Interview with Fabrice AKA Cokney, Hugo Vitrani and Thibault Choay about the release of their book Chiaroscuro

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Back in April, illegal artist and tattooist Cokney had an exhibition at Sang Bleu Contemporary Art and Project Space. He has recently launched a new book ‘Chiaroscuro’ that chronicles his alternative life and work in two volumes; the first ‘Chiaro’ (the white book) including personal ephemera of himself and his art alongside film photography given back to him by police after his first arrest. The second ‘scuro’ (the black book) features an array of documents that followed his court case after he was publicly arrested by the anti-graffiti brigade in 2011. The book reinvents the way graffiti art is exhibited and presented, taking its usual spatial and temporary platform of the urban surface inside; from public to personal property. We talked to Cokney, Hugo Vitrani and Thibault Choay about the publication of this exciting project.

Interview by Lea Gosselin

L: How did you get the idea of making a book?

C: When the cops gave me back these two films, I thought it would be stupid to not use it.
I explain it in the book, I make analog photography, not because it’s kind of cool. Nowadays, we are in an overconsumption of the photography (digital), we do not value the picture itself anymore but we totally remove the « selection » aspect.
So they gave me back these films, I thought it was stupid to only develop it and store it with my other pictures.
Actually I needed a letter for my stories of justice, from his publishing house (ndlr Thibaut Choay, Classic Paris).
And he told me that we wanted to publish a collection of very simple photography books. I proposed him to develop these two films without seeing the content before the release.

T: The series in question, for now I just published one volume, this is a portfolio of photographs only on a specific subject,with artists who are not mainly photographers. At the time, I didn’t want to do something only about graffiti, but I was ok to approach the subject with Cokney. This is how we had the idea of publishing an object. So we were discussing this with Fabrice while on his side, he had a quite different discussion with Hugo. Then we have met together an the project was born.

L: That was two years ago.

C: Actually Hugo knew my lawyer and he already wanted to do an interview with me for Mediapart that I refused. I didn’t want to do an interview published on the net that would disappear in the information flow. If we talked about my vision of the graffiti, I thought we would need something stronger.

T: You are still one of the few who do that with a real political commitment and not just a sort of anarchist impulse misspoke.

C: If you come in this way, we would talk about the arrest and all that, I didn’t want it to be posted on the net only.

H: Because it trivialized his approach. It’s like it was a nugget, there was a strong story, a strong motivation behind that was thoughtful. And that idea to say the day when he would tell his life, his commitment, his work, he had to be more than an article that would disappear over the time, but that’s really like a manifesto, something that refers to what he did. The project we are talking about, it’s not only a book, an idea, but ten years of his life actually.

T: And especially the rest of his life, because this event will determine how he’s going to live. It’s so heavy in trouble, it’s going to be decisive.

H: The project was to compare the film in the first book that tells his life through the photos we discover and oppose them to his court file in a reading of his real life, his painting, his ideas, his friends, all his real alternative life and in front of it, how his alternative life and his work are seen by a dependent judiciary system that says a lot, both on the repressive system against the graffiti in France but also how an artistic practice is seen by the police which is quite ironical.

C: What the book is talking about is quite funny. Although it is an art that is proved by the police, which is archived by the police and the only other art that is archived by the police, this is the tattoo – it was, it is no longer – but it’s funny how everything is grouped as the tattoo and the graffiti, two art forms that you create, and you lose straight away and the only trace that you keep finally is photography and this is what we talk about in the book.

H: And the notion of loss is important in his work actually because he’s painting in an illegal context and he decides to make analog photography, an old tradition, at a time when there is a digital turning. The same way he makes his illegal painting, what he takes in picture, he may miss the framing, he may miss the settings, he may get a burnt picture and lose actually what he painted. And at the same time, his painting is always doomed to disappear because all he will paint in an illegal context will be eradicated. It will be erased,there’s this idea of an art at a loss and an artistic approach also used in the tattoo in some way. When you tattoo, the customer leave and he has the same connection with his artwork which is quite interesting, which is dematerialized, which remains in the memory, in the archive — both in the personal archive and the judicial archive. The book focuses on this link and it was a good way to talk about his life and the graffiti. This is also where we ended above all three, it is this desire to talk about graffiti without necessarily show it.

C: We wanted to talk about what we don’t really see, what there is behind the graffiti, the social commitment it represents, whether deliberate or not. The goal is not to make a book about graffiti with pictures of graffiti, a kind of egotrip. But this is all about talking about what it really is and how it can be shown differently through texts or films that could not comprise graffiti.

L: And you would have taken the risk of publishing the book no matter what revealed the content of the film?

T: Yes, of course. In the end, there is no graffiti session on 54 pictures. There are several pictures of graffiti, but it is the same process from different angles, this is the only session of graffiti.

H: And I think that even if the pictures were completely black, it would be interesting to publish it because there is this notion of risk.

T: Actually, the subject itself of the photography is anecdotal. That is why we published them without sorting, in the order they were taken, their alignment with the film and as the game was pushed to the end, in the sense that Fabrice has not seen the pictures until the release of the book or at least the printing, the idea was that he discovers it like a reader. So we played the game as we had them in hands, no one knew what they represented for him, no one knew who were the people on it, the only thing we could recognize, it was the graffiti in question. The pictures are delivered as-is and that’s where we fit in the object itself as it has been made and this is the contribution of graphic designers. We worked with the studio TWICE (Fanny Le Bras and Clementine Berry). They have understood this notion of duality and that’s we came with the idea of 2 volumes, Japanese binding for the first volume, which allows us to hide the photographs and therefore to propose the reader to participate in the development process and discover the pictures himself.

T: And what is interesting in the action, regarding the destructive process we discussed at the beginning, you take the risk to transform the book into a completely different way from what it was originally. If you open the book, there’s no return. It’s damaged and at the same you give it a shape that we wanted. The best definition for this project, is a contemporary art essay that looks at the case of graffiti treated by the French courts, with the specific experience of Cokney.

L: Hugo told me about the exhibition you did at the Palais de Tokyo. Can you say a few words about that?

C: To prove that you did the graffiti, they (ndlr The Police) place themselves as analysts, art critics or graphics critics, so they do not have at all that status or training, but they do it! As graffiti is a very specific environment, they created this anti-graffiti brigade and gave them this specialty where they must know the graffiti. And being a part of in this anti-graffiti brigade, it gives them the legitimacy to stand as analysts and with their analysis, they create a proof. Which is pretty crazy actually.

L: Do you think they are able to recognize a graffiti made by Cokney for example?

C: The book itself is proof that they are not able to do it! I have to pay 114,000€ for graffiti that I haven’t done on a total of 297 000€, so it is more than a third of the charges against me.

H: And also what is interesting is that this is a book that attacks, because it’s also what’s in the painting of Fabrice and in his approach: it is always a kind of fight, there is still something quite physical in there and a little outlaw. The book, with just photocopies, it also attacks a system.
When it is shown that the police puts in double quotes, for example they will photocopy the same quote twice to swell the note or on the same graffiti they will take pictures from different angles and make different estimates with different prices, the book with simple photocopies becomes sour.

T: We take a risk of attack by the administration and the police institution on the subject of graffiti.

H: And just like the Palais de Tokyo, just putting photocopies in a frame, it was a problem. We had to ask lawyers if that was possible because photocopies that spoke of graffiti and a court case, they took the risk of being attacked. This tension there, Fabrice had it in his illegal painting in the subway and he manages to put it in a book and at the Palais de Tokyo with black and white photocopies. This is quite interesting this way of making art and this is problematic. We are far from an art with a good reputation. Because art is for many, a product of rich, an entertainment product, here it’s not. These things really raise questions.

C: Let’s say that through the book, the idea was to turn all this energy expended, and this kind of scream that is the graffiti into something positive. And continue to support the transgression of the graffiti. This book is not graffiti, but it supports the reason why I did graffiti and it keeps this transgression effect that we saw at the Palais de Tokyo. It was a real battle to make this project accepted there. For me this book is like a covered tags train coming into the station, no one will accept it and at the same time he has this interesting side that you’re going to take a picture of it. There was this idea of continuity of the approach of graffiti throughout the book.

H: And there was also the idea of ​​returning the police system which is, with the second volume, to recover their texts and publish them as if it was the preface of text, style analysis, everything they see in graffiti and how they theorize and see it as policemen. Each painting he did, was going to be the subject of a complaint. And this complaint will be used to accuse and destroy him as an artist, he will recover it, make a work of art with it. That is to say, he will re-appropriate it, he knew that by painting, there would be the document which it might be confronted on arrest, but the game does not stop here. They want to stop its illegal artistic career and although he will go further: he will grab their weapons to make them his own and to conceptualise all this. This document there is bound to his painting, but also to the police and the consequences on his life.

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