The pantheon of our new icons
“Brad Pitt is to us exactly like Batman. We’ll never meet him in our lives. To us he’s a fictional character, or at least everything we can see of him is fiction.”
How did you start working the streets?
We started to paint in an abandoned farm, the Silo, which was next door to our house and which we decided to squat. We had borrowed materials from the construction site, paint and plaster, and we repainted the walls to decorate. When the place was destroyed and we had to leave, we naturally continued to do Graffiti because we liked drawing in large format. We then started to develop our graphic style, without any conceptual pretensions. But it is by reconnecting with the Professor, whom we had known since we were children, that we began to develop our concept of Mythologeny.
Why do you choose never to give the real version of the story of your blaze?
Isn’t the research more important than the answer? That’s why we always give several versions. The real reason we never give it and it remains an enigma. Noty Aroz is a graphic palindrome and you have to find out how to arrange the letters to answer it.
THE MYTHOLOGENY: A CONCEPT
One of you two has done screenwriting studies. This is reflected in the way you develop your project, which resembles a series with its breakdown by seasons and episodes.
When we read the theory of Fictional Syncretism (a philosophical or religious system that tends to merge several different doctrines, here with elements of contemporary culture), we didn’t necessarily think directly of a development by seasons and episodes. In his book, the Professor certainly develops five large families of masked characters, but he was not sure that it was cut out in this way. The Mythologeny is thus composed of elements already present in the theory of Fictional Syncretism, but also of others that we have added. We have found in many religions and mythologies the presence of numerology. The Mythologeny (Contraction of the words Mythology and Generation Y. Set of deities from contemporary syncretic beliefs.), as the mythology of a Generation Y, must have a numerology that speaks to it, which is the case with the number S0XE0X which refers to the seasons and episodes of a series.
As the theory included five families of characters, we made up our first five episodes. At the end we decided that they formed one season, and that we had to start a second one. But it’s not all set in stone: we just realized that two episodes were missing, and that we would have to add manga and video games as new worlds to these families. Writing a kind of gospel in comics was not planned either: we decided to do it by joining Combo CK, Jaeraymie and Raphaël Federici during their project in the United States. We thought it was cool to tell the other side of the story, because our approach is quite atypical. Confronting the creation of a new mythology, let alone a contemporary one, is not insignificant. We thought it would be interesting to document the formation of this kind of religion through the contemporary gospel that is comics, thus allowing us to put it into an abyss.
How did you determine your starting universes? The figure of the Teacher to which you refer easily evokes the character of the mentor in the great sagas.
The starting universes are those present in the Professor’s book. But since it was written in 2004, it doesn’t take into account genres that have developed considerably since then, such as manga and video games. It is certain that the Professor is an archetype of the wise man. With our training, we know the existence of these tools that we use in the narrative treatment of our history. Nevertheless, if there is a part that is always romanticized and exaggerated in what we tell, the majority is true. Some things have also been rearranged to make storytelling more fluid. When you read a comic strip, not everything is to be taken at face value. Would you like someone to tell you that the Teacher doesn’t exist, or to give you proof of his existence? You have to have faith, ask those who have met him.
BETWEEN THE HERO AND THE DEITY
In my opinion, the Mythologeny contains an ambiguous relationship between the religious icon and the model. There is, however, a difference between what one believes in and what one identifies with. Your character El Murciélago is made up partly of religious figures from the 20th century, but also of the figure of Batman, who, although he may be a model, is not the object of a cult.
Do you really think so? The only difference between today’s religions and fictions is in the eyes of those who worship them: on the one hand they think they really existed, on the other hand they are aware that they are fictitious. For the rest, we find in both cases strong archetypes, stories with values that question individuals, their societies, their impulses. They provide emotions, have groups of fans, artefacts, places and music of reference, a whole culture that flows from them. Fundamentalism – thinking that everything that is said is true – is disappearing. As we become more and more atheists, we are moving from one set of fictions to another, from those we used to believe in to those we no longer believe in, which does not prevent us from worshipping them. Most people prefer Darth Vader to George Lucas, yet one exists and the other does not. We are gradually assuming our fictions.
Pourquoi faire fusionner les deux ?
C’est la théorie du Syncrétisme Fictif. D’une part, les mythes fondateurs sont en train de s’effondrer car ils ne servent plus le monde moderne et nous n’en avons plus autant besoin qu’à une époque. Nous sommes passés d’un modèle héroïque ou divin archétypal à la figure de la star. La star qui remplace ces référents n’est d’ailleurs pas si réelle que ça : le Gainsbourg que nous connaissons est un personnage. La théorie du Syncrétisme Fictif explique que notre génération est en perte de repères car elle a vu à partir de la fin du XXe siècle mourir des personnalités qui transmettaient des valeurs fortes, remplacées par des people ou des politiques qui les ont nivelées par le bas. Beaucoup de monde finit alors par s’en détacher : nous ne connaissons plus les gens qui passent à la télévision, à moins d’aller les chercher. Or, l’important pour un mythe ou une religion est – au-delà de sa popularité – son impact sur le réel.
Traditional myths include heroes, characters that are found in contemporary stories and superheroes. But stars are not, they exist primarily because of their popularity and not because they embody a set of values.
They embody values, even if those values may refer to consumerism. Our work is not centred on saying: we lost Hercules, fortunately we have Brad Pitt. We just assume that we need references, models, to look at how other people live or have lived, in order to be able to understand the world. When myths no longer allow you to do that, human beings will look for new stories, which will be embodied either through real people or in other fictions.
These new heroes seem to be found only by the note of fiction. But what will separate them from mortals is their ability to act in extraordinary ways. Thus, one does not identify with Achilles because his very nature makes him unattainable.
Concerning their fictional character, the answer is simple: Justin Bieber cannot answer all the problems we have, whereas fiction has this capacity to go further than the real world. For the rest we disagree: all myths allow an identification with the character, no matter if he is a superman or not. This identification is based on the emotions that are transmitted, and not on the actions carried out. If we no longer identify so easily with Achilles, it is because we have changed times, his issues are far removed from ours. The collapse of myths also depends on that. Yet when Moses freed the Jews of Egypt, he restored a justice with which anyone can identify.
One then identifies only with the values.
Identifying yourself does not mean you think you can be the person. It means that you can share the character’s point of view and feel what he or she feels. You can identify with an eight-year-old Chinese girl in a story, while being an old Swedish man. The strength of playwrights is that they are able to find intimate emotions in the reader, even as they tell epics or grandiose frescoes. If you’re an orphan and you’re eight years old and you feel lonely you’ll identify more easily with Harry Potter, but that doesn’t mean that this story can’t touch a sixty year old lady: it’s just that she’ll talk to him about something else. Characters you don’t identify with at all are usually antagonists, although nowadays we are beginning to reconsider them because we feel the need to nuance the subject. We then create processes of identification with the bad guys so that we can understand why they act like that.
But, unlike the aforementioned star, the hero is untouchable. Pretty much we could be the reality show candidate on the screen.
Brad Pitt is to us exactly like Batman. We’ll never meet him in our lives. He’s a fictional character to us, or at least everything we see of him is fictional. When he’s on the cover of a magazine, the text is a story, and his very figure is staged.
Originally the hero is a demigod who is the junction between the human and the divine. You make these personalities divine figures in their own right because they are the only ones who can transmit a story to us.
We do not say that El Murciélago exists. We anticipate the possibility of a cult dedicated to this personality that could emerge through syncretism. Nevertheless, we are aware that this character would remain a fiction. If we use the word divinity it is because it is easier to understand, but it is not a closed notion: it is above all a fictional figure that has a real link with the sacred. It doesn’t matter whether we call him a hero, god or superhero. When theologians are asked about the difference between mythology and religion, they do not all agree: therefore, it is up to each one to use the terms he needs to serve his purpose.
A RESEARCH WORK ON SYMBOLS
What research work do you do to compose your characters?
Our methodology consists of several steps. First, we choose a masked – or at least transfigured – character from one of the five main character families (DC, Marvel, Sci-Fi, Horror, Indie). It has to seem interesting and very popular to us, that a lot of people know him or her so as not to end up with overly elitist figures. We’re then going to make a screenplay analysis of it, removing everything on the surface to look for the raw material of the story, its underlying themes and issues, wondering how they could be transposed in a contemporary way. For example, the character of Flash talks about speed, but the notion of speed in the 21st century has nothing to do with that of previous centuries. Beyond the simple fact of going fast, our relationship to this notion has evolved so much that it is interesting to talk about it.
Once these elements have been established, we try to find a civilisation that shares a link with these themes, continuing if necessary to investigate the character to find leads. The figure of Mystique talks about racism: how do you find a mythology or a culture that speaks directly about it? Here we started from the character to discover that she had links with Malcolm X, that he was linked to Celtic Scotland, to find out that Mystique itself could be linked to this culture. In this case, we are looking for a kind of Prof. Point: the strong and clear element that concludes a sometimes chaotic path. Here we came to Morrígan, the goddess of metamorphic warfare, accompanied by crows on the battlefield. The English for crow is raven: it is the first name of Mystic.
What work do you do next on the symbols?
We will then collect symbols, which will allow us to create a graphic and visual creation. There is a real work on the logo, on looking for a strong image. It’s always amazing to see what a cross represents, when it’s just two lines that intersect. It’s the same for the Jewish star, which is only made up of two triangles. We work from these elements to find the ones that will echo with the character. But there is also a graphic part, because the whole has to be harmonious. This accumulation of symbols, which is always present among Hindus, is less strong with us.
For T-A.L.I.A., which comes both from the universe of the Terminator and from Hebrew mythology, we find the Star of David, the Sephiroth, which are ten creative powers listed by the Kabbalah, a cosmogony too, with a balance of points positioned in a particular way. Noty and Aroz are written here in Hebrew, because we like to put it in the alphabet of the civilization studied. We also find our own logotypes which are a triangle in one direction and a triangle in the other. But there will also be the fleurs-de-lis that would have inspired the star of David in nature, or the on/off logo, which is a real contemporary symbol, and refers very strongly to the idea of being able to activate or deactivate something. Finally, we find the word emet, which evokes the legend of the Golem, the menorah, the seven-branched candlestick of the Hebrews, or the red eye which is present in Terminator, as well as the initials TX which are used in the name of this version of the robot in the film.
THE FORMATION OF A PANTHEON
Do you develop a story for your characters that is unique to them, beyond their original worlds?
Once our character exists, we stay on the lookout to see if we’ve actually managed to predict an unborn movement. In the Fabula project in the street, we told how people ended up idolising Batman in Mexico, more precisely in Veracruz in 2011. Some strange things sometimes attract our attention: while we found nothing about a possible Star Wars cult in India (our Star Shivar character refers to it), the Prime Minister nevertheless recently concluded a speech on the music of the Imperial March. Our theory is that Star Wars would have been used in the 1970s when India opened up to the Western world, to communicate the values of Hinduism to those who were gradually abandoning religion.
Could you go back to the mask all your characters are wearing? It’s a form of gimmick that you seem to compose with from your first creations.
It was a logical choice: all these popular fictions that replace ancient myths include a large number of masked characters. If this remains an interesting artistic constraint, it also carries meaning: the mask allows easy visual identification, an important element in a society of images. It also represents a form of freedom because once worn it allows you to be anyone, without social constraints or cultural heritage. The mask thus expresses a kind of philosophical liberalism. Finally, it also marks the link with the divine, the superman.
Are your characters likely to evolve?
As far as symbols are concerned, we’ve sometimes changed a few things on our older characters because we thought it made more sense, but on the newer ones we don’t touch anything once the figure is finished. Indeed, our work is very methodological and all the elements are studied at the moment of creation.
The characters themselves may not age, but they may go through a new stage or change shape and evolve, just like Pokémon. This happens in ancient mythologies, such as when we see Zeus transforming into an animal, or having this or that extra attribute. However, they are often depicted in their latest version, also because today we come after all the stories written about them. If we take certain liberties as creators, we do so in full awareness of the references we use so that we don’t do just anything.
In our case, if we add two episodes to each season, and we stop at three, that would already make twenty-one deities, the same number of syncretic universes. We could then have fun going inside each one to create, for example, antagonists within the same civilization, or make our characters age: El Murciélago would have taken twenty years, his moustache would have become much bigger, a horn would have been broken.
A RELIGION BORN OF FICTIONAL SYNCRETISM?
For whom and why are you developing this religion?
We are full of questions, for which we do not necessarily have answers. We realize more and more that everything around us is only fiction, and that this deserves to be emphasized. Perhaps if people realised this it would be possible to take a step back from many things, to break our prejudices, our apriorities and all these dogmas which are only social constructions, to allow ourselves to think better and to move forward together. We could then realize that the religions that separate us should be able to bring us together if we accept them as they are in concrete terms, that is to say as great and beautiful fictions that have an impact on the world.
If for a very long time we were able to be among those atheists who considered that they do more harm than good, we now believe that religions have had a tremendous impact on the history of humanity, that they have allowed us to live together more than against each other. However, perhaps it is time to start thinking about them in a different way in the world that is being created, and it is up to the new generations to prepare the ground by bringing their perspective to these myths.
People who actively follow what we do may understand this, but for the person who discovers our work on the street the mask acts as a hook to open a door that can lead them to new thinking. It is a search for meaning: we are satisfied if people question themselves through our work.
Traditional religions are often perceived by the constraints associated with them, and this is one of the reasons why they speak less to people with a relativistic outlook. Even if you take the status of “apostles”, Mythologeny is more about opening up avenues of reflection than establishing a dogma.
This is a problem: there are things that we still cannot talk about, things that are still very difficult to question. Without being anti-religious at all, we offer people avenues of reflection to which they can relate. It’s also an approach that we build up as we go along and that is much more complex than that of artists whose message is closed or only comes through drawing. But it is undoubtedly more interesting to question yourself and the world around you, even if your approach becomes a perpetual questioning. The idea of also working on cultures thus appeared when we realized that they could be religions in anthropological language: this is what allowed us to develop the character of Dr. Lima, a mixture of Harley Quinn and the Viennese secession, which is in its own way an intellectual and spiritual movement that saw the birth of psychoanalysis.
What makes you consider that reality and fiction are increasingly confused?
We are more and more cut off from Nature, from our former selves. Everything has become hyper-complex and hyper-connected: an epidemic in China can make a baker sell less here, or increase the price of flour. These are pure intellectual constructs, belief systems that we have created for ourselves: borders, language, mathematics; we essentially rely on numbers to define real things. They are constructions of our minds that are imaginary but that we share to allow us to live together. We are social animals and our societies need to be based on myths, morals and law in order to function. It is important to be aware of this so that prejudice does not take over. Our only dogma would be to question everything: what is true, what is not? Otherwise we’re heading straight for the wall.
Is it possible to be an atheist in your religion?
It is possible to be completely atheist there and still love it. Indeed, we do not say that El Murciélago exists, we simply explain that there are people in Mexico who worship Batman and who, in a way, ended up introducing him to the Mexican pantheon in Veracruz around 2011/2012. But after all, what makes you think that’s true? The people following us may think so, but no one’s gone to check it out.
ON THE STREET
How do you look at the collage?
We are going to stop the collage, which for several reasons does not suit our approach or our history. It is not the right medium, it is not sacred enough. We are in the process of creating plaster arches that can be composed like Lego, and will allow us to arrange our symbols and logos. We will add our masks, our syncretic alphabet, but also candleholders that people will be able to use.
The street as a space allows an optimal diffusion of your message.
Yes, the street has a meaning in relation to our approach. Indeed, we could not carry out this propaganda and proselytizing elsewhere. Political and religious movements use the street. As soon as you have something to proclaim, you are obliged to impose yourself and use the public space. Street art is a great tool for that. However, it would be wrong to think that you are freer there than in the studio. On the contrary, there are things in the street for which you take more risks than if they had been reserved for a restricted public like the gallery. This is especially true when your message is disruptive or disturbing. So the street doesn’t necessarily offer more freedom, but it does demand more responsibility.
Do you have the impression with Urban Art that you are part of an artistic movement?
It’s difficult as an artist to define oneself. We belong pretty much to the Street Art family because it’s our network, the network of people we hang out with and the network of people who follow us. We also put pieces on the street. But both in terms of approach and technique, we are already the heritage of street art, an evolved form which is not the one still practiced by the majority of our friends, who paint in the same way as we did ten or thirty years ago, without necessarily trying to bring something new. Maybe it’s a bit pretentious, but I think we can’t be put in the same category as 90% of Street art artists. Besides, we don’t only express ourselves in the street: a large part of our work is done in the studio: we use video, sound installations, comic strips. We are not mainly street artists: we use street art in our approach.
You have the peculiarity of having created an expanded universe.
We take our inspiration from universe creators like J.R.R. Tolkien, Georges Lucas or Satoshi Tajiri, the creator of Pokémon. These are people who have created universes that have spread out large enough to allow other artists to come and create within them. These universes exist through different media, and are based on a great deal of research. But the big difference with these examples is that they are all fictional: the reader/viewer knows that he is entering a fictional universe. In ours some things are real, others are modified or added. Also, we are present in the real world, and our characters are a mise en abime of events that may occur elsewhere. Of course, we don’t pretend to be better than Tolkien, because it takes a lifetime to create a work like his, and he was a genius. But we have a difference that is a strength.