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Experimental Jetset: Word-Things in Time-Space (detail), 2016. Installation at Riot Ghent

Features / Graphic Design

Pop, subcultures and the future of graphic design: an interview with Experimental Jetset

Words:

Emily Gosling

Forming in 1997 and united by a love of post-punk music and aesthetics, Amsterdam-based graphic design studio Experimental Jetset went on to become one of the most important and influential practices of the past 20 years. Even those outside of the graphic design bubble will have seen their work: this is the gang behind that oft-plagiarised John & Paul & Ringo & George T-shirt, set out in Helvetica and reinventing the band top in doing so. The three founding members Marieke Stolk, Erwin Brinkers and Danny van den Dungen took the studio’s name from 1994’s Sonic Youth album Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (more on that story here), and those alternative pop culture references still loom large. Nearly two decades since forming, Experimental Jetset’s installation works and graphics have now been housed in the likes of the Stedelijk Museum, Centre Pompidou, Dutch Post Group and New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art.

As well as client work, the trio has also taught at Amsterdam’s Gerrit Rietveld Academie and Arnhem’s Artez and Werkplaats Typografie. Just before the team takes a few months off for the summer, we spoke to them about post-punk, countercultural influences and the changes they’ve seen in the Dutch graphic design scene.

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Experimental Jetset: Statement&CounterStatement2015

How has your work been shaped by music?

Well, most importantly it was our love of music (and our interest in subcultures such as psychobilly, mod and garage rock) that made us aware of graphic design in the first place, back in the 1980s.

But another way in which we’ve been shaped by music is through our interest in the model of the rock band. A rock band is a very tight socio-economic unit: just two, three or four people, sharing one collective artistic language. For us, this is a much more interesting model than the mainstream design studio, which has a very typical boss/workers hierarchy: “junior” and “senior” designers, interns and directors, “creative” and “administrative” people. We really dislike these traditional separations; we think they create a certain alienation from the end-product.

What we like about the band model is the fact that a band is small enough for every member to feel involved and responsible, but large enough to have the benefits of a collective way of working.

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Experimental Jetset: Word-Things in Time-Space (detail), 2016. Installation at Riot Ghent

So the model of the rock band is something we have always been interested in. The t-shirt print we created in 2001 (John & Paul & Ringo & George) can be seen as an example of that. The fact that we named our studio after an album by Sonic Youth, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, seems relevant as well, in that regard. Also, the first installation we ever created, at SMBA (Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam), back in 1998, was titled Black Metal Machine and revolved around a fictional band. So it’s safe to say this theme has always played a large part in our work, from the very beginning. 

“We find this whole notion of the ‘graphic designer as a rock star’ completely repulsive.”

Experimental Jetset

However – when we talk about the model of the rock band, we don’t mean this whole notion of the “graphic designer as a rock star” – that’s an idea that we find completely repulsive. We really hate celebrity culture. For us, the model of the band goes totally against the notion of celebrity. In its ideal form, the band becomes an entity which allows the member to become anonymous. It’s the notion of the collective, not of the individual, that matters to us. 

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Experimental Jetset: Word-Things in Time-Space (detail), 2016. Installation at Riot Ghent

It feels to me that the post-punk ideas and aesthetics that have influenced you are hard to pin down – or at least more so than straight-up punk, for instance. Can you tell me a little more about what you feel post-punk means to you, and how it shaped your output?

The whole notion of post-punk has probably been our most important inspiration, throughout the years. As we already mentioned in previous interviews – it is through all the various post-punk subcultures in which we were involved (as kids growing up in the 80s) that we became interested in graphic design in the first place. Psychobilly, two-tone ska, new wave, mod, oi, industrial noise, garage rock, skate punk, US hardcore – it was subcultures like these that made us aware of this whole graphic sphere of band logos, record sleeves, fanzines, mini comics, mail art, mix tapes, T-shirt prints, buttons, badges, patches, etc. In a lot of our work, we are still referring to exactly this graphic sphere. 

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Experimental Jetset: Space Embodied: The Russian Art of Movement’ (2016)
Photo (installation view / detail) by Johannes Schwartz

On top of that, a lot of post-punk subcultures used to have this added element of “social mobility” – which is hard to explain, but what we mean is simply this: subcultures can sometimes function as “gateways”, enabling kids to escape from certain fixed social milieus. As working-class teens, growing up in non-academic surroundings, it was through subcultures such as punk and new wave that we first learned about movements such as Surrealism, Futurism and Dada. In that sense, post-punk was a form of education for us.

To give a very banal example of this – the first time we heard about Bertolt Brecht was actually through psychobilly band King Kurt, who once did a cover version of ‘Mack the Knife’ (originally by Brecht and Weill), back in the mid-80s. So yeah, this is just one quick, random example – but you get the idea.

In short – if it wasn’t for post-punk, we would have never gathered the courage and self-respect needed to apply for art school, and to be involved in something as “artistic” as graphic design.  

But back to your question… Since it was through punk and new wave that we first learned about movements such as Surrealism, Futurism and Dada, post-punk has become somewhat of a “meta-influence”. It is, simply put, the influence through which we filter all other influences. Like a prism or lens, so to speak.

For example – recently, we were working on the spatial design (and graphic design) of Space Embodied: The Russian Art of Movement, 1920–1930, an exhibition that’s currently taking place at Het Nieuwe Instituut (HNI) in Rotterdam; and while working on that project, we realised just how much of our thinking about Constructivism has been shaped by 80s post-punk culture.

When it comes to Constructivism, the early 80s (and late 70s) is of course a really interesting period, as a lot of the post-punk aesthetics (the graphic language of new wave, synth-pop, industrial music, etc.) referred quite openly to Russian avant-garde movements (Productivism, Suprematism, Kubo-Futurism, LEF, Agit-Prop, Zaum, etc.).

A very early example is of course Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine but you can also look at record sleeves designed by Neville Brody, Bazooka, Barney Bubbles, Malcolm Garrett, JG Thirlwell (Foetus), New Collective Studio (NSK/Laibach), Jean-Paul Goude, Peter Saville, etc.

This was a time when pop-culture, post-punk (and gay/queer) subcultures, Trotskyist politics and Constructivist aesthetics really merged, resulting in a very interesting common language. A well-known example would be The Communards. But you could also think of more subcultural bands, like mod/soul outfit The Redskins, or industrial collective Test Dept.

In that same vein, let’s not forget the Red Wedge logo, created by Neville Brody in 1985. And obviously, we’re also thinking here of David King (who sadly recently passed away), and the work he did for the Anti-Nazi League (and related organisations such as Rock Against Racism). 

Anyway – these are just some quick examples, from the top of our heads. But the point we want to make is simply this – our way of thinking about Constructivism is very much shaped by the 80s post-punk surroundings in which we grew up. 

So when we are referring (in an exhibition such as Space Embodied for example) to that whole language of Constructivism, our interpretation is not academic. Our interpretation is much more pop-damaged, much more blackened, much more subcultured.

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Experimental Jetset: Space Embodied: The Russian Art of Movement’ (2016)
Photo (installation view / detail) by Johannes Schwartz

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Experimental Jetset: Space Embodied: The Russian Art of Movement’ (2016)
Photo (installation view / detail) by Johannes Schwartz

How would you describe the Dutch approach to graphic design? How has it changed since you formed in 1997?

A lot has changed over the last few decades. 

From the end of World War II up until the 1990s, the Netherlands have been a (more or less) social-democratic country, leaning (culturally and socially) to the left. This was also reflected in graphic design — in general, graphic design was regarded as the embodiment of a certain socialist, modernist ideal: the synthesis of art and the everyday. Society as a Gesamtkunstwerk.

Within this atmosphere, graphic design was considered to be a public platform, not only for utilitarian communication, but also for authorship, and self-expression. The graphic designer was allowed (or better said, expected) to explore the artistic dimension of the medium to the fullest. This meant that, for most designers, there was no real separation yet between “autonomous work” and “commissioned work”: the functionality of a piece of design was also measured by its ability to push certain boundaries, to challenge expectations — but all within the realm of the public, as an integral part of society. 

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Experimental Jetset: Provo Station (detail), 2016, at GfZK Leipzig.

However, since the turn of the millennium, Dutch society has slowly transformed itself, from a Scandinavia-style welfare state into a more Anglo-Saxon-style neo-liberal market economy. And this process of dismantling the welfare state has had an immediate effect on graphic design. Most of the public and cultural infrastructure has been destroyed, or will be destroyed soon. Everything has been privatised, commercialised, opened to the market. Most institutes (even the so-called ‘cultural’ institutes) have stopped working with independent designers or small studios, and are collaborating more and more with large communication and advertising agencies. The whole notion of social-democratic design has disappeared, to make way for more neo-liberal concepts such as branding, advertising and marketing. A catastrophic state of affairs, obviously.

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Experimental Jetset: Provo Station (detail), 2016, at GfZK Leipzig

As a result, a lot of young, aspiring graphic designers have been pushed out of the public realm, and forced into a much more isolated and hidden infrastructure – an infrastructure of art practices, master courses, post-graduate programs, summer schools, book fairs, zine libraries, small exhibition spaces, self-publishing, etc. It seems that only there, these young designers can exercise the authorship and self-expression that cannot longer be exercised by them in the public space.

On the one hand, you can see this as a really exciting development – all these young people pushing design into completely new, esoteric directions. Some might argue that this can’t even be considered ‘design’ anymore, but we disagree. In a way, we think that what these young people are doing is still closer to ‘proper’ modern graphic design (as in, searching for the synthesis of art and the everyday) than practices such as branding and advertising are. So, we have nothing but respect for these young designers, dwelling in the art underground – they are keeping the spirit of modern graphic design alive.

But on the other hand, it also makes us very sad. We would really like to see these young designers being allowed to manifest themselves in more public spaces. For example – we graduated in 1997, and by 1998 we already designed a mass-produced postage stamp for the Dutch Mail. So, even as very young graphic designers, we were immediately offered a very large, public platform. It makes us sad that a lot of young designers won’t have a chance to make such a public gesture anymore. Maybe as unpaid interns for larger agencies – but not as independent, starting designers. 

So we can’t blame all these young, talented people for withdrawing from mainstream graphic design, and trying their luck in more isolated, art-related practices. It makes us extremely sad, but we can totally understand them.

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Experimental Jetset: Provo Station (detail), 2016, at GfZK Leipzig

As for the future – well, thinking about the future, we can’t help but think of that famous Gramsci quote, about being a “pessimist of the mind, and an optimist of the will”. Graphic design won’t be restored until the whole political climate changes. And sadly, social-democratic or socialist alternatives seem almost impossible to envision right now. There are sometimes tiny glimmers of hope on the horizon – but in general, it seems that we will be stuck in a neo-liberal reality for the time being. It’s a nightmare.

But on a more optimistic note – if the political climate does finally change, it means that there are legions of young designers, waiting on the sidelines, ready to take-over. To speak with The Exploited – they truly are the troops of tomorrow.

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Experimental Jetset: Left of the International (detail), 2015, Museum für Gestaltung Zürich

What projects have you got coming up?

As we’re writing this, it’s the longest day of the year – and the first day of our summer break. We really need it. The first few months of 2016 were so extremely, intensely busy – we’re completely exhausted.

But to answer your question… Right after the holidays, there are three publications we have to work on – a book on the Amsterdam-based architecture studio EventArchitectuur (to be pusblished by Birkhaüser), a catalogue on the work of the Dutch artist Erik van Lieshout (to be published by Wiels and Walther König Verlag), and the latest installment of EP (to be published by Sternberg Press). After the summer, we’ll also continue working on the development of a multiple that will be released later this year, by The Thing Quarterly (TTQ) in San Francisco.

There might also be some collaborations coming up with cultural institutes in Eastern Europe – very exciting, and we keep our fingers crossed for that. Then there are some upcoming projects involving our good friend (and brilliant photographer) Johannes Schwartz. Maybe another collaboration with Dutch artist Melanie Bonajo. We’ll also continue teaching at Werkplaats Typografie (Arnhem). And we probably forgot half of it. 

So yeah – we’ve got some busy months ahead. But first, we need a good summer holiday!

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Experimental Jetset: Statement & CounterStatement, 2015