July 17, 2012  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language: A Q&A with Dexter Sinister, Part 2

Today’s post is a continuation of a Q&A with Dexter Sinister, the artist collective that contributed to the exhibition Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language (on view until August 27). In the previous post, they discussed their contribution to the show: the third issue of their journal Bulletins of The Serving Library doubling as the exhibition catalogue, plus a trailer. Here is the next part of the conversation…

Dexter Sinister (David Reinfurt and Stuart Bailey). Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language. 2012. Exhibition catalogue, 224 pages plus insert. Edited with Angie Keefer

When I first read through a group of the Ecstatic Alphabet‘s PDFs on my laptop and then finally received the bound hard copy, I was amazed by the amount of content you managed to network into this little 9.25 x 6.5″ book! As in previous issues of your journal (and in Dot Dot Dot), there is this beautiful cross-pollination among the different texts taking place; I loved flipping back and forth through the pages discovering the many resonances (both in content and graphically). Can you say a bit more about that “wired” process of editing this BoTSL issue, which you previously mentioned? Are any resonances more a result of your and Angie Keefer’s careful editorial process or do they occur organically? And where does this surreptitious MoMA cover image come from?

It’s always somewhat baffling to us how the individual bulletins come together, then the connections between them—strictly in that order—and there’s no reason at all to want to change that. (Once you notice HOW you’re doing something, you’re probably not going to be capable of doing it anymore, so it seems better to remain ignorant.) I don’t know if we’re any more “careful” than any other equivalent publication, and possibly less so. In terms of writing and editing, we’re entirely nonprofessional, for better or worse, in the sense of being self-taught, and never having worked in the literary world. As such, we don’t have many preconceptions about what the process or product should be *like* beyond simply “interesting.” While we certainly care about the writing, we’re not very *precious* about it. We also don’t really write or edit to a format; we never propose word counts to anyone, and texts run as long as they need to (which isn’t to rule out cutting any given contribution to a shadow of its former self). In short, there’s a lot of making-it-up-as-we-go-along within certain standards that we wouldn’t particularly want to be able to articulate. How we edit is about as elliptical as this answer—no wonder it takes us so long.

Ben Yagoda’s “About Town”, a history of The New Yorker, describes the early years of the magazine. In it, he recounts how, although the magazine seemed to arrive fully formed—partly because its founder Harold Ross had done his homework, and knew exactly how he wanted it to *feel,* and partly because his art director Rea Irvin’s design was so immediately *convincing* (both timely and timeless, and without real precedent)—in truth it was anything but. All Ross really knew was that he wanted to establish a local, sophisticated humor magazine in which the humor was “actually funny.” But what this meant specifically, who would contribute to it, and what they would contribute, remained a mystery to be worked out over the first five years or so, then solidified into a recognizable reputation after about 10. It became itself *in practice.*

In an obviously smaller and more closeted way, this basically rings true for us, too. We try to set up a set of conditions for a process we can’t quite anticipate to play out; a set of productive limitations—then haphazardly forge a direction by bouncing off knowing more what we don’t want to do rather than what we do. In other words, we advance more by intuition than design, and usually have a long enough lead-in for things to develop as rigorously as we like. There’s an awful lot of back and forth with contributors, and between the three of us, all at different speeds at different times, between other work, which has an effect too. It tends to be a very choppy process, and we’ve never really settled into a rhythm. Again, this probably keeps things lively, but maybe also incoherent, and most probably different cocktails of the two at different times. Perhaps the most important decision concerning Dot Dot Dot and eventually the Bulletins was to put them out every six months (which we have, somehow, since 2000). It’s a useful amount of time—long enough to develop a piece of writing, but always with a just-about-discernible deadline on the horizon. Like the rest of the editing, it seems a good balance of structure and freedom. At least, it seems to match our collective temperament.

Dexter Sinister (David Reinfurt and Stuart Bailey). Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language. 2012. Exhibition catalogue, 224 pages plus insert. Edited with Angie Keefer

In terms of the MoMA issue specifically, let’s see… We try to keep the order more or less according to the sequence in which the individual bulletins are made, in part because this often tells something of the development—a narrative of making the thing, if you like. (Incidentally, “bulletins” is really just another name for “articles” or “essays,” but alludes to the fact that they’re issued individually, as and when complete, on the website in advance of being collected into a larger volume at the end of every six months.) As such, the first two pieces duplicate existing texts: one about the MoMA logo by Andrew Blum, and one about a very particular door key native to Berlin by Bruno Latour. The former was a hangover from a previous Dexter Sinister project on “Identity,” that just seemed oddly appropriate—a lighthearted article about the barely perceptible differences between the former and current logo of the Museum, which includes an anecdote about the 40 years it took to implement the lowercase “o.” The latter is a favorite piece of ours from 1991 that, while not directly ecstatic or alphabetic, IS about the form or objects as amounting to a kind of language; that objects can “speak,” can “tell a story.” In this sense it’s also a “key” to the rest of the issue.

In retrospect, these two bulletins seem to serve as boundaries for the rest of the issue—from a very specific relation to the Museum and exhibition theme, to a very distant, loose one. The rest then fall somewhere in between, variously touching on grammar, music, TV, literature, type design, artificial intelligence, computer languages, and so on. Broadly speaking, they’re all subjects we might have ordinarily been interested in regardless of the exhibition, but on this occasion specifically pointed them in the direction of the alphabet. The most obvious example is probably the bulletin by Ian Svenonius, who generally writes a sort of pseudo-academic sociology/history of pop music. Here we suggested he write about the musical alphabet—A, B, C, D, E, and F—which turned out to be a useful catalyst for him to think about music and nonsense. Conversely, we knew a regular contributor called Louis Lüthi was already busy collecting books with single letters of the alphabet for titles (Warhol’s a, for example), and so we asked him to channel his interest into a piece for us. The reason the issue turned out so huge is that, unusually, pretty much everyone we asked came through, and on the longer side.

Dexter Sinister (David Reinfurt and Stuart Bailey). Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language. 2012. Excerpt from Graham Meyer’s text. Exhibition catalogue, 224 pages plus insert. Edited with Angie Keefer

As for the surreptitious cover image, it’s not that clandestine, we just thought it better not to ask for trouble. It shows the hand of Matthew Carter, the type designer who in 2004 updated Franklin Gothic, the typeface MoMA has used since the 1960s. The full picture was taken to accompany the first piece in the issue I mentioned, written by Andrew Blum for The New York Times on the occasion of the launch of MoMA’s new logo (around the same time the building was refurbished). What you see is the right half of the original image, Carter holding a magnifying glass in front of his monitor to show his revision. More precisely, what you’re *actually* looking at is a photograph of that image on one of *our* monitors, partly to circumvent the low resolution of the original, and partly to add a bit of ambient color to an image that was printed black-and-white. This slightly convoluted backstory is typical of how we get things done, and how ideally that backstory leaves its own particular trace—in this case, a sort of pixellated teal and pink.

To continue reading our Q&A with Dexter Sinister, click here.