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Pierre Descamps Interview

A sculpture for…

The idea for this issue came up a while ago but had to be pushed back a bit. Finally we started working on it and when we had already planned most of the content we by chance stumbled across Pierre Descamps’ insta channel. He would be perfect for this issue, we thought, and it turned out that Pierre lives just 20 minutes away from me. So I cycled over to Kreuzberg to find out: yeah, what Pierre does is indeed the perfect fit for this issue. On the one hand he builds skateable sculptures, on the other hand he takes photos of spots – just spots, without skaters or anything. Urban architecture and public spaces are the main focus in his work, where he confronts popular culture (yeah, I mean skateboarding) with a more elitist one (sculpturing and photography inspired by the Düsseldorf School). He takes his art very serious but has childlike fun playing around with it. For example, by printing his photographs in a way that they look like he would’ve just ripped them out of a magazine, or by irritating city users with his sculptures that he just puts somewhere without ever asking anybody. He has pretty much transferred a skateboarding approach into art.

Pierre, can you please introduce yourself.

I’m from France, I studied art in Nice and I’ve been living in Berlin for eleven years now. I work as an artist and I’m represented by two galleries, one in France and one in Madrid.

How did you come up with the idea for the sculptures?

I used to do these architectural sculptures in my studio all the time for exhibition context. I always tried to place the quality of the objects from the street into the gallery and something didn’t really work. Then at one point I tried to do the opposite, to put those minimal architecture objects into public spaces. I put one concrete sculpture in Wassertorplatz in 2015. It was a revelation. It was more interesting to see this sculpture playing with another context. See how people interact with it, skate on it, children climb on it. People didn’t think about it as a piece of art but as an object that is open for interpretation.

"I don’t really believe in giving messages with art. I just think we try to do things and those things ask questions."

Is there also a message or does some criticism come along when you put those sculptures in public spaces?

I don’t really believe in giving messages with art. I just think we try to do things and those things ask questions. When I did this, for me there were questions about public space. Who does it belong to? Your relationship with art, how you can use it with your body, Sociology. There were a lot of things I thought about. If I think about this sculpture in the public space, all of these questions fit. I wouldn’t say it has a sociological message about us in the public space. I try to do it as an experience and not an answer to these questions.

How do you choose the places you put them?

I like to use places that are a bit left out and could use this little bit of life to bring people to sit and stay there and enjoy for a few hours. It’s always places that are a bit lost. I would never put something at Alexanderplatz. Too many things are happening there, too many people. The place doesn’t need me at all. Probably it’s a reflex of skaters. We look a lot at those abandoned places where you can skate in peace, like parking lots on Sundays. Nobody goes there on Sundays. We do as skaters and I’m probably influenced by this aesthetic and this kind of peace that you can find in those places.

How many sculptures have you done so far?

[counts] I think nine. I do as much as I can. It’s a very long process, I’m very slow at working. From the idea, to sketching, to choosing the material, it takes a long time. I have to invest so much money and so much work into sculptures that maybe just stay for one day in the streets. So I can’t afford to produce them all the time.

It happens that they just stay for one day?

Yeah, the shortest was one day.

What happened?

The next day it wasn’t there. [laughs] That’s part of the game. The longest was around seven months. It was all broken and I put it away. It was becoming dangerous. The metal structure was coming out. I don’t want people to get hurt.

How do the sculptures disappear?

Sometimes I don’t know, sometimes the city takes it, sometimes I can imagine it’s stolen by skaters and actually I don’t really care. If it’s done I have to do the next one. It’s a bit of motivation because I love to know that there’s one sculpture somewhere being used and if there are none I have to make a new one.

And you put them there illegally. How do you do it?

I’m sure the best way to do something illegally is during the day, without hiding yourself, parking nearby, being four people just putting it there. I don’t really like illegal stories but I think it would be too complicated to get the authorization and I don’t want to only be able to do one sculpture every ten years. So we go there, during the week, in the morning and install it. Till now nobody has asked any questions. Berlin is a city where you can do these kinds of things.

You said it’s expensive but you also don’t sell those sculptures. You just put them there and then they disappear.

There’s one thing that stays at the end. I always take a photo of the sculpture on the first day and when it’s gone I do an exhibition poster, cause I had an exhibition. Nobody invited me but I had one. My sculpture was shown for that many days at that place. I do exactly the same things that people normally do before an exhibition. The title is always A sculpture for… with the dates of installation and disappearance and the address. But the exhibition poster comes after so it’s just a relic that is sold in the gallery. But with the expenses for the sculpture, the print and the frame, if I come to zero at the end, I’m pretty lucky. It’s definitely not for the money that I do it.

Do you make fun of the art world by doing this?

I'm not making fun about the art world. I like art and respect what people do. It makes me laugh to be that stupid and do this kind of thing. I like to go around the art world in this way. I work as a freelance conservator for galleries, so I’m in contact with a lot of very expensive things and this art market all the time. I decided to not be totally a part of it and do one thing that doesn’t make sense in an economic way. I also was raised as a Communist by my mother so probably something stayed from this idea between Anarchy and Communism and I like doing things without involving Capitalism. More idealism.

Communism never has been practised in the right way but how would you think, in an ideal communist state, public spaces could look like?

It is hard to say what it could be because the theory of Karl Marx doesn’t speak about skaters in public places. [laughs]

"I’m not trying to do a copy of what you can find on the streets but something you could really find there"

What is more important: The look or the skateability of the sculptures?

I think I concentrate more on the shape and the relationship with the place, the material, the height, if you can sit on it or not. As a skater you can technically skate everything. Maybe not water but all the materials you find in the street you can skate. The things I do are not that good to skate. Most of the time we skate there with my friends the first day and after a few hours that’s it. We mostly don’t go to it twice because it’s never the best spot. Best spots are probably built by real architects. I try to avoid perfect copings, ledges, handrails that you can find in skateparks. They exist already so I don’t have to do it. I’m not trying to do a copy of what you can find on the streets but something you could really find there. It has to fit there. Not totally so you can still see it when you come around but it has its place in the city.

What was the most surprising use?

I wasn’t very surprised, more amused, at one time when I saw children sliding on a concrete handrail. One thing was used as a garbage can and I was pretty happy seeing homeless people sleeping on a sculpture at ICC. I gave this guy a bed and that made me happy.

You used wood there. How do you decide on the material?

I’ve used metal, concrete and wood so far and it is always a compromise between what I want aesthetically, the place and also what I can move.

Valeri Rosomako Spreewaldplatz Biemer

Valeri Rosomako – Step off Nosegrind Shove it I Photo: Biemer

How do skaters react to the sculptures?

Skaters are always happy if you bring them new spots. My friends are happy and wait for the next sculpture all the time. They’re always motivated to help me install it. If I see somebody skating it they thank me for installing it and I thank them for skating it, so everybody is happy.

Have you found your spots in videos or on instagram from people who didn’t know it was your sculpture?

Leo Valls contacted me saying that he likes my work and that he was coming to Berlin and he wanted to skate a sculpture. He thought about the sculpture at Wassertorplatz that was not there anymore. I was working so I couldn’t join him and afterwards he talked to me and said: “It’s a pity the sculpture is not there anymore but we found a funny thing to skate”. He showed me a picture and it was my sculpture in it and he didn’t know that he skated my sculpture.

Monuments p 60

Monuments p 60

Monuments p 659

Monuments p 659

You also have this photo series, where you shoot photos of spots.

It started in 2006. I take photos of skatespots without skaters but I try to do it the way I would take a photo of a trick on it. There is always space for a skater. The fact of doing these photos without skaters, without humans, cars or anything makes it a minimal composition and in the end I have this weird collection of hundreds of rails and banks and curbs.

Why do you collect them?

In the beginning I was collecting pictures of what could be shapes I could use for sculptures. In time I realized that I like the photos more than the sculptures I could do. For me they were already perfect.

Like a ready-made?

Yeah, it was like a ready-made sculpture. For me the photo is also a ready-made. I print them with offset print, like magazines, on thin paper. The size is always A4 to A3. So you have the feeling that it’s only pages of magazines that I have collected and framed and you don’t really know if I took the photos myself.

Monuments p 159 160

Monuments p 159 160

The photos as well as the sculptures are related to public spaces. So how’s your perception of public space and how do you think it should or could be used?

I see the public space as a place of meeting, of living together. It is the garden of the community. We can all be there and live. We can make all of our rules for how we live there. That’s kind of an anarchist way of thinking but I think we could regulate each other. That could work. It is far away from what they are really. Public spaces have more an image of a place where you can go to work and not a place where you can really eat or sleep or skate and you have a lot of rules of how you have to behave in society, depending on who you are, how you’re dressed and what you do deciding if you have the right or not to use this place. I would like to get rid of some rules sometimes to see what happens.

"It is not a revolution to go to public spaces but it could be a start."

Mostly inner cities are designed for work or shopping or grabbing food so you can go back to your job or shopping.

Our whole society is like this. That’s how I see it. We’re meant to work as much as possible, make as much money as possible and that’s it. We’re not supposed to ask ourselves too many questions, we’re not supposed to organize ourselves so that we want to say that we want to change something. You have some liberties that people fought for but those liberties are always endangered. We have to be careful about this. It is not a revolution to go to public spaces but it could be a start.

And as you said, if you look a bit dirty, people look at you like: “What is he doing here, does he belong here?”.

If in the middle of the day you eat your sandwich on a bench, smoke and have a little nap before going back to work, people will be like: “This is cool how this guy takes a break from work”. But if you’re a homeless person and you sleep on the bench you will get kicked out. People don’t want to see you. There’s a difference of perception, even the same act on the same place. How you’re dressed makes a big difference.

Monuments p 655

Monuments p 655

Monuments p 509

Monuments p 509

People feel like they’re not allowed to do certain things so I really like that you don’t care and just put your stuff there and you’re not occupying but you’re giving.

I’m trying to never disturb the movement of the people. As you said, I want to give something more, I want to add something. Off course… In Berlin there is this rich guy who just bought a big flat above Spreewaldplatz where I just built. So for him I did something bad probably but that’s okay if I disturb this kind of person.

They can afford to be disturbed.

This guy comes out every Sunday and yells at us when we’re skating there and we’ve skated maybe 20 years at this spot where nobody wants to do anything. We clean it when we skate there and that guy came out of nowhere a year ago, bought a big flat near Görlitzer Park, and wants it quiet on Sundays… Also at Wassertorplatz we cleaned it every two, three months, repaired the curbs. All the kids came by and played, neighbors were coming down, the bar served beers, it was a great community. A public space is a space where you could meet people that you would never meet if you just go to work in the subway and go home or go to a restaurant with your girlfriend. The street belongs to everyone and you just talk to people that are there.

You definitely don’t meet those people if you’re just skating in the skatepark.

No, I don’t really like skateparks because of that, because it’s only between skaters. It’s like the difference between swimming in the sea and swimming in a swimming pool. All the skate videos are from the streets, so people are only skating skateparks to train. And it’s also a search, you go around the city, like for the photos, and on the way you find something else and film there for two hours, meet some friends, talk to the Späti guy nearby. It is really something unique that would never happen in skateparks.

Pierre Descamps 0079 copie 2

Photo: Max Weise