Interview: Rupert Bottenberg / En Masse

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by Drink & Draw MTL on March 22, 2013

Rupert Bottenberg is a Montreal-based illustrator and visual artist who currently co-directs the En Masse collaborative drawing project. Drink & Draw Montreal contributor Olivier Krieger asked Rupert to share a bit about his personal practice, and his experiences with collaborative drawing.

Drink & Draw MTL: Tell us a little about yourself

Rupert Bottenberg: I was born in Nova Scotia, but I lived in Montreal pretty much my entire life, and I consider myself a Montrealer. In the 1990’s I used to organize an event called the Montreal Comics Art Jam, which was essentially spontaneous collaborative creation in black and white. Throughout the last decade I worked as the music editor at the Montreal Mirror, but before the paper was shut down, I left my job to devote myself to my co-directorship of the En Masse art initiative, which finds me coming back to, basically, facilitating episodes of spontaneous collaborative visual arts creation in black and white. I also have my own practice as an illustrator and visual artist. Graphic literature, which is comics and more, is my focus.

D&D: Can you briefly describe your personal work?

RB: My personal work is very meticulous. I don’t want to misrepresent myself by saying “refined.” When I say that I don’t mean necessarily in the ideas; the ideas can often be very simple and almost clumsy, but the execution to me is very painstaking. I try to seek a certain universality and timelessness in my work. I’m not interested in being contemporary in the sense of being about specific things in the news this week or that sort of thing. I like the idea of striving to create work that will last in value for decades. I try to apply the same degree of refinement and precision and sturdiness of construction to my visual art.
D&D: What are your sources of inspiration? 

RB: A variety of things. I think the whole idea is to combine various different elements. Every artist does that, ideally one absorbs many different influences and tries to synthesize them into a whole. My sensibility tends to be very populist. I am very inspired by Japanese manga and anime, by global propaganda posters, by skateboard art, by comics, by cartoons, but also by cubism, expressionism, various fine arts movements of the 20th century and also very heavily inspired by folk art and sacred art. I still think that the greatest graphic artwork of all the time is the cave paintings in Lascaux. Everyone in our line of work, the visual artists, the painters, the artists are still striving to meet that standard of excellence that… whoever the guy was who put his hand on the wall, that guy was really good!

D&D: Tell us about your creative process and drawing techniques.

RB: I don’t think I can say too much about it; this is always a difficult question for an artist because we just sit down and do what we do. I work at home. I’m not the type to sketch at cafes or anything. I like to be uninterrupted, undistracted. The root of my work is very much automatic drawing, to simply sit down and see where the pencil goes. It will dictate a form or a composition or an idea to me, and then I come in with the other materials, with the inks to really refine it, make it stronger and tight.

D&D: As you mentioned earlier you are a part of En Masse. How did you first get involved and what kind of a role do you play in the collective? 

RB: En Masse began in 2009 as a onetime installation at the Galerie Pangée in Old Montreal. However, it was so successful in terms of the public reaction and also in terms of the enthusiasm among the participating artists that it was elected to continue doing En Masse elsewhere and expand the idea. I came to Jason Botkin, who is one of the founders along with Tim Barnard. I said that given my experience I would love very much to be involved on any level. Jason was happy to bring me on as a contributing artist on many of the installations we do, but also [at an administrative capacity] behind the scenes; organisation, getting events, and so on and so forth. So that was how I became involved.

[En Masse] is a question of creating environments, moments and events that facilitate spontaneous, collaborative visual arts creation. En Masse is always in black and white. The reason for this is that it creates a certain harmony among the artists. If we were to incorporate colors, it would simply be too complex, too chaotic, too much of a collision of things. When everyone is obligated to work in black and white there is a cohesion to the overall work that wouldn’t be achieved in color.

Most of the artists involved in En Masse — and this is very much part of our mandate — come from drawing-based practices and disciplines. The artists we have sought out and who have sought us out are artists who come from what you might call lowbrow or populist “low-art” styles as opposed to the fine arts, high art, or abstract painting. It’s very much artists who feel, on the one hand, far more comfortable with the commercial world of selling art as a commodity, but at the same time, they’re a lot less comfortable with the gallery environment, with high art institutions. Many of them simply feel there is not a place for them there. And so it’s an important that a part of the mandate of En Masse that we do create place for these artists in what you might call the more recognized, more respected elements of the art world.

D&D: Can you explain the process of En Masse? How do you plan the work, organize, and manage it?

RB: We do a wide variety of installations, from paintings to murals to three dimensional objects to prints, but the process is usually more or less the same. We make a callout to a team, whether it’s a general open call to our large list of artists (we work with around 200 artists now internationally), or a very specifically chosen team. The process is generally the same. Some of the artists might come in with little sketch for one element in the painting beforehand and they’ll start.

The surface is blank at the beginning, so I’ll do a little thing here, someone else will do a little thing over there. But for the most part it’s is pretty much improvised, there is no way to plan this out in advance, and we wouldn’t plan it out in advance. It wouldn’t have the same dynamic energy, the same enthusiasm and excitement in the artists if it didn’t have this really spontaneous, on the spot [atmosphere] of “let’s react, let’s communicate.” There’s a great deal of that going on between the artists — more and more — communicating, discussing, negotiating together, hammering out what the composition is going to be, what the elements will be, how they will react one to the other.

I like to call it a visual “polylogue,” as opposed to a dialogue. A monologue is one person, a dialogue is between two people. A “polylogue” would any number of people communicating in various directions. So it’s really about that process of communication, and what comes as part of that process is a real sense of bonding, an alliance among the artists. Not only are they negotiating the surface they are working on, they are also exchanging techniques, ideas, advice, contacts — really strengthening each other in the process — as well as encouragement: simply telling each other, “Keep at it,” “I really like what you’re doing,” [providing] positive criticism. So it’s a really healthy process for all the artists.

I often like the joke that even if we did this in an enclosed, or hermetically locked and sealed room, created the work and then covered it up before anybody other than the artists ourselves saw the work, it would still serve much of its purpose. At its core, it’s about what it allows to happen among the artists, not just the creation itself, but on an emotional, social and professional level.

D&D: How does the architecture or the context where you’re working influence the composition of the murals?

RB: If you had asked me this question two years ago, I would have said “Just put up a wall, we’ll put something on a wall.” But we have now broken past that. Now, more and more, we are going into three dimensions, either by building structures, totems, boxes, cubes, all kind of shapes to paint, or taking on more challenging indoor and outdoor environments, going up on the ceilings.

I would recommend you to take a look at the new work we have done at le Musée des Beaux Arts’ Zone educative. The architecture of the place is intentionally full of all kinds of planes. There is one piece that I established there, sort of creating a tube with openings out of which other artists could extend elements, and at the end there were eight artists in that corner. This tube touched on nine different planes, so that at no point are you able to see the whole thing. That was really exciting. [Ed’s note: Here’s a video of the Zone educative being painted.]

As we are now gradually getting more assured of ourselves, getting more interesting offers in terms of areas to work, there are more opportunities to really play with the architecture. Because we have to inspire ourselves on the spot, having an already dynamic surface creates sensibilities or ideas, that is, the very surface we’re painting becomes a much more dynamic trigger for what we’re doing. So as this project evolves, we look forward to being able to work with surfaces that are not single and flat, but rather much more dynamic and complex, even allowing the element of immersion.

The first work that we did where we went up on the ceiling — more than just the walls — was the Espace Go. The impact of that: We immediately got reactions from the people saying it’s overwhelming, it’s immersive, that “we can actually be enveloped by the imagery of En Masse.” We learned a lot from that. We got a lot of good ideas from that.

D&D MTL: What are your future personal projects (as well as those of the group)?

RB: Like everyone else in En Masse, in the directorship, among our elite cadre of artists, and even the newcomers, absolutely every one of us has our own practice, our own career, our own projects. And I certainly have several. For the last few years I’ve also been working on a project called Lost Myths. It’s a collaboration with a writer, and it’s basically graphic literature, comics, illustrated stories, printable puzzles and games. But it’s all related to what we call crypto-mythology. We’re presenting mythology that we have invented ourselves, but we’re presenting as though in research we have discovered these lost, hidden and suppressed myths. So it allows me lots of opportunities to draw gods and monsters, which is stuff I like drawing.

D&D MTL: Try describing the art of En Masse in three words.

RB: Jazz-with-Paint


Olivier Krieger est architecte, vit et travaille à Montréal depuis 8 ans, il est depuis toujours passionné de dessin qu”il pratique lui-même de manière exploratoire.  Want to interview someone for D&D MTL? Pitch us:


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