PRINT January 2007


Space Invader

WE’VE PLAYED this game already. From the cold war to the so-called war on terror, geopolitical tactics are sold to the public as science fictions. Reagan’s Star Wars missile-defense program left behind a mythology of evil empire that persists today, even if our adversaries are no longer clear-cut targets but Bush’s “shadowy networks.” Space Invader, the notorious Paris-based artist, engages in another kind of global gambit—one modeled on the eponymous 1978 video game of alien invasion. For eight years, Invader has delivered a sly send-up of both anachronistic “us-versus-them” scenarios and newly networked, decentralized modes of war and art.

Walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, you can catch a glimpse of Invader’s ludic bid for world takeover. About halfway across, a small grid of ceramic tiles in hypersaturated tones of red, black, and turquoise (NY_73, 2003) appears, affixed to a beam that hangs precipitously over the coursing traffic below. Popping to the foreground is the unmistakable figure of an enemy “alien” from the Space Invaders game. With the bravado of old-school graffiti writers, Invader has made his mark—covertly and in a site of physical danger. More precisely, he has “invaded” the city: The ersatz pixels form the phrase “I [invade] NY II,” with the alien icon functioning as verb in this farcically bitmapped rebus.

Beginning near his studio in Paris in 1998, the artist has infiltrated thirty-five cities with more than two thousand such customized tags, affixing them to walls, monuments, bridges, subways, and highways. The works are almost all illegal and placed without consent. Neither the interior of the Louvre (Invasion du Musée du Louvre, an infamous hit in 1998) nor Istanbul’s Blue Mosque (IST_04, 2003) has been spared. Removal by local authorities or irate property owners is an ongoing threat, to which Invader responds with extrastrong adhesive; for him, “Nothing lasts forever, but if a thing’s worth gluing, it’s worth gluing well!” Accordingly, the artist remains anonymous, known only by his alias. But such insurgency hasn’t stopped Invader from inserting his work into gallery circulation. Most recently, he participated in “Spank the Monkey” (on view through the first week of this month), a group exhibition that brought together works by Barry McGee, Banksy, Takashi Murakami, and other artists tied to postgraffiti or street-inflected practice at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, UK. In 2005 he had solo shows at Sixspace in Los Angeles and Galerie de Bellecour in Lyon, France.

It is this triple threat of craft, sabotage, and branding that defines Invader’s project and its postgraffiti milieu. Such contradictory endeavors intertwine material and immaterial labor, contravention and convention, in a way that suggests the uneasy co-optations of youthful rebellion and visual culture by our military-postindustrial complex. Craft, in particular, might seem a far cry from the rhetoric of war games and digital simulation—but Invader’s superannuated materials actually suggest parallels between recent histories of imaging technology and advanced art. His carefully assembled ceramic units point as much to the obsolescence of low-resolution graphics as to the fate of the modernist grid. The archaism of the mosaic tiles alludes to a time when pixels were palpable, crudely oversize bitmaps of the eight-bit CPU (the hardware “brain” of first-generation arcade and video games). At the same time, the artist’s geeky, outmoded “technology” recalls the systemic geometries of Ellsworth Kelly or François Morellet. Invader invokes the endless permutations possible in digital graphics via the methodical redistribution of colored pixels within a raster grid. In fact, he has combined the original four Space Invaders alien characters to generate thousands of slightly different variations. Combinatorics thus replaces composition. It also supplants facture: The grids resemble less the gestural script of the graf writer than the “monochromes” resulting from police painting over graffiti itself.

And yet these affinities between street and high abstraction are elective. For Invader’s pieces also blow up historical insecurities about the modernist grid—underscoring the constant peril of its devolution into decoration or architecture. His installations always threaten to become ornament or environment. Witness, for example, the sixty-foot-long frieze of eighty-four green-and-white-tiled aliens along a Parisian fence (PA_698, 2006), or the mural-size mosaic LA_64, 2002, executed on the side of a building on Melrose in an audacious overnight campaign. In NCL_26, 2006, at BALTIC, the artist takes over an enormous window with square stained-glass modules—charting yet another medium in which to figure the video game’s pixels. The work plays upon the fine line between figure and ground, pattern recognition and its camouflage. From a distance, the gestalt of the alien figure coheres; from inside the building, one perceives instead the glass’s thickness, its metal frames, and the vista beyond.

Such manipulations of scale and substance are not just pictorial parameters—they are central to Invader’s guerrilla maneuvers, which are, after all, a form of sabotage: “I’ve developed all kinds of techniques so I can adapt to different contexts, like how busy the spot is, when the invasion takes place, the size and weight of the Invader, how high up the wall it’s going to be.” His pieces often refer to their own illicit presence, as when they score a place right next to or literally on surveillance cameras, or when a character’s “eyes” seem to cast a cheeky sideways glance at unsuspecting passersby.

Vandalism, then, emerges as a mode of public address—as one of the last remaining collective activities taking place in urban space. In recognizing this unlikely arena of exchange, Invader, through his collaged mosaics, seems to extend the task of 1950s décollage and its confrontation with the streets of Paris as an embattled territory of propaganda, advertising, and defacement. But, in opposition to the décollagistes’ double removal (anonymous vandals’ tearing of posters and artists’ subsequent appropriation of what remained), Invader’s attacks are additive. Endless proliferation and dispersal become key stratagems. When he invades a city—a process that takes at least two weeks—he aims to cover sites throughout the entire metropolis. While Invader refrains from personally directing others to follow in his footsteps, he does distribute “Invasion kits” of tiles and templates—spawning DIY assailants running their own furtive missions in cities the artist has never visited.

After striking a city, the artist documents the location of each Invader piece. To date, he has designed “Invasion Maps” for fifteen cities across the globe. The maps are printed and circulated in their respective locales, serving as a record and a guide for potential audiences. In the atlas Attack of Montpellier, 1999, this peculiar cartography is pitched as a set of instructions for still another game: Players can score points by tracking down specific Invaders in the French city within a set time limit. The maps all push this trope of scavenger hunt–turned–military operation, brilliantly mimicking the visual style of the war room (bright-green-on-black computer renderings for Invasion of Genève, 2000; beige camouflage in Invasion in Avignon, 2000). The artist recasts the city as a field for subterfuge—a terrain ripe for “re-invasion” by spectators armed with Invasion Maps, but also a minefield in which Invader icons have been planted where they will catch pedestrians by surprise. Visual pitfalls abound. Pieces materialize underfoot, on the horizontal plane of the street (the artist has even made sneakers that leave alien imprints behind); the tiles turn up in settings both gentrified and derelict. Again, it’s easy to draw a parallel between these spatial diversions and a Parisian precedent—this time, the Situationists’ alternative geographies. But the Invasion actually shares more with Guy Debord’s Kriegspiel war game, itself a gridded territory for opponents to struggle over. Invader grants himself a certain number of points for each installation (depending on its size, composition, and site), and he claims he has spent his entire career “traveling from city to city with the sole objective of getting a maximum score.” This is derive as empire building.

Indeed, Invader’s campaign shrewdly reenacts the axiom that where imperial ambition goes, multinational capital is never far behind (or beats it to the punch). So the routes he plots also evoke the flow of tourism. Ceramic and resin replicas of Invaders are available for purchase, the ultimate souvenir. “Invasion Maps” are likewise sold in editions through galleries and the artist’s website, creating a warped variant of sightseeing as consumption.

Of course, what could be closer to the pervasive drift of global consumerism than a ubiquitous logo like Invader’s? Graffiti meets branding in a partnership that is by now familiar: Increasingly, urban art’s yen for self-multiplication has transitioned from handpainted signage to the easily reproduced stencil or sticker. The collaborative procedures of the postwar avant-garde return as viral marketing. Shepard Fairey initiated similar tactics of network distribution for his now-omnipresent Obey Giant emblem (the abstracted black-and-white image of Andre the Giant) more than fifteen years ago; he was one of the first wave of street artists who repositioned themselves as graphic designers and bona fide admen. This group could be extended to include artists who provocatively merge the visual language of postgraffiti with hipster retailing—including Ryan McGinness, Dave Kinsey, Geoff McFetridge, or any of the artists associated with the cult magazine Arkitip.

To homogenize Invader and these peers would be misleading, though. His is a logic of aggressive expansion, a literal allover, that still lays claim to the renegade disruption of daily life and its institutions (think Daniel Buren’s early affiches or those of May ’68, crossed with the rampant Cheshire smiles of Monsieur Chat). Invader insists on a flagrant contravention of the law that many others have abandoned. Yet for him a run-in with the police is just “part of the game. Then it’s a case of ‘go to jail and miss three turns!’” Which suggests that what sets Invader apart are the rules of his engagement. Recently, he has turned to the Rubik’s Cube. Manually solved by the artist, the handheld puzzles become the medium for new constructions both outdoors and in. A solipsistic exercise, perhaps, but one that resonates with the original Space Invaders itself. Tomohiro Nishikado’s video game was based on scrolling unfixed targets and a potentially endless playing time, an opponent whose reserves were implausibly inexhaustible. Like this absurd sortie, Invader’s project entails a bombardment without limit, an occupation without real conquest.

Theorist Samuel Weber has recently located the difference between a “net” (an “indeterminable complex of relations”) and a “net-work” (a deliberately defined set) in the potentially lethal activity of targeting, which transforms the former into the latter. The Invasion begins to resemble the nether region between the two. The artist’s “network” remains in arrested development: If he performs a kind of targeting, it is an act that has no closure, no calculated enemies to beat or ground to gain, no binary of victory/defeat. Against a world that would have it otherwise, Invader doesn’t simply go for a win or a loss: He gives the game away.

Michelle Kuo is an art historian and critic based in Cambridge, MA.