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Flat, Friendly, Menacing: Meet The Monsters Of Pictoplasma

A new Parisian exhibition explores the new face of “character design."
December 14, 2011, 10:06pm

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The "artist-in-residence" is a well-known model: you invite an artist, you give him a corner of your white cube or lab and let him create things as if he were working in his own studio. Things tent to get a bit messier when you invite, say, an entire collective, or perhaps a full-on festival to set up shop in your institution, wreak havoc on your space, and turn your entire world upside down. But that’s exactly what the directors of Gaîté lyrique decided to do. The retrofitted Parisian opera house turned digital culture center invited Berlin-based festival and arts community Pictoplasma to relocate to Paris and orchestrate a special exhibition.

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Exhibition trailer:

For more than a decade, this collective of artists, graphic designers and animators has been working on a monumental bestiary of monsters, colorful creatures, friendly fiends and menacing extra-terrestrials. These creatures were all born in the name of "character design," an artistic practice used in visual arts, video games, movies and graphic design that consists of creating simple characters and giving them a family and a universe to exist in. The practice contributes to the vitality of the figurative arts today, with lots of tiny animals that disorient the viewer with their eye-less gaze, or else a bug-eyed many-eyed stare.

Motomichi Nakamura

On view until December 31st, the exhibition chronicles this graphic heritage in a variety of forms: posters, sculptures, videos. We had the opportunity to visit the grounds before the opening and speak with the curators of the show and originators of the Pictoplasma community, Peter Thaler and Lars Denick. In the effervescent mayhem that belied their final exhibition preparations, they took a moment to introduce us to the characters of the global post-digital fairy tale they were documenting. Because they were so enthusiastic about their mute friends, and as an homage to these hybrid mutants, we merged their answers and let them speak as a single person.

The Creators Project: Could you remind us how it all started. When did the festival debut in Berlin ?
The project started in 1999 as a research project started by Peter. We focused on the new aesthetics born in the early internet, with those reduced iconographic characters. Some people were creating them, and collecting them, so we started contacting them and gathering all these artists on a website called Pictoplasma. In 2004 we opened an annual festival, which at the beginning was more about conferences, lectures and panels. Each designer would talk for about an hour about one family of characters. It was very personal. All designers had to have at least one recognizable character, that was the criterion, a certain permanence. Besides that, they were coming from different fields, like animation, graphic design, fine arts.

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So character design started on the internet and from it?
Our research did. Character design as a practice is much older. The reference for a character is that it's reduced, not elaborate and illustrative and mimetic or naturalist, but abstract and reduced and typographic. At that point, the internet was very, very slow. So basically there were no photos because it took too long to load, but the graphic elements like .gifs were quick to display. It created a whole new aesthetic of vectors, easy things, pixels.

Motomichi Nakamura

Were you aware of some artistic initiatives happening around that time, like Ann Lee? In 2000, French contemporary artists Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huygues bought the copyrights of a manga character from a Korean design firm. They gave it a life, animated her, and decided to "kill" her. Now, nobody has the legal right to use her.
Yes, it was very inspiring. It's very interesting what they did. Ann Lee was even a big part of our first big conference in Berlin, she sort of opened it.

Before her death?
No, after.

Fair enough. And the characters of your community, what is their life-span and possible death?
They have an anthropomorphic aspect. They do have an appeal, they want to communicate with everyone. It's an Esperanto idea of having global and immediate communication. It was bullshit, but how do you do that, from an artistic point of view, is interesting. These very basic ideas, very basic shapes, created a quality. What we like has obviously changed over the years, and today we are more into illustrations and we can get very arabesque but there is an actual quality behind these characters. They are extremely readable, they are empty forms, devoid of any narration. They don't tell you any biographical information and you have to do all the work, you have to animate them in your head.

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How do they come alive? And do they die? I think they're always dead. It's about animism, it's about applying something and the reference is digital superficiality. The goal is to apply the dot/dot/dash from the early internet, very typographic and very reduced, and remove all the definite background, remove the digital white noise. To give something dead the impression that it's alive, that is the basis of animism, you take something dead and draw two eyes on it.

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And how do you explain this focus on figurative art nowadays? There seems to be a whole trend today. There is a big drawing scene in Europe, for instance. But when we think of digital arts, we don't necessarily think figurative, it can get very abstract.
Somehow, yes. But what we are doing here is not digital. What you see in this room are posters, physical posters. It speaks about the longing for something haptic, about permanence, and it's not digital. It's about a digitally grown up generation that has learned its tools. And they try to apply what they learned, the dot/dot/dash, to bronze, to wood, and to analog media that have a little more permanence than the flicker of the screen.

It explains why you wanted to create 3D physical monsters, too. Those large sculptures, inflatable characters and the like.
That's why we didn't want to use this wall for projection for instance, even though it's a great wall for projection, we have a projector, we could do something interactive. If I want to interact, I can hit you and you can hit me. I don't want to go to the museum and see a dot following me around. We are not about the state of the art stuff you can do with a computer.

What's the use or the virtue of the figure of the monster? Are they supposed to be threatening or friendly?
We think the monster is a good thing because when you ask any kid what's a monster, he'll say it's cool and get excited, but if the monsters come [alive], it's a different story. For us, all these cute characters from the internet are monsters. Hello Kitty is the biggest monster I know. It's also [about] the sheer horror of the mask—perfectly flat, and you could look at it and see your own biography, but it will never look back at you. So if your question is how do they live, how do they die, they are always dead, they are the dead masks of the artists that tell something about their life, something that has permanence, a totem.