Design, art, and the gradient between, featuring the creative output of our in-house design studio.
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 […]
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 Octavo, For 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Printing of the Insights 2017 poster courtesy the Avery Group at Shapco Printing, Minneapolis.
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 Character. A Public Character is available for purchase via Roma Publications.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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. ◼
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 […]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
PK: He 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.