Sunday, February 23, 2014

RERO ERREUR DANS LE TITRE: Laborious Reading and the Ellipsis

RERO. "The invisible is in the visible beyond the look." Backslash Gallery, Paris. February 2014. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce

RERO, a French street artist, is known for his strike-through text, inscribed within (and upon) prestigious art institutions such as the Centre Pompidou and the Grand Palais, as well as abandoned spaces (Backslash Gallery Exposition Summary). His current exhibit at Backslash Gallery in the 3eme arrondissement explicitly experiments with the perceptible, the imperceptible, and the erased. Arial style font inscribed upon metal, paper, wood, and wallpaper, witty phrases taunt, tease, and escape the viewer (and their camera). Through difficult to read color combinations, or the actual use of physical barriers, RERO makes it hard to access his various texts.

RERO. "From word to deed..." Backslash Gallery, Paris. February 2014. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce

First, RERO's use of physical obstacles in the gallery space transform it from a space of pleasurable looking, to one of uncomfortable deciphering.
RERO. Long view, upper floor of gallery. Backslash Gallery, Paris.  February 2014. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
The piece in the far back, which presumable reads (or is deciphered as) "Je vous attends dehors," "I wait for you outside," is the first of such physically blockaded pieces. The piece, which is inscribed directly onto the gallery space, is covered in an aged piece of wood, rough and worn. The combination of the strikethough, the obscuring board, and the ellipses lend to the piece a sense of mystery, a hidden message, but a message that is only reluctantly given, and then recanted, or made ambiguous.
RERO. "Je vous attends dehors..." Backslash Gallery, Paris. February 2014. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce
As a street artist, RERO emerges from a milieu where the unreadable or the illegible is not necessarily a bad thing. For many graffiti artists, by having an unreadable (to non initiates) signature enables to communicate in the light of the public, but beneath and around its penetrating gaze. The urge for legibility, readability, and easy translation, Chicago-based artists Stef and Raven suggest, is the logic of typographic capitalism that writes out the spiritual, complex, and layered communications that constitute human exchange. A second obstacle piece, this time inscribed around a bottom corner of the gallery reads:

RERO. "La nature prefere les ____ aux impasses." Backslash Gallery, Paris. February 2014. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce
What does nature prefer to impasses? What does the typographical, struck through text, so mechanical in aesthetic and form, have to do with nature? The ellipsis, which extends this piece, and many of the others, speaks to further ambiguity and the continuance of thought.

In a recent Artforum piece, Lauren Berlant explores the ellipsis:

Oh yes, the ellipsis! I’ve been working on ellipses as infrastructures of relation. When I saw the black balloons in Forlesen, I had to laugh, because they appear as a kind of exploded ellipsis, and Ellipsisturned out to be their title. Pope.L was playing with the flesh’s thingly temporality. At the opening, all of the black balloons were inflated, and by the end the helium had gone out of them and they were all on the ground—shriveled, sexual, uncanny and more, but not identical. That’s part of the show’s orchestration of negativity too. The balloons look like afterthoughts, the way they are scattered, because they don’t take up the same kind of concentrated monumental space as the big wooden cock. And yet…The thing about an ellipsis is that it has a set of contradictory meanings.An ellipsis is a sentence that I don’t end because…I don’t know how to.An ellipsis is a sentence I don’t end because…you know what I mean.An ellipsis is a figure of return that isn’t symmetrical.Ellipses might be a figure of loss or plenitude: Sometimes it is more efficient to go dot dot dot. Sometimes it’s also a way of signaling an elision. Sometimes the referent is beyond words.
The ellipsis, Berlant muses, serves as an "infrastructure of relation," that "has a set of contradictory meanings...a figure of loss or plenitude" that sometimes may be "beyond words." As a reading method for thinking relation in a way that allows thought to continue to move and grow, the ellipsis can serve as a visual sign of the not-yet-finished, a signal of an idea's non-sovereignty, or a space of reduction or "efficiency." In "Error in the Title," RERO's pieces leverage ellipsis in the context of charged normative (struckthrough) terms, such as "ESCAPE" but also in more enigmatic, seemingly less risky contexts.

Ellipsis, for RERO, also figures as a space of suspension, literal and affective. Many of the texts are suspended in a plastic laminate, white on white, only distinguishable from slightly protuding from the page, and difficult to capture with camera, as they attract the florescent gallery lights and cause glare.
RERO. "I can't believe in my words." Backslash Gallery, Paris. February 2014. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
In "I can't believe my words," a text which seems to have braille text covering it, is encased within a sheer gloss and suspended against a reflective metallic surface. The book's pages are dog-eared, ripped and shredded, lending a sense of age and aura to the object. RERO's declaration of doubt, "I can't believe my words..." is elevated from the text, literally cut out of it, but also struck through, an editorial gesture of withdrawal. So is it that he can't believe his words" or that he cannot NOT believe them? Here, the strikethrough creates a complicating double negative, creating additional ambiguity around the declaration of linguistic uncertainty.

A similar gesture is adopted in the piece adjacent:
RERO. "Don't tell me the truth." Backslash Gallery, Paris. February, 2014. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce
One could also read the pieces as anticipatory, as one of the more declarative suggest (albeit after being crossed out):
RERO. "Something will happen here..." Backslash Gallery, Paris. February 2014. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
The unreadable also emerges as lack of space. Pieces where RERO emerges all spaces between words to create what, on first glance, seems like a dense but nonsensical assembly of letters, to what, after closer (labored) reading, creates a paragraph.

The piece above notes: "This work presents a landscape in which swarm toxic things and pollutants: Their invisibility is not an indication of their non existence. Their realities play in all manner of ways in the sphere of the invisible, and it gives to their presumed presence a space that is quasi-unlimited..."

The invisible is not the non existent. The invisible creates an unlimited space of play, but also toxicity, the deadly pollutant. Positioned next to a (seemingly) empty canvas of burlap, in juxtaposition the space of apparent emptiness is referred to a space that contains a landscape of pollution, invisible but real.

In the exhibition write up, the curator quotes Pascal Quignard:  "To write is to hide a message, to confide to external memory that which does not make any noise, that which buries the words, as if they sleep, in a space for waiting, reserved for that one who will find them because he knows the code that allows him to bring them back to life."

"Ecrire c'est cacher un message, le confier à une mémoire extérieure qui ne fait pas de bruit, qui ensevelit les mots, comme endormis, dans une attente, résérvés à celui qui saura les trouver parce qu'il connaîtra le code permettant de les faire revivre."

As a closing ellipsis, a piece that directly signals RERO's attachment (however ambiguous) to a graffiti lineage is disclosed.
RERO. "Une contradiction pour chaque graffiti et chaque graffiti a sa contradiction..." Backslash Gallery, Paris. February 2014. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce

It observes: A contradiction for each graffiti, and each graffiti has its contradiction... 
A repositioning of the Marxist law of contradiction, of materialist dialectics, the phrase points to the repetition and becoming, rule of identity and difference contained in any and every object. "Development arises from the contradictions inside a thing," Mao Tse Tung notes, attempting to explain historical change outside of a bourgeois frame. RERO's mobilization of the law of contradiction could be read to align him with Marxist ideology. It can also be read more ambiguously as a textual strategy, being and non being, writing and striking out, that is concluded in an ellipsis or a gesture towards a future thought that may (or may not) be the undoing of the prior thought. Mobilizing graffiti style across spaces in a way that undoes its own polemic, RERO uses legible text to create a site of laborious reading and uncertainty, working against its seeming transparency. Using the space of the gallery as active participant, RERO also draws attention to the protocols of visibility and invisibility that shape spectatorship in a high art venue. Strike throughs and ellipses render unstable polemical interpretation, as well as the sovereignty of the viewer. Pleasurable, frustrating, and hard to locate, "Error in the Title" is a provocative meditation on signification, invisibility, and the potential.

RERO. "Visible (in)Visible" Backslash Gallery, Paris. February 2014. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Public Art as Longitudinal Process: Traces of Potentia Between Intent and Reception

How can we generate a reading of public art objects that accounts for the social life of their production, their expressivity, as well as the public interest or disinterest that they inspire? By reading public art as longitudinal process, that carries the traces of its social imprints, falling somewhere between authorial intent and numerically accountable public reception.

After receiving thoughtful questions, from reviewers and audiences, about two of the dissertation chapters, the first detailing the affective event of a women's art exhibit in Bellas Artes, Mexico city, a center of cultural patrimony, and the second outlining an ethic of corporeal engagement and generosity inculcated into a mural project by virtue of the dance photographs that generated the mural's content and form, I've been pressed in various ways to locate my readings of the art works within audience perception, reception and reaction.

However, although such reception data, culled through interviews, participant observation, and media impact, will tell us an interesting story about what public art does to others, I fear that such a hierarchization of reception above processes of production, investments, and formal engagements with historically charged spaces will relegate such thematics to a conceptual underworld of epistemological and conceptual frailty. As a result, I am inclined to suggest that we also consider public art to be the agglomeration of the social practices, affective investments, and place based engagements that create formal and affective qualities within the piece itself as a kind of potentia. Simply, if we read public art as a rhetorical event, with its own aesthetic qualities, dramatic expressions, and emotional entailments, it becomes clear that although audience impact (or, "success") are important elements of a rhetorical scene, they are not its only determinants. Methodologically, by attending artist aspirations, investments, and processes, we can consider artists as rhetoricians, and understand that their work has a certain agency and realm of potential impact that, even if not fully realized, constitutes part of the rhetorical scene.
"How Philly Moves." Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

To flesh out this argument I will be working around one part of in my analysis of the "How Philly Moves" mural at the Philadelphia International Airport where I suggest that the mural production process implicates the mural's aesthetic and rhetorical potential. I claim that the mural cultivates what I describe as "kinesthetic sympathy," a process of bodily attunement that seeks to encounter fellow citizens as dance partners rather than obstacles. I locate the bulk of this reading in the engagement of photographer, JJ Tiziou, with his dance subjects, the product of which are the photographic images that were projected onto parachute cloth, sketched out, painted, and then laminated onto the PIA Parking Garage as the finished mural. For the most part I investigate how photographing dance, and then painting photographs, creates an intermedial conversation between aesthetic idioms that reveal important insights about ethical engagement by  urban bodies located in a milieu of difference.

The airport mural was created by taking photographic images JJ Tiziou had captured of dancers, projecting them on a drop cloth, tracing them, and then painting them onto parachute cloth that was installed on the airport parking garage walls. As a result, the mural is neither simply painterly rendering, nor photographic realism, it is instead a complex conversation between painterly and photographic idioms.
"How Philly Moves" Gallery Display. International Baggage Claim.  Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

The original photoshoots that took place were not necessarily geared towards producing images for a mural. Tiziou had been turned down for a grant to install the images in SEPTA stations, so instead, via crowdfunding, produced the series of images for not-yet-determined ends (Tiziou interview 2010). The second set of photo shoots were geared towards producing more potential images for the murals.

Yet, Tiziou's dance images can, even the ones not taken with the expectation of muralistic alchemy,  be described as painterly. Rather than capturing movement at 1/500th of a second, as Lois Greenfield does, to create a realistic and detailed rendering of dance movement (Reason 45), Tiziou's images are blurry. This way of approaching dance photography is not new. From Arnold Genthe's 1915 photograph of Anna Pavlova as she leaps into the air, one of the earliest images of moving (not staged or still) dance images, "communicates movement beyond the moment it depicts-- beyond, in a sense, what it reveals photographically to what it evokes in the mind of the viewer...the degree of blur in the photograph provides an indistictness that is suggestive of something in motion; oddly, the partial obscurity of the picture prompts viewers to imagine more than they can see...neither documentary nor part of what can be called photographic revelation...instead representation." (Reason 44)
"How Philly Moves." Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Matthew Reason's account of dance photography provides a compelling reading of the formal qualities of dance photos that blur the revelatory (verité) with the representational (imagination). Photography, a still medium, accounts for movement by "undermining its own essential characteristics of revelatory authenticity," (Reason 45), or, by becoming more painterly. At the same time, photography has historically impacted painting, making it more revelatory than representational. In the late 19th century, as a result of Muybridge's Locomotion series, painters began to impost photographic frames on their work, cutting off parts of bodies to fit them within a frame, changing representations of motion, perspective, and bodies (Scharf 186-190). Paradoxically, although photography was hoped to expand the scope of the visible, when it comes to representing motion, photography must instead render the "impression of movement" by imposing a blur, using "emblematic signifiers of movement," that refer, spatially and temporally, to spaces and times outside or beyond the image, and beyond the visible. Through the still, dance photography uses artful construction to create movement "experienced in the mind of the viewer." (Reason 63) Thus, dance photography is a realm where fiction and fact, painting and photography, collide in order to generate kinesthetic impressions in the mind and bodies of viewers.
"How Philly Moves." Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

In "Post-medium: Richter Painting Photography," Rosemary Hawker explains that in our contemporary moment "a great many art works are made using more than one medium," or, in the case of Gerhard Richter, arriving at a medium "by other means," practicing photography by painting (Hawker 263). The Philadelphia murals combining photography and painting is not a new conjunction, though it makes more explicit a long-standing relationship between photography and live or ephemeral arts as a means of preservation. Krauss explains the photography has been "dispersed...across the arts" since the 1960s (Hawker 267). Citing Krauss, Hawker elaborates:

Krauss recognises the impossibility of referring to questions of medium outside of the Greenbergian conception where ‘a medium is purportedly made specific by being reduced to nothing but its manifest physical properties’.24 Krauss maintains that, despite the prevailing reductivism of this view of medium, which saw painting’s significance as medium reduced to the flatness of its surface, artists such as Marcel Broodthaers continued to work with different media in such a way as to
emphasise and exploit their heterogeneity. Such artists: "understood and articulated the medium as aggregative, as a complex structure of interlocking and interdependent technical supports and layered conventions distinct from physical properties. For them the specificity of a medium lay in its constitutive
heterogeneity—the fact that it always differs from itself."25
In this way, Krauss argues, the specificity of a medium cannot be reduced to the physicality of its support or the unity of its means. She describes Broodthaers as layering media supports and conventions in order to produce a ‘network’ or ‘complex’ of media.” (269)

"How Philly Moves." International Baggage Claim Gallery. 
In this account, a medium's specificity does not rest in its primary materials. Rather, mediums exist through relationships with other mediums, and how "it always differs from itself." This Derridean reading of medium as differance suggests that medium is constructed and based on its relationship with others, a dialogue between mediums (Hawker 270). Drawing on Foucault's reading of Fromanger's photo-paintings, Hawker further explains that there has existed, particularly between 1860 and 1900, a "'shared practice of the image, accessible to all, on the borders of photography and painting, which was to be rejected by the puritan codes of art in the twentieth century.'...A time of liberated image making when artists, photographers, and amateurs alike made us e of all means at their disposal...'[These] years...witnessed a new frenzy of images, which circulated rapidly between camera and easel...with all the new powers acquired there came a new freedom of transposition, displacement and transformation, of resemblance and dissimulation, of reproduction, duplication and trickery of effect...there emerged a vast field of play where technicians and amateurs, artists and illusionists, unworried by identity, took pleasure in distorting themselves. Perhaps they were less in love with paintings and photographic plates than with the images themselves, with their migration and perversion, their transvestism, their disguised difference...." (Hawker, quoting Foucault, 270).
"How Philly Moves." Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Foucault describes the mid 19th century play between photography and painting not as medium pollution or contamination, but rather as a field of experimentation, blurring, and exciting circulation. It also presciently describes our contemporary moment, where images of still images, and stills of moving images, have increasing capacity to circulate virtually. Using the term "image" rather than photograph or painting, or combination thereof, Foucault suggests that "the image lies at the intersection of the rhetorical trajectories of each medium. Photography and painting are apprehended at once and in the same place, that is, in the image." (Hawker 272-273)

Thus, the "How Philly Moves" mural is an image that emerges at the intersection of dance, photography, and painterly practice, an image that contains within it the complex trajectories of multiple mediums. Yet, the collision of mediums does not result in a completely legible image. Instead, they are what Hawker designates as "idioms...the element of language that is untranslatable yet, paradoxically, known only through its translation and its failure." The failure of fully translating movement, stillness, and painterly expression reveals something about each mediums, only "graspable in another medium" (Hawker 274). By replicating photographs on the walls of the Philadelphia International Airport, the mural reproduces the failure of the photographic medium to fully reveal movement but only to gesture towards it. Moreover, the mural bears the trace of the photographic encounter between photographer and subject, blown up to hundreds of feet, to create a space for encounter between viewer and airport, a space of engagement, and a space of inscrutability.
Big Picture Alliance's Documentary. On display at Philadelphia International Airport International Baggage Claim. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

By being reproduced through painting, a medium of the representational not the revelatory, the mural further points to the multiple spaces of invisibility and outsideness even in a seemingly realist application of medium. The blurred images call on the faculty of imagination to make sense of an apprehensible but not fully visible scene. 

Were we to only consider the mural as a painting, a distinct and separate phase of mural's process of production that holds no relation to its antecedent moments of dance, photography, and the affective engagements included therein, we would lose perspective about the critical  intermedial conversation taking place between dance, photography, and painting across the longitudinal process of production which also holds its traces within the mural itself.

Thus, although surveys about viewer reception or impact can thicken our readings of the mural's effectivity, affectivity, and afterlife, the mural itself as a dynamic rhetorical object contains the potential for engaging the imagination and the body.
"How Philly Moves." Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Works Cited:
Rosemary Hawker, “Post-medium: Richter Painting Photography” Oxford Art Journal 2009 32.2 263-280. 

Matthew Reason, "Still Moving: The Revelation or Representation of Dance in Still Photography," Dance Research Journal, Vol. 35/36, Vol. 35, no. 2 - Vol. 36, no. 1 (Winter, 2003 -Summer, 2004), pp. 43-67.

Aaron Scharf, "Painting, Photography, and the Image of Movement."  The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 104, No. 710 (May, 1962), pp. 186+188-195.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Mygalo 2000: Faites Comme Eux

Mygalo. "Faites comme eux..." Paris, February 2, 2014. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
“Faites comme eux, gardez la tête froid,” announces the stark black and white caption for Mygalo’s recent work on le MUR X.I.I.I., under Pasarelle Simone de Beauvoir. Mygalo’s installation showcases two skeletons holding hands in a graveyard. The saying, “Gardez la tête froid,” more or less equates to “keep calm and carry on,” or “don’t stress,” and “don’t panic.” “Because the dead, they always have a cool head,” Mygalo informed me after finishing the impressive work on a cold Saturday afternoon. Putting the finishing touches on his work for an audience of around fifteen, Mygalo added to the texture of the black and white ground, darkened already somber spaces, and concluded by photographing the audience in front of his work. Signing the piece MYGALO 2000, he acknowledged that 2000 for him was when he committed to street art (and its risks).

“An event like this, to share with the public, is a completely different thing than the clandestine, extreme sport of painting on something like a truck” he reflected, “although both involve painting from the heart.” Appearing across Paris, in alley ways, on grates, and on trucks, Mygalo’s simple, chromatic work, although in skeletal tones and appearance, bespeaks a deep love of the city, and kind of post-mortem love poem to the metropole.

“This city is my whole life, and the only city in which I could live. Its energy, the light that envelopes it between the Louvre and the Institut Français at five in the morning, it is incredible, like all of the energy of the world is there…I am an addict.”
Mygalo 2000. Paris, February 2, 2014. Photo Credit: Vanna Santoro.
Mygalo uses his skeletons, icons that he developed following his love of cartoons from the 1960s, using the same imagery to tell his stories, voice his questions, and the themes that he has the need to investigate.

The pair on MUR XIII is a couple, a form of proof of what can take place for a couple (death), but to show, despite all evidence to the contrary, they remain content, and so he includes the ordinary phrase “Gardez la tête froid.”

Mygalo. Paris, February 2, 2014. Photo Credit: Vanna Santoro

Saturday, February 8, 2014

L'Art Pour la Paix: Memory, Forgetting, and the Ordinary

L'Art Pour la Paix is a diverse exhibit that unites artists from the U.S., France, and many parts of Africa, in meditating on the question of peace. Notably, however, the majority of the work center on questions of violence, repression, and haunting memories in negotiating a more peaceful present.

Collection Signe de vie. Mathilde Moreau. UNESCO, Paris.

Muriel Diallo. UNESCO, Paris.
Importantly, focus on histories of slavery, global problems of ethnic violence, and sexualization demonstrate what a complex proposition even conceptualizing of 'peace' may be.

De Sarejeva à Kigali. Kra N'Guessan, 1996. Acrylic and collage on canvas. UNESCO, Paris.

Liberté. Joe Big-Big.

I had the good fortune to meet two of the artists this afternoon when I returned to the show to get a final look at the work, K-Bô, from Guadelupe, and Matondo Watondo, from the Democratic Republic of Congo. What follows are brief summaries of our discussions.

Amanèse. Kra N'Guessan.

Peu Noire, Masques Blanc.
K-Bô's work is impactful, dynamic, and kinetic.
L'Afrique mon Oeil, K-Bô
Masque Cariba, K-Bô

Chabin Soliel on Left, Bo Windows on Right. K-Bô.

Largely working with masks and sculpture, he explores themes of memory, forgetting, and cultural exchange. Hailing from Guadelupe, he has been an artist since 1985, and uses his work to explore questions of singularity, difference, and universality.

Asking him what his favorite piece was of his several works on display at L'Art Pour la Paix, he indicated his piece "Devoir Memoire," "The Need to Remember," was important to him, because it recalls the need to attend to histories of slavery, histories not often spoken of or communicated about, in Africa.

Situating this piece, which attends to painful memories, a devoir as a must, a duty, but even connoting the difficulty of carrying out such a task, points to the fact that imagining piece requires remembering the violence that creates the exigencies for such a pause.

Re-situating his work within the UNESCO exhibit, K-Bô further explained, was crucial. UNESCO, as an international organization historically committed to retaining and celebrating cultural patrimony as a human, not a national, quality, offers a forum where discussions about shared futures can be engaged in by a varied audience. The week-long exhibit offers an occasion to elevate humanity, and changed him by virtue of the contact he had with fellow artists at the exhibit and their work.

Although inside, the UNESCO exhibit positioned its artists as public intellectuals, politically implicated in their aesthetic practice, but also physically available for questioning and commentary. The weeks experience offered a start contrast, K-Bô remarked, to the usually solitary exercise of creation. One can feel friction, or be surprised, by the manner in which audience members interact (or don't) with a work.

I hope to speak with K-Bô more about his work and its philosophy-- unfortunately the audio for the interview was destroyed in a technological glitch, so much of the poetry in his prose is reduced in my quick notes. You can follow him on his website at:

Matondo Watondo is from the Congo, but now lives in Utrecht, Holland. A visual artist and musician, his work at L'Art Pour La Paix offers a representation of the Democratic Republic of Congo that textures and challenges the overwhelming negative representations proffered in prevalent Western media coverage.

Instead of poverty, malnutrition, and violence, Watondo depicts scenes of human communities living in harmony with nature (although not necessarily with each other). Indeed, desire figures prominently in his four tableaus on display, not as the antithesis to peace, but rather part of the varied intensities of everyday life, and conflict is an avoidable (but frequent) element of community interaction.

Matondo emphasized, "Artists can show the positive side of is a scene of what it was like to grow up in Congo. That woman [carrying wood on her head and a baby on her back] is like my mother, and I was that baby, and then that little boy." Pointing to the other figures carrying different foods her continued, "and it was an exchange system, manioc or palm oil, or corn for manioc..."

Congo Na Biso, 2009. Matondo Watondo.

In another tableau he shoes fragments of music scenes, including gyrating dancers and relaxed musicians. He grew up among artists, in a town where many people did artisan work for the tourism industry. Yet another painting explicates a saying, showing two women fighting while their children and husbands look on, about the danger of disciplining anothers' child. The scene of violence offers a more general caution about the need for care in engaging outside of one's familiar milieu, and the avoidability of violence.

The exhibit, he considered, created an opportunity for cultural change among people from France, Africa, Holland, and many other places, a celebration of multiculturalism. You can follow Matondo's work at:

There are many other pieces of note in the exhibit, and worth checking out on the very comprehensive event website which is in English and French. 

Thank you so much, Matondo and K-Bô for sharing your work, and time with me today.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Issy les Moulineaux Hip Hop Festival Artmature: Vandal Screening

February 4 to 8 marks the Hip Hop Art'Mature Festival  at Issy-les-Moulineaux, just south of Paris. Among the many activities scheduled this week, including sketch competitions, beatmaking, and dance performances, was the screening of Hélier Cisterne's 2013 film, Vandal. Vandal is a coming of age film that explores adolescence, love, and graffiti, situated in Strasbourg. Following Chérif, a youth who is sent to live with his aunt and uncle after an escapade with a stolen car. Part of this move was to avoid jail, instead, Chérif is charged with searching for a stage, an internship. In Strasbourg, he works in construction, first through a preparatory class, and then with his father, who lives in Strasbourg with his new partner.

Chérif, played by Zinedine Bechenine, is hard to read, but even harder to understand. He says little, and communicates with hunched shoulders, a furrowed brow, and pursed lips. Picked on by another stagière he gets into fights but refuses to tell his side of the story. Most of his interactions with adults involve him being yelled at, while he withholds explanations. It turns out that Chérif's studious, well-behaved cousin, Thomas, is a graffiti writer. Thomas brings Chérif into his crew, ORK, initially as a lookout. In one of the most visually arresting scenes in the film ORK bomb an underpass, backlit by highway lights, which cast their shadows against the wall so that they are part of the painting, a quiet, industrial dance of ghosts, animated by the breath-like sound of aerosol can valves. Thomas introduces Chérif to a nocturnal world of expression where conversations play out on rooftops, under bridges, and alongside train cars, intense and uncensored, beneath and outside the reach of adult and bourgeois sensibilities. We also witness a conflict between the bombing style of ORK, and the Siqueiros-like expressionism of another writer, Vandal, whose art work is executed by real-world graffiti artist Lokiss.

While developing as a writer, Chérif becomes romantically involved with his classmate, Elodie, a young woman who (partially) saves him from being jumped and has a fraught relationship with an older brother who is in a gang. Trying to find a place to be alone, Chérif brings Elodie to ORK's secret spot. While painting her leg he is discovered by the crew, and violently ejected from the group, and the world to which he finally has a sense of belonging. Now alone, he follows Vandal, tracking his movements, and using his intelligence to gain entry back into ORK. In a climactic scene, they chase Vandal on a train track, causing him to climb on top of a train where he is electrocuted by the wire overhead.

The rest of the film involves Chérif negotiating his guilt in Vandal's death, and his sense of responsibility to continue Vandal's legacy: he takes on his name, and explores his hiding place, ultimately following the same trajectory up a construction scaffolding on a partially completed building that Vandal has taped in a youtube video, and then writing Vandal's name in a simple yet intense burner.

Assistant scenographer, Nicolas Journet, explained after the screening, that the film is indeed a coming of age film, but that its conclusion does not offer a clear answer as to the direction that the young protagonist's life will take-- rather, it only points to the necessity, the emotional and psychological imperative for expression-- that Chérif carries out in taking up and continuing Vandal's legacy. Graffiti as a narrative device suggests to viewers that it is not the end that is important, but the process, the investment in creation for its own sake.

The production process of the film is fascinating in itself. As mentioned above, Lokiss does the graffiti for Vandal, his work can be found on youtube, and has been involved in the French graffiti scene from its earliest years. The graffiti for ORK is also done by a crew, and represents a more bomber-style form of graffiti, concerned more with plurality than perfection. The film puts into play these dual (and sometimes competing, but also intimately related) tendencies in graffiti culture between repetition and the unique, the need to get up, and the desire for distinction. Moreover, many of the art created for the film is gone, becoming part of graffities legacy as art ephemère, ephemeral. The film takes graffiti and plays with and even modifies dominant tropes, replacing hip hop music, in key scenes, with classical music, notably for those involving Vandal himself, or Chérif echoing his work.

An ethos of openness informed some of the filming, what Journet described as the "magic" of cinema. For instance, in the scene where ORK paints by highway light, their shadows becoming part of the mural, such an aesthetic effect was purely accidental. Such openness was also enabled by the disposition of funders and some of the structures of the French film industry, where subsidization enables filmmakers to pursue aesthetic, cultural, and political interests that may not coincide with the imperatives of the market. However, the film was not fully outside the constraints enforced on graffiti by state and property: some of the struggles in making the film, Journet remarked, mirror the struggles in being a graffiti writer. Crucially, the scene of Vandal's electrocution was not filmed on the SNCF, France's major rail line. SNCF refused to allow filming, partially due to safety concerns, and partially because of the politics (and pejoratives) surrounding graffiti culture. Instead, all train scenes took place on a private line in Strasbourg.

As part of a growing genre, or lineage of graffiti fiction films, used to explore themes of adolescence, love, and belonging, Vandal offers a compelling mediation on what it is to express without communicating, and the cathartic work that writing may do for troubled writers. I must admit that I was profoundly moved by Bechenine's depiction, or channeling, the opacity of a particular kind of adolescent masculinity in revolt, certainly not legible to others, but also not fully intelligible to itself, where the call for explanations, or reason, only reinforces isolation and skepticism if not outright suffering in the face of yet more talk. My younger brother had a tumultuous high school career, one marked by ill thought out escapades, but also, more consistently, dead end arguments in our house that called for reason but more often ended in slammed doors. Watching Chérif's struggle with crushing guilt, one that is unrecognizable as a struggle, and instead mere rancour by his elders, made me wonder what I was missing in my demands for reason and responsibility years ago, but also, what structures can be created in educational systems and family networks that allow for expression without full communication, allowing youth in distress to meditate and incubate.

Moreover, the film points to a less-explored phenomenon of suburban or quasi-urban graffiti, as well as graffiti (and hip hop's) circulation from the United States to Europe. Moreover, it is the product of a urban art milieu where circulation (not only physically, but now, digitally) becomes increasingly critical: although graffiti continues to be an ephemeral art based on traces, its digitality echoes the haunting quality that tags and pieces engender-- they have afterlives beyond that of their makers.

In any case, it offers a thoughtful and emotionally provocative meditation on what it is to find a form of self-expression that does not offer escape from structures of misunderstanding or abrasion, but a more humble but no less powerful tactic of persistence, creation, and holding in reserve, surviving such processes.