Unauthorized Kiss-and-tell (May 29, 2022)
I was born on May 2, 1991 in the countryside of the south of France, from an American mother who had grown up in Kenya (her parents were assisting in setting up the newly independent nation’s public education) and a French father whose secular Jewish family had left the Russian Empire at the beginning of the century and from who enough had later survived horrors for me to be writing these words today.
My mother had also in some way escaped the United States because she could not integrate in US culture after she had left Kenya for a university life in Wisconsin. Her sister had married a Kenyan man and her parents had decided to retire there, but there was no prospect of higher education in Kenya and she had to study abroad. After a short time in the US, she had eventually ended looking for homeliness in France, studying arts in a city on the Atlantic coast. She had chosen France because her mother came from an old family of French Calvinists and a few of them were still around or in Switzerland, and because there were no tuition fees in French universities.
I had a step sister three years older than me, the daughter of my father with a previous partner who was abroad most of the time. My sister lived with us unless her mother was in France. I always got along very well with my sister, she taught me how to get respected, she showed me how to be seducing.
Although my mother’s parents were practicing Christians, my parents were not religious and they never imposed on me any sort of religious or spiritual belief or practice. They did read me Kees de Kort’s Kijkbijbel, a Dutch children version of the Bible with wonderful illustrations, as you would read an entertaining, culturally important myth to a kid.
I was also brought up in a relatively nonpolitical environment although my father was certainly anti-authoritarian, my mother deeply disliking consumerist culture and being a moderate left winger. Her grandfather had dedicated much of his life to the Ludlow Amendment and this pacifism had also left a mark in her political views.
My mother was a visual artist, my father wrote stories and songs. But she worked as an English teacher and him did many jobs to make ends meet. They both played music and there were many instruments at home: piano, organ, accordions, guitars, violin, flutes, harmonicas. I picked up on them early, although I then disliked my parents’ musical tastes (traditional folk music and French chanson).
I had a lovely childhood in the countryside. When I was 10 my parents disappeared in a storm as they traveled the Atlantic on the sailboat of a friend of them. No signs of the three of them nor of the boat were ever recovered.
My father had always told me not to be unnecessary sad for those who pass away but to celebrate their memory by living life fully and cherishing the lessons you learned from them. I had never seen him sad from someone passing away, maybe because so many of his ancestors had died in unspeakable ways and he knew sadness does not help. I tried, rather unsuccessfully at first, to be the same with my memory of them.
I went to live in a small social housing apartment of the suburbs of Paris with my father’s mother. She was a communist (I never really knew how serious she was in her ideas though she was very forgiving of Mao which led to many arguments) secular Jewish woman (with roots in the Russian empire, her grandparents generation had found refuge in France) who had been a hippie since the ’60s and probably before. She was very open and tolerant. My sister spent some time with us or with her mother when her mother was in France. The two of them later moved to Taiwan.
My father had never talked about his own father who had left the family when he was young. My grandmother always told me that my grandfather had left them to go to Chile in 1973 to support Allende during Pinochet’s coup and that she had never heard of him afterwards. She also told me that he descended from Nicolas de Condorcet. There are very few pictures of him and I stopped wondering whether all of this is true or not. But I carry his last name.
My mother’s parents, who were retired in Kenya, visited us yearly. They often took with them the two daughters of my aunt (she had married a Kenyan man). These two cousins were the closest family members who were the same age as my sister and me. They now live in Baltimore.
It is around that time that I discovered skateboarding, and skateboarded for the next 10 years until I seriously hurt myself and had to stop. The world of skateboard (its esthetics, its music, its rebellious, sort of humanist mindset), along with my fascination for Japan, would become a strong influence on the teenager I was transforming into.
At my grandmother’s home I kept playing music and had my first band when I was 14. We wanted to look like Blur, we liked Air’s music but not their style, I was in love with Björk in the video “It’s oh so quiet”. I still think that the songs we played then were great, maybe the best I ever did musically. I also started design then, making logos and album covers for the band and graphics for my skateboard team.
With a friend from my band we arranged to go to the only public high school in my side of the suburbs were they offered design classes. We had to take the train for more than one hour every morning and evening but that was definitely worth it, the experience and the class I studied with entirely broadened my horizon and many people I met there are still friends.
We could also study Japanese in this high school, which I did, although it was hard to keep up with many of the other students who were fanatically determined in learning kanjis. Something in Japan fascinated me though, and I would consume every piece of the culture I could get my hands on. I was listening in loop to Happy End’s Kaze Wo Atsumete that I had heard in Lost in Translation and then to other Haruomi Hosono’s records (I created his English Wikipedia page in 2004 and his stays to this day a strong musical influence) and to many others. I really discovered what I liked in cinema through the scope of Japan too, watching Funeral Parade of Roses when I was 16 was a deep experience in many ways. My grandmother had screened many films to me but I had always kept an emotional distance to cinema before that.
Overall I was a very good student, especially in History, Geography and in Mathematics for which I always had a strong love/hate relationship. I did not excel in the academic form of design, art and literature we were taught, though. But, almost in reaction to what we were taught, I developed a strong personal interest for art and design.
After high school I went to study graphic design in École Estienne, the oldest school of printing in Paris. I moved to a tiny bedroom under the rooftops of Paris. I had my first sexual experiences outside of the usual high school teenage experiences. I had things with men and women, young and old. I had a few unpleasant experiences but nothing too bad. I decided after a while than sex can always be good with anyone if it is done with generosity and desire, but it seemed I ended up falling in love mostly with girls my age and I decided, maybe arbitrarily, to value fidelity.
In this art school I had applied for the small multimedia graphic design department because I knew that teachers were great and the students did surprising works. We got our hands on coding, video, sound, etc. I did missed printed matter though, so I gathered people from the whole school to start a school journal that we printed with the help of the printing department (Estienne was also a technical school) that had virtually unlimited resources.
Although my peers and teachers were great, I got partially disappointed by the education. A big part of the program was stiffly defined by the state and gave priorities to advertising and marketing (so that you would “get a job” out of the school). That disgusted me. I actually forged an anti-capitalist point of view from the realization that marketing only produced ugly, useless, actually harmful things. As of today I am an advocate of market economy but I still cannot swallow marketing and advertising.
During the Winter holidays of my second year, I felt there was nothing more to take from the program (my moral was also affected by me not being able to skate anymore after an accident). I stopped school and left for Tokyo without much plans, after a Japanese guy I had played a concert with in Brussels had convinced me I should visit Japan (my high school Japanese was not great but way enough for a start).
Though frightening and lonely at times, I had an incredible experience in Tokyo. I worked in many places, from night bars to concert venues to record stores. I played a lot of music, wrote a lot of songs, made a lot of concerts, got better at making websites (made a lot of websites for musicians friends, as well as flyers, posters and record covers). I also sharpened my Japanese.
After a year, though, I got tired. I had enough of the big city, of loosing time in transportation, of the superficiality or the conservatism of many Tokyoites. I had enough of not being able to do serenely a long term project, enough of the uncomfortable cheap housing, enough of having sex with people who stayed strangers even when we saw each other many times (Japanese rock people seemed to abhor relationships and international people came and go), enough of working too much to make ends meet and often being abused because I was a 20 years old non-Japanese boy. Don’t get me wrong I loved it but I needed a break.
A girl who played in a drone metal band in a club where I worked proposed me to go to work at her grandparents’ farm on an island in the south of Japan. They were getting very old, needed help and there was almost no young people there.
That was the best choice I could have done, they were adorable old left wingers who had met as teenagers when they had been jailed together for opposing their government at the end of the war. Their farm, like many Japanese farms, was wonderful. Certainly not the most productive land you could imagine, but it was a peaceful haven.
I helped them in the morning and spent many of my afternoons developing small programs and algorithms for the Ruby community that was very active in Japan. One of the open source programs I wrote gathered a lot of attention. The algorithm described a streamlined, minimal model of neural network that, although less powerful than standard neural networks, used only a tiny amount of the processing power required to run one.
Although this algorithm is now completely obsolete (that was early 2011) I was then contacted by AWS who proposed me an outrageous amount of money (although I now believe anyone else but me would have made a better deal) to adapt the algorithm to their database ecosystem. I am not proud of it today but you have to remember that in 2011 Amazon was not the same company than it is today, and being on a small Island in Japan I was also not fully aware of the monster it would become. I later received a personal message from Jeff Bezos thanking me and stating that my algorithm had been one of the pillars of Amazon’s development in following years, proposing me a high position job. I could not find what to reply.
I paid around half of my income in taxes in France and gave my grandmother most of it for her to buy a beautiful small house in the outskirts of Paris. I used what was left to go back studying for three years in Europe, without having to work.
While I was in France visiting my grandmother and buying the house, I joined a friend to a graphic design lecture of Linda Van Deursen in Centre Pompidou where she talked about the Rietveld Academie. I applied as soon as I was back in Japan.
I arrived in September in the Rietveld Academie and spent three amazing years there. It was an incredible school with incredible people, in an incredible city. It completely changed my view on art and graphic design and I met there many friends and lovers. I kept playing and recording music in Rietveld but it was never a priority.
As the Rietveld ended, the friend whom I had made my first band with proposed me to reform it. He was also just graduating, it was the good moment to make music together again. Although I really wanted to stay in Amsterdam, I could not resist and joined him in Paris.
As we started writing songs and playing concerts we got increasingly torn. We both had amazing opportunities to participate in interesting projects in our own practices, him as an artist and me as a designer, and we realized that doing a life as musicians was probably not our dream anymore.
We eventually found an old cheap room in Paris and with two girls making comics and one filmmaker we made a studio together. We worked, had parties, were relatively independent from corporations. I discovered Paris more and more, and got to love the chaos of the city. I also continued to record songs and music, and to perform occasionally. I got into many graphic design projects, rarely well paid but interesting enough to satisfy my creative output and with people who respected me enough to satisfy my anti-authoritarianism.
While in Paris I also got confronted to political movements: Nuit Debout, where during two months of Spring 2017 the Place de la République was occupied; and the Yellow Vest, which was a gigantic spontaneous anarchist revolt questioning out loud and openly what proper democratic political structures could be.
I came back once to Japan when from November 2017 to September 2018 I cycled from Singapore to Tokyo. Just before I came back to Paris I visited a friend in Cádiz in the south of Spain, fell in love with the city, and felt so frustrated not being able to communicate that I endeavored to learn Spanish when I would be back to Paris, which I did for the following three years.
My grandmother passed away in the Summer of 2019. She wanted to be buried in the ground without coffin so that the fauna and the flora could eat from her as she had done all her life from them. She did not want any gravestone because she did not want to be revered or mystified in any way (this was very important to her, I believe she had had immense debates about this point with her own mother, when she was younger). She had asked to be buried with, in her had hands, a star of David that had belonged to her mother. Not that she deeply cared about being Jewish but because she wanted to remind any potential Nazi that you cannot destroy an identity with hate. She had rejected her ancestors’ beliefs, dogmas, and sense of belonging. She had never openly lived like a Jew, she had had a son with a man who was probably not Jewish (from what I know) but she was still Jewish simply because when she was a kid adults had tried to violently erase a part of her identity.
My sister and I decided to keep the house to have a place to meet when she would come to Paris (at the time she lived with her Italian wife in Rome. They since divorced but she still lives in Rome where she somehow manages to make a living writing, thinking and teaching about cinema).
In Paris I met Nickie, a Danish girl I had known in Rietveld and who had later given up on graphic design to study organic farming and who was working in a farm in the south of Paris. We became partners and I contemplated more than once leaving with her the city for a farm. Together with two friends of mine (one who shared my studio) she had started an art collective that worked around the environment, farming and food. They were accepted to the Jan Van Eyck Academie residency in Maastricht.
I was starting to be restless in Paris and needed to see more. In Wuhan words of unusual lungs infections were coming out. Since I had graduated from the Rietveld Academie I was contemplating applying to the Werkplaats Typografie.