Blogs The Gradient

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 […]

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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

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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.

2016: The Year According to James Bridle

James Bridle‘s writings and art often explore the intersections of technology, politics, culture, and citizenship. Launched the day before his 2015 keynote at the Walker’s Superscript conference, for instance, his Citizen X creates a visualization of web users’ “algorithmic citizenship,” all the geographic locations one’s internet data passes through. And his 2014 Artist Op-Ed examined a movement in his native […]
jamesbridle_speaking James Bridle‘s writings and art often explore the intersections of technology, politics, culture, and citizenship. Launched the day before his 2015 keynote at the Walker’s Superscript conference, for instance, his Citizen X creates a visualization of web users’ “algorithmic citizenship,” all the geographic locations one’s internet data passes through. And his 2014 Artist Op-Ed examined a movement in his native UK to “deprive” terror suspects of their citizenship. Fittingly, his contribution to the series 2016: The Year According to                              touches on these core themes, but from a new geography—his new home in Athens, Greece.

1.

Refugee Crisis and the Flag for No Nations

On the 17th of January I planted a flag on the shoreline in Athens made from a foil emergency blanket. It’s not a particularly new or unique artistic gesture, but for me it connected a number of thoughts about technology and politics which set the tone for the next 12 months, with an emphasis on DIY and critical thinking. The refugee crisis has been very hard on Greece, and it’s not over yet; in fact, this is merely the initial phase of a far larger and far more devastating global crisis. But I’ve been privileged to see the myriad ways individuals and groups respond, from those braving the sea crossing to the Greek islands to those working to help them in camps and squats on the mainland. The future is hard, and it starts here.

2.

Xylouris White

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I saw Xylouris White—Cretan singer and laouto player George Xylouris and Dirty Three drummer Jim White—play the opening of the Niarchos Foundation in June. Everybody danced. Their album Black Peak, released a month later, has been on heavy rotation ever since.

3.

Jo Cox

Nigel Farage, the tinpot leader of the UK Independence Party, declared on the morning following the Brexit referendum that his side had emerged victorious “without a single bullet being fired.” Eight days previously, Member of Parliament Jo Cox had been killed in the street by a fascist yelling “Britain First.” UKIP’s own election material was filled with racist and xenophobic material. Personally, as a UK citizen living in the EU, I have no idea what the future holds, but I benefit from an immense amount of other privileges. What is more concerning is the abdication of hope, the refusal to believe that we can do better than this. I say now what I said then: Fuck hatred, fuck violence, fuck borders, fuck Brexit.

4.

The Santa Cruz School

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In October of 2015 I saw Karen Barad speak at the Through Post-Atomic Eyes symposium in Toronto: a rare and genuinely life-changing experience. Since then, trying to catch up, the work of Barad and companion writers have become central to my thinking and doing: Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble and the particular success of Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World (both published this year) point to the growing awareness of this work, and along with Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter and Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark have been personal touchstones for 2016.  

5.

Lightbulb DDOS

Just ahead of the Ethereum heist, the Brexit flash crash, and the first automated driving fatality, the massive attack on the internet performed by household objects—fridges, lightbulbs, cameras, and thermostats—gets this year’s award for WTF Futures. The Internet of Angry Things is here, and your toaster hates democracy.  

6.

Latraac

Photo: Angelos Giotopoulos

Photo: Angelos Giotopoulos

Watching my friend Zachos Varfis’s project Latraac evolve over the last year has been wonderful. A skate bowl and social space in a once-vacant lot in the Kerameikos neighbourhood in Athens, Latraac is visionary and beautiful.

7.

Turbulence

Turbulence is on the rise. Just another marker of a world on fire but one that strikes a particularly dark, anthropocentric chord: low-atmosphere Kessler syndrome, the metaphors becoming real, and vice versa. Global warming is not a threat in the future: it’s happening now and everything is entangled.  

8.

Journals and Newsletters

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In response to the above, the Dark Mountain Journal has been particularly helpful, as has Rob Meyer’s Not Doomed Yet. Journals and newsletters are resurgent/emergent forms full of necessary and nourishing goodness: many thanks to Dan Hon, Warren Ellis, Charlie Loyd, and Salvage for their regular appearance in my inbox.  

9.

Suzanne Treister

Suzanne Treister, HFT The Gardener video still, High Frequency Trading Floor, 2014-15

Suzanne Treister, HFT The Gardener video still, High Frequency Trading Floor, 2014–2015

I was lucky enough to see far too many exhibitions to pick from this year, with some wonderful recognition for some of my favorite artists, including the Jarman Award for Heather Phillipson and the Turner Prize for Helen Marten. Alongside Sophia al-Maria’s installation at the Whitney, and Cecile B. Evans and Hito Steyerl’s work at the Berlin Biennale, I’d like to highlight Suzanne Treister’s HFT The Gardener, which I saw at Annely Juda in the summer. Gematria, algorithms, and psychotropics FTW.

10.

Syros

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I moved to Athens in September 2015—this has been my first full year in Greece. One of the highlights of the summer was the Syros Film Festival, and the highlight of that was a drive-in screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey on a village football pitch. About half-way through the film, the bright point of the International Space Station passed in an arc over the screen, the sky already filled with bright Aegean stars. When the film finished, all the cars tooted their horns to The Blue Danube, and I fell asleep, brimful with raki, on a beach.

2016: The Year According to Paul Soulellis

Photo: Antoine Lefebre, Artzines Paul Soulellis is a graphic designer, artist, publisher and teacher. He works in New York City and Providence, RI. Soulellis is the founder of Library of the Printed Web, a physical archive devoted to web-to-print artists’ books, zines and other printout matter. He curates, designs, and publishes print-on-demand publications that have featured […]

Artzines / Antoine Lefebvre

Photo: Antoine Lefebre, Artzines

Paul Soulellis is a graphic designer, artist, publisher and teacher. He works in New York City and Providence, RI. Soulellis is the founder of Library of the Printed Web, a physical archive devoted to web-to-print artists’ books, zines and other printout matter. He curates, designs, and publishes print-on-demand publications that have featured the work of over 180 contemporary artists. Soulellis is a faculty member at Rhode Island School of Design and a contributing editor at Rhizome, where he curates The Download.

Here, Soulellis shares his perspective as 2016 closes, as part of our annual series 2016: The Year According to                               .

 

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Dennis Cooper, Zac’s Freight Elevator

Dennis Cooper’s novels really worked on me in the early ’90s. I lost track of him until this year, when I discovered that his latest work doesn’t contain written language at all. Now he tells stories with stacks of GIFs that he finds online, packaged into ZIP files. They feel like long scrolls or Tumblr posts; he develops them on his well-tended blog, which was famously deleted by Google this past summer. (All of the work was eventually returned.) These browser-based GIF novels and poems have characters and plot lines, but no words. And they feel every bit as violent and transgressive as his literary works. I recently wrote about Zac’s Freight Elevator, his latest novel. This deep dive into the possibilities of the found GIF helped me to understand how distributing open-source(-ish) downloadable ZIP files on the network can be an act of preservation, a form of protection, and a good way to publish art.

 

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Lorna Mills, Ways of Something, Episode 4, minute 7, Dave Greber

For Lorna Mills the GIF is a kind of cinema, and her work is a fantastic explosion of GIF-making energy. But she also has this remarkable way of bringing people together around her practice. She recently curated more than 113 artists to remake the four-hour-long television-broadcast version of John Berger’s 1972 Ways of Seeing. Each artist chose a one-minute clip and provided their own one-minute work in response. Lorna assembled them into a rewriting of the original series. It’s a tremendous, generous work that’s larger than its parts, and it’s featured in the Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905–2016 exhibition at the Whitney right now. I watched Lorna’s communal parade of digital makers and then laid down on the floor in Ben Coonley’s Trading Futures, a 3D experience in a cardboard geodesic dome that shares the same gallery space at the Whitney.  

 

 

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I seem to be into collaborative works this year. It probably has something to do with a renewed sense of urgency around collective belonging, which feels especially threatened right now. Since this summer I’ve been in awe of Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke’s epic collaborative work, The 3D Additivist Cookbook, which was three years in the making. The 360-page publication, inspired by William Powell’s Anarchist Cookbook, features 120 artists. It’s a manifesto-in-action for #Additivism, their movement to radicalize, queerify, politicize, and otherwise critically provoke 3D printing, additive technologies, and maker culture. I’m totally fascinated that they released this work as a 3D PDF—a file with dozens of embedded objects that can be viewed and manipulated in Adobe Reader (and printed at home). An archive of source files was also released as a 6GB torrent, making this a stunning example of network-based experimental publishing. I was honored to be a part of the launch at Printed Matter on December 2.

 

 

Christopher Clary, My Porn, Volume 1 [pic Paul Soulellis]

Christopher Clary, My Porn Volume 1, Photo: Paul Soulellis

Christopher Clary in Printed Web 4 [2016]

Christopher Clary in Printed Web 4, 2016

Attending the launch of the Cookbook with me was Christopher Clary, an artist who works with gay porn. In his practice he tries to provoke by finding it, collecting it, re-making and restaging it, and eventually destroying it. Shame and disappointment always seem to lurk just below the surface of Christopher’s practice. I was introduced to him years ago, but we only met in person last year, when I curated him as the first in the Rhizome Download series. Since then, I’ve seen him transform that commission (Sorry to dump on you like this.zip) into an all-encompassing, obsessive body of work that keeps him and his audience very busy. Every Sunday at 5 pm he restages a single JPG from his collection, performs it on CAM4, and auctions the props on eBay (FKNJPGS). His work around image, body, appropriation, identity and queer performance is significant and I can’t wait to see what he does with these 52 performances in 2017.

 

Printed Matter’s NY Art Book Fair / zine tent [pic Paul Soulellis]

Zine tent at Printed Matter’s NY Art Book Fair. Photo: Paul Soulellis

Christopher and I both exhibited at Printed Matter’s NY Art Book Fair in September. I can’t overstate the importance of the art book fair as a model for growing creative communities. Given the looming threat to arts funding, supporting (and enjoying) the fairs feels more relevant than ever. Printed Matter popularized the form in New York and LA, but artists, collectors, fans, and independent publishers like myself are now addicted to new fairs that are being held all over the calendar, all over the planet. This year I was able to attend Miss Read in Berlin for the first time, and this month brings me and RISD to the Odds and Ends Yale Art Book Fair for the third year in a row. But it’s Internet Yami-Ichi (“a flea market for browsing in real life”), started in Tokyo by the Japanese duo Exonemo, that totally transforms this indie spirit into something else. Not really a book fair or a flea market but somehow drawing on the energy of both of those models, this is a place to celebrate network culture and weirdness in physical space.

 

NYC / November 12, 2016 [pic Paul Soulellis]

NYC, November 12, 2016. Photo: Paul Soulellis

Gran Fury, _Silence = Death_, yearTBD

Gran Fury, Silence = Death, 1987

Gathering at the front door of Trump Tower the night after the election, in a spontaneous act of protest, I was sad, confused, and disoriented. By that weekend, marching up Fifth Avenue, the massive public display of energy had transformed into solidarity and action. I showed up without a sign and realized that carrying messages and symbols of resistance in this political crisis will be crucial. Whether we march in physical space or broadcast and amplify online, how do we send clear messages that cut through the noise? This is an essential question for today’s graphic design students. As a teacher, I recently looked back to the work of Gran Fury during the Reagan-era AIDS crisis for inspiration, and traced the history of the pink triangle. Graphic design that feels urgent, necessary, critical, even dark. Do we need a symbol now? What’s our message of resistance in the current crisis? I don’t have answers, but I’m looking.

 

 

[pic Paul Soulellis]

Photo: Paul Soulellis

In the middle of the march that first weekend after the election, somewhere around Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, I ran into my friend Sal Randolph. Sal is an artist and she recently started a new listening/publishing space called Dispersed Holdings, with David Richardson. They now host screenings, happenings, and reading events, enjoyed on grey felt cushions with red stitching, fashioned by David. The space, on the third floor of a very old building on the Bowery, used to be Eva Hesse’s apartment. Sal and David refer to Eva casually, like she’s still in residence, and keep her diaries and a photo on the mantle. These are two remarkable people who are devoted to nurturing creative space for community gatherings—friends, fans, and strangers communing in experience and experimentation. Their events are public, but intimate, occupying some sweet spot between a salon, a dinner party, and an open reading.

 

 

Bulletin [pic Paul Soulellis]

Bulletin. Photo: Paul Soulellis

We need small, independent artists’ spaces now more than ever. They’re safe places for experimentation, where time slows down—real resistance to the commercial art world. Alternatives to the corporate paradigm. Philip Tomaru of Arts and Sciences Projects and Metropolitan Structures is soon to start a new one: Bulletin (located within Bullet, an artists’ space in the East Village). I dropped in to preview the tiny space, which contained an ad hoc display of zines by artist friends on a white shelf. A window looks directly out onto East 3rd Street, and I get the sense that this will be a kind of inside-outside laboratory, with just enough space to install and celebrate. A minimal move that yields something communal and powerful. This spirit of risk-taking and making public feels more and more valuable; urgent, even. Especially now.

2016: The Year According to OK-RM

OK-RM. Photo: Lena C. Emery OK-RM is an independent studio founded in London in 2008 by Oliver Knight and Rory McGrath. Known for its distinctive perspective on design and art direction within contemporary art, culture, and commerce, OK-RM fuses a dedicated content-driven approach with a grounding in conceptual thinking. Recent commissions include the exhibition design and campaign […]

OK-RM. Photo: Lena C. Emery

OK-RM. Photo: Lena C. Emery

OK-RM is an independent studio founded in London in 2008 by Oliver Knight and Rory McGrath. Known for its distinctive perspective on design and art direction within contemporary art, culture, and commerce, OK-RM fuses a dedicated content-driven approach with a grounding in conceptual thinking. Recent commissions include the exhibition design and campaign for Fear and Love (Design Museum), visual identities for Manus × Machina (The Met), the British Pavilion in Venice, and Under the Same Sun (Guggenheim New York) as well as book projects with artists Fos and Shezad Dawood. In early 2015, OK-RM founded InOtherWords, a publishing imprint creating books and other printed matter in close collaboration with artists, writers, galleries, and other cultural protaganists.

Here, Knight and McGrath share their perspectives as 2016 closes, as part of our annual series 2016: The Year According to                              .

 

1.
A reflection on what it means to live today

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Real Review, Issue 2, Autumn 2016. Photo: Max Creasy

September 2016 saw the launch of Real Review as it set out to celebrate the review format, an under-appreciated and underused critical writing format that has the ability to encompass an entire epoch. It’s dedicated to all reading levels: those who have no knowledge of architecture, and those who have been practicing for decades. It’s aim: removing barriers for the casual reader to enter into the world of architecture, without making it a dull or generic read for actual architects.

Too many magazines are taking on the qualities of books. They become these beautiful objects, technically well-executed but often empty of content. People own them, but they don’t read them. The Real Review is an exercise in minimums and constraints. It is engineered to be the most efficient and resourceful design. Making a printed publication is expensive and complicated, so every square millimeter counts. In this sense, we treat the page like real estate. It’s also a reflection on contemporary ephemerality. All magazines should be something that reflect their own time. They should be disposable, with only a precise moment of being useful, and then they are lost. This is why we say the Real Review is pursuing “what it means to live today”—it’s beautiful, but not precious.

2.
A place for production, research, conservation, presentation, and mediation of art

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Approaching Sitterwerk

Our close friend Roland Früh is the librarian of Sitterwerk. Nestled in a Swiss valley not far from Zürich in Sittertal, it’s one those perfect examples of a nonprofit multi-purpose center for arts.

3.
An exhibition that points toward the importance/changing role of design in our time

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Fear and Love at the Design Museum, 2016. Photo: Max Creasy

Fear and Love is an ambitious opening exhibition that “steps beyond the traditional certainties of design in which form follows functions and problems are solved.” It questions the role of design within a complex world and sets out to challenge its audience’s perception of what design is. From our perspective this is a refreshing and exciting stance for the Design Museum to be taking.

4.
An art collector, museum director, curator and book specialist that we should have know about before

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Pontus Hultén. Photographer unknown

Pontus Hultén was director of the Moderna Museet for 15 years (1958–1973). Hultén defined the museum as an elastic and open space, hosting a plethora of activities within its walls: lectures, films series, concerts, and debates. Outside of museum walls Hultén disseminated the ideas, processes and works of artists through a set of catalogues that offer insight into the potential of close collaboration and the form of the book.

5.
A compulsive volume of books

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Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness is one of the most beautifully obsessive, material-aware books we have ever had the pleasure to flick through. It is a hybrid artist’s book come exhibition catalogue available in three colors (yellow, red, and green), each featuring remarkably subtle differences in layout. Apart from the consciously minimal words “Printed in Germany” on the back page, the book is pure image and space, paced to perfection.

6.
An exhibition curated through time in the home

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Home Economics, British Pavilion, Venice Architecture Biennale 2016

Curator of Architecture section of the Venice Biennale 2016, Alejandro Aravena called on each country to define its own “frontline of architecture,” and by doing so tried to question the entire definition of architecture. At the British pavilion, a team of young curators—Jack Self, Finn Williams, and Shumi Bose—looked at the societal failure to provide sufficient housing in Britain today, making the statement that this is “not just a housing crisis; it is a crisis of the home.” Home Economics was founded as an exhibition that proposed five new models for domestic life. Curated by time of domestic occupancy the models are presented as full-scale 1:1 interiors in the British Pavilion, displaying architectural proposals as a direct spatial experience.

7.
An exploration into the borders between virtual and material reality/fact and fiction 

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Shezad Dawood, Kalimpong (Ekai Kawaguchi) and Kalimpong (Alexandra David-Néel), 2016. Copyright Shezad Dawood, courtesy Timothy Taylor

Shezad Dawood works across film, painting, and sculpture to juxtapose discrete systems of image, language, site, and multiple narratives. He is a keen collaborator and enjoys bringing a team close to investigate the lines of enquiry. We worked with Shezad for the second time on Kalimpong, where we dived with him into a world lost in time where the past echoes the present—where historical fact meets the fictional or speculative.

8.
An artwork that gives back

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Federico Herrero, Pelican Estate, video still, 2016

Federico Herrero’s site-specific work in a playground at Pelican Estate, Peckham, was one of the highlights of Under the Same Sun, presented by South London Gallery and the Guggenheim New York. The artist expressed his intention to create a work that was part of an experience within the locality, rather than being a decoration on top of it. This work plays closely to one of South London’s Gallery core aims to bring art closer to its community.

9.
A stimulating read by one the most eminent social theorists

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Zygmunt Bauman. Photographer unknown

In his book Liquid Modernity, Zygmunt Bauman examines “how we have moved away from a ‘heavy’ and ‘solid’, hardware-focused modernity to a ‘light’ and ‘liquid,’ software-based modernity.” A 91-year-old socialist who has lived through many political, cultural, and social eras and seen more changes than most, his passion and clarity on today’s complex matters humbles us.

10.
A Healthy View

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View from OK-RM studio, 2016

After eight years of OK-RM we have moved studios, not far—just round the corner—but now with 180-degree of views of the London skylineFrom the east we can enjoy a cacophony of concrete, brick, and glass, from Denys Lasdun’s “Keeling House” to Norman Foster’s “Gherkin.” We recently learnt from a “NetDoctor” that studies have shown that a view can boost self-esteem and those who can look out of a window have greater job satisfaction than those who cannot. With this knowledge we look forward to what 2017 brings…

2016: The Year According to Mary Ping

Mary Ping. Photo: Joyce Ravid Mary Ping is a New York–based designer. In 2001, she launched her eponymous collection, following it the next year with her conceptual line, Slow and Steady Wins the Race. Her work is included in the permanent collections of the Museum at FIT, the RISD Museum, DESTE Foundation, and the Victoria and Albert […]

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Mary Ping. Photo: Joyce Ravid

Mary Ping is a New York–based designer. In 2001, she launched her eponymous collection, following it the next year with her conceptual line, Slow and Steady Wins the Race. Her work is included in the permanent collections of the Museum at FIT, the RISD Museum, DESTE Foundation, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. She is a member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Here, she shares her perspective on 2016 in this year’s edition of 2016: The Year According to                               .

2016 was a year that was bookmarked by the passing of cultural heroes and the dawn of an unknown that has been a reality in the making. Too much to distill, so these ten moments were chosen more about their inherent sense of longevity. We are moving faster than we can keep up in many ways, so paying attention and adhering to a long path is crucial. Memory is a responsibility.

1.
Taryn Simon, The Paperwork and the Will of Capital 

Decision of general principle to ban third-party ownership of players’ economic rights. Zurich, Switzerland, September 26, 2014 Photo: © Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Taryn Simon, Decision of general principle to ban third-party ownership of players’ economic rights. Zurich, Switzerland, September 26, 2014. Photo: © Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

The last show of Taryn Simon‘s I saw was Contraband at Lever House, a photographic series of more than 1,000 items seized at JFK airport and exhaustively documented over five days. It continues to sit with me. Her show at Gagosian at the start of this year had a similar investigative approach. We forget the charged potency that mundane objects sitting in plain sight can carry with them and yet hide so well. From the press release: “Paperwork and the Will of Capital addresses the instability of executive decision-making and the precarious nature of survival”—a foreshadowing of how 2016 ended and the new world order of 2017.

2.
Maira Kalman in Conversation with Rolf Fehlbaum

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I’ve been a fan of Maira Kalman since discovering the work of her husband, Tibor Kalman. Oh duh! I thought, a genius with a genius muse at his side. Hearing her speak only made me hope that one day I would get to hang out with her.

3.
Marni, the Final Collection

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I’m a huge believer that when women design for women; there is a lot more interesting subtext happening within each thing that goes on the body. Conseulo Castilgioni, the founder of Marni, announced that her Spring 2017 collection was to be her last and that she’d be stepping down to spend more time with her family. Take a few minutes, put the collection on slideshow, and watch in sequence and in its entirety—it’s better than most films.

4.
MoMA : Items A to Z

Working with Paola Antonelli, Michelle Fisher, and the other members of the MoMA Architecture and Design department has been a true highlight of the year, and I am excited that it will continue into the next. The email exchanges alone make my hungry brain feel full while simultaneously forcing me to step up to the plate. The full day’s symposium addressing topics from A to Z in the anthropology of fashion is available to view. I had the challenging task of reminding people about the Rana Plaza factory tragedy with my co-presenter, Carmen Artigas. I hope these world conflicts further cement the need for responsibility in the supply chain.

5.
PYE Pajamas

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Photo: Rory Van Millingen

PYE is a brand based in Hong Kong that truly does go from seed to shirt. They are in charge of planting the cotton, ginning it, weaving it and so forth. Aside from meticulous shirting for men, they also make the best pajamas.

6.
Stranger Things

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The Duffer Brothers created the best memory album of the’80s this summer with Stranger Things. It is a shared nostalgia of my generation’s childhood passed onto those who were too young to experience it first-hand. It is also very important to point out at that these are kids spending time together using their imagination, going on adventures, and not looking down at a mini screen in their hands, ignoring each other. I must have watched all the episodes seven times each.

7.
Cass McCombs’s Mangy Love

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Cass McCombs’s music has an incredible and inexplicable way of making you listen to all the new work on repeat while also conjuring up all his previous albums at the same time. All of a sudden “Windfall” from Dropping the Writ begins to emerge again from the back of your brain, or “Everything Has to Be Just So” from Big Wheels and Others is waiting to be called up next. The music is timely and timeless, yet untethered to any era or anything. I’m only repeating what has been written many times before, which is that he really is one of the great songwriters of this generation and now that role is more important than ever.

8.
In Valentano, Italy

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Many heartfelt thanks goes to the curators and president at Fondation Galeries Lafayette. Without the commission of the Slow and Steady Wins the Race installation for their exhibition in October, I would not have met the Made-in-Town organization in Paris that introduced me to the mind-blowingly amazing enterprise and artisans at Monteneri, an atelier project situated in the 13th-century lakeside town of Valentano. Working side by side with expert leather craftsman who were combining both traditional knowledge from the region and forward thinking practices of lean and green manufacturing made me even more confident in a better future for the endless production cycles created by our own consumption.

9.
Mark Van Yetter at Bridget Donahue

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Mark is one of those friends who is just your friend. A pal. A bud. Multiple story lines exist where and how you became friends back in the day. He is also one of those people who will surprise you with the fact that he actually paints and then go on to completely sandbag you with how excellent those paintings are. Mark is both face value and a mystery. Spend some quality time with these paintings and it will be more clear.

10.
Don’t Blink by Robert Frank

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Finally, if I had to place some films in a time capsule, this documentary—along with In No Great Hurry, about the life of Saul Leiter—would be immediate choices. Writing about this film won’t illuminate anything, you simply have to watch it. Robert Frank, a Swiss immigrant, responsible for some of the most historically emblematic moments of America.

All Printing Is Political: Fredy Perlman and the Detroit Printing Co-op

Above: Fredy Perlman, The Incoherence of the Intellectual, C. Wright Mills’ Struggle to Unite Knowledge and Action, Black & Red Press, Detroit, 1970 With resurgent interest in things such as letterpressed invitations, silkscreened gig posters, and Risograph publishing—relatively benign tokens of print’s post-Internet afterlife—the exhibition Fredy Perlman and the Detroit Printing Co-op at 9338 Campau Gallery in Hamtramck, Michigan, comes […]

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Above: Fredy Perlman, The Incoherence of the Intellectual, C. Wright Mills’ Struggle to Unite Knowledge and Action, Black & Red Press, Detroit, 1970

With resurgent interest in things such as letterpressed invitations, silkscreened gig posters, and Risograph publishing—relatively benign tokens of print’s post-Internet afterlife—the exhibition Fredy Perlman and the Detroit Printing Co-op at 9338 Campau Gallery in Hamtramck, Michigan, comes as a timely reminder that all printing was (and is) political. The connections between politics and printing shouldn’t surprise us since its fundamental rightness is enshrined in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution as a founding trope of American democracy.

It wasn’t always the case. The colonial governor of Virginia, Sir William Berkeley, in 1671 decreed: “I thank God there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these [for a] hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both!” He pretty much got his wish. Because, as several social commentators have pointed out and certain publishing magnates have aptly demonstrated, freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one. Thus, an elemental principle of democracy often collides with a fundamental law of capitalism, as ownership offers both the power of control and the privilege of access.

The Incoherence of the Intellectual

Fredy Perlman, The Incoherence of the Intellectual, C. Wright Mills’ Struggle to Unite Knowledge and
Action
, Black & Red Press, Detroit, 1970

The Detroit Printing Co-op existed from 1969 to 1985 in southwest Detroit, and as its founding manifesto decreed, offered printing facilities and equipment as “social property” to “provide access to all those individuals in the community who desire to express themselves (on a non-profit basis), with charges made only to maintain the print shop (rent, utilities, materials, maintenance of the machinery).” Perlman was not by training a printer or a designer. He had studied subjects such as philosophy, political science, European literature, and economics at places like UCLA, Columbia, and the University of Belgrade, where he received his doctorate. He went on to become an author, editor, publisher, printer, and designer. Despite a brief period in academia, Perlman was what designer Jan van Toorn calls a “practical intellectual,” someone engaged in ideas and issues but whose vocation is materially productive—more blue collar than ivory tower. Such a figure seems like a chimera today. However, in the fervor of the 1960s with its blend of Left politics, social activism, and union strength many more alliances across classes and races seemed possible. Working outside of systems, whether military, industrial, or academic, seemed less idealistic and more necessary.

In 1969, Fredy Perlman and his wife and partner Lorraine Nybakken moved to Detroit, a hotbed of countercultural activities and alternative publishing, including the Fifth Estate, an underground newspaper where both would become longtime contributors. Shortly after their arrival, Perlman and a group of kindred spirits purchased a printing press from a defunct Chicago-based militant printer and shipped it to Detroit. The Detroit Printing Co-op was born, which included the Black and Red Press, Perlman’s and Nybakken’s own imprint.

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The union seal or “bug” for the Detroit Printing Co-op, 1969

The large window that fronts the 9338 Campau Gallery in Detroit’s Hamtramck neighborhood displays a greatly enlarged union seal, or “bug,” which declares in all caps: “Abolish the Wage System, Abolish the State, All Power to the Workers!” Such seals were used to identify those goods produced by union represented shops, although few were emblazoned with such slogans. This act of political defiance reflected the Co-op’s choice of belated membership in the Industrial Workers of the World, a union first formed in the early twentieth century with strong socialist, anarchist, and Marxist roots.

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Left: Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Black & Red Press translation and edition,
1970; Right: revised second edition of the book, 1977

Perhaps the best known publication of Black and Red Press is Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, for which Perlman and others had provided the first English, albeit unauthorized, translation of the Situationist philosopher’s influential 1967 treatise on the conflation of advanced capitalism and mass media. In Debord’s view, authentic social relations had been replaced by its representation. Illustrated with striking black-and-white images culled from various archives (the original text contained no illustrations), Perlman it could be argued performed a détournement of sorts, using the cult of the image against itself. A first edition of the book from 1970 shows the front cover depicting, like windows onto a soulless landscape, the exterior of a banal office building, its workers visible inside through a grid of illuminated windows; on the back cover a crop of an rather impassive audience watching a film wearing 3D glasses—their dark lenses obliterating the eyes. Readers may remember the book’s 1977 revised edition better, when the back cover image became the front cover.

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Fredy and Lorraine Perlman printed Radical America from 1970–1977. The journal was birthed by members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the 1960s and later adopted a thematic approach covering a wide range of socially progressive topics and leftwing political issues.

The Co-op would print journals like Radical America, formed by the Students for a Democratic Society; books such as The Political Thought of James Forman printed by Carl Smith of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers; and the occasional broadsheet, such as Judy Campbell’s stirring indictment, “Open letter from ‘white bitch’ to the black youths who beat up on me and my friend,” the victim of an assault after leaving a Gay Liberation Dance. The work of the Co-op reflects both the agency and urgency, to borrow a phrase from designer Lorraine Wild, of the period’s tumultuous times.

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Left: Wildcat Dodge Truck, authored by strike participants and supporters, Black & Red Press, 1974; Right: Judy Campbell, “Open letter from ‘white bitch’ to the black youths who beat up on me and my friend,” Black & Red Press, 1973

If one is expecting to see a series of dry, colorless political texts or propagandistic tracts, then you would be pleasantly surprised. What is perhaps most striking about the work on display is its engagement with the processes and materiality of printing. The exploration of overprinting, use of collage techniques, range of papers, and so on underscores the point that behind the calls to action and class consciousness there is innate sense of experimentation and pride of craft. As the curator of the exhibition, Danielle Aubert, a Detroit-based designer and educator, duly notes, Perlman’s works “illustrate the evident joy he took in the act of printing.” Working with a printing press that was, in 1970, already 50 years old meant that the final product would retain a certain roughness and inexactness, which nevertheless got the job done. It’s impossible not to view the work through today’s Risograph printing revival or even the Gestetner-fueled mimeograph revolution of the 1960s.

Lining the walls of the gallery are color enlargements of portraits of revolutionary leaders throughout history overlaid with blackletter drop capitals. The images are culled from Perlman’s satirical critique, Manual for Revolutionary Leaders (1972), a text that expresses the disdain Perlman had for authoritarian ideologues of all stripes. As Aubert relates: “When leaders proclaimed ‘All power to the people,’ Perlman heard ‘All power to the leader.’” Perlman’s use of collage and overprinting is also on grand display in his text influenced by his former teacher, The Incoherence of the Intellectual: C. Wright Mills’ Struggle to Unite Knowledge and Action (1970). Perlman’s interest in materiality as an expression of labor as well as the power inherent in self-publishing was already apparent in the early 1960s, before the Co-op was founded, when he authored, and with his wife Lorraine, printed and published, The New Freedom: Corporate Capitalism (1961). A simple chipboard cover with a decal wraps a stack of hand-cranked mimeographed signatures—humble materials for sure, but a painstaking process of production yielding just under 100 copies. Inside, they note: “The choice of materials was influenced by the extremely limited financial means of the author and artist, but both hope their attempt to make a book whose outward shape was consistent with its content has been successful enough to encourage others to follow their example.”

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Above: Fredy Perlman, The Incoherence of the Intellectual, C. Wright Mills’ Struggle to Unite Knowledge and Action, Black & Red Press, Detroit, 1970

 

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Above: Fredy Perlman, The Birth of a Revolutionary Movement in Yugoslavia, 1969

The exhibition that Aubert has assembled is refreshing on at least two levels. First, it adds to the history of graphic design a seemingly unlikely contributor working from not only outside the mainstream profession and economy, but also from the ground up. Secondly, it offers a counterpoint to the thinness of content that too often circulates in the design world of self-publishing. After all, the point shouldn’t be just to “make” something, but to also say something. Many graphic designers have taken up the printing press in its varied forms in recent years, and the motivations undoubtedly vary from person to person. The social dimension of independent printing, evidence of its current evolution, was on display in one of the public programs that accompanied the exhibition, which focused on skill- and tool-sharing enterprises. However, I’m left to wonder if the cult of the entrepreneur and its lone disruptor model that has governed twenty-first-century life thus far has not displaced the potential of cooperative action and collective invention. At the heart of the Detroit Printing Co-op was a radical economic model that opened a space for personal experimentation, and not the reverse. As Aubert rightly surmises: “I would argue that some of [Perlman’s] experimental energy stemmed from the political and economic structure of the printing co-op itself—the decision not to work for wages or monetize his time. The concerted attempt to work, to labor, as a printer, but not for money, led to design and printing decisions that would not be rational in a for-profit environment structured according to the rules of capitalism.”

—Andrew Blauvelt is director of the Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

Karel Martens, Joy, and Five Years of P!: An Interview with Prem Krishnamurthy

  Even after four years of programming, the New York storefront P! has managed to elude any form of archetypal gallery classification. The freewheeling spirit of P! can be attributed to its founder, Prem Krishnamurthy, whom many reading this blog know from his graphic design studio, Project Projects. Prem’s profound understanding of both graphic design and curating elucidates interesting relationships […]

Karel Martens, Recent Work. Photo: Sebastian Bach

 

Even after four years of programming, the New York storefront P! has managed to elude any form of archetypal gallery classification. The freewheeling spirit of P! can be attributed to its founder, Prem Krishnamurthy, whom many reading this blog know from his graphic design studio, Project Projects. Prem’s profound understanding of both graphic design and curating elucidates interesting relationships between the two disciplines. In each show Prem makes it a priority to juxtapose work from a spectrum of fields in order to question boundaries and reveal connections between seemingly disparate practices. It is this sort of inter-disciplinary approach in P!’s programming that we at the Walker design studio find so engaging.

If you’ve unwittingly happened upon the space over the years, you are just as likely to find a reading room, experimental techno celebration, or currency exchange station. In response to the diversity of work, the architecture of P! finds itself an active collaborator; evolving to create a unique spatial context for each show. At one point this meant a green ceiling under the guidance of a feng shui master; at another, it evolved into a new gallery altogether under the name K.  Kicking off the final season in the storefront is the exhibition Karel Martens, Recent Work. The show is an appropriate bookend, not only because of Martens’s participation in the inaugural P! show, Process 01: Joy (2012) but the way many of his pieces occupy the ambiguous ground between graphic design and contemporary art.

In the following interview we discuss Recent Work, the relationship between Prem’s design and curatorial practice, and what’s next for P! after the storefront.

 

Karel Martens: Recent Work, opening

Karel Martens, Recent Work, opening. Photo: Emily Smith

 

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The Ceiling Should Be Green (天花板應該是綠色的), curated by Prem Krishnamurthy and Ali Wong. Artists: Mel Bochner, Rico Gatson, Tony Labat, Ohad Meromi, Shana Moulton, Connie Samaras, Jessica Stockholder, Wong Kit Yi, Wen Yau (2013). Photo: Naho Kubota

 

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Michal Helfman, I’m so broke I can’t pay attention (2015). Photo: Sebastian Bach

 

Ben Schwartz: To begin, could you tell us a bit about putting together the current show, Karel Martens, Recent Work? Given Martens’s history with printed matter, I’m particularly curious about the inclusion of a sculptural piece as well as a video installation.

Prem Krishnamurthy: I’ve worked with Karel now a number of times. He was included in the first show at P!, Process 01: Joy, and was one of the reasons why I opened a gallery in the first place. Since that initial exhibition, we’ve worked on a number of other projects and presentations of his work in other venues, but this is his first solo show at P!

Our past projects with Karel have focused primarily on his letterpress monoprints, his best known works apart from his commissioned graphic design. Although Karel has always worked across media and scales, there hasn’t been a venue for these works to be shown. We’ve been developing Recent Work together for nearly a year; the longer timeframe presented an opportunity for Karel to think through his work since the 1950s and pick up on a number of strands that he’s wanted to develop further. For example: the clock piece, Three Times (in Blue and Yellow), is a new work but its origins range back to Karel’s early kinetic clock works of the 1960s. And the interactive installation, Icon Viewer, is an extension of the custom icon-pixel language that Karel developed nearly 15 years ago. So there is an incredible amount of continuity within the work.

 

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Karel Martens, Three Times (in Blue and Yellow) (2016). Photo: Sebastian Bach

 

One of the things that I admire about Karel’s practice is that he has embraced technology with a sense of openness and curiosity. Although graphic design has changed radically over the nearly 60 years since he started, Karel has adopted successive tools and continued to stay on top of contemporary methods. This has allowed him to push his ideas about color, pattern, reproduction, and form further, so that they don’t remain static, and to experiment in different dimensions and media.

 

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Karel Martens at the opening of Recent Work. Photo: Emily Smith

 

BS: In past shows P!’s role has extended beyond what one would typically expect from a gallery. In many ways the space becomes an active element that works in tandem with the artist. Would you consider Recent Work a collaborative effort?

PK: This raises the open-ended question around the place of design and curating within the broader realm of artistic production. P!’s role—as well as my own—in a given exhibition modulates greatly based on the circumstances. In some exhibitions, we have a strong hand in formulating the initial framework and creating the context that brings everything together. In this exhibition, as in other solo presentations, our role was quieter yet still present.

 

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Karel Martens, A4 Wallpaper (2013/2016). Photo: Sebastian Bach

 

Karel’s exhibition emerged from the start as a dialogue between us, but with his practice, rather than a discrete curatorial premise, at its center. We’ve been in close conversation from the start to decide how to approach the exhibition, what works to display, and how to show them. Together we made models, plans, and elevations of the exhibition, batted around ideas for each part of the show, determined which new works needed to be produced, and edited down from a larger a set of works and projects. However, Karel is ultimately the author of the work and exhibition.

At the same time, I think that this particular show couldn’t have taken place right now in another space, whether in New York or elsewhere. It represents a confluence of Karel’s work and the unique profile of P!, along with my approach to curating exhibitions. Together they generate a situation that goes beyond the individual components.

 

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First P! logo by Karel Martens, 2012, reinstalled in 2016. Photo: Sebastian Bach

 

BS: You and Karel seem to have a very close relationship. Over the years, what have you learned from him as both a curator and a designer?

PK: Each of the artists whom I work closely with at P! challenges my ideas and forces me to grow. I’m thinking here of Céline Condorelli, Aaron Gemmill, Mathew Hale, Maryam Jafri, Christopher Kulendran Thomas, Wong Kit Yi, and many others. I’ve also had the pleasure of exhibiting figures from an older generation—designers, artists, writers, musicians, and more—who have been fundamental to my own thinking. I consider myself lucky to have had a chance to learn from their deep experience and wisdom, while also exposing them to new audiences and approaches. This includes not only Karel, but also Brian O’Doherty and Elaine Lustig Cohen. I am terribly sad that Elaine just passed away recently, but she remains an ongoing inspiration for me through her unique work, life, and generous embrace of new ideas.

 

Elaine Lustig Cohen, solo exhibition at The Glass House (2015). Photo: Andy Romer Photography

 

Over these past years, Karel has taught me a lot. Some things are practical and aesthetic: for example, how he thinks about hanging a show, which is very related to how he arranges a layout on a page. Rather than hanging a show according to classical curatorial or museum approaches, he uses other structures like grids and margins, which give his installations an unusual energy and freshness.

A more fundamental thing that I’ve learned from working with Karel is how he likes to leave some things unfinished and open-ended. I can tend to be very, very structured and try to control nearly ever detail. Working with Karel, I’ve observed his tendency to be precise about certain aspects of a piece or exhibition but quite relaxed about others. I think this is what allows the work to breathe.

 

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Karel Martens’ studio, Full Color, Roma Publications

 

For this show, we were trying to settle on the order of the monoprints in the wall grid. As we laid them down to look, I began to shuffle them around in order to achieve the “perfect sequence.” I was attempting to account for their size, color, formal relationships, and other variables. After a while, Karel said, “Prem, it’s done. Don’t worry so much about it. They’ll all look good next to each other.” I protested and tried to keep fiddling with it, but eventually had to admit that he was right.

Karel also has a Dutch sense of work/life balance—so he tends get a beer or dinner at 6 pm, even if he comes back to the studio or exhibition space later on. I’m still trying to learn from him here, too!

 

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Karel Martens, Recent Work, installation view. Photo: Sebastian Bach

 

BS: I’ve always loved that about his personal work, the way intuition and spontaneity play a large role in his process. Each move is a reaction to what’s already on the page and to what he’s feeling at a particular moment. The decision-making process seems oppositional to graphic design, where there is the need to justify every aesthetic move.

PK: You’re right, but it’s a specific case with Karel. He’s been working for nearly 60 years and so is truly a master of his field. Even his intuitive decisions about form, color, and typography arrive with an incredible degree of innate practice and knowledge.

When I was younger, I used to be a real perfectionist as a typographer. I wanted even the most basic typesetting to be absolutely precise and complete. Something I’m working on in my design and curatorial practice is to have more trust and confidence, to let go just a little bit. Chris Wu, whom I work with at Project Projects, tried to convince me years ago that great design is sometimes all about the gesture—just the right gesture can work perfectly.

The question of context and what’s already on the page is also very significant here. For Karel, as for myself, there is an interest in what exists before one steps into a given situation as a graphic designer. This happens with his monoprints: he chooses to print on things that already have a past life and a formal order. It’s a kind of recycling but also a response to something that’s already there. For me, it’s about a sense of making history visible.

Several years ago, I was leading the design of the signage program for the Yale University Art Gallery. There had already been a number of signage programs that had existed over the years before we were commissioned. Rather than approaching the project by starting from scratch, I decided that we would retain aspects of those older signage programs, layering our own system on top. This lends the viewer a richer sense of what’s been there before, and what’s still to come.

 

Project Projects, design for Yale University Art Gallery signage (2010). Photo: Naho Kubota

 

This is how I approach exhibition spaces, too. I don’t look at the gallery space as being a tabula rasa, blank slate, or white cube. One aspect of my exhibition-making is that I consider the architecture and history of a space as inflecting whatever’s displayed in it. A show in a gallery is just one more archaeological layer added to the top.

When preparing P!’s space for its final year of programming, I opted to remove a cork floor that had existed since early 2015 and expose the floor panels below. In doing so, I realized that they are nearly a work in their own right. The vinyl flooring, which has been here since I took the lease, makes visible a history of the past floorplans of the storefront, and how it has changed over these past four years. While installing Karel’s show, I recognized the connection for the first time: the way that I treat existing spaces relates directly to how Karel overprints on existing cards and ephemera. Both are a form of palimpsest, just in different dimensions and scales.

BS: For Karel, I’m curious about what he’s responding to on the found material. Is he paying attention to content or is he more focused on formal relationships?

PKHe describes it as being a combination of both aspects. On the one hand, he doesn’t like to print something with a direct relationship to what’s already on the card, as it can result in feeling too illustrative. On the other hand, as he mentioned in the New York Times T Magazine, he sees the typewriting and tabular typography on the found cards as being a form of concrete poetry—the poetry of administration—which inspires him to print on top of them.

 

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Karel Martens, Untitled (2016) Letterpress monoprint on found card, 8 × 5 inches, unique

 

BS: I think this current show of Karel Martens occupies an interesting space in regards to graphic design and contemporary art. Karel is of course a seminal graphic designer, but the work being shown is uncommissioned. Did you ever feel the need to make the distinction between design and art when putting together Recent Work?

PK: I don’t make that distinction; rather, I try to look at the unique values and qualities of objects, regardless of what genre they belong to. Karel is foundational to the program of P! because he occupies this ambiguous ground between art and design. He makes works that are not commissioned, but sometimes the forms that he create in his monoprints make their way back into his commissioned graphic design work. There is a healthy back and forth. Both his commissioned and uncommissioned works are equally beautiful.

In Karel’s case, I see this as a kind of visual research. He’s spent the last 60 years experimenting with form and color, constituting a body of knowledge and practice that flows into all of his different work. In this way, he occupies an in-between space. For much of the history of the 20th century avant-garde, there wasn’t a strong distinction between applied and “free work.” This overlap, exemplified in Karel’s work today, is at the heart of my interests and why I wanted to include him in P!’s program from the first show. We’re in a historical era in which there is a strong boundary established between disciplines—which has much less to do with intrinsic distinctions and much more to do with the market and how different kinds of labor are currently valued.

 

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Karel Martens, Architecture as a Craft (2009); Karel Martens, Terra Incognita posters (1995)

 

I always ask myself with Karel’s work and that of others I’m interested in: Who cares whether people call it graphic design or art right now, but what’s this going to look like in 50, 100, or 1,000 years? Many of the things that we value most from past generations may have once been functional, whether they’re pottery, printed remnants, or cave paintings. They had one relevance in their original moment but they’ve also maintained their integrity. Their relevance to us now is that they have acquired a new meaning, which is in excess of the original purpose.

On a panel that I organized recently at the New York Art Book Fair 2016 with Karel and David Reinfurt (of Dexter Sinister and O-R-G), Karel said something that really resonated with me. To paraphrase him, if you’re making a piece of graphic design and you’ve just fulfilled the project’s assignment, then you’ve only done half of the work. There is a large part of design that goes beyond functional requirements; perhaps this aspect contributes to what makes the work enduring in the long term.

BS: Although you mentioned not looking at a hard and fast line between graphic design and fine art, with P! do you feel a particular responsibility to give graphic design more representation in the gallery space?

PK: Since I come from a background in graphic design, it’s one of the key contexts and bodies of knowledge that I carry with me everywhere I go. Graphic design is an embedded filter for how I think about the world. In a broader sense, the history of graphic design is extremely intertwined with larger narratives of historical and contemporary visual practice. It’s impossible to disentangle design from how we look at art since the beginning of the 20th century. Beyond the crossover of the disciplines and practitioners, even the reproduction, publication, and dissemination of art has been traditionally mediated through graphic design.

When I consider what to place into an exhibition space, it’s quite natural to me for those things to come from the different worlds with which I engage, whether contemporary art, graphic design, music, or writing. However, with graphic design in particular, I have tended to come at it from two directions. Sometimes I’ll show things from a graphic design context that I think are compelling within a broader discourse; other times, I present contemporary art projects that might resonate with graphic design in a significant way.

 

Vahap Avşar, Lost Shadows, [AND Museum] (2015). Photo: Sebastian Bach

 

In this latter category, I have in mind exhibitions we’ve done with artists such as Vahap Avşar, who worked with the archive of a defunct Turkish postcard company to make new postcards for distribution. Another example is Maryam Jafri, who examines histories of consumer products from an anthropological and artistic perspective. Her show at P!, Economy Corner—I think one of our best—was an exhibition about economics, branding, markets, and class, while also being legible as a show about typography, even if that’s not Maryam’s primary interest. Another crucial show for me from our fourth season was Pangrammar, a freewheeling and highly personal exhibition that mapped my interests in the overlaps between typography and art in a loose, associative way. By mixing works that were art and design, new and old, unique and multiples, within a single idiosyncratic curatorial structure, it gestured towards the more open-ended yet critical ways I’d like these fields to be looked at.

 

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Maryam Jafri, Economy Corner (2016). Photo: Sebastian Bach

 

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PANGRAMMAR, Various artists (2015). Photo: Sebastian Bach

 

BS: When you do include graphic design in particular shows, it’s never really looking inwards at the practice itself. I’m thinking of the Anton Stankowski and Klaus Wittkugel show; although both graphic designers, the work seemed to point outward toward larger ideas about East and West Germany. The display of graphic design seems very different than say, Graphic Design: Now in Production here at The Walker. How does bringing design into a gallery context change the viewer’s relationship with the work?

PK: It’s good that you bring up Graphic Design: Now in Production. As you know, Project Projects collaborated with the Walker on the graphic identity of the show; I then directed the exhibition design for its New York presentation by the Cooper Hewitt. In fact, the show immediately preceded P!’s opening and surely influenced some of my decisions. Curated by Andrew Blauvelt and Ellen Lupton along with a team of others, Graphic Design: Now in Production took a more classical approach to displaying graphic design, organizing it according to projects, specific media types, and functionality.

 

Graphic Design: Now In Production, Walker Art Center (2011).

 

Project Projects with Leong Leong, exhibition design for Graphic Design: Now In Production, Governors Island (2012). Photo: Prem Krishnamurthy

 

This is quite different from my curatorial approach. For me, context is extremely important in looking at design objects—for whom and why was something made?—but I’m equally compelled by a work’s broader significance, whether aesthetic, conceptual, cultural, or ideological. The challenge is how to make these registers legible within the exhibition setting, which I’ve tried to address in a number of ways. The Wittkugel / Stankowski exhibition was one approach, which involved using particular strategies of contemporary art display to present historical graphic design work, freeing it from some of its baggage while also situating it within broader political discourses.

 

 

OST UND oder WEST, Klaus Wittkugel and Anton Stankowski (2016). Photo: Sebastian Bach

 

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OST UND oder WEST, Klaus Wittkugel and Anton Stankowski (2016). Photo: Sebastian Bach

 

I’m committed to an approach to presenting design that does not separate it from other fields of visual and artistic inquiry. That’s not to say that there are no differences between these disciplines, but rather that I’m interested in their confluences. I take issue both with how graphic design is exhibited in a closed-off way, but also with recent exhibitions of early 20th-century avant-garde figures that focus primarily on their paintings or their sculptures, when they made equally important contributions in graphic design, photography, exhibition design, and beyond. By relegating these practitioners’ “applied” work to a secondary status, the exhibitions are actually undoing in large part their intended legacies.

Recently I heard someone voice that typical refrain: “Oh, I wonder if graphic design is still going to exist in 20 years.” I’d bet that it will, but that it will look quite different than it does now. Rather than navel-gazing, I’m interested in graphic design’s potential to look outside of itself to connect with other discourses.

BS: As this is the last year of P! in its physical manifestation, I want to go back and discuss some of the history of the space. As you mentioned, the first exhibition was Process 01: Joy which explored the relationship between joy and practice. In the context of your own work, how has P! been a source of joy for you?

PK: Framing the first show at P! in this particular way was both self-reflective and self-deprecating. After all, opening P! alongside my work at Project Projects, my teaching, my writing, and everything else was basically a choice to double or triple my workload! And then to focus first show around labor and name it Joy was also a slightly perverse joke. But it also had a very serious dimension. All three of the participants in that first show—Chauncey Hare, Christine Hill, and Karel Martens—had explored, both implicitly and explicitly, the complex relationship between vocations and avocations, labor and pleasure. The show embraced the fact that much of the most significant work, of any kind, falls outside of the typical 9-to-5 workday, while being part of a dialectic with this economy of production.

 

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Process 01: Joy, Chauncey Hare, Christine Hill, Karel Martens (2012). Photo: Naho Kubota

 

Process 01: Joy opening (2012). Photo: Judith Gärtner

 

What creative people produce to make a living is often circumscribed into very specific categories. After the show, I began to look at what works from somebody’s practice might be marginalized, and hone in on those. If P! has, in part, created a home for people’s “off-projects” that don’t fit in neatly with what they’re necessarily known for, then I’d be happy.

P! was an activity that complemented my work as a graphic designer at Project Projects, and it was a project of love. On the other hand, I can’t overestimate how much it has influenced my own graphic design over the past four years, as much as the space has been informed by the work I had accomplished before it.

BS: That’s actually a point I wanted to touch on: the relationship between your curatorial practice and graphic design practice. How have the two influenced each other?

PK: For a number of years, I’ve been planning to write a longer text or at least put together a lecture about the relationship of curating and design. Maybe I’ll have more time to finish this once P! on Broome Street closes! I hold that the two fields—graphic design and curating—are quite similar in a number of historical, structural, and practical ways. Both disciplines are focused on mediating content rather than necessarily generating it themselves. Curators and graphic designers alike work with other people, other objects, other ideas that are outside of themselves—they’re exogenous pursuits.

As a graphic designer, you work with your clients to make their content legible for a set of publics. As a curator, you working with artists to translate their work and interests to a broader audience outside of their studio.

 

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Matrix / Berkeley: A Changing Exhibition of Contemporary Art, edited by Elizabeth Thomas and Project Projects, book design by Project Projects (2008)

 

BS: We talked a bit about collaboration. The collaborative dynamic seems at the heart of both P! and Project Projects. In your design practice Project Projects seems involved at a much deeper level than a traditional designer/client relationship. P!’s involvement as well goes beyond the traditional white cube approach. Can you talk about P!’s unique curatorial point of view?

PK: From the beginning, I’ve always thought of the space itself as an actor. This is both with regards to P! and more generally when I’m designing and curating exhibitions in other venues. One of my fundamental texts is Brian O’Doherty’s Inside the White Cube. It dates back to 1976, but Brian’s argument still reads quite true, 40 years later.

 

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Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (1986) (originally published as a series of essays in 1976)

 

I believe that the context of presentation, the architecture and the display of an exhibition, can be as meaningful as what’s being shown. One of the first decisions I made when after I signed the lease for 334 Broome Street was to talk with Leong Leong, the architecture firm whom I had brought in to work with Project Projects on Graphic Design: Now in Production in New York (and who now share a studio space with us). They designed the space in a brilliant way—both functional and conceptual, overt and subtle in the right ways. Their original design also highlighted the context of the storefront space and its previous life, a Chinatown HVAC contracting office. Over the years, as the space has developed through the interventions of artists and my own curatorial ideas, Leong Leong has remained involved in the conversations around how the space evolves.

 

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Original architectural design for P! by Leong Leong. Photo: Naho Kubota

 

More broadly, apart from simply trying to foreground mediation, architecture, and display, I have a strong belief about self-reflexivity and transparency: since curating is a discipline that makes things visible yet also orders the world according to its own agendas, the curatorial act—the very process of framing—ought to itself be laid bare.

One of Brian’s core arguments from Inside the White Cube is that the white cube gallery makes nearly anything displayed inside of it into a kind of sacral object, increasing its market value. As a counter to this kind of invisible conditioning, I’m interested in trying to expose for the viewer how such operations construct values.

This is also something that figures into much of my design work. For me, the challenge is not just to make a compelling identity, book, exhibition, or website that presents its content in a neutral way, but to also design it in such a way that makes the viewer aware of its own mediation and influence. Undermining one’s own authority—or at least, calling it into question—is an important quality.

BS: In regards to making things visible, I feel like a lot of that is coming from playing with the context of various disciplines. Placing work in a gallery that may not typically exist there, but also with other practices it may not normally exist alongside. For example, in Permutation 03.4: Re-Mix you put Thomas Brinkmann, a DJ, alongside visual artists Katarina Burin and Semir Alschausky, the architectural practice Fake Industries Architectural Agonism, and a video essay by Oliver Laric. In creating these sorts of experiments in recontextualization, what are you hoping to communicate?

 

Permutation 03.4: Re-Mix, Semir Alschausky, Thomas Brinkmann, Katarina Burin, Fake Industries Architectural Agonism, Oliver Laric (2013). Photo: Naho Kubota

 

PK: Thank you for reminding me of that show, the last show of our very first year. It feels like such a long time ago! It was a pretty important exhibition to me. It brings up similar questions around how context and juxtaposition affect the meaning of individual objects. This particular show was also the conclusion of a four-exhibition cycle examining ideas of copying, authorship, and originality. The series had a looping structure in which artworks, idea, and specific display strategies echoed each other across shows.

Through my work as a graphic designer—but also through other interests, including filmic montage and psychoanalysis—I’ve learned to work with the principle of juxtaposition: if you show multiple objects within the same frame, whether on a page, in a space, or within a limited time period, a connection will be formed between them in the viewer’s mind.

 

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Thomas Brinkmann performing at opening of Permutation 03.4: Re-Mix opening (2013). Photo: Prem Krishnamurthy

 

This particular exhibition suggested a set of conceptual, formal, and methodological relationships between the disparate participants. Thomas Brinkmann is an experimental DJ and musician who had originally studied art and who has worked in a way that resonates with contemporary art practice. In the exhibition, he showed a custom two-armed turntable that he developed in the late 1980s, which can “double” an audio track in a specific way; at the same time, its unique fabrication evokes a Russian Constructivist sculpture. Katarina Burin had developed a fictional female designer of the Eastern European avant-garde whose architectural drawings resonated formally with Brinkmann’s work while similarly challenging notions of the copy and the original. Semir Alschausky premiered an unusual and intricate painting on paper that remakes a well-known historical painting using a technique resembling the circular grooves of a record. Subverting the entire frame of presentation, Fake Industries Architectural Agonism appropriated the temporal structure of a recent exhibition at a nearby gallery, in which an artist had shifted the opening hours of the gallery to dusk; Fake Industries simply changed P!’s hours to mirror those (which meant we were open into the evening, appropriate for the musical context of Brinkmann’s work). Finally, Oliver Laric’s piece was a kind of cover version of a cover version: his essay film Versions had appeared in an earlier exhibition of the cycle. Here, an adaptation of the film into a musical play by students at the Juilliard Academy played on a screen, in nearly the same position where it had appeared two shows earlier. A kind of uncanny doubling, taking place over time.

In any case, that’s just scratching the surface. There are other ways in which the works spoke to each other. It’s like a lively dinner party: the most fun ones include people who are more different than alike!

 

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Permutation 03.4: Re-Mix exterior view featuring Fake Industries Architectural Agonism and Semir Alschausky (2013). Photo: Naho Kubota

 

BS: This season marks the last season for P! in the Broome Street space. I feel like the storefront has played such a major role in many exhibitions, and its location in Chinatown seems to be an important factor. What does the move mean for P!? Does it have to do with a shift in ideology or is it more related to logistics?

PK: A “move” is a slight misnomer insofar as we are not announcing a new location after this, at least not for now. It’s actually more that P! is shifting its focus. For its first five years, P! existed primarily as an exhibition program housed in a single location, with occasional off-site presentations and projects. Moving forward, P! will take the shape of a dispersed institution that can assume and inhabit different spaces through its programmatic focus. It will still organize exhibitions and presentations, collaborating with museums and other venues. P! will also continue to work with artists, designers, and others on these shows as well as on producing publications. So it’s more of an opening-up of the focus of the organization.

P! as a storefront in Chinatown was always intended as a “limited-time offering,” with a start and end date. This accompanies the strong narrative component to its program thus far. Each of the past seasons or years of the space have had a specific structure and arc to them; this even includes the fact that we changed the name of the gallery for a five-month period, becoming another gallery, K. I thought of that moment as our version of a “play-within-a-play.” And as with a literary work, there may be an ending, but that doesn’t preclude sequels and continuations.

 

Various P! logos from 2012–2014 by Karel Martens, Aaron Gemmill, Rich Brilliant Willing, Société Réaliste, Rivet, and Heman Chong

 

BS: It seems to me that P! has always been about evolution, whether that be through a changing architecture or a flexible identity system. Now, to not even be tied down to a specific location seems like a logical progression in regards to what’s next.

PK: Yes. P! has also represented an exploration of a different mode of “institutionality.” It’s an outgrowth of my many years of work with institutions, especially those that have an unusual, non-normative shape—such as SALT in Istanbul or the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive’s MATRIX project space. I’ve made this part of my program at P!, allowing it to constantly shift its profile and visual identity, so that it might appear as something quite different to its various audiences.

Bricks-and-mortar spaces are only one aspect of a contemporary institution. While I’m still committed to exhibition-making, the next institutional challenge is how to disperse activities and programming yet still maintain an audience and a community.

 

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Project Projects, identity program for SALT, Istanbul (2010–ongoing)

 

BS: To close things out, I want to ask a bit of a sentimental question. With any sort of major milestone I think it’s important to look back on what has been accomplished. Are there any particular memories that stand out to you during your time at the Broome Street location?

PK: I liked your question about Thomas Brinkmann and the exhibition Permutation 03.4: Re-Mix. For the opening of that show, there was a special performance where Thomas invited his New York friends to bring records to play on his special double-armed record player. Each original record was transformed into something like a slow, dub-inflected shuffle, with a tremendous sense of stuttering rhythm. It turned into an incredible, dance-floor moment, with everyone anticipating what would come next. The floor seemed like it might collapse. It was such a special moment, I remember thinking, we could end P! right now, and it would have all been worth it. We’ve already accomplished in a microcosm what we originally set out to do: to bring people who would never otherwise know each other into a space together, and to create a dialogue.

"Concept 33" from p-exclamation on Vimeo.

BS: I want to really thank you for your time. It’s been exciting following what you’ve been doing with P!, and it has been a real inspiration. Congratulations again on such an amazing body of work, I’m looking forward to what’s next.

Designing Bon Iver’s 22, a Million: An Interview with Eric Timothy Carlson

  Fresh off dual Grammy nominations for his album 22, a Million, Bon Iver has been named as the headliner of Rock the Garden 2017. The first concert on the Walker’s renovated hillside, Rock the Garden will take place Saturday, July 22. The full lineup will be announced in April. Buy advance tickets now. When […]

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Fresh off dual Grammy nominations for his album 22, a Million, Bon Iver has been named as the headliner of Rock the Garden 2017. The first concert on the Walker’s renovated hillside, Rock the Garden will take place Saturday, July 22. The full lineup will be announced in April. Buy advance tickets now.

When I first started to see fragments of the artwork for Bon Iver’s new album, 22, a Million, I immediately recognized the hand of Eric Timothy Carlson, an artist and designer based in Brooklyn, originally from Minneapolis. Carlson’s work frequently mutates from medium to medium, a sketch becoming a poem becoming a sculpture becoming a shirt. Through it all, the idea of reading—the fluidity between text and image, the discarded pictographic origins of alphabets, the semiotic slide between icon to index to symbol—guides his work.

Symbols especially fascinate Carlson, who has obsessively explored their cryptic and explicit power within the realm of music, having created logos, icons, and glyphs for a number of midwestern bands like P.O.S., Gayngs, and Doomtree. In Carlson’s world, symbols rarely speak with the intent of reifying meaning, or branding something with repressive authority, but in a way that evokes multiple readings at once, asking to be adopted and infused with new life. It is this spirit that is on ebullient display in his new artwork for Bon Iver. This work is thick—an extensive collection of symbols and drawings and texts that spill out from the dense LP design (the legend/key to the entire transmedia system) to populate Instagram posts, giant murals, lyric videos, etc. The work is less a graphic identity for an album and more a documentation of a collaborative network of players, places, times, and tools.

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In the following interview we present the finished artwork, supplemented with process work and related materials. Eric takes us down the rabbit hole, describing the intense, fluid work sessions with Justin Vernon and others at the Eau Claire studios, the numbers that permeate the track list, the influence of digital culture on the new album, the prevalence of cryptic symbolism throughout the Minneapolis/Wisconsin music scene, and the Packers.

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Emmet Byrne: How were you approached to work on this? Do you specialize in music packaging?

Eric Timothy Carlson: It’s been a long process. Five years ago, I received a message from Justin that said “I like what you’re doing, and I want you to know that.” A year or two later after actually meeting for the first time: “Can we work on something together? You should come over and we’ll vibe.”

Music has always been an important aspect of my practice. I’ve played music my whole life, and I come from a musical family, raised with it. In college I interned with Aesthetic Apparatus, screen-printing gig posters. My first design projects were for friends’ bands, and posters for art/music shows. Never really wanting to pursue any sort of traditional employment, I’ve made my way on small projects, working with musicians and artists and performers.

I lived in Minneapolis for a decade before moving to New York, so much of my work is born of that Midwest community. P.O.S’s Never Better was the first complete art direction project I had the chance to fully develop. It was a crash course in working with an artist and a label in unison, and aligning the intent and capabilities of all the involved parties/minds. I owe a lot to that community: P.O.S, Doomtree, Rhymesayers, TGNP, Building Better Bombs, Poliça, Gayngs, Skoal Kodiak, The Plastic Constellations, Marijuana Deathsquads, Dark Dark Dark, The Church, Organ House, Medusa. It was an opportunity to participate in defining a decade of music in Minneapolis.

For a couple of years, I also worked with Mike Cina, who is a book and record collector, and really learned and internalized a lot about typography and album art in my time with him. My practice has expanded outside of that through zines and the internet, but a lot of my work to this day has spawned from this continuum.

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AT APRIL BASE 

EB: How did you work with the Bon Iver crew to create this artwork?

ETC: Some projects, you can see what the cover is supposed to be—a floating image in the mind—or there are certain “rules” that you’re supposed to play by that determine much of what is being created. This project, however, could be whatever it wanted to be.

The original desire from the start was to create a robust world of work. So instead of pursuing a specific vision right off the bat, we just worked and experimented and tested ideas. I worked closely with Justin. I worked at April Base—the recording studio—a couple times a year, each time was a unique experience focused on that stage of the music. Usually with an intimate group of two or three guests (musicians, writers, chillers, curators) and the studio crew, for a week or so at a time, to make a unique creative space, where each of us would be a part of defining that period of creation. The whole Bon project is for the most part entirely driven in house. Each visit would be a new experiment—creating temporary installations and interventions, painting murals, sharing books and inspiration, playing music. We came to listen and work and get to know one another, to get a feel for how to work and talk and think together. Not overthink anything. Developing the conversation, making art, and sharing our scope of vision and capabilities.


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In the rural setting of Eau Claire, when it was freezing outside, almost everything took place inside the studio, and we barely even left the property. It puts you in a certain headspace, and you develop a pattern of waking up and just getting into the work and process of it from noon to midnight—an uninterrupted cycle for a week at a time. But we’d make sure to sleep and eat well too, and not miss too much of the limited winter sunlight.

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There were some early birds in the studio, and of course the night owls as well. The amount of people shifted depending on what was happening, and the vibe changed depending on who was around. I think the Indigo Girls were recording the week before I first visited, and there was another project in one of the sound rooms overlapping with my time there. That first visit was one of the most frenetic, fluid experiences, multiple projects developing and recording simultaneously. Sax and string players visiting to record their own work, and then session on the album in process as well. The later visits were more focused—everyone was there for the album, in a no distractions kind of mode.

I’m a habitual drawer, so these visits to the studio resulted in an accumulation of many, many sketches, like writing. Later, these sketch pages became a reference point for the final work. There was an honesty in the notes and collection process that very much influenced the final work.

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ON THE SYMBOLS 

EB:  How does the artwork respond to the music?

ETC: The songs were all numbers from the start, multiple numbers at first. So we would listen to each song, talk about the numbers, talk about the song, watch the lyrics take form, makes lists, make drawings. Real references and experiences are collaged in both the music and the artwork. I was able to interview and interrogate each song—digging into weird cores—and by the end of each visit, each song would develop a matrix of new notes and symbols.

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Between the numerology, the metaphysical/humanist nature of the questions in 22, a Million, and the accumulation of physical material and symbolism around the music—it became apparent that the final artwork was to be something of a tome. A book of lore. Jung’s Red Book. A lost religion. The Rosetta Stone. Sagan’s Golden Record. Something to invest some serious time and mind in. Something that presented a lot of unanswered questions and wrong ways. A distant past and future. An inner journey somehow very contemporary.


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EB: When I saw the artwork for the first time I immediately recognized the feeling of it, the general design language. The use of rune-like symbols felt very much like your previous work, and like the work of some of your collaborators—but it didn’t feel like Bon Iver, at least as I understood it. Was Bon Iver looking for something different than their previous, pastoral vibe?

ETC: Early on in the process, it was said, “I want each song to have a symbol,” and I knew exactly what that meant. Symbols just naturally come out of me, which is why I use them so much. Icons, signs, symbols—they are cultural fragments and a well made one can cut so deep into our language. I’ve been mentally collecting these all my life. There’s an exercise I enjoy—sitting down to draw out all of the symbols you know without reference: logos, symbols, characters, etc.—and it’s often surprising what comes out, what we have locked away in memory. The anarchy A, yin yangs, Mr. Yuck, Super “S,” Kilroy, peace sign, etc. I admit that one of my desires regarding design and art is to add something to that deep cultural symbolic well of knowing. But they also come from a decades-long conversation within this specific community. I designed the Gayngs symbol for Ryan Olson in 2010 and worked with Doomtree in 2011 on their No Kings album, which also involved the generation of a series of glyphs. These ideas—claiming icons, masks, unknowables, unsayables, unpronouncables—resonate with that community. The Artist Formally Known as Prince. Zoso. CRASS. etc.

 

 

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And as far as the feeling of the previous Bon albums, I mean, they brought me in for a reason. That version of Americana was ripe and appropriate when For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver happened, but the Bon project didn’t want to further perpetuate that aesthetic. The new album remains explicitly connected to those before it, but the feeling has undeniably evolved, as has the culture around it.

 

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I spent years in a perfectly weird corner of the heartland making apocalyptic noise art in the vibrant community of Minneapolis. Landlocked bloggers. High and low are just as much the fabric of our home as is a melting pile of snow. So on the surface, the new album aesthetic might seem like a dramatic shift in the Bon aesthetic, but I see it true and deeply bonded to its current state as well as the history out of which it developed.

For 22, a Million—in their creation—they felt automatic. I enjoy the puzzle of creating a ligature. Justin assigned a specific meaning to the numbers and a logic to their creation, but in the end, they are open containers to be filled with new meaning. Symbols in the context of music have a lot of power, and people are very willing to own and wear/display their cultural experiences and allegiances.

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As the artwork developed, it became clear how we would seed the material into the public. With 10 symbols, we would make 10 murals, and 10 videos, and a 20-page book, etc. As with many numerologies—just follow the numbers—be them true or not.

The artwork is a collection of hundreds of pieces, icons, ideas, motifs, most of which are capable of standing on their own. The proper album packaging is the legend of symbols, where you find everything all in one place. When applying the art to outside uses (murals, ads,Instagram posts, etc.), we could utilize individual components. But no piece should be as comprehensive as the album packaging.

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EB: How did you land on the prominent use of the yin yang symbol?

ETC: In establishing that each song was to have a symbol or a set of symbols designated to it, I wanted to also arrive at an overarching symbol, to house them all within. The yin yang proper was in play loosely from the start, working well in the context of the humanist/spiritual pursuits of the project. I created the collage compositions for the LP package by hand at 33˝ x 33˝, as it proved the best way for me to deal with the amount of material produced, and to massage it all into a sound and organic composition. The center was originally occupied by an altered mandala, as a satisfying placeholder, waiting to be filled with the final symbol. The yin yang design we ended up with happened while working in vector—on something of a whim. Changing the symbol into a square format proved to be enough to keep it recognizable but make it unique to the project. The “smile in the mind” bit of the “i” and “b” emerging from the mark was the final step in both owning the mark, as well as settling its roll. It is a simple design, two circles centered, but the point where they touch in the center is sensitive and requires some optical adjustments. Following the geometric paths produces a little tick that requires massaging to look right. The proportions of the “i” work within the proportions system created for the LP design, and align with the typographic proportions as well. As organic as it feels, it’s a tightly made structure throughout it all.

 

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There was a short conversation as we arrived near the final art design, where I wanted a very clear confirmation that this was where we were going to land, “There are going to be yin yangs and down crosses on your album cover … and … you’re down with that?” and the response was more or less, “Dude, yesssssss!”

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ON THE DIGITAL MILIEU OF 22, A MILLION

EB: You’ve described the way ideas of digital collage, digital formats, digital thinking really encompassed the creative conception of the album, both musically and visually.

ETC: 22, a Million to me still feels very tied to Emma and the self-titled album. There is still the gospel and folk and mountain songs, but in the studio I could feel and see the visceral digital collage of it all, how our technology and the internet has truly affected the way we collect, organize, think, and make. This album is built on our history of music, noise, poetry, and Americana, but also seamlessly incorporates and celebrates the technological nuances of our contemporary—employing it and expanding it.

Visualizing music has been an exercise I’ve practiced since I was young. The first PlayStation had the visualizer function where you could customize your equalizer/screensaver with the controller, responding to any CD you put in, which informed a bit of how I approached it then. I try to let the ideas be more expansive now. When I first heard the digital disturbances crackling over these new songs, it was such a trip, seeing layers and relationships I hadn’t yet encountered.

The computer so readily pairs with futurist visions, pushing forward futuristic, technology-oriented aesthetics. But the reality of our relationship with digital technology always retains this messy pulsing humanity. Marshall McLuhan predicted computers in every classroom, people connected around the world, utopian vibes. Technically he was very right, but we still have bad carpeting and ugly plaid couches and gas station tchotchkes and dirty bathrooms. Regardless of time passing, we remain in communion with the century preceding us, and even the previous millennium or two.

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EB: How do you understand album artwork in the context of the digital music economy? Prior to the proper release of the album, your artwork was published in a variety of ways, from a cryptic track-list graphic approach on Instagram to the YouTube lyrics videos. The graphics seem to be very front and center in Bon Iver’s pre-release strategy—they are presented as standalone thoughts, with very little context, in lieu of a slick marketing campaign. Was this the intent from the beginning?

ETC: I believe Bon Iver has had unique success with both digital and physical album sales, perhaps an anomaly of sorts. Being of my generation, I can’t help but desire access to music and movies and such things for free—I understand how that is problematic, but upon tasting Napster, it was hard to go back.

Labels, album makers, vinyl fetishists—people love the richness of album art, the nostalgic object to own and consume. It’s fun to produce that stuff, and much of the best album art was made for that format. CD’s are junk, and Digipaks are junk, in my opinion. (My favorite CD format is those massive Case Logic binders of poorly labeled CDRs.)

Given the opportunity, I like to make artwork first for the LP format because it is the most generous format for artwork (assuming one pursues the object creation). Then I try to find a good way to make a system of format conversions. I love old cassette tapes where they just drop the square album art on the cassette cover, and type out the titles again bigger underneath in the worst/best way. So honest.

Format conversions are such a crazy part of doing a big release like this, because there are so many when it comes to international releases: LP, CD, Cassette, Euro LP, CD, Central/South American CD, Australian CD, Japan CD, etc… all slightly different sizes, with different printers, different distributors. Aspects of this obviously become a certain hell, but I can’t help but pursue quirky packaging details in the different designs, which, if done well, can result in so many unique details that make each version special in their own little mutant way.

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When working with bands, I’ve often made the case that they should find a way to make an album available for free, since someone will do it anyway, and if you try to control it, you end up keeping people away from the work. I can’t back up any financial rubric supporting this, but it feels right to me. Most of my friends are posting their work on SoundCloud or YouTube. When they release an album that is freely available, the ideas that form around the real base are a little more true to humans than the rules as laid out by companies.

For 22, a Million, there will be lyric videos that I created with Aaron Anderson for each song that will be available for free on YouTube (save the ad experience/big data), which is great as it opened another gate for us to expand the language of the artwork into an entirely different realm—time and motion and the casually fluent—because internet. 

EB: Lyric videos are an interesting choice for an album like this. Vernon references Richard Buckner when talking about becoming comfortable with writing words that sound like something, instead of lyrics with explicit meaning. “Sound things out and find out what it means later. Gave me the courage to write like that.” I feel like your cryptic use of symbols matches that strategy pretty closely. It suggests a deep, diverse world of language but the viewer is allowed to fill in the meaning of what it is actually saying.  The lyric videos seem deliberately deadpan in their delivery of the lyrics—a little too straight up for lyrics that make very little “sense” at first listen. There’s something unnatural-feeling about literally reading these lyrics while listening to the music…

ETC: The lyric videos initiative came from Justin. I’m not sure they ended up looking like what he was imagining, but that’s one of the things that has been so great about the project: the trust in the work of everyone involved. I was originally a little hesitant about the lyric video concept, largely due to the quality of lyric videos in general, and because I was dreaming of an entirely abstract/ambient visual component to live with the music online, without typography. But many lyric videos found online are made by fans—iMovie/After Effects motion graphics class projects. I feel that that amateur aesthetic has gone on to inform what official, professionally produced lyric videos look like. Those videos are getting a lot of views, so they are probably important to produce and control, but I can’t imagine any of them are allotted budgets comparable to that of a music video—they are more of a checked-off assets category in the end.

But it was a good challenge, figuring out how to do it good/weird/right, how to acknowledge the format, and how to expand the album art into this realm. They didn’t need to be explicitly narrative, and they didn’t need to live by the rules of the print material. They are made for YouTube, to ultimately listen to the music in that format—but we wanted to prod at the format, and use it to expand upon the inherent digital truth of the album.

The simple and natural aesthetic of digital collage that these videos utilize is deeply rooted in the core of 22, a Million. From the start, the note taking, the creative process, and the music embrace the idea of digital collage. For example, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” samples a low-resolution YouTube video of Stevie Nicks casually singing backstage. These lyric videos where the perfect place to expand upon this digital aesthetic.

 

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It would be amazing to take a 5K to New Zealand and make all the videos of Gandalf blowing lyric smoke rings, but we have a lot of readily-available capabilities in our pocket already, and feel capable of making something great on a napkin. I’ve always loved making design work in text edit, for example. The initial footage from “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” is all video screen captured in Acrobat. The video for “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” is a slowed down video text message, with the lyrics applied in a broken subtitle generator, shot off the screen because it wouldn’t export correctly. It feels right to leave some of these inconsistencies, like a painting’s visible underdrawing. Something beautiful in mistakes—techno wabi-sabi. Folk motion graphics… motion graphics are so bad.

I like the idea of domestic psychedelia. Which isn’t so much tie-dye as it is being half asleep on an ugly couch and the floaties in your eyelids.

 

The artwork certainly goes to reference something ancient—a lore—but so does the music, with the voice, the folk and gospel music. But it is also inherently new, and defining what comes later, the future, so it seemed important to address the contemporary, to break the contemporary, and show how fucked up good and weird our domestic tools can be through simple layered process.

 

 

ON FOOTBALL JERSEYS AND RAINBOWS 

EB: It feels very natural, the way you mash up your ancient/masonic-looking symbol system with contemporary, mundane imagery such as football jerseys, bad YouTube videos, old hotel rooms, beer cans, rainbows. What’s that about? Nostalgia? High/low? Irony? Is it recontextualizing the everyday iconography we live with? Is it something much simpler?

 

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ETC: I like the natural humanity of all these things. These just feel like very human marks to me, from the fabric of communication and the material of our lives. I like acknowledging how weird and aesthetic our environments and immediate cultural surroundings are. Prodding at basic structures of communication and language. At the same time, I’m drawn to these old symbols, as they have so much responsibility for what we are and how we communicate today.

The symbols are deeply ingrained in the social mind, and define so much for us. We grow up seeing and accepting symbols as part of our reality. Spades, clubs, diamonds, hearts: where do these come from, and is there a deeper meaning? Are they violent, or controversial, or of the tarot? The cross, the star, sun and moon, the spiral: they all have vast meaning and association inherently available to anyone and everyone—owned at times by a particular culture or movement—forever shifting, but retaining a trace of a cultural pulse.

The letters of the Roman alphabet developed out of other symbols older and of meaning that no longer register in their use. Quelled by changes in regime and religion. Conquerers assimilating the occupied. Symbols collage through time.

 

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These simple things—jerseys, beer cans, rainbows—function in a similar way to the symbols. They too are symbols. The beer can is there, suggesting traces of the people behind the project. Everybody drinks the same Coca-Cola Classic. Chipotle has the same burrito any place you eat it. The football jersey—I mean, nothing ever got done at the studio on Sunday afternoons because the Packers were on, and I was like, “Noted.” It’s real.

 

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Above: unrealized concept art of a Bon Iver/Packers mashup

Though of course, contemporary symbolism is heavily influenced by branding and advertising. I imagine a good portion of the last century’s most enduring symbols come from that sector. “I Heart NY,” though an endearing sentiment, in part serves an economic end.

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We so naturally have embraced a form of communication now defined as the social spaces of the internet. Images work in this space in a way unique to the speed and format of it all. We can accumulate and disperse vast immaterial fields of information, sifting through it all collectively. This field absorbs all that is fed into it and expands exponentially.

I’m not explicitly working to employ irony beyond what is casually interlaced. I don’t see it as nostalgic or particularly mundane—though at times perhaps critical, taking specific notice of problems, things understood as ugly or wrong. The Papyrus typeface. A simple awareness with unpleasant political implications—the peripherals we blissfully allow to escape notice. So re-contextualizing, yes, but also exposing some truths.

Stop and smell the flowers, connect the not obviously connected to new end. I find a lot of beauty in these things, which doesn’t require aesthetic and defies design. Slick is good and buttoned up but so often such a facade.

We also collected a massive amount of found imagery during the process, often texting these images back and forth. Some of these images appear in the newsprint zine released the day before the album came out in cities around the world—drawings of my own, a number of images from the Taschen Book of Symbols, a still from the Eames’s Powers of Ten, and a napkin drawing from one of our first conversations about the album art. The found imagery also showed up in other formats: the lyric videos, posters, etc. The actual album packaging itself very strictly required entirely original work, though.

 

ON TYPOGRAPHY 

EB: Why Optima?

ETC: I didn’t want anything too tricky. A system font felt good, since I was working with the lyrics in text-edit documents. Optima just looked so right spelling out “BON IVER.” It sung the first time I saw it. I didn’t share it with them right away, or even implement it in design off the bat—but it continued to resonate every time I went back to it, which is usually a solid test. The first example I found of Optima in use that stuck out was the McCain presidential campaign, and I thought, “That’s legit” —thought it was funny—so there’s your irony. Helvetica-y was too sterile, and Garamond was too sentimental. Optima proved it could be both contemporary coffee-table book and Magic the Gathering. Find yourself a font that can do both.

I also just use Univers and Garamond for pretty much everything I do, so I wanted to do some due diligence in playing with other things. I had been using Courier New for all of my process pdf’s—because I think it looks great digital—when its all the same size (12pt or under), but kind of loath it any larger.

EB: How did you approach designing the booklet?

ETC: We knew from the start that we wanted a substantial booklet in the LP. Upon establishing that all of the drawings would be on the jacket, I was excited to limit the booklet to just typography, and find a way to keep that experience just as rich and nuanced as the rest of the system. I started using Courier, and that immediately started evoking the feeling of concrete poetry and ’60s conceptual art, employing the limitations of a typewriter. The hipster in a coffee shop working on a typewriter is the worst thing ever, and I was perhaps towing the line of steampunk a bit, but the direction felt right.

By the time I was working on the book I had listened to the album in process nearly a hundred times, so the layout decisions proved natural and intuitive, knowing where the phrases broke, making visual decisions in response to the music of it, using parallel columns where the lyrics overlapped.

Personally, this approach also connects to strategies of working with text digitally, such as finding ways to successfully break a blogspot layout.

 

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ON THE BON IVER ILLUMINATI 

EB: One last question: How does it feel to blatantly expose the Illuminati once and for all?

ETC: “Ouroboros! Obelisk!” Such perfect confirmation. I’d like to note that there is no Ouroboros in that video.■

 

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Above: spreads from the newsprint zine that was distributed at surprise listening parties worldwide the day before album release

 


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