Villeglé, rue de la Biche, Saint Denis (1963)
Jacques Villeglé, Rue de la Biche, Saint Denis (1963).

I’m completely wowed by the colorful Jacques Villeglé retrospective currently on at the Centre Pompidou here in Paris.

From the late 1940s to the early ’90s, Villeglé stripped layers of torn posters from the walls of Paris, mounting and framing his discoveries as-is. Each of these found works consists of months of layered advertising, with portions ripped away by passers-by or by workers making way for the next layer of posters.

The geological strata of these shredded ads reveal the artistic history of the city’s graphic design. Villeglé’s works are kaleidoscopes of capitalism, literature, cinema, technology and social protest.

In one work, a pirate-movie actress gazes out from a barrage of ads for oriental rugs, concerts and TV sets. In another, a John Steed lookalike roars his motorcycle through an explosion of striped colors and flying cigarettes. A series of movie posters morphs into a happy jumble of whorled and happily illegible letterforms. A De Gaulle campaign poster disintegrates into chaos, the French president’s mouth and mind replaced by a vortex of commercial images.

The effect is oddly beautiful. The bright colors and random patterns somehow approach the intelligence and boldness of Pollock paintings. Abstract expressionism meets pop art.

Villeglé - Boulevard de la Chapelle (1965)
Jacques Villeglé, Boulevard de la Chapelle (1965).

The exhibition struck me as fascinatingly relevant in an era of online mashups and user-generated content: Who’s the artist here? Villeglé presents himself as nothing more than collector and flâneur, an urban observer who stumbles upon the works fully formed. He instead assigns authorship to “le lacéré anyonyme,” the countless anonymous hands who tore the posters (not to mention the designers and typographers who created each one).

“I like to save myself the creative agony,” Villeglé told an interviewer. “The whole world makes work for me. I only have to collect it.”

Villeglé’s work challenges the dominance of the individual artist while elevating the role of the man on the street. For web workers, this reversal of creator and consumer should sound familiar. Is the ugly beauty of the typical MySpace page really so different from Villeglé’s torn posters?

If Villeglé were just getting started now, one could imagine him working from screenshots instead of ripped paper. The online flâneur certainly has lots to explore. My Facebook news feed is filled with tiny glimpses of my friends’ creations… blown up, atomized and reassembled just for me, the work of countless anonymous hands. As sites plaster more and more layers of user-generated content, advertisements and web widgets across their canvases, the original personality and design of these sites are swallowed up, peeking out through the information collage like Villeglé’s pirate actress.

Villeglé - ABC (1959)
Jacques Villeglé, ABC (1959).

For designers, information architects, and writers who are accustomed to having complete control of their creations, this can be disconcerting. Like the posters in Villeglé’s work, our content is likely to show up in entirely different contexts than the ones for which they were conceived, creating something that is at once more and less than the sum of its parts.

Right now, you’re reading a blog post that I wrote specifically for display on this page of my site. Yet the moment I published it, it also appeared on my FriendFeed page, my Facebook news feed and in hundreds of people’s feed readers. In those new settings, my words are layered with another site’s chrome and keyword-specific advertising, stripped of my own site’s design, and combined with other content. It’s transformed into part of some entirely other work.

This is the new creative reality (although Villeglé’s work shows that perhaps it’s not so new after all). The moment we put something out there, it becomes fodder for productive combination. In many cases, as creators, we’re the ones who are blasting our work out there like confetti. Phil Gyford recently shared a diagram of where his personal photos, status updates, blog posts and music preferences appear on the web. Most of it just gets published automatically without his participation, and the diagram of how it works is itself a kind of collage ripped from the web:

Phil Gyford's "ghostly fingers"
Phil Gyford’s diagram of his personal content careening around the web.

A good proportion of those sites I almost never visit: Pownce, FriendFeed, Tumblr, Jaiku, Brightkite, LiveJournal and Fire Eagle (which is designed so you don’t have to visit it). They trundle along, getting updated by the ghostly fingers of APIs without me actively using them. Quite magic, almost scary, and possibly a little pointless.

My own blog consumes other sites’ content with those same “ghostly fingers.” The right column soaks up and automatically displays content that I post to Flickr, Delicious, Last.fm, Twitter and Fire Eagle. It all gets mashed into an information collage that roughly approximates the state of my brain.

That’s the beauty of the thing. As our creations get mixed, mashed and cast into unexpected contexts, they often take on new force and value. I think Villeglé gets it right: “The fragment of the poster that I collect doesn’t interest me by itself. It has to be constructed in the tearing before it accounts for something.”

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