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Interview with Dot Dot Dot's founding editors Stuart Bailey and Peter Bilak by IDEA Magazine (Japan)

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IDEA: How did you two meet each other and come up with the idea to make a magazine, what were your initial plans regarding its contents and management, and how was the first issue published?

SB: It was sometime around mid-1998. We were both at Dutch postgraduate schools — myself at the Werkplaats Typografie in Arnhem and Peter at the Jan van Eyck Akademie in Maastricht. One of the founders of the WT, Karel Martens, used to also teach at the JVE, and occasionally I went along for the ride – about 200km to the south – because there were quite a lot of events with free wine and an international community. At some end-of-term party or other we became friends, laughed a lot, drank too much and after perhaps two or three occasions like this, together with 2 others, Jurgen and Tom, we developed some flawed conviction that there was a mountain of untapped EU funding available to start some kind of visual culture magazine. We were never really that driven by the notion of filling a gap in arts publishing, in fact we were more accurately defined by ideas of what NOT to be – basically, journalistic or academic. By time it became apparent that the EU money was a myth, we'd compiled the pilot number anyway. This was what we considered an issue of 'fundamental research': an attempt to compile an encyclopedia of all previous 20th century graphic design magazines. Working on it was a kind of purgatory, and any real writing thereafter a relief; that was perhaps the best thing about it.

PB: Stuart and I arrived in The Netherlands around the same time, both facing the typical problems of moving a new country: knowing few people and searching for a position. The wine probably helped, as did some trips to Chaumont and Leipzig together. We had a healthy naivety: having known what we know today about running a magazine, we would probably never have started it. We learned everything on the way.

SB: At this point we had no real perception of what the general content might be beyond some foggy notion of 'visual culture'. The pilot issue genuinely attempted to forge a direction; we pulled out eight of the magazines from the encyclopaedia that interested us most and wrote longer pieces about them in different styles more or less appropriate to the character of each one. In the subsequent two issues an original democratic open call for collaborators to contribute both form and content was soon scrapped because of the poor quality of early submissions; we quickly made a 180-degree fascist turnaround before anyone could notice, and decided to adopt a more regular editorial hardline. We had absolutely no experience in management or any other bureaucratic aspects of running a magazine, but some fortunate contacts with such as Emigre magazine, who were willing to sell and support us, and printers who part-sponsored us, topped up with money from local teaching workshops. On the other hand we then had very bad experiences with distributors, and soon found out that it's not a good idea to argue, because there aren't many of them around.


IDEA: Why did you decide to publish DDD as a physical magazine? Surely an electronic publication was a potential alternative in 2000 …

SB: At some point making the first issue I personally thought it wasn't good enough – by which I think I meant, not rigorous enough, maybe even not interesting enough. At that time I proposed putting the content on the web rather than bringing out a physical object, but the reasons were definitely apologetic rather than constructive, with the idea that the internet was more excusable, more forgiving – and at best always open to change and repair. We definitely shared the idea (which has diminished but still lingers) that a magazine wouldn't be taken as seriously online, its invisibility and fluidity being a kind of excuse for overlooking faults in the content (or its editing). Conversely, a paper product is fixed, permanent – it has to be more answerable, while less easy to answer back to. But at a certain point Peter was adamant that it should be an object, which was a kind of watershed. After that we had to take it seriously and commit the necessary time and energy.

PB: At the time we were setting the whole thing up, in 1999, the web was still an uncertain place; you read information with lot of reservations. My point was that we should either do it properly or not at all, and properly meant print. Five years on, the DDD website is still only a secondary support, providing information rather than replicating it digitally, but now I think I'd be more open to creating an online version using the conventions and limitations of the web which have stabilised since we began. Then again, it's hard enough to make the print version with such a small team of people. Basically, there hasn't been a good enough reason to change the physicality.

SB: Thinking about it now, there are other more subtle reasons, such as wanting to extend some kind of tradition of left-field arts publications, as well as being very explicitly interested in physical objects and their relation to the world. We repeatedly talked and sometimes wrote about the importance of seeing, holding, hearing, watching these things, rather than looking at pictures of them. Producing a tangible publication was important as a demonstration of this principle. This may seem a strange point of view, as some people seem to think DDD isn't particularly 'designed' and that we consider ourselves austere, neutral or practising some kind of so-called non-design, but I think the opposite — that we're highly designed, but from a cerebral rather than a visual bias. DDD is more concerned with designing the writing, or the approach to writing, than adding an explicitly 'graphic' layer. The 'difficulty' is that you have to read it to get it, but the 'difficulty' generally boils down to laziness. We try our best to make the language and form engaging, drawn from the nature of the content. We think 'designing' is a euphemism for 'thinking', and this is partly why I no longer consider it as a graphic design magazine; it's a publication for and about thinking.

And finally, although the cost of a website would be relatively negligible, there's something about the struggle of finding the money and having to work within financial limitations which is productive: a puzzle which forces a certain form each time.


IDEA: I think you were right to make DDD a physical magazine. It has had a certain effect because of its object quality. It should take an authentic form, like a recording of an independent, punk or noise band, to break into the existing public context.

SB: Yes, I always think of these things in musical terms, too — that's my background, my route into the subject. Our model of running DDD still, I suppose, approximates that of an independent record label, and I'm fond of thinking of back issues in terms of the classic clichés of the recording industry: the garage band's first all-or-nothing statement, the difficult second album, the over-produced over-budgeted studio record, and on to the strung-out psychedelic summer, the stripped-down back-to-basics, the contractually-obligated filler, the best-of, etc., etc. These things stake a claim, they map something you're not even conscious of at the time, and I think this is the real payoff of making objects: as time capsules. They can't HELP but carry some unseen value. I think DDD has qualities which become exposed over time, and this is why they deserve to be on a particular shelf gathering dust rather than in the depths of some anonymous hard disk .

PB: While the basic physical aspect of the magazine is personally important for us, there's also a practical aspect extending from the fact that we're bi-nnual. Most magazines are defined by the fact that their content is more or less ephemeral – it goes out of date in a matter of weeks or months. The material we publish, on the other hand, is generally not too time-specific; we travel at quite a slow speed, and consider historical and contemporary material in the same way. In this way DDD has more of the characteristics of a book than a periodical. Or better to say, it's schizophrenic. I'm personally interested how we'll see the old issues in a few years from now — I have no idea — and that's something which the web doesn't really allow for right now.


IDEA: In a lecture you gave in 2002 you described your editorial policy as follows: 'It's worth saying that the magazine isn't really "about" graphic design — at least, its at least as much "about" art and music and language. If anything, graphic design is just the metting point between our individual interests. We don't have any kind of editorial policy or any idea about where we're going with this; for better or worse, we trust the old "journey being more important than destination" line.' This was just after issue 4 was published — so more or less the middle point of Dot Dot Dot's history so far. Now, after more than 10 issues published, what has most changed in your thinking and editorial policy? Issue 10 was even a compilation of selected articles from previous issues ...

SB: The biggest change was around then and specifically with that issue. To cut a long story short, we divorced with Jurgen and Tom, and the magazine was suddenly a lot easier to produce because there were no decisions by committee, and less distance between the people involved. By this time we also had some kind of reputation and confidence in the fact that people were actually buying the publication. We changed our thinking, from 'Should we include this? Does our kind of magazine do that?' to 'If we include this, the magazine transcends a "kind", it becomes itself' – as in the Nietschean sense of 'becoming what you are'. This seems obvious now, but at the time it was a revelation. We stopped being so uptight, and started including pieces drawn from and relating to all arts margins. Graphic design suddenly became that aforementioned meeting point rather than a millstone; or, as I started thinking about it, a ghost subject, not really there until projected or summoned by other subjects. We became more loose and social, interested in society rather than a discipline, and realised that our a priori interest was language. James Joyce's coining 'Jocuserious' (funny and serious at the same time) became a favourite word, and we started to talk about contributions as being 'very DDD' or not; that became the only real reason for their inclusion.

My feeling now — since that time — is that the magazine has become increasingly DEMONSTRATIVE, articulating subjects tangibly as well as cerebrally. For example, displaying the accounts on the cover of issue 9, making the best-of issue X, or commissioning the evolving house type from issue 11; each one tells a story larger than itself, or sets one in motion. I'm also conscious now of how each issue is a map of the people, locations and ideas between the last and next, as if it has a life of its own. Themes emerge DURING the production rather than BEFORE it, which always seem more like something in the water than a forced lens and — as suggested above — history is considered as an amorphous body rather than a musty old book. We feel increasingly comfortable with the idea of reworking, republishing and refining existing work rather than creating new material for the sake of newness, and in allowing the magazine to operate in a more obscure, intuitive manner. Like much modernist literature, we are both loaded with clues which might be found by the reader at different times, and very self-conscious and reflexive. I think these are traits of the times — that time capsule payoff I mentioned earlier. Here are three quotes which describe what I'm trying to relate better than I can — and is precisely why we repeatedly gravedig history — simply because peoeple have articulated it better than we can:

Where we have spoken openly we have actually said nothing. But where we have written in code and in pictures we have revealed the truth.

A person who calls his stuff the "new" this or "new" that (like a person who should always refer to himself as "the handsome Mr Brown" or "Brown the original" ought immediately to be able to convulse us with boredom, fling us into compulsory sleep or the most absolute inattention.


and

It is by omission that we might be exact.


IDEA: What kind of readers does DDD have? What response have you had so far from the public?

SB: I have no real idea. Our distribution is too diffuse, and searching out statistics too time-consuming. I also suspect it's better not to know. From random contact over the years, I gather we have a fairly large international word-of-mouth arts student readership. The best and most direct response is from willing contributors who want to add or respond to something. DDD often feels like some kind of orphanage: a home for lost pieces with unstable or absent parents; the parents being disciplines.

PB: I think this question and previous one deal with the same thing. At the beginning we were inclined to think about the readers of the magazine, what they expected and perhaps were interested in. When we stopped worrying about this third-party idea of a 'design magazine', we equally stopped thinking about the readership, or rather silently ignored it. The magazine then, by default, started searching for it's own new public (many of which, of course, might be the same people, but coming at it from a different angle). In doing so I think the magazine became more intimate and human: it has character.


IDEA: You described your feeling after the research of the pilot issue as 'a kind of purgatory, and any real writing thereafter a relief'. I'm curious about the conclusion of that research and how it affected you subsequent feelings about design writing, journalism and criticism, back in 2000.

SB: It always seems important to start such retrospective answering by emphasizing that we really had no conscious idea of what we were doing at the time. It only becomes clear with hindsight, which implies tidying up the chaos to form a narrative where there might not have been one; it was certainly a lot more messy than these brief responses suggest.

I don't know if we had any set feelings about design WRITING as such; any notion of positioning was more to do with graphic design work — objects — and what the approach of the work seemed to stand for. This might be TIED to writing, of course. At that time there was a shared sense of being fed up with the tail-end of all that deconstruction and the French-philosophy-based pseudo-academia from the U.S. schools. To us this was never very convincing in the first place, and even less so once the style started to fall out of fashion and expose its flimsiness. During this time we were grounded by some fundamental modernist belief in each new piece of work finding its own most vital form, starting from zero.

In terms of the sorts of things you've tended to pick up on in IDEA during and since that period, I guess naming names makes it clearer. So if it's not obvious, I'm negatively referring to the pop star stable of designers such as Designers Republic, Tomato, David Carson, P. Scott-Makela, and the US schools such as Cranbrook, CalArts, Rhode Island – all of which may well have been distinct from each other, but in the canon (or let's say, in the way they reached US in London, in Prague, in Arnhem and Maastricht) represented more or less the same closing phase of postmodern excess. And I'm more positively referring to those people and studios (and tellingly, it was more individuals, and less schools or groups) such as GTF, Paul Elliman, Cornel Windlin, Mevis & van Deursen, who were more or less about a kind of general virtuosity, a RANGE and ability to work afresh, appropriate to each piece of work rather than plaster on a style; working from the inside out rather than the outside in. Actually I think my opinions about this have shifted since, but I'm not sure where to exactly. I'm trying to summarize what I felt then. In terms of graphic design (rather than, say, Typography), Barney Bubbles, the 1970s british counterculture graphic designer is the Puckish patron saint of all that as far as I'm concerned — even to the point of his name being anonymous, as opposed to, say, David Carson.

But to get back to the specific question, we weren't too enamoured with that kind of design journalism where the writer is obviously paid to have an opinion about something. We were more interested in finding people who were already interested in some specific aspect and wanted to convey that. The other stuff seems too much like school, and we wanted to be a playground. So to reiterate something I think I hinted at in the first response, a convenient way of considering this was pitched between the extremes of EMIGRE, which at that time was full of what I called pseudo-academia, and EYE, which was full of dad-like journalism and other irritating magazine furniture. I have to counter this by saying I have a huge respect for both, and I still think Rudy Vanderlans and Rick Poynor are the standards by which everyone else should be judged, but we just didn't want to be anything like them. And at this point the influence of Paul Elliman can't be underestimated, for me and Peter personally, and for pretty much a whole mini-generation of his students (both directly and indirectly) who felt the scarce but deep vibration of his work — many of whom ended up writing for DDD. He even wrote a private mini-review of the magazine in its early stages, which I think influenced us a great deal.


IDEA: In this and other interviews, you sound like you have been very oppressed by — and then critical to – the conventions and doctrines of graphic design. I have personally read DDD as someting like a tactical getaway from the graphic design of large western capital. In Japan, any academic and critical research on graphic design disappeared the end of the 1970s. Now there is no concrete discipline and there are no doctrines, only diverse personal practices. Some intellectual designers feel this Japanese situation is unsatisfactory and look towards the west for modern design philosophies — precisely the ones from which you deviate. I can't explain this exactly, but the Japanese case seems diagonally opposite to yours. Anyway, DDD's deviation has made me reconsider how firmly graphic design and modernism stands in the west …

SB: Yes, I've had this discussion a lot recently. I think part of the problem is that the ongoing idea of graphic design from a graphic designer's point of view – from the older generation teaching, to those students wanting to be one — is still rooted in the middle of last century in the west (basically, when the profession and term 'graphic design' were introduced). At this point, the graphic designer was really, for better or worse, a 'professional' in the sense of carrying a certain authority, or at least commanding a certain amount of trust, involved in design processes from the beginning, with the same level in the hierarchy of production of, say, an architect. As we know, through a complex of factors in the subsequent half century including desktop publishing, marketing, PR, etc. that position has simply been eroded to the point that (as far as I can see) that former conception barely exists anymore – or at best as a dim shadow of its former self.

People still cling on to that idea because a. understandably, no-one really knows how to deal with it, in terms of either positioning themselves career-wise or where they fit into culture, and b. To have some sort of grounding for teaching. Now i'm only observing this — i'm as confused and groundless as anyone else — but I think part of the problem is people just ignore it, don't acknowledge this basic truth, and until they do, collectively or individually, the denial just prolongs the situation and generates a culture of complaint. I don't see or propose any general 'way out' — I can only write about my (and my colleagues') ways of dealing with the condition, and that, at the moment, is to become increasingly independent, DIY, existing PARALLEL to it. If DDD 'promotes' anything, it's this: as trite as it sounds, independent, free thinking. Each situation is different.

We work with people who can think for themselves, and assume this spirit bleeds into the audience, which would be a positive thing. I guess this is the same thing IDEA is picking up on, with your 'design liberated' theme, etc. My 'problem' with this is that it tends to reduce things to formal outcomes, where I think the thinking, the approach is the inspiring thing worth attempting to convey. I've always liked IDEA's honesty in being a glossy well-produced barometer of contemporary work, precisely because the work is exported from the west and gets sent back from the east; it's like seeing it in a mirror. But also because with texts like Paul's column, you're pushing for much more, and personally I think you should follow that line as far as possible. 'Diagonally opposite': I like that a lot.

PB: I don't think there's a huge cultural difference between the east and the west. Graphic gesign can be as limiting or as wide as one wishes, and there is a plenty of evidence, the work of very talented people with wide perspectives. The problems of vocabulary or understanding are more caused by the 'specialization' of 'visual architects, 'corporate strategists', 'branding gurus' and other nonsense terms; they're there to create differences, but it's not clear what they're different FROM. They're little more than self-justifying spin, but they end up confusing everything.

Also, I personally find 'getting away' from anything problematic, like moving from one country to another because you're fed up with it – often the reasons why you want to move out are not external but internal. You take your reasons and problems with you anywhere you go. Getting away from design is the same – I suspect you might find other disciplines equally problematic after a while. The reasons for our concentrating on other disciplines — art, language, film, etc. in the magazine — is simply because we find them more interesting at the moment. This doesn't EXCLUDE graphic design.


IDEA: Finally, what are both the short or long term plans for DDD in the future?

SB: After the first five years and ten issues, with the content almost making a complete turnaround from being explicitly about graphic design to being about everything other than graphic design (I realise that's somewhat contradictory to what Peter just said, but contradiction is a big part of the magazine), DDDX was an interesting watershed, not because it was disguised as a 'best-of', but because it was implicitly asking (what should be) the perennial question of a magazine — what now? Now I see that making DDDX was the same as making DDD1 — they were both a kind of fundamental research towards a direction, the former by observing previous magazines and making something new out of the existing material, the latter by observing our own magazine and doing the same thing. I was at great pains to point out that this retrospective wasn't trying to be sentimental but progressive, contstructive, though I don't know how well that came across. DDDX was a collage, using its own short history as material.

What I think has happened recently is that we've realised how the broader decisions we make about the magazine can really demonstrate things we're interested in, how they can act as models and 'discuss' a subject in a the same way a regular essay can, but in a more active and engaging way. For example, the 'Elementary mathematics' piece which tells about the DDD financial situation on the cover of DDD9: this isn't just some self-pitying declaration, it's a short 'piece' about economics, independent publishing and candid design, using a real situation to refer and reflect on other, related moments (punk, The Whole Earth Catalogue, etc.) Commissioning the house typeface 'MITIM' in DDD11 is a similar thing — a project which demonstrates the kind of issues relating to history, typography and revivals that Peter has written about in earlier issues, again in an living, breathing way, changing from issue to issue.

Right now I'm interested in the broader issues of distribution and dispersion. This is definitely drawn from our generally miserable experiences with printers, distributors, bookshops, the post office, etc., manifest in our other work outside DDD too. I'm interested in the nature of print economies, and how regular (litho) printing is only really viable for certain kinds of publications, how others suffer as a result, how this in turn affects what and how things get produced. For example, book production driven by marketing, because it only makes sense to print a huge run and publishers have to make money back from increasingly high investments, and how this has a knock-on social effect on the nature and availability of culture — and what kind of response this might generate when it reaches critical mass. The issues produced this year will, I think, be more or less related to these ideas, and again, the subjects will be dealt with both indirectly through regular written articles but also directly by how we conceive, produce and distribute the magazine. So maybe the main thing we've learnt in five years is how DDD can act as a model. Let's say it demonstrates itself by how it places itself in the world, by what and how it chooses to wear, and by trying to wear its heart on its sleeve. This is the sense in which I consider it modernist.

Finally, there's another parallel action. Over the past couple of years we've been involved in setting up what are best described as salons (in the traditional art sense) rather than exhibitions or gallery shows. The idea was to take artifacts which have appeared in the pages of the magazine, and to juxtapose them in a physical 3D space rather than the usual 2D one. We've always tried to emphasize that the objects shown and discussed in the magazine should be sought out in the real world, that they are merely illustrations. We've even deliberately had bad reproductions, or at least not cared about (as well as not being able to afford) decent photography. A related reason for this is that the artifacts discussed in the magazine are usually used to trigger wider ideas about society, rather than just writing about their formal attributes. For example, Mark Owen's piece about Fred Troller's paperback covers being about the introduction of housewife-friendly philosophy at a certain point in time in the USA, or David Crowley's piece about the Polish magazine Ty I Ja being about a certain strand of communist fantasy publishing. The idea of the shows, then, was to explore a curiosity about what would happen when these items were torn out of their contextualising texts and put next to each other in an alien space. They all have some connection that we generally articulate as being very Dot Dot Dot, but, like I said, difficult to pinpoint otherwise. I trust it's more than merely 'our taste' — but any definition seems profoundly obscure. In the end I suppose the closest I can come to saying what they share is a way of thinking, and that's why it seems worthwhile to collect them in public: to demonstrate that. In the past couple of years I've repeatedly described these shows as being akin to putting a group of strange kids who don't know each other in a playground and sitting at the edge watching what happens, what kind of relationships develop, which ones start fighting. But it's definitely an experiment, and in no way 'about' DDD as such. More like a distant cousin project, a couple of times removed.

A further idea was to build a travelling crate to house all the stuff, with room for the content to expand or contract, and ship this around to different places, with each manifestation altered according to the particular place, and each titled by letters of the alphabet — A, B, C, instead of 1, 2, 3 — subtitled and badly translated into the local language. The first was 'Edasi Olevikku' [We shift gear into present tense] in Tallin, Estonia, a collection of around 25 artifacts in a large apartment space which looked like a multi-storey carpark; The second was 'Peu importe les conneries (d'apres Jamie Reid)' [Never mind the bollocks (after Jamie Reid)] in Chaumont, France, which took the form of a performance/lecture reprinted in DDD11; and the third 'Stel me een retorische vraag' [Ask me a rhetorical question] in Utrecht, the Netherlands, which was a 'composite, involuted film evening 1963–73'. So what has happened so far is that since the first show, when we were invited to other places, it always seemed more pertinent to show other media. That crate, lovingly constructed from local Estonian timber, is presently stuck in storage at the Werkplaats Typografie in Arnhem (thanks) waiting for something to happen. This is typical: like the magazine, as soon as the project gets underway, the ideas change, plans get shifted, you end up doing something else entirely. But that's OK, and I think that's the only sense in which DDD remains true to the pilot cover's idea: That we're permanently 'in flux'.

Posted 6 January 2007 13:34:01

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