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Kids Working with Art History through Digital Art - An Interview with Nicolas Clauss

[May 22d 2005]

Nicolas Clauss: Art if I Want.
From Art if I Want.

Kids Working with Art History through Digital Art. An Interview with Nicolas Clauss

In the creation of the project Art if I Want, the French digital artist Nicolas Clauss explored how an artist can use digital art as a catalyst to let youngsters deal with art history in a hands-on manner. At the l'Espal cultural centre in Le Mans, France, Nicolas worked with a group of adolescents using well-known historical art works as the basis for creating new interactive digital pieces. These pieces are partly digital reinterpretations or examinations of works by e.g. Francis Bacon, Marcel Duchamp, Edvard Munch and Jean-Michel Basquiat and partly documentations of the working process and the kids' thoughts and feelings towards the artworks. Thomas Petersen interviewed Nicolas about the process and practicalities of the project as well as about his personal working process. Perhaps this can be an inspiration for art institutions to learn new ways of teaching art history to youngsters.

Visit the Art if I Want website:

Installations of the project are shown at the l'Espal cultural centre in May 2005:

Can you tell me a bit about the background of Art if I Want and about the process of working with this particular group?
At the beginning, the l'Espal cultural and art centre of Le Mans (France) offered me the chance to work with them on a web project involving people from the neighborhood. The centre is right in the middle of a working class area with a large portion of immigrants. The l'Espal director didn't ask for any particular subject or project, just for us to get to know each other and then think about a topic. After two months of experimenting with teenagers (a group of kids aged from 11 to 16) we decided to do something dealing with contemporary art and not to focus on social issues like I did earlier (Five Elsewhere and I am 10 -, ). We started the project with 8 kids working mostly on weekends and holidays, we brought them a lot of books about different artists and visual art, they chose some of them, we talked about it, interviewed people and used different media for the project (videos, sounds, scans, pictures, drawings...).

Nicolas Clauss: Art if I Want.
From Art if I Want.

For instance, the piece about Marcel Duchamp came from an 11-year-old girl who was amazed to see a toilet (Duchamp's Fountain) on the cover of a 'serious' art book. She was fascinated with it and hassled me till we did something with it. We recorded a debate among the kids on Duchamp's works. Some explained how stupid it was to them and others spoke with enthusiasm about his genius, humor and cleverness. In the Francis Bacon tableau, we had three kids film their faces to include them in Bacon's work by modifying the video, picture after picture in Photoshop. Afterwards they discussed their experience and how they felt about going into Bacon's world and how they understood it. One of them said: 'Bacon paints humans into monsters to show us that we are all monsters, that we are ugly in the sense of being selfish, mean.'

The strength of Art if I want is in the power and cleverness of the kids' comments, which are much smarter than many things I have read about art. Actually, the main interest of the project is the human experience behind it and what the kids tell us about art even though they didn't know anything about it before. The idea behind the project was to question art and our relation to art. We are thinking about translating the full project into a subtitled version in English.

Regarding the working process, we did everything as if we were playing, it went very smoothly, the recorded comments were natural, and nothing was written down. We worked together for over 6 months and then I worked for 2 months, putting everything together and creating a work with/about/around the experience we had. The result is a strange object - and to make it even stranger we are making a huge installation (actually four of them) in l'Espal in May 2005, where I work with Jean-Noël Montagné ( ). We will have the Francis Bacon work where the spectator will sit in a chair in front of the projected screen and his movements (scratching nose, moving leg.) will affect the sound and the picture of the work. We will have the Edvard Munch piece, which will become a bridge with a ramp and two projections, where spectators on the bridge will interact with the work (music, voices, 2 screens.). Another installation will be the Marcel Duchamp piece where the picture is projected onto a 5 x 5 m floor screen and where people will play sounds by walking with a big magnifying glass. The last one is only about sounds. For each installation, I have reworked all the pictures and reprogrammed for a totally different interactivity. The logic is completely different from the web-based mouse interactivity.

Installation views
Views from installation by Nicolas Clauss and Jean-Noël Montagné of Art if I want. Photo by Yan Moser. More photos here:

For the non-French speaking audience - can you tell us a bit about the voices in the pieces? What are the kids talking about?
Well, I can't translate it all, but they explain what they feel, how they understand the artists in the project, talk about art in general, as well as how they did the project and what it gave them.

The strength of their comments is that even though they sound naive and far from usual art rhetoric, they are very smart, quite accurate, sometimes very funny and always touching. It's as if the kids are talking with the big Artists in the same way as with their friends, i.e. without being intimidated. One of them explained, without doubt, that if Jean-Michel Basquiat were still alive, he would go to New York and make a canvas with him. They explained what they had learned as well; that you can do art without painting or sculpting, that you are not a piece of art, but if someone puts you in a gallery you can become one, that art can be anything, that anyone can put a moustache on Mona Lisa to make something new which is art, that if someone says something is art, it may become art...
They say so much, that you've got several levels of understanding. When you listen to them you can, on one level, feel what they've been through during their journey through art. Then they on another level bring up fundamental questions about what art is.

I think this project points to the great potentials in digital artistic production as a way to let youngsters deal with art history in a hands-on manner. Some art institutions may, however, be wary because of the practical implications of using digital media. Can you tell me about the practical issues when managing these kinds of projects (equipment, training, pedagogy etc.)?
Actually, the web project did not have any practical problems with equipment; the l'Espal centre has a multimedia area where they do workshops with people, so they already had enough equipment to do it, except for buying some software like Director. The kids quickly learned about computers and I received a lot of help from the people from the multimedia workshop (thanks again to Sandra Gaumont for the precious help she gave me, as well as the whole l'Espal team).

Nicolas Clauss: Art if I Want.
From Art if I Want.

The pedagogy was, like I said above, very natural. I guess it is easier to deal with kids when you are an artist; you are neither a teacher nor an educator, you are just someone who is allowed to think differently, to play with them... I never asked them to read the books or the Internet sites about art, just to take a look at the pictures, eventually to read the titles and to read some paragraphs if they felt like it. We talked a lot, they asked me many questions and I often answered with other questions.

For the installation project, in which the kids are not directly associated because it becomes much more technical and the 'matter' is already done, we didn't suspect how much money and material it would require. I guess if we knew, we would never have decided to do it. But the project has had quite a good reception here, and we have received a lot of help and partnership. Mostly the ministry of culture is helping us, as well as the city and the region. The idea now is to have the exhibition travel and we might have a new one in October at Cité des Sciences (Villette, Paris).

In the work with the installations you apparently encountered a number of difficulties, which means there are probably a number of things you would have liked to have known in advance. What advice can you offer an organization or institution wanting to do a similar project?
The main difficulty was to find the funds, but the cultural centre did the job. We've been working for 2 weeks on it with 5 to 8 people. The show opens May 2005, with over 500 m² of installations and we are very happy about it! The only advice I can give is to surround yourself with motivated and competent people. Luckily that's what happened in Le Mans with the l'Espal center.

You have a background in traditional painting. In what way does your painterly background show in your digital pieces?
I guess, besides the painterly look of my work, I kept a very similar approach to digital art. I now do works nearly like I used to paint, without a plan. Most of the time it's a dialogue with the canvas. I'm very attentive to what's going on with the code, the pictures and the sound. If I make a mistake at some stage, that mistake can become a strength. The choices I make are dictated by my subconscious - but not only of course. I communicate something that people can feel with their emotions and subconscious, instead of something where they think 'I love the idea, this is smart'.

Nicolas Clauss
The many faces of Nicolas Clauss.

Why did you shift to digital media?
I felt trapped doing paintings that had already been done 40 years earlier, so I needed to find a new medium to express myself through. I thought of computers because I grew up with them even though I never made pictures with them. So around age 30 I went back to university to get free training. I didn't learn anything, but a student told me about Flash and Director and it was a personal revolution.

Which aspects of these programs sparked this personal revolution?
In Director (and also Photoshop) I found a very similar way of thinking about pictures as I had encountered in painting, e.g. the use of multi-layered images. In my paintings I used to have from 3 to 7 (sometimes more) layers of textures and matters that could sometimes only be seen from one scratch on the surface. I guess this is what made me feel close to these tools. Then I discovered how to use sounds, videos and finally code. But I guess that if I hadn't found the transparency mode for layers (which Flash doesn't really have) I maybe wouldn't have carried on with computers. I love the ink for layers in Director and I mostly use the lightest, the darkest, the add pin and subtract pin inks for everything I do. I'm being a bit technical here, but once again, maybe without these things I wouldn't do what I do.

Then there's the Lingo code in Director. I used to program in Basic when I was 15 and I guess it helped me a lot in going back to coding 15 years later. I've always liked logics and math but not enough to study it. I like how logical Director is. The interface and the language (Lingo) are very reactive; you change one parameter and you see the change in real time, no rendering, and no delay.

That's another reason why I felt good about this software; it is much easier than painting where you think twice before putting color here or a stroke there. Here you can try as many things as you want, all you have to do is to use your eyes to choose what you feel is the closest to what you want.



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