Identity and the arts: A talk at Artists Space

Later this month, Dexter Sinister will present “Identity,” an exhibition that, in the words of its description, “charts the emergence and proliferation of graphic identity since the turn of the twentieth century, with particular reference to contemporary art institutions — museums, galleries, and so called alternative spaces.”

Initiated by Artists Space, the project has been run by Dexter Sinister in cooperation with a variety of colleagues for over two years. In the fall of 2009, I was asked by Dexter Sinister and Stefan Kalmár of Artists Space to give a talk to an invited group of 20 or so guests. Part of a series of informally titled “How do we look?”, this initial lecture carried an aim that was deeply reflexive, examining the history of the organization’s own visual identity in the context of both arts-related identities and the somewhat woolier world of branding and visual culture. To facilitate the talk, I was given special access to Artists Space’s archive of printed ephemera — my thanks to Amy Owen and Jessica Wilcox at Artists Space for their help and guidance.

The tone was informal, with people asking me to expand upon one point or another, as we sipped some whiskey with conversation. Rather than adhere to a strict chronology of Artists Space’s identity development, I chose to group its marks around a loose taxonomy that included IMPRINTS, SYMBOLS, MONOGRAMS, LANDMARKS, and LOCKUPS so that perhaps a new story could emerge.

The talk was, for me, foundational to many projects and assignments that followed and informed both the structure of my SVA course and our recent identity work for SALT Istanbul at Project Projects.

The writing below is loose and rough, assembled from my notes and fuzzy memory of the evening — but, truth be told, it’s a story better told through visuals, anyway. Even if the below serves as nothing more than a prompt to visit David and Stuart’s smart and inventive show, then I’m glad to have shared it here. — RG

I thought I’d start out tonight with one of Artists Space’s most important early shows, the Pictures exhibition from 1977. And if you look at the booklet of the show here, you’ll see that at the bottom the name Artists Space has been typeset to match the look of the overall booklet. No standalone mark, nothing too systematic — in the early days things changed a lot from one exhibition to another. Reading this, the analogy seems to be that the gallery thought of itself as a kind of publisher. It’s presenting these things, but it’s not imposing its own external identity on anything. It’s initiating creative projects and then allowing its own identity to be mutable, to change with those projects.

And so with that idea in mind the first group of marks I’d like to look at is IMPRINTS. Imprimatur means “to sanction” or “to give formal and explicit approval,” and this is what I was describing before. Rather than a visual identity the emphasis is on the provenance: on where an exhibition came from and who initiated it.

Publishers have long relied on this mutability. Most famously and illustratively, Knopf has a whole broad set of Borzoi dogs that change to compliment a book’s cover design, tone, and setting. There is no single Borzoi. Instead, there are many simultaneous possibilities. It’s almost Platonic: it’s not a specific book with a specific dog but the idea of a book with a dog on it that assigns the book as a Knopf book. It’s more descriptive, really, than symbolic.

This website for White Columns, designed by Project Projects, works in much the same way. When you reload a page the style sheets refresh, and the site goes from serif to sans and back again. So it’s like the Borzoi dog, in that it opens up the possibility that White Columns can take on a variety of formal details but still remain, essentially, itself. The formal “idea” of the site doesn’t change, just its visual expression.

The more you rummage around the archives, the more you see a range of materials in which the Artists Space identity acts in this way. Here is a a flyer for some film programming from the mid-’80s, looking very theatrical indeed. And this strategy wasn’t continuous, either — between the Pictures show and the design of this flyer different, more formalized marks emerged and were then discarded.

Sometimes there was even variance within a given piece. Here’s a great example from 1988 for a show called Telling Tales. There’s literally one “super” logo, which is set in one typeface, and then there’s a smaller “logo-sized” logo in another typeface.

By the late ’80s the impact of design’s postmodern tastes were readily apparent, and the hybridity of a given graphic system set to the max. Even within the artists’ own first and last names there is variance and expressivity. This piece is from 1989.

At other points around this time, zine culture and DIY publishing became more apparent, as in the booklet design for this Robert Gero show from 1990. Here Artists Space acts as the publisher once again, with the form of its name subordinate to the larger aesthetic system of the booklet.

Here, too, in this small photocopied pamphlet from the ’90s, this vibe is apparent. What’s important to understand here is that imprints don’t need to be large or institutional in tone — they can be homemade, grassroots, inventive, and unmonolithic. Quite casual, really.

And in this casualness I’m reminded of Ed Fella’s wonderful posters for the Detroit Focus Gallery, made over a number of years with great inventiveness. Each poster treats the logo differently, and yet the set is coherent and identifiable, offering a kind of aesthetic consistency that supports the range of activities housed at the gallery. Willi Kunz’s ongoing posters for Columbia’s GSAPP program are another example of this kind of identification strategy. Rather than impose a system that can be executed by anyone, they create a highly particular set of responses that can be recognized without being formulaic.

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A message from the Open Reading Group

Yesterday, I received this message from the Open Reading Group:

Fellow readers,

This spring, Dexter Sinister is busy morphing from a “just-in-time workshop and occasional bookstore” into an non-profit institution-of-sorts called The Serving Library. This involves incorporating (The Serving Library Company, Inc.), describing (A Statement of Intent) and fundraising (here):

The idea is to build on the haphazard, contingent clutter of activities assembled during the five-year lease of our basement space on Ludlow Street in New York (which expires just before the summer) towards a more explicit, coherent set of intentions that can be condensed into the following equation:

"The Serving Library is a cooperatively-built archive that assembles itself by publishing. It will consist of 1. an ambitious public website; 2. a small physical library space; 3. a publishing program which runs through #1 and #2."

The longer story involves two collections of books and artifacts, an online and printed successor to Dot Dot Dot called Bulletins of The Serving Library, a speculative Foundation Course modeled on the Photoshop Toolbox, a rotating Guest Librarianship, and a 12-year Black Whisky. Further elaboration is offered in A Statement of Intent, available from our existing library:

"I don’t complain about institutions! I complain about institutions that I don’t like." (Michelangelo Pistoletto)

Please circulate this announcement freely.

Regards, David Reinfurt, Stuart Bailey, Angie Keefer

Please give what you can — one Ben Franklin will go a long way toward supporting The Serving Library and will ensure your copy of the first issue of the library Bulletin.

Update: Funded!

Serial Series, Part 2

Picture 6



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Above, from top (click each to enlarge): The first page of A Tale of Two Cities, from Stanford’s Discovering Dickens; a modern CAPTCHA; international ads placed as part of a Google Books settlement; an ad for Locock’s Female Pills that appeared in a Dickens serial.

In 2002 Stanford University launched a “community reading project” called Discovering Dickens, making Dickens’s novel Great Expectations available in its original part-issue format and asking Stanford alumni and other members of the Stanford community to read along, exactly as Victorians first did, with the serial version that appeared from December 1860 to August 1861. In 2004, as Discovering Dickens readers were enjoying A Tale of Two Cities, Stanford joined the newly-formed Google Print Library Project, along with the University of Michigan, Harvard, Oxford, and the New York Public Library. A year later, the program would become know as the Google Books Partner Program, or, more simply, Google Books.

At the launch of Google Books, Google’s intent was to scan and make available 15 million books within ten years. By 2008, just four years into the project, 7 million books had already been scanned. When books are scanned, words are automatically converted by Google’s Optical Character Recognition software into searchable text. Occasionally, there is a problem with this conversion process, and Google’s OCR software either can’t recognize some text or it isn’t confident about its conversion, having checked the results against standard grammar rules. The only way to convert these wayward words and phrases is to introduce human eyes into the system. This September, Google did just that with the purchase of reCAPTCHA.

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Serial Series, Part 1




Above, from top: Gutenberg, Manutius, Dickens.

Text takes time. It takes time to read, it takes time to write, and it takes time to reproduce. Throughout the history of text production, people have been searching for ways to distribute the costs of producing text—financial, temporal—more evenly across a system. This search led a former goldsmith, Johannes Gutenberg, to develop and refine his system moveable type by the 1450s, which eliminated the laborious book-copying process used previously by monastic scribes. And with Gutenberg’s system in place, Venetian publisher Aldus Manutius was able to quickly popularize printed books by the late 1400s.

As text becomes easier and cheaper to produce, more copies of it get made. While Gutenberg’s Bible was printed in a small edition of 180, Manutius’s books were printed by the thousands. More copies need more readers and most readers like their text to be portable. While Gutenberg’s heavy Bible was best read at a library table, Manutius’s slim editions could be easily slipped in a saddlebag or vest pocket. You went to Gutenberg’s books, but Manutius’s books went with you. As increasingly numerous and increasingly portable copies of texts found their way into the world, they found new readers to buy them and they spread literacy with them.

In the next two hundred years, text continued to get swifter, more portable, and more widely distributed, giving rise to a new form by the late 1600s and early 1700s: the newspaper. By now firmly established in Europe and North America, the newspaper’s growth was spurred by a flowering of global trade. Access to time-sensitive political news and financial information was increasingly important, and publishers strived to invent new technologies to meet demand. By the early 1800s, as a result of the industrial revolution, the Times of London boasted a press that could print a daily broadsheet at 1,100 pages a minute, with a circulation to match. By 1830, presses could print on both sides, saving paper, and the “penny press” was born, offering a product that cost 1/6 of the competition’s price. Once again, more copies, cheaper copies, smaller copies meant better distribution of costs, and, as a result, ever more readers.

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If you’re in NYC this Tuesday 25 November, I’ll be taking part in Dexter Sinister’s CUBIST VARIETY SHOW at The Kitchen, a kind of living microfiche adaptation of their True Mirror project from this year’s Whitney Biennial. I (or another) will be reading, along with fellow contributors Cory Arcangel, Mark Beasley, Walead Beshty, Sarah Crowner, Jason Fulford, Larissa Harris, Michael Portnoy, Steve Rushton, and Alex Waterman.


The New York Art Book Fair kicks off this weekend, and I’ll be rushing back from LA to catch the last day of it on Sunday. It’s always one of the highlights of the year. In tandem with the fair is the ARLIS/NY Contemporary Artists’ Book Fair Conference, whose participants include my friends Stuart and David at Dexter Sinister along with Jason Fulford of J&L Books and Matt Keegan of North Drive Press. A lot of other great artists, critics, and art historians will be there as well; all the conference abstracts are here. Register here. David and Stuart are producing a special gift book for all attendees called Library Book, which collects and distributes PDFs archived on their website here.


A bit of news today, I’m taking part in Dexter Sinister’s True Mirror project as part of their installation at the 2008 Whitney Biennial. They explain: “Dexter Sinister will occupy the Commander’s Room at the 7th Regiment Armory every day from 4 March to 23 March 2008 releasing a series of parallel texts through multiple channels of distribution which reflect on the 2008 Whitney Biennial.” Two contributions, The Parallel Campaign I and The Parallel Campaign II, are online now. These “parallel texts” are excerpts from a longer article for a forthcoming issue of Dot Dot Dot.


Dexter Sinister have done a great interview with design critic/curator Emily King that touches on a many aspects of their practice, including their adoption of the "just-in-time" (JIT) production model popularized by Toyota from the mid-1950s on. But it was the American carmaker Henry Ford who first articulated the process in his 1926 book Today and Tomorrow. Toyota executive TaiiChi Ohno, who brough JIT to Toyota, says of the book “I, for one, am in awe of Ford’s greatness. I believe Ford was a born rationalist—and I feel more so every time I read his writings. He had a deliberate and scientific way of thinking about industry in America. For example, on the issues of standardization and the nature of waste in business, Ford’s perception of things was orthodox and universal.” For Ford at his most quotable, his autobiography My Life and Work, is available online free at Project Gutenberg.


Takashi Okamoto of the Physical Language Workshop at MIT Media Lab has created a playful applet that allows you to make your own version of Muriel Cooper’s famous MIT Press logo. Use MITPTyper here. Read more about Cooper’s work at MIT in this great article by David Reinfurt of Dexter Sinister. Or maybe download a PDF of Mark Owens’ great “Graphics Incognito” article from Dot Dot Dot 12 which presents Cooper’s logo in a broader context.