Reward the Curious: Jan Vormann and Sébastien Preschoux Discuss Their Vibrant Lego and String Installations
- Words: Ali Gitlow
Berliner Jan Vormann and Parisian Sébastien Preschoux create clever, site-specific art installations that interact with their immediate environments. For Vormann, a 25-year-old fine-art student at the Kunsthochschule Berlin Weißensee, it means adding LEGO blocks to missing bits of walls on municipal structures’ façades. The 35-year-old, self-taught Preschoux makes meticulous webs out of colored string in forests.
Though they’re in different countries and use wildly different materials, we recently hooked the guys up to chat about what they’ve got in common—working in public space, the debate of man versus machine, and the importance of photo documentation.
XLR8R: How long have you guys been working on these projects?
Jan Vormann: The Dispatchwork project started in 2007. Working in public spaces in general started way earlier. Going out, wanting to change something noticeable to others is a longtime hobby, because it is fun.
Sébastien Preschoux: Since the beginning, my work concerns the line and the point. In my 2D productions, I try to produce effects of depth or relief. One day, I wished to look at the volume of these productions, and the only means for me was to take out the lines of the plan. I weaved threads to create optical effects, but very quickly I wanted these volumes to be bigger and bigger, [so I began] to produce them in the nature, almost three years ago.
XLR8R:What are your working processes like?
JV: We go out and do it... There really isn’t much more planning going on. It happens that I am somewhere in the world for some reason, and then I take my project as a hobby.
SP: Depending on the weather, I call my friend, photographer Ludovic Le Couster, and I suggest leaving for a forest to find the place for the next installation. We walk, and when we find a sufficiently big place, with beautiful tree trunks that represent beautiful lines or curves, we stop. I observe colors, complexity of the ground, light, and I estimate the time for the preparation and realization of the installation. Then, I discuss with Ludovic the centering of the photo. We return the next day and I begin to make the installation with the cotton threads. Once I’ve finished, Ludovic takes the photo. We are going to begin installations in urban zones this year.
JV: Looking at your webpage, Sébastien, I realize that you have the human-vs.-machine approach. I am really into machines, too—well, you probably aren’t, because you are in a sort of concurrency with them, right? But machines are always precise and clean. It’s my pleasure to see straight lines, circles, laser-cut plastic, and such—which doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t like wild paintings and/or "trashy" art. You probably don’t use machines for drawing at all, right? Would you consider yourself fit to step up to a machine, in terms of precision?
SP: I have nothing against machines; it's what we make now which disturbs me. We are in a period when everything has to go very fast, we are invaded by images that we consume with surprising speed, and we eventually pay more attention to [whether or not] it's a human production or a production realized in the computer. The computer is a formidable tool, but it does not leave a place for randomness or error. In your activity, as in mine, Ctrl+Z doesn't exist, and this is what makes things much more interesting. During my last exhibition, I was fascinated by the number of people taking time to observe my drawings because they are handmade. Twenty or 30 years ago, everything was handmade, and it seemed normal for everybody. I do not want my fingers to only click a mouse—that's why I produce manually. It is as when we were children, when we drew for hours without asking questions. This is also what seduced me in your work—an intelligent return to childhood.
XLR8R: What characteristics does an ideal installation space need to have?
JV: A good spot for me is a wall that is seriously damaged. A little scratch often won’t do if it isn’t deep enough into the façade. I go see things I want to see—sights, museums, neighborhoods where people that I know live—and if there are spots that suit me, I fix them up. I try to combine these two aspects of my life. It is good if many people pass by it so it is seen, but then again, if it is a hidden spot, it will last longer.
SP: A good place for the installation is a place with space all around, well-spaced-out trees, and beautiful background. But by definition nature is an ideal place, because it is always different. The only constraint that I give myself is that the installation must be more complex than the previous one. I have to experiment every time.
XLR8R: How long does it take to install one of each of your pieces?
JV: Depends if the sun is shining or not. I mostly go out only if the weather is good. So I would say around 30 minutes, depending on the size of the patch. After all, I have developed a technique, so I can do it quite quickly and if I need unnoticed.
SP: It is necessary to have eight to 10 hours for a small monochromatic installation, and several days for the big polychromatic installations.
JV: What do you do in winter times? For example, I tried this winter to continue my Dispatchwork project in Moscow, and I figured it would be nice to have the snow contrast for once. But -30° is way too cold to handle little plastic pieces. Your work is quite delicate, so I figure you wouldn’t go out and do it then.
SP: I take advantage of the winter to work on my exhibitions, develop my drawings and paintings, and prepare the installations for warmer days. But this year things are going to change. I am realizing some installations in the mountains with the first snows, and I shall return to them several times in the year. Do you leave your installations?
JV: I leave my installations alone after I have done them, yes. I rarely glue them down. Also, it is impossible to connect flat plastic with dusty stones. There are some places where people take care of the installations, and they stay longer there. But otherwise, I like the ephemeral aspect, too. I wondered, can I come upon your installations while going through the forests? You also leave them, right?
SP: Of course, you can find [them]. Like you, I leave my installations. It is a kind of present, what I call the reward of the curious. The installations in the forest stay several weeks, then I return on the scene and take back the threads to leave the forest clean. I do not know if some of my installations are destroyed by people or nature, but I think that it is nature which takes back its rights. Do you choose to work in the street to offer what you make to everybody?
JV: Sometimes, if there are too many people, like in very touristic hot-spots, I visit during my own tourism and do the installation quickly and hidden. Then I leave, turn the corner, and come back a while later to see reactions. I am not a street performer—if it happens, and nice people join in, this is perfect. Nonetheless, I don’t expect people to stop and stand and drop coins in a hat or something. If many people interact, then it gets quite diffuse, and nobody knows who initiated the action anymore—so this is the best.
Recently in New York, I was on a wall with many people who left one after the other, and at the end I was standing there alone, doing one last piece, and people who came by saw the whole colored wall and wondered if I had stood there the whole afternoon alone putting up the pieces like a madman. All in all, I like to inspire people with the action, but I don’t want to expect anything from them. Unexpectedly, a lot of elderly people like to join. It seems like they have time to pause and play. Kids always want to stay, but the parents drag them behind them if they have no time.
SP: Do you ever secretly observe peoples’ reactions?
JV: In the near future, I want to make a piece and set up a camera, because I really never have seen anyone taking the installation down. I don’t want to publish it or expose anyone as a thief; I am just curious what kind of people take them away. I think of it this way: Who will take the pieces, and what will he or she do with it? Answer: Somebody who wants to play with the pieces, so how can I be mad? If it sparks creativity and gets recycled, great. And I am sure there are people who just like to collect things, but then again, site-specific elements work on the site only. So people who like it should leave it there, to see it there. But it only needs one person to take it out. It depends on the neighborhood, too.
XLR8R: Have either of you run into any trouble with the law?
JV: Not really, and especially not connected to the Dispatchwork project. In general, there is no need to get in contact with the executioners of law. There are many ways to get past them. I was once told to remove my installations outside a museum of contemporary art in Berlin, the Hamburger Bahnhof. I figure the security personnel have their orders to make sure nothing changes without permission, but this wall was really perfect for it.
SP: No problem with the law at the moment... I think the upcoming installations in the city risk some problems but we shall see!
JV: For our kind of public installations, as for all graffiti and street art, photo documentation is a big deal. How important to you is the difference between coming upon the piece in reality or seeing it in a picture?
SP: It is important for me to work with Ludovic, because he works in the same state of mind—no digital technology. Without him, the installation doesn't exist, and without me, the photo doesn't exist. Often the installations are hidden in the forest, thus few people can see them.
JV: You take pictures from many angles, although there is often one picture where the chosen perspective makes it look very graphic, like two-dimensional lines were inserted onto the photo itself, instead of real physical 3D installations. You are also searching for this, right?
SP: We give the illusion of the digital technology with the reality, but if we had made it 30 years ago, nobody would have asked the question if it was real or made on a computer. I find this to be an interesting approach. I choose to take photos from several angles to allow people to see the various aspects of installations, to allow them to turn all around virtually, but also to prove the real aspect of the installation. But for me, nothing is better than the reality, an installation several meters high and long with several kilometers of threads does not register on a computer screen. This question made me think for a long time because I’d never asked myself this, but I believe that you are right. I think that I unconsciously want to prove to myself that humans can make [things] as well as the machine, but sensitively.
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