Les Souffleurs, a collective of more than 60 artists mostly based in France, are known for their poetic interventions in public spaces.

On Thursday, January 31, 2019, 6:30PM–12 midnight in Washington, D.C., experience Les Souffleurs at A Night of Ideas, a global marathon of ideas that will activate La Maison Française, Embassy of France’s entire building with talks and performances by today’s leading thinkers and creators.

On February 2, 2019, at 7PM Les Souffleurs will be at A Night of Philosophy and Ideas in New York, the all-night marathon of philosophical debate, performances, screenings, readings, and music co-presented by Brooklyn Public Library and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. Les Souffleurs will perform Appearances / Disappearances.

We sat with Olivier Comte of Les Souffleurs who answered our questions:

Nicole: You initiated the collective Les Souffleurs (literally The Whisperers) in 2001. Could tell us how the collective was created, your motivation, and how has it evolved?

Olivier: In 2000, seven years after having originally written the words, “the children reproduce themselves from mouth to ear,” for a performance about the existence of a sub-language (infra-language) in elementary school playgrounds in France, I rewrote them, evolving the statement and permitting a fuller expression: “Humanity reproduces itself from mouth to ear.” Then I created Les Souffleurs Commandos Poétiques (The Whisperers, Poetic Commandos), calling upon a dozen artists to join me, artists with whom I had worked with during the years when I was an actor.

We are now more than sixty women and men from different artistic backgrounds (theatre, dance, cinema, digital arts, literature…) brought together by one philosophy: “the attempt of slowing the world.”

The primary motivation of this French-Japanese collective (Paris-Tokyo) was to counteract, in an extremely determined manner, this fact: great texts written by man are only accessible to a small number of people, usually the upper-middle-class. The rest of the world, somewhat absent from where there is something artistically important happening, misses out on an essential exchange of knowledge. Consequently, we have decided to work with the treasure of poetry, which is endowed with extremely powerful elements including its ability to heal.

Our first course of action was to extract poetry from books that had been left dusty in the basements of our libraries and to literally liberate them by bringing them back to life, by verbalizing and whispering them into the ears of people, outside, on the street, in traffic jams, in supermarkets, in parks, in gardens, in factories, briefly in our fast-paced world

Nicole: Who are Les Souffleurs now? And tell us more about the French-Japanese connection?

Olivier: We are now considering ourselves to be polyglot poetic artists developing around this “attempt to slow down the world.” It includes site-specific actions and visual installations that respond to the speed of the world and the intrinsic human values found deep within the folds of this speed.

Regarding the dual Franco-Japanese element of the Souffleurs, it just so happens that as an actor, I performed a lot in Japan. Beginning to understand the reality of public space in Japan, I thought that it was necessary to lead small artistic revolutions.  In Japan, liberty is conceived in an intimate and private space. The Japanese ‘public’ space is functional, non-eruptive, extremely regulated. A lot of things there are illegal, not tolerated, intolerable.

I proposed to my friends of the Kaze Theatre in Tokyo with whom I performed in Japan to experiment with some atypical experiences in the public space. They said okay. We tested the impossible. Since then, we have carried out extraordinary adventures. We are now, since 2008, 72 artists Souffleurs: 36 French and 36 Japanese.

Nicole:  During the Night of Philosophy in Washington (Jan 31) and New York (Feb 2) you will intervene with Appearances/Disappearances, a performance during which you whisper into the ears of the audience texts that you have selected specifically for the event. It will be an intimate moment in the public space. We understand that the texts in English will be a surprise, but could tell us about the previous experiences in Japan or in Brazil?

Olivier: We have learned, thanks to our trips around the world, that the exorbitances of man come from his interior and not is the exterior environment. Whether it is in Japanese, Brazilian, Arabic, German, or Chinese, the interior of the human being is a vertiginous cathedral of words. To make some of them resonate could change the world.

Nicole: What are the experiences with the public that made an impression on you, that allowed you to go further?

Olivier: The response to question two responds to your third question. At the contact of exorbitances, we ourselves, as artists, are trying to transform ourselves in our every gesture.

Nicole: What are your next projects? 

Olivier: Right now we are working on three new projects:

Les Regardeurs (The Observers): It is the presence of people on the edges of cities. Writers are positioned to observe the world from a vertiginous point of view, from the tops of buildings, toes hanging in the void, above the surveillance camera. And we activate the launch of written pages. We based our work on the principle that a view of the world from the heights could transform it…..

Tornades Selfies (Selfies Tornadoes): We photograph the faces of the inhabitants of a town. Then we send these thousands of faces off with thousands of poems into an immense windstorm created by blowers. People are invited to enter the windstorm to find their face flying in the air. They then are to couple it (their face) to one of the poems flying in the wind. Every portrait also makes up a postcard. The people are invited, after their passage through the windstorm of poetic engagements, to write words on their postcard behind their own image that address future generations of the city. This treasure is afterwards left in the archives of the city for many centuries. Tornadoes Selfies are transitory poetic portraits that are fleeting from the present city toward our descendants.

Terra Lingua is a performance. It is about the discovery of a man’s words from his place of silence. He will not give up his use of words and in approaching silence are his writings. In a joyful explosion of languages, BABEL rises and disappears, celebrating the genius of reinventing what it is to be human in words.

Olivier Comte for Les Souffleurs commandos poétiques.


Translation by Catherine Cousins and Nicole Birmann Bloom, French Cultural Services.

This article originally appeared on French Culture in January 2019 and has been reposted with permission.

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