Printed Matter and the Document: A Conversation with p. mule

1 month ago by

Written by Layla Tweedie-Cullen
Supported by Creative New Zealand

Layla Tweedie-Cullen is a contributor to Aotearoa Design Thinking 2017, a series of commissioned critical design essays published by Design Assembly and funded by Creative New Zealand.

This article is the second in a four part series of long-form interviews with interesting, exciting and innovative members of Aotearoa’s design community.

Part One: An Interview with Nell May

Installation view, et al. ‘many-to-many’, part of Freedom Farmers: New Zealand Artists Growing Ideas, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2013. Photographer Jennifer French.

p. mule is the spokesperson for artist collective et al., whose site-specific installations commonly reflect an interest in utopia/dystopia, altruism and charitable institutions. Addressing contemporary, global conditions, their utopian framework has particular relevance to the group’s preoccupation with issues concerning both the individual, community, and expressions of common good. Their ongoing inquiry hinges on the use of the document, sourced as journals and publications, which they re-contextualise in their art practice.

Working under the alias of my design studio Narrow Gauge, I have collaborated with et al. on a number of publications, newspapers and posters. A unique aspect of the collective’s practice is that once a design project is complete and printed, they often continue to adapt and modify individual books, newspapers etc., creating new, unique versions. They draw onto pages or cut them out, they create new covers, and insert new content.

One of the first projects we worked on together was the catalogue Critical Remarks on the The National Question, produced as part of the installation that’s obvious that’s right that’s true at the Christchurch City Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu in 2009. Since its completion, et al. have continued to release updated versions of the publication.

Layla Tweedie-Cullen: Can you talk about the way that you adapt and modify et al. artist catalogues (such as Critical Remarks on the The National Question) and how this process has relevance to the group’s practice?

p. mule: The distribution of an artist’s catalogue has a limited potential within New Zealand and so we generally apply the DIY mode of operandi to a future exhibition, potentially without a budget for a catalogue, not to mention the opportunity to reduce our stock pile of outdated publications. Creating new covers, inserting new content provides the opportunity to produce a limited-run publication plus a materiality that speaks to a different timeline and exhibition concept. The title may be fully or partially redacted and the cover may be further annotated with diagrams, gaffer tape, fluro paint etc. Often the original title evokes a link to a current project and further modifications or overwriting repurposes existing content. For example et al. have used  publications such as La Nuova Voce, De Nieuwe Stem, The Colonial Territories to augment or counter meaning/s announced by the original title. Even if the title is obliterated in the final outcome, it has provided a conceptual base in a specific and critical context. On the other hand is not a given how the process will develop and the typographical potentialities of a publication may be on the backburner for some time before ‘appearing’ relevant to a project/proposal.

et al. Critical Remarks on The National Question, 2009: original cover (left) and updated covers by et al.

LTC: Does the collective consider these unique editions to be ‘artist books’?

pm: They are artists books in the fact that they are a limited edition, but the starting point is more that an excess of catalogues can become a means to recreate something new. Annotating existing publications allows redundant copies to be repurposed for a new context/exhibition. Content that is no longer relevant is cut-out, original covers are overlaid with different information or titles. The book is dissected, reinterpreted and is ultimately a creative repurposing that is inexpensive to produce.

Critical Remarks on The National Question, revised versions by et al.

LTC: Working on Critical Remarks on the The National Question with et al. in 2009, they were clear that they didn’t want the catalogue to document or explain the installation that’s obvious that’s right that’s true in a linear sense. Instead of an explanatory back cover blurb, they chose to use a found political text titled “Occupied Territories”, images of work in the exhibition was interspersed with texts by Lenin and Marx, one section or ‘Letter’ presents a long list of charity organisations with the header: One World – Keys to the Immediate Future of Humanity, and even the director’s foreword was stamped out. Do you consider the book to be a critique of the exhibition catalogue?

pm: To a degree it is yes but also of our propensity to treat the catalogue as an art object, and by extension as a disparate set of ideas that generally informs any artwork. The engagement with Narrow Gauge certainly allowed us to have a more creative approach to the catalogue; to formulate it more as a document of the ideas leading up to the exhibition, and to give recognition to the tangential nature of that process. So with Critical Remarks on the National Question, we were able to establish a conceptual outline for the publication that sought to document these ideas and references that we drew upon. It became a very tangible way to bridge historical and contemporary timelines; to allow a potentiality of meaning, analysis and (re)definition.

et al. Critical Remarks on the The National Question, 2009: selected page spreads.

LTC: It was designed in the style of early communist pamphlets, made up of eight sections or ‘Letters’, each with a unique cover, paper stock and ink colour (brown, blue, red, black etc.). Can you talk about the relevance of social resistance and the document to et al.’s practice?

pm: For us, acts of resistance to the dominant culture link into the general areas that we tend to explore; that of societal control, common good and altruism. The very human preoccupation with the meaning of life is fundamental to our work, and publications that already evoke such concerns can be very relevant starting points for us. So in the process of establishing a direction for a project we drew upon found material such as second hand journals/pamphlets and ephemera, and more often than not, these do have political connotations. A History of Marxist-Leninist Atheism and Soviet Anti-Religious Policies[1] and its exploration of state-enforced atheism was in fact our original starting point for the exhibition as a whole, and so the reference to the Little Lenin Library [2]and Progress Publishers[3] in the et al. catalogue was very relevant for us in terms of expressing a sense of a tangential and divergent art process towards an installation, in this case at Christchurch Art Gallery.

(Top row) Little Lenin Library, pamphlet series from International Publishers, 1930–46,  Die Weltbühne, published 1905–33, The History of the Civil War in the USSR, v. 1.: The Prelude of the Great Proletarian Revolution, 1937 by M. Gorky (Ed), V. Molotov (Editor), K. Voroshilov (Ed). (Bottom Row) Lenin (x 4 editions), Progress Publishers, founded in 1931.

Critical Remarks on the The National Question drew directly from the Communist Manifesto that appeared subsequently as a series of political pamphlets. Such leaflets as ‘The Deception of the People’ or ‘On the Emancipation of Women’ etc. were key, and as you mention they directly influenced the catalogue concept and design; monochromatic pamphlet and the communist political rhetoric were reinterpreted and integrated into sections of the publication. We also referenced Progress Publishers and they were noted on each chapter heading in the catalogue (but combined with a new logo we created with Narrow Gauge). Australia and New Zealand Communist Party also produced printed publications, the design of which we copied for a series of tabloids.

The title Critical Remarks on the National Question is pulled directly from one of the Progress Publishers’ pamphlets (1951), and the cover design is plagiarised from an existing book cover called Civil War in the U.S.SR., which Narrow Gauge contextually reconfigured using copy provided by et al.

Installation view showing stacks of newspapers: et al. that’s obvious! that’s right! that’s true!, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puno o Waiwhetu, 2009. Photographer David Watkins.

LTC: As part installation that’s obvious that’s right that’s true at the Christchurch City Art Gallery, et al. presented large stacks of newspapers. What is appealing about the newspaper format?

pm: The very cost effective nature of the newspaper format has always been a big draw-card for us, as well as the materiality of newspaper stock that can be messed-up, treated with certain disrespect, and given out freely. The role news and newspapers have in processes of social interaction, and of the role they consequently play in  the constitution of society holds a lot of relevance also, as they evoke that sense of social interaction; notions of social solidarity and collective knowledge. As independent tabloid publications they form an integral component of the installation itself.

Installation view, et al. trans_cyrptions, Michael Lett, 2011. Photographer Alex North.

LTC: et al. has produced quite a number newspapers now, which are usually released as part of an installation. What are some of the issues that these newspapers address?

pm: We generally use the newspaper as a cheap variation on a gallery publication, preferable by the fact that is has a bigger distribution run and can be given away for free. Our first series was inspired by the NZ Communist leaflets which we adapted and they were released as a series called New Zealand Altruism. Another variation on the theme was Contemporary Solidarity which et al. produced in 2007 in conjunction with an exhibition Maintenance of Social Solidarity at CAST, Hobart. The tabloid presented various oppositional points-of-view, analysis regarding solidarity, conspiracy, misinformation as well as countering ideas of reciprocity and gratitude. The front page of the tabloid reproduces US President George W Bush’s opening message on the Observance of Eid al-Fitr in 2007: ‘I send greetings to Muslims in the United States and around the world celebrating Eid ul-Fitr’.  George and Laura went on to acknowledge that ‘America is strengthened by the countless contributions of our Muslim citizens, and we value our ties with muslim nations throughout the world’. It seemed to us at the time such empty words, when one considers that Guantanamo Bay had been in operation in the US since 2002 and its associated human rights violations. Now US President Donald Trump continues to uphold his controversial  travel ban issued against Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen and it would appear that sadly reciprocity and generosity has not made much progress on the world stage.

Newspapers by et al.

LTC: Can you discuss the musical graphic scores et al. has produced as part of Upright Piano on currently at Auckland Art Gallery?

pm: We continued a collaboration with composer Samuel Holloway (NZ) based on an upright piano (generally untuned) that began with our exhibition at Michael Lett (2013). Holloway’s score as an original composition was performed on a customised upright piano during the opening. Customising generally refers to the various modifications the musician chooses to make to the piano that interferes with the tone or resonance of the piano – increasing the ‘clunk’ for example. The resulting work is not predetermined, scripted or directed, rather it acts as a place of engagement within the installation as a whole. et al. then annotated the scores. Our annotations as a type of graphic adjustment again, erases notes or entire sections, and of course includes the ubiquitous electrical tape.

(Top) Pages from et al. score, (bottom)  installation view of ‘Upright Piano’, Holloway, et al. as part of Shout Whisper Wail! The 2017 Chartwell Show, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

LTC: One last question, when working with or modifying found publications and texts, does et al. start with the material or an idea?

pm: When we are developing ideas for a new project we tend to literally brainstorm directly upon existing publications, not in the abstract, but jostling alongside some type of printed matter that already imparts meaning. Generally we work with limited-run, low cost publications or journals that we have picked up on our travels and address a political or social position within a cultural ideology that also has the potential to be reframed into a more contemporary timeline that equates with the global events. For example Die Weltbühne (The World Stage) was a German weekly magazine we came across in Berlin that focused on politics, art, and business. This was scanned and enlarged to poster-size that formed part of exhibitions at West, den Haag (Netherlands), Michael Lett (Auck), ARCO, Madrid (Spain), 2014-15. Die Weltbühne (1905) was ultimately banned by the Nazi Regime in 1933 and this sense of history and the publication’s very idiosyncratic typography became the conceptual framework for the installations. Another example is The Colonial Territories published by the Great Britain Colonial Office (1926-40), which we sourced at Hobart’s recycling depot. It became a very apt vehicle to be applied to the policies of terra nullius, whereby the British colonisation policies and subsequent land laws were framed on terra nullius (land without owners).

(Top) Installation view, et al. the common fucking good, Michael Lett, 2015. Photographer Alex North. (bottom) et al. The Colonial Territories, 2015.  annotated leaflets 1948- 1958 from the publication The Colonial Territories, Colonial Office (Public Service in Overseas Territories), Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London.

You can view more work from the et al. collective on their website here.

[1] Pospielovsky, Dimitry V., A History of Soviet Atheism in Theory and Practice and the Believer, v.1 1987, Macmillan Press.

[2] International Publishers Co., Little Lenin Library, 1st edition 1964, (softcover). International Publishers worked in conjunction with the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute in Moscow on three separate publishing initiatives involving the works of V.I. Lenin:

[3] Progress Publishers was a Moscow-based Soviet publisher founded in 1931. It was noted for its English-language editions of books on Marxism–Leninism.

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