Jean-Luc Moerman is leaving his signature on everything.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: a conversation with Jean-Luc Moerman
HUO: The first time we met we were in your workshop in Brussels. I would like to know your method of working is in this studio. You sometimes get together with other artists here. And sometimes, you also leave the studio altogether to go and work somewhere else, such as when you work in situ, for example, or when you infiltrate other spaces through the use of graffiti, mural paintings or stickers. How do you organise the studio and these movements outside the studio ?
JLM: The main idea is that the studio is like the nucleus of an explosion, and what we do outside the studio is the impact. Whenever I go out, I always have stickers with me, which I put in different places. These stickers are like urban tattoos. Sometimes people unstick them and put them up somewhere else, so they have a sort of autonomy of their own. Just like the idea of 'sameness' in biology (a unit of cultural transmission or a unity of imitation), a sort of infectious image which, invented by one person, is spread by others, and gets stronger and stronger. When I work outside in the street, the confrontation is fairly direct: images are imposed on people and the reaction is immediate (by contrast to art galleries, museums etc.). Like these logos which I sometimes put on signposts. This enables an infectious image to be created which can propagate almost anywhere. When I come back to the studio, I have the impression that I'm bringing back items which have acquired a life of their own.
HUO: Do the two mutually feed each other ?
JLM: Yes, permanently, the studio and the work in the street constantly feed each other. Where collaboration is concerned, I would like to go further into the idea of working together under a single logo, so that people no longer know how many we are; sometimes we work together as two, sometimes as three. The idea would be to have this logo, and to call upon different people according to the context I'm working in at the time. The logo has to be understandable in a primitive sense, which means as a human activity which has been going on since the start of time and which consists of marking out a territory. And in the same way, there's a political aspect to the logo which forces people to see humanity in all its global aspects, forming part of a same space, without there being any personal names any more.
HUO: The logo comes from your name; is it already defined as a logo ?
JLM: Yes, it's been used in my work for the past five or six projects or exhibitions, as a sticker, or painted on the wall, or on windows, on all sorts of supports. Each time, I put this logo in context. I would also like to have it tattooed on me.
HUO: It isn't a particularly simple logo. Usually a logo is a basic shape.
JLM: Yes, this is true, it is fairly complex. The idea is of three arms which move in a circular manner towards the interior. The more this logo comes back, the more impact it will have according to the context and the elements of life.
HUO: Does it change or is it always the same logo ?
JLM: It has been evolving for a year, but there is a central form which always remains. I'm always drawing in sketch books, and I use these drawings later by reworking them on the computer.
HUO: This logo is therefore the result of design activity. Could you tell me more about this design activity ? Is all the rest – stickers, graffiti – also the result of this ? You work on design every day, but do you have archive work ?
JLM: I am not a graffiti artist. I've got quite a lot of friends in this domain, with whom I even work closely. I am from the same social background and I share the same musical tastes, but I don't go on the railway to spray trains. As far as design is concerned, they are classified in files by year. I design on A5 format sheets, it's the first thing I do every morning when I get up.
HUO: Since when ?
JLM: For at least the past 7 or 8 years I have been spending an hour or two designing every morning, with a cup of coffee. Then I classify them and I re-use them to make cut outs of vectorial designs (with a view to making mirrors) or I re-use them on fabric, or on aluminium…
HUO: Are they always the same sketch books, the same format ?
JLM: it's a format which is perfectly suited to this type of design. And I rework them afterwards. At a given moment they have reached a certain state, they are heavily charged, and I stop; but I can always take them up again, they are in perpetual evolution. Right at the beginning, to design, I moved around, like you do with a movie camera. I took a detail of an object; this ended up by creating a sort of slightly hybrid organism, a mixture between what is organic and what is mechanical. That's where the forms I design come from, but they have become more complex, and have acquired their own autonomous life independent of the objects. In general terms you could say that these forms make certain invisible aspects of our reality visible.
HUO: So it's not an automatic design process, you start from existing objects and you mutate them ?
JLM: Nowadays, it has become automatic at certain times. I start to design and I sense that it's the form itself that I'm designing which is slowly taking on its own life and starts to fill it up. I try to design by starting at the centre, with sometimes a certain degree of symmetry.
HUO: A sort of organic symmetry ?
JLM: Yes, a bit like what it is that explains the relation between the infinitely small and the infinitely large, there is a sort of organisation of the organic. Because of this, I've started to work on the computer, and that has allowed me to break through different stages: I have moved from the idea of making invisible things visible, to making things much more clinical. A bit like in the news programmes today: things are defused, reformatted and re-imposed on people.
HUO: There is a very strong link between the emergence of graffiti in New York and hip-hop. You yourself rarely work without music, there's always a link. What role does music play for you ?
JLM: I spend a lot of time looking for music, it's a real source of nourishment for my work. I found a sort of basic energy in the musical universe of hip hop just recently: an authenticity, a cry of revolt, a survival energy. This energy has helped me a great deal myself. Music has the capacity to breathe immediate strength into you. You only have to see certain concerts, see what certain groups can make pass through the public instantaneously. This is the most human thing, the most direct thing, that exists in art. I need to go and find things from Afro-American music; my father used to listen to everything to do with soul music (Tamla Motown).
HUO: Your father was a musician ?
JLM: No, but he listened to a lot of music, and that got into me. I find that the energy of rap is now starting to build up bit by bit. You can sense that the people who needed to get a message over at the beginning displayed a certain sort of rage which was linked to their way of life, but for a lot of rappers now it's just business and style. I am now looking more towards hardcore American music. Certain groups were inspired by hip-hop whilst having invented their own musical identity close to the world of rock, and the skate-board culture. Groups like Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit, Korn, Deftones, Rage Against the Machine, etc.
HUO: have you turned towards this music because of the commercialisation of hip-hop ?
JLM: What is powerful in the hip-hop movement is that by contrast to the punk groups, despite their refusal of the system, they have used capitalism to their own ends. The punk movement split up of its own accord, whereas certain rappers now represent veritable empires (Snoopdog, Dre etc.) whilst still being able to connect with the world of crime etc. But the groups I admire the most are groups like NWA or RZA which really had a message.
HUO: Do you make music yourself ?
JLM: No but I have a lot of CD's. I download music from the net. My friends often come round with armfuls of CD's, we burn them and they get passed around.
HUO: Have you already worked with music groups ?
JLM: No but I've got friends who work in groups, or as crew or stagehands. And what's interesting is that there are different activities on the inside (music, graphic design, graffiti, dance, streetwear etc.) which are continually mixing together, with no bounds. A phenomenon which, for me, will soon become generalised, I hope. Yet I sense that that something is coming to an end, and there is something else about to arrive, but what…?
HUO: The area which interests you now, is this more to do with independent groups, underground – even if this term doesn't really mean anything any more ?
JLM: At the beginning of the 90's we were seeing the emergence of American groups. I could feel a movement emerging which you could compare in some ways to the punk movement in Europe in the 70's, the same energy in any case.
HUO: Is this tied in with an urban context?
JLM: Yes, it's city energy which brings about this sort of movement, carried around by young skateboarders (Ken Park, Lary Clark, for example).
HUO: In what you do there is a sort of oscillation between interior and exterior, but you remain based in Brussels. Brussels is more and more becoming a focal point for artists. A lot of artists are leaving Paris at the moment to come and live in Brussels. Can you tell me about this, about this relationship with this city?
JLM: Where collaborations are concerned, this is essentially with graffiti artists, taggers, because the artists within the world of contemporary art have difficulty in breaking out of the accepted bounds. A world which looks to the history of an art which it merely prolongs or rekindles. Brussels has changed a lot in the last three or four years, even if it remains a city which doesn't have a lot of links to the outside (it's not a fruitful city). It's a city which wasn't moving much before. But since it became capital of Europe and the TGV arrived, a lot of people came from abroad to work here. There is a much higher quality of life compared to Paris or London. This is a city where you can still find workshops which are not too expensive and which you have to renovate from scratch! There are still a lot of places to invest in. And as for working in the street, there are still plenty of open spaces, whereas Paris, for example, is over-saturated.
HUO: Suffocating and suffocated…?
JLM: Exactly, whilst Brussels still offers lots of possibilities and the people have the mentality that never believes that everything has been done. This is a sort of modesty.
HUO: In the end Brussels is a city which is very little defined. I imagine that for you, as an urban context, these gaps interest you, they are your material.
JLM: Yes, it's a sort of no man's land without any history of its own. And this emptiness can of course be seen negatively, but I prefer to use it as a source of positive energy: the energy of everything which is possible. As is now beginning to be seen, you only need one person from the urban art movement to come from Paris, London or New York to do something in Brussels, and the network starts up all on its own, suddenly there is a chain, and Brussels becomes a sort of platform.
HUO: This urban art, could it be seen as a sort of public art without anyone commissioning it ?
JLM: Exactly, no one orders it even if the urban milieu does possess its own codes and its own rules. These rules operate in a fairly crude and brutal manner, like a sort of sub-code to the official code. What is most interesting for me is the almost primitive side to the way these interventions in the street are made: there is an aspect which is not only aesthetic (to make people look) but above all which is functional (it really transmits energy). For me this is a necessary safety valve.
HUO: To get an idea of your rhythm, in the morning you start by designing with a coffee at your side. Then you extend and prolong these designs on your computer. You also create canvasses for galleries – this is another way in which your work is seen. And then you have 'self-organised' interventions in the urban spaces. How does your day go on after the coffee ?
JLM: In fact I have two spaces in Brussels. One in which I do most of the self-adhesive stickers and also paintings. Another in which I work on the computer and also design. These areas are full of past histories, of bits of stickers covering the floor.
HUO: Are self-adhesive stickers one of your principal media ?
JLM: This is a small part of my work, like a skin covering the body. The stickers are like the impact point of an explosion which takes place in the workshop. These are organic hubs, prolongations of myself. They are also perturbing signals, a new language which goes against certain accepted codes when they are placed on street signposts, for example. We learn from a very early age to adapt to certain systems of signals (language, regulations etc.) but there are a multitude of others which are yet to be invented. So in the morning I start with designs, then I paint, I sometimes design using magazine photos as a base; or else I start projects according to interventions in places which people propose to me; and in the evening or at night, I tend to do stickers. As I cut them by hand, this takes quite a lot of time. Tattooed ladies come rather more at the end of the day. This gives me a daily rhythm, like waves, like in music.
HUO: As Boetti said "everything goes on around waves, with highs and lows, intervals, pauses and silence".
JLM: This means I am always doing something, always in the waves of my work.
HUO: Do you mostly paint in the afternoon ?
JLM: At the end of the morning, after I've designed, until the end of the afternoon.
HUO: You design very quickly. How do these designs get translated into paintings ? Is it a projection from one to the other, or is it another reality ?
JLM: I scan the designs I have kept, and I re-work them in vectorised mode. I transform them using other programmes and then I print them out again in order to project them. When you project, you create a degree of distance: this gives a precise, radical aspect. The fact of projecting allows me to visualise them and to try various designs. Projection is a process which, in my view, works in the same way as a genetic code which produces a comparable identity yet always translated in a unique way. The projector is like a satellite which is both extremely far away and extremely precise.
HUO: When you project, do you copy completely ?
JLM: There are always accidents and interpretations possible at the moment when I am doing this.
HUO: This idea of a structured day is completely fascinating. Once you have designed, re-worked on the computer, then, painted, what do you do in the afternoon? Tattoos for magazines? You also have an enormous archive of this work.
JLM: I keep and file the photos of human bodies on which I have created tattoos. At the outset, they are projects for real tattoos. Projects I file. These magazine photos are in my eyes positioned at the junction of an ancestral practice – tattoos as protection or convocation of the spirits, or tribal signs, or a descendancy – and this plastic beauty in magazines, having become virtual by being re-worked on a computer. Women identify with these girls who could be described as not really existing at all in real terms. I have the impression that all these ancestral practices which we have somewhat forgotten in the west are re-emerging in other ways. Design and tattooing sometimes give me the impression of bringing together certain things, often invisible things. In the beginning I look for something, and then afterwards it looks for me. In the end, this thing becomes autonomous, charged with energy. There is also this dimension in the stickers, but this is less complex and less precise.
HUO: I have just seen a film by Jorodovsky, Santa Sangre, which has just come out on DVD. It made me think a lot about you because there is a tattoo scene. At the same time, there is this idea within him of a popular art; he created cartoons in collaboration with Moebius, for the cinema. Would you describe your tattoos as un-realised projects ?
JLM: Yes, a lot of my tattoos are at the project stage. In Belgium, tattooing large areas is less in our customs than in Zurich (where I was tattooed 4 years ago). It's more normal to have your back, or arms or legs tattooed, etc.
HUO: Let's come back to the night time session. Do you have sessions with friends, a bit like in music? Is it a sort of improvisation ?
JLM: When I'm in the workshop, there are often people dropping by, and that sometimes gives rise to a stickers session. As there is a room which is used only for this, and in which I make sure there is always material ready, this means peoples' energies can be channelled and a session can take place, just like in music !
HUO: Is this activity separate from what you do in galleries or museums ?
JLM: In a way. I sometimes come back into galleries and museums with stickers, a bit like a wild animal which accidentally goes into an area and then leaves traces. What is important is that the stickers are not for sale, they remain a free, popular art. At the moment there is a project at the Neckar Hospital where we are creating stickers with sick children, which we will then go and put up in the street. This project is still at the virtual stage – if it doesn't come about I will do it anyway, somewhere else.
HUO: Who is organising that ?
JLM: Art in the City. As the children can't go out (some of them are undergoing long treatments over several months) the idea is to place the stickers we will have created together outside, and to record the reaction of people on film. For the children, these stickers become a prolongation of themselves, which allows them to have a life, in a certain way, outside of the hospital. I have the impression that this type of practice makes my art more functional, a bit like the sorcerers in some African villages, who act as healers, using signs. It is in this way that, as I said before, art is not just aesthetic, it is also functional.
HUO: The tattoos are a sort of catalogue of un-realised projects. That brings us on to other un-realised projects, to utopian projects. Do you have other un-realised projects ?
JLM: Where utopian projects are concerned, I would like to create some designs in 3D in the form of sculptures, which could also serve as shelters, or play areas, or encampments for the homeless. This is in line with what I said earlier, about the stickers representing functional art. Of all the projects I start, there are always more than half which never get finished, for basic reasons, or because they are not accepted. But for me, from the moment when the project exists in small scale, and I develop it through to the end, it can always be brought to fruition later. This way of working allows me to evolve, whilst facing up to constraints which I didn't have before. It's a bit like the designs which don't get finished, which can be continually re-modelled. I still put them in files so that I can re-mix them later.
HUO: This idea of a social space in 3D originating from your designs is quite interesting. Are there any plans along these lines ?
JLM: Yes, I've already done some designs and models. I am looking for people who could help me create larger prototypes.
HUO: Could you tell me about some of your utopian projects ?
JLM: I went to the Venice biennial this summer for the first time, and that gave me the idea of doing floating sculptures which could also serve as a means of transport for people. The really utopian side would be to create a whole city like that. Or rather autonomous, modulable mini-villages which could be adapted to the context in question.
HUO: Little entities, in a way ?
JLM: Little modulable entities with very light frames so that they can be dismantled and rebuilt very quickly.
HUO: So they're portable ?
JLM: Portable and small; in the same sort of spirit as a caravan, where different objects can have various uses. A seat can be a storage chest, for example. I have in the past sometimes had fairly large workshops, but in general I just use a small part, compact cells, little huts which I fill up so that I can spread out.
HUO: You often go far beyond the borders of art. With stickers, you infiltrate all sorts of contexts, with your social spaces projects there is the idea of art for all – particularly for people who don't normally have access to contemporary art – not just art for art critics. You have widened the field. But at the same time, this catalogue is published by the MUDAM (Museum of Luxembourg), by the 'CriÈe de Rennes' and by the Rudolph Janssen and Alimentation GÈnÈrale galleries. You are exhibiting in the context of art, in closed spaces, in 'white cubes'. What importance do these protected spaces have for you and your work ?
JLM: You can see museums as a process which kills art, which takes the life out of the objects by taking them out of their context. But you can also have an energetic vision of a museum: in Rennes, for example, I think that the 'Criée' is a bit like the central core (the studio) from which other, exterior activities start.
HUO: So the exhibition is rather more a staging post ?
JLM: Well for example, I'm going to transform the lamp standard in front of the entrance into an urban totem. This totem will be like a sort of initial energisation, serving as a link between the people on the inside and the people on the outside. I'm going to work down there for a month, so it will be a real work base for me. I am also going to create a wall with the kids from the Maurepas district house in Rennes, which co-ordinates many social and cultural projects. But in the end, it's not very important for me, the difference between the inside and the outside. It's a bit like a wild animal, always on the lookout, even if you put it in another context. It's all about staying alive.
HUO: We have spoken about the influence of music, but we can speak about the influence of art. Do you have favourite museums ? Can you tell me about your imaginary museums, the things you like, the things which trigger things in you ?
JLM: The people I find interesting at the moment are, for example, Thomas Hirschhorn, Jason Rhoades and Jessica Stokohlder. Matthew Barney for other reasons, and Dan Graham. I am also interested by part of the 'raw art' movement, by its commitment, the fact that this art breaches a limit which many artists barely dare touch. It is mostly work in the architectural field which has impressed me. How the artists are going to get hold of the space and what ramifications will follow. I recently saw an exhibition of Wolfli in New York at the Folk Museum, which had nothing to do with Rhoades or Hirschhorn, but which will remain for me a very intense and very important moment: I already felt close to this very obsessive human activity, as Wolfli accumulates partitions, filled with designs, and creates a world where time no longer exists.
HUO: This is the idea of filling up, this obsession with filling up which can also be seen with Hirschhorn ?
JLM: Exactly, for me, there is always a need to fill up, as though to adhere to life itself. This is a hybrid way of thinking and functioning, which produces life.
HUO: Are there other influences, in cartoon work or graffiti ?
JLM: For a long time I have been consumed by American comics, etc. I have found in comics a way of laying out the space (in the way the pages are arranged) that I have rarely found in contemporary painting.
HUO: Do you have an enormous archive of comics ?
JLM: Yes, it's not the sort of cartoon that I read, but I find the images very interesting. With Frank Miller, for example. But I also read a great deal of graphic and architectural books, as well.
HUO: Can you give me some examples ?
JLM: In graphic art, I buy an enormous amount of books from the publishing house 'Die Gestalten Verlag' which has Designer Republic and Bureau District. The same goes for the publishing house 'IdN'. Japanese design studios too, which are at a crossroads, and which have invented a new visual field. As for architecture, there is Archigram, the Future System, Zaha Hadid, etc. I find that for the moment, if something's going on in art, you have to go and see it.
HUO: Yes, in Birmingham I interviewed them on this subject.
JLM: I take energy from all that.
HUO: Archigram leads us on to a utopian topic – to the idea of the social contract in art. You have already mentioned it, with this idea of encampment, for example. How can art define a social contract ? Utopia has very much been put to one side. Bloch said of Utopia that it was 'that which was missing'. Does this expression mean something to you ?
JLM: For me Utopia means the possibility of going past the limits, because in formulating a utopian project, you can allow yourself not to have a precise, defined objective. Since I was very small I realised that justice was a two-speed process, a two-speed medicine, one for the poor districts, and one for the rich districts. The interest for me would be to create areas, crossroads, which would connect people between themselves and which would constitute an opening out onto the world (internet connections, encampments with aerials, images of the rest of the world, etc.). I also find that more space should be left for the imaginary in education, instead of training the population so that it will be profitable.
HUO: Are there other important things we haven't already spoken of ?
JLM: my wife works in ethno-psychiatry. What interests me in this domain is that the therapeutists manage to solve certain problems, to build certain thoughts, where the western doctor is blocked. This whole universe of thought has been part of my life from the very beginning, and takes up more and more space in my work.
HUO: I interviewed Paul Parin a few months ago. He is a very old ethno-psychiatrist of 90 years old living in Zurich. I will send it to you, we might be able to use some elements. We could do a montage with fragments of this interview. Ethno-psychiatry is really an inspiring domain for you, then ?
JLM: I wouldn't say inspiring, but it gives me an understanding of the world and of life. Ethno-psychiatry is a psychological thought system which sees the human figure from the point of view of attachment to languages, to spirits, to cultural practices, to places, to religions, to ancestors, to ways of behaving. What interests me is this perpetual openness which allows people to think in a different way. The therapeutists in ethno-psychiatry are always obliged to question themselves when faced with their patients. What also interests me is the idea of reciprocal construction: human beings make objects, mascots, items which convoke spirits, divinities, and these same human beings are themselves constructed by these ways of acting. This is the way I look at my work: I construct a work, but I am myself a little bit constructed by it, by my practice.
HUO: In his interview, Paul Parrin speaks a lot about the notion of expedition. This is something we haven't spoken about with regard to your activities. We have spoken about this sort of urban wandering, between your workshop and the city, between the interior and the exterior. But do the notions of expedition and voyage play a role for you ?
JLM: When I think of expedition, I think of the encampments which we could take to people in places where they most need to discover how to communicate with the world. Whilst always respecting their own practices and their own way of going about things. I am fascinated by the Australian aborigines, the North American Indians, the Eskimos etc. I didn't have any money to travel before, but now it's a real project. All I have done is lived a few months in New York.
HUO: Your time in New York, what year was that ?
JLM: 92-93. There was much more energy then than there is now, more channelled, more directed.
HUO: Did you have links with the world of graffiti at that time ?
JLM: Very little at that time, my first concern was to find some money. I took a lot of photos of graffiti tags and I went to see design exhibitions, graffiti projects in alternative galleries.
HUO: The graffiti context should perhaps be integrated a little earlier into the interview. But we have only spoken a little about you, about your own interventions, your work in cities. Once you leave your workshop and go into the city, do you make graffiti yourself ?
JLM: I have used derelict areas as giant sketch-books, but I have never done real graffiti (spraying a train, for example). My intervention in the street is mostly the stickers which I put everywhere, and which move around, as I have explained.
HUO: Where do you put them ?
JLM: At first, we often put them on sign-posts (pre-coded places). But I make very large stickers which I place in derelict places, lorries, windows, it all depends on the context. The advantage of stickers, which are like munitions, is that they can be placed very quickly. All the stickers are hand made, they are all unique, which is what gives them their own energy. At the beginning I painted, and I only worked with galleries. Then I needed to go outside, I felt too hemmed in, and I came across other groups doing the same thing (mostly tags), and I discovered an authenticity in this, a real energy. I think that the whole street movement is slowing down now, it's become a bit of a cliché (a lot of people don't do it any more out of need, but as a sort of fashion), I think something else is going to arrive.
HUO: You don't know what yet ?
JLM: Now it's more the world of logos, of specific signs, which is making an impact. And what's interesting with these signs is that you can find similar ones in different parts of the globe, without the people having any communication between them. And some of these signs also resemble things which were done or practiced in the past. Without forgetting the new technologies (computer chips) and the viral character of the way in which these phenomena involving signs develop.
HUO: It's a diversion from the language of advertising. Could you say that there is a political aspect, a subversion?
JLM: There is a political aspect, but the risk is that it is embraced by a group, and once this happens, it has to disappear in order not to fall into the traditional or folkloric (demonstrations). From our youngest age we are formatted at school, we are taught to work for points, for money etc. It's a bit utopian, but the idea of diversion would be to believe that by putting new signs on the existing coded signs (road signs and others) you can make people think there are other ways of communicating which are possible.
HUO: In your stickers, a certain language has developed. Can you tell me about tis ?
JLM: I am careful to make them visible and to make sure they have a direct impact. They shouldn't be too complicated, a few colours are enough. There is something of the ballistic in the practice of preparing stickers: you are preparing t take on the world armed with munitions. I take large sheets, shaped the same as bus shelters, and I design on them. Then I varnish them and cut them out. There is very little format too them, in terms of design, so that they remain alive, so they can spread and mutate.
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