In Myanmar – once called Burma – fairly regularly over the past few months, I have had the opportunity to photograph lots of children. Most Myanmar kids are painfully shy. So shy they hide. They crouch and crawl under tables. You have to use all kinds of photographer's tricks to draw them out; reassuring their mother, ignoring them and photographing someone else, barking like a dog. Amongst all the wonders on display in this magical country, the kids – with the distinctive 'thanaka' paste on their faces, their beautiful Indian-Asian faces, their lack of guile – act like magnets on your camera lens. I realised after a while that what it is I am drawn to, what I am photographing, is the future of this benighted country, its hope.
Many years ago I had the good fortune to visit the Cardozo Kindersley letter-cutting workshop in Cambridge. On arrival, Linda Cardozo immediately exchanged her hammer and chisel for the tea pot and biscuits. The afternoon was spent chatting about letter-cutting techniques, listening to anecdotal stories about her late husband David Kindersley, and admiring the most vigorous letters inscribed into solid blocks of stone. Enchanted by the conviviality of the letter-cutting fraternity and dazzled by their achievements, I left thinking that I had perhaps found a calling a little too late in my life.
Letter-cutting is clearly a vocation, and one that you have to start early. At the age of 18 David Kindersley read the books of Eric Gill and made up his mind to become his apprentice. When he had learnt all he could from his master, David set up his own workshop in Cambridge and experimented with a thoughtful and rhetorical approach to lettering.
One of the later projects completed by the David Kindersley and Linda Cardozo partnership is the huge entrance gate at the British Library. This screen of steel letters protects the public entrance to the largest library in the world. It never fails to lift my spirits when I pass through the open gates.
David Kindersley also trained his son Richard whilst in his Cambridge workshop. Recently we were asked to recommend a letter-cutter for a project at the British Museum. We discovered that quite by chance, we were Richards's near-neighbours and so an invitation to visit his South London workshop was arranged.
Our Atelier group were received with the same Kindersley welcome; Richard handed us all mugs of strong tea before taking us into his purpose built workshops. First was his studio, a double-height single room bathed in light from a large north-facing window. Over forty years of experimenting adorn the walls, sit on the floor, or languish hidden in dark corners. A jumble of steel, slate, bronze, concrete, and stone samples surrounded a large central table on which work-in-progress paperwork and sketches lay. A large drawing board stood next to a grant enlarger. Evidently, everything was still done by hand here. We were standing in a sanctum for typographic investigation.
Richard was generously forthcoming, pulling out samples from behind stacks, and lifting them up onto his impromptu show table. He traced his letters with his forefinger while recounting the stories of each piece. They seem like cherished progeny; every sample had a genesis and explored a new technique that made it one of a kind. After selected members of the brood had been shown, each was carefully returned to its allotted place in the hideaway.
It was surprising to find Richard making letters from polystyrene — probably the most uninspired material imaginable — yet he used a hot-wire and cut a series of slithers to build a letter, carefully arranged each letter to create the words, then from the assemblage he made a mould, and finally cast the piece in concrete. The result is remarkably expressive. Perhaps this is the captivating skill of the Kindersleys, their ability to bring to life the most inert of materials.
Our visit ended in the cutting workshop, with heavy-duty lifting chains hanging from an overhead beam, and unfeasibly tall standing stones propped against a wall. Two shards of warm grey Caithness stone were inscribed with passages by TS Eliot. Measuring about 30cm wide and reaching nearly 5 meters in height, they look as if they should snap in half. Richard unassumingly revealed his geological knowledge, explaining that the stones had a lateral strength, making Caithness stone ideal for such a slender form. With a restrained pleasure, he described the thrill of watching the stone being split, exposing a surface layer that had not seen daylight for 240 million years. He feels very privileged to be the first set of eyes to look so far back in time.
After a thank you pub lunch our Atelier group said farewell. Richard returned to his hammer and chisel, polystyrene and concrete. We returned to our keyboards and screens. There was a great span of time in the techniques used by both our studios but we share a common curiosity with 26 letters. Our morning had been a precious opportunity to touch a typographic lineage that ran back from Richard Kindersley, through his father David, to Eric Gill, and on to Edward Johnston who had taught Gill. It was reassuring to find that the letter-cutting fraternity was still quietly going about its work in South London, as it is in his father's workshop in Cambridge. The apprenticeship system that passed on the skills and fostered the lineage of experimentation is still at the heart of both workshops. But, I wondered, how many 18 year-olds would know today that letter-cutting was their vocation?
Our studio is in Iliffe Yard, along with forty others. Everyone that has a studio here loves it. Everyone that visits loves it. What's not to love? A narrow cobbled street, low-rise turn-of-the-century industrial architecture in yellowy London brick, decorated by climbing jasmine, potted bamboo and rosemary, big sliding doors pulled aside in the Spring and Summer, two beautiful dogs, Meg and Pluto, everyone here engaged in creative work from painting to filmmaking. The pieces I wrote below form the Summer Open Studios publicity; my description of the Yards (there are two others nearby), and an interview with one of our neighbours, the silversmith Carol Mather.
It is that special moment again, when the Pullens Yards fling open their iron gates, and invite the world in — the Summer Open Studios. What is special about it?
Pullens Yards were purpose-built for designer-makers in the late 1880s. The studios have housed craftspeople, working with their hands, for a hundred and twenty years. Unsurprisingly, over this length of time, what most of the craftspeople produce has evolved: at one time the Yards boasted lace makers, fan makers and cabinet makers; who have been replaced by today's filmmakers, jewellers and artist potters. A few crafts have stayed, there are furniture designers and musical instrument makers here now, just as in the days of Queen Victoria.
Hannah Arendt wrote of 'homo faber', humans fully engaged in shaping the world around them, by actually producing that world with their hands. Making involves thinking about what you make, which amounts to careful thinking about everything that surrounds you. Thinking carefully about making, naturally results in made things that exhibit sensitivity, practicality and beauty.
Richard Sennett in his recent book The Craftsman puts it even more succinctly: 'making is thinking'. Making anything necessarily involves 'an intimate connection between hand and head'. By making repeatedly you learn from materials and effects, and strive to find better ways of working. This striving unifies everyone in the Yards, no matter whether they make photographs, paintings, silver dogs or wooden chairs.
Sennett again: 'craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake'. This is a rare thing in our increasingly machine-made, genericised, that-will-do, cold-calling world. The Yards are a special place, a home to thoughtful making, and on this special weekend we welcome you to participate.
A Silvery Warren: Carol Mather
Carol's studio is small compared to others at the Yards, the size of a bedroom. She doesn't need much space, her work is small work, she is a silversmith. She sits at a desk, lamps angled onto her hands, a leather pouch stretched from the desk to catch the silver filings. The tools carefully laid out are those for the tiny violence of small-scale metal working; files, hammers, vices, wire pullers.
She shares the studio three days a week with Pluto, a terribly handsome whippet. Her great love is animals. Tutors at college frowned on her for not making abstract work. When she left college, first she made jewellery boxes, highly decorated. But what people liked most were the animal-themed embellishments, so she stopped making the boxes, and started making just the animals. After animals, her main source of inspiration is late Victorian Gothic. Highly decorated, elaborate, with a big dose of medieval.
The display cupboard on her wall boasts quite a bestiary. Each piece serves a purpose; a warthog pincushion, a bear with panniers for salt and pepper. Her most recent project is miniaturisation, using computer alchemy. Carol's pieces, already small (the size of a plum), are scanned, 3D-printed in wax, casts made, and tiny replicas cast in silver. All those fantastic collective nouns; a streak of tigers, a knot of toads, but what are the nouns for a mixture of different animals? There on her table is a tumble of stags, rabbits and hounds. Gathered for a hunt, or a parade.
She works steadily on commissions. Making pendants and tiny statues of people's loved animal companions. She shows me one in progress. A pendant of a one-eyed Jack Russell, perfectly capturing his up-turned snout, long body and short powerful legs. Such life she has wrought in such tiny form. Just as alive as the whippet dozing behind us.
For the latest information on our Open Studio events go to Pullens Yard website
I stumbled across my own book on the bookshelf the other day. What is Graphic Design?, published in 2002. There is much in it that makes me wince. But this chunk of the introduction I can still stand by. I have altered a few words here and there in the extract below. This isn't a sales pitch for the book, by the way, just that there are a few ideas in the writing that are still useful.
Graphic design is the most universal of all the arts. It all around us, explaining, decorating, identifying: imposing meaning on the world. Its in the streets, in everything we read, its on our bodies. We engage with design at every turn; road signs, advertisements on buses, shop signs, in everything we touch; magazines, cigarette packets, headache pills, the logo on our t-shirt, the washing label on our jacket. It is not just a modern phenomenon. Streets full of signs, emblems, prices, sales messages, ofﬁcial pronouncements and news would all have been just as familiar to anyone in any era in human history in any city in the world; ancient Egyptians, medieval Italians or schoolchildren in Soviet Russia.
Graphic design performs a number of functions.
It sorts and differentiates. It distinguishes one company or organisation or nation from another. It informs. It tells us how to bone a chicken or how to register a birth. It acts on our emotions, helps to shape how we feel about the world around us, perhaps more effectively and completely than we realise.
There are two ideas that inform this book.
The first main idea is that graphic design operates as a language. No individual piece of design can be made, or understood, except within a visual 'language'. A language of interrelating conventions covering pictures, colours, letterforms, typography, and ways of using text. Much of this vast and rich language was established before what we regard as modern design came of age - in the Renaissance - but it has been recast, extended and added to by graphic design's innovators and creators.
A language is defined as a "structural system consisting of rules that relate particular signs to particular meanings". It works for sounds and for the depiction of sounds, and images. This book sets out dismantle system of visual language that design uses and examines each of its elements and how they form part of a whole, for example; the extended alphabet as it is used for printed text, the typefaces that the alphabet appears in and their seemingly endless styles and variations, and typography, the organisation of typeset words and text on a surface.
Is graphic design the same as advertising? How does it differ from art? We can recognise graphic design in certain objects, magazines for example, but how is this different from the organising of type and the placing and cropping of pictures found in the adverts within the same magazine? The second main idea is that graphic design is best seen as a process, a set of values and ambitions that separate it from its close relatives; art and advertising. At times the differences are subtle, but they are there.
Trying to reduce such a wide-ranging and variable activity into a deﬁnition, or one portable phrase, is painfully difﬁcult. Especially since what we call graphic design seems so fluid. The common method is to seek certainty from the early years of the twentieth century, an era in which the issues seem more clearly delineated than now. The father of the actual phrase 'graphic design' was an American, William Addison Dwiggins. He was a very successful designer producing advertising material; posters, pamphlets, adverts in newspapers and periodicals. His advice was very practical and aimed at achieving the right result, in 1922 he wrote: 'In the matter of layout forget art at the start and use horse-sense. The printing-designer's whole duty is to make a clear presentation of the message - to get the important statements forward and the minor parts placed so that they will not be overlooked. This calls for an exercise of common sense and a faculty for analysis rather than for art.'
In the same essay he proposed the phrase 'graphic design', he also suggested 'super-printing'. The word 'super' meaning before, in advance of. We are graphic designers by a whisper, we could all so easily have been super-printers. And super-typographers, super-animators, super-branders.
This book examines a very varied group of practitioners - whose work covers writing, curating, photography, websites, entrepreneurialism, even art and advertising - to show how flexible any definition needs to be. So flexible it strains the very idea of limits inherent within a definition.
Having said how difficult it is, I don't shy from try a definition of graphic design of my own. Here it is... words and pictures on a surface.
There is an old joke: 'bad graphic design never killed anyone'.
This is meant to show that design is inconsequential, a decorative pastime, a question merely of picking one typeface or colour rather than another that would work just as well. Bad design doesn't kill, so good design can't matter either. Journalists delight in using the adjective 'designer' to stand for a particular kind of cynical consumerism that distracts us with a jazzy visual appearance; fancy bottle-tops, cod-Victorian labels, new logos for unethical companies. Pointless consumerism that consumes ordinary things needlessly fiddled with; 'designer water', 'designer jeans', even 'designer babies'. Depressingly, designers do produce tinsel, but like any human endeavour, such as journalism, design should not be judged purely on its weakest examples.
Much graphic design is not done by professional designers. It's impossible to calculate, but you make a claim that most graphic design is created by non-designers, people unwittingly acting as designers. Scientific papers, school books, small ads, most novels, the majority of the world's websites and blogs, have been made by printers, programmers, and people who don't call themselves anything, quietly engaged in the practices of graphic design without feeling the least sense of professionalism. Blissfully unaware of kerning or french folds. We live in a world of amateurism. It's the same in many professions. The majority of cooking is not done by cooks, writing by writers, football by footballers. Not that it matters, any human activity is defined, advanced and perfected by a tiny minority.
Lest we think design is dispensable, try to imagine a world without graphic design.
Without design's process and ingredients - typefaces, typography, structure and organisation, illustration, differentiation and branding - we would have to receive all our information by the spoken word. There could be no written word; no newspapers, no magazines, no books, no internet, not much money, no literature, no universities, no science to speak of, the crudest medicine, everything would have to be painstaking written by hand. We would be disappear into another Dark Ages, like the last one, a thousand years of ignorance, prejudice, superstition and very short life-spans.
We live at a time when all human culture is being converted into graphic design. What is the internet but words and pictures on a surface? Every other art, all of science, human culture in every form transmuted into, communicated by, and experienced as graphic design. If Dwiggins thought there was a revolution in information a hundred years ago, he would be astounded now. And he would certainly err towards the superlative in his choice of what to call us. If in an era of print we were super-printers, today in the internet age we are super-communicators.
When I was studying at art school part of the course was art history.
One red-haired lecturer had the job of teaching us about modern art, and she loved provoking us with how extreme it could be. (And how extremely far from what our young minds thought art should be.) One day, she told us about Rudolf Schwarzkogler. This Austrian performance artist had, at some point in the 1970s, in front of an audience, put his penis on a wooden board, and carefully cut it into thin slices. As you might cut a salami. She didn't show us any images, but she didn't need to.
I barely slept that night. I can remember being quite desperate trying to flush the mental pictures out of my head. I must have somehow succeeded in sublimating the story, I finished the course, even attending further lectures by the red-haired sadist. I do remember I was extremely careful never to stray into the part of the building used by performance artists.
But I was left kind of fascinated by the vulnerability of the body, the idea that one could wilfully, irreversibly demonstrate one's own mortality. We can all get horrified and fascinated by something gory. I am sure you have been stuck in a queue on the motorway, only to find its cause is everyone slowing to a crawl to rubberneck a crashed car. And zombie films, what are they but us choosing to expose ourselves to the body being disassembled.
When you live a life making creative work, the issue of commitment is there with every piece of work. How much do you commit to each piece of work you do? Alan Fletcher used to talk of two kinds of artist, the chicken and the pig. He said "when it comes to breakfast, the chicken walks away having given an egg, whereas the pig is completely committed".
As I began my design career, Rudolf Schwarzkogler came back to haunt me. How could an artist commit so much to a creative act? He was surely the king of pigs. Back in the 1980s it was difficult to verify a story like Schwarzkogler's. I looked in lots of art books, without ever seeing his name. No artist I met had ever heard of him. There was no Google. Over time, Schwarzkogler became a fainter and fainter memory.
The other day I came across the story of Japanese artist Mao Sugiyama, who had sent this tweet (originally in Japanese): "Please retweet. I am offering my male genitals (full penis, testes, scrotum) as a meal for 100,000 yen [about £850]. I'm Japanese. The organs were surgically removed at age 22. I was tested to be free of venereal diseases. The organs were of normal function. I was not receiving female hormone treatment. The length at full erection was 16.1 cm [just over 6 inches]. First interested buyer will get them, or I will also consider selling to a group. Will prepare and cook as the buyer requests, at his chosen location. If you have questions, please contact me by DM or e-mail."
In April of this year, in an art event, Sugiyama served a meal to five paying customers in Suginami ward in Tokyo, the genitals braised, and garnished with mushrooms and parsley. The district mayor, Ryo Tanaka, said: "many residents of Suginami and elsewhere have expressed a sense of discomfort and feeling of apprehension over this", and reported Sugiyama to the police. But apparently there is no specific law in Japan against cannibalism, and so no charge to answer. The diners remarked that the genitals were rubbery and bland, which must be disappointing for Sugiyama, its not as if he can learn from his mistake and serve the meal again with less cooking and more seasoning. The genitals had been frozen, which inevitably spoils the quality of sweet meats as it does squid or any delicate flesh full of air pockets. I notice from the news articles that Sugiyama has also had his nipples removed. Not enough for a follow-up meal, but an hors d'oeuvre perhaps, salted and popped on top of squares of brioche?
Sugiyama in chef hat, literally serves himself (via whatonjinan.com)
Sugiyama, now bereft of all signs of gender, doesn't want to associate with either sex. He intends to wear only transparent clothes, to show us the nothing that remains.
Encountering this story spurred me to reach back into my past, and give flesh to the myth of Schwarzkogler.
Quickly I found this: "Chris Burden once remarked that a 1970s Newsweek Magazine article, which had mentioned himself and Schwarzkogler, had embarrassingly misreported that Schwarzkogler had died by slicing off his penis during a performance." The article was apparently by the usually reliable Robert Hughes, titled The Decline and Fall of the Avant-Garde, in TIME magazine no less. The cover of the issue in which Hughes' essay appeared, 18 December 1972, is apposite given what I am writing about - dismemberment and cannibalism. In the essay, Hughes wrote that Schwarzkogler "proceeded, inch by inch, to amputate his own penis, while a photographer recorded the act as an art event". And Hughes wrote that Schwarzkogler had killed himself through "self-amputation".
Could it be true that the source of such vivid nightmares was untrue?
In fact, it seems that the photographs that tricked Hughes were of Schwarzkogler's friend Hans Cibulka, taken in 1965 by Schwarzkogler, they show Cibulka cropped off at the neck, posing with his penis wrapped in a bandage ready to be cut, and then actually cutting a roll of animal flesh. The kind of trick of association used for centuries by magicians, and now by cinema. It is a testament to the evocative power of 70s Teutonic performance art: Schwarzkogler wanted to make it seem as though a man was self-mutilating, and obviously managed exactly this. Hughes fell into some kind of trap, taking tromp l'oeil for the real thing, not checking, not feeling he needed to check, not caring if it was true or not, it was depraved anyway. He manufactured a nightmare from he was most afraid of - creativity turned upside-down to become degradation. And he passed that nightmare on.
One of Schwarzkogler's milder photographs (via imkinsky.com, brace yourself for the photos that dismayed Hughes)
We might not be attracted to Schwarzkogler's art, but it was a fierce time, rife with extreme politics, and it was this perhaps dictated to some young Germans and Austrian artists that they needed to create art to match it. There is a sensitive essay about Schwarzkogler here. Hughes was also wrong about Schwarzkogler's death too. He fell out of a window.
So I had been misled by someone who was misled. Hughes' fallacies had found their way into the classroom, and into my impressionable young head.
It got me thinking about other nightmares from my youth which had stemmed from misprision or even wilful distortion on the part of the storyteller.
Perhaps the 1970s was a spectacularly bleak decade. It was certainly made to seem so. I remember a history teacher telling us that it almost didn't matter whether we learned or not, that Marxism was going to thrust Britain into a new Dark Ages. I remember a music teacher spending an entire lesson railing against John Cage's composition called 4'33", saying that all modern musicians were nihilists and music was dead. Cage's composition consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. Our teacher was fairly frothing at the mouth over literally nothing, most especially at the exactness of the four minutes and thirty-three seconds that this nothing lasted. I remember a policeman visiting the school and showing us how to hide under a table when the Russian nuclear missiles started to rain down. I remember programmes on television showing us that a new ice age was unavoidable and imminent, it was going to entomb and freeze us all, the ice caps were demonstrably growing, the screen full of cliffs of ice advancing, creaking and cracking.
I was told, with certainty, that I would be living in an ice-bound post-nuclear Marxist state. With music only silence, and art only self-amputation. One way or another, physically or spiritually, I would be dead. None of this has, or will come to pass. People with the highest qualifications and the greatest authority were busy getting facts wrong and interpretations of those facts woefully far of what has come to be. And sending me to bed with almost unmanageable visions of the end-of-times. There is a catalogue of prophesied apocalypses by Matt Ridley; the population explosion, global famine, flu epidemics, water wars, oil exhaustion, falling sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winter, killer bees, mobile phone brain cancer. And tunnelling North Koreans popping up in America? The YSK bug, remember that? And just last year, the Large Hadron Collider bound to create a black hole and destroy the whole planet? Those too ready to tell such terrible tales Matt Ridley accuses of 'apocaholism'.
Worse than getting facts wrong, it seems these people who spooked me feared the wrong things. The things they feared were cul-de-sacs were in fact new avenues. The point of John Cage's 4'3" is that during it you can hear all sorts of sounds, not music but coughing, machinery, rustling, birdsong, ambient sound. Cage said the purpose of the piece was "to make people listen". And this revelation turned out to be the beginning of a great aural revolution. The idea that ordinary sound can be 'music' has inspired Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Brian Eno and by extension feeds into pretty much every field and piece of modern music. Our political system resisted Marxism, and (much as it might amaze us) acted as an alternative attractive enough to cause Marxism to be overthrown throughout the Communist Block. You can argue that Schwarzkogler is a descendent of Hughes' much loved artist, Goya. Hughes loved Goya for his political engagement, depicting "a world of moral chaos". Goya was working in the 1800s responding to the ravages of Napoleon, Schwarzkogler in the 1970s responding to the ravages of Marxism. Hughes prefers his gore depicted by alizarin crimson rather than fish blood, but the essential subject matter, the individual torn asunder, is the same. Rather than the end of something, Schwarzkogler was a beginning. All artists today owe a great debt to Schwarzkogler and his ilk, and many use his techniques; the body as a canvas, photography and shock.
Nightmares beget nightmares. There are experts telling apocalyptic stories today, the horsemen have different names from the ones that trotted out in the 1970s, today it's Money and Islamism, CO2 and Piracy. But we must not be too hard on what Gore Vidal called the "experts". Visions of the Apocalypse exist in every age. They are a form of rhetoric. A presentational gambit. They wrest us away from complacency. Make the message urgent. Beyond urgent. Necessary. Absolute.
But does the absolute exist? The universe and everything in it is more about the contingent than the absolute, everywhere we care to look, in science, in culture, things are fluid and interdependent. Pretty much nothing happens without needing lots of other things to also happen, and often what happens isn't what anyone could foresee. Our mistake is to take them, the "experts" or the visions, too seriously.
What have I learned? What has the lesson of Schwarzkogler fallacy taught me? Like Sugiyama's guests: the proof of the pudding is in the eating.