Our 2017 Hot New Things series continues today – an opportunity to profile a selection of some of the top design grads coming out of our tertiary institutions. This week we speak with Paul Phanoulas from Whitecliffe College of Arts & Design.
Bachelor of Fine Arts, Graphic Design Major
Hi Paul, you completed your full time studies at the end of 2016. Can you tell us what your final year’s project was about and what you focussed on.
At Whitecliffe our final projects only take up the last 14 weeks of the year and are fully self-directed. My project, named Neo—Gilgamesh speculated alternative means of creating permanence to narratives by the method and medium that they are inscribed to an artefact. The story I used was the Epic of Gilgamesh, a story from ancient Mesopotamia that is roughly 5000 years old, which was carved into a series of twelve clay tablets. The Epic has influenced many other major cultural texts — for example, the flood of Noah’s Arc from the Bible and Quran, as well as many of the stories from Greek Mythology.
My research looked at the original tablets, as well as modern artefacts such as the Golden Disk on the Voyager Space-craft. I wanted to explore how I could exploit modern technology and manufacturing processes that don’t traditionally belong to a graphic design context in order to establish new ways of creating permanence. The design outcomes were a series of books that explain my conceptual theories and the design process, as well as three physical tablets that each represent permanence in a different way:
Tablet I is permanent through materiality and scripture. It is made out of stainless steel with which the text has been etched deep into the material in multiple English scripts (modern English alphabet, Braille, Morse and Ogham). So, regardless of its wear and tear it will still be able to be readable. The manufacturer that I found to make it, who normally works on specialised engineering jobs for motorsport, military and space manufacturing said that as long as the world doesn’t get blown up, it will still be readable in another 5,000 years. Talk about permanent.
Tablet IV was created to be permanent by preventing misinterpretation of the text. It is made out of a high-quality composite plastic that has been etched with the story in English. The Babylonian terms which have been lost to time and would be otherwise susceptible to misinterpretation are recreated in a visual glossary consisting of images taken from museum archives. This glossary has then been encoded into a sound file that has been etched into grooves in the plastic. To see the visual glossary one must play the sound on a traditional vinyl turntable and run the sound through an algorithm inscribed on the disk that converts it back to an image.
Tablet VI answers permanence through language redundancy. This tablet was constructed using the same method used to create computer motherboards. Contained within its 1.4mm thick composite are 4 microscopic layers of metal that each have the story inscribed in four different major languages only accessible using X-ray Radiography machines that are capable of 3D scanning. This is a very very new technology, still in its infancy in-fact. This is similar to the Rosetta Stone in that it can allow for multiple translations in-case any one of the major languages today becomes extinct. It also limits accessibility to only societies with the same level of technological advancement.
How has what you’ve recently been working on influenced your design process, and what momentum does it bring to your practice?
There was a tonne of different things that have shaped my practice throughout this project. But I guess the greatest thing has been learning to not be shy of stepping outside the realm of graphic design for insights and figuring out what can be made. I’ve always had a very research and concept dominated process as evident by my prior projects, but this new influence has allowed me to shed some of my assumptions of this imaginary box around something that makes it conform to being ‘graphic design’. This has helped me to have even broader horizons in terms of what I can actually do to best fulfil the goal of the project. None of my final artefacts or insights would have been possible to produce without looking outside of graphic design and just asking the question: “What can I do with this?” or “How can I apply this to what I already have?” and bringing those things back to the table.
What were some of your most exciting discoveries?
It seems a bit daft, but the most exciting discovery was that all my artefacts actually work. I brought Tablet VI with me to a doctor’s appointment and got them to x-ray it. Clear as day the text within the microscopic layers were still distinguishable in all the different languages (albeit flattened due to the Radiography machine not being three-dimensional). My girlfriend got a record player for Christmas so we played Tablet IV on it and ran the sound through the algorithm — and again, we could see the images that were contained in the sound appearing as it was being played. Up until that point I hadn’t known if either of these Tablets would actually do what was intended.
And some of your challenges?
I spent a lot of time and many late nights reading over the Gilgamesh text and academic articles for things to pull from it to try develop my project out to as much potential as possible. I have a folder 15cm deep full of highlighted notes, clippings and possible directions. I spent a lot of time with my supervisor tossing back and forth all the different possibilities but not arriving anywhere that I necessarily wanted the project to go. I found this very frustrating but now with hindsight I can see that it provided me a great understanding of the topic and gave the whole project a spine. It was when I started looking outward at things like the Voyager disks, hacker culture and machine manufacturing that these frustrations made way for possibilities and I found that I could make the project work.
What did you love doing most?
The part that I loved the most this past semester was directing our grad show. I came up with a mood-board and sort of fell into this position of giving a direction for the show to go in. We set up some teams amongst our class and with this direction we managed to produce the show without any major problems. I designed the invitations from vacuum packed thermal blankets with a foiled clear transparency. We produced all these invitations, all the furniture and installations within our studio at Whitecliffe with a very modest budget. It was incredibly hectic leading up to the show but it turned out to be an awesome show with some great support from our sponsors.
Where do you go to find inspiration (websites, resources, designers, etc)?
I’ve got a bit of an obsession with hunting down cool designer’s portfolios and design blogs that have just a myriad of cool stuff to look at. My bookmarks folder for things like this has about 700 links, all neatly categorised. It’s pretty overwhelming but I’m guaranteed to find something to inform a decision or provide some form of insight that I can jump down the rabbit-hole with when I need inspiration.
But in saying that, a lot of my projects stem with some random thing that I once found interesting and just have in the back of my head. I’ve got a bit of a habit reading Wikipedia late into the night just jumping from article to article learning about random things. Even last week I was reading about CIA cryptonyms for a few hours just because I found it interesting — like AMQUACK is the designation for Che Guevara and MKULTRA refers to the CIA’s mind control research wing. Random, yes. But cool, eh? Might be the basis for a future project, who knows?
Why did you choose to study at Whitecliffe, and what do you feel you can take away now that you’ve completed your course?
Bit of a funny story actually. After high-school I really wanted to be a painter. I completed my Cambridge A-Levels for Painting top of my class and thought that being an artist would be the best thing ever. I applied for Elam and got shortlisted because my work was, quote, “too designed”. I didn’t know what to think of it at the time but tried my luck at Whitecliffe where I was accepted into Fine Arts, but over the course of the first year I discovered that the design department really was where my heart was at and what I wanted to do. So, thanks Elam.
There’s been a tonne of lessons that I have been able to take away from the course and lots of them apply to life in general, not necessarily just graphics or design period. At Whitecliffe it is not so much about making cool looking stuff and an arbitrary focus on trend aesthetics, but having a solid research ability and developing a personal practice. As trends, technology and styles evolve in the world of design, these skills will still be relevant and help to generate really good work.
Where to next for you? What does 2017 hold?
2017 is shaping out to be a very busy year for me. Since coming back from holiday I’ve been offered freelance positions left, right and centre, so that currently fills most of my working week. I’m also in the process of setting up a studio practice with a good friend from AUT which will be experimental and heavily researched based to create digital works such as exhibitions, objects and installations, on top of being a really driven graphic and web design studio. We think that we can place ourselves in an area that engages new technology, techniques and tools to make work that is really new and exciting that isn’t necessarily happening in New Zealand just yet. Watch this space – NewTerritory.Studio.
To find out more about Whitecliffe College of Arts & Design and the courses they offer visit: www.whitecliffe.ac.nz