As the sun blared in east London last night, we headed over the Oval Space for our monthly evening of creative talks at Nicer Tuesdays. An especially wide-ranging evening in terms of discipline, each speaker allowed us into their brains, opening up about the processes and inspirations that go into their work.
Up first was Melissa Kitty Jarram who detailed a recent project completed with Anna Ginsburg and the many (many) hours that went into it. She was followed by Josie Tucker and Richard Ashton of Adapt who explained the reasons they’re able to laugh about the climate crisis. After the break, photographer Max Miechowski professed his love for getting lost in his local area with his camera (and a few peanut butter sarnies). And, finally, design studio Kellenberger-White took us through a year-long series of exhibitions and workshops which resulted in a new identity for the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art.
Sometimes, all it takes is a bit of perseverance
Taking to the stage first at last night’s event was London-based artist Melissa Kitty Jarram. While her talk touched on her practice as a whole – she works both digitally and with paint she told us – the focus of Kitty’s talk was a recent film made in collaboration with director Anna Ginsburg titled Ugly. A film with a meticulously-slow and fascinating process, Melissa’s talk honed in on the pair’s perseverance to get the project done, despite several setbacks.
The pair first came into contact via Instagram, admiring each other’s work from afar before a chance encounter at the pub solidified the fact that they needed to work together on something. With this decision made, they just needed to figure out what to make. Starting out by testing how Anna could bring Melissa’s paintings to life (which Melissa “had no idea anyone could do”), the duo eventually landed on the idea of animating a poem by Mary Oliver which was close to Anna’s heart. “The problem with it was that we had to get rights to use the poem,” Melissa explained. From Mary’s agent it was a straight-up “no!”, but, determined not to let that stop them, the duo tracked down the poet’s home address and sent her a letter and some paintings. In a tragic twist of fate, the very same day that they posted the letter, Mary Oliver passed away!
“Anna and I were gutted about this but I said we can’t let this stop us, let’s go back to the drawing board and find a different poem,” Melissa continued. Luckily, they found the award-winning work of Warsan Shire, a British poet born to Somalian parents in Kenya. Warsan’s work largely focusses on the refugee experience, and it was Ugly, a “serious and sad poem” with an uplifting ending that they set their sights on. After another rejection from an agent and more amateur sleuthing, which involved tracking down Warsan’s personal mobile number to ask her directly, the pair had their poem. Sometimes, this proves, taking matters into your own hands really is the only way to finish a project you care about.
Despite having done so much already, Melissa and Anna now had to make the actual film – which was no mean feat. More issues occurred – largely due to the fact that Melissa was painting by hand and so keeping the colour consistent from frame-to-frame was like “solving a Rubix cube” – but what the pair eventually produced is a moving and incredibly beautiful animation which brings to life Warsan’s words and Melissa’s paintings. The film premiered at an event in support of refugee arts charity Counterpoints, alongside several other amazing films and it’s thanks to this event that Melissa feels so fulfilled by the project. “I feel like art is really at the heart of culture and a really useful tool to communicate different perspectives,” she stated. “At the risk of sounding cliche, helping people understand things better might ultimately help us all treat one another better.”
Make a joke, then make the joke look nice
Josie Tucker and Richard Ashton are the masterminds behind Adapt, a “climate club” using design and humour to communicate the climate crisis and insight action from the public. The pair started the project around two years ago and now essentially run it as a full-time job, they told us. At the time of its inception, there wasn’t much conversation around climate change, and what there was, was “scary and fear-mongering,” which didn’t encourage anyone to make changes. “We thought with our skills that we could maybe do it a bit better,” they stated.
With a clear mission set, Josie and Richard set about producing work and their Nicer Tuesdays talk acted as a compendium of highlights so far. Their first campaign, focussed around the phrase “don’t be a fossil fool”. “It was trying to make a fun and sexy way to switch to renewable energy,” they explained. With an Instagram campaign and actual website which showed people how they could make the switch, this project really exemplifies the work that Adapt makes. While there’s an element of silliness and always a punchline in their somewhere, behind it all are important issues and tangible ways that people can take action.
Later down the line, the pair organised a party – a fun place for people to dance and drink, and also be reminded of our impending doom, of course. “One of the things we did was a Shell piñata so people could beat the hell out of Shell,” Josie explained. Despite some minor issues caused by the fact that the piñata was on bungee chords and not ropes, “It turned out to be the most memorable part of the evening,” Josie continued.
After giving us the low-down on some of their other projects, including climate change speed dating at the Tate, and a massive exhibition at Copeland Gallery including the work of 50 artists (which included a challenge to plant 5000 trees simply by using a search engine), the pair left us with some insightful parting words: “Essentially, we spend our whole days reading bad climate news and the only way to deal with it is to laugh out of it and make a joke out of it. And, as graphic designers, the only way to make a living off that is to make the joke look nice.” It’s through this process that the duo is actually making a difference, engaging with those who would otherwise be put off by the media’s rhetoric around the climate crisis.
The best stories are right on your doorstep
“I like taking photographs,” Max Miechowski announced when he took to the stage last night. “The main themes that I concentrate on are community and culture. I’m specifically interested in how these influence our sense of identity.” Originally from Lincoln, the now London-based photographer proceeded to show us exactly what it is he likes so much about photography, and how his practice has developed over the past few years through three distinct projects.
The first was a series titled Cemetery Road, made when he was living on the road in question in Leeds. “The reason I wanted to show this is that it gave me a sense of direction as a photographer,” he explained. “It was a very simple idea and it was basically photographs of my neighbours.” While simple in its concept, what the project showed Max was that photography can be a facilitator for engaging with others you wouldn’t usually be able to. “This was a great way for me to engage with the local community and present a sense of unity within the street.”
When he left Leeds to move to London two and a half years ago, Max had a clear idea of how he would get to know his new home, thanks to his experience of making Cemetery Road. While that project had focussed on one street, the time that Max moved to south-east London was an interesting one – it was post-Brexit-referendum – and so he felt the need to look at a wider community. He took off with his camera, “walking around endlessly and going down every street and back alley and park”, taking portraits of those he met on his travels. “Making this work gave me an opportunity to explore this area of the city which was now my new home,” he explained. “Naturally, by focusing on portraiture it gave me an opportunity to meet lots of different people around me and their experience of the city.”
Who he is as a photographer really clicked for Max, however, when, in the summer of 2018, his endless wandering led him to Burgess Park resulting in a series of the same name. Taken by the diverse community that gathered to BBQ, listen to music and dance, Max embarked on a series which landed him a spot in the National Portrait Gallery as part of the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize exhibition, a solo show at The Print Space and several other group shows. “The reason why I end on this point is really not to brag,” he professed, “but to illustrate that inspiration, great stories and projects aren’t happening on the other side of the world, they’re happening on your street… they might even be happening as close as your local park.”
The small details are as important as the big decisions
Taking to the stage for the final talk of the evening was Eva Kellenberger and Sebastian White AKA design studio Kellenberger-White. Having not travelled far from their studio in Old Street, the duo took us through a project which demonstrates their propensity for process-led work more than any other: their identity for Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA).
The pair was brought on to create a new visual identity for the museum, which wanted to position itself as a “useful museum”, and were given a year to produce the work. “It’s quite unusual that we got a year to do this project and it shows a real trust in us,” they explained. “Part of the commitment was then to show the people who worked there what we were up to.” The result was a series of research trips, exhibitions and workshops, out of which the identity was born.
The first saw all 42 members of staff coming together to learn how to linocut while discussing ideas about what the museum should represent. “During our research, we were really impressed with John Ruskin’s thought of thinking through making,” they told us. “Instead of just having a workshop talking around desks we connected that with a workshop around Lino printing.” In the end, each member had produced a print and a relief expressing their ideas on the future of the museum, which were showcased in the first exhibition. These were presented on tables made from perforated metal and in a range of “international colours” – details inspired by a research trip to Middlesbrough’s transport bridge.
The second exhibition really helped form the bulk of the identity. After discovering that a vinyl cutting machine without a scalpel blade is the same machine architects would have previously used to draft their work, Eva and Sebastian fitted it with a thin rollerball pen able to draw letters. This machine was installed in an exhibition space alongside a computer asking questions about art, museums, the city, which changed every day. “The room gradually became more and more crowded with people’s opinions,” they recalled. “1000s of posters were made and people could take a copy of them home too.” Alongside this, the font the duo had developed became part of the environment and “it was at this point, we realised that an identity could be formed," they continued. "This was the crux of the project.”
From there, the project became about establishing a voice for the museum, a typographic expression, a voice, one “that would allow MIMA to talk in the right accent”. The result is an identity which shows why institutions like MIMA keep coming back to Kellenberger-White. Eva and Sebastian have developed a studio which values the minute details, such as the metal used on the feet of a notice board, as much as the big decisions like what colour the sign should be. “It’s a philosophy of design where you focus on the small things as much as the big things,” they concluded. “We try to keep each design element flowing into one another.”