Recently I was interviewed by the Billboard Art Project about my participation in one of the most interesting projects I've had the opportunity to participate to.
An Interview with Michele Guieu
by The Billboard Art Project on Tuesday, July 26, 2011 at 8:12am
Approaching a digital billboard as an artistic medium presents a myriad of opportunities to interact with both the surrounding landscape and unsuspecting passersby. In her submissions to the Nashville and Savannah Billboard Art Projects, Michele Guieu started with the fundamental idea that the canvas is also a sign and then created work that addresses how the viewer interacts with the sign.
Born in southern France, Michele is a graduate of the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs de Paris, where she studied graphic design and multimedia. She was a graphic designer for years before moving to the U.S., working as a graphic designer for prominent nonprofit organizations, museums and corporate companies. She now spends most of her time in her studio devoted to her art. Michele lives with her family in Sunnyvale, California, and took a moment to talk about her artwork and the Billboard Art Project.
Billboard Art Project: We understand that your background is not exclusively that of an artist. When did you make the transition from graphic design to art, and what prompted it?
Michele Guieu: After a few years of being a graphic designer, I needed to work on something else other than projects for clients. I began a personal series of paintings and drawings in 1991. My graphic design work and my art work were separated in my head and in the facts: I was doing computer work for the graphic design, and I was using traditional media when I was working for myself. In 2005, after moving to the US and taking a break for a few years (I have two children), I finally (f)used all the techniques I’d learned in art school and afterward into my art work. I was no longer torn between being a graphic designer and a fine artist. I was an artist using traditional and nontraditional media.
BAP: What experiences and lessons did you take as a graphic designer that cross over to your work as an artist?
MG: Right after I graduated from art school, I had the unique opportunity to work with the most daring group of French graphic designers, Grapus. With them, I deepened my knowledge of how to work on images and subjects that matter. I endlessly manipulated images, trying and trying again different solutions. There are many possibilities to “frame” an image, to move around each element, to play with the proportions - and therefore to change the meaning. Everything has a meaning; you have to know what you are doing with space, colors, signs, text.
BAP: When you first heard about the Billboard Art Project, what was the initial appeal?
MG: I saw the call for the BAP Nashville on the “San Diego Artists - Resources, Opportunities & Online Community” Facebook page. I thought it was a great opportunity to work in a new medium, and I was interested by the scale. I always have been fascinated by billboards, but they are almost inaccessible - to work on/with - for individual artists. I visited the BAP website, and it looked like an inclusive and generous project, with a broad variety of artists from very different horizons and places.
BAP: Did the project speak to you as both an artist and a graphic designer?
MG: Absolutely. Although the first series I submitted is an adaptation of a series of paintings I had created previously for an installation in a gallery, I almost immediately thought I could create something special for the BAP, a series of images in direct relation to the context of the town, the street, the highway, using the graphic language of the road signs.
BAP: In your submissions, you have approached the signs in a number of different ways. Defragmentation is a series of images you adapted from some of your previous work to be shown on the billboard. Can you tell us a little about how you originally created those images?
MG: “Defragmentation” is an installation (mural, paintings, video) I had shown at Project X Art in Solana Beach last December. It comprises a series of approximately 70 paintings. Each painting is the interpretation of a photo I've taken. I take photos on an everyday basis: landscapes, people, people in landscapes, details of natural elements.
Defragmentation - Nashville, April 2011
BAP: Some of those images seem to have an almost X-ray-like quality to them where ghostly images of metal objects float in the background. What processes do you employ to get this effect?
MG: Through filters in Photoshop, I strip my photos of most of their details to obtain a black and white image, which I crop. With this image in hand, I then work a background, in relation to the structure of the image, directly on the canvas. It is a layering process of acrylic paint and spray paint with the use of stencils: objects like old brushes, and all sorts of kitchen utensils I find at the thrift store. They come in all sorts of shapes which are quite interesting once stenciled. Once the background is done, I project the image I previously worked on, and then paint it - it becomes the dark layer of the painting. For “Defragmentation,” I worked with shades of silver and a very dark blue.
BAP: How do you feel the images in Defragmentation translated to the billboard format?
MG: I think the adaptation worked very well. The images are mostly an evocation of vast natural spaces which echo the symbol of the American urban and road space the billboards represent. It also worked well because the format of the paintings was almost the same proportion as the billboard: narrow and long. I did not have to crop much. I’ve got a few photos of the “Defragmentation” series on the billboard, in the context of the town. Luckily they were taken at dusk. There is a beautiful effect between the dark blue and silvery painting playing with the color of the darkening sky. Also, the painting's silvery background is enhanced by the billboard LED technology. The silver shimmers beautifully when lit.
Signs - Nashville.
BAP: In another series of images, "Signs," you play with a variety of colors and symbols, mostly arrows and some images of clip art. As the title suggests, these images relate more directly to the medium as a sign. When you saw the documentation from the project in Nashville, what were your thoughts?
MG: After adapting the series “Defragmentation,” I developed a series in direct relation to the medium, but with a slight twist: the billboard as a (faux) road sign, not as an advertisement. The billboard was working in direct relation with the space it was displayed in. I saw only a few photos in context. The photos from the images using only the arrows worked very well. I could not go to Nashville to see the display and take photos, so I was thrilled when I received the photos you sent me. It was rather magical - I sent to you a series of jpegs to be displayed on a billboard and I received photos of the images on the billboard in the context of the town! I think part of the interesting aspect of the project is the documentation. In that sense, in Nashville, I got lucky: the series of arrows was displayed right next to a highway with other road signs around, and there was a sense of strangeness and playfulness - it was perfect! The series adds to the confusion already existing with the abundance of signs. A scene from “Brazil” came to my mind: “My complication had a little complication.”
Signs - Savannah.
BAP: You submitted a progression of similar images to the Savannah show. Did you feel they had the same contextual impact?
MG: For Savannah, I created a new series of faux road signs with only arrows. I wanted to focus on what worked well, because I had seen the documentation of the Nashville show and I could now adjust my designs in response. Unfortunately, the surroundings of the billboard in Savannah were less interesting - for my images - than in Nashville. I can really measure the impact of the context on the content of the images: depending on the context, the images get stronger or lose their strength. That's when I starting thinking that it would be great to get a photo of the billboard - in its context - before I start working on the images. And this time, for the Duluth show, we do have an image, which is very interesting! The best thing, of course, would be to go see the billboards and their surroundings. I hope to do so for the San Bernardino show, as it’s a 5 hour drive from where I live.
Miles To - Savannah.
BAP: You also had another submission in the Savannah show that played with the fact that these images were indeed being displayed on a sign. Could you talk a little bit on what you did with this particular series?
MG: I wanted to develop another series of faux road signs. The proportions of the billboard are very close to those of the green signs on roads/highways indicating the mileage. As I was thinking about how to use them, another idea came along and gave me the content I needed: I was listening to the news, as I often do when I am working, and the names of towns in the Middle East and Africa were referenced often in the programs. Also, the Savannah show would take place not long after the beginning of the Arab spring. I decided to make a series of road signs indicating the mileage from Savannah to a series of towns situated in the Middle East and in Africa. The mileage on my faux road signs is the exact one between Savannah and each town I chose. To calculate the distances, I found a helpful website. With this series, like with the series of arrows, the approach is simple and poetry plays an important role. There is, of course, also a political aspect. To see the names of the towns on an American road sign makes the towns feel closer, maybe more real to the viewer. The jpegs in themselves are not very interesting. What is very interesting is to see the images in the context of an American town, such as Savannah. Fortunately, close to where the billboard was standing, there is the name of a street that is undoubtedly American.
BAP: What is your personal take on the United States’ regional involvement in the cities you listed?
MG: I am thinking more in terms of the question, "What is the significance of those names repeated over and over in the media?" The average American citizen does not have much knowledge about what is really going on. All of these towns are far away. When you live in Europe, these towns are much closer, and people travel to Africa or the Middle East. Living now in the US, I really measure the “distance” between here and anywhere else in the world, especially the Middle East and Africa. The series is timely and puts these towns on the “American map.”I also like the idea of surprising the viewer. And that is not easy, given the number of billboards everywhere with thousands of well-thought-out messages (which does not necessarily mean they are interesting – but they are made to catch the viewers attention).
BAP: Have political musings worked their way into your art in the past?
MG: When I started working on my art again in 2005, one of my first paintings was a large portrait of a Muslim woman. I then painted a series of portraits of American soldiers, portraits of women abducted in two different conflicts, and quite a few pieces directly related to the Iraq war. But the core of my work is about personal and daily experiences: places, landscapes, family and friends.
I lived my teenage years in Senegal, Africa, where I was put in front of the reality of the world at a young age. In my art school, I worked closely with a group of politically engaged professors, and later, with the group Grapus, which was also politically engaged. So the political background has always been there, but I find peace and an endless inspiration in nature. I was 11 when I went for the first time to the Sahara, and I still remember it vividly. I always traveled to see beautiful landscapes and I still do. I first came to the US to visit the Southwest and the National Parks of the West. Now that I am an American citizen, I vote and I try to make sense of the complicated world I live in. It’s there in my work. But lots of other things are in there, too!
Words - Nashville.
BAP: Going back to Nashville, there was one other piece entitled "Hello" that spoke to passersby. What was your intent with the messages in "Hello," and how did the background images work with the piece?
MG: “Hello” was part of a series of signs including “Hey,” “You,” and “How Are You?,” all direct messages addressed to the viewer. The few photos I’ve got are interesting because they are taken at night in a deserted parking lot. The effect is strange; it’s as if the billboard is speaking into the void.
BAP: Having participated in two shows, and having the intention of participating in others, do you see the roll of digital billboards as an artistic medium developing past a few random shows?
MG: I am definitely interested in exploring the possibilities of using an LED billboard space, in developing different series in different contexts. The fast pace (a few seconds per image) is a limitation. If nobody takes a picture, there is no documentation and it is gone! For me, documentation is key in this project. That is why I think it would be great to see the same series in a different context. If you show the jpegs, they will look the same. But if you show the images in different contexts, the meaning would be different each time. When a billboard is placed in a different context, it tells a different story, and that is what interests me.
BAP: How do art installations on billboards differ from other public art?
MG: The Billboard Art Project offers one very interesting way to work on billboards. There is a certain format: each event is a projection of several series of images by a group of artists on LED billboards, with a certain pace and time frame, a different town each time. The artists have only to create their images and the rest is taken care of. It would be different to create a single unique image for a billboard - printed or handmade. It would be another approach. I would think about it differently. The Billboard Art Project is a public, incorporeal, ephemeral and nomadic project. Four wonderful qualities I am more and more interested in. Public art is obviously public, but not necessarily incorporeal, ephemeral and nomadic!
To see some of Michele's images, visit her Savannah and Nashville albums in the photo section.
The interview on the Billboard Art Project website here.