While the grotesque contributes, as Véronique Klauber notes in her definition, “the confirmation of the instability of everything”1, then the forces that animate the work of Jonas Delaborde frequently bring him back towards this register in which ugliness, absurdity and bad taste variously unfold. Beyond a simple aesthetic approach however, the grotesque appears in the various branches of his practice as a powerful procedure with political outcomes, in a continuous cycle of destruction and reconstruction of systems whose “intrinsic vacuousness” it expresses.
Franck Balland —» While preparing this interview, I re-familiarised myself with the various productions you’ve participated in, not only as an artist, but also as a publisher. If a general impression of chaos emerges from this ensemble, what also comes across is that these various fields are shot through with questions of figurations, which are they themselves infused with a kind of comic cruelty that I associate with the grotesque. I would like to start from there: how do you explain this special attraction that seems to regularly have led you towards these forms?
Jonas Delaborde —» I believe I’ve been marked by a number of ideas. When I was at art school, there was a student on the same course as mine, about 3D software. I remember that he told me he was deliberately working on “ugly” projects, rather than “satisfactory” ones. It seemed brilliant to me. There is more excitement in exploring aesthetic territories that are foreign to us than refining a few forms that we already master. So I also started to veer towards the ugly, or at any rate, towards what I found problematic, because it was still beyond me. Furthermore, it’s a shifting terrain: we toughen up, we focus on certain exaggerations, or on graphic writing. So you always need to keep moving. Obviously, ugliness is cultural – and this is also why it’s a fertile terrain.
Also, meeting some friends was a determining factor. I often heard them talking about horror or zombie films and it took a while before that resonated with me. There was a moment of revelation, with Burial Ground, a film by Andrea Bianchi, in which the zombies are not necessarily credible, or frightening, or funny, but a bit of all of that at once: their skulls explode under hammers like dusty pottery – it’s very beautiful, but also terrible, and funny. There’s a pathetic and a romantic dimension to it, which seems clear to me: the bodies are no more than monstrous and empty silhouettes, they move slowly in bushes or untidy garages. Other films also made an impression on me: Hellraiser, The Beyond, etc. Retrospectively, I see connections with the books I used to love when I was younger: La Fontaine’s Fables illustrated by Gustave Doré, Franquin’s Last Laugh by André Franquin, the demons of Medieval illuminated manuscripts, Ghostbusters, etc. But the idea that we can point to all of these images on a single map is a recent realisation for me.
It quickly became interesting to understand how the figures become grotesque. In this, amateurism and blunders play a very exciting role.
In Nazi Knife, very early on, there was a register that we wanted to include: poorly executed drawings, with the flaws and tics of individuals who do not master their tools. I know that I was overwhelmed when I discovered the IRN publications (Innocent Rebelle Nu - Julien Carreyn and Antoine Marquis), which played this amateurism card completely, with this idea that clumsiness could produce a short circuit. It is impressive to see that today they have both gone towards a kind of technical refinement that paradoxically operates as one of the final frontiers of the amateur: the artisan who wants to get things right.
Be that as it may, poor execution is a very powerful means of pressure for artists. We call on questions of taste and education, these are political questions; we create surprising images, we enrich our vocabulary, and above all, have a lot of fun.
F.B. —» This “ugly” aesthetic could also manifest itself in what seems inappropriate, or inopportune: a sudden appearance of something organic, or foul, in a seemingly ordered, rational system. This is where the grotesque, I believe, has common tropes with the carnivalesque. Lately, you’ve been interested in the bate bola, the carnival of the favelas of Rio, which distances itself from the flashy character of the more official parades. If we focus on a certain political role of the carnival – this inversion of values, which, initially, animated it – it would appear that this showy event has preserved its transgressive dimension and that it keeps, at least symbolically, the potential for an insurrection alive. Is that why you became interested in it?
J.D. —» I became interested in bate bola after seeing a few videos on YouTube by Brunio Magia, a fan who documents everything he can, and because I didn’t understand what I was seeing: the inventiveness of the costumes is incredible, but the concept is violent, or at least simulates violence. Basically, I felt as though I was watching urban guerrilla videos with clowns. There are colourful smoke machines, explosions, guys in fluro armour doing acrobatics, a phenomenal amount of disjointed, reappropriated and subverted cultural signs. Their science of collage and hybridization is very effective and eye-catching.
The bate bola scene is not homogenous, neither in talent nor in its intentions. Some are genuine bad boys, others are very seriously focused on the creation of costumes, to the point of maintaining archives, and others want to take advantage of all of that to be in the spotlight and hook up with women.
But, yes, I really liked the transgressive dimension, the abrupt nature of the collages created (the face of Bin Laden next to the Nutcracker, Tic and Tac in front of hallucinogenic mushrooms). In spite of a whole host of specific codes (types of costumes, materials, accessories), there is a great deal of freedom in the iconographic comparisons made, beyond any rigid cultural references of good taste. And it is in service to a complex narrative, in which you play both the role that is attributed to you (you perform the bad boy), and you violently escape social determinations through a very strategic cultural cannibalism. The powerful element of exoticism shouldn’t be avoided either, generated by my inevitably external position, at least initially.
F.B. —» When you talk about “iconographic comparisons, beyond any rigid cultural references of good taste”, I see a potential definition from Nazi Knife, that you’ve published since 2006 with Hendrik Hegray. To return to this idea of chaos, I feel as though it partly stems from the heterogeneity of the forms of representation throughout the fanzine, as well as the heterogeneity of the scenes that rub shoulders in it. Where do your sources for Nazi Knife come from? Has each issue so far been governed by an overarching idea?
J.D. —» First, we did three issues intuitively: Hendrik could get a series of drawings together quickly, sent by one of his friends, and I’d found some photos I liked on 4chan. The road ahead was shaped by our desires, our connivances, or our respective concessions. From the fourth issue, the first to be printed in offset thanks to the involvement of Stéphane Prigent, we started to prepare more ahead of time, with the aim of creating breakaways, series, or sequences. I wrote a number of texts that we sent to the artist contributors, with references, indications, a few narrative elements.
There aren’t any “overarching ideas”, strictly speaking, but we have in mind a tonality, associations of textures, a rhythm that we want to obtain. It’s a balance that is sometimes complicated: an antagonistic, chaotic, “badly combined” logic, and sequences of “re-articulated” images.
What is also difficult is that we try not to base ourselves on past issues, we force ourselves to rebuild new foundations with each new editorial project. For instance, at the moment we’re working on issue 10 and we’re using a new logic of deployment: there’s a long uninterrupted sequence of transformist photos and montages that associate digital porn drawings and ornaments from metal chains.
F.B. —» You were recently the curator of an exhibition at the MIAM (Musée International des Arts Modestes) in Sète, entitled “Providence. Fracas psychédélique en Nouvelle Angleterre”, which, we might say, prominently features the figure of Howard Philip Lovecraft. I’d like to know more about what roused your interest in this writer, who you describe in your release as “sick and visionary”. Since the artists presented in the exhibition are relatively young, does a body of work like his seem to you to find a particular echo in the contemporary era? What do you see as the “active substances” throughout Lovecraft’s writings?
J.D. —» They are of various kinds: there is fertile paranoia, which transforms the objects of the world into a coherent network of threats. There is also a kind of synaesthesia, which amplifies the signs, transferring them from visual, to auditive, to tactile, or everything at once, which provokes a saturated flow of information, a dark psychedelia.
That said, the artists invited to exhibit in Sète had a very mitigated interest in Lovecraft. There are many connections, firstly, owing to the fact that he belongs to a local cultural context that these artists share, and which they have been unable to escape, but also, beyond the kinds of mechanisms I mentioned, for thematic reasons: an exploration of dreamlike worlds, a monstrous and fantastical bestiary, the desire to devise mythologies, and a fascination for the occult.
But, frankly, there is also a certain indifference, or even sometimes antagonistic positions: for a number of these artists, the power of myths only operates through experience. The mythological motor behind Brian Chippendale or Mat Brinkman is not found in academia. Instead, its a matter of exploiting the sensation of omnipotence felt in the eye of the hurricane, of plunging into chaos, of experiencing the formation of myths directly, as though witnessing a natural phenomenon. If the myth is defined as an a-chronological story, or via a cyclical chronology, in the case of several of the artists I wanted to present, then it is the intensity of the experience that gives rise to that shift.
F.B. —» I have the sense that the idea of the grotesque, as it is disseminated in your various projects, exacerbates the dimension that mocks systems of value or power, whatever those might be. Do you agree?
J.D. —» It seems to me that cultural hierarchies constitute an active grid for the exercise of power by the dominant classes, or by those who aspire to belong to them. Playing these hierarchies against themselves is effectively a way of pointing out their intrinsic vacuousness.
Then again, that’s a position I’m pondering at the moment. Recently, I was told that “destruction alone, without rearticulation is something in the same vein as Derridean deconstruction, that is, it’s not very interesting, and that it’s up to artists to rearticulate the fragments that they’re manipulating, not the viewer.” I don’t think I agree with that, that the rearticulation can be shared. From this perspective, the grotesque (and slapstick, monstrosity, obscenity, and short circuits, intermingling, aberrations, etc.) can prove to be powerful tools, not so much for producing a layer of derision, or ridicule, or for finding a zone of complicity between the artist and the viewer – a complicity that is inevitably cultural – as for its positive virtues. It arouses emotion, fear, laughter... meaning that it’s an instable but dynamic terrain, where the rearticulation of signs can be performed in a liberated and ever-changing way.
- Véronique Klauber, “GROTESQUE, littérature”, Encyclopœdia Universalis [online], http://www.universalis.fr/encyclopedie/ grotesque-litterature/
- the title "We are the archive magazine of tacos" is an excerpt from a series of instructions written by Jonas Delaborde and sent to the artists contributing to Nazi Knife in 2009.