Blogs The Gradient

2016: The Year According to James Bridle

James Bridle‘s writings and art often explore the intersections of technology, politics, culture, and citizenship. Launched the day before his 2015 keynote at the Walker’s Superscript conference, for instance, his Citizen X creates a visualization of web users’ “algorithmic citizenship,” all the geographic locations one’s internet data passes through. And his 2014 Artist Op-Ed examined a movement in his native […]
jamesbridle_speaking James Bridle‘s writings and art often explore the intersections of technology, politics, culture, and citizenship. Launched the day before his 2015 keynote at the Walker’s Superscript conference, for instance, his Citizen X creates a visualization of web users’ “algorithmic citizenship,” all the geographic locations one’s internet data passes through. And his 2014 Artist Op-Ed examined a movement in his native UK to “deprive” terror suspects of their citizenship. Fittingly, his contribution to the series 2016: The Year According to                              touches on these core themes, but from a new geography—his new home in Athens, Greece.

1.

Refugee Crisis and the Flag for No Nations

On the 17th of January I planted a flag on the shoreline in Athens made from a foil emergency blanket. It’s not a particularly new or unique artistic gesture, but for me it connected a number of thoughts about technology and politics which set the tone for the next 12 months, with an emphasis on DIY and critical thinking. The refugee crisis has been very hard on Greece, and it’s not over yet; in fact, this is merely the initial phase of a far larger and far more devastating global crisis. But I’ve been privileged to see the myriad ways individuals and groups respond, from those braving the sea crossing to the Greek islands to those working to help them in camps and squats on the mainland. The future is hard, and it starts here.

2.

Xylouris White

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I saw Xylouris White—Cretan singer and laouto player George Xylouris and Dirty Three drummer Jim White—play the opening of the Niarchos Foundation in June. Everybody danced. Their album Black Peak, released a month later, has been on heavy rotation ever since.

3.

Jo Cox

Nigel Farage, the tinpot leader of the UK Independence Party, declared on the morning following the Brexit referendum that his side had emerged victorious “without a single bullet being fired.” Eight days previously, Member of Parliament Jo Cox had been killed in the street by a fascist yelling “Britain First.” UKIP’s own election material was filled with racist and xenophobic material. Personally, as a UK citizen living in the EU, I have no idea what the future holds, but I benefit from an immense amount of other privileges. What is more concerning is the abdication of hope, the refusal to believe that we can do better than this. I say now what I said then: Fuck hatred, fuck violence, fuck borders, fuck Brexit.

4.

The Santa Cruz School

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In October of 2015 I saw Karen Barad speak at the Through Post-Atomic Eyes symposium in Toronto: a rare and genuinely life-changing experience. Since then, trying to catch up, the work of Barad and companion writers have become central to my thinking and doing: Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble and the particular success of Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World (both published this year) point to the growing awareness of this work, and along with Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter and Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark have been personal touchstones for 2016.  

5.

Lightbulb DDOS

Just ahead of the Ethereum heist, the Brexit flash crash, and the first automated driving fatality, the massive attack on the internet performed by household objects—fridges, lightbulbs, cameras, and thermostats—gets this year’s award for WTF Futures. The Internet of Angry Things is here, and your toaster hates democracy.  

6.

Latraac

Photo: Angelos Giotopoulos

Photo: Angelos Giotopoulos

Watching my friend Zachos Varfis’s project Latraac evolve over the last year has been wonderful. A skate bowl and social space in a once-vacant lot in the Kerameikos neighbourhood in Athens, Latraac is visionary and beautiful.

7.

Turbulence

Turbulence is on the rise. Just another marker of a world on fire but one that strikes a particularly dark, anthropocentric chord: low-atmosphere Kessler syndrome, the metaphors becoming real, and vice versa. Global warming is not a threat in the future: it’s happening now and everything is entangled.  

8.

Journals and Newsletters

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In response to the above, the Dark Mountain Journal has been particularly helpful, as has Rob Meyer’s Not Doomed Yet. Journals and newsletters are resurgent/emergent forms full of necessary and nourishing goodness: many thanks to Dan Hon, Warren Ellis, Charlie Loyd, and Salvage for their regular appearance in my inbox.  

9.

Suzanne Treister

Suzanne Treister, HFT The Gardener video still, High Frequency Trading Floor, 2014-15

Suzanne Treister, HFT The Gardener video still, High Frequency Trading Floor, 2014–2015

I was lucky enough to see far too many exhibitions to pick from this year, with some wonderful recognition for some of my favorite artists, including the Jarman Award for Heather Phillipson and the Turner Prize for Helen Marten. Alongside Sophia al-Maria’s installation at the Whitney, and Cecile B. Evans and Hito Steyerl’s work at the Berlin Biennale, I’d like to highlight Suzanne Treister’s HFT The Gardener, which I saw at Annely Juda in the summer. Gematria, algorithms, and psychotropics FTW.

10.

Syros

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I moved to Athens in September 2015—this has been my first full year in Greece. One of the highlights of the summer was the Syros Film Festival, and the highlight of that was a drive-in screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey on a village football pitch. About half-way through the film, the bright point of the International Space Station passed in an arc over the screen, the sky already filled with bright Aegean stars. When the film finished, all the cars tooted their horns to The Blue Danube, and I fell asleep, brimful with raki, on a beach.

2016: The Year According to Paul Soulellis

Photo: Antoine Lefebre, Artzines Paul Soulellis is a graphic designer, artist, publisher and teacher. He works in New York City and Providence, RI. Soulellis is the founder of Library of the Printed Web, a physical archive devoted to web-to-print artists’ books, zines and other printout matter. He curates, designs, and publishes print-on-demand publications that have featured […]

Artzines / Antoine Lefebvre

Photo: Antoine Lefebre, Artzines

Paul Soulellis is a graphic designer, artist, publisher and teacher. He works in New York City and Providence, RI. Soulellis is the founder of Library of the Printed Web, a physical archive devoted to web-to-print artists’ books, zines and other printout matter. He curates, designs, and publishes print-on-demand publications that have featured the work of over 180 contemporary artists. Soulellis is a faculty member at Rhode Island School of Design and a contributing editor at Rhizome, where he curates The Download.

Here, Soulellis shares his perspective as 2016 closes, as part of our annual series 2016: The Year According to                               .

 

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Dennis Cooper, Zac’s Freight Elevator

Dennis Cooper’s novels really worked on me in the early ’90s. I lost track of him until this year, when I discovered that his latest work doesn’t contain written language at all. Now he tells stories with stacks of GIFs that he finds online, packaged into ZIP files. They feel like long scrolls or Tumblr posts; he develops them on his well-tended blog, which was famously deleted by Google this past summer. (All of the work was eventually returned.) These browser-based GIF novels and poems have characters and plot lines, but no words. And they feel every bit as violent and transgressive as his literary works. I recently wrote about Zac’s Freight Elevator, his latest novel. This deep dive into the possibilities of the found GIF helped me to understand how distributing open-source(-ish) downloadable ZIP files on the network can be an act of preservation, a form of protection, and a good way to publish art.

 

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Lorna Mills, Ways of Something, Episode 4, minute 7, Dave Greber

For Lorna Mills the GIF is a kind of cinema, and her work is a fantastic explosion of GIF-making energy. But she also has this remarkable way of bringing people together around her practice. She recently curated more than 113 artists to remake the four-hour-long television-broadcast version of John Berger’s 1972 Ways of Seeing. Each artist chose a one-minute clip and provided their own one-minute work in response. Lorna assembled them into a rewriting of the original series. It’s a tremendous, generous work that’s larger than its parts, and it’s featured in the Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905–2016 exhibition at the Whitney right now. I watched Lorna’s communal parade of digital makers and then laid down on the floor in Ben Coonley’s Trading Futures, a 3D experience in a cardboard geodesic dome that shares the same gallery space at the Whitney.  

 

 

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I seem to be into collaborative works this year. It probably has something to do with a renewed sense of urgency around collective belonging, which feels especially threatened right now. Since this summer I’ve been in awe of Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke’s epic collaborative work, The 3D Additivist Cookbook, which was three years in the making. The 360-page publication, inspired by William Powell’s Anarchist Cookbook, features 120 artists. It’s a manifesto-in-action for #Additivism, their movement to radicalize, queerify, politicize, and otherwise critically provoke 3D printing, additive technologies, and maker culture. I’m totally fascinated that they released this work as a 3D PDF—a file with dozens of embedded objects that can be viewed and manipulated in Adobe Reader (and printed at home). An archive of source files was also released as a 6GB torrent, making this a stunning example of network-based experimental publishing. I was honored to be a part of the launch at Printed Matter on December 2.

 

 

Christopher Clary, My Porn, Volume 1 [pic Paul Soulellis]

Christopher Clary, My Porn Volume 1, Photo: Paul Soulellis

Christopher Clary in Printed Web 4 [2016]

Christopher Clary in Printed Web 4, 2016

Attending the launch of the Cookbook with me was Christopher Clary, an artist who works with gay porn. In his practice he tries to provoke by finding it, collecting it, re-making and restaging it, and eventually destroying it. Shame and disappointment always seem to lurk just below the surface of Christopher’s practice. I was introduced to him years ago, but we only met in person last year, when I curated him as the first in the Rhizome Download series. Since then, I’ve seen him transform that commission (Sorry to dump on you like this.zip) into an all-encompassing, obsessive body of work that keeps him and his audience very busy. Every Sunday at 5 pm he restages a single JPG from his collection, performs it on CAM4, and auctions the props on eBay (FKNJPGS). His work around image, body, appropriation, identity and queer performance is significant and I can’t wait to see what he does with these 52 performances in 2017.

 

Printed Matter’s NY Art Book Fair / zine tent [pic Paul Soulellis]

Zine tent at Printed Matter’s NY Art Book Fair. Photo: Paul Soulellis

Christopher and I both exhibited at Printed Matter’s NY Art Book Fair in September. I can’t overstate the importance of the art book fair as a model for growing creative communities. Given the looming threat to arts funding, supporting (and enjoying) the fairs feels more relevant than ever. Printed Matter popularized the form in New York and LA, but artists, collectors, fans, and independent publishers like myself are now addicted to new fairs that are being held all over the calendar, all over the planet. This year I was able to attend Miss Read in Berlin for the first time, and this month brings me and RISD to the Odds and Ends Yale Art Book Fair for the third year in a row. But it’s Internet Yami-Ichi (“a flea market for browsing in real life”), started in Tokyo by the Japanese duo Exonemo, that totally transforms this indie spirit into something else. Not really a book fair or a flea market but somehow drawing on the energy of both of those models, this is a place to celebrate network culture and weirdness in physical space.

 

NYC / November 12, 2016 [pic Paul Soulellis]

NYC, November 12, 2016. Photo: Paul Soulellis

Gran Fury, _Silence = Death_, yearTBD

Gran Fury, Silence = Death, 1987

Gathering at the front door of Trump Tower the night after the election, in a spontaneous act of protest, I was sad, confused, and disoriented. By that weekend, marching up Fifth Avenue, the massive public display of energy had transformed into solidarity and action. I showed up without a sign and realized that carrying messages and symbols of resistance in this political crisis will be crucial. Whether we march in physical space or broadcast and amplify online, how do we send clear messages that cut through the noise? This is an essential question for today’s graphic design students. As a teacher, I recently looked back to the work of Gran Fury during the Reagan-era AIDS crisis for inspiration, and traced the history of the pink triangle. Graphic design that feels urgent, necessary, critical, even dark. Do we need a symbol now? What’s our message of resistance in the current crisis? I don’t have answers, but I’m looking.

 

 

[pic Paul Soulellis]

Photo: Paul Soulellis

In the middle of the march that first weekend after the election, somewhere around Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, I ran into my friend Sal Randolph. Sal is an artist and she recently started a new listening/publishing space called Dispersed Holdings, with David Richardson. They now host screenings, happenings, and reading events, enjoyed on grey felt cushions with red stitching, fashioned by David. The space, on the third floor of a very old building on the Bowery, used to be Eva Hesse’s apartment. Sal and David refer to Eva casually, like she’s still in residence, and keep her diaries and a photo on the mantle. These are two remarkable people who are devoted to nurturing creative space for community gatherings—friends, fans, and strangers communing in experience and experimentation. Their events are public, but intimate, occupying some sweet spot between a salon, a dinner party, and an open reading.

 

 

Bulletin [pic Paul Soulellis]

Bulletin. Photo: Paul Soulellis

We need small, independent artists’ spaces now more than ever. They’re safe places for experimentation, where time slows down—real resistance to the commercial art world. Alternatives to the corporate paradigm. Philip Tomaru of Arts and Sciences Projects and Metropolitan Structures is soon to start a new one: Bulletin (located within Bullet, an artists’ space in the East Village). I dropped in to preview the tiny space, which contained an ad hoc display of zines by artist friends on a white shelf. A window looks directly out onto East 3rd Street, and I get the sense that this will be a kind of inside-outside laboratory, with just enough space to install and celebrate. A minimal move that yields something communal and powerful. This spirit of risk-taking and making public feels more and more valuable; urgent, even. Especially now.

2016: The Year According to OK-RM

OK-RM. Photo: Lena C. Emery OK-RM is an independent studio founded in London in 2008 by Oliver Knight and Rory McGrath. Known for its distinctive perspective on design and art direction within contemporary art, culture, and commerce, OK-RM fuses a dedicated content-driven approach with a grounding in conceptual thinking. Recent commissions include the exhibition design and campaign […]

OK-RM. Photo: Lena C. Emery

OK-RM. Photo: Lena C. Emery

OK-RM is an independent studio founded in London in 2008 by Oliver Knight and Rory McGrath. Known for its distinctive perspective on design and art direction within contemporary art, culture, and commerce, OK-RM fuses a dedicated content-driven approach with a grounding in conceptual thinking. Recent commissions include the exhibition design and campaign for Fear and Love (Design Museum), visual identities for Manus × Machina (The Met), the British Pavilion in Venice, and Under the Same Sun (Guggenheim New York) as well as book projects with artists Fos and Shezad Dawood. In early 2015, OK-RM founded InOtherWords, a publishing imprint creating books and other printed matter in close collaboration with artists, writers, galleries, and other cultural protaganists.

Here, Knight and McGrath share their perspectives as 2016 closes, as part of our annual series 2016: The Year According to                              .

 

1.
A reflection on what it means to live today

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Real Review, Issue 2, Autumn 2016. Photo: Max Creasy

September 2016 saw the launch of Real Review as it set out to celebrate the review format, an under-appreciated and underused critical writing format that has the ability to encompass an entire epoch. It’s dedicated to all reading levels: those who have no knowledge of architecture, and those who have been practicing for decades. It’s aim: removing barriers for the casual reader to enter into the world of architecture, without making it a dull or generic read for actual architects.

Too many magazines are taking on the qualities of books. They become these beautiful objects, technically well-executed but often empty of content. People own them, but they don’t read them. The Real Review is an exercise in minimums and constraints. It is engineered to be the most efficient and resourceful design. Making a printed publication is expensive and complicated, so every square millimeter counts. In this sense, we treat the page like real estate. It’s also a reflection on contemporary ephemerality. All magazines should be something that reflect their own time. They should be disposable, with only a precise moment of being useful, and then they are lost. This is why we say the Real Review is pursuing “what it means to live today”—it’s beautiful, but not precious.

2.
A place for production, research, conservation, presentation, and mediation of art

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Approaching Sitterwerk

Our close friend Roland Früh is the librarian of Sitterwerk. Nestled in a Swiss valley not far from Zürich in Sittertal, it’s one those perfect examples of a nonprofit multi-purpose center for arts.

3.
An exhibition that points toward the importance/changing role of design in our time

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Fear and Love at the Design Museum, 2016. Photo: Max Creasy

Fear and Love is an ambitious opening exhibition that “steps beyond the traditional certainties of design in which form follows functions and problems are solved.” It questions the role of design within a complex world and sets out to challenge its audience’s perception of what design is. From our perspective this is a refreshing and exciting stance for the Design Museum to be taking.

4.
An art collector, museum director, curator and book specialist that we should have know about before

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Pontus Hultén. Photographer unknown

Pontus Hultén was director of the Moderna Museet for 15 years (1958–1973). Hultén defined the museum as an elastic and open space, hosting a plethora of activities within its walls: lectures, films series, concerts, and debates. Outside of museum walls Hultén disseminated the ideas, processes and works of artists through a set of catalogues that offer insight into the potential of close collaboration and the form of the book.

5.
A compulsive volume of books

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Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness is one of the most beautifully obsessive, material-aware books we have ever had the pleasure to flick through. It is a hybrid artist’s book come exhibition catalogue available in three colors (yellow, red, and green), each featuring remarkably subtle differences in layout. Apart from the consciously minimal words “Printed in Germany” on the back page, the book is pure image and space, paced to perfection.

6.
An exhibition curated through time in the home

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Home Economics, British Pavilion, Venice Architecture Biennale 2016

Curator of Architecture section of the Venice Biennale 2016, Alejandro Aravena called on each country to define its own “frontline of architecture,” and by doing so tried to question the entire definition of architecture. At the British pavilion, a team of young curators—Jack Self, Finn Williams, and Shumi Bose—looked at the societal failure to provide sufficient housing in Britain today, making the statement that this is “not just a housing crisis; it is a crisis of the home.” Home Economics was founded as an exhibition that proposed five new models for domestic life. Curated by time of domestic occupancy the models are presented as full-scale 1:1 interiors in the British Pavilion, displaying architectural proposals as a direct spatial experience.

7.
An exploration into the borders between virtual and material reality/fact and fiction 

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Shezad Dawood, Kalimpong (Ekai Kawaguchi) and Kalimpong (Alexandra David-Néel), 2016. Copyright Shezad Dawood, courtesy Timothy Taylor

Shezad Dawood works across film, painting, and sculpture to juxtapose discrete systems of image, language, site, and multiple narratives. He is a keen collaborator and enjoys bringing a team close to investigate the lines of enquiry. We worked with Shezad for the second time on Kalimpong, where we dived with him into a world lost in time where the past echoes the present—where historical fact meets the fictional or speculative.

8.
An artwork that gives back

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Federico Herrero, Pelican Estate, video still, 2016

Federico Herrero’s site-specific work in a playground at Pelican Estate, Peckham, was one of the highlights of Under the Same Sun, presented by South London Gallery and the Guggenheim New York. The artist expressed his intention to create a work that was part of an experience within the locality, rather than being a decoration on top of it. This work plays closely to one of South London’s Gallery core aims to bring art closer to its community.

9.
A stimulating read by one the most eminent social theorists

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Zygmunt Bauman. Photographer unknown

In his book Liquid Modernity, Zygmunt Bauman examines “how we have moved away from a ‘heavy’ and ‘solid’, hardware-focused modernity to a ‘light’ and ‘liquid,’ software-based modernity.” A 91-year-old socialist who has lived through many political, cultural, and social eras and seen more changes than most, his passion and clarity on today’s complex matters humbles us.

10.
A Healthy View

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View from OK-RM studio, 2016

After eight years of OK-RM we have moved studios, not far—just round the corner—but now with 180-degree of views of the London skylineFrom the east we can enjoy a cacophony of concrete, brick, and glass, from Denys Lasdun’s “Keeling House” to Norman Foster’s “Gherkin.” We recently learnt from a “NetDoctor” that studies have shown that a view can boost self-esteem and those who can look out of a window have greater job satisfaction than those who cannot. With this knowledge we look forward to what 2017 brings…

2016: The Year According to Mary Ping

Mary Ping. Photo: Joyce Ravid Mary Ping is a New York–based designer. In 2001, she launched her eponymous collection, following it the next year with her conceptual line, Slow and Steady Wins the Race. Her work is included in the permanent collections of the Museum at FIT, the RISD Museum, DESTE Foundation, and the Victoria and Albert […]

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Mary Ping. Photo: Joyce Ravid

Mary Ping is a New York–based designer. In 2001, she launched her eponymous collection, following it the next year with her conceptual line, Slow and Steady Wins the Race. Her work is included in the permanent collections of the Museum at FIT, the RISD Museum, DESTE Foundation, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. She is a member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Here, she shares her perspective on 2016 in this year’s edition of 2016: The Year According to                               .

2016 was a year that was bookmarked by the passing of cultural heroes and the dawn of an unknown that has been a reality in the making. Too much to distill, so these ten moments were chosen more about their inherent sense of longevity. We are moving faster than we can keep up in many ways, so paying attention and adhering to a long path is crucial. Memory is a responsibility.

1.
Taryn Simon, The Paperwork and the Will of Capital 

Decision of general principle to ban third-party ownership of players’ economic rights. Zurich, Switzerland, September 26, 2014 Photo: © Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Taryn Simon, Decision of general principle to ban third-party ownership of players’ economic rights. Zurich, Switzerland, September 26, 2014. Photo: © Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

The last show of Taryn Simon‘s I saw was Contraband at Lever House, a photographic series of more than 1,000 items seized at JFK airport and exhaustively documented over five days. It continues to sit with me. Her show at Gagosian at the start of this year had a similar investigative approach. We forget the charged potency that mundane objects sitting in plain sight can carry with them and yet hide so well. From the press release: “Paperwork and the Will of Capital addresses the instability of executive decision-making and the precarious nature of survival”—a foreshadowing of how 2016 ended and the new world order of 2017.

2.
Maira Kalman in Conversation with Rolf Fehlbaum

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I’ve been a fan of Maira Kalman since discovering the work of her husband, Tibor Kalman. Oh duh! I thought, a genius with a genius muse at his side. Hearing her speak only made me hope that one day I would get to hang out with her.

3.
Marni, the Final Collection

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I’m a huge believer that when women design for women; there is a lot more interesting subtext happening within each thing that goes on the body. Conseulo Castilgioni, the founder of Marni, announced that her Spring 2017 collection was to be her last and that she’d be stepping down to spend more time with her family. Take a few minutes, put the collection on slideshow, and watch in sequence and in its entirety—it’s better than most films.

4.
MoMA : Items A to Z

Working with Paola Antonelli, Michelle Fisher, and the other members of the MoMA Architecture and Design department has been a true highlight of the year, and I am excited that it will continue into the next. The email exchanges alone make my hungry brain feel full while simultaneously forcing me to step up to the plate. The full day’s symposium addressing topics from A to Z in the anthropology of fashion is available to view. I had the challenging task of reminding people about the Rana Plaza factory tragedy with my co-presenter, Carmen Artigas. I hope these world conflicts further cement the need for responsibility in the supply chain.

5.
PYE Pajamas

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Photo: Rory Van Millingen

PYE is a brand based in Hong Kong that truly does go from seed to shirt. They are in charge of planting the cotton, ginning it, weaving it and so forth. Aside from meticulous shirting for men, they also make the best pajamas.

6.
Stranger Things

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The Duffer Brothers created the best memory album of the’80s this summer with Stranger Things. It is a shared nostalgia of my generation’s childhood passed onto those who were too young to experience it first-hand. It is also very important to point out at that these are kids spending time together using their imagination, going on adventures, and not looking down at a mini screen in their hands, ignoring each other. I must have watched all the episodes seven times each.

7.
Cass McCombs’s Mangy Love

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Cass McCombs’s music has an incredible and inexplicable way of making you listen to all the new work on repeat while also conjuring up all his previous albums at the same time. All of a sudden “Windfall” from Dropping the Writ begins to emerge again from the back of your brain, or “Everything Has to Be Just So” from Big Wheels and Others is waiting to be called up next. The music is timely and timeless, yet untethered to any era or anything. I’m only repeating what has been written many times before, which is that he really is one of the great songwriters of this generation and now that role is more important than ever.

8.
In Valentano, Italy

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Many heartfelt thanks goes to the curators and president at Fondation Galeries Lafayette. Without the commission of the Slow and Steady Wins the Race installation for their exhibition in October, I would not have met the Made-in-Town organization in Paris that introduced me to the mind-blowingly amazing enterprise and artisans at Monteneri, an atelier project situated in the 13th-century lakeside town of Valentano. Working side by side with expert leather craftsman who were combining both traditional knowledge from the region and forward thinking practices of lean and green manufacturing made me even more confident in a better future for the endless production cycles created by our own consumption.

9.
Mark Van Yetter at Bridget Donahue

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Mark is one of those friends who is just your friend. A pal. A bud. Multiple story lines exist where and how you became friends back in the day. He is also one of those people who will surprise you with the fact that he actually paints and then go on to completely sandbag you with how excellent those paintings are. Mark is both face value and a mystery. Spend some quality time with these paintings and it will be more clear.

10.
Don’t Blink by Robert Frank

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Finally, if I had to place some films in a time capsule, this documentary—along with In No Great Hurry, about the life of Saul Leiter—would be immediate choices. Writing about this film won’t illuminate anything, you simply have to watch it. Robert Frank, a Swiss immigrant, responsible for some of the most historically emblematic moments of America.

All Printing Is Political: Fredy Perlman and the Detroit Printing Co-op

Above: Fredy Perlman, The Incoherence of the Intellectual, C. Wright Mills’ Struggle to Unite Knowledge and Action, Black & Red Press, Detroit, 1970 With resurgent interest in things such as letterpressed invitations, silkscreened gig posters, and Risograph publishing—relatively benign tokens of print’s post-Internet afterlife—the exhibition Fredy Perlman and the Detroit Printing Co-op at 9338 Campau Gallery in Hamtramck, Michigan, comes […]

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Above: Fredy Perlman, The Incoherence of the Intellectual, C. Wright Mills’ Struggle to Unite Knowledge and Action, Black & Red Press, Detroit, 1970

With resurgent interest in things such as letterpressed invitations, silkscreened gig posters, and Risograph publishing—relatively benign tokens of print’s post-Internet afterlife—the exhibition Fredy Perlman and the Detroit Printing Co-op at 9338 Campau Gallery in Hamtramck, Michigan, comes as a timely reminder that all printing was (and is) political. The connections between politics and printing shouldn’t surprise us since its fundamental rightness is enshrined in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution as a founding trope of American democracy.

It wasn’t always the case. The colonial governor of Virginia, Sir William Berkeley, in 1671 decreed: “I thank God there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these [for a] hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both!” He pretty much got his wish. Because, as several social commentators have pointed out and certain publishing magnates have aptly demonstrated, freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one. Thus, an elemental principle of democracy often collides with a fundamental law of capitalism, as ownership offers both the power of control and the privilege of access.

The Incoherence of the Intellectual

Fredy Perlman, The Incoherence of the Intellectual, C. Wright Mills’ Struggle to Unite Knowledge and
Action
, Black & Red Press, Detroit, 1970

The Detroit Printing Co-op existed from 1969 to 1985 in southwest Detroit, and as its founding manifesto decreed, offered printing facilities and equipment as “social property” to “provide access to all those individuals in the community who desire to express themselves (on a non-profit basis), with charges made only to maintain the print shop (rent, utilities, materials, maintenance of the machinery).” Perlman was not by training a printer or a designer. He had studied subjects such as philosophy, political science, European literature, and economics at places like UCLA, Columbia, and the University of Belgrade, where he received his doctorate. He went on to become an author, editor, publisher, printer, and designer. Despite a brief period in academia, Perlman was what designer Jan van Toorn calls a “practical intellectual,” someone engaged in ideas and issues but whose vocation is materially productive—more blue collar than ivory tower. Such a figure seems like a chimera today. However, in the fervor of the 1960s with its blend of Left politics, social activism, and union strength many more alliances across classes and races seemed possible. Working outside of systems, whether military, industrial, or academic, seemed less idealistic and more necessary.

In 1969, Fredy Perlman and his wife and partner Lorraine Nybakken moved to Detroit, a hotbed of countercultural activities and alternative publishing, including the Fifth Estate, an underground newspaper where both would become longtime contributors. Shortly after their arrival, Perlman and a group of kindred spirits purchased a printing press from a defunct Chicago-based militant printer and shipped it to Detroit. The Detroit Printing Co-op was born, which included the Black and Red Press, Perlman’s and Nybakken’s own imprint.

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The union seal or “bug” for the Detroit Printing Co-op, 1969

The large window that fronts the 9338 Campau Gallery in Detroit’s Hamtramck neighborhood displays a greatly enlarged union seal, or “bug,” which declares in all caps: “Abolish the Wage System, Abolish the State, All Power to the Workers!” Such seals were used to identify those goods produced by union represented shops, although few were emblazoned with such slogans. This act of political defiance reflected the Co-op’s choice of belated membership in the Industrial Workers of the World, a union first formed in the early twentieth century with strong socialist, anarchist, and Marxist roots.

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Left: Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Black & Red Press translation and edition,
1970; Right: revised second edition of the book, 1977

Perhaps the best known publication of Black and Red Press is Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, for which Perlman and others had provided the first English, albeit unauthorized, translation of the Situationist philosopher’s influential 1967 treatise on the conflation of advanced capitalism and mass media. In Debord’s view, authentic social relations had been replaced by its representation. Illustrated with striking black-and-white images culled from various archives (the original text contained no illustrations), Perlman it could be argued performed a détournement of sorts, using the cult of the image against itself. A first edition of the book from 1970 shows the front cover depicting, like windows onto a soulless landscape, the exterior of a banal office building, its workers visible inside through a grid of illuminated windows; on the back cover a crop of an rather impassive audience watching a film wearing 3D glasses—their dark lenses obliterating the eyes. Readers may remember the book’s 1977 revised edition better, when the back cover image became the front cover.

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Fredy and Lorraine Perlman printed Radical America from 1970–1977. The journal was birthed by members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the 1960s and later adopted a thematic approach covering a wide range of socially progressive topics and leftwing political issues.

The Co-op would print journals like Radical America, formed by the Students for a Democratic Society; books such as The Political Thought of James Forman printed by Carl Smith of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers; and the occasional broadsheet, such as Judy Campbell’s stirring indictment, “Open letter from ‘white bitch’ to the black youths who beat up on me and my friend,” the victim of an assault after leaving a Gay Liberation Dance. The work of the Co-op reflects both the agency and urgency, to borrow a phrase from designer Lorraine Wild, of the period’s tumultuous times.

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Left: Wildcat Dodge Truck, authored by strike participants and supporters, Black & Red Press, 1974; Right: Judy Campbell, “Open letter from ‘white bitch’ to the black youths who beat up on me and my friend,” Black & Red Press, 1973

If one is expecting to see a series of dry, colorless political texts or propagandistic tracts, then you would be pleasantly surprised. What is perhaps most striking about the work on display is its engagement with the processes and materiality of printing. The exploration of overprinting, use of collage techniques, range of papers, and so on underscores the point that behind the calls to action and class consciousness there is innate sense of experimentation and pride of craft. As the curator of the exhibition, Danielle Aubert, a Detroit-based designer and educator, duly notes, Perlman’s works “illustrate the evident joy he took in the act of printing.” Working with a printing press that was, in 1970, already 50 years old meant that the final product would retain a certain roughness and inexactness, which nevertheless got the job done. It’s impossible not to view the work through today’s Risograph printing revival or even the Gestetner-fueled mimeograph revolution of the 1960s.

Lining the walls of the gallery are color enlargements of portraits of revolutionary leaders throughout history overlaid with blackletter drop capitals. The images are culled from Perlman’s satirical critique, Manual for Revolutionary Leaders (1972), a text that expresses the disdain Perlman had for authoritarian ideologues of all stripes. As Aubert relates: “When leaders proclaimed ‘All power to the people,’ Perlman heard ‘All power to the leader.’” Perlman’s use of collage and overprinting is also on grand display in his text influenced by his former teacher, The Incoherence of the Intellectual: C. Wright Mills’ Struggle to Unite Knowledge and Action (1970). Perlman’s interest in materiality as an expression of labor as well as the power inherent in self-publishing was already apparent in the early 1960s, before the Co-op was founded, when he authored, and with his wife Lorraine, printed and published, The New Freedom: Corporate Capitalism (1961). A simple chipboard cover with a decal wraps a stack of hand-cranked mimeographed signatures—humble materials for sure, but a painstaking process of production yielding just under 100 copies. Inside, they note: “The choice of materials was influenced by the extremely limited financial means of the author and artist, but both hope their attempt to make a book whose outward shape was consistent with its content has been successful enough to encourage others to follow their example.”

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Above: Fredy Perlman, The Incoherence of the Intellectual, C. Wright Mills’ Struggle to Unite Knowledge and Action, Black & Red Press, Detroit, 1970

 

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Above: Fredy Perlman, The Birth of a Revolutionary Movement in Yugoslavia, 1969

The exhibition that Aubert has assembled is refreshing on at least two levels. First, it adds to the history of graphic design a seemingly unlikely contributor working from not only outside the mainstream profession and economy, but also from the ground up. Secondly, it offers a counterpoint to the thinness of content that too often circulates in the design world of self-publishing. After all, the point shouldn’t be just to “make” something, but to also say something. Many graphic designers have taken up the printing press in its varied forms in recent years, and the motivations undoubtedly vary from person to person. The social dimension of independent printing, evidence of its current evolution, was on display in one of the public programs that accompanied the exhibition, which focused on skill- and tool-sharing enterprises. However, I’m left to wonder if the cult of the entrepreneur and its lone disruptor model that has governed twenty-first-century life thus far has not displaced the potential of cooperative action and collective invention. At the heart of the Detroit Printing Co-op was a radical economic model that opened a space for personal experimentation, and not the reverse. As Aubert rightly surmises: “I would argue that some of [Perlman’s] experimental energy stemmed from the political and economic structure of the printing co-op itself—the decision not to work for wages or monetize his time. The concerted attempt to work, to labor, as a printer, but not for money, led to design and printing decisions that would not be rational in a for-profit environment structured according to the rules of capitalism.”

—Andrew Blauvelt is director of the Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

Karel Martens, Joy, and Five Years of P!: An Interview with Prem Krishnamurthy

  Even after four years of programming, the New York storefront P! has managed to elude any form of archetypal gallery classification. The freewheeling spirit of P! can be attributed to its founder, Prem Krishnamurthy, whom many reading this blog know from his graphic design studio, Project Projects. Prem’s profound understanding of both graphic design and curating elucidates interesting relationships […]

Karel Martens, Recent Work. Photo: Sebastian Bach

 

Even after four years of programming, the New York storefront P! has managed to elude any form of archetypal gallery classification. The freewheeling spirit of P! can be attributed to its founder, Prem Krishnamurthy, whom many reading this blog know from his graphic design studio, Project Projects. Prem’s profound understanding of both graphic design and curating elucidates interesting relationships between the two disciplines. In each show Prem makes it a priority to juxtapose work from a spectrum of fields in order to question boundaries and reveal connections between seemingly disparate practices. It is this sort of inter-disciplinary approach in P!’s programming that we at the Walker design studio find so engaging.

If you’ve unwittingly happened upon the space over the years, you are just as likely to find a reading room, experimental techno celebration, or currency exchange station. In response to the diversity of work, the architecture of P! finds itself an active collaborator; evolving to create a unique spatial context for each show. At one point this meant a green ceiling under the guidance of a feng shui master; at another, it evolved into a new gallery altogether under the name K.  Kicking off the final season in the storefront is the exhibition Karel Martens, Recent Work. The show is an appropriate bookend, not only because of Martens’s participation in the inaugural P! show, Process 01: Joy (2012) but the way many of his pieces occupy the ambiguous ground between graphic design and contemporary art.

In the following interview we discuss Recent Work, the relationship between Prem’s design and curatorial practice, and what’s next for P! after the storefront.

 

Karel Martens: Recent Work, opening

Karel Martens, Recent Work, opening. Photo: Emily Smith

 

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The Ceiling Should Be Green (天花板應該是綠色的), curated by Prem Krishnamurthy and Ali Wong. Artists: Mel Bochner, Rico Gatson, Tony Labat, Ohad Meromi, Shana Moulton, Connie Samaras, Jessica Stockholder, Wong Kit Yi, Wen Yau (2013). Photo: Naho Kubota

 

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Michal Helfman, I’m so broke I can’t pay attention (2015). Photo: Sebastian Bach

 

Ben Schwartz: To begin, could you tell us a bit about putting together the current show, Karel Martens, Recent Work? Given Martens’s history with printed matter, I’m particularly curious about the inclusion of a sculptural piece as well as a video installation.

Prem Krishnamurthy: I’ve worked with Karel now a number of times. He was included in the first show at P!, Process 01: Joy, and was one of the reasons why I opened a gallery in the first place. Since that initial exhibition, we’ve worked on a number of other projects and presentations of his work in other venues, but this is his first solo show at P!

Our past projects with Karel have focused primarily on his letterpress monoprints, his best known works apart from his commissioned graphic design. Although Karel has always worked across media and scales, there hasn’t been a venue for these works to be shown. We’ve been developing Recent Work together for nearly a year; the longer timeframe presented an opportunity for Karel to think through his work since the 1950s and pick up on a number of strands that he’s wanted to develop further. For example: the clock piece, Three Times (in Blue and Yellow), is a new work but its origins range back to Karel’s early kinetic clock works of the 1960s. And the interactive installation, Icon Viewer, is an extension of the custom icon-pixel language that Karel developed nearly 15 years ago. So there is an incredible amount of continuity within the work.

 

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Karel Martens, Three Times (in Blue and Yellow) (2016). Photo: Sebastian Bach

 

One of the things that I admire about Karel’s practice is that he has embraced technology with a sense of openness and curiosity. Although graphic design has changed radically over the nearly 60 years since he started, Karel has adopted successive tools and continued to stay on top of contemporary methods. This has allowed him to push his ideas about color, pattern, reproduction, and form further, so that they don’t remain static, and to experiment in different dimensions and media.

 

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Karel Martens at the opening of Recent Work. Photo: Emily Smith

 

BS: In past shows P!’s role has extended beyond what one would typically expect from a gallery. In many ways the space becomes an active element that works in tandem with the artist. Would you consider Recent Work a collaborative effort?

PK: This raises the open-ended question around the place of design and curating within the broader realm of artistic production. P!’s role—as well as my own—in a given exhibition modulates greatly based on the circumstances. In some exhibitions, we have a strong hand in formulating the initial framework and creating the context that brings everything together. In this exhibition, as in other solo presentations, our role was quieter yet still present.

 

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Karel Martens, A4 Wallpaper (2013/2016). Photo: Sebastian Bach

 

Karel’s exhibition emerged from the start as a dialogue between us, but with his practice, rather than a discrete curatorial premise, at its center. We’ve been in close conversation from the start to decide how to approach the exhibition, what works to display, and how to show them. Together we made models, plans, and elevations of the exhibition, batted around ideas for each part of the show, determined which new works needed to be produced, and edited down from a larger a set of works and projects. However, Karel is ultimately the author of the work and exhibition.

At the same time, I think that this particular show couldn’t have taken place right now in another space, whether in New York or elsewhere. It represents a confluence of Karel’s work and the unique profile of P!, along with my approach to curating exhibitions. Together they generate a situation that goes beyond the individual components.

 

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First P! logo by Karel Martens, 2012, reinstalled in 2016. Photo: Sebastian Bach

 

BS: You and Karel seem to have a very close relationship. Over the years, what have you learned from him as both a curator and a designer?

PK: Each of the artists whom I work closely with at P! challenges my ideas and forces me to grow. I’m thinking here of Céline Condorelli, Aaron Gemmill, Mathew Hale, Maryam Jafri, Christopher Kulendran Thomas, Wong Kit Yi, and many others. I’ve also had the pleasure of exhibiting figures from an older generation—designers, artists, writers, musicians, and more—who have been fundamental to my own thinking. I consider myself lucky to have had a chance to learn from their deep experience and wisdom, while also exposing them to new audiences and approaches. This includes not only Karel, but also Brian O’Doherty and Elaine Lustig Cohen. I am terribly sad that Elaine just passed away recently, but she remains an ongoing inspiration for me through her unique work, life, and generous embrace of new ideas.

 

Elaine Lustig Cohen, solo exhibition at The Glass House (2015). Photo: Andy Romer Photography

 

Over these past years, Karel has taught me a lot. Some things are practical and aesthetic: for example, how he thinks about hanging a show, which is very related to how he arranges a layout on a page. Rather than hanging a show according to classical curatorial or museum approaches, he uses other structures like grids and margins, which give his installations an unusual energy and freshness.

A more fundamental thing that I’ve learned from working with Karel is how he likes to leave some things unfinished and open-ended. I can tend to be very, very structured and try to control nearly ever detail. Working with Karel, I’ve observed his tendency to be precise about certain aspects of a piece or exhibition but quite relaxed about others. I think this is what allows the work to breathe.

 

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Karel Martens’ studio, Full Color, Roma Publications

 

For this show, we were trying to settle on the order of the monoprints in the wall grid. As we laid them down to look, I began to shuffle them around in order to achieve the “perfect sequence.” I was attempting to account for their size, color, formal relationships, and other variables. After a while, Karel said, “Prem, it’s done. Don’t worry so much about it. They’ll all look good next to each other.” I protested and tried to keep fiddling with it, but eventually had to admit that he was right.

Karel also has a Dutch sense of work/life balance—so he tends get a beer or dinner at 6 pm, even if he comes back to the studio or exhibition space later on. I’m still trying to learn from him here, too!

 

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Karel Martens, Recent Work, installation view. Photo: Sebastian Bach

 

BS: I’ve always loved that about his personal work, the way intuition and spontaneity play a large role in his process. Each move is a reaction to what’s already on the page and to what he’s feeling at a particular moment. The decision-making process seems oppositional to graphic design, where there is the need to justify every aesthetic move.

PK: You’re right, but it’s a specific case with Karel. He’s been working for nearly 60 years and so is truly a master of his field. Even his intuitive decisions about form, color, and typography arrive with an incredible degree of innate practice and knowledge.

When I was younger, I used to be a real perfectionist as a typographer. I wanted even the most basic typesetting to be absolutely precise and complete. Something I’m working on in my design and curatorial practice is to have more trust and confidence, to let go just a little bit. Chris Wu, whom I work with at Project Projects, tried to convince me years ago that great design is sometimes all about the gesture—just the right gesture can work perfectly.

The question of context and what’s already on the page is also very significant here. For Karel, as for myself, there is an interest in what exists before one steps into a given situation as a graphic designer. This happens with his monoprints: he chooses to print on things that already have a past life and a formal order. It’s a kind of recycling but also a response to something that’s already there. For me, it’s about a sense of making history visible.

Several years ago, I was leading the design of the signage program for the Yale University Art Gallery. There had already been a number of signage programs that had existed over the years before we were commissioned. Rather than approaching the project by starting from scratch, I decided that we would retain aspects of those older signage programs, layering our own system on top. This lends the viewer a richer sense of what’s been there before, and what’s still to come.

 

Project Projects, design for Yale University Art Gallery signage (2010). Photo: Naho Kubota

 

This is how I approach exhibition spaces, too. I don’t look at the gallery space as being a tabula rasa, blank slate, or white cube. One aspect of my exhibition-making is that I consider the architecture and history of a space as inflecting whatever’s displayed in it. A show in a gallery is just one more archaeological layer added to the top.

When preparing P!’s space for its final year of programming, I opted to remove a cork floor that had existed since early 2015 and expose the floor panels below. In doing so, I realized that they are nearly a work in their own right. The vinyl flooring, which has been here since I took the lease, makes visible a history of the past floorplans of the storefront, and how it has changed over these past four years. While installing Karel’s show, I recognized the connection for the first time: the way that I treat existing spaces relates directly to how Karel overprints on existing cards and ephemera. Both are a form of palimpsest, just in different dimensions and scales.

BS: For Karel, I’m curious about what he’s responding to on the found material. Is he paying attention to content or is he more focused on formal relationships?

PKHe describes it as being a combination of both aspects. On the one hand, he doesn’t like to print something with a direct relationship to what’s already on the card, as it can result in feeling too illustrative. On the other hand, as he mentioned in the New York Times T Magazine, he sees the typewriting and tabular typography on the found cards as being a form of concrete poetry—the poetry of administration—which inspires him to print on top of them.

 

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Karel Martens, Untitled (2016) Letterpress monoprint on found card, 8 × 5 inches, unique

 

BS: I think this current show of Karel Martens occupies an interesting space in regards to graphic design and contemporary art. Karel is of course a seminal graphic designer, but the work being shown is uncommissioned. Did you ever feel the need to make the distinction between design and art when putting together Recent Work?

PK: I don’t make that distinction; rather, I try to look at the unique values and qualities of objects, regardless of what genre they belong to. Karel is foundational to the program of P! because he occupies this ambiguous ground between art and design. He makes works that are not commissioned, but sometimes the forms that he create in his monoprints make their way back into his commissioned graphic design work. There is a healthy back and forth. Both his commissioned and uncommissioned works are equally beautiful.

In Karel’s case, I see this as a kind of visual research. He’s spent the last 60 years experimenting with form and color, constituting a body of knowledge and practice that flows into all of his different work. In this way, he occupies an in-between space. For much of the history of the 20th century avant-garde, there wasn’t a strong distinction between applied and “free work.” This overlap, exemplified in Karel’s work today, is at the heart of my interests and why I wanted to include him in P!’s program from the first show. We’re in a historical era in which there is a strong boundary established between disciplines—which has much less to do with intrinsic distinctions and much more to do with the market and how different kinds of labor are currently valued.

 

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Karel Martens, Architecture as a Craft (2009); Karel Martens, Terra Incognita posters (1995)

 

I always ask myself with Karel’s work and that of others I’m interested in: Who cares whether people call it graphic design or art right now, but what’s this going to look like in 50, 100, or 1,000 years? Many of the things that we value most from past generations may have once been functional, whether they’re pottery, printed remnants, or cave paintings. They had one relevance in their original moment but they’ve also maintained their integrity. Their relevance to us now is that they have acquired a new meaning, which is in excess of the original purpose.

On a panel that I organized recently at the New York Art Book Fair 2016 with Karel and David Reinfurt (of Dexter Sinister and O-R-G), Karel said something that really resonated with me. To paraphrase him, if you’re making a piece of graphic design and you’ve just fulfilled the project’s assignment, then you’ve only done half of the work. There is a large part of design that goes beyond functional requirements; perhaps this aspect contributes to what makes the work enduring in the long term.

BS: Although you mentioned not looking at a hard and fast line between graphic design and fine art, with P! do you feel a particular responsibility to give graphic design more representation in the gallery space?

PK: Since I come from a background in graphic design, it’s one of the key contexts and bodies of knowledge that I carry with me everywhere I go. Graphic design is an embedded filter for how I think about the world. In a broader sense, the history of graphic design is extremely intertwined with larger narratives of historical and contemporary visual practice. It’s impossible to disentangle design from how we look at art since the beginning of the 20th century. Beyond the crossover of the disciplines and practitioners, even the reproduction, publication, and dissemination of art has been traditionally mediated through graphic design.

When I consider what to place into an exhibition space, it’s quite natural to me for those things to come from the different worlds with which I engage, whether contemporary art, graphic design, music, or writing. However, with graphic design in particular, I have tended to come at it from two directions. Sometimes I’ll show things from a graphic design context that I think are compelling within a broader discourse; other times, I present contemporary art projects that might resonate with graphic design in a significant way.

 

Vahap Avşar, Lost Shadows, [AND Museum] (2015). Photo: Sebastian Bach

 

In this latter category, I have in mind exhibitions we’ve done with artists such as Vahap Avşar, who worked with the archive of a defunct Turkish postcard company to make new postcards for distribution. Another example is Maryam Jafri, who examines histories of consumer products from an anthropological and artistic perspective. Her show at P!, Economy Corner—I think one of our best—was an exhibition about economics, branding, markets, and class, while also being legible as a show about typography, even if that’s not Maryam’s primary interest. Another crucial show for me from our fourth season was Pangrammar, a freewheeling and highly personal exhibition that mapped my interests in the overlaps between typography and art in a loose, associative way. By mixing works that were art and design, new and old, unique and multiples, within a single idiosyncratic curatorial structure, it gestured towards the more open-ended yet critical ways I’d like these fields to be looked at.

 

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Maryam Jafri, Economy Corner (2016). Photo: Sebastian Bach

 

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PANGRAMMAR, Various artists (2015). Photo: Sebastian Bach

 

BS: When you do include graphic design in particular shows, it’s never really looking inwards at the practice itself. I’m thinking of the Anton Stankowski and Klaus Wittkugel show; although both graphic designers, the work seemed to point outward toward larger ideas about East and West Germany. The display of graphic design seems very different than say, Graphic Design: Now in Production here at The Walker. How does bringing design into a gallery context change the viewer’s relationship with the work?

PK: It’s good that you bring up Graphic Design: Now in Production. As you know, Project Projects collaborated with the Walker on the graphic identity of the show; I then directed the exhibition design for its New York presentation by the Cooper Hewitt. In fact, the show immediately preceded P!’s opening and surely influenced some of my decisions. Curated by Andrew Blauvelt and Ellen Lupton along with a team of others, Graphic Design: Now in Production took a more classical approach to displaying graphic design, organizing it according to projects, specific media types, and functionality.

 

Graphic Design: Now In Production, Walker Art Center (2011).

 

Project Projects with Leong Leong, exhibition design for Graphic Design: Now In Production, Governors Island (2012). Photo: Prem Krishnamurthy

 

This is quite different from my curatorial approach. For me, context is extremely important in looking at design objects—for whom and why was something made?—but I’m equally compelled by a work’s broader significance, whether aesthetic, conceptual, cultural, or ideological. The challenge is how to make these registers legible within the exhibition setting, which I’ve tried to address in a number of ways. The Wittkugel / Stankowski exhibition was one approach, which involved using particular strategies of contemporary art display to present historical graphic design work, freeing it from some of its baggage while also situating it within broader political discourses.

 

 

OST UND oder WEST, Klaus Wittkugel and Anton Stankowski (2016). Photo: Sebastian Bach

 

OST UND oder WEST, Klaus Wittkugel and Anton Stankowski, 2016

OST UND oder WEST, Klaus Wittkugel and Anton Stankowski (2016). Photo: Sebastian Bach

 

I’m committed to an approach to presenting design that does not separate it from other fields of visual and artistic inquiry. That’s not to say that there are no differences between these disciplines, but rather that I’m interested in their confluences. I take issue both with how graphic design is exhibited in a closed-off way, but also with recent exhibitions of early 20th-century avant-garde figures that focus primarily on their paintings or their sculptures, when they made equally important contributions in graphic design, photography, exhibition design, and beyond. By relegating these practitioners’ “applied” work to a secondary status, the exhibitions are actually undoing in large part their intended legacies.

Recently I heard someone voice that typical refrain: “Oh, I wonder if graphic design is still going to exist in 20 years.” I’d bet that it will, but that it will look quite different than it does now. Rather than navel-gazing, I’m interested in graphic design’s potential to look outside of itself to connect with other discourses.

BS: As this is the last year of P! in its physical manifestation, I want to go back and discuss some of the history of the space. As you mentioned, the first exhibition was Process 01: Joy which explored the relationship between joy and practice. In the context of your own work, how has P! been a source of joy for you?

PK: Framing the first show at P! in this particular way was both self-reflective and self-deprecating. After all, opening P! alongside my work at Project Projects, my teaching, my writing, and everything else was basically a choice to double or triple my workload! And then to focus first show around labor and name it Joy was also a slightly perverse joke. But it also had a very serious dimension. All three of the participants in that first show—Chauncey Hare, Christine Hill, and Karel Martens—had explored, both implicitly and explicitly, the complex relationship between vocations and avocations, labor and pleasure. The show embraced the fact that much of the most significant work, of any kind, falls outside of the typical 9-to-5 workday, while being part of a dialectic with this economy of production.

 

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Process 01: Joy, Chauncey Hare, Christine Hill, Karel Martens (2012). Photo: Naho Kubota

 

Process 01: Joy opening (2012). Photo: Judith Gärtner

 

What creative people produce to make a living is often circumscribed into very specific categories. After the show, I began to look at what works from somebody’s practice might be marginalized, and hone in on those. If P! has, in part, created a home for people’s “off-projects” that don’t fit in neatly with what they’re necessarily known for, then I’d be happy.

P! was an activity that complemented my work as a graphic designer at Project Projects, and it was a project of love. On the other hand, I can’t overestimate how much it has influenced my own graphic design over the past four years, as much as the space has been informed by the work I had accomplished before it.

BS: That’s actually a point I wanted to touch on: the relationship between your curatorial practice and graphic design practice. How have the two influenced each other?

PK: For a number of years, I’ve been planning to write a longer text or at least put together a lecture about the relationship of curating and design. Maybe I’ll have more time to finish this once P! on Broome Street closes! I hold that the two fields—graphic design and curating—are quite similar in a number of historical, structural, and practical ways. Both disciplines are focused on mediating content rather than necessarily generating it themselves. Curators and graphic designers alike work with other people, other objects, other ideas that are outside of themselves—they’re exogenous pursuits.

As a graphic designer, you work with your clients to make their content legible for a set of publics. As a curator, you working with artists to translate their work and interests to a broader audience outside of their studio.

 

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Matrix / Berkeley: A Changing Exhibition of Contemporary Art, edited by Elizabeth Thomas and Project Projects, book design by Project Projects (2008)

 

BS: We talked a bit about collaboration. The collaborative dynamic seems at the heart of both P! and Project Projects. In your design practice Project Projects seems involved at a much deeper level than a traditional designer/client relationship. P!’s involvement as well goes beyond the traditional white cube approach. Can you talk about P!’s unique curatorial point of view?

PK: From the beginning, I’ve always thought of the space itself as an actor. This is both with regards to P! and more generally when I’m designing and curating exhibitions in other venues. One of my fundamental texts is Brian O’Doherty’s Inside the White Cube. It dates back to 1976, but Brian’s argument still reads quite true, 40 years later.

 

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Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (1986) (originally published as a series of essays in 1976)

 

I believe that the context of presentation, the architecture and the display of an exhibition, can be as meaningful as what’s being shown. One of the first decisions I made when after I signed the lease for 334 Broome Street was to talk with Leong Leong, the architecture firm whom I had brought in to work with Project Projects on Graphic Design: Now in Production in New York (and who now share a studio space with us). They designed the space in a brilliant way—both functional and conceptual, overt and subtle in the right ways. Their original design also highlighted the context of the storefront space and its previous life, a Chinatown HVAC contracting office. Over the years, as the space has developed through the interventions of artists and my own curatorial ideas, Leong Leong has remained involved in the conversations around how the space evolves.

 

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Original architectural design for P! by Leong Leong. Photo: Naho Kubota

 

More broadly, apart from simply trying to foreground mediation, architecture, and display, I have a strong belief about self-reflexivity and transparency: since curating is a discipline that makes things visible yet also orders the world according to its own agendas, the curatorial act—the very process of framing—ought to itself be laid bare.

One of Brian’s core arguments from Inside the White Cube is that the white cube gallery makes nearly anything displayed inside of it into a kind of sacral object, increasing its market value. As a counter to this kind of invisible conditioning, I’m interested in trying to expose for the viewer how such operations construct values.

This is also something that figures into much of my design work. For me, the challenge is not just to make a compelling identity, book, exhibition, or website that presents its content in a neutral way, but to also design it in such a way that makes the viewer aware of its own mediation and influence. Undermining one’s own authority—or at least, calling it into question—is an important quality.

BS: In regards to making things visible, I feel like a lot of that is coming from playing with the context of various disciplines. Placing work in a gallery that may not typically exist there, but also with other practices it may not normally exist alongside. For example, in Permutation 03.4: Re-Mix you put Thomas Brinkmann, a DJ, alongside visual artists Katarina Burin and Semir Alschausky, the architectural practice Fake Industries Architectural Agonism, and a video essay by Oliver Laric. In creating these sorts of experiments in recontextualization, what are you hoping to communicate?

 

Permutation 03.4: Re-Mix, Semir Alschausky, Thomas Brinkmann, Katarina Burin, Fake Industries Architectural Agonism, Oliver Laric (2013). Photo: Naho Kubota

 

PK: Thank you for reminding me of that show, the last show of our very first year. It feels like such a long time ago! It was a pretty important exhibition to me. It brings up similar questions around how context and juxtaposition affect the meaning of individual objects. This particular show was also the conclusion of a four-exhibition cycle examining ideas of copying, authorship, and originality. The series had a looping structure in which artworks, idea, and specific display strategies echoed each other across shows.

Through my work as a graphic designer—but also through other interests, including filmic montage and psychoanalysis—I’ve learned to work with the principle of juxtaposition: if you show multiple objects within the same frame, whether on a page, in a space, or within a limited time period, a connection will be formed between them in the viewer’s mind.

 

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Thomas Brinkmann performing at opening of Permutation 03.4: Re-Mix opening (2013). Photo: Prem Krishnamurthy

 

This particular exhibition suggested a set of conceptual, formal, and methodological relationships between the disparate participants. Thomas Brinkmann is an experimental DJ and musician who had originally studied art and who has worked in a way that resonates with contemporary art practice. In the exhibition, he showed a custom two-armed turntable that he developed in the late 1980s, which can “double” an audio track in a specific way; at the same time, its unique fabrication evokes a Russian Constructivist sculpture. Katarina Burin had developed a fictional female designer of the Eastern European avant-garde whose architectural drawings resonated formally with Brinkmann’s work while similarly challenging notions of the copy and the original. Semir Alschausky premiered an unusual and intricate painting on paper that remakes a well-known historical painting using a technique resembling the circular grooves of a record. Subverting the entire frame of presentation, Fake Industries Architectural Agonism appropriated the temporal structure of a recent exhibition at a nearby gallery, in which an artist had shifted the opening hours of the gallery to dusk; Fake Industries simply changed P!’s hours to mirror those (which meant we were open into the evening, appropriate for the musical context of Brinkmann’s work). Finally, Oliver Laric’s piece was a kind of cover version of a cover version: his essay film Versions had appeared in an earlier exhibition of the cycle. Here, an adaptation of the film into a musical play by students at the Juilliard Academy played on a screen, in nearly the same position where it had appeared two shows earlier. A kind of uncanny doubling, taking place over time.

In any case, that’s just scratching the surface. There are other ways in which the works spoke to each other. It’s like a lively dinner party: the most fun ones include people who are more different than alike!

 

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Permutation 03.4: Re-Mix exterior view featuring Fake Industries Architectural Agonism and Semir Alschausky (2013). Photo: Naho Kubota

 

BS: This season marks the last season for P! in the Broome Street space. I feel like the storefront has played such a major role in many exhibitions, and its location in Chinatown seems to be an important factor. What does the move mean for P!? Does it have to do with a shift in ideology or is it more related to logistics?

PK: A “move” is a slight misnomer insofar as we are not announcing a new location after this, at least not for now. It’s actually more that P! is shifting its focus. For its first five years, P! existed primarily as an exhibition program housed in a single location, with occasional off-site presentations and projects. Moving forward, P! will take the shape of a dispersed institution that can assume and inhabit different spaces through its programmatic focus. It will still organize exhibitions and presentations, collaborating with museums and other venues. P! will also continue to work with artists, designers, and others on these shows as well as on producing publications. So it’s more of an opening-up of the focus of the organization.

P! as a storefront in Chinatown was always intended as a “limited-time offering,” with a start and end date. This accompanies the strong narrative component to its program thus far. Each of the past seasons or years of the space have had a specific structure and arc to them; this even includes the fact that we changed the name of the gallery for a five-month period, becoming another gallery, K. I thought of that moment as our version of a “play-within-a-play.” And as with a literary work, there may be an ending, but that doesn’t preclude sequels and continuations.

 

Various P! logos from 2012–2014 by Karel Martens, Aaron Gemmill, Rich Brilliant Willing, Société Réaliste, Rivet, and Heman Chong

 

BS: It seems to me that P! has always been about evolution, whether that be through a changing architecture or a flexible identity system. Now, to not even be tied down to a specific location seems like a logical progression in regards to what’s next.

PK: Yes. P! has also represented an exploration of a different mode of “institutionality.” It’s an outgrowth of my many years of work with institutions, especially those that have an unusual, non-normative shape—such as SALT in Istanbul or the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive’s MATRIX project space. I’ve made this part of my program at P!, allowing it to constantly shift its profile and visual identity, so that it might appear as something quite different to its various audiences.

Bricks-and-mortar spaces are only one aspect of a contemporary institution. While I’m still committed to exhibition-making, the next institutional challenge is how to disperse activities and programming yet still maintain an audience and a community.

 

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Project Projects, identity program for SALT, Istanbul (2010–ongoing)

 

BS: To close things out, I want to ask a bit of a sentimental question. With any sort of major milestone I think it’s important to look back on what has been accomplished. Are there any particular memories that stand out to you during your time at the Broome Street location?

PK: I liked your question about Thomas Brinkmann and the exhibition Permutation 03.4: Re-Mix. For the opening of that show, there was a special performance where Thomas invited his New York friends to bring records to play on his special double-armed record player. Each original record was transformed into something like a slow, dub-inflected shuffle, with a tremendous sense of stuttering rhythm. It turned into an incredible, dance-floor moment, with everyone anticipating what would come next. The floor seemed like it might collapse. It was such a special moment, I remember thinking, we could end P! right now, and it would have all been worth it. We’ve already accomplished in a microcosm what we originally set out to do: to bring people who would never otherwise know each other into a space together, and to create a dialogue.

"Concept 33" from p-exclamation on Vimeo.

BS: I want to really thank you for your time. It’s been exciting following what you’ve been doing with P!, and it has been a real inspiration. Congratulations again on such an amazing body of work, I’m looking forward to what’s next.

Designing Bon Iver’s 22, a Million: An Interview with Eric Timothy Carlson

  Fresh off dual Grammy nominations for his album 22, a Million, Bon Iver has been named as the headliner of Rock the Garden 2017. The first concert on the Walker’s renovated hillside, Rock the Garden will take place Saturday, July 22. The full lineup will be announced in April. Buy advance tickets now. When […]

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Fresh off dual Grammy nominations for his album 22, a Million, Bon Iver has been named as the headliner of Rock the Garden 2017. The first concert on the Walker’s renovated hillside, Rock the Garden will take place Saturday, July 22. The full lineup will be announced in April. Buy advance tickets now.

When I first started to see fragments of the artwork for Bon Iver’s new album, 22, a Million, I immediately recognized the hand of Eric Timothy Carlson, an artist and designer based in Brooklyn, originally from Minneapolis. Carlson’s work frequently mutates from medium to medium, a sketch becoming a poem becoming a sculpture becoming a shirt. Through it all, the idea of reading—the fluidity between text and image, the discarded pictographic origins of alphabets, the semiotic slide between icon to index to symbol—guides his work.

Symbols especially fascinate Carlson, who has obsessively explored their cryptic and explicit power within the realm of music, having created logos, icons, and glyphs for a number of midwestern bands like P.O.S., Gayngs, and Doomtree. In Carlson’s world, symbols rarely speak with the intent of reifying meaning, or branding something with repressive authority, but in a way that evokes multiple readings at once, asking to be adopted and infused with new life. It is this spirit that is on ebullient display in his new artwork for Bon Iver. This work is thick—an extensive collection of symbols and drawings and texts that spill out from the dense LP design (the legend/key to the entire transmedia system) to populate Instagram posts, giant murals, lyric videos, etc. The work is less a graphic identity for an album and more a documentation of a collaborative network of players, places, times, and tools.

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In the following interview we present the finished artwork, supplemented with process work and related materials. Eric takes us down the rabbit hole, describing the intense, fluid work sessions with Justin Vernon and others at the Eau Claire studios, the numbers that permeate the track list, the influence of digital culture on the new album, the prevalence of cryptic symbolism throughout the Minneapolis/Wisconsin music scene, and the Packers.

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Emmet Byrne: How were you approached to work on this? Do you specialize in music packaging?

Eric Timothy Carlson: It’s been a long process. Five years ago, I received a message from Justin that said “I like what you’re doing, and I want you to know that.” A year or two later after actually meeting for the first time: “Can we work on something together? You should come over and we’ll vibe.”

Music has always been an important aspect of my practice. I’ve played music my whole life, and I come from a musical family, raised with it. In college I interned with Aesthetic Apparatus, screen-printing gig posters. My first design projects were for friends’ bands, and posters for art/music shows. Never really wanting to pursue any sort of traditional employment, I’ve made my way on small projects, working with musicians and artists and performers.

I lived in Minneapolis for a decade before moving to New York, so much of my work is born of that Midwest community. P.O.S’s Never Better was the first complete art direction project I had the chance to fully develop. It was a crash course in working with an artist and a label in unison, and aligning the intent and capabilities of all the involved parties/minds. I owe a lot to that community: P.O.S, Doomtree, Rhymesayers, TGNP, Building Better Bombs, Poliça, Gayngs, Skoal Kodiak, The Plastic Constellations, Marijuana Deathsquads, Dark Dark Dark, The Church, Organ House, Medusa. It was an opportunity to participate in defining a decade of music in Minneapolis.

For a couple of years, I also worked with Mike Cina, who is a book and record collector, and really learned and internalized a lot about typography and album art in my time with him. My practice has expanded outside of that through zines and the internet, but a lot of my work to this day has spawned from this continuum.

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AT APRIL BASE 

EB: How did you work with the Bon Iver crew to create this artwork?

ETC: Some projects, you can see what the cover is supposed to be—a floating image in the mind—or there are certain “rules” that you’re supposed to play by that determine much of what is being created. This project, however, could be whatever it wanted to be.

The original desire from the start was to create a robust world of work. So instead of pursuing a specific vision right off the bat, we just worked and experimented and tested ideas. I worked closely with Justin. I worked at April Base—the recording studio—a couple times a year, each time was a unique experience focused on that stage of the music. Usually with an intimate group of two or three guests (musicians, writers, chillers, curators) and the studio crew, for a week or so at a time, to make a unique creative space, where each of us would be a part of defining that period of creation. The whole Bon project is for the most part entirely driven in house. Each visit would be a new experiment—creating temporary installations and interventions, painting murals, sharing books and inspiration, playing music. We came to listen and work and get to know one another, to get a feel for how to work and talk and think together. Not overthink anything. Developing the conversation, making art, and sharing our scope of vision and capabilities.


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In the rural setting of Eau Claire, when it was freezing outside, almost everything took place inside the studio, and we barely even left the property. It puts you in a certain headspace, and you develop a pattern of waking up and just getting into the work and process of it from noon to midnight—an uninterrupted cycle for a week at a time. But we’d make sure to sleep and eat well too, and not miss too much of the limited winter sunlight.

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There were some early birds in the studio, and of course the night owls as well. The amount of people shifted depending on what was happening, and the vibe changed depending on who was around. I think the Indigo Girls were recording the week before I first visited, and there was another project in one of the sound rooms overlapping with my time there. That first visit was one of the most frenetic, fluid experiences, multiple projects developing and recording simultaneously. Sax and string players visiting to record their own work, and then session on the album in process as well. The later visits were more focused—everyone was there for the album, in a no distractions kind of mode.

I’m a habitual drawer, so these visits to the studio resulted in an accumulation of many, many sketches, like writing. Later, these sketch pages became a reference point for the final work. There was an honesty in the notes and collection process that very much influenced the final work.

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ON THE SYMBOLS 

EB:  How does the artwork respond to the music?

ETC: The songs were all numbers from the start, multiple numbers at first. So we would listen to each song, talk about the numbers, talk about the song, watch the lyrics take form, makes lists, make drawings. Real references and experiences are collaged in both the music and the artwork. I was able to interview and interrogate each song—digging into weird cores—and by the end of each visit, each song would develop a matrix of new notes and symbols.

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Between the numerology, the metaphysical/humanist nature of the questions in 22, a Million, and the accumulation of physical material and symbolism around the music—it became apparent that the final artwork was to be something of a tome. A book of lore. Jung’s Red Book. A lost religion. The Rosetta Stone. Sagan’s Golden Record. Something to invest some serious time and mind in. Something that presented a lot of unanswered questions and wrong ways. A distant past and future. An inner journey somehow very contemporary.


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EB: When I saw the artwork for the first time I immediately recognized the feeling of it, the general design language. The use of rune-like symbols felt very much like your previous work, and like the work of some of your collaborators—but it didn’t feel like Bon Iver, at least as I understood it. Was Bon Iver looking for something different than their previous, pastoral vibe?

ETC: Early on in the process, it was said, “I want each song to have a symbol,” and I knew exactly what that meant. Symbols just naturally come out of me, which is why I use them so much. Icons, signs, symbols—they are cultural fragments and a well made one can cut so deep into our language. I’ve been mentally collecting these all my life. There’s an exercise I enjoy—sitting down to draw out all of the symbols you know without reference: logos, symbols, characters, etc.—and it’s often surprising what comes out, what we have locked away in memory. The anarchy A, yin yangs, Mr. Yuck, Super “S,” Kilroy, peace sign, etc. I admit that one of my desires regarding design and art is to add something to that deep cultural symbolic well of knowing. But they also come from a decades-long conversation within this specific community. I designed the Gayngs symbol for Ryan Olson in 2010 and worked with Doomtree in 2011 on their No Kings album, which also involved the generation of a series of glyphs. These ideas—claiming icons, masks, unknowables, unsayables, unpronouncables—resonate with that community. The Artist Formally Known as Prince. Zoso. CRASS. etc.

 

 

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And as far as the feeling of the previous Bon albums, I mean, they brought me in for a reason. That version of Americana was ripe and appropriate when For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver happened, but the Bon project didn’t want to further perpetuate that aesthetic. The new album remains explicitly connected to those before it, but the feeling has undeniably evolved, as has the culture around it.

 

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I spent years in a perfectly weird corner of the heartland making apocalyptic noise art in the vibrant community of Minneapolis. Landlocked bloggers. High and low are just as much the fabric of our home as is a melting pile of snow. So on the surface, the new album aesthetic might seem like a dramatic shift in the Bon aesthetic, but I see it true and deeply bonded to its current state as well as the history out of which it developed.

For 22, a Million—in their creation—they felt automatic. I enjoy the puzzle of creating a ligature. Justin assigned a specific meaning to the numbers and a logic to their creation, but in the end, they are open containers to be filled with new meaning. Symbols in the context of music have a lot of power, and people are very willing to own and wear/display their cultural experiences and allegiances.

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As the artwork developed, it became clear how we would seed the material into the public. With 10 symbols, we would make 10 murals, and 10 videos, and a 20-page book, etc. As with many numerologies—just follow the numbers—be them true or not.

The artwork is a collection of hundreds of pieces, icons, ideas, motifs, most of which are capable of standing on their own. The proper album packaging is the legend of symbols, where you find everything all in one place. When applying the art to outside uses (murals, ads,Instagram posts, etc.), we could utilize individual components. But no piece should be as comprehensive as the album packaging.

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EB: How did you land on the prominent use of the yin yang symbol?

ETC: In establishing that each song was to have a symbol or a set of symbols designated to it, I wanted to also arrive at an overarching symbol, to house them all within. The yin yang proper was in play loosely from the start, working well in the context of the humanist/spiritual pursuits of the project. I created the collage compositions for the LP package by hand at 33˝ x 33˝, as it proved the best way for me to deal with the amount of material produced, and to massage it all into a sound and organic composition. The center was originally occupied by an altered mandala, as a satisfying placeholder, waiting to be filled with the final symbol. The yin yang design we ended up with happened while working in vector—on something of a whim. Changing the symbol into a square format proved to be enough to keep it recognizable but make it unique to the project. The “smile in the mind” bit of the “i” and “b” emerging from the mark was the final step in both owning the mark, as well as settling its roll. It is a simple design, two circles centered, but the point where they touch in the center is sensitive and requires some optical adjustments. Following the geometric paths produces a little tick that requires massaging to look right. The proportions of the “i” work within the proportions system created for the LP design, and align with the typographic proportions as well. As organic as it feels, it’s a tightly made structure throughout it all.

 

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There was a short conversation as we arrived near the final art design, where I wanted a very clear confirmation that this was where we were going to land, “There are going to be yin yangs and down crosses on your album cover … and … you’re down with that?” and the response was more or less, “Dude, yesssssss!”

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ON THE DIGITAL MILIEU OF 22, A MILLION

EB: You’ve described the way ideas of digital collage, digital formats, digital thinking really encompassed the creative conception of the album, both musically and visually.

ETC: 22, a Million to me still feels very tied to Emma and the self-titled album. There is still the gospel and folk and mountain songs, but in the studio I could feel and see the visceral digital collage of it all, how our technology and the internet has truly affected the way we collect, organize, think, and make. This album is built on our history of music, noise, poetry, and Americana, but also seamlessly incorporates and celebrates the technological nuances of our contemporary—employing it and expanding it.

Visualizing music has been an exercise I’ve practiced since I was young. The first PlayStation had the visualizer function where you could customize your equalizer/screensaver with the controller, responding to any CD you put in, which informed a bit of how I approached it then. I try to let the ideas be more expansive now. When I first heard the digital disturbances crackling over these new songs, it was such a trip, seeing layers and relationships I hadn’t yet encountered.

The computer so readily pairs with futurist visions, pushing forward futuristic, technology-oriented aesthetics. But the reality of our relationship with digital technology always retains this messy pulsing humanity. Marshall McLuhan predicted computers in every classroom, people connected around the world, utopian vibes. Technically he was very right, but we still have bad carpeting and ugly plaid couches and gas station tchotchkes and dirty bathrooms. Regardless of time passing, we remain in communion with the century preceding us, and even the previous millennium or two.

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EB: How do you understand album artwork in the context of the digital music economy? Prior to the proper release of the album, your artwork was published in a variety of ways, from a cryptic track-list graphic approach on Instagram to the YouTube lyrics videos. The graphics seem to be very front and center in Bon Iver’s pre-release strategy—they are presented as standalone thoughts, with very little context, in lieu of a slick marketing campaign. Was this the intent from the beginning?

ETC: I believe Bon Iver has had unique success with both digital and physical album sales, perhaps an anomaly of sorts. Being of my generation, I can’t help but desire access to music and movies and such things for free—I understand how that is problematic, but upon tasting Napster, it was hard to go back.

Labels, album makers, vinyl fetishists—people love the richness of album art, the nostalgic object to own and consume. It’s fun to produce that stuff, and much of the best album art was made for that format. CD’s are junk, and Digipaks are junk, in my opinion. (My favorite CD format is those massive Case Logic binders of poorly labeled CDRs.)

Given the opportunity, I like to make artwork first for the LP format because it is the most generous format for artwork (assuming one pursues the object creation). Then I try to find a good way to make a system of format conversions. I love old cassette tapes where they just drop the square album art on the cassette cover, and type out the titles again bigger underneath in the worst/best way. So honest.

Format conversions are such a crazy part of doing a big release like this, because there are so many when it comes to international releases: LP, CD, Cassette, Euro LP, CD, Central/South American CD, Australian CD, Japan CD, etc… all slightly different sizes, with different printers, different distributors. Aspects of this obviously become a certain hell, but I can’t help but pursue quirky packaging details in the different designs, which, if done well, can result in so many unique details that make each version special in their own little mutant way.

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When working with bands, I’ve often made the case that they should find a way to make an album available for free, since someone will do it anyway, and if you try to control it, you end up keeping people away from the work. I can’t back up any financial rubric supporting this, but it feels right to me. Most of my friends are posting their work on SoundCloud or YouTube. When they release an album that is freely available, the ideas that form around the real base are a little more true to humans than the rules as laid out by companies.

For 22, a Million, there will be lyric videos that I created with Aaron Anderson for each song that will be available for free on YouTube (save the ad experience/big data), which is great as it opened another gate for us to expand the language of the artwork into an entirely different realm—time and motion and the casually fluent—because internet. 

EB: Lyric videos are an interesting choice for an album like this. Vernon references Richard Buckner when talking about becoming comfortable with writing words that sound like something, instead of lyrics with explicit meaning. “Sound things out and find out what it means later. Gave me the courage to write like that.” I feel like your cryptic use of symbols matches that strategy pretty closely. It suggests a deep, diverse world of language but the viewer is allowed to fill in the meaning of what it is actually saying.  The lyric videos seem deliberately deadpan in their delivery of the lyrics—a little too straight up for lyrics that make very little “sense” at first listen. There’s something unnatural-feeling about literally reading these lyrics while listening to the music…

ETC: The lyric videos initiative came from Justin. I’m not sure they ended up looking like what he was imagining, but that’s one of the things that has been so great about the project: the trust in the work of everyone involved. I was originally a little hesitant about the lyric video concept, largely due to the quality of lyric videos in general, and because I was dreaming of an entirely abstract/ambient visual component to live with the music online, without typography. But many lyric videos found online are made by fans—iMovie/After Effects motion graphics class projects. I feel that that amateur aesthetic has gone on to inform what official, professionally produced lyric videos look like. Those videos are getting a lot of views, so they are probably important to produce and control, but I can’t imagine any of them are allotted budgets comparable to that of a music video—they are more of a checked-off assets category in the end.

But it was a good challenge, figuring out how to do it good/weird/right, how to acknowledge the format, and how to expand the album art into this realm. They didn’t need to be explicitly narrative, and they didn’t need to live by the rules of the print material. They are made for YouTube, to ultimately listen to the music in that format—but we wanted to prod at the format, and use it to expand upon the inherent digital truth of the album.

The simple and natural aesthetic of digital collage that these videos utilize is deeply rooted in the core of 22, a Million. From the start, the note taking, the creative process, and the music embrace the idea of digital collage. For example, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” samples a low-resolution YouTube video of Stevie Nicks casually singing backstage. These lyric videos where the perfect place to expand upon this digital aesthetic.

 

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It would be amazing to take a 5K to New Zealand and make all the videos of Gandalf blowing lyric smoke rings, but we have a lot of readily-available capabilities in our pocket already, and feel capable of making something great on a napkin. I’ve always loved making design work in text edit, for example. The initial footage from “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” is all video screen captured in Acrobat. The video for “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” is a slowed down video text message, with the lyrics applied in a broken subtitle generator, shot off the screen because it wouldn’t export correctly. It feels right to leave some of these inconsistencies, like a painting’s visible underdrawing. Something beautiful in mistakes—techno wabi-sabi. Folk motion graphics… motion graphics are so bad.

I like the idea of domestic psychedelia. Which isn’t so much tie-dye as it is being half asleep on an ugly couch and the floaties in your eyelids.

 

The artwork certainly goes to reference something ancient—a lore—but so does the music, with the voice, the folk and gospel music. But it is also inherently new, and defining what comes later, the future, so it seemed important to address the contemporary, to break the contemporary, and show how fucked up good and weird our domestic tools can be through simple layered process.

 

 

ON FOOTBALL JERSEYS AND RAINBOWS 

EB: It feels very natural, the way you mash up your ancient/masonic-looking symbol system with contemporary, mundane imagery such as football jerseys, bad YouTube videos, old hotel rooms, beer cans, rainbows. What’s that about? Nostalgia? High/low? Irony? Is it recontextualizing the everyday iconography we live with? Is it something much simpler?

 

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ETC: I like the natural humanity of all these things. These just feel like very human marks to me, from the fabric of communication and the material of our lives. I like acknowledging how weird and aesthetic our environments and immediate cultural surroundings are. Prodding at basic structures of communication and language. At the same time, I’m drawn to these old symbols, as they have so much responsibility for what we are and how we communicate today.

The symbols are deeply ingrained in the social mind, and define so much for us. We grow up seeing and accepting symbols as part of our reality. Spades, clubs, diamonds, hearts: where do these come from, and is there a deeper meaning? Are they violent, or controversial, or of the tarot? The cross, the star, sun and moon, the spiral: they all have vast meaning and association inherently available to anyone and everyone—owned at times by a particular culture or movement—forever shifting, but retaining a trace of a cultural pulse.

The letters of the Roman alphabet developed out of other symbols older and of meaning that no longer register in their use. Quelled by changes in regime and religion. Conquerers assimilating the occupied. Symbols collage through time.

 

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These simple things—jerseys, beer cans, rainbows—function in a similar way to the symbols. They too are symbols. The beer can is there, suggesting traces of the people behind the project. Everybody drinks the same Coca-Cola Classic. Chipotle has the same burrito any place you eat it. The football jersey—I mean, nothing ever got done at the studio on Sunday afternoons because the Packers were on, and I was like, “Noted.” It’s real.

 

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Above: unrealized concept art of a Bon Iver/Packers mashup

Though of course, contemporary symbolism is heavily influenced by branding and advertising. I imagine a good portion of the last century’s most enduring symbols come from that sector. “I Heart NY,” though an endearing sentiment, in part serves an economic end.

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We so naturally have embraced a form of communication now defined as the social spaces of the internet. Images work in this space in a way unique to the speed and format of it all. We can accumulate and disperse vast immaterial fields of information, sifting through it all collectively. This field absorbs all that is fed into it and expands exponentially.

I’m not explicitly working to employ irony beyond what is casually interlaced. I don’t see it as nostalgic or particularly mundane—though at times perhaps critical, taking specific notice of problems, things understood as ugly or wrong. The Papyrus typeface. A simple awareness with unpleasant political implications—the peripherals we blissfully allow to escape notice. So re-contextualizing, yes, but also exposing some truths.

Stop and smell the flowers, connect the not obviously connected to new end. I find a lot of beauty in these things, which doesn’t require aesthetic and defies design. Slick is good and buttoned up but so often such a facade.

We also collected a massive amount of found imagery during the process, often texting these images back and forth. Some of these images appear in the newsprint zine released the day before the album came out in cities around the world—drawings of my own, a number of images from the Taschen Book of Symbols, a still from the Eames’s Powers of Ten, and a napkin drawing from one of our first conversations about the album art. The found imagery also showed up in other formats: the lyric videos, posters, etc. The actual album packaging itself very strictly required entirely original work, though.

 

ON TYPOGRAPHY 

EB: Why Optima?

ETC: I didn’t want anything too tricky. A system font felt good, since I was working with the lyrics in text-edit documents. Optima just looked so right spelling out “BON IVER.” It sung the first time I saw it. I didn’t share it with them right away, or even implement it in design off the bat—but it continued to resonate every time I went back to it, which is usually a solid test. The first example I found of Optima in use that stuck out was the McCain presidential campaign, and I thought, “That’s legit” —thought it was funny—so there’s your irony. Helvetica-y was too sterile, and Garamond was too sentimental. Optima proved it could be both contemporary coffee-table book and Magic the Gathering. Find yourself a font that can do both.

I also just use Univers and Garamond for pretty much everything I do, so I wanted to do some due diligence in playing with other things. I had been using Courier New for all of my process pdf’s—because I think it looks great digital—when its all the same size (12pt or under), but kind of loath it any larger.

EB: How did you approach designing the booklet?

ETC: We knew from the start that we wanted a substantial booklet in the LP. Upon establishing that all of the drawings would be on the jacket, I was excited to limit the booklet to just typography, and find a way to keep that experience just as rich and nuanced as the rest of the system. I started using Courier, and that immediately started evoking the feeling of concrete poetry and ’60s conceptual art, employing the limitations of a typewriter. The hipster in a coffee shop working on a typewriter is the worst thing ever, and I was perhaps towing the line of steampunk a bit, but the direction felt right.

By the time I was working on the book I had listened to the album in process nearly a hundred times, so the layout decisions proved natural and intuitive, knowing where the phrases broke, making visual decisions in response to the music of it, using parallel columns where the lyrics overlapped.

Personally, this approach also connects to strategies of working with text digitally, such as finding ways to successfully break a blogspot layout.

 

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ON THE BON IVER ILLUMINATI 

EB: One last question: How does it feel to blatantly expose the Illuminati once and for all?

ETC: “Ouroboros! Obelisk!” Such perfect confirmation. I’d like to note that there is no Ouroboros in that video.■

 

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Above: spreads from the newsprint zine that was distributed at surprise listening parties worldwide the day before album release

 


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Avant Museology Symposium: Structure as Identity

Avant Museology is a two-day symposium co-presented by the Walker Art Center, e-flux, and the University of Minnesota Press. Using the newly published book, Avant-Garde Museology as a point-of-entry, the conference will explore artistic practices, sociopolitical contexts, and historical complexities associated with the contemporary museum.   We wanted to create an identity that would serve […]

Avant Museology is a two-day symposium co-presented by the Walker Art Center, e-flux, and the University of Minnesota Press. Using the newly published book, Avant-Garde Museology as a point-of-entry, the conference will explore artistic practices, sociopolitical contexts, and historical complexities associated with the contemporary museum.

 
Avant Museology

We wanted to create an identity that would serve as a container for the questions posed—a system designed in anticipation of the discourse that the symposium would yield. We were interested in creating a framework capable of representing a range of contributors in addition to the collaborative effort of the institutions involved. The identity intends to place an emphasis on this relationship, providing each with a prominent role within the visual solution, underscoring their role as facilitators but also making their presence tangible.

 

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The web-based variant of the identity consists of collected content, generated by the symposium and its contributors. Interpreting the notion of museum as a recording device; the cube becomes a model, rendering, or construct that provides links to publications, essays, artwork, and other supporting material. It is built using markup language (HMTL/CSS) in an effort to remain fluid; a device that is easily adjusted, updated, and interacted with. This was an important aspect in which the resulting form remains true to the medium in which it was created, operating as a dynamic solution as opposed to a representation of the form. Various images, speakers, and links were added as the conference was being finalized, in essence constructing the identity. The grid structure, a reference to the Soviet Avant-garde in its form and ideology, becomes a lattice-like structure that maintains content.

The interactive version of the cube is used on the Avant Museology micro site.

 

Drawing a parallel between the program established for the symposium and Rationalist architecture, we were interested in these structures for their experimental nature as well as for their cultural significance. Many of these buildings never materialized in a physical sense, and instead served as speculative constructs of progressivism. We were interested in the socio-political conditions that perpetuated the existence of such platforms: what did it mean for a concept to supersede its manifestation?

 

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A model of Vladimir Tatlin’s tower (c.1967), an unrealized cultural landmark. It has been referred to as being “made of steel, glass and revolution.”1

 

Horizontal Skyscraper El Lissitzky

El Lissitky’s speculative drawings of horizontal skyscrapers or Wolkenbügel (“Iron Clouds”) stood for technological progress, futurism, and an avant garde ideology that would reverberate in the proceding century. 2

 

In addition to the rotating cube, two typefaces were used: one that would reference the ideology in terms of the grid structure, and another referencing the Soviet underpinnings of the symposium—Literaturnaya (Poligraphmash, c.1940) and Monospace 821 (Max Miedinger, c.1957), respectively. Literaturnaya is a Soviet typeface used for many texts until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 (When it was replaced by Times New Roman). Monospace 821, a product of Modernist ideology (The monospace version of Helvetica), was used to reference the uniformity of the grid used throughout the identity.

 

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A few early lock-up studies that incorporated various sketches/movement and reference imagery.

 

Avant Museology will be taking place on November 20–21, in conjunction with the Walker’s upcoming exhibition, Question the Wall Itself. Speakers include Jonathas de Andrade, Claire Bishop, Adrienne Edwards, Boris Groys, Ane Hjort Guttu, Wayne Koestenbaum, Nisa Mackie, Fionn Meade, Sohrab Mohebbi, Timothy Morton, Elizabeth Povinelli, Walid Raad, Hito Steyerl, Anton Vidokle, Cary Wolfe, and Arseny Zhilyaev. Tickets can be purchased online at walkerart.org.

In addition to the symposium at the Walker Art Center, Avant Museology will also take place at the Brooklyn Museum on November 11–12. Speakers include Bruce Altshuler, Lynne Cooke, Boris Groys, Fionn Meade, Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Nikolay Punin, Irene V. Small, Anton Vidokle, Fred Wilson, Arseny Zhilayev, and more.


 

Notes

1 Ri︠a︡bushin, A. V., and N. I. Smolina. Landmarks of Soviet architecture, 1917-1991. New York: Rizzoli, 1992. Print.

2Vladimir Tatlin: Moderna Museet, Stockholm, juli-september, 1968 (Moderna museets katalog)

Modern Nostalgic Fantasies

The following text was originally published in Modern Nostalgic Fantasies, a collection of texts about politics, virtuality, and science-fiction and their relation to a graphic design practice. All texts were written by Raf Rennie during the completion of a two-year MFA in graphic design at Yale University. Rennie is a designer and writer from Toronto, now […]

The following text was originally published in Modern Nostalgic Fantasies, a collection of texts about politics, virtuality, and science-fiction and their relation to a graphic design practice. All texts were written by Raf Rennie during the completion of a two-year MFA in graphic design at Yale University.

Rennie is a designer and writer from Toronto, now based in New York. He currently serves as the designer/art director of Canadian art criticism magazine C Magazine and his previous work includes select projects for Scapegoat Journal, Serpentine Gallery, TBA21, and Metahaven.

A special thanks to Jan Horčík for his typeface Atlantic.


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His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

— Walter Benjamin, about Angelus Novus (1920) by Paul Klee

 

SOVIET SPACE MODERNITY

October 4th, 1957, Elementary Satellite 1, better known as Sputnik, broke through the barrier of our atmosphere to become the first object to originate from Earth and enter Space. The journey of Sputnik signified the end of one history of progress and the creation of a whole new one—Sputnik was a catalyst that introduced modernity to the world. I am speaking less of the means of modernity in this, than I am speaking of the space in which modernity is concerned—that, as an endlessly utopian project, is the future. Marked by its relentless order, modernity is the aim to draw rational responses to the zeitgeist and extrapolate them into a vision of the future, so we can, in present, begin to develop infrastructure to shape the future of civilization on this planet into a rational utopia. To think about the future is to be modern.

The Soviet Union was a massively modernist experiment that took over trying to structure a union of countries under a strictly rational system, that of communism. While the Soviet Union struggled to continue on, politically and economically, they managed to put together a space program and became the first nation to enter space. This was possible because the core of the Soviet project was an immense importance placed on the shaping of the future. From after, the Tsar was the image of the new Russia and with this the modern Soviet man. The Soviet Union believed that the joint project of technological advancement and exploration would become the economic and spiritual backbone that kept the union together and ahead of the rest of the world—especially ahead of the United States whom the Soviets where in a cold war with accelerating technological threats and shows of power. The future was the endgame for the new Russia.

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Left: Russian science-fiction film The Sky Calls (1959), Right: SpaceX lands rocket on drone ship (2016)

So, the Soviet Union put Sputnik into space, showing the world they were literally and figuratively on a technological and raw powerful level above the rest of the world—though Sputnik means “fellow traveler”, it was a body of a ballistic missile, a tool of war. It was the punctum, the apex, of the Soviet Union’s futurist, modernist ideal. By being the first to enter a new unexplored terrain, the Soviet said to the world the future belonged to them. It was off this fear of losing the future to Russia, that the United States founded their own space program, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), on July 29th, 1958, nearly 11 months after Sputnik had made it to space. With NASA, the United States revitalized their modernist project that once kickstarted the American economy before the World Wars with the Industrial Age and Fordist manufacturing and economics. Thusly, the Soviet Union spread modernity back into the United States, sparking what would be considered Late Modernity. Over the next few decades the Soviet Union and the United States raced their advancing space programs aiming to be the first to put man on the moon. This space race had many implications for the nations as world superpowers, enemies, and the eventual outcome of the Cold War. However, there was a side effect of this race, the massively accelerated invention of new technologies. This acceleration drove the American economy for those decades as subsequent technologies and advancements came from the research and work being done at NASA. NASA put together a sub-part of their association called the Technology Transfer Program to showcase and explore practical applications of the strides being made when aiming for the moon. New inventions were catalogued in an annual report called NASA Spinoffs and introduced; freeze-dried food, infrared thermometers, heart monitors, LED lights, artificial limbs, and much more. These technologies fed into the American dream of the future, from this rapid growth in technology artists, designers, manufactures, all started to imagine an American future. DisneyWorld built the “World of the Future” amusement park, designers like Ray and Charles Eames showcased America’s technological utopianism at the World’s Fair, manufacturers pushed ideas of the homes, the food, the car of the future. Dreaming about the future became the galvanizing force of the whole American economy—America became modern.

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The overlay of Modernity

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THE DARK POSTMODERN AGE

July 20th, 1969, just shy of 11 years after the founding of NASA, the space mission Apollo 11 brings the first men to the moon. America’s race with the Soviets was over, the new frontier was won by the United States. The modernism passed on by the Soviet Union found a better system for itself and flourished past the Soviet communist ideal. Forward-thinking became the mantra of the “American way”, which pushed their industries and economy into unprecedented production and wealth, spurred by an unbound hubris that America could achieve anything. Through new technological breakthroughs and abundance new products would fuel American commerce while industry used the latest manufacturing technologies, or took advantage of a new age of globalization, to maximize their returns. Here began that period of Late Modernism, the utopian future thinking, joined with American style capitalism to thrive in the existence of emerging mega-corporations that saw themselves as the tools to create a new future.

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“We are ready and willing to ignite just born too late.” — Peter de Potter

As America continued in a Cold War with the Soviet Union and a hot war in Vietnam, the political left found this new American hubris to be a dangerous flag to fly. The American economy, driven by technological advancement and superiority, had led to the boom of a major thriving industry, the military-industrial complex. Corporations that lauded themselves as the builders of a better future worked with the American government and military, and their quick growth and globalization posed a threat of the exporting of American idealism and capitalism. In such, the left took opposition to this mantra of the American-way and therefore took up opposition to the future project of Modernism. As philosopher Simon Critchley put it, “we have to resist the idea and ideology of the future, which is always the ultimate trump card of capitalist ideas of progress.” The future was modern, the future was therefore capitalist, and to build a world outside of capitalism the people had to stop thinking about the future and start dealing with the reality of the present day. This thinking ushered in a movement of post-modernism, an ideology that aimed to reject the utopian promises of late modernism and remove the glossy veneer it had coated prevalent thinking with. Across America spread the notion that, in the mists of wars and a plateauing economy, spending federal money on missions to the moon was a frivolous vanity project, that was no longer needed as the United States had already claimed the moon and beaten the Soviet Union in the space race. Under growing pressure and economic difficulties, NASA’s budget was cut drastically. The last manned mission to the moon took place in December 1972 and no person has gone to the moon since.

 

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EXOPLANETARY STRUCTURES

With the end of the manned missions, NASA’s missions switched from the near frontier of our own satellite to the exploration of deep space. The late 80s and 90s usher an age of probes, telescopes, and rovers, tools that no longer focused on the immediate but set out to explore the vastness of the universe. What led was the discovery of whole new worlds and planets outside of our solar system. From being taught in schools there are nine planets we have come to learn there are solely nine in our solar system, elsewhere, in hundreds of other solar systems exist thousands of other planets, some much like our Earth—these planets are given the name “exoplanets.” As the changing thought and politics of the time seemed to push NASA aside in favour of focusing on our world, our countries, and local, tangible issues, NASA pushed back the other way, instead of looking at the local and at hand, to the very distant and unreachable. In 2004, NASA constructed the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) to search deep space for new Earth-like planets—it has discovered 130 planets, a small part of the over two thousand known exoplanets in our universe. With the discovery of whole other possible worlds, solar systems, and possibly lives, Earth becomes decentralized in our understanding of the Universe.

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Construction of the James Webb Telescope, NASA’s new deep space telescope set to launch October 2018

Modernism, which looked to a singular whole, and post-modernism, which looked to act upon the present, both were eclipsed by the decentralizing of Earth within the universe. The Earth now was neither a totality, just a singularity in a vast cosmos, a planet that seems as a small pale blue dot in the night sky of another planet. Semantically, the human race no longer were the sole authors of the cosmological reality, but perhaps just a subjectivity in relation to 2,000 other planet’s realities. This model of thinking is shared, within the same vein, as the basis of an ideological, that is a predecessor to post-modernism, known as post-structuralism. Post-structuralism is an ideology that rejects singular narrative by rejecting the author as the sole authority or voice, it aims to seek out the peripheral to decentralize an idea from a singular subjectivity. The discovery of exoplanets does so on a, literally, universal scale—and such was the argument made by NASA. By exploring outwards, deep space, distant planets, dying stars, we could learn more about our own planet and existence than we could from an archeology of Earth.

Post-structuralism ushered in a model of thinking where subjectivity is everything, denying the notions of “objectivity” and “rationality” presented by modernism on the grounds that they were de-fined under a euro-centric, masculine, paradigm. Post-structuralism stands on two tendons, the first being Foucaultian anthropologies of all the standing structures we see governing in the world. The second, being more confusion, not listening to singular narratives or the belief in non-bias media, but an openness to varying voices and the proliferation of the minority’s voice, in order to disrupt any attempt at the creation of hegemonic structures.

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THE COSMOLOGICAL NEOLIBERAL

In the time of Late Modernism progress—societal and economic—was created through the aims of a singular goal. For everyone to work towards this goal they must understand each other as part of a whole, Modernism was a structure that was used to encapsulate nations and move them towards this goal. However, with emergence of Post-Structuralist thinking, the ability to maintain a super-structure is becoming challenging. The structure of Late Modernism no longer fits the public as the minority has come to view themselves in the position of being parts within the structure but not of the struct-ure, therefore they reject the goals of the structure. If the notions of progress and capitalism that Late Modernism proliferated and replicated, for its own expansion, were to continue, the fundamental structuring of those notions would have to adapt—and adapt it has.

Nearing the end of Late Modernism, before the Post-Modern moment, a collective of academics and theorists formed an inclusive society where they set themselves the goal of directing the global thinking to what they saw as a sustainable structure. The new structure would be open enough to allow multiple narratives and voices to exist in constant exchange, in fact it would be encouraged, so it could subsume political discourse within itself—for this the idea was named Neoliberalism. The specialty of Neoliberalism was a combining of Late Modernist notions of progress with Post-Modernism’s desires for locality. In place, Neoliberalism would encourage minorities and local politics but would proliferate an ethos of collectivism through it. By acknowledging all this disparity we could celebrate diverse people coming together to achieve a singular goal.

NASA, in 1998, became part of such a project, that would bring numerous people and nations together. In fact, NASA would come to work with their competitor that caused their creation and spurred on a Cold War, the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), and Japan whom the United States had attacked with atomic weapons fifty three years earlier. The project of the International Space Station brought together the United States (NASA), Russia (Roscosmos), Europe (The European Space Agency), and Japan (JAXA)—later on The Canadian Space Agency would join in the project as well. This International Space Station was a proving to the world, that regardless of history and politics, all kinds of people and nations could come together and work towards a better future—a wonderful case-and-point proof for Neoliberalism.

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Orbiting Neoliberal base

Diversity, the political calling card of Neoliberalism, also functions as its economic model, the freedom of choice. Late Modernism gave the world large mega-corporations that worked within a Fordist model of capitalism. Companies like IBM and Microsoft dominated the emerging technological market and ruthlessly tried to shut down competitive companies in order to maintain a monopoly. Neoliberalism instead encourages diversity, no large monopolies, but endless small companies that could be hyper-specialized to make them act at a local and global scale. This is the market of Silicon Valley and start-up culture, a womb for technology companies to build up and die out at unprecedented rates.

Within this market the investment into a singular entity is not financially sound. Why make one company to try to do everything when you can have numerous companies hyper-specialize in different areas and then bring the pieces together? It is also a way of hedging your bets, why invest everything in one pot? Diversify. Long standing entities have fallen to this new logic, even NASA. NASA is no longer seen as the one entity for the hopes of space exploration, but in the mists of smaller budgets has had to diversify and export some of its functions to smaller new companies. NASA now offers contracts to competing small companies to take over functions that NASA used to do exclusively, let delivering payloads to the International Space Station. Notably, a large portion of NASA’s contracts have gone to Silicon Valley company SpaceX, founded by the start-up veteran Elon Musk. NASA now functions as the overseer and manager of Space exploration, it is the neoliberal who brings together dispersed parts towards a singular goal.

 

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AN OLD NEW HOPE

Through the dispersed model of space exploration, NASA acts as the determinant, it defines the goal and brings various individually autonomous parts together to form relationships that work to-wards that goal. What goal is that? As a product of and the engine of Late Modernism, NASA functions through ideas of exploration and frontierism. The aims of the International Space Station as a laboratory for scientific experimentation had failed to capture the imagination of the public who could not grasp the intangible new grounds that would be made. As a result, NASA struggled on with diminishing funding. However, the new model of the Neoliberal market and the new ability for NASA to start exporting larger tasks, allowed NASA to refocus and now pull in other entities to work together towards a new goal that would spur on the public to support progress. NASA was looking for a renaissance of the golden age of Space Exploration when they were racing to the moon. The best disciple trying to bring about this renaissance of NASA is Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who is known for his poetic and passionate speeches about why we need to economically support space exploration. Tyson appeals for support by evoking the technological and economic boom that accompanied the Apollo missions to the moon. To re-invigorate the space program he fantasizes manned missions to the next closest heavenly body, Mars. Mars is a tangible frontier, akin to the Moon, with new “firsts” to be made, something the public could understand and celebrate. Effectively Mars is to the current times, what the Moon was in the 1960s.

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As the ISS brought together old Cold War enemies Ridley Scott envisions space as answer to American anxiety over relations with China in The Martian (2015)

Thinking and fantasizing Mars has been around in science-fiction since the birth of the genre, but now the push to get the general public joining in has become stronger than ever. On August 6th, 2012 the Curiosity Rover successfully landed on Mars, two days later it began to send back our first images of the foreign landscape. Not since the moon had we seen another world the way we see our own. Mars was no longer something we saw through a telescope, as a dot in the sky, we did not see it as a massive distant whole, but we viewed it as we experience our own world, limited, with perspective, and a gaze that lead to a horizon line. We were no longer looking at Mars but through photographic transmutation able to experience it—images from Curiosity have now been stitched together into 360 degrees images explorable through virtual reality to further push the feeling that we are in fact already on Mars. With the new images flooding in to NASA and being released to the public almost daily, Mars began to play a part in the cultural zeitgeist. Space exploration became not just resigned to the world of science-fiction, the obsessives, and the “nerds”, but entered into a total cultural space. Neil DeGrasse Tyson revised the classic show Cosmos (2014), first recorded by astrophysicist Carl Sagan in 1980, blockbuster film maker Christopher Nolan creates his space epic Interstellar (2014), and science fiction legend Ridley Scott directs the heroic survivalist film The Martian (2015). Based on the novel of the same title by Andy Weir in 2014, The Martian is a tale of an astronaut stranded on the planet Mars after his team mistook him for dead and his struggle to survive on the foreign planet to make it back home to Earth. The film plays out the mythos of American determination and ingenuity that became the marker of the “American spirit” through the industrial and technological age. The can-do and ability to overcome any obstacles in the name of progress is the same mythos that drove the Cold War space race. The Martian presupposes that NASA, and therefore the United States, have already made it to Mars and began temporary colonies for exploring how one could sustainably live. When stranded alone against unimaginable odds, the hero, Mark Watney, learns how to tame and control the new world, a recurring theme in American history and mythos. At one point in the film, after having gotten potatoes to grow in Martian soil, Watney even claims that he has now officially colonized the planet. While set in a near future the film looks back to a nostalgic fantasizing of the American spirit, when America was great, innovative, and able to make new grounds through their dominance and greatness. Even more, under the guile of Neoliberal togetherness, the film imagines all the world coming together in support of the American heroic figure. As the ISS brought together old enemies to work towards one project, The Martian  imagines a future were their current tentative relationship with China is overcome, in the Chinese space program willingly offering up their aid, resources, and secrets to the Americans. At the climax of the film, shots are shown of people around the world watching out on the streets, from New York to London to China, anxiously to see if the American hero has in fact been able to overcome all odds and survive.

The film in itself appears as propaganda for a new space age—an age that is relentlessly American. This space age is already subsumed by the same rhetoric and ideology of the first space age of the 1960s and the missions to the moon. Mars is already claimed and a part of the capitalist progressive framework of Late Modernism, now reborn through Neoliberalism. It is simply an updating of prior rhetoric which it is looking to re-institute, a modernization of past fantasies.

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Government-backed nostalgia

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WHERE NO ONE HAS GONE BEFORE

What is there now for the left? For those who aim to step outside the ideological encapsulation of the capitalist progressive narrative? If Modernity means to be focused on the creation of the future, the future as laid out before us is already subsumed under its rhetoric. Neoliberalism, Modernism, and Capitalism have already exported themselves to become extra-planetary frameworks. What is the future if we keep playing out the same fantasies out of nostalgia? It is as Walter Benjamin describes the angel of time in Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, instead of a chain of new events we keep piling the same wreckage upon wreckage—our time is not linear but a circular loop transpositioning rhetoric and ideologues into the present and future. Perhaps what there is now is the attempt to step outside our natural history, out of our time and space, to worlds without a past and without nostalgia. The legendary and progressive science fiction writer Ursula K. LeGuin once called for science-fiction writers to pick up where theorists have failed and to start imagining the end of capitalism. In her novels, such as The Left Hand of Darkness, LeGuin defines new worlds with their own genders and non-genders and its own concept and working of time. Perhaps, it is by these propositions we can begin to step outside of our world into new ones where we can think and posit outside the looping nature of our time. In these worlds we are free to define progress for ourselves, not left to the modernist-capitalist understanding which we keep falling back upon. Through these postulations we can begin to imagine new futures that differ and reject the ones we are presented with. Instead of Mars, which is a modern nostalgic fantasy, we should look to the exoplanets and embrace their multitude and the confusion and possibilities they bring. In these worlds, upon these distant heavenly bodies, we are the Ubik, outside of time, the creators of suns and worlds.•

 

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Type Designers Q&A: Milieu Grotesque

  Milieu Grotesque, established in 2010 by Timo Gaessner and Alexander Colby, is a Zurich-based independent publisher and distributor of typefaces and related products. Milieu Grotesque’s collection of typefaces combine the rigor and precision of a seasoned type foundry with a particular edge that keep their typefaces looking timely and contemporary. One is struck by a feeling of familiarity […]

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Milieu Grotesque, established in 2010 by Timo Gaessner and Alexander Colby, is a Zurich-based independent publisher and distributor of typefaces and related products.

Milieu Grotesque’s collection of typefaces combine the rigor and precision of a seasoned type foundry with a particular edge that keep their typefaces looking timely and contemporary. One is struck by a feeling of familiarity within their typefaces—typefaces which often nod to certain timeless greats. There are modern takes on IBM typewriter-inspired classics as well as slick reworkings of geometric grotesques of the previous century.

Below, Timo has responded to ten questions regarding his and Alexander’s practice as type designers. Timo, who made his start as a graphic designer, frames-out a healthy introspection (and even, at times, cautionary observation) of the discipline of graphic design and it’s interlaced relationship to type design.

 


 

Ryan Gerald Nelson (RGN): To start, a foundational question: How do graphic designers see typefaces differently than type designers?

Milieu Grotesque: Well, it’s always difficult making general statements on this regard, but maybe type designers tend to be more concerned about details like conceptual and historical references, formal aspects, execution, etc. While graphic designers tend to approach, select and judge a typeface by its looks and appearance.

RGN: Assuming that graphic designers define the majority of your customer base, you undoubtedly observe the field of graphic design. Are your observations more subconscious and undefined? Or do you take the time to survey the sub-genres of graphic design? How do your observations enter into the equation of how you conceive your typefaces?

Milieu Grotesque: As we are both graphic designers by trade, naturally, some of our experience gained over the last 15 years of practice is influential. It is part of our professional philosophy to approach a project based on research—so yes, we do observe and follow what’s happening (sometimes with concern).

But we’re not much interested in, nor do we survey any sub-genres. We are rather interested in, what we believe to be, substantial matters that contribute to a progressive development of how we conceive design and communication and that will pass the test of time. So we’ve strived to develop a library that is a modern, comprehensive selection of typefaces that contribute to these ideas and therefore hopefully remain somewhat relevant.

The basic ideas that drive our typefaces have many different sources, but so far it’s never been based on the calculation of an upcoming trend or genre. After all, we’ve never managed to develop and release a typeface in less than a time span of 3 years (sometimes even longer). That said, it’s quite unlikely to be able to foresee what’s supposed to be happening, especially in graphic design.

 

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An assortment of projects showing Milieu Grotesque typefaces in use.

 

RGN: Do you guys cater the stylistic elements of your typefaces to appeal to a particular type of graphic designer? Or is that irrelevant?

Milieu Grotesque: Maybe due to our background as graphic designers, when developing a typeface, we often aim to implement a somewhat different, additional stylistic variation to offer and maybe aspire for a certain application and, to our understanding, an interesting usage. Naturally, we want to reach as many designers as possible, offering modern, well-executed typefaces that are suitable for as many applications as possible. Then, after all, choosing a typeface is the easiest part of the job.

RGN: Could you elaborate on one or two examples of specific ideas or conceptual underpinnings that have been embedded within your typefaces and how they derived?

Milieu Grotesque: With our most recognized typeface Maison Neue, the design referenced certain sans-serifs dating back to the early 20th century. Many of these early grotesk typefaces were created in the spirit of the parallel-happening architectural movement called “Neue Sachlichkeit,” implementing a simple, reduced formality (ornament is crime!) based on constructed principles (grids). To us, this roughly executed principle, including all of its oddities, has a particular flavor that a “modern,” optically well-balanced grotesk is missing. However, the new version (Maison Neue) is based on the same principles yet executed in a less dogmatic way.

 

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Specimens of the upcoming Maison Neue family—enhancements include two lighter weights, two heaver weights, and also a corresponding extended family. Release is scheduled for Fall 2016.

 

Lacrima is based upon the famous IBM Golfball typewriter called Light Italic. We have added additional weights and two interpretations to the original design, Serif and Senza, to conceive a comprehensive family with a variety of styles.

 

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Lacrima family

 

Additionally, our typeface named Patron is based on the contradictory approaches and ideas of type designers Günther Gerhard Lange and Roger Excoffon. Günther Gerhard Lange, a war veteran and longtime art director of Berthold Type Foundry, was most famous for his historically-derived and strict approach. His work includes precise, consequent, and modern interpretations of today’s classics, such as: Akzidenz Grotesk, Garamond, and Bodoni (to name just a few). Roger Excoffon on the other hand, a former adman and French bon vivant, was known for his more expressive body of work. Most notably is his typeface Antique Olive which is defined by a number of unique formal ideas and attributes that are still considered outstanding today.

 

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Promotional image for Patron

 

RGN: It certainly seems as though a commonality amongst most type foundries operating today is that most have one or more inspired-grotesques in their offerings. Have you taken notice to this as well? Either way, do you believe that it’s obligatory or a part of some unspoken tradition for any serious type foundry to create and offer their own take on a classic grotesque? More specifically, given their appeal, do you think the creation of these sorts of typefaces (such as Brezel Grotesk in your case) are driven by a competitive spirit amongst new type foundries?

Milieu Grotesque: Yes, of course, we have noticed this. But, we believe the large amount of the clean, minimalistic grotesks that have been released lately have their roots in commercial interests. Comparable to the recent hype around SUV models for the car industry, there is an ongoing demand for neo-grotesks due to reasons one can only assume. Some early adaptations have been successful, and their success has been recognized and has encouraged others to try to achieve the same. So yes, there is a certainly a competitive spirit. And no, we don’t think it is obligatory to offer a grotesk as a modern foundry.

RGN: Past year’s within the field of type design have seemingly given rise to many typefaces which are imbued with a certain degree of, shall we say, willful awkwardness. One might see the bends, flourishes, and forms of these typefaces as strange and unnecessary. Or one might see these sorts of details as vital and responsive to the proclivities of graphic designers. Are these sorts of “willfully awkward” typefaces something that you recognize? Support? Practice? Oppose?

Milieu Grotesque: It’s surely positive that type design has become more popular amongst young designers lately and that there is the will to test its limits—after all, it’s a rather slow developing discipline. Most of those willfully-awkward-designed letterforms are not meant to work as a versatile typeface and may therefore be simply (expressively designed) letters (and not a typeface), per definition, which is much easier to achieve than the sorts of well-executed and versatile systems that we understand as typefaces. We pay little attention to this trending style as we believe it will pass and vanish, like many others have before them.

 

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Coperto specimen

 

RGN: There does seem to be an uptick in the number and popularity of, for the lack of a better term, “pop-up” type foundries. Maybe this can be attributed to the easy accessibility of font-making software? Or perhaps this can be attributed to the rise of entrepreneurial graphic designers who have not only a cursory knowledge of how to make a font, but also the desire to design every known aspect of a given project for the sake of achieving the idea of a “bespoke” creation?

Milieu Grotesque: Indeed, we are astonished and curious about the vast amount of foundries that have been popping up lately. It seems as if type design has taken over what, a few years back, self-publishing used to be. It became fashionable amongst graphic designers then and we can see the same happening for type design now.

Sure, one aspect is that font editors aren’t as complex and abstract as they used to be, which makes the tools more accessible. Also, type design has gained more interest amongst students, hence schools and universities are reacting and offering more on that subject.

Yet, apparently, there is a certain understanding and respect regarding copyrights that is missing. To our experience, developing a typeface from scratch takes at least 2000 hours—which is more than a year of straight working time. So it leaves us wondering, how is it possible for a small-scale foundry, founded by one or a maximum of two persons (presumably in there mid 20’s and having just finished their studies), to enter the market with several families?

RGN: Spinning off of the last question: do you see that the existence of this type of individual (this sort of entrepreneurial graphic designer) who is successfully and simultaneously able to act as both graphic designer and type designer within a single project is a becoming more of a rarity? Or a new, pervasive reality?

Milieu Grotesque: To our understanding, entrepreneurship is an important part of running a contemporary design studio. We believe that design, as the service-orientated practice that we have known since the rise of modernism, might vanish due the digital revolution (just as typesetting and lithography have gone before). Consequently, future (graphic) designers will have no other choice than to develop entrepreneurial skills and set up there own multi-disciplinary businesses, whether it will be a type foundry or something completely different.

 

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Recently released Chapeau family

 

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A letter written by Johnny Cash, addressed to former U.S. president Gerald Ford. The letter is typeset in IBM Doric, a typeface which was a reference point for Milieu Grotesque’s typeface, Chapeau.

 

RGN: In almost all creative disciplines, it seems as though almost everything is a derivative of something (or a multitude of things) from the past. Some disciplines embrace the inescapable reality of the influence of their predecessors by directly sampling their work (i.e., sampling beats or lyrics in hip-hop, or with filmmakers, like Quentin Tarantino, who have developed a style for themselves that relies on referencing and nodding to filmmakers of past eras). All that said, it seems difficult, especially within the discipline of typography, to not be referential of the history of type design. In your view, does reference material seem tied to the discipline of type design and it’s creations? If not, where do you believe innovative and new forms stem from within type design?

Milieu Grotesque: We consider the term “revolution” as the greatest myth of today’s (graphic design) postmodernism. What revolution has fundamentally changed graphic design since the early/mid-20th century and still holds up today? We believe in evolution rather than in revolution, and believe that slow and naturally-developing progression has a more sustainable impact. After all, even as a type designer, it’s simply impossible to reinvent the (latin) alphabet. So yes, we are very much tied to design history and the only innovation possible is in technical context. Due to digital evolution, we are now able to draw and develop typefaces that perform with more precision and complexity than ever before.

We think most of the innovation happening lately is due to the understanding of typefaces as being larger systems. Not in terms of weights, but more in terms of style and their variations as a means of creating a family/system that is suitable for any application there is. Those “Super Families” are based on a formal scheme/structure and embody large variations that include different contrasts, serifs, and sans-serifs, proportional and mono-spaced, engraved, shadow, stencil, etc.

 

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RGN: On the Milieu Grotesque website, in addition to the typefaces that are for sale, you offer an assortment of promotional products for sale. Some are expected (such as type specimens and posters) and some are not so expected (beanies, necklaces, etc). How did you arrive at the decision to offer this mix of products? And has it changed how you are perceived by your peers and customers?

Milieu Grotesque: Besides our professional practices, we have a large interest in DIY and what has lately come to be known as “Maker Culture.” Many of the “not so expected” products you have mentioned have there roots in this interest and turned out to be a fun addition to the (sometime too serious) business of distributing typefaces.

Though, we initially conceived the product section to be the print-publishing part and a space where we could distribute specimens plus various (external) writings as a theoretical extension to the rather practical aspects of graphic and type design.

But we soon let go of this rather restrictive concept and went on to understand this section as a more experimental part for related products and ideas. We have come to realize that this is a great opportunity to interact and start a dialog with other designers whom we might not have met and talked to otherwise.

 

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Patron specimen posters, designed by Sulki & Min

 

So we started to reach out to individuals and studios whose work we find interesting and we asked them to contribute to this section. It’s an approach that has turned out to be an enriching and influential part to our personal development and professional understanding. Since launching this section, we have gratefully collaborated with many interesting people, including Maiko Gubler (Berlin), Sulki & Min (Seoul), and Bunch (London) to mention a few, and we have a future project with photographer Tobias Faisst (Berlin) which we are very much looking forward to.

RGN: Many thanks for your time, Timo!

 

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—See more of Milieu Grotesque’s work on their website, Facebook, or Twitter. (Image credit: digital rendering at top of post made by visual artist Maiko Gubler)

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