Interview for Graphic Magazine (Korea)


Q: Dot Dot Dot no longer exists. Does this relate to the current circumstances in the field of graphic design? Why now?

Dot Dot Dot is ostensibly dead, yes — the 20th issue was very clearly put across as being the final issue at the end of its decade. However, the funeral isn’t entirely what it seems. The “last” is actually more accurately a “pseudo-last”, as we’re carrying on with something more or less the same, albeit with a slightly different publishing mechanism and under a different title: Bulletins of The Serving Library. I’ll elaborate on this at the end.

This break isn’t in response to the current state of graphic design per se. It’s not something we think about very consciously, and as you know, like a lot of people over the last decade we’ve ended up drifting between a lot of disciplines anyway. It’s hard enough to get a grip on what the “current circumstances of graphic design” are, never mind deciding how to claim a position in relation to them. Glancing over your questions, I realize we attempted to answer most of them in the pages of this ‘last’ issue, both in a number of Editorial pieces — which is to say, written by myself and David Reinfurt — that run variously disguised throughout, as well as in the general collection and ordering of other contributions. Perhaps the most efficient way to deal with your questions here, then, is to point to equivalent answers in the issue, then anyone interested could go there for more involved, satisfactory versions.

So for example, there’s a piece called “Another Open Letter”, the premise of which is to respond to something Rick Poynor wrote in Print magazine a while back about the traveling exhibition “Forms of Inquiry” and “critical design” generally. My letter “back” (which of course was open in the sense that it was only nominally addressed to Rick) was a concerted attempt to situate ourselves in the whatever constitutes a design scene, or rather to try and describe its current state. As it turned out, the letter ends up in the knot of an idea that the considerable difficulty of pinning anything down is perhaps more telling than actually pinning anything down. If there’s any criticism of Rick’s writing on the particular subject, it’s precisely that any such pigeonholing seems more misleading than useful right now. At the same time, I’m thankful he wrote such a piece, because it forced me to think it through and try and articulate something in response —“critical” in the best sense, then, in that you/we hopefully progress somewhere else through basic call-and-reponse of publication, and at best gain a better understanding of where things stand through doing so. I wish Dot Dot Dot had been more actively and explicitly engaged in this kind of thing, actually, and perhaps one intention behind the publication it will morph into is that it becomes more publicly answerable, or that any discussion it might generate is fed back more clearly and actively into its pages; “letters to the editor”...

As much of an articulation of the current condition as I manage in this letter, though, is that its defining characteristic is “Lost”, which implies, at best, being in the process of some kind of personal or collective stock-taking and recalibration (“okay, where are we, and what are we going to do about it ...?”); or at worst as simply impotent and nihilistic, to put it in an admittedly dramatic way. Here’s an excerpt from the letter, quoting Umberto Eco, which I think sums up this state, as well as the nature and point of producing something from within it:

In any case, the artistic process that tries to give form to disorder, amorphousness, and dissociation is nothing but the effort of a reason that wants to lend a discursive clarity to things. When its discourse is unclear, it is because things themselves, and our relationship to them, are still very unclear — indeed so unclear that it would be ridiculous to pretend to define them from the uncontaminated podium of rhetoric. It would only be another way of escaping reality and leaving it exactly as it is.

To conclude in response to “why now?”, then: the simple reason is that for us Dot Dot Dot had become a little too expected, which is to say we had become fairly adept at finding and channeling a certain kind of work, and that we felt obliged to break this comfort. I’d say in retrospect (and this is important to point out ... that it’s not particularly apparent while doing it) I could accept that this is perhaps in response to “the current circumstances of graphic design”, that something “has to give”, so to speak, that whatever might constitute a scene is too easy, too diffuse, too local, too impotent — in fact, many of the things Rick Poynor was worrying over too.

Q: In a previous interview with IDEA, you said, “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.” What do you think about the specific “thinking” in graphic design different from philosophical or linguistic thought?

I think now I’d summarize it more as a “tool for thinking”, but in the most mundane way —by which I mean I just want to be careful that any claim towards philosophy doesn’t come across as a pretender to Philosophy The Discipline. In a public discussion with a panel of so-called independent magazine publishers in New York a year or so ago, someone in the audience asked, “Can any of you explicitly say what you stand for, politically or otherwise?” He was being deliberately provocative, and it’s no exaggeration to say that in New York, at least, the question seemed almost taboo. There was a long silence, and this is when the “tool for thinking” idea, simple as it is, occurred to me. By the way of elaboration, here’s another fragments from that open letter, this time speaking with the words of Lewis H. Lapham, former editor of Harper’s magazine, and now of his own Lapham’s Quarterly:

Often I have been asked, by Washington policy intellectuals and California environmental activists, why Harper’s magazine doesn’t publish program notes for a brighter American future or blueprints for the building of a better tomorrow. All well and good, they say, to point to the flaws in the system, or to suggest that the leading cast members of the Bush Administration be sent to sea in open boats, but why so many jokes, and to what end the impractical criticism? Where are the helpful suggestions and the tools for forward looking reform? ... If I had answers to the questions I’d stand for elective office; as an editor I’ve been more interested in the play of mind than its harnessing to a political bandwagon.

Christoph Keller once told me that his intention in starting the art imprint Revolver a decade or so ago was to tip the balance of art publishing back away from the heavyweight coffee table stuff associated with such as Walter Koenig or Phaidon, now maybe JRP Ringier. I can relate to this idea in the sense that — again, in retrospect — Dot Dot Dot was some kind of attempt to tip the balance away from the more obvious, perhaps conservative or at least expected thinking towards graphic design, in Eye or Print, or whatever, towards something weirder and more complex. When this worked, and it’s by no means all the time because it involves a lot of instructive failure, I think this is what Dot Dot Dot did best. It operated as a catalyst for a reader to consider the possibilities of graphic design in a new light, without the usual canon in mind, or the usual ways of writing about graphic design in terms of the classic eras, or in terms of masterful composition, and so on.

What’s perhaps specifically “graphic design” in this kind of “thinking” is, then, that being used to both working with form (in the sense of designer as the Dutch “vormgever”), and more particularly being used to doing this in order to communicate particular messages to specific audiences (as opposed, perhaps to Art, which I’d say is more necessarily open-ended), the way of working and the way a thing looks can communicate as much of the message as the writing itself — qualities which philosophers or linguists don’t normally have recourse to. At best this is what this kind of intellectual end of work-that-comes-from-the-field-of-graphic-design could offer, some sort of extra dimension which, by design, serves to engage a reader in the first place, then add an extra sense of the point being made, a compound point. Again, let me emphasize: this is what it can offer at best but by no means automatically, that the way of making, and the graphic form it yields, substantiates any point being made in the writing. Here’s Anthony Froshaug, still our model of this kind of praxis:

To communicate, you can’t just be as cold as an arrival indicator at a railway station: you must thrill them. (Probably the Beatles, rather than Bradlaugh or Havelock Ellis or Marie Stopes or Alec Craig, accomplished more change in sexual attitudes by their songs, by engaging, by thrilling — not that they’d never thought about it, maybe unconsciously, without the great mavericks of the nineteenth and twentieth century.)

The danger of a lot of writing about this sort of thing, “designer-as-editor” or “critical design” and all that, is that it tends to suggest you can just do this kind of thing by changing the job title on your business card. I realized this at some other talk recently when a student asked, “So you’re suggesting that graphic designers become publishers and writers?” God, no; there’s absolutely no reason it should follow that a sympathetic designer would make a good writer. In my experience writing is roughly a hundred times more difficult, and if I’m ever resolved to write anything, it’s as a person not a designer. The most fundamental thing a graphic designer can learn, I think, is the ability to second guess an audience’s response, and to tailor the translation of matter accordingly. I was listening yesterday to the story of how the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume rewrote his first book using simpler language because it was deemed too obscure first time around. That’s a designer in the sense I’m talking about, regardless of what field he’s officially associated with.

Q: In the same interview you mentioned that the “tangibility” of Dot Dot Dot was important, and that this is why it was always printed rather than published online. Why?

I hope I’ve answered this to some extent above. How it’s made, how it looks and feels can be part of its argument, an important aspect of whatever sense might congeal. Looking at back issues of Dot Dot Dot, the more obvious examples of this are the listing of our debtors on the cover of #9 which I think has (or had then) a different effect through being an object in full view in a public place like bookstore than it would purely on the internet (a reverse claim could reasonably be made now, in 2011). Or #15, which was produced entirely on location over two weeks in Geneva, a process which clearly influences the final object — for example, the contributions are ordered as chronologically produced. This might not seem like a big deal, but from our point of view at least can significantly affect a reading of the issue, in the same way a plot structures a novel. This would be in danger of being obliterated by the relative looseness of online publication. The flipside of a web-reader being able to assemble his or her own path is that it obviously undermines any structure a writer, editor or designer might deliberately attempt to give it. Then there are just practical things like the four-panel pullout piece in the last issue, the form of which derives from a long history of its being developed as a palimpsest via different contexts and media, and which could never come across in the same way if on a screen, or printed out onto standard printer formats from a PDF.

I guess there’s a less wordy answer which is that an object feels more “in the world” than its equivalent digital formats which seem more “parallel” to it for obvious reasons. This doesn’t really hold up in strict analysis, as a computer is no less present than a book, but it still feels right, and as long as it does that’s a good enough reason. Having said that, we are changing the publishing mechanism as mentioned, and part of this involves prioritizing the online publication, so there’s a tentative shift there which feels more appropriate now than five or ten years ago. We’re generally skeptical towards the NOW! rhetoric that surrounds new media, and try to see these things in the context of a broader timeline without being reactionary about it.

Q: You also mentioned that Dot Dot Dot is not really “about” graphic design but art, music and language. Can you explain in detail what you expect from graphic design?

I think I probably said that it was at least equally about art and music and etc. as graphic design, which is a slightly different thing. I can only reiterate that I think graphic design is most effective and interesting when it’s a conduit for something else. The inverse of that is that what goes under the name of “graphic design” for its own sake —“Graphic Design” if you like, and there’s a lot of it around — is literally useless. There’s a nice term which Robin Kinross translated for the original prospectus of the Werkplaats Typografie which still resonates for me: “the right sense of requiredness”. I can’t tell you "in detail" what I expect from graphic design, precisely because each individual case has its own unique demands, and in general I can only suggest that it works towards this sense of requiredness. What we do often fails in this sense as much as anything or anyone else I might criticize, but that’s the ideal regardless.

Another way of answering would be to say: I expect something that is equally as functional as it is beautiful, then that this idea is nothing new.

Q: Dot Dot Dot was launched in the Netherlands and discontinued in NY. Does the place influence it in some way?

Absolutely, though I’m not sure how explicit this is, or needs to be, really. We came to see Dot Dot Dot as being a map of the people we’d met, conversations we’d had, in the six months between the last and next issues. It would follow then, that there have been increasingly more contributions from the U.S. since we moved in 2005. In actuality this is probably tempered by the fact that we travel a lot and of course a lot of those meetings that result in pieces happen during those times. And in a less obvious way, the fact that the first five years were more or less funded by intermittent Dutch arts grants, then the second half of its life without any official funding whatsoever actually had a huge effect on its trajectory.

Since being in the U.S. we’ve had to be financially acrobatic, as there’s no such funding available if you’re our scale, which is to say small, non-institutionalized. Gradually this has pushed us towards tying different issues to bigger projects for, typically, galleries and museums, in order to allow us to channel different institutional funding different ways. I won’t go on about this as I don’t think it’s very interesting to read, other than to say if you look in the small print of, say, the last five issues, such devices should be apparent. In France once, after talking about Dot Dot Dot, someone asked why I was always going on about money. I had to laugh, as we were completely hopeless with money, to be honest, but I realized that it did come up a lot as a subject in the magazine, simply because if you follow the trail of a subject, money is often the bottom line — the vested interest — and this is precisely where it becomes interesting and insightful: something normally hidden is revealed, elucidated. It goes back to what I was saying about the importance of the object. If you dig for the full scenography of how something came into being than simply focusing on its surface, it makes the object much richer as a subject matter; and so more “telling”.

Q: It seems that you have been interested in small press, zines, & independent publications. What do you think about this tendency?

I was just in Berlin at the Motto bookstore last week, and in London over the weekend where one of the increasingly ubiquitous and (it seems to me) bizarrely popular independent art book fairs, Pa/Per View, was taking place. I didn’t go to this one, but have been to enough to know that, like Motto, the place is packed with an incredible amount of small press stuff, all the Risograph fetishists, etc., the stuff that you document in each issue. Along with the sheer quantity of this material — and the sheer quantity of other material documenting this material! — is the surprising extent to which it’s all ‘well’ designed, which is to say treated with considerable care and attention, quite clearly the result of a great deal of time and energy and clear interest and engagement on the part of those involved, which is further to say not money-driven.

This apparently “good” situation is, however, double-edged to say the least. The Devil’s Advocate wonders who’s reading all this exquisitely-produced material; suggests that there’s more attention spent on its making than on its reading; that there’s no real need to multiply these works by way of printing or otherwise distributing.

It occurs to me also that this could be seen as a mirroring of the two “First Things First” generations worrying over the excess of designers working in advertising rather than “culture”. Here you get a glut of (why not?) surplus labor working in that culture, but in such localized, marginal contexts, without a great deal of editorial control, or the quality filter that, at best, comes with a reputable, established publisher, and with the accompanying effect that there’s just too much of it to be reasonably devoured — even within the smaller coteries it’s aimed at.

I once got reprimanded for “complaining” about the amount of Dutch arts funding for a similar reason, and I have to admit it’s a very dubious thing to whine about — this excess benevolence — but it’s my sense of the situation nontheless. Dan Fox wrote a nice little satirical piece in Frieze about a projected “Content Crunch”, and it seems to me both necessary and likely. When anyone can publish, anything gets published, but that doesn’t mean it aligns with the obvious point of publishing something in the first place — that a larger number of people will want to read the same thing. I have the same conversation with recent generations of students over and over again: they want to “make a book” and this immediately seems to imply “more than one” without any good reason why. Increasingly, a key issue is going to be how to find pathways through all the material, to find and present the quality within the quantity. We’ve seen this played out in digital news media in recent years — those sites that cannibalize and otherwise mediate long-established institutions — but it seems a lot more messy and less efficient in print. Maybe it’s just more apparent because it’s physical, that the material waste seems so much more obscene.

Again I’m realizing that actually I share the point of view that underscored that piece of Rick Poynor’s that I was ostensibly criticizing — that ultimately this energy needs to be harnessed and utilized in any wider, more generally progressive sense. I have no suggestions how at this point, but talking about it would be a good start, not least in the art and design schools.

Q: Can you tell us about your future plans?

I mentioned that the “last” issue was only nominally final. The reason for doing this was two-fold. On one hand, simply as an editorial conceit set up in order to reflect on the past ten years, as part of a bigger intention to be direct and clear rather than ambiguous and opaque for many of the reasons outlined above; on the other hand, it was an excuse to make a clean break, allowing ourselves to reasonably re-title the publication and take the opportunity to alter a few structural aspects.

We’re currently in the process of setting up a non-profit institution in the U.S. called The Serving Library. We’re having trouble providing a pithy account of what this will be, as it’s a bit of an octopus of a project, but the basic idea is to extend and combine a few lines of activity from the past five years — including Dot Dot Dot — under one umbrella. One reason for doing this is to make the wider intentions shared by all these smaller projects more legible as a whole, and to actively involve a much larger circle of people in doing so. Okay, deep breath. The engine of the institution will be an online library of regularly-published PDFs, something equivalent to Dot Dot Dot articles but more explicitly themed in batches. These PDFs will double as a kind of course reading material for a parallel pedagogical program which may be followed remotely, which in turn also be offered as an actual course in a physical location. Every six months, which is to say roughly the length of an average teaching semester, the PDFs, or “bulletins”, will be collected and published in print as Bulletins of the Serving Library. The teaching course will be founded on a reconsideration of the Bauhaus foundation course via the icon of a Photoshop toolbox, and would take place within the physical incarnation of the Serving Library, which in turn will house two archives, of artifacts and books. Both collections are directly drawn from Dot Dot Dot — the artifacts being the original source material of various illustrations in the magazine over the decade, and the books being the most commonly repeated references. Finally, the archive will be presided over by a resident Librarian, a rotating position that will involve both care- taking the archives and ideally doubling as each semester’s Guest Editor.

Well, that’s the quick version anyway. A longer, more germane and rambling account of these plans is available from Fillip Magazine and a fuller version of a placeholder website (www.servinglibrary.org) will probably be up and running by the time GRAPHIC comes out. Finally, I’ll take this opportunity to advertise a summer school we’re running at the Banff Centre in Canada during July and August this year. Over the past couple of years we’ve been exhibiting various model versions of The Serving Library around Europe, but this will be the most fully realized incarnation so far. Anyone interested in applying to participate can do so at www.banffcentre.ca.

Posted 31 March 2011 15:53:09


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