożek, Jan Świdziński. The exhibition was organized with the help of the Union of Polish Art Photographers.

[9] Jan Świdziński, "La pratique contextuelle", Inter, n°93, 2006.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Sophie Duplaix (ed.), Hervé Fischer et l'art sociologique, 21.

[12] Ibid, 21.

Juliane Debeusscher
Author: Juliane DebeusscherCountry: Spain
Juliane Debeusscher is an art historian and researcher, her work focuses on the circulation of Central European art across the Iron Curtain during the 1970s-1980s. She is interested in issues of circulation, cultural exchange and the impact of exhibitions and biennials on the construction of narratives about Central-Eastern European art. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Barcelona and a member of the research project "Decentralized Modernities. Art, Politics and Counterculture in the Transatlantic Axis during the Cold War". While she starts writing for this blog she is also a guest researcher at the Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte in Paris.

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