A magazine as an artistic experiment
How Ruediger John developed the "auf - Magazin für Zwischenfragen" magazine concept for Zeppelin University
A conversation between Ulrike Shepherd and Ruediger John
auf - Magazin für Zwischenfragen der Zeppelin Universität, AusgabeUlrike Shepherd
The Austrian artist Ruediger John was asked by the Zeppelin University to create the concept for its new magazine, "auf - Magazin für Zwischenfragen". Ulrike Shepherd, curator of the "artsprogram" at the Zeppelin University, spoke with Ruediger John about the artistic perspectives, methods, and interventions he employed in the process. Ruediger John has been involved with the Zeppelin University since 2007, participating in arts events and installations (such as "Orientierung/orientation") and developing two of the artsprogram publications.
Ulrike Shepherd: How did working with a team from the university and the agency SchindlerParent on the magazine concept relate to your earlier work as an artist?
Ruediger John: As an artist, I'm interested in exploring transitional zones between social subsystems, such as the overlapping of economics with the arts or the arts and the natural sciences. In order to take a critical approach towards social dynamics, certain interactions and interventions are required. By "social dynamics," I mean the rituals and modes of communication that are involved in creating process-oriented artistic work that focuses on the peripherial zones, e.g. between the arts and sciences. In other words, it's necessary to engage oneself "socially in situ." This artistic method also makes use of research on issues and critical discourses beyond specific canons, resulting in a multi-perspective and critical engagement with concrete situations and a transdisciplinary approach. I've been working this way for a quite some time now, creating projects with academic institutions and companies from different industries. I see this as a form of "critical aesthetics" and "artistic research," and I've been working on the evolution of the definition of these terms since the mid-1990s.
US: This method, based on carrying out initial research and incorporating the development process as an integral part of each project, is a situational one. What kind of situation were you faced with when you first started working on the concept for this university magazine?
RJ: The Zeppelin University wanted to start a magazine that would replace their biannual report on activities and research, so that these activities, discourses, and ideas could be communicated and reflected upon in a more immediate and new way. After some initial brainstorming, I was asked to come up with a concept from an artistic perspective and to implement it together with a team from the university and their graphics design agency. I wanted to create a magazine that would act as infrastructure, both in terms of providing information from the university and one that would serve as a platform for all kinds of contributions and interventions from authors and artists outside the university community. First and foremost, the magazine would provide space for visual exploration and experimentation. The first issue is just the beginning - there will be more experimentation in upcoming issues.
US: An experimental examination of publication formats often leads to very specific and often surprising results. Two examples are your collaborations with the artsprogram that led to the 2009/2010 "Logbuch" and the "Cicerone" art guide. As an artist, what was most important to you in the design of the magazine?
RJ: The content of this magazine is organized differently than what is usual in an academic magazine. For example, the sections dedicated to academic research and general-interest articles are separate from one another, and they look different as well. The research section has space for footnotes, and the section for articles and reports integrates images in a unique way. This clarifies expectations for the content of the two sections visually, increases self-reflection, and allows these two sections to evolve independently from one another. Within this concept, it's similarly important that the design of auf is independent from the university's own corporate design. However, it's also important that the publication and its design profile be easily recognizable. The layout and the fonts used are therefore distinct, and in addition to the look and feel of the material, each issue has a special cover; this gives each issue its own character. I developed procedures for editorial elements and aesthetic interventions, and these will be a part of future issues as a way to facilitate how readers access information that is presented in an artistically and aesthetically "amplified" way.
US: The magazine is divided into a research section and a section devoted to reports on life at the university, and the two differ visually. What criteria determined what the differences in design would be?
RJ: The concept behind the magazine includes the idea of integrating art as a contribution to research and as a commentary on the topics addressed. The visual artistic elements in the magazine (in the first issue, these were drawings) are a part of the research section, and therefore serve to complement those articles in a critical and aesthetically amplified way without being just illustrations or merely ornamental. This artistic approach will be reflected in future issues, too, when other artists are invited to contribute. This means that scientific and scholarly research articles will be on par with the works of art (which will vary in form). Both are ways of striving for knowledge. The first part of the magazine serves as the area for artistic images; it provides space for visual works and has a variable layout grid. The other part, the section featuring articles on life at the university, was given a dynamic, expressive and independent quality by the way we designed the photo and color fields. These are fragmented, Z-shaped elements, and they can also be used within other types of media.
US: The photo spread of drawings is certainly considered to be art before all other aesthetic elements of the magazine. And yet, this art is not typical of your style. Why did you decide to use the medium of drawing?
RJ: I used an ordinary ballpoint pen to create the drawings in this [the first] issue, and the subjects stem from everyday life. Their commentary ranges associatively over the intricate topic of "Macht und Mitsprache" ["Power and Having a Voice"] and also relates to the articles in various ways, adding an additional facet to them. It is on account of the drawings that the reader is able to take an associative journey with their senses, starting with the title on the cover and going through each article, but the sequence of the images can also serve as a guide. I created the drawings the way I did to be a reference to sprezzatura, to be seen both as an artistic technique and a commentary on the magazine's featured topic. That the subjects are taken from everyday life, and that they are rendered using limited means, aims to steer attention past the images and their components. The first issue of the new magazine series emphasizes a sensuality via the material used for the cover and the texture of the drawings. The goal is for the magazine to have agile content and to reflect this via the design and format. After all, one element of the concept was to break with the conventions that are so typical of these kind of publications. So the first issue was launched with a transparent cover, and presented content and sources in a direct manner. The subsequent issues will also have different covers that match the featured topics. We have already started planning how we can directly alter the format of the body of the magazine in future issues; again, this will be done according to the topic addressed in the magazine. In these drawings for the first issue, for example, a microcosm of details becomes visible through the intense close-up view of the lines, which show the materiality of the ballpoint pen ink. The imperfections and the emphasis on even the smallest graphic imprecision create sensual lines. Inversely, up close, the drawing that is impressed in the paper reveals the look and feel of the material it's on - but as a fragile image.
US: The publication also features text interventions, such as accentuating certain text elements relevant to the topic and the content. What added value did you want to gain by doing this?
RJ: Each issue of the magazine has a theme. In this issue, it's "Macht und Mitsprache" ["Power and Having a Voice"], for which the highlighted text elements create a web of associations that can be found throughout all the texts in the magazine. Thus, within unrelated articles and completely separate reports, terms that relate to the magazine's theme are highlighted, creating an additional field of meaning that links them to one another. This makes it possible for readers to become aware of the magazine's theme in all its diversity and subjectivity while leafing through the magazine for an overview. Readers may also encounter moments of serendipity when they discover something by chance that heightens their perceptions and causes them to reflect. The intervention of "interposed questions" is a permanent feature and comprises more in-depth questions for the authors of the research articles. Adding these questions alongside the scholarly articles provides insights into the personalities and motivations of the researchers as well as the implications of the results of the research and their impact on daily life. What the researcher plans to do next, and what contradictory research exists out there, is also touched upon. Along with these points of intersection of a personal, social, and research-related nature, the readers gain greater access to the finished article.
US: In exploring the magazine format, you also go beyond the medium of print, via a "token system" to link to digital media and extend the magazine to include online content. What relationship is there between the virtualization of information and your focus on making sure that readers have a "sensual" experience?
RJ: The magazine concept includes a digital section. I developed a token system for the magazine itself, one that can be used beyond it, to serve almost as digital footnotes, to obtain media-specific content. Thus, dynamic queries and information views also become possible. After thinking about what functions a modern print product must fulfill, and what kind of content it should feature, I suggested that the magazine be considered both, an object in itself but also a static interface to digital content. It is a medium that offers all of the peculiarities and benefits of established perception and reading habits, and at the same time uses them to link up to dynamic and up-to-date content. In other words, it's also a question of what exactly the intrinsic qualities of each type of media are, and how these can be combined so that they don't compete against each other but instead complement each other. The print magazine has benefits aesthetically, ritually, and in longevity that don't exist elsewhere. Conversely, digital media offers possibilities that cannot be used in print.
US: The aesthetic methods employed clearly indicate that, in developing the magazine concept, you adopted a perspective free from conventions. What did the artistic collaboration with the Zeppelin University and the agency look like during the development process?
RJ: The university was quite courageous when it decided to hand this project over to this kind of collaboration, because it was clear to everyone involved that it would not be a quick, simplistic process or superficial work. Every aspect would hve to be carefully scrutinized and it would be necessary to depart from conventions. The well-considered solution would have precedence over the first solution that came to mind. I greatly appreciate the university's attitude towards quality, the trust that was placed in our skills, and the room for thought and creativity that we were given. The agency appointed me to serve as external Creative Director of the project; their skills and my approach made a perfect match for the task.
US: This first issue also raises the question of what will happen next in this experiment. What are the constants and variables of the magazine's concept? Now that the first issue has appeared with a clear visual identity, what can we expect to see next?
RJ: It was important to the Zeppelin University that the magazine not be just a single "art event." Rather, in concordance with the university's principles, it should be integrated such that it functions on par with the university's academic teaching and research activities. This was something that I was already familiar with from earlier collaborations with the Zeppelin's artsprogram. The artistic work done on this magazine involved many conceptual aspects - the work was not only visual in nature. The university emphasized that I should give the publication structure and direction, so we established fundamental principles, which aren't visible at first sight, but will appear and continue to evolve in future issues. Together with the entire team, I'll be working on this for the next few issues. The concept holds that the magazine itself is an object of examination, so we will continue to explore - in print, and the intersection of print and non-print - specific aspects on communication, the processing of information, and cognitive processes. The first issue established a foundation and a point of departure for explorations in future issues. It will be exciting to see how things develop.
auf - Magazin für Zwischenfragen, Zeppelin Universität, Ausgabe #01, ISSN 2192-7979
CITATION/BIBLIOGRAPHY Shepherd, Ulrike: ›Ruediger John - A magazine as an artistic experiment‹, auf - Magazin für Zwischenfragen, Ausgabe