Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Speak like an architect

Recently, as part of my unending cycle of interests, I've been drawn back to architecture. Partly because of my trip to Denmark, partly the book 'Architecture after Modernism' I'm reading (gripping, I assure you), and partly It's Nice That opening my eyes to Alexander Road Estate. As a result, I've been attempting a proper architecture project, a concrete social housing block with some wacky angles - a real departure from my Lego models of old. And the key to the change, and to the more mature architecture I'm starting to create, is in visual language. Here, I'll explain.

Above are sections of the floor plan for this housing block, which is only two storeys high, but still packed with apartments and annoyingly acute angles that are going to produce some cramped living spaces. The 'block' is, ironically, in the shape of a large scalene triangle. One corner is opened up to the roof in a large double-cavity opening split by a concrete chunk of a pillar. On one side of this opening, an industrial metal staircase clings to the wall. Inside the building is a triangular courtyard surrounded by walkways on both floors with two trees in it (grey circles, top picture), from which all apartments are accessible. There is another staircase (still metal, just like the ones you'd find in factories or on ships) occupying a cutout in the concrete wall.

It's hard to describe, and the actual slanty-here-but-more-slanty-there-but-not-there shape is even harder to describe, so you'll have to wait until I can figure out the goddamn trig to make a rough model of it (card this time, no more inaccurate Lego). For now I want to return to my previous architectural attempts, mainly the Ishøj House (my first, over a year ago):

The Ishøj House, looking back, was the only uniquely piece of architecture I made, as it pioneered using concrete and glass in my own creativity. From then on, my projects were variations on a theme, and each of them less buildable than the last. Why? Because the combination of materials, and the naïve concept of 'planes of concrete' were unrealisable in the real world, no matter how nice they looked in Lego. Ever since the Henne House I've wanted to make another building model, but I couldn't - I just couldn't make it realistic enough. It was like I was designing a toy, regardless of context, testing, and consequences. I also didn't know how to construct a house, so how could I just start with a shape, a shell? Without knowing anything about the materials, how they could hold together, how a normal building is made. Surely there is some system? Of floorboards, electricals, bricks, that creates a house - a system on which all buildings, from the wackiness of Gehry to the Victorian house I live in, is built with? Also, what means a building should be made of brick? Or have certain shaped windows? Is that a predefined style of the architect, or appropriate to the site, and if the latter, why?

These questions hung in my head for months, unanswered apart from one part of me continually saying 'I can't know, that's what they teach you in the degree', but 'Architecture after Modernism' has made me realise that isn't quite true. Because what I've been searching for, what my previous buildings struggled with, is a visual language. A typology of architecture. A building is not one big piece, it is specific repeated pieces - roofs, floors, windows, walls, corners - that are interpreted in the typology of the building - and the architect speaks in a language of parts and elements from which he can not only form a new, appropriate shape for the building, but it also provides a starting-point. That's what I was missing: I was getting too caught up in the language of concrete planes and glass walls of my previous attempts that I had convinced myself that was the only way to design a building.

But of course, that isn't. There are hundreds of typologies, of styles, of languages to speak when you are designing a building. You can even combine languages, adapt languages, or create new languages with new ways of thinking about elements. Of course, some architecture defies all this and uses no typology, no normal architectural elements. One example I can think of at the moment is the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum by Frank Lloyd Wright:

The Guggenheim defies normal visual language by creating a sculpture of a building, an interaction of shapes and forms into which the building fits. Of course, some elements are recognisable - a glass pane to the left and a covered entrance, but these are few and far between in this abstract and unique project. Aside from the basics, the Guggenheim shows signs of modernist architecture, in its cuboid volume at the back, and the whitewashed walls of the main form. The shape is not so much wacky as geometrically playful. The circular section is not wildly shaped, but instead takes on a slight frustum shape, and other elements - including the cuboid volume - are considered in relation to balance and good layout. The building, despite being unusual, is at its heart very modernist and rational, though not without its quirks.

Frank Lloyd Wright used the modernist typology in part with the Guggenheim museum, but it is largely devoid of an identifiable language. When a language is used in architecture, the architect can still experiment and explore - but there is an irony in the way he can pervert its words. Let's take another example, the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London, designed by Robert Venturi & co:

We're taking a big leap from the landmark Guggenheim to a small extension on the National Gallery in London, both in terms of ambition, context and time period: the Guggenheim Museum was built in the 50s (which places it distinctly before postmodernism, before you start that argument) and the Sainsbury Wing was built in 1991, coming in right at the end of what's been recently defined as the postmodernist age. Unofficially, I believe postmodernism continued through the 90s in the form of free, globalised design thought as afforded by the internet and technological advances. The cultural and stylistic multiplicity found in early-to-mid 90s design ultimately supports postmodernist theory of historicism, or rather referentiality (only in the 90s it was more cultural than historical).

Back to the Sainsbury Wing; let's notice the typology of this small extension. It's designed using the visual language of the old gallery building of the 1800s. You can see the classical elements in the design: columns with elaborate capitals (column caps) and similarly styled windows - windows in the language of the original 1800s building. So far, we can see that Venturi has created an extension that perfectly fits the old gallery - or not. On closer inspection we see he is playing with the typology - note the blind windows, predesigned like that, as opposed to normal windows filled in for some reason later on. The window to the far left even has its bottom frame missing. This experiment of the language, regardless of perfect effects, shows that Venturi is not interested in direct historical architecture; rather he's giving us an impression of the typology of the architecture. Note to the right the columns overlap and merge, yet the form is clearly made out of individual columns forming a cumulative shape, as if you copy-and-pasted them on top of each other on the plans and then just made the damn thing. In a way, this distances Venturi's work from the typology as it shows he can overlook formalities in the old visual language, such as column spacing and functional windows. 

It's ironic that the only functional part of the façade - the entrance at the bottom - is simply cut into the wall, with a glass wall behind that. The extension has a resulting odd sculptural quality to it, like it knows what it's trying to say, what it's trying to be, but the language has to be adapted in a foreign way for the shape the architect needs to create. A few blind windows are thrown in for the historicism, but they are merely a reference. Even with all these perversions of 1800s architectural style, most passers-by would not notice the difference (other than the stone looking newer) - I can't comment on whether this is good or not, because I have no idea. Should postmodernist architects like Venturi design to show off their style, or to fit in, with their stylings only visible to critics and experts? I honestly can't say. But I can say that I believe the Sainsbury Wing to be an excellent example of late postmodernist architecture at its best; regardless of my own taste.

Of course, Venturi is also responsible for less rational postmodernist projects such as the Vanna Venturi House (above), devoid of any respect to architectural language, and so postmodern it makes me feel ill, but I'll save that rant for another day, or better yet my own head.

So maybe I haven't yet found a realistic visual language - unless I go find a modernist building or such and examine all its parts, then use them to form a design of my own. Ultimately, a project can't be fully realistic and use the visual language properly unless it's a legitimate piece of architecture, that considers ventilation, light, engineering, environment and intended use as specified by the client. And yes, I can't learn that properly unless I do a degree. But, for now, I feel I've progressed a little in my understanding of how architecture works and how a building comes to be. At this stage, I can't ask for any more.

~ John

Monday, 7 November 2011

Mutual friends

Warning: very long arty post, mainly for my coursework, ignore

Recently I've been investigating into what the public calls 'modern art', and what everyone apart from the people who made it (and few others) love to hate. I'm one of those few others; I can't get enough of it. Sure, some of it may be stupidly over-the-top, such as Tracey Emin's three rows of bricks and a piece I saw at Reykjavik Art Museum that was simply a square of soil. Then I get fed up with it, because the artists - knowingly or not - are just taking the piss. With modern art, it's not about the effort put into the construction, it's about the idea. Make it contemporary, make it ultra-simple, but it should still lend the viewer a starting-point to understanding what it means (and no, it can't just say 'here I am, make of me what you like'). The artist has a responsibility not only to create the message, but to deliver it. The viewer must not be left in the dark as to what a piece means, or is, by the artist thinking they should be 'mysterious', or rather, pretentious. Artists shouldn't be selfish gits that go around creating high-brow shit no one else understands. If no-one gets a bit of art, then the artist is a bad one. He's failed in delivering what he's trying to say. Ergo, the art is bad.

This is something I've learnt first-hand. My favourite photography set, Resort (above), which I obsessed over so much while making it in Cyprus and afterwards, is evidence that art cannot be too self-contained, as then it fails to reach out to the viewer. Anyone I've shown Resort to doesn't understand it, and at first I thought - selfishly - that it was because they either would never understand it, or because it requires a lot of time looking over it and reading the description to 'get it'. But I was wrong; the art simply wasn't accessible. No matter how long they stared at it, or who I showed it to, Resort would just be a bunch of photos of cubes with a bullshitty write-up that didn't mean anything. Could this problem be solved by a better write-up? No, not really, because the pretentious, 'leaving it to the imagination' attitude of the write-up was reflected in the photos themselves. They were unclear - despite a title saying 'broken shape', the photo didn't really show a very broken shape. Therefore the art was imperfect (as my work always is), and faulted, and bad art. So, I move on and learn from my mistakes.

Harmen de Hoop - 2 Goats
Anywho, my most recent arty findings have been the street artist Harmen de Hoop, whose work I love more than my unborn kids. Its irony and 'fuck you'-ness to everyday society and urbanity is beautiful. I'd love to do something in his style for my A-level, but it requires a lot of work, and it's illegal, so I decided to try something in the style of Erwin Wurm instead.

Erwin Wurm, One Minute Scultpures
Erwim Wurm is the high priest of living, temporary sculptures. His set One Minute Sculptures was made at a meeting he had at a gallery about a possible exhibition. He took none of his work with him, and instead created sculptures using the people in the meeting and the objects in the room. It's a fantastic study of immediacy and the everyday, though some of the results are, admittedly, dull. You win some, you lose some. That's part of the fun in such quick, simple sculptures.

Last week, not part of my A-level assignment but just out of my own curiosity and inspiration, I tried a similar thing. Here's the idea (and just go with me on it): I took six people from my art class, three boys and three girls. I compiled data on how many mutual friends (ie. friends in common) they had on Facebook with each other. I then put them together in a space and attached strings between all of them. The length of the string between a pair was inversely proportional to the number of mutual friends they had. Thus, those with more mutual friends - and in close social circles (according to Facebook) - were forced to be closer to each other by the short string between them. Everyone had strings connected to everyone else, just like they have a relationship with everyone else, of some sort or another. I then left the six people, strung to each other, and told them to untangle themselves. Whether this could be done or not was not the point; they just had to get themselves into the most comfortable position that suited them all.

The results were, for me in my little weird way, fascinating. I took some photos of the - er - event, which don't do it justice, but they're good enough for me to analyse what was really going on, and what the problems with it were.

The first issue that needs examination concerning the 'mutual friends experiment' is that of what it actually is, medium-wise. Is it a performance? Not really, as there was no intended audience other than myself and my own interests, and I only took photos to analyse afterwards, not to display in some gallery or show off on the internet. I will discuss the role of photography in this project later, but for now I want to define exactly what I composed: not a performance, it was more of a controlled, choreographed occurance, an event, a happening; that explored this social network we find ourselves tied up in. This, of course, throws up issues with whether it's art at all, or simply some sort of small social experiment. Unlike Wurm's One Minute Scultpures, the project cannot be shown in one photo: it was not still, rather it was dynamic, a mutation, an evolution of relationships and positions in a localised area (it's important to note the localisation here mentioned; the experiment was very small and controlled). Thus, it is not art that can be quantified into a medium for distribution and showing to viewers in a gallery - does that make it bad art, according to the rule mentioned above? No, I don't think so - though it may be faulted in its own ways, which we will discuss later, it should not automatically be considered bad art. At the time of its occurance, it was effective in showing the relationships and how they change in the five minutes or so the experiment lasted for, so it is at least decent art. And, to avoid further discussion, I will call this art because I believed it to be art - and believed myself to be the artist - when making it. (of course this raises issues about whether something can be art when it is defined as art, and whether this is makes it proper art, but I will leave those for another discussion)

The results are fascinating, because the participants reacted to their relationships as they would do normally, true to their personalities, those which had got them the number of mutual friends in the first place. I realised confidence is key to this sort of social integration, or at least having the confidence to add a person on Facebook, and thus those in the 'middle' of the group (as soon created by the shortness of the strings between them) were more confident and were joking and messing around in the centre of the network. Their strings were pulled more often and they were able to deal with this: their positions in the experiment and their own personalities were the same, as of course they are both of the same person, and this showed in the experiment.

Similarly, those who had fewer mutual friends with the others - though not necessarily less confident - were able to have some free movement and some distance from the core of the network, afforded by their longer strings. This meant they weren't as involved in the main happenings of the rest, and it was at that point that I realised the incredible duality between the experiment and the real social network, Facebook-centred or otherwise.

Despite these insights that the experiment/artwork/occurance provided, there were three important problems that I need to identify here:

Firstly, the actual setup of the artwork does not lend itself to being useful in anything other than this write-up. The background was distracting and the photos themselves were low-quality and useless to show the entire experiment. Perhaps a video, or a larger set of photos, would better show the entirey of the project. Also, setting up the experiment again in a whitewashed, gallery-like room would show it to be more artistic (as I am adamant to define it as art), and what is actually going on would be clearer. Clarity is key to such a complex idea as this one - and if you think the idea itself is not particularly complex, then at least realise it can be difficult to see what is actually going on.

Secondly, there are problems with this technique of 'joining' people, with the strings that represent the relationships. Many of the measurements were very similar - people tended to have 130-ish mutual friends with each other, and as a result a lot of the strings were similar in length. This is, of course, accurate to the data collected but whether it shows the true relationship is unclear (more on that later). Additionally, the final lengths of the strings were skewed or wrong due to my compensating for the ends of the string to go round the participants' wrists. 25cm on either end was added to the calculated measurement to create a length to wrap around the pair's wrists. However, the 25cm measurement was a rough estimate when wrapped once round my wrist, and each of the six people wrapped the string round their wrists in different ways, thus ruining my attempted standardisation and skewing the results. Though they may not have been altered too much, I still feel like my job as controller of the artwork was not successfully carried out.

Thirdly and lastly, there remains the large problem of the numbers themselves, and the problems with judging relationships on the number of mutual friends on Facebook. Different people add different amounts of people on Facebook, as aforementioned - and though this may be representative of their character, there is still a lot to be said about people who could have a lot of friends but don't use Facebook much, so have few. Who you actually meet and who you actually are friends with is, of course, vastly different from who's in your Facebook friends list and as a result the string relationships were inaccurate. It also failed to take into account the actual closeness of the relationships, and instead concentrated on those who were in the same social circles and groups. For example, Ellie and Grace - very good friends since they met at the start of term - ironically had the fewest friends in common, and the longest string between them was not an accurate portrayal of their real friendship. I hope to amend this in further artworks.

The final thing to discuss in relation to this artwork/social experiment, which still lacks a name until further exploration of its themes, is the role of photography in its medium. As you may know, I've been struggling to find photography that reaches a higher level beyond just observational, shoot-what's-there photography. In this project, photography is not the central medium, and it's simply something I used to record the events and placements of people for my own dissection after the artwork occurred; it's not actually doing anything other than recording, and even then it's not intended for public viewing. Of course, this raises issues with how the artwork could be 'shown off' at all, but most importantly it shows how I'm using photography to record, and to observe - exactly the thing I've been trying to avoid! Despite its observational nature, photography is of course not the primary medium of this project and thus it should not be seen as an observational work. Still, it marks another step in the progression of what I believe photography to be for in art.

And there you have it; that's what I've been up to recently, explained in fine detail. I'm going to continue this relationships/'dynamic sculpture' experiment by changing the controlling factor of the length of the strings, and then maybe using other elements to physically represent the relationships. We'll see what the future brings.


Sunday, 30 October 2011

Denmark, again

Evening all! Last night I returned home from my favourite country in the world - Denmark! (wow didn't see that coming.) Cynicism aside, it was brilliant to be back there, even for just a week, and to help explain what my trip consisted of, I've taken a photo of the books and leaflets I collected while there. I'll take you through them quickly:

1. This little, covered up magazine was free at the Fritz Hansen place in Illums Bolighus, so I thought I would pinch one to obsess over in England. Fritz Hansen is a Danish furniture distributor that owns a lot of Jacobsen pieces, and Illums Bolighus is a massive furniture store. Basically, heaven (for me). Dozens of Danish designs and design classics for you to sit in and marvel at the price tags. It's a brilliant shop, if you're into that sort of thing. They also have Vitra, Muuto and Iittala sections. For most people those are just words but for me they mean one thing: awesome design. And mainly Scandinavian too, so I'm not complaining.

2. Next up is another free handout, this time an info leaflet from Arken Museum. Yeah, remember Arken? I visisted it last time I was in Denmark, and returned this year to see what was new. The main exhibition was some Warhol thing, but Warhol annoys me with his imperfections and useless pop culture references, so I gave that about two minutes then left it in search of something a bit more challenging. And I found it - in Olafur Eliasson's experiential piece 'The Blind Passenger' which took up the length of the museum's main hall. Here it is:

Yeah, it's a big box. But it's what's inside the box that counts (book by its cover and all that) - after a scary warning sign on the door, you enter the installation and it's full of fine smoke and atmospheric lights. With low visibility and your hands struggling to find the walls, you walk through the box. You walk through several colours of light, experiencing the artwork and the atmosphere, then emerge out the other end of the box, quite changed. It's a fantastic piece of art and, though it doesn't have anything to say beyond commenting on our senses and experiences, it was worth several visits. Arken is a top-class modern art gallery (ignoring Warhol), it's just a shame they don't change what's on show very often.

3. One of the major finds of my trip to Copenhagen turned out to be something English - the creative review magazine It's Nice That is the publication version of the It's Nice That blog. I've been reading the blog now for over a year, and it's an excellent way to find fresh photography, art and graphic design talent and is brilliantly curated. The magazine - which I spied on the shelf of an Urban Outfitters shop in Stroget (ironic how I find myself buying a magazine I could buy in England in a shop I could buy from in England) - is a bound version of the blog with a few interviews and articles thrown in. It's a great mag, but I think I'll stick to reading the blog because it's quite pricey. I got it on discount, but I wouldn't buy it for its usual ~£10 price. Sorry guys.

4. & 5. As part of my visit, We went to the Danish Design School to talk to an admissions representative to see if I could get in. The result of the meeting was thus: it's gonna be damn hard to get in to the college, but here's some booklets anyway. I'd need to be fluent and pass some Studieproven test, etc etc, so it's not looking good in that respect, but these booklets are great and very contemporary. The work of DDS students inside is equally good, of course.

6. Last time I was in the Danish Design Centre, I picked up my design bible - a book about Jacobsen. Second time around, I bought a book about Panton. Might as well bulk out my bookshelves, at the moment they're looking a little too empty of decent design books and a little too full of Wallpaper magazines. This book seems to be a lot more about Panton's design philosophies rather than his life and complete works, but I don't mind, I'm not such an avid fan of his work as I am Jacobsen's.

7. I also returned to Det Kongelige Bibliotek - the royal library - and its extension, the Black Diamond (yeah, remember?) to sample some coffee and some photography. I hit gold with the library's current exhibition, a collection of urban sets by Gregory Crewdson, the centerpiece: Beneath the Roses, a set about the loneliness and dischord of suburban American life:

The photography has a similar perspective to the stories of Raymond Carver (who I've recently studied and appreciated in my English class), and the paintings of Edward Hopper (ie. Nighthawks, which I love), so it's no wonder this exhibition was music to my ears (in a photography way). The set Beneath the Roses, especially, drew out the bland anonymity of 70s American suburbia... remind you of anything? A certain album I have obsessed over? Yeah, though the set is not totally similar to The Suburbs, they have common ground. Just another coincidence about this exhibition. Yeah, I loved it.

8. The final thing in this photo (yeah, scroll back up to see it) is a bit of a strange one. And a boring one to most of you. Because, recently, I've become drawn to postmodernism, the design, art and architectural style of the 70s, 80s and early 90s, the time when designers etc. put a middle finger up to dull modernism and tried something different. Normally, I'd hate postmodernism, but I'm beginning to appreciate its justifications and reasons (mainly the emergence of the inefficient, thoughtless boilerplate modernism in the 70s) - though I still don't like the work itself. This book should help with my understanding of postmodernism, or at least that was my thinking.

And that's it! That was Denmark! Oh yeah, one final thing: when I was there, I turned a corner and bumped into one of my favourite buildings, Jacobsen's Danmarks Nationalbank. I always thought it was placed somewhere out in the Danish countryside, or in a Copenhagen suburb, but it turns out it was right in the city centre. It's got an acute angle on this corner, which stops it being as boring as it might be with a right angle, which was good to see. Jacobsen, you jammy dodger.


Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Learning to drive

Good evening to you all. I'm in a good mood because, well, it's my birthday! I'd be cynical and rant on about how we get so excited about birthdays but they're just some stupid biological event (and not even that), and a step closer to death or something else Kafkaesque, but I don't want to spoil the mood so I'll leave you to read last year's post about that.

OK, onto this year. Being 17 means, mainly, that I can drive - and drive I will! Lessons, then the test, then the provisional license, then I'll be able to go wherever I like, once the extortionate insurance is sorted out. And, on that thought, I'm reminded of an analogy used in Arcade Fire's 'In the Backseat'. Sure, I'm getting way too obsessed with this band, but hear me out: the song uses the analogy of sitting in the backseat of a car to not have responsibility and control over your life. Learning to drive is you preparing yourself for being in charge of your own life, having your own problems, etc. In the song, Régine sings 'I don't have to drive / I don't have to speak / I can watch the countryside'; and this is exactly how it is. Kids, even teenagers, are led through their young lives by their parents, the 'driver', and simply need to enjoy the ride. This motif is repeated in 'The Suburbs', with 'in the suburbs I / I learned to drive' - adolescence is the period in your life when you start to take responsibility and control over yourself.

Anyway, back on topic, that's how I feel. That these new abilities like learning to drive are opening my life up into what it will eventually be, and I can't wait. Sure, there's all that fiddling around with money that I've yet to worry about properly, but other than that, adult life sounds brilliant. Plus, I'd be out of this goddamn school and doing what I love. Exactly what that will be, I haven't yet decided. Design is looking awfully good right now, since I discovered postmodernism (tasteless but very interesting).

In all honesty, I've done very little in the way of creative stuff since I started sixth form in September. That's one and half months, and I've barely touched my Lego, that second Suspension scene looking as far off as ever, let alone another bit of architecture. Design sketches have become few and far between, as, I'm sure you've noticed, have blog posts; but change is change. Simply put, I have a lot more in my life and something has to temporarily shift to make room. Not that I haven't been productive at all; I created a whole lot of school club posters a few weeks ago, and last weekend mocked up a website design, and I've signed up to do graphic design and set design for many school productions and events that seem too far off into the future to satisfy my excitement.

That's really all I have by means of an excuse, either for few blog posts or the lack of Suspension additions.  Half term's next week but even that won't give me much time to make a start on the second scene, as I'm off to Denmark for four days to sample universities and open sandwiches and such. I've been learning Danish at St Catherine's Church in London, so it will also give me a chance to try out my Daneglish.

Before I go, here's a picture I drew of how this evening went down, mainly as a thank-you to people on Facebook for 'remembering' my birthday:

Yeah, I know it's crap, that's part of the humour of it. I think. Basically, don't take it seriously. I don't.

~ John

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Flatlands, 2011

Long time no see, avid JOHNSPACE readers (ha ha, I'm making jokes already). A lot has happened since I last blogged and annoyingly you've caught me on another bad evening. Oh fun. Anywho, I figured I'd break my blogging silence and show you some photos of Iceland I got back from the developer after a few months of the negatives presumably sitting on their desk, and they eventually thought "gee, I guess we'd better develop and scan this for our only film customer". Nonetheless it's back in my grubby hands and I've got a short post of photographs to show you of my travels.

Firstly, let's get the title sorted with. I've called this short photoset 'Flatlands', which may seem odd if you know what Iceland is: a country full of mountains, glaciers and volcanoes. And yeah, it is odd. But I wanted to aim for something that didn't just state the obvious; something to use over 'land of hot and cold' or something cliché like that. So how to be different? Well, why not give it a misnomer that has some sort of meaning and things should be more interesting - hence 'Flatlands'. Yeah, it's a crappy reason for a title, but I like to think of it as 'social flatlands' or 'flatlands of civilisation', because socially Iceland is a barren rock. It does have a culture, of course, and enough nightclubs in Reykjavik to keep the country's population of 300,000 busy on a friday night - but in terms of the sprawl and the interconnected civilisation I know well, Iceland is lacking. Nearly half of its population lives in the capital, Reykjavik, or its suburbs. Other than that, it's hard for towns to really get their size up due to a barren, almost outback-like landscape and a small population that isn't too bothered in growing. It's this sort of whimsical happiness, combined with a historical cultural pessimism, that makes Iceland such a strange place. But I'm not complaining; with exports like Sigur Rós, Björk and clothing brand Vík Prjónsdottír, it's hard not to like the Icelanders.*

Anyway, on to my photos from my trip there. We stayed in a hotel in Reykjavik but I won't show you any pictures of the capital other than this one - because, to be honest, it was crappy; or at least the area we were in. A Hotel Björk, ironically. Reykjavik, though practical and the centre of all Icelandic civilisation, is essentially a bunch of houses, some nice shops and restaurants, and some offices. There's not much more to it, though we did visit Reykjavik Art Museum, which was... interesting. Modern art; I'll say no more.

The real Iceland, the bit you have to see if you're going there, the bit I loved, was the geography. There are countless national parks full of geysers, glaciers and volcanoes, but if you're stationed in the capital the best thing to do is travel along Route 1 and into Þingvellur National Park. Route 1, an unending and well-kept road that extends out of Reykjavik across the south of the country, was expectedly dull. But hey, there's always Icelandic radio to cheer you up on a long car journey (insert sarcasm here). Route 1 took us through the 'towns' of Hveragerði, Selfoss, Hella and Hvolsvöllur. I say 'towns' because, though marked on the map as major settlements, they were barely villages. Selfoss was the largest of the four and even that wasn't much; enough to have a Bónus supermarket and a few cheap cafés. But it gets worse; don't expect to find anything in the coastal town of Stokkseyri other than a closed-down ghost museum. Huh.

Þingvellur offered a lot of interesting sights, but if you travel out a bit more you can get to Geysir - the original geyser. Old Faithful's got nuthin on Geyir, unless you're measuring size or power, in which case Old Faithful trumps the Icelandic offering. Even still, Geysir is where we get the word 'geyser' from.

Also out somewhere east of Þingvellur are a few huge waterfalls: Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss (above). I'm usually not swayed by the spectacle of huge amounts of water dropping into some pool naturally, but Skógafoss got my attention. It's just so... pretty. Awesome in the original sense of the word. Huge, natural, wet.

Anyway, waterfall obsessions aside, I took a few other photos of the small farmhouses and barns scattered around Route 1 - one small clump of houses (no, it wasn't a village, not even by Icelandic standards) had a tiny white chapel. On the door was the key in an envelope, with a sign saying 'lock the door on your way out'. It was these details I loved the most.

Well, this post was shit. I was trying so hard to steer it away from being a journal entry that I ended up leaving out all the interesting 'where my curiosity took me' stuff. Ah well, at least I got the photos up on the blog. I can't guarantee when I'll post again, let's hope it's this month.

~ John

* ps. yeah, I love the language. Can you tell?

Friday, 30 September 2011

Max, Moritz and cubes under the sun

Today, after yet more weeks without posting, I bring you a four-in-one post. Sixth Form started with a bang, and things have been manic recently but I wanted to slip this post in before September ends. Tomorrow I'm off to Swindon, and to the STEAM exhibition for the third year running, to show off some JOHN Collection catalogues (below) and have a good time. That is, if we exclude the two-hour train journey each way.

Below you can see the four pieces of print design in question:

And to shed a little light on what I've been up to recently (other than going to school, listening to too much Vampire Weekend and wishing I had more time to sleep), I'm going to show you round these four items of print design, if you care to join me.

The JOHN Collection 3 Everyone knows the JOHN Collection, right? And most of them know my third catalogue, released in June this year. The second catalogue and a preview of the third were well received at STEAM last year, so I thought to show off this completed one, I'd get them professionally printed from Though the interior pages are matte (which subtly annoys me), the rest of the printing is perfect and the cover is so shiny I almost don't want to leave it for all the little kids to finger. At least I'll please Pete Reid, who complained about my string binding last year. Here's a sample from the pages inside:

Yeah, awesome, right? Now they're arranged into page spreads you can appreciate the bars at the top and bottom that line up, and it looks much more professional. So, if you're heading to STEAM tomorrow, come check these out and introduce yourself.

Max und Moritz Book Cover This small orange book, also printed by Lulu but perfect-bound instead of stapled (and how lovely the spine looks, too), was a small piece of design I did for my ever-patient friend Peter. The book is a full translation of a lengthy German children's poem, accompanied by some German children's songs and enough prefaces (or Vorworts) to keep you entertained for hours. Wit aside, I was originally obsessed with this professionally printed realisation of my design - I just love having it there to hold in your hand - but the real genius of this book is its contents. The German Jamboree club at my school (coloquialised 'gerjam') has put an awful lot of work into this book and it's brilliant, I doubt any other school has produced something so concise and so ambitious. It's going on sale at the school's open day tomorrow and I hope it sells well; it's definitely worth it.

A snapshot of the inside of the book - I had originally wanted to do the inside page design too, but Peter has done it perfectly himself and I'm happy I ended up not doing it. The illustrations here are from the original poem, and I adapted one for the front cover design. The book is over 100 pages long.

Maths Extension Classes advertising This week I've been hard at work in the evenings. No, not doing homework - but I fitted that in, miraculously - but completing a whole set of posters for various school maths clubs and societies in preparation for Open Day tomorrow. My favourite of the designs is that for the Year 13 Mathematics Extension Classes. The name's a mouthful, and I can't say the classes sound like much fun, but I struck upon a cube idea for the poster:

And decided to apply the muted colours to a real-life cube (a little bit of 'Resort' slipping in there). The advertising cube, though totally useless, is very pretty and I made one to sit on my shelf. The colours are really faded in comparison to the poster above, so the grey is white and the red more like a baby pink, but it's understated and bold, and I like it. I used Futura bold on the poster and cube, and in a way I feel like I've betrayed the font's hipsterness by using it for a maths poster, but at least it will turn some heads.

'Resort' booklet Finally, I can show this to the world (or rather, the dozen people who read this blog). After a brief fuck-up from my developers Bonusprint, and several weeks elapsing, I got the second roll of 'Resort' photos back and put them all into a booklet that no one other than myself understands. I'm going to send it off to some blogs or galleries in hope that someone else will understand what I'm trying to say, but first the booklet needs to be reprinted; this one is a mess.

Check this post for all the info about 'Resort', but I'll quote the arty-farty summary that I put in the front of the booklet:
'Resort' is a 7-piece photographic project. It explores the point at which man and his environment meet, and where man's urges to repress and perfect abuses the very elements he creates with.
Or, in layman's terms, the photoset is about people stressing and forcing and breaking natural elements when they try to make stuff (eg. a holiday resort). The cubes and other shapes represent these 'perfect' forms that people force the natural elements into. The irony of this project being completed in a holiday resort - other than that people are striving for a perfect environment for relaxation while the elements are stressed - the natural elements are the focus of the place! The resort is about enjoying the geography and landscape of the area, yet restricts it by being built there! Oh the delicious irony!

There is a brief blurb about me in the back. Because I have to have some credit, guys!

Anyway, there's my two cents. Or rather, four. I hope this pleases you and keeps you happy until I next have a chance to blog. October is soon arriving, and looks set to be a busy month (if September was anything to go by) - including my birthday and a half term when I'm off to Denmark to sample universities. Hoorah.

Have a good October y'all,
~ John

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Starting a Culture War

To follow up on yesterday's post, which I'd had written for weeks but couldn't publish because the video was being a bitch, I wanted to show you some of the behind-the-scenes stuff about Culture War. I was originally going to take you through the shooting of the film, but aside from that being very boring I thought I would be ruining the final product by explaining how I had to cut corners here and what scenes I missed how there, so I'm going to stay away from the particulars.

Firstly, I'd like to draw your attention to the titles:

I've talked about the titles before, but I thought I should include another mention of them here because - after I had the inspiration from the song - they were the first thing I made for this film. Sitting around waiting for people to reply to my pleas for their help to act in the film, I was so hyped about the project that I made hand-drawn titles, based off the typography of the album's cover art. They were drawn on the thickest card I could find (to prevent it bleeding through) with a Letraset Promarker - an unusually undigital approach for me. I quite enjoyed hand-drawing them, though, and I think they look right. Here's one of the many sheets I scanned in for the titles:

As you can see, the composition of the titles themselves was handled in Photoshop; I simply drew the words and characters on the paper then manipulated them digitally. When the hand-drawn titles weren't going my way (that goddamn S was a nightmare), I also experimented with different digital typefaces (below). The only one that I would have possibly used is the first, Akzidenz Grotesk condensed. The hand-drawn characters were partially based off that, too.

I got maybe a little to excited about this project, and could barely sleep one night, I was so inspired. It was just one of those ideas that I wanted to get done as soon as possible - and had the means to do so. Like Suspension. But Suspension took a week, and due to logistical problems, the need for ten actors and reshoots, Culture War took two weeks. Still a very short timespan. It makes me wonder what I could make with longer holidays - one thing's for sure, I'd be able to go back for more reshoots. There are some parts of Culture War that annoy me a little because I see where I directed wrong. But hey, I said I wouldn't talk about that, so let's move on. Here's a ticklist I made while still incensed with the idea in the first few days:

That was back when I was using my friend Ant as the main character - in fact, I shot the bit at the start on the bus with him first, then he got a haircut and went on holiday right when I needed to shoot the rest of the film, so I reshot the start with Matt, and he was just as good - probably better - in the part. Note also that I originally wanted 20 actors, and got 10. In a way I think fewer is better (or easier to direct), but I'll never know for sure.

Above are some of the pages of planning I did for the film. The first page was my first start at storyboarding - still with Ant as the main character, you can see - but after a while I gave up on storyboarding and instead planned out what would happen in each of the mini scenes (second page). The red stuff is my reminder of what to film in the reshoot - bits to film again, bits to add in, bits to do because the battery of my camera died before we could complete the fight scene on the first night. I stuck quite close to that list, helpfully.

And there you have it; a look at what I did for this film. I hope you all enjoyed it - here's the link again - and have a nice September, I'll try to blog when I can but school starts tomorrow, so, bleugh.


Saturday, 3 September 2011

'Culture War'

School starts soon, so what better way to end the summer than with a film I made weeks ago, Culture War. You have no idea how hyped I've been about it, ever since I had the idea, and it's brilliant to finally get it online after so many failed attempts, and being as pleased with it as I am at the moment. Sure, it's not perfect - there were other bits I'd have liked to film, and some which I couldn't include - but the final outcome is best it could be with the amount of shooting I did. It's crazy to think the entire project - from conception to final edit - took me two weeks (it was the exporting and uploading that delayed its public release). This was one of those inspirations that I had to act on, and fast. Like Suspension.

So here's the video:

I understand the video doesn't explain some things, and that was half the point. I wasn't aiming to create something simple and boring like a commercial music video, rather something that explained less and left open the possibility for more.

It's set to the Arcade Fire song 'Culture War' from 'The Suburbs (Deluxe Version)', and I really wanted to use themes and concepts from both the song and its enclosing album, but the main problem with Culture War is that its name and many of its lyrics are centered on American culture and politics - 'culture war' is a term used to refer to the political friction between the north and south of America, the liberal and traditional values, or so Wikipedia tells me. The song also mentions 'the southern strategy', yet another lyric I can't include due to my location in England.

So I was forced to ignore some of the more political of the song's themes and concentrate on others, specifically the repeated 'We'll be soldiers for you, mommy and dad / in your culture war' lyrics. I focused on this theme of the sad corruption of kids, made to fight maybe not directly for their parents, but for the values and beliefs that their parents had forced upon them. It's a sense of world-weariness ('now the future's looking at me / like a vision from the past') and propaganda that would be better placed in 'Neon Bible' than 'The Suburbs' if it were not for that sound so distinctive of the latter album.

I feel I must say something here regarding the fight at the end of the video, the climax. It may seem unimaginative and immature to interpret 'Culture War' as being a physical, literal fight - obviously Arcade Fire intended for the 'war' to be metaphorical. However, considering that the song - like all the others on the album - is told from the perspective of an adult, and I only have teens to work with, I wanted to focus on the youths in question. And the best way, I thought, to show the corruption of these modern kids was to show them physically fighting each other. The film is intended to be enjoyable to watch, but I still wanted the fight to make for uneasy viewing. The discord between the violent, immediate imagery and the more wistful and saddened sound of the song were intentional.

Don't think I like making violent films - I don't. I'm no Tarantino, nor am I one of those teen filmmakers bent on making homages to Shaun of the Dead. I really didn't like the idea of such violence in my film, but I think - looking at the film as a whole - it is both justified and necessary. Having taken the lyrics literally, I now see why Spike Jonze made the 'Suburban War' mentioned in the album a literal war for his film Scenes from the Suburbs. Sometimes the most obvious imagery is the most effective.

'The Suburbs' has been a constant source of creative inspiration for me ever since its release, and I feel I owe it a lot - not only for being a work of art in itself, but for also opening my eyes to music as I'd never understood before. I've always wanted to make something Suburbs-related, and I think that with Culture War I've made my peace with the album. I've finally given something back.


Monday, 22 August 2011

A holiday well spent

After the seemingly unending blah in the last post, I thought I should show you some of my typographic work with a little less backstory. The plane journey and my first few days in Cyprus were spent doing some hand-drawn typographic work. I started on the plane with a few diagonal letters in a didone font (high contrast, a class created by Didot and Bodoni), a result of boredom and being left alone with a Telegraph Magazine for too long in the flight. Doubtless to say I got a few funny looks, but the results were some of the best hand-drawn characters I've made. Serif fonts are much easier than sans-serifs to draw out because the serifs help to balance the letters out and the high contrast between thin and thick strokes is easy to represent with a single pen line as the former.

The first pages, which have no good characters other than a flimsy M and W.  I was totally ignorant of the actual form of the N, but we'll see that recitfied later. Also note the wrong emphases on the V and U. Early days.

The next page, and I ventured into unlikely territory for me -  lowercase. After a few tries at the holy grail of calligraphy - the g - I realised I was doing it the wrong way round and had a decent try. The j and y also came out nicely, with the strokes smoothly drawn. The older form of the j with the flat tail looks much better than the one with the ball terminal, to me.

The third page, with some successful Ws and an alright f - the ball terminal just needs to be more tucked in under the ascender. Everything else is poor.
After a little more experimentation, here are some of the 'final' results that I put in my Moleskine:

Some of the basic letters - unfortunately I achieved a better W in the first drawings, but ah well.

Some lowercase letters, using the diagonal top strokes on the bodies of the n, k and i which I was pleased with. The curve on the n is kinda awkward, though.

After some more drawings of Ns and squinting at the Telegraph Magazine (which uses a didone font in its titles) I realised that the bottom-right corner of the letter was a point, not seriffed as previously thought. That realised, I created a decent N and an M to go with it.
So those were my typographic doodles last week. I also did some drawings of cubes and shapes in isometric, which didn't turn out too well:

But which happily led to the geometric shapes in 'Resort',  which turned out very well (or should do when the film is developed). Here's one of many pages of planning I did for the project; this one mainly covers the shapes I made for the photoset and the nets involved. For the record, the three-quarter sphere drawn at the bottom didn't work, but was a fun idea.

And that's all I have to show you for now. Have a great end-of-summer and I'll blog again soon!