The volunteers’ fresco: a project by Vincent Fradet for the square Charles Floquet in Rueil-Malmaison, France.


The Volunteer’s Fresco is a mural project which combines urban textures, typographical devices and historical elements. It is meant to be installed on the square Charles Floquet in the town centre of Rueil-Malmaison, a city which is renowned for its imperial associations. Joséphine de Beauharnais had bought the castle of La Malmaison in 1799, and one can still visit the richly furnished manor where Napoléon Bonaparte used to conduct his social and political meetings at the very beginning of the 19th century. The wall itself on which the mural would be painted faces the parc de Bois préau, which belonged to the castle’s gardens, and the rue de l’impératrice Joséphine, which leads to the house to be found a kilometre west. The square is in fact more of a transient space, almost a suburban ‘non-lieu’ in the heart of a well-to-do borough of Ile-de-France. The city-council has built some neatly looking swinging devices for children, but the proximity of road traffic has tended to impede the appropriation of the square by local residents. Basketball courts used to stand nearby, but the housing market speculation has seen new buildings erected on their former location. Within this busy commuting area on the border of the city-centre, the volunteers’ fresco would stand on the only remaining wall of a former 19th century domain whose house was destroyed in the 1990s, in plain view of all incoming traffic from the West and the North, as well as from passers-by making their way to and from the park which has an entrance by the crossroad.
The fresco uses a binary system to convey its message. On a plain green background, a series of white vertical stripes are drawn repeatedly on a horizontal frame. The frequency of their proximity increases at the edges of that frame, while decreasing symmetrically towards its centre. Within this vision of stripes stretching over a uniform background, a text (written by Fradet himself) emerges. The letters of the text are drawn within the white stripes. They are part of the coloured background, and the eye has to focus to progressively identify the written words which are inscribed on three horizontal lines:

“Au mur disséminé les rapports au dessein morcelé du travail égaré les intelligences éparses
Aux conditions et l’équilibre des intensités l’association est ce droit
Aux murs éparpillés aux chances voisines à l’égalité chacun réuni imposé aux balances établies”

The long sentence appears as an enunciation, yet one which repels any instantaneous reading. Words seem to flow into one another. Given its public location, it constitutes the opposite of an advertising billboard. Where easily expendable images produced to electrify our desires fade swiftly after having been consumed, thereby requiring a constant industrial renewal to maintain the attention of the public-client, the fresco begins by hampering a volatile and rapid consumption. It requires from the viewer an attention to the intersections conveyed by the text. These lead to specific spatial and historical layers. At the heart of the enunciation is the word ‘association’. It is located towards the right-hand side of the middle line. Furthermore, it constitutes the only predicative clause: “association is this right”. All other components of the enunciation are introduced by a preposition or a past participle. The assertion thus appears to be the key to read the set of variable meanings that surround it. It is enhanced by the fact that the word ‘association’ is said to be determined, as ‘this right’, though its determination is not immediately specified. It remains to the reader to establish what might compose its qualities. But first, the word ‘association’ itself indicates a precise historical and local reference which is underlined by Fradet’s own paratext on the work. The square where the fresco would be designed is named after the French 19th century politician Charles Floquet. An ardent republican in the young days of the 3rd republic which followed the removal of Napoléon III, the lacklustre heir of the Corsican revolutionary autocrat, Floquet is deemed to have been an enthusiastic supporter of the right of association eventually established in 1901. The first article of the 1901 law is enlightening, for it defines an association as “the convention by which two or more people put together their knowledge or their activities, on a permanent basis, with a different aim of that of sharing financial benefits”. The right of association is a potent democratic instrument favouring the setting up of civic counter-powers. It enforces the French Republic’s triad of principles: the liberty to establish a body of action and discussion within the national public space, the fraternity implicit within an organisation based on cooperation, and the equality to reign between its citizen-members. The enhancement of these principles is crucially made outside of profit-making objectives. Capital development is not forbidden, yet it significantly does not provide the foundation grounds on which to determine the activities led by associations of citizens.
Association is thus the multi-vectorial force articulated by the fresco. It unfolds itself within two complementary fields: within the linguistic elements, and within the formal visual elements. Within the text itself, two paradigms appear distinctly. First, there is a range of words referring to fragmentation: disseminated, divided, mislaid, scattered, strewn. Second, there is a range of word referring to combining: connection, balance, next to, equality, assembled, balanced. These two semantic fields are mediated through a third one which represents the prop, the material canvas on which the disjointed paths are inscribed: drawing, work, intelligences, conditions, intensity, chances, each, and twice at the beginning of the first and third line, the wall(s). For, there is a direct interconnection between the text of the fresco and its visual materialisation on the square Charles Floquet. Its visual form reiterates the three designated elements: the canvas, that is the wall on which the fragmentation and the combining takes places; the fragmentation, articulated through the white vertical lanes and their increasing and decreasing frequency; the combining, or the association, which is furthered by the text emerging from the apparent indecipherability of the background’s unity into the white vertical stripes. Indeed, it is the last operation which can guide an overall reading of the piece in a resumption of the textual arrangement it contains: the combining force of the emerging text binds together the white fragmented elements (as much as these condition its existence), in an imitation of the positioning of the word ‘association’ as the central axis governing relational movements between the surrounding scattered units. The volunteer’s fresco is not a given, it requires as stated a voluntary disposition to unveil its wealth. The wealth it seeks to provide to the passers-by, however, is not to be an object of consumption, but rather, of construction. It does not foreclose the material world, as its meticulous and somehow lush arrangement clearly reveals, but it ultimately indicates a political and ethical stance whose renewed assertion is a vital guarantee to the sustainable shaping of our futures.

Gabriel Gee

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