A History of Queer Acts: Paul Soulellis Talks Queer Typography

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In June, IKEA celebrated Pride Month by debuting a line of limited edition loveseats, each based on a pride flag associated with a different sexual orientation or gender identity.

The internet had a field day with the release, with Twitter users trading quips about the inadvertently horrific design of the “bisexual couch,” in particular. Whatever IKEA intended to signal with the collection, the pride couches became another amusing example of companies eagerly attempting to market to the LGBT community, only to find waning interest in corporate signifiers of inclusivity. And really, how many people are in the market for a bisexual couch?

The brief rainbow-ification of corporate logos and merchandise every June left me wondering what a more radical vision of queer design would look like. That’s why Paul Soulellis’s zine, “What Is Queer Typography?,” caught my eye. Soulellis is an associate professor of graphic design at the Rhode Island School of Design and the director of a nonprofit publishing studio and residency called Queer.Archive.Work that provides space and resources to artists for print projects. He resists presenting himself as a definitive expert on the subject matter, avoiding neat conclusions in favor of open-ended inquiry while considering the history and theory of queerness relating to type and design thoroughly and thoughtfully.

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

R.E. Hawley: I wanted to ask about the organization that you run, Queer Archive Work.

Paul Soulellis: It actually started as a collaborative publication in which eighteen artists and writers participated. I was curating, editing, and designing the whole thing as a publishing project. At some point, it occurred to me, “what if the space of the publication became an actual, physical space.” So, rather than inviting folks into a publication, I invited them into a space [in Providence, Rhode Island] to use the risograph printer and produce their own work. I decided to start the nonprofit as a 501c3, got a studio, and began collecting a library of publications and objects. We’re about to start the second year of Queer Archive Work residencies, where folks are selected to come in and have dedicated time and money and access to the printer, facilities, and library to do their own work.

REH: I’m interested in the overlap between your work leading the Queer Archival Work space and your zine, “What is Queer Typography?”. As far as the titular question, the closest thing to a clear conclusion in the zine is, as it says on the back cover, “There is no queer typography, only queer acts of reading and writing.” That leaves me wondering, to what extent are there queer acts of type creation?

PS: And there are, absolutely! I tried to avoid any kind of conclusive, definitive statements. I didn’t want to say, “Yes, there’s queer typography, and this is exactly what is queer.” I think, in general, when talking about that word as a concept, as a movement, as an identity, as an act, it can actually be quite dangerous to limit that. I think part of its quality is the flexibility and expansiveness of the word. So every time I came to a point in the research where people were reaching out and saying, “Hey, this is queer typography, over here,” I would say, “I see what they’re talking about, but I’m not sure if I want to call it that because the thing that we’re looking at is a style.

Rather than doing that, I decided to sit down with [artist and type designer] Nat Pyper and [artist and educator] nicole killian, and Nat mentioned the idea that “there is no queer history, only a history of queer acts.”

I think that’s an incredible idea because if you think about how history is written, there’s a defining narrative. And if we’re looking for queer history, we’re going to find there are multiple queer histories. So we started asking, “could we relate this to the idea of queer typography?.” One of the conclusions I came to, if you could call it that, is, let’s look at the people doing the queer acts instead of the formal qualities of the typeface.

REH: You talked a little bit in the zine about the CIA redesign. I’m interested in that redesign because it appears to have a clear stylistic relationship to the aesthetic of electronic music. You also talk about how, in many ways, queer design has resisted slickness throughout history. So I wonder if there’s a sort of capture that happens when an institution like the CIA is doing, like, rave aesthetics for their website.

PS: It’s interesting to see the aesthetics of graphic design coming from, say, David Rudnick, and the relationship between the work that he does and electronic music, club culture, rave culture. How the CIA got ahold of it, I don’t know. I saw this talk by Dennis Grauel, who specifically calls out the question of when we excuse the foundry. I guess people were calling out Grilli Type (who I think are great), asking, is there some moral and ethical responsibility to know where our typefaces are going, who’s purchasing them, how they’re being used.

I like that Dennis turned it into a question of, "how can we look at the act of type design as a way of resisting capitalism?" Which I think is a really tall order, because foundries are businesses, and they have to survive, so they have to sell their work!

But the question Dennis is asking is, where do we draw the line? That’s why I love going back to queerness as an act or a verb because if one does decide, “I’m not going to go in that direction, I’m going to think of other ways of designing type or structuring a business that sells type,” there are things that we can do.

REH: There’s this approach to thinking about gender and type that I’ve seen and that you discuss in the zine that involves thinking about typography as gendered—a masculine font, a feminine font, a neutral font, etc. You seem a bit skeptical of that approach.

PS: There’s this one piece I refer to that the Walker Arts Center published in 2016. “Seven Genders, Seven Typographies: Hacking the Binary.” Coming back to it five years later, I realize that there was something extremely problematic about it. First of all, they identify seven genders: female, male, intersex, trans, personal, nonconforming, and eunich. That right there is the first thing I tripped over—how can anyone claim to define seven genders and only seven?

But to then say, we’re going to give these seven genders to seven designers and see how they match each one with a typeface, I just thought, this isn't right. Because now we’re talking about gender as a metaphor. "If being trans is like this, what’s a typeface that also does that?”

And I think that’s a dangerous path to go down. We can instead ask, who are people who’ve identified in various ways throughout history engaged in acts of design, and the context of the decisions they made in those moments.

REH: You talk about queer considerations of legibility in the zine. I can’t remember who you cite, but it reminded me of Judith Butler’s whole thing about legibility—where it comes from and who it might help or harm.

Exactly. I cite political scientist James C. Scott because I kept seeing him quoted around legibility as a kind of necessity for the state to understand who it’s governing. If we look at legibility that way—in terms of people or towns, or any surveillable unit, and how society can be organized or manipulated—I think it’s really interesting to juxtapose that with how we talk about legibility when teaching typography. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone in graphic design education talk about the political implications of legibility as an ideal, what it means to have an idealized way of reading.

REH: I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I’m in the process of applying to graduate school, and it’s difficult to see how regimented people want things to be—everything has to be Times New Roman or double spaced. But I see myself as a writer-designer: the presentation is a part of the work for me. The mandate of legibility does sort of strip something from the experience of wading into a piece of work.

PS: Well, because who created these standards? If there are standards around legibility—it’s Times New Roman, it’s double-spaced, it’s this many lines on a page—that institution has made a decision that ends up becoming a form of gatekeeping. Things that are more difficult to read or appear messy to some. What happens if we have a design or typeface that makes a mess? Something that isn’t easily read? With some of the examples in the zine, for instance, the club flyers and hip-hop flyers from the 70s and 80s, and some of the queer and trans publishing going on during the AIDS crisis, there’s a kind of legibility. But it’s select to a very particular audience.

Which goes back to what interests me about queer archive work: who has been left out of the archive, who’s been left out of history and the normative narratives that determine what we see as “good” or “acceptable?”

You can download a PDF of the “What is Queer Typography?” zine by going here.