Matthieu Saladin — La promesse de la dette


Installation, performance, sound - music, mixed media

Matthieu Saladin
La promesse de la dette

Past: February 19 → April 30, 2016

Following in the footsteps of conceptual art, Matthieu Saladin develops a multi-facetted approach that explores contemporary economic mechanisms and the way they shape social relationships and subjectivities. Using sound, printed matter, performance, objects and information technologies, he uses accumulation, displacement, repurposing or tautology, pushing logic to the limit and involving himself in the very workings of the organizations that host his work. He discreetly creates what he calls a “production of space” from existing systems, especially via interventions where private and public areas meet in a Web-age dialectic.

In spring 2015, Matthieu Saladin was present at Salle Principale in the collective exhibition D’une main invisible, working on the margins of the locale and its codes. His work entitled Réduction d’activité [Reduction in Activity] affected the visibility of the other artists by gradually shortening the gallery’s opening hours at the rate of five minutes per day. This created free time, the total amount of which determined the value of the piece. Furthermore, the work highlighted the principle of fierce competition in the field of art, where works owe their existence to the disappearance of others.

For his first solo show at the gallery, La Promesse de la dette [The Promise of Debt], Matthieu Saladin presents a new set of works that are interconnected and yet independent. Rooted in an investigation of the question of debt, these works, most of them previously unseen, are part of a significant global economic context: the aftermath of the subprimes in the USA and the threat of default on sovereign debt in Europe. Instead of lingering on these topical situations, the artist prefers to explore the philosophical foundations of debt, a moral contract that has shaped our social relationships since the beginning of time. Borrowing from Nietzsche’s writings on the notion of promise1 later referred to by Maurizio Lazzarato in his analysis of neoliberalism as the “making of the indebted man”2, the artist emphasizes this unbalanced form of social interaction, a tool used by a creditor to exercise power over a debtor, which acts upon the latter’s subjectivity by imposing a moral code, by colonizing his memory, and by mortgaging his future.

In a space reconfigured to evoke the electronic symbol of a loudspeaker, turned towards the exterior, the works unfold on different levels of meaning and presence. Embracing the philosophy of the sound art pioneer Max Neuhaus, Saladin places his forms at the limits of perceptibility, at the risk of having them go unnoticed, relying on the power of what he calls the “transformation of contextual attention”3. It is a way of inviting the viewer to exercise an enhanced sensitivity to what is around him, and to reconsider, via the artwork, the norms it attempts to subvert.

If anyone calls the gallery before it opens, they will be surprised to come across Soupir on the answering service. Somewhere between weariness, lasciviousness and abandonment, this polysemous sigh heaved by the gallerist as a voice message could well be the white noise of accounting processes or the signal for the cancellation of all debt. If we pay attention to ambient street sound when we arrive, we will notice the vibration of the window under the effect of European Crisis Time Capsule, a translation into sound of data extracted from the main European political speeches on the debt crisis, filtered by a Vocoder. Based on statements that are both interchangeable and ideological, the artist produces an abstract and sensitive sound surface that transforms the gallery into a giant speaker activated every time someone walks by in the street, broadcasting to public space as well as to the interior.

La dette n’est qu’une promesse also involves a truth we can experience ourselves by embossing the phrase, in French, German or Greek, on our own banknotes using one of the three available presses, so that they can then be put back in circulation. A stable value for subjects and objects of constantly fluctuating exchange, the banknote embodies the minimal contractual form of the quantified promise — which is ultimately nothing more than a moral agreement.

Not far away, a pile of self-service posters brings together, in reverse chronological order, about a hundred and fifty historic episodes of debt cancellation, revealed as the exhibition progresses like uncovered archaeological remains. The Effeuillage des effacements [Removal of Erasures] will probably have disappeared before the end, its absence challenging the debt artworks contract with History as soon as they are born.

Another transient work, the kettle entitled Voir le lointain comme s’il était présent [Seeing What Is Remote As If It Were Present] signals the closing of the Paris Stock Exchange every evening, its steam revealing a sentence on the window, as if to remind us of the volatility of debt-based stock in a worrying economic context. Increased pressure, overheating, deflation and cooling: what debt does the financial system owe to society? With the artwork-cum-system Indexation, this volatility takes the gallery structure itself on a risky adventure: whereas any market entity is inexorably indexed to economic indicators within a complex system of values and weightings, Saladin’s proposal is to radicalize this relationship by taking a single figure as the reference point — the debt of Venezuela, the most fluctuating and unpredictable of all sovereign debts. As for his previous appearance at the gallery with Réduction d’activité, his approach impacts the price of the works, but this time the entire commercial stock, including the output of the other artists, will change in value according to fluctuations in debt throughout the duration of the exhibition.

All this looks something like a game of ping-pong with quantified transactions that have become absurd, as in Panoramique des obligations [Stock Overview] which reels off the interest rates of public debts through a pair of wireless headphones. The visitor becomes the centre of gravity of an exchange of decontextualised values between a man and a woman, and his movements recall the relativity of all things.

Last but not least, the text you are reading forms the object of a debt that is impossible to honour: the inability of language to express reality. The command Ne prenez pas tout ce qu’on vous donne [Don’t take everything you are given], printed as a watermark on various communication media, expresses the inability of any author, through inadequacy or overinterpretation, to render what is visible here and now.

More generally, this message highlights the misunderstanding that characterises the very act of giving, which, according to Marcel Mauss, will always be a debt. So, in the context of an exhibition like this one, what does all this say about the relationship between the artist, the gallerist and the visitor ? Who gives ? Who takes ? Who lends ? Who owes ?

Raphaële Jeune

Raphaële Jeune is a freelance curator and a researcher in aesthetics and contemporary art theory.


1 Nietzsche, Friedrich: On the Genealogy of Morals, Anchor Books, 1956.

2 Lazzarato, Maurizio: The Making of the Indebted Man. An Essay on the Neoliberal Condition, Semiotext(e), 2012.

3 Saladin, Matthieu: « L’espace public comme espace stratégique d’écoute : notes sur le projet Sonneries publiques », Sonorités, n° 9, December 2014.

  • Opening Thursday, February 18 at 7 PM
19 Paris 19 Zoom in 19 Paris 19 Zoom out

28, rue de Thionville

75019 Paris

T. 33 9 72 30 98 70


Opening hours

Wednesday – Friday, 2 PM – 7 PM
Saturday, 11 AM – 7 PM

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Venue schedule

The artist

  • Matthieu Saladin