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Interview: Simon Johnston Launches Verb Editions

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


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


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

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



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


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

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



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



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


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

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



Flag (v.02), Simon Johnston, 1996


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

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



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


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

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



Make-ready (MR) sheets at Shapco



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


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

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



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


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



Binding process for Fiction Fiction



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


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

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



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



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


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

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

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

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



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



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


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

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

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



Ocean Stripe 5, Ian Hamilton Finlay, 1967



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


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

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



Recent release on Verb Editions: Tony Manzella, True Image


Schwartz: What lies ahead for Verb Editions?

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


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

Insights 2017 Design Lecture Series

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


Insights Design Lecture Series 2017
Tuesdays in March

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

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




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

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

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

Rob Giampietro Facebook event (live webcast on March 7)




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

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

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

Andy Rementer Facebook event (live webcast on March 14)




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

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

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

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




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

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

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

Richard Turley Facebook event (live webcast on March 28)


Insights_2016_poster_front_new Insights_2016_poster_back_new

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

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

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

Photo: Ben Schwartz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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



Spread from A Public Character, 2016


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

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






Spread from SPEAKER RECEIVER, 2010



Spread from SPEAKER RECEIVER, 2010


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


The Sun As Error, 2009



Spread from The Sun As Error, 2009


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

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

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

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



Spread from A Public Character, 2016


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

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

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


Auto Body Collision

Spread from Auto Body Collision, 2015


Auto Body Collision

Spread from Auto Body Collision, 2015


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



Spread from STRIKE, 2014



Poster included in STRIKE, 2014


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



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


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

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



Spread from A Public Character, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



A SINGULAR as shown in A Public Character, 2016



A SELF as shown in A Public Character, 2016


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

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



Mercator in use, A Public Character 2016


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


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


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

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

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

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



Spread from A Public Character, 2016


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


Image courtesy Roma Publications

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


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

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



Spread from The Sun As Error, 2009


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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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

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



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