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What is Hippie Modernism?

The following text originally appeared as the preface to Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia (Walker Art Center, 2015; Andrew Blauvelt, ed.). The exhibition is on view at the Walker October 24, 2015 through February 28, 2015, before traveling to the Cranbrook Art Museum and University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. […]

The following text originally appeared as the preface to Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia (Walker Art Center, 2015; Andrew Blauvelt, ed.). The exhibition is on view at the Walker October 24, 2015 through February 28, 2015, before traveling to the Cranbrook Art Museum and University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.



I first encountered the term hippie modernism twenty-five years ago in an essay by Lorraine Wild, who mentioned it passingly in the context of the design program at Cranbrook Academy of Art—a reference to the process and methodologically oriented character of a certain type of 1970s design.[1] Although no examples were shown I could not help but conjure an arresting image in my mind. Perhaps she was thinking of a poster that documented a road trip in 1973 by fifteen students and faculty undertaken in a Winnebago from Detroit to New York. The black-and-white broadside mapped their route and a lexicon of design terms surveyed the terrain of ideas they encountered along the way. Certainly, the piece was the product of a collective process and a self-conscious method. The poster’s orderly modern grid exemplified what one historian has labeled the International Typographic Style.[2] However, with its typewriter typography used to define terms such as architecture machine, software, “democratic” design, and design freaks, and a map masterly collaged with the signs and symbols of the roadside vernacular—a gesture right out of Venturi and Scott Brown’s Las Vegas playbook[3]—the project also embodied a hippie otherness. The poster, like the air inside that packed van, exuded some kind of funk. Titled “The Cranbrook design trip,” the double entendre spoke for itself. After all, what could be more hippie than a collective road trip inside a recreational vehicle transformed into a nomadic design studio for eight days?

Despite the clarity that this example offered, the term still contained an unresolved dissonance: were the hippie and the modern opposing concepts or complementary ones? Why does the notion of the hippie seem so estranged from modernism? At first glance, the culture of the hippies evokes not the modern but the premodern and the preindustrial: an affinity for nineteenth-century pioneer dress and its agrarian way of life, vividly captured in photos of rural communes;[4] the stylish period clothing of the Victorian-era Wild West said to have emanated from the vintage clothing stores of San Francisco and the Red Dog Saloon in Nevada, an early site of acid rock;[5] or its counterpart, the recurring figure of the American Indian as a countercultural touchstone representing a more authentic spiritual connection between man and nature.[6] In these ways, the hippies anticipate the postmodern search for historical symbolism and identity. But the hippie scene also embraced modernism’s fascination with new media, materials, and technologies—taped music, synthesized sound, feedback and distortion, light effects, slide projectors, portable video cameras, television, plastics, reflective Mylar, and computers.[7] But unlike the technocratic impulse that viewed scientific advances as intrinsically progressive and socially good, the hippie modern sought alternative uses for such technologies, which were increasingly adapted for personal creative effect and collective betterment. For instance, video and television could fulfill its democratic potential,[8] computing could be for personal use and no longer the sole purview of military and corporate elites, [9] technology could be made appropriate for local contexts and more environmentally sound,[10] the urban environment could be rehabilitated rather than euphemistically renewed,[11] and man and nature could be brought into ecological balance. These ameliorations and alterations typify a reconditioning of modernity through encounters with its hippie other. In a larger context of the counterculture, the hippie modern sought a recuperation of the avant-garde’s utopic dream of integrating art into everyday life. It did so by fusing art and politics and by creating alternative ways of living and thus producing the artifacts, rituals, and experiences that were necessary for this new life.


Hippie modernism marks the tension between the modern characterized as universal, timeless, rational, and progressive, and its countercultural other, which adopts a more local, timely, emotive and often irreverent, and radical disposition. I argue that hippie modernism was a momentary reconciliation of these seemingly opposed values as a way of resolving the impasse that faced postwar cultural modernity—caught between the proverbial rock of technocratic progress and a hard place of impending social disaster[12] that erupted in crisis in the 1960s and would later be very differently reconciled under the rubric of postmodernism in the 1970s and 1980s.



The path forward in art-historical terms was split between those artistic movements more aligned with deeper investigations into the increasingly essential properties of a particular medium or reductive practices (e.g., Abstract Expressionism, Color Field painting, Minimalism) and those movements that actively sought an expansion of the arts into a plurality of new forms, hybrid media, and interactive experience (e.g., expanded cinema, intermedia, installation art, performance).[13] Of these choices, hippie modernism would follow the latter course through experiments that drew upon the theatrical qualities and the participatory actions of the Happening, embraced Fluxus’s democratic spirit in its everyone-is-an-artist philosophy, explored the work of experimental filmmakers seeking to expand cinematic experience, and experimented with the fluid nature of light and sound as well as the interactive qualities of kinetic art. From Pop art it drew its lessons about popular culture as a source of inspiration and entertainment as well as its potential for social critique and the dangers of market commodification. Despite these influences, the fate of most countercultural production was that it would be undertaken outside the disciplinary boundaries of art—beyond its studios, galleries, and museums—and enacted in the public spaces and places of popular life: in streets, parks, plazas, discos, and theaters.

While advanced industrial society at mid-century continued its forward march, the 1960s’ counterculture embodied a deep skepticism about modernity’s technological progress in a postwar society. Seeking a promised liberation from stifling social conventions and oppression, it looked back to seemingly ancient or non-Western examples for spiritual and ethical guidance, exploring open social networks and experimenting with collective actions in life and work. It demanded an expanded social conscience for all, while preaching enlightenment and human potential through expanded forms of consciousness one person at a time.

The hippie modern is not invoked to delineate a style, but rather to denote a historical moment—the creative eruption of the countercultural period that I bracket between the Merry Pranksters’ cross-country acid trip in 1964 and the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 to 1974, which brought into dramatic relief the limits of Western society’s progress and geopolitical power. From the thrilling promise of a post-scarcity society to the sobering reality of a stalled economy, the decade unfolded with dramatic speed but concluded like so many idled cars queued at the gas pump. By evoking the word hippie, I do not mean to suggest that all or even any of the artists in the exhibition self-identified with the term or would have described themselves as one. The hippie was and remains a highly mediated figure, one used rhetorically within this project as the same kind of empty signifier to which accreted many different agendas. Or, as the Diggers once said, the hippie was just another convenient “bag” for the “identity-hungry to climb in.”[14] I adopt the term hippie modernism as a convenient art-historical bag with which to gather and identify various countercultural remnants. By doing so, I risk a similar co-option that the Diggers tried to burn and bury in their “Death of Hippie” event to cleanse Haight-Ashbury of its insipid commercialism. However, my objective is to contest that fate by drawing attention to this liminal period between an increasingly insular high modernism that furthered the cause of art’s autonomy in society and an emergent hippie modernism that engaged new forms and experimental practices that drew upon the early modern avant-garde’s desire to dissolve art into life.

The period under consideration is a historical transition from one epoch to another: from an industrial to a postindustrial society and from a culture of an ossified high modernism to a nascent postmodernism. Because of this transitory status and its rejection of disciplinary boundaries, the counterculture, until very recently, existed in the margins of so many art, architectural, and design histories.[15] This project foregrounds such practices and excavates such histories.


Finding the Hippie Modern


The modern conjures the figure of the machine as its preferred metaphor—a creation of man but with no trace of the hand, all smoothness and refinement, an abstraction of labor and an efficient, if indifferent, labor-saving device—something apart from nature. By contrast, the hippie evokes not the machine but the body—sensual and emotive—connecting man to nature, a direct rather than a distant connection wherein man and nature are part of a shared cybernetic system. If the modern was the hardware, then the hippie was the software—offering a new operating system for “Spaceship Earth.”[16] It is the collision of these philosophies and aesthetics that defines the project’s center of gravity, the tension between the hippie and the modern.

Despite any differences, both movements shared a similar desire to sweep aside convention and to “start from zero.” In this way they both can be said to be in search of a utopia: whether technological, social, or political. In the modern, the new wants to be invented without history, ex nihilo—out of nothing—zero. With the hippie it must be recaptured, relearned, rebooted—a return to renewed beginnings—a different kind of zero. As Tom Wolfe, who had famously chronicled Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ escapades in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test of 1968, affirms in his essay “The Great Relearning”:

The hippies sought nothing less than to sweep aside all codes and restraints of the past and start out from zero. At one point the novelist Ken Kesey, leader of a commune called the Merry Pranksters, organized a pilgrimage to Stonehenge with the idea of returning to Anglo-Saxon civilization’s point zero, which he figured was Stonehenge, and heading out all over again to do it better. … This process, namely the relearning—following a Promethean and unprecedented start from zero—seems to me to be the leitmotif of the twenty-first century in America. [17]


Above: Stuart Hall, “The Hippies: An American ‘Moment,’” in Student Power, ed. Julian Nagel (London: Merlin Press, 1969), 173.


It is this utopic impulse that gives the counterculture its radical edge and avant-garde position.

The interplay of the hippie and the modern can be gleaned in various ways throughout the exhibition—through its process, appearance, and politics. I see the hippie in the patchwork assembly of Drop City’s handcrafted “zomes” and the modern in their avant-garde notion of creating a community to integrate art and life. I recognize the concept in Victor Papanek and George Seegers’s “tin can radio,” a dung-fueled receiver for the developing world—which fascinated the faculty at the Ulm School in Germany, successors to the Bauhaus, but who were nevertheless repelled by its anti-aesthetic form and the decorative cozies knitted by its local owners. I’m reminded of today’s networked culture in the powerful collages of Superstudio’s Supersurface—a cybernetic grid of modernism enveloping the world, its hippie inhabitants living happily in a “world without objects.”[18] I can learn through doing—a favorite trope of the counterculture that sought to free education from the tyranny of schooling[19]—by making my own spaces from the plethora of “cookbooks” offering up recipes for modern living structures, whether plastic and inflatable or wooden and modular.[20] I try to decipher the message of the acid rock poster, its vibrating palette a Josef Albers color exercise done, to quote Dave Hickey, “backwards—inside out, too much, and exactly wrong.”[21] I read the paperbacks of Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, and Jerry Rubin, whose countercultural ideas are not locked up in dutiful text blocks on Gutenberg’s press bed but released onto Quentin Fiore’s fluid, cinematic pages—an ironic testament to the fact that the revolution wasn’t televised as much as it was printed.[22] I’m immersed in the wondrous images of John Whitney’s technically sophisticated films, whose micro and macro compositions evoke the sacred geometries of a more timeless cosmological order. I wander through Helen and Newton Harrison’s sensuous cybernetic orchard of fruit trees under grow lights, while recalling Richard Brautigan’s poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.”[23] In these and in other projects in the exhibition, implicit and explicit critiques of modernity are made manifest in the work and in our shared experience of them decades later.


“Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out”

Using Timothy Leary’s famous dictate to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” the exhibition is loosely organized around these concepts. Attributed to Marshall McLuhan, the phrase is both a countercultural cliché and a handy, but rough, chronicle of the period’s evolution. As such, the first section explores the notion of expanding individual consciousness through altered states of perception—whether through the pharmacologically induced acid trip or its drugless approximation via technological or spiritual means, for instance: the psychedelic canvases of Isaac Abrams, the optical apparatus of Haus-Rucker-Co, or the meditative quality of USCO.


The second section, “tune in,” explores the notion of social awareness and collective consciousness and action, with particular attention paid to the role of books, magazines, posters, and prints as more democratic modes of cultural production and objects more easily circulated through society, including: the weaponized Pop graphics of Corita Kent or in the timely missives of Emory Douglas, the Black Panther Party’s minister of culture; the immersive media chamber of Ken Isaacs’s Knowledge Box, with its projected images culled from popular magazines of the postwar image bank; or one of the most widely circulated and successful books of the counterculture, Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, which served to connect a far-flung community in common purpose and purchase.[24]


Third, the “drop out” is addressed through a diverse range of refusals, which often explore the pitfalls and potentials of technology and nature, such as: Drop City, the iconic artist colony turned countercultural commune; the proposed nomadic community of Ant Farm’s Truckstop Network and their roaming Media Van,[25] which refused the destiny of network television in favor of portable video; or the recycling of Evelyn Roth, who wove new environments wholly out of the detritus of society’s discarded videotape and thrift store sweaters. Radical architects and anti-design proponents refused the high modernism of 1960s and design’s conventional practice and lack of social engagement. In the words of Adolfo Natalini, one of the founders of Superstudio: “If design is merely an inducement to consume, then we must reject design; if architecture is merely the codifying of bourgeois model of ownership and society, then we must reject architecture; if architecture and town planning is merely the formalization of present unjust social divisions, then we must reject town planning and its cities … until all design activities are aimed towards meeting primary needs. Until then, design must disappear. We can live without architecture.”[26]


Victor Papanek harbored equal disdain for product design that only served the wants and desires of consumers rather than the real needs of all people: “It is about time that industrial design, as we have come to know it, should cease to exist. As long as design concerns itself with confecting trivial ‘toys for adults,’ killing machines with gleaming tail fins, and ‘sexed up’ shrouds for typewriters, toasters, telephones, and computers, it has lost all reason to exist.”[27]

In Stuart Hall’s discussion of Leary’s famous phrase, he rightly points out its mechanistic metaphors: one turns on a device like a TV or a radio and we tune in a channel or a program. Tuning in is channeling one’s inner-self while being attuned to the lives of others. As Hall relates: “There is, as the phrase suggests, more than one ‘channel of perception’ through which we experience the world. The trouble with straight society is it that it is tuned in to the ‘wrong station’ and thus getting the wrong message or signal.”[28] To “drop out” is to refuse to participate in the organized rituals of normative society—its schools, its military, its economy, and so on—in essence, its way of life. This kind of nonparticipation, however, is too often seen as socially passive and politically apathetic. This project seeks to counter this common misperception of the counterculture’s slacker ambiance, preferring to understand its disengagement as an active form of disavowal. Because it looked beyond modern industrialized Eurocentric viewpoints in matters of spirituality, healing, and technology to other places such as India or Africa, or back in time to the American West of nineteenth-century pioneers or to fin de siècle Vienna in matters of style, the counterculture harbored the kind of tendencies that would later define the stylistic eclecticism and historical nostalgia of postmodernism. For the most part, the search elsewhere was not a matter of reviving earlier historical styles as it would be for postmodernism, rather it was a spatial and temporal displacement in the present day to a contemporaneous world of agrarian peasant practices, vernacular building methods, “third world” technologies, and the like.[29] In other words, one did not have to look back into history for premodern, non-Western precedents but rather could find them coexisting alongside advanced industrial society in the present—not at its center, but at its margins.


Utopia Now

If the exhibition is about a relatively brief moment in time, it is not ultimately limited to this era. For every historical example, there seems to be a contemporary corollary. In fact, so much contemporary art and culture can trace its roots to the themes and movements of this period, whether the pedagogical experiments of a socially practiced art, the speculative and open-ended nature of a more participatory and socially impactful design, the discourses of sustainability and resilience in architecture and design, or the harvesting of once radical and visionary ideas into the image banks of contemporary practitioners.


Hippie Modernism is a Janus-faced figure, one side facing forward and looking ahead and the other side facing backward and looking behind. But looking at what? Conventionally, we would say that one sees the future and the other the past. However, they both see the future not simply projected from the current reality forward but one shaped and altered by this backward and forward looking glance—a transfigured vision that holds a utopic potential. It seems unlikely though as the future is always ahead of us, or so we are told, just on the horizon. It challenges, among other things, the idea of that which is in front of us is intrinsically positive and progressive, while that which is behind us is inherently negative or regressive. Technology is constantly presented as a future proposition, one that is in front of us but can also appear as if out of nowhere, out of the blue, beyond our field of vision—even from behind us.[30] Technology is portrayed as within our grasp, just as André Leroi-Gourhan conceived that evolution coincides with technological evolution: as humans stand upright on two feet, they free their hands for grasping and their faces for communicating.[31] Thus, humans are free to fabricate extensions of their bodies and senses through the tools and technologies that remake them and project them forward. In this historical moment of the hippie modern, the Janus figure sees the future both in front of him and behind him. However, in the hippie modern every step forward recalls a turning back—not a step backward, but a return to that moment when humans originated their technological selves. It is this forward and backward glance that bends or alters the seemingly inevitable trajectory of a relentless forward-facing, technocratic progress.

Utopia, like any tool, is conjured from a future but it is destined to remain just out of reach of the technological self. This unresolvable conundrum defines the struggle. Nearly a decade before those fifteen Cranbrook students and faculty piled into their Winnebago, Ken Kesey and his acid-fueled Merry Pranksters drove their wildly painted school bus across America. Their bus was named Further, which describes a position beyond one’s current location but without directional bias. Even a half-century later, we still ask: are we any further? Such is the question of a hippie modernism.



[1] Lorraine Wild, “Transgression and Delight: Graphic Design at Cranbrook,” in The New Cranbrook Design Discourse, ed. Hugh Aldersey-Williams (New York: Rizzoli, 1990), 31.

[2] See the chapter “The International Typographic Style,” a reference to the dominant architectural modernism of the early twentieth century but in its mid-century corporate graphic design guise, in Philip B. Meggs, A History of Graphic Design (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1983).

[3] The reference is to the landmark study of the Las Vegas commercial strip by students and faculty from Yale University. See Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1972).

[4] See the cover story and photo essay, “The Youth Communes New Way of Living Confronts the U.S.,” Life, July 18, 1969.

[5] Beginning in 1965, the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, owned by Chandler A. Laughlin III (aka Travus T. Hipp), helped buoy the music careers of the Charlatans and Big Brother and the Holding Company with its unique blend of psychedelic-fueled mayhem, light show displays, and a burgeoning form of electric folk music that would soon become the template for the San Francisco scene.

[6] See Philip Deloria’s “Counterculture Indians and the New Age,” in Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s & ’70s, ed. Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle (London: Routledge, 2002), 159–188.

[7] For one fascinating example, see: David W. Bernstein, ed., The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

[8] For an account of the intersections between commercial television and early video and media activism, see David Joselit, Feedback: Television Against Democracy, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007).

[9] See John Markoff, What the Doormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry (London: Penguin, 2005).

[10] Two influential books from the period that argue for a downsizing of technology include E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (New York: Perennial Library/Harper & Row, 1973) and Lane deMoll, ed., Rainbook: Resources for Appropriate Technology (New York: Schocken Books, 1977).

[11]The reference is to the countless urban-renewal projects undertaken in American cities in the 1960s and 1970s that eliminated various so-called undesirable and unproductive parts of the city. By contrast, projects such as the Integral Urban House (1975), a retrofitted Victorian mansion in Berkeley founded by the Farallones Institute sought to bring a more eco-friendly lifestyle to the existing urban environment. See Sim Van der Ryn, The Integral Urban House: Self-Reliant Living in the City (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1979).

[12] The apocalyptic overtones of the countercultural period include the risk of annihilation from a nuclear explosion brought on by the Cold War, a much anticipated civil race war following the deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X as American cities erupted in riots, or the computer-predicted ecological disaster brought about by overpopulation of the world and its limited resources forecast by the Club of Rome’s 1972 report The Limits to Growth.

[13] See Eric Crosby, “Introduction to Art Expanded, 1958–1978,” in Living Collections Catalogue, vol. 2, ed. Eric Crosby with Liz Glass (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2015),

[14] The full quote states: “The media cast nets, create bags for the identity-hungry to climb in. Your face on TV, your style immortalized without soul in the captions of the Chronicle. NBC says you exist, ergo I am.” Free City news sheet published by the Diggers, October 6, 1967,

[15] See my essay in this volume, “The Barricade and the Dance Floor: Aesthetic Radicalism and the Counterculture,” 15–30.

[16] The metaphor can be found in a speech by US Ambassador Adlai Stevenson in 1965 to the United Nations in which he proclaimed: “We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft.” Albert Roland, Richard Wilson, and Michael Rahill, eds., Adlai Stevenson of the United Nations, 1900–1965 (Manila: Free Asia Press, 1965), 224. The term was, however, popularized by R. Buckminster Fuller in his book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969).

[17] Tom Wolfe, “The Great Relearning,” in American Spectator 20, no. 12 (December 1987): 14.

[18] See William Menking, “The Revolt of the Object,” in Superstudio: Life without Objects, ed. Peter Lang and William Menking (Turin: Skira, 2003).

[19] See the foundational text Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).

[20] Among the many “cookbooks” of the period are Ant Farm’s Inflatocookbook, Ken Isaacs’s How to Build Your Own Living Structures, and Victor Papanek and James Hennessey’s Nomadic Furniture books as well as Lloyd Kahn’s Domebook series and Steve Baer’s Dome Cookbook and Zome Primer, which are all featured in the exhibition.

[21] Dave Hickey, “Freaks,” in Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era, ed. Christoph Grunenberg (London: Tate Publishing, 2005), 64.

[22] See Sam Binkley, Getting Loose: Lifestyle Consumption in the 1970s (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), in particular the chapter “Book as Tool: Lifestyle Print Culture and the West Coast Publishing Boom.”

[23] The poem was written in 1967 during a period when Brautigan was poet-in-residence at the California Institute of Technology and was published and freely distributed by the Communications Company (Com/co), the printing arm of the Diggers. The poem can read online at

[24] For accounts of the Whole Earth Catalog, see Andrew G. Kirk, Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2007) and Simon Sadler, “An Architecture of the Whole,” Journal of Architectural Education 61, no. 4 (May 2008): 108–129.

[25] For an account of the Truckstop Network project, see Felicity D. Scott, Ant Farm: Living Archive 7 (Barcelona: ACTAR, 2008).

[26] Adolfo Natalini, lecture at the Architectural Association, London, March 3, 1971, quoted in Superstudio: Life Without Objects, ed. Peter Lang and William Menking (Turin: Skira, 2003), 20–21.

[27] Victor Papanek, Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change (New York: Bantam Books, 1973), 15. The emphasis is in the original.

[28] Stuart Hall, “The Hippies: An American ‘Moment,’” in Student Power, ed. Julian Nagel (London: Merlin Press, 1969), 173.

[29] For one account of such explorations, see Alison J. Clarke, “The Anthropological Object in Design: From Victor Papanek to Superstudio,” in Design Anthropology: Object Culture in the 21st Century, ed. Alison J. Clarke (Vienna: Springer, 2011), 74–87.

[30] For a deconstruction of the concepts of anteriority and posteriority as well as his conception of the “dorsal” turn as it relates to humans and technology, see David Wills, Dorsality: Thinking Back through Technology and Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

[31] See André Leroi-Gourhan, Gesture and Speech (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993).


Enter the Matrix: An Interview with Ken Isaacs

The following interview of Ken Isaacs by Susan Snodgrass was originally published in the exhibition catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia, 2015. — The highly individual practice of American architect and designer Ken Isaacs (born 1927, Peoria, Illinois) challenged conventional definitions of modernism through designs that sought radical solutions to the spatial and […]


The following interview of Ken Isaacs by Susan Snodgrass was originally published in the exhibition catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia, 2015.

The highly individual practice of American architect and designer Ken Isaacs (born 1927, Peoria, Illinois) challenged conventional definitions of modernism through designs that sought radical solutions to the spatial and environmental challenges of modern life. Fueled by the optimism that defined the postwar period, Isaacs began working with the new forms and technologies offered by modernism and advances in science, at the same time shunning the consumer-laden values of the American dream. The result was a lifelong commitment to a populist form of architecture that, because of its low cost and ease of construction, allowed a broad range of publics to participate in the design process.

These designs, all founded on Isaacs’s concept of the matrix or total environment, were built using a three-dimensional grid and took the form of modular units called Living Structures that unified the multiple functions of furniture and home, including nomadic, sustainable architectural dwellings or Microhouses. Isaacs also applied his matrix idea to various multimedia information systems, most notably The Knowledge Box (1962), which was re-created by Isaacs in 2009, an experimental learning chamber that eschewed the traditional classroom for “environmental” concepts of education.

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Designing the Hippie Modernism Exhibition Catalogue

The catalogue for Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia is edited by curator Andrew Blauvelt and contains new scholarship that examines the art, architecture, and design of the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s. The catalogue surveys the radical experiments that challenged societal norms while proposing new kinds of technological, ecological and political utopia. It […]


The catalogue for Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia is edited by curator Andrew Blauvelt and contains new scholarship that examines the art, architecture, and design of the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s. The catalogue surveys the radical experiments that challenged societal norms while proposing new kinds of technological, ecological and political utopia. It includes the counter-design proposals of Victor Papanek and the anti-design polemics of Global Tools; the radical architectural visions of Archigram, Superstudio, Haus-Rucker-Co, and ONYX; the installations of Ken Isaacs, Joan Hills, Mark Boyle, Hélio Oiticica, and Neville D’Almeida; the experimental films of Jordan Belson, Bruce Conner, and John Whitney; posters and prints by Emory Douglas, Corita Kent, and Victor Moscoso; documentation of performances by the Diggers and the Cockettes; publications such as Oz and The Whole Earth Catalog; books by Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller; and much more.


While the turbulent social history of the 1960s is well known, its cultural production remains comparatively under-examined. In this substantial volume, scholars explore a range of practices such as radical architectural and anti-design movements emerging in Europe and North America; the print revolution in the graphic design of books, posters and magazines; and new forms of cultural practice that merged street theater and radical politics. Through a profusion of illustrations, interviews with figures including: Gerd Stern of USCO; Ken Isaacs; Gunther Zamp Kelp of Haus-Rucker-Co; Ron Williams and Woody Rainey of ONYX; Franco Raggi of Global Tools; Tony Martin; Drop City; as well as new scholarly writings, this book explores the conjunction of the countercultural ethos and the modernist desire to fuse art and life.


While designing the publication, one of the tensions we were interested in exploring was the relationship of the hippie as popularized by the media and its authentic counterpart, if such a thing existed. As Andrew describes in his preface to the catalogue, “The hippie was and remains a highly mediated figure, one used rhetorically within this project as the same kind of empty signifier to which accreted many different agendas. Or, as the Diggers once said, the hippie was just another convenient “bag” for the “identity-hungry to climb in.” If the publication could illustrate both the hippie as utopic countercultural agent and the hippie as “devoted son of Mass Media,” we might begin to emulate a Hippie Modernism.


117Typographically, we responded to lo-fi publications such as the Whole Earth Catalog, How to Build Your Own Living Structures, Be Here Now, and the Foundation Journal on one hand, and the iconic, corporate advertising language of the ’60s and ’70s on the other. Bridging these two registers came quite naturally to many of the artists and designers of this era, who understood that envisioning a utopia meant performing it, broadcasting it, projecting it, publishing it, and advertising it. Creating the future meant co-opting the strategies of mass communication.





One obvious example of this was “Advertisements for the Counter Culture,” an insert in the July 1970 issue of Progressive Architecture magazine, in which representatives of the counterculture were invited to create advertisements for their various projects and efforts. In the preface, editor Forest Wilson wrote, “The following pages reflect deep discontent with things as they are. We should be concerned when such options cease to be advertised, for it is when those who seek change despair of its realization that violence becomes inevitable. The public notices that follow are put forth to offer alternatives to our way of life, not to destroy it.”



In addition to reprinting the insert in our catalogue, we created a 16-page reimagining of it through the lens of Hippie Modernism, interspersed throughout the essay section. Some of these pages feature real ads, publication covers, and layouts from the period, while others are fictional recreations (the McLuhan ad, for example, required restaging a photoshoot in order to translate an ad that was originally black-and-white into full color). The pages are printed on Constellation Jade Riccio, a dreamy, pearlescent paper embossed with a wavy pattern that brings to mind the organic psychedelia of certain hippie projects such as Elias Romero’s oil and ink light show experiments, while also reinforcing notions of mass production and surface, by way of it’s highly artificial nature. (I first saw this paper used beautifully by Laurent Fétis and Sarah Martinon in the design of the catalogue for the 23rd International Poster and Graphic Design Festival of Chaumont 2012.)




The book also includes an extensive plate section, featuring images and descriptions of the projects featured in the exhibition.


Finally, the image on the cover of the book depicts the US Pavilion for Expo 67 (Montreal), designed by Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao, as it caught fire on May 20, 1976. As a signifer, the photo by Doug Lehman seems to perfectly encapsulate the friction implied by the term “hippie modernism” and, more explicitly, the counterculture’s utopian agenda being subsumed—and deemed a failure—by the conservative era that was to follow. With each passing year, though, this reactionary characterization of the counterculture moment rings more and more hollow, as contemporary practitioners revisit the revolutionary strategies these artists, designers, and activists deployed.


The Barricade and the Dance Floor: Aesthetic Radicalism and the Counterculture

“The Barricade and the Dance Floor: Aesthetic Radicalism and the Counterculture” is republished from Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia (Walker Art Center, 2015; Andrew Blauvelt, ed.). The exhibition is on view October 24, 2015 through February 28, 2015, before traveling to the Cranbrook Art Museum and University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. In Hjorvardur […]


“The Barricade and the Dance Floor: Aesthetic Radicalism and the Counterculture” is republished from Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia (Walker Art Center, 2015; Andrew Blauvelt, ed.). The exhibition is on view October 24, 2015 through February 28, 2015, before traveling to the Cranbrook Art Museum and University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

In Hjorvardur Harvard Arnason’s sweeping survey History of Modern Art, first published in 1968, a brief entry on psychedelic art completes his six-hundred-page tome. It seems a fitting way to conclude the book’s march through modernism, focusing as it does on the au courant style of the moment. As Arnason explains, “The recent appearance of psychedelic art may be accounted for in several ways: the easy availability and enormously increased use of psychedelic drugs; the mixture and confusion of appeals to several senses simultaneously in the so-called mixed media performances; the ethos of the hippies and flower-children; and the prevalent atmosphere of rebellion against ‘the establishment,’ whether in society in general or in art specifically.” Arnason does not elaborate on these causalities, which, nevertheless, are instructive in their range of positions. The use of mind-altering and consciousness-expanding drugs such as LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin on the part of artists would seem to be an expected foundational definition of a psychedelic art. This “art under the influence” approach applied not only to some artists whose work was produced during drug-induced sessions but also for the many more who drew upon such episodes and experiences more symbolically or referentially, giving psychedelic art currency as both a form of process and representational art. Interestingly, Arnason does not parse the difference between the artist and the audience undergoing an altered state of consciousness, rendering psychedelic art also possible in the mind’s-eye of the beholder. This inclusive reading is alluded to in his second cause, the “mixed” and “confusing” sensory experiences of mixed-media performance—choreographies that often intentionally blurred the roles of audience and performer as easily as it melded the aural, visual, and tactile realms into one experiential whole. In fact, although he introduces this final section with a focus on the psychedelic artist, the trajectory of psychedelic art clearly exceeds such conventional limits and must embrace the culture and society at large. Thus, the appearance of such an art would be the consequence of its newly created audience of “hippies and flower children”—presumably as both spectators and co-creators—in a socially antiestablishment “atmosphere of rebellion.” Arnason understood that such an art is not limited to representing conditions of social rebellion “in general,” but also posed a challenge to “art specifically.”

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International Pop: Exhibition Catalogue

Designer Andrea Hyde answers questions about about the design of the catalogue for International Pop, a groundbreaking exhibition deconstructing the accepted understanding of Pop Art, curated by Darsie Alexander and Bartholomew Ryan. Note: an abridged version of the following interview with Artbook/D.A.P.’s Madeline Weisburg’s was originally published on Madeline Weisburg: I’d like to start at […]

Designer Andrea Hyde answers questions about about the design of the catalogue for International Pop, a groundbreaking exhibition deconstructing the accepted understanding of Pop Art, curated by Darsie Alexander and Bartholomew Ryan.

Note: an abridged version of the following interview with Artbook/D.A.P.’s Madeline Weisburg’s was originally published on

The hardbook cover was produced by printing Pantone colors on linen with a white foil stamp on top of that.

The hardbook cover was produced by printing Pantone colors on linen with a white foil stamp on top of that.

Madeline Weisburg: I’d like to start at the very beginning of the book design process. When you first hear about the concept for an exhibition what sort of research do you do? How do you relate the aesthetic vocabulary of an artist, group or movement to the design of a book?

The research I conduct at the start of a project is tailored to the subject in question. For previous publications, I spent time with living artists, researching the subject in person. In this case, after I learned that I would be designing the catalog and identity for International Pop, I began frequenting the Walker’s library, reviewing our considerable collection of Pop-era ephemera, artist books, and catalogs. Then throughout the book design process, I adjusted my research strategy depending on what was needed, what was missing from the project, and what I needed to learn. The translation of artistic vocabulary into a book is context-specific, and ranges from a slight nod to a more literal reference. Pop has so many visual signifiers that it would be difficult to avoid calling them out in this book, even in subtle ways, like the choice of typeface or the style of the contents page.

Is your approach different for historical group surveys like International Pop as opposed to monographs?

Definitely. Monographs are different, in part, because it’s easier to get to know a singular artist—even posthumously—than it is to channel a movement or the conceptual arguments behind contemporary group shows. Artists who are the subjects of a compendium catalog often have large bodies of work and critical writing about said work, all of which provides an immersive experience for the designer: ephemera, previous publications and essays, artist statements and distinct artistic periods. In contrast, the curatorial ideas behind a group show can be difficult to convey, in part because those ideas often present new ways of thinking about art, and the visual language needed to put those ideas forward has to be invented a priori, without the benefit of a specific artist to inspire the process. Contemporary group shows are more abstract, but that being said, there is a certain freedom in defining a new idea, of not being beholden to an artist but to a concept. In the case of historical surveys like International Pop, the approach I take is somewhere between the monograph and group show, in that an artistic movement like Pop functions as the artist. Though curators Darsie Alexander, Bartholomew Ryan, and other contributors to this show and catalogue present fresh takes on Pop, there is still a defined visual language surrounding the movement, and there is a tremendous amount of scholarship at my disposal. The resulting book identity is not inspired by one artist or one group of artists, but by Pop-at-large, reimagined by myself and my colleagues.


Which designers or artists do you look at for inspiration?

I have stopped looking at specific designers for style inspiration, as, when working on art books, there is usually abundant visual material from which to drawn upon. I look to other designers for the way they think or the way in which they work, or how they’ve managed to make a living for themselves. Although, of course there are exceptions, and I do find myself admiring specific designers or artists for one reason or other: Irma Boom as the quintessential book designer; Maureen Mooren for her beautiful form and posters; Hort for their mastery of typography and branding; Maurice Scheltens for still-life photography; Karel Martens for the design legend he is; Jean Luc-Godard for his amazing intertitles; Slavs and Tatars for their prolific multi-disciplinary practice; artists Wanda Pimentel, Kerstin Brätsch, Lesley Vance, Vija Celmins, Lorna Simpson, and infinitely more.

As an object, International Pop is incredibly striking. What was your guiding principle behind the design of the package?

This project required high production values to match the importance of its contents. I didn’t set out to make a book that felt expensive per se, but I did push for little nuances to make a book that felt more visually and tactility impactful as an object. The book was printed at Die Keure in Belgium, which was instrumental in realizing the project, as was our image specialist, Greg Beckel, who corrected the book’s illustrations and plates.


Wow! I know that Die Keure is considered to be on of the best printers in the world. What makes them so special? Why did you choose to work with them on this project?

I had wanted to work with Die Keure for many years, but did not have the opportunity until now. They are truly masters of their craft, and the best designers from all over the world work with them. Although they don’t print with UV ink, their printing is incredibly sharp and their pressmen have an amazing eye for color. The foil stampers and binderies they work with are outstanding. Throughout the printing process, I felt that I was in expert hands.

There is so much about the production of the book that I love—especially the puffy cover. How is this made?

The puffy cover was something I advocated for because I thought that it added to the unexpected but luxe feel of the book, and I associate Pop—rightly or wrongly—with a kind of soft friendliness. The book board is padded before it is wrapped with the book cloth to achieve the puffy effect.


Where did the concept for the cover graphics come from?

In the initial stages of the project, I reviewed and researched the exhibition checklist as it stood at the time and noticed a number of artworks intended for the show featured either mouths (as in László Lakner’s Mouth), eyes (Joe Tilson’s Look), or ears (Eduardo Costa’s Fashion Fiction 1). My understanding is that the isolation and detailing of body parts is one of Pop’s many artistic legacies. Because of that, I began sketching the cover as a rebus, featuring artworks in the place of lips, eyes or ears. I came up with introductory text to render on the cover, interrupted by the artworks defining the rebus: “International Pop ecc(lips)ed us in its neon red l(eye)t, but afterward, the ear(th) app(ear)ed. That strategy went over well, but we ultimately did not want to feature specific artworks on the cover, so I abstracted it, illustrating the rebus elements instead. Later on, I shortened and abstracted the title “International Pop” in response to how the curators and editors were using the shorthand “I-Pop,” to refer to the show. The eye, a prominent reference point in Pop and the thinking around the show’s touchstones—geopolitical unrest, increased media coverage and consumption, and cultural self-reflection—seemed like a perfect stand-in for the “I” in “I-Pop.” Apart from the graphics on the cover, I had created a suite of passport stamps to serve as the International Pop brand. In each version, “International Pop” was translated into the languages of the artists that were heavily featured in the show and the essays, which detailed Pop movements from around the world, from Brazil to Japan.

Has anyone brought up an association between the passport graphics and Masons’ symbols or the eye of the dollar bill?

No, not yet, although I can see the resemblance. I think it’s because all three are triangular. The other passport stamps I designed won’t have that association, but it’s an interesting one. Perhaps there was something subconscious going on there.


I’m also curious about the color scheme that you’ve chosen. When I first saw the book my personal association with the teal printed edges was with the color of a popular brand of photo emulsion for screenprinting, which seems so perfectly suited for a book about Pop. What informed your color decisions?

Although the screen printing reference would have been a clever one, the color scheme was a happy coincidence. Initially, I sketched the cover and other elements of the book with primary colors on a white background, much like Lichtenstein’s Look Mickey featured in the show. But I needed to move away from that knee-jerk reaction, which made more sense for the Walker’s International Pop campaign than it did the catalog. Curators Alexander and Ryan set out to redefine and broaden the scope of what most people think of as Pop with this exhibition, and that included color. So in the spirit of experimentation, I opened a few sketches in Photoshop and inverted them. The white background became black and the primary colors were altered; I continued working with the same palette going forward, including the fore edge stamping, which is meant to match the turquoise graphics on the cover, as well as the pages I call “interruptions:” snapshots taken by the curators over the course of their their travels and research for the exhibition and catalog that are dispersed throughout the book.


The catalog starts with a detailed visual chronology, which charts key events surrounding Pop internationally – both political, economic and explicitly art-related. Instead of making this an appendix, this section grounds the rest of the book. Can you talk about the thinking behind the design of this section?

Curators Alexander and Ryan had already planned for an extensive visual chronology by the time I started the catalogue. They worked with local art historian Godfre Leung, who had the massive task of identifying, organizing and writing about the relevant and tangential events, movements, and watershed moments that contributed to the evolution of Pop. I took some of the early drafts from Leung and presented two very different approaches to the section. The version that made it into the book is formally based on scaffolding, which had the effect of compartmentalizing each entry. It was important to control the chaos of the hundreds of dates, texts and images in the chronology with a strict system to ensure the reader could make sense of it all. The curators, contributors, and I collaborated on which entries were illustrated and which photos were selected. As most of the archival images we found were black and white, I decided to make this section one-color to contrast with the four-color work featured throughout the rest of the book. In addition, to me, the artists’ voice was as important as the photographs. I treated the pull-quotes similarly to the images, in that they stood out on the page. They are displayed larger, in a different typeface from the entries (Founders Grotesk), and were given their own “compartment” on each spread, which allows the reader to engage with this section from either the cursory level of quotes and images, or the deeper level of entries and captions. And because international travel was a relatively new and exciting reality at the time, I called out each event by noting its international country code(s), at times listing two or more countries depending on the item, and noting artists’ movements, international agreements and the like with arrows. Finally, even though the chronology is the entry point to the rest of the catalog, it is intentionally stylistically separate, and is printed on salmon-colored paper a la Financial Times.


I read an interview with you on the Walker blog where you made a distinction between designing art publications that feel like artifacts and those that feel like documents, in reference to production value. These definitions seem incredibly important for the book designer. Can you expand more on this?

Yes, I think designers are often in a position where they need to prioritize and focus their efforts. In some cases—depending on timing, budget, and manpower—it makes perfect sense to provide a document of the subject matter meant merely to glance at, maybe read, and in time discard. Publications that seek to be a definitive resource have a higher standard. They need to be appealing on several different levels, production value being one. As I mentioned before, in response to your question about the “objectness” of the book, International Pop needed to feel like an artefact, and the permanence of the book as an object helps the ideas within it feel permanent as well.

International Pop does a great job of presenting the work from the Walker exhibition but also can stand alone as resource about Pop art. How do you address the challenge of making a book a platform for the material and not a walkthrough of the show?

Unlike digital media and design for the web, print has a built-in finality that puts the book in a unique position to be an authority figure, the “final word” on a given topic. Depending on the curator or editor’s motivations for a publication, I can either highlight that sense of authority or I can underplay it. In the case of International Pop, the subject matter was so extensive that there was never a thought that this catalogue would merely document the show. In fact, there were a number of plates that we included in the book that, for a myriad of reasons, did not make it into the show. Apart from that, essays by curators Alexander and Ryan, Erica Battle, Claudia Calirman, Dávid Fehér, Ed Halter, Maria José Herrera, Hiroko Ikegami, Luigia Lonardelli, the visual chronology by Leung, and Charlotte Cotton’s roundtable discussion with Martin Harrison, Hiroko Ikegami, and Tomáš Pospiszyl added such richness to the subject that it far surpassed what our audiences could hope to experience in the gallery.


Are there any radically different approaches to the catalog that you ended up not taking?

“Radically different” is a pretty high bar, but I did have alternate approaches that were abandoned for one reason or another. The “interruptions” throughout the book went through a number of incarnations. They were originally intended to be the stylistic glue that held the book together, presenting another layer of content in a more explicit manner than you see in this book, where I present the curators’ snapshots from research trips in a similar high-contrast style on glossy turquoise paper. It’s less aware of itself, and a better thoroughfare than what I initially presented: divider spreads that 1) foregrounded the exhibition titles and texts written during the Pop period: But Today We Collect Ads and Parallel of Life and Art were two favorites; 2) featured newspaper tearsheets representing the regions and events in the show; or 3) provided an extension of the rebus system on the cover.

Any upcoming projects that you’d like to mention?

Currently, I’m designing an exhibition identity for Jack Whitten, who will be at the Walker in September for the opening of his touring show. I will also likely design the Walker’s upcoming Merce Cunningham book, which will be another big, International Pop-level undertaking. And then apart from my work at the Walker, I have a number of freelance projects that keep me engaged, although I will wait to talk about those chicks after they hatch.



Below: an assortment of images demonstrating the application of the visual identity for International Pop.









Download 15 issues of Design Quarterly

In case you missed it, as part of our 75th anniversary celebrations Andrew Blauvelt has put up a selection of Design Quarterly issues that are available in their entirety for download. Learn a bit about the history of Design Quarterly and dig into issues about Julia Child’s kitchen, the design process at Herman Miller, Muriel […]

DQ_coversIn case you missed it, as part of our 75th anniversary celebrations Andrew Blauvelt has put up a selection of Design Quarterly issues that are available in their entirety for download. Learn a bit about the history of Design Quarterly and dig into issues about Julia Child’s kitchen, the design process at Herman Miller, Muriel Cooper on computers and design, an issue by Richard Saul Wurman that is not about hats, and more.

9 Artists, 8 Books

From A to B and B to A: Bartholomew Ryan, curator of 9 Artists, and myself Andrea Hyde, designer of the catalog and exhibition identity, sat down a few years back to talk about the book, published in October 2013. B: Hi Andrea! A: Hi Bart, how are you doing? B: Good. Thank you. A: How was the […]


9 Artists cover

From A to B and B to A: Bartholomew Ryan, curator of 9 Artists, and myself Andrea Hyde, designer of the catalog and exhibition identity, sat down a few years back to talk about the book, published in October 2013.

B: Hi Andrea!

A: Hi Bart, how are you doing?

B: Good. Thank you.

A: How was the exhibition opening at MIT?

B: It was really nice, actually. It was the first time a show of mine has opened outside of Minneapolis. What was interesting about it was having people I didn’t expect to show up. Obviously the exhibition is very different there, it’s about half the size in terms of space…

A: So, apart from the exhibition, how do you think the catalog has been received so far?

B: Well, I know that it has met its sales targets, which is good. Group show exhibition catalogs famously don’t sell very well, and one of the things that I am anxious for, is to preserve the ability to do books like 9 Artists that don’t conform to your typical coffee-table style catalog. We talked early in the process about making a book that’s less an illustration of the exhibition than a platform, a way to give light to the distinct practices of these eight artists who are all amazing creators outside the gallery context, a book that might be more interesting as a result. I’m hoping that is how it’s bearing out. I know the first batch of books that went to Europe sold out fairly quickly. I don’t think there are any left there right now. But, I am getting email from people who really enjoy the catalog, and who find it quite strange. And, I have decided that maybe ten people in the world have read my essay, but I’m sort of fine with that! (laughs) It’s probably for the best. But yes, people are interested and engaged by it, which is great!

The Cover:
B: From my perspective, part of the book’s appeal is the cover, and the identity system that went into the exhibition. I know that was something you came up with at a certain stage in the process, and I thought it was perfect for a number of reasons. It was actually the first time I realized the show had only eight artists! Where did the cover concept come from?

A: You’ll have to correct me if I am wrong, but I recall that the cover came out of the interior sketches. And the interior was largely informed by the artists. As you said, the book is less a documentation of the exhibition or the works within it, as it puts forth new work, new ideas, and new writing independent from the show. And because of that, because each of the artists have their own artist-book-like sections that were grouped into a singular catalog, their individual identities were really important. In this case, because of the nature of the artists’ work, because it was so personal, I thought that, unlike the name of the show—9 Artists, an iconic title that reads like a manifesto—I felt like the artists themselves were just as, if not more, important. Grouping them together on the cover in the way I did, as brands or as passport stamps, and using their first names allowed it to be casual, a bit irreverent. And I think that’s the nature of the exhibition and of the book itself.

A: Was that your reading of the process?

B: Yes. I remember we began by having conversations about what this book should be. We really wanted to step away from quasi-nostalgia, an artisanal sort of aesthetic that is so prevalent in the art world. At the same time, we didn’t set out to make a zany, kitchy experience. What we wanted was to capture a quality that would feel present, and also have its own flow.

A: Right, and very responsive to the content. Do you think that’s perceptible to the reader?

B: I think what happens when you look at the cover is that you see names that are locatable and reveal identity. 1. Liam [Gillick] is very clearly an Irish name. 2. Danh [Vo]…I don’t know what Danh looks like. Does it look Vietnamese? Or Danish? 3. Hito [Steyerl], it’s ridiculously Japanese. 4. Nástio [Mosquito], something cool… 5. Natascha [Sadr Haghighian], Russian most likely. 6. Bjarne [Melgaard], Scandinavian 7. Renzo [Martens] Italian, 8. Yael [Bartana] Israeli I guess. It’s a smorgasbord of [probably misleading] identity formations. First names conjures this idea of friendship, and potentially of a cohort. People in the art world love the narrative of a group of prominent artists who used to serve as security guards at Dia or what have you, yet these artists are distinctly not that, they are not a clique formed and perpetuated to accrue market and critical validation. The cover has a suggestion of that, but if you know the artists is pretty easy to see that that’s not how they exist in the world, at least not with each other.

A: But it’s also a response to the way in which you talked about the artists when we first started to think about the book. It was a very familiar conversation, and I think that friendly first-name basis tone was right for the book.

B: Yes, because it’s counter-intuitive to the work or to the grouping. Curators sometimes refer to artists by their first names as a sort of power play. I don’t think that’s how this happened. I think this was a very organic process. Another thing this cover does, of course, is it is Tetris-like. There may be a lot of tension—

A: and connections, networks…

B: and also breakups. Like, why is Danh, who is one of the more celebrated artists at this moment at the top left?

A: Why is Bjarne in two different foils? Whereas Hito is upside-down and rendered in ink?

B: Yeah so you’re put into this position where you’re—

A: You’re trying to make value judgments based on the composition.

B: Andrea, were you trying to tell us something when you put this together? And of course this formulation has taken on different iterations like in the exhibition graphics,  Nástio was upside-down… (laughs)


The foldout inside cover
A: Let’s flip through the book and talk about different things we find interesting. There is a gatefold at the beginning, behind the cover and contents page. Do you want to talk about the foldout? I won’t mention some of our original ideas, but let’s just say one of them involved a centerfold of our dear curator who could be thought of as the ninth artist…

B: Yes, well there was a moment where we could have pushed that direction. Like, who is the ninth artist? Many people complain about the curator annexing artistic authorship and having too aggressive a role in the creation of the content in the exhibition. And, you know, I’m a curator in an institution, and I spend most of my days figuring out why someone didn’t get a loan form or something. So, it’s not like I perceive myself as an artist, but I do feel quite strongly—and that’s obvious in my essay, which has a first-person feel—that there is a huge level of subjective quality in the organization of these artists (or any artists) into a list. So we discussed having a semi-naked spread—because I am pretty fit (laughs)—and contacting a local photographer who does amazing body painting, really going for it, and make people laugh a little. But thankfully we went in a very different direction. As you know, the exhibition checklist for the show came very late in the process. There was a lot of conversation and time spent with the artists without really knowing what the hell we were going to do, but trusting the process. So when I saw Hito’s piece in the Venice Biennale, it seemed very obvious that it was perfect for the exhibition for a number of reasons. Partly because we acquired Red Alert a number of years ago and the two seemed so relatable and yet were from such different eras. I don’t think How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File could have been made in 2007. It’s absolutely relatable to our current context. So we ended up using a still from How Not to be Seen of an iPhone being held by a green-gloved hand.

A: Yes, we were looking for a an iconic image, but we didn’t want something that was instantly readable or understandable. We liked the idea that the still would be dated immediately after we published it, in the same way that the book is completely about its context. We liked that it was completely of its time. There’s also something charming and surprising about it.

B: Yes, I love that it’s very present, because it’s this fetishized iPhone: it’s a 4S or 5. But I also love that it has this futuristic, sci-fi feel. As you say, in three years’ time it’s going to utterly date this exhibition. I think notions of desire in relationship to how identity forms itself and how we actually shape ourselves as human beings often through the accretion of objects, the sort of lifestyle that is defined by something like an iPhone is a key to the exhibitoin. Obviously, if one has one it kind of give you a whole set of…

A: …tools and…

B: self-impressions, you know? There is something about that fetishization of commodity in relationship to the image that I think is a very interesting thing to hold on to in engaging with the book. But also the work itself is about a kind of liberation from that, breaking free of that process into a more anarchic space where desire and drives and so on are decoupled from these status things, in a sense summoned by then liberated from…


9 Artists table of contents

The Contents Page
B: I also love the contents page with the list of artist contributions and the essay section titled. Cumulatively, the language is just incredible, it kind of tells you all you need to know about the exhibition.

A: Yes, the artist section titles, which serve as subtitles in your essay, are very interesting—Hito Steyerl’s Happy Pixels Hop Off Into Low-Resolution, Gif Loop! is my personal favorite. I hear you are releasing each section of your essay on the Walker blog.

B: Yes, I don’t think it’s ever something we’ve done before. I can’t think of another U.S. institution on the scale of the Walker that’s done it in this way. It’s actually a bit scary, because there’s a lot I say in the essay that will have a different existence online. Having said that, I was reading the Nástio section on my phone the other day and I thought, ‘God, this is so obvious! Nobody reads books.’ I mean, of course they do, and it all comes back to the book which I completely value, but why not make it available to people in other ways?


Title page for Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s section in 9 Artists.


Spread of Natascha Haghighian’s section in 9 Artists

The Artist Contributions
B: (flipping through pages) I love this!

A: The very first signature is a contribution by Natascha Sadr Haghighian. Here, I simply responded to her title to make the first page of her signature.

B: Which is what?

A: Which is Dear Artfukts, Look at My Curve, (laughs) and following is an antagonistic, yet funny correspondence between herself and ArtFacts.

B: Natascha is a wonderful and complex thinker, and in her essay she plays out a well-known aspect of her work: bioswop, which is for the free exchange of CVs and resumes. She created it in 2004, during a very different moment. This show tracks the fundamental change that’s happened to the artists in the show, in their response to a culture that is no longer new to the internet. You know, the internet is all encompassing, and it shapes everything all the time for the many, many people who have access to it. Natascha uses other peoples’ resumes and bios whenever she’s presenting her own work, and allows people to share these documents, which is an attack on the legitimacy of institutional affiliation, but also on the way one can be tokenized through one’s identity as, let’s say, a female artist from Africa. What I love is that she resists ArtFacts listing her work online, the data-bots collecting intel. She writes to them asking, ‘Please remove this information. This is my artistic project and you’re spoiling it.’ And they say, ‘No.’ So she takes action, and identifies with this graph that’s on the website that illustrates her career going up and down over the years, turning it into a subject, giving it agency by lifting it out of the capitalist metrics that it was meant to serve, leading it into into a more interesting space. It’s a simple thing that plays through various forms of identity and representation into things like social media campaigns around Troy Davis or Treyvon Martin. It’s a beautiful essay, and it’s very timely. And what I love about your cover design for it is—‘cause I think as a designer, you have this very interesting ability to be both very attuned and precise on a certain level, but there’s also such a freedom in the moment that I really enjoy. Like this curve, that’s not a graph, it’s its own animal.

A: Yes, it’s extracted from the Artfacts graph, but still illustrates the idea she’s trying to put forward.


Last page of Natascha Sadr Haghighian and title page of Danh Vo’s section in 9 Artists


Danh Vo’s section in 9 Artists


The conclusion of Danh Vo’s Gustav’s Wing and the title page of Hito Steyerl’s contribution to 9 Artists: I Dreamed a Dream: Politics in the Age of Mass Art Production

A: And what about Danh Vo?

B: Well that’s one of the…you know, for me personally, when you’re a curator at an institution like the Walker you only get to do so many shows. I mean, it took for me three or four years to get 9 Artists on the books and get it done. In the meantime I was meeting people and spending a lot of time with artists. It’s a bit sad because I often have nothing specific in mind project-wise when I meet them, but I like spending time with artists to get to know their work. So Karl Holmqvist was someone I spent a number of hours with a few years ago in Berlin, and I had always wondered about his work, but knew how absolutely fascinating and important it was. So, one of the nice things about Danh’s section is that Karl had written a piece called Curriculum Vitae, which starts off with a dream where he wakes up and he’s being cuddled by Joe Dallesandro and Iggy Pop and then it moves onto a story about Danh filming something.

A: An advertisement.

B: An advertisement, yeah. And so Karl’s piece in this context becomes Danh’s Curriculum Vitae to an extent. So, it’s a very different relationship to Danh’s contribution than the one Natascha proposed. But it is equally about artists thinking of ways to subvert or deter official documents. What became nice was that it became a collaboration between a number of people. Phùng Vo, Danh’s father, who is often employed by Danh was commissioned to use his beautiful calligraphy in the project. Initially it was supposed to be in the font of, or in the script of, Martin Wong, the great painter whose work is also represented in the exhibition through I M U U R 2, 2013. But Phùng doesn’t play ball with Danh. Everybody who criticizes the relationship between Phùng and Danh act like it’s exploitation. But Phùng has incredibly agency in how he does these things—he kind of does more or less what he wants…—so he did his own script. There were a bunch of typos: like, instead of a “kind of human sandwich” it became, “king of human sandwich,” and “My Beauty Qeen,” where queen is misspelled. We decided to keep all of that. It was very simple.

A: I enjoyed this one because of its simplicity, in contrast to some of the other sections which were either more image or text heavy. Danh’s section was just about that the composition of the page and the beautiful calligraphy. And then, these intriguing images of Danh’s nephew and the process of making a cast.

B: Yes, there is a piece called Gustav’s Wing which I think—well was—a photo of Gustav. Obviously Danh works a lot with his family and tends to like to do things like this. So in a way it’s a very classical set of what really were just snapshots by Danh of the process of his nephew’s body being cast. And you know it’s a young boy. It has a classical quality, there is a sense of the gaze etc. It certainly has a resonance that’s interesting particularly when measured against subsequent work made from the cast, which is really about a kind of collapsing of beauty and a somewhat tortured representation of this source.

A: Well, it’s slightly odd, too, because both the calligraphy and the images are treated in a monotone, bright-blue color which removes the viewer from the content, and abstracts it a bit. I should mention that each artist book or signature is a complete formal departure. The composition, the color, the various paper, shifting grid, and system of page numbers. For example, Danh Vo’s case, the page numbers are all set in Roman Numerals without explanation. So as you’re traveling throughout the book, there is a sense of disorientation. Each section is a world onto itself.



The first spread of Hito Steyerl’s section in 9 Artists. The paragraph reads: “The text that was here was withdrawn days before this publication went to print. The artist included the lyrics of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables as an essential illustration of some themes in the essay. After protracted good faith negotiations, the representative of the lyricist refused the Walker and the artist permission to print the song, or even a limited extract. While the Walker and the artist stand behind the fair use of the lyrics, the artist has decided to withdraw the text in full as a protest against the decision of Alain Boublil Overseas Limited.” The remaining spreads in this contribution include a selection of barricades, spanning hundreds of years and several geopolitical realities.


Renzo Marten’s contribution was made to look like an HMO report. His Institute for Human Activities launched “a five-year Gentrification Program and set up an in-vitro testing ground of the material effects of art production.”



The last page of Renzo Marten’s signature, and the title page of Yael Bartana’s contribution, which was a fictitious correspondence between herself and  the ghost of Otto Weininger.


Yael Bartana’s section was treated simply, using Times New Roman and basic letter format to foreground her fictitious pen pal relationship with Otto Weininger, whose letterhead was intentionally made to look as if it was from the Austrian house in which he committed suicide, coincidentally also the death place of Beethoven. The text was written by Bartana’s friend and collaborator, the curator Galit Eilat.


Yael Bartana’s section in 9 Artists. Her “letterhead” makes use of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMiP) emblem, found in Bartana’s Polish trilogy “and Europe will be stunned.”

B: And really it follows the whole approach of the show which was to put things in proximity and allow them to be digested. I think there are some really key thematic through-lines in this exhibition. They are obvious, but in order to encounter them, one has to spend time with the content, the structure, and the form. And so, there is a call to the reader, to the viewer, to the person who engages the exhibition to really engage with it. I think what I discussed with you and what I discussed with others is that I really want people to get there themselves, but try to give them the tools to do so, the basic level of information they need in order to engage with and access the artist[s]. Hence the book, the show, the events etc.

A: (At this point in our conversation, the recorder stops just as I was claiming that design is not an essential part of this book)

B: Okay, so you just said this book is not designed, right? What do you mean this book is not designed?

A: This book isn’t about the design. In the past, the typefaces I use, the color, the grid system, everything—because it’s homogenized— is based on a particular way I want to present a group show or a solo artist. It’s coming from a very distinct perspective. In this case it was more a collaboration, with the artists, writers, and even with outside designers: Bjarne, worked with Brendan [Dugan] at An Art Service, and Nástio worked with Vic Pereiró on their section [later the piece was used as the basis for a video by Vic and Nástio]. They both submitted completed signatures that we didn’t really alter at all apart from paginating them, putting them in the book and producing them. So, in a sense this book is not the creation of a designer, but of the artists. The form was completely subservient to the content.

B: I don’t agree with that at all.

A: Oh, you don’t? Interesting!

B: I think it’s a heavily designed book. For example, what I enjoyed about Bjarne and Nástio’s contributions is that I felt like you needed to come up with a system for the book that glued it together. That was very necessary. And the fact that you were thrown these complete curveballs problematized it a lot. So, it’s like it created this other context that just fucked with everything a bit.

A: Well, it did allowed me to disconnect. It allowed me to share because there was a bigger community to consider. It took a village to make this book!


The title page to Nástio Mosquito’s contribution, designed in collaboration with Vic Pereiró


The last page of Nástio Mosquito’s contribution, designed in collaboration with Vic Pereiró beside the title page of Liam Gillick’s signature which features a reprint of the artist’s Berlin Statement, and a new text by Federica Bueti.

B: Because I know, we talked about this before, but Vic and Nástio have a very particular aesthetic relationship that’s extremely free, DIY, bold, and absolutely anti-anything-that-might-come-out-of-the-Walker.

A: And it flies in face of a lot of the classic ideals of design that I learned, that I practiced, and that is hard for me to remove myself from. To be confronted with something that’s so outside of what I would or could create is a humbling moment. It is something I struggled with, but I think Nástio’s contribution added to the experience, which I think you might mean when you say that it’s heavily designed. In fact, if we were looking at one section, say Yael’s contribution: if I ran that theme throughout the book there would be less a sense of disconnect, there would be a rhythmic association with her work and the fictitious letters between her and [Otto] Weininger. Those can serve as visual cues that a reader can latch onto and understand in a way that allows the design to recede. But, because there are different formal and organizational styles butting against one another, it feels more “designed” than it actually is.


Bjarne Melgaard’s title page to his contribution to 9 Artists, designed in collaboration with Brendan Dugan.


B: Well I think that—regarding Nástio and Bjarne—you made two decisions there: Bjarne is on this glossy paper, which really suits the commercial, highly constructed feel for those images, even though they are actually candid images of Bjarne doing his thing; and then Nástio’s section is on newsprint paper, which captures that DIY, quick, but really interesting aspect of his design. I think those two would have been really lost within a less focused approach to the sections. For example, you have produced one color for most of the sections you designed, so that creates a sense of unity. In addition, the title pages for each section is very strong, whether it’s Liam and Federica [Bueti], or Renzo, Yael, and Natascha. And then you and I worked very closely with the sequencing of the signatures. It wasn’t based on a somewhat arbitrary alphabetical approach…or what have you…


A: You’re right, the pagination of signatures was based on their visual impact. The end page of one signature coming up against the cover page of the next was really important to us.

B: Yes, that’s very much a design choice and very interesting on a lot of levels. And you’re right in that some of our decisions were made just to allow the logic of the book to follow. Like Liam and Frederica who share that signature but with two different texts, and at one point we were going to run their texts in tandem. Hers is somewhat allegorical, fable-style response to Liam’s text: it’s the tale of a man who walks through the skyways in Minnesota looking for a job and meets a cat. Cats are quite amusingly a key part of the Walker’s identity right now.

A: Actually, cats also appear later on in the compendium of works…

B: We originally thought it would be a good idea to run their texts in tandem, but it was obvious that it wasn’t working, as her text is very different to Liam’s.

A: The lengths are different.

B: It just didn’t feel right. So then we thought, “let’s just have these two texts in the sixteen page signature run into each other in the middle. In order to do that in a way—I can’t remember why—we turned Federica’s part upside-down. How did that work design wise?

A: I originally had the title page of Federica’s following the last page of Yael’s. And I think we just liked that feeling, and so decided to run it backwards. Her essay is running upside-down and meets Gillick’s essay in the middle of that section.

B: That’s one response I get a lot: “Why is that part upside-down?” The only thing to respond to that is, “Why not!” What it does is it really reinforces the objectness of the book. It’s not by any means a radical gesture, but it is kind of interesting because it is also one of the biggest contributions by someone who’s not actually in the show. There are so many collaborators on this book, it really manifests the broader communities that the artists engage. There is something quite special about Federica’s text, a kind of mood. I think it calls out that we don’t even know quite what to do with it (laughs).

A: I think that, if this section, if this signature, existed as its own small artist book, you would think nothing of it being upside down…and you see that very often. Our approach to each section was to design it as if there weren’t any other sections in the book. Apart from a few choices, like the color and paper, every other choice exists solely within its own signature. I think the shock comes from the fact that the upside down text exists within a bigger book with formally different sections, none of which are upside-down. Every small change we make seems larger within the context of this catalog. Each artists’ contribution is its own signature—or its own artist book—and we designed it as such. You could literally take the binding off the book and bind each section, and publish those on their own merit.

8 Artist Books, One 9 Artist Catalog

B: During the press release process, I would often shy away from using the term “artist book,” even though that was how we were thinking of of the catalog as these signature sections. But whenever I used the term, “artist book” it wouldn’t feel right to me. It felt like moving toward something a little too isolated. What I found interesting in that process was how—and this is where I would push back and say, “this is highly designed book.”—the artists’ decisions are very much a part of it, but a huge number of decisions about design were made by you largely.

A: Before we conclude, how do you think the book is being received? I wonder if it makes people feel uncomfortable? Does it challenge? Because, I know that it does for me as a designer, so I can only imagine what someone who was not involved in the process would think or feel.

B: I’ve  heard some informal, unsolicited feedback from people, such as: “Wow, this book is really interesting.” All of the artists received several copies of the book, and in a way that’s the most obvious way it’s being distributed, because they are showing it to friends or giving it to people. I got an emails saying that people are going gaga over the book. I don’t know what “gaga” means (laughs), and maybe that person was being polite. People have different responses. I’m not a designer, so for me moments like Nástio’s are really happy moments, because I think it helps the book feel heterogeneous. It shows those cards very visibly—people probably look at it very casually and go, “Oh, this is just tons of visual information trying to show us that it’s an exciting show or something.” But I think people who engage it more deeply are pretty interested in it. I feel like it has an iconic quality as a publication without actually having tried so hard . The more obvious approaches are all ones we shied away from. It almost happened by accident. I’m not trying to claim radicality or anything, but it is a really nice book.



Compendium of Works in 9 Artists, a wholly visual approach to the “plates” section ordered and organized by the designer and curator.


Art & Leisure and Art & Leisure

Li Po Cocktail Lounge was my place for a rough gin and tonic, a drink to distract from bad days at work. It sticks out among San Francisco dive bars, with its gilded cave entrance and giant lantern caked with (what I hope is) opium. The bar’s namesake was a Tang dynasty intellectual, an Immortal […]

Li Po Cocktail Lounge was my place for a rough gin and tonic, a drink to distract from bad days at work. It sticks out among San Francisco dive bars, with its gilded cave entrance and giant lantern caked with (what I hope is) opium. The bar’s namesake was a Tang dynasty intellectual, an Immortal of the Wine Cup, who were celebrated wise men in Chinese history who loved to party. Li Po embodied the drunken scholar, who supported his thirst with poetry, and sometimes the other way around. In trying moments, I liked his style with ease.

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Years later at another bar (a Minneapolis gay saloon called the 19), a series of conversations turned into a project called Art & Leisure and Art & Leisure. My friends Ira and Simon asked if I was interested in collaborating on a small show in their space at the London Centre for Book Arts, and soon came some weird proposals: a smoke machine, a dish called “bear fly pizza”, hammocks in the space, graphic sci-fi teleportation pads on the floors and walls and calling the whole thing Intergalactic Pizza Safari.

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We thankfully ended up with something more coherent and stranger. A&L&A&L was a spiral-bound catalogue that was also a calendar which only marked every weekend in the year; a calendar that was also an exhibition about my personal practice that exists outside of “work work”; and finally an exhibition that was also a spiral-bound catalogue of research notes and details of projects from the last few years. It was produced by the LCBA and sold as a small edition.

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The title, which Ira thought up, refers to those ideas that ramble, words that slur, and the reason I mention Li Po. Why do ideas like labor and leisure imply something about the value of time? For our friend, it was sometimes hard to tell where work ended and fun began (wine is mentioned several times in his poems). But despite that, drunkenness was only a backdrop to his observational verses. The distinction between business hours and vacation time become foggy now.

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As this ended up being a hobby project outside of my day job, A&L&A&L also became an investigation about different forms of distractions. Examples (which even touched on those initial vodka pineapple-soaked ideas) like science fiction, myths and legends about laziness, stoner snapshots, link surfing, recreational mathematics, pro-wrestling moves that involved flying, and gaming surfaces like ball courts and fields. As activities outside of any utilitarian incentive, these were actually deep ideas motivated by the need to entertain ourselves.

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A fortune cookie once said, “If you have a difficult task, give it to a lazy man: he will find an easier way to do it.” It poetically describes the shortcut as a concise solution, and the cheat as a knowledgeable solver, a shift from the usual negative connotation. Not that it’s a manifesto, but I think the cookie raises a good point! Imagine that leisure isn’t an idle state, but actually a strategy. For those that laze, a problem becomes an opportunity to amuse and stumble around helpfully, and afterwards, resume more pressing matters like finishing my beer.


Art & Leisure and Art & Leisure was a book published by the London Centre for Book Arts and is available for purchase on their website.

This text originally appears in Thought Experiments in Graphic Design Education, a forthcoming book edited and art directed by Joshua Trees and Yvan Martinez (Martinez & Trees) and designed by Eurico Sa Fernandes and Mariana Lobao (Ponto). The book launches in December and features studio projects from students of Central St. Martins and London College of Communication alongside contributions from Bart de Baets, Stuart Bailey, Victor Boullet, Delphine Bedel, Lionel Bovier, James Corazzo, Benedetta Crippa, Department 21, Bianca Elzenbaumer, Fabio Franz, Ken Hollings, Kenneth Fitzgerald, Harrisson, John Hammersley, Brockett Horne, Scott King, Elizabeth Legate, Jono Lewarne, Alexander Lis, Armand Mevis, Rens Muis, Stuart Price, Jon Sueda, Ken Kirton, Darren Raven, Rebecca Stephany, Sebastian Pataki, Alexander Shoukas, and Walker design studio alums Daniel Eatock and Silas Munro.


A Warm System—The Autoconstrucción Suites

Autoconstrucción: a definitely unfinished inefficient unstable affective emotional delirious joyful affirmative sweaty fragmentary empiric weak happy contradictory solitary indecent sensual amorphous warm and committed index Autoconstrucción (loosely translated as self-build) refers to a particular method in home construction. Those who don’t have the economic means to complete an entire house (but have enough for parts […]

Autoconstrucción: a definitely unfinished inefficient unstable affective emotional delirious joyful affirmative sweaty fragmentary empiric weak happy contradictory solitary indecent sensual amorphous warm and committed index

cruzvillegas001-002_front_webAutoconstrucción (loosely translated as self-build) refers to a particular method in home construction. Those who don’t have the economic means to complete an entire house (but have enough for parts of one) build structures in stages using whatever resources are available at their disposal. And as situations change or families grow, additions and modifications are made to the home that may not use the same material used in the last stage of construction, depending on circumstances. Visually, these developments can be a mish-mash of styles; architecturally, its a responsive approach to building, constantly trying to meet the needs of the inhabitants inside and the neighborhood outside.

The Autoconstrucción Suites is the latest survey of artist Abraham Cruzvillegas’s decade-long investigation of this phenomenon and how it informs his work. Born and based in Mexico City and growing up in a self-build, that experience is the basis for many of his projects, which range from sculpture to song-writing, drawing to performance, film and writing. Curated by Clara Kim, the exhibition brings together all of these thoughts and moments into a singular gallery space, and creates a world where this line of research takes the form of decaying maguey leaves, a rough splat of concrete, painted cardboard boxes on a wall, a chrome sphere on the floor, or even a tricycle with an audio/visual system built in. A 240-page catalogue accompanies the exhibition, and is conceived as a primer into the language of self building and a container for his research and works.




Warm: a warm system means an organic organization of re-arrangable elements, in which subjectivity, affection, emotion, but mostly needs, rule. An exhibition or a book can be warm systems.

In our first meeting with him to talk about the catalogue, Abraham brought a couple of books from his own collection that he was formally and conceptually interested in. One was this great Filliou catalogue, where everything—from artworks to text entries and random references—was organized in an alphabetic index; on one hand, it’s a pretty academic structure, but weirdly enough, that framework also introduces an element of randomness, with illustrations and reproductions and texts thrown in next to each other at unexpected moments. Another was a Duchamp book that actually comprised of several printed editions housed in a book-like folder, and included reproductions of artworks, small publications and even a little paper sculpture you could assemble. The density of information and the variety of ways to experience the work was really appealing to us, but how much could we achieve with just a plate section and a couple of essays?


Abraham then casually mentioned including a text he had just prepared a few months prior, a list of autoconstrucción terms and his personal definitions he uses not only to describe his work, but everything: love, life, food, sex, etc. (Some of these terms are scattered throughout this blog post). They waver between serious and light, pithy statements or heavy assertions. We thought it compelling enough to establish a basic conceptual structure for the book, a way for readers to engage with the work on a philosophical level. Above, the English and Spanish versions of the table of contents are structured as quasi-indices, listing all the individual terms as well as the titles of his songs and is an idiosyncratic way to see the range of information contained.

Abraham’s resource room is a work in the show that was important to the development of the book. Pictured above, it’s made up of different elements: on a long table there are coil-bound photocopied books about things like architecture, poetry, and Mexican culture; upside down buckets and a converted wheelbarrow serve as seating; on a nearby wall, several large maps are displayed, showing growth and population densities in Mexico City over time; on a circular table a plant sits on top of a collage of photographs, images from his neighborhood that Abraham had taken with a point-and-shoot; and on another wall, a wall of Mexican and Latin American socio-political posters.

We thought about the project in this particular context and environment, and liked the idea that maybe the catalogue could potentially inhabit this specific space, or at the very least were related somehow. The room comes off as a little cosmos of ideas, as if an encyclopaedia had exploded onto the walls of a gallery. If this room was the big-bang, what if the book was the big-crunch version of the entire installation?

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So from these initial thoughts, we started to determine some major moves. The book would be structured in two parts: the core would house works in the exhibition, a 64-page plate section; wrapped around that center is the autoconstrucción universe: the constellation of songs, photos, posters, books, and index terms that he pulls from, in addition to the contributed essays. Because we were literally looking to nest these sections, we decided to saddle stitch the entire book (surprisingly easy to do, despite it a 240 page book, if you find an industrial stitching machine in Stillwater that sews sailboat sails together). The book is softcover, and gave the overall catalogue a very floppy, flexible feel.

Abraham later joked that he could use it to swat flies.

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Unstable: piling things atop of each other, not definitely fixed, makes stacks of transformable energy about to collapse. Here I’m talking of history, economy, society and culture. Physical and conceptual instability are something hard to sustain, but I like it.

I usually try to analogize my projects in unusual ways, to introduce a different way of looking at a particular problem. During our conversations, I kept referring to this metaphor of “the book as brick.” The comparison seemed appropriate for some reason: brick as a blunt object, brick as a singular unit, brick as a constructive force, brick as a destructive force, brick as a weight, brick as potential energy. The homely brick suddenly became loaded with things like personality and tone, conceptual ideas beyond its simple functional aspect. We thought it could be interesting to link the resource room to this strange analogy somehow, and view the elements of the installation as raw material from which he constructs the autoconstrucción world. Maybe these images—of his neighborhood, of the books, or the posters, or even the songs he wrote—were individual bricks.

So for this book, instead of laying images out on a pre-determined grid, or just simply centering everything with space in-between elements, what if we just stacked all the images on top of each other?

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So we did. And we liked it.

This reminds me of Carl Sagan’s thought experiment of two-dimensional shapes, living on a flatland, having to deal with the realization that there may be other dimensions beyond their perception. It brings up an interesting idea as a book designer, about the way we work with flat surfaces, and where our own perspective lies as the designer: are we the flatlander, or the booming extra-dimensional voice from within? And from there, it was kind of strange to think about creating a sense of weight in a “space” like a page in a book. But after this stacking strategy came up, it  introduced another dimension, maybe it was height, maybe it was volume?

This weirdly enough also sort of recalls those cup stacking championships, which was a funny way to think about Abraham’s work, on a couple of different levels: ideas about sculpture as a gesture, or series of built up gestures; and also about improvisation, as if the artist just stacked the images himself. And in the end, this new shape becomes much more interesting than a couple of squares and rectangles on a page. The content can now be activated because of its new shape, like the way that Abraham’s process creates new objects, but that object serves to highlight the individual components of the piece. Cups become pyramids, and debris become sculpture.

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Once this was all figured out, the system kind of took over and designed itself. And I think I use the word “system” very loosely, in the sense that it’s not really what we would think of (in a design context) as a tightly gridded out document. The strategy was more like an overall attitude or an outlook, a little less concerned about the final product and more interested in the process. It was also kind of a game we devised for ourselves, whose only rule was to stack the images in weird and interesting ways. And as a graphic designer, its interesting when you introduce an element of play like that. For this project, that quality allowed us to be very responsive and flexible to our own immediate needs and whatever random issue the world threw at us, whether it was not being able to secure rights for an image, or something being too low resolution to print. Whenever something like that happened, we were able to quickly shift images here and there, create new piles, and then move on. It’s pretty liberating not having to stress over minutae when you don’t build it into the structure.

Joyful: inventing the rules of a game to be played everyday in different ways. Rules are dictated from specific needs, then it can be played capriciously, with ingenuity and pleasure. If the game can be played collectively it could go better, depending on the people you invite and on their will to share, learn and risk together. Rules can also be modified, according to peculiarities of context, timing and circumstances.



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We applied the same strategy to the text pages, setting the type in columns and having the width of each paragraph vary, again, to give the impression of blocks stacked on top of each other. This happened to be pretty helpful, given the bi-lingual context of the catalogue, and is (hopefully) a helpful device that readers can use to determine where in the translation you are between different languages.

This move sort of shifted the piling metaphor into a different territory. After typesetting these, I started to see these columns of type as a kind of strata, or sediments that have settled on on top of another which compact over time and turn into a new and solid form. I haven’t tried this yet, but one could potentially take a couple of copies of the book and stack them on top of each other and represent each essay a one long geologic cross-section. The essay became something you excavate, sifting through layers of information rather than rock; and with some essays, sometimes there’s something to find, and sometimes there’s nothing but more dirt under there.

And like strata, autoconstrucción becomes a way to understand the world of objects as things made up of a variety of moments and ideas, rather than something singular and isolated. Each layer, whether it’s a particular building material, or a line from a song lyric, or a photo in a stack of images, tells its own story about where it comes from, how it is used, what its particular function is, unintended or not. While the combinations of these layers might be novel and exciting, Abraham’s work recognizes that our own constructions don’t manifest themselves out of thin air, but are built upon (and are sourced from) the context of prior knowledge. The mix may be as homogenous as concrete or as chunky as a stack of crates, but looking closely, you might start to realize that maybe the sum of its parts can be greater than the whole.


Fragmentary: contradictory elements making a whole, there’s no chance for mistake. Tales are short moments of experience or imagination. Married pieces from clashing contexts make beautiful conversations. A book of tales makes a universe.

Abraham Cruzvillegas: The Autoconstrucción Suites is currently on view in Target and Friedman Galleries until September 22, 2013. Afterwards, it will be travelling to Haus der Kunst in Berlin in 2014, and then Fundación/Colección Jumex and Museo Amparo in Mexico City in 2015.

The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal by Mirza and Butler

The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal is a fictional museum by London-based artists Karen Mirza and Brad Butler. The exhibition’s multilayered text, sound, film and performance addresses peculiar evolving questions around the public institutions and the collisions of art and the political praxis. In their new act, The New Deal, the duo transforms the […]


Installation view of The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal

The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal is a fictional museum by London-based artists Karen Mirza and Brad Butler. The exhibition’s multilayered text, sound, film and performance addresses peculiar evolving questions around the public institutions and the collisions of art and the political praxis. In their new act, The New Deal, the duo transforms the gallery space into an open-ended platform to question the marginalization of the common, perpetuation of the bourgeois, urgency of the political resistance,  growing tension between the 99% and the 1%, among other social and political struggles we are confronting in this geopolitical entanglement. Mirza and Butler keeps the audience at the verge—purporting the importance and the urgency to choose a political position for social change. The artists also curated the Walker’s Art News From Elsewhere as another form of their participatory reaction. Their investigations in the dissonance of the public realm and the idea of turning around the public’s positions and perspectives intrigued the initial idea for the exhibition’s graphics.


The word MUSEUM is horizontally flipped to create a subtle tension within the title—turning the museum into the city and vice versa. (It’s similar to glass doors that have push and pull signs on the same side to disorient you.) Reversed type also connotes the act of resistance and Urdu alphabet’s right-to-left writing system.



Attendees perform Bertolt Brecht’s The Exception and the Rule on the opening night

Mirza and Butler, with the curators and local participants, performed Bertolt Brecht’s Exception and the Rule as an inquiry into the conditions of capitalism, free market and power play. Play scripts for the players were incorporated as a part of the opening night performance.


The enlarged gallery guide (12 × 18 inches) evolved from the urgency of the situation. Non Participation: Acts of Definition and Redefinition is compiled with local and international contributors’ understandings of the art of opposition and resistance. It is on view in the gallery and for those of you who can’t make it, the texts will be available to read on the Visual Arts blog in the coming days.