The worlds of conceptual art and functional graphic design cross perhaps less often than they should. But creating a piece of design that has to perform in a commercial sense and the expression of complex, looser artistic ideas can come together beautifully, as exemplified in the little corner devoted to graphic design at the Barbican’s current show by Doug Aitken, Station to Station: A 30 Day Happening.
The premise of the show is a month-long series of constantly changing events, installations and performances, which take over almost the entire Barbican centre. These include Aaron Koblin and Tool director Ben Tricklebank’s Light Echoes Curve Gallery installation and performances from the likes of Demdike Stare and Boredoms, who are staging a show involving 88 cymbal players.
Doug’s stunning film about the concept is a feature-length narrative made up of 62 one-minute films that show the original work, in which he crossed North America by train from the Atlantic to the Pacific over 24 days, catalysing a series of mini happenings along the way. It’s a powerful piece of cinema, and a perfect encapsulation of how creativity of all disciplines – be it the strange, eerie music of Suicide or record sleeve design or performance art – can come together so beautifully under the right orchestration.
But back to the Barbican. Within this nomadic concept lies a little, working design studio, and a very busy one at that, currently overseen by graphic designer in residence Fraser Muggeridge. The studio works alongside The Vinyl Factory, which has moved its huge mobile recording and pressing unit (which has also made an appearance at The White Cube for Christian Marclay’s show) to the Barbican’s foyer. Throughout the happening some of the music and live performances will be pressed on site, making more than 6000 copies of 20 different albums during the exhibition’s tenure. That’s where Fraser comes in: he’ll be designing the sleeves for them for the first two weeks, with designer Åbäke taking over for the final half.
“It’s been a bit of a challenge as we’ve got to make these covers as good as possible every day,” Fraser tells us. “The constraints of having to produce, design and make them without a computer makes you think of new ways to be creative, and we’ve been using stamping, screen printing, stippling and lino cutting so they all look a bit different.”
What’s so lovely about the installation of a working graphic design studio in a gallery setting is that it makes you rethink what graphic design is. For artists who perhaps see it as less creative than fine art, it shows how the very physical act of designing can take on a performative element when placed alongside dancers, physical theatre practitioners and live artists; and for those who aren’t really aware of the graphic design world, it offers a perfect and very hands-on introduction.
“Some people are very familiar with graphic design, and some don’t know what it is and have never seen a screen printing press or a lino cut before,” says Fraser. “Everyone had a different idea of what graphic designers are, and it’s really nice to bring graphic design into an artistic context.”
"The constraints of having to produce, design and make record sleeves without a computer makes you think of new ways to be creative"Fraser Muggeridge
To begin the rather daunting task of hand printing sleeves for hundreds of records a day, Fraser and his team first brings the record into the studio, give it a thorough listen and then try to “work out a graphic representation of the work.” The twist is that all the covers relate to “weird versions of the Mona Lisa.”
“As part of the process we got an old computer drawing machine and the test image it draws the most is the Mona Lisa,” Fraser explains. “We don’t make a PDF or design it on screen, we just go for it – there’s no meetings with the artist. It’s quite liberating but also quite a lot of stress to deliver these things.”
About the Author
Emily joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in the summer of 2014 after four years at Design Week. She is particularly interested in graphic design, branding and music. After working It's Nice That as both Online Editor and Deputy Editor, Emily left the company in 2016.