Galerie Party, the interactive installation created by Studio GGSV (designer couple Gaëlle Gabillet and Stéphane Villard) for the 40th anniversary of Centre Pompidou, is easily the coolest playground I’ve ever seen. It has an inflatable house, a selection of weird toy sculptures, a projection room, a disappearing man (master performance artist Liu Bolin), and costumes that camouflage with the background. All the elements refer to great art and design works (from Dali to Magritte to Sottsass) in the museum’s collection. Galerie Party is a masterclass in creating an actually enjoyable and inspiring museum experience for children. Instead of looking for a supposedly fun way to teach kids art history, the installation invites them to take culture into their own hands and go wild. Stéphane Villard sat down with us earlier this week to explain how they did it.
How did you go about creating an art and design installation that children would actually enjoy?
There are three common strategies to making things for children. The first is creating a miniaturized version of the adult world. The second one is the infantilization of shapes — you know, where a car becomes very round. And the third one is total abstraction, like cubes and triangles, where the child just plays with these shapes, and says ‘this is a house,’ ‘this is a car,’ and so on. We tried to do none of those things. Or, in some ways, we mixed all three categories. We wanted to create a complete, joyful world. But instead of designing the elements for children, we created little sculptures that they could use to design their own world.
You were trying not to project an adult vision of art, or of playing, onto them.
Exactly. Adults try to force their interpretation on these shapes, decide on their meaning, while children take every shape, every material, every color, for what it is. Everything can become something else. We wanted to create a game where you can’t lose. That was the most important thing.
How does this approach differ from the way museums usually cater to children?
In big museums, there’s usually some activity for children. Sometimes it’s all about explaining to them what great artists have done and how they did it. Other times, they ask children to make work like Andy Warhol or Picasso. We didn’t want to do that. We didn’t want to explain to children what art and design is. We wanted them to experience the pleasure that makes you want to do design yourself. Of course, art is part of the culture, and you have to learn who did what, and how they did it. But it is also a heritage, and that heritage belongs to everyone, including the children, and they can take it, transform it, and make their own world.
In some ways, children are better connoisseurs of art. They don’t over-interpret it. They don’t pretend to like or understand things they don’t really like or understand.
Exactly! That was part of the idea of the exhibition. You don’t need to know any elements of culture to play the game.
You had a story at the center of it, about two characters, Gellaé & Séphante, who live in the Pompidou. What was the idea there?
The two characters live in the Centre Pompidou and have spent their lives watching adults at the museum, never understanding what these adults were doing. That’s something you feel when you’re young and see art; everyone tells you it’s very important, and you don’t get it. The two characters, Gellaé & Séphante, invent this machine that creates shapes they have in their minds to create their own world. This is to tell children that they are totally free to play with the shapes, and to play with the culture. Take or leave whatever you want from your heritage and make something new. The culture is malleable!
You have three kids of your own. How did you involve them in the process?
We showed them a lot of the shapes we were making. They liked some things and thought that others were ugly and uninteresting. The whole process wasn’t very scientific. We would put all the shapes on the floor and see what they played with. We also wanted to make sure the shapes were not too heavy, and that they could really assemble and disassemble the different elements. We also to make sure they fit into small hands. As designers we work a lot. When our kids come back from school, they always look at what we’re doing. So they’re already involved in our practice, but it was really nice for them to see what we do in a real-world setting.
And in such a big way! Did children take part in your installation as expected? Or were you surprised by anything?
We were very surprised by the range of combinations they came up with. As you know, when children play, they don’t play — it’s very serious. It was also nice to see children and parents really playing together. Sometimes the sculptures can get very tall, so the children needed their parents’ help. Another very big surprise: under the inflatable structure, in what we call the gall room, there was a huge video projection on the floor. We expected the children to sit and watch the video projection. Instead, they played in the projection, they went totally insane, running after the shapes on the screen, as if it was interactive. It looked like an after-party of a huge rave. Standing in the projection, they were moving their body, opening their arms, starting to dance.
You invited Liu Bolin to do a performance, where he camouflaged himself with the environments, effectively disappearing. How did that fit into your show?
Like all elements, his performance worked on two levels. We wanted to add an element of painting and photography to the installation, and he uses this brutalist painting and illusionist photography. Additionally, his work is very concerned with ecology, as is ours. But we also selected him because his performance is very easy for children to understand, on a different level, of course. For the children, when he disappears, he’s almost like a magician, like a superhero.
Then he left his costumes behind so the children could become super heroes themselves.
Exactly. Drawing on his work, we conceived of these costumes. We picked textiles that were printed with the same patterns as the objects and the walls of the installation. The children could put together their own costumes. They could either blend in like Liu Bolin, assembling all the elements and finding the exact place to disappear, or they could clash with their surroundings. They could follow the instructions or invent something new. Neither is better. Some kids like to stand out. Others are shy.
It seems like you spent a lot of time thinking about how children play, and how not to intervene too much.
Exactly. This was always about finding an equilibrium between the two. Putting enough elements in place for them to get into it, but not too much, so they could invent something totally new.
It seems to have worked fantastically well. Are you planning to do similar installations in the future?
Well, actually, we want to continue making work like that, but for adults. We would love to make a nightclub. We really believe strongly in design, in what it can do to change our perception of the world. Strong places make you think differently, you spend different moments with your child, with your lover. That’s the best part of design to us.
Gaëlle Gabillet and Stéphane Villard’s design studio GGSV specializes in curatorial projects, scenography, product design, and interior design. Visit their website to see more of their work. Galerie party can be seen at Centre Pompidou until March 8, 2018.