Design, art, and the gradient between, featuring the creative output of our in-house design studio.
Emmet Byrne: What is Excursus and how did it come about? Alex Klein and Mark Owens: Excursus was a two-year, four-part initiative at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia positioned at the intersection of art and design, programs and exhibitions, and the archive and the museum. It took the form of a […]
Emmet Byrne: What is Excursus and how did it come about?
Alex Klein and Mark Owens: Excursus was a two-year, four-part initiative at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia positioned at the intersection of art and design, programs and exhibitions, and the archive and the museum. It took the form of a rotating installation on the ICA mezzanine, a curated series of intimate events, and an online residency on the Excursus website, which also acted as a form of real-time documentation. Each of the four invited participants— Reference Library, East of Borneo, Ooga Booga, and Primary Information—work in a space between artistic domains that don’t always have a comfortable place within a traditional gallery setting, such as publication, distribution, archival research, and programming.
Alex was hired in 2011 as ICA’s newly-created program curator, and Excursus was a way to explore and activate the “discursive space” of the museum as it approached it’s 50th anniversary and to challenge the notion of how a program could function and how we might gauge its success. ICA is a non-collecting institution with a long history of ground-breaking exhibitions—Andy Warhol, Paul Thek, and Martin Kippenberger each had their first U.S. solo museum shows at ICA, for example—and thus ICA’s extensive archive is in a very real sense its collection. Each of the participants was thus invited to delve into the ICA archive and to make connections both with their own concerns and the exhibitions currently on view in the main galleries.
An “excursus” is a literary term describing a digression or supplement to a primary text, and the project was conceived very much in that spirit, with every element, from the installation to the programming, emerging from these conceptual and material connections. The aim was to provide a platform that could be responsive and flexible–both in terms of form and authorship–and that could could bridge the gap between extra-institutional and institutional activities while still maintaining a strong framework and a grounding in the physical space of the ICA.
EB: The project has a very strong design sensibility, from the participants selected, to the design of the space, to the design of the ephemera, and of course the catalogue. Was there a philosophy at work behind the design of the whole program?
AK & MO: Certain binaries seemed to anchor each season of the project: East Coast vs. West Coast, black-and-white vs. color, social vs. contemplative, etc. Although each iteration of the project revolved around a kind of kit of parts–a flexible space for discussion, a display system for the event broadsides, a set of flat file drawers to display archival material, an auratic object of some kind, and a projection in the lobby–each of the invited participants contributed a strong visual aesthetic that was linked to the thematic of each of their installations. Thus, the form of each installation, from the materials used to the seating and furniture, reflected a distinct sensibility that changed radically from project to project and sat apart from the rest of the museum identity and the exhibitions in the main galleries. For example, Reference Library’s Andy Beach used custom-designed furniture in unpainted wood in combination with Martino Gamper’s bright plastic Arnold Circus stools in shades of blue and a Wharton Esherick Hammer Handle Chair on loan from the Hedgerow Theater in nearby Rose Valley. This then gave way to East of Borneo‘s exploration of California arts pedagogy circa 1970 with seminar tables, vintage David Rowland 40/4 chairs in period colors, and an actual Metamorphokit table, designed by Peter de Bretteville and Toby Cowan, shipped directly from the CalArts library. For her installation Ooga Booga’s Wendy Yao recreated the unmistakable look and feel of her two Los Angeles stores, complete with a hammock, bookshelves, and a custom table and benches designed by Manuel Raeder, which are now installed at her Mission Road space. Finally, Primary Information drew inspiration from ICA’s seminal 1975 Video Art exhibition with a more spare, conceptualist, black-and-white aesthetic, punctuated by Sarah Crowner’s dramatic Vidas Perfectas curtain (2011), originally produced for a Robert Ashley performance, which created a literal backdrop for the activities that ensued. In this way, the design of the projects themselves marked out a distinct physical space that was at once rich with material and metaphor, but also flexible and open.
Below: Various images of the four installations/residencies.
EB: How did the graphic identity for the project come together?
AK & MO: To serve as a frame for the four installations the Excursus identity took the form of a diagrammatic mark that served to describe a set of relationships — between Art, Design, Archive, and Conversation — that summed up the matrix of concerns that shaped the project rather than a wholly separate visual language. The mark itself appeared at a range of scales, including on gallery notes, print materials, and the ICA’s sidewalk sandwich board, as well as on tote bags, a flag hanging in the Ooga Booga space, and a large window graphic in Reference Library’s installation.
AK & MO: In addition to the mark, an identity within the overall identity system was created for each of the individual iterations of the project. In each instance this was employed through a series of Riso-printed broadsides produced at PennDesign’s Common Press that announced upcoming events and through the color palette of the website. Each of the four modules were designed in consultation with the invited participants to reflect the aesthetic and ethos of each resident while also maintaining a consistency that sat next to but largely apart from the museum identity and website. In addition, the Risograph posters designed by Mark Owens and the WordPress website designed by Other Means meant that updates and announcements could be made relatively quickly and inexpensively and allowed for a kind of responsive design process that is rare within institutional settings. ICA has the distinct advantage of being located at the University of Pennsylvania, which gives the museum an immediate audience among students, faculty, and staff, as well as a proximity to the nearby neighborhood of West Philadelphia and close connections with the city’s broader artistic and academic communities. The responsive design process allowed for events to be conceived, organized, and advertised in a matter of weeks or even days, rather than the longer timeframes required for most museum programming. By the same token, the website functioned as an online residency, which allowed each of the participants to participate throughout the duration of their Excursus, long after their installation was complete. In this way, Excursus gained a following both among ICA’s local audience here in Philadelphia, and a much more dispersed audience who followed the project online. Of course, there is no substitute for the actual experience of visiting a museum, but taken together the printed material, website, and catalogue now serve as a both a record and an archive of the project.
Above: Posters for Excursus I: Reference Library residency
Above: Posters for Excursus II: East of Borneo residency
Above: Posters for Excursus III: Ooga Booga residency
Above: Posters for Excursus IV: Primary Information residency
Above: Excursus website design by Other Means
EB: What were some of the most unexpected moments, and were they documented?
AK & MO: One of the aims of Excursus was to explore questions of audience and exhibitionality in ways that could put some critical pressure on the terminology of “engagement” as it is currently being discussed in the broader cultural field. As a result, some of the most surprising moments occurred in the context of a “program” involving only two people, or in the unplanned interaction between participants. One instance that particularly stands out was the Madchester event organized by artists Anthony Campuzano and Dan Murphy in conjunction with Oooga Booga’s installation and the concurrent Jeremy Deller exhibition, Joy in People, which was then on view in the museum. Campuzano and Murphy led an afternoon discussion on fandom and their own teenage fascination with 1990s Britpop and the Manchester music scene centered around the famous Hacienda nightclub. Purely by chance, legendary Hacienda DJ Dave Haslam happened to be in town and had come by ICA to see the Deller show. Campuzano recognized him walking around the galleries, and was thrilled to have him participate in the conversation and offer his own first-hand accounts. The entire afternoon was documented and archived on the website, as were all of the events. Although the documentation is no substitute for the in-person experience we were very conscious of photographing the project along the way so that people could follow it from afar. Because there were so many events, participants, and archival materials, the website and publication have played a crucial role in making the connections between the projects more legible and ultimately as a new archival document.
Above: Excursus I-IV catalogue
EB: What was your guiding principle behind the presentation style of the catalogue? Why did you decide to go with the image-heavy, bit-like approach instead of a denser, text-heavy book?
AK & MO: Excursus was a project with many moving parts, including four installations, archival material in flat files and vitrines, over 50 events, and more than one hundred participants. In order to make all of these components legible in a modest 128-page catalogue it made sense to atomize the elements and to separate them out. So, the documentation of each Excursus opens with a full-spread image of the space and is then divided into installation, archive, and event sections followed by a complete checklist. What results is a Whole Earth Catalogue-meets-Sky Mall page structure that both reflects the density of the material but also isolates each element and allows the reader to appreciate both the material quality and rich variety that resulted from each participants’ response to the Excursus prompt.
Above: Selected spreads from the Excursus catalogue
EB: Between the catalogue, the internet residencies, and any other archive of the project, what is your hope for the project in the future?
AK & MO: Very much in keeping with the mission of ICA, Excursus was meant as a radical proposition and a provocation to probe the boundaries of the museum and to test what might be possible. As such, it required an enormous amount of effort and attention and by necessity demanded that it have a finite timeline. That said, Excursus‘s commitment to intimacy and flexibility, to questions posed by distribution and publication, and the successful occupation of an interstitial space in the museum, has infused some the current thinking at ICA and has led to other exhibitions and programmatic activities that might not have been possible otherwise. Going forward it is our hope that the website and the catalogue will remain as a record of the project and that it will spur continuing dialogue and encourage others to take up similar questions in new and exciting ways.
Sara De Bondt, who recently spoke at the Walker as part of our Insights lecture series, is co-founder of Occasional Papers, a non-profit publisher dedicated to producing affordable books on art, design, architecture, film and literature. Their most recent publication, Please Come to the Show, which launched June 10th, is edited by David […]
Sara De Bondt, who recently spoke at the Walker as part of our Insights lecture series, is co-founder of Occasional Papers, a non-profit publisher dedicated to producing affordable books on art, design, architecture, film and literature. Their most recent publication, Please Come to the Show, which launched June 10th, is edited by David Senior, bibliographer at the Museum of Modern Art Library in New York. The book was published on the occasion of Senior’s MoMA Library exhibition recently traveling to the Exhibition Research Centre in Liverpool and the catalog “consists of a wide range of MoMA Library’s exhibition-related ephemera—invitations, flyers and posters from the 1960s to the present—presenting them as an historically overlooked but integral aspect of exhibitions. Often the first point of contact between the audience and artist, such items form part of an essential lexicon for graphic designers, curators, art historians and anyone interested in the event-based nature of showing art. Filled with full-colour reproductions of numerous examples from the MoMA Library collection, the book includes new essays by Gustavo Grandal Montero, Will Holder, Antony Hudek, Angie Keefer, Clive Phillpot, David Senior and Suzanne Stanton.”
Below we present Clive Phillpot’s essay “Postal Works” from the catalogue. Clive is a writer, curator and former art librarian.
by Clive Phillpot
I have moved house and consequently weeded my belongings maybe ten times since 1976, but through all that time I held on to a postcard announcing what is probably a performance (that I never witnessed) by Kevin Atherton at 8pm on 14 October 1976. The card informs the reader that ‘A Work Opened Up’ will be performed at the Battersea Arts Centre. Why have I kept this particular piece of paper, measuring six by three and a half inches, for so long?
The card has an internal border of a black line that breaks briefly on the top at the point where a paperclip has been attached, then, above the centred textual information, is another paperclip opened up and straightened out into a bendy line and fixed to the card with adhesive tape. This art announcement is unusual in its incursion into the third dimension, but its fascination lies in both its minimal sculptural quality, and its enigmatic content. How does a straightened paperclip connect with what happened after 8pm at the Battersea Art Centre? The lack of a ready answer contributes to the suggestiveness of the mailed work and to its ongoing curiosity.
As well as these qualities the card has usefulness, even after the event, as a record of an artist’s work and a record of one of the events at a particular venue at a certain time, just like most items in files of art documentation. The fact that I have filed and preserved Atherton’s announcement for such a long time counters its intrinsic datedness. Like nearly all the items in this exhibition it was conceived as something short-lived, that is, ephemeral. Printed ephemera are so-called because, they resemble the Ephemeroptera, the biological order of the mayflies that emerge (in the month of May) from their larval form in streams, take flight and last but a day before their lives are done. In turn printed ephemera would initially appear to have no further function once the event that they announce has occurred.
This exhibition, too, contests the status of the pieces of paper that it brings together, since years after their appearance they have been preserved and are now displayed and their content, their design, their artistry, fêted. It will also be apparent that these humble announcements and invitations actually communicate very specific items of information that have enduring value as particles in the art historical food chain.
The world of art museums and galleries has had a need for invitation cards for many decades, but with the radical changes in art in the 1960s, when artists began to take charge of the ways that their work was publicised and written about, the exhibition announcement became another arena in which the artist could work. This was a time when artists’ magazines burgeoned, as did book art, mail art and artists’ postcards.
While art announcements take many forms, the simple postcard, usually sent in the mail as is, without an envelope, is very common, and provides a small harmonious forum for verbal and visual statements. To illustrate the potential of the form one might highlight a microcosm of artists from England, who have similar interests and who have utilised the postcard form to make artworks that also announce exhibitions. They are Richard Long, Hamish Fulton and David Tremlett, each of whom has worked in remote regions of the world, and with the land itself. Richard Long has stated that ‘everything that I show in a gallery or put out in other ways, is art in its own right’. And indeed, in his recent 2009 exhibition at Tate Britain, he not only showed over eighty sculptures and wall works, but also perhaps three times as many printed works, including artist books and postcard announcements. His card for his exhibition at Sperone Westwater Fischer in New York in 1978 epitomises the announcement as artwork. It depicts his circle of driftwood on a shore in the arctic, placed in the foreground of a vertical photograph which also shows waves in the Bering Strait and a forbidding sky. The whole image, a study in greys, has a white border and two lines of lettering in white. This is a rewarding and compelling image; a small artwork. (Strangely the same photograph, bled off and without lettering, was issued in a postcard edition by Gebr. König in Cologne, but this has none of the iconicity of the New York announcement.
The idea of the artist’s postcard —a sibling of the announcement as artwork —was also made more visible in the 1960s as the mail art network expanded. For instance, a bit later, in 1977, Image Bank, the alternative space in Vancouver, published their Image Bank Post Card Show. This exhibition in a box contained works by such mail art stalwarts as Guglielmo Achille Cavellini, Dadaland, General Idea, Ray Johnson and Mr Peanut, as well as other sympathetic artists such as Gordon Matta-Clark and Sol LeWitt. Others who encouraged artists to make postcards included Klaus Staeck who had himself made postcards and stunning posters; his Edition Staeck published cards by Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, Dieter Roth, Claes Oldenburg and several more artists. Yet another extended phenomenon was Eleanor Antin’s 100 Boots. This series of 51 black and white postcards surprisingly depicted the odyssey of 100 boots as they made their way across America. Each card showed the boots en route, in a field, in a farmyard and so on, until they arrived at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Such postcards intermingled in the postal system with announcement cards and so ended up in ephemera collections as well. Getting back to announcement cards, however, there were artists who not only devised work for such cards, but also embarked upon serial card works. One of the most notorious is that by Robert Barry in 1969 in which he composed cards for exhibitions of his work in the USA and across Europe, which announced: ‘for the exhibition the gallery will be closed’. Thus after exhibiting elusive phenomena such as radio waves and inert gases he began to exhibit nothing, drawing attention to this fact by utilising these mailed announcements. Another series of interrelated cards were Joel Fisher’s announcement cards for a string of exhibitions in the mid-1970s, also across Europe, in which he paired a photo of one of his eyes with an eye of the gallerist presenting his work.
Other artists played more complicated games with announcements. For example Ray Johnson made a set of ‘five cards in diminishing print size’ for a series of ‘invisible shows’ each referred to as the ‘8 Man Show’, apparently at three different galleries. The exhibitions were, however, inventions, as were some of the artists who appeared to have exhibited: thus ‘Ray Johnson’ metamorphosed into ‘Ray Charles’, ‘Kay Johnson’ and ‘Ray Johnsong’, while ‘George Brecht’ reappeared as ‘Mrs. Brecht’. And the galleries, also fictitious, started as the ‘Robin Gallery’—probably a play on the Reuben Gallery —and then its successors the ‘Woodpecker Gallery’ and the ‘Willenpecker Gallery’ (which alluded to the artist John Willenbecher).
Other art world phenomena that contributed to the flood of printed and mailed ephemera included the publishing of artists’ magazines. Thus there are cards announcing parties or benefits to celebrate the appearance of magazine issues: the Image Bank issue of Art-Rite for example, or the various cards for Just Another Asshole. Then there is a card to announce the press conference at Grand Central Station for the release of Les Levine’s compelling subway poster ‘We Are Not Afraid’. There is another for the ‘Eat-Art Show’ at the Art Caféon Second Avenue. Yet another is for the exhibition of work by Frank Kozik at CBGBs on the Bowery. The venues —and the occasions —are multifarious.
Today we may be witnessing the end of the growth in postal announcement cards after only a few decades, for most exhibition venues are cutting back on the production of cards and other items to publicise their exhibitions or events. Email announcements have more or less taken over. Some of the more corporate galleries still issue dinosaurial card announcements but these are generally larger, thicker and more ostentatious than before.
An array of art world printed ephemera tells us a lot about the times in which they were produced. If one thinks, perhaps, of printed ephemera from the nineteenth century, the look and means of these earlier specimens is vastly different from, say, the printed ephemera of the late twentieth century, for the older ornamental typeset sheets with their inventive layouts gave way to the immediacy of offset, duplicated and xeroxed material often literally revealing the hand of the maker. So along with the art in ephemera and the information in ephemera, we can discover the look and feel and facts of the times that they document.•
Please Come to the Show
Edited by David Senior
Published by Occasional Papers
With the support of the MoMA Library and the Exhibition Research Centre, Liverpool John Moores University
This year, we asked Martine Syms to annotate her Insights lecture after she spoke, and she obliged us with a wealth of contextual information. Below is Martine’s lecture, entitled “Black Vernacular: Lessons of the Tradition,” which uses Kevin Young’s book The Grey Album as a framework to discuss her practice in the context of the […]
This year, we asked Martine Syms to annotate her Insights lecture after she spoke, and she obliged us with a wealth of contextual information. Below is Martine’s lecture, entitled “Black Vernacular: Lessons of the Tradition,” which uses Kevin Young’s book The Grey Album as a framework to discuss her practice in the context of the black radical tradition. Martine provides tons of links and commentary for her lecture, which will lead to hours of surfing if you so choose (note: the Youtube annotations only work on flash-enabled devices, from what I can tell). The other 2014 Insights lectures are also available for viewing on the Walker Channel and they’re great so when you’re done with Martine’s talk, check out Lance Wyman, Sara De Bondt, and Henrik Nygren.
It’s Boulder. And Boulder is just some free ripoff of Kabel Black. But whatever. Weird things happen late at night, when we are sleep deprived and surfing the web. Sometimes I end up buying stuff on eBay, and sometimes I end up interviewing the Westboro Baptists. About three years ago, I was preparing a lecture […]
And Boulder is just some free ripoff of Kabel Black. But whatever. Weird things happen late at night, when we are sleep deprived and surfing the web. Sometimes I end up buying stuff on eBay, and sometimes I end up interviewing the Westboro Baptists. About three years ago, I was preparing a lecture on unexpected forms of self-publishing and stumbled upon an article about how the Westboro Baptist Church has its own graphic design/media/sign production studio embedded within its walls (Sister Corita Kent now appears before me as the spiritual antithesis of this operation). I contacted Steve Drain, the church’s media director, through the comment box of the group’s Sign Movies website. Now, with the news that Westboro founder Fred Phelps has died, I dug it out of my junk-ridden Yahoo inbox and re-read the exchange. I confess a perverse curiosity about the subject, not to mention the irony of a homo talking to a bigot about the medium and not the message. Is there anything to be learned about design from someone whose values are so radically different than my own? “Sometimes sparking a dialogue can be a good thing,” Drain says, “as long as the end of it is obedience to God. :)”
Emmet Byrne: When you were designing your signs, how did you choose the typeface, and was the graphic style (color, layout) referencing past historical models, such as old political campaign signs? Or did they just develop as you went along? How did you decide what typeface the word of God should be rendered in?
Steve Drain: We use Boulder (ttf). It’s what our pastor just settled on years ago — and since it is very readable, yet not commonly used, I always thought it gave us a distinctive look. Every once in a while, if it is topically warranted, we vary from Boulder, but not often.
EB: How do you understand the relationship between a church and its communication stream? Is your print shop, and by extension your sign campaign, a more fragmented/media-savvy alternative to an “evangelist”? Would you consider your sign campaign to represent a manifesto of sorts?
SD: Wow. That’s a long and convoluted questions [sic]. Here’s what I think you’re looking for: Our job is to preach this word to every creature. So we hold brightly colored signs at events that lots of people go to. And sometimes these signs end up in photos on TV, in newspapers, and online. Our signs have timely, topical Bible sentiments on them. Our “manifesto” is the Bible — the word of God.
EB: You write/design your signs to be concise so that they transmit easily through various media streams, but many of them are also slightly cryptic. For example, “Pray For More Dead Soldiers” probably confuses many people the first time they read it. It requires a level of decryption, almost like a puzzle, to understand the logic (of course, once you understand the message, the sign reveals itself to actually be incredibly straightforward). How did you come to this strategy of provoking people with outrageous but perplexing statements and forcing them to make an effort to understand you?
SD: Our signs have short, pithy messages on them for two main reasons: 1.) so we can make the words big so that you can see them from far away, and 2.) because we live in the “sound bite” generation, so you have to get after it quickly. We aren’t about being “cryptic.” We are about being plain and clear (the pastors of this world are the ones who confuse). Every once in a while a sign needs a bit of “fleshing out,” and if someone is interested in asking us the sign’s meaning or our motive for holding it, we are always good to answer. Sometimes sparking a dialogue can be a good thing, as long as the end of it is obedience to God. :)
EB: How do you come up with the messages for your signs? Is one person responsible for the messages, or do they get generated in a more organic way among the church? Is creating the signs a bonding/conversational moment for members of the church?
SD: All members have ideas for signs. Some of our people design the signs, others assemble them, still others manage them, and all of us hold them.
EB: Of course, the signs would not be as effective if you weren’t using them at controversial places such as funerals. Was there a moment when you had the revelation that protesting funerals would amplify your message? Are the signs really only byproducts of your protest strategy?
SD: The Holy Spirit of God shows us where to go. Our pastor, who has been led by God all of his days, came to realize that these soldier funerals were more patriotic pep rallies than they were serious, mournful exercises in humbling oneself to God — celebrating a nation that is awash in sin at every level — so we started going, telling those present (among other things) that their sons’ and daughters’ deaths are not blessings from God, but curses — and that they died ignoble deaths fighting for a nation awash in sin.
EB: This is kind of a random question, but as people who believe in spreading truth to the masses, do you approve of Julian Assange and his Wikileaks operation? The Westboro Baptists and Wikileaks have both challenged our understandings of what “free speech” entails. Having now won your case in the Supreme Court, do you empathize with the predicament that Wikileaks is in?
SD: God put the First Amendment into play so that we could preach on this day. God caused the Supreme Court decision. We don’t really care much about Wikileaks’ woes. Much of the rest of the world would jail us just for stepping foot on their nation’s soil — because of what we believe and because of our open testimony against this world. It is an evil world. If they don’t like what you say or how you say it, they will try to shut you down. But there is no shutting down God. No man can stay His hand or say “what doest thou?.”
It’s fascinating the way a piece of design can accrete meaning over time, as new contexts are revealed, personal stories come to light, and history slowly reifies our perceptions of an era. There are designs that, for one reason or another, transition from being simply of their time to defining their time. Lance Wyman’s identity […]
It’s fascinating the way a piece of design can accrete meaning over time, as new contexts are revealed, personal stories come to light, and history slowly reifies our perceptions of an era. There are designs that, for one reason or another, transition from being simply of their time to defining their time. Lance Wyman’s identity for the 1968 Mexico Summer Olympics has been hailed as a pinnacle of branding and wayfinding, creating an unparalleled sense of space in lieu of the extravagant architecture typical of the Olympics. But it is the context it was created in and its significance as a cultural artifact that makes it a perfect case study in the accretion of meaning—and warrants a deeper analysis.
Olympic design can be complex to decode, acting as both a globalizing spectacle of peace and the epitome of nationalist propaganda. The Mexico City Olympics identity exemplifies this duality, bridging the conflicting ideologies of a nation at war with its own modernity, and for a time, its own people. 1968 was a notoriously turbulent year around the world, and Mexico was experiencing deep social unrest as students flooded the streets in protest, demanding a more transparent dialogue with the government, freedom for political prisoners, an end to corruption, and an accountability for the government’s widespread and violent repression. The thrust of this movement culminated 10 days before the opening of the Olympic Games, when 10,000 people descended upon the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco neighborhood for a peaceful rally. In an attempt to quell the protests, the Mexican police and soldiers surrounded the plaza, and in response to a bogus provocation organized by the government’s own Olympic Brigade, opened fire on the crowds, killing anywhere from dozens to hundreds of people, according to differing estimates. Incredibly, the Mexican government successfully concealed the magnitude of the massacre from the international community and proceeded to hold their “Games of Peace.” Even today, the Tlatelolco massacre is little known outside of Mexico.
Into this somewhat intimidating context walked a 29-year-old designer with a one-way ticket to Mexico City (literally), unknowingly stepping into the center of a revolution. As the lead graphic designer for the Mexico City 1968 Olympics, Wyman would work with an international team of designers to create the event—signage expert Peter Murdoch, architect Eduardo Terrazas, publication designer Beatrice Trueblood, sculptor Mathias Goeritz, and president of the organizing committee Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, just to name a few. To supplement his talk for this year’s Insights Design Lecture Series (which you can now watch—it’s fantastic), Wyman agreed to discuss the Olympics identity: how it came to be, the cultural signifiers it contains, the ways political events surrounding the Games impacted its reading, and his feelings about the identity system nearly five decades later.
Emmet Byrne: I’d love to hear a little bit of the backstory. What exactly did the Olympic Committee task you with?
Lance Wyman: The International Olympic Committee presented us with a simple brief: create an identity that incorporated the five-ring Olympic logo and used the host country language, Spanish, as well as French and English for all publications and signs. The brief from the Mexican Olympic Committee was equally simple, coming directly from Chairman Pedro Ramírez Vázquez: “Create an image showing that the games are in Mexico that isn’t an image of a Mexican wearing a sombrero sleeping under a cactus.”
It was a daunting challenge, and in some sense, a very open-ended assignment. I traveled to Mexico with Peter Murdoch and my wife of two months, Neila, to participate in a competitive arrangement—we had two weeks to come up with something, and if we didn’t, we would go home. It didn’t help, in terms of stress, that all we could afford were one-way tickets to get down there. Peter and I worked 12 or more hours every day and stayed up all night discussing the possibilities at the Hotel Montejo in Mexico City’s Zona Rosa. Every night poor Neila had to listen to our panic as time started to run out and we hadn’t hit on anything. This was in November 1966, less than two years prior to the Games.
It was a great relief to finally come up with the beginning of the solution—maybe two days before the deadline—which really was based on simple geometry. The logotype happened in a very logical and intuitive way. It started when I realized the single lineal geometry of the five-ring Olympic logo could be central to constructing the number 68, the year of the event. The resulting three-line structure of the 68 numbers became the typography for the word “Mexico,” and the logo was born. It was a logo that identified the event, the place, and the year, and it probably broke every corporate rule of what not to do to the original logo (), but it actually made the five rings central and genesis to everything that followed. I don’t know what came first, recognizing the logical relationships in the geometry or intuitively following my nose and exploring the obvious and just letting it happen.
Working directly for Ramírez Vázquez, the organizing committee chair, was ideal because I could go directly to him with an idea. He was an architect and sensitive to making design decisions and a brilliant organizer. When our work began in earnest, we were able to make decisions very quickly, and everything was built to spec. I liked to consider him a “good dictator.” If it wasn’t for him, we couldn’t have achieved what we did in the short time of less than two years. I remember Otl Aicher, the designer of the 1972 Munich Games, visiting our studio and saying they were further ahead in Munich than we were. We had 18 months to go at that point, while Aicher had 18 months plus four years to go. That was frightening to hear, to say the least.
I worked on the Olympic program from November 1966 to October 1968. It was hard work with many late nights. I remember one of the Olympic Committee executives saying that our partners at home had become Olympic widows and widowers. The work was challenging and always exciting. As time went on Neila and I made friends and explored Mexico and it was a very rich life experience. As the Olympics drew near there were Embassy parties and all kinds of social happenings, and we met people we would probably never have had a chance to meet. We completely fell in love with Mexico, and came away with some great stories.
EB: When I encountered your identity in college, my first read was purely formal, based on an understanding of 1960s Op art, Bridget Riley, etc.—basically I read it as a stylistic gesture that was being actively explored at the time. The visual vibration spoke of movement, communications, ideas, with Mexico at the center and everything radiating from there. The aspirations of universal legibility in the wayfinding, symbols, and signage pointed back to the precedent of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the modernist agenda. It was only later that I realized that there were explicitly Mexican motifs being exploited at the same time…
LW: That makes sense, since the genesis of the radiating lines was the geometry first. But as soon as the similarity with Huichol yarn painting became apparent, it made us realize that we really wanted to pursue graphic imagery that resonated as Mexican. We did very little research prior to going to Mexico, so the first week was spent in the Museum of Anthropology researching indigenous folk art and ancient imagery, in Mexican markets understanding their local design, and in the street taking photos of the work of local sign painters. As we proceeded, we had the opportunity to work with Huichol artists, brought in from the state of Jalisco, and learn from their unique sense of color. In one case, we made plywood square tablets (emulating traditional nierika), silkscreened the ’68 logo on them, and then gave them to the Huichol artists (see above). The artists covered these templates with wax, into which they pushed strands of colored wool, creating beautiful color illustrations of birds and other traditional imagery. We used these tablets as an aid in developing our color programing. We also referenced ancient Aztec carvings, which have a really beautiful graphic quality. I was amazed by the visual power, wit, and humor in the design I found in early Mexican cultures. It influenced my Olympic work, my Mexico City Metro work, and most of everything I’ve done since. Their examples of vibrating color, the prevalent Op art of that period, and the bold expressive geometry found in many of the early Mexican cultures all contributed to the look of the overall design program.
EB: I find it fascinating the way three different ideologies seem to be colliding in this one system, some of which is intentional on your part and some of which is only revealed in hindsight, through the accretion of meaning; and the way that form, in this case the abstract form of the radiating lines, can accommodate all this. On one hand you have the modernist, international style, the quest for universal legibility and the base geometry that embraces mechanized production. In this context, the radiating lines speak to mass communication in the industrialized age, the idea of Mexico transmitting itself to the world. From here, you upend that universality with culturally specific signifiers, utilizing traditional Mexican motifs, ancient and spiritual ideas—simulating a coherent sense of national pride, even as it reflects the mashup of cultures that is modern Mexico—the indigenous, the colonial, and the modern mestizo independent state—the three groups celebrated by the fateful Plaza de las Tres Culturas. Incorporating local vernacular into design work can often feel like an exercise in perpetuating clichés, but the radiating lines resist that again through abstraction, refusing to be hackneyed stereotypes. And when we explore the origins of the particular motifs—the Huichol nierika, for example—the spiritual context almost seems subversive. Within these prayer mandalas, which are seen as portals to the spiritual world, the radiating lines are said to represent a living thing’s communication with the deities, panpsychic emanations from a shaman’s peyote-induced visions.
LW: (Laughs) Well, I’ve often been accused of being on peyote, but it was something I never did.
EB: Yes, I can’t imagine the IOC responding well to a peyote-inspired identity, but honestly the druggy reference doesn’t feel incongruous to me. It feeds into my next read of your identity—the meaning that has accreted through time—which is how your identity serves as a visualization of the pure agitation of 1968. It’s simply hard to untangle your identity from the background of that year. The psychedelic op-art embodies that frenetic time, bringing to mind the exploration of perception through art and chemistry, the counterculture, and for me (as someone who didn’t live through the period and can only comprehend it as history), the politics: the global disruption of the student movements in France, the US, Poland, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Germany, and of course, Mexico. But that’s me, looking back and projecting on to your work. What was it like for you, being in Mexico City during the protests and the massacre of 1968? How did you feel about working for the Mexican government at that time?
LW: It was very tense. I wasn’t much older than the students at that time, and I related to them deeply. The Tlatelolco Massacre was a tragedy, and I remember very well that week before the games began. I felt torn between wanting the Games to not be cancelled by the violence and wanting to support the students. I was working for the Olympic Committee, which mostly downplayed the significance of the violence. And even though it felt like the massacre was being swept under the rug internationally, it was impossible to avoid in Mexico City, with stories coming in from friends and, of course, from my wife Neila, who saw tanks in the streets. One prevailing feeling I remember was the horror that students were being killed but we didn’t have a sense of what the scale of the uprising was at that time. It was a scary day-to-day experience. We didn’t know if the Games would be stopped, there were grenadaros in the streets, and I was concerned for my wife’s safety. I remember the celebration at the Olympic Committee when we realized that the Games would proceed, and a deep sadness for the students.
I would have to say that I felt dirty.
EB: The student protests and the government’s disproportionate response provides another read of your identity, based on an understanding of the Olympics as an unstoppable behemoth of peace that descends upon a nation every two years and demands perfection. In her essay “Unstable Ground: The 1968 Mexico City Student Protests,” Mary Shi writes, “When the International Olympic Committee granted the Mexican delegation the Olympic bid in 1963, it was not simply granting Mexico the honor of hosting an international sporting event; it was also affirming Mexico’s place on the international stage as a ‘modern country.’ Granting Mexico its bid for the 1968 Olympics was a performative act on a grand scale.” Your graphic identity can be understood as an extension of this performance, blanketing the city with a bold image of a modern Mexico, while many of its citizens fought to dismantle this very image. Shi continues, “The international community had hailed Mexico as the paragon of ‘from revolution to stability.’ … After the developed Euro-American world formally acknowledged Mexico’s progress in affirming its Olympic bid, the Mexican elite would spare no expense to confirm their nation’s modernity. As the Olympic organizers self-consciously acknowledged in one of their many mottos, they were ‘before the eyes of the world.’”
Where Japan had succeeded four years earlier in projecting an image of a nation shedding its imperial past for a modern future, Mexico was performing an equally aspirational exercise of reinvention but in a much more hybrid way. Mexico’s performance was envisioned as less a clean break with the past, and more the harmonious culmination of the modern mestizaje identity. Within this self-fulfilling prophecy, your Olympic identity is firmly aligned with the dominant voice of the Mexican government (which Shi also points out in turn was trying to live up to an equally dominating international system). It’s no surprise then, that one of the protest strategies the students used was the appropriation of your identity, acts of graphic detournement that sought to expose the hypocrisy of the Olympic slogan, “Everything is possible with peace.” What was your response to seeing your identity used for this purpose?
LW: It was intense to witness. The students subverted our identity in such powerful ways. They used the ’68 logo freely and attached it to revolutionary images, such as an image of a policeman as a gorilla. They riffed off of our silhouette system, specifically my postage-stamp designs, switching images of athletes for images of protestors being beaten by the police. And they even replaced our sporting event symbols with images of grenades, gas masks, bayonets, boots, and bombs. But the most powerful subversion I saw was a response to the dove symbol that we created to represent the World Peace cultural program. Shop owners throughout the city were given decals of the dove symbol () to put on their storefront windows. The students would walk by and spray a red spot on the white dove and let the red paint drip down the decal. It was an effective image of the violence of the uprising.
I was lucky enough to have a bit of closure to the whole experience, when years later in 1986 I was invited back to give a design lecture at UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico. After my talk, the rector of the design school formally presented me with a book called La Grafica Del ’68, featuring the anti-government graphics designed by the students for the uprising. He publicly thanked me for creating a graphic language for the Olympics that they transformed into protest posters and other public images. He himself was one of the student protestors in ’68. Even now when I remember this moment I feel flooded with emotion—it was a surprisingly strong reaction. It felt like a cleansing when he gave me that book. Again, “dirty” was a real feeling—and it felt lifted.
EB: That’s a really beautiful moment, and it seems to revolve around a revealing contradiction. As a former student protestor, why was the rector thanking you for creating the same identity that he worked so hard to subvert decades ago?
LW: That’s a good question, and I don’t have a simple answer. At the Olympic Committee we were all working very hard to make the Olympics successful, which felt very important for the future of Mexico, regardless of politics. I believe in the Olympics, and I think the purpose of the ancient games was to come together in peace, to put down arms and have a friendly sports competition. Whether that was ever really accomplished I don’t know, but I still like the thought. As the stories of students being killed became a horrible reality, working for the Olympic Committee became a very bittersweet experience. I could have walked away from the program when we started to realize the reality of the violence. It was a complicated place to be caught between. When the rector presented me with the book, I realized that I was incredibly proud of my work for the Olympic Committee, and also proud that the graphics were seen as giving the students a visual vocabulary to speak through, or speak against.
EB: In a speech to students a year after the massacre, Javier Barros Sierra, the dean of UNAM, would proclaim “Long live discrepancy!”—calling for a renewal of what he saw as an autonomous university’s purpose: to foster disagreement within culture and society. He called for students and artists to embrace the conversations that seemed irreconcilable, to demand democratic protest, and to act as a foil to the government’s suppression of resistance. In their exhibition, The Age of Discrepancies, curators Olivier Debroise and Cuauhtémoc Medina would frame the trajectory of Mexican art of the late 20th century in the context of Sierra’s proclamation, articulating an age defined by deliberate creative dissent in the wake of 1968. Their idea might serve as my final interpretation of your identity as well: discrepancy. Or, searching for peace while embracing the vibration of discord.
This could be a conversation debating the idea of a designer’s complicity, but that suggests a passive relationship between the designer and the forces that shape our surroundings—a simplistic choice between the binary of engaging or not engaging. The idea of discrepancy seems more desirable, and would designate the designer as the interpreter of meaning, existing between conflicting ideologies, tasked with understanding and arranging these ideas into dialogue, and even dismantling them, if necessary. The Olympics are a salient example of something nations, as imagined communities, are constantly doing: reinventing themselves through both aspirational invention and duplicitous fabrication. You were working in a moment that was defined by discrepancies, between contradictory ideas that refused to resolve themselves neatly, and I think you found an honest way to celebrate just that very thought.
LW: As designers we are often asked to shape our surroundings. Looking back on my Olympic experience, I was tasked with visually presenting Mexico and the Games in an appropriate and positive way. The student uprising was unexpected and grave. Even now, an accurate history is still being sorted out. And I still have my strong feelings. After the Olympics I went on to design many visual systems, quite a few of which were in Mexico. At the moment, I’m very excited to say that we are preparing material for a retrospective exhibition of my work at MUAC, the museum of contemporary art at UNAM in Mexico City. It’s an honor and a privilege to be able to return to Mexico to show the work and tell my stories.
• A behind-the-scenes article on the massive publication program of the 1968 Olympics
• A paper dissecting the Mexico City student protests
• A large collection of 1968 Olympics identity imagery
• A group interview with Alfonso Soto Sorio, Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, Eduardo Terrazas about the identity and the Huichol influence (extract)
• Contested Games: Mexico City’s Olympic Design Revolution, an exhibition exploring the 1968 Olympics identity and student protest imagery
• A text supporting Contested Games that includes a a detailed description of the student protest graphics (requires free login)
• The declassified NSA papers on the massacre
• A collaboration between the Museum Tamayo and the New Museum exploring issues surrounding Tlatelolco as a cultural site
• A paper exploring the architecture and design of the Olympics, and their relationship with the massacre (requires free login)
• An article explaining the framework of The Age of Discrepancies, an exhibition about Mexican contemporary art between 1968 and 1997
• The blog post “Fragmented”: Mexico ’68 Designer Lance Wyman on Sochi and Olympic Branding Today
In preparation for her Insights design lecture on Tuesday, March 18, Martine Syms sent poet Kevin Young five questions, one for each lesson in his book, The Grey Album, published by Greywolf Press. From the description of his book: “… [The Grey Album] combines essay, cultural criticism, and lyrical chorus to illustrate the African American […]
In preparation for her Insights design lecture on Tuesday, March 18, Martine Syms sent poet Kevin Young five questions, one for each lesson in his book, The Grey Album, published by Greywolf Press. From the description of his book: “… [The Grey Album] combines essay, cultural criticism, and lyrical chorus to illustrate the African American tradition of lying-storytelling, telling tales, fibbing, improvising, ‘jazzing.’” In her new talk “Black Vernacular: Lessons of the Tradition,” Syms will describe her connection with the black radical tradition, using Young’s influential ideas as a framework to understand her own design practice and strategies of code-switching. Please enjoy.
What we claim, we are.
Martine Syms: Super curator Hans Ulrich Obrist always asks “what are your unrealized projects?” I prefer your formulation because it acknowledges the presence of absence. Tell me about your shadow books—the unwritten, the removed, and the lost.
Kevin Young: Regarding my unwritten books: given the seventeen books I’ve published, including the edited ones, there aren’t so many. Whenever I do do a selected poems, there will be some outtakes, but there’s more like unfinished projects or sequences (smaller than a book), willfully abandoned or adapted. There are always poems I pull from a book, and these may or may not live again one day–but to make the cutting easier, you tell yourself you could always resuurect them if you wanted.
That said, most of the actual unfinished projects are prose. These I still have hopes of picking up and finishing when time permits, so I don’t think of them as shadow books yet!
Accepting even the stranded, strange, and seemingly illegitimate is the black elder’s aim.
Martine Syms: In The Grey Album you write, “Elsewhere is central to the African American tradition.” However, from Ralph Ellison’s 1948 essay Harlem is Nowhere to the “nowhere shit” of the Black Arts Movement to Afrofuturism’s dislocations, Nowhere also haunts the black imagination. What is the relationship between Elsewhere and Nowhere?
Kevin Young: Great question; I once had an idea of Nowhere in The Grey Album, based on Langston Hughes, but it fell out. It should probably stay out, for now.
Martine Syms: June Jordan says that “Language is the naming of experience and, thereby, the possession of experience.” I’m interested in the way that the black vernacular creates ambiguity. Throwing your own question back at you, does the dialectic between dialect and standard language ever resolve itself?
Kevin Young: I hope it’s clear (especially from the Dunbar chapter) that in the end I don’t believe there’s an actual dialectic between the vernacular and the standard–just as I don’t believe that there’s such thing as a “standard language.” Besides, if they were to box, the vernacular would win.
Not only does the tradition ennoble those who come after, but by following in it, one honors those who went before.
Martine Syms: The loop is a fundamental idea in modern thought. As my friend Andy Pressman once wrote, “See: cinema, Varese’s siren, okay and then jump ahead to animated gifs.” If the mash-up is the defining innovation of our generation, how does memory affect time?
Kevin Young: (See illustration at top of the post.)
Tradition is what we take, but also what we make of it.
Martine Syms: Mass media allows for narratives—and subsequently, ideologies—to be industrialized. Postmodernity enables an incredible circulation of images and narratives about the past. Can you talk about where this intersects with blackness and “how each makes the other possible?”
Kevin Young: I understand the conception of “mass media,” but am far more interested in popular culture, that thing made by both individual and collective producers with an audience (as in jazz). I think it clear from the book that I think bebop, for instance, a fruitful postmodernity, which quotes and reconstitutes, but on its own terms (indeed, on terms meant to be exactly counter to the industrialization you mention). Whether it achieves that counternarrative or not remains to be seen, but I don’t think is settled.
To put it another way, whose postmodernity do you mean? In Charlie Parker’s, or Adrian Piper’s, or Public Enemy’s, I think there’s a self-consciousness that can be strange (and for some strained) but also quite freeing. I love such a pomo’s noise, and its aspiration toward what I call in the book, yearning. This, blackness makes possible. Though there is of course a way in which blackness for certain postmodernists becomes merely a symbol of such yearning (rather than black music being a vehicle to express it). John Berryman, whom I admire (and who’s from Minnesota), comes to mind in this way, but that’s another story–one which I tell in some of in my past work on him, but that I expect to return to soon.
“At first I had a hard time identifying what the official logo of Sochi is,” says designer Lance Wyman of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics identity, which consists only of the Olympic rings and the website of the games, sochi.ru. Wyman is well positioned to comment on graphic design around the Sochi Games as well […]
“At first I had a hard time identifying what the official logo of Sochi is,” says designer Lance Wyman of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics identity, which consists only of the Olympic rings and the website of the games, sochi.ru. Wyman is well positioned to comment on graphic design around the Sochi Games as well as changes in the field: he’s the creator of one of the most celebrated design systems in history, the identity for the 1968 Mexico Olympics. “It still isn’t clear in my mind, so I guess the branding is going to rely on it along with other images.” In anticipation of his appearance at the 2014 Insights Design Lecture series, Wyman shares his thoughts on Sochi and the challenges that Olympics branding faces today:
At first I had a hard time identifying what the official logo of Sochi is. It still isn’t clear in my mind, so I guess the branding is going to rely on it along with other images. I have been impressed by the use of quilt-like textures made from indigenous Russian patterns that have been applied to uniforms and souvenir objects, though the sports icons, which are heavily stylized, don’t give me a sense of relating to Sochi.
I think the Olympic identities of the last few years express a need for new branding strategies. There are so many interests vying for attention and so much exposure that a more integrated approach is required. The identity of the Olympics themselves has to compete with the commercial exposure needs: the overblown opening and closing ceremonies, security requirements, restrictions to prevent knock-offs, etc. The resulting Olympic branding image is fragmented.
I think it is very difficult to have a strong identity that works for all. The five-ring Olympic logo has been kept intact since the inception of the modern Olympics. That’s been a boon, a consistent branding image that has done its job well. The problem starts with the attempt to identify the host country in a way that is compatible with the rings. The common attitude in corporate branding is to stay away from the basic logo, don’t get too near it with other elements, other colors, etc. There are elaborate corporate manuals spelling out all of these rules. The result in the case of the Olympics is often two logos that vie for attention. Even at its best, this is a difficult strategy when it comes to applying a branding image to the Games. Using a strong style for event symbols that suggests the culture of the host nation has been successfully used as a method of creating a sense of place without interfering or fighting with the image of the five-ring Olympic logo.
I think the purpose of the ancient games was to get together in peace, to put down the arms and have a friendly sports competition. Whether that was ever really accomplished I don’t know, but I still like the thought. As technology enables the Olympics to really become the focus of a global audience maybe that’s a good thought to make real.
Read my conversation with Wyman on the aesthetic and cultural back-story of his designs for the 1968 games.
Insights 2014 Tuesdays in March Insights is right around the corner and we have an amazing line up of designers coming to share the thinking, processes, and methods behind their work. We’ve got design legend Lance Wyman (New York), cultural designer Sara De Bondt (London), “conceptual entrepreneur” Martine Syms (Los Angeles), and Sweden’s premier […]
Tuesdays in March
Insights is right around the corner and we have an amazing line up of designers coming to share the thinking, processes, and methods behind their work. We’ve got design legend Lance Wyman (New York), cultural designer Sara De Bondt (London), “conceptual entrepreneur” Martine Syms (Los Angeles), and Sweden’s premier graphic designer, Henrik Nygren (Stockholm). After each lecture feel free to stick around and chat with the speaker and fellow designers, have a drink, and browse our new ARTBOOK@Walker design book shop. Insights is a partnership between the Walker Art Center and AIGA Minnesota.
If you can’t make it in person, please tune in to our live webcast on the Walker Channel and participate through Twitter. (#Insights2014) Here’s a kit for educators, AIGA chapters, and anyone else who might want to throw their own viewing party.
Lance Wyman (NY)
March 4, 7 pm (tickets)
When combined, the art of branding and the science of wayfinding design can profoundly transform a space. Lance Wyman is the humble master of this, designing massive graphic systems for cities, airports, expos, transit systems, zoos, and museums over his more than 40-plus-year career. In the process, Wyman helped to define the field of environmental graphics. His iconic identity for the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics—“’60s op-art kinetic typography,” as Wyman calls it—exists as a pinnacle of environmental and branding design and was credited with reintroducing Mexican visual culture back into the nation’s design vocabulary. Other projects include the identity for the 1970 FIFA World Cup, the Washington DC Metro map, the 1980 Minnesota Zoo identity (which was selected as one of the 10 best designs of the year by Time magazine), and projects for the Library of Congress, Jeddah International Airport, Chrysler World’s Fair, and the Aspen Design Conference. His work has been exhibited in museums around the world and is also in the collection of MoMA (New York). Wyman has taught corporate and wayfinding design at Parsons since 1973. Don’t miss your chance to hear from this legendary designer.
Sara De Bondt (London)
March 11, 7 pm (tickets)
Sara De Bondt is the epitome of a cultural designer, combining a love of contemporary typography with a deep investigation into the history of graphic design. Through her design practice, which consists of client-based work, designing and editing books, and curating conferences, she is consistently contributing to the critical discourse. Her playful aesthetic is idea-based, typographically driven, and always fresh. Her clients include the Nottingham Contemporary and Wiels Centre for Contemporary Art in Brussels as well as projects for the V&A, the Barbican, London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, Camden Arts Center, and MIT Press. Most recently, she took over the art direction of Tate Etc. magazine. In 2008, De Bondt cofounded Occasional Papers, a nonprofit publishing house investigating the histories of architecture, art, design, film, and literature. In 2009, she curated the conference The Form of the Book, which explored the past, present, and future of book design. She received her MFA from Sint-Lukas, Brussels, and completed postgraduate research at the Jan van Eyck Academie. Prior to opening her own studio in 2004, De Bondt worked for Daniel Eatock’s Foundation 33 in London. She has taught design at the Royal College of Art, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, and KASK School of Art.
March 18, 7 pm (tickets)
LA-based Martine Syms is many things—a graphic designer, a “conceptual entrepreneur,” a net artist—but most importantly, a thinker who examines the assumptions of contemporary America and ways that identity and memory are transformed by the shifting boundaries of business and culture. Her work explores themes as varied as Afrofuturism, queer theory, the power of language, and the spiritual nature of the color purple. The topic of her recent SXSW presentation, “Black Vernacular: Reading New Media Art,” asked the questions: “What does it mean for a black woman to make minimal, masculine net art? What about this piece is ‘not black’? Can my identity be expressed as an aesthetic quality?” From 2007 to 2011, Syms was codirector of the influential Golden Age project space in Chicago, where she organized dozens of cultural projects and initiated a publishing program of young, emerging artists. She has collaborated with artists Paul Chan and Theaster Gates, and created web design for fashion retailer Nasty Gal, among many other projects. Her work has been exhibited at venues such as the New Museum (New York), MCA Chicago, Capricious Space (Brooklyn), and the Soap Factory (Minneapolis). In her new Insights talk “Black Vernacular: Lessons of the Tradition,” Syms will describe her connection with the black radical tradition, using poet Kevin Young’s ideas as a framework to understand her own design practice and strategies of code-switching.
Henrik Nygren (Stockholm)
March 25, 7 PM (tickets)
There is an effortless simplicity to Henrik Nygren’s work, a Scandinavian modernism that stands in counterpoint to the excess of most visual communication today. His art direction of Stockholm New magazine in the 1990s presaged a global return to restrained typographic palettes and bold photo editorial direction in publications. As Sweden’s premier graphic designer, Nygren has helmed his own studio for more than 20 years, working in the fields of book design, exhibition design, identity and branding, packaging, and communications. His practice caters to cultural organizations such as the Baltic Center for Contemporary Art, Moderna Museet Malmö, the Hasselblad Center, and Phaidon books. Among many other awards, he was the recipient of the 2007 Platinum Egg and Berling Awards, and his work has been exhibited in Tokyo and Sweden. As an educator, he has had a profound impact on the Swedish design scene, teaching at Beckmans College of Design (Stockholm), Berghs School of Communication (Stockholm), the Swedish School of Arts, Crafts and Design (Gothenburg) and Forsbergs School of Design (Stockholm) since 1992. An 896-page monograph surveying the past 25 years of his award-winning work will be published in 2014 by Orosdi-Back. This lecture is copresented with the American Swedish Institute.
Insights poster design by Dante Carlos
Printing courtesy the Avery Group at Shapco Printing, Minneapolis
I love this portrait that Walker photographer, Gene Pittman, shot of artist/director Steve McQueen while he was here for his dialogue with Stuart Comer (watch the conversation here). The blue glow suggests some off camera television or computer screen—a nice allusion to McQueen’s profession and also his piece Illuminer, in which a body in a hotel […]
I love this portrait that Walker photographer, Gene Pittman, shot of artist/director Steve McQueen while he was here for his dialogue with Stuart Comer (watch the conversation here). The blue glow suggests some off camera television or computer screen—a nice allusion to McQueen’s profession and also his piece Illuminer, in which a body in a hotel room is visible solely by the glow of a television news report. And the flat gray background feels oppressive, helping accentuate the limbo-like environment between light sources and that sense of artificiality that makes me want to frame it like an Elad Lassry photo. McQueen loved it and told Gene it was mad.
To commemorate the year that was, we invited artists, designers, and thinkers across disciplines — from multimedia artist Ralph Lemon and spoken word artist Dessa to designer Martine Syms and photographer JoAnn Verburg — to share their most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects of 2013. See the entire series 2013: The Year According to […]
To commemorate the year that was, we invited artists, designers, and thinkers across disciplines — from multimedia artist Ralph Lemon and spoken word artist Dessa to designer Martine Syms and photographer JoAnn Verburg — to share their most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects of 2013. See the entire series 2013: The Year According to .
Prem Krishnamurthy is busy. As a founding principal of Project Projects, he creates some of the most respected design work today, focusing on print, identity, exhibition, and interactive work with clients in art and architecture. The studio continues to grow, and as it does, all three leaders of the group expand their fields of practice with self-initiated projects. In Prem’s case, this meant founding P!, a multidisciplinary exhibition space located in New York’s Chinatown: “P! proposes an experimental space of display in which the radical possibilities of disparate disciplines, historical periods, and modes of production rub elbows. A free-wheeling combination of project space, commercial gallery, and Mom-and-Pop-Kunsthalle, P! engages with presentation strategies and models to emphasize rupture over tranquility, interference over mere coexistence, transparency over obfuscation, and passion over cool remove.” Below is Prem’s top-10 list of 2013.
Looking back, the latter half of 2013 steadily accumulated highlight after highlight — including shows like Massimiliano Gioni’s The Encyclopedic Palace in Venice, the newest edition of the Carnegie International, Bartholomew Ryan’s 9 Artists exhibition at the Walker, and Jay Sanders’ Rituals of Rented Island at the Whitney — each of which re-articulates and perhaps even redefines a particular mode of exhibition-making. With so many good things to choose from, I’ll focus on a handful of the year’s Grenzgänger (border crossers), who moved between contexts and conversations with such ease that it seemed like the boundaries were all in our heads anyways.
Triple Canopy’s Benefit to Honor Brian O’Doherty
One of the most moving events of the year was art journal Triple Canopy’s annual benefit in New York’s Chinatown. The multifaceted legacy of 85-year-old Brian O’Doherty — polymath artist, writer, editor, and more — was celebrated by a young generation of boundary-crossers. Having worn many hats well before it was fashionable, O’Doherty is best known for his seminal 1976 essay, “Inside the White Cube,” which exploded the ideological construct of the “neutral” gallery space in a single gesture; simultaneously, as the pseudonymous artist Patrick Ireland, he has reimagined the exhibition form through his spatial drawings, language-based sculptures, and conceptual works. This year, he will publish The Crossdresser’s Secret, a novel based on the 18th-century Chevalier d’Eon, who lived as both a man and a woman — suggesting O’Doherty’s inimitable straddling of all sorts of borders. The strangest and most memorable moment of the evening involved PS1 founder Alanna Heiss mounting the stage in an animal outfit and calling down to O’Doherty to join her, each donning a full-sized horse mask — easy to put on, but comically difficult to remove later. Unexpected, surreal, yet casually intimate, this performative gesture crowned an evening that toasted the ties binding all of us weird, creative folk to this difficult city and the irreplaceable friendships formed here.
The Sackner Archive of Visual and Concrete Poetry
Miami caught its first glimpse of this astounding collection in the exhibition, A Human Document, curated by Rene Morales at the new Perez Art Museum Miami. Comprised of more than 75,000 objects (and apparently containing at least three times more artworks than that), the Sackner Archive is like manna for the typographically minded. Over the past decades, Ruth and Marvin Sackner amassed this collection of diverse works ranging from early modernist books, typewriter art, micrography, and more, bounded only by a shared focus on the experimental word-image. The gem-like PAMM exhibition served as a teaser, hinting at the wealth of objects contained in the archive. I hope this show is only the beginning for the Sackner Archive’s public presence. On the other side of the Biscayne Bay is Miami Beach’s Wolfsonian Museum, boasting a world-class collection and research library of early 20th-century works of graphic communication and visual propaganda. With these two perfectly complementary collections in town, Miami might be poised to become a new mecca for graphic designers and all lovers of visual language.
Provenance by Amie Siegel
Artist Amie Siegel’s newest project, premiered at Simon Preston Gallery in the fall, tracks the shifting value of the modernist furniture removed from Le Corbusier’s Indian city of Chandigarh. Beautifully haunting, the central film’s traveling eye registers the persistence of objects across continents and cultures. Provenance explores the manifest ways in which patrimony and origin are fetishized, twisted by the market into salable currency. Design typically inhabits the world of everyday utility, yet the current blurring of boundaries brings it closer to high art. We who work in the elite worlds of art and design inhabit a land of double-standards, invented luxury goods, and manufactured scarcity. With her conceptual denouement — the auctioning of an edition of the film at Christie’s in London — Siegel’s project achieved a new level of self-implication, biting the hand that feeds it while acknowledging that we must work from within the system to reform it.
Dysnomia by Dawn of Midi
Dysnomia was by far my most-listened-to album of the year. The trio that makes up the band — Aakaash Israni, Amino Belyamani, and Qasim Naqvi— have created a new form of music that is genre-defying. Its sonic precedents include the tightly-woven polyrhythms of electronic dance music, yet it’s rendered by acoustic drums, upright bass, and prepared piano. Is it contemporary jazz? Is it minimal music? Analog techno? Post-rock? The resulting album demonstrates that such distinctions don’t matter when the music is this riveting.
The Joycean Society by Dora Garcia
Among many surprising presentations at this year’s Venice Biennial, one standout was this geeky show, far from the Giardini’s buzz on the island of Giudecca. Following a group of crotchety older men (plus a woman or two) who gather weekly to discuss James Joyce’s notoriously difficult Finnegan’s Wake, Garcia’s video managed to do something rare: it captured the exuberance of amateur discourse. Gallery-spaces-as-reading-rooms and art-world-seminars have been in vogue for a while now — we even organized a series of reading groups at P! last year, led by curator Ruba Katrib, Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith, editorial collective Superscript, and others — yet Garcia’s film showed why book clubs endure. When conducted with passion, curiosity, and nerdy aplomb, the seminar form, freed from an institutional context, possesses quietly radical potential. In an atomized world, where discourse often equals hitting the “like” button, group dialogue and argument around texts can change minds. What a contrast to the art world we read about in magazines and the news — which apparently consists primarily of art fair parties, astonishing secondary-market sales, live performances with celebrities, and the like — rather than the real work of making and thinking.
A contemporary bestiary at the Natural History Museum, Venice
I was lucky to catch this exhibition, tucked away at Venice’s Natural History Museum. Close to the Prada Foundation’s recreation of Harald Szeeman’s Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Forms — with its claims to radical architectural and historical juxtaposition — A contemporary bestiary actually lived up to such lofty claims and went beyond. The exhibition inserted contemporary artworks by Lara Favaretto, Rosa Barba, Paola Pivi, and others into the museum’s permanent displays. The artworks were well-chosen and compelling, but the unexpected standout was the exhibition design itself. The act of intervention demonstrated an interesting proposition: exhibition display, which has the challenging task of taking non-museal objects and imparting to them an auratic power, itself may possess a powerful presence. Wandering through the rooms of the museum, each with their own bespoke character — from “underwater” areas with different fish species in hanging bubbles to immersive naturalistic tableaux — I remembered my own childhood memories of the artificial constructions in natural history museums. In these cases, the staging of such fantastical scenes has the potential to outpace the studied ways of contemporary art objects.
Richard Hollis at Artists Space
Thanks to curators Emily King and Stuart Bailey, New York had a chance to experience the rigor and resolve of one of Britain’s most influential visual thinkers. For over a half century, Hollis has approached graphic design with a clear sense of the political struggle implicit in disseminating and communicating ideas. The printed word has rarely seemed so alive, responsive, and generous as in Hollis’s hands — words and images following arguments instead of formats. In his seminal layout for John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, Hollis established that graphic design’s most significant task is to create the necessary conditions for critical thinking. The show’s structure and sequence mirrored an edited video of the designer’s recent talk at the ICA London, projected in the space and providing an ongoing soundtrack for the printed pieces, posters, and sketches on display. Through this curatorial gesture, the exhibition itself became a script for Hollis’s remarkable reasoning, which aspires to change the world quietly.
The Radicality of Reading
In the face of proliferating image feeds and accumulating 140-character posts, 2013 felt like a great year to revive and reimagine the experimentation with reading that characterized the early avant-garde. My partners at Project Projects, Adam Michaels and Rob Giampietro, each collaborated with thinkers on projects that I’m envious of: Adam’s layout for The Pragmatism in the History of Art, by art historian Molly Nesbitt, rethinks how the visual language of an academic book might be activated through the multidisciplinary work of the designer-editor. The book’s shifts in typographic voice and careful consideration of text/image relationships become an essential part of the final work. Rob’s collaboration with writer and philosopher Susan Buck-Morss on susanbuckmorss.net, her new website and publishing platform, effortlessly allows the reader to move between essays, images, and ideas through associative and non-linear channels. Reinvigorating early experiments in hypertextuality, the website allows Buck-Morss to publish outside of the typical academic and institutional channels. Both cases demonstrate that brilliant writing can be made more accessible through design that responds to it with sensitivity and generosity.
George Maciunas at Cooper Union and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia
As someone interested in the fertile overlap of the everyday and the speculative, I’m fascinated by George Maciunas, the Lithuanian-born founder and central figure of Fluxus. Maciunas radically commingled art and design through his many entrepreneurial ventures; two exhibitions, half a world apart in New York and Madrid, illuminated different aspects of his life’s work and the long shadow that it still casts. On view at Maciunas’ alma mater Cooper Union, Anything Can Substitute Art: Maciunas in Soho documented his attempts in the 1970s to establish artists co-ops in Soho (alongside his comically serious legal tangles with New York City authorities). In light of the city’s current real estate market and the difficulties that young artists have making a life here, the exhibition made Maciunas seem positively prescient. At Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, the wide-ranging exhibition +-1961 deftly recast the pre-history of Minimalism and Conceptual Art. As part of the show, printed ephemera including flyers and posters from Maciunas’ short-lived AG Gallery, hinted at his penchant for risk and experimentation. Open for less than a single year, the gallery and its forward-thinking programming suggested how a modest space can play a crucial role as a meeting point and laboratory for ideas.
Lucy Skaer at the 9th Mercosul Biennial
Artist Lucy Skaer provided the high point of this impressive and ambitious biennial in Porto Alegre. Her piece, neither object nor action, existed somewhere in between. Working closely with the resin manufacturer and packager Irani, Skaer accomplished a striking intervention in their workflow: out of the thousands of sacks of raw resin produced for distribution in a given day, five sacks instead contained a flawless, faceted block of resin. These crystalline objects, with their manifest aesthetic qualities, are nevertheless merely a functional piece of raw material, to be melted down and reformed by whomever purchases them. This gesture reframes questions of utility and beauty: the gallery and factory become contiguous, at the same time that the contextuality of visual pleasure is foregrounded. Skaer’s elegant insertion offers us a glimmer of other potentialities for art’s place in the contemporary world — rather than consisting of rarefied objects, art might occur in the ephemeral ruptures of everyday life, in forms surprising, slippery, and stunning.