Inhabiting the digital age is sometimes a bit perplexing. We’ve long since moved away from a time when verbal communication was king and instead we have become accustomed to less direct ways of staying in touch with each other. As a result we frequently use :-) ;-) and :-( to express how we feel to others, which is a peculiar phenomenon. Nevertheless there’s something pretty universal about those few figurative dots that allow us to easily communicate an emotion that would require a far greater number of words. There’s just something about a tiny little face that does the job better.
This universality is something Pictoplasma have long been aware of, having made the cataloguing of figurative creations their business; holding annual conferences and publishing beautiful books on the subject. Six years ago they produced a comprehensive selection of their favourite character designs in The Character Encyclopaedia and now they’re back with a second volume The Character Compendium, a vast collection of anthropomorphic individuals that beg to be engaged with. We caught up with Pictoplasma’s Peter Thaler to find out more about the project.
What first drew you to figurative art?
I started Pictoplasma back in 1999 to serve as the first ever platform for an extensive contemporary collection and archive of reduced and abstract character design. It was in the air. As a reaction to a sudden, overwhelming flood of iconographic figures on websites, billboards and food packaging at the turn of the century, I wanted to set a considered, high quality collection of character representations against the daily glut of random mascots and pathetic sympathy seekers.
Pictoplasma is now a full-time job, as we organise annual festivals in Europe and the US, tour with the conference, curate exhibitions, occasionally consult for companies with all their character needs, and closely accompany the scene as it moves towards a completely new understanding of character.
What do you look for in a character designer?
What interests us the most is that characters have a quality of presence that seems to work independently of narrative and refuses clear contextualisation; which is why characters function equally well as brand logos in the field of global marketing strategies, as pop-cultural obsessions and as protagonists of subversive interventions in the system that created them. We think character design has a timeless quality, and we’re not expecting a decline somewhere on the horizon. As long as communication is key, characters will most likely continue to dominate contemporary visual culture, simply because that’s what they are best at; they communicate globally.
How has character design progressed since you published The Character Encyclopaedia back in 2006?
Since the beginning we’ve been collecting, examining and making comparable an endless, global stream of figurative character designs. By doing so, more often than not, even the slightest shifts in recurring motifs become readable, leading to surprising conclusions to underlaying topics and current zeitgeist trends. Starting off pre-2000 and at the heights of the techno-craze, we were surrounded by little icons of ecstatic boys and girls, reduced depictions of super-friendly robots or pixel-based happy DJs. At the turn of the century the same characters had begun to get twisted, tortured, dissected, full of zits, with their eyes replaced by lifeless x’s. This was the time of a huge world economy collapse and it was interesting to see how it had found its way into a global visual vocabulary. Shortly after that urban and street art had a huge boost and turned completely from typographic, secretive tag-coding to in-your-face character driven recognition value.
By the time of the last Encyclopaedia, shortly after the Iraq war and the commercial upcoming of facebook, the imagery was surprisingly often grouped around tribal, semi-religious topics, with dying characters exhaling their souls, following strange spiritual codeces or performing archaic rituals. Still, what almost all of these characters had in common was that they were true children of the digital age, with their technical creation, copy/paste philosophy and remix euphoria written all over them. They were locked in their own universe; created on a computer, distributed by computer, and also mainly consumed via computer.
“Characters will most likely continue to dominate contemporary visual culture, simply because that’s what they are best at; they communicate globally.”
How do you go about curating the content for The Character Compendium?
The entire Pictoplasma project has always been about a mix between us researching on our own and being introduced to new work and trends by other artists and designers. All of this is always an ongoing curatorial process that takes up to a year before a book is printed. The artists we feature in our publications, and also invite to present their work within our conferences, are chosen for very subjective reasons; it’s an ominous balance between great, outstanding artistic work, an echo of an overlaying topic or trend that we are momentarily interested in, always trying to find a good melange between the various disciplines and media, and of course, trying to find a good mix between established and upcoming talent.
Have you got any favourite animators/illustrators amongst the hundreds you’ve featured?
That question always gets asked, but I would never single out one character or one artist’s work and proclaim it to be a good example. It’s absolutely an honour to be able to work with so many astonishing artists. Having said that, personally, at the moment, I have a total crush on Raymond Lemstra, Julia Pott and Jordan Metcalf
What’s next for Pictoplasma?
Publishing-wise, within the 12 years of our existence we have printed only about 12 publications, mostly compilations. These compilations have really hit a nerve. Even though one book per year is a remarkably limited output for a publishing company, for us it makes sense to stay true to our topic, be in total control of all steps and make sure that final product is of high quality. The Character Compendium is just now hitting the international shelves, so its reception will inevitably influence any next plans for publications. But we have plenty of ideas.
Apart from that our Pictoplasma Festivals in Berlin and New York continue to be our most ambitious challenges and have established themselves as the world’s most important annual meeting points for a diverse, global scene in a very interdisciplinary field. Besides working on our upcoming Pictoplasma NYC edition this November, we are already planning the ingredients of the next 2013 Berlin Festival, and also preparing upcoming exhibitions and group shows in Madrid and Beijing.
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