Stéphanie Solinas

Iggy Cortez

2011

Phillips de Pury Under the Influence catalog,

8th of march 2011, New-York

photography by Cristoph Ferstad
















STÉPHANIE SOLINAS LEADS a double life. For the past five years, she has lived between Barcelona and Paris, two cities of widely differing temperaments. ‘They are complementary cities,’ she explains, ‘maybe I am even different people in Paris and in Barcelona.’ Her professional career is, similarly, split, her own website dividing her activities into two distinct portals. On the one hand, Solinas works as a freelance photographer for magazines such as Marie Claire and Inrockuptibles, but she is also a conceptual artist, using books, found objects and installations to explore the complex relationships between identity, photography and systems of classification.

This is not to say that these two professional spheres never interact. Her luminous, elegant portraits are often integral components of her conceptual practice and, as a commercial photographer, she reveals an interest in how that image relates and fits into the broader context of photography. ‘When I started taking photos, I wasn’t really satisfied,’ she explains, recalling what drew her to conceptual art. ‘I needed to learn more about photography, its history, why it was used and in what context.’ This prompted her to pursue a doctoral project focusing on the relationship between bodies, surveillance and portraiture. ‘Before studying photography, I studied artificial intelligence, the way to program a computer to make it think like a person.You learn that there are patterns that help you approach individuals in the same way. There are schemes you can use and repeat to extract things.’The potential to codify thought patterns led Solinas to a theme that would become central to her practice as an artist – how we negotiate our subject positions as both individuals and members of a broader collective.

While it may seem trite to say that Solinas’ art explores identity (what art doesn’t?), her approach is more social than metaphysical. It understands that categories like ‘individuality’ are constantly administered by regulatory systems ranging from passports to educational systems and birth certificates. At the core of her work is the examination of how contemporary notions of identity were, in effect, ‘invented by photography.’ She says: ‘Photography arrived at a time when people needed to migrate. It arrived at the end of the monarchy and the beginning of democracy. Governments needed to “represent” identity to control people in order to organize them. At the moment it was needed, photography was used to capture identity, and there’s obviously an element of control in this, otherwise, why do we need to represent identity? Then we’d simply be.’

However, Solinas is careful not to demonize all systems of surveil- lance and control as examples of oppression.Take, for instance, a passport photo or an identity card, which, depending on your citizenship, can ‘liberate you’ – you can go places, leave places, discover things. ‘When you don’t have any papers, you don’t exist, you don’t have citizenship,’ explains Soli- nas, recalling a state of being that philosopher Giorgio Agamben has described as ‘bare life’ – when subjects who do not possess legal political representation consequently have no access to human rights. ‘It’s a complex dynamic. Freedom needs to be administered,’ says Solinas, pointing to a defining paradox of contemporary political life.

Interested in these strategies of control, Solinas pursued an unconventional postgraduate placement in the French Judicial Identity Department as an art student. ‘I was interested in the process, the shape, the method of how political bodies organize and represent identity.’ This placement, and the contacts she made in the department, would prove critical for Soli- nas’ most ambitious and celebrated project to date: Dominique Lambert (2003–09) that has been acquired by the Maison Rouge in Paris and the Centre Georges Pompidou.

In French, Dominique is a gender-neutral name. It is also France’s 27th most common name. Lambert is the 27th most common surname. Using a telephone directory, Solinas contacted all Dominique Lamberts in France (nearly 200 of them), inviting them to take part in the artistic project.

She requested from almost 70 willing participants a completed ‘Chinese questionnaire’ (the sort that asks, ‘If you were a color, what color would you be?’) and personality quiz. She then made a further request for a photo ID of the kind you can take in a photo booth. Twenty Lamberts sent her photographs. Consulting a team composed of a psychologist, a statistician, a police inspector, a lawyer and a corporate identity consultant, Solinas then produced a written character analysis for each Lambert; these were subsequently presented to artist Benoît Bonnemaison-Fitte, who produced a cartoon-like sketch for each description. His sketches were submitted to a police inspector who transformed them into identikit portraits of the sort used to search for crime suspects. Solinas then scouted out models that resembled the identikits and took their photographs. Gathering the different iterations of each process into 20 books, one for each Lambert, Solinas then included the photo corresponding to the ‘real’ Lamberts in envelopes which, in the limited edition of the series, would be sent to a buyer over the course of 21 weeks.

Solinas' interest in duality, therefore, emerges in this work again as two Dominique Lamberts appear in each book: the 'authentic' Dominique in the photo ID and the Dominique of the formal portrait. Except here Solinas short-circuits conventional photography, as her portraits are no longer the mark of the subject's individuality but rather the final stage in a conceptual ‘telephone game’ in which identity – rather than a tongue-twister – is passed and transformed from person to person, until the outcome no longer corresponds to the original. It is a process that dramatizes what is ‘lost’ whenever an individual’s identity is reduced to official standardized representation. Furthermore, the attempt to define each Lambert through every available regulatory process, led, paradoxically, to the opposite result: the Lamberts were refracted into a constantly expanding web of possibilities as the coherence and legibility of their individual subjects were eroded.

The real Dominique Lamberts were the guests of honor at Solinas’ opening last year at Maison Rouge in Paris, where they were interviewed by the mysterious Dr Barbe, a Swiss psychiatrist and contemporary art collector, in a set-up that evoked yet another strategy, this time the psycho- analytic encounter to ‘capture’ the subject. These sessions were then recorded and played throughout the duration of the exhibition on two speak- ers set in front of each other on two armchairs, replicating the relationship between analyst and patient. Evocatively titled Sans être rien de particulier, the solo exhibition was scheduled, not coincidentally, at the same time as Paris Photo, announcing Solinas as a unique young voice in the field of photography and conceptual art.