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Volume: The New Music Mag from Bloomberg Businessweek’s Alexander Shoukas and Devin Leonard

  As today’s music culture is often considered a “singles era,” Volume feels like an appropriate new entry into the mix of music magazines. Created by Bloomberg Businessweek employees Alexander Shoukas and Devin Leonard, Volume is a new music publication that focuses each issue on only one artist. The first issue, in fact, is one essay and one photograph, but the results […]

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Volume Issue 1, flat sheet front. Photo by Qiu Yang

 

As today’s music culture is often considered a “singles era,” Volume feels like an appropriate new entry into the mix of music magazines. Created by Bloomberg Businessweek employees Alexander Shoukas and Devin Leonard, Volume is a new music publication that focuses each issue on only one artist. The first issue, in fact, is one essay and one photograph, but the results are impactful. The simplicity of Volume recalls early music fanzines (but with much higher production value), and allows the content and design details of each piece to standout. Beyond Volume‘s particular one-subject format, the publication as an object brings something unique. Volume comes as an unfolded press sheet that gives the reader the option to fold the piece down into pages or leave it flat to act as a poster. If Volume is print’s response to a singles culture, then its format is an invitation to the reader to create his or her own remix.

In this interview, I chat with Volume designer Alexander Shoukas about the intention behind the publication, the process of putting together the first issue, and how its DIY format was the result of a happy accident.

Ben Schwartz: To begin, what led you and Devin to start Volume?

Alexander Shoukas: Devin and I have gotten to know each other at Bloomberg Businessweek, where we both currently work (him as a writer and myself as an art director). Not long after I started there in early 2015, I was working with him on features for the magazine. We eventually started talking about and sharing music with each other, and noticed we had a shared enthusiasm for that, as an action. Given his experience in covering musicians (including Taylor Swift, Mike Will, Jay Z/Tidal, and Wu-Tang’s one-of-a-kind record) we thought it could be fun to start a project together, covering artists in a context outside of Businessweek.

 

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Spread from Bloomberg Businessweek by Leonard and Shoukas

 

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Spread from Bloomberg Businessweek by Leonard and Shoukas

 

Schwartz: How do you see it operating differently from other music publications?

Shoukas: I think that would have to be in its form, which acts as the determining factor for a lot of things. The idea of it started as a single broadsheet from my end, under the guidance that it should be something manageable for us next to our work at the magazine, easy and not too expensive to print (this would not be true), and something that doesn’t feel taxing on the reader. There are swaths of new publications out there, and something about it being concise would serve its approachability, in my opinion. It wasn’t about making something comprehensive, but rather, more gestural. Also, it being a large sheet, I had to think of this idea of the music poster—something that was much more present when I was younger, but I’m not sure if this is so popular anymore. Do fans still get prints of their favorite artists for their wall? Either way, the form was clear early on: a large image on one side (poster) and text on the other (publication).

 

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Volume, Issue 1. Cover when folded as a publication

 

Schwartz: Any publication is a form of collaboration, and in this case you had previous experience collaborating with Devin at Bloomberg Businessweek. What is the collaborative process like for Volume?

Shoukas: The initial idea, editorially speaking, was that it would cover a number of artists at a time, and the process of piecing together a lineup was a way for us to set the tone and get to know each other’s background and references. It was fun, almost like putting together a playlist, finding the right mix.

Making time is always the key to a self-initiated project, and we adjusted our thinking as the project progressed. I think the best ideas come out of constraints, and when time wasn’t on our side because of work, the idea of having just one subject for each issue emerged. This made a lot of sense not only for our schedules but also in aligning the form: one sheet, one photo, and now, one subject. It would give it further distinction as a publication, and further that idea of it feeling like a gesture.

 

Volume, Issue 1. Flat sheet back

 

Schwartz: You also worked as designer at Fantastic Man. Did that influence what you’re doing with Volume?

Shoukas: I think it would be impossible to develop a magazine project without giving a great deal of consideration to my experiences there. Working with Jop van Bennekom taught me to see in a lot of ways—especially when it came to working with photographers and understanding the subtlety images can have. The idea of Volume boiling down to a single subject naturally made me think of Jop’s Re-Magazine and his genius in letting absolute editorial logic dictate form. That thought made me feel like we were on track with something.

 

Re-Magazine, Winter 2004–2005 by Jop van Bennekom

Re-Magazine, Winter 2004–2005 by Jop van Bennekom

 

Schwartz: What are you looking for when you choose artists to feature?

Shoukas: I don’t think we’ve set a rubric for this, but at this point I would say they are artists that Devin and I share enthusiasm for, who lie in the peripheries of (but not unrelated to) popular music.

 

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Volume, Issue 1. Spread when folded as a publication

 

Schwartz: I’d love to hear more about how you chose BEA1991 for the inaugural issue? How did you discover her, and what was it like working with her? I know that she is based in Amsterdam and you attended school at Gerrit Rietveld Academie. Was there any overlap there?

Shoukas: In a way, yes. I originally met Bea while living in Amsterdam, but it wasn’t until last year that I had familiarized myself with her work. After seeing the way she gives consideration, and actively involves herself in every part of what she does, it was immediately intriguing to Devin and I, both in the sense that we wanted to learn more about her through the story, and to see what the visual outcome could be for an image.

 

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Outtake photograph by Qiu Yang

 

Schwartz: As you mention in the article, BEA1991 has gained quite a bit of attention as a result of her videos. There is this very visual, very designed aspect about her that includes not only her videos but her fashion as well. Do you see that as being a point of emphasis for Volume, highlighting artists that are tuned into the more visual aspects of his or her work?

Shoukas: With our focus being on music, I think finding an artist as widely versed as BEA1991 would be a difficult standard to set for all of our subjects. I also think her total approach is specific to her work, and not necessarily something we would be looking for in every musician.
 

Schwartz: Beyond the subject matter, I’m curious as to what role you see artists playing in the creation and production of the publication.
 

Shoukas: Ideally, the image is an opportunity to bring more from the artist. It should be the counterweight to Devin’s story—and offer just as much insight. This worked out extremely well for the first issue. Knowing BEA1991 was based in Amsterdam, I immediately considered the possibility of pairing her with photographer Qiu Yang, who also happened to be a mutual friend. Part of this project is defining a photographic component, which in a way is being a matchmaker between subject and photographer. This was as far as my role went in creating the image, which was a conscious choice, knowing that what would return would be considered and carefully made.

 

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Photograph by Qiu Yang for Vogue US

 

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Photograph by Qiu Yang for Vogue US

 

Schwartz: Could you tell us a bit about the production process? Were there any particular ways that the content influenced the printing and finishing?

Shoukas: We had originally planned for this to be produced in newsprint, as the format was based on a standard broadsheet, but things quickly changed after seeing the results of Qiu and Bea’s work. Based on the color and the quality of the image, I realized the production would have to take on a different form in order to produce the best result. This is where my expectations of a quick and inexpensive print job would go flying out the window, but it was also where the project put me in one of my favorite working scenarios: conceiving new production specifications that are defined through their own logic, and advance my understanding of a particular process. Put simply, because of the composition Qiu had decided on, and the way he distributed color through his incredibly considered lighting configuration, it immediately evoked the idea of printing the image in a different color space, so that I may try and reproduce it most vibrantly. After much research, testing and failing, the image would be printed in three spot colors.

 

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Initial color separation test, simulated in Photoshop for Volume, Issue 1

 

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Color separation from Volume, Issue 1

 

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Color separation from Volume, Issue 1

 

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Color separation from Volume, Issue 1

 

Schwartz: At the release of issue 1, I was especially struck by the DIY fabrication of the publication. I liked the fact that you could roll it up as a poster or fold it down as a reader. This sort of DIY ethos has played a large role in various music genres and subcultures. Was there any specific inspiration for choosing this format?

Shoukas: It’s funny you say this because, though it may have appeared to be the idea, it was the byproduct of an intense run-up to the event, wherein we had to reprint the paper just two days before going to Los Angeles. My first attempt at printing the image went horribly wrong (my fault), and the only way I could convince the printer to do the job again in time was if I requested the sheets unfolded. While it made sense in the end to give people that choice—ultimately giving equal presence to both the image and the text—that’s not at all how it was planned. I’m happy we kept them flat!

 

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At the Volume launch party, the publication was presented flat, as a poster.

 

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Schwartz: I also see a relationship to Volume being a single-subject publication and music fanzines. Is that a culture you were ever into? Would you consider Volume a sort of highly produced fanzine?

Shoukas: I’ve never been directly involved with zine culture—though close enough, you could say, having worked on smaller independently published book projects—but I could see how Volume would fit into that universe, it being so concise. I like that stipulation of “highly produced,” though. I think subconsciously, that would be my approach to zine making.

Schwartz: At the Walker we’ve been talking a lot about Businessweek’s strength in generating cover graphics that both get to the heart of the story attached and evolve into an online poster of sorts. I’m wondering what have you learned from Businessweek that you have carried over into Volume?

Shoukas: Working at Businessweek is like accelerated experience in communication design. Working so quickly, and constantly, directly with others on a weekly publication has been this intense exercise in editorial understanding and effort. I think we both have the ability to quickly discern whether something is working—Devin especially, since he is more experienced. While Volume is a departure in style and purpose, I think the idea of producing it came a lot easier because we’re used to handling a lot more on a regular basis.

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Spread from Bloomberg Businessweek by Leonard and Shoukas

 

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Spread from Bloomberg Businessweek by Leonard and Shoukas

 

Schwartz: To finish things off, what’s next for Volume?

Shoukas: That initial work we did in putting together a lineup appears to have set up something of a roadmap for future issues. I’d say we have plans for at least the next two or three, just based on that. What I find crazy though, is the rate at which music comes in and out of focus now, both albums and artists. At this point, every week presents a new batch of people and their work—most streaming services frame something for their users literally every week—so I’m interested in thinking about how Volume could react, counter, or anticipate this expectation of rapid content.

Post-Identity Design: Brands, Politics, and Technological Instability

Federico Pérez Villoro is a New York–based artist and designer interested in the influence of networked technologies on human behavior, economics, and politics. He is currently teaching at Rhode Island School of Design and doing work on the relationship between language and identity. Christopher Hamamoto is a designer. He is an assistant professor at California […]

Federico Pérez Villoro is a New York–based artist and designer interested in the influence of networked technologies on human behavior, economics, and politics. He is currently teaching at Rhode Island School of Design and doing work on the relationship between language and identity.

Christopher Hamamoto is a designer. He is an assistant professor at California College of the Arts, is working on design tools at Figma, and maintains an independent graphic design practice. He is interested in how automation and algorithms effect social relationships and aesthetics.

The pair wrote the following essay as research for “Debranding and Post-Identity Design,” an MFA studio course they designed and taught together at California College of the Arts in Fall 2016.


In September 2015 Google redesigned its visual identity. As part of the new system Google’s engineers created an automatic process that could generate thousands of different vector-based iterations of the logo. This action was taken to satisfy potential viewing scenarios based on, for instance, screen size, or the background against which the logo is displayed. Within these variations they made a tiny version that only comprises 305 bytes of data. The older logo was formally more complex and its smallest version was approximately 14,000 bytes; this relatively larger file size prompted the adoption of a text-based variation as a workaround for weak Internet connections, a compromise that allowed room for inconsistencies if the proper fonts weren’t available on the user’s end.1

 

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The former Google logo rendered in an incorrect serif typeface due to a hypothetical low-bandwidth connection as illustrated in the new identity announcement.

 

The relative simplicity of the new logo, then, was about more than just the formal, aesthetic qualities of the mark. A major part of it was about the desire for pixel-perfect efficiency and cross-platform accessibility—the need to accommodate the thousands of possible scenarios triggered by computers accessing the logo. As users embrace diverse communication devices, visual consistency has become very difficult for brands to maintain. Google’s new 305-byte logo instigated discussions online and motivated skeptical compression specialists and aficionados to research different ways to generate the graphic while maintaining its extremely small size. The process of re-creating the logo outlined on blogs—explaining its elemental geometry, with its few circles and lines—is an interesting narrative. One wonders how small another logo with more anchor points could get. And how this logic of design for mass dissemination driven by data constraints could transfer to other brands, and to our broader contemporary visual culture.

In the new identity announcement, Google articulated the need to have such a small logo for “broader distribution,” explaining that “consistency has a tremendous impact when you consider our goal of making Google more accessible and useful to users around the world, including the next billion.”2 By “the next billion” they meant Southeast Asia, where Google recently established an engineering team to help improve online connectivity in the region. Internet access is certainly beneficial, but we cannot forget that Google is a business that grows as the Internet expands. Furthermore, we need to analyze these actions beyond the corporate sphere and within a political perspective, since developments in technology are blurring distinctions between private and public entities and driving complex shifts in notions of agency and power.

This essay is an effort to investigate the changing landscape where visual identity operates. It explores an alternative perspective, within and beyond graphic design, to the capital-oriented purposes of branding and the absolutist logic of design itself. Not only does identity design remain bound to old ideologies that have become obsolete in our technologically evolving world, but it also reinforces the economic hegemonies that have led to the political instabilities we see today. Information platforms are altering traditional forms of governance, as state and non-state powers embrace surveillance, digital propaganda, and globally distributed data networks as their own brand strategies. Yet there is room for optimism that these technologies might also enable pluralistic information systems and decentralized forms of power.

 

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Mark Zuckerberg gives Pope Francis a model of a solar-powered drone that Facebook hopes will enhance the Internet in developing countries.

 

The principles of much twentieth-century modern art and design involved the development of a universal visual language. Through notions such as simplification, abstraction, consistency, and differentiation, artists and designers aimed to communicate through form-making regardless of the connection between signs and their contexts. After World War II, many artistic movements aimed to develop a sort of graphic grammar charged with inherent meaning. Looking for clarity and objectivity in visuals, these approaches sought to contribute to postwar order and to improve international relationships. The transition to a neoliberal society, however, brought new complexity to industries, and accelerated technology in remarkable ways. With the rise of the Internet and desktop computing, design tools became ubiquitous, opening up the study of the contextual and relational dimensions of the discipline. As Andrew Blauvelt writes, design today “explores its effects on users, its pragmatic and programmatic constraints, its rhetorical impact, and its ability to facilitate social interactions.”3

 

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Ruin of Buckminster Fuller’s Union Tank Car Dome.

 

Within the last decade, identity design shifted focus from enclosed systems to systems that react to external parameters. Dynamic identities have become not only a stylistic expectation, but also a technical necessity. Yet while much contemporary design does include performative, programmatic, and participatory elements, current forms of social organization—whether institutions, corporations, or nations—are more interdependent, unpredictable, and indeterminate than ever. And contemporary visual systems are proving incapable of communicating such levels of intricacy, persisting in their unrealistic usage of restricted sets of visual forms. We tend to think about new approaches in design as expansions of the field, but we could also understand them as recalibrations following a loss of control over the continuum from form, to content, to context.

We mainly engage with services and products through third-party vocabularies, in tweets and hyperlinks. Uber is Lyft and a Toyota Prius; MoMA’s mark is textable; McDonald’s is filled with Pokemon. Corporations are nesting within one another. Platforms like Apple News or AMP aggregate information from diverse sources yet distill their graphics to present feeds within their own template logics. This presents a whole new set of relationships toward information and among companies, as platforms subsume and dictate other brands’ signifiers. Furthermore, technology companies become parasitical—able to embed themselves within other entities’ visual systems. Using the New York Times website as an example, Facebook and Twitter are featured more prominently and with more repetition than the New York Times itself.

 

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Tips requested at an Uber and Lyft car in the Bay Area.

 

Technology is increasingly dictating how we interact with companies. Yet current platforms of communication are highly unstable environments, and designs easily become obsolete as platforms mutate or disappear. Contemporary visual culture is subject to unpredictable variables, ranging from screen resolution to color calibration, browser settings, software updates, file formats, programming languages, distortions caused by malware, and malfunctions and misuses in computing. The haze manifests itself in (and is determined by) the peculiar and the global, from the struggle of customizing an email signature or the typesetting limitations of iOS, to cultural idiosyncrasies and technological accessibility across entire countries.

In “The Weak Universalism” (2010), Boris Groys questions whether it is possible to make artistic atemporal work in the context of rapid technological progress. He explains that the historical avant-garde operated by producing “weak images” with low visibility in order to transcend time and space. As opposed to rich images, which are filled with empirical meaning, weak images represent the knowledge that the world is in a permanently transitory state. Groys argues that the status quo of our time is change, and that since the goal of art is to counter the status quo, art should escape change.4 Yet the act of challenging the status quo as an artistic action has itself become predictable. Therefore, paradoxically, to challenge the status quo could also be not to do so: not to escape change, but to embrace it.

The reductive nature of branding is in part rooted in the limitations of older reproduction technologies. Yet current communication platforms are becoming more flexible. Screens and interfaces are multidimensional as layers, windows, and storing features that allow users to travel data sets over time. Identity design systems can incorporate such plasticity and manifest multiple formal, conceptual, and contextual expressions simultaneously. Design has the potential to reflect the complexity of the world, instead of filtering it through distillation strategies. While doing so designers can embrace weakness, not necessarily as reductive formal gestures but by using signs whose meaning is in constant flux. Images can be visually simple or complex, but weak in the cultural and historical associations they carry. Rather than atemporality, weakness within design can aim for immediacy and impermanence.

 

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McDonald’s blue arches in Sedona, Arizona.

 

Identity design principles were founded on the notion of a universal language, but within a neoliberal framework, inequality becomes normative. If the goal of modern design was to communicate across boundaries, corporate design is by nature exclusionary. Brands now are the visual articulation of intellectual property as a form of currency. Given the networked conditions of economies of scale, the origins of products have blurred, and copies have multiplied. As objects and services increase in similarity, the more valuable it is to be perceived as unique. Thus the need for companies to develop and manage identifiers that distinguish them from competitors. The value of commodities lies not on their tangible dimension and potential to satisfy actual needs, but in the signifiers that make them desirable to consumers.

Branding is one of the most profitable service in visual communication. For many small design practices it is a crucial form of solvency. With entrepreneurism increasingly tending toward immaterial labor and attention economies, design becomes key in strengthening figurative value. Visual identities are rarely accurate images of entities, but rather manipulations of how these entities want to be perceived by their presumed markets. Identity design is not a practice of representation, but of speculation—it is not about visualizing manifested identities but about codifying subjective predictions, and aspirations, in graphic form.

 

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Apple Store replica in Shenzhen, China.

 

Design is a powerful tool for analysis, but the perceived identity of an organization doesn’t emerge from mood boards, brainstorming sessions, or type explorations. The meaning of logos and cultural signs comes a posteriori—after actual exposure to the world. It is only through interaction that people develop affection toward organizations. And new graphics will only hold meaning in relation to other, existing ones. Paradoxically, in the desire to be unique, the only strategy to express identity seems to be by association: by deliberately differentiating the organization from those it wants to be different from and imitating those it wants to be like.

The value of brands is such that many companies keep tight control over their trademarks, copyrights, and patents even as they outsource production and distribution. However, the speed of the networked ecosystem of manufacturing seems to be outpacing traditional patenting processes. Take for instance hoverboards, where a dispute over the product’s intellectual property allowed small companies around the world to quickly work with white-label manufacturers in China to import and sell almost-identical products under their own names. The off-brand vehicle embodies the dissolution of identity design. Opposite to the genericized trademark effect of products such as Aspirin or Kleenex, the “hoverboard” descriptive name-in-use emerges from memetic patterns rather than strategic pursuits. As consumers disconnect from particular brands, a video of Justin Bieber riding a knockoff hoverboard goes viral.

 

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Justin Bieber riding a hoverboard at the Power 106 Studios in Burbank, California.

 

The premature nature of design that we have been describing imposes limited reads over multiple possible brand manifestations and forgets the evolution of organizations and their contexts. We need to think about identity in terms of flexibility and avoid preconditioning entities to fixed visual attributes. Identity design requires approaches that go beyond the logic of corporate legitimization, and that are able to recognize and cast nuanced experiences in relation to the organization they represent. In doing so, designers can more actively address their involvement within capitalism and, if interested in claiming spaces for change, engage in reshaping such relationships.

Design can operate from a position of uncertainty, and projects can act as indeterminate propositions rather than affirmative statements. Uncertainty can be used to generate critical work, and an ongoing sense of doubt that constantly questions the project’s outcomes. Embracing uncertainty might be not only an ethical decision, but a necessary one. As we continue to incorporate technologies into our knowledge production systems, new forms of cognition are being introduced to our conceptual landscape. Complex algorithms and pattern recognition are challenging our capacity for abstraction. We need to reevaluate our capacity for knowing, understanding, representing, and communicating.

Traditionally, branding metaphors have related to human qualities, a common practice being to identify the core personality traits, values, and overall “voice” of a company. In the recent past, this tendency has become simultaneously validated and challenged prominently in three scenarios: the capitalization of individuals’ identities by business and advertising, the dehumanization of economic models through the adoption of computer systems, and political actions that grant corporations human rights.

The free flow of capital in the second half of the twentieth century reshaped conceptions of personal identity. We saw a shift away from long-standing cultural identifiers, which emphasized family, community, and nationalism, toward transactional ones, which privilege social, cultural, and monetary capital. The dynamics of the modern economy permeate our day-to-day lives. As global goods and services become private, people are rendered as market actors. And it can be argued that people measure one another with economic principles in mind—evaluating the potential value of relationships based on forms of capital. Wealth is not determined by productive and tangible assets, but by hypothetical financial value. In this scenario, individuals are literally “worth” money based on speculative qualities. All our activities, even those seemingly unrelated to profit seeking, are seen as investments and opportunities to catalyze social capital. Picture taking has become PR. Exercise routines have become SoulCycle. As Wendy Brown writes: “Whether through social media ‘followers,’ ‘likes,’ and ‘retweets,’ or through rankings and ratings for every activity and domain, or through more directly monetized practices, the pursuit of education, training, leisure, reproduction, consumption, and more are increasingly configured as strategic decisions and practices related to enhancing the self’s future value.”5

 

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The South Korean app Snow, allegedly a replica of Snapchat, has a camera filter that makes users look like Steve Jobs.

 

In the financial sector, the adoption of computer-driven trading systems created new modes of economic exchange. Computer trading that uses algorithmic processes for stock exchanges and other commodities has now surpassed the human capacity for such actions. Internet connectivity and the rapidity at which data transfers can be completed has become the competitive edge in finance. Our planet’s topography has been reconfigured in order to lay fiber optic cable along the most efficient routes. An example of this is the 580-mile trench dug between Chicago and New York to speed up stock trading across the country. And while large swaths of land get appropriated for data hubs, the ocean and the sky become the next frontiers for cloud storage. These infrastructures are constructed in ways that are isolating to humans but beneficial to machines, for instance eschewing windows to reduce server cooling costs, or reducing the height of floors to fit the maximum number of servers within a building. As humans become economized and the economy dehumanized, branding practices insist on applying human traits to commercial actors that are fundamentally nonhuman… while it may not be seen by many humans, Google color-codes its data centers hardware with their brand colors.

Our capacity to articulate social norms cannot keep up with the speed of advancement within computing. In our contemporary era, policy making is more damage control than planned progress. Within American politics, the passage of the controversial Citizens United bill in 2008 confirmed the legal status of corporations as people, granting them certain rights that had previously been regarded as the exclusive province of human beings. Most significant was the establishment of spending as a form of speech. This has resulted in a stilted political landscape where super PACs can raise unlimited amounts of money on a campaign’s behalf, extending and deepening the influence of money in politics. And Citizens United is just one instance in a several-decades-long trend involving impactful expressions of corporate power within citizenship. President Bill Clinton’s “welfare to work” initiatives (ending welfare as an entitlement) and the increasing reliance on free-market agents that followed has entrenched financial systems as powerful actors in worldwide politics. This has caused a backlash against government workers and pensions, and resulted in the deregulation of social systems in favor of free-market solutions. An emboldened financial sector and accelerated technological reliance culminated in the 2008 financial collapse—the result of unfettered confidence in trading algorithms and little government oversight—after which the federal government “bailed out” the banking system by paying off its debts. The computer-economic machine has become too big to fail.

 

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Stanford University and Virginia Tech autonomous vehicles together at an intersection in the DARPA Urban Challenge—a prize funded by the United States Department of Defense.

 

As the tactics of branding are widely embraced for corporations, and increasingly individuals as well, even countries have begun to define their identities in marketable terms. Nation branding has become a fertile field for design and advertising agencies around the world. It is common to see symposiums on the topic, and industry experts such as FutureBrand rank the “world’s leading country brands.” The manipulation of reality through persuasion has become a celebrated state practice. For instance, South Korea’s brand was developed by the Presidential Council on Nation Branding Korea, a governmental authority established by an executive order by Park Geun-hye, the now-impeached president. A study developed in 2012 by the council and Samsung ranked the country above the OECD average.6 The report backed its findings with parameters that included numbers of clicks and likes online: it went as far as mentioning Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video as being the world’s most watched on YouTube. Such a simplistic representation of South Korea’s complex social systems raises questions of credibility and enforces cultural stereotypes. In some ways it is not far from North Korea’s poorly Photoshopped propaganda images that circulate online.

Building credibility as a country involves not only soft-power strategies, but also developing strong relationships with other nations and corporations. Networks equal power. As Metahaven asserts: “Networks become social structures that tie parts of the world together, independent of sovereign borders and even independent of ‘international relations.’ While indeed, sovereign coercion may have become a thing of the past in this new situation, there may be structural coercion involved through the standards which networks adopt.”7

The rise of cloud computing demonstrates the complexity of power dynamics within a networked society. The formulation of a metaphoric space that is accessible worldwide as a distributed network of devices has reshaped our geopolitical landscape. As the Internet extends lawful jurisdiction through computer servers and data centers, the power of nation-states has transcended areas defined by physical territory to areas defined by the potential reach of a nation’s messages. Distributed online networks surpass geographic boundaries and local regulations, increasing the influence of postcolonial powers. In this context, technology companies are assuming new political roles as they dictate social and diplomatic norms within such infrastructures. The complexity of these overlapping forms of power has led theorists such as Benjamin Bratton to suggest a reformulation of our understanding of political geography itself—one where computational technologies are forming a sovereign “megastructure” that finds itself superimposed onto territorial state governance.8 These frictions present political spaces within the order of data and mathematics—algorithmic topologies. “A new collective geography opens for colonization,” writes Matteo Pasquinelli.9

This condition has raised the involvement of non-state actors in resolving questions of statehood and public policy. As capital becomes political power, corporate interests “facilitate the increasing power of large corporations to fashion law and policy for their own ends, not simply crowding out, but overtly demoting the public interest.”10 While this may take the form of lobbying for tax breaks or the allocation of public resources for private use, there are other, indirect effects and complex quandaries. Two recent paradigmatic examples would certainly include the Costa Rica–Nicaragua San Juan River border dispute, which arose due to maps displayed on Google Earth, and the 2016 terror attack in San Bernardino and ensuing legal fight between the US government and Apple to unlock the shooter’s phone in order to access his personal data. With these examples in mind, it is evident that we are experiencing shifts in power away from nation-states and toward private interests.

 

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A Pokemon Go “Gym” was claimed inside the Pentagon a couple of days after the game was released in the United States.

 

As we become citizens of Facebook, Google, and Apple, corporate actors become politicians. Political leadership is being reframed as business leadership. Thailand’s former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, was fond of calling himself “CEO of Thailand Inc.” and made billions selling his shares of Shin Corp, his family media company, while in office. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi—one of the wealthiest businessmen in the country—has served four times as prime minister and consistently appears in Forbes’s list of the World’s Most Powerful People. During his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s press conferences blurred the line between informational and infomercial as they prominently featured Trump Steaks and his other consumer products. Now that he is in office the conflation between private and public in the White House is at a new high. Consider for instance Melania Trump’s $150 million lawsuit against the Daily Mail for tainting her brand and tarnishing her “once-in-a-lifetime” business opportunities as First Lady, or Ivanka Trump’s feud with Nordstrom, which prompted Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, to break the Office of Government Ethics law and endorse Ivanka’s products in an interview on Fox News. Perhaps as a sign of things to come, Mark Zuckerberg is currently on a tour of the United States followed by a camera crew and “status” updates that meditate on the nature of America.

Part and parcel of the shift toward private corporate actors operating in the public sphere is the adoption of branding techniques by politicians. Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign’s design and outreach strategy was voted Marketer of the Year by Advertising Age magazine. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign hired Michael Beirut at Pentagram to design its brand identity: a dynamic “H” that aimed to be visually adaptable but failed to connect with voters. Popular responses to political branding are just like those to commercial rebrandings; for instance Donald Trump and Mike Pence’s logo was walked back after a negative online reaction. Political parties have made media manipulation a top priority; White House policy is now being disseminated through Twitter posts rather than press briefings, Steve Bannon of Breitbart News Network is Donald Trump’s chief strategist and sits on the National Security Council, and Trump has labeled the mainstream media his top opponent and purveyors of “fake news.” These marketing tactics take on new meaning as misinformation becomes propaganda, influenced by technological platforms that, through bot armies and curation algorithms, present skewed visions of news and history.

 

11

The Pirate Bay adopted a new logo, which incorporates its various domain extensions, after the seizure of their .se url.

 

As postcolonial powers embrace networks of surveillance and global jurisdiction based on server locations, distributed organizations arise in protest. From liberal activists to radical extremists, anti-establishment groups expand their reach and express their nuanced sense of identity through the same network structures. Anonymous is predicated on anonymity. The Occupy Movement was explicitly nonhierarchical. ISIS defines itself as borderless. Low visibility allows these entities to act with agility. Though they are branded operations, their identities are collectively built. It is the network in operation that defines them, instead of a pre-formulated visual system constraining the operation. The Swedish anti-copyright organization Pirate Bay has a logo embedded within a logo within another logo. When the Swedish government seized their .se domain, they relaunched a series of new domains and updated their image to include a Hydra, which in Greek mythology stands for immortality and exponential growth: for each head you cut, it grows two more. The identity system formulates itself as it comes to action. In part this is possible due to their use of generic, non-original identifiers as supposed to custom-tailored signs. During the Euromaidan demonstrations in the Ukraine, protesters adopted matching clothing and improvised helmets not only for physical protection but as identifiers of the revolution. More recently during the women’s marches after Trump’s inauguration the Pussy Power Hat demonstrated the powerful effects of what Michael Rock calls “open-source branding.”

 

12b

Ukrainian Revolution helmets

 

While these groups derive their structures and strategies from the network structure, their relationships with specific technologies further complicate matters. For a time ISIS fighters used Doseai, a Turkish file transfer service, to transmit encrypted messages because of its perceived freedom from Western government regulations (it turned out that Doseai was actually a French company). More recently, as Dropbox has incorporated end-to-end encryption, it has been adopted by the group. The promise of anonymity with cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and browsers like the heavily encrypted Tor led to new online marketplaces such as Silk Road. While meant to be a platform for non-destructive commercial exchanges that are outside of the law, Silk Road was shuttered when its founder was apprehended for contracting murders on his staff and vendors via that platform. These examples highlight how companies that promise anonymity and end-to-end encryption often sit in precarious positions as both defenders of free speech and enablers of destructive acts, calling into question the utopian ideal of technology as unbiased.

The current capitalist hegemony is leading toward increased precarity and geopolitical chaos. If design can contribute to the construction of a different reality, it must first question its own mechanisms that sustain the neoliberal agenda, legitimize traditional brands’ power, and enable the flow of misinformation. Design can be calibrated toward a systematic redistribution of power and wealth, while remaining at ease with globality and technology. As suggested by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, the gains of late capitalism are not to be fully dismissed but repurposed beyond their capital constraints, value systems, and power logics.11

 

13b

The Nike swoosh with a Shutterstock watermark preventing from copyright infringement.

 

Design can mobilize its forces toward a reduction in subjective creativity and private authorship and favor the development of systems toward cultural commons. In the future, identity systems might no longer consist of fixed design components, but of the programmatic interpretation of interrelated, ever-changing experiences. In this process we suggest considering “complexity” as a condition of status, “uncertainty” as an ethical stance, “weakness” as a degree of load and impact, “impermanence” as a time-based factor, and “automation” as a generative process.

We need to design software and interfaces that can process information and visualize difference in nonlinear ways, and networked spaces where points of view are permanently being exchanged—where meaning is built through interaction and direct experience rather than by the construction of figurative value and speculative attributes. This could lead to degrees of stylistic standardization but also to the enhancement of collectively controlled technologies able to modulate and extrapolate diverse perspectives. Communication platforms are the power infrastructures of today: they both dictate the behaviors of society and enable spaces for change. As Bratton suggests, platforms “centralize (like states), scaffolding the terms of participation according to rigid but universal protocols, even as they decentralize (like markets), coordinating economies not through the superimposition of fixed plans but through interoperable and emergent interaction.”12

 


 

Notes

1 https://design.google.com/articles/evolving-the-google-identity/.
2 Ibid.
3 Andrew Blauvelt, “Towards Relational Design,” Design Observer, November 3, 2008, http://designobserver.com/feature/towards-relational-design/7557/.
4 Boris Groys, “The Weak Universalism,” e-flux, no. 15 (April 2010): http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-weak-universalism/.
5 Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 38.
6 OECD stands for Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
7 Metahaven, “Brand States: Postmodern Power, Democratic Pluralism, and Design,” e-flux, no. 1 (December 2008): http://www.e-flux.com/journal/brand-states-postmodern-power-democratic-pluralism-and-design/.
8 Benjamin H. Bratton, “The Black Stack,” e-flux, no. 53 (March 2014): http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-black-stack/.
9 Matteo Pasquinelli, “The Spike: On the Growth and Form of Pattern Police,” in Nervous Systems, ed. Stephanie Hankey, Marek Tuszynski and Anselm Franke (Berlin: HKW/Spector books, 2016), 250.
10 Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos, 42–43.
11 Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World without Work (New York: Verso, 2015).
12 Benjamin H. Bratton, “The Black Stack.”

No hints just clues—Footnotes: a periodical bulletin of applied research in type design

As a Design Fellow here at the Walker Art Center in 2008, curiously browsing through the stacks of archived journals on art and design in the Walker’s library, I found a group of old journals and magazines on typography. There, I came across Typographica and eventually gravitated toward a feature written by Alan Bartram in […]

As a Design Fellow here at the Walker Art Center in 2008, curiously browsing through the stacks of archived journals on art and design in the Walker’s library, I found a group of old journals and magazines on typography. There, I came across Typographica and eventually gravitated toward a feature written by Alan Bartram in Typographica 6 (1962), titled “Typewriter type faces.” Bartram’s writing was accompanied by an extensive index of typewriter typeface specimens. These specimens not only showcased the quantity of typefaces that were produced by the likes of IBM and Olivetti, but also, to my intrigue, the range of stylistic offerings made available to typewriter users during the prime of typewriters. Condensed typefaces, stylized italic typefaces, sleek sans serif typefaces, proportionally spaced (non-monospace) typefaces, “Pin-Point” typefaces, blackletter typefaces, script typefaces that mimic cursive handwriting, and many more.

I loved that moment of true discovery—of learning that the available range of typewriter typefaces was not as limited as I would’ve previously guessed. Rather, as Bartram’s feature illustrated, I found that the typewriter market back in the day was full of nuanced, specially-designed typefaces.

I ended up sharing my discovery that spring on The Gradient as a part of a blog post titled Typewriter Typefaces.

Fast-forwarding eight years, to this past fall, I received a note from Geneva-based designer Mathieu Christe. Mathieu had written to tell me that he and La Police had just recently published a new type design periodical titled Footnotes. Not only that, but this debut issue of Footnotes included a very faithful reprinting of Bartram’s “Typewriter type faces” feature. Considering that my post from 2008 hadn’t crossed my mind in quite some time, you can imagine how thrilled I was to receive Mathieu’s note.

Using our shared interest in “Typewriter type faces” as a jumping-off point, Mathieu and I, among other topics, had a conversation about precision, his collaborations, looking back on the history of Swiss type design, inventing a portmanteau, the study of typewriter typefaces in criminal investigations, affordable means of publishing, and what to expect in the forthcoming issue of Footnotes.

 

Footnotes issue A

View of cover of Footnotes issue A

 

Ryan Gerald Nelson (RGN)
Hi Mathieu! So tell me about your first encounter with Alan Bartram’s “Typewriter type faces” feature in Typographica 6.

Mathieu Christe (MC)
Having just finished my studies at the TypeMedia Masters course in 2008, I was enjoying some time off in Holland before relocating to Switzerland. After just one, although very intensive, year of drawing, I felt that I needed to practise a lot more. So, I set myself to work on two revival projects: a Didot and a typewriter (a round one from the firm Olympia). Redrawing a forgotten typeface is a way to remember the past and learn from it. I always research about the type and the period—an essential part of the process for my motivation too.

Honestly, I can’t remember if I read your blog post beforehand, but I ended up visiting the Special Collections at the Library of the Universiteit van Amsterdam to read Alan Bartam’s article. I remember the very tactile cover made of Braille dots.

 

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View of opening spread of “Typewriter type faces,” Footnotes issue A

 

RGN
So you were eventually in correspondence with Bartram, correct?

MC
My reaction to this discovery was the same as yours, fascinated by the rich spectrum of styles. As I wanted to know more, I decided to get in touch with Alan Bartram in 2013. He replied that he couldn’t add much to this 47-year old article and that I was free to reproduce it.

Sadly, he passed away before issue A was released. I sent a copy to his brother though.

 

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View of type specimens in “Typewriter type faces,” Footnotes issue A

 

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View of type specimens in “Typewriter type faces,” Footnotes issue A

 

RGN
I see that you had a crew of collaborators. I imagine that they helped you to bring this reprinting back to life? It was really encouraging to read that you and your collaborators had taken such care with regards to the research, reproductions, and to all of the details. Was it difficult to find individuals to collaborate with and who shared in your interest in faithfully reprinting “Typewriter type faces”?

MC
If you’re referring to the list of names under the “acknowledgments,” most of these people helped me contact Bartram. At some point along the chain of contacts, my message was forwarded to him and I received this bit of info: “Please note that he [Bartram] does not use email so any correspondence will be by letter or telephone.”

As I was researching typewriter typefaces, I visited many blogs (from the Typosphere, an online community) and forums, sometimes posting questions or requests (under my name). This led Nicolien van der Keur to contact me in 2012. She is a PhD student in The Netherlands, doing a thesis (under Gerard Unger’s guidance) on the topic of the development of typefaces for typewriter. We’ve been in touch ever since, exchanging documents, and helping each other. She scanned the whole of Bartram’s article in hi-res, using Gerard Unger’s personal copy.

Regarding the quality of reproduction, my lithographer and colleague, Nicolas Robel, took care in preparing all samples for a reprint, which proved to be a surprisingly daunting task. Initially, I thought we could simply tune every page, but close inspection revealed that every sample (about 200 altogether) needed individual care.

 

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View of type specimens in “Typewriter type faces,” Footnotes issue A

 

RGN
Speaking of details—I really respect that all of the details in Footnotes are so consistently and cohesively executed: from the typesetting, to the image captioning (i.e., stating the scale percentage at which type specimen images are being reproduced), to the index, to the writing itself. Seen together, it all demonstrates a true commitment to the content that is seemingly difficult to find in other periodicals today. Do you see this approach to detail as a signature editorial and design style? Or is that the nature and precision of typography-related content simply demands an approach centered around detail?

MC
Thanks for noticing and I hope it’s not too overwhelming for some readers. My attention to these details is a personal trait but also a reaction to hollow and careless editorial content. I can see this precision as a signature too. As with typefaces (La Police will also publish fonts), details are key but shouldn’t overshadow the whole “picture.”

 

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Spread view of Footnotes issue A

 

RGN
For the other feature articles in this issue, you’ve collaborated with a number of writers and designers, including Atelier Carvalho Bernau and Louise Paradis (known for her work on the Typographische Monatsblätter Research Archive). Were these features commissioned/written specifically for Footnotes? And as an independent publisher/designer/editor, how did the process of working with these writers and designers unfold?

MC
Yes. Both of their contributions are part of the series “One-off.” The idea is to present a type project developed for a certain, sometimes unique, context. I’m expecting contributions from graphic designers—not only pure type designers—curious to learn from their practise of typography and type design.

Although these final pieces read smoothly, I initially sent questions to the designers with a note saying that they have to answer knowing that I would remove the questions in the end. It’s a rather common practise for documentaries and, in the printed medium, an efficient way to save space. Each issue will include one or two essays from that series.

 

RGN
The feature on Haas Typefoundry Ltd. presents a fairly extensive and detailed history of Haas, its origins, and operations. Seemingly, it’s rare to ever read about a type foundry in this capacity, if at all. But as Haas has a 400-year history (which is, assumedly, relatively well-documented), I imagine it’s easier to pull together content on this subject matter. Did you have a particular vision or direction in mind for how to shape this content in relation to a contemporary periodical on type design?

MC
You’re right, Haas’ adventure is fairly well-documented. The most comprehensive document «Schweizer Stempelschneider und Schriftgiesser» (Albert Bruckner, 1943) was our starting reference. Nevertheless, to bridge the gap between 1943 and today, we needed an update.

Considering that La Police will also publish typefaces and, as a Swiss digital typefoundry, I felt it was important to look back on the history of Swiss type design with a historical essay. In the end, I think it contrasts nicely with the other articles. Initially I tried to commission a history of type foundries in Switzerland but soon realised that it’s a potentially boundless task and decided to focus on a more key contributor instead. The former and last director of Haas, Alfred Hoffmann, welcomed Brigitte Schuster (the writer) with much enthusiasm and generosity, which convinced us to go this way. This text will be followed in issue B by a shorter text from a digital foundry in order to make the technological transition to today and the future.

 

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View of opening spread of feature on Haas Typefoundry, Footnotes issue A

 

RGN
You use a term throughout Footnotes in each of the acknowledgments texts: “iconotrack”. I can’t say I’ve ever seen that term before and have been curious about it’s origin and meaning. Is it used in connection with your use of the word “iconography”?

MC
Iconography is treated with great care, not only in terms of reproduction quality but also with regards to image and reproduction rights. Making sure that you’re granted permission (sometimes by paying fees), involves contacting many people. To credit them, I’ve invented this portmanteau made up of “iconography” and “tracking.”

 

RGN
On the back cover, you published a portion of a ransom note that describes a set of very specific and peculiar instructions that the murderous duo Leopold and Loeb had typewritten in 1924. Reading this made me super curious, and I ended up digging into some reading on Leopold and Loeb. I know that the typewriter used to produce the ransom note became a key piece of evidence in the murder trial, so it’s intriguing to me to imagine how you came across this case in your research related to type design. What was your path to discovering this murder case from Chicago in the 1920s?

 

LL_ransom

Leopold and Loeb’s ransom note, typed with a typewriter stolen from a fraternity house, 1924

 

MC
If I remember well, the secretary at ASQDE (The American Society of Questioned Document Examiners) mentioned the name of Mr. Tytell, a typewriter expert in New York. I contacted him as I was looking for a story and picture for the cover (more below about my choice). He told me about the Leopold and Loeb case and I decided to re-transcribe the ransom note as a piece of curious evidence.

As a coincidence, shortly after the release of issue A, a local movie theater (Spoutnik, “Le plus beau cinéma du monde”) was screening the movie Swoon (Tom Kalin, 1992) about the infamous duo. I also realised that Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948) was based on that case.

 

RGN
What’s the story behind the cover image?

MC
One day Nicolien van der Keur mentioned the Haas Typewriter Atlas, a resource for forensic document examiners. Unknown to me, and unrelated to the famous Swiss typefoundry, it showcases the (probably) largest collection worldwide of typewriter typeface specimens.

With the pure image cover (no typography), my aim is to show intriguing images that are not obviously related to type. Knowing that experts from a different field are studying letterforms for other reasons, I set myself to find a photograph from a criminal case which used the Haas Typewriter Atlas as an identification tool. This proved impossible and, for that reason, it forced me to find a “simple” picture from the local police archives. The A D H letters on the cover are part of the original picture, probably rubbed off from a Letraset sheet.

 

Footnotes issue A

Detail view of cover of Footnotes issue A and bookmark

 

RGN
I appreciate the extra bits of printed ephemera that were included with Footnotes: a bookmark, two visual table-of-contents-like cards, and a simple business-card-sized advertisement for the lithographer of Footnotes, supertiptop. The two visual table-of-contents-like cards are, graphically, really enticing. Can you tell us a bit about the significance of the graphic bits and icons that live on these cards?

MC
On press, two covers are printed on one sheet with extra room for these goodies. The bookmark with issue A’s table of contents will be inserted into issue B’s copies, and so on. That way, the reader will know about the previous issue’s articles, which is important when articles are split between issues. This bookmark is meant to be used as a “shelfmark” too since Footnotes is stapled, thus without a flat spine.

The visual cards display graphic extracts from the respective articles’ iconography. I use them as promocards, which I occasionally drop at bookshops or various venues. “Enticing” is the right word as my aim is to tease the visually oriented people.

 

Footnotes issue A

Detail view of Footnotes shelfmark

 

The before/after lithographer’s card (supertiptop) was designed by him to prove that you need to take care of black and white images, more so when printing on uncoated paper. He supported my project by offering a very careful preparation of all of the images. As he’s only working for cultural projects, I took the opportunity of my many mailings to spread the word about supertiptop.

And, of course, the printing of Footnotes is very important. In this regard, I worked with the passionate and knowledgeable printer Noir sur noir impression in Geneva. As the editor and publisher I feel a responsibility to offer readers original and well-reproduced images. In that sense, the visual information is treated with as much respect and care as the written content.

 

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View of printed ephemera included with Footnotes issue A

 

RGN
That’s a smart move—to make use of the extra space on the press sheet! The economy of that decision, as well as the overall modesty of the printing of Footnotes, brings me to my question about the production and funding of Footnotes. How did these two factors come to shape your thinking and decisions about what Footnotes could be in the end? Did certain compromises need to be made to aspects such as size/format, page number, and printing during the process of making Footnotes? Or, rather, did you let the limitations of the production and funding inform your decisions from the very beginning?

MC
As references, I’d mention the bulletins and flyers from societies of collectors (i.e., mushrooms, stamps, etc.). These printings are simple transmitters, produced with affordable means. Of course, they also have an aesthetic which seduces me and I tried to preserve that charm.

In terms of reader’s impressions, I wanted to play with contrasts: an understated appearance with in-depth content and obsessive attention to details.

With the help of subsidies (in the form of services and time) from my friends, no ads, and wise production decisions, Footnotes can be released quite independently. I should also mention that with no strong connections to institutions or schools, I am able to preserve a certain editorial freedom.

The production decisions were also influenced by observing the evolution of print. In the field of sequential art (I co-run B.ü.L.b comix), books have become more and more refined. To maintain affordable prices, or to put it another way, to keep the price psychologically inviting for the reader, subsidies and printing abroad comes in handy. Contrary to the philosophy behind paperback publications—simple and affordable publications for the masses—the market is increasingly seducing readers and collectors by offering more for less and at no real additional cost. Designers, publishers, and institutions have a responsibility too, and I see Footnotes as a statement in this regard.

As for the format: it is defined by the postal service norms (cheapest shipping category) as well as the number of pages that fit on the printing press and press sheets. I see them as constraints, not compromises.

 

footnotes_005_rw

Spread view of Footnotes issue A

 

RGN
What can we expect from issue “B” of Footnotes and subsequent issues after that? Do you have a particular editorial or thematic strategy planned for each issue?

MC
To begin with, I will be publishing the second (and last) part of Haas’ article, followed by a contemporary perspective from one of the earliest digital foundries of the country.

Additionally, I will include: the first part of an extensive research, lead by a French crew (Alice Savoie, Dorine Sauzet, Sébastien Morlighem), on Ladislas Mandel’s typefaces for telephone directories; a critical essay on typeface redesign by Christian Mengelt; after a few lectures on Dr. A. V. Hershey’s fonts, a written-report by Frank Grießhammer who re-coordinated these early vector fonts; and, of course, exciting one-off type projects and the Proofs page showcasing in-progress typefaces.

As you can see, I don’t have a thematic strategy. Some issues might have one, if appropriate. I research to find interesting content and contributors, then try to mix them over the course of a couple of issues. Simple and free.

 

RGN
Thank you for your time, Mathieu. And best of luck on issue B!

 


 

Footnotes issue A features contributions from: Mathieu Christe, František Štorm, Atelier Carvalho Bernau, Alan Bartram, Louise Paradis, Brigitte Schuster, Allen V. Hershey, and Frank Grießhammer.

Stay up-to-date with Footnotes on their website or on Twitter. Footnotes issue A is available from a handful of stockists in the US and Europe, or it can be ordered directly from the Footnotes online shop.

Interview: Simon Johnston Launches Verb Editions

  What happens when you let go of design? In 1993, Simon Johnston handed the pressman at Colby Printing Press a slip of paper containing only the words “God® Bless™ America©.” No other design instructions were specified. The resulting piece is a prime example of Simon’s art practice, which emphasizes linguistic play and exploration of pre-established design systems. The poster was […]

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God Bless America (v.01), Simon Johnston, 1993

 

What happens when you let go of design? In 1993, Simon Johnston handed the pressman at Colby Printing Press a slip of paper containing only the words “God® Bless™ America©.” No other design instructions were specified. The resulting piece is a prime example of Simon’s art practice, which emphasizes linguistic play and exploration of pre-established design systems. The poster was printed more than 20 years ago, but, like all of his editioned works, hasn’t been available for sale—until now. With this interview, he announces the launch of his new publishing house, Verb Editions.

An LA-based, UK-born designer, artist, and teacher, Johnston’s lauded design practice includes projects with Factory Records and founding the design journal OctavoFor more than 25 years, he has been consistently building a body of personal work that has been kept relatively private. In this conversation, I speak with Johnston about the decision to start Verb Editions, several of the works in the catalogue, and the importance of maintaining a personal practice.

 

mrbelow_spread

Spread from Mr. Below (v.14), Simon Johnston, 2016

 

Ben Schwartz: First of all, congratulations on launching Verb Editions. Already it looks like quite an interesting catalogue. To begin I’d love for you to talk about the sort of ethos behind Verb Editions.

Simon Johnston: Thanks. The primary focus will be on printed materials as artworks in themselves, as editions, multiples. Mostly books and prints, but I like the word “editions,” as an edition could also be a sculpture, for example, or even a recording, or a poem in some form. And you can do an edition of one. I like the sense that multiplied forms allow the work to be accessible to a greater number of people—is more democratic if you like—even though democracy isn’t looking too clever at the moment. I am also interested in the idea that a catalogue or book could be a work in itself, and come before or instigate an exhibition, instead of the other way round. Seth Siegelaub’s catalogues come to mind in that regard—the possibility of catalogue as exhibition. I think of it maybe a bit like a record label, releasing a few singles and the occasional album, some of it quick and raw, and some a bit more polished. The word ethos in your question reminded me of Tony Wilson of Factory Records, who we worked with in England back in my 8vo design studio days. I always liked Tony’s trust in his intuition and his commitment to cultural production, just putting stuff out there, frankly without any real regard for a business model. I like that ethos. So, not really a press in the commercial sense, nor just a book publishing house, more of a label.

 

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Album cover for The Durutti Column’s Circuses and Bread (1985) on Factory Records. Designed by 8vo

 

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Octavo, Issue 1. 1986. Article on Anthony Froshaug by Robin Kinross.

 

Schwartz: It seems you’ve been producing these sort of editions throughout your career, why the decision to start Verb Editions now?

Johnston: I have been producing books and prints right from college days. I made a silkscreened book in college at Bath Academy of Art in England called Some Antics, which played with meaning and language. And when I started the typographic journal Octavo in London, it was a publishing adventure into the relationship between language, design, and art. Since then, having moved to California some time ago, I’ve been involved in publishing, designing books for galleries, museums, and artists. So it’s not really a big leap, more a case of wanting to make the work in the books as well as design the books. The main idea is to facilitate a sideways shift from design practice to focus more on my art/photography practice. I have always done both, but for pragmatic reasons, design and design education has always been on the front burner and my own projects on the back burner. I always felt like I was only making guerrilla raids into art territory, sort of a weekend conceptual artist, which was satisfying, but never led to building up the necessary momentum for a sustained practice. Publishing allows me to do both to a certain extent, but the design component is now in the service of artistic practice of some sort. It’s easy enough to print something, but distribution is the key. I have sold materials before at Printed Matter and Arcana, but the digital tools are available now to create a fairly painless online gallery, sales, and distribution channel. It just feels like the right time. Carpe diem—Fish of the day.

 

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Flag (v.02), Simon Johnston, 1996

 

Schwartz: I’d love to hear a bit more about some of the editions. To start, both God Bless America (v. 01) and Flag (v.02) seem particularly interesting within today’s political climate. They also are the first two editions in the catalogue. What do you think about them taking on a new sort of relevance today?

Johnston: Both of those were made more than 20 years ago, and were reactions to what I saw as underlying conditions in society here, the ever-present commercial imperatives, for want of a better term. There’s a fabulous Allen Ginsberg poem called “For Sale,” in a slim volume I have called Sad Dust Glories, which may have been an inspiration, or at least is related. The God Bless America print was made at Colby Poster and was an early example for me of trying to let go of design. I just gave them the handwritten text to set in their usual manner. I can see how some people might feel these works have heightened relevance in today’s brave new political world. But, frankly, what is going on right now is another thing altogether, much darker—the apple-pie fascism that Gore Vidal warned us about—which requires a different kind of response. I did make some prints on Presidential Inauguration Day, January 20, but I am not sure whether they will make it onto the Verb Editions site yet.

 

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John Baldessari holding John Baldessari Catalogue Raisonné: Volume Two: 1975–1986. Photo: Simon Johnston

 

Schwartz: Mr. Below is another interesting project, not only for the subject matter, but also the process and resulting visual effect. I’d love to hear more about how these books were produced.

Johnston: On press at Shapco in Minneapolis with the first volume of John Baldessari Catalogue Raisonée, I could not help noticing how the accidental layering of the works on the make-ready sheets looked very interesting and related to John’s work somehow. It’s fair to say that probably all print designers fall in love at some point with the random over-printed nature of press sheets, before the press guys get the ink densities adjusted, but in this case something about the consistent grid and image placement, combined with the “Mr Below” (Make-Ready Below) tags made me wonder if something could be made from it. I worked with the press guys to save some sheets and had some very able assistance in sequencing and binding the copies.

 

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Make-ready (MR) sheets at Shapco

 

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Over-printed make-ready sheets for Mr. Below (v.14)

 

Schwartz: It looks like there’s a theme of playing with language throughout many of the editions—whether it be the cut-up narratives of Fiction Fiction (v. 18 and v. 19) or your analysis of the word “this” with the Thisness newspaper (v. 04). Can you talk about your interest in linguistic play and how it relates to your design practice?

Johnston: I have always been mildly obsessed with language, and a lot of my personal work does deal with issues related to the operations of language. The Thisness newspaper grew out of a slightly earlier project called Investigation, which consists of 256 framed pages from two copies of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, with every word painted out except for instances of the word “this.” In the book, Wittgenstein is writing about how language functions in use, and in order to give examples I found he would be using the word “this” a lot. For me it became the secret subtext of the book, being a word that refers only to itself, its physical typographic presence, in each instance, rather than referring to something outside of itself. In semiotic parlance, the signifier collapses into the signified, and it becomes a kind of black hole of language.

 

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Language Machine (v.05), Simon Johnston, 2016

 

I had the idea for Fiction Fiction over 20 years ago, but only recently made the books. Time is slippery stuff, but I still liked the idea enough to make it happen. One hundred and twenty-eight similarly sized novels were trimmed at their spines, and their pages resequenced. Each book contains a page from each of the different novels, whilst maintaining consecutive page numbering. I am interested in setting up frameworks or systems, and then pouring material content into the frame to see what new chemistry happens. In this case the frame is works of fiction made from works of fiction. Messy nonsense narratives abound. I am also intrigued by time as a material and a medium. I like the idea of making something and not releasing it for 10 or 20 years, not just as a reaction to the instant reactionary Twitter-world of now, but as a rhetorical tactic. I am working on a related project just using some of the found cross-over texts from Fiction Fiction. I suppose you could say the interest in language relates to my design practice in the sense that I don’t think you can be a good typographer unless you care about language.

 

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Binding process for Fiction Fiction

 

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Fiction Fiction (v. 19), Simon Johnston, 2016

 

Schwartz: In addition to your interest in language, can you also talk a little bit about your photographic projects?

Johnston: Photography is one medium I use, yes. I also make paintings, prints, and sculptural objects. I tend to work in photographic series, and I am as interested in the thinking behind the image as much as the image itself. Even though the book Unsigned is a photographic project, at its heart it is also a study of language, or rather its absence, in this case. Both the empty signs and the graphic faux-captions are typically sites of information, but in both cases the language is absent or withheld. And a book of photographs I took in England in 2012 and 2013 called Meridian is being published by Gerhard Steidl in Germany this month (I think, I hope). Landscapes taken facing due north or south on the line of zero degrees longitude, with a fluorescent orange line superimposed on the center of the image representing the meridian line. I have the book on the Verb Editions site as well. I have seen the images on press but not a bound copy yet. Unsigned is older, but both that series and Meridian were shot on film, 4×5 in the case of Meridian.

 

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Photograph from Meridian (v.20), Simon Johnston, 2016

 

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Spread from Unsigned (v. 07), Simon Johnston, 2003

 

Schwartz: As you have been producing these editions throughout your career, I’m curious how you were able to strike a balance between your more client-based work and these personal projects? Do you feel that your personal practice provided a different sort of creative fulfillment from your design practice?

Johnston: One of the reasons to start Verb Editions is to set up a structure that allows me to alter that balance and to produce more of my own work and curate and publish work by like-minded collaborators. For me there is no comparison between making personal art work and commissioned work. They are different things. I know it has been fashionable to talk about “blurring the boundaries” between art and design, as if that is automatically a virtuous position to take, but I feel that is often a position taken by commentators, non-practitioners, or designers who want their work to be taken/perceived as art. Being a practitioner in both fields, I see them as different activities. Both are creative forms of expression, but art is expression liberated from function, whereas commissioned design is motivated expression, a form of agency on behalf of others. To confuse the two is just lazy thinking. Of course there is an “expanded” field of design, and interest in the area of intersection between the two practices—as this blog is evidence.

There are different forms of satisfaction from both. Designing a catalogue for an exhibition or artist is always very much a collaboration and a team project between artist, institution, author, editor, designer, printer, bindery, and others. So when a design project turns out well, it reminds us that at its heart, design is a commissioned, social, collaborative, commercial practice, with all of the associated financial and time-based parameters. The satisfaction there is of being part of a successful team project and of responding well to your responsibilities within that team.

By contrast, the creative fulfillment of personal works is different. The only responsibility is to yourself and the viewer. The third party (the C-word so absent from a lot of recent design discussion) that exists in the design process is not there. I think the challenge is to find, excavate maybe, the work that only you could make, from your interests and unique experiences. That’s also a bit scary. No parameters. Like freewheeling downhill with dodgy brakes and no map. But liberating at the same time.

 

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Ed Ruscha: Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors, 2004. Designed by Simon Johnston

 

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Ed Ruscha: Psycho Spaghetti Westerns, 2011. Designed by Simon Johnston

 

Schwartz: I know you’ve done several books with Ed Ruscha. I can’t help but of course find similarity behind Verb Editions and what Ruscha was doing with his artist books. How do you feel your design practice has influenced Verb Editions?

Johnston: Of course, Ed’s work has been enormously influential, both for artists and designers, and his early publications are seminal works in the area of artists’ books. As a designer, it has been a highlight to be able to work with him on a few projects, most notably the Whitney Museum Cotton Puffs catalogue and Psycho Spaghetti Westerns for Gagosian. But, to be honest, the first artist’s book I produced at college was made before I was aware of Ed’s work, where one of my teachers was John Furnival, a pretty well-known concrete poet. This was probably my first introduction into the possibility of a unity between artistic practice, language, and typographic form. And speaking of concrete poetry, I should also say that another figure whose work was very influential for me was Ian Hamilton Finlay, whose Wild Hawthorn Press is a touchstone. I was in correspondence with Ian and commissioned an article on his work for the third issue of Octavo, and I have quite an extensive collection of cards and booklets produced by his press. I also have a copy of IHF’s Ocean Stripe 5, still one of my favorite printed works, using found images and text, although that was published by Tarasque Press. He operated Wild Hawthorn Press long before computers and the internet, but I like the fact that, even though he is gone, the site is still up and his printed works still available. In terms of influences regarding art as printed matter, I could also point to Dieter Roth, Guy de Cointet, and particularly Marcel Broodthaers, whose work for me is an endless source of intellectual and aesthetic stimulation.

As for the second part of your question, my design practice helps in the sense that I know my way around typesetting, composition, color correction, paper choices, press checks, and all aspects of print production. You pick up a few things over the years.

 

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Ocean Stripe 5, Ian Hamilton Finlay, 1967

 

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Wild Hawthorn Art Test, So You Want to be a Panzer Leader, Ian Hamilton Finlay

 

Schwartz: Beyond a publishing imprint, you mention that Verb also acts as an online gallery as well as a vehicle for collaboration? What sorts of things are you looking for in future Verb collaborators?

Johnston: It’s all a bit of an open-ended experiment, but I plan on commissioning and publishing some work by other artists, photographers, and poets, at the same time as producing more of my own editions. In that sense the online gallery is a way of showcasing work by myself and others, as well as sidestepping gallery and curatorial gatekeepers to a certain extent. It’s all made possible by the internet, of course, but also by a general acknowledgment that print is not going away now, despite earlier rumors to the contrary, and that it has a vital part to play in cultural production, because it is a language in itself. It’s possible that the online gallery might manifest itself as a temporary physical gallery at some point in some way, as well as show up at an art book fair or two. Collaborations are mostly by invitation to be honest, but I am open to conversations and ideas from wherever, and plan to do some projects outside of the US.

 

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Recent release on Verb Editions: Tony Manzella, True Image

 

Schwartz: What lies ahead for Verb Editions?

Johnston: Now that I have built the glider, it is going to be interesting to see if and how it flies. More immediately, as I mentioned, I am hoping to see copies of Meridian very soon. Then there’s a book project called System I started printing in Berlin a couple of years back at Erik Spiekermann’s letterpress shop, p98a. I will finish the letterpress printing here, although the final version will be printed offset. And we will have a small event of some sort soon in LA. My hope is that Verb Editions can become a quietly sustainable publishing platform for artists, thinkers and makers.

 

In addition to the recent opened Verb Editions, Simon Johnston runs the design office Simon Johnston Design, and is Professor and Creative Director of the Hoffmitz Milken Center for Typography (HMCT) at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, CA.

Insights 2017 Design Lecture Series

Insights Design Lecture Series 2017 Tuesdays in March Meme culture. Corporate structures. Typographic artistry. Local vernaculars. Post-truth politics. How do we navigate such disparate realities as designers? How do we create finite structures—small ecosystems—in which these ideas can sit side by side, both dependent on and independent of each other? The five designers featured in this […]

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Insights Design Lecture Series 2017
Tuesdays in March

Meme culture. Corporate structures. Typographic artistry. Local vernaculars. Post-truth politics. How do we navigate such disparate realities as designers? How do we create finite structures—small ecosystems—in which these ideas can sit side by side, both dependent on and independent of each other? The five designers featured in this year’s Insights lecture series lead practices that epitomize this challenge. We’ll take you inside the creative team of one of the world’s largest tech companies, through the looking glass with a color-blind illustrator, past the hand-painted signs of Manila, and behind the scenes at one of world’s most anarchic mainstream brands. The lineup features Google Design creative lead Rob Giampietro, illustrator Andy Rementer, social-practice design studio Office of Culture and Design/Hardworking Goodlooking, and editorial designer Richard Turley, currently at Wieden + Kennedy and formerly of Bloomberg Businessweek and MTV. Join us for five unique perspectives on the world through the lens of design. Copresented by the Walker Art Center and AIGA Minnesota.

If you can’t make it in person, please tune in to our live webcast on Facebook Live and participate through Twitter (#Insights2017). For educators, AIGA chapters, and anyone else who might want to throw their own viewing party, have a look at our Viewing Party Kit.

 

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Rob Giampietro (Google Design)
March 7, 7 pm (tickets)

What can interaction designers learn from a stonecutter? How can design be understood as an act of translation? How might the Sapir Whorf hypothesis apply to content management systems? When must we learn to unbuild, instead of building? Designer and writer Rob Giampietro lives these questions, consistently drawing connections between disparate design fields over the course of his diverse career. In his current position as creative lead and design manager for Google Design (New York), Giampietro’s mission is to infuse an appreciation for design into Google’s culture, and by extension, the company’s billions of users. He and his team are responsible for communicating  major Google design initiatives, such as Material Design (Google’s expansive interface program, inspired by tangible interactions with paper, light, layering, and movement) and Google Fonts (their open-source collection of digital typefaces).

Before joining Google, he spent much of his career inhabiting the art and culture sectors, designing for cultural institutions, and writing about design in both pragmatic and esoteric ways, often commissioned by independent visual culture journals such as Dot Dot Dot, Mousse Magazine, and Kaleidoscope. From 2010 through 2015, he was a principal partner at renowned New York design studio Project Projects, where he headed up many of the interactive initiatives; and between 2003 and 2008, he led his own firm, Giampietro+Smith, creating work for clients such as Knoll, Target, and others. For his Insights presentation, Giampietro will give us a glimpse into his idiosyncratic synthesis of design ideologies while offering a look into the evolving design culture at Google.

Rob Giampietro Facebook event (live webcast on March 7)

 

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Andy Rementer (Illustrator)
March 14, 7 pm (tickets)

Andy Rementer is an illustrator and painter whose work has been featured in a number of high-profile brands and publications, from Apartamento magazine to the New York Times, Wired to Lacoste. Rementer honed his particular style while studying at Fabrica in Treviso, Italy. He has stated in interviews that his color-blindness inevitably brings him back to his frequently used bright hues, no matter how hard he tries to adopt a muted palette. This has become vital to his output—pastel and poppy color schemes camouflaging the prevalence of loneliness, isolation, and ambivalence in his work.

His projects often subvert or expand their intended format, whether a furniture catalogue masquerading as a comic book or a set of postage stamps that investigates the decidedly unepistolary phenomenon of online dating. Rementer will talk us through his practice and give us a glimpse into his collaborations with some of the world’s most celebrated brands.

Andy Rementer Facebook event (live webcast on March 14)

 

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Clara Balaguer & Kristian Henson (Office of Culture and Design/Hardworking Goodlooking)
March 21, 7 pm (tickets)

How can the act of publishing be democratized in developing countries? How can local vernaculars be celebrated in the face of globalized aesthetics? What is the cultural significance of EXTREME DROP SHADOWS? The Office of Culture and Design  (OCD) is a studio based in Manila and led by artist Clara Balaguer. Running parallel to the OCD, Hardworking Goodlooking is a publishing and design practice she leads with designer Kristian Henson. Balaguer describes the OCD as “a social practice platform for artists, designers, writers and assorted projects in the developing world.” With their wide network of collaborators, Balaguer and Henson embrace contemporary art and design as necessary tools for progress with the hopes of affecting real change. This occurs by way of social innovation experiments, workshops, conferences, events, and feasts. Projects include product development initiatives designed to enhance the livelihoods of Filipino craftsmen as well as microgrants that they receive and redistribute. Frequently produced in cottage industry presses in the streets of Manila and utilizing the most DIY production values, Hardworking Goodlooking’s books embody the uncertain and insecure task that authors face when trying to self- publish critical content in the developing world.

They also lead book-making workshops in which they teach people how to edit, design, and print their own books in a week or less, using inexpensive and readily available tools. In their lecture, Balaguer and Henson will present case studies from their practice thus far, and discuss the fraught and fractured history of Filipino graphic design, which Balaguer recently wrote about in her essay titled “Tropico Vernacular” for Triple Canopy magazine.

OCD/HWGL Facebook event (live webcast on March 21)

 

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Richard Turley (Wieden + Kennedy)
March 28, 7 pm (tickets)

Wherever Richard Turley goes, he finds a way to avoid playing by the rules. Best known as the art director who reimagined Bloomberg Businessweek magazine as an edgy, design-forward publication, Turley recently ended a stint as MTV’s first senior vice president of visual storytelling and deputy editorial director.

While at MTV Turley oversaw a horde of designers whose basic mission was to create “strategic anarchy,” personifying the corporation’s desire for self-critique and, in his words, “de-brand”-ing the network. The studio generated new TV idents and bumps on a daily basis, using whatever content they felt was appropriate as long as it was immediate and of the moment. Turley has described the approach as a form of social media, simply executed through the channel of a broadcast network. The segments range from abstract chaos to surreal mundanity, live social media conversations with viewers to bluntly worded statements directly responding to current events. In his new position as executive creative director of content and editorial design at Wieden + Kennedy, Turley will bring his unique talent for visualizing ideas to the world of branding.

Richard Turley Facebook event (live webcast on March 28)

 

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Printing of the Insights 2017 poster courtesy the Avery Group at Shapco Printing, Minneapolis.

Mystery Solved: Here’s Who Took That Iconic Koons/Trump Photo

In the grand scale of both unsolved mysteries and viral phenomena, it’s surely but a blip, but around here it’s a surprising turn of events: we figured out who took an iconic photo that’s been the source of some speculation in the art world—and he works right here at the Walker. Last week, as I scrambled to […]

Photo: Ben Schwartz

In the grand scale of both unsolved mysteries and viral phenomena, it’s surely but a blip, but around here it’s a surprising turn of events: we figured out who took an iconic photo that’s been the source of some speculation in the art world—and he works right here at the Walker.

Last week, as I scrambled to get João Enxuto and Erica Love’s Artist Op-Ed on museums, protest, and social change published in time for Inauguration Day, I set out to get permission to reproduce the remarkable image the artists selected to kick off their essay: a Trump supporter viewing Jeff Koons’s 1988 sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles. It seemed to capture our current political moment perfectly. A woman—holding a stars-and-stripes backpack and wearing a fanny pack, red baseball cap, and “Trump for President 2016” t-shirt—viewing a sculptural homage to American celebrity in all its peculiarity. The contrasts are arresting. The woman’s everyday apparel juxtaposed with gold leaf—the stuff of religious statuary or Donald Trump’s furniture—could be seen to parallel the gulf between the woman and the billionaire candidate she champions.

Here’s how artnet News senior writer Brian Boucher, writing in July 2016 on how the art world was “going crazy” over the photo, assessed the scene:

It’s only missing a bald eagle, mom, and an apple pie—unless, of course, the woman pictured is your mom.

The image brings together America’s celebrity worship disorder on several levels. Koons, love him or hate him, doubtless aims to mirror the country’s fascination with fame in the personage of one of the most famous people on the planet; Trump’s candidacy owes almost entirely to his own status as a reality TV star.

I have so many questions—about the circumstances that found this woman in full campaign gear at the art museum, about why it went viral within art circles—but, for pragmatic reasons, I really needed to answer much simpler ones: who took the photo, and—as Boucher wondered—was it real or photoshopped?

I tried to sleuth it out. I got in touch with Boucher; did searches on Google Images, Twitter, Imgur, and Facebook; contacted the Reddit user named in the artnet piece; enlisted a friend (who’s a friend of a friend of said Reddit user) to help make contact. No luck. So I went ahead and published, acknowledging in the caption that the photo’s authenticity and authorship remain unknown.

Then, shortly after sharing the Artist Op-Ed on Facebook, a comment popped up, to the effect of: I took that picture!

Ben Schwartz, now a graphic design fellow at the Walker, took the photo last May before moving from Los Angeles to Minneapolis. Visiting The Broad with a friend, he says he noticed the woman because she stood out in her “in-your-face,” head-to-toe campaign gear. “We debated for a minute whether she was doing some sort of performance piece,” he recalls. 

Ben had no idea that the image had gone viral, but he has an idea how: he posted the photo on Instagram, and artist Mungo Thomson, his professor when he was a student at ArtCenter, regrammed it. From there, it was posted by artist Vik Muniz on Facebook—where it shared by his contacts 217 times.

In the end, the story isn’t a political one for Ben, but one that’s instructive for a designer interested in how images are created, manipulated, and shared. “My favorite part about all of it was the speculation that it was photoshopped,” he says. “It was first-hand proof of how the internet can strip away context from an image and create an entirely new narrative.”

When Is an A not an A?: Shannon Ebner and Julia Born on A Public Character

  When is an A not an A? A Public Character is a new catalogue designed by Julia Born, documenting Shannon Ebner’s recent exhibition at ICA Miami. In this body of work Ebner extensively explores one of our most rudimentary graphic signifiers, the letter “A,” shifting between media and roles as a definite and indefinite article.  The creation of such […]

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When is an A not an A? A Public Character is a new catalogue designed by Julia Born, documenting Shannon Ebner’s recent exhibition at ICA Miami. In this body of work Ebner extensively explores one of our most rudimentary graphic signifiers, the letter “A,” shifting between media and roles as a definite and indefinite article. 

The creation of such a beautiful artifact is of course the result of a successful collaboration, one in which two individuals hold a mutual trust and respect allowing each to bring her respective expertise to the project. With the typographic nature of Shannon’s work, and Julia’s deep involvement with content and concept, I was interested in learning more about their working exchange. In the following interview we discuss the process and collaborative efforts that lead to the creation of A Public CharacterA Public Character is available for purchase via Roma Publications.  

 

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Spread from A Public Character, 2016

 

Julia and Shannon, what was your relationship to each other’s work prior to this collaboration?

Shannon: I had a copy of Moyra Davey’s SPEAKER RECEIVER book that Julia designed, and I was really attracted to how the book was handled design wise, specifically how it responded to or was a part of what drove Moyra’s content. But it was Mark Owens who introduced me to Julia’s work when we started working on Auto Body Collision together. I was looking for a recommendation for the ICA catalog and Mark raved about Julia’s work and so when I realized that Julia was in fact the designer for Moyra’s book I got really excited about the prospect of working together.

 

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SPEAKER RECEIVER, 2010

 

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Spread from SPEAKER RECEIVER, 2010

 

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Spread from SPEAKER RECEIVER, 2010

 

Julia: Shannon’s book The Sun as Error, made in collaboration with Dexter Sinister, is one of my five all-time favorites. I’ve looked at it many times; the work, the editing, the design—all of it becoming one. For some reason it didn’t immediately ring a bell when Shannon first emailed me about a possible collaboration for A Public Character. It was only when I googled her name that I found out it was her, and of course I was thrilled! Both Shannon and I share an interest and fascination by the very elementary cornerstones of language. Her work fascinates many graphic designers because she manages to capture and magically bring together typography, poetry, philosophy, politics, language, and aspects of the vernacular– “Concrete Photography” as Laura Hoptman calls it.

 

The Sun As Error, 2009

 

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Spread from The Sun As Error, 2009

 

Before beginning work on the book, what were some early conversations like between the two you? Were there any upfront goals that you both had with this publication?

Julia: I had the opportunity to spend two months in LA right at the beginning of our collaboration. This was a nice coincidence as these meetings and conversations at Shannon’s studio allowed for discourse about the book and created an understanding of shared interests. For an entire week I was reading texts she gave me. Through this exchange we got to know each other professionally and personally, which helped in the numerous late night/early morning Skype conversations.

I also insisted to look at all of her work in order to develop an idea of how A Public Character could define its own place in her already impressive “bibliography.” Shannon envisioned “a book with a proper title page and TOC.” She clearly wanted it to be different from her previous, more autonomous artist books, and in the end the extra material that was considered to be added was left out.

When I left LA I didn’t have a file or mockup (I never make one), but I did have a clear idea of the structure, along with ideas and notes, which eventually shaped the book.

 

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Spread from A Public Character, 2016

 

Shannon: Yes, we were very lucky that these circumstances happened to line up and we were able to have this exchange for an intensive period of time. I also heard Julia present her work at a public lecture (at the HMCT at ArtCenter) around the same time which was extremely informative. I hadn’t quite understood the Rietveld Academy up until this point, and it was very intriguing hearing about this experience and seeing how it is reflected in Julia’s work as well as others like Stuart [Bailey]. Also having Experimental Jetset come through town at the same time for Printed Matter’s 2016 LA Art Book Fair—those guys gave the keynote last year and published their Statement Counter Statement book, and so the ethos around design (not to lump all of these people together because they are all individuals and quite different) and a way of thinking and making around books and publications can be seen in each. Last winter in Los Angeles I felt very immersed in these ideas.

You mention an awareness to allow for the book to “define its own place” amongst Shannon’s previous books. I’m curious as to how this shaped particular decisions throughout the process.

Julia: As mentioned earlier, Shannon felt a need for the book to communicate on a certain level, address the show as a whole, include all works that were in the show, and invite brilliant writers for essays. For every work we were looking for a suitable translation into book form. I don’t think that it differs so much on an aesthetic level from her previous books (I guess they all share a clear, reduced visual language), but it might be the more classical structure of an exhibition catalogue which makes it different from the earlier publications.

 

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Spread from Auto Body Collision, 2015

 

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Spread from Auto Body Collision, 2015

 

Shannon: For me it was important that the ICA book not in any way be an artist book, and I was excited for that just because I was coming off of Auto Body Collision and STRIKE and they were both very intense projects. Even though both of those books had essays in them, I approached each as an artist book, which for me means that they themselves are the project, the artwork. I only strictly adhered to that format for The Sun as Error, and in many ways I made a conscience decision with the subsequent two books that I would consider the act of publishing opportunities to commission writing. It felt important for me to do that even though the writing corrupts the purity.

 

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Spread from STRIKE, 2014

 

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Poster included in STRIKE, 2014

 

For A Public Character it was a little unclear to me in the beginning. I mean, I knew I wanted the book to be a catalogue proper, but at the same time here was this opportunity to work with Julia and make some discoveries. Also part of the project of the A’s is that they are discursive, they are promiscuous and not beholden to just this or just that. So if anything that was the larger conceptual conversation—do we stick with the “narrative” of the ICA exhibition or do we further complicate reception by also contaminating the book with external projects?—like when the A’s took part in Erika Vogt’s Artist Theater Program at EMPAC in Troy, or when I worked in collaboration with Erika for her Performa commission and incorporated Cornel Windlin’s A’s into the performance at Roulette Theater, or the first time I showed the work under the title A PHOTOGRAPHY. I felt very committed to an unsettling of the work but eventually I decided it made far more sense to let the book act as a catalogue and tell the story of the exhibition and showcase that experience and this other stuff can get funky somewhere else down the line.

 

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Erika Vogt, Artist Theater Program, commissioned by Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), 2014

 

Shannon, it makes sense that you wouldn’t consider A Public Character an artist book. Yet it feels different from a straightforward catalogue, perhaps landing somewhere in between. I’m curious as to how the working process may have expanded the book to be more than a direct translation of the show?

It could be that I am incapable of making a standard catalogue, whatever that means! It was my original goal to make a conventional catalogue, but the process of working with Julia was entirely unconventional, and so this changed the DNA of the project right away. Julia’s design decisions are content-driven, so ultimately it was the sum of our discussions that contributed to her ideas—things like the french folds for the A’s to give them some body and also what was important to me was this arc in the show from a public character to a private self and how to translate that from the work to the book. Same for the video, which was both the title of the video and the exhibition, how does that get translated? These questions around translation from idea to book became really central, and I think this is what gives the book a different kind of feeling. I still maintain that it is not an artist book, but it is also maybe a little less straightforward from a catalogue. For me the book is very Dutch; it had a job to do, which is to tell the story of the exhibition, but at the same time it has an engagement with material and the book-making process as an integral extension of the work itself that is totally Julia Born.

 

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Spread from A Public Character, 2016

 

Julia, I’m curious about Shannon’s description of the book as seeming “very Dutch.” I’d love for you to expand on this notion as to what that may mean to you?

Julia: I appreciate Shannon’s reference to the books “Dutchness.” I like how she describes, compares, and distinguishes the multiple approaches in designer’s work, who have been more or less influenced and shaped by Dutch culture and education. Having lived there for 16 years myself, it is definitely a huge influence. Even though the work of the designers she refers to are quite different from one another, there is a certain mentality which we all share.

Julia, I’d like to hear more about the working process. As you mentioned, in the beginning  you were fortunate to be able to spend time together which really shaped the ideas for the book. However, moving forward you were working in two different countries in two very different time zones. What was the actual working exchange like with Shannon? How often were you in touch, and what was the feedback like?

Julia: I usually take quite a lot of time to make a book, as I am involved with every step of the process. This book was made in close collaboration with Shannon, despite the location and time differentiations of both our practices. It was important that the decision making on an editorial level happen together, so we did a few late night Skype sessions along with many emails.

Not every artist is willing to be that involved in each step of the process; but it seemed to reflect Shannon’s thorough and committed way of dealing with things. She has a talent to tackle the right questions at stake. I involved her in questions that I typically wouldn’t involve anyone in because I knew I was going to get an interesting answer. Many things we would agree on, and other things we debated about. I am guessing this is why she wanted someone else to design her book.

I’d assume there was quite a bit of dialogue around the way work was shown. I especially enjoy moments such as the close crops of A SINGULAR, the fragmented A SELF, and the decision to do a french fold for Black Box Collision A. Shannon, what sort of conversations lead to these decisions?

Shannon: It had to do with graphic interpretations. I think we both share a dislike for showcasing installation images, and as a result we really worked hard to find a way to represent the sculpture A SINGULAR and the A SELF silkscreen print. In both cases it was a bit of an experiment for me to see what happens when something (in the case of the sculpture) goes from an immaterial font to a three-dimensional, material object back to a flat graphic representation of a drawing reducing the elements to their most basic form, the unit. Same for the silkscreen print, how to let that read like a poem that closes out the exhibition and also as an exit for the book—but also that piece is tricky because it came out of the Auto Body Collision, and the print is very much a collaboration with Mark Owens, so to put it back into book form again is its own riddle. Maybe now would be a good time to say that the letter A can be both a definite and indefinite article which for me speaks to doubt, that an A can be an A and not an A or definite and indefinite depending on the task at hand—something about the space this opens up linguistically acts as a catalyst for how the book and representing the work was approached.

 

A SINGULAR

A SINGULAR as shown in A Public Character, 2016

 

A SELF

A SELF as shown in A Public Character, 2016

 

Julia, as so much of Shannon’s work is very typographic. I’d love to hear about the decision to use the typeface Mercator throughout the book. To my understanding it’s a typeface that isn’t available commercially, and it has been used quite sparingly.

For quite some time I could not decide whether it should be a serif or sans serif typeface. I eventually realized it needed some pragmatism, something a bit down-to-earth, as every serif typeface I tested looked somewhat detached from the content. There was as well the fact that Shannon herself uses Helvetica in A Public Character in a beautifully brute, raw manner. If I were to use that typeface throughout the book, the borders between work and written content would have dissolved—which could have been an interesting path as well but didn’t seem appropriate in this context. I decided to “color” the typeface for all editorial content just a bit differently, if only subtly.

 

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Mercator in use, A Public Character 2016

 

I encountered Mercator in my years in the Netherlands many times, mostly in letterpress form (the workshop at Rietveld Academie used to have an almost complete set). It was designed by Dick Dooijes who happened to be a former director of my school, and digitized by Laurenz Brunner 10 years ago, though not commercially distributed. Some Dutch children’s books teaching the alphabet use Mercator in a very pure and elementary way. This association with the basics of language seemed quite fitting within the context of Shannon’s work.

 

Dick Bruna, Mercis Publishing bv. License: All Rights Reserved.

 

I’d like to talk about the book as an object. With the large silver foil stamp and the french fold, the book has a remarkably polished feel to it. The production details add a beautiful sense of contrast to the raw photography, concrete sculptures, and even the tone of some writing. Was this sense of contrast a conscious decision or more of a natural outgrowth of the working process?

Julia: I think we both share a deep antipathy towards books that are overdone. It’s a thin line, and we had more than one discussion about whether or not we are pushing it too far. All the elements that we kept, in my opinion, justify their existence as they are linked to some conceptual considerations. The silver foil was an idea prompted by Shannon, as she was considering printing on mirror paper when preparing for the exhibition. At one point she was talking about using reflective material on the cover in which the reader could see him or herself, “from a public character to a private self…” an idea which I really liked. That plus the fact that Luis Zukovsky’s “A” somehow becomes immaterial because the reflection cancels out all material states.

What was the production and printing process like for the book? Were there any difficulties you had to work through?

Julia: The book might look more complicated in terms of production process than it actually was. The only unexpected challenge we experienced was the binding. For most of the black and white images we used a “skeleton black,” which is a technique often applied when printing on uncoated paper. The double hit of black adds extra depth and clarity to Shannon’s images, which I think solidifies their rawness and minimalism. For the foil stamping on the cover I referenced the effect that emerged when we re-photographed the video for the book (long-exposure). I liked how through repetition (an essential element in the video) of the same text, the middle part cancels itself out. This is also a nod to the definite/indefinite topic which is central to the work.

 

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Spread from A Public Character, 2016

 

The only thing that gave us, but mostly the brilliant bookbinder at DZA, a headache was the binding because of the way the french fold pages closed on top. I insisted on printing the A’s each on their own sheet so they feel solid when flipping through the book because of the physical nature of how Shannon defines the “A.” The so called “otabind” binding which we intended at first could not be realized, so the binder suggested this really clever open back, hidden in the dust cover, so the book would still lay flat. This is just one of many examples where bookbinders and printers have contributed precious knowledge and ideas that have shaped the outcome of my books.

 

Image courtesy Roma Publications

French folds in A Public Character, 2016. Image courtesy Roma Publications

 

Shannon, you’ve collaborated with several incredible designers including Dexter Sinister, Mark Owens, and Lauren Mackler. The two of you working together immediately excited me, and the result is stunning. How was this collaboration similar or different than your past experiences?

I have been very fortunate for the people I have worked with and each time I am very humbled by the process and learn a great deal from them. I would be hard pressed to try and parse out the experiences because each one is so very unique. But what I can say is that what I really came to understand through this process is that Julia is a bookmaker through and through and she is engaged in the material form of the book in a very deep way that I totally admire.

 

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Spread from The Sun As Error, 2009

 

To wrap things up, at the Walker we’re preparing for our upcoming Merce Cunningham show, Common Time, which deals significantly with his collaborations throughout his life. Thus, collaboration has been a big topic of conversation. What do each of you feel makes a successful collaboration?

Julia: My entire job is all about collaboration and dialogue. Every assignment, every project I make is developed in conversation with other people, be it artists, institutions, curators, printers, binders, etc. Books perhaps illustrate this collaborative effort in an extreme way, as there are so many parties involved throughout the process. Within this process I see myself as the “guide,” bringing together and coordinating all this expertise. Now and then I need to make decisions, but mostly I am making sure that everything is on the right track.

Merce Cunningham is a truly inspiring example of interdisciplinary collaborations. He was expanding his own field by working together with figures like John Cage or Rei Kawakubo—looking for other visions to expand his own. Together they redefined the boundaries of their individual practices, which is the result of a truly fruitful and successful collaboration. The people that I have closely collaborated with all share a willingness and curiosity to do exactly that, which is why each of these collaborations are truly unique and not comparable.

Working with Shannon once again proved my theory that (at least some) artists are the best designers, but thankfully they still need us to do certain things…

 

On a cach from Paris to Hamburg for the shooting of Cunningham's Ballet"Variations V", Merce Cunningham, movie maker Klaus Wildenham, John Cage(straw hat), 1966.

On a coach from Paris to Hamburg for the shooting of Cunningham’s Ballet Variations V, Merce Cunningham, movie maker Klaus Wildenham, John Cage, 1966.

 

Rei Kawakubo, Merce Cunningham, and company members during costume fitting at Westbath studio, New York City, 1997

 

Shannon: For me it’s about a willingness to exchange ideas and be in dialogue about the process of making something together.  It’s this togetherness but also belief, belief that the end result is not simply a product but is a result of shared time and so the collaboration becomes material evidence of this shared time and the immaterial conversations that were exchanged within this space get put into a form, in the case of many of my collaborations that form is the book.  This question reminded me of something that Will Holder made when working on a project with Stuart and David [Reinfurt] called A Monument of Cooperation. It’s an actual crayon rubbing of a monument on the lower east side.  I don’t know too much more about it but it does seem fitting to me that the basis of a good collaboration is like a monument to cooperation. ◼

 

Brass rubbing of a monument to cooperation found on the grounds of Seward Park Housing Corporation (corner of Montgomery and Grand Streets on the lower east side of Manhattan), Will Holder, 2007

Brass rubbing of a monument to cooperation found on the grounds of Seward Park Housing Corporation
(corner of Montgomery and Grand Streets on the lower east side of Manhattan), Will Holder, 2007

 

 

2016: The Year According to Zach Blas

Zach Blas, Face Cage 1 (2015) Zach Blas is an artist and writer whose practice engages technologies of control and security with queer politics. In his recent works, he responds to biometric governmentality and network hegemony. Facial Weaponization Suite (2011–2014) consists of “collective masks” that cannot be detected as human faces by biometric facial recognition software, […]

Zach Blas, Face Cage 1 (2015)

Zach Blas is an artist and writer whose practice engages technologies of control and security with queer politics. In his recent works, he responds to biometric governmentality and network hegemony. Facial Weaponization Suite (2011–2014) consists of “collective masks” that cannot be detected as human faces by biometric facial recognition software, while Contra-Internet (2014-present) explores subversions of and alternatives to the internet. A lecturer in Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, Blas has exhibited and lectured internationally, recently at Jeu de Paume, Paris; Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; e-flux, New York; Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane; Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City; and transmediale, Berlin. Blas is also producing two books, Escaping the Face, an artist monograph (Sternberg Press and Rhizome, 2017), and Informatic Opacity: The Art of Defacement in Biometric Times (in preparation). His work has been featured in Artforum, Frieze, Art Papers, Mousse Magazine, Wired, and Art Review, in which Hito Steyerl selected him as a 2014 FutureGreat.

Here, he shares his perspective on the year that was, as part of our annual series, 2016: The Year According to                               .

2016 may well be the most violent, painful, and destructive year since my birth. That said, I see this list as not so much of a “top 10” but rather a gathering of events, occurrences, writing, and artworks that I find necessary to engage with—both to better understand and struggle against contemporary forms of control and to celebrate and fight for other possible futures that are more livable for all of us here on earth.

 1.

Bomb denotation robot used to kill Micah Xavier Johnson

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On July 7, 2016, Johnson, a black man and Army Reserve Afghan War veteran, shot dead five police officers in Dallas. This took place amidst a protest over the police killings of black men Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, during which Johnson stated he wanted to kill white police officers. In an unprecedented act, which is only one of numerous instances that horrifyingly exposes racial violence against black people in the US, the Dallas Police Department utilized a bomb detonation robot to blow up Johnson, who was in a nearby parking structure. Never before had a bomb detonation robot been used by police officers in the US to execute a person. Johnson’s killing indexes the further transformation of US policing into war, as military equipment is integrated into law enforcement.

2.

Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist

Atkinson’s documentary film on the militarization of the police in the United States is unsettling, to say the least. After attending a screening at the Frontline Club in London this October, I realized my body was aching all over because I had been so tense throughout the duration of the film. The documentary begins in Ferguson in the wake of the murder of Michael Brown, and depicts police officers turning into “warrior cops,” aggressively suppressing African-American protesters with an arsenal of military gear. The film also exposes police training seminars that emphasize the use of “righteous violence.” What especially struck me is when Atkinson focuses on predictive policing, which are algorithms supposedly able to predict—and thus prevent—crime. This, of course, leads to older modes of profiling—racial included—sedimenting in new software. In my current studio practice, I am developing a new body of artworks that confronts the informatic nature of policing today, and this will materialize as a series of immersive installations, titled The Prison-House.

3.

Post-truth

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“Post-truth” is the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year and defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Today, post-truth is popularly used to describe political strategies implemented during the EU referendum in the UK and the US presidential campaign. Consider the outright lie fabricated by the Vote Leave campaign on bus ads, pictured above, that contributed to Brexit; Donald Trump plainly stating that Barak Obama is “the founder of ISIS”; or the proliferation of fake news, provoking incidents like Pizzagate, which involved a man shooting an assault rifle in a pizzeria because of its supposed connection to a child trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton. If truth is slipping away from politics, perhaps artistic practice should make use of this by telling a better lie, in order to reroute us back to democracy—or better, queer utopia.

4.

Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene

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Every autumn, I teach an undergraduate class at Goldsmiths on “Feminist and Queer Technoscience.” One of the foundational texts we read is Donna Haraway’s 1988 essay “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” which argues for a feminist objectivity in science. I have read this article more than 20 times, and yet each time I sit down with it, I find it thrilling—I get chills. Needless to say, for me, a new book by Haraway is a major event. Staying with the Trouble had a delayed release in the UK, and I was going all over London looking for a copy. I finally picked it up during a trip back to New York. The book tackles climate change with science fiction, myth, and art, all bound together by what Haraway terms “string figuring.” A striking (and rather queer) claim: “One of the most urgent tasks that we mortal critters have is making kin, not babies… It’s making present the powers of mortal critters on earth in resistance to the anthropocene and capitalocene.”

5.

Frankfurt Airport Security Area video

In November, I gave a talk at the Digital Disorders conference at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. On my way back to London, déjà vu stopped me in my tracks at the Terminal B security area in the Frankfurt airport. Among airport workers and agents, security belts with luggage, and a variety of scanning devices, numerous monitors were broadcasting a single video on repeat, dramatizing a young, white German woman and man’s airport security experience. As their bodies—including genitals—are rubbed and prodded, the woman and man smile and flirt with one another, as if their gazes transform the administrative touch of the security agent into a sexual caress. Upon successfully completing their security screenings, they find one another in Duty Free and have a romantic meal together—all before their flights! I had seen this video years before, when passing through Frankfurt in 2013. I find it as menacing as ever, as it normalizes security through heteronormative romance. The video promises that you too may be lucky enough to have such an encounter if you comply with regulations. The entire Frankfurt airport security area, with its many screens and security apparatuses, began to resemble an art installation to me, like some Nam June Paik piece gone terribly wrong. What appeared most pernicious was the placement of monitors playing this security romance video directly above Pro Vision 2 body scanners, as these are the 3D imaging full body scanners that, because of the reductive ways they encourage staff to assess gender, have caused transgender persons to be detained on terrorist suspicions over “gonadal anomalies.” Bizarrely, this security video is on Vimeo, and now that I have access to it, I am developing an installation around it.

6.

The Black Outdoors: Fred Moten & Saidiya Hartman

This year, I found myself intensely searching for material on political imaginaries, utopias, and alternatives. I spent much time thinking about ideas of “the outside,” which is a concept that comes up in a variety of theoretical writings, but I’m quite taken by the versions in queer and feminist thought, such as when J. K. Gibson-Graham argue that there is an outside to capitalism or when José Esteban Muñoz writes about queerness as an escape from the hegemonic present. That said, I was moved by this conversation between Saidiya Hartman and Fred Moten, as they experiment with thinking and imagining their versions of the outside, through “the black outdoors.” Hartman articulates the stakes of this project well: “The enclosure is so brutal.”

7.

Future Queer Perfect at Station Independent Projects

Yevgeniy Fiks

Yevgeniy Fiks, Toward a Portfolio of Woodcuts (Harry Hay) 3, 2013

An exhibition on queerness, utopia, and communism!? All I can say is yes to that! Curated by Olga Kopenkina and Yevgeniy Fiks, the artworks presented utilize queerness as a modality for considering leftist rebellion and utopias of the past. The School of Theory and Activism in Bishkek created an incredible archival project on the Kollontai Commune, a queer communist group from the Kyrgyz Republic. Yevgeniy Fiks’s Toward a Portfolio of Woodcuts (Harry Hay) consists of text-based carvings that explore communism and homosexuality in the life of Harry Hay, a noted gay rights activist and communist. I am quite fond of the woodcut shown here, but another beautifully states: “Sometimes an agitprop circumstance could overlap with a pick-up ‘Join the union! Join the union! The truth shall make you free!’ And with the employment of a not-universally-noted eye-look, I could connect without speaking ‘Join me in another kind of union! This way lies another freedom!’”

8.

The Empire Remains Shop

Photo: Tim Bowditch

I wish I could have attended the majority of the events that took place at this art installation-meets-pop-up shop on Baker Street in London. The Empire Remains Shop looks to the remains—or leftovers—of the British Empire with food, geographies, and exchange, through a vast public program of performances, meals, and discussions. Initiated by London-based duo Cooking Sections, the shop immerses you in questions, feelings, pasts, and futures of the postcolonial. Some highlights: a screening and discussion with The Otolith Group, a “midnight masala” performance by Shahmen Suku (Radha La Bia), and consultation sessions on how to devalue real estate provided by Cooking Sections.

 

9.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Vapour 

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In April, Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul screened his new feature Cemetery of Splendor at the Tate Modern, along with a silent, black-and-white short titled Vapour. For 20 minutes, thick fog engulfs a village. It is haunting, foreboding, and spectacular to watch. Before the screening, then Tate Modern director Chris Dercon explained that this village, named Toongha, has been the site of violent struggles for land, between residents and the state (and is also where Weerasethakul currently lives). The fog is enigmatic: is it a creeping horror, the fog of war, a safety blanket, or simply the opacity of the world?

10.

Facebook Live stream of battle for Mosul

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On October 18, various news outlets, such as Al-Jazeera and Channel 4, used Facebook Live to stream a military operation led by Iraqi and Kurdish forces to retake the city of Mosul from ISIS. This appears to mark the first time warfare has been broadcast live by major news channels over Facebook. The result: more than a million viewers tune in to watch a cascade of emojis glide over images of war—a bombing and a thumbs up. This is undoubtedly what James Der Derian calls the military-industrial-media-entertainment network—a network that looms ever larger today. As images of war and crisis ceaselessly circulate, their inundation into our lives keeps forcing a question: how to engage with them?

2016: The Year According to Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung

Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung caught our attention at the 2016 Creative Time Summit in Washington, DC, where he presented on SHIT WARS, his interactive (and oft-NSFW) web-app project that mashes up pop-cultural imagery—from Breaking Bad, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and others—with political figures and internet memes. The aim, he writes, is to “document how both [the] left wing and right wing uses populism to their advantages […]

kenneth-hung-money

Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung. Photo: Alex Tu

Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung caught our attention at the 2016 Creative Time Summit in Washington, DC, where he presented on SHIT WARS, his interactive (and oft-NSFW) web-app project that mashes up pop-cultural imagery—from Breaking Bad, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and others—with political figures and internet memes. The aim, he writes, is to “document how both [the] left wing and right wing uses populism to their advantages in 2016 presidential election, and to expose Donald Trump as the most dangerous demagogue.”

Born in Hong Kong and based in New York, his work has been exhibited around the world at venues including the New Museum; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; the Berkeley Art Museum; Sundance Film Festival; and ZKM Karlsruhe, Germany, among many others. In addition to his work as an artist, Hung also freelances as an art director for clients including Facebook and Adult Swim. He co-founded a startup, FUNraiser.us, and co-owns a boutique wine store in Brooklyn called The Winey Neighbor with his wife, Young.

Here, as part of 2016: The Year According to                                , our annual series of artist-generated top-1o lists, he shares his perspective on the most noteworthy moments, experiences, events, and ideas from the year that was.

 

1.

Creative Time Summit

Held in Washington, DC this year, the Creative Time Summit is the leading international conference exploring the intersection of the arts and social change. It expanded my mind tremendously and made me think about how little I’ve done compared to many other activists, artists, and creative thinkers out there. I strongly recommend that anyone who cares about our world attend the next Creative Time Summit. It will move you, it will motivate you, it will make you roll up your sleeves and work to make our world better! Let’s “occupy the future” together!

2.

#NoDAPL

I was ecstatic when I heard that the Army Corps of Engineers denied Energy Transfer Partnership’s easement to cross Lake Oahe with the Dakota Access Pipeline. To the Water Protectors and every person who took a stand with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, I salute you! The fight is not over: #StandwithStandingRock!

3.

DIY Fake News

Remember last year’s Face2Face technology about “real-time face capture and reenactment”? Now, you can pair that with Adobe’s new VoCo (voice-conversion technology)—a way to to create “Photoshop voice-overs”—to make your own 100-percent fake news. I hope artists will use these technologies to create artworks that reflect our time and create social changes.

4.

Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop

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One of my highlights of the year is meeting with the poets Faloon Branham, Carlos Tyler, and co-founder Tara Libert from the Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop!

“Free Minds uses books and creative writing to empower young inmates to transform their lives. By mentoring and connecting them to supportive services throughout their entire incarceration into reentry, Free Minds inspires these youths to see their potential and achieve new educational and career goals. Free Minds serves 16 and 17 year old youths who have been charged and incarcerated as adults at the DC Jail. Free Minds serves more than 500 youths each year across three successive phases: DC Jail Book Club, Federal Prison Book Club, and Reentry Book Club.”

It is amazing what they’re doing to help incarcerated youth. Please go to their website to read some of their powerful poems and give them support!

 

5.

Pedro Reyes’ Doomocracy

Jenny Tibbels and Sammy Tunis, Gun Party, Photo: Will Star/Shooting Stars Pro

Gun Party, part of Pedro Reyes’s Doomocracy. Photo: Will Star/Shooting Stars Pro, via Creative Time

A brilliant idea with excellent execution! Pedro Reyes’s political haunted house at the Brooklyn Army Terminal was my favorite art installation of 2016. It touches everything I deeply cared about—corruption and government, environmental justice, Wall Street and the financial industry, gun control, women’s rights and abortion, the fast-food industry, institutional racism and marginalization, art and money, xenophobia, terrorism, drone warfare, climate change, and Big Pharma. Now that Donald Trump has been elected, I really feel that Doomocracy is what we are living in now.

 

6.

Yang Youngliang 杨泳梁

Yang Youngliang, From the New World , 2014 (giclee print)

Yang Youngliang, From the New World, 2014 (giclee print)

I discovered Yang Youngliang‘s work earlier this year. He created these absolutely beautiful and intricate videos and photographs based on Chinese Shui-Mo (水墨) landscape brush painting that question urbanization and it’s impact on the environment.

7.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture

Opening ceremony of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, 24 September 2016, Photo: Joel Mason-Gaines

Opening ceremony of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, 24 September 2016. Photo: Joel Mason-Gaines

2016 was perceived as at the start of a new civil rights movement. Under the backdrop of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and politicians shifting our country towards xenophobia due to fear of terrorism and immigration, the opening of NMAAHC could not have been better timed. Two hundred years of African American history are not only an American story, but everybody’s story. Slavery and racial oppression shaped the world we live in today. Please visit.

8.

The Centennial of Dada’s Birth

Marcel Duchamp, a key Dada artist. Photo: Eric Sutherland, Walker Art Center

Marcel Duchamp, a key Dada artist. Photo: Eric Sutherland, Walker Art Center

Dada is the only art movement that really influenced me because it is subversive, revolutionary, and it challenges the conformity of culture and questions the status quo. Dada, according to the poet Hugo Ball, is to “get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, Europeanised, enervated.” Dada emerged amid the brutality of World War I and the nationalism that had led to the war. Sound familiar? We need more “anti-art” now.


9.

For Freedoms

Dread Scott, A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday, 2015, ©Dread Scott. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

Dread Scott, A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday, 2015, ©Dread Scott. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

For Freedoms is an artist-run super PAC founded by Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman that empowers artists to create art that comments on timely political matters. Great examples are A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday by Dread Scott and the Make American Great Again billboard at Pearl, Mississippi. I believe the arts can impact social change and they are doing it within the system.

10.

Donald Fucking Trump

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Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung, Ep. VIII: Jizz Trumpredator vs Thug Life from #ShitWars- The Shit Awakens

I really don’t want to put Donald Fucking Trump here, but I have to. It’s like I am trying really hard to hold my projectile vomit. I spent a huge chunk of my time this year making the #ShitWars—the Shit Awakens project, and on November 8, as my friend said: “Your art project turned into reality overnight.” I can tell you, on the day Donald Trump got elected, the color of my vomit was red, white, and blue.

2016: The Year According to Asli Altay

A graphic designer and creative director living in Istanbul, Asli Altay is the founder of Future Anecdotes Istanbul, a design collective that pursues the role of design as editorial input and integral collaboration. The studio has been working closely with artists, architects, curators, publishers and cultural institutions, in search of design as a structural link between […]

asli-altay

A graphic designer and creative director living in Istanbul, Asli Altay is the founder of Future Anecdotes Istanbul, a design collective that pursues the role of design as editorial input and integral collaboration. The studio has been working closely with artists, architects, curators, publishers and cultural institutions, in search of design as a structural link between content and context. She also founded and ran Apendiks, a temporary bookshop, from her studio, which provided in-depth showcases for independent publishers.

Here as part of 2016: The Year According to                             , our annual series of artist-generated top-1o lists, she shares her perspective on the most noteworthy moments, experiences, events, and ideas from the year that was.

 

1.
Kirklareli Muze

aslialtay

Kirklareli, a small city at the Northwest corner of Turkey, is where my father is from. We went there for a weekend this year and found out that there is only one museum in town. And it is called MUZE, the museum. It is “the museum”— biology, archaeology, and ethnography all rolled into one in a small two story house of roughly 120 square meters. Stuffed animals in panoramic displays, folkloric mise-en-scenes, and relics from antiquity sit side by side, packed into the Noah’s Ark or the time capsule that museums are believed to be. At the entrance, there is a framed sign that reads: “What is a Museum?”—an overarching question that we’ve been dealing with, perhaps the most, throughout this year.

2.
“What is a Museum for?”

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This question has been keeping us busy since we started collaborating with the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, initially for an exhibition titled Who Owns The Street?, following up with a reorganization of their collection display. It has been a process of unlearning, reimagining, Skyping, dining, strolling, and testing out the very idea of the museum.

 

3.
The Menu, Chios

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An unexpected encounter: a restaurant in Chios, by the sea. Good food, bad wine, but then again we should have gone for ouzo. Twelve individual menus written and illustrated by the 9-year-old niece of the owner of the place. Amazing piece of design work.

 

4.
Emoji Silent Film Tournament

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Held in numerous WhatsApp groups with various friends, this was the game of the year. A primer in hieroglyphics.

 

5.
Back courtyards of Kurtulus

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We finally made the move to a new neighborhood in Istanbul, we now have real neighbors. Every time I go out to the balcony, it’s the same bliss. The courtyard is her yard. It starts with one woman coming out to put up her freshly washed linen, then another woman from a different balcony starts chatting her up. The rest is a tilt effect inter-balcony conversation, that goes on for hours. My soundtrack for the rest of the day.

6.
Island-themed books

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Bibliotheraphy of the year has manifested itself in semi-conscious choice of island themed books. Two highlights: Foe by J.M. Coetzee, woven around the existing story of Robinson Crusoe, but this time the story is told by a woman. Second highlight: Satin Island Tom McCarthy. We never come close to knowing the truth.

 

7.
Friends leaving Istanbul

The post-truth has its toll on our daily life. Everybody is in search of islands, one way or another.

 

8.
Palindrome of the year

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are we not drawn onward to new era?

9.
Ahali

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We’ve worked on this sporadic publication years ago as one of our first collaborations with Can, imagining that it will continue for years to come. Creating its own ways, its temporary communities and audiences, issues continue to multiply and accumulate. Following a quiet period after an anthology was published, this year was a good year for Ahali. Installed in new forms and with new selections in Bolzano (ar/ge kunst), London (tenderpixel), and the Glasgow School of Art, Ahali keeps on.

 

10.
Iaspis

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We’ve spent the half of our summer in Stockholm thanks to the invitation by the Iaspis residency program. The physical studio space ended up extending the rooms of my mental space. Pleasures of working, everyday life, and getting ready for the change. Celebrating possibilities, adaptation, and celebrating hanging out… 2016 was a milestone.

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