11 OCTOBER 2003, Page 58

Let loose in Toulouse

Mark Glazebrook learns how to `disarticulate consensual gestures'

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a visual arts festival, like the pudding famously criticised by Winston Churchill, is in need of a theme. Unfortunately, a title encapsulating such a theme, which is apt and catchy while accurately evoking all the works on view, often eludes today's directors and curators. Artists will be artists, and those working in the arts and humanities, unlike mathematicians, often have to make do with imperfect solutions.

The theme in Toulouse in 1999, for example, was 'EXTRAetORDINAIRE'; last year it was 'Fragilites'. This year it's `Gestes'. As the catalogue introduction puts it: 'These gestures are really thoughts in motion ... Our point here is to lay out how contemporary artists disarticulate many of these consensual gestures by means of other gestures 'I think I get it but nobody taught me how to disarticulate consensual gestures. French education positively encourages this sort of intellectual speculation. Only a pragmatic, waffle-fearing Englishman such as your correspondent would wonder whether the existence of a street in central Toulouse called rue de Gestes might have had something to do with inspiring the theme — which, of course, it hasn't had. The proof of this festival, however, is not in words, let alone streets. The proof of Printemps de Septembre' is in the experiencing of its images.

The events are free and numerous. The core public is young. From modest beginnings, what is now Toulouse's annual Printemps de Septembre' festival (until 19 October) has become a success story in its own way; demonstrably so from the point of view of attracting visitors, sponsorship, funding and volunteer helpers. Congratulations are due therefore to Marie-Therese Perrin, the festival's active and long-serving president, among others. The scope is international. The rather interesting list of British artists who have participated includes Andy Goldsworthy, Sam Taylor-Wood, Matt Collishaw and this year Hannah Collins.

It all began with a stimulating still

photography exhibition in Cahors in 1991. The event remained in Cahors for ten years before transferring to Toulouse, the fourth biggest city in France. For those of us brought up to make or appreciate conventional painting and sculpture, however, a question mark still hangs over the art content of some of the photography and video that remain at the heart of this selfstyled 'Rendezvous des images contemporaines'. 'But is it art?' I hear my friends ask. It's worth remembering that the twoway traffic between painting and camera vision goes back at least as far as the invention of the camera obscura and that some contemporary artists now draw, paint and make conventional sculpture as well as trying their hand at photography and video. Perhaps the beautifully designed and increasingly large catalogues will provide further enlightenment.

I have in my hand a Cahors catalogue of 1993. It is no more than an illustrated exhibition catalogue with `PRINTEMPS DE LA PHOTO' at the top of the cover. Below is a joined double image by the artist John Baldessari entitled 'Figures at Beach, Figures on Mountain Peak', 1990. The faces of the many people photographed on the beach have been blanked out by superimposed white disks, except that the eye is drawn to one standing figure because his face has been blanked out with a red disk. Underneath the beach scene the two lonely figures on the mountain peak are too far away to identify. What can it mean? The otherwise eloquent catalogue is dumb on the matter. Does the work depend, like Chinese cookery, on some system of balanced contrasts — crowded and empty, high and low, near and far, warm and cool? Baldessari can hardly have aimed at something so unfashionable as a masterpiece but what he does do in this image, and this goes for all the exhibitors in 1993, is to distance himself from anything resembling documentation, journalism, publicity, politics or propaganda.

The same cannot be said of the participants in this year's festival. It's Liberty Hall. The barricades between art and everything else have all but vanished. Within the photos, videos, three-dimensional objects and other installations there are heavy doses of the documentary, of journalism, biography, autobiography, social and cultural anthropology, social history, politics and theatre, including satire and comedy. There is also a little painting and lots of film, including goldenoldie silent films, specially set to music.

In these circumstances there's only one thing to do at this festival. Jettison your critical faculties for a while and enjoy. Creativity is more exciting than categorisation. There are moments when any activity is more rewarding than dry theorising. At night, it's hard not to be struck by the beauty of vast images of the Mekon Delta cast across the mighty Garonne on to the walls of a building on the other side and reflected in the water.

There is lots of fascinating information about obscure people and cultures. One photographer has photographed his computer which shows how gay Latin-American men search for partners. 'I am pretty ... ' one begins. At the Goethe Institute there is a documentary by Andrea Robbins and Max Becher about The Americans of Sarnana. It's a film about the Protestant descendants of Afro-American slaves who were emancipated and came to the Dominican Republic in 1824. We learn how to make a Johnny cake. 'Skip on the ocean, Mary Jane — you're just like a sugar plum' they sing. With the wisdom of hindsight those BBC types who recorded folk songs in remote areas must have been artists without knowing it.

I enjoyed many videos. The mysterious jerky gestures in Aernout Mik's videos at the Musee des Abattoirs at least fit the festival's theme. At the F,cole des Beaux Arts there is a popular video showing a pair of palms and a puzzled fortune-teller talking non-stop. Another video by Kutlug Altaman shows a touchingly eloquent Turkish-Cypriot poetess lamenting the conflict over Cyprus.

The most triumphant success as a work of art is Hannah Collins's 35mm film on five large screens about the gypsies in the Mina community of Barcelona. In the case of some videos in out-of-the-way locations I was the only person watching. In the monastery of Les Jacobins, however, the crowds piled in to see Hannah Collins's moving, sometimes agonising, partially scripted, marvellously co-ordinated images of gypsies.