In this interview with Christian Omodeo, founder of the independent agency and bookstore Le Grand Jeu in Paris, specialized in urban cultures, we get interesting insights into the relationships between street cultures and pop culture, both through references to specific texts and through concrete cases such as that of the American artist RAMMΣLLZΣΣ. Not to mention the Outdoor Festival in Rome.
Last April – on the occasion of their 15th anniversary and their solo exhibition Megamix, last April Les Frères Ripoulain invited you to the facebook live event of Les Moyens du Bord, to give a talk that would relate their research to the path of interest and study on urban cultures that you have been doing for a long time.
That evening you said that you’ve been trying to write a book on street art for 15 years without succeeding. An impossibility, but behind it there is a strong desire and a constant persistence to make it one day.
What are the obstacles, or rather the unprecedented contaminations, that you are exploring in developing your personal interpretation and narration of street art?
I don’t think we can talk about real obstacles, apart from the chronic lack of time. Let’s say it’s hard to put a real argument on paper when your point of view keeps changing. It’s like taking a picture from a moving train. You get a still image at best, but not a clear picture of the landscape you’re looking at.
Around 2005, when I decided to make graffiti and street cultures more than just a passion, I worked as a researcher. Today I run an independent bookstore and develop other projects in parallel. In some cases, I no longer think like a curator, but like an entrepreneur, even though my atypical background leads me to make decisions and take risks that others would not.
This evolution has not only allowed me to change my perspective and assess certain issues differently. It has also changed the way I write and the audience I want to appeal to. However, I feel that the time has come, both because I now have real certainties and because I feel it is useful to bring in an atypical point of view that is different from what we normally read. Let’s hope we can find the time to do it.
I would like you to deepen this atypical point of view you mentioned. What are the conceptual guidelines through which you are developing your reasoning regarding street cultures? Is it possible to hypothesize a connection between street cultures and pop culture? How does this discourse fit into the projects you carry out with your agency-bookshop Le Grand Jeu?
I have the feeling that despite the announcements made since the 1990s with exhibitions like High & low: modern art and popular culture at MoMA in New York, the line between high & low – between Culture with a capital C and Pop phenomena made for a mass audience and destined to be quickly forgotten – is still very present, especially in certain fields.
It’s as if we can no longer get out of the rantings that began in the 19th century with the shift of art and culture to the consumer sphere and the structuring of the culture industry. It is worth re-reading De la littérature comme industrie, a book Sainte-Beuve wrote in 1839. Even before Theodor Adorno or Max Horkheimer, he had already foreseen the conflict that would spread between the followers of “real” literature and the lovers of an entertainment literature.
On a purely personal level, this reflection is mirrored in the changed way I have been working for several years. As a curator, I initially devoted myself to supporting artists and projects that were intended for mass culture and in which I recognized a quality worthy of “real” art. But saving an artist or a project, or allowing 10, 100, or 1000 street artists to be exhibited in museums and be considered “real” artists is of little use if the rules of the game don’t change. It is not a matter of inviting artists to exhibit in museums after they have developed an appropriate strategy to validate them in the eyes of a cultured public. It’s about allowing them to do in museums what they normally do on the street and inviting the public that normally follows them.
The idea of opening a bookstore specializing in street culture was the first step in a different direction that led me to focus more on the how than the what. No one around me believed there was a large enough audience for a project like this to survive without outside help. Instead, despite the Covid and the Gilets Jaunes, a project that was launched in 2018 is still here, and indeed today I am preparing the next steps: Grintz, a database and marketplace dedicated to print culture, Dissident, a marketplace specialized in street photography, and RUN – Rencontres Urbaines de Nancy -, an annual event dedicated to street culture.
As an expert in the field, if you had to define the concept of street cultures, how would you do it and what reference texts would you cite as important starting points? How do these insights influence the selection of Le Grand Jeu‘s editorial proposal?
This is not easy to answer, also because the concept of street cultures or urban cultures is very problematic. In the U.S., for example, many African-American musicians and singers have recently fought and obtained the suppression of the urban category in competitions like the Grammys or on streaming platforms like Spotify, because they see it as a way to stigmatize black music.
In Europe, the situation is different, partly because the issue is not perceived as racist in many countries as it is in the U.S., and partly because the influence of books like Dick Hebdige’s Subcultures: the meaning of style (1979) or Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century (1989) is still strong. We are so attached to the idea of the underground that we tend to condemn those cultural productions that leave their original sphere and enter the mainstream.
Having said that, since I have not yet found a manifesto book, I multiply my reading and I am interested in everything that concerns the cultural industries and especially the music industry, pop culture and the emergence of the Internet era. I think of more theoretical books such as Manuel Castells’ studies on the Internet galaxy and the network society, but also essays such as Pop Culture. Réflexions sur les industries du rêve et l’invention des identités by Richard Memeteau (2014) and the studies on music by Simon Reynolds, starting with Retromania (2011) or Eric Weisbard. In his Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music (2014), there is one of my favorite quotes, “I’ve come to love the mainstream that expands, rather than the underground that emerges.”
These realizations greatly affect the choices I make in the bookstore – sometimes a little too Aby Warburg-style. In the “Graffiti” section, for example, I’ve integrated books on paleography as well as studies on typographic design or small essays like Lucienne Pierry’s Il livre de pierre on Oreste Nannetti and catalogs like the one for the exhibition Peindre la nuit at the Centre Pompidou Metz, since writers often work at night. However, in general, I focus on books that deal with the culture industry that emerged in the same basin of pop and street culture, because it was about time that there was a bookstore where you could find all these books on the same shelves.
I’ve come to appreciate the mainstream that expands, rather than the underground that emerges.
– Eric Weisbard
Between 2017 and 2018, I was lucky enough to work with you and for you on a documentary research about artist RAMMΣLLZZΣΣ (New York 1960 – 2010), writer, pioneer of hip-hop culture, theorist of “Iconoclastic Panzerism” or “Gothic Futurism,” musician and performer, in preparation for the exhibition RAMMΣLLZΣΣ: Racing for Thunder held at Red Arts New York between August 4 and 26, 2018. The interest of auction houses like Sotheby’s, as well as the perception of many insiders, is that we are facing the heir of Jean-Michel Basquiat, making in a certain way tangible and measurable that transition you mentioned from street to pop culture. In what moment of this process of evolution do we find ourselves, in your opinion, with respect to the figure of RAMMΣLLZZΣΣΣ?
More than Jean-Michel Basquiat’s heir, RAMMΣLLZΣΣ should be considered his precursor, and in some ways it is puzzling that the deep connection between them has not yet been analyzed by Basquiat specialist scholars in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Few know, for example, that Annina Nosei, one of Basquiat’s first gallerists, organized a solo exhibition of RAMMΣLLZZΣΣ in 1983, at the same time that a selection of Basquiat’s works was on display in another room of the gallery. On this occasion, RAMMΣLLZZΣΣ challenged Basquiat by creating a triptych inspired by his friend’s style. He wanted to provoke him by demonstrating that he was able to create works “à la Basquiat”, while Basquiat was not able to imitate his style. The works produced by the former for this challenge were partially identified in the New York exhibition. But those produced by Basquiat are still missing.
So, as you note, we have to look at the context in which these two artists decided to evolve. Basquiat, basically, started from the street also because it was the ideal place to talk about the social and political issues he wanted to address, but he did not hesitate to integrate Warhol’s factory to allow his work to find a wider echo. RAMMΣLLZΣΣ, on the other hand, went on his own, demanding from viewers and the art world an effort to understand the universe he was constructing. His Garbage Gods – statues composed of clothes he himself wore for performances during concerts or exhibitions – are the gods of a capitalist society that litters garbage, but they are also a direct reference to the Star Wars saga, as well as Star Trek and Alien. But RAMMΣLLZΣΣ did not just imagine his own post-atomic Olympus and give it an artistic form. He also wrote and produced an opera, a play, comic books, card games and a video game inspired by this saga. And let’s not forget that he renamed his studio Battle Station, because for him it was not a studio, but a command center from which to direct and observe a real interstellar war.
For this last question we go back home. Rome. You curated the first (Un buon motivo per uscire di casa. 2010) and the last (Heritage. 2018 at the Art Pavilion together with Antonella di Lullo) edition of the Outdoor Festival, the “largest metropolitan cultural festival in Italy” conceived and directed by the creative agency Nufactory. What is the legacy of this long, ten-year journey that you have been able to personally contribute to? And today, at the end of 2021, does Rome still have something to say in the European panorama of urban cultures?
Furthermore, if you want to broaden the scope of the question to a comparison between the urban art system in Italy and in France (assuming we can talk about it in an organic sense), what do you think are the main points of contact and the substantial differences?
Outdoor has proven the potential of this model of street art festivals, renewing itself year after year, moving from the simple realization of walls to the temporary occupation of disused spaces, where all the energies present in a given area converge. The focus on metropolitan culture in recent editions is a clear expression of the objectives set by the team that has put together the festival over the years, starting with Francesco Dobrovich, my brother Alessandro and Marco Della Chiara, not forgetting Antonella Di Lullo, who played a fundamental role in defining the festival’s curatorial line.
In retrospect, my only regret is that I didn’t witness the festival’s final leap to the top. For me, Outdoor had all the cards on the table to become a sort of Sónar of the visual arts and my return to the team in 2018 was linked to the idea of embarking on such a path, leading it to become an event of international scale. The big events, however, cannot exist without those certainties that only politics can give and that in Rome, in recent years, were unimaginable to find.
However, to answer your question about Rome and France, I would note that the global vision we had in street art in the 2000s has been lost in recent years. The Guardian‘s famous ranking of the 10 best street artists of the year used to make us smile half-heartedly, but it shows that the scene was perceived as a whole. Today I feel more like I’m dealing with a lot of national scenes overlaid by big international stars – JR, Bansky, Invader, Vhils…. – as it is already the case in pop music. I don’t think this is a limitation or improvement over the past, but a new scenario with new rules and balances, where there is still much to write and do.