VoCA recently caught up with 2007 Sobey Art Prize winner Michel de Broin, by phone from Berlin, where he is now based.
The Montreal artist has a Toronto court case coming up this spring to contest charges brought against the driver of his increasingly notorious pedal powered Buick, the Shared Propulsion Car, which was recently on view at Mercer Union.
The public is invited to the hearing, which will take place in Toronto on April 3rd, in courtroom R at 60 Queen Street West
at 3 pm. Watch this space for more info.
VoCA: There seems to be something of a contradiction between Western society’s desires – for a healthy planet, for example – and our cultural behavior. Your work seems to harness this contradiction, to make objects that somehow embody that contradiction.
Michel de Broin: Do you know my work Keep on Smoking? On one hand, I try to produce power that’s totally alternative in the way it works, but the result is that it creates the smoke, the sign of pollution.
It’s interesting the way ecology is use to decide good behaviour, like for instance the petrol industry will paint their signs in green to suggest environmentalism although what they do isn’t clean, but this piece (Keep on Smoking) is the opposite. The way it works is clean but it produces the sign of pollution. It’s the reverse of how ecology is used normally, the smoke produced is not polluting. It’s the sign without the effect.
It’s great to produce smoke without polluting, because it’s a symbol of power but today we are confronted with new resources, in some of my work as with the car, the poetry involved is the alternative to consumption.
With Shared Propulsion Car, tailoring a car is inefficient, but the idea itself and the poetry involved is my alternative. It was possible to imagine tailoring a car in a metaphorical world. That can be more interesting than the real world. I mean that what I’ve discovered with this project is that having less efficiency in terms of mechanics can work well because it’s big and goes slow. It makes sense because it’s very poetic to drive a big car.
The goal – there’s a risk for pretending to save the world with art. That’s dangerous because artists promote themselves…they show that they have good beliefs, but it comes back as self-promotion. It’s important that the object not be just about referring to a good cause. Works play on the idea and they are relevant today, but the main ideas for me regarding art is to try to open a small gap in the meaning/construction of reality, so that the viewer can construct a meaning for themselves. An artwork is something that creates a gap in the meaning, that is attractive for the viewer to fill themselves.
The subject succeeds when people are questioned by it, they have to construct the meaning, they have to participate in the creation of the sense of the work.
VoCA: You often use the ‘real’ world as a backdrop for your pieces. Why is this important to you?
Michel de Broin: What we see as the real world is also a construction, as much as my own constructions. The difference is that we all collectively agree to believe (these ‘real world’ constructions), but they can be very boring too, because the reality stops being poetic, because we frequent it too much, and not so exciting. I oppose my construction to the common construction, and it creates a tension that creates an aliveness.
Today artists work a lot with the real, I’m not the only one doing that. But there’s a reason, it’s very philosophical – seeing the reality as being a representation itself. To make a painting or draw in another context what we see in the real, to create a second layer of representation on top of another can be interesting, but I’m comparing and reorganizing representation so that it surprises and confronts because it’s made of the same matter, it comes to the people a bit as if it were part of (what they already know).
The reality is a construction from the imagination. I’m displacing objects from the real into a new configuration. The real is just a painting that we can rearrange. It creates possibilities; my goal is to open possibilities without necessarily giving a solution. Showing that there are different possibilities.
VoCA: Were you surprised that Dean was arrested while driving the Shared Propulsion car?
Michel de Broin: I was arrested in Montreal before, but I was testing the car, and I went on the street, and I was arrested and the police just told me to return with a tow truck. But in Toronto I was expecting to be arrested, I was thinking I was just transgressing expectation. But there is no law against pedal cars, I don’t think there was anything in the law, but we didn’t do anything wrong. It was not a transgression of the law, from my point of view. I wouldn’t do something that was against the law.
It was creating a situation that the police consider unlawful – that it’s forbidden to modify a car, but what if you go really far and modify it in extreme ways (like I did)? The law is made for car powered motors. Our lawyer is saying that since this is pedal powered, it’s another law that’s applied.
It’s irritating for the police. The car looks menacing and strong, that’s probably why we got arrested – we weren’t holding up traffic, really, people really liked it. They were supportive. This car looks like a statement against car culture, but it is more than this, it touches the imagination. It has a Mad Max aspect – it’s like the last car on earth. It looks like a ghost of a car. You think it’s impossible, that there’s no car like this.
It didn’t matter the speed, if the car can go half a k/hour, for me it would still be a success. Going slow is interesting, as a contradiction. I’d say the car can go up to 15 km an hour. Turning and going up hills, there are seven speeds, but we haven’t had a chance to use them all. It brakes very well, with one arm break on each side – the car’s brakes..
In the gallery, the front lights were lit by candles…there is something about the empty car that has a special presence.
The gallery put the video on youtube, and I wanted to remove it and make it better, but after a few hours, many people copied it and put it back on the internet, and I lost control. My video that I fixed got fewer hits, but you can find it here:
VoCA: What do you hope is the outcome of the court case on April 3rd?
Michel de Broin: It’s difficult to know, they always can say that this thing was disturbing or unsafe, if they say that our car is dangerous, how can they prove it? It’s a bit off point, other cars are more dangerous…it depends on the lawyer, I think we have a good lawyer – I hope that whatever happens will be interesting, any anyway it’s a good image to take a pedal car to court. If we win, we want to drive back to the gallery, to make a promenade in the city. If we lose, I will do the same in Montreal, go in the street and wait to be arrested.
It’s interesting the relationship to the law, it’s like when you bring an object that confronts the norm, in the context of traffic, the police are there to show that this car is really disturbing the norm. This is what we want to do with an artwork, to shock what was there before. This process of being, but not being illegal, just doing something without precedent is interesting. It’s good to have the Sobey prize, because now I can afford the consequences.
Disturbing the norms is not the primary goal, but I like the contrast – it’s easy to disturb, but here it’s poetic, and has a certain beauty. It’s the reaction of the people that I’m curious to see. People have projected themselves well, they have shown that the work makes people happy.