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.
Almost two years ago, I was asked by SVA MPS Branding Chair Debbie Millman and Co-Founder Steven Heller to teach a course for the new program, which kicked off its inaugural year this September. Over the months leading up to the program’s launch, I had the opportunity to immerse myself in research and to seek out the opinions of fellow faculty as I prepared this class. I am grateful for their contributions, and for the smart and hardworking students that enrolled in the course. I couldn’t have asked for a better group, and their contributions deepened and amplified the themes I’ve laid out here at every turn. I found few resources online for assembling a class of this kind, yet its topics seem to infuse our contemporary discussions of design and identity. I offer the syllabus here as an evolving document and will be adding to it myself over time. I welcome suggestions for additions as well. —RG
Course description: Beginning with the history and underlying ideas of branding and identity design, this course will examine the development of classic identities as well as seminal identity designers and design studios. We will also review contemporary cases that highlight the challenges of brand and identity creation in specific sectors including fast-moving consumer goods, durable goods, services, organizations, places, and ideas. At the same time, we will examine both critical viewpoints around the practice of identity design and speculate on the future of brands and branded environments.
Above all, this course will:
- Educate and train your eyes
- Ask you to observe, evaluate, and critique basic claims and assumptions
- Provide you with a platform for research
Wally Olins’s lecture “The Nation And The Brand And The Nation As A Brand” from 2007. It’s well worth watching all four parts.
I’m interested in how people personally decide to refuse a technology. I’m interested in that process, because I think that will happen more and more as the number of technologies keep increasing. The only way we can sort our identity is by not using technology. We’re used to be that you define yourself by what you use now. You define yourself by what you don’t use. So I’m interested in that process.
Earlier, he explains,
The technium is anything useful that a mind makes. That doesn’t even have to be a human mind. Any mind. So that includes not just the gadgets but it also includes the law, our writing. […] The greatest technology humans ever invented is humanity itself. We domesticated ourselves. We turned ourselves into part of the technium because we cannot live as a species. We cannot live without technology. We’ve invented ourselves. And it’s our greatest invention so far.
So collectively our humanity comes out of technology: humans are make tools, heat their food. But individually, we’re perhaps increasingly defined by the technologies we choose to do without.
“At the recent Paris Photo expo, Tomoko Sawada was getting the most laughs. Sawada, a 29-year-old photographer based in Kobe, Japan, is a deft identity thief, whether dressed in one of 400 get-ups in a photo booth, starring as every schoolgirl (and teacher) in a series of class portraits or posing as a range of kimono-wrapped women for mock omiai pictures traditional pictures sent to potential suitors.” More here at NYT and here at Artkrush. See one of the incredible school photos here.
Hoefler & Frere Jones’s updated website is totally tricked out with a great new blog and a beautiful new Scotch Roman face (my favorite style) called Chronicle. But a secret joy is to discover that they’ve also created their own in-house fictional character, Steve Gibbs. Mr. Gibbs’s bio explains, “Despite the fact that there is nobody named Steve Gibbs at H&FJ, the above e-mail address attracts hundreds of pieces of correspondence every day. A review of this e-mail, most of which deals with investment opportunities, exciting holiday gifts, and various solicitations of a personal nature, is useful in separating the wheat from the chaff in our own mailboxes.” Brilliant.
We need more film reviews like this one: “We don’t even have to show our faces to reinvent ourselves. In a chat room, anyone can be a Ripley—or whoever. It’s a liberating time in the history of a protean nation, and also a conflicting one. ‘The American is always on the way to someplace else,’ Lewis Lapham once wrote, but perhaps never as quickly or universally as in the high-velocity world of right now. While Ripley has to laboriously scratch out a passport photo to trade in an identity, we can do it in a digital click.” Frank Rich, as only he can, opens up what the film critic is allowed to review and produces one of my top-five favorite film reviews ever on Anthony Minghella’s cerebral thriller of 1999, The Talented Mr. Ripley.