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ICA’s Excursus: Interview with Alex Klein and Mark Owens

Emmet Byrne: What is Excursus and how did it come about? Alex Klein and Mark Owens: Excursus was a two-year, four-part initiative at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia positioned at the intersection of art and design, programs and exhibitions, and the archive and the museum. It took the form of a […]

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Emmet Byrne: What is Excursus and how did it come about?

Alex Klein and Mark Owens: Excursus was a two-year, four-part initiative at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia positioned at the intersection of art and design, programs and exhibitions, and the archive and the museum. It took the form of a rotating installation on the ICA mezzanine, a curated series of intimate events, and an online residency on the Excursus website, which also acted as a form of real-time documentation. Each of the four invited participants— Reference Library, East of Borneo, Ooga Booga, and Primary Information—work in a space between artistic domains that don’t always have a comfortable place within a traditional gallery setting, such as publication, distribution, archival research, and programming.

Alex was hired in 2011 as ICA’s newly-created program curator, and Excursus was a way to explore and activate the “discursive space” of the museum as it approached it’s 50th anniversary and to challenge the notion of how a program could function and how we might gauge its success. ICA is a non-collecting institution with a long history of ground-breaking exhibitions—Andy Warhol, Paul Thek, and Martin Kippenberger each had their first U.S. solo museum shows at ICA, for example—and thus ICA’s extensive archive is in a very real sense its collection. Each of the participants was thus invited to delve into the ICA archive and to make connections both with their own concerns and the exhibitions currently on view in the main galleries.

An “excursus” is a literary term describing a digression or supplement to a primary text, and the project was conceived very much in that spirit, with every element, from the installation to the programming, emerging from these conceptual and material connections. The aim was to provide a platform that could be responsive and flexible–both in terms of form and authorship–and that could could bridge the gap between extra-institutional and institutional activities while still maintaining a strong framework and a grounding in the physical space of the ICA.

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EB: The project has a very strong design sensibility, from the participants selected, to the design of the space, to the design of the ephemera, and of course the catalogue. Was there a philosophy at work behind the design of the whole program?

AK & MO: Certain binaries seemed to anchor each season of the project: East Coast vs. West Coast, black-and-white vs. color, social vs. contemplative, etc. Although each iteration of the project revolved around a kind of kit of parts–a flexible space for discussion, a display system for the event broadsides, a set of flat file drawers to display archival material, an auratic object of some kind, and a projection in the lobby–each of the invited participants contributed a strong visual aesthetic that was linked to the thematic of each of their installations. Thus, the form of each installation, from the materials used to the seating and furniture, reflected a distinct sensibility that changed radically from project to project and sat apart from the rest of the museum identity and the exhibitions in the main galleries. For example, Reference Library’s Andy Beach used custom-designed furniture in unpainted wood in combination with Martino Gamper’s bright plastic Arnold Circus stools in shades of blue and a Wharton Esherick Hammer Handle Chair on loan from the Hedgerow Theater in nearby Rose Valley. This then gave way to East of Borneo‘s exploration of California arts pedagogy circa 1970 with seminar tables, vintage David Rowland 40/4 chairs in period colors, and an actual Metamorphokit table, designed by Peter de Bretteville and Toby Cowan, shipped directly from the CalArts library. For her installation Ooga Booga’s Wendy Yao recreated the unmistakable look and feel of her two Los Angeles stores, complete with a hammock, bookshelves, and a custom table and benches designed by Manuel Raeder, which are now installed at her Mission Road space. Finally, Primary Information drew inspiration from ICA’s seminal 1975 Video Art exhibition with a more spare, conceptualist, black-and-white aesthetic, punctuated by Sarah Crowner’s dramatic Vidas Perfectas curtain (2011), originally produced for a Robert Ashley performance, which created a literal backdrop for the activities that ensued. In this way, the design of the projects themselves marked out a distinct physical space that was at once rich with material and metaphor, but also flexible and open.

Below: Various images of the four installations/residencies.

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EB: How did the graphic identity for the project come together?

AK & MO: To serve as a frame for the four installations the Excursus identity took the form of a diagrammatic mark that served to describe a set of relationships — between Art, Design, Archive, and Conversation — that summed up the matrix of concerns that shaped the project rather than a wholly separate visual language. The mark itself appeared at a range of scales, including on gallery notes, print materials, and the ICA’s sidewalk sandwich board, as well as on tote bags, a flag hanging in the Ooga Booga space, and a large window graphic in Reference Library’s installation.

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AK & MO: In addition to the mark, an identity within the overall identity system was created for each of the individual iterations of the project. In each instance this was employed through a series of Riso-printed broadsides produced at PennDesign’s Common Press that announced upcoming events and through the color palette of the website. Each of the four modules were designed in consultation with the invited participants to reflect the aesthetic and ethos of each resident while also maintaining a consistency that sat next to but largely apart from the museum identity and website. In addition, the Risograph posters designed by Mark Owens and the WordPress website designed by Other Means meant that updates and announcements could be made relatively quickly and inexpensively and allowed for a kind of responsive design process that is rare within institutional settings. ICA has the distinct advantage of being located at the University of Pennsylvania, which gives the museum an immediate audience among students, faculty, and staff, as well as a proximity to the nearby neighborhood of West Philadelphia and close connections with the city’s broader artistic and academic communities. The responsive design process allowed for events to be conceived, organized, and advertised in a matter of weeks or even days, rather than the longer timeframes required for most museum programming. By the same token, the website functioned as an online residency, which allowed each of the participants to participate throughout the duration of their Excursus, long after their installation was complete. In this way, Excursus gained a following both among ICA’s local audience here in Philadelphia, and a much more dispersed audience who followed the project online. Of course, there is no substitute for the actual experience of visiting a museum, but taken together the printed material, website, and catalogue now serve as a both a record and an archive of the project.

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Above: Posters for Excursus I: Reference Library residency

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Above: Posters for Excursus II: East of Borneo residency

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Above: Posters for Excursus III: Ooga Booga residency

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Above: Posters for Excursus IV: Primary Information residency

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Above: Excursus website design by Other Means

EB: What were some of the most unexpected moments, and were they documented?

AK & MO: One of the aims of Excursus was to explore questions of audience and exhibitionality in ways that could put some critical pressure on the terminology of “engagement” as it is currently being discussed in the broader cultural field. As a result, some of the most surprising moments occurred in the context of a “program” involving only two people, or in the unplanned interaction between participants. One instance that particularly stands out was the Madchester event organized by artists Anthony Campuzano and Dan Murphy in conjunction with Oooga Booga’s installation and the concurrent Jeremy Deller exhibition, Joy in People, which was then on view in the museum. Campuzano and Murphy led an afternoon discussion on fandom and their own teenage fascination with 1990s Britpop and the Manchester music scene centered around the famous Hacienda nightclub. Purely by chance, legendary Hacienda DJ Dave Haslam happened to be in town and had come by ICA to see the Deller show. Campuzano recognized him walking around the galleries, and was thrilled to have him participate in the conversation and offer his own first-hand accounts. The entire afternoon was documented and archived on the website, as were all of the events. Although the documentation is no substitute for the in-person experience we were very conscious of photographing the project along the way so that people could follow it from afar. Because there were so many events, participants, and archival materials, the website and publication have played a crucial role in making the connections between the projects more legible and ultimately as a new archival document.

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 Above: Excursus I-IV catalogue

EB: What was your guiding principle behind the presentation style of the catalogue? Why did you decide to go with the image-heavy, bit-like approach instead of a denser, text-heavy book?

AK & MO: Excursus was a project with many moving parts, including four installations, archival material in flat files and vitrines, over 50 events, and more than one hundred participants. In order to make all of these components legible in a modest 128-page catalogue it made sense to atomize the elements and to separate them out. So, the documentation of each Excursus opens with a full-spread image of the space and is then divided into installation, archive, and event sections followed by a complete checklist. What results is a Whole Earth Catalogue-meets-Sky Mall page structure that both reflects the density of the material but also isolates each element and allows the reader to appreciate both the material quality and rich variety that resulted from each participants’ response to the Excursus prompt.

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Above: Selected spreads from the Excursus catalogue

EB: Between the catalogue, the internet residencies, and any other archive of the project, what is your hope for the project in the future?

AK & MO: Very much in keeping with the mission of ICA, Excursus was meant as a radical proposition and a provocation to probe the boundaries of the museum and to test what might be possible. As such, it required an enormous amount of effort and attention and by necessity demanded that it have a finite timeline. That said, Excursus‘s commitment to intimacy and flexibility, to questions posed by distribution and publication, and the successful occupation of an interstitial space in the museum, has infused some the current thinking at ICA and has led to other exhibitions and programmatic activities that might not have been possible otherwise. Going forward it is our hope that the website and the catalogue will remain as a record of the project and that it will spur continuing dialogue and encourage others to take up similar questions in new and exciting ways.

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Muriel Cooper: Turning Time into Space

We hope to make the tools and to use them. “She often wandered around barefoot… and climbed up on tables when she was excited about a project… Muriel was clearly in her element, making trouble,” recounted MIT Press editors Larry Cohen and Roger Conover. Muriel Cooper, who was best known for articulating the graphic language […]

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We hope to make the tools and to use them.

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“She often wandered around barefoot… and climbed up on tables when she was excited about a project… Muriel was clearly in her element, making trouble,” recounted MIT Press editors Larry Cohen and Roger Conover. Muriel Cooper, who was best known for articulating the graphic language of MIT for more than 40 years, also challenged the limitations of contemporary communication. As a troublemaker, she conceptually (and literally) transformed conventional principles of design into new strategies for visualizing information. And her enthusiasm for shaking things up was matched by her eagerness for working with emerging technologies, a precursor to our increasingly seamless relationship with information and tech. All while barefoot.

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Installation view of Messages and Means: Muriel Cooper at MIT; Photo: James Ewing Photography

Captured through memories, ephemera, video clips, publications, and other works, Cooper is the focus of the exhibition Messages and Means: Muriel Cooper at MIT, currently on view at the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery at Columbia in New York City. I recently had a chance to catch up with co-curators David Reinfurt and Robert Wiesenberger to talk about this project.

Hello David and Rob. Can you tell us a little about yourselves?

Robert Wiesenberger: Hi Dante. I’m a PhD candidate in art history at Columbia. Officially, I study 20th-century architecture, though I also tend to focus a lot on design, variously defined. This fall I began teaching a seminar on graphic design history in the MFA program at the Yale School of Art.

David Reinfurt: I am a graphic designer in a fairly expanded sense. I am often working on projects which aren’t strictly graphic design, or not in the way it is conventionally understood, and these can be set in art contexts as often as not. Much of my work is together with Stuart Bailey under the name Dexter Sinister. I also work with Stuart and Angie Keefer on The Serving Library, an online and printed publishing project. I also teach at Princeton University and this feeds my practice. Finally, I also do projects on my own or with other people, such as this one with Rob.

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Muriel Cooper in conversation with unidentified males at MIT, 1970s

Who was Muriel Cooper?

RW: Muriel Cooper (1925–1994) was a graphic designer who spent the bulk of her career working at MIT. In the mid-50s, she started as a designer in the Office of Publications. By the mid-60s she was the first Design Director at the MIT Press, where she rationalized their production system and designed classic books like The Bauhaus (1969) and Learning from Las Vegas (1972), along with about 500 others. In the mid-70s she founded the Visible Language Workshop in MIT’s Department of Architecture, where she taught experimental printing and hands-on production. And by the mid-80s, she was a founding member of the MIT Media Lab, designing early computer interfaces.

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Muriel Cooper, Poster to promote The Bauhaus, 1969

Why were you interested in collaborating on an exhibition about her work?

DR: I first bumped into Muriel’s work shortly after she delivered a talk at the fifth TED Conference in Monterey, California in 1994. She presented radical new work in computer interface design, showing a constellation of three-dimensional typographic interfaces developed with her students and colleagues at the Visible Language Workshop in the MIT Media Lab. I had just started a job in the brand-new area of “interaction design” at IDEO in San Francisco, working for a former student of Muriel’s. At this point, her work was everywhere — the cover of ID Magazine for example. And it was the model for what we were trying to do there. She passed away unexpectedly soon after the TED talk and I had often been surprised (dismayed) that the provocations she offered were not taken up more fully in the following years.

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Muriel Cooper with David Small, Suguru Ishizaki and Lisa Strauseld, still from Information Landscapes, 1994

RW: My first exposure to Muriel was on my bookshelf, looking at her designs for classics of art and architectural history in the ’60s and ’70s, and her seven-bar colophon that still appears on the spine of every MIT Press Book. The story only got better when I learned about her work with interfaces.

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Could you walk us through the exhibition? What can we expect to see?

RW: This show brings together Muriel’s photos, sketches, prints, mechanicals, books, and videos. In many ways, preparing it was a media archaeology of the very recent past: We salvaged some incredible materials, from a variety of sources, and in an amazing range of formats (slides, digital and audio cassettes, laser discs, etc.).

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“Graphics and New Technology.” Slide talk by Muriel Cooper at MIT’s Visible Language Workshop, 1981. Download this podcast via iTunes or iTunes for iPhone/iPad, or view in the iTunes store.

The GSAPP exhibitions team did a smart job creating a custom steel structure that suspends three long walls in the gallery, two of them angled. The works are sandwiched between sheets of clear plexi, and appear to float. We tried to mix media, as Muriel would, and treat all media in the same way. We also wanted to mix visual and verbal material, reveal process and show some of Cooper’s teaching materials. Work by students and colleagues runs through the show — traditional notions of authorship weren’t terribly important, and it was an extremely collaborative environment. In many cases, Muriel is the author of the process or system, or created the environment in which it was produced, whether or not she designed the graphic you’re looking at.

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Muriel Cooper, Sketch for the MIT Press colophon, 1963–1964

RW: The three panels broadly — over-simplistically — reflect the three overlapping phases of her career: As a designer (for the Office of Publications and MIT Press), as a teacher (for the Visible Language Workshop), and as a researcher. The chronology is loose, but generally follows these three successive phases. Still, we don’t want to suggest a lockstep teleology toward new media, that all Muriel’s work culminated in the digital. We think her concerns with production and rapid feedback were quite consistent throughout, that the tools (many of which she made or modified) finally caught up with her.

DR: Central to our approach is Muriel’s idea of responsive graphic systems and design processes that embed an explicit feedback loop. Describing Messages and Means, the course she taught at MIT and which gives our exhibition its name, she said:

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Messages and Means was design and communication for print that integrated the reproduction tools as part of the thinking process and reduced the gap between process and product.”

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Muriel Cooper and Ron MacNeil, Messages and Means course poster, designed and printed at the Visible Language Workshop, MIT, c. 1974

RW: We included a handful of Muriel’s key books on art, design, and architecture in the show. She also produced beautiful books on chemistry and geophysics, but she was really involved with the debates on architecture, design, cybernetics, artificial intelligence, and so on; this environment at MIT and in Cambridge more broadly, full of Bauhäusler and remarkable researchers, both shaped her, and was shaped by her. These few, full books in the show (we show many other book covers) form a kind of spine for an intellectual history that runs through it. They’re overdetermined, in terms of both form and content.

Muriel Cooper for Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, A Significance for A&P Parking Lots, or Learning from Las Vegas (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972).

Muriel Cooper for Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, A Significance for A&P Parking Lots, or Learning from Las Vegas (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972).

For example, Nicholas Negroponte’s The Architecture Machine (1970) is interesting both as a design object and as an insight into the AI (artificial intelligence systems) being developed at MIT at the time — for him about architecture, for her about graphic design. Muriel worked with Negroponte and his Architecture Machine Group, which evolved into the MIT Media Lab, where Cooper taught. The idea with these books is that, given the premium on “visual communication,” you really can pick them up in the gallery and get a good sense of what they’re about. 

What was the exhibition process like?

DR: We spent a ton of time in archives, making some kind of order, and trying to understand various artefacts — what were they, who made them, how were they intended? Talking to Muriel’s many, still-active colleagues and students was crucial to figuring out what was what. The selection process was frankly quite tricky: Selecting a small group of outstanding objects was difficult as her interests remained consistent, but neither the media nor the situations stayed still. So it was challenging to pick what to show. Plus it was the first time a show like this has been organized since Muriel died in ’94. (Though there was a small exhibition convened in that year, at MIT, by Cooper’s friend, Tom Wong, who also consolidated her papers at MassArt.)

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Muriel Cooper and MIT Press Design Department for Donis A. Dondis, A Primer of Visual Literacy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1973).

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Muriel Cooper, mechanical artwork for the MIT Press colophon, 1963–4

What was the MIT’s relationship to design at the time she began working there?

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Gyorgy Kepes

RW: MIT was doing serviceable design work when Muriel began there. Gyorgy Kepes, a former colleague of Moholy-Nagy’s, and since 1947 a teacher at MIT, thought MIT’s design presence could be much stronger and suggested that they hire a dedicated designer for their Office of Publications. Both there and at the MIT Press Muriel created systems to standardize formats and production and give a consistent look to publications. And her earliest work at MIT — which we debated whether or not to include — is in fact quite “pretty” in a mid-century way that Paul Rand would be proud of (and indeed was proud of; Cooper met Rand during a brief stint at ad agencies in New York, and he later recommended her to work for the MIT Press). It’s not really representative of her later work, which is rougher, and more about process and dynamism, but does suggest her formation, and a point of departure.

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It is not hard to imagine Moholy using a computer.

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Muriel Cooper, self-portrait with Polaroid SX-70, video imaged and printed at the Visible Language Workshop, MIT, c. 1982

Cooper claims that the Office of Publications — renamed “Design Services” under her tenure — was the first dedicated design program at an American university. We couldn’t confirm that, but it certainly was one of the first. Likewise, no academic publisher had the kind of dedicated design department that she established at the MIT Press, and nobody else’s typography was as modern. Clearly Cambridge was an exciting place for design. When Cooper started at MIT, Gyorgy Kepes was teaching there, and Walter Gropius was the head of the Harvard GSD.

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… make more intelligible the highly complex language of science… and articulate in symbolic, graphic form the order and beauty inherent in the scientist’s abstract vision.

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Letter from Muriel Cooper to Jeffery Cruikshank on the Visible Language Workshop letterhead. Excerpt from the exhibition booklet, with extended captions keyed by panel number. Download the PDF here.

Were there other designers at the time who were exploring themes Cooper was also interested in?

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Jaqueline Casey

RW: Definitely. Muriel hired her college classmate Jacqueline Casey to work at Design Services. She would soon head the office until her retirement in 1989. Casey, Ralph Coburn and Dietmar Winkler were the core of that office, and they also had guest designers, one of whom, from Basel, pretty much got them on their Helvetica kick.

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They recall that people like Gerstner and Müller-Brockmann also came through the office. So Muriel imbibed a lot of this “International Style” typography from her colleagues, and no doubt from what she was reading. It’s not something she, or anyone else at the time, would’ve gotten from an American design program. It’s a visual language she used, but also reworked significantly.

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Experiment and play as a part of professional discipline is difficult at best. This is not only true of an offset press but of all activities where machines are between the concept and the product.

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Design Quarterly 142, Walker Art Center Archives

Design Quarterly 142, Walker Art Center Archives

What do you think was her interest in transitioning between spaces, from print to digital, or from flat to dimensional?

DR: Muriel was frustrated with the limitations of the printed page, and always interested in quicker feedback, non-linear experiences and the layering of information. She used an offset printing press, as she said, as “an interactive medium.” So when she first encountered computers, it was clear that these would present even greater possibilities.

RW: Integrating word and image on screen (“Typographics”), in a way that filtered and communicated information based on the reader/user’s interest, was her goal. The computer screen offered more depth, and information environments — real or simulated — offered more possibilities for orientation within this space. It was crucial to her that information be usable. She saw the designer’s job as creating dynamic environments through which information would stream, rather than designing unique and static objects.

Do you think she was aware of how deep our contemporary relationship would be with technology and interfaces?

RW: Muriel seems to have always had the newest gizmo, whether it was a special digital watch or the highest-resolution computer displays available outside NASA —  and whether or not she always knew exactly how to use them (she was a bit of a klutz). It also seems that she predicted so much of our connection to interfaces and the need for them to be intuitive and anticipatory. Yet even she may have been surprised at the extent of it. And very likely frustrated. Not so much at their usability — so many products are pretty and intuitive — but at their inflexibility, their resistance to being hacked, or to using them to make new things. I think she would also be deeply troubled by their intrusiveness, and current questions of privacy and mass surveillance. As she noted in an essay for the Walker’s Design Quarterly in 1989 (one of the few that she would publish), artificial intelligence in computers presents important ethical questions for the designer of these systems. Coupled with her awareness of the corporate and defense sponsorship model for the MIT Media Lab, which was indispensable for her research, the question of the ends to which her research might be put was not far from her mind. In addition to being a technologist, she was, I think, always also a humanist.

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Some people believe that the computer will eventually think for itself. If so, it is crucial that designers and others with humane intentions involved in the way it develops.

Does the exhibition addresses any contemporary issues in design around communication and information?

DR: We don’t make the connections explicit, but we think they’re absolutely present at every turn. Muriel’s words, in some of the documents we show, are incredibly prophetic, and her process is no less relevant today than it was then.

As curators of the exhibition, has this project influenced your own thoughts about your relationship with design?

DR: We had an idea that this exhibition would document her work, her persistent concerns, and her generous spirit while also serving as a charge or challenge to those thinking about these things today to pick up these ideas and develop them.

RW: There’s so much work to do in studying and presenting graphic design to a broader public. We hope this show generates  interest in Cooper, and in the field — but as the kind of inter- or anti-disciplinary one she envisioned. At one point, in our earlier descriptions, we called the exhibition both an archival project and a manifesto for future production.

Messages-and-Means

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This stands as a sketch for the future. Best wishes, Muriel

Messages and Means: Muriel Cooper at MIT runs from February 25 to April 17, with galleries open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 12 to 6 pm at the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery in Columbia University. Afterwards, the exhibition tours to the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And as a bonus, here is Muriel presenting an Insights lecture at the Walker in 1987, pulled from our archives and unpublished until now.

YOU’LL NEVER BELIEVE WHAT FONT THE WESTBORO BAPTISTS USE

It’s Boulder. And Boulder is just some free ripoff of Kabel Black. But whatever. Weird things happen late at night, when we are sleep deprived and surfing the web. Sometimes I end up buying stuff on eBay, and sometimes I end up interviewing the Westboro Baptists. About three years ago, I was preparing a lecture […]

WBCsignsIt’s Boulder.

And Boulder is just some free ripoff of Kabel Black. But whatever. Weird things happen late at night, when we are sleep deprived and surfing the web. Sometimes I end up buying stuff on eBay, and sometimes I end up interviewing the Westboro Baptists. About three years ago, I was preparing a lecture on unexpected forms of self-publishing and stumbled upon an article about how the Westboro Baptist Church has its own graphic design/media/sign production studio embedded within its walls (Sister Corita Kent now appears before me as the spiritual antithesis of this operation). I contacted Steve Drain, the church’s media director, through the comment box of the group’s Sign Movies website. Now, with the news that Westboro founder Fred Phelps has died, I dug it out of my junk-ridden Yahoo inbox and re-read the exchange. I confess a perverse curiosity about the subject, not to mention the irony of a homo talking to a bigot about the medium and not the message. Is there anything to be learned about design from someone whose values are so radically different than my own? “Sometimes sparking a dialogue can be a good thing,” Drain says, “as long as the end of it is obedience to God. :)”

 

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Emmet Byrne: When you were designing your signs, how did you choose the typeface, and was the graphic style (color, layout) referencing past historical models, such as old political campaign signs? Or did they just develop as you went along? How did you decide what typeface the word of God should be rendered in?

Steve Drain: We use Boulder (ttf). It’s what our pastor just settled on years ago — and since it is very readable, yet not commonly used, I always thought it gave us a distinctive look. Every once in a while, if it is topically warranted, we vary from Boulder, but not often.

EB: How do you understand the relationship between a church and its communication stream? Is your print shop, and by extension your sign campaign, a more fragmented/media-savvy alternative to an “evangelist”? Would you consider your sign campaign to represent a manifesto of sorts?

SD: Wow. That’s a long and convoluted questions [sic]. Here’s what I think you’re looking for: Our job is to preach this word to every creature. So we hold brightly colored signs at events that lots of people go to. And sometimes these signs end up in photos on TV, in newspapers, and online. Our signs have timely, topical Bible sentiments on them. Our “manifesto” is the Bible — the word of God.

EB: You write/design your signs to be concise so that they transmit easily through various media streams, but many of them are also slightly cryptic. For example, “Pray For More Dead Soldiers” probably confuses many people the first time they read it. It requires a level of decryption, almost like a puzzle, to understand the logic (of course, once you understand the message, the sign reveals itself to actually be incredibly straightforward). How did you come to this strategy of provoking people with outrageous but perplexing statements and forcing them to make an effort to understand you?

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Steve Drain. Photo: Ashi Fachler, Flickr

SD: Our signs have short, pithy messages on them for two main reasons: 1.) so we can make the words big so that you can see them from far away, and 2.) because we live in the “sound bite” generation, so you have to get after it quickly. We aren’t about being “cryptic.” We are about being plain and clear (the pastors of this world are the ones who confuse). Every once in a while a sign needs a bit of “fleshing out,” and if someone is interested in asking us the sign’s meaning or our motive for holding it, we are always good to answer. Sometimes sparking a dialogue can be a good thing, as long as the end of it is obedience to God. :)

EB: How do you come up with the messages for your signs? Is one person responsible for the messages, or do they get generated in a more organic way among the church? Is creating the signs a bonding/conversational moment for members of the church?

SD: All members have ideas for signs. Some of our people design the signs, others assemble them, still others manage them, and all of us hold them.

EB: Of course, the signs would not be as effective if you weren’t using them at controversial places such as funerals. Was there a moment when you had the revelation that protesting funerals would amplify your message? Are the signs really only byproducts of your protest strategy?

SD: The Holy Spirit of God shows us where to go. Our pastor, who has been led by God all of his days, came to realize that these soldier funerals were more patriotic pep rallies than they were serious, mournful exercises in humbling oneself to God — celebrating a nation that is awash in sin at every level — so we started going, telling those present (among other things) that their sons’ and daughters’ deaths are not blessings from God, but curses — and that they died ignoble deaths fighting for a nation awash in sin.

EB: This is kind of a random question, but as people who believe in spreading truth to the masses, do you approve of Julian Assange and his Wikileaks operation? The Westboro Baptists and Wikileaks have both challenged our understandings of what “free speech” entails. Having now won your case in the Supreme Court, do you empathize with the predicament that Wikileaks is in?

SD: God put the First Amendment into play so that we could preach on this day. God caused the Supreme Court decision. We don’t really care much about Wikileaks’ woes. Much of the rest of the world would jail us just for stepping foot on their nation’s soil — because of what we believe and because of our open testimony against this world. It is an evil world. If they don’t like what you say or how you say it, they will try to shut you down. But there is no shutting down God. No man can stay His hand or say “what doest thou?.”

Radiant Discord: Lance Wyman on the ’68 Olympic Design and the Tlatelolco Massacre

It’s fascinating the way a piece of design can accrete meaning over time, as new contexts are revealed, personal stories come to light, and history slowly reifies our perceptions of an era. There are designs that, for one reason or another, transition from being simply of their time to defining their time. Lance Wyman’s identity […]

Wyman_StadiumSculpture

It’s fascinating the way a piece of design can accrete meaning over time, as new contexts are revealed, personal stories come to light, and history slowly reifies our perceptions of an era. There are designs that, for one reason or another, transition from being simply of their time to defining their time. Lance Wyman’s identity for the 1968 Mexico Summer Olympics has been hailed as a pinnacle of branding and wayfinding, creating an unparalleled sense of space in lieu of the extravagant architecture typical of the Olympics. But it is the context it was created in and its significance as a cultural artifact that makes it a perfect case study in the accretion of meaning—and warrants a deeper analysis.

Olympic design can be complex to decode, acting as both a globalizing spectacle of peace and the epitome of nationalist propaganda. The Mexico City Olympics identity exemplifies this duality, bridging the conflicting ideologies of a nation at war with its own modernity, and for a time, its own people. 1968 was a notoriously turbulent year around the world, and Mexico was experiencing deep social unrest as students flooded the streets in protest, demanding a more transparent dialogue with the government, freedom for political prisoners, an end to corruption, and an accountability for the government’s widespread and violent repression. The thrust of this movement culminated 10 days before the opening of the Olympic Games, when 10,000 people descended upon the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco neighborhood for a peaceful rally. In an attempt to quell the protests, the Mexican police and soldiers surrounded the plaza, and in response to a bogus provocation organized by the government’s own Olympic Brigade, opened fire on the crowds, killing anywhere from dozens to hundreds of people, according to differing estimates. Incredibly, the Mexican government successfully concealed the magnitude of the massacre from the international community and proceeded to hold their “Games of Peace.” Even today, the Tlatelolco massacre is little known outside of Mexico.

 

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Protestors at Tlatelolco

Wyman_Mexico_Olympics_Peace_Dove_banners_a   Wyman_Mexico_Olympics_Peace_Dove_banners_b
The Olympic peace dove symbol adorning banners around Mexico City

Into this somewhat intimidating context walked a 29-year-old designer with a one-way ticket to Mexico City (literally), unknowingly stepping into the center of a revolution. As the lead graphic designer for the Mexico City 1968 Olympics, Wyman would work with an international team of designers to create the event—signage expert Peter Murdoch, architect Eduardo Terrazas, publication designer Beatrice Trueblood, sculptor Mathias Goeritz, and president of the organizing committee Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, just to name a few. To supplement his talk for this year’s Insights Design Lecture Series (which you can now watch—it’s fantastic), Wyman agreed to discuss the Olympics identity: how it came to be, the cultural signifiers it contains, the ways political events surrounding the Games impacted its reading, and his feelings about the identity system nearly five decades later.

 

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Lance Wyman, his wife Neila, and Peter Murdoch (1966)

Emmet Byrne: I’d love to hear a little bit of the backstory. What exactly did the Olympic Committee task you with?

Lance Wyman: The International Olympic Committee presented us with a simple brief: create an identity that incorporated the five-ring Olympic logo and used the host country language, Spanish, as well as French and English for all publications and signs. The brief from the Mexican Olympic Committee was equally simple, coming directly from Chairman Pedro Ramírez Vázquez: “Create an image showing that the games are in Mexico that isn’t an image of a Mexican wearing a sombrero sleeping under a cactus.”

It was a daunting challenge, and in some sense, a very open-ended assignment. I traveled to Mexico with Peter Murdoch and my wife of two months, Neila, to participate in a competitive arrangement—we had two weeks to come up with something, and if we didn’t, we would go home. It didn’t help, in terms of stress, that all we could afford were one-way tickets to get down there. Peter and I worked 12 or more hours every day and stayed up all night discussing the possibilities at the Hotel Montejo in Mexico City’s Zona Rosa. Every night poor Neila had to listen to our panic as time started to run out and we hadn’t hit on anything. This was in November 1966, less than two years prior to the Games.

 

Wyman_CompassSketch
Original compass sketch

It was a great relief to finally come up with the beginning of the solution—maybe two days before the deadline—which really was based on simple geometry. The logotype happened in a very logical and intuitive way. It started when I realized the single lineal geometry of the five-ring Olympic logo could be central to constructing the number 68, the year of the event. The resulting three-line structure of the 68 numbers became the typography for the word “Mexico,” and the logo was born. It was a logo that identified the event, the place, and the year, and it probably broke every corporate rule of what not to do to the original logo (Olympic), but it actually made the five rings central and genesis to everything that followed. I don’t know what came first, recognizing the logical relationships in the geometry or intuitively following my nose and exploring the obvious and just letting it happen.

Wyman_Olympic_typeface Terrazas,PRV,GoerizMurdoch,Wyman'66Eduardo Terrazas, Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, Mathias Goeritz, Peter Murdoch, and Lance Wyman (1967)

Working directly for Ramírez Vázquez, the organizing committee chair, was ideal because I could go directly to him with an idea. He was an architect and sensitive to making design decisions and a brilliant organizer. When our work began in earnest, we were able to make decisions very quickly, and everything was built to spec. I liked to consider him a “good dictator.” If it wasn’t for him, we couldn’t have achieved what we did in the short time of less than two years. I remember Otl Aicher, the designer of the 1972 Munich Games, visiting our studio and saying they were further ahead in Munich than we were. We had 18 months to go at that point, while Aicher had 18 months plus four years to go. That was frightening to hear, to say the least.

 

Wyman_Mexico_68_Olympics_radiating   Wyman_Mex'68-CulturalProgramCover   Wyman_Cultural-Program-Catalog
Olympic publications (click to enlarge)

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Hand painted wall mural (in progress)

StadiumPlaza(2) StadiumPlaza(1)
Olympic stadium design

I worked on the Olympic program from November 1966 to October 1968. It was hard work with many late nights. I remember one of the Olympic Committee executives saying that our partners at home had become Olympic widows and widowers. The work was challenging and always exciting. As time went on Neila and I made friends and explored Mexico and it was a very rich life experience. As the Olympics drew near there were Embassy parties and all kinds of social happenings, and we met people we would probably never have had a chance to meet. We completely fell in love with Mexico, and came away with some great stories.

Wyman_1968OlympicIssue(A)Wyman_Balloons

EB: When I encountered your identity in college, my first read was purely formal, based on an understanding of 1960s Op art, Bridget Riley, etc.—basically I read it as a stylistic gesture that was being actively explored at the time. The visual vibration spoke of movement, communications, ideas, with Mexico at the center and everything radiating from there. The aspirations of universal legibility in the wayfinding, symbols, and signage pointed back to the precedent of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the modernist agenda. It was only later that I realized that there were explicitly Mexican motifs being exploited at the same time…

 

Wyman_Screened-on-WoodWyman_HuicholSnakes&682Wyman_HuicholblueBirds&68
Left: plywood template; right: two nierika-style yarn paintings by Huichol artists (click to enlarge)

LW: That makes sense, since the genesis of the radiating lines was the geometry first. But as soon as the similarity with Huichol yarn painting became apparent, it made us realize that we really wanted to pursue graphic imagery that resonated as Mexican. We did very little research prior to going to Mexico, so the first week was spent in the Museum of Anthropology researching indigenous folk art and ancient imagery, in Mexican markets understanding their local design, and in the street taking photos of the work of local sign painters. As we proceeded, we had the opportunity to work with Huichol artists, brought in from the state of Jalisco, and learn from their unique sense of color. In one case, we made plywood square tablets (emulating traditional nierika), silkscreened the ’68 logo on them, and then gave them to the Huichol artists (see above). The artists covered these templates with wax, into which they pushed strands of colored wool, creating beautiful color illustrations of birds and other traditional imagery. We used these tablets as an aid in developing our color programing. We also referenced ancient Aztec carvings, which have a really beautiful graphic quality. I was amazed by the visual power, wit, and humor in the design I found in early Mexican cultures. It influenced my Olympic work, my Mexico City Metro work, and most of everything I’ve done since. Their examples of vibrating color, the prevalent Op art of that period, and the bold expressive geometry found in many of the early Mexican cultures all contributed to the look of the overall design program.

 

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Wyman_SumbolAztecSundialWyman_GoldCoin'68
From top to bottom: Aztec carving, Aztec sundial created from Olympic symbols, Olympic coin (click to enlarge)

 

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Exhibition stand towers, inspired by Toltec warrior statues (above)

EB: I find it fascinating the way three different ideologies seem to be colliding in this one system, some of which is intentional on your part and some of which is only revealed in hindsight, through the accretion of meaning; and the way that form, in this case the abstract form of the radiating lines, can accommodate all this. On one hand you have the modernist, international style, the quest for universal legibility and the base geometry that embraces mechanized production. In this context, the radiating lines speak to mass communication in the industrialized age, the idea of Mexico transmitting itself to the world. From here, you upend that universality with culturally specific signifiers, utilizing traditional Mexican motifs, ancient and spiritual ideas—simulating a coherent sense of national pride, even as it reflects the mashup of cultures that is modern Mexico—the indigenous, the colonial, and the modern mestizo independent state—the three groups celebrated by the fateful Plaza de las Tres Culturas. Incorporating local vernacular into design work can often feel like an exercise in perpetuating clichés, but the radiating lines resist that again through abstraction, refusing to be hackneyed stereotypes. And when we explore the origins of the particular motifs—the Huichol nierika, for example—the spiritual context almost seems subversive. Within these prayer mandalas, which are seen as portals to the spiritual world, the radiating lines are said to represent a living thing’s communication with the deities, panpsychic emanations from a shaman’s peyote-induced visions.

LW: (Laughs) Well, I’ve often been accused of being on peyote, but it was something I never did.

 

STAMP_mexicoSTAMP_flameSTAMP_buildingSTAMP_olympicsSTAMP_peaceSTAMP_stadiumSTAMP_discus

EB: Yes, I can’t imagine the IOC responding well to a peyote-inspired identity, but honestly the druggy reference doesn’t feel incongruous to me. It feeds into my next read of your identity—the meaning that has accreted through time—which is how your identity serves as a visualization of the pure agitation of 1968. It’s simply hard to untangle your identity from the background of that year. The psychedelic op-art embodies that frenetic time, bringing to mind the exploration of perception through art and chemistry, the counterculture, and for me (as someone who didn’t live through the period and can only comprehend it as history), the politics: the global disruption of the student movements in France, the US, Poland, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Germany, and of course, Mexico. But that’s me, looking back and projecting on to your work. What was it like for you, being in Mexico City during the protests and the massacre of 1968? How did you feel about working for the Mexican government at that time?

LW: It was very tense. I wasn’t much older than the students at that time, and I related to them deeply. The Tlatelolco Massacre was a tragedy, and I remember very well that week before the games began. I felt torn between wanting the Games to not be cancelled by the violence and wanting to support the students. I was working for the Olympic Committee, which mostly downplayed the significance of the violence. And even though it felt like the massacre was being swept under the rug internationally, it was impossible to avoid in Mexico City, with stories coming in from friends and, of course, from my wife Neila, who saw tanks in the streets. One prevailing feeling I remember was the horror that students were being killed but we didn’t have a sense of what the scale of the uprising was at that time. It was a scary day-to-day experience. We didn’t know if the Games would be stopped, there were grenadaros in the streets, and I was concerned for my wife’s safety. I remember the celebration at the Olympic Committee when we realized that the Games would proceed, and a deep sadness for the students.

I would have to say that I felt dirty.

Mex68-Window

EB: The student protests and the government’s disproportionate response provides another read of your identity, based on an understanding of the Olympics as an unstoppable behemoth of peace that descends upon a nation every two years and demands perfection. In her essay “Unstable Ground: The 1968 Mexico City Student Protests,” Mary Shi writes, “When the International Olympic Committee granted the Mexican delegation the Olympic bid in 1963, it was not simply granting Mexico the honor of hosting an international sporting event; it was also affirming Mexico’s place on the international stage as a ‘modern country.’ Granting Mexico its bid for the 1968 Olympics was a performative act on a grand scale.” Your graphic identity can be understood as an extension of this performance, blanketing the city with a bold image of a modern Mexico, while many of its citizens fought to dismantle this very image. Shi continues, “The international community had hailed Mexico as the paragon of ‘from revolution to stability.’ … After the developed Euro-American world formally acknowledged Mexico’s progress in affirming its Olympic bid, the Mexican elite would spare no expense to confirm their nation’s modernity. As the Olympic organizers self-consciously acknowledged in one of their many mottos, they were ‘before the eyes of the world.’”

Where Japan had succeeded four years earlier in projecting an image of a nation shedding its imperial past for a modern future, Mexico was performing an equally aspirational exercise of reinvention but in a much more hybrid way. Mexico’s performance was envisioned as less a clean break with the past, and more the harmonious culmination of the modern mestizaje identity. Within this self-fulfilling prophecy, your Olympic identity is firmly aligned with the dominant voice of the Mexican government (which Shi also points out in turn was trying to live up to an equally dominating international system). It’s no surprise then, that one of the protest strategies the students used was the appropriation of your identity, acts of graphic detournement that sought to expose the hypocrisy of the Olympic slogan, “Everything is possible with peace.” What was your response to seeing your identity used for this purpose?

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Student protest graphics

LW: It was intense to witness. The students subverted our identity in such powerful ways. They used the ’68 logo freely and attached it to revolutionary images, such as an image of a policeman as a gorilla. They riffed off of our silhouette system, specifically my postage-stamp designs, switching images of athletes for images of protestors being beaten by the police. And they even replaced our sporting event symbols with images of grenades, gas masks, bayonets, boots, and bombs. But the most powerful subversion I saw was a response to the dove symbol that we created to represent the World Peace cultural program. Shop owners throughout the city were given decals of the dove symbol (Wyman_Mexico_Olympics_Peace-Symbol) to put on their storefront windows. The students would walk by and spray a red spot on the white dove and let the red paint drip down the decal. It was an effective image of the violence of the uprising.

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Left: Original Lance Wyman designed stamps; right: student protest response

 

Wyman_Mexico_Olympics_Peace-Symbol     Wyman_SprayedDove
Left: original Olympic peace logo; right: student protest response

I was lucky enough to have a bit of closure to the whole experience, when years later in 1986 I was invited back to give a design lecture at UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico. After my talk, the rector of the design school formally presented me with a book called La Grafica Del ’68, featuring the anti-government graphics designed by the students for the uprising. He publicly thanked me for creating a graphic language for the Olympics that they transformed into protest posters and other public images. He himself was one of the student protestors in ’68. Even now when I remember this moment I feel flooded with emotion—it was a surprisingly strong reaction. It felt like a cleansing when he gave me that book. Again, “dirty” was a real feeling—and it felt lifted.

 

student_helmet_batMexico_Olympics_Student_Protest_posterstudent_tank
Student protest graphics

EB: That’s a really beautiful moment, and it seems to revolve around a revealing contradiction. As a former student protestor, why was the rector thanking you for creating the same identity that he worked so hard to subvert decades ago?

LW: That’s a good question, and I don’t have a simple answer. At the Olympic Committee we were all working very hard to make the Olympics successful, which felt very important for the future of Mexico, regardless of politics. I believe in the Olympics, and I think the purpose of the ancient games was to come together in peace, to put down arms and have a friendly sports competition. Whether that was ever really accomplished I don’t know, but I still like the thought. As the stories of students being killed became a horrible reality, working for the Olympic Committee became a very bittersweet experience. I could have walked away from the program when we started to realize the reality of the violence. It was a complicated place to be caught between. When the rector presented me with the book, I realized that I was incredibly proud of my work for the Olympic Committee, and also proud that the graphics were seen as giving the students a visual vocabulary to speak through, or speak against.

EB: In a speech to students a year after the massacre, Javier Barros Sierra, the dean of UNAM, would proclaim  “Long live discrepancy!”—calling for a renewal of what he saw as an autonomous university’s purpose: to foster disagreement within culture and society. He called for students and artists to embrace the conversations that seemed irreconcilable, to demand democratic protest, and to act as a foil to the government’s suppression of resistance. In their exhibition, The Age of Discrepancies, curators Olivier Debroise and Cuauhtémoc Medina would frame the trajectory of Mexican art of the late 20th century in the context of Sierra’s proclamation, articulating an age defined by deliberate creative dissent in the wake of 1968. Their idea might serve as my final interpretation of your identity as well: discrepancy. Or, searching for peace while embracing the vibration of discord.

 

Lance&OlympicWall1967     MISC.97

This could be a conversation debating the idea of a designer’s complicity, but that suggests a passive relationship between the designer and the forces that shape our surroundings—a simplistic choice between the binary of engaging or not engaging. The idea of discrepancy seems more desirable, and would designate the designer as the interpreter of meaning, existing between conflicting ideologies, tasked with understanding and arranging these ideas into dialogue, and even dismantling them, if necessary. The Olympics are a salient example of something nations, as imagined communities, are constantly doing: reinventing themselves through both aspirational invention and duplicitous fabrication. You were working in a moment that was defined by discrepancies, between contradictory ideas that refused to resolve themselves neatly, and I think you found an honest way to celebrate just that very thought.

 

'68Triennale_Interior(b&w)      '68Triennale_Model(b&w)
Immersive room installation designed by Lance Wyman and Eduardo Terrazas for the 1968 Milan Triennial

LW: As designers we are often asked to shape our surroundings. Looking back on my Olympic experience, I was tasked with visually presenting Mexico and the Games in an appropriate and positive way. The student uprising was unexpected and grave. Even now, an accurate history is still being sorted out. And I still have my strong feelings. After the Olympics I went on to design many visual systems, quite a few of which were in Mexico. At the moment, I’m very excited to say that we are preparing material for a retrospective exhibition of my work at MUAC, the museum of contemporary art at UNAM in Mexico City. It’s an honor and a privilege to be able to return to Mexico to show the work and tell my stories. Wyman_Mexico_Olympics_Peace-Symbol

 

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Above and below: some unauthorized uses of the 1968 Olympic identity around Mexico City, collected by Lance Wyman

Mexico_Olympics_interpretations_7Mexico_Olympics_interpretations_1Mexico_Olympics_interpretations_2Mexico_Olympics_interpretations_4Mexico_Olympics_interpretations_5Mexico_Olympics_interpretations_6

Further reading:
• A behind-the-scenes article on the massive publication program of the 1968 Olympics
• A paper dissecting the Mexico City student protests
• A large collection of 1968 Olympics identity imagery
• A group interview with Alfonso Soto Sorio, Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, Eduardo Terrazas about the identity and the Huichol influence (extract)
• Contested Games: Mexico City’s Olympic Design Revolution, an exhibition exploring the 1968 Olympics identity and student protest imagery
• A text supporting Contested Games that includes a a detailed description of the student protest graphics (requires free login)
• The declassified NSA papers on the massacre
• A collaboration between the Museum Tamayo and the New Museum exploring issues surrounding Tlatelolco as a cultural site
• A paper exploring the architecture and design of the Olympics, and their relationship with the massacre (requires free login)
• An article explaining the framework of The Age of Discrepancies, an exhibition about Mexican contemporary art between 1968 and 1997
• The blog post “Fragmented”: Mexico ’68 Designer Lance Wyman on Sochi and Olympic Branding Today

Martine Syms and Kevin Young: A Few Questions About the Grey Album

In preparation for her Insights design lecture on Tuesday, March 18, Martine Syms sent poet Kevin Young five questions, one for each lesson in his book, The Grey Album, published by Greywolf Press. From the description of his book: “… [The Grey Album] combines essay, cultural criticism, and lyrical chorus to illustrate the African American […]

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In preparation for her Insights design lecture on Tuesday, March 18, Martine Syms sent poet Kevin Young five questions, one for each lesson in his book, The Grey Album, published by Greywolf Press. From the description of his book: “… [The Grey Album] combines essay, cultural criticism, and lyrical chorus to illustrate the African American tradition of lying-storytelling, telling tales, fibbing, improvising, ‘jazzing.'” In her new talk “Black Vernacular: Lessons of the Tradition,” Syms will describe her connection with the black radical tradition, using Young’s influential ideas as a framework to understand her own design practice and strategies of code-switching. Please enjoy.

 

(Lesson 1)
What we claim, we are.

Martine Syms: Super curator Hans Ulrich Obrist always asks “what are your unrealized projects?” I prefer your formulation because it acknowledges the presence of absence. Tell me about your shadow books—the unwritten, the removed, and the lost.

Kevin Young: Regarding my unwritten books: given the seventeen books I’ve published, including the edited ones, there aren’t so many. Whenever I do do a selected poems, there will be some outtakes, but there’s more like unfinished projects or sequences (smaller than a book), willfully abandoned or adapted. There are always poems I pull from a book, and these may or may not live again one day–but to make the cutting easier, you tell yourself you could always resuurect them if you wanted.

That said, most of the actual unfinished projects are prose. These I still have hopes of picking up and finishing when time permits, so I don’t think of them as shadow books yet!

(Lesson 2)
Accepting even the stranded, strange, and seemingly illegitimate is the black elder’s aim.

Martine Syms: In The Grey Album you write, “Elsewhere is central to the African American tradition.” However, from Ralph Ellison’s 1948 essay Harlem is Nowhere to the “nowhere shit” of the Black Arts Movement to Afrofuturism’s dislocations, Nowhere also haunts the black imagination. What is the relationship between Elsewhere and Nowhere?

Kevin Young: Great question; I once had an idea of Nowhere in The Grey Album, based on Langston Hughes, but it fell out. It should probably stay out, for now.

(Lesson 3)
Struggle.

Martine Syms: June Jordan says that “Language is the naming of experience and, thereby, the possession of experience.” I’m interested in the way that the black vernacular creates ambiguity. Throwing your own question back at you, does the dialectic between dialect and standard language ever resolve itself?

Kevin Young: I hope it’s clear (especially from the Dunbar chapter) that in the end I don’t believe there’s an actual dialectic between the vernacular and the standard–just as I don’t believe that there’s such thing as a “standard language.” Besides, if they were to box, the vernacular would win.

(Lesson 4)
Not only does the tradition ennoble those who come after, but by following in it, one honors those who went before.

Martine Syms: The loop is a fundamental idea in modern thought. As my friend Andy Pressman once wrote, “See: cinema, Varese’s siren, okay and then jump ahead to animated gifs.” If the mash-up is the defining innovation of our generation, how does memory affect time?

Kevin Young: (See illustration at top of the post.)

(Lesson 5)
Tradition is what we take, but also what we make of it.

Martine Syms: Mass media allows for narratives—and subsequently, ideologies—to be industrialized. Postmodernity enables an incredible circulation of images and narratives about the past. Can you talk about where this intersects with blackness and “how each makes the other possible?”

Kevin Young: I understand the conception of “mass media,” but am far more interested in popular culture, that thing made by both individual and collective producers with an audience (as in jazz). I think it clear from the book that I think bebop, for instance, a fruitful postmodernity, which quotes and reconstitutes, but on its own terms (indeed, on terms meant to be exactly counter to the industrialization you mention). Whether it achieves that counternarrative or not remains to be seen, but I don’t think is settled.

To put it another way, whose postmodernity do you mean? In Charlie Parker’s, or Adrian Piper’s, or Public Enemy’s, I think there’s a self-consciousness that can be strange (and for some strained) but also quite freeing. I love such a pomo’s noise, and its aspiration toward what I call in the book, yearning. This, blackness makes possible. Though there is of course a way in which blackness for certain postmodernists becomes merely a symbol of such yearning (rather than black music being a vehicle to express it). John Berryman, whom I admire (and who’s from Minnesota), comes to mind in this way, but that’s another story–one which I tell in some of in my past work on him, but that I expect to return to soon.

All Possible Futures: Experimental Jetset on Speculative Graphic Design

This interview is fresh from my new book All Possible Futures, published by Bedford Press. The book accompanies the exhibition of the same name, which was on view at SOMArts Cultural Center from January 14 through Feb 13, 2014, and features texts by Rachel Berger, Max Bruinsma, Emmet Byrne and Metahaven, Catherine de Smet, and Emily […]

allpossiblefuturescover_5aWhiteBGThis interview is fresh from my new book All Possible Futures, published by Bedford Press. The book accompanies the exhibition of the same name, which was on view at SOMArts Cultural Center from January 14 through Feb 13, 2014, and features texts by Rachel Berger, Max Bruinsma, Emmet Byrne and Metahaven, Catherine de Smet, and Emily McVarish. In addition to these texts, I conducted interviews with a variety of practicing designers in an attempt to get a deeper understanding of “speculative” graphic design practices and the various positions and orientations designers are taking today. Below is my interview with Experimental Jetset.

 

Experimental Jetset   The Society of the Speculative   2014   button   Commissioned as part of All Possible Futures

Experimental Jetset, The Society of the Speculative button, 2014. Commissioned as part of All Possible Futures

Jon Sueda: What does the term “speculative” mean to you and your practice?

Experimental Jetset: We realize that some designers and artists are doing really interesting (and brilliant) stuff under the umbrella of “speculative design” (Metahaven comes to mind, obviously), and we do confess we always feel a slight tingle of excitement when concepts such as “design fiction” and “speculative realism” are brought up. But, other than that, we have to admit we’ve always very much disliked that word, “speculative.” It just has too many negative connotations to us: spec work, financial speculation, et cetera.

Politically, we have always been highly influenced by the Amsterdam squat scene of the 1970s and 1980s—and, within that particular idiom, the figure of the spekulant (in English, the “speculator” was the absolute devil. It represent­ed the real estate broker, the person who somehow made a profit from the vacancy of houses. Within the narrative of the squat scene, there was a strong dichotomy between the symbolic, speculative value of the building (as channeled by the real estate broker), and the actual, material use of the building (as practiced by the squatters). And although we have never been squatters ourselves, that scene certainly has been an inspiration to us, and we still strongly sympathize with it. So it’s no wonder that we feel a certain suspicion when we are confronted with the word “speculation.” To us, it represents something we have always opposed.

You could also argue that it is exactly the practice of speculation that got us all into the current economic crisis. “Wild West capitalism,” financial gambling, stock brokerages, banking for profit, and so on. To us, the notion of speculation is intrinsically linked to the whole concept of neoliberalism.

We realize that your use of the term is completely differ­ent. But, still, we might just be a bit too materialist (in the Marxist sense of the word) to get excited about it. We like our environment to be clearly grounded in some sort of material base, and the moment things start to “float” is the moment we get suspicious. Our whole practice is based on this idea of going against the illusory power of the image by revealing the material proportions of the object. So it is only logical that this notion of the “speculative,” as something that only exists as an illusion, doesn’t fit well with our way of working and thinking.

Maybe we simply don’t believe in the speculative, in gen­eral. In our view, something is either real or it isn’t. A sketch, a proposal, a plan, a scale model—we see these things as real, not speculative at all. Between the sketch and the fin­ished drawing, we see no gradients of realness. A sketch is a real sketch in the same way that a finished drawing is a real finished drawing.

Which reminds us of proposition 5.61 of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. Logic pervades the world: The limits of the world are also its limits. So, we cannot say, in logic, ‘The world has this in it, and this, but not that.’ For that would appear to presuppose that we were excluding certain possibilities, and this cannot be the case, since it would require that logic should go beyond the limits of the world; for only in that way could it view those limits from the other side as well. We cannot think what we cannot think; so what we cannot think we cannot say, either. 1

In other words, for Wittgenstein, something either exists in the world or it doesn’t exist at all, and in the latter case we can’t even speak about it. Or, at least, that’s how we interpret his quote: as an argument against the speculative. “We cannot think what we cannot think”—so there’s no such thing as “pure” speculation. Speculation will always result in something real: a real thought, a real sketch, a real model. It will always stay within the borders of reality, of language, of the world.

But, apart from these more philosophical considerations, when it comes down to it, we simply don’t believe that this notion of the speculative automatically has some sort of sub­versive or redeeming dimension. True, in some circles, “the speculative” is used almost synonymously with “the critical’ (which happens to be another word we’re quite wary of). But, in our view, the speculative exists on the same level as the spectacular: this whole floating sphere of illusions, false im­ages, inflated signs, projections. Which is exactly the sphere we’ve tried to oppose all throughout our practice.

Guy Debord’s critique of the spectacular was famously titled The Society of the Spectacle. Come to think of it, we now find ourselves in something very similar: the society of the speculative. Having said that, we know we shouldn’t be too judgmental about this whole notion of the speculative. Nowadays, it might indeed be speculative projects that can give designers some sort of breathing space in an economic and political environment that is becoming increasingly tight and hostile.

Issues of PHK (selection) / series of fanzines produced between 1994 and 1996. Designed by Experimental Jetset and Cindy Hoetmer.

Selected issues of PHK, a fanzine produced between 1994 and 1996 by Experimental Jetset and Cindy Hoetmer

Jon Sueda: One could say that the work in this exhibition represents a parallel universe, designers who practice on the margins of the profession, making work which might only exist because they were proactive about initiating it. Does this parallel universe exist?

Experimental Jetset: It’s interesting. Reading your question, we suddenly remembered our own situation after graduation. We actually come from a zine background. When we were studying at the Rietveld Academy, we were publishing our own fanzines, posters, T-shirts, et cetera. And even before we went to art school, we were involved in creating mini-comics, mix tapes, and mail art. So you could say that we are products of exactly the sort of parallel universe you talk about.

Right after graduation, something happened that changed our way of thinking about this whole notion of the parallel universe. We came across an interview in Emigre in which a graphic design group said something to the extent of, “It’s great that we produce our own little zines, so that we don’t have to bother our ‘real’ clients with our creativity.” (Now, we are paraphrasing this from memory, so we might have completely misquoted it. But, as we remember, this was more or less the way it was said.)

This sentence was quite an eye-opener. A shock. We sud­denly realized the danger of a certain kind of self-publishing—the kind that functions as some sort of external outlet for creativity, as a way to redirect creativity to where it can do the least “harm,” so to speak. And from the moment we came across that quote, we abruptly ceased our practice as self-publishers and decided to fully focus on assignments.

In other words, we tried to stay away from the model of the “schizophrenic” designer, the designer carrying two port­folios: a portfolio with “free” projects (“for fun”), and a portfolio with “corporate” projects (“for money”). To us, this model was, and still is, an absolute nightmare. We want to drive our crea­tivity exactly to the place where it can do the most harm, so to speak. In all our projects, we absolutely “bother our clients with our creativity,” as often and as relentlessly as possible.

During those years after graduation, we were often think­ing about a sort of Hitchcockian model. Hitchcock didn’t distinguish between films “for fun” and “for money.” Rather, he managed to inject his subversive creativity directly into the heart of the Hollywood movie industry, and exercise his au­thorship right there. This model has always been an example to us, especially at the beginning of our practice.

Sixteen years down the line, we have softened up a bit, and think about it in a less dogmatic way. We now realize that every designer has to find their own way to organize their practice, even if that means artificially compartmentalizing one’s practice into “self-initiated” and “client-driven” work. The current situation (economically, politically, et cetera) is so bad, we totally understand that some designers feel the need to create some sort of parallel universe, just to stay sane.

As for our own way to stay sane, we would describe our current position as follows:

It may sound absurd, but we really regard all our projects as self-initiated, whether they involve clients or not. The way we see it, the moment we consciously make a choice to involve ourselves in a project (for example, by saying yes to an assignment), we are, in fact, initiating it. That makes everything that we do self-initiated (or maybe “self-inflicted” is a better word).

We see none of our work as “free,” in the sense that we really don’t believe that there is such a thing as a project that’s completely free of restrictions, free of limitations, free of specifications. After all, there is always a given context to respond to, a series of parameters to work within, a set of circumstances to react to. This set of circumstances might include a client or not, but in the bigger picture, that’s not even important, in the sense that it doesn’t make the project less or more “free.”

So, while we see none of our projects as “free,” we do see our own role within these assignments as “free” in the sense that, even within the most limited circumstances, we always have a certain freedom of choice. We always have the free­dom to quit an assignment (which is one of the most reas­suring securities that one has as a designer). Sure, quitting an assignment automatically means a loss of income. But, ultimately, we do have that choice, however hard it might be.

In short: the assignment is never free, the designer is always free. (We know, it’s an almost existential position, to be condemned to freedom and all that jazz.)

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Jon Sueda: Design can be a way to solve a problem, to visualize complex information. A critical tool to provoke debate, and promote aesthetic and social values. These responsibili­ties seem to be ever expanding. In your opinion, what should the primary role of a designer be today? And in the future?

Experimental Jetset: We find it hard to define what the role of the designer should be. We have always disliked this tradition of designers dictating to other designers how to work and how to think. In all our interviews, we have always tried to emphasize that our views are strictly personal. We never want to force our beliefs onto other designers. So we only can talk about what we see as our own role, today as well as in the future.

The role we try to fulfill—or, better said, the obligation we feel—is to design in such a way that the reader (or viewer, or spectator) is constantly aware of the fact that he or she is looking at something human-made: an object that is made by humans, and thus can also be changed by humans. We want to contribute to the constructed, material environment around us, but not without also creating some sort of awareness that this environment is just that: material and constructed.

At a very concrete level, in our day-to-day practice (if there is such a thing), this basically means that we want to break the spell of the image and continuously reveal the fact that a printed object is “just” ink on paper—nothing more, but certainly nothing less. The graphic identity we recently designed for the Whitney Museum of American Art is a good example of that. It basically consists of a zigzag line occupying the available space within any given format. The zigzag is effectively emphasizing the material proportions of the designed object. The zigzag breaks the spell of the im­age, emphasizing the thing-ness of the design. Or, at least, that was our intention.

In our view, this role, this obligation, will become more and more relevant in the coming years. As we enter a future that seems more and more detached from the notion of a mate­rial base (a good example of this detachment would be the phenomenon of the Cloud), we think it’s good that at least a couple of people will try to keep things grounded. Just a hand­ful of village idiots (we are talking about ourselves here) who, instead of pointing to the sky, are pointing at the ground.

Jon Sueda: In many cases, speculative projects are self-initiated efforts (sometimes with little visibility), proposals within academic contexts, provocations, or sometimes unrealized enquiries. How do you define the “realization” of a design idea or concept?

Experimental Jetset: As we already argued in our answer to your first ques­tion: theoretically speaking, ideas, and concepts are already real, in and of themselves. A sketch is a real sketch, in the same way that a finished drawing is a real drawing. In theory, they both possess the same degree of realness.

On a more practical level, however, and in our day-to-day practice (whatever that may be), we would say that some­thing is realized the moment it is multiplied—when it is printed, or published online, or made public in some way. In a short text we recently wrote (“Socialism as a Graphic Language,” which appeared in volume 1 of EP, published last year by Sternberg Press), we described the act of multiplica­tion as “the movement from one to many, from solitude to multitude, and from the individual to the collective.” So, that sounds pretty real to us. Or, at least, real enough.

1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C K Ogden (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1922).

About the author:
Originally from Hawaii, Jon Sueda has practiced design everywhere from Honolulu to Holland. After earning his MFA in Graphic Design from CalArts in 2002, he was invited to North Carolina State University to serve as a designer in residence, followed by an internship in the Netherlands with Studio Dumbar. In 2004, Sueda co-founded the design studio Stripe, which specializes in printed material for art and culture. He is also the co-editor of Task Newsletter, and the co-organizer of AtRandom events. Sueda has lectured, taught workshops and has been visiting critic many universities. In 2007, Sueda relocated to the San Francisco area, where he is an Assistant Professor in the Graphic Design Program at California College of the Arts (CCA).

“Fragmented”: Mexico ’68 Designer Lance Wyman on Sochi and Olympic Branding Today

“At first I had a hard time identifying what the official logo of Sochi is,” says designer Lance Wyman of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics identity, which consists only of the Olympic rings and the website of the games, sochi.ru. Wyman is well positioned to comment on graphic design around the Sochi Games as well […]

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“At first I had a hard time identifying what the official logo of Sochi is,” says designer Lance Wyman of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics identity, which consists only of the Olympic rings and the website of the games, sochi.ru. Wyman is well positioned to comment on graphic design around the Sochi Games as well as changes in the field: he’s the creator of one of the most celebrated design systems in history, the identity for the 1968 Mexico Olympics. “It still isn’t clear in my mind, so I guess the branding is going to rely on it along with other images.” In anticipation of his appearance at the 2014 Insights Design Lecture series, Wyman shares his thoughts on Sochi and the challenges that Olympics branding faces today:

At first I had a hard time identifying what the official logo of Sochi is. It still isn’t clear in my mind, so I guess the branding is going to rely on it along with other images. I have been impressed by the use of quilt-like textures made from indigenous Russian patterns that have been applied to uniforms and souvenir objects, though the sports icons, which are heavily stylized, don’t give me a sense of relating to Sochi.

I think the Olympic identities of the last few years express a need for new branding strategies. There are so many interests vying for attention and so much exposure that a more integrated approach is required. The identity of the Olympics themselves has to compete with the commercial exposure needs: the overblown opening and closing ceremonies, security requirements, restrictions to prevent knock-offs, etc. The resulting Olympic branding image is fragmented.

I think it is very difficult to have a strong identity that works for all. The five-ring Olympic logo has been kept intact since the inception of the modern Olympics. That’s been a boon, a consistent branding image that has done its job well. The problem starts with the attempt to identify the host country in a way that is compatible with the rings. The common attitude in corporate branding is to stay away from the basic logo, don’t get too near it with other elements, other colors, etc. There are elaborate corporate manuals spelling out all of these rules. The result in the case of the Olympics is often two logos that vie for attention. Even at its best, this is a difficult strategy when it comes to applying a branding image to the Games. Using a strong style for event symbols that suggests the culture of the host nation has been successfully used as a method of creating a sense of place without interfering or fighting with the image of the five-ring Olympic logo.

I think the purpose of the ancient games was to get together in peace, to put down the arms and have a friendly sports competition. Whether that was ever really accomplished I don’t know, but I still like the thought. As technology enables the Olympics to really become the focus of a global audience maybe that’s a good thought to make real.

Read my conversation with Wyman on the aesthetic and cultural back-story of his designs for the 1968 games.

2013: The Year According to Prem Krishnamurthy

To commemorate the year that was, we invited artists, designers, and thinkers across disciplines — from multimedia artist Ralph Lemon and spoken word artist Dessa to designer Martine Syms and photographer JoAnn Verburg — to share their most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects of 2013. See the entire series 2013: The Year According to     […]

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To commemorate the year that was, we invited artists, designers, and thinkers across disciplines — from multimedia artist Ralph Lemon and spoken word artist Dessa to designer Martine Syms and photographer JoAnn Verburg — to share their most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects of 2013. See the entire series 2013: The Year According to                                 .

Prem Krishnamurthy is busy. As a founding principal of Project Projects, he creates some of the most respected design work today, focusing on print, identity, exhibition, and interactive work with clients in art and architecture. The studio continues to grow, and as it does, all three leaders of the group expand their fields of practice with self-initiated projects. In Prem’s case, this meant founding P!, a multidisciplinary exhibition space located in New York’s Chinatown: “P! proposes an experimental space of display in which the radical possibilities of disparate disciplines, historical periods, and modes of production rub elbows. A free-wheeling combination of project space, commercial gallery, and Mom-and-Pop-Kunsthalle, P! engages with presentation strategies and models to emphasize rupture over tranquility, interference over mere coexistence, transparency over obfuscation, and passion over cool remove.” Below is Prem’s top-10 list of 2013.

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Looking back, the latter half of 2013 steadily accumulated highlight after highlight — including shows like Massimiliano Gioni’s The Encyclopedic Palace in Venice, the newest edition of the Carnegie International, Bartholomew Ryan’s 9 Artists exhibition at the Walker, and Jay Sanders’ Rituals of Rented Island at the Whitney — each of which re-articulates and perhaps even redefines a particular mode of exhibition-making. With so many good things to choose from, I’ll focus on a handful of the year’s Grenzgänger (border crossers), who moved between contexts and conversations with such ease that it seemed like the boundaries were all in our heads anyways.

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Triple Canopy’s Benefit to Honor Brian O’Doherty

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One of the most moving events of the year was art journal Triple Canopy’s annual benefit in New York’s Chinatown. The multifaceted legacy of 85-year-old Brian O’Doherty — polymath artist, writer, editor, and more — was celebrated by a young generation of boundary-crossers. Having worn many hats well before it was fashionable, O’Doherty is best known for his seminal 1976 essay, “Inside the White Cube,” which exploded the ideological construct of the “neutral” gallery space in a single gesture; simultaneously, as the pseudonymous artist Patrick Ireland, he has reimagined the exhibition form through his spatial drawings, language-based sculptures, and conceptual works. This year, he will publish The Crossdresser’s Secret, a novel based on the 18th-century Chevalier d’Eon, who lived as both a man and a woman — suggesting O’Doherty’s inimitable straddling of all sorts of borders. The strangest and most memorable moment of the evening involved PS1 founder Alanna Heiss mounting the stage in an animal outfit and calling down to O’Doherty to join her, each donning a full-sized horse mask — easy to put on, but comically difficult to remove later. Unexpected, surreal, yet casually intimate, this performative gesture crowned an evening that toasted the ties binding all of us weird, creative folk to this difficult city and the irreplaceable friendships formed here.

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The Sackner Archive of Visual and Concrete Poetry

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Miami caught its first glimpse of this astounding collection in the exhibition, A Human Document, curated by Rene Morales at the new Perez Art Museum Miami. Comprised of more than 75,000 objects (and apparently containing at least three times more artworks than that), the Sackner Archive is like manna for the typographically minded. Over the past decades, Ruth and Marvin Sackner amassed this collection of diverse works ranging from early modernist books, typewriter art, micrography, and more, bounded only by a shared focus on the experimental word-image. The gem-like PAMM exhibition served as a teaser, hinting at the wealth of objects contained in the archive. I hope this show is only the beginning for the Sackner Archive’s public presence. On the other side of the Biscayne Bay is Miami Beach’s Wolfsonian Museum, boasting a world-class collection and research library of early 20th-century works of graphic communication and visual propaganda. With these two perfectly complementary collections in town, Miami might be poised to become a new mecca for graphic designers and all lovers of visual language.

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Provenance by Amie Siegel

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Artist Amie Siegel’s newest project, premiered at Simon Preston Gallery in the fall, tracks the shifting value of the modernist furniture removed from Le Corbusier’s Indian city of Chandigarh. Beautifully haunting, the central film’s traveling eye registers the persistence of objects across continents and cultures. Provenance explores the manifest ways in which patrimony and origin are fetishized, twisted by the market into salable currency. Design typically inhabits the world of everyday utility, yet the current blurring of boundaries brings it closer to high art. We who work in the elite worlds of art and design inhabit a land of double-standards, invented luxury goods, and manufactured scarcity. With her conceptual denouement — the auctioning of an edition of the film at Christie’s in London — Siegel’s project achieved a new level of self-implication, biting the hand that feeds it while acknowledging that we must work from within the system to reform it.

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Dysnomia by Dawn of Midi

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Dysnomia was by far my most-listened-to album of the year. The trio that makes up the band — Aakaash Israni, Amino Belyamani, and Qasim Naqvi— have created a new form of music that is genre-defying. Its sonic precedents include the tightly-woven polyrhythms of electronic dance music, yet it’s rendered by acoustic drums, upright bass, and prepared piano. Is it contemporary jazz? Is it minimal music? Analog techno? Post-rock? The resulting album demonstrates that such distinctions don’t matter when the music is this riveting.

 

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The Joycean Society by Dora Garcia

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Among many surprising presentations at this year’s Venice Biennial, one standout was this geeky show, far from the Giardini’s buzz on the island of Giudecca. Following a group of crotchety older men (plus a woman or two) who gather weekly to discuss James Joyce’s notoriously difficult Finnegans Wake, Garcia’s video managed to do something rare: it captured the exuberance of amateur discourse. Gallery-spaces-as-reading-rooms and art-world-seminars have been in vogue for a while now — we even organized a series of reading groups at P! last year, led by curator Ruba Katrib, Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith, editorial collective Superscript, and others — yet Garcia’s film showed why book clubs endure. When conducted with passion, curiosity, and nerdy aplomb, the seminar form, freed from an institutional context, possesses quietly radical potential. In an atomized world, where discourse often equals hitting the “like” button, group dialogue and argument around texts can change minds. What a contrast to the art world we read about in magazines and the news — which apparently consists primarily of art fair parties, astonishing secondary-market sales, live performances with celebrities, and the like — rather than the real work of making and thinking.

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A contemporary bestiary at the Natural History Museum, Venice

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I was lucky to catch this exhibition, tucked away at Venice’s Natural History Museum. Close to the Prada Foundation’s recreation of Harald Szeeman’s Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Forms — with its claims to radical architectural and historical juxtaposition — A contemporary bestiary actually lived up to such lofty claims and went beyond. The exhibition inserted contemporary artworks by Lara Favaretto, Rosa Barba, Paola Pivi, and others into the museum’s permanent displays. The artworks were well-chosen and compelling, but the unexpected standout was the exhibition design itself. The act of intervention demonstrated an interesting proposition: exhibition display, which has the challenging task of taking non-museal objects and imparting to them an auratic power, itself may possess a powerful presence. Wandering through the rooms of the museum, each with their own bespoke character — from “underwater” areas with different fish species in hanging bubbles to immersive naturalistic tableaux — I remembered my own childhood memories of the artificial constructions in natural history museums. In these cases, the staging of such fantastical scenes has the potential to outpace the studied ways of contemporary art objects.

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Richard Hollis at Artists Space

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Thanks to curators Emily King and Stuart Bailey, New York had a chance to experience the rigor and resolve of one of Britain’s most influential visual thinkers. For over a half century, Hollis has approached graphic design with a clear sense of the political struggle implicit in disseminating and communicating ideas. The printed word has rarely seemed so alive, responsive, and generous as in Hollis’s hands — words and images following arguments instead of formats. In his seminal layout for John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, Hollis established that graphic design’s most significant task is to create the necessary conditions for critical thinking. The show’s structure and sequence mirrored an edited video of the designer’s recent talk at the ICA London, projected in the space and providing an ongoing soundtrack for the printed pieces, posters, and sketches on display. Through this curatorial gesture, the exhibition itself became a script for Hollis’s remarkable reasoning, which aspires to change the world quietly.

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The Radicality of Reading

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In the face of proliferating image feeds and accumulating 140-character posts, 2013 felt like a great year to revive and reimagine the experimentation with reading that characterized the early avant-garde. My partners at Project Projects, Adam Michaels and Rob Giampietro, each collaborated with thinkers on projects that I’m envious of: Adam’s layout for The Pragmatism in the History of Art, by art historian Molly Nesbitt, rethinks how the visual language of an academic book might be activated through the multidisciplinary work of the designer-editor. The book’s shifts in typographic voice and careful consideration of text/image relationships become an essential part of the final work. Rob’s collaboration with writer and philosopher Susan Buck-Morss on susanbuckmorss.net, her new website and publishing platform, effortlessly allows the reader to move between essays, images, and ideas through associative and non-linear channels. Reinvigorating early experiments in hypertextuality, the website allows Buck-Morss to publish outside of the typical academic and institutional channels. Both cases demonstrate that brilliant writing can be made more accessible through design that responds to it with sensitivity and generosity.

 

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George Maciunas at Cooper Union and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia

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As someone interested in the fertile overlap of the everyday and the speculative, I’m fascinated by George Maciunas, the Lithuanian-born founder and central figure of Fluxus. Maciunas radically commingled art and design through his many entrepreneurial ventures; two exhibitions, half a world apart in New York and Madrid, illuminated different aspects of his life’s work and the long shadow that it still casts. On view at Maciunas’ alma mater Cooper Union, Anything Can Substitute Art: Maciunas in Soho documented his attempts in the 1970s to establish artists co-ops in Soho (alongside his comically serious legal tangles with New York City authorities). In light of the city’s current real estate market and the difficulties that young artists have making a life here, the exhibition made Maciunas seem positively prescient. At Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, the wide-ranging exhibition +-1961 deftly recast the pre-history of Minimalism and Conceptual Art. As part of the show, printed ephemera including flyers and posters from Maciunas’ short-lived AG Gallery, hinted at his penchant for risk and experimentation. Open for less than a single year, the gallery and its forward-thinking programming suggested how a modest space can play a crucial role as a meeting point and laboratory for ideas.

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Lucy Skaer at the 9th Mercosul Biennial

Lucy-Skaer-Tradução-da-Resina-2013_022Artist Lucy Skaer provided the high point of this impressive and ambitious biennial in Porto Alegre. Her piece, neither object nor action, existed somewhere in between. Working closely with the resin manufacturer and packager Irani, Skaer accomplished a striking intervention in their workflow: out of the thousands of sacks of raw resin produced for distribution in a given day, five sacks instead contained a flawless, faceted block of resin. These crystalline objects, with their manifest aesthetic qualities, are nevertheless merely a functional piece of raw material, to be melted down and reformed by whomever purchases them. This gesture reframes questions of utility and beauty: the gallery and factory become contiguous, at the same time that the contextuality of visual pleasure is foregrounded. Skaer’s elegant insertion offers us a glimmer of other potentialities for art’s place in the contemporary world — rather than consisting of rarefied objects, art might occur in the ephemeral ruptures of everyday life, in forms surprising, slippery, and stunning.

 

2013: The Year According to Experimental Jetset

To commemorate the year that was, we invited artists, designers, and thinkers across disciplines — from multimedia artist Ralph Lemon and spoken word artist Dessa to designer Martine Syms and musician Greg Tate — to share their most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects of 2013. See the entire series 2013: The Year According to     […]

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To commemorate the year that was, we invited artists, designers, and thinkers across disciplines — from multimedia artist Ralph Lemon and spoken word artist Dessa to designer Martine Syms and musician Greg Tate — to share their most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects of 2013. See the entire series 2013: The Year According to                                 .

 

Based in Amsterdam and founded in 1997 by Marieke Stolk, Erwin Brinkers, and Danny van den Dungen, Experimental Jetset has been consistently reinterpreting the implications of modernism, often from a countercultural perspective. The studio is perhaps best known to US audiences from their appearance in the documentary Helvetica (2007) and their dogmatic use of that typeface has become a defining aspect of their work and has influenced new generations of graphic designers. Experimental Jetset’s iconic print work explores ways in which we are both shaped by and help shape our material environment. Projects for cultural clients include most recently the new identity for the Whitney Museum of American Art, and collaborations with the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum, Purple Institute, Centre Pompidou, Colette, Dutch Post Group, Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Le Cent Quatre, De Theatercompagnie, and 2K/Gingham, which released their iconic John&Paul&Ringo&George T-shirt design. The studio’s work has been exhibited in galleries across the world — including the Walker’s 2011 exhibition Graphic Design: Now in Production — and in 2007 New York’s Museum of Modern Art acquired a large selection of their projects for inclusion in its permanent collection. Since 2000, members of Experimental Jetset have been teaching at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam.

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The Deposition of Richard Prince

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True, this paperback was published in 2012, but we only got around to reading it in 2013. Edited by Greg Allen, and designed by Lex Trueb, The Deposition of Richard Prince is basically a transcript of an oral testimony Prince was forced to give as part of a copyright infringement lawsuit against him, back in 2009. Part legal thriller, part artist monograph, The Deposition lays bare Prince’s education, artistic history, influences and methodology. We were already huge admirers of Prince, but after reading this book, we respect him even more. Even in the face of the harshest criticism (in this case, juridical criticism), Prince remains true to himself, and punk as fuck. (Illustration: The Deposition of Richard Prince (published by Bookhorse), as shown on the website of Motto Distribution.)

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Guy Debord: Un Art de la Guerre

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Taking place from March 27 to July 13, 2013, at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Guy Debord: Un Art de la Guerre was basically an exhibition built around the personal archive of Debord, as acquired in 2011 from his widow, Alice Becker-Ho. It showcased a wealth of material: from Lettrist and Situationist pamphlets to Constant’s New Babylonic scale models, from Asger Jorn’s Cobra-period paintings to the protest posters of May ’68. There was also a large selection of photographs by the Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken (from his Love on the Left Bank series), drawings by Jacqueline de Jong, and even some Provo-related material. Needless to say, it was quite a powerful experience to come across such a large collection of artifacts related to the individuals and movements who have influenced our ways of working and thinking so profoundly. (The exhibition also came with a really good catalogue, published by Gallimard). (Illustration: front of the catalogue, designed by Martin Corbasson.)

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Mulatu Astatke, live at the Bimhuis

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Malatu Astatke (whose work some readers might know through compilations such as Ethiopiques 4, or else through the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers) is probably most famous for his cool, vibraphonic Ethiopian jazz. However, when performing live, Astake and his band are not afraid to turn these iconic compositions inside-out, and transform them into complete free-jazz/improv freak-outs. The show we attended (November 28, 2013, at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam) also featured a post-gig DJ-set by Terry Ex (of The Ex), so yeah – it was pretty much a perfect night. (Illustration: sleeve art of Mulatu Astatke: New York, Addis, London, designed by Matt Thame.)

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Lawrence Weiner lecture, Stedelijk Museum

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The talk by Lawrence Weiner, that took place on September 21, 2013, at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, turned out to be quite an inspiring event. Introduced by curator Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen, it featured Lawrence Weiner being interviewed by Ann Goldstein (of the Stedelijk) and Soledad Gutierrez (of MACBA), discussing a wide variety of subjects: marks and notations, drawing as a form of navigation, the relationship between people, objects and language, the surplus value of art in society, the egalitarian potential of the pixel, the gestural benefits of folded paper, just to mention a few. We walked away from that lecture truly electrified. (Photo: Written on the Wind, Lawrence Weiner at the Stedelijk Museum.)

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Glasgow in general

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Invited by LongLunch (a group of Scottish designers organizing lectures in Glasgow and Edinburgh), we did a talk at the Lighthouse in Glasgow, which took place on June 20, 2013. Although the lecture itself went okay-ish (we’re not really strong speakers), we really loved the city. So many good record stores, art spaces, bars, venues, and vegan restaurants (Mono, Stereo, The 78, Saramago, etc.). We bought zines at Good Press, rode the Clockwork Orange, did a tour through the GSA, visited the Glasgow Press, and attended a very interesting symposium at the CCA (featuring speakers like Simon Reynolds, Paul Morley, Olia Lialina, and James Bridle). The only thing we didn’t manage to do was paying a visit to Little Sparta, the garden of Ian Hamilton Finlay (situated just outside of Glasgow) – but we’ll do that next time. (Illustration: the poster we designed for our lecture in Glasgow, as photographed by LongLunch.)

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Teaching

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We used to teach at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, between 2000 and 2010 – and then we decided to quit, for several reasons. In 2013, we were asked to teach again, at both the Rietveld Academie (Amsterdam) and the Werkplaats Typografie (Arnhem) – and, much to our own surprise, we said yes. We are glad we accepted these invitations to teach – it’s simultaneously rewarding and refreshing to be involved in the dynamics of teaching again. (Illustration: detail of the Gerrit Rietveld Academie building, as shown on the website of the academy.)

7

Whitney Halloween

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Although the graphic identity we developed for the Whitney Museum was launched in 2013, we actually designed it in 2012 (in fact, we started even earlier, in 2011). So in that sense, we personally associate the Whitney more with the year 2012 than with 2013. However, 2013 is the year we first saw the graphic identity being applied by others, namely the Whitney in-house graphic design team (headed by the brilliant Hilary Greenbaum). And we have to admit, it was only then that we felt the whole thing really came alive. The Whitney designers excelled themselves – they really managed to make the graphic identity their own, coming up with results we never even dreamed of. A good example (of the way they seized the graphic identity) is the material that they produced on the occasion of Halloween 2013, including carved pumpkins, goodie bags and window stickers. (Illustration: bats and ghosts on the glass of the Whitney’s lower gallery, as photographed by Matthew Carasella.)

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Vegan Paris

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We’ve always loved Paris, but after we visited it in 2013, and noticed the recent increase of vegetarian and vegan restaurants, we love it even more. There seem to be dozens of (relatively) new places around – from vegetarian French cuisine (Gentle Gourmet Café, Soya, etc.) to herbivore fast food (e.g., East Side Burgers, M.O.B.). Certainly adds an interesting new dimension to Paris, at least in our view. (Illustration: photo of the “facade” of East Side Burgers, as shown on their website.)

9

Einstein on the Beach

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Seeing the 2012 production of Einstein on the Beach, as performed in January 2013 at Het Muziektheater in Amsterdam, was certainly a personal highlight. Directed by Robert Wilson, composed by Philip Glass and choreographed by Lucinda Childs, this reworked version of the classic 1976 opera managed to take our breath away, for five solid hours. We know, that’s physically impossible – but you get the idea. (Illustration: promotional photo for Einstein on the Beach, 2012.)

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Punk 45: Kill the Hippies! Kill Yourself!

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The full title being Punk 45: Kill the Hippies! Kill Yourself! The American Nation Destroys its Young – Underground Punk in the United States of America, Vol. 1, 1973–1980, this double album offers an unbeatable selection of US punk, post-punk and proto-punk singles – solidly compiled (and packaged) by Soul Jazz Records, as they always do. In fact, we are listening to the album right now, as we’re compiling this Top Ten list. (Soul Jazz Records have also released an accompanying 400-page book, ‘Punk 45: The Singles Cover Art of Punk, 1976-1980′, featuring full-size reproductions of sleeve designs, and an essay by Jon Savage – but we haven’t had the chance to take a look at it yet). (Illustration: cover of Punk 45: Kill the Hippies! Kill Yourself!, designed by Adrian Self.)

 

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Moving our studio

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Last summer, we relocated our studio – which turned out to be quite an intense undertaking. After a four-year-period (1997–2001) at the Domselaerstraat (where we actually worked from Marieke’s living room), and twelve years at the Jan Hanzenstraat (2001–2013), we are currently located at the Vinkenstraat. So yeah, zip-code-wise, we traveled from 1093 to 1053 to 1013 (all safely within the borders of Amsterdam). The move took a lot of time and energy (and in fact, there are still stacks of boxes we have to unpack), but it sure was worth it. A new space, a new neighbourhood (“De Jordaan”), a new walking/biking route: guaranteed to keep things fresh and interesting. Or at least chaotic. (Illustration: Photo of our old studio [in the Jan Hanzenstraat], showing units ready to be moved.)

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Karina Bisch’s Kiosk

Unknown-10On June 29, 2013, we were in Lyon for the unveiling of Kiosk, a large public artwork created by the French artist Karina Bisch. Basically a huge open pavilion, the sculpture consists of reproduced fragments of iconic modernist architecture, pieced together in an almost Frankenstein-like way. As a disclaimer, we have to admit that we were somewhat involved in this project (for Kiosk, we designed a series of posters, a publication, and some lettering on the pavilion). But even if we wouldn’t have been involved, we would still count Kiosk as one of the highlights of 2013. Honestly. (Photo of Karina Bisch, standing inside her sculpture.)

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REDO Conference, Prishtina

Unknown-11REDO was an international graphic design confererence that took place in Prishtina (or Pristina – apparently, both spellings are correct), between November 22 and 24, 2013. The event had a bit of a pro-situ/dérive/flaneur-like theme, the line-up included two of our favourite studios (Our Polite Society and Mevis & Van Deursen), and some of the lectures took place in a really interesting building – the National Library of Kosovo. The thing is: we weren’t there. We were actually invited to speak, but we were simply too busy to accept this invitation. So we just couldn’t make it to Prishtina, much to our own regret. But we are certain that if we could have made it, it would have been one of our highlights of 2013. (Photo: Matthias and Jens (of Our Polite Society) and Linda (of Mevis & Van Deursen), standing in front of the National Library. We should have been standing there as well. But, alas.)

2013: The Year According to Shannon Michael Cane

To commemorate the year that was, we invited artists, designers, and thinkers across disciplines — from painter Matt Connors and spoken word artist Dessa to design firm Experimental Jetset and musician Greg Tate — to share their most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects of 2013. See the entire series 2013: The Year According to     […]

ShannonMichaelCane

To commemorate the year that was, we invited artists, designers, and thinkers across disciplines — from painter Matt Connors and spoken word artist Dessa to design firm Experimental Jetset and musician Greg Tate — to share their most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects of 2013. See the entire series 2013: The Year According to                                 . 

 

As the director of the Printed Matter NY and LA Art Book Fairs and curator of editions, Shannon Michael Cane exists at the epicenter of the book making world, acting as a liaison between independent book publishers, artists, institutions, and the public. Printed Matter is the world’s largest non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of publications made by artists. Cane has also worked as an editor and publisher, founding the queer art zine They Shoot Homos Don’t They? in 2005, and writing for magazines such as BUTT, Little Joe, and Straight to Hell. Here are Shannon Michael Cane’s top 10 artist books of 2013:

 

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1

Malicious Damage by Ilsa Colsell

An amazing collection of collages by Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell involving hundreds of Islington Library’s book stock. Once caught, the pair were sentenced to jail for ‘larceny, malicious damage and wilful damage’. Published by Donlon Books, London.

 

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2

Sender by Peter Sutherland

Throughout this body of work, Sutherland reimagines visual culture as a psychedelic network of photographic overlays known as “dypsets.” Published by Printed Matter Inc., NYC.

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3

I Just Know That Something Good Is Going To Happen, Just Saying It Could Even Make It Happen by Marc Hundley

A collection of eight loose-leaf color posters referencing Marc’s text-based work, the prints are bold and beautiful and focuses on positive song lyrics. Self Published, NYC.

 

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Male Dancers Wanted by Gilles Bonnecarrère

A beautiful collection of previously unpublished b/w photographs taken in a strip club in New York in 1976, a time when the city had a grittier side to it. Published by Editions Lutanie and Préféré, Paris.

 

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5

Frozen Chicken Train Wreck by Laurence Hamburger

A collection of 100% genuine newspaper billboard adverts from Johannesburg, collected over the last decade and printed on a risograph – outrageous and humorous. Published by Ditto Press, Chopped Liver Press, London.

 

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Woman/Object by Linder

A fanzine-style publication looking at the celebrated career of a protagonist of British punk; Linder Sterling. Published by Walther König, Köln.

 

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7

Blanks by Michael Max McLeod

A zine from the creator of Casual Encounters–a collection of photographs of empty road ride signs, some printed as a negative transparency on black paper. Self published, Arizona.

 

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8

Fundbüro by Marjolijn de Wit, Henriette Grahnert

A beautifully printed collection of photocopies and multi-coloured original screen prints on paper and transparent foil. Published by Lubok – Verlag, Germany.

 

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9

Book of Images by Brice Marden

A facsimile printing of a Brice Marden journal from 1970, with a random collection reference photos creating an insightful image bank. Published by Karma, NY.

 

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10

Studio / Space / Print / Time by Sam Falls

A collaboration between designer Duncan Hamilton and Sam Falls in which hand made rubbings of surfaces of the artists studio were re imaged via an offset printer. Published by Printed Matter Inc., NYC.

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