October 29, 2009

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Manchester by Google
Painter of Queen City street scenes makes his first trip to the city

By Heidi Masek hmasek@hippopress.com

Erwan Le Bot has been painting scenes of Manchester for about a year — from Brest, on France’s west coast, about 600 kilometers from Paris, Le Bot said.

Le Bot, 36, and photographer Eve Demaret spoke with the Hippo Oct. 23, during their first trip to Manchester. Until now, Le Bot’s main source for his paintings has been Google Street View. See his work at manchesterbybed.canalblog.com.

Where did you get this idea?
Le Bot: The process, yes. I wanted to travel without moving. So I was on my bed with my laptop computer. I wanted to be aware of another part of the world without moving.

Why without moving?
Le Bot: I was invited to an arts festival. And they proposed [that I] show something in a hotel room. Most of the other artists showed pictures or artwork after travel. And I wanted to do the reverse. I wanted to start something in this room, without moving.

… It was also a reflection about the Internet today. You can be aware of any place in the world ... I think more and more people will Google a city. They will have the same picture of a city. And I wanted to do something about that. About ... what is the image that Google gives you?

A reflection on how Google sort of stops one place, at one time, and that’s the same impression everyone gets?
Demaret: Google is an enterprise which is the only one that can propose this kind of image. There is no other Web site which can [do that]. You have only one point of view for everybody.

Le Bot: When I started the project, in May 2008, at that time, Google Street View was only available in the United States, in 40 cities. I choose the smallest one. It was Manchester. I wanted to choose a small city, with human size .. .and totally unknown.... For example New York or Los Angeles I’d already seen in pictures, movies — and I already know the most touristic point of view. ...I wanted to discover a city that I didn’t know everything about.

And that’s how you chose this particular city?
Le Bot: Yes, I compared the number of inhabitants on Wikipedia. It’s mathematic.

Demaret: It was the smallest that Google had [at that time].

Have any of the images changed?
Le Bot: Yes. ... I learned everything about the city. I also, of course, checked other Web sites to learn more. In fact I became like a virtual citizen. Every day, I used to listen to the radio [podcasts] ... and look at the newspaper online. And soon I became more and more curious — the more I learned virtually about Manchester, the more curious I became, really to see the real thing. It was necessary. I don’t know. If I couldn’t have the possibility to come here, perhaps I would have become insane in a way [laughs]. It was really necessary to take a contact with the reality...

Demaret: It became a part of the project to come here — as you learned stories of the city ... you have to come here to meet people.

Is it strange to be here rather than see it on a screen?
Le Bot: Yes.

Demaret: For example, for me, I discovered the city by your [Le Bot’s] paintings. And when I arrived, I had the impression [from] his imagination. It was a little amazing to discover a city...

Le Bot: As if I had already lived here a few years ago.... Of course, it’s physically different.... The season is different, so of course the colors of the city are quite different. The distance, for example, on Google it’s totally virtual so you can go from the West Side to the City Hall in two seconds. Of course in reality... [That’s] part of the process. For example, we are pedestrians here. I think that’s something quite rare in the American way of life.

Demaret: Here everybody has his own car, and it’s the first thing that you [need] to go anywhere. And it’s true that in France, you also need a car, but you can do a lot of things ....

Le Bot: Downtown, for example, you can go shopping.

Demaret: We have supermarkets, everything that you want downtown.

I would really like a grocery store downtown.
Demaret: For example, I was looking for fruit, and I didn’t find any in downtown.... [She went to the last Manchester farmers’ market of the season, but the local produce available was all vegetables, not fruit.]

Le Bot: But it’s really interesting to learn how the city works ... I always have my paintings with me. Everywhere we go, people ask [about] the paintings, we spend hours [discussing] the city.... Of course, we sent some e-mails but it’s different than a real conversation with someone. In fact that’s why I’m here, really to share something about the pictures.

Demaret: You have showed your paintings to friends in France — they [say], “Amazing,” “Yeah, that’s cool,” and, “Continue, that’s really good,” — but here, there is an emotional part. And that’s very beautiful to see people who remember...

Le Bot: Someone can tell you a story about...

Demaret: “I have a friend who was living here.” Or, “In this house there were crazy people.” It’s true that it’s more rich, when you show...

Le Bot: Yes, I don’t do it for myself. It’s a social part of the project.

Demaret: And maybe it’s [that you’ve discovered] some things ... to see that people are really amazed and interested by your work, and they take the time to speak to you about that.

Le Bot: Yes, they are very friendly here. I was afraid to be alone, and in fact it’s the contrary. It’s very friendly, and I think we could spend three more weeks than we were expected to. … For example, just before coming here, we saw a girl working in a mill in a company, and she wanted to introduce me, us, to a gallery, and finally we were aware of four or five [people] speaking that didn’t know each other before we came. It’s cool.

Demaret: It’s a bridge...

Le Bot: A link...

The paintings have become a link?
Demaret: A social link.

Le Bot: We put [a painting] on the table ... it’s a discussion.

I read that you were surprised at all the French names in Manchester. Did you know there were so many people with French [backgrounds]?
Le Bot: No ... it was really a surprise. When I chose Manchester, I didn’t know everything about it. I discovered...

Demaret: Day by day.

Le Bot: When I was looking for the past of the city, I [saw] it was a former Franco-American city, and of course it was a good surprise. I felt at this moment I made a good choice. It’s like a happy coincidence.

The original exhibition in the hotel, is that over?
Le Bot: Yes, it was only the beginning. It was only a festival that lasts three days. But next year in June 2010, it’s the biennial ... I will show the end of the adventure.

Is there anything else that you want to do with the project, or with the paintings?
Le Bot: Yes, when I started more than one year ago, [Street View] was only in America. Now my own city is on Google. I think it would be interesting to find someone here in Manchester to do the same thing.

Demaret: And it would be really amazing if this person would come to the festival.

Le Bot: Yeah, we would like to organize an exhibition [of two points of view], French that painted America, an American that painted a French city. The comparison of the two artworks would be great.... And of course here, I would like to start a friendship with this city to perhaps go further. We are thinking about an exhibition, there are no dates for the moment ... perhaps with the Franco-American Centre.

A lot of people ask me if I want to sell. And for me the project isn’t finished yet. I write my feelings. And I want to finish the job before. But I would like to publish something.

Demaret: To make a book.

Le Bot: I will try to find a publisher ... I want to keep something. Because, for example, if you do an exhibition and you sell your paintings, you don’t have anymore.

Demaret: It’s true that with a book, you have a real thing, a real object of this project. And that is so important for you, because it became a real social project.

Le Bot: Yeah, you can turn the pages to think about people that you met.

Le Bot studied art in Brest for about three years, and then attended a school that specializes in comic books. There’s a well-known international comic book festival in Angoulême, Le Bot said. Le Bot used gouache for his paintings. “People here seem not to use this technique,” he said. But he likes using materials that are fast and portable. — Heidi Masek



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