The promotion of the artist or the zero degree of art
It is easy to summarize your work with the sentence: “It is the promotion that makes the artist or the zero degree of art” Thus, some artists give the impression that their image is more important than the work, like Banksy. For you, an artist can only exist through his public image?
I have focused my work on the name and the self-portrait, which are for me the two elements that best represent the artist, that is, to make him present. But these elements also represent me as a man. I am sometimes accused of a certain megalomania, but as soon as I act as an artist I take a certain distance from them.
Before creating, the artist should already consider the interest of what he is doing in relation to History. Indeed, we cannot pretend that there was no Art History, nor any artists who preceded us. It would not occur to anyone to be cubist today, because it would be pointless. Yet many repeat things that have already happened, questions already asked, even buried.
“It is promotion that makes the artist or the zero degree of art”
Before asking this sentence as an affirmation, it was the question I wanted to ask as an artist about this History. I think that Art History is above all the history of artists responding through the ages, proposing their ideas, representing currents, in order to constitute an avant-garde capable of thinking the world.
Why talk about promotion? It is a notion that can be discussed at both a physical and metaphysical level, with many different understandings. Etymologically, promotion involves the idea of promoting, i.e. “moving forward”; we are already beyond promotion on tomatoes, even if it is easy to play on this ambiguity. Promotion is also the idea of a rise in rank: from what point do you obtain the status of artist, who is the “superior” rank likely to decorate you? This question is important because it is this role that exhibition managers now play in selecting artists. Finally, promotion refers metaphysically to the very idea of existence.
So, if it is obvious that using one’s name as a brand has an impact from which one cannot escape, the idea of my work is to do it consciously, where many artists did it without presenting it in this way, like Dali, whose character lived far beyond the painting. For an artist, even talent is promotional: it is the first thing he uses to promote himself.
How do you convey your image on social networks?
I think I was one of the first artists to use social networks and their advertising media, because I always believed that advertising was a space of freedom. Indeed, from the moment you pay for this space you have the right to use it, a freedom that is not found in museums or galleries. Its cost is also more accessible than those of these other spaces. If artists create today on the street, it is because they cannot do so elsewhere. When I illegally project my face onto the Palais de Tokyo, that is what I denounce.
the artist and the world
The place of the artist is therefore preponderant compared to that of the work?
A work necessarily speaks of an artist and his vision of the world. We may be used to looking at the works a little too much. As we are always indirectly derived from those who preceded us, I think that following the minimalists we have become accustomed to getting to the essence of the message, and that is why I represent myself as simply as possible. People are disturbed by my work because they feel that I am only presenting the artist. In addition, there is sometimes a misunderstanding of who he is, what he does and why. We are still sometimes thought of as crooks, because no diploma can validate what we do, yet it would never occur to anyone to tell a lawyer that they do not deserve to practice. Therefore, if someone defines himself as an artist, it should be normal to take his word for it.
By putting the artist at the centre, we also break away from the logic that would have the spectator do the work.
I impose something and I fully assume it. I would like to get out of this overflow of interpretation, to give back the control to the artist. When Duchamp explains that it is the viewer who makes the painting, he takes away the artist’s authorship, which I symbolically try to give back to him. By reducing the fields of interpretation, by leaving less freedom, we almost use advertising methods, but this makes it possible to reposition the artist as a questioner.
The artist is therefore the one in charge of setting new horizons.
There was a definition of Art among the Greeks in which Art was less present than the idea of projecting oneself as a human being. Beyond aesthetics, the vision of Man developed by artists has structured the West to this day. I believe that the Beast has been transformed into a Man thanks to the artists. However, this responsibility is now denied on all sides: most often, attempts are made to hide the artist in order to allow institutions to program. But can we be artists? What is Art when it is a curator or an exhibition director who fixes his subject for artists to answer it? In this case, the exhibition we are about to see actually reflects the thoughts of this curator, not the participants.
How would you define yourself in this segmented universe?
I do not define myself as a contemporary artist or an urban artist. We try to put people in boxes, to develop cultural policies rather than artistic trends. In the immense Tower that gathers the History of Art, can we really dedicate a floor to contemporary art beyond a period? More elitist than the currents that preceded it, contemporary art as an ideology has left part of the population on the sidelines, and many have remained at the door of the Urinoir. It also explains the success of street art, which responds more to popular demand and corresponds to an aesthetic that people appreciate or understand more easily.
Why do you remain anonymous to the public?
John Hamon does not only represent John Hamon and that is why I do not appear. In my absence, it is easier to appropriate this portrait, especially since it represents my work. If I appeared as a person, it would be another image that would overlap in people’s minds.
The poster: medium and message?
With the poster, you join the idea of a pervasive art, which seeks to be everywhere.
In material terms, posters are a fairly simple medium, but in reality I do not necessarily seek to be present everywhere, and I often position myself in areas that are not very visible, even if the advertising dimension often encourages me to target strategic areas with greater impact. It is the presence that interests me, not necessarily the invasion. I try not to turn this quest for places into an obsession because the most important thing is to convey the message. This is where we come to the idea of zero degree. I use this Barthes principle to get to the essence of things, from the most pathos-free perspective possible. I believe in ideas and I hope that the ones I develop in my work can survive me.
Would you say that the poster is both medium and message, like Marshall McLuhan’s?
The poster as a poster is not the message. It is the promotion by the act of posting that constitutes the message, the poster is only a simple promotional tool. We then come back to the idea of promotion, essential at a time when they want us to believe that Art no longer needs to question itself to exist. However, artists have always set the bar very high, forcing the next generation to surpass themselves in order to exist. What must have been thought by the artists arriving after the Renaissance, and facing the Sistine Chapel? The only solution was to look at the work of these predecessors and meddle in the existing gaps.
How do you feel about this projection of yourself as a teenager that is always in front of your eyes?
The first time I saw that image I wondered if it was me. I knew I was there when the picture was taken, but I didn’t really remember looking like that. I put on a friend’s glasses. This is not a picture that was made for work, yet I felt it represented me better than any other. At the time I wanted to write my name on this poster, as well as the artist’s mention, but for technical reasons this was impossible. This mention was a first step towards the idea of promotion and this sentence put in place one year later.
Your photograph, like Stephen McCurry’s, seems to be perfectly timeless and irremovable.
This portrait has evolved on the fringes. I started with a black and white photocopy, then came back to the colour image, because the photocopy bothered me from the moment it started to reflect an aesthetic form. Nevertheless, like any image, it bears the stigma of the time it was taken, and it is likely that this 1999 photo will appear more outdated in 2050. But as far as possible I will not make it evolve, less than a logo, which is transformed over time.
It also refers to social phenomena that we all know, such as selfie.
Facebook is literally the story of the face; Instagram shows us, through published photos, that we seek to appear in contexts. Selfies are nothing more than acts of promoting the person, expressing the fact of having a good life, or having been in such a place. By placing myself at the extreme of promotion, my portrait thus questions the relationship that everyone has with their own portrait. By photographing you in front of the Eiffel Tower, by placing his face on it, it is in fact the place of Man in the city that we question.
How do you negotiate with the ephemeral aspect of collage?
Today, the posters I put up myself hold a little better than before, but they are still not very UV resistant. I think that one day I will find a way to write John Hamon in a more sustainable way. The most solid thing about my work is the idea, which makes it possible to understand who I am, and not the poster. When men went down to paint in caves, they also sought, voluntarily or not, to protect their work from erosion.
Street-art and cultural institutions
How does street art deal with these cultural policies?
I’m willing to admit a history of graffiti, but as far as street art is concerned, I think we should stop talking about Art, or just put it in this great category of contemporary art. Street art sometimes allows people with some political power to impose their personal taste on us. Choosing who will paint a building gable is imposing an aesthetic. However, beyond artistic relevance, people who previously painted building gables were called decorators. So let’s stop hiding our faces: someone who meets a set of specifications, who allows an entire condominium to discuss their project, is not an artist. It’s like imagining Matisse asking the mayor for permission to paint. When you look at the 13th arrondissement, or the office of the President of the Republic, it is impossible to deny that street art, by its popular dimension, has become a real object of cultural policy.
But many street artists have also used political ideologies for lack of artistic content. The issue of migrants is currently one of the most visible issues on the streets, right up to Banksy. These big strings with sometimes questionable ethics are a means like any other to promote oneself by using the suffering of others. Let us also be aware that this ideological dimension, used as a promotional vehicle, does not reinforce the artistic value of creation.
Institutions are therefore an obstacle to the proper development of Art.
I’m trying to tell myself that history will sort out what deserves to stay or disappear. The Palais de Tokyo symbolizes this desire to impose an artistic ideology and to set up a cultural machine linked to the Schools of Fine Arts. Institutions are forced to evolve in the face of Art History but they always do so too late. It takes a long time before the institution, understanding its delay, positions itself in front of a past event, whereas it claims to present us the future. The artists who appear in this context need the Institution to exist. Some rise very high before falling back because their only strength came from the Institution, without them having the shoulders to continue to exist by themselves. In this respect, the artists who passed through the Palais de Tokyo in the last fifteen years have almost all disappeared. By opposing the different perceptions of Art, institutions are constantly replaying the battle of the classics against the modern ones.
Why is the street an important space for artists?
The artists took a space in the street that did not belong to them, because they need space, they need to confront the world and others. Since the Impressionists left their studio, we need a look and an exchange, the idea is not to create at the top of the mountain. Especially since we don’t know in advance how people would react: so, by sticking my portrait and my name, I had no idea what it would look like.
Creating in the street also refers to imposing something, whether in terms of aesthetics or the message sent back. I like to test the limits of people’s acceptance, to understand how they react to these works. I think that if someone gets the consent of a co-ownership to act on a wall, everyone should get it. If we accept Art, then we must accept all its forms of expression, not just a little bit.