On the anniversary of the November ‘15 Paris Attacks, Artipoeus pays tribute to the City of Light and the power of memory through Affichisme, the art of torn posters in the Paris Métro
Around this time of year, a couple of years ago, I was taking a walk in the Parc de Buttes Chaumont in Paris. I’m an avid walker, and Paris is a perfect city for long meandering walks. In fact, it’s so perfect, the French even have a term for it: flaner. And people who take long meandering walks are called flaneur (or flaneuse if you’re a lady).
Every Paris flaneur has their own style. Mine involved candy.
I moved to Paris a year after my mother died, and in the process of grief and unraveling her personality from mine, I discovered that candy was my bag. So to speak. I had always thought of myself as a chocolate lover, like my mom, who was extremely fond of peanut M&Ms. One day, while I was eating peanut M&Ms in memorium, it hit me that I actually liked them for the candy shell, rather than for the chocolate or the peanut inside.
This was a huge revelation to me, and I decided to honor it by eating candy whenever it was time to flaner.
There’s a store on rue des Martyrs, just below Montmartre, that sells Swedish candy, and you can scoop it into bags that fit perfectly into the pockets of an old Army jacket, if you have one. I have one. I call it my candy jacket. It’s one size fits all.
Actually, my candy jacket is Italian. It’s a World War 2 trench jacket that drifted over from Italy to England, and made it’s way into a thrift shop in London, which is where I found it, bought it, and filled the pockets with candy.
I don’t think that’s what those pockets were originally meant for.
In 1955, when cities were finally completing their rebuilds in the aftermath of World War 2, the French theorist Guy Debord defined the term “psychogeographical”, the study of the effects of the geographical environment, conscious or not, on the emotions and behavior of the people in those environments.”
I like this idea, because it’s so perfect for the city of Paris. The gorgeous Haussmannian architecture, the special light on the Seine, the streets that wind and wrap their way around the city, a lazy maze inside a lazy maze. Wandering around Paris gives your skin the same rose-tinted glow that lights up the buildings, shapes your thoughts into love songs, slows your steps into a poem.
That’s on the surface.
Sometimes when I walked, I didn’t have candy, so I chewed gum. And on this one day, I was walking and chewing gum in the Parc de Buttes Chaumont until the sugar in the gum gave out. I looked for a garbage bin to throw the gum into, but couldn’t find any. I was a regular flaneuse in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont and had a pretty clear map of where all the garbage receptacles were, but on that day I couldn’t find a single one. As if they had all been removed. And i thought to myself: what is this like London now?
I was thinking of London, because I was thinking of Charles Dickens, who would walk for hours through the city streets, and the psychogeography that shaped his stories of crooks and cons and rebels and waifs. And I was thinking of London because London has no public garbage receptacles, as a prevention against terrorists — originally the IRA, but now pretty much anyone, I guess — from planting bombs.
Most writers are drifters — I mean flaneurs, and Dickens was only continuing in the tradition of Baudelaire, who came up with the term flaneur, and Victor Hugo, although Hugo’s stories were more underground. Literally.
Underneath almost every capital city is another maze within in a maze, although not exactly lazy or slow. London has the Underground. And underneath Paris, sandwiched between the streets and the sewers, is the Paris Métro.
And it’s where most Parisians spend a significant portion of their time.
What’s unique about the Paris Métro stations are the giant, often gilt art nouveau frames for advertising posters. They are part of the original construction of the stations, and they do what advertising is supposed to do: worm it’s way into the mundane fabric of your life, so prominent that you don’t even see it but simply accept it. You buy whatever it’s selling and you don’t even have to look.
But if you do look, you’ll notice the posters are sometimes ripped and torn, almost as if they’re peeling off the wall, and you can shrug it off, file it away in the “cities are filthy” drawer in your mind, assuming that Paris is slow to put up fresh new posters to cover up the old, worn, forgotten ones underneath.
This is partly true.
The other part that is true is that the posters are often ripped and torn on purpose, and if you step back and take a look at them, the composition and colors tell their own story, become the psychogeographical map of the city and the people who live in it.
The term psychogeographical comes from an avant garde artistic movement called Lettrist International, mean to transcend art — whatever that means — which in itself comes from the earlier avant garde movement called Letterism, an evolutionary branch of Dadaism and Surrealism, where single letters are used as sounds and then as images. In other words, poetry turns into music, or writing becomes painting. And all of this found its home in Paris in the 1950s mainly because of two guys, Raymond Hains and Jacques Villeglé.
In the 1940s, Raymond Hain was taking photos of torn Métro posters, and in 1949 he started tearing his own, a process he shared with compatriot Jacques Villeglé. The two teamed up, and created a new style of art practice called Affichisme, that is, the act of pasting a bunch of posters together and then carefully ripping off layers, deliberately revealing images and letters and words to create a piece of art.
They say that when we remember something, we are actually remembering the last time we remembered it and not the actual event, so we are only remembering memories. And each time we remember those memories, the memories themselves change, smoothed over or reconstructed to suit the stories we tell.
* * * *
When I thought the garbage bins were missing from the Parcs des Buttes Chaumont, for the rest of that week I became obsessed with the idea of terrorism, convinced there would be a terrorist attack and the government wasn’t telling anyone. I scanned the news, I listened in on conversations at the cafes, I asked tentative questions, I kept my eye on the soldiers already guarding the Jewish schools, temples and the national landmarks after the Charlie Hebdo attacks earlier that year. There was no increase in security. Nothing was different. Nothing had changed. But I was sure something was coming.
Affichisme is a style of collage and destruction and revealing what lies beneath as social experiment, as social commentary, as art therapy. Jeff Koons played with the style for a second, and the German artist Pola Brändle uses it today, although deconstructing her posters into even smaller blocks, forcing you to piece together the pieces, tearing away and building at the same time, going through the same process of transformation of the memories we rebuild simply by remembering them.
I like these too, but I can’t help feeling like it’s changing the true nature of what’s there for something more desirable, reconstructing your own past so you can change your present reality… like fake news… or Holocaust deniers… or being the sore loser of a badly planned war… or calling a surrender and “armistice”.
In the Paris Métro posters, it’s the tears and the rips that get me most, and for some reason they’re not the same in other cities. When I see them in Berlin or New York, they lack the lyricism that the Métro posters have, the stories that peer through each layer of poster paper and wheat paste, like an entire of history of ghosts that populate this city too.
There is a wonderful variety in style — I’ve seen posters at Métro Robespierre torn all the way down to the white backing paper or pulp, leaving only bullet points of color scattered across the frame, like spare and pointy studies for George Seurat, or prototypes for an early Delaunay, before she discovered circles.
Others are amazingly artful: I once caught a poster at Métro Pigalle featuring an older male author, hand on chin and lost in thought, the layers of paper on either side torn in an upwards direction with a beautiful curve that made it look like a large feathered pen.
Some are angry and a slap in the face, like the rude, violent horizontal slashes across the posters at Métro Jaurès, and of course a good number of them are simply sexy, like the one with a woman’s legs emerging from behind two enormous eyes, a Venus birthing herself out of the forehead of Zeus, caught on the line 8 platform at Métro République.
And that’s the other thing I like about the metro posters: they are transient. They won’t last — they will all eventually be replaced, scraped off the wall and a new round of layering will begin. So you become something of a hunter, like a butterfly chaser, hoping to land a Monarch and not a Moth, but you can only hold onto it for a few moments before letting it go.
By Friday of that week in November, I had calmed down a little. I was planning on going to the opening of a performance art festival curated by my friend Anna Ten. But just as I was about to walk out — coat on and everything — I thought, ah, I feel like I’m coming down with a cold. Better to stay in. And 25 minutes later — about the time I would have arrived at Métro Charonne — I was cozied up on the couch with a cup of tea and catching up on Facebook, giggling over silly, superstitious memes because it was Friday the 13th. A post suddenly popped up on my feed: gunshots on the streets. Be safe. And so it began.
By morning, 130 people had been killed in an organized terrorist attack that hit 7 spots around the city. It was a terrifying night, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.
But it took me a while before I was ready to remember it, and remember how on edge I had been all week. When I finally did, I realized that because I lived in the Northeast of Paris, close to the Banlieue and in a neighborhood of Muslims and Hasidic Jews, each with their own information networks, I must have overheard something that told me what to expect. Subconsciously, I had picked up words, phrases, dates — in the street, at the boulangerie, on the Métro.
In 1960, Jacques Villeglé and Raymond Hains’ Affichisme had evolved into New Realism. Along with a handful of other artists like Yves Klein, Pierre Restany and Christo, they called themselves a “brotherhood,” rather than a group of artists, as Raymond Hains described it. They were “artists who stopped making art to become personified Abstractions, leaving the world of painting to head towards a world of truth, an ensemble of little Césars sharing out the world in the same way one would share a cake”; in other words, they were ready for their 15 minutes of fame.
What I love about the posters in the Métro is that they are a true collaboration — they are picked at by all the hands of the city: bored hands, frustrated hands, angry hands. Hand that are juvenile, mature, horny, repressed, delicate, rough. Sometimes, when you look closely, a tear is handled carefully, or the edges of a tear have been delicately picked away to highlight whatever is beneath. And sometimes they are giant rips, made angrily or in a hurry or just to be a punk. All the moods of Paris are in those ripped posters, and all the emotions, too.
After the first wave of terrorist attacks in Paris, a French government minister told the press, it will take a generation to understand why French citizens would kill French citizens, and the government began the costly task of data gathering and analysis and anti-terrorist laws. But all they really needed was 5 minutes on the Métro.
Affichisme re-appears in the art world now and then, whenever there is a generation of artists interested in peeling back layers and discovering what lies beneath. But I still prefer the posters in the Métro: the raw ones, the real ones, the messy accidents and the beautiful serendipities. I like the dedication, and I like the fact that, like everything else in Paris, this is art too. The Métro posters are a refusal, a rebellion, a form of taking back control. A Letterist version of those long meandering, psychogeographical walks, the flaner of writers and dreamers — good for thinking, for imagining, for eating candy, for processing grief.
If you’re interested in capturing the Paris Métro posters, the posters are usually changed in the last week of the month, but it varies according to metro station. You can see examples of Raymond Hains and Jacques Villeglé’s Affichisme at the Centre Pompidou, Place Georges-Pompidou, in the 4th arrondissement in Paris, and Pola Brändle’s work at coGalleries in Berlin, through cogalleries.com.
Original music used in this episode are the tracks “Drive,” and “Trying to Remember,” both written and performed by Olivier Bernard. Tracks used with permission of the artist.
Brought to you by Susie Kahlich from Artipoeus: