The Year of The Plague

A+a The Plague Edition Ann de Bono, 'Me or Chaos' Image courtesy of Art + Australia

It is, admittedly, highly unusual for one magazine/journal to feature another. However in the case of the latest issue of A+a an exception must be made. To make matters worse, the editor of The Article, ie; myself, is a contributor to aforementioned magazine, thus screaming conflict of interest or, alternatively, creating of community.

Regardless, the latest A+a is such an intriguing object, both in and of itself and in terms of Australian art publishing history to be, at the very least, worthy of note.

A+a The Plague Edition, inside front cover, Image: Art + Australia

Some background. A+a is the latest incarnation of what was once known as the slightly moribund Art & Australia, which was first published by Sam Ure Smith in May, 1963. In 2003, after several changes in owner- and editor-ship, it was acquired by Sydney philanthropist Eleonora Triguboff and radical changes began. But Triguboff found the travails of art publishing unsatisfying and in 2015 she donated the title and the archives of Art & Australia to the Victorian College of the Arts.

Thus entered a new team with the head of the VCA Su Baker as Editor in Chief; renowned bon vivant and lecturer Edward Colless as Editor; and the co-founder of the infamous London-based Tomato Design group, John Warwicker, as design guru. The combination has paid off. Colless has long had a hankering to edit a magazine going back to the 1980s when he was involved in such independent magazines and journals as Art & Text, Tension and On The Beach. Warwicker is an internationally renowned typographical maverick with decidedly anarchic tendencies.

In their second issue of A+a, Colless and Warwicker threw in another collaborator, which should, by rights, have spelt disaster. But, as always it seems, artist Simon Pericich, despite his seemingly devil-may-care approach pulled off a pièce de résistance.

A+a The Plague Edition, Edward Colless ‘Plague Pit’, Image: Art + Australia

Colless has dubbed the theme of the issue as PLAGUE – a dark thematic indeed and he makes powerful use of the paintings of Terry Taylor, a guru of the grotesque, to illustrate his editorial. The stories chosen include a major feature by the maestro of the stygian, Bernhard Sachs and two entwined features on Mathew Barney’s sojourn to Tasmania, one by Colless and, in the interests of full disclosure, one by myself. But in many ways it is Pericich’s 30-page magnum opus that dominates the issue.

Pericich’s ‘feature’ reflects an intriguing aesthetic that erupted in the 1990s. In close succession one could see the manic, almost illegible, graphic design of David Carson’s Ray Gun magazine, the photography of Joel Peter Witkin, David Lynch’s Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream of the Broken Hearted (1990), the Nine Inch Nails video Closer directed by Mark Romanek (1994) and Kyle Cooper’s opening sequence for David Fincher’s Se7en (1995). A kind of ‘Formaldehyde Aesthetics’ if you will. Cooper’s short film-within-a-film is of particular interest here; it is essentially a short story told in fragments and vignettes, following the hands of an unknown protagonist, presumably the killer in the film, as he concocts hand-made books which incorporate intense scrawled writing, clippings from other books, self-developed photographs and found images and objects, a ‘portrait’ of a serial killer obsessed with religion and attrition. The bookmaker utilises fishhooks and razor blades to bind his monstrous musings to chilling effect. This aesthetic has had a more recent resurgence with such television programs as American Horror Story (Ryan Murphy, 2011) and American Detective (Nic Pizzolatto, 2012). This approach suggested the gratuitous spreading of disease, reflecting a period of AIDS, or perhaps an earlier disease, that of leprosy. Pericich’s pages are in effect a montage of other artist’s works, a curated mélange of images that resemble a battered crime-scene guidebook. The images are badly cropped, degraded and stained by Pericich. But the artists, which include Pip and Natalie Ryan, Adam Boyd, Heath Franco, Brie Trennery, Jordan Wood, Ian Haig, Talitha Kennedy, Becc Ország and a cavalcade of others, were well warned.

A+a The Plague Edition, Larissa Hjorth and Kathleen M Cumeskey ‘Mobile Death’, Image: Art + Australia

His ‘curatorial’ approach was laid out in an invitation email sent to potential contributors. Only a small number of the more faint-hearted refused. After describing the theme and general idea he had concocted, Pericich wrote:

im looking for an image(s)of your work to muck around with for its potential inclusion..

As for the design and layout; i hope to present an exhaustive list with heaps of varying sized thumb nails sticky taped obsessively into a 'worn journal'. A whose who of names, scratched over and around pics; like a survival guide of a meth head who wasnt invited to Mad Maxs' birthday party. Romantic and playful in a teenage goth kind of way... im hoping it wont look anything like a boring Art Mag of which names i forget cos they all look the same.
i am exited to be applying a partially chewed glue stick to the back of your image soon.

This represented an enormous risk for Colless and John Warwicker. Handing over the aesthetics of a substantive section of a magazine is a brave move for any editor or designer. But the results are compelling indeed and the aesthetic segues perfectly with the design of the Sachs and Barney features and the award-winning Warwicker was clearly delighted with the results.

Warwicker is a co-founder of the multi-discipline design and film collective, Tomato, founded in London in 1991. Thirteen years ago he and his Australian-born wife Naomi had a son, Noah. Around Noah’s first birthday Naomi’s father contracted Alzheimer’s and the couple wanted Noah and granddad to “get to know each other before the fog came down. Which it inevitably did a few years ago,” says Warwicker.

A+a The Plague Edition, Simon Pericich ‘all the things you see now will soon be gone and the things we can’t see will last forever’, Image: Art + Australia

“Just over a year ago I was approached by the VCA to help with A+a and soon the conversation turned to also helping with their formative design course,” Warwicker says. “To be honest I was slightly reluctant, I enjoy having a show and tell with the students, but I’m rather repulsed by educational management. However, my resistance crumbled on meeting everyone, rare for an art school today – everyone seemed to be interested in art!”

This latest issue of A+a suggests an extraordinary amount of creative freedom in terms of design. “The process normally starts with Ed and the team forming the theme and then I think about the graphic possibilities,” Warwicker says. “Thereafter these two intentions collide through show and tell and conversation. Then everything gets modified when the pagination becomes an issue. Some things are pruned, others expanded. All rather horticultural. The freedom is not only granted, it’s taken.”

The overall darkness, exemplified by the Sachs, Barney features and the Pericich spread, was quintessential Colless. “Ed’s like of apocalyptic gloom (he’s at his most animated and jolly when reciting squelchy morbidity) was all his own. I was quite happy with this because it gives me a strong, focused point to linguistically start the graphic process. But I had to be careful that it didn’t end up as the ‘Chronicles of Doom’. On the fetid dial, 9 not 11.”

A+a The Plague Edition, Jessica L Williams, Image: Art + Australia

Warwicker’s experimentation with type is something he is renowned for and suggests not just a love of typography, but a love of language per se (a distinction not often made by graphic designers). “Ah! I’m not a graphic designer. I’m an amateur,” Warwicker says mock-humbly. “Thought into Form. By means of Language. Placed in the World. For however long. In any material or medium. What interests me is every single world in that statement.”

“Everything is designed. Thought is designed – through various processes intertwining and reshaping in the moment (cue Heisenberg’s 2nd law of Thermodynamics). Art, Craft, Architecture, Music, Fashion, Dance, War, the Glance, a Gesture… everything is subset of Design. Even ‘Graphic Design’ – although in our alter-modern present I’m not entirely sure what it is… I can only tell you what is graphic design in this particular context. It’s only a name.”

“And then there’s the cultural and social processes and context of commodification. The gallery ‘system’ in ‘Fine’ Art, for example, has its own physics (which is itself a design product/designed process). It’s a ‘system,’ it says so on the tin. Humans are a funny lot. They name some thing and it becomes a ‘thing,’ a symbolic representation of that class of things, and over time it defines itself and excludes other things that don’t quite fit into its self-appointed self. I find all of this fascinating and, being interested, I then see this was a game of ‘what if?’ Or I take something (the essence of the thing) and put it somewhere else just to see whether there is energy in the compound. Everything resonates. The questions are ‘at what pitch?’, ‘at what timbre?’, ‘at what rhythm?’. I find typography fascinating because it subtlety effects not only the visual reading but also the inner voice.”

A+a The Plague Edition
Bernhard Sachs ‘Contaminazione’, Image: Courtesy Art + Australia

“My grandfather was a mathematician and his notebooks of equations, to an over keen seven-year-old, were fascinating. This symbolic language, a few letters, numbers and odd-looking marks, could mean something gigantic. That’s when I became interested in typography. I’m old enough to have learnt type through setting hot metal and letterforms through stone carving and calligraphy… all sculptural processes… so words, for me have a ‘presence’ as well as a resonance.”

The process of giving Pericich free reign with his pages seemed to leave Warwicker unruffled. “Ed found him. I talked to him. I respected who he is and barring any pagination problems gave him free reign within the physical constraints of the magazine. My role, if you like, was to make sure his presentation, was as ‘pure’ as possible. And yes, I and everyone else at A+a are very pleased. As I think Simon is.”

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