James Goggin is a Providence-based British and/or Australian graphic designer and teacher from London via Sydney, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Auckland, Arnhem, and Chicago. He runs a design practice named Practise, together with partner Shan James, working on books, websites, identity systems, exhibitions, typefaces, videos, textiles, posters, magazines, signs, and symbols in Europe, Asia, Australasia, and North America. James teaches at Rhode Island School of Design, writes now and then, and lectures here and there.
URSULA K. LE GUIN
Ursula K. Le Guin, beloved author of novels, poetry, essays, children’s books, and short stories, passed away on the 22nd of January, 2018. I was in the middle of finalizing the reading list for my Graduate Seminar II class at RISD, and I immediately decided to start the course, which has a informal recurring theme of biographical, autobiographical, and descriptive writing, with “Introducing Myself,” an incredible essay from a 1992 volume of the literary book series Left Bank. Described by Ursula as “a performance piece,” it not only constitutes a forceful challenge to patriarchal canonization filled with her characteristic wordplay and metaphor, it also kept me in line as an early-forties male professor putting together a grad seminar syllabus with her reminder that “theory is invented mostly to reassure people in their forties, mostly men, who are worried.”
TO DIG A HOLE THAT COLLAPSES AGAIN
The Nigerian-born, Antwerp-based artist Otobong Nkanga was responsible for what was probably my favorite exhibition this year, the astounding To Dig a Hole That Collapses Again, curated by ex-Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago senior curator Omar Kholeif (who also curated what might have been my favourite exhibition of 2017, Michael Rakowitz’s Backstroke of the West). Otobong’s tapestries, paintings, installations, performances, and sculptures survey colonialism, globalism, and social and economical displacement through the covert economies and transportation channels of what she calls “shine,” the raw minerals exhumed from Africa, transported overseas, and transformed into shiny consumer products, from cosmetics to electronics to cars. I was fortunate to work in transatlantic, late-night Skype collaboration with Otobong on the MCA exhibition catalogue, which featured a piece by another favorite, writer Teju Cole, and was printed in Belgium and then shipped to America.
WAYS OF HEARING
Damon Krukowski, the writer and musician perhaps best known for his work as one third of seminal dream pop band Galaxie 500 and as one half of Damon & Naomi (with graphic designer, photographer, video director, and fellow ex-Galaxie 500 member Naomi Yang), released a fantastic book in 2017 titled The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World about how the shift from analogue to digital has changed the way we listen. He then produced an excellent podcast based on the book for Radiotopia, titled “Ways of Hearing,” which argues for the value of noise in our increasingly signal-only digital culture. MIT Press subsequently asked Damon to make a book of the podcast of the other book, for which I spent this summer and autumn working in constant engaging dialogue with him on not only the design (with an obvious, unavoidable debt to Richard Hollis’s treatment of the late John Berger’s Ways of Seeing), but also as picture researcher, trying my best to visually match the invention and atmosphere of Ian Coss’s brilliant podcast sound design. I actually sent off the final artwork to the printer just this morning, and the book will be released on Record Store Day, April 13, 2019.
I wish I could have been back in London this autumn to experience Cuban artist and activist Tania Bruguera’s radical Turbine Hall project at Tate Modern that responds to the global migration crisis with a community-driven project involving inhabitants from Tate Modern’s SE1 postcode along with local activist Natalie Bell and sound artist Steve Goodman (also known as Hyperdub label founder and Burial producer Kode9). Tania’s work is often intangible, so-called arte útil (useful art) that “pushes the limits of art into feeling, more than seeing,” as she puts it. Her defiance of conventional contemporary art modes of display is evident even in the title of the exhibition: a haunting, ever-increasing number stamped onto visitors’ hands that changes with every migrant death recorded (10,148,022, at the time of this writing). There’s a great interview with Tania by Amandas Ong where the artist makes a case for complexity with an important distinction that we’d been trying to articulate clearly in critical discussions about universal standards and modernist reduction in my elective course at RISD, X, Y, and Z: Graphic Design in Space. “We live in a time when we need to defend complexity and the right to be complex. That doesn’t mean being baroque or deliberately trying hard not to be understood. It simply means defending different perspectives, and respecting and accommodating people who are not like us.” Soon after I shared Tania’s words in our class, she was arrested and detained by Cuban authorities during a hunger strike protest against a new law requiring artists to apply for government-issued licences. And checking Tate Modern’s website as I email this top 10 list to Emmet at the Walker, the exhibition title now stands at 10,148,025.
One of my favorite songs, and music videos, as a 13-year-old ex-Australian living in Copenhagen with access to MTV for the first time, was Neneh Cherry’s 1988 track “Buffalo Stance.” Broken Politics, her most recent album, only her fifth, was released in October by Norwegian label Smalltown Supersound, and I’ve had it on heavy rotation in the last few months. Her melodic, contemplative takes on the refugee crisis and the environment are produced by British musician and producer Kieran Hebden (AKA Four Tet) along with some additional input by Robert “3D” Del Naja from Massive Attack, both longtime faves, all accompanied by a fierce portrait of Neneh by Wolfgang Tillmans on the cover. In her words, “maybe politics starts in your bedroom, or your house—a form of activism, and a responsibility. The album is about all of those things: feeling broken, disappointed, and sad, but having perseverance. It’s a fight against the extinction of free thought and spirit.”
Writers, critics, and sometime curators Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad work under the collaborative identity The White Pube, publishing irreverent and personal writing every Sunday on their website. Their reviews and essays not only take on the art world but criticism itself: “Art critics are either trying to canonise artworks for the market or actively make contemporary art history. The White Pube, by contrast, is about the immediate encounter we have with the art.” Gabrielle’s epic review of this year’s Liverpool Biennial (emoji summary: “🙄☢️🎬”) pushed against the boundaries of criticism: for something as nebulous and infrastructural as a biennial, where do you start? And more importantly, where do you stop? What happens when you pause on the way into a gallery and talk to the volunteer staff first? How do the installations look months after the opening weekend when the rest of the art press wrote their reviews? What kinds of hypocrisies are revealed in public art that professes to engage but forbids local skaters from interacting with them? And why not question a biennial’s title typography as well as its curatorial strategies?
I’ve followed Seattle-based poet, scholar, and book artist Amaranth Borsuk on Twitter for ages, so I’d been eagerly awaiting The Book, her historical interrogation of the book released by MIT Press in May: “the book as object, as content, as idea, as interface.” In an attempt to support local bookshops, I looked it up on IndieBound one Saturday morning and saw that Books on the Square here in Providence had precisely one copy in stock. I usually just like looking around and finding books myself in bookshops, but the question of which section a book called The Book would be classified under had me stumped. After 15 fruitless minutes, I finally approached the person at the counter. “I’m looking for a book called The Book.” “Which book?” “The Book.” “Yes, what’s the title?” “It’s actually titled The Book”. “The book’s title is The Book?” “Yes. Er, maybe you could look up Amaranth Borsuk?” There it was on the computer screen, the single listed copy, but they were equally confounded over its possible physical location. The bookseller confessed that they’d also just completely rearranged the entire bookshop and things were still a bit mixed up. We both had to give up after another 20 minutes or so. I did find Mary Norris’s Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen while searching, which I’d been meaning to read for a while, so I left with at least a book, if not The Book. (I admit to then ordering it online, and of course it’s great: highly recommended).
RESIST, RELATE, UNITE
Another favorite exhibition this year was the extraordinary Barbara Jones-Hogu: Resist, Relate, Unite 1968–1975 at the De Paul Art Museum in Chicago, curated by DPAM director Julie Rodrigues Widholm and assistant curator Mia Lopez. Barbara was a Chicago-based artist, filmmaker, and teacher; founding member of the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA); and a central figure of the Black Arts Movement. Unbelievably, this was the first solo museum show of her vibrant, politically-charged woodcuts, etchings, lithographs, and screen prints. The artist sadly passed away just months before it opened, but her spirit endures and the work remains fresh and urgent.
I ended last year and began this year with two new editions of my ongoing Pop Culture Colour Theory lecture series in Chicago and San Francisco, which has evolved to include three back-projected screens, multi-track audio, a laptop, two iPads, and my iPhone. And occasionally a smoke machine (although my contact at the Art Institute of Chicago had to regretfully inform me of their “strict no smoke machine policy”). I’m also currently on a committee involved in plans for an exciting new Color Lab at RISD, and a key inspiration, case study even, has been the activities of Swiss studio Maximage and their Color Library, a nonprofit online database of colour profiles for designers and artists. The website is just one product of an ongoing body of research on offset printing processes and substrates that continues from a 2014 workshop they ran at Ecole cantonale d’art de Lausanne (ECAL) with Franz Sigg, a Swiss printer and reproduction expert, now retired from Rochester Institute of Technology. I managed to score Maximage’s 2017 holographic foil-covered mega swatch book Color Combinations earlier this year, and their offset colour experiments are expanded upon in the hot-off-the-press Color Library: Research into Color Reproduction and Printing, published by ECAL and JRP|Ringier, including images by Iranian-born Swiss photographer Shirana Shahbazi and essays by Franz, Emily King, and Manon Bruet.
My wife Shan is also my partner in our studio, Practise, but while she happens to be an amazing graphic designer, she actually studied architecture and fashion design. We ran a fashion label with Shan’s elegant womenswear, and textile designs by both of us, in London for several years from back in 1998 when we first got married. This means 2018 was an important year for us: our 20th anniversary. It slowly dawned on me that it’s Practise’s 20th anniversary next year too, since the studio was founded a year after our label, when I graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1999. All of which is to say that it’s a good time to start some new projects, a major one being Shan’s new textile company. Shan is a Hong Kong–born, half-Chinese New Zealander, and it was only when we were moving from Chicago to Providence a couple of years ago that she discovered her ancestry could be somewhat surprisingly traced back to a Rhode Island family called Hazard. Around 1800 a branch of the Hazards founded a textile manufacturing town called Peace Dale, which is a 40-minute drive from Providence. Shan’s been hard at work on a collection of silkscreen-printed textiles in designs of up to 16 colours. Our studio floor is covered in actual size tiled prints, and we’ve had research field trips to one of the last fully operational hand printing fabric mills in the US. We’re naming the company after her family town.