Spring 2005

On the road

Think Don’t Think - a series of poetic graphical interventions on the zebra crossings of Paris

Walking through Paris you might still be able to make out some fading words stencilled on pedestrian crossings around the city. These words are the material remains of Think Don’t Think, a series of poetic graphical interventions that appeared on the streets of Paris in October 2003.

Think Don’t Think is the work of graphic designers Matthieu Darrasse and Jean-Paul Bagnis. Their original idea was to do a remake of Apple’s ‘Think Different’ campaign and place quotations on zebra crossings close to Apple’s trade show. Their hope was that Apple would be so impressed that the company would give them a job. But when they did a trial run on the crossing outside Bagnis’s flat something else happened. ‘The project started to take on a life of its own,’ says Bagnis. ‘From my window I could see people walking their dogs stop and read. We realised the idea had more potential. We thought, this is the street talking to the people.’

They wanted to confront people with different messages to those they usually encounter. ‘We wanted people to be touched by the words. If someone read a single quote and thought about it a bit, or smiled at the funny ones, the project fulfilled its purpose.’

The idea to use crossings had come about after a long car journey (coming home from the Chaumont festival) during which the pair discussed guerrilla communication and alternative media such as walls or the ground. ‘We realised that crossings were like a blank space waiting to be filled,’ says Bagnis. ‘We thought they looked a lot like a page, which is how we came to choose words.’

Darrasse and Bagnis designed a reusable stencil system consisting of about 100 letters individually cut out in plastic paper which can be linked to the other letters to form words. ‘We chose Stempel Garamond because it looks like a typeface you might find in an old book. It was interesting to see it painted on the streets, and it follows the “blank page” idea. We liked the curves, too – it looks great at 780pt,’ says Bagnis.

The system was designed so that each intervention would take just five minutes. ‘We did them all between two and three in the morning, because there aren’t many people and cars around. We’d unroll the strips, which were usually about four metres long, spraypaint them and then roll them back quickly,’ says Bagnis. They had a close shave with the law on Avenue Montaigne, where they were hauled off to the local police station. ‘We claimed artist status, hoping this would be seen as a mitigating circumstance. In the end they just wrote “graffiti” on their report and we were released a few hours later. The worst thing was that they confiscated a lot of the letters.’

The graffiti label doesn’t bother them. ‘To us graffiti is a form of calligraphy artwork. It ranges from very bad to excellent. We see Think Don’t Think as closer to the work of people like Space Invader or Giant.’

Not everyone reacted as they’d hoped. One old lady thought the pigeon quotation was an advertisement. Another woman assumed it was the work of the town hall. This made them wonder if their presentation was too slick, with the result that the words were being assimilated as an institutional communication. These reactions may also be symptomatic of the high degree of visual pollution in Paris and the fact that people are accustomed to screening out the aggressive advertising that bombards them. Still, one passer-by was prompted to philosophise on the meaning of life for 45 minutes. and another, a young boy, asked his father whether the Picasso quote (‘Everything you can imagine is real’) was true. The father replied ‘well of course not!’

Last year Darrasse and Bagnis organised a St Valentine’s ‘flashmob’ in Barcelona. For this they printed posters inviting people to gather at a public place at midnight on St Valentine’s Day. On the streets leading from the Ramblas to the appointed place they painted ‘I love you’, ‘Je t’aime’, ‘Te quiero’ and ‘Te estimo’. At the meeting place they left chalk and a pile of papers with instructions to participants to write a message for someone they love in a big heart a couple had previously drawn on the ground. About 40 people wrote messages in at least six languages. ‘By morning all the messages had been washed away by the street cleaners,’ recalls Bagnis, ‘but the moment was quite magical.’