Once Upon a Time

The upcoming Memory Palace show at the V&A tackles storytelling, design and illustration in an ambitious way. Its curators talk us through its creation

How do the fields of contemporary graphics and illustration relate to each other in today’s world? How have changes in publishing affected designers and illustrators, how has the format of the book evolved, and what is storytelling in this day and age? When V&A curators Laurie Britton Newell and Ligaya Salazar decided to stage the museum’s first dedicated contemporary graphics and illustration exhibition for nearly a decade, their research quickly threw up these fundamental questions.

From the outset, they decided they wanted to steer clear of the classic approach to curating such an exhibition. “Traditionally, graphic design and illustration exhibitions don’t necessarily play to the objects’ best format,” explains Britton Newell. “So a book is taken out of context, a spread is isolated behind a Perspex case and various posters or campaigns or fragments of those are posted in a room together. This is the challenge of the great group graphic design exhibition, where as a visitor you are bombarded by multiple messages and little sections of stories that are shouted at you.”

This conundrum merged with the exploration of the changing role of contemporary graphics and illustration, and also the challenge of finding a pertinent subject that would tie those fields together. “We liked the idea that graphics and illustration had traditionally worked together but are now quite diverging,” says Salazar. “They work together at points but not really. They’re often experimenting in different media and working in inter-disciplinary ways.” Add to that the overarching questions around what the book is in the 21st century and the duo came up with an ambitious proposition – an exhibition that would essentially present a new book format.

The curators were going to commission an original piece of fiction as the core of the exhibition, and invite 20 graphic design and illustration practitioners to interpret their own section of the story. Three years on, the original ambition has not been dimmed, and Memory Palace is set to launch at the V&A next month. As part of the Sky Arts Ignition Series, the exhibition will be a “walk-in book, if you like”, says Britton Newell.

After much research – or “a wonderful bit of summer reading”, as they put it – Salazar and Britton Newell commissioned author Hari Kunzru, who delivered an evocative dystopian story. It’s a vision of a future London in which the global information infrastructure has been wiped out by a huge magnetic storm, ‘The Withering’. Nature has been reclaiming the city ruins, and books or any form of remembering or mark-making are banned. The story recounts the disjointed memories of a captured member of a renegade group of ‘memorialists’ who are trying to revive the ‘art of memory’ and retain as much of the past as possible. It is written in short passages and fragments, as the curators were keen to pursue a non-linear narrative so that it could be accessed in different ways, and it wouldn’t matter what order the visitor decided to walk through the story.

Commissioning the right type and length of text was one of the main early challenges, say Salazar and Britton Newell, who are more accustomed to visual commissions than those of text. Having taken advice from a number of people from different fields, such as theatre, comic writing and story-boarding, it became clear that the language could not be too visual. “You don’t want writing that is too visually descriptive. What you want is text that evokes something but leaves scope for the visual,” explains Britton Newell.

As for selecting the graphic designers and illustrators, they were keen to balance different types of practice, not just in terms of media and format, but also to reflect contemporary ways of working, such as collectives. The final line-up includes graphic design collective Åbäke, as well as illustration collective Le Gun, alongside Erik Kessels, experimental typographer Oded Ezer, illustrators, book artists and graphic novelists such as Némo Tral, Frank Laws, Isabel Greenberg, Mario Wagner, Luke Pearson, Jim Kay, as well as graphic designers such as Johnny Kelly, Francesco Franchi and Hansje van Halem.

“We gravitated towards people who were more interested in exploring boundaries,” explains Salazar. “And all of them had a close relationship to narrative and an understanding of how their work relates to it. But we also wanted it to be a balance between people who work more traditionally and people who are actively pushing outside their boundaries.” The curators also gave practitioners an extremely loose brief. “We really didn’t push anyone to become an installation artist,” stresses Salazar. “Because that’s not the point, it’s not a fine art show.”

These free parameters have brought a great diversity of approaches to the exhibition. For example, graphic designer Stefanie Posavec has brought her data-driven way of visualising text to her depiction of the three different time periods of the story, the age of Accounting, The Withering and the post-apocalyptic Wilding. Her depiction of the information-age Accounting, for example, uses exact distances between the capitals of the world to create the image, while the Wilding is based on various data on London weeds. Kessels meanwhile responded to two memory fragments in the story that recall advertising and recycling, creating a giant, five-metre palace made from recycled advertising leaflets. “I tried to reinvent myself for such an open brief and do something that I haven’t done before,” he says. Reflecting on some of the underlying questions that the exhibition is exploring, he adds: “Graphic design in the future will be more dependent on the strong idea. So many disciplines and techniques are so easy to access these days, so the idea will become more and more important.”

Another of the contributors who was particularly thrilled by the project was Ezer, who created eight short films each interpreting a definition from the story, misremembered by the protagonist. According to Ezer, he took each definition, such as ‘Customer: One who is treated according to the ancient customs’, and interpreted it in a visual way. “Everything to do with language and culture, and especially typography, is extremely interesting,” he says. “All the films are around letters and the understanding that language or words or letters can be consumed in all sorts of different ways. I hope that visitors will simply stop and think for a while about language, about communication, and about type.”

In addition, Memory Palace will include a wall of type from Peter Bil’ak that will only be legible from a certain viewpoint; large-scale hanging prints by Isabel Greenberg interpreting passages from the main character’s past; a three-dimensional drawn installation from Le Gun re-imagining the warped concept of an ‘ambulance’; hand-painted floor tiles from Hansje van Halem who responded to a passage in the story about misremembered London underground stations, which the prisoner likens to gemstones; and an installation by illustrator and graphic designer Henning Wagenbreth made from painted wooden blocks, which reference the construction and deconstruction of culture and act as a metaphor for how language and meaning is constructed. Reflecting the concern with the future of the book and mediums of publishing, another piece will be an interactive app, designed by graphic designer Johnny Kelly in response to the finale of the story. The web-based drawing app will allow visitors – in person as well as online – to contribute their own memory to a digital Memory Bank, and each week a screen-printed poster of all the memories that were submitted will be added to the exhibition.

It will be impressive to see the 20 high-profile names of contemporary graphics and illustration side-by-side, but Britton Newell and Salazar emphasise that Memory Palace is by no means a “survey exhibition”. “There is no curatorial voice in the exhibition. The contributors are not named in the space itself. As you’re walking around you won’t be recognising that this is a certain person’s work,” explains Britton Newell. “So while people in the know might feel they are able to read a particular statement about what’s happening in contemporary graphics and illustration, what we’re primarily doing in the space is telling the story through the eyes of these different practitioners.”

It is something the duo “fought really hard for”, adds Salazar. “There were several occasions where people were keen for us to re-implement the curatorial voice – but what we’re trying to do is create a walk-in story. It’s not primarily about graphics and illustration. The primary goal is for it to be seen as an ‘edition of one’ of this story in an exhibition space.”

So the curatorial voice remains absent from Memory Palace. Granted, the exhibition design by architect CJ Lim and Studio 8 Architects, and with 2D design from Sara de Bondt studio, ties the show together, and “visually we’ve thought about whose work sits next to whose”, as Britton Newell says, but the main attraction remains the “intensely physical experience of a story” as interpreted by the work. In fact, the exhibition will not feature the whole text, for that visitors can buy an accompanying publication. “The printed book does feature what you could argue is the full text, and the exhibition is the distilled version,” says Britton Newell. “But for us it is the work in process, and what we’re creating in the exhibition is the final edit, the final version.”

So what if the visitors, for all the luminary graphic and illustration talent involved, don’t ‘get’ the whole story? – a question that they have been repeatedly asked, the curators concede. “Of course at a higher level we’d like there to be an understanding of a version of the story that the visitor can take away, and questions of what a book can be,” says Salazar. “But from our very early research, we were keen that at the very least people go and see some wonderful work of graphic design and illustration.”

Sky Arts Ignition: Memory Palace runs at the V&A from June 18 – October 20 2013. Memory Palace by Hari Kunzru is published in June 2013 (V&A Publishing, £12.95). An accompanying programme featuring the exhibition will be broadcast on Sky Arts 1 HD on June 19. vam.ac.uk

 

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