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Architect[e], writer, editor & podcaster


Mas Context 20

“Lost in the Line,” and “Labyrinths and Metaphysical Constructions: Interview with Marc-Antoine Mathieu,” in Iker Gil and Koldo Lus Arana (eds), Mas Context 20: Narrative, Chicago (Winter 2013)


The graphic novel Lost in the Line somehow materializes an allegory of what I could call my architectural manifesto. The line constitutes the medium used by each architect as a tool and representation code. Geometrically speaking, it does not have any thickness, which makes it hard to imagine the idea of somebody getting lost in it. When it is drawn by the architect however, the line is susceptible to acquire a consequent thickness when it is transposed to reality. In fact, a line that becomes a wall not only acquires a height in the transposition of a piece of paper to a tridimensional milieu but, more importantly, it includes in its oxymoronic thickness, a violence towards the territory that it splits and the bodies that its irresistibly controls. Architecture is therefore inherently violent, and any attempt to diffuse this power on the body is pointless. Perhaps can we, on the contrary, accept this violence and integrate it within our manifestos. Lost in the Line is therefore a narrative allegory of such a position. Within it, the line is both this geometrical figure traced on a piece of paper and that splits the desert into two parts, but also a fractal and quasi-molecular component contained within the dark matter of the pencil’s graphite left on the paper. The bodies in this story are veritably submitted to the violence of the lines that divide space all around them. Nevertheless, they appropriate the interstices triggered by those same lines to move in all directions, build new forms on dwellings and eventually cross the original line (the one that contains all the others) that used to constitute an impenetrable border at the macroscopic level.

This story also questions the control that the architect exercises on his design, and thus exercises on the bodies that are subjected to the design’s materialized version that we commonly call architecture. The notion of labyrinth is interesting here. Indeed, the labyrinth, in its bi-dimensional classical form constitutes the absolutemparadigm of the transcendental architecture that exercise control on its “subjects”. The latter are getting lost in it until exhaustion under the mocking supervision of the demiurge architect who observes this game from above. However, the literature of Franz Kafka invented a new form of labyrinth, one in which the author does not escape from the complexity of his production. Let’s recall here that beyond the bureaucratic labyrinths described in The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926), Kafka did not seem to have determined a chapter order for the former nor an end to the latter. Lost in the Line thus introduces a level of complexity on which the author of the line has no control. The ambiguity between the graphic novel author and the one of the line described here is useful as it reinforces the “lines” of subjectivity that “enjoy” such loss of control. This loss, when it is well thought through, allows the bodies to appropriate, to conquer the built matter.

The character of the funambulist who walks on the line in a refusal to bensubject to their splitting effect also has something to do in this allegorical manifesto. Of course, this character is not liberated from the line, but (s)he plays enough with
the line’s power to subvert its primary intention. On November 9th 1989, Berliners did not express the nullness of the wall by crossing it in both directions, but rather in climbing it up and set them up on its edge, thus occupying this six-inch wide world that used to surround the West part of the city. The example of the wall has been proclaimed as paradigmatic of political architecture due to the simplicity of its line and its filiation in Palestine, Cyprus and between the United States and Mexico. The power of their line is indeed optimal but we would be wrong to distinguish a political architecture from one that would not be. All architecture, and therefore all traced line, is a political weapon whether it is thought and drawn as such or not. To attempt to escape from this affirmation constitutes a risk to reinforce the dominant ideology.

Our lines can therefore not be innocent. They carry in each of them the power of subjectivization of the bodies. What we can do is to try to make this subjectivization escaping as much as possible from a transcendental control so that it can allow a potential of appropriation and emancipation, which is the base of any conscious political act.

Mas Context 20 Lost in the Line


Léopold Lambert: The specificity of your stories can be found in the subversion of graphic novel’s forms and codes. You use its graphic and narrative elements as a creative essence of spatial, temporal and metaphysical labyrinths that compose your books. These labyrinths are not the classical ones, drawn by a demiurge architect from above, who is laughing to see all these small bodies getting lost in the complexity of his lines. The labyrinths you create seem to me in the continuity of another form, invented by Franz Kafka for which the author is also lost within the labyrinths he created. Not only his stories are labyrinthine but so is the medium: at Kafka’s death The Trial (1925) was a disarticulated sum of chapters that his friend, Max Brod, reconstituted retrospectively – and erroneously in my opinion – to give them a logical order. Similarly The Castle (1926) ends in the middle of a sentence… How important is this figure of the labyrinth for you?

Marc-Antoine Mathieu: The labyrinth is indeed a form that has been working on me for quite a while. It has been a while indeed since you don’t “enter” the labyrinth just like that. It’s a bit like the color, or the absolute. There are many things in which we hesitate to enter; we have to think twice first. The next book that I am going to publish in October will be called Labyrinthum [L’Association Publisher] and it will be a fractal labyrinth. It will be fractal since, for me, the labyrinth is more Borgesian than Kafkaian. I would say that what is Kafkaian is a literature of the absurd, whereas Borges, this is more a poetry of metaphysics. I think that the labyrinth is more a metaphysical figure than an absurd figure.

At least in my work, this is true, the labyrinth is always somewhere around. Perhaps it is an illusion though. I mean that it might not be the ‘true’ labyrinth in the sense of a complete loss of references in something that we built for ourselves. I don’t think that this is the labyrinth that I am talking about. The interesting thing with the labyrinth is indeed the experience of losing our references; it means the experience of losing ourselves, the loss of our own reality, or so-called reality. This way, it is true that there is the artist’s symbolic in the labyrinth, because what is the artist doing if he or she is not trying to lose himself or herself in his or her creation in order to experiment always further? There is a risk of madness in the labyrinth, and this is why that we don’t enter it immediately. It is a figure of maturity or, on the other hand, a figure of survival: this is Ulysses who is obliged to go through the labyrinth. Either he dies in it or he survives it. My next story will have for only setting only a labyrinthine route, in the Borgesian sense, that is the desert-labyrinth.

Léopold Lambert: You are referring to Borges’s short story, The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths [1939], aren’t you? You seem to be indeed more interested in Borges’s labyrinth than in James Joyce’s labyrinth, since that is what is implicit in this story: Joyce creates literary labyrinths full of complex apparatuses, and Borges, on the contrary, produce labyrinths in the form of deserts. We find a lot of those in your work.

Marc-Antoine Mathieu: Yes, it is an infinite erratic labyrinth that ignores its own status. In my next book, there is a character who is lost in the desert but who does not know that he is in a labyrinth. This awareness is the one of the demiurge. The form of the labyrinth is here but it is not represented. It is a roving that goes to the right, to the left, straight ahead, that gets lost, but there are neither walls nor structures: there is no architecture.

One can find the labyrinth in most of most stories. There is also the labyrinthine story, the fact that it can be cyclical or in the form of a spiral, since another labyrinth, just as pure as the desert is the spiral. In a spiral, wherever you are, you are simultaneously in the center and at the periphery. It is almost the symbol of the labyrinth. The most radical form of the labyrinth consists for us to wonder if we are on the wall or between the walls. In a spiral, whether you are on a spire or between two spires, it is the same thing at the end of the day: you are on something that escapes from your understanding. In a certain way, you are trapped. That might be where the labyrinth can join the figure of the absurd in the sense of Albert Camus.

Léopold Lambert: The ‘Sysiphian’ absurd.

Marc-Antoine Mathieu: That’s it.

Léopold Lambert: We can observe several layers or levels of architecture in your books. There is architecture in a relatively classical sense, as you use it in your story and that is far from being neutral: the various City departments’ architecture for example, the Station in La Qu… [Delcourt, 1991], but also the giant computer in Dead Memory [Dark Horse, 2004]. There is also the book page’s architecture, with which you play (empty frame, “anti-frame”, the page in the page in the page etc.) and the architecture of the book itself, as an object that involves both the author and the reader inside the narrative. How do you articulate these various levels of architecture together?

Marc-Antoine Mathieu: I prefer to leave this analysis to specialists. Personally I am not so interested in doing it. That being said, what I would be interested in doing, is to elaborate on the fact that I am thinking of myself more as an architect more than a story teller. I feel that I am more a space and time manager than a narrator. I have the feeling that, often, the narrative, the dialogues, the texts are a bit pretexts to setup a space-time of which I am less in control. It is as if with words, with dialogues, with a story, I was building a skeleton and what is really interesting is everything that happens around this skeleton that I build from book to book. Each time I am adding some flesh to the skeleton and this flesh belongs much more to the world of architecture – sometimes, even a scientific architecture – than to the world of literature. That is what might make the specificity of my work.

Your question can be pertinent in the extent that the departitioning between some arts can be interesting. When I created 3 secondes [Delcourt, 2011] for example, I did not feel that I was producing a graphic novel at all. I was feeling much more that I was in an architect’s shoes, someone that had made a sketch of a bridge, and that, later, had to wonder about engineering problems for six months, wondering how this can hold itself, which pathway I should add to it, which spring to adjust so that it can work and that the whole thing would be quite harmonious. I was wondering much more about structural questions than narrative ones. Structure is a notion of space and time; much more than narrative that calls for concept like linearity for example. Linearity is what is appearing: there is a dialogue, it is fluid, it seems quite obvious. In Le décalage [Delcourt, 2013], the dialogues are following one another, they look similar and we feel to surf on a sort of crest, but actually, what is weaved around it is something completely different, something that escapes from me completely. I don’t know how to analyze it. This is what is interesting by the way. What escapes from me at this specific moment, it can only escape from me this way, only in this medium that we call graphic novel. It is a sort of mix between a shaping of time, a shaping of space, convergence lines, a sort of alchemy that not only I am not interested in analyzing but I actually refuse to do so as it is my terrain of adventures and experiments.

Léopold Lambert: That is perfect, since I wanted to ask you a question about graphic novel as a specific medium and you just answered it.

Marc-Antoine Mathieu: The specificity of graphic novel, where it embraces its value, lies in what it does of the drawing. It creates shapes/forms but without designating them completely. Cinema, on the contrary, produces forms but automatically designates them. In a graphic novel, you can draw shapes/forms without designating them, by giving them masks. That is what I do in my books: The City Department of Justice, the City Department of Humor, whatever Palace, the Station etc. they are things that I designate, but only partially, 10% or 35% of it, or that I even de-designate, I non-designate them. It creates shapes/forms but they are shapes that the reader will have to complete. The reader is the one who has to designates them completely. That is the challenge.

There is also space-time. Time is the same thing: we designate a time but what is it? Will the reading of the book take five minutes? Half an hour? Three hours? This time that is defined by the graphic novel is very blurry and mysterious. We can even go backwards… There is also some text. We think that we dominate it but if we work on it a bit, we can leave blurs, holes, ellipses, shortcuts, it can go very far. Graphic novel is a true terrain of experiments, somewhere in the middle of genres and mediation tools that make of it a real blurry/sandlot terrain (terrain vague), where anyone can have fun experimenting as a creator and experimenting the way the reader reads.

Léopold Lambert: If I follow your reflection, the graphic novel is also an object, and you have been playing with this object a numerous amount of time. If I just evoke the covers themselves, L’épaisseur du miroir [Delcourt, 1995] has two covers and two reading directions, Le décalage [Delcourt, 2013] has an order of pages that seemed to have shifted in such a way that the story starts on the cover and what should have been the cover can be only found at the end of the book. There are multiple other similar examples.

Marc-Antoine Mathieu: Yes we can play with the fourth dimension or an analogy of the fourth dimension when we start to consider that the graphic novel is indeed an object, an image book that I have in my hands as a reader. When I find a spiral that seems to exit the book, a pop-up, color or a torn page, I am starting to ask myself some questions.

Léopold Lambert: It is interesting that you speak of a fourth dimension. For us, readers, the book is the third dimension, but that is for your characters that it is indeed a fourth dimension, is that it? What is our own fourth dimension? Is there a great object in which we can also be read in one way or another?

Marc-Antoine Mathieu: That’s it. It was the idea of L’origine [Delcourt, 1990], the first book of Julius : to create for the reader a sort of vertigo, an existential story within the story. If these two-dimension characters were becoming aware that they were living in a world that had actually three dimensions, then we could also try to imagine ourselves that there is a fourth dimension. When we listen to astrophysicists nowadays, that is what they attempt to explain to us: try to imagine that time is also a dimension, I mean a physical dimension and you will have a richer and more complete image of the universe in which we live. Einstein is the one who updated all that: he looked under the carpet and he discovered that the three Newtonian dimensions could not explain everything. It remains however very hard to imagine. A four-dimension world is not something intuitive. The space-time light cone is very hard to imagine, even with a lot of imagination. Sometimes, we succeed imperfectly to have a glance at what it is but it so complicated. That might be where the artist sometimes can help.

Let’s go back to L’origine and this analogy of a two-dimension world that lives on a sphere. In this two-dimension world, characters and scientists discover that their world is a gigantic sphere and that if they go in one direction, they will ultimately go back to their starting point. Other characters, obviously, they wonder what this madness is all about, what this sphere means. They are in two dimensions, it is not possible; there is no thickness. They are being told that they have to imagine that there is a third dimension. The scientists are being called crazy, but at the end of the day, it is our own situation as well: we are prisoners of a three-dimension world and of the illusion of the world in which we are embedded. Yet, the fourth dimension exists, we have to deal with it.

Léopold Lambert: In Dead Memory, a multitude of walls grow overnight in an endless city. These walls are blocking the streets that become different spaces. In order to move, some squads of minors/policemen go through the houses’ walls. This has very poignant historical references. There is Auguste Blanqui and the 19th-century Parisian revolutions, there is the Israeli army that went through the walls and Palestinian living rooms during the 2002 siege on Nablus’s refugee camp. We can also evoke the fictitious opening scene of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil where a character is arrested by policemen who swarm inside his apartment from the ceiling. Can you tell us about your interpretation of architecture as a material assemblage and its political consequences?

Marc-Antoine Mathieu: I have indeed an interest for history, but what I am interested in Dead Memory, is to lift my antennas and to express in the best way as possible, feelings, intuitions, instinctive thoughts that I can have about the polis, the city, new networks that are being created etc. I did Dead Memory fifteen years ago now, but from what I heard, it might have pointed out a few things. Walls that are interacting and emerging with the city are a bit the symbol of a society that would like to declare itself as transparent, open to everything but that actually closes itself to everything. I formalized it through these walls in quite a radical manner. I would say that it is not the best of my books since it is a bit rigid, a bit stuck, and talkative even. The sociological domain is not the field where I feel the most comfortable.

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