Originally from Le Mans, Mathieu Tremblin works in Strasbourg on multi-dimensional pieces that are sometimes subtly satirical and other times blatantly candid. With an approach to the city linked to sixties libertarian texts, Visual Studies, and French Theory, Mathieu Tremblin develops humorous and subtle artistic gestures, actions and interventions for an audience of passersby. In this interview Mathieu discusses the relationship between public ownership, the power of art and the urban context.
How did you begin making urban interventions?
When I arrived in Rennes to study in 1998, I met a poet, Stéphane Bernard, who soon became the big brother I never had, and we shared a lot of thoughts on the society that we lived in. At that time, he was a very dark person because of having grown up in an average French city during the 80s, the type of city where there is nothing to do when you’re a teenager. I found myself in him, having myself lived in a small town as a teenager in the 90s. He introduced me to the Cold Wave, No Wave and industrial, electronic and experimental music with iconic figures like Alan Vega and Genesis P-Orridge. He introduced me to a number of American authors, such as, Bret Easton Ellis, Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, as well as different theorists who had spared a radical critique of consumer and communication society, such as Guy Debord and his book, The Society of Spectacle.
Global Color, Local Market, 2015, Marseille
Street Art Evaluation, “What is commissioned Street Art the name of?”, 2016, Lisbon
Debord’s approach is unique in that it does not summarize his criticism to a fight between classes, like other political philosophers have been doing before him, but he tackles economic relationships in the world it – what he calls Spectacle. Spectacle is a filter – representation – that keeps us away from ourselves and from others, that is taking us away from our experiences and our real desires and replacing those by the ones created by the consumer society that we can not access by proxy. From this analysis, he tried with his colleagues of the Lettrists then the Situationists in the sixties to implement methods that go beyond art, towards practices such as dérive or détournement that can permit you to live intensely and overcome the false relationship to the world that the society is building. These theories and operational concepts have greatly influenced my look at and my practice in the city, for example through the will that I share with other artists to produce forms that are already there, which are not recognizable as art . It’s a way to increase the life and transform our world, contributing to an urban imaginary that goes beyond appearances produced by consumer society.
When I was a teenager, I refused to join the ideal promoted by the mass media and the consumer society. I felt agressed and oppressed by the system and I was looking for other reading grids. The art class I was following in high school gave me some answers with an introduction to the artistic avant-gardes of the twentieth century as Dada and Fluxus to whom art was making life more interesting than art itself. In 1996, I stopped watching TV with the discovery of the Internet. My father had installed a modem at home using the connection of the university where he worked. I discovered a horizontal network with HTML homemade websites and discussions with strangers living in Europe on IRC; I had access to a knowledge of the world without the filter of the mass media and it definitely changed my view on the relationship between art, culture and society at the same time.
Then I met TETAR, JIEM and MOOTON, who were doing graffiti and who were in my class. I did urban exploration with them – the industrial heritage in ruins fascinated me – and at one point I saw the pleasure they felt in doing graffiti and I got into it. This corresponded to a parallel path with my readings including La théorie de la dérive by the Situationists. The text discusses the idea of going out of your daily routine and find a way to make your life adventurous. Writing graffiti and especially tagging seemed a way to live an adventurous experience in the city; doing graffiti brings you to search spots to paint, so to discover new places and explore urban environment in a playful way regarding its architecture. By changing scale of practice and apprehending the material of various surfaces with your tools, you are gaining pragmatic and experimental unexpected perception of how the city works.
Fruits Skewer, 2011, Nijmegen
When JIEM came back from Berlin in 2003, graffiti he had seen and photographed completely changed his reading of the urban landscape; now he had to focus on the walls that Berlin writers were investing with acrylic jars, rollers and telescopic poles. So we started to invest the giant walls of wasteland and abandoned factories in Rennes with rolls, changing of name all the time, until no longer we weren’t doing name writing at all and just write words and slogans. In 2006, we acted under the pseudonym of Poetic Roller during a few months and painted a couple of poetic phrases by night in dialogue with the atmosphere of the places. Then David Renault and I founded the duo Les Frères Ripoulain and we painted slogans at a body scale during the day for two years dressed as house painters – without asking permission. We realized it was easier to intervene without authorization while legitimizing our approach in the dialogue with passerby, than doing it by night where our activities would ultimately looked suspicious, and the only exchange that we could get would be with the police or private security services that were just committed to ensure that nothing happens in the places they were responsible of. Then after we had painted the places on which we wanted to spread typographic frescoes about underground history, we changed once again of medium and method and since then adopted existing forms according to the urban situation we wanted to interact with, or depending of the influence we wanted to produce on the urban imaginary.
How do you develop your interventions?
I make sure that my practice is a pretext to live a new experience and conversely that every experience or observation in the city could lead to a gesture. I watch the rhythm of the city, the way people and signs interact and produce a kind of aesthetics in a cycle of appearance and disappearance. These forms are related to what is present and what is happening in the street. Sometimes they also refer to the history of art. When I work independently, this gesture correspond to an exercise of freedom, a sign that has an existence by and for itself; when I’m commissioned, I ensure that my intervention is likely to attract the attention of passersby whom it is addressed. But I work mostly without permission even if I am not looking for provocation… or legality. I try to act with maximum transparency and horizontality to dissolve the authority including the one of the author regarding his own gesture. While I’m inspired by anonymous graffiti found in the city that I consider as forms of interest, who would I be to claim that my act of painting on a wall will be greater or more relevant than the one that a citizen would have done without artistic intent? This is a balance between your personal wishes, the expression of your fellow citizens facing public and private governance of the city.
Liberté Égalité Soldes, 2016, Strasbourg
Can you tell us about your relation to public/private ownership regarding the fact of doing art in the city?
For two decades now, successive French governments scuttled utilities and gradually municipalities allowed private companies the operational management of the city. The logical consequence of this fact is that the governance of the city has mutated from a horizon that was the common interest, to the profitability. And unfortunately, we cannot blame private companies to manage things in an ownership oriented way. Public transport became overpriced, whole portions of streets are managed as shopping malls, private security services are granted a power that only the police had previously… The citizen is increasingly considered and reduced to a consumer in the sense that it becomes difficult to practice the city in a financially disinterested manner. Public places – supposedly reminiscent of the figure of the agora in democracy – are mineralized and the rare street furniture are conceived so that it is uncomfortable, even impossible to occupy the public square. This creates paradoxical situations, such as the SNCF (French railway company which is now mostly private), which opens spaces which it owns and do an open-call without any budget for motivated artists, while the same company ensures that those who already invest those places without permission for years (free parties organizers and graffiti among others) can no longer practice it. While the Internet has allowed for the emergence citizens tremendous collaborative initiatives, horizontal and open to free sharing online, technocrats currently governing are vassals of corporate lobbies and tend to turn the city, our common living ground, into an area of control and surveillance.
Private ownership has become the cornerstone of our society and it alienates all desires and human relationships. The sharing relationship that seems to me as close as an alternative type of relationship is the one you could develop with a work of art. His own is that the work cannot be exhausted after being consumed culturally. In a way, it’s escaping to planned obsolescence which is the essential condition for the capitalist economy to be wealthy. I’m not talking about the work of art as an object but as concept: on the contrary, works of art contain in themselves sensations and ideas – that belong to everybody – and a power of transformation of imaginary – which everyone can experience – and that can not be reduced or enslaved by individual property. The interest is of my point of view the urban intervention holds that character otherwise immateriality, temporality. The destruction predictable near horizon – as dependent on the vagaries of the good / malicious passersby, of the rigor of cleaning service or of the urban renewal plans – gives it a form of intensity. What is rare is not the work as an artifact (as it was the case with the works of art in the modern period) but the fact of being able to experience a situation.
What is the power of art to you?
An emancipatory principles of art could be described as an initiatory journey that always tends to put our comfort zones in crisis. Child, I was interested by Picasso for his deconstruction of the rules of representation, perspective or anatomy. Teenager, I went away from Picasso to focus on the hallucinatory world of Dali inspired by dreams and carried by the surrealist thought. Then adult, I detached myself from modern painting to go towards more conceptual and experimental approaches; I have kept Magritte’s univers whose graphic compositions by bonding or temporality of perspective are closer to an everyday poetic and is still inspiring me. A discovery of a field of art brings a gesture that brings you to question the certainties that have motivated that gesture. It’s the transformative power of art that matters. Discovering a work forces you to bend your mind and project yourself into the perception of someone else, in order to experience a new sensibility – in a way that it is otherness – with a horizon to achieve: to go beyond the definition art in order to return to life and to be intensely present to the world.
All images by Mathieu Tremblin
Interview: May 2015.