Phillipe Vermès was an art student at the Beaux Fine Arts School in Paris in the late 60s and was part of a collective of artists dubbed the Atelier Populaire, involved in one of the most culturally celebrated protests of the 20th century.
The May ’68 Paris Uprising was the result of a period of minimal technological advances and general social unrest. The protest kicked off with a series of student demonstrations, amounting to one of the largest general strikes in French history, with the economy coming to a standstill. At this tumultuous time, the Atelier Populaire anonymously produced a series of posters and photography to express the concerns of the public, unite the masses and encourage the protestors. The brutality of the police and abuse from trusted authorities was exposed through their work, much to the chagrin of the offending officials.
‘Beauty in the Streets’ is a new book edited by Johan Kugelberg with Atelier Populaire founding member Philippe Vermès. It offers an honest look at the Paris ’68 uprising through a series of the group’s empowering artwork, as well as essays, police statements and photos. Here, Vermès tells i-D Online how it felt to be part of such a profound movement, the emotions stirred up looking back and the process of putting the book together.
What was it like being a student suddenly immersed within a cultural revolution? For me being a student at the Beaux Arts in ‘68 was being involved in a whirlwind of ideas and hopes that were grounded in student demonstrations and meetings where workers and students were pulling together. I don’t think, though, that it was the students at les Beaux arts who were the motor of change there. The school was very conservative and classical in spirit. The energy for change was injected by former students, professional artists, young politically engaged artists/activists who came and occupied one of the ateliers and began to set up a silk-screening workshop there because the lithography process took too long to run off posters.
Most of us didn’t think of ourselves as “suddenly immersed in a cultural revolution”. We wanted change, and we felt that we were the instruments to move towards that goal. Change for us meant transforming relationships between men and women, students and teachers in schools, at the work place, in the factory between workers and bosses. The strikes meant that schools, factories, institutions were occupied, and they became a place for exchanges, roundtable discussions, debates. These places, protected by striking students and workers, were kept open so that everyone and anyone could listen to the general assemblies and contribute new ideas.
How hard was it to remain anonymous while trying to inform the public of police brutality? Each poster had a new idea based on what had happened the night before. If the incident was a bloodied face because of a police beating, that became the poster’s subject. Initially the posters were stamped with the school’s seal: L’Ecole national des beaux arts 17 quai Malaquais Paris 6ème — because there were laws about sticking posters to walls. The poster had to be identified. Very quickly, the general assemblies declared that the posters would bare the stamp of l’Atelier Populaire des Beaux Arts, so there wasn’t anonymity. It was more a declaration of independence.
Can you describe what it was like reading/listening to the police responses? The brutality of the police shocked the general population and forced people to take positions. The posters graphically illustrated the police abuse (there were many posters with police and their billy clubs and shields) in factories and on the streets of Paris. There was a famous poster with a policeman behind a microphone labelled ORTF — a government monopoly: L’Office de radiodiffusion-télévision française – and the caption read ”La police vous parle tous les soirs à 20h.” Censorship was prevalent and people in communications went on strike as well.
When putting the book together, how did it make you feel looking back at these images? My role was modest, I can still remember certain anecdotes and the joys of those times. I chose the photographic prints from my collection that portrayed the students in the street, the Atelier populaire, the general climate of the times. The pictures are powerful and empowering. They remind me of a certain idealism, a political consolidation of workers’ voices connected to those of students. Friends I had then remain close, and feelings still run high when I look through the posters.
Can you describe the partnership between yourself and Johan Kugelberg on the project? Johan has been engaged in popular culture for years. He is fascinated by the energy, the graphics, the Velvet Underground creative input of this period. His interest is sincere and stimulating, and so it was a pleasure to contribute to his book project aimed at informing the general public about the political ideas and some of the artistic expression of the 60s.
With today’s current affairs, what do you think of the development of political art and do you see a difference in the impact it has now compared to the impact it had during the late 60s? In the 60s there was more of a communal feeling; today new technology creates an immediacy in exchanges, but the individual remains fairly isolated. Twitter, Facebook and other social networks isolate people in a strange way and at the same give them the impression of being bonded and involved. I like graffiti and street art. In the 60s the “narrative” period in painting was a political art based on facts and intended to denounce war, tyranny, poverty, repressive governments etc. Its impact was limited in scope.
Beauty is in the Street, edited by Johan Kugelberg with Philippe Vermès. Available now.