A certain Manhattan Street in the East 60’s always reminds me of Woody Allen movies. Or, passing the Empire State Building, I look up, thinking of Cary Grant (I don’t do King Kong). And at 5th Avenue and 57th—-fuggedaboudit. Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Cities like New York and Paris are mythic places. It’s not just the movie memories . It’s all the visual images that keep getting bigger and more ubiquitous. I remember driving into Manhattan once and suddenly a new, giant photo of John Huston, about 12 stories high, loomed from across the river. I mean, I love Huston, but a person could start to feel like the images are more real than we are.
So how does it feel just being a person in a body in this kind of image-laden city? This question has taken some interesting turns in recent collage-like art forms, as actual people move around in virtual cityscapes. It can get disorienting.
Collage artists tackled this soon after World War II. Earlier, political art had plastered the city (think Mexican murals). But collage had a special relationship with the street. In post-war Paris, advertising posters began to be pasted up all over.
French artists responded with decollage. They ripped pieces off posters, leaving weird, torn, layered “art works.” They decontructed the images people walked past. They remade the “virtual” city. This approach is seen in work by Jacques de la Villegle (above).
Today, that’s happening in new ways. Lust (to get that out of the way) is a Dutch design group. On Lisbon streets, they “collaged” life-size photographs of the same location from Google Streetview! The result created a weird dislocation of virtual/real.
For a museum installation, Lust came up with Poster Wall, a digital version of a collaged/decollaged city wall. A poster goes up. Another is pasted over it. Parts of posters are effaced. But the process is generated automatically by Kinect software. It grabs images from the internet in response to viewers’ movements. (Read more about the technology here.) The bodies of strollers past Poster Wall transform the collaged environment.
In Voyeur, the bodies are those of dancers in the Bridgman Packer Company. Their movements are choreographed to interact with digital imagery projected around, behind, and onto the dancers’ bodies. Voyeur uses Edward Hopper paintings to evoke urban loneliness as the mood of the dance. In performance, the dancers’ bodies merge and collide with a contrived urban landscape. Watch a clip.
Cut to Paris. You might be walking along a rue or boulevard when you see a girl peeking out a doorway. Or so it seems for a moment. She’s actually a pasted image by French street artist Levalet (Charles Leval).
These images are black-and-white. Levalet’s people are drawn in ink on paper and wheat-pasted on walls around Paris. A woman sitting on a step holding a wine bottle. Two men putting up a frame on a concrete wall. A girl sitting on the sidewalk in front of graffiti, reading a book. The figures in their context evoke emotion, humor, and a strange sense of dislocation.
These forms of collage ask: Are we extras in the “movie” or “canvas” of the city? Do these increasingly ubiquitous images make the city less human? Or more artful? Or both?