“If something is too perfect, we find it disconcerting”: Spencer Fenton on its collaboration with Elizabeth Price

The London-based studio designed the exhibition identity, monograph and a new digital platform for the Turner Prize-winning video artist, and takes us through the details.

Date
28 October 2021

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If you were lucky enough to see the 2012 Turner Prize exhibition at London’s Tate Britain, you’ll remember a powerful and allusive piece of video work by the artist Elizabeth Price which went on to take the prestigious award that year. The Woolworths Choir of 1979 remains to be the most magnetic art-viewing experience we have encountered to this day. Projected across staggeringly high walls, the vivid video piece takes three apparently disparate elements including church architecture, a 60s girl band and a fire that killed ten people in central Manchester, and connects them through choreographed movement and compelling sound design. The win rocketed Elizabeth Price into the spotlight and since then, there’s been keen interest in the artist and what she’ll produce next.

The London-based design studio Spencer Fenton is more than familiar with what the artist has been up to recently. Entrusted with designing a book on Elizabeth’s latest work Slow Dans, the studio was tasked with embodying the spirit of a three years-in-the-making video piece into printed matter. “We were initially commissioned to draw a typeface to be used within the video works,” co-founder Haakon Spencer tells us. But when Elizabeth liked what Haakon and fellow co-founder Matthew Fenton created, she asked the pair to create the entire exhibition identity and monograph as well as a new digital platform that catalogues her practice. The latter is launching later this autumn.

Haakon continues: “Elizabeth operates in a highly conceptual way.” Thoroughly deserving of her Turner Prize win nearly a decade ago, “her work blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, truths and untruths. She is the antithesis of an artist, devoted and uncompromising with her work.” Translating this detailed consideration into the book, the major publication is beautifully designed to reflect the work’s fictional past, imagined future and parallel present. It can be a challenge to successfully convey video work through print, so for Haakon and Matthew, it was imperative to spend a lot of time talking to Elizabeth in order to understand the concepts underlying the work. In turn, exploring them through the layout too. Elsewhere, the designers used the same proportions as the screens for the book format, chose a PVC dust jacket to represent the screen and employed high gloss and matte stocks to differentiate film content with accompanying texts.

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Spencer Fenton: Elizabeth Price, Slow Dans (Copyright © Spencer Fenton, 2021)

“It was important to create a framework that enhanced the word without creating a continuation of parallel interpretation,” adds Haakon. Like The Woolworths Choir of 1979, Slow Dans draws on a range of events from the systematic abandonment of coal mines, to technological and demographic revolutions in office work. Elizabeth explores the idea of the cache throughout the work, “a digital storage space,” as Haakon puts it, “a subterranean ‘other space’ that contains proprietary reference and source material for the artwork.” Taking this concept and channelling it through the publication design, Spencer Fenton used the cache as a metaphor for the layout, in turn, giving structure to the material throughout.

Matthew and Spencer first met while studying at Leeds College of Art but they didn’t start working together until their MA in type design and art direction at Lausanne’s Écal. Throughout their studies, the pair developed an experimental, conceptual method of design thinking. They used graphic design as a means of bridging into other disciplines, teasing out new conversations and finding inspirations from these new connections as a result. “We’re often interested in the awkward spaces in which ideas emerge from or exist,” says Haakon. “If something is too perfect, we find it disconcerting or unnatural. We are open to finding new pathways to avoid linear narratives to keep us interested, and challenge us to try new things.”

Over time, their interests continued to expand, becoming more interdisciplinary than a traditional graphic design studio and most recently, they launched the type foundry British Standard Type which creates bespoke type design and retail typefaces. Set up to explore the creative potential of new type technologies, it had been a long time ambition for the founders to establish a type foundry. As well as being a foundry, British Standard Type was also created as a space for experimentation. A way to tie disparate projects together through typography while nurturing creativity at the same time.

All in all, it’s a highly exciting time for Spencer Fenton and its outpouring of creativity. The studio hopes to release its first retail typefaces soon and bask in the “energy to create something new and do things differently.” With a mindset focused on adaptation and development, the studio will also continue to take advantage of its small size, moving dynamically through the creative process. Finally, Haakon goes on to say: “We are interested in the creation of content and developing out authorship, blurring the lines between the traditional roles of responsibility.”

GallerySpencer Fenton: Elizabeth Price, Slow Dans (Copyright © Spencer Fenton, 2021)

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Spencer Fenton: Elizabeth Price, Slow Dans (Copyright © Spencer Fenton, 2021)

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.

jo@itsnicethat.com

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