From A to B and B to A: Bartholomew Ryan, curator of 9 Artists, and myself Andrea Hyde, designer of the catalog and exhibition identity, sat down a few years back to talk about the book, published in October 2013.
B: Hi Andrea!
A: Hi Bart, how are you doing?
B: Good. Thank you.
A: How was the exhibition opening at MIT?
B: It was really nice, actually. It was the first time a show of mine has opened outside of Minneapolis. What was interesting about it was having people I didn’t expect to show up. Obviously the exhibition is very different there, it’s about half the size in terms of space…
A: So, apart from the exhibition, how do you think the catalog has been received so far?
B: Well, I know that it has met its sales targets, which is good. Group show exhibition catalogs famously don’t sell very well, and one of the things that I am anxious for, is to preserve the ability to do books like 9 Artists that don’t conform to your typical coffee-table style catalog. We talked early in the process about making a book that’s less an illustration of the exhibition than a platform, a way to give light to the distinct practices of these eight artists who are all amazing creators outside the gallery context, a book that might be more interesting as a result. I’m hoping that is how it’s bearing out. I know the first batch of books that went to Europe sold out fairly quickly. I don’t think there are any left there right now. But, I am getting email from people who really enjoy the catalog, and who find it quite strange. And, I have decided that maybe ten people in the world have read my essay, but I’m sort of fine with that! (laughs) It’s probably for the best. But yes, people are interested and engaged by it, which is great!
B: From my perspective, part of the book’s appeal is the cover, and the identity system that went into the exhibition. I know that was something you came up with at a certain stage in the process, and I thought it was perfect for a number of reasons. It was actually the first time I realized the show had only eight artists! Where did the cover concept come from?
A: You’ll have to correct me if I am wrong, but I recall that the cover came out of the interior sketches. And the interior was largely informed by the artists. As you said, the book is less a documentation of the exhibition or the works within it, as it puts forth new work, new ideas, and new writing independent from the show. And because of that, because each of the artists have their own artist-book-like sections that were grouped into a singular catalog, their individual identities were really important. In this case, because of the nature of the artists’ work, because it was so personal, I thought that, unlike the name of the show—9 Artists, an iconic title that reads like a manifesto—I felt like the artists themselves were just as, if not more, important. Grouping them together on the cover in the way I did, as brands or as passport stamps, and using their first names allowed it to be casual, a bit irreverent. And I think that’s the nature of the exhibition and of the book itself.
A: Was that your reading of the process?
B: Yes. I remember we began by having conversations about what this book should be. We really wanted to step away from quasi-nostalgia, an artisanal sort of aesthetic that is so prevalent in the art world. At the same time, we didn’t set out to make a zany, kitchy experience. What we wanted was to capture a quality that would feel present, and also have its own flow.
A: Right, and very responsive to the content. Do you think that’s perceptible to the reader?
B: I think what happens when you look at the cover is that you see names that are locatable and reveal identity. 1. Liam [Gillick] is very clearly an Irish name. 2. Danh [Vo]…I don’t know what Danh looks like. Does it look Vietnamese? Or Danish? 3. Hito [Steyerl], it’s ridiculously Japanese. 4. Nástio [Mosquito], something cool… 5. Natascha [Sadr Haghighian], Russian most likely. 6. Bjarne [Melgaard], Scandinavian 7. Renzo [Martens] Italian, 8. Yael [Bartana] Israeli I guess. It’s a smorgasbord of [probably misleading] identity formations. First names conjures this idea of friendship, and potentially of a cohort. People in the art world love the narrative of a group of prominent artists who used to serve as security guards at Dia or what have you, yet these artists are distinctly not that, they are not a clique formed and perpetuated to accrue market and critical validation. The cover has a suggestion of that, but if you know the artists is pretty easy to see that that’s not how they exist in the world, at least not with each other.
A: But it’s also a response to the way in which you talked about the artists when we first started to think about the book. It was a very familiar conversation, and I think that friendly first-name basis tone was right for the book.
B: Yes, because it’s counter-intuitive to the work or to the grouping. Curators sometimes refer to artists by their first names as a sort of power play. I don’t think that’s how this happened. I think this was a very organic process. Another thing this cover does, of course, is it is Tetris-like. There may be a lot of tension—
A: and connections, networks…
B: and also breakups. Like, why is Danh, who is one of the more celebrated artists at this moment at the top left?
A: Why is Bjarne in two different foils? Whereas Hito is upside-down and rendered in ink?
B: Yeah so you’re put into this position where you’re—
A: You’re trying to make value judgments based on the composition.
B: Andrea, were you trying to tell us something when you put this together? And of course this formulation has taken on different iterations like in the exhibition graphics, Nástio was upside-down… (laughs)
The foldout inside cover
A: Let’s flip through the book and talk about different things we find interesting. There is a gatefold at the beginning, behind the cover and contents page. Do you want to talk about the foldout? I won’t mention some of our original ideas, but let’s just say one of them involved a centerfold of our dear curator who could be thought of as the ninth artist…
B: Yes, well there was a moment where we could have pushed that direction. Like, who is the ninth artist? Many people complain about the curator annexing artistic authorship and having too aggressive a role in the creation of the content in the exhibition. And, you know, I’m a curator in an institution, and I spend most of my days figuring out why someone didn’t get a loan form or something. So, it’s not like I perceive myself as an artist, but I do feel quite strongly—and that’s obvious in my essay, which has a first-person feel—that there is a huge level of subjective quality in the organization of these artists (or any artists) into a list. So we discussed having a semi-naked spread—because I am pretty fit (laughs)—and contacting a local photographer who does amazing body painting, really going for it, and make people laugh a little. But thankfully we went in a very different direction. As you know, the exhibition checklist for the show came very late in the process. There was a lot of conversation and time spent with the artists without really knowing what the hell we were going to do, but trusting the process. So when I saw Hito’s piece in the Venice Biennale, it seemed very obvious that it was perfect for the exhibition for a number of reasons. Partly because we acquired Red Alert a number of years ago and the two seemed so relatable and yet were from such different eras. I don’t think How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File could have been made in 2007. It’s absolutely relatable to our current context. So we ended up using a still from How Not to be Seen of an iPhone being held by a green-gloved hand.
A: Yes, we were looking for a an iconic image, but we didn’t want something that was instantly readable or understandable. We liked the idea that the still would be dated immediately after we published it, in the same way that the book is completely about its context. We liked that it was completely of its time. There’s also something charming and surprising about it.
B: Yes, I love that it’s very present, because it’s this fetishized iPhone: it’s a 4S or 5. But I also love that it has this futuristic, sci-fi feel. As you say, in three years’ time it’s going to utterly date this exhibition. I think notions of desire in relationship to how identity forms itself and how we actually shape ourselves as human beings often through the accretion of objects, the sort of lifestyle that is defined by something like an iPhone is a key to the exhibitoin. Obviously, if one has one it kind of give you a whole set of…
A: …tools and…
B: self-impressions, you know? There is something about that fetishization of commodity in relationship to the image that I think is a very interesting thing to hold on to in engaging with the book. But also the work itself is about a kind of liberation from that, breaking free of that process into a more anarchic space where desire and drives and so on are decoupled from these status things, in a sense summoned by then liberated from…
The Contents Page
B: I also love the contents page with the list of artist contributions and the essay section titled. Cumulatively, the language is just incredible, it kind of tells you all you need to know about the exhibition.
A: Yes, the artist section titles, which serve as subtitles in your essay, are very interesting—Hito Steyerl’s Happy Pixels Hop Off Into Low-Resolution, Gif Loop! is my personal favorite. I hear you are releasing each section of your essay on the Walker blog.
B: Yes, I don’t think it’s ever something we’ve done before. I can’t think of another U.S. institution on the scale of the Walker that’s done it in this way. It’s actually a bit scary, because there’s a lot I say in the essay that will have a different existence online. Having said that, I was reading the Nástio section on my phone the other day and I thought, ‘God, this is so obvious! Nobody reads books.’ I mean, of course they do, and it all comes back to the book which I completely value, but why not make it available to people in other ways?
The Artist Contributions
B: (flipping through pages) I love this!
A: The very first signature is a contribution by Natascha Sadr Haghighian. Here, I simply responded to her title to make the first page of her signature.
B: Which is what?
A: Which is Dear Artfukts, Look at My Curve, (laughs) and following is an antagonistic, yet funny correspondence between herself and ArtFacts.
B: Natascha is a wonderful and complex thinker, and in her essay she plays out a well-known aspect of her work: bioswop, which is for the free exchange of CVs and resumes. She created it in 2004, during a very different moment. This show tracks the fundamental change that’s happened to the artists in the show, in their response to a culture that is no longer new to the internet. You know, the internet is all encompassing, and it shapes everything all the time for the many, many people who have access to it. Natascha uses other peoples’ resumes and bios whenever she’s presenting her own work, and allows people to share these documents, which is an attack on the legitimacy of institutional affiliation, but also on the way one can be tokenized through one’s identity as, let’s say, a female artist from Africa. What I love is that she resists ArtFacts listing her work online, the data-bots collecting intel. She writes to them asking, ‘Please remove this information. This is my artistic project and you’re spoiling it.’ And they say, ‘No.’ So she takes action, and identifies with this graph that’s on the website that illustrates her career going up and down over the years, turning it into a subject, giving it agency by lifting it out of the capitalist metrics that it was meant to serve, leading it into into a more interesting space. It’s a simple thing that plays through various forms of identity and representation into things like social media campaigns around Troy Davis or Treyvon Martin. It’s a beautiful essay, and it’s very timely. And what I love about your cover design for it is—‘cause I think as a designer, you have this very interesting ability to be both very attuned and precise on a certain level, but there’s also such a freedom in the moment that I really enjoy. Like this curve, that’s not a graph, it’s its own animal.
A: Yes, it’s extracted from the Artfacts graph, but still illustrates the idea she’s trying to put forward.
A: And what about Danh Vo?
B: Well that’s one of the…you know, for me personally, when you’re a curator at an institution like the Walker you only get to do so many shows. I mean, it took for me three or four years to get 9 Artists on the books and get it done. In the meantime I was meeting people and spending a lot of time with artists. It’s a bit sad because I often have nothing specific in mind project-wise when I meet them, but I like spending time with artists to get to know their work. So Karl Holmqvist was someone I spent a number of hours with a few years ago in Berlin, and I had always wondered about his work, but knew how absolutely fascinating and important it was. So, one of the nice things about Danh’s section is that Karl had written a piece called Curriculum Vitae, which starts off with a dream where he wakes up and he’s being cuddled by Joe Dallesandro and Iggy Pop and then it moves onto a story about Danh filming something.
A: An advertisement.
B: An advertisement, yeah. And so Karl’s piece in this context becomes Danh’s Curriculum Vitae to an extent. So, it’s a very different relationship to Danh’s contribution than the one Natascha proposed. But it is equally about artists thinking of ways to subvert or deter official documents. What became nice was that it became a collaboration between a number of people. Phùng Vo, Danh’s father, who is often employed by Danh was commissioned to use his beautiful calligraphy in the project. Initially it was supposed to be in the font of, or in the script of, Martin Wong, the great painter whose work is also represented in the exhibition through I M U U R 2, 2013. But Phùng doesn’t play ball with Danh. Everybody who criticizes the relationship between Phùng and Danh act like it’s exploitation. But Phùng has incredibly agency in how he does these things—he kind of does more or less what he wants…—so he did his own script. There were a bunch of typos: like, instead of a “kind of human sandwich” it became, “king of human sandwich,” and “My Beauty Qeen,” where queen is misspelled. We decided to keep all of that. It was very simple.
A: I enjoyed this one because of its simplicity, in contrast to some of the other sections which were either more image or text heavy. Danh’s section was just about that the composition of the page and the beautiful calligraphy. And then, these intriguing images of Danh’s nephew and the process of making a cast.
B: Yes, there is a piece called Gustav’s Wing which I think—well was—a photo of Gustav. Obviously Danh works a lot with his family and tends to like to do things like this. So in a way it’s a very classical set of what really were just snapshots by Danh of the process of his nephew’s body being cast. And you know it’s a young boy. It has a classical quality, there is a sense of the gaze etc. It certainly has a resonance that’s interesting particularly when measured against subsequent work made from the cast, which is really about a kind of collapsing of beauty and a somewhat tortured representation of this source.
A: Well, it’s slightly odd, too, because both the calligraphy and the images are treated in a monotone, bright-blue color which removes the viewer from the content, and abstracts it a bit. I should mention that each artist book or signature is a complete formal departure. The composition, the color, the various paper, shifting grid, and system of page numbers. For example, Danh Vo’s case, the page numbers are all set in Roman Numerals without explanation. So as you’re traveling throughout the book, there is a sense of disorientation. Each section is a world onto itself.
B: And really it follows the whole approach of the show which was to put things in proximity and allow them to be digested. I think there are some really key thematic through-lines in this exhibition. They are obvious, but in order to encounter them, one has to spend time with the content, the structure, and the form. And so, there is a call to the reader, to the viewer, to the person who engages the exhibition to really engage with it. I think what I discussed with you and what I discussed with others is that I really want people to get there themselves, but try to give them the tools to do so, the basic level of information they need in order to engage with and access the artist[s]. Hence the book, the show, the events etc.
A: (At this point in our conversation, the recorder stops just as I was claiming that design is not an essential part of this book)
B: Okay, so you just said this book is not designed, right? What do you mean this book is not designed?
A: This book isn’t about the design. In the past, the typefaces I use, the color, the grid system, everything—because it’s homogenized— is based on a particular way I want to present a group show or a solo artist. It’s coming from a very distinct perspective. In this case it was more a collaboration, with the artists, writers, and even with outside designers: Bjarne, worked with Brendan [Dugan] at An Art Service, and Nástio worked with Vic Pereiró on their section [later the piece was used as the basis for a video by Vic and Nástio]. They both submitted completed signatures that we didn’t really alter at all apart from paginating them, putting them in the book and producing them. So, in a sense this book is not the creation of a designer, but of the artists. The form was completely subservient to the content.
B: I don’t agree with that at all.
A: Oh, you don’t? Interesting!
B: I think it’s a heavily designed book. For example, what I enjoyed about Bjarne and Nástio’s contributions is that I felt like you needed to come up with a system for the book that glued it together. That was very necessary. And the fact that you were thrown these complete curveballs problematized it a lot. So, it’s like it created this other context that just fucked with everything a bit.
A: Well, it did allowed me to disconnect. It allowed me to share because there was a bigger community to consider. It took a village to make this book!
B: Because I know, we talked about this before, but Vic and Nástio have a very particular aesthetic relationship that’s extremely free, DIY, bold, and absolutely anti-anything-that-might-come-out-of-the-Walker.
A: And it flies in face of a lot of the classic ideals of design that I learned, that I practiced, and that is hard for me to remove myself from. To be confronted with something that’s so outside of what I would or could create is a humbling moment. It is something I struggled with, but I think Nástio’s contribution added to the experience, which I think you might mean when you say that it’s heavily designed. In fact, if we were looking at one section, say Yael’s contribution: if I ran that theme throughout the book there would be less a sense of disconnect, there would be a rhythmic association with her work and the fictitious letters between her and [Otto] Weininger. Those can serve as visual cues that a reader can latch onto and understand in a way that allows the design to recede. But, because there are different formal and organizational styles butting against one another, it feels more “designed” than it actually is.
B: Well I think that—regarding Nástio and Bjarne—you made two decisions there: Bjarne is on this glossy paper, which really suits the commercial, highly constructed feel for those images, even though they are actually candid images of Bjarne doing his thing; and then Nástio’s section is on newsprint paper, which captures that DIY, quick, but really interesting aspect of his design. I think those two would have been really lost within a less focused approach to the sections. For example, you have produced one color for most of the sections you designed, so that creates a sense of unity. In addition, the title pages for each section is very strong, whether it’s Liam and Federica [Bueti], or Renzo, Yael, and Natascha. And then you and I worked very closely with the sequencing of the signatures. It wasn’t based on a somewhat arbitrary alphabetical approach…or what have you…
A: You’re right, the pagination of signatures was based on their visual impact. The end page of one signature coming up against the cover page of the next was really important to us.
B: Yes, that’s very much a design choice and very interesting on a lot of levels. And you’re right in that some of our decisions were made just to allow the logic of the book to follow. Like Liam and Frederica who share that signature but with two different texts, and at one point we were going to run their texts in tandem. Hers is somewhat allegorical, fable-style response to Liam’s text: it’s the tale of a man who walks through the skyways in Minnesota looking for a job and meets a cat. Cats are quite amusingly a key part of the Walker’s identity right now.
A: Actually, cats also appear later on in the compendium of works…
B: We originally thought it would be a good idea to run their texts in tandem, but it was obvious that it wasn’t working, as her text is very different to Liam’s.
A: The lengths are different.
B: It just didn’t feel right. So then we thought, “let’s just have these two texts in the sixteen page signature run into each other in the middle. In order to do that in a way—I can’t remember why—we turned Federica’s part upside-down. How did that work design wise?
A: I originally had the title page of Federica’s following the last page of Yael’s. And I think we just liked that feeling, and so decided to run it backwards. Her essay is running upside-down and meets Gillick’s essay in the middle of that section.
B: That’s one response I get a lot: “Why is that part upside-down?” The only thing to respond to that is, “Why not!” What it does is it really reinforces the objectness of the book. It’s not by any means a radical gesture, but it is kind of interesting because it is also one of the biggest contributions by someone who’s not actually in the show. There are so many collaborators on this book, it really manifests the broader communities that the artists engage. There is something quite special about Federica’s text, a kind of mood. I think it calls out that we don’t even know quite what to do with it (laughs).
A: I think that, if this section, if this signature, existed as its own small artist book, you would think nothing of it being upside down…and you see that very often. Our approach to each section was to design it as if there weren’t any other sections in the book. Apart from a few choices, like the color and paper, every other choice exists solely within its own signature. I think the shock comes from the fact that the upside down text exists within a bigger book with formally different sections, none of which are upside-down. Every small change we make seems larger within the context of this catalog. Each artists’ contribution is its own signature—or its own artist book—and we designed it as such. You could literally take the binding off the book and bind each section, and publish those on their own merit.
8 Artist Books, One 9 Artist Catalog
B: During the press release process, I would often shy away from using the term “artist book,” even though that was how we were thinking of of the catalog as these signature sections. But whenever I used the term, “artist book” it wouldn’t feel right to me. It felt like moving toward something a little too isolated. What I found interesting in that process was how—and this is where I would push back and say, “this is highly designed book.”—the artists’ decisions are very much a part of it, but a huge number of decisions about design were made by you largely.
A: Before we conclude, how do you think the book is being received? I wonder if it makes people feel uncomfortable? Does it challenge? Because, I know that it does for me as a designer, so I can only imagine what someone who was not involved in the process would think or feel.
B: I’ve heard some informal, unsolicited feedback from people, such as: “Wow, this book is really interesting.” All of the artists received several copies of the book, and in a way that’s the most obvious way it’s being distributed, because they are showing it to friends or giving it to people. I got an emails saying that people are going gaga over the book. I don’t know what “gaga” means (laughs), and maybe that person was being polite. People have different responses. I’m not a designer, so for me moments like Nástio’s are really happy moments, because I think it helps the book feel heterogeneous. It shows those cards very visibly—people probably look at it very casually and go, “Oh, this is just tons of visual information trying to show us that it’s an exciting show or something.” But I think people who engage it more deeply are pretty interested in it. I feel like it has an iconic quality as a publication without actually having tried so hard . The more obvious approaches are all ones we shied away from. It almost happened by accident. I’m not trying to claim radicality or anything, but it is a really nice book.