July 30, 2012  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language: A Q&A with Dexter Sinister, Part 3

Dexter Sinister’s work is currently included in the exhibition Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language (on view until August 27). Following part one and part two, here is the third part of the Q&A about their contribution to the show: the third issue of their journal Bulletins of The Serving Library doubling as the exhibition catalogue, plus a trailer.

Previously, when you described how the exhibition book for Ecstatic Alphabets came about, you talked about the “various frictions” that may arise out of your particular working method with a given commissioning arts institution. You also brought up the “Identity” project you recently did at Artists Space here in New York, where you unpacked and critically engaged the evolution of graphic identities and brand building of such large museums as MoMA, the Tate Gallery in London, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Did you have any expectations heading into the MoMA project, given the Museum’s scale and institutional infrastructure? How has it affected the distribution of your Bulletins, for instance?

We had the kinds of concerns most people would have going into a project like this—that the scale of the institution would presumably involve working with a lot of different people, across different departments, probably with conflicting if not flat out incommensurable interests, and that the various compromises and bureaucracy involved would likely dilute ideas. This is hardly surprising, and all it really means in practice is that there has to be a good bit of negotiation up front to make sure everyone’s on the same page by the time it comes to actually starting the work. Surprisingly, perhaps, we’ve come to find this stage often as interesting as the eventual production—how to set up the conditions for something to happen, developing a certain congeniality. It’s generally clear when the situation is simply wrong, which is to say not conducive to how we want to work, at which point it’s far better to pull out rather than force the issue. We take that responsibility pretty seriously, rather than, say, going ahead, getting into a bunch of miserable conflicts and complaining about it later.

In short, as long as intentions are made clear rather than left ambiguous or deliberately deferred, these situations rarely turn sour. For this reason, we prefer meeting in person to arranging things by e-mails. All that said, the process often involves making clear that while the setup is pretty solid, we don’t necessarily know what the outcome will be. This may sound contradictory, but not really, because at this point, we’re just designing the relations rather than the product of those relations, the input rather than the output.

One of the more curious aspects of working in circumstances such as this MoMA show—and what keeps such projects interesting to us, for now at least—is how the perception and possibility of what we do changes according to the department doing the asking. Which is to say, because the works falls under an “art” rather than a “design” umbrella, commissioned by curators rather than a marketing department, it comes with a certain license (artistic license, if you like). Another way of putting it is that, deservedly or not, we’re treated with a certain respect, or at least allowed a certain experimental latitude. Rather than simply supplying a surface that would be largely predetermined by the PR or publication departments in line with current conventions, our involvement is more *in depth.* Don’t get me wrong—the existing model might be entirely reasonable, only not so interesting to us, and for the most part not where we want to work. There’s space for other possibilities too, and it’s heartening when institutions, especially big ones like MoMA, are willing to try them out.

Okay, all that sounds very abstract. More concretely, then, all we mean is: you can imagine easily enough what a “regular” catalogue for this show would look like—a bunch of contextualizing essays written to a certain formula, necessarily positive or at least non-critical, with reproductions of works in the show and perhaps some surplus material that didn’t make it. It’s this “easily enough” we’re trying to circumvent, not for the sake of making the publication more complicated, only to *complicate the premise,* to create a new problem, or set of problems, to solve. If we were employed as regular catalog designers, the idea would likely be fairly locked-down before it reached us—the selection, the format, the rhetoric, the order, and so on. But when the publication is perceived as an “art-project,” a “piece in the show,” hence at most only a “pseudo-catalogue,” and we’re responsible for the nature and extent of its difference, then something else—something other—can happen. And because we’re involved from the outset, in all aspects, the outcome is potentially more *intrinsic,* more engaged and so more engaging. That’s the hope, at least. In this way the writing ought to run parallel to the rest of the work in the show, perhaps glancing off it rather than directly pointing at it. But this is the extent of its obliqueness; beyond that we try hard to make sure the writing is as clear as it needs to be.

I have a further anecdote concerning artistic license. A few years ago we worked on a project called True Mirror, at the 2008 Whitney Biennial, which involved making a bunch of diverse “press releases” over three weeks. One of them was a performance of a composition by the cellist Alex Waterman, which took place at the Armory building on 67th Street. We needed a way of announcing to the building that the music was about to begin, and decided the best way would be to ring the bell in the entrance hall that was presumably once used to announce army drills. When I got up on a chair and started clanging this bell, a number of security guards suddenly darted from all corners of the building. The first thing I could think of to say was: “don’t worry, it’s a performance.” Surprisingly, this pacified them, and they backed off equally fast. Now we often find ourselves working in equivalent circumstances, in the sense that no one knows exactly what the rules are; there are no obvious precedents or reference points.

I’m not sure how any of this relates to the “Identity” project specifically, because Artists Space is obviously a much smaller institution and already some kind of alternative to a museum, so we were more immediately and obviously working with like minds, friends really. As such, there wasn’t the same kind of need to gauge the circumstances. In fact, the whole idea for that project came from them, so it’s almost an inverse example to MoMA, and for a long time we had a problem working on it precisely because there were no obvious restrictions, expectations, or conventions to rub up against. Maybe it’s only worth adding that the stuff about MoMA, the Tate, or the Pompidou wasn’t at all critical against those institutions per se, we were more interested in trying to offset some broader cultural shifts—whether specific to the different institutions, countries, eras, or milieus—by examining the development of their graphic design, how they present themselves: the Tate’s nebulous, transparent, shifting, blurring logo, in contrast to MoMA’s long-standing, relatively rigid acronym, in contrast to the Pompidou’s geometric symbol, an abstraction of the building.

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

Back to the Ecstatic Alphabets publication, once all the conditions were in place, the whole thing proceeded very smoothly. It was clear that there we were fully responsible for the contents, beyond a single piece by Laura and an image representing each person in the show (which didn’t have to be necessarily bound in with the rest); that we would sell it for a distinctly cheap price in the bookstore; that we would “advertise” it from within the Museum; that it would be positioned predominantly as a MoMA catalogue for the run of the exhibition, and predominantly as an issue of the Bulletins afterward. Because it doubles as an issue of the journal we make regularly, a lot was already decided: the format, the layout, the type, etc., in which case, perhaps somewhat contrary to what I described above, it’s more that the “institutional” aspect of the book shifted from being predominantly MoMA-formatted, to predominantly Serving Library-formatted. But in the end, of course, it’s precisely halfway between the two, and all decisions tried to sustain this balance. The fact that the spine ended up exactly double the regular thickness, and so allowed for both “our” title and “your” title seemed typically fortuitous—or something more like “auspicious after the event.”

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