The Daily Heller: Punk Reprised, Rethunk, No Bunk

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Torn Apart: Punk, New Wave + The Graphic Aftermath 1976 to 1986 (on view at the Pacific Design Center until Sept. 8) is the largest exhibition of punk and new wave graphics ever shown on the West Coast. The work is pulled from Andrew Krivine’s Too Fast to Live collection, with 1,000 pieces of ephemera curated by CalArts graphic design faculty Michael Worthington, accompanied by a selection of vintage punk photographs by Sheila Rock.

Krivine owns one of the largest private collections of punk, new wave and post-punk graphic design in the world, and his holdings were the basis for exhibitions at the Cranbrook and MAD museums. He began collecting when staying with his cousin in London during the summer of 1977.

Worthington is an author, designer, curator, and founding partner of Counterspace design studio in Los Angeles.

Too Fast to Live and Torn Apart address essentially the same historic material in distinct curatorial ways. Before Torn Apart gets torn down, I asked Krivine and Worthington to address their approaches to displaying, documenting and celebrating this work and the time it represents in music, fashion and attitude.

What is the difference between Michael Worthington’s curatorial view at PDC and the equally rich but somewhat different interpretation of your massive collection curated by Andrew Blauvelt at Cranbrook Art Museum?

Krivine: Andrew B. took a structured, systematic approach to the collection, creating clusters of posters based around design strategies, references to previous artistic movements and various musical subgenres. Andrew also had the idea of incorporating a number of original works from the museum’s collection into Too Fast to Live. Because three quite large galleries within Cranbrook Art Museum were allocated to the exhibition, Andrew was able to dedicate one of the galleries to a dense, highly concentrated grid of posters, with the other galleries (and hallways) displaying posters spaced quite far apart. 

Both Michael and Andrew decided to include a wide range of formats, which added what I consider to be a “tactile” dimension—including fanzines, badges, stickers, clothing and flyers. However, Michael made much more extensive use of flyers in an effort to pack in as much graphic design as possible into a relatively more limited space. Not only that, but by taking a dense salon-style approach throughout the exhibition, Michael hopes to ‘entrap’ the visitor—get them to focus their eyes intently on one poster or flyer, which is then surrounded by other exciting images.

Installations designed by Michael Worthington at Pacific Design Center

As I look around at contemporary popular graphic design, I don’t see anything that holds a candle to Punk’s rule-busting. Have we simply seen every kind of rebellion there is or was? Why do you think the pluck of Punk is currently a historical relic, not a living design language?

Krivine: Keep in mind that over two generations have passed since punk rock emerged.  Young people approach these works with fresh eyes, and I hope that students enrolled in graphic design, photography and printmaking programs will be inspired by this rich pre-digital age legacy. 99% of all attendees born after 1980 will enter the Torn Apart exhibition at PDC free of any cultural baggage. Not only will they be unfamiliar with scores of the groups on these posters and flyers, but they will likely have never heard of the designers. Really, this is ideal for young visitors, and frankly I am a little jealous. I would love to walk into the gallery and see all of these posters for the first time—without a doubt I would feel an adrenaline rush! 

Worthington: Punk is very much a child of the time period it was created in. It’s a historical style that like other music aesthetics is powerful and condensed. You can only use a pinch of it now, never a whole cup. It can be an influence, a reference, but when you use too much, it’s pastiche or parody, much like the psychedelic designs of the ’60s.

Technology and philosophy are the twin engines of aesthetics, and those have both changed radically. This is pre-computer, the era of the photocopier, the stat camera, paste-up art boards … basically, pre the democratization of design tools. Part of what punk did was give amateur designers permission to make. And like the music, a lot of it is awful, naive, rough … but it’s important as a zeitgeist, as a moment in time. So it can’t exist now in the same way.

Perhaps the most important part of your question concerns what living design language holds on to the spirit of punk? Funnily, there’s a resurgence of post-punk and punk-influenced music right now, but the graphics are sophisticated (and frankly the music is often more sophisticated, too). I think someone like Idles are a good example of that. I think the “pluck” is still there, it’s just shattered into smaller pieces. Remember, at the time of punk/new wave, the late ’70s/early ’80s, music was the most powerful cultural force for youth, even more than TV or film … and nowadays we aren’t in a mono-culture, we are in a world of multiple micro-cultures. So the pluck is still there, it’s just decentralized and not visible to the mainstream as much. Punk challenged the mainstream mono-culture of its time and eventually became a visual/musical cliche itself, a victim of its own success, and inevitably imploded.

There are interesting dynamics that occur between collectors and designers, or historians or curators. How would you describe your particular interaction?

Krivine: For me, Michael provided the discipline to keep me in check. Left to my own devices, the exhibition would have probably exceeded 2,000 posters—which would of course overwhelm visitors and have them running for the exit in no time! Seriously, with almost all of the previous exhibition collaborations, I did try to gently coax the curator into selecting many posters which are personal favorites—but with mixed success.

Worthington: I think first and foremost Andrew and I are both fans of the music, and fans of the design. Andrew is music #1, and design #2, and I’m design #1, and music #2. But it’s close! Our dynamic is based on being kindred spirits. I’m not a full-time curator, I’m a full-time educator and designer. My writing and curatorial exploits come out of wanting to point something out to the larger design community (I guess that’s the educator in me), but it’s inevitably something I love. The curatorial impetus comes from a place of passion, and Andrew has that same passion, same enthusiasm, same commitment (often to a ridiculous extent) with his collecting … of believing that the work is important and it’s important it gets seen.

One thing that I know Andrew enjoyed was when we were digging through his archives, I knew who most of the bands were, knew who most of the designers were. But also, Andrew had pieces I’d never seen, so curating the show also became an educational process for me. And that’s one of the reasons I always enjoyed designing art books: I’d learn something each time I designed a book. It’s your opportunity to go from enthusiast to expert.

Andrew, you are so committed to this material, tirelessly and successfully bringing it to the public’s attention. Where does this passion come from? 

Krivine: This is not an easy question! From a comparatively young age, starting in my early teens, I was attracted to poster and record sleeve designs. And, of course, I love rock music. As you know, in the ’70s people engaged with music in a very different way than today. For me (and I think millions of other kids), listening to records was almost a daily ritual. We didn’t multitask when playing records, but rather set aside a block of time to focus, listen and immerse ourselves—which also meant endlessly rereading liner notes and staring intently at record sleeve art. At the risk of sounding ridiculous, we really did “commune” with our records! These early encounters with music, amplified by summers spent in London during the rise of punk and new wave music, ignited my passion for posters and flyers to such a fever pitch that I had to grab every poster I came across. This passion carries on to this day, but unlike some collectors who squirrel away their artifacts and surround them with “no trespassing” signs and barbed wire perimeters, I feel strongly that punk and new wave design will fade into nothingness if these posters aren’t shared with the wider world. Only if young people can see these posters and, I hope, become enchanted with them—enough to start digging into the history of the designers and the music—can this rich body of work live on and carry forth.

Michael, why did you buy into this material and Andrew’s vision? And how much of the overall vision exclusively belongs to you?

Worthington: I think the material in the show has specific meaning for me. It’s this material that made me want to be a music photographer initially, and then move into graphic design from there. Peter Saville, Barney Bubbles and Vaughan Oliver were my design idols, and the music itself was the soundtrack to my youth, so it really didn’t take much for me to buy into it—I was already there!

The exclusivity question is really interesting in terms of thinking about “what does a curator actually do?” The overall vision of the collection belongs to Andrew. He’s put this collection together over a period of more than 40 years. But much like editing a design history book, the curator picks through the entire body of work to create some kind of argument, some kind of story, macro and micro connective threads. In many ways the curatorial edit for the show is purely driven by design itself; it’s not driven by fandom or nostalgia for the bands themselves, nor entirely by historical relevance of individual pieces, but rather by the design, the typography, the image-making, the composition, the copywriting, the production technique. Andrew’s collection is about seven times the size of what is in Torn Apart, and he is constantly acquiring more posters.

One of the main lenses to look at the work was about the relationship between punk and new wave … how the spirit of punk kicked open the door for a plethora of other musical and visual directions collectively termed “new wave,” or later on, “indie.” That eclecticism was the start of a stylistic pluralism that was much richer and broader, and often more sophisticated and refined. I’m interested in those shifts, those more unexpected designs.

What is it about Punk that is so alluring? I understand that being a fan at the time triggers all sorts of emotions. But why today?

Krivine: Punk is an attitude, rather than a rigid set of ideas, hierarchies and codes. There is freedom with punk, which young people embrace. Especially today, when the pressure on kids to succeed both academically and then with careers can be crushing, punk offers a space where young people are able to channel their frustrations, anxieties and creativity into music and art, without parents and other authority figures breathing down their necks! This enables each generation to reimagine punk, to define it on their terms. Endless reinvention.

Worthington: Back in the day it was about youth, rebellion, identity … about defining who you were in opposition to the mainstream culture (often your parents!). I think that kind of rebellion and sense of self-growth and self-discovery is always there. It might look different, musically and aesthetically, through different generations (beatniks, rock and rollers, mods, ravers, goths …) but the underlying ethos is the same. Punk just really amplified that … burned fast and hard. I think now it’s partly nostalgia and partly historical interest and partly revivalism. But the Do It Yourself attitude is the thing that lingers for me. To me, the punk mindset is more important than the designs or the music.

How do you want your audiences to feel about this material? How much is the emotional emphasis on the individual work versus the overall experience itself?

Krivine: I want visitors to exit the gallery and ask themselves: Why did nobody ever tell me about these wonderful posters and designers? How is it possible that punk, new wave and post-punk graphic designers aren’t featured prominently in the history of 20th-century graphic design? And where do I start to begin assembling my own collection?

Worthington: I wanted the show to be mostly about discovery. So not a structured, heavily prescribed experience … more one where the audience can wander through the exhibition and “discover” things they like. This shaped the volume of the exhibition—the posters are hung wall-to-wall three or four or five high, the cases are jampacked with hundreds of pieces of ephemera … it’s deliberately overwhelming, and forces the viewer to look, to search and sift through the mass of design and find the things that they are drawn to. It’s somewhat akin to the pre-internet experience of the record store … fingering through hundreds of records looking for something that catches your eye. Sometimes you’re not even sure what the record sounds like.

I want the designs in the show to feel like design, to feel like ephemera, to feel authentic … so work isn’t framed, but hung naked on the wall (2,500 magnets!); some pieces are ripped, torn, damaged, wearing their age. Some posters you can see the creases, or the set list written on the back. I like that the designs have lived in the real world and show evidence of that. And it’s meant to be a collective experience, as well … it’s not about picking the 25 best punk posters and framing them, it’s about the volume, the also-rans, the unknowns, the weird and the wonderful, the people who did it themselves for themselves.