Reputations: Gérard Paris-Clavel
‘I always transform the commission: the role of all graphic designers is to question the brief before answering it’
Gérard Paris-Clavel was born in 1943 in Paris. After his studies at the Ecole des Métiers d’Arts , he went with Pierre Bernard to Warsaw to study with Henryk Tomaszewski. In the student movement of 1968 they participated in the Atelier Populaire at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs, and later collaborated with the Institut de l’Environnement. In 1970 Paris-Clavel was a founding member of the graphic design collective Grapus with Bernard and François Miehe, joined by Alexander Jordan and Jean-Paul Bachollet in the mid-1970s. Grapus disbanded in 1990. Today, Gérard Paris-Clavel is independent, working mostly with the association Ne pas plier [Do not bend] and active in social and political battles.
Ursula Held: You were with Grapus from the beginning. Why did it dissolve in 1990?
Gérard Paris-Clavel: You can understand Grapus only if you know the social history of the 1960s and 1970s, the political battles of the period, the liberation of the Third World, Vietnam, Chile … Organised groups, trade unions, institutions and political parties shared our commitment and gave us the means to produce our images. The strength of the group was its composition of very different personalities. Our differences were bound by a common project. The organisation of the group was based on ‘creative conflict’ – permanent disputes and discussions, power struggles. But with time, our differences eroded and criticism was replaced by tolerance or, even worse, indifference.
Just prior to the 1990s, Grapus came to realise its creative and political limits. We could either continue as an agency – making a profit but losing our capacity to agitate – or we could separate. We did the latter. When the group dissolved, we refused to profit from the ‘brand name’. Each of us developed differently. The idea of Grapus did not stop but transformed itself, with each of us taking a different direction.
It would be wrong to interpret the end of Grapus as a failure. No, it is a sign of the success of the group that we knew – maybe a bit late – that we had to transform. When it began to trade on its reputation and become a ‘real’ business it was no longer interesting. We had twenty people in the end, in a 600 m2 studio – a real agency with administration and so on.
UH: So you went your own way?
GP: We had always worked as a team. None of us was capable of working completely on his own.
First I founded a group with Vincent Perrottet, Les Graphistes associés. But after a while I realised that society did not even permit a small structure to have an aggressive and creative attitude towards social subjects. So I left. Les Graphistes associés continues to exist and does interesting work in its domain, which is less directly political.
I consider myself as an artist rather than a craftsman. I have to initiate my own projects. But it is impossible to work alone in political battles. So I founded a not-for-profit association with friends: Ne pas plier. The group is not about graphic design, but rather the production and distribution of texts and images on social and political issues. We come from very different disciplines – there are artists, architects, social workers and economists among us. We feed each another with our different experiences, knowledge and methods. And where Grapus had clients who shared its attitudes and points of view, Ne pas plier commissions its own work.
UH: When did Ne pas plier start?
GP: As an association, Ne pas plier was founded in 1991. Originally it was the title of a journal I had made within Grapus. It was a way of escaping. With artists such as Thomas Hirschhorn and the photographer Marc Pataut (one of the founders) we formed a small group called Cocolux – the ‘crazy gang’ of Grapus. We published several issues of the journal which we distributed free. At that time I was already a little frustrated by the need for Grapus to generate turnover to sustain the agency. We had lost a lot of our freedom.
UH: Is that why you chose the form of a not-for-profit organisation for Ne pas plier?
GP: I don’t believe in an agency as a vehicle for creative professions. You are forced to make money out of your know-how and to repeat yourself. Most of the big graphic design agencies don’t have the objective means to do real research – they have to be able to pay their employees. At the moment, Ne pas plier doesn’t have any money. It is still financed by its members. In addition we get some small subsidies, or make alternative deals such as selling the copyright of a poster and at the same time getting a certain amount of printed copies. The local council rents us a huge workspace for almost nothing. However the real richness of the group remains the benevolent work of its members. But how can one pay for that? At the moment I spend about 25 per cent of my time earning my living and 75 per cent in Ne pas plier.
UH: How many members participate?
GP: The core of the group is about six to ten people; we can gather lots more participants and mobilise them for political agitation. And we have a network of about 800 correspondents (150-200 outside France) who receive our material and publications. Ne pas plier, being a multidisciplinary movement with a network, is much faster in reacting than Grapus, which was only a corporate movement of graphic designers.
UH: Ne pas plier has a division called L’Epicerie d’art frais [literally: the corner shop of fresh art] with stickers, postcards and booklets – pamphlets in visual or verbal form. What is its aim?
GP: The aim is to distribute the material in the streets to expand our movement. The origins of the material lie in our personal or professional work. When, for example, I did a booklet on AIDS and sexuality for the Centre de Culture Scientifique, I found its political quality sufficiently interesting to ask them for 2000 copies for the association. Or the stickers for receiving 30 Algerian orphans – I did the work for a local council and got ‘paid’ 10,000 copies. They are always small economical patchworks. As a graphic designer, it was relatively easy to get free copies of posters, stickers or postcards. It is maybe a little unjust for the photographers or architects among us, whose work is more difficult to multiply. Many people think Ne pas plier is about graphic design, just because printed matter is its most visible medium.
UH: The distribution and circulation of the material seems to be an important point of your concept.
GP: It is the act of distribution, not just the expression of the images, which makes them political. The quantities are important, too: if you can distribute 40,000 images there is a much greater effect than with, say, ten pictures. With ten images you might get into specialised magazines, you might be called an artistic progressive. But with 40,000, you are using a social, person-to-person approach to distribution. Where today’s print and audiovisual media distribute big quantities very quickly, the time it takes to put out images such as Utopiste debout [Upright Utopian] is more like two or three years. It is important to do this on a long-term basis: over time the meaning is ‘working’, too. Otherwise it would be just a show.
UH: What are your other activities?
GP: We also have an experimental laboratory for educational issues. We collaborate with other, different associations in a scientific way. There are several research projects: for example we work with the city observatory and the group Grue [crane]. We meet in our workspace on the top of a building, from where we organise ‘urban walks’. The aim is to learn to perceive hidden aspects of the city. Over two years we have had about 3,000 children and adults here.
We are interested in exploring the complexity of things. But we do not want to lecture. Through our images and texts we want to share our ideas and stimulate people to approach complex issues such as, for example, women’s rights, AIDS, drugs, unemployment and urbanism. Each of the issues is initiated by one of the members. At the moment we are trying to organise regular meetings with democratic Algerian groups to fight ‘integrism’ [religious fanaticism]. Many of these meetings take place in our neighbourhood, Ivry-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris. We are interested in meeting people locally, in exchanging subjective ideas and experiences in a simple way. Other debates, for example at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts of Paris, are more intellectual and theoretical. We choose to be in both kinds of environments: we need the distance of theory, but we also need to keep our feet on the ground. Many intellectuals have lost contact with the real world. Institutions exist more in the environment of the media instead of being grounded in social and political reality. The mass media has replaced politics for a lot of people.
UH: Are pictures then just traces of your research?
GP: Yes, one can say they are the traces of our political actions. It is important to have elements that permit us to share our experiences with others. For us, images are only tools. We don’t have the cult of the result. It is the activity they help to produce that we are after. At Ne pas plier, we all try to have our work linked to a movement, and to produce motion in return. My Utopiste debout stickers only make sense when they get out of my control. They carry no signature: I want other people to distribute them as if they were theirs, as in a dialogue. Most graphic designers are in a scheme of ‘visual communication’, which is nothing more than silencing people with ‘discourse’. We are interested in encouraging exchange. In a dialogue, every word of your partner is yours; in a discourse you can only listen or repeat.
UH: Ne pas plier also began to publish books…
GP: Publications are the most economical means that we have to articulate and transmit our ideas. They can be direct political agitation. Ne pas plier has just issued a book on the homeless of the Stade de France. The photos are by my friend Marc Pataut and I did the artwork. On Algeria, there are almost no images yet. The first step to help is to provide the keys for understanding. So we are preparing the publication of a brochure in which we analyse the economical, historical and ideological background. We work on texts in order to exchange real, personal communication. You cannot solve problems by counting the dead.
There is lot of confusion that is fed by the media, those machines that erase memory. The task of artists and intellectuals is to do the opposite – to awaken memory.
UH: You seem to focus more on words and on writing than on images.
GP: I don’t know if this is by choice or if it is fate. I regret it. I cannot devote as much time to my images as I would wish. In my images, I try to translate understanding into emotion. Before, I could give just my opinion, now I feel the need to be nourished by the perception of others, to share thoughts before I put them into my own forms of expression. That takes time.
Then there is also the role of writing inside the picture. The words make the image, as in Ma ville est un monde [My town is a world]. I take the word as a plastic element as well as an element of meaning. Most of my images use words, not necessarily to give precision, but to guide the orientation of the senses and the emotions. There are two versions of the poster Money World. The one without lettering is more enigmatic: it is a visual shock provoking emotions. The other version is more political and its meaning is more precise: it is the economical system which creates poverty.
Pierre Bourdieu explains that there are no universal aesthetics, that others do not necessarily have your culture, your way of perceiving things. But precision must not exclude emotions. The spectator must have the possibility of making his own interpretation. The image should stimulate him to question himself. It is the opposite to publicity. Advertising is there to make the spectator salivate, not to ask questions.
UH: Your images are direct, with a great simplicity of means. The crude, often handmade forms, such as silk-screen prints, translate the urgency of the message. What is your approach to the materials?
GP: One should stop to understand the codes. In your day-to-day life you are in a permanent attitude of observation and research. The act of translation is just a short moment. I am concerned with the sense – not the form. I am not a painter who is fulfilled by formal aesthetics. I do not always have the financial means to print lots of colours, or to use expensive printing techniques. I learnt from Henryk Tomaszewski that ‘the economy of means is founded on the richness of thought.’ If you don’t have all the technical possibilities you are obliged to concentrate on the meaning.
UH: When you came back from Poland you participated in the Atelier Populaire of 1968. How did that relate to Grapus?
GP: Pierre Bernard, François Miehe and myself, having finished our studies, went back to the silk-screen printing studio in the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs to print our images. The student movement of 1968 was immense. The images were done with an incredible desire for expression. It was at this time that we founded Grapus. In 1968, there was something that does not exist any more: the images had at the same time more effect as a whole, but each single one was less important because there were new images all the time. They were echoing each other, producing questions very rapidly. No single one was stronger than any other. Today there are few images. Each one is singled out and assumes a disproportionate importance.
UH: …and they might become icons very quickly.
GP: They are representative for an issue. But images need constant resonance from other images. People ask : ‘Your poster on Algeria… is it true?’ But there is no single truth. If there were 200 images about Algeria, it would be the movement which is strong. If you have only the choice to be for or against an image, the problem is displaced.
UH: How do others react to your work?
GP: I accompany my work. At a recent demonstration we distributed 5,000 stickers of Qui a peur d’une femme? [Who’s afraid of a woman?] a work inspired by the texts of Taslima Nasreen. I got about twenty comments from all kinds of people: the image can be read in a multitude of ways – that is what I like. But here, as it is used for political action, I felt it necessary to add a text on the reverse to narrow its interpretation. A sticker is a medium of agit-prop and its meaning needs to be very explicit, more so than a poster.
When I designed the poster Money World I was severely criticised by friends. I chose to produce images on the painful aspects of the world in such an explicit way, and use them for political action – they found it shameless to show the misery of others. With Existence/résistance the reaction was similar. But why should the word résistance only be reserved for guerrilla fighters in the battle against the invader? There are other ways to resist in day-to-day life – and therefore exist. Think of the unemployed. Think of Algeria. Existence/résistance uses sticky tape as its medium. It helps us literally to carry our images – in demonstrations for example. I did some research on the lettering of street signs and designed a typeface which I use on the tape. The word combination Existence/résistance has its origin in a demonstration with students and the unemployed, some of whom shouted résistance, others existence. I just listened and interpreted the discussion in my way.
All my work is charged with memory. For me, making images is speaking: to express my thoughts in a personal way and get questions in return. My images are not answers, they never will be. Otherwise it would be just illustration – a discipline of pure submission. The role of image-makers is to raise questions.
UH: How do you manage to make questions from your images, when everyone is looking for answers?
GP: The media’s idea of globalisation is ‘the purée of thought’. Your place in the system can express only generalities. But what stimulates others is an individual’s particular way of perceiving things that is different from theirs – at the risk of being rejected. Publicity does exactly the opposite to what I want to do: advertising shows you only what you know already, in an emphatic way, nicely decorated, on a 3 x 4m surface. You get the impression your knowledge is immense. But in fact you learn nothing.
Benetton just takes pictures and ideas from the past and puts them in an illustrative way into the present. They do not interpret, they just cite. And, what is more, the intention is purely mercenary. It is exactly like Islamic fundamentalists: they take the Koran, and instead of interpreting this historical text, they take it in the way it was written many centuries ago. For me, Oliviero Toscani [the photographer responsible for Benetton’s controversial poster campaigns] is a reactionary in the guise of an activist. He gives the impression of being progressive by using ‘spectacular’ photos. But by ‘aestheticising’ reality from the past, he empties it of present meaning. He depoliticises it.
My intention is to attack capitalism directly – not only fighting or resisting the effects of it. You have to understand it before you can visualise it. I don’t have a solution. But I try to fight it.
UH: Do you still work with public institutions?
GP: Sometimes I still collaborate with them, and I then try to pull the work as much as possible towards politics. Public and cultural institutions don’t do enough to encourage people to meet. To produce hierarchies is good for their symbolic and financial power. They’re afraid of conflict – and the exchange of ideas is mostly one of conflict. They consider disagreement as bad and eliminate it from their activity. I think, on the contrary, that conflict is constructive. A citizen is someone who participates in conflict, not someone passive. I consider artists to be those citizens who are deeply involved in social struggles.
Yet institutions wish to ‘aestheticise’ reality rather than politicise it. They filter reality. So why not work directly with the people concerned? At Grapus we worked with trade unions and political parties, but not in factories and not enough in the streets with the people. We only saw representatives who already had an interpretation of the problem themselves. I prefer to go directly to the shop floor, instead of getting things ‘pre-digested’. Afterwards I might go and see the intermediate person.
UH: How do you work with your clients?
GP: My work for the theatre in Strasbourg is a commission, but I can still express some of my concerns. There are photos which are directly taken from Ne pas plier’s activity, such as the picture of three sans-papiers [immigrants without the correct papers] in a demonstration. I combined it with a photo of an actor in costume. The poster was in Strasbourg during the struggle of the sans-papiers and provoked questions on the relation of life, theatre and poverty. Theatre is the link between the contrasting pictures. I wrote: ‘Culture is what permits people to express their solidarity with others’ across the whole series of theatre posters, instead of advertising the plays. You can find information about the plays in the brochure.
UH: Did the theatre accept the idea?
GP: Absolutely. As they didn’t have enough money to print a poster for each play, they needed a generic one, so I proposed this series on the intention of theatre instead of illustrative posters. I could even introduce more political information – for example on Algeria – into the brochure which is also a medium for speaking about life, including political life. This project is an application of my political and artistic research. It finances it, and in return is fed by it. But if I could choose, I would earn my living in the political and artistic fields.
UH: Is it not a contradiction to get paid for this kind of work?
GP: There is nothing wrong with earning a living …But I don’t see who would pay for it. On the other hand, you cannot be politically engaged and at the same time be very well off. The act of giving can also be dangerous: it gives you power, albeit in a symbolic way. Generosity is easily transformed into auto-narcissism. There is a tendency among graphic designers to produce occasional pro bono work on social subjects. As a result they get a signed postcard (which they can use for public relations). I see them in the biennials: they send one social poster and for the rest of the year they do 200 commercial ones. Their ambition is to win prizes rather than relate to the people. The symbolic capital they get out of their generous political image serves them as a pretext to continue their usual business. Of course, the perception of others is always important in society, for everyone. The question is whether this perception is superficial – or is there something more profound built up through genuine exchange?
UH: What are some of your other commissions?
GP: I did a booklet on AIDS and the sexuality of teenagers – also the project on ‘cosmic signposting’, a work about astrophysics and everyday life. I always transform the commission: the role of all graphic designers is to question the brief before answering it. Even though I have interesting commissions I often do not like the conditions imposed by them. The client has the economic power and most of the times he uses it, whether at the moment of the production or on publication. My most interesting projects have been done in complete autonomy.
UH: But doesn’t the client also have an interesting point of view? Can there not be a dialogue, or ‘constructive conflict’?
GP: The client is mostly not independent. If you work with a theatre, it depends upon a local council; if you work with a cultural institution, there is a ministry behind it. At the moment I work for the anti-tobacco centre, which depends on the state. I am in a difficult situation: I can denounce trusts, but I cannot denounce the state which earns as much as 44bn francs on taxes from tobacco every year … I am in a situation that contradicts my political conscience because my client is not autonomous. But I need to be in close contact with him and be able to discuss these problems. Then we can try to push the limits of the contradictions as far as possible.
UH: Do you still meet the other members of Grapus?
GP: Now we work in such different sectors that we hardly meet any more. But I find them rather happy and well in this difficult society. Everyone evolved towards being what they really are. Nobody is right or wrong. For my part, I developed in my own logic, and disagree with the others on the methods and practice of graphic design. In the beginning of Grapus we were great friends, we were almost like brothers. That is why we could do quite difficult things. It was fantastic. Then our vitality faded a little, and society transformed itself. But I still have the utopian ideal of working in friendships, with emotions, and at the same time remaining sensible to social struggles. I became more mature on the theoretical part of my political engagement and I am even more determined to fight for social issues.
UH: Do you teach?
GP: I sometimes hold conferences in art schools or secondary schools. At Ne pas plier we also have workshops. For example, with a group of Gunter Rambow’s students from Karlsruhe (see Eye no. 26 vol. 7) we worked for ten days on a subjective approach of the city. It was fantastic for us and for them.
Another interesting experience was with a French AIDS activist group. They organised a big poster competition, and the prize for the ten winners was a workshop at Ne pas plier to produce their image. We invited a semiologist, an art historian, a psychologist and an epidemiologist. The winners were aged from nine to 37, from all kind of backgrounds and professions: we learnt a lot from their different perceptions, too. It was a success. We even had a cook and always had lunch together. A semiologist – that might sound complicated to young people, but as they had lunch with him they lost their anxieties about this difficult subject.
UH: Ne pas plier is planning a project on artistic and political education. How would it be different from traditional teaching?
GP: We plan to found a training centre with a new teaching structure. Theoretical education would be embedded in the life of the city, teaching would be experimental. It would be a place of experience and critical exchange. Ideas need to be rooted in life experience. The city would be the school: you should live your studies, not just contemplate things. My idea is to make reality visible – instead of seeing it filtered by the media, or repeating clichés. The studies should aim to transform reality. The participants would get the elements for building up a personal method.
The students should already be active with social issues at street level. Their research and experience – but also their difficulties and failures – would feed into the practice of the others. To have this kind of fundamental experience is an advantage: when a social movement needs an image they would already be in a parallel movement. There is a lot of time needed to learn everything about an issue: you have to understand the background, read, get out on the street and meet people… In the context of a commission, or in political crisis, there is usually no time for this. Our fundamental research would mean we would be halfway there, so that when there is a crisis we can do the work ‘on the hoof’. If you are not quick to move you can become overpowered by the task. Most political images – even the generous ones – are just bad, because people have not taken the means and the time to understand what, for example, ‘unemployment’ really signifies. Education is important to us, as we want to share our ideas. And teaching is also a way of learning: to be forced to criticise what you understand to be your body of knowledge.
UH: When would your training centre open?
GP: At the moment there is still a lot to be sorted out. For example we need to find a workspace where we could organise debates as well as exhibit the material. But I think maybe in about two years we could receive the first participants. There wouldn’t be more than twenty of them, since we want to keep the administrative side as light as possible.
UH: What is your view on graphic design today?
GP: Most graphic designers today want their work to look like the ideal virtuoso norm of the latest ‘cool’ graphic design star. The market’s logic is illusion. Everyone wants to be admired, but it is in humility that you find knowledge. Most of them are blind to the real world. They lack curiosity but also courage, because you have to pay the price of comfort if you really want to perceive the pain and struggle of others. In the end, it is a question of personality.
Another thing is that most graphic designers today are very specialised. There are those who work for public institutions, those who do corporate identity and those who design books. Not many consider their practice as an adventure and develop their own projects, make things happen … They are only interested in designing a nicer poster than last time and trying to get a medal for it. Something is really perverted. But a profession that does not organise its debates, which isn’t open for criticism, necessarily becomes just a professional order. The debate on art and engagement, aesthetics and politics, should still be on the agenda, not only in theory, but in practice. That implies the choice of not only a way of working, but also a way of life.
UH: Is there not the danger that your images might become icons of style, logos for the ‘activist’ way of life? Is there a danger that your images are read as answers and not as questions?
GP: Icons always need religious people to believe in them. But how can one speak of images as icons without considering the US dollar being the biggest icon ever? Many people think aesthetics can be enough. But all my images are closely linked to politics, and if you just see the style, you miss the point.
UH: How does your way of life reflect your ideas?
GP: Outside Ne pas plier, as a neighbour, I organise with friends every Friday evening an exhibition opening of the fenêtre expo – an artwork in a window. It is an occasion to bring art into the neighbourhood, but also to meet people. Everything is linked: my background of Grapus, my political and artistic work with the association, my role as a neighbour, as a father and as a militant. It is almost a caricature: my apartment is just above the studio, the exhibition window is next door, neighbours all around and Ne pas plier just one block away … It might sound heroic what we do, we have lots of ambition and utopian ideals, but at the same time we do lots of bits and pieces every day. Sometimes when I go to bed, it feels as if I have just got up.
First published in Eye no. 27 vol. 7 1998
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