Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A look into the mind of the often subtle urban interventionist.
Street artist Mathieu Tremblin has a subtle way of making people think just a little harder. His pieces manage to stand out in Europe's crowded street art scene, with his biggest works taking on an often minimalist look at first glimpse, only to reveal challenging but playful takes on city culture.
Based out of two different French cities (Rennes and Arles), Tremblin's work focuses on issues of everyday city life, graffiti culture, and branding. Issues that, for the French artist, are best expressed through urban interventions. The artist's approaches range from the very small (turning parking tickets into paper flowers) to quite large (the real-life watermarked "stock image" seen above).
His work can also be found in the Netherlands and Belgium, but Tremblin does the bulk of his art in his two French hometowns. There, he frequently collaborates with the photography collective "BIP" and his partner in the art duo "Ripoulain."
We caught up with Tremblin to talk about the messages in his work, how he feels about his two hometowns, and what he hopes people see in what he creates:
What do you usually try to express in your work and what do you hope viewers get from it?
When I walk through the city, I'm kind of surveying my surroundings, focusing on details that reveal relationships between urbanity and urbanism. I try to input interventions in dialogue with this "already there" situation which might become relevant within the context. My interventions are brief and unsigned so that they can be read as a random gesture done by any citizen.
Mostly, my work appears as a commentary on a specific topic but as I experiment through my art, I want to make the city playful, poetic and open to appropriation. When you make art in an urban space, it's more like an invitation to share powers because at some point, action becomes as important as reaction. So I expect people at least to notice or even destroy my work because vandalism is in itself a way to make (destructive) conversation.
Your live in Rennes and Arles. What are those cities like and how do they influence what you do?
Both are your average, small sized cities. Rennes and Arles are cities where urbanity takes on a big role and citizens are less afraid of taking charge of the public realm. You can travel the cities by foot easily so you're in less of a rush and more open minded about your surroundings. Also, without the amount of violence you see in big cities, there's a lot of uncontrolled space that you feel comfortable interacting with.
Rennes is the capital of Brittany, in the northwest of France. In the last fifteen years, a lot of the factories have closed and the city has become a perfect playground for all kinds of experimentations, especially post-industrial ones. From the time I started studying (1998) to the time I became an artist (2006), I met a lot of friends in Rennes and with some of them (BIP and Ripoulain), we implemented a certain dynamic using photography, graffiti and site-specific installation to end up with this attitude where we're making forms of art in symbiosis with the context of its creation or diffusion, turning everyday life spaces in experimental art spaces.
In 2011, I moved to Arles, in the south of France, to join my girlfriend who was studying photography there even though I still work regularly in the northwest. There's a lot of artists moving to Arles for a few months at a time (for the photography school and the International Festival of Photography each summer) which is a good basis for cultural exchange. It's also a tourism destination with a heavy marketing emphasis on its architecture. There's a lot of Roman antique monuments mixed with medieval and meridional buildings there, so there's already a lot history to deal with when you decide to do something art-related in the city.
The climate in Arles is always pleasant. When you work outdoors, rainy days are off days so it's good to have a place where you can do whatever you want without being worried about weather. People also seem more laid back in Arles than in other French cities (Mediterranean way of life, I guess) and doing interventions in the city seems easier.
What method did you use for your "Parisian Style of Graffiti Removal" project?
"Parisian Style of Graffiti Removal" is a series of images inspired by the way city workers cover graffiti done over large scale commercial billboards, particularly within the Paris subway. They just cut geometric shapes of colored paper and paste those posters to hide the writer's signature. Finally they modified reluctantly the reception of the advertisement. Messages slide from "cryptic handwriting versus stereotyped ads" to "geometeric abstraction versus stereotyped ads" and find a kind of autonomy.
PARISIAN STYLE OF GRAFFITI REMOVAL 2012. Collage, digital print, silk print, posters pasted on wood with metal frame. 100 x 70 cm (each)
I took pictures around Beaubourg-Les Halles Parisian neighborhood because there's a lot of graffiti spots and halls of fame there where you can find any European graffiti writer's signature. I added the same shape over elements covered by graffiti and then edited it as a collage of posters. But it could also be understood as a preliminary sketch for a massive intervention where I cover entire walls.
In "Tag Clouds," have any of the original taggers voiced displeasure over what you did? Has anyone tagged over "Tag Clouds" yet?
I consider "Tag Clouds" as a traditional graffiti fresco work. I come from a local graffiti scene and painting over a wall covered by tags to make something more complex, letters or characters whatever, is what graffiti writers do. But what's interesting is that the final mural deals with the writer's ego- their name. Having that direct communication, being known by anybody, is what writers are searching for. "Tag Clouds" removes all alterity or identity and makes it properly decorative and appreciable to any passerby, which is also the purpose of a graffiti fresco, showing technical skills for decoration.
This work sounds like a kind of oxymoron, you could understand it as a way to make a dirty signature proper as institutionalized visual communication, sterilizing wild graffiti writing by removing all traces of alterity and at the same time giving the opportunity to anybody to be able to read graffiti script and get in touch with it.
So agreeing with or being against the piece as a graffiti writer is a complex thing to decide because I'm half paying tribute to and half normalizing the local graffiti scene. I just translate writers names at the same scale and they usually continue to play with the blank spaces, adding their signature between regular typography I painted with stencil. In fact, the project is giving focus to some walls that writers weren't paying attention to anymore because they were filled with tags. Mostly though, it generates new graffiti challenges instead of killing the energy behind it.
What kind of reaction have you gotten from "Watermark"? Has there been a difference depending on whether someone saw it in-person or on the internet?
The idea of "Watermark" came to me as a way of criticizing the way Mons city council was dealing with territorial marketing regarding Mons 2015 (when it'll be designated European Capital of Culture). This work is just a way to say that their view of the city's identity is superficial and that they seem more obsessed with controlling their image than doing things right.
No matter how hard they try to make things work, the problem is they want to bring their identity to some kind of capitalism/globalization ideal stereotype which is far from representing every day life of an average resident. I made a projection of the current view I have, something like a cheap, stereotypical, post-industrial town landscape from a mainstream image bank you discover while you arrive by train. And ironically, each time the documentation of this intervention is published on the Internet, my pessimistic version of city's identity gets stronger.
Is there a work of yours that you're most proud of?
The works I prefer are the ones I would love to discover by random in a city without knowing if they were made intentionally or not. The only rare or precious thing about art nowadays, especially in urban intervention, is to experiment with the work on your own, so for me the smallest of the invisible or the far from conventional forms and city center the work is, the better it is.
Poetry lies in human scale relationship. "Parking Tickets Bouquet" (where parking tickets are turned into paper flowers) and "Fruits Skewer" (where a series of fruits were placed on an anti-vandalism collar) matter more from my point of view than larger scale other projects I did because those are dealing with spontaneity and economy of means. Creation is a matter of energy and in the end that's the free and non-commercial way of sharing with people and that makes life better.
This interview has been edited and condensed. All images courtesy the artist.