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Wide White Space Exhibition at the Wattis Institute

We were recently invited to participate in The Way Beyond: Wide White Space, an exhibition at the Wattis Institute in San Francisco (January 20–February 5, 2011) that focuses on exhibition design, designers who curate exhibitions, and everything in between. The show is curated by Jon Sueda of Stripe SF, who is also the resident designer […]

We were recently invited to participate in The Way Beyond: Wide White Space, an exhibition at the Wattis Institute in San Francisco (January 20–February 5, 2011) that focuses on exhibition design, designers who curate exhibitions, and everything in between. The show is curated by Jon Sueda of Stripe SF, who is also the resident designer at the Wattis and teaches at CCA.

From the press release:

“Historically, galleries and museums have been fertile arenas for graphic designers to practice, whether via exhibition catalogs, exhibition design and signage, promotional materials, or interactive media. Wide White Space will focus in particular on graphic designers who create innovative identities for exhibiting institutions, forge unique collaborations with curators, and launch their own exhibition-based initiatives.

Wide White Space will also look at how designers can extend the parameters of their practice: by consciously operating within the broader context of the art world, by taking a transdisciplinary approach, by considering physical interaction within an art gallery, and by exploring time and three-dimensional space. The featured graphic designers are contemporary and historic, American and international. They have been selected because they consciously construct a narrative around their work, position themselves as authors of autonomous creative projects, and maintain a conceptually rigorous, research-based, historically fortified approach.”

I sat down with Jon to discuss his motivations behind the show, and by sat down with Jon I mean I sent him some questions by email and pasted the responses here:

1. What does the title refer to?

Wide White Space was the name of a radical art space in Antwerp Belgium that, though it existed for only a decade, came to define contemporary art in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This exhibition likewise aims to investigate the possibilities for how empty space, whether the white cube or the blank page, can be transformed into something more complex.

2. How did you select the participants?

I always mentally catalog work in this area that I’m intrigued by. Since my practice involves this very subject, I tend to visit a lot of art spaces and museums and take note of anything I find interesting. Once I analyzed the edited selection of what I thought was essential, I broke the exhibition down into three basic areas:

1. Innovative graphic identities created for arts institutions or exhibitions.

2. Work that was a result of unique collaborations with curators or artists. These projects had to transcend the typical designer/client relationship, the result being a “third thing” which neither party could have produced independently.

3. Exhibition-based initiatives launched by graphic designers.

I wanted to bring together an international view of both contemporary and historical work to tell this story. The graphic designers in the show were selected specifically because they consciously construct a narrative around their work, position themselves as authors of autonomous creative projects, and maintain a conceptually rigorous, research-based, historically fortified approach.

3. What similarities did you see between the two museums represented in the show: the Walker and the Stedelijk?

In looking at the material from both institutions side by side there are actually more similarities than I was expecting to find. Although different designers have worked on the Walker and the Stedelijk materials through the years, recent iterations of both identities seem to reflect or pay homage to their own histories, which I think is an interesting way to approach the assignment. The Walker Expanded identity (the most recent incarnation) revisits the idea of a flexible keyboard generated identity but in a totally different way than Mathew Carter’s Walker Typeface. Similarly, the Stedelijk SMCS identity by Experimental Jetset crossbreeds Crouwel’s iconic  “SM” logotype from the 60’s with the visual language of the postal-distribution building that housed the Stedelijk temporarily from 2004–2007. Although the Walker’s design team is in-house, and the Stedelijk hires independent studios, there is perhaps a shared sensitivity and respect for each institution’s history.

4. Why do you think that a (seemingly) disproportionate number of design programs are oriented towards this kind of work?

Well…considering how many opportunities there are out there to do this kind of work in the real world, maybe assignments that involve an art or exhibition context are over emphasized in design schools. On the other hand, this context is very stimulating from an education standpoint… researching the complexities, contradictions, and processes of art/artists and using design to make sense of it, is an interesting pedagogical space to navigate… at least that’s what I love about it. I also think exhibition making and graphic design are a similar activity—we often arrange or structure text and images (that we didn’t create ourselves) to tell a story… curators do this in 3-dimensional space, we do it in other formats…maybe a book, website, poster… I’m being very general here, there are many differences too, especially the standard of criticality and research in the curatorial world that is sometimes lacking in graphic design. However this is why I wanted to put together this exhibition! The graphic designers and projects selected for Wide White Space do have this critical, conceptual, and historical rigor that I think is very important.

5. How did you tackle the design of this meta exhibition, an exhibition about exhibition design?

We chose to handle this problem by creating a gallery in the exhibition that holds fragments of many different exhibitions together. Upon first entering the space, the divisions are not obvious, but in the center of the room is a long vitrine that contains all the documentation, catalogs, or gallery flyers for these exhibitions and helps to separate and contextualize each fragment.

I also invited three designers to stage exhibitions within the Wide White Space exhibition. Hansje van Halem is organizing one of her Schrank 8 exhibitions both in her home gallery in Amsterdam and the Wattis simultaneously. During the opening, Mylinh Trieu Nguyen will do a project called Ships Passing in the Night, which will be a live online distribution of an exhibition. Each piece in her show will be available for view and download for the duration of exactly 5 minutes. During the opening, we will download, print and install these works in the gallery. Finally, Daniel Eatock and Vaska have created an analog version of their Indexhibit website which invites visitors to display their own work in the exhibition.

Additionally there will be an adjunct program called Wider White Space. This will include a conversation series featuring presentations by members of our faculty here at CCA: Bob Aufuldish, Rachel Berger, Eric Heiman, Wendy Ju, MacFadden & Thorpe, Emily McVarish, Michael Vanderbyl, and Martin Venezky. Two designers will be pairing up on Tuesday and Thursday evenings during the two-week duration of the exhibition to basically build upon the context of the show itself. Each of these designers intersects the subject of the exhibition in different ways, so each evening will be focused on a specific area that stems from their interests.

Wider White Space will also be a course at CCA! Along with Jens Hoffmann and Claire Fitzsimmons (Director and Deputy Director of the Wattis respectively), I will be teaching a course this semester that extends this exhibition throughout the spring. In the course, students will select one of the designers/design groups from the exhibition and create a series of smaller solo exhibitions that will be hosted on the CCA San Francisco Campus. Right now the studios that have agreed to participate are: the Walker Art Center, Project Projects, APFEL, and Experimental Jetset. I’m very excited about this as well!

Featured designers in the exhibition: APFEL, Irma Boom, Laurenz Brunner and Julia Born, Sara De Bondt, Mevis and Van Deursen, Dexter Sinister, Indexhibit, Experimental Jetset, Will Holder, Zak Kyes, James Langdon, LUST, Niessen & de Vries, Practise, Project Projects, Yann Sérandour and Jérôme Saint-Loubert Bié, Stedelijk Museum, Sulki and Min, Mylinh Trieu Nguyen, Hansje van Halem, Walker Art Center

Images, from top to bottom: Jon Sueda, Experimental Jetset, Experimental Jetset, Mevis & van Deursen, Hansje van Halem, Julia Born and Laurenz Brunner, Will Holder, Werkplaats Typografie, Fraser Muggeridge Studio, James Langdon