July 3, 2009

A Dream Within A Dream

An Interview with Calligrapher Julien Breton aka Kaalam

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

Imagine that you have to learn about how inks and different graphic tools – including a wide range of pens and other writing implements – work in order to create your art. Okay, many of you are nodding, that’s good, let’s keep going. Now let’s add to that also working with more advanced paints, different brushes and even calligraphy equipment and methodology. Okay, a few less heads are nodding, but still we’ve got a good audience left playing this little game. Now let’s add to that a need for understanding how light works IN THE SAME WAY as your inks and paints do, including now both light that you CAN see and light that you CAN’T see. Hm, a few less participants are left. Let’s wrap up this skills set then with a healthy dose of understanding three-dimensional design, time-lapse photography and even choreography. Oh dear, just that many left? Oops, and we forgot to add: you have to teach yourself all these skills with no formal education.

You certainly don’t need to know all that about Julien Breton, aka Kaalam, and his calligraphy, but it adds a little more, I don’t know, appreciation for what he’s accomplished and for where he’s no doubt heading. Julien is an affable and out-going young man from Nantes (France), who began his ‘hobby’ working with calligraphy in 2001 initially by simply imitating contemporary Arabic calligraphers. As mentioned, he is self-taught, having also incorporated his appreciation for graffiti in order to develop his own ‘Latin-based’ alphabet. In addition to creating his works, which range from amazingly beautiful pieces on paper to photographs capturing any where from a few minutes to several hours of work to even his displays in the ‘virtual’ world, he also incorporates in many cases inspiring phrases and quotes. These are taken then from the diverse worlds of Western and Middle Eastern philosophers, French rap and hip-hop artists, and other famous writers including the works of Edgar Allan Poe and even Mark Twain.

When Julien discovered the so-called ‘light-graff’ process, he began to experiment with a new way of creation. This new means of expression requires not only calligraphy skills but also a full range of body language, choreography, and even hi-tech exchanges with photographers and video artists. But in this way, Julien has managed to change ink into light! And any surface can become his canvas, from beautiful landscapes and historic monuments, to the sides of buildings or the bare-skinned backs of models in pose. Since the beginning of 2009, Julien has also joined up with the group Digital Slaves, and through experiments and their collaborations, they have invented a new process for creating real-time virtual calligraphy. They have also continued to develop light calligraphy – the differences between ‘light’ and ‘virtual’ calligraphy will be made clear later – through a show that combines calligraphy, music and dance.

Ziggy Nixon is very pleased to have caught up with Julien to talk about both the ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ parts of his craft:

Julien, after reading your on-line information that you provide on your home-page, I’m very interested to learn more about your background. Can you tell us a little more about you got started with your ‘calligraphic art’, please?

My journey or course of development with my art has not been very close to what you could call classical!

I have a BTS in Administration and Management of audio-visual production (ZN: a ‘BTS’ degree in France is a "Brevet de Technicien Supérieur" diploma which is typically awarded after two years of study after the baccalaureate or BS degree). Still, before I started my technical studies, I really wanted to be a musician ... a pianist to be exact. But I was always frightened by the prospects of life as an artist. So instead, I decided I would stay kind of in orbit around this world, you know, staying near it but maybe a bit more hidden in the shadows.

After college, I developed an association called ‘pick-up productions’ that organises all kinds of events including evening concerts and other cultural activities, video projects and screenings and more in Nantes. Afterwards, I started with ‘scopic’ which is a co-operative group that also manages graphics projects, events (including conferences, receptions, exhibitions, stands, etc.) and various needs for communications and multi-media presentations (ZN also recommends checking out their fun-spirited blog for more!).

In terms of calligraphy, I’ve been working on that since 2001. But it’s only been since about November 2008 that calligraphy has really ‘captured’ me, so much so that it really became impossible for me to combine my daily work and my passion for my art. As such, I am now working on my calligraphy full-time.

A ‘live’ video presentation of Julien’s calligraphy work using paper as a medium. This features the artist ‘You-k-off (Nantes – 2006)and is titled ‘le silence est cri’ (‘Silence is cry’):

You indicate that you are self-taught. How did this process work and how did you manage to learn so much so quickly?
Calligraphy is very far away from the world where I come from. For me, I first discovered it in 2001 through the work of various contemporary Arab calligraphers including Hassan Massoudy, Salah Moussawy or Lassaâd Métoui. I started out by simply reproducing their pieces and forms.

But then I said to myself, ‘hey wait a minute Julien, you do not speak Arabic’. It really kind of bothered me that I could be making mistakes with this beautiful art form and the correct use of the language.

So I decided to invent my own Latin-based alphabet, which was of course inspired by the more abstract Arabic forms. But it was not easy as I had no training or education in graphic arts. I didn’t know anything about inks or paints or the tools I needed or anything.

As such, it was a long and difficult learning process for me. But I couldn’t afford classes or otherwise take time off and sign up for internships, so it was necessary for me to find my own way.

I also had an incredible desire to find and utilise texts from the world of rap music that had been such a big part of my own education. I wanted to bring this to an audience outside of the hip-hop culture. I just really wanted to somehow stir up people’s emotions with these great ambiguous lyrics, that were not only provocative but also were filled with lots of philosophy that I could relate to so well.

Your influences include not only the styles of Arabic calligraphy but also the movements used in Eastern calligraphy (Chinese, Japanese). What led you to combine these very different yet very beautiful styles?
Yes, I really did want to create a ‘universal’ language even if that is an enormous concept.

I wanted to create a style of calligraphy that could speak to as many people as possible. Plus, it was fascinating to work with and merge these original styles even though they differed not only in their approach but also came from such different histories.

Overall, I think that is what led me to the ‘art’ of calligraphy. Plus, I realised I could say something that would very accessible and that it would make sense to a lot of people. I was attracted to that because I didn’t think I needed to necessarily know or understand the basic premises that many might consider essential for artistic work. To me, calligraphy speaks in a very simple way.

I also have to confess that I have this fantastic utopian vision of a unified world, where cultures can intermingle with each other without prejudice, or where such a mixture would not never be considered blasphemous. For me, especially in our times where it seems that the only time the West and especially the Middle East come face-to-face is when they’re in opposition to each other, I simply wanted to bring some aspect of these worlds together.

So I tried to gather and bring as many aspects of the calligraphy of different cultures that had touched or influenced me that I could. I decided to combine the lightness and abstraction of Arabic calligraphy, the art of the ‘moment’ and gestures present in Asian calligraphy – all while at the same time using my native language, French.

Still, I have started learning Arabic. Sure I want to mix my French (Latin) styles with Arabic, but it’s also something that really interests me in large part because the Arabic script lends itself so well to light calligraphy.

To be clear, are you still working with the team at Scopic? If yes, what kind of work do you do there?

My work at the event company Scopic has ‘accompanied’ me since I started in calligraphy. Again, I work with them on the organisation and management of commercial or artistic events. And sure, this work is what has allowed me to not only make a living, but to finance my creations and on-going development.

But Scopic is great. It’s a team that is made up of my closest friends, all of whom I trust completely. And it’s really important because it seems like these days about 90% of the proposals that I receive do not get realised or, in many ways, lack the ‘seriousness’ needed to bring a project to completion.

You are also developing your own font style for the computer?
Yes, I am developing my own font style. I wanted to just step back for a moment in order to take stock of what I had been working on and to organise the different letters that I had developed. So I’ve been working on the ‘kaalam’ font which originated from different creations on paper and was inspired by letters that I had been using in the various texts.

This has actually been a long project, because I’m having to learn all about typography creation. Right now, it’s full of errors that could only perhaps be corrected by a ‘real’ typographer who understands the rules of spacing, or how to adjust things to the right height , or how the different letters should fit together and connect, and so on.

Still, it is a work in progress. I want to continue working on it and refining it in the coming months. If you’d like you can test drive it yourself (see here)!

You mention that your ‘spiritual’ influences have included philosophy, writing and hip-hop or rap music. How did you get interested in at very least philosophy and writing?
Having grown up in a ‘quartier populaire’ (ZN: roughly translated, a working-class neighbourhood, typically including a diverse mix of residents of different ethnicity’s, cultures, religions, etc.), popular rap was almost a form of education. For me, it has even somewhat replaced the words of my father and forged the ethics and principles that I live by today.

You see, French rap is very special in it’s active commitment as well as in it’s subversive nature. French rappers are in many ways determined to raise the awareness of their audience and still bring poetry into the narrative.

For me, not being a writer and knowing absolutely nothing about writing, I just wanted to share thoughts, phrases, ideas and all the different influential texts that helped me become who I am today. As such, I take these sentences and phrases to help ‘perpetrate’ the messages of my calligraphy. Through my own tastes for this literature, I want to get people to learn more. I want to encourage my audience to discover something that otherwise I don’t think would be possible if I used, for example, classical poetry – which is often normally associated with calligraphy.

Plus, over the course of my development over the past years, in addition to these ‘contemporary’ writers and rappers, I have also discovered other classical western and middle eastern authors including such greats as Khalil Gibran, Edgar Alan Poe (the author of the poem of the same name as this article), La Rochefoucauld (ZN: sorry kids, no English links found to this last one, you’re on your own), etc.

Another live exhibit of Julien’s calligraphy and performance skills, this time for the group ‘Dubitatif’ (= ‘Dubious’). This video is particularly interesting as the details of the lettering itself becomes very clear as the video progresses.

I’m just curious, but have you also worked with graffiti before (we promise not to tell the police!!)?
Well, not really. I am totally inspired by graffiti because it is part of my environment, but I never spray-painted anything.

I’ve always admired graffiti artists who dare to defy the government by decorating our urban landscapes, and who tried to respond to the aggression of the omniscient visual advertising that is more and more present in our cities.

Sometimes I really want to join in ... but instead of this, I now work on walls with my light creations. I use light pens of different sizes which enables me to interpret the same gestures and forms that I create with my calligraphy on paper.

Can you describe your ‘work’ or performances with the Lightgraff team?
In fact, I discovered light calligraphy thanks to Guillaume J. Plisson, a great photographer who does this kind of specialised work with light-graff.

Working with light calligraphy can take different forms: the one I practice most often is the creation of calligraphic light pieces in the outdoors, in places rich in historical meaning or in such a way that a message can be delivered from the only photograph that results from the performance. In these cases, I work alone or I’ll be accompanied by a photographer.

When I work alone, I’ll have to place the camera, manage the set-up and ensure the technical settings are right. Then I begin working on the ‘choreography’ part of this type of calligraphy. In all cases, I have tested the forms and gestures many, many times over. It is this kind of practice and repetition which allows me to make successive refinements in the calligraphy itself.

It definitely requires patience! Achieving a successful photograph can take anywhere from about 30 minutes to several hours to complete. This is especially true if the exposure time of the photograph itself can last over 10 minutes, as for example with my piece shown here titled ‘Vivre Libre’ (‘Live Free’).

In other cases, like when I do public performances, I’ll present a solo show lasting around 40 minutes. For example, I’ll create a series of 10 illuminated calligraphy pieces including quotes. These creations are, of course, very bright and I’ll typically accompany the work with original music, especially by Supa-Jay, a composer from Lyon that I really enjoy working with.

These shows are quite fascinating and usual get a good response from the crowd. The spectators can see obviously the different movements performed right in front of their eyes. In addition, they can also see immediately how the ‘photograph’ is being formed as it’s instantaneously projected on a video screen, such as the performance I did for the ‘Festival of Lights’ in Lyon on the Place Bellecour.

But it is a difficult exercise that requires again lots of repetition and practice, as well as a great deal of concentration.

Two reports from France that each show in detail the careful ‘choreography’ needed to not only create the images but to coordinate and work hand-in-hand with the photographer or also for the creation of ‘live’ images:

Continued in Part 2


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 http://www.kaalam.com/.

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