The Encounter of M. Chat & Chris Marker as Told By Louise Traon

The original article, Chats pecheurs – La rencontre entre Chris Marker et M. Chat racontée par Louise Traon, appeared on creative.arte.tv on 16.10.2013. Many thanks to ARTE, a truly essential force in the preservation, publication & celebration of the works of Chris Marker.

Translated by Dorna Khazeni

M. Chat and Guillaume

“dated… January 19th 2038, 04:14 a.m.
For a time-travel specialist, it’s impressive. It would, moreover, be a fine illustration of the temporal paradox. If I were to say to you (as chances are high that you should one day pass through this time and this place) to look out for what shall happen here then, it would be a way of attracting your attention, and consequently it woud be I who would unleash inside the future the event from the present… Another Moebius ring from which one cannot extricate oneself.”
Chris Marker

It is winter and night has fallen already. Some expeditions are necessary to the survival of the species. Thoma pulls on a jacket and sets a huge pack on his back. He knows where he is going. In daytime, he has earmarked, not far from Porte de Clignancourt, a scaffolding and chimneys that afford beautiful views. Having reached the foot of the building he climbs this metallic structure taking care not to make too much noise. In no time at all he has arrived at the summit and a whole series of rooftops unfold before him. Of these moments of freedom, Thoma still speaks exaltedly. “The desert of Parisian rooftops… The dreams of the sleeping inhabitants that escape in smoke from chimneys, the intoxication of trespassing… The ephemeral illusion of being one with the immensity, and then the frozen wind, the heaviness, the vertigo, once again the adrenaline and when consciousness of oneself returns, the opposite impression, that of being nothing but a grain of sand.” His arm outstretched he draws a circle with the tip of his brush, fills it with yellow then defines its contours in black. Nothing complicated about the technique, nor anything unaffordable in the materials employed, three pots of acrylic paint, yellow, black, white, and a brush for each pot. This also is what motivates him, that with next to nothing thrice, compared to official publicity campaigns, with a bit of willpower, anyone at all can inscribe their character, their logo, in people’s imagination. That, in itself, is quite a lesson. That night, counting an hour per painting, six chimneys are coiffed with a yellow, smiling cat.

M. Chat Chatelet

In the Châtelet quarter in Paris, one of the firs CHATs appeared on parisian rooftops in the 2000s

On his paw, Thoma has had a CAT tattooed and the year of his birth, 1997. Starting on this date, he has been painting uninterruptedly, every night. He has often told me that once you believe in an idea, and repeat it, you gradually shape those around you in such a way that ultimately the image you project outwards is reflected back at you at times when you start to entertain your own doubts about it. Thoma dreams of uniting human beings, different as they might be, of finding a single unifying subject. Monsieur Chat is, for him, a kind of currency. He talks about putting aside his ego in order to facilitate appropriation by others. The image therefore sees itself as being collective. What are the motivations? Is there a message behind this visual? He does not proffer prepared explanations, obliging one to take a stance—like it, not like it, try and understand—and ultimately, forcing your creativity to kick in, in order to go beyond the “empty space of meaning.” For once, attention is not concentrated on the trajectory of, or on the creators, there’s no need to know Monsieur Chat’s history to feel something on seeing it. Behind the simplicity of a smile painted on a wall what lies hidden is, in fact, the representation through image of a state of mind, an attitude, a philosophical aspiration. The serial reproduction of the same image produces a repetition effect, a perturbation of the visual field and ultimately takes up a certain amount of space in our cerebral geography. Space that finds its echo in what surrounds us and becomes, more concretely, a social micro-phenomenon. These are the terms, more or less, in which Thoma conceives his program, which while not a party platform, is utopian and militant to be sure.

From film to film, Chris Marker acquired a technical independence that ended up making his studio resemble the set of Star Trek. On the plus side, ever since video he could, with his own means, create a film from A to Z, without having to ask anyone for anything. Marker was very attached to this independence he had forged: never did a “merchant” imperative burden his “small undertakings,”—he often self-qualified as a tinkerer. “I practice, without ostentation, a tranquil anarchism which allows me to traverse this society’s booby-trapped byways without too many mishaps,” he wrote to Thoma. It was in this same context that in the newspaper Le Parisien, Marker published an ad to whosoever should notice Monsieur Chat’s smile. Armed only with his DVD camera and a few leads thrown his way by various informers, the filmmaker embarked on the hunt. Rue de Belleville, Écluse du Canal Saint-Martin, Gare d’Austerlitz, Gare Montparnasse, Île de la Cité, on a fruit-picking venture in search of Monsieur Chat, a bountiful pursuit, and so, in post-September 11th Paris, a street-movie began to take shape. No explanations, no commentaries, he wished to place nothing there that might come back to « bite » the film Thoma might make, or that someone else might one day make about him, in which the entirety of the Monsieur Chat saga might be delivered. He deliberately situated himself in the position of the naïve discoverer that he was up to the time when they began corresponding. In the first images of what would become the film Chats Perchés and whose editing Marker would share by sending DVD’s, Thoma immediately recognized a certain gaze, being himself sensitive to humans who consort with animals, to Boléro, to pigeons that take flight in the Métro corridor. He also noticed the many corners of Paris they had in common. For Thoma, the cat is to be observed in the gaze of others, and Marker was in the process of treating the subject in this same manner. All the anecdotes drawn from daily life humanized the image, nourished the enigma, and contributed to creating an “artistic blurring” regarding the identity of the author. Marker’s simple takes touched him with their complex sequencing that opened on to a multitude of interpretations. Everyone takes what they want to see in them and the secret remains preserved. “Where are you, Marker?” Thoma wondered during their exchanges. A little everywhere, a little nowhere, Marker might have replied.

Thoma’s reactions make an impression on the filmmaker who registers the complete absence of vanity in his messages. After all it is also a film about his work, and in such cases most “artists” are concerned with finding out whether or not they have been understood and sufficiently complimented, and as a general rule, they never have been sufficiently. There is this impression that this aspect of matters does not interest him at all, does not concern him. He takes the coding-decoding of Monsieur Chat as a given, it’s a matter of moving on to that which is essential straight away, to utter the object and the world that it describes, or of which it is a product. “It’s rare enough to be worth noting, and would give me a supplemental reason, were one required, to dedicate it to you,” he writes to him. At the moment when the painter was afraid he’d grow tired of the cat, that he’d be caught, or that he would be banished from the city together with graffiti and tagging, the filmmaker’s gaze fell on him naturally and gave him a new lease on life. He finally had the freedom and the legitimacy for action without having to justify himself any longer. Where this encounter is concerned one might speak not of chance but of a plan. Thoma painted anonymously for ten years so that someone one day should notice him. These paintings are his arms outstretched, calling out to an other, and Marker had eyes with which to see the signs of new, marginal cultures. He knew how to make underground talent flourish and ally the energies of an entire network, and Monsieur Chat, a simple and joyous symbol, was particularly well-suited to this end.

The Cat, Monsieur Chat, or CHAT in French. This was at first an acronym for Communauté Harmonieuse des Artistes Taciturnes, [Harmonious Community of Taciturn Artists], which thanks to Marker became Confédération Humaniste et Anarchiste des Travailleurs [Humanist Anarchist Workers’ Confederation]. Marker alone had recognized the feline graffiti’s revolutionary essence. In 2003, Thoma found himself at the heart of a demonstration facing a camera that was instantaneously broadcasting into televisions all across France. The captor, for him, was an eye and he said he “wished to let himself be aspirated inside this black hole, this portal to traverse space.” He let himself be led by the movement of the crowd without knowing where it was taking him. And also faith in that maxim—by we know not whom—that he likes to repeat, “Observe, assimilate, reproduce.” He began to construct banners and placards. Marker who was following the first anti-Le Pen demonstrations in his viewfinder, noticed a CHAT hung on a strip of wood that a demonstrator was brandishing vigorously. That was when Guillaume en Egypte, the orange cat, the filmmaker’s alter-ego who, for his part, had also started waving a CHAT placard over his head provided Thoma with the vision of something he no longer believed possible. The news and in particular the wall that was then being erected in Israel called to him ever more audibly; the young artist asserted enthusiastically. “If I could find a way of going there cats would blossom atop this horrible edifice and their grinning would reinvigorate the oppressed populations, confuse the idiotic military, to the great joy of children who are seeing their horizons walled… To recreate a scaffolding of the imagination there where imagining is almost no longer possible…” There was also a proposal aiming at an education in democracy in Kosovo, an opportunity for him to go and teach children of different ethnicities to draw yellow cats together. In response to Thoma’s contentious mood, Marker sent him Le Fond de l’air est rouge, reminding him that all the true revolutionaries he had known were patient men.

For Thoma, there was still a treasure hunt for links in the web and the CHAT needed to multiply himself. So many cats and a single man! It began to no longer be possible, a partnership was required, a collective. He dreamt of attacking the Eiffel tower, and its 50,000 daily visitors, by unfurling a giant banner that would be visible as far as Trocadéro. The spirited artist, each time, proposed that Marker participate in his actions. This latter replied that he had the century wrong… “In other times, I was always game for madcap projects—but those were other times. Putting aside the very concrete fact, not to be dramatic about it, that the laws of biology are such that I have no chance of living long enough to finish all that I’ve begun.” He nonetheless encouraged him to undertake, on his behalf, the conquest of Paris by the CHAT’s. Meanwhile, in 2004 Marker offered Thoma the chance to paint the biggest CHAT in the world on the forecourt of the Pompidou Center, and to participate along with Guillaue en Egypt in the production of a special issue of the newspaper Libération. This time it was Thoma’s turn to express a few reservations. To move from total clandestineness to a relative presence, whether at Beaubourg or in Libération, would bring a shadow of suspicion to hover over him, “am I working with THEM?”. To this ambivalence Marker replied that, on the contrary, this was a good revolutionary method: to employ’s the enemy’s structures, in the places where they can cede, to affirm his actual existence without compromising on what was essential.

M. Chat at the Pompidou Center

The biggest CHAT in the world created on the ocassion of the pre-premiere of Chats Perchés at the Pompidou Center in 2004

Thoma writes the same way he talks. Which is to say he writes a lot. Marker no longer corrected Thoma’s spelling mistakes, and I think had come to find them poetic. He was at once tormented at the thought of encumbering Marker and compelled to tell him the slightest details of what he experienced and the things to which he aspired. He began with the genesis of the cat, the pencil strokes by an awkward little Pakistani girl who was having trouble in school, during a drawing workshop in the suburbs near Orleans and the outline of the smiling cat that she held out to him. Thinking historically, the very first grinning cat, the one by Lewis Carroll, was born of the reverend mathematician’s encounter with a young Victorian girl living on the revenues of an Empire that was not yet called Pakistan at the time… Like a knotted knot, it would be hard to do better. The Moebius strips of History had all the necessary elements to appeal to Marker in whom the enumeration of the Chat’s adventures bred a desire to know all the details concerning Monsieur Chat. “Of course, what you are telling me about this will remain strictly between the two of us. I have only told a few close friends that contact has been established, which rejoiced them tremendously, the rest falls under the cat-secret-defense act,” he added. From the origins of the CHAT, Thoma continued on to his own origins, and the artist discovered that his family tree, his Swiss family’s coat of arms, which often turns up in his drawings, shelters a handful of characters that had marked the soul of the filmmaker, among them a scandalous writer by the name of Anne-Marie Scharzenbach.

Yet another point especially appeals to Marker. Where the genealogy and the coat of arms goes, the filmmaker is curious nonetheless he recognizes zones of mystery. He proposes to Thoma that they should create an email address for Anne-Marie so he might send his ardent writings there.

Thomas has attached himself to Marker the way a cat attaches itself to a branch. Others will say that he is looking for an image of a long gone father or grandfather. Family is something that matters to Thoma, the one that he dreams of, but whose legacy he is also in search of. “I would like to know about you just as much you seem to want to know about me,” he writes to him. Thoma used to call him, “his master,” and if Marker had known this, he surely would have hated it. Chris was one of those who adopted Thoma, and Thoma was one of those that Chris adopted. For Chris had several adoptive children. And it is not because no papers attest to this filial relationship that it is not real. One can well understand why the legacy of the filmmaker is so painful. Even Marker, apparently liberated from all familial ties and who never speaks of the past, delivered to Thoma “the childhood” of his militant cinema, confessing that he felt like his father relating an account of the battle of Verdun, “which, and this is to his credit, was something he never did,” he added. Thoma had briefly considered illustrating the friendship between Guillaume-en-Egypte and the CHAT by a play of interchangeable masks, Guillaume wearing a Monsieur Chat mask and vice versa. Ultimately the friendship took the form of two cats perched on stilts, arm in arm, above the city, their heads in the stars and clouds.

M. Chat appears on Chris Marker's street with Guillaume

Guillaume-en-Egypte reacts to the collage made by Thoma in 2011

On the advice of his “master,” and in the name of the perching cats, Thoma circled the globe several times to paint. He would return with videos and photographs to Marker’s great pleasure, he who no longer had either the time nor the wish to take planes when metro carriages presented him with all the history of art in a single afternoon on his route, all for the price of a single ticket. Macao, Hong Kong, New York, Saigon, Séoul, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Dakar, Pristina… Meanwhile the CHATS were beginning to create a network of international optimism. A friend spoke to him of “the Marker plan,” “if Chris Marker, who’s not just anybody in French cinema, and who doesn’t spend his time with just anybody, is sending you around, it’s that there is a plan!” Thoma knew that this plan did not exist in any premeditated way but that it was falling into place bit by bit and revealing itself through the force of events. It was therefore not a plan, rather a working hypothesis: the comings and goings of the perched CHATS across the world could be the undreamt of expansion of CHATS saga to the planetary scale, under conditions that by his means alone he could not have immediately envisaged. It seems that the New York operation was particularly well-suited to what Marker had been conceiving.

Thoma and his CHAT entered the Marker galaxy and like a cat climbing a tree, it was very difficult to come back down. Marker had known this. Monsieur CHAT now had to find his own way out by being his own reference. Hence the day arrived when Thoma had to decouple Monsieur CHAT’s career from the film’s. An invitation to the artist was no longer a condition for the film’s screenings. There was not just room for, but a need for, another film that would be his, where he would recount the adventure in all its details and all its resonance. The Return of the Grinning Cat, if you like. For a start, outside of televised outings, the two could even make up a double-bill, why not? Marker even dreamt, with Thoma, about a cinema dedicated entirely to the Chat, or to cats in general, Feline Palace, the Kat-mandu, where you would celebrate them all year long. His story also merited a book full of pictures, the cats in Nantes and the île de Ré, the first sketches, the copies, the guises and disguises. If the CHAT had to take off alone, Marker further suggested several leads to Thoma, resulting in the CHAT that the SNCF erased at Austerlitz—for which he also suggests a historical riposte: going and painting another at Waterloo station.

Thoma tried working as a gallerist for a time, “if I’d known that one day I’d be on the side of the shopkeepers…” He widened his hitherto clandestine practice to new universes and rubbed shoulders with cultural institutions where he wondered about these places for preservation. “But don’t worry, I would not show any cat paintings, not in a commercial space, not in a space where it is economy that governs… cats like to lay the hairs of brushes onto the plaster and stone of walls. So, no canvases, cats belong to the street and the streets belong to cats…,” he explained to Marker, knowing full well that the canvas was a passage oblige for all painters, street painters as well as others. The CHAT had to become immaterial, be retrieved, multiplied. Products, starting with t-shirts saw the light of day and took the road to Korea where a friend decided to develop what could be deemed the CHAT’s third life, more industrial than the preceding ones. “Never a dull moment,” Marker used to say, otherwise put, you don’t get bored with the CHAT. Decidedly nine lives are not enough. From his travels to Asia, Thoma brings Marker, in exchange for a glass of vodka on his return, longevity mushroom tea. But he knows perfectly well that he is already immortal. As for time that passes, the wind has already stung the two cats perched on stilts, the drawing Thoma had glued next door to his friend’s house. It’s a noble destiny, you can just imagine them frolicking amid clouds.

The Author

Louise Traon is a video artist and filmmaker. She is the partner of Thoma Vuille. They are both part of a young generation of artists that Chris Marker supported.

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I would like to give a special, warm thanks to Dorna Khazeni for this English translation. Dorna is also the translator of the Chris Marker short story Phenomenon (n.), published here and in the Los Angeles Times Book Review (29 April 2001). She is fluent in French & Farsi and has performed live translations for screenings of Iranian films at film festivals and in the Los Angeles area. She enjoyed a beautiful friendship with Chris Marker.

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Addendum: Libération 4-5 Dec. 2004 – ‘Chris Marker et M. Chat mettent leur patte sur « Libé »’

Libération, 4-5 Dec. 2004, M. Chat et Guillaume