Subway Sect is a new radio series, produced by Maria Bartolo and CR’s Eliza Williams, which is airing on Resonance FM, London’s art/experimental radio station, over the next six weeks. The shows aim to explore the complex relationship between art and music and take the form of a series of conversations between artists, musicians, writers, designers, djs and music video directors.
The shows go out each Wednesday at 1pm on Resonance (104.4 FM or online at www.resonancefm.com) and we’ll also be bringing you transcripts of highlights from the shows each week on the CR blog.
Today on Subway Sect, designer Peter Saville is in conversation with Frieze magazine critic and writer, Dan Fox. The two discuss Saville’s design work for Factory Records, including his sleeves for Joy Division and New Order, as well as his more recent experiences in the contemporary art world. The show was recorded at Frieze’s offices in London earlier this year.
On the distinctions between graphic design and contemporary fine art
Peter Saville: …and this is the point in which fine art and late 20th century applied art diverge completely. In the applied arts we learn to please people, we learn strategies of pleasing others. Pleasing yourself or expressing yourself, the confessing self, is not pertinent within the applied arts. It might be terribly interesting but it’s not exactly what we’re looking for. The prevailing condition within the applied arts is also to make things look good. Things that look good tend to be familiar – things tend not to look good until we are to some extent familiar with them. We see this in the culture of design all the time, what was radical 20 years ago and received with shock, we now see as kind of easy on the eye.
Dan Fox: It becomes part of the canon.
PS: Exactly, and then it’s OK for a Habitat kitchen – and so there’s a process that happens there. The shock of the new is quite counter-productive in the applied arts because mostly it’s not what the market’s looking for. The applied arts generally rely on making things look good and take it into iterations of the canon. Once I tried to sit down and do some work of my own that would have any kind of place in what I thought a gallery should be, I realised I was just quoting the existing codes. That was my first big embarrassing moment – the first Frieze Art Fair three or four years ago, where I had some digital recycled pieces, which conceptually were quite an interesting idea.
DF: The Waste Paintings?
PS: Yes, which were literally a shredding of something “finished”. So conceptually it was, “Nothing lasts very long, we just finished this today, so let’s make something else out of them tonight.” But of course the tendency with them is always to make them look good, so they ended up looking like variations on Abstract Expressionism. I was quite happy that they looked like a Morris Louis.
DF: And why not!
PS: And then I took a walk around the art fair and it was probably the first time I’d ever been in an art fair and, you know, I’m walking down Avenue B, second left and there was a Morris Louis! I thought, “Shit! I’ll get my coat.” That was the first day of the fair and it was there for another three days… I just wanted the world to open up so I could disappear into it. It was the most embarrassing and shameful experience. I thought, “Well Peter, the art world doesn’t need another Morris Louis, it’s already got one…” And that gave me an insight into how I’d been able to freely work within fashion and media cultures, where putting a Morris Louis into a record store was a reasonably idealistic gesture. But it would have been much better to let [The Waste Paintings] be what they were – to some extent ugly and unfamiliar – that would have been a better way of brokering them than ending up with something that looked familiar. Why would anyone go beyond the surface to find out anymore about it? So that week I realised how wide the divergence was.
DF: I think it’s a two-way thing, as there’s a lot of artists for whom the grass is greener in design, cinema or pop music, and there are certain artists who’d like to think their work would inhabit a design context but it fails to fulfil the roles of whatever requirements the applied arts demand.
PS: You are right and the artists have an envy of its audience reach – they envy the notion of reaching 50,000 or 100,000. The problem is that you can’t do your own work within the field of a mass market. I had this kind of autonomous moment, which arose within the context of Factory, for a decade, which was unlike any similar situation that I have experienced since and it’s very unlikely to happen again. The many circumstances of Factory itself; Ian Curtis’ death, the whole range of things that happened, created this autonomous platform, with a very large reach, to do what I wanted. This ended up, when I look back on it now, to be sharing my own learning curve with my contemporaries. I was on my own version of the Grand Tour, courtesy of second-hand book shops, and I was learning that I had an enthusiasm – I’d come across another thing, and sooner or later a suitably relevant opportunity would arise for me to say, for example, “This is Italian Futurism – it’s quite interesting isn’t it?” And of course after the unique circumstances of New Order and Factory that situation has never arisen again, because it’s not what the communications industry is about. You know – you have an audience of 10,000 or 10 million because it is for others to others; the work’s for someone else and it’s not to yourself. That, in the end, I found boring to come to terms with.
On Factory and designing record covers
DF: But in a sense you had the autonomous space of an artist for ten years – a degree of liberty that is very similar to that of an artist.
PS: Complete liberty… Strangely out of disinterest. It was New Order’s disinterest and agreed policy of disagreement that allowed it. When Ian died, the natural hierarchy which would have naturally formed in Joy Division… because that’s what happens in bands, at the beginning everyone’s equal, y‘know, if you’ve got a van you can be the manager… that’s how it is. But once they enter the music business, a proper manager is put in place and it’s, “The drummer’s not very good, is he?” and “We’ve got someone else with a drum kit…” The natural hierarchy crystallises around the central figure which is usually the writer/singer and that’s what would have happened had Joy Division signed to a record label or a proper record company, and had Ian survived. He would have gradually, even against his own free will, turned into a Jim Morrison-type character and that’s who you would be working for if you were doing a sleeve or taking a photo or whatever… you’d be working for that person. If you are doing a Pulp cover, you are working for Jarvis. Ian died, leaving behind the band, with no defined hierarchy. Three equal people, all of whom needed each other. Nobody really took the responsibility of being the writer – it took a decade before that happened. So they remained a democracy and very quickly, as most bands do, they started to hate each other and decided things by ignoring them. So they’d do whatever was the last option, because all other options had lapsed and they couldn’t agree on anything. And worse than that they would disagree deliberately. I remember one day I said, “There’s a piece of artwork, it’s black and white, it can be any colour you want?” And someone said, “blue”, and someone said “red”, and I thought, “hmmm…”, and someone said “green” and I realised very quickly they only said these colours to be contradictory to each other. Hooky said “red” because Bernard said “blue”, and Steven said “green” because the other two had said red and blue!
DF: Didn’t you do eight different versions of a single?
PS: Yes, but that was my own indecision… But, anyway, they disagreed out of principle. At the end of the meeting as they trooped out I turned to the manager and said “What shall I do?” and he said [adopts weary tone] “Just f**king do it!” So it was kind of mute showing them anything. And the weird thing about it is that they’ve never actually asked.
DF: …why you’ve presented something in a certain way?
PS: No. They saw Blue Monday when it was in the shops. They’ve never actually sat down with me and said “Why do we have the Fantin–Latour [flower painting] on Power Corruption and Lies?”, and, “Why does it have a colour-code opposite it?”, and “Why does Republic have these photo library images?” Or “Why did you use sheets of metal for Brotherhood?” They never expressed any interest at all.
DF: Does that bother you, or are you quite happy with that?
PS: It is a bit upsetting in some ways – it makes you wonder when many other people have a rather fanatical interest in it, yet the group themselves seem disinterested. But I also realised that if they were interested enough to ask, they would have been interested enough to engage in the beginning – and then it would have been the usual committee activity that record covers often are, and so I realised after a while that it was a godsend. The fact that they weren’t interested allowed me the opportunity to do what I felt like doing. I mean Jarvis is the opposite. Jarvis is very interested and it’s very exciting when Jarvis phones up and says “I want to do something”. You know it’ll be very interesting. For This is Hardcore he said, “John Currin said he’ll help…’ Which was like [laughs], “OK!”
PS: I did something with Eno once.
DF: Was he very hands-on?
PS: Yes. It was My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, he’d done some video stills and just needed a cover and it was very exciting. Especially when you’re young – sitting and doing something with people you have admired from a distance, it makes you feel good. And we had a nice moment; I asked him to choose a gold – there were several golds on the page. But then across the page there were ten swatches of the same one. There was a long delay and I said, “Are you not sure?”, and he said, “No, it’s fine – but which one?” I said, “Brian, they are all the same!” He said, “Oh! I thought it was discrete!” It was just so nice that he used the word “discrete”.
PS: Working with Factory there was no business, no advertising, no marketing director, nobody was committed to a notion of profitability, in fact they didn’t even think about it. [laughs] And everyone was doing what they felt like doing. Tony Wilson felt like being the hub of a pop cultural enterprise and so that’s what he did. And the groups felt like making the music that they wanted to make, and what they’d like to buy, and Ben Kelly was allowed to do The Haçienda the way he wanted to… and I did the covers that I would have liked to have bought. And nobody interfered – that was quite exceptional.
On studying design in the 1970s
PS: My tutors at art college were David Bowie, Roxy Music, and possibly Kraftwerk. You learn by osmosis, you’re not aware of learning, it’s a formative time and you’re quite impressionable, you take it in. Bowie is a good example of the next generation of pop where you learn the puppet-strings, and how you can make pop culture work for you rather than being just a passive recipient of it. Bowie gives the lesson in managing it.
DF: It’s empowerment.
PS: Yes, an empowerment through pop… so you kind of learn that. Roxy is a great manifestation of codes outside of pop. I talked to Michael Bracewell, who was working on his Roxy Music book, and I said, “Michael, you do see Roxy Music as the first postmodern group, don’t you?” And it was quiet for a moment, then he said “I hadn’t, but you’re right.” They were the first group that freely quote retrospectively. Kraftwerk were always there as an indication of the high art canon – the fact that they’d gone to the conservatoire, the academy… [laughs]
DF: Also representing that glamourisation of Europe that Bowie was trying to get at with those Berlin-era records.
PS: The kind of escape from mediocrity I’d imagine in the 60s and 70s for British kids, particularly those in the post-industrial north – there was an awful lot to get away from. And I was fortunate – I came from the affluent stockbroker side of the tracks and grew up in a leafy place outside of Manchester, and had this slightly romantic idea of the industrial city. But I looked longingly at the cover of Another Time, Another Place and the cocktail party around the swimming pool. There were swimming pools in Wilmslow… but I knew they weren’t the same, they weren’t the same parties! I was on a mission to find that swimming pool! It was just an aspiration for a cultured life – a dream of a life that was interwoven with some kind of cultural experience, which middle-class Britain in the 1970s just wasn’t like at all.
PS: It was courtesy of Malcolm Garrett that I found the library in Manchester Polytechnic. He’d been introduced to the canon of graphic history, which wasn’t talked about in the mid-70s British art school. No one mentioned the Bauhaus, which is impossible to imagine now. No one mentioned any of the formative periods of graphic history, and it was a good graphics course. They still talked about The New York School of the visual pun, you know – I Love New York, and it was tedious. It was the next generation that were able to read a little more into it than that. Malcolm had had one year at Reading University that was a serious course, then he came to the Polytechnic and brought his reading list – we didn’t have one. He had this book called Pioneers of Modern Typography, and it was 1976 and we were in the middle of punk on a graphic design course and wondering, “Where do we go now? The field’s been burnt and you can’t carry on burning the field.” The term New Wave began to be whispered and we wondered what that would be. Obviously in Malcolm’s copy of Pioneers of Modern Typography it was quite obvious what it would be – there was a post-revolutionary moment, Constructivism, a re-building. So we saw an analogy between punk and the Russian Revolution! [laughs] Obvious to anyone! So we had to build something new, and we tapped into this key moment in the history of communication or graphic design, straight out of early 20th century art…
So I found the graphics shelf in the library – I’ve still got some of the books now [laughs] – and realised no one had been there. I opened these books that no one had talked about and started to look out of the window at 70s Manchester and I just thought, “Why? If it can be like this, why is it like that?”
DF: So it becomes a form of empowerment.
PS: Yes, if you get the opportunity. You do have this feeling in your early 20s that you could do something and you could change something. That will is there and yet for most it’s ground down by the mediocrity of necessity, and fear of change. Frustratingly and ironically by the time the individual gets to their 30s, where a certain amount of active empowerment comes in, they have lost the will, or their circumstances have so changed that fear or insecurity kicks in; kids, mortgage and the idea of living dangerously has passed by. With Factory I tend to think it’s not that no one else could have done it, it’s just that very few others get the chance. That’s the thing to bear in mind, to not get too arrogant about it… Being in the right place, at the right time…
DF: …is not to be underestimated!
PS: Is not to be underestimated. [laughs]
On today’s cultural climate
DF: I think there’s a certain amount of conservatism in the air at the moment.
PS: Hmm… but Banksy’s managing to circumnavigate it…
DF: But that’s a weird form of conservatism in itself.
PS: Yes, it is actually… it’s easy to get.
DF: It’s easy-to-get radical-chic. It’s a certain type of person who also likes Bill Drummond and The KLF and they like the prankster-ism romance of that. They read an article about the Situationists at some point, but have not really gone any further than that.
PS: It’s about “get the look”.
DF: Yeah, there’s something in the air now, which ties in I think to something that you were doing in 1980s. It’s like people’s interest in that New Wave moment right now. We live in a period where nostalgia is big money and people are looking back at certain moments and seeing the surface of something but not really seeing the content. It’s like the artist that tries to do a bit of design and just makes it look good without thinking of what design really is.
PS: In the same way as designers not really knowing what art really is.
DF: In the last seven years there’s been a resurgence of interest in Modernism – Bauhaus, Russian Constructivism, all this stuff. On the positive side it seems a natural continuum of anyone’s design or cultural education – the idea that all these things feed into a big cultural melting pot. But the flip side is you get people just looking at the surface of it.
There are all kinds of conversational threads that could go from here; I think it has something to do with the issue of appropriation and the endless availability of information now, that wasn’t freely available to everyone in 1979, and a kind of off-the-peg stylisation of stuff. I also think it has something to do with referentiality – in the interview in your book there’s a really interesting bit where you describe how people talk in terms of references now, for example, “It’s a bit medieval-Art Deco.”
PS: Yeah, exactly. There’s a pair of revolving discs called The Style Finder [sic] that I have that I think a French artist made a couple of years ago. Around the edges of each disc are “culturisms” – periods, looks, thematic genres, from Romanticism to calypso, and a similar corresponding set around the outer disc. So you can turn the discs to get “Deconstructive Calypso!” It’s endless fun and it’s very insightful.
The thing that I figured out one day about referencing – and you mentioned nostalgia – is that it works because it’s very quick. Communications designers use references because they communicate. You use a contextual reference to clarify the message. Fashion uses it to make things familiar, like the early Gap principal – “This already looks like your favourite sweatshirt doesn’t it?”, sort of thing. Stone-washed denim is already your favourite old pair of jeans. The evidently referential, and the intrinsically nostalgic, get to people very quickly. They like it, because they already know it. It’s too slow for modern business to have to wait for people for five years to get it. So it helps if things look like what people already know. It’s just really quick and I think that’s why we see so much of it now, its expedient.
DF: Also, without wanting to be too critical, we have guard against the myth of the endless innovative “now” – that everything has to be totally radical at every split second of the day.
PS: Well of course it can’t be. It’s only really in big moments of sociological or technical change that these big things happen. We are living through a couple now – the information culture is getting much bigger, Marshall McLuhan had no idea! [laughs] And a big quintessential one, which I’m too scared to even go into, is this big shift from analogue to digital. I notice a difference in how the leftovers of an analogue era – for example, myself – think, and how the younger digital generation think. It’s interestingly different.
DF: What do you think it’s to do with – the rate of the working method? The rate in which things can actually get physically made? For example, in the analogue sense it’s much slower than the digital sense.
PS: It’s slower, but I see it as an evolutionary necessity – there being little value in having people around with an analogue sensibility in a digital living/working practice. It’s like trying to take a World War 2 pilot – terribly good in a spitfire – and sending him over Iraq. He can’t cope. That spitfire pilot was at one with his machine and in control of everything around it. The pilot in a contemporary fighter plane has 32 computers around him and the notion of “understanding” is irrelevant. You have to have the ability to multi-task ten things, not one, and the computers do the rest, you don’t have to think about it. “Young people” [laughs] do this ridiculous multi-tasking – you know, listening to an album, checking their f**cking MySpace site, and various other things at the same time. Probably not doing any of them terribly well… But that’s living now. So whether it’s good or bad is not the point. That’s existing now.