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Features / Graphic Design

M/M (Paris) and the ongoing conversations that define its practice

On a rainy Paris morning, I met with Mathias Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag, the namesakes of renowned agency M/M (Paris), at their studio in the 10th, beside Canal Saint-Martin. Greeted by Michael’s Siberian Husky called Indy, we settled at the table of their meeting room, adjacent to the studio, where individual workspaces line two walls, a long, communal table forms the main drag, and skylights, dappled with raindrops, illuminate the room.

Since its founding in 1992, M/M (Paris) has collaborated with the likes of Björk, including the book Björk: Archives, which accompanied the 2015 exhibition at MoMA; JW Anderson, embroidering crochet pieces on a canvas printed with a vintage photograph, which evokes a smartphone home screen, for his FW17 campaign; and have often collaborated with artists Pierre Huyghe, Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin, and Philippe Parreno. More recently, M/M (Paris) worked with Acne Studios on their campaign featuring Kordale and Kaleb and their four children, the first black LGBTQI family to star in a major fashion campaign.

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As Mathias unravelled his fountain pen from its leather case, and began sketching the conversation, I asked about their collaboration with Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli, on his project and exhibition TV 70: Francesco Vezzoli guarda la Rai, at the Fondazione Prada, Milan: “We met Francesco a long time ago, but it was more a kind of social meeting, we navigated in the same world.” And Matthias and Michael are known for their ability to expertly navigate a variety of contexts, “We are operating at the crossover of many different media in our work, because of the nature of what we do.

“We are trained as graphic designers and our main interests are the building of images, signs, or alphabets, which can circulate very fast”, says Mathias. “We’ve always worked between different worlds – the world of art, the world of fashion, the world of music – and what makes those circulations possible is the media. And Francesco, in his work, is always obsessed with the media. For him, it’s a raw material, like stone or painting, it’s the core of his work.”

Vezzoli’s practice explores the power of contemporary popular culture, the power of fact and fiction in relation to our understanding of both ancient and contemporary history, and meta-collaborations that criss-cross between varieties of contexts and periods. He has worked in collage, installations, painting, printmaking and film. One particular project, Greed, was a social sculpture, an advert for an imaginary perfume that starred Natalie Portman and Michelle Williams, and was directed by Roman Polanski, with costumes designed by Miuccia Prada. It culminated in a star-studded launch at Rome’s Gagosian gallery in 2009, inspired by Italy’s radical Arte Povera movement of the 1960s, in which artists created ephemeral works that challenged the corporate status quo.

“We’ve always worked between different worlds – the world of art, the world of fashion, the world of music – and what makes those circulations possible is the media.

– Mathias Augustyniak

“Each time we saw each other we’d say ‘Hi,’ and then eventually, maybe two years ago, he phoned us: ‘I have a very dear project I would like to share with you, I can’t tell you on the phone what it is, but it is something I would love to tackle with you’”, Mathias recalls. “So we went to Milan, and we had a very exciting discussion over lunch. He presented us with this project he had in mind, an exhibition about Italian television, in the period when it was dedicated to culture, and by extension to politics, music and art. It was vibrant and vivid – where Italian thinkers, artists or politicians would express themselves. Francesco said: ‘I know you’re interested in signs and images,’ and furthermore, we were interested because television had a similar approach in France at that time [between 1968 and 1982]. It truly belonged to the state, and it was a way to engage in conversation with the public.”

Mathias continues: “The project was also interesting to us because of the Fondazione Prada. It recalls the freedom of approach that Centre Georges Pompidou had when it opened in 1977. It was more than just an art centre, a display place for pieces to become valuable. It was more than just entertaining the mass, it was truly a factory of ideas. A place where people could meet, share ideas, and then build the world.

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“For instance, in early discussions we were recalling [the 1985 exhibition] Les Immatériaux, curated by philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, which was an example for our generation.” The exhibition re-cast Emmanuel Kant’s definition of aesthetics, which had characterised the preoccupations of art history since the 19th Century, and formed ‘a presentation of ideas,’ and a re-working of what exhibitions could be in the so-called postmodern moment. “It was a model of what an exhibition could be beyond the fact that it’s just a retrospective. [The exhibition is] the work, the space of the exhibition is the art in itself.”

The exhibition, a collaboration primarily between Vezzoli and Rai, Italy’s national broadcasting company, explores 1970s TV production, and conveys its influence as a driving force for social and political change. And as Mathias confirmed: “Francesco is an amazing historian, he knows Italian television by heart, he’s an expert. And beyond that, he sees things by association, and he can produce more meaning.”

Set across the grounds of the Fondazione Prada – a complex of buildings, which are contrasting in style, and each designed or adorned by architect Rem Koolhaas’ studio OMA – TV 70 opens in black and white, and slowly moves to Technicolour, through grey scale and shocking bursts of red, in both the programmes on show, and M/M’s exhibition design.

“We shifted the paradigm to create a work that is a complete cosmogony, of many different voices. It’s almost a cliché to say, but it’s like a polyphony.”

– Mathias Augustyniak

“Vezzoli was brilliant in the way that he applied us and our practice as sign-makers at the scale of the space – which has been an obsession of ours since we started working together,” Mathias remarks. “We thought: ‘OK, there is an alphabet that can be printed and displayed on the page,’ but we are now living in the 21st Century, you can go further than signage systems or way-finding. We have passed the forest of signs and symbols of the 19th Century, we can deliver meaning, feeling and sensation, with spatial design.”

Elaborating on their intention, he says: “You can encourage the viewer to be lost, recoup them and then re-project them in another space. This is where, because all the material we had to deal with [in TV 70] was completely immaterial, we had to give it a materiality.

“We applied the creative strategy that we have applied many times, where we say: ‘OK, let’s build a set of signs.’ Those signs could be produced in an alphabet for sure, and write the title of the show, but they are also designed in a way that they can be piled on top of each other, on a vertical or horizontal axis. With those signs you can build a space, one that is equal to, or enhances the television material displayed in the show.”

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The letterforms are oversized and abstracted, and while they remain readable in form, due to their settings and monumental scale, they take on secondary roles: to be reminiscent of grandiose church architecture, nightclubs, or fittingly, TV sets. As a spectator, it almost feels like you’ve been shrunk back to child-scale, when your surroundings overwhelm, enthral and consume you. You’re invited to clamber onto and over the scattered letterforms, to be at the centre of the show, and outside of any reliable sense of time or space.

“Our aim was that entering the exhibition would be like entering a TV programme, and furthermore, like you are entering a portal, or a programme in it’s truest sense” says Mathias. “Time is the true material of the exhibition, we could compress it or elongate it, take the viewer from A to B, and then into another time zone through C, D and E. The spaces go from daylight to darkness, and the spectator feels like they are part of the exhibition, interacting, and not just by pressing a button. There is the quality of strolling through a garden, where they feel with nature, but everything is well-sequenced and designed, you feel like there is something going through you,” says Mathias.

“Another important ingredient is the use of art, and it is not an art show, rather, the art pieces were used as signage systems somehow. We reverted the hierarchy, so instead of having a graphic system that allows you to view art, the graphic system creates a space where art accommodates, or helps the viewer to watch television footage, providing time markers or a signage system” says Mathias. “We shifted the paradigm to create a work that is a complete cosmogony, of many different voices. It’s almost a cliché to say, but it’s like a polyphony.”

The exhibition covers the best part of Fondazione Prada’s vast grounds, splitting each room and stand-alone building thematically, and, by and large, chronologically. In gallery Nord, which represents the “professoral” period of Italian public service television, M/M (Paris)’s exhibition design is shaped entirely in black and white, with towering letterforms lining each wall. Mathias describes it as being: “Like a church, or a 1930s fascist building, where the weight of knowledge is impressed upon you”. He continues: “That had been the principle of television, when you had a lot of interviews with men talking to men, very ‘professoral,’ with big icons of Italian art.”

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From here, the exhibition moves through a variety of spaces; in its physicality, as well as intellectually, periodically, thematically and emotionally. First is a long, dark, claustrophobic corridor that presents that present periods of trauma and socio-political turmoil, such as Italy’s ‘Years of Lead,’ which, spatially, behave “like a sting”; and second, a facsimile of a Milan gallery, which plants you in a readymade that reflects the familiar model of exhibitions for the period in question. The next space, Podium, shows the work of artist Carla Accardi, alongside TV clips about the feminist and civil rights movement in 1970s Italy. “The space, and deploying art within a system, was very much part of Accardi’s work. She was building a world to express an ideology. Her work is shown in relation to TV programmes about women’s lives, where they expressed their doubts, certainties and questions regarding their position in Italian society.”

It’s the first room of the exhibition to appear in vivid colour, covered floor to ceiling in red velvet. “The red curtain represents theatre and entertainment, and of course, it’s like a womb, where we all come from. The typographic elements of furniture are flattened out, designed to be like a landscape, or being in the mouth of a giant. The final part of the exhibition, the Sud gallery, was designed to be in between a nightclub and a house”, says Mathias. “It’s a series of spaces that are kind of plugged into each other. The scale is reduced to a more domestic one, and it stays public because it’s like a nightclub – not a discotheque. It’s in between night and day, and deals with the intimacy of the woman, men and women, it’s multiracial and gender fluid. For the time, the images were very daring.” The letterforms that form the structure and furniture of the space are patterned in the style of the holding screen for when programming would cease overnight. “Very crude, RGB colours, because that’s how electronic television worked, it would be dealing with the activation of those three colours. The grid was designed to align the electrons, not because it was cool,” recalls Mathias.

“We added the crosswords, which weren’t supposed to be there. And why? There were crossword magazines produced in the same period, which were a way of dealing with culture” Mathias remarks. “Crosswords were also the first game to be analysed by a writer or artist, where you have very simple rules. It’s a way of compressing time, of putting your intellect into a grid, and finding a solution. Crosswords are caught between knowledge and entertainment, and that’s the friction, that’s what television invented somehow.”

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“We are extracting something from the past, and plugging it in to our carefully designed world, with a retro-future effect. It’s a principle that can be used in a book, where you go from full colour to black and white, to colour again. A movie, where you cut between scenes. Or a television, which cuts between programmes”, says Mathias. “It leads the viewer from one programme to another, and conceptually, they aren’t just in the position of a consumer, as they are today. You could watch TV from 10am ‘til 12pm, and feel enhanced, like you had learnt something.”

“With our work you could say: ‘Oh, it’s beautiful, it’s very well-executed,’ but what we love is when it’s possible to connect a variety of references, influences and voices, which when you’re consuming it, or walking through it, develop a further, unexpected state.”

– Mathias Augustyniak

The book Televisione 70, which accompanies TV 70, embodies a similar approach to the aforementioned crossword puzzle, splicing knowledge and entertainment in its structure, texts and visual contents. A compendium of voices and perspectives – much like the exhibition and it’s contributing authors – there are texts by Vezzoli, M/M (Paris), and curator Cristiana Perrella; as well as essays by Nicolas Bourriaud, Umberto Eco and Marco Senaldi, among others. Likewise, the design of the book criss-crosses in its references, between French literary anthologies and Betamax. “We wanted the book to be a book,” says Mathias. “The exhibition was referring very much to the history of exhibitions, and in this context it was important for us that the television material remained immaterial, that you couldn’t really nail down the scale of the image. It was important that it stayed where it was supposed to stay, within the collective memory of the people. That was the beauty of television from this period, it was for the collective, it was free and it was very generous, and it was important that we maintained that. That’s why, rewinding to the book, it was important that the book be a true book. Although it criss-crosses between high and low culture, it has a book format, and it stays a book. A book that tells the story of television, or a book that tells the story of an exhibition that tells the story of television, with the tricks and tools one would deploy in a very classical book.”

The design draws upon reference anthologies, such as Bibliotheque de la Pléiade – a series of books first established in 1931 by Jacques Schiffrin as a way of providing the French public with complete, pocket editions of the work of classic authors – and it is based on the pocket format. “When you open the book, it falls into cinemascope, and if you turn it, the book becomes square, like a TV screen. The weight of it, and the sleeve, is almost like a Betamax. It was important that the book would proceed in the way that we would proceed through the space. It invites the same mix of voices, attracting many sources and conglomerating them together – and this artistic or intellectual approach, this strategy, it’s always present in our work.” He continues, “With our work you could say: ‘Oh, it’s beautiful, it’s very well-executed,’ but what we love is when it’s possible to connect a variety of references, influences and voices, which when you’re consuming it, or walking through it, develop a further, unexpected state.”

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“We have been saying this since we started, because it was part of our obsession: ‘Our work is an ongoing conversation’. This is our relationship to people we’ve been collaborating with, and I say collaborating because it is a lot more than just working, even if we are working in a hardcore, industrial context. We shift it so it becomes a conversation, or we try to, it is never: ‘We have been told to do this,’or, ‘We are telling you to do that,’” says Mathias. “Some people understood us right away, because they could see a connection, while others, they liked what we were doing, but they didn’t understand that to arrive at that point, there was a necessary process. We’ve tried to work with people who want to escape that process, but it produces something that looks like our work, but without the gravity of it. One of the successes of the exhibition, is that it has truly been a conversation between people of good manner and conscience. Another, is it’s optimism. The exhibition goes beyond objects that can be sold, and rather, focusses on producing a moment. A generous moment, where you can access history and be part of a culture that produced an amazing set of materials. I think this ought to be the mission of a museum, to produce exhibitions that nourish the cultural surroundings.”

Returning to a focus on their own practice, Mathias says: “At the beginning of our career it was more complicated. The process of collaboration wasn’t so obvious, or accepted, in the world of design, it was more obvious in the world of art. What we wanted to do was to operate as artists in the world of design, which wasn’t expecting that approach. We’d say we were artists, but we had shifted our world of action or expertise outside of museum and gallery exhibitions. Our practice was a bit surprising at the beginning.”