Space Invader interviewed in his studio, Paris, 20th Mar 2008 for Elms Lesters Painting Rooms
This essay was first published in the ELMS LESTERS book
There’s a memorable scene in the 1983 film Style Wars, when Skeme and his Mum are being interviewed in their kitchen by director Tony Silver and Skeme talks about his ultimate aim to go “all-city” with his graffiti writing.
That’s not enough for Invader. He wants to go all-world, nothing less than total domination seems to be the goal of his “reality game” with 33 towns and cities in France “invaded” to date and a further 28 international cities across the five continents beyond. Invader’s home city of Paris is an ongoing invasion, the only city in which he chooses not to divide the invasion into “waves”. When I met him at his studio in Paris, on a huge wall-mounted map of the capital he was charting the precise location, date and score of his 760th consecutive hit on the city equating to a running total of over 16,000 self-awarded points. Two days previously he had returned from missions accomplished with hi-scores in the Nepali capital Kathmandu (28 invasions/520 points) and the holy Indian city of Varanasi (14 invasions/310 points).
Whereas some might interpret invasion as an aggressive act, this artist comes across as quite the opposite kind of character, softly spoken, thoughtful and modest.
“It’s an invasion, but it’s an artistic invasion. In my eyes, when I invade a city it’s more a gift to the city than the desire to vandalise.”
The nature of the work, though, inevitably transgresses public/private boundaries, and brushes with authority go with the territory, increasing the level of difficulty.
“Sure, it’s part of the game. This afternoon I’ve been at the police station because someone saw me putting a piece on the side of their building and reported me. It’s incredible because when the owner saw me I did not run, but tried to explain to him that it was an artistic gift from the artistic invasion and a good thing for his property, because I really believe that, but it’s not obvious to everybody.”
For Invader, though, the frisson of danger in itself is not the motivation behind the work.
“The big deal for me is when the piece is done and I can see the result from the street.”
Invader describes himself as having an almost hyperactive way of working.
“The Japanese have a word for it – otaku – when you’re very obsessed by something and in my case I’m very obsessed by my work and my art. I think it’s a way to escape from normal life to a new one. The point is I like to be active, I really like to make things. I like to think too, for sure, but my involvement in art isn’t to be in a comfortable studio making paintings, I think it’s good to get out there and take risks.”
“I generally work by night but occasionally by day, it depends on the location. Sometimes when there are many people around during the day, you’re less noticeable.”
So next time you see what you think is a council workman up a ladder wearing a fluorescent jacket, look more closely at what he’s doing. Amazing how neutral the street artist can be if he appears to be on official municipal duty.
“It’s a good way to be invisible.” (For those book collectors who own a copy of the third Guide d’Invasion subtitled Invasion in the U.K., turn to page 78).
He feels that anonymity results in greater concentration all round on his art and that the cult of personality in our culture counteracts the focus on the work in favour of its maker.
But like the felon who haunts his own crime scene, Invader always goes back at pedestrian level the following day to photograph the work with life in the street going on around it. And when he returns to reconquer a city he’s already invaded – New York, for example, where he completed his third wave in December 2007 – is he tempted to revisit the works from the first and second waves?
“I don’t go specially to visit but if I know there’s already a piece around where I’m making a new one then I’ll go and see if it’s still there and how it’s aged over time, become chipped or dirty. I like that the idea that the piece when I’ve done it lives its own life. I’m not the owner any more, the city is the owner of the piece.”
Even so, Invader is reluctant to let the pieces degrade into nothing. Some hits have been “reactivated” by the artist on subsequent invasions. Both LDN_09 and LDN_25 underwent remedial reactivation by Invader more than seven years after their original installation. One in Covent Garden had suffered cracking and general wear and tear due to its low position in a pedestrian area and the other near Shoreditch train station high up on a lintel had been obscured with white paint. LDN_74 is beyond reactivation, the wall it clung to behind Great Eastern Street having been demolished in 2007. It remains forever recorded as LDN_74_RIP.
Some enthusiasts for Invader’s work in the Soho area of London have tried chiselling the tiles off the wall, perhaps attempting to trump Invader’s points score in the act of removal. A typical case is the piece above the arch connecting Manette Street to Greek Street at the Pillars of Hercules pub.
The bonding agent Invader uses is so strong, though, it ensures that any attempt to remove the piece results in its disintegration, as if a self-protective self-destruct mechanism were built into the Tomohiro Nishikado-designed alien, Invader’s constant motif.
And yet an increasingly prevalent misinterpretation of Invader’s idea of the work being a universal gift left in the public domain seems to be to try to take personal ownership of it.
“This is really something new for me. For sure, I’m not happy with people trying to take the pieces, it’s a selfish act focused on financial value – the idea of working in the streets is to give something to everybody.”
In part, this is a natural consequence of the recent surge in value of Invader works at auction, particularly the so-called “Alias” pieces which are a clever twist on the idea of the unique art object.
“My concept of the ‘Alias’ is that it’s not something for the art market but you can adopt a Space Invader in the street by owning its replica. I do it just once and it’s linked to the one in the street. One of my rules is to never do the same piece twice.”
Is there a shape to the invasion in terms of how the viewer might read the locations plotted on a map, like in the City of Glass story in Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy?
“I did that in Montpellier in France where if you link all the Space Invaders I put in the city on a map it draws a huge Space Invader, but that can be frustrating because it’s a pattern that has to be followed and sometimes the location from the imposed logic is not a good one.”
Invader normally selects locations with a more liberated mindset.
“I just walk and get lost in the city and look everywhere, and an area will grab my attention, I feel it strongly and I know I have to put a piece there.”
This psychogeographic feel for topography echoes the French Situationist philosopher Guy Debord’s idea of 1957 Naked City, where “spontaneous inclinations of orientation” link various “unities of atmosphere” and dictate the urban wanderer’s path through the city.
Two particular French words used in Situationist theory offer telling insights into Invader’s artistic practice. The first is dérive, meaning “drift”, and the second détournement, a kind of re-routing or “diversion” in the public highway sense which also carries the sense of free creative activity which Debord himself described as “a game of subversion”. Invader has “détourned” roadworks barriers into artworks as well as wrapping public sculptures in Invader-logo hazard warning tape in a nod to Nouveau Réaliste artist Christo.
“I really walk what seems like hundreds of kilometres in the city before I invade it to find the best areas. I really try to go everywhere in the city, I don’t just want to go to the centre and say I invaded it, I want to hit it hard and go everywhere, to the touristic areas but also the local areas where there are local people. I end up knowing the city a hundred times better than a normal tourist, that’s the hard work.”
“With the mosaics that I use, where it takes two or three weeks to put 50 pieces up in the city, I really have to make a good choice for the location of each piece, to find the best spot, always looking to play with the architecture. And since my pieces are pretty small compared to a tag, I really try to find some nervous point in the city where the vision focuses. When I started I put them much lower, but since people have begun trying to take them I’ve evolved into putting them higher.”
To reach up onto walls and position the tiles he uses a self-fashioned telescopic grab arm which looks like a longer variation on Travis Bickle’s gun-sliding apparatus in Taxi Driver. Invader’s arm extensions, though, are not secreted in his sleeve and are covered in airline stickers from all the flights they’ve been checked onto on his world invasions.
“It’s one of the problems I have in going abroad, taking all the equipment I need, because tiles are very heavy. I like to take my own cement, the one I know is very strong, and with my telescopic tools you can imagine the questions I get asked at customs.”
The new height of these pieces interestingly puts them level with surveillance cameras.
“Yes, the Space Invaders are looking at humans. Each time I go abroad to invade I try to adapt to the city and in England I have to adapt to the location of the cameras, that’s a particularity of London where there are many more surveillance cameras than in Paris.”
He is up to his eighth wave in London and has made a number of pieces here which pitch the Invader icon against the portentous letters CCTV. Examples of this strain can still be found around Liverpool Street, the heart of London’s financial area, where closed-circuit cameras are in their highest concentration. One Invader icon significantly has mirror tiles for eyes, reflecting the city in miniature as the fish-eye lens of surveillance captures it.
“During my three weeks in India recently, I did some Space Invaders with a kind of Indian aesthetic, I gave them third eyes and multiple arms like the god Shiva. I went to this subcontinent because street art is so unexpected there. In three weeks of travelling between Kathmandu and Varanasi I didn’t see a single piece of graffiti. Nobody has been there before me in the street art movement and that’s important. Kathmandu felt mythical. It was easy to invade because first of all people don’t care about you doing things on the walls like in Western countries where the state really fights graffiti. Secondly, by night there was nobody in the street apart from a few people sleeping, dogs and cows.”
Of course, on the subcontinent being a Westerner means that the cloak of invisibility no longer works. For the few pieces he positioned during daylight hours in India he would quickly attract a group of 50 people or more.
One of the most extraordinary pieces in Varanasi, VRN_12, is a Data Matrix code in mosaic tiles set into a viewing platform next to the River Ganges. DM code is a two-dimensional matrix barcode comprising square black-and-white pixels arranged in a rectangular or square pattern which can store up to 2,335 alphanumeric characters.
A QuickTime movie on Invader’s website claims to make history with VRN_12, “the first QR code in mosaic ever made”. QR, or Quick Response matrix code, is starting to become a standard mobile tagging language worldwide and can be easily decoded by, for example, using an iPhone capture device as Invader’s website demo shows. Any passer-by with the technology to scan the tile in this place – one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities – would instantly download a message from the future: “I invade Varanasi. Invader 03/08”.
Invader is well ahead of the game on virtual graffiti just as his 10 pieces surreptitiously attached to the walls of the Louvre predate by years Banksy’s more publicised raids on international art museums. And whereas most graffiti artists, including Banksy, paint flat but mimic three-dimensional effects, Invader’s work is 3-D, being tiled, but the image always appears totally flat. The chunky pixellated aesthetic Invader favours seems to revel in the pre-digital visual world of early video game graphics, but in so doing points up the huge technological leaps made since the Space Invaders game emerged in 1978.
“I think visually my work reflects something from our own time. I feel the digital era is a revolution for the human being and what I’m doing is using the prehistory of this revolution to show its importance in the world before the digital aesthetic. It’s a game between me and me, you know, I am my first public. For me, the most important thing is to be happy with what I’m doing and believe in my own taste. From there people will follow or not.”
I’m left with an image of Invader surfing his own website www.space-invaders.com where within the Paris section on the 10th street photo clicked a PopUp window announces:
>>>BONUS>>>SCORE X 10. PLAYER ONE PRESS OK TO CONTINUE.
Ben Jones, August 2008