July 3, 2009

A Dream Within A Dream

An Interview with Calligrapher Julien Breton aka Kaalam

Part 2 of 2 (link to Part 1)
click on any picture to enlarge it to original size (also turn on sound for videos!!)

Julien, after seeing you perform ‘live’ in different interviews and other videos, do you consider yourself more of an artist or performer as the magazine ‘Metiers d’Art’ described you?
I really don’t know where I fit between artist and performer. I mean, art galleries tell me my work is more design oriented, and designers tell me it’s art.

For me, my artistic discourse is constructed through the choice of the phrases I present in my calligraphy and the message that I present through the photographs. I am simply a witness of an era. Still, if I had to chose, in some ways I think I am an artist. Then again, maybe I’m actually a performer. You see?

I mean, I love creating snapshots for a single occasion or a specific message. Just now in fact, I am preparing for a performance where I’ll create light calligraphy over a span of 30 minutes. And I do enjoy doing shows, because I feel that the public is increasingly used to ‘quickly consuming’ a work or a concert. As such, I enjoy showing that artistic creation sometimes requests or even requires the audience to be patient, but that their patience will be well rewarded with a great and very interesting show.

Where do your works find their ‘customers’? You have done magazine covers and even album covers and much more of course. What other ‘outlets’ for your work have you found?
At the moment, being able to ‘live my passion’ is complicated. I’m really managing to just supplement my needs. I am providing courses and workshops in the various forms of calligraphy that I do. I am also selling original creations and continuing to promote my calligraphy light show.

But in a lot of ways, it seems my style does not meet current standards. Maybe if I was doing graffiti art, things would be easier!

It just seems that calligraphy doesn’t have a place in art galleries and in terms of contemporary art again the acceptance does not seem to be very high. Plus, I find that if I want to work and sell something like logos, many consider my style too ‘Arabic’, so it’s difficult to promote my work in the country where I live!

I find myself therefore in a somewhat marginal space in terms of positioning my work ...

The principle of ‘virtual calligraphy’ seems to be pretty clear with it’s use of long exposure photography. A couple of questions to the work and pieces you have produced:
- Different pictures include different ‘textures’, colour combinations, levels of transparency and even thicknesses of light. Is there a selection of different ‘light-brushes’ that you use? Here are some examples that shows what I mean:

Careful, virtual calligraphy is not the same as light calligraphy!

Light calligraphy is a creation completed with bright lights that involves taking a picture over a ‘long’ space of time with a camera. The end result appears only when the photograph is developed!

On the other hand, virtual calligraphy works with a camera and an infrared lamp. And with the systems I use, the result appears in real time and can be ‘projected’ even as the piece is developing.

But back to your question: of course, I use different ‘light brushes’. You can see several examples in this photograph (ZN: we assume that the beer is also an essential part of achieving a perfectly executed piece!).

In terms of the photographs shown above, the first photograph was made with Brusk (a graffiti artist) and here the red and white is made with a portable neon lamp where we applied red gelatin to half of the light. This gives the line this double-coloured effect.

In addition, all the lights that I use are ‘wedge-shaped’ which allows me to retain both the flat effects and still also freely express the flowing forms just as you see with calligraphy on paper. The angle of the bevel allows me to create either fine or thick lines.

The lamp used to create and photograph the 3rd picture above is very powerful and is used for working in extremely bright environments. It is composed of fifty very powerful diodes which in turn gives the effect of the very fine, grooved lines running in parallel.

How much trial and error does it take to develop the right control of the light?
It is a difficult exercise if you want to think of it that way. But learning to work like this was a real revelation for me.

Since I was young, I understood space and 3 dimensions in a very special way. Today when I work, I trace reference marks on the ground and I also use even my center of gravity as a reference in space and time. Other times, I’ll even call upon my appreciation of mathematical logic and different ways of viewing space with my eyes or within my mind.

And when I know by heart the choreography of my calligraphy, I can achieve my work error-free and without problems, even in a photograph. But when I'm creating, this entire preparation period can take several hours to several days ...

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of working in combination with photography vs. working on paper?
When I worked only on paper, I always had a desire to make the format bigger. I wanted to expand the space of my ‘canvas’ so that I could work with more gestures and movement. Light calligraphy gave me this opportunity.

Now, the frame of the camera gives me a background of the size I want. In this way, I am able to express myself with my whole body and create light sculptures in 3 dimensions. I just love working in this way, with volume, perspective, and depth!

Have you considered going to study calligraphy in an Arab country?
Of course. But unfortunately, I can not afford to do that right now ...

I do feel very close to the Arab culture and I'd like to get closer. But all things in their own time.

I have seen your name mentioned as well with the group ‘Digital Slaves’. Are you part of this group or do you just work together sometimes?
Digital Slaves is a collective of artists working in the field of digital arts.

We met some time ago to work together on a project. I wanted to create a system that would allow calligraphy to be projected without delay or other problems as it was being made. From this, we’ve managed to develop a system together that allows us to conduct real-time ‘virtual calligraphy’. We now intend to set up a show to exhibit this technology.

The system as you can see from the video below works with a camera and an infrared lamp. The gestures of the artist are captured by the camera and then transcribed into a related library program called VVVV. This includes a free library which has been co-developed by various technicians and artists based in different countries.

Video presentation of the virtual calligraphy system developed by Julien Breton and Digital Slaves (this was actually the second presentation, for more, see this link) :

Digital Slaves [RT Virtual Calligraphy] from Digital Slaves on Vimeo.

It also seems to be important to you that you emphasise that none of your pictures have been corrected or edited. Why is that?
Yes, this is very important to me because you could argue that it would be possible to get the same results by spending lots of hours sitting at the computer and photo-shopping an image. But I hope that people realise that the process used is photography and we are actually moving in these three-dimensional spaces to create works of light calligraphy.

And to fully appreciate the work, I think people need to understand that these photographs are made in turn in one ‘shot’ and with one ‘burst of energy’ if you will. In my work, therefore, the sentence ‘the art of the moment’ takes on it’s full meaning.

What do you do to ensure that the image you are making in ‘virtual’ space is looking like you want it to look? Obviously you can not make corrections, so how does this work?
To be honest, I don’t know exactly how I do it.

Really, creating in a 3D space seems natural to me. I fix each gesture in a precise way in space. I’m able to recreate the effect of different shaped lens even; but again, I have to admit that I don’t have a precise answer that I can give you.

Why do you use the performance name Kaalam? Is there a particular meaning to this?
Kaalam is both the traditional tool used in Arabic calligraphy and also means ‘to speak’ or ‘to express’.

Is there any location that you would really like to use one time? Or perhaps a message you would like to communicate?
Currently, I would like to visit Iran. The complexity of this country intrigues me, and I’d be very interested to go there and do some light calligraphy. But my next project is to create a work of calligraphy in the middle of the desert.

My next steps involve moving towards more staged photography and trying as well to create more simple images using just a landscape as a backdrop.

Wherever I’m heading though, I definitely want my future to be filled with more and more meaning ...

What kind of projects are you working on now?
I am currently working on 2 projects: One is with a company with light calligraphy and movement. The second project I’m working on is a virtual calligraphy show which will highlight the gesture and movements involved. My presence and movements will be projected through a screen where I’ll appear in silhouette.

What’s next for Julien Breton?
Well, I’d really like to have a debate about my art. I'd like to discuss and ask others: do you (or your audience) think that light calligraphy has it’s place in contemporary art?

I feel like I belong ... but it doesn’t seem to get that kind of acknowledgement by what I’d call many of it’s ‘main actors’ ... again, time will tell.


Julien lists an impressive collection of exhibitions, shows, residences, workshops and more, including his appearances in print and on television on his home web-site. Instead of using up more space here, we will simply provide you the link to a summary of this information that he has provided in English (see bottom of same page). We think anyway we’d much rather use the remaining part of this entry to fit in a couple of other fantastic videos that help to illustrate his wonderful art and expressive style.

A very recent offer by Julien featuring photos of various calligraphic styles and works :

Also, an excellent interview and summary of Julien’s art and inspirations by the show ‘Najda’, including several fantastic pieces and also accompanying musical inspirations. Presented by Marine Cherel, Report by Denis Vannier, Credit for photos by Light-Graff : Guilaume J. Plisson, Credit for photos by Virtual-Graff : Digital Slaves

Reportage Najda
par KaalamV1


All images including videos used by exclusive written permission of Julien Breton. Any reproduction or other usage is forbidden without the expressed written consent of the artist and/or the associations or contributing artists involved. For more information, please visit the various sections at

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