Seventy-five suns in the sky over France
Mathias Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist
taken from M/M "Le Grand Livre" (Lukas+Sternberg/Walther Köning), 2004
HUO: I understand that you are working on an opera project. Could we talk about that?
Mathias: We designed the sets for an Italian Baroque opera Antigona, by Tommasso Traetta, which will be premiered at the Opéra de Montpellier and then reprised at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. The show is directed by Eric Vigner. We’ve been working together for over ten years now at the Théâtre de Lorient, which he directs, and for which we design the posters. The production was commissioned by the conductor Christophe Rousset, who dug up the librettto.
HUO: This is the first time that you’ve worked in this medium, isn’t it?
Mathias: Yes, it’s the first time.
HUO: And you’ve been given the job of doing the stage, the sets and the costumes?
Mathias: The costumes were made by a fashion designer, Paul Quenson, whom we introduced to Eric not so long ago.
Michael: All the elements in the stage design derived from the stage curtain. It breaks down into different planes, volumes and objects, and the costumes fit into this ensemble.
HUO: So that’s one of the projects you are working on at the moment. There will be flashing lights. It’s a “flash opera.”
Mathias: It’s more like one big image that is constantly being echoed and reflected.
HUO: It’s a kind of self-destructing opera, isn’t it?
Mathias: It’s more like a trap. You enter the image and never come back out of it. And in the end it draws a big landscape peopled with our signs.
HUO: So, it’s a kind of retrospective…
Mathias: Yes and no. Let’s say that it’s setting up a language that up to then was only in the process of forming. We are reaching the point when we realise that we have created a language. In the beginning we formulated questions and their answers, now we use this language that we have built. In the context of this opera, it becomes a language in three dimensions, accompanied by Baroque music, which is rather fortunate, given that this notion of the Baroque and of decor interests us.
Michael: You could say that it’s a "décor decoratif".
HUO: Is this the most complex project you have at the moment?
Mathias: The most complex, I don’t know. Let’s say that it is complex for us because we never
worked on that before.
Michael: That’s why we have decided to extend this project in space and time, first of all with an exhibitionbefore the show is premieredand then, after the event, with a film.
Mathias: It started with an invitation from Sylvie Boulanger at the CNEAI in Chatou, who asked us if we wanted to do an exhibition. We decided to link it to the opera.
Michael: As if to make that our first act.
Mathias: Yes, you know the CNEAI was an art centre dedicated to printed art. We decided to produce a series of prints, of images, prior to doing this set. The stage curtain, which is the matrical image, thus became a traditional print in 50x65 cm format, even before it became the stage curtainon the scale of the theatre.
Michael: …and the series of Alphamen, that alphabet made up of male models made by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, was made into a series of 26 silkscreens, each printed in an edition of 26.
HUO: I know the beginning… the one with the women.
Michael: Yes, The Alphabet, another series of letters built up with Inez’s photos of female models.
HUO: And that’s going to be put out in box format?
Michael: Yes, there will be a box with the 26 letters.
Mathias: There’s also a collection of six characters. They are posters, which present our collection of clothes “pour HoM/Me.” It’s a clothing collection that will not exist, but that could have. And it inspired us when we were designing the costumes for the Opéra with Paul.
HUO: I don’t quite understand the role of that box, of these editions of lithographs and prints. Is it a “Duchampian” box?
Mathias: No, not at all. The box is meant only for the edition of the complete alphabet. It’s just about publishing the images that we have been able to produce. You know, again, it has to do with our complicated relation to the art world. We have always clearly defined ourselves as graphic designers but at the same time it’s a kind of pretext. I mean that we chose this profession because it was practical. When we started working, being a graphic designer meant situating yourself at the intersection of a multitude of information networks.
HUO: Exactly, of the questions I meant to ask you, this, for me, is one of the most important: How do you view the changes in your profession? As an example, I will take the career of Bruce Mau. At the end of the 1980s, Bruce Mau’s practice was clearly oriented towards the production of books and magazines, but his agency was gradually transformed into an outfit for creating multiple identities, a place where, in a way, people bought or commissioned a new identity. There was Frank Gehry for his architecture and, later, there was intensive collaboration with Koolhaas. The fact being that the production of books and magazines gradually diminished. Now, in your case, it seems to me, the evolutions have been very different, but you also went through some major changes in the 1990s. Proof of that is that you now work with the art world, with opera, with fashion. In fact, I would have liked you to talk to me about that so I can understand how you work. But since that’s a big and complex question, perhaps we could start by considering the place you work in. The studio seems to play a very important role. We have always met here and I was wondering about this place and how, practically, you go about working here…
Mathias: For us, this place is perfectly in keeping with our decision at the outset, I mean, our decision to be graphic designers. Being a graphic designer implies that you should have an office. You don’t say you’re going to the “studio” but that you’re going to the “office.” What does that mean? That means that we exercise a profession an identifiable profession that performs certain social functions.
Michael: In this respect, being a graphic designer is first of all a question of economic independence. We don’t rely on subsidies, on museums or collectors. But we have managed to build a tool that enables us to propose ideas in exchange for money.
Mathias: That was always what we meant to do, right from the start.
HUO: You mean, from the late 1980s?
Michael: The late 80s, early 90s.
HUO: How in fact did you start out? How did you start working together? What were the first pieces of work?
Mathias: The first things we did together were the album covers.
HUO: What year was that?
Michael: We set up the company in 1992.
Mathias: The question of the “office” was really a deliberate attitude. Right from the start, we wanted to integrate that social and economic reality into our work. This independent economic existence was important to us because it enabled us to build up a foundation, a tool with which we could put out ideas. And that in fact is how things worked out, even if we did have to wait a while before people really started asking our opinion. This crystallised in 1995 with the catalogue for Nicolas Bourriaud’s exhibition Traffic at the capc in Bordeaux, where we really fought for our position, not to be just a service provider.
HUO: Is that the Russian matrioshka?
Mathias: Yes, that’s it… (Laughs)
HUO: The Russian matrioshka plays an important role. Can you tell me about that? I remember having been very interested in that work. Personally, I generally really like the idea of “exhibitions within exhibitions,” and your catalogue for Traffic was conceived a bit like that, as a catalogue of catalogues. There was this idea that one catalogue can hide another.
Mathias: Yes… For us, that was the only way of getting a group to exist together. The problem with design is that it tends to produce a container, a box or a presentation device that puts everyone on the same level. Whereas by working with this idea of the catalogue in the catalogue, we were trying to get several voices to coexist. We wanted to express this idea of dialogue that the simple form of the book tends to crush. The bundle of individualities was preserved, and the information was complete… we developed this same principle of the matrioshka with you for the catalogue of Nuit Blanche at the Musée d’Art Moderne.
HUO: Does the art world allow you more freedom than others? Is there a different relation with “standard clients,” so to speak?
Mathias: We’re not trying to institute a system of values, or a scale of comparisons between the disciplines. Each discipline must remain faithful to its essence. Which means that, when working with art we were still graphic designers and we wanted to work with people who were real artists, with people who aren’t trying to move outside their area of competence and start doing something else. We have always been clear about that.
Each discipline exists in itself, but it is true that in the mid-90s so-called “transversality”which means artists’ fascination for the applied arts: for fashion, design, architecture, graphic designgave us the chance, from the other direction, to intervene in the field of art, because artists were interested in our practices.
HUO: And what were your first dealings with artists?
Mathias: The first artist we met, who understood the interest of bringing us in was Pierre Joseph. Allow me to use an image here. I think that the work of developing ideas is rather similar to the process of extracting and refining minerals. Now, Pierre Joseph is someone who goes looking for ideas that are very complex, almost formless, and at the outset not very tempting, but you know that with other people’s help the idea can be refined, like oil or coal. When he came to ask us to do a catalogueit was an exhibition at the FRAC Champagne-Ardenne with Nathalie Erginohe had understood that he could call on us to give form to the idea, to trim it, to polish it.
HUO: That was after Traffic?
Michael: The same year, I think: 1995.
Mathias: To come back to the Traffic catalogue, in fact that was the first time we were in the position of “publisher,” responsible for the book’s whole structure, thanks to the freedom that Nicolas gave us. It’s as if we had stumbled upon a huge box full of jumbled information, and we were there to structure that information. For the Pierre Joseph catalogue we set ourselves the goal of structuring an object. This was our first dealing with an artist.
HUO: Today your are best known for your relationships with Philippe [Parreno] and Pierre [Huyghe]…
Mathias: Yes, Philippe was the next artist and the relationship was a very important one. He also understood that we could help him achieve his ideas, give shape to his thinking, perfect a sign… Philippe had a magnificent idea for the Venice Biennale when, along with Dominique [Gonzalez-Foerster] and Pierre, he was invited by Harald Szeemann to present a “scaled-down” version of their exhibition at the ARC [Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris]. He said to us: “Here is our idea: we are three artists, we have three rooms, we would like to present a single film, but we have a problem with the credits and we don’t know what to do.” And, rather than making a credit sequence that unfolds in the film, as “real designers” would have done it, we were able to go further because Philippe also realised that he could ask us for more than that. With the three rooms, we could give the credit sequence a real physical presence, and we made the credits in three dimensions, with the “wall tattoos” that marked the beginning and the end of the film, in time and in space.
HUO: Was this your first collaboration with Philippe?
Mathias: Yes, that was when, with Philippe and the others, we realised what we could bring to each other. How we could, in our respective fields, go further together than separately. There are artists who suddenly become pseudo-graphic designers and, conversely, graphic designers who become false artists, but that’s not very interesting. What I find really exciting, on the contrary, with Philippe or with Inez van Lamsweerde, when she is playing her role as fashion photographer acting in the field of art, is that each person is occupying their own position, but that when the complementarity develops it means everyone can go further. This was also the case for another project that we did with Philippe, when he asked us for another credit sequence, this time for his film Crédits. I think he was expecting us to do a “designed” sequence, using graphics and typography, but we responded with a photo that we “commissioned” from Inez. For us it was more interesting to give another representation of the film instead of mimicking a Hollywood credit sequence. These are codes of communication that we find very easy to manipulate, where one image can replace another.
HUO: Can you tell me more how your office works between a private laboratory and the pubic sphere?
Michael: The personnel currently consists of three people in addition to us two, one of them part-time. Which means that there are four to five people working here. The work is divided up very organically. We don’t often plan this. Projects come in and are taken up by the person who feels most at ease with them, or whose practice makes for a natural affinity.
HUO: There is another aspect which makes you fairly unusual, which is that the growth of your offices hasn’t kept pace with the growth in the scale of the projects you have had to work on. In the beginning you did museum catalogues, collaborations with artists, record covers, whereas today you have done a huge magazine with Vogue, you have worked with Yohji Yamamoto and Calvin Klein, big clients from the world of fashion, and in spite of that your office hasn’t changed. I think that’s an interesting paradox. Do you outsource or do you work harder? You don’t have other offices, for example?
Mathias: No, we don’t have other offices. It’s true that the dominant logic for graphic design offices means that they tend to become huge: you say, the more work there is and the more important the assignments, the bigger the offices will grow. Like a human being: the more it eats, the bigger it gets. But that’s not the way we function. This is not, the more things we do, the bigger we get, but rather, the more we work, the better we work, trying to get to the point much more directly. I don’t know how to explain this… You get more expertise as the number of projects mounts up, and I think we work faster and better today than we did ten years ago. You could say that we work to order and because one always comes back to the logic of the business’s economic functioning, the imperative of economic viability, there is always a time that is specially suited to the project. We try not to lose control. It’s unusual for us to leak time. Even for Vogue, which was a very big project and lasted two years, we set ourselves limits.
HUO: That’s over now, is it?
Mathias: Yes, it’s finished. Anyway, as I was saying, we set ourselves time limits, we try to keep our appetite for work in check. It’s true that we could imagine ourselves working with a lot more personnel, but then we would be doing a completely different activity.
Michael: Another thing that makes our activity particular is the fact that, whether we are working for Calvin Klein and his ad campaign or with Pierre Joseph on his catalogue with a print run of 1,000, the degree of precision involved is always the same. The way we look at these projects means that the approach we take can’t be industrial.
Mathias: Yes, even though the stakes are very different.
HUO: So, you don’t hierarchise.
Michael & Mathias: No.
Mathias: And if there’s no hierarchy, that is because we consider that each thing has its own value. But this is not a relativistic idea of things in which all things are equal, whatever their nature. We often take the image of the alphabet, which is a system of discontinuous but inter-related signs. The projects we do connect up together a bit like that, and so while their respective worth will be different, one project is not more valuable than another. The big difference now is that we are being asked to exhibit. We are being asked not only to produce, but also to show. That posed a big problem for us, which we tried to deal with. We did an interview with Lionel Bovier, one in a series of conversations he had with designers that were published in the catalogue for the 1998 Berlin Biennial. There we discussed this problem of exhibiting our work. Since then, our response has been articulated around this idea of the archive and of its presentation, trying to show the links that may exist between all the signs/systems that we have set up.
HUO: Speaking of which, is this place of work also an archive? The question occurred to me when I thought about your use of images, I mean this practice of recycling materials which characterises a lot of your work. Since, as you explain, the different productions form a kind of vocabulary that is constantly being reinvested in new productions, I would have thought your archive was important to you. How do you go about that, materially speaking? Is everything stored on the computer, or are there books, paper?
Mathias: In fact we have lots of boxes of archives. Perhaps we’ll take a look later on. There’s a special room for it, with all our posters, our archives.
HUO: So, we’ll be able to see all that?
Mathias: Yes, but we need to go into details a bit, otherwise it’ll all be too vague. But I can already say that the archive exists, physically and independently, for one thing, but also in a more lively way, that is to say, in our work itself. We believe that an image exists only in the relation it has to one that precedes or follows it. That’s why you have images, parts, signs spreading from one project to the next.
HUO: For you it’s important to develop a certain continuity.
Mathias: It’s important to us. And besides, we’re also in a way challenging the schizophrenic tendency of the world of communication, advertising and design. It’s a field in which you’re supposed to totally reinvent yourself with each new project, but once you reach a certain stage that’s obviously not possible. You don’t have the time or the strength to reinvent yourself every time. So, instead, we try to reinvent our point of view. Which means that the tools are the same, we find certain solutions that improve with time, that become more precise, but each time we shift our vantage point in approaching problems. The calling into question comes in at an earlier stage. You could compare this to the same story told again and again from different points of view.
HUO: So it’s a kind of multi-perspectivism?
Mathias: I suppose you could put it like that.
HUO: Am I right in thinking that you are working on a book about yourselves? Could we talk about that?
Mathias: In a way, for us this book represents an opportunity to de-archive everything. The first thing to say is that we don’t want to design this book ourselves, but rather to put ourselves in the situation in which we have often put our partners. We decided to ask GTF, a group of English designers with which have a close relationship, to take it on. What they are doing obviously has a number of things in common with our work, but their forms really are not very close to ours, and also, over the years they have been turning into a really big company, real Design Professionals.
HUO: Are they corporate designers?
Mathias: Well, I’d rather say that they are reinventing corporate design. They could replace Pentagram.
Michael: Except that the dimension of this group is more human than in corporate design, and they are more open about their obsessions. Hey, here is one of the covers we did for Björk. It’s a good example of what Mathias was telling you a moment ago about points of view.
HUO: Is this new?
Michael: Oh no, we did it in 2001 with Inez van Lamsweerde. It’s a photo of Björk that Inez took in Los Angeles, poolside. And this is the poster for Savannah Bay by Marguerite Duras at the Théâtre de Lorient, when the play was made a part of the repertoire of the Comédie Française. The poster shows the moment when Inez took the photo of Björk. It’s another point of view to illustrate Savannah Bay, the story of these two women by the water, watching each other.
Mathias: Yes, these are methods that we use a lot.
HUO: And this, is this a new book?
Michael: No, it’s the catalogue for a poster and graphic design festival where we presented all the posters we did for this theatre.
HUO: There’s a question we’ll think about in the second half of the interview, because it’s a bit difficult to answer in a hurry. It’s about utopia and projects that never happened.
Mathias: This idea is a very strange one for us. Because from our point of view, a project that is not carried out can’t exist. It is necessarily something you don’t talk about, precisely because it is not in the process of being carried out, or, if you are talking about it, it’s because it’s starting to exist. In either case, there is no room for the existence of a project that is not carried through, that is simply virtual. I well know that there is a fairly widespread fascination in the communications and graphic design circles with unrealised projects and rejected projects, but for us, the relation to commissions is so essential that an unrealised project cannot have any kind of existence. It would be like asking me to relate the contents of an ideal dialogue that I would have had with someone I admire, when I had never been able to meet them. It’s rather the same kind of problem: there is no way of saying what such a dialogue is like, unless it did actually happen. However, the case of rejected projects is a bit different. But that still doesn’t make them utopian projects because we generally transform them in such a way that they can be implemented or integrated into others. It’s both an ecology and an economy of work.
HUO: Today we’re at the Brasserie Lipp and I’d like to take up where we left off, on the question of utopian projects. It’s a question that is very important to me, in fact it’s the only recurring question in my interviews, the one I always ask. There is something very interesting in this regard, because I think that it really is a utopian project. This is the work you did for Beaubourg, and the project of the “collector’s book.”
Mathias: You mention a catalogue that was published when the Pompidou Centre reopened in 2001. It’s a subject that really inspired us. When we were asked to do this book, Beaubourg as we still thought of it was not just a museum, a place that shows art, but also, at the same time, a generator of ideas, a machine for producing signs. When Philippe Parreno talks about a “cloud factory,” I think that there was a moment when Beaubourg was nearly that.
HUO: A long time ago, then…
Mathias: Yes a long time ago… Because now it has become a factory for not a lot.
HUO: Before the grey men came to power.
Mathias: That’s it. Before the grey men came to power. The centre closed and then reopened, renovated by Renzo Piano. For the occasion we were commissioned to do a catalogue to present the collection of the modern art museum. And so, obviouslyand this must be why you find this project has utopian overtoneswe were faced with the impossibility of being exhaustive. This collection contains, I think, more than 40,000 pieces, and so it is impossible to present them all in one book. We therefore decided to respond to the problem subjectively. We said to ourselves, we are going to write the story of the collection, a rather unusual story: there is not one hero, but severalin other words, the successive directors of the centre, and what happens to these directors is not, frankly, very thrilling. Anyway, the thing is that, with Fabrice Hergott, a curator in charge of supervising the project, we became the authors of a very subjective book.
We did a kind of fast travelling shot through the museum. Originally, the idea came from a Godard film where you see him running through the Louvre, which gives you a kind of speeded-up vision of the artworks. And then there is that Clint Eastwood film where he promises to take his son to the zoo but doesn’t have the time, so he takes him through the zoo at full speed, running with the pram in the middle of all the animals. He calls it the “Speed Zoo," which his son kind of likes. Here it’s the same principle. We made a catalogue presenting in pictures an inevitably subjective visionour vision and Fabrice’s visionof twentieth-century art, via the museum collection. But this work made us want to do something elsethis developed gradually when we were working with people in the art worldto do the portraits of collectors via their collections. To show how a collection usually turns out to be biographical. We wanted to write their story in images.
HUO: Very interesting… But the last time you were both saying that for you there weren’t any unrealised projects, or that for you the idea of a project remaining fictitious was inconceivable. Could you say something more about this idea?
Michael: Yes, Mathias started explaining that, for us, unrealised projects don’t exist. Since they are a matter of commissions, then an unrealised project is one that hasn’t been commissioned yet. Which means there isn’t one.
HUO: It’s funny, that’s not what I thought. On the contrary, I was thinking that this aspect went hand in hand with your practice of permanently reusing the same materials. Couldn’t we in effect say that in this way of doing things there is a kind of idea that, at the end, every project you do is partial, more or less abortive inasmuch as its elements will be found again in the following one. As if, at the end, all your realisations were only moments in a kind of infinite project.
Mathias: No, I really don’t think that you can say we have unrealised projects.
HUO: As you can see, this question is very important to me!
Michael: Oh right! Well, I do have one rather funny example of an unrealised project, or rather, a project that was rejectedthat’s not the same thingand that eventually produced something else, that took another form and that we come across again in another state. What’s more, you come into this yourself because it was a job we were supposed to be doing for Luc Steels, who you introduced us to at the time of the Laboratoriumfor the Sony Computer Science Laboratory, which he directs. He asked us to think about an image for this research laboratory. We went to see him and he explained all sorts of things about the different departments there, their current research projects. The thing I remember most clearly is the concept of the agent, of small entities, like intelligent information units, which move around, react and eventually create a language or make it possible to understand it. So, we had drawn a figure for that. The project didn’t happen, but the figure remained with us and has become recurrent and emblematic in several other pieces of work of ours, therefore validating the work for Steels in terms of our own activity. He appears as a “guest star” on a great variety of scales. For example, in that lamp we made for Lionel Bovier’s exhibition Xn00, in the About fresco in Venice or, again, as a very discreet guest on a Björk record cover.
Mathias: In fact, what you have to understand about unrealised projects is that we end up with signs that are a little bit like waste, elements floating in space that have no owner and that tend to escape their authors. They float, waiting to exist elsewhere and differently.
HUO: So, this character began as a project with Sony? What happened?
Mathias: We are very disappointed by the reaction of Sony CSL. It was a research laboratory that struck us as very utopian. We thought that it was open, that you could do anything. So we tried to make an image that, for us, pointed in that direction. We tried to produce a representation whose aim was more to provide food for thought than to simply promote the laboratory’s activities, even if that reflection did itself promote the laboratory’s activities. But, having inspired us by communicating his ideas to us, Luc Steel then turned out to be very conservative when it came to judging and understanding our images.
HUO: Are there other things like this?
Mathias: Rejected projects that become something else? Yes. There is this “stain.” It’s a kind of complex figurative Yin and Yang. Initially it was a logo for a friend who had set up a production company. But he didn’t like it at all because he thought that if he adopted that logo people would mistake it for a “stain”! He rejected it because of the connotation of the word since stain is also a pejorative term. As a result this sign acquired the same type of reality as that character we were talking about. That is, it is floating in an indeterminate space yet regularly reappears…
HUO: Paradoxically your unrealised projects become floating signifiers.
Mathias: Right, exactly.
HUO: That’s very interesting. They acquire even greater presence, become insistent…
Mathias: And lately, that floating signifier may have found a buyer. The gallery Air de Paris is interested in acquiring it, although they would like it to continue floating. They want to be able to tame it. It would have to appear and disappear intermittently, and little by little it might win acceptance as their identity, the famous “logo.” So you see, it’s fairly complicated this question of unrealised projects. In fact, I think it’s an idea that we don’t like. I know you’ve done a book on the subject, Unbuilt Roads, but frankly speaking, we hate the idea of a project that doesn’t exist. Everything we do has to live, we are not an experimental laboratory, and if people valued unrealised projects, all our work would be called into question. The unrealised project is a failure for us.
Michael: That’s why we try each time to transform the failures so that our work is productive all the same. When a project fails, we take as our starting point the principle that it’s a conversation that didn’t work out the way it should have, but that doesn’t change anything from the fact that we made an effort to serve an idea we believed in. That’s why we always try to reuse the idea’s outcome.
Mathias: Lately we met with another failure. In fact, it was even a double failure! It began as a job for Vogue. We were asked to design a “simpler” typeface than what we had set up for the magazine. We found our inspiration in a typeface that was typical of France in the 1950s. It’s a font that has up- and downstrokes, a sans serif but with up- and downstrokes. The original design is the work of Cassandre, from the 1930s I believe, and it was the Deberny & Peignot foundry that distributed it. Then it spread everywhere during the 50s. It’s a very conservative character, it has a “German shepherd” kind of look, but it is at once very simple and very elegant. When it wants to step out and put on its best bib and tucker, it can become very decorative without harming the quality of the information it’s communicating. So originally we had thought out and designed this new font for Vogue, but it never happened, we left the magazine. Then, more recently, we got a call from the Ministry of Culture. They wanted to rethink the Ministry’s whole identity because they realised that they were suffering from a real image deficit.
Michael: And more specifically, they couldn’t compete with the hubbub of images and signs continuously given off by corporations and brands. The famous difficulty of “advertising” culture.
Mathias: Exactly. So we thought they weren’t “competitive” because they didn’t have a voice that was theirs alone. Their language didn’t exist. So we perfected the character that we had begun to work out, then we developed an overall communications project that took shape around that character, in order to fix it in people’s minds as the exclusive typeface of the Ministry, the one that would be used in all the communications supports. It was a thoroughly viable project since the character is legible and decorative, poetic and informative. Long story short, we managed to make it through the first rounds of the bidding process, but in the end they preferred another project. Once again we had produced a floating signifier…
Michael: In this case it’s more a ghostly voice…
Mathias: About this problem of unrealised projects, I should add that there is also a question of the “ecology” of the sign, I mean if we can’t stand a vacuum, having unrealised projects, it’s because we can’t stand putting anything in the bin. There’s an important difference with the world of art. I can well understand that an artist enjoys a special relationship with archives, that the unrealised project has meaning and value for him, but in what they call the applied arts, in our work, the unrealised project usually ends up in a drawer, where it will stay until retirement. It’s when it comes time to empty out the office that you stumble on it by chance and you say to yourself with tears in your eyes, “Ah yes… I had forgotten, it was a good idea all the same… What a pity!” You relapse into nostalgia and pathos… That’s precisely what we run away from. If a project isn’t carried through to completion, it’s because the initial question was poorly formulated, the request poorly defined. As Michael was saying so aptly, it’s a conversation that got off to a bad start and leads to a misunderstanding.
Michael: Yes, a “case of mistaken identity,” like in popular theatre.
Mathias: But the nostalgic lament of the “unrealised but naturally fantastic project” is one thing we’ve refrained from the very beginning. Indeed, everyone who taught us our craft would at one time or another come out with the “wonderful project that never got made,” whereas we’ve always said, on the contrary, that is where the real error lies. If in fact a project never saw the light of day it’s because they weren’t able to turn or twist the question to their advantage, or because they were dealing with the wrong question in their responses.
HUO: That leads me quite naturally to another question: Who were the graphic designers who taught you your craft?
Michael: You mean our teachers or those who inspired us?
HUO: Both. Your instructors, your influences, your “heroes,” if you have any…
Mathias: Michael has a very strong and longstanding admiration for Peter Saville. I came to like him later because it’s especially his character that interests me, the posh drinks, the dissolute lifestyle. Michael, on the other hand, felt a real fascination for his work.
Michael: My own case is very common amongst the people of my generation. That is, for those who grew up with the music and for whom at one time album covers, in the early 80s, served as windows onto the world. And it so happens that Peter Saville album covers really mark a break with the past. When you’re a teenager, even when you don’t have all the keys for understanding the whole tangle of references, there is something that marks you and makes you begin to question things. That’s what happened to me, as it did to lots of other graphic designers my age. It’s even a cliché nowadays. But the fact remains that the more I sought to understand these forms, the more I discovered layers that made the matter richer and denser.
Mathias: From that point of view we might say that Saville’s work came very close to the work of an artist in that in this instance we are talking above all about the work of an auteur. He tells us the story of his life and floats ideas by using his commissions as a pretext. That helps to make his work very impressive and original. The images he was able to produce were very foreign to the spirit of the day. There was a very strong contrast between his output and what was being done. I think above all he was one of the first graphic designers to have an artistic point of view in the sense that his work was very personal.
Michael: Yes, they were images that were very foreign to the context in which they came to beEnglish pop music in the 80sbut at the same time they were images that each time for me were keys to other levels of the story. They were always linked to different types of history, the history of art or of representation, which meant that each time a record was brought out, it was a bit like going to school. To learn that a New Order record sleeve is in fact a “remake” of a Futurist poster by Fortunato Depero meant that at 22 I became insanely keen on all avant-garde movements, and I wondered about the meaning of that shift and its justifications. All that fitted together perfectly. And what was particularly interesting is that he wasn’t offering images that shouted, “We are original”. Rather, through these shifts he was offering to view those images as commentaries or re-activations of entire chapters of the history of art.
HUO: You’re talking about his story, about a form of autobiography. Auto-graphism as autobiography is what interests you, no?
Mathias: Yes, his work is autobiographical, yet at the same time he’s not one to spend his time contemplating his navel. That’s what’s great, obviously. It’s an autobiography that strikes a collective chord. He conjures up his personal history but always in counterpoint to collective history. He was fascinated by the Situationists and from there he began his personal trajectory in the history of art and the history of signs. It’s important to us because before him, the signs of pop culture seemed to be without a history; they weren’t connected to each other.
HUO: As Philippe Parreno would say, “The concatenation is beautiful…’
Mathias: Yes, that’s it, they’re concatenations of signs. We often say this when we give talks, that when we make an image, it is never isolated, it always exists between the one that comes before it and the one that’s going to follow it… That’s why Saville’s work has been extremely important. On the other hand, whether he did that consciously or not, we don’t clearly know. That’s another question. In our work in any case, it originates in a conscious approach.
HUO: Were there other key encounters, other role models?
Mathias: Yes, there are some of our contemporaries. We certainly like the work of Paul Elliman, for instance. He’s very interesting, someone who thinks about signs, yet he is very sparing in his output of signs. We produce a lot, we’re very wild by comparison! I’m not too sure how to explain it… I would like to say that he seeks a kind of essence but the word “essence” isn’t really right because he’s not at all a modernist… He’s rather in search of the initial idea that gives birth to an image, and to borrow a comparison, rather than do the whole tree and its flourishing branches, he focuses on the trunk, the root… He’s also someone who is very important to the history of graphic designers.
HUO: In what way?
Mathias: I’ll give you an example. The Bauhaus people were the first to create typefaces designed to be “universally” understood. That is, they set as their objective to be understood by the largest possible number of different people. Therefore, they needed to find a common rule, which meant that they used modular systems, “grids,” to the extreme. But they eventually arrived at unusable rules, which ended up fading away all by themselves, as if snuffed out by their own rigidity. They had entered a blind alley. But Paul Elliman thought that there was nevertheless something interesting in those typographic forms, in the initial idea, and that it was especially the realisation that they proved deficient or unusable. I remember he spoke to us about that long ago. As for us, we continued thinking about that and we thought to ourselves that it was possible to go further by introducing psychology or subjectivity, which the Bauhaus completely rejected.
HUO: And have there been any French role models? Or, on the contrary, do your role models come from abroad?
Michael: I would say that, for me, French influence made itself felt above all by its absence. I did my degree entirely at the school of decorative arts in Paris, which I experienced as a kind of two-headed monster, a dogmatic “Cerberus.” There were actually two schools there, both clashed and each was as rigid as the other. On the one hand, there was a form of teaching inherited from Swiss functionalism, with people like Jean Widmer, who taught a form of graphic design based on “visual identity”; and on the other, there was a kind of teaching coming from the 60s, with ex-Grapus instructors, and which advocated a graphic design of “public benefit.” It drove me mad having to be so reductive, especially since I’d arrive at school with my New Order singles in my bag, which annoyed them very much. Even though I could find things worth borrowing from both these approaches, I had a hard time putting up with all the dogmatism and its systematic opposition. They asked us to choose between one and the other and I didn’t agree with that at all. I was looking elsewhere, toward pop culture and art history.
Mathias: What I find exciting in French graphic design all the same is the relationship to the design form. The relationship to signs in France always makes an appeal to psychology, that is, to some use that is not solely functional. In all English-speaking countries, when you talk about graphic design, you are practically talking about a science, an object from which every emotional or subjective consideration has been removed; whereas in France, we let other things get in, especially psychoanalysis, personality, etc.
Michael: What’s very interesting in what you’re saying is that that difference, which is peculiar to France, figures very clearly in the history of typography. What I mean is that between the 40s and the 60s sans-serif fonts, neatly vertical fonts, like Helvetica or Univers, bearing a certain ideology of modernity, appeared throughout Europe. But in France the sans-serif fonts in that period have lots of details, are not at all functional, and always bear a trace of design by hand, a certain naivety. Antique Olive and Chambord are even a straight out heresy, if they’re viewed from a functionalist point of view.
Mathias: Yes, and that is really specific to France. You don’t find that in the rest of Europe. French typography after the war is very much linked to these two foundries, Deberny & Peignot in Paris and Olive in Marseille. What’s interesting is to observe their attempts to get back to modernity, and to realise that they never made it.
HUO: It’s not a genuine modernity…
Mathias: That’s it, that’s exactly what we like in France. French modernitybecause it’s been less rigid, more laid back than in Switzerland, for exampleallows for a more flexible history. In Switzerland it killed the movement, the effect it had was to stop history dead in its tracks. I’m speaking of the history of signs. Indeed, even if people like the members of Grapus had had an unpleasant dogmatic side, nonetheless the fact remains that we needed people like them, who asserted that an auteur graphic design is possible. One can create signs not only to serve an outward message formulated by someone else, but also to transmit something of ourselves. They were quite attached to politics, there were indeed close ties to the Communist Party, and they gave a poetic shape to the political messages they subscribed to. They’re interesting for that reason, even if it’s true we rejected them out of hand. But every teenager has to go through that rebellious stage, no? All the same, if they hadn’t been there, we couldn’t have done what we’ve done and it would be dishonest not to admit it.
[The telephone rings]
HUO: Ah! It’s a telephone break!
Mathias: It’s Stéphanie…
HUO: Could I talk to her afterwards? I would like her to ask you a question… Hello? Good evening, this is Hans Ulrich. Happy new year, best wishes… You know, I’m doing an interview with Mathias and Michael, and because I like Russian dolls, the idea of an interview within the interview, I would like you to ask them a question… Okay. Goodbye and thanks. Good. Stéphanie’s question is “What do you find exciting in life?” So, what do you find exciting in life?
Mathias: I really think it’s that business about the auteur. What I find exciting is being an auteur in the same way as an artist, an architect or a filmmaker. By way of an answer that seems fairly vague, but you certainly see that that wasn’t an obvious given when we began. We had to go beyond the notion of service intended for a client or a message. What we find interesting is the idea of being a narrator with his own personality. It’s a bit like the function of the ringmaster, who’s there to present something other than himselfa showbut who at the same time can communicate his emotions, personality, and so on. To manage to be a kind of ringmaster, in that sense, is something that I find exciting because in the craft that we practice, that’s not at all simple.
HUO: And you?
Michael: We shall have to grow nice handlebar moustaches then. Apart from that, I agree.
HUO: So, nothing to add?
Michael: No. [laughter]
HUO: Well then, in that case, let’s take a break to eat!
HUO: I have to point out that during our break we spoke about Utopia Station and that you invented off the cuff the concept of the “word hall,” which would be a re-appropriation of that famous twice-rejected typeface that we spoke about earlier!
Mathias: Yes. You talked to us about Utopia Station; and the idea of that “word hall” would be to compose a kind of typographic symphony for the next Opus. Utopia Station, in the version that was shown during the Venice Biennale, was a kind of sound-and-visual hubbub, which will have to be disciplined for its next appearance by filtering it through that typeface. Things will be able to spread and the symphony will take shape in that “word hall.” One would have to imagine several kinds of “skins” for the walls… wallpaper, and since we’re fairly obsessed right now with the idea of making posters in relief having real volume, we could make a wallpaper that’s a bit special. It would remind people of what happens when a wall swells and begins to bubble because of humidity. Here we could make the swells and bulges. I think it would look nice… That’s it. [laughter]
[The telephone rings]
HUO: Who is it now?
Mathias: It’s Stéphanie again.
HUO: Good. I’ve just invented a rule. Any call during this interview will give rise to a new question put by the person ringing up. So, Stéphanie has to ask another question… That’s how it is. Those are the rules. Let me talk to her. Stéphanie, hello again! In accordance with the rule that I’ve just decreed, and as you are ringing up once again, you have to ask a new question. Do you agree? Thank you. The question is, “Do you believe weather reports?” Thanks, big kiss. So, do you believe weather reports? I expect an answer. [laughter]
Mathias: Do we believe weather reports? Actually I find that a good question. Weather reports are above all a play of signs. I don’t know if Michael is like me, but I know that when I watch the weather report, I pay more attention to the way clouds are represented, for example, than the fact that it’s raining. Which means that I have a hard time believing weather reports because I find the signs are always defective, poorly made up.
Michael: Yes, and you generally see 75 suns in the sky over France, so obviously, in those conditions it’s hard to believe.
HUO: “Seventy-five suns in the sky over France: it’s hard to believe,” that might make a fine title for this interview… But there’s another question I would like to ask you about the generation question. I well know you have to be very careful about the clichés in this domain, but I think you can nevertheless say that in the early 90s, there was a whole generation of artists in Europe, the United States, Africa, who stood out for the fact that they rejected the 80s, by reacting against the supremacy of the object. This is something Philippe quite often talks about and I was wondering if there was a similar reaction in graphic-design circles. How do you see your generation?
Mathias: The same movement occurred amongst graphic designers. For us the 80s were years of massive output and a proliferation of signs. The history of signs was completely overshadowed. It was the highpoint of Postmodernism and the connection to history was completely suppressed. And there is another distinctive feature of the period, the enormity of the financial means that were placed at the disposal of this output. What marked an abrupt change in the early 90s was a return to questioning the nature of signs. People abandoned the excessive spending, that pure productive activity that never looks inward, in order to engage in some soul searching. We were also against that form of aestheticism in which the sign is only interesting because of its form. I think that question in particular stands as a point of intersection with art, moreover. The most emblematic object of this problem is perhaps Jeff Koons’ chrome rabbit. It is the gratuitous sign par excellence. It’s very beautiful, it’s fascinating to us, yet we don’t quite know why it’s there. It’s a bit like our generation’s vanishing point. So all our early work is stamped by that preoccupation with thinking about the sign, that desire to see it with new eyes. We went looking for our inspiration in signs before the 80s, or in the work of people who weren’t design professionals. We rejected the “beautiful,” perfect, completed sign… I remember, for example, that at school one project I had to do was to get young butcher’s assistants to create a record sleeve. In the same spirit Michael, when he was a student, came around to the idea that he would only use Univers 14 in his work. It was also a violent reaction that aimed to question once again the production process of signs. And once the work of redefining things was completed, we got down to reconstructing a history that integrated our own history and the history of art or even history in general.
HUO: And can it be said then that that is actually a rejection of the 1980s?
Mathias: Yes, but from another point of view, given the faults of the period just now, that return to the pragmatism of the 50s, the overcautiousness with regard to established norms, you find yourself almost missing the excessive aspect of the 80s. You tell yourself spending lavishly and drinking your fill does have its advantages… What’s missing now, following that period of thoroughly reviewing everything, which was necessary, is things getting out of hand. We need to come back a bit to the excesses of those days…
Michael: There is one domain where that transition is especially noticeable. It is the domain producing fashion images. After the 80s, when fashion images were very refined, when glamour and excess were the values to project, we witnessed the appearance of grunge, that is, the return of the individual to the forefront, of personality. What’s odd, however, is that the actors behind this reaction have gradually come to reproduce the images that they were fighting initially. We are in a period when images are even more polished, sleek, and complete than in the 80s. Our day and age is very conservative. The Prada campaign done by Steven Meisel is very symptomatic of what I’m talking about. It’s a simulation of a family portrait, as if it were a painted image, and it looks like a family portrait that you might find on the fake mantelpiece of a middle-class American interior. That puts a definite end to that age of utopias.
Mathias: They wanted to have done with the supremacy of the object, they wanted to humanise frozen, slick representations. But we are indeed seeing a return to the past, and by thinking they were finally done with objects, they produced others! The family photo on the mantel amounts to that. And certain artists of our generation are in the same boat. I’m thinking of certain pieces by Pierre Huyghe in which the process is so perfect that paradoxically it becomes a near object. You end up with a result that is a far, far cry from what might have motivated the work in the first place.
HUO: You’re holding out against “completion”?
Mathias: Yes and no. Let’s say that for us the notion of “completion” is very different because the objects we produce have to be “complete,” that’s their condition for being. The relationship to the complete is very important because it’s directly linked to the way the sign is going to work. It’s a bit like a wheel missing from a car. We aren’t against the complete, but against a certain type of completion. With Philippe, for example, our work is indeed one of completing the image. He turns to us to complete a form because he needs to make it visible, to mediate it. But in his work, it’s included in the process and that’s what is interesting. When Pierre Huyghe did L’Exposition scintillante in Bregenz, well, he did a poster, but instead of handing it over to us he wanted to do it himself in order to retain absolute control over his object. I don’t want to say that we have a monopoly over that kind of production, or even that what he did was not as good as what we could have done. I simply mean to say that it’s a pity we weren’t allowed to add a wagon to his thing there, or to the sort of great tapestry he’s weaving.
HUO: And Philippe?
Mathias: Philippe has continued to turn to us, even ifthe logic of the art market being what it ishe happens to do things alone. There is one problem you can’t get around, namely, the problem of economic constraints. Each time we’ve worked with Philippe it’s cost more, and it’s hard to make a good return on investment because it’s immediately divided up by the number of participants. So at one point or another, Philippe finds himself facing the need to sell pieces… But it’s true that there is a return to the object.
[Stéphanie comes in]
Stéphanie: Am I interrupting?
HUO: Not at all. In any case we’re almost finished. But perhaps you might ask a third question?
Stéphanie: A third question… Have you ever singed your eyelashes when lighting up a cigarette?
HUO: Thank you. [laughter]
Michael: No, never.
Mathias: Not me either. Never.
HUO: We haven’t spoken about your experience teaching in Lausanne. Did you enjoy being teachers?
Michael and Mathias: [laughter]
Mathias: Well, yes of course we enjoyed that, but for now, we’re on standby and we really don’t know what to do. We began with a fairly simple idea for teaching. When a cook wants to teach something to a student, the best method is to bring them into the kitchen to show them his “little secrets.” We wanted to do the same thing and that system worked well at first. We simulated our daily work in such a way the students understood our “tricks.” We thought for a time that we had succeeded but very quickly realised that we had created monsters.
Michael: It came back against you.
HUO: Like a boomerang…
Mathias: Yes, exactly. The problem is that the students began to produce really new and interesting forms, but which were completely empty of content. That’s when we said to ourselves that we had created monsters, that is, people who from afar look like human beings, but when you get closer you realise they have a limp in their gait, or they have three eyes, etc.
HUO: It’s like with Goya, “The sleep of reason produces monsters.”
Mathias: We told ourselves that if we tried the teaching experience once again, we would probably have to be much more authoritative in our brand of tuition. Go back to basics, lay down fundamental laws the way the Bauhaus did. But that would make great demands on our time. Maybe one day we’ll make one of our dreams come true, which is to create a school, but it’s not for the immediate future. Or we’ll try to create an alternative course of study in an existing school. It would be a phantom curriculum. Opening, it would mark a milestone, would accept students, then would close at the end of the degree programme and would only exist in the memory of those who had gone through it.
HUO: Which leads us to the question of the ghost…
Mathias: Without a shadow of a doubt, the person closest to the ghost is Philippe Parreno. We helped him to find a form for his piece, to imagine the “spray” that would enable him to show the ghost. Philippe is obsessed by ghosts and for us the ghost is the image. Moreover, that’s the meaning of the word’s etymology. There were several projects on that theme with Philippe, the café, Credits, the cover of his book… We put together a phantom book, a “cuckoo-book,” which is lodged in a pre-existing book. When you look at that book, you realise it’s a book that already existed and which simply took in his catalogue.
HUO: We’ve said little about Björk during this interview. We might finish with you telling how you came to meet her.
Mathias: She saw a catalogue that we did for Yohji Yamamoto with Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, whom she got in touch with. Then Inez and Vinoodh explained to her that those images had been designed by four people, and suggested she meet us, which she did quite straightforwardly, by visiting us one day in Paris.
Michael: Our first collaboration with her took place for the cover of a compilation of her videos, which was interesting for us since that image had to represent a recap of several others. Having generated a huge amount of representations of herself, having portrayed a great number of characters, she gave us the job of synthesising all that. That gave us the chance to observe her, to see how she had represented herself until then, and to take stock, make an assessment of her representation. As a result, it became the subject of a book, and that enabled us to go on and produce new images, to redirect her toward another image, the one we wanted her to be.
Mathias: It was really a godsend. You could say that with Björk we met a sign on the human scale. She is a sign unto herself…
Translation from French to English: Charles Penwarden
Copy Editing: Will Bradley