A conversation with Experimental Jetset
If you send an email to Experimental Jetset, the Amsterdam-based graphic design studio founded in 1997 and consisting of Marieke Stolk, Erwin Brinkers, and Danny van den Dungen, you will receive an immediate, automatic reply. In fact, that autoreply is a mini manifesto of more than 1,000 words. An excerpt:
“As we write this, we are approaching the last few days of July. We are currently working on a couple of projects that will occupy all our time and attention—in order to fully concentrate on this, we decided to effectively close down our studio for the full month of August. During that time, we will be checking e-mail only sporadically—and we probably won’t be able to answer e-mails at all. We are very sorry about that. We will return to our usual studio routine in the beginning of September—we will try to answer your mails then. In the meantime, please find below a list with answers to the most common questions. We hope this will help you further.”
While their heroes are modernist designers like Wim Crouwel, they combine this affinity with a DIY punk spirit that they claim has always been part of modernism’s vocabulary. Experimental Jetset is one of the oldest “young” Dutch graphic design studios and by far the most consistent. The trio has worked on projects for Stedelijk Museum CS (SMCS), Purple Institute, Centre Pompidou, Le Cent Quatre (104), De Theatercompagnie, Musée d’Art Contemporain de Bordeaux (CAPC), Bureau Europa (NAiM), and the Japanese T-shirt labels 2K/Gingham and Publik, among others. In 2007, a large selection of their work was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, and included in its permanent collection. In contrast with the anonymous technocracy and consultancy of the late-modernist fallout of Total Identity and others, Experimental Jetset, educated at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy, has maintained a hands-on and personal approach. The following email conversation took place in the summer of 2011.
Experimental Jetset, “John & Paul & Ringo & George” (2001), T-shirt for 2K/Gingham, Japan.
We are keen on establishing a link between the postwar culture of graphic standardization that produced the Swiss International Style and the post-2000 culture of social networking and communication standards that seems to have replaced mass communication at large, with memes as self-replicating visual genes. We regard your whole approach as a proper meme, as you seem to have created a viable compression of certain modernist tropes that propagate into contemporary visual culture, comment on it, and demarcate a clear position. Your most successful meme seems to be the “&&&” shirts, which have, by imitation, multiplied their presence beyond control. Ultimately, there is a generosity and a significance to this that goes beyond the narrowly defined “graphic design” practice. We are also aware that you regard your visual culture as one governed by material objects. Nevertheless, we would propose that the way you treat these objects, or the way that “visual culture” treats them in turn, is not so much about immaterializing them into virtual objects floating on websites and desktops as it is about taking their essence and then teleporting this to all kinds of other destinations and purposes, much as in Lawrence Weiner’s famous dictum that “You can experience my work by someone telling you about it”—which is, again, nothing else than his version of a meme.
The Swiss International style emerged out of postwar Europe. Univers promoted its own “universal” applicability; Helvetica promoted Switzerland. Helvetica was also the first typeface to be honored with a feature film (which, of course, featured you). You have often noted that despite this tradition of Swiss neutrality, to you there is a more subversive side to modernism. In his article “Graphics Incognito,” Mark Owens establishes a few links between modernism, West Coast punk rock, and principles of anonymity and pseudonymity inherent to underground culture. Could you elaborate on why for you modernism is subversive, and what that subversion consists of?
Then there has been a consistent urge to treat modernism as a style sheet, where it can be separated from its substance—like a Helvetica-styled “identity” can perfectly essentialize a luxury beauty product, an airline, a mediocre sushi-bar franchise, and countless other examples. No doubt part of the “success” of modernism is its lightness, the fact that it can from some perspective be seen as a legitimizer of the entity that it is pasted on. Nevertheless, your treatment of modernism is more concerned with its substance and therefore must at some point have (perhaps violently) confronted the sushi-bar version of the contemporary Helvetica fetish. So what is your position and point of view on modernism’s style versus its substance?
At the time when the most prominent modernist visual tropes came into existence, visual communication meant that an institution or organization broadcasted its information and identity to a constituency of receivers. It seems that today, organizations increasingly seek to redefine the relationship to their audience to the detriment of this sender-receiver duality. Corporate ads now lead viewers to a company’s Facebook profile, soliciting “likes” and gathering visible social capital. There is also an important sense of continuity, in that both the Swiss International Style and Facebook’s sterility provide a powerful means of standardization. The modernist standard had been overriding regional, “vernacular” peculiarities, and Facebook in turn eliminates materiality and realness in the prefab virtual bathroom. Finally, could you give your views on modernism as a standard? How does Experimental Jetset, which maintains an active Facebook profile with many subscribers, look at the continuum and/or break in the use of standards from print to internet and back?
We would first like to say something about our views on modernism as a standard. And before we can do that, we’d like to point out the obvious: the fact that we don’t necessarily see the so-called “International Style” as synonymous with modernism. In our view, the International Style constitutes only a very small part of modernism—and more important, we don’t believe this small part to be exemplary of modernism as a whole.
However, since we grew up in an era in which we experienced a particular Dutch version of the International Style firsthand, we do believe that this very indirect version of the IS is now part of our cultural vocabulary, and as such it became part of our natural graphic language—in a genuinely authentic way, rather than in a contrived, studied manner. Having said that, we like to admit that we never have been particularly inspired by the International Style itself. We have never studied those coffee-table books or grid guides filled with Swiss masters. Our point of reference has always been the particular way in which the International Style has been filtered into Dutch culture. And that is ultimately what interests us most: the way in which a phenomenon such as the International Style has been applied within very different cultural contexts. There are Dutch versions, Brazilian versions, Italian versions, Japanese versions, “working-class” versions, “middle-class” versions, and so on. Just to give a simple example, we would argue that the way in which Crouwel employed the International Style is typical for a Dutch context, while the way in which Vignelli used that same language shows the sensibilities of an Italian working within a New York context. In other words, it’s all a matter of accents.
It is this “bastardized” version of the International Style that interests us the most (not that the International Style was ever “pure” in the first place). The more removed it becomes from the source (both in place and time), and the more regional and vernacular peculiarities it absorbs, the more interesting it gets. We really love that whole notion of second-, third-, fourth-, or even fifth-generation versions of the International Style.
In other words, what interests us much more than the standard are the variations on that standard. And if “identity” is the way in which a particular object is similar to its own category (which is roughly how Adorno defines identity), then what we are personally interested in is exactly the “non-identity” that exists between the standard and its variation.
A text that we always believed to encapsulate this notion of non-identity really well is Leon Trotsky’s The ABC of Materialist Dialectics (1939), in which he argues that a letter A is never equal to another letter A—it is not even equal to itself.
Experimental Jetset, “The ABC of Materialist Dialectics” poster (2006). Designed for Plexifilm as a fundraiser for Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica documentary. A2-sized, letterpress print.
When we think of the word “standard,” we always think of the way the word is used in the field of music: a blues standard, a jazz standard, a rock standard. What is interesting about standards is the fact that they can be used by every musician as a platform for a certain voice, a certain aesthetic. It is exactly the standard’s inherent “sameness” that becomes a stage for differences. What’s also fascinating about standards is that they belong to everybody; they have an egalitarian, public dimension. We were once at a pop quiz where one of the assignments consisted of a playlist of 20 different versions of “Hey Joe”—the question was to guess the names of the interpreters. We came to fully realize the role of the standard in differentiating between different voices, between different dialects. In other circumstances, it would be impossible to compare Jimi Hendrix and Mink DeVille. We never think in the categories of style and substance. We always preferred the notion of “language”; after all, a language is a system that incorporates both style and substance, both form and content. The idea of a language presupposes a sort of embedded ideology, the weight of history, an inherent narrative dimension—all these notions seem to be missing from the word “style.” We see International “Style” more as a language than a style.
Experimental Jetset, “Two or Three Things I Know About Provo” poster (2011), W139, Amsterdam.
The way a standard relates to its variations is obviously very similar to the way in which a language relates to its accents, its dialects, its different pronunciations, its different spellings, jargons, pidgin versions, and the like. In the same way that there is always a critical distance between the standard and its variation, a dialect can be seen as a way to challenge the cultural hegemony of the standard language (while simultaneously affirming it).
When we brought up the subject of modernism’s subversiveness in the Helvetica documentary, we were specifically thinking about modernism as a dialectical model defined by “deconstructive” tendencies on one side and “constructive” tendencies on the other side. On the one side, there are movements like Dada and surrealism; on the other side, there are movements such as Bauhaus and Constructivism. What makes modernism so interesting, so multifaceted, and ultimately so paradoxical is the fact that between these two poles, all different combinations and variations (of destruction and construction) are possible. (In fact, sometimes these opposite poles can be active within one single person—think of Theo van Doesburg’s role in De Stijl and his interest in Dada.)
We often see punk as a sort of “scale model” of modernism. After all, punk is also a phenomenon defined by deconstructive tendencies on one side (No Future, Destroy) and constructive tendencies on the other (the whole DIY culture). What we were trying to explain in the Helvetica documentary is that we regard modernism in a similar way. However, if you would ask us now to elaborate on the subversiveness of modernism, we would probably start by defining it. For us, modernism has everything to do with the notion of breaking spells, and the ambition to go beyond the chains of illusion. When we say “beyond the chains of illusion,” that is a specific reference to Erich Fromm’s book of the same title, in which he tries to synthesize the languages of Marx and Freud. And in our view, it is exactly in the push and pull between Marx and Freud where modernism can be located. To quote Marx, “The demand to give up illusions about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.” This connects all modernist manifestations. From the most fragmentary surrealist collage to the most grid-based Constructivist composition, and everything in between: They all aim, each in their own way, to go beyond the chains of illusion. In that sense, we believe that every manifestation of modernism is inherently subversive. We believe that even in its most harsh and rigid form, modernism still offers a way out. Even in those rare cases when modernism puts on an unbearable authoritarian face, it still gives the viewer the possibility to completely disagree. It provides a person something to chew on, to work with, to bounce off of. It always demands an active position. Therefore, we even believe that the more corporate outgrowths of late modernism possess a subversive potential.
The idea of Helvetica as a “sushi-bar aesthetic” already seems a few years behind us—in fact, when the documentary came out, the whole idea of Helvetica as a sort of light, lifestyle-based language seemed already on the decline. When you look at that whole retail-and-lifestyle sphere now (fashion chains, for example), you see an aesthetic that is much closer to what some people might perceive as postmodernist: stretched letters, neoclassical centered typography, vernacular irony, moodboardlike imagery. And we’re pretty sure that in a couple of years’ time, it will look completely different again. But hasn’t that always been the case? There are always brief periods of time during which one person’s authentic voice seems indistinguishable from another person’s fad. The only way to distinguish between the two is simply through time. After awhile, when fashions and trends move on, it’s easy to see who remains true to his/her personal language and who was just in it for more opportunistic reasons. So the “violent confrontation” you talk about is much more like a duration test. Moreover, it’s not as if we have anything to prove, or anything to lose, or anything to win. We just know that our interest in late modernism is completely authentic and that it is grounded in the cultural landscape in which we grew up. It’s not a mask that we can put on and off whenever we feel like it—it is our actual face.
Experimental Jetset, “Antibodies” poster (2010). Designed for NAiM/Bureau Europa. Screenprint, A0-sized.
Metahaven Eh, Facebook?
It is tempting to see the internet as the ultimate fulfillment of the ideals of modernism—after all, the world wide web seems the perfect embodiment of Paul Otlet’s “Mundaneum.” Also, when you look at it from a strictly formalist viewpoint, the whole visual landscape of the internet is made up of exactly those elements that most people seem to associate with International Style: templates, grids, sans-serif type, the specific use of “empty” space, flush-left ragged-right columns. Even the use of all-lowercase letters in text messaging can be seen as stylistically linked to International Style. But still—we would say there is one fundamental, crucial difference between the print culture of modernism and the digital culture of the internet. In our view, print is still a more public medium. If a poster is hanging in the street, it is seen by every passerby in more or less the same way. Sure, the interpretation of the poster will differ from person to person, but by and large, the poster itself will appear in roughly the same way to every viewer, regardless of his/her class, race, gender, age, personal preferences, etc.
This is different on the internet, where websites and pages conform themselves instantly to cater to the personal tastes and preferences of the individual viewer. Google search results change from person to person, the advertisements that clutter online profiles are specifically targeted toward the viewer, etc., etc. This makes the online environment ultimately an individualistic, isolated experience, despite the promise of “being connected.” It also makes most online activity a somewhat unadventurous, undialectical affair, as you only will be confronted with stimuli that are algorithmically curated for you, based on what large corporations (such as Facebook and Google) expect you to want to see. Whereas, within the context of the street, you will be confronted with information that is not specifically intended for you—posters you might not immediately understand, slogans you might disagree with (or not), kiosks carrying newspapers that are not necessarily tailored toward your specific lifestyle, book stalls displaying secondhand books expressing conflicting opinions. In our view, it is this notion of print culture within the urban environment that offers the most dialectical, and therefore most modernist, experience. So it’s exactly that idea that we try to explore most in our work. And, as paradoxical as it may sound, it is this theme of modernist print culture that is also one of the main subjects of our online presence—whether it is our actual website or the Facebook group you mentioned.
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