An interview with Henri-François Debailleux, 2008

Lines are central in your work. Where does this choice come from? 

Above anything else, my main drive is to create mental spaces. Before lines, it is ideas and rules I am working on. I associate them to into a proliferation which results in unexpected mindscapes offering alternative reading options. At one moment or another, these ideas and rules materialize and take various shapes, lines being just some of them. Lines are not an end in itself, neither are colours; they are there to crystallize the inherent working process. Visual representation and mindframes offer two reading options to my work. There is the tip of the iceberg (the representation of lines and circles which proliferate into space, reaching complete saturation sometimes), but there is also another mind process at work beyond this visual representation.

What is precisely this mind process?

 I always start with binary items: affirmative / negative statements, lines / circles, white / black, corresponding to the environments in which we live (we do live in extremely binary and categorical societies). What I am then interested in is to reach a point where affirmation and negation outdo each other, where uniqueness is no longer unique, a line which is not exactly straight, etc. When rules become excessive, new and unpredictable universes, uncontrolled by me, come to the fore and generate the unlikely, which is not totally dissimilar with the way surrealistic exquisite corpses operated. That is why I initially work with simplistic rules: drawing a straight line for instance, and then I use digital tools to reach the wildest proliferation imaginable. I realized that the simpler the items used in proliferating programming, the most unexpected and complex the effects are at the end of the line – so to speak. Besides working with such universals as lines and circles makes you revisit the annals of art history or those of Mankind.

As you work with nothing else but new technologies, what do they mean to you?

A lot! They are part and parcel of my creative act. But they are also tools, and nothing else but tools. Without them I could not create my complex images and it would be such a drag to draw a line one million times for each piece! While with digital technologies, I can generate structures made up of hundreds of thousands to several million single elements. And the mere notion of a digital artist is pure nonsense, Would you refer to Lorenzo Lotto as an oil artist or Dan Flavin as neon artist?

Line, colour, space… all these are big issues associated with painting.

Of course they are! Painting raises questions in relation to space, perceptions, and illusions. But I use no paint or brush, so you could say that my work is at the same time within and without the realm of painting. Digital tools are just other tools, there is nothing mutually exclusive about all this. When your ambitions are artistic, using new tools challenges your metier and especially the old traditional tools you were accustomed to. Maybe there is also something to reinvent or to create by choosing to work with other tools than a brush or canvas…

Alternatively, you also work with words and spams…?

 I like to experiment one single rule – in this case a fractal algorithm – and then apply it on different objects, be they straight lines, circles, images or words. This leads to new mindscapes, visual confrontations and juxtapositions, new territories in fact. When I use words, I explore semantic drifts caused by graphic accidents such as duplication, enlargement, etc. Spams are a very good example, they are advertising messages sent by the million and whose authors work hard at using graphic devices (letter inversion, double letters, punctuation signs used as letters). What they are in fact doing is close to my own working process: displacing codes, encouraging mistakes, etc. It is good to recycle your past mistakes! In certain recent pieces, I used the words Right & Wrong and they ended up conjuring up Shamanic hymns and lyrics, endlessly. By mixing them visually, the binary opposition between these two words is no longer one. Everything becomes Right, or everything becomes Wrong, or nothing has ever been Right and nothing is quite Wrong.

What makes you choose a specific medium for your pieces? You use digital prints, lenticulars, videos… 

Most often, the choice is dictated by the genius of the place. When I entered the Municipal Gallery of Vitry, I saw this very long room and I immediately knew I would have to stretch lines all along the walls as I imagined the viewer follow up these straight lines ending up curvaceously. As opposed to what happens with a video, the viewer can literally throw himself into the image on a mural print, and plunge into the details, follow up a 30-meter-long line from a distance of 10 centimeters . As far as lenticulars are concerned, I use them to generate optical distortions that I simply could not produce with another medium. If you compare images produced with cold and flat digital prints with lenticulars, the latter ones are never neat and clean, they are rendered more complex by ghost-image artefacts which lead to exciting visual and sensual accidents.

You mentioned earlier “fractal algorithms”, could you tell us more?

The way I process lines and circles exploit the fractals of course. If you consider all the characteristics of my work, you’ll see that I use them all. I am particularly interested in making most of self generated phenomena, changing scales, microcosm-macrocosm or arborescences. The well-known notion of the fractal theory, namely the intermediary dimension, between a 2-plan and 3-plan space is of a great importance to me. Encoding is also my grammar and I am very keen in writing the algorithms myself. As this is what I need: other artists need to make their own paint or prepare their canvas by themselves. And certainly, I would rather not use existing software as I want to include code incidents. Bugs are part of my alphabet!

Could you explain why you chose to call this show Irrational Geometrics?

The title insists on false binary systems. Geometrics are supposed to be rational but geometric excess does lead to irrationality. This is again where new technologies are so interesting because they reflect our present everyday life which is made up, as everybody knows, of rational as well as irrational elements. My proliferating lines are not so different from Australian Aborigines’ Songlines and maybe reminiscent of Lucretius’s atomist philosophy according to which atoms are all falling down vertically although the slightest diverging modification of the fall is responsible for the collision of atoms, hence life. So many fractal motifs can be found in African or Oceanic civilizations! Superrational technological excess leads to the primitive and irrational unconscious which is not a technological thing at all.

An interview with Henri-François Debailleux


Translation by Didier Girard