And in a few days I go back to the Isle of Portland to present Portlander during the b-side arts festival (September 5–14).
We printed 3,000 copies with Newspaper Club and we’re distributing them at libraries and all of the festival venues. It’s 64 pages and contains countless photographs, artist submissions, text fragments, oral histories and links and connections to everyone I met on Portland in June.
I’m anxious. The last time I saw everyone there, the project was a mystery. It was still open, with all of the potential that anyone could imagine and hope for. Now, the attention will be directed away from me, away from them, onto the printed piece. I’ll be putting my work in their hands (an unplanned side-effect: Portlander is full of images of hands!). That materiality is powerful. We can all point to it and talk about it. It becomes the thing that’s seen, given, received, carried, admired, saved, remembered, forgotten, thrown away. It’s a container for emotion and thought and conversation.
So of course I worry about reactions and thoughts and conversations. How will it be received. A printed publication freezes time and space. There’s something inscrutable there in its ability to show us some things, to present subjective experience and culture, but to deny us others. There’s no way to really capture anything, and yet these projects attempt to do just that. The publication exists somewhere right there in the space between a yearning to understand and the disappointment of never getting there.
And that’s a lesson for me. I was aware of it from the moment I got to Portland. I’ve done a few of these projects. I try to get closer to a place by creating a thing that embodies personal experiences, relationships and community. I embed my self in another territory — in public — and to do it well, I have to sort of give up my own identity (I push it aside to absorb the lives of others). It’s exhausting work, but it works for me. Built into each of these projects is my leaving. I always leave.
But does it work for anyone else? Is it worth the effort to share? This is what I’ll be asking myself in England.
I’m giving a talk on Portland tomorrow, after more than three weeks here and just a few days before I leave. I’ve been doing everything I can to meet people, chat, photograph, gather and assemble some kind of collection of materials for the forthcoming publication, so this is a good moment to take a look at what’s happened here. And to begin some preliminary thinking about what it all means within a larger practice.
Soon after I arrived, someone advised me to say that we’re “on,” not “in,” Portland. There’s no town of Portland. It’s referred to as an island, even though it isn’t. Portland is a peninsula—Latin for almost-island—although there’s nothing “almost” about this place. It’s a solid block of limestone in the sea and it’s got a hard edge. It’s connected to the mainland (sometimes referred to locally as England) via Chesil Beach, as well as by a causeway, although that’s relatively modern. For most of its history, Portland’s only physical link to the outside world was a massive, ancient, 19-mile long pile of pebbles. Its border, crossing the beach and separating it from Weymouth, is only a few meters long.
Its hard edge is made up of cliffs and coastline—and a guarded demeanor. You can see the island-like outline on a map, but its real shape comes across less visibly in conversation.
Most of my chats with people here begin with my asking how long they’ve been on Portland. The response, anywhere from entire lifetimes to a few months or years, tends to set the tone of the conversation to follow, or can even shut it down. A few days in, I approached a woman who said she’d been on Portland for only 42 years, and therefore was not a real Portlander. And so, she could not participate in a project about Portlanders, she said, because she wasn’t qualified. I thought she was joking. She wasn’t.
And so I heard about the family names that have been here for over 500 years, and met some of them. People learn that I’m doing a project about the place and talk to me about generations of Portlanders, proudly showing me family trees and old photos. I’m intrigued by these documents and momentos and I’ve been photographing them, because they act as a sort of evidence of something. Proof of identity. They say “oh, you must try to find so-and-so, they really know this place. They’ve got stories.” I’ve heard about fathers and fathers’ fathers who worked in the quarries, almost as though the family histories come right out of the stone. Pride is careful here. Defensive, even. One can be proud of this place, but only if you are really of the place.
Portland has a funny way of working with language to support these stories. They’ve created a slang word for those not considered real Portlanders: kimberlin. It’s not an obscure term. It’s written into the poetry and you hear it in local conversation. There’s a Kimberlin Club. And a “stranger’s cemetery.”
And they’ve removed language, too. Saying the word “rabbit” is considered bad luck on the Isle of Portland, so it’s not allowed (it has something to do with seeing a rabbit rush out of the quarries, taken as a sign of imminent collapse). They’ve simply removed the word from the English language. Hare or bunny is fine, and keeping rabbits as pets is okay too—but the word “rabbit” is banned. It cannot be said, written, heard or read. The irony, of course, is that by removing language the concept is strengthened (called the Streisand effect, elsewhere). It’s one of the most powerful stories of the island and it’s continually reinforced, particularly by the elderly, who knock on wood if they hear it on television.
I guess one way to really be of the place is to know the community’s bounds—its rules and limits—and to pass that knowledge on to future generations. Even when the telling of it is the only reason for a tale’s existence (and this is certainly one aspect of culture, no?).
That original border with the mainland is marked on Chesil Beach by the Portland Bound Stone, and every seven years the community “beats the bounds” by taking two school-children and beating them with a stick while they lay across the stone, with prominent members of the community watching. It’s an ancient custom from a time before maps, when the town would walk the parish boundary and literally beat the line into its collective memory. It’s a ritual to define a territory by physically (and emotionally) inscribing it into the mind. On Portland, the beating of the bounds has been officiated for centuries by the manorial court leet, a small group of men who “exercise frankpledge” and collect rent on behalf of the crown (recording payment by inscribing marks onto long, wooden reeve staffs). The court leet represents the island’s oldest families and watches over Portland’s ways, writing its history and keeping its identity. It’s a tight system and it defines the heritage of this place. While mostly symbolic at this point, it hasn’t gone away.
Again and again I’ve been directed to those people and places on Portland where I would have access to these easy narratives—who’s been around, who’s got stories from the old days. Who’s real. I’ve explored many of them.
But on my own, I’ve discovered others who are willing to talk or contribute, regardless of lineage. Recently, a couple excitedly approached me to contribute to the project. “We’re moving to Portland in August,” they said. They’re Portland’s newest and proud of it, even though they aren’t here yet. And I’ve received a submission from one of Portland’s witches (of the local pagan group Dolmen Grove), and from a 13-year-old self-published novelist. And the 30-year-old personal, intimate diary of a long-time resident.
I met a Filipino mom and her young son at a pre-school group. Her husband is Cypriot and they moved here from Cyprus three-and-a-half months ago. How does their story connect—or not—to the place? Are they Portlanders? Portland isn’t a diverse place. Almost everyone is white.
Who is a real Portlander? I’ve asked again and again and never received the same answer.
What about Shahib, who lives in Weymouth but has nurtured his business on Portland—an Indian restaurant—for ten years? I’d like to say that to me, he’s a real Portlander.
Most of the people I’ve met here were not born from stone; they came here because they wanted to. They’ve generously offered me their stories, or some particular view of the place, as outsiders who came and stayed.
And after a month of meeting and talking with the people who live and work on Portland, I can say with total confidence that every one of them is a real Portlander.
If I can offer anything at all to the community, it’s an inclusive view from the outside. Perhaps it’s a kind of challenge, a call to the community to look within its bounds and find itself on the pages of a simple artist’s publication—not as a tight narrative, but as a loose, flowing collection of voices. Changing over time. Isn’t everyone here a Portlander? That’s what I can offer.
And so I’m going to use language too. I’m changing the name of this project to “Portlander.” I won’t try to define who or what that is. I’ll simply include everyone and everything that I’ve encountered, and put a powerful word on it. “Portlander” is more of a question than a statement. Who makes a place?
I’m happy to announce that I’m moving my studio to the Bowery this summer. As of August 1, Counterpractice will be open for business within NEW Inc., the New Museum‘s art/design/tech incubator. This is the first of its kind: the museum is setting up a non-profit, collaborative work space at 231 Bowery, next door to the museum. They’ve hired SO-IL/Gensler to build it out with desk space, work shops, class rooms and a kitchen. We got a walk-through a few weeks ago and it’s beautiful; Rhizome and Studio X are our studiomates. The mission is impressive—develop a place where artists, designers and entrepreneurs can experiment, influence each other and benefit from in-person, cross-studio stimulation. A brave move by an arts institution to create a new kind of ecosystem.
After I gave the Resistance talk at Build I struggled with next steps. I kept making and teaching but none of it was sustainable and I didn’t know what to do. It took a good six months to understand that I should use that talk as the basis for a new kind of studio—one that’s wide enough to include projects like Printed Web and Portland Bill but selective enough to take on meaningful client work at the same time. So, Counterpractice was born. And it needs to live in a collaborative place.
I don’t have an elaborate description or a Counterpractice manifesto. Simply, Counterpractice questions the red-hot center, and looks for magic in the margins. The studio favors longevity over right now, thingness over ephemerality and agility over perfection. Above all, radical curiosity drives the work. That’s it. The rest will come as I do more work.
I didn’t mention stretching, but opening up to uncertainty is a big part of this (or rather, allowed this to happen). So, I built Counterpractice.com by hand. For anyone familiar with front-end web development, this is almost laughable—it’s a dumb one-pager of minimal text and images. For me, it was a big deal. During the last couple of weeks I used Codecademy to teach myself HTML and CSS and I made it work (Krate stepped in to clean up the code, thankfully). It was the first time that I didn’t hire someone else to build a site for me, and it’s my first Counterpractice project (similarly, an early version of Soulellis.com was the first project I did as Soulellis Studio, back in 2001—using Dreamweaver! it was also the last site that I ever built myself). Counterpractice.com is pretty bare bones: images are hosted in an Amazon S3 bucket and the site sits within my Dropbox account. Still, it’s a start.
A free, public publication.
Artist Paul Soulellis will be in residence at Portland Tophill Library for the month of June to produce Portland Bill, a print-on-demand, community newsprint publication. Paul will gather material from Portland communities and design a multi-layered, diverse expression of local life and history. Portland Bill is a participatory publication—all material included will be contributed from residents of Portland and freely distributed back to our communities in September 2014.
Creative writing, essays, folklore, photography, drawings, maps, digital art, found material, poetry and recipes are all welcomed, but anything may be contributed to Portland Bill. Every effort will be made to include all submissions. Any resident of Portland may contribute—regardless of age, education or artistic experience.
Your contribution may be submitted in a few different ways —
— by sending digital material directly to firstname.lastname@example.org;
— by attending one of the artist’s meet-ups during the month of June;
— by leaving your submission at Tophill Public Library;
— by leaving your submission in one of the local Portland Bill dropboxes.
Submissions are due by 27 June.
Please consider lending words, pictures, memories and impressions to create a diverse, community-based publication. Each voice included will deepen Portland Bill’s personality and add to this unique portrait of Portland.
Portland Bill will be freely distributed during the b-side multi media arts festival in September 2014.
A few years ago I did the Weymouths project and spent some time in an incredible place on the southwest coast of England. I just went back and looked at the photos and this is one that stands out for me. We took a sunset walk on this seaside path on the Isle of Portland, just off the coast from Weymouth, and I remember thinking: this is one of the most beautiful evenings of my life. A perfect combination of people and place and light that marked the conclusion of weeks of work (months, really). I took a photo because I actually wanted to capture something, not simply consume the scene and be done with it. I wanted to save it and store it away as insurance against the fear that soon enough I would forget it. And that if I didn’t forget it, maybe I would see these new friends and this place again someday. That’s what I see when I look at this photo that I took on August 8, 2012.
And so, I return. For the entire month of June I’ll be in England to create a new publication for the residents of the Isle of Portland. I’ll be based at the public library as an artist-in-residence. The project is a commission for the b-side arts festival and Dorset County Council, funded by Arts Council England.
My proposal: a publication (probably a 64-page newspaper) called Portland Bill (after the lighthouse situated dramatically at the southern tip of the island, surrounded by the roughest of seas), containing content from the people who live on Portland. I’ll collect and assemble their material with little or no editing, and the entire thing will be printed in August (with Newspaper Club) and distributed on Portland during b-side’s arts festival in September.
Design history happened yesterday. I went to Steve Heller and Louise Fili’s book sale at SVA, and purchased two early copies of Tibor Kalman’s COLORS magazine — numbers 2 and 3. Back at home, I started unfolding #2, which is an oversized series of nested folios, and this letter fell out onto the floor. It had probably been sitting in there for 22 years.
Experimenting with creating a new version of Library of the Printed Web as a Google spreadsheet, which can be saved locally, embedded in other websites, printed, exported as a PDF etc. in a single command. I love that the entire site can be packaged up like this but still figuring out how to point to it — as far as I know, I can’t direct a unique domain address to a google doc. Perhaps I can park it somewhere, or continue to use the tumblr but direct all links to this (which is much more useful and database-like)?
Something about this just feels right. As a technique, it’s a bit of a hack — stretching an existing platform into a new direction, instead of building something new from the ground up. Like a zine.
@soulellis Google docs has all the banality and utility of a copy machine. And yet, magic, beauty, and multiplicity can spring from it.
— Jennifer Brook (@jenniferbrook) April 19, 2014
I’ve been thinking a lot about value and values.
Design Humility and Counterpractice were first attempts to build a conversation around the value of design and our values as designers. They’re highly personal accounts where I try to articulate my own struggle with the dominant paradigm in design culture today, which I characterize as —
the relentlessness of branding
the spirit of the sell
the focus on product
the focus on perfection
and they include some techniques of resistance that I’ve explored in my recent work, like —
chance (nature, humility, serendipity)
giving away (generosity echo)
I’ve been calling them techniques, but they’re really more like values, available to any designer or artist. Work produced with these criteria runs cross-grain to the belief that we must produce instantly, broadcast widely and perform perfectly.
Hence, counterpractice. Cross-grain to common assumptions. Questioning.
And as I consider my options (what to do next), I’m seriously contemplating going back to this counterpractice talk as a place to reboot. Could these be seen as principles — as a platform for a new kind of design studio?
I’m not sure. Counterpractice probably need further translation. An idea like ”slowness” certainly won’t resonate for many, outside of an art context. And how does a love for print-on-demand and the web fit in here? Perhaps it’s more about “variable speed” and the “balanced interface” rather than slow vs fast. Slow and fast. Modulated experience. The beauty of a printed book is that it can be scanned quickly or savored forever. These aren’t accidental qualities; they’re built into the design.
I’m thinking about all of this right now as I re-launch Soulellis Studio as Counterpractice. But if there’s anything that most characterizes my reluctance to get back to client-based work, it’s DE$IGN.
John Maeda, who departed RISD in December, where I am currently teaching, recently delivered a 4-minute TED talk, where he made this statement:
He expands that statement with a visual wordmark that is itself designed. What does it mean? I haven’t seen the talk yet so I can only presume, out of context. These articles and Maeda’s blog post at Design and Venture begin to get at it.
Maeda’s three principles for using design in business as stated in the WSJ article are fine. But they don’t need a logo. Designing DE$IGN is a misleading gesture; it’s token branding to sell an idea (in four minutes—the fast read). So what’s the idea behind this visual equation? As a logo, it says so many things:
All caps: DE$IGN is BIG.
It’s not £ or ¥ or 元: DE$IGN is American.
Dollar sign: DE$IGN is money.
DE$IGN is Big American Money.
and in the context of a four-minute TED talk…
DE$IGN is speed (four minutes!)
DE$IGN is the spirit of selling (selling an idea on a stage to a TED audience)
DE$IGN is Helvetica Neue Ultra Light and a soft gradient (Apple)
DE$IGN is a neatly resolved and sellable word-idea. It’s a branded product (and it’s perfect).
In other words, DE$IGN is Silicon Valley. DE$IGN is the perfect embodiment of start-up culture and the ultimate tech dream. Of course it is — this is Maeda’s audience, and it’s his new position. It works within the closed-off reality of $2 billion acquisitions, IPOs, 600-person design teams and Next Big Thing thinking. It’s a crass, aggressive statement that resonates perfectly for its audience.
DE$IGN makes me uneasy. The post-OWS dollar sign is loaded with negative associations. It’s a quick trick that borrows from the speed-read language of texting (lol) to turn design into something unsustainable, inward-looking and out-of-touch. But what bothers me most is that it comes from one of our design leaders, someone I follow and respect. Am I missing something?
I can’t help but think of Milton Glaser’s 1977 I<3NY logo here.
Glaser uses a similar trick, but to different effect. By inserting a heart symbol into a plain typographic treatment, he too transformed something ordinary (referencing the typewriter) into a strong visual message. Glaser’s logo says that “heart is at the center of NYC” (and it suggests that love and soul and passion are there too). Or “my love for NYC is authentic” (it comes from the heart). It gives us permission to play with all kinds of associations and visual translations: my heart is in NYC, I am NYC, NYC is the heart of America, the heart of the world, etc. .
Glaser’s mark is old-school, east coast and expansive; it symbolizes ideas and feelings that can be characterized as full and overflowing. And human (the heart). It’s personal (“I”), but all about business: his client was a bankrupt city in crisis, eager to attract tourists against all odds.
Maeda’s mark is new money, west coast and exclusive. It was created for and presented to a small club of privileged innovators who are focused on creating new ways to generate wealth ($) by selling more product.
Clever design tricks aside, here’s my question, which I seem to have been asking for a few years now. Is design humility possible today? Can we build a relevant design practice that produces meaningful, rich work — in a business context — without playing to visions of excess?
I honestly don’t know. I’m grappling with this. I’m not naive and I don’t want to paint myself into a corner. I’d like to think that there’s room to resist DE$IGN. I do this as an artist making books and as an experimental publisher (even Library of the Printed Web is a kind of resistance). But what kind of design practice comes out of this? Certainly one that’s different from the kind of business I built with Soulellis Studio.
The Design Office graciously hosted a Providence, RI launch for Printed Web #1 on March 17. Lots of RISD students and faculty were there and we had an inspiring discussion about the work with Clement Valla and Benjamin Shaykin. These terrific photos are by Sarah Verity.
I just applied to the New Museum‘s NEW INC program, “a shared workspace and professional development program designed to support creative practitioners working in the areas of art, technology, and design.” I’m planning to reboot my design studio in the coming months, and while I think this would be an incredible platform for a new kind of “counterstudio,” if this doesn’t happen, something else will. Currently looking for new ideas, opportunities and scenarios.
NEW INC asked five questions as part of the application. Here are all of my responses, merged into one essay.