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Conversing online with Alex Gifreu


04 April 2016
This month's topic: Artists' books

Conversing online with Alex Gifreu

Alex Gifreu is not your average designer. To talk about design with him is to talk about everything but design. His professional practice knows no bounds. Frontiers are dissolving all the time. They appear, disappear, ever in flux. Co-founder of the graphic studio Bis,along with Pere Álvaro, and founder of the editorial Cru with 43 artist’s publications to date. He has published monographs by artists like Dora García, Ignasi Aballí, Mabel Palacín, Jakob Kolding, Oriol Vilanova, Iñaki Bonillas, Carlos Pazos, Pepo Salazar and Salvador Dalí, amongst others, and is responsible for graphic projects for Documenta 13, Manifesta 8, FRAC Bourgogne, Tate Liverpool, Centre Pompidou-Metz, Fundació Tapies, Fundació Miró, Venice Biennale, São Paulo Art Biennial and the Reina Sofía. A key figure, when defining the function of graphic design applied to art as a means to “order the ideas of others on paper.” Clear and convincing. For him, the book is an extension of the work itself.

Five o’clock in the afternoon in Amsterdam. I call him on Skype. He responds from Figueres. Behind him a wall of books and objects that extend beyond the screen. A distance of 1.408 km, and a difference of 10 degrees; I’m not surprised he’s wearing a t-shirt. The connection is good there are no pixels, no frozen faces nor metallic voices. There’s music in the background that comes and goes. It’s John Lydon he clarifies. Without further ado, to the sound of PiL, I begin.

How many books do you have?

Over 20.000, although rather than books I prefer to talk about volumes.

Which would you take to the grave

Ulysses by Dora García. It’s a great piece, a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses published by Penguin in 1969, cut perfectly at a precise angle. It refers to censorship and restriction of liberties.  

Your involvement with self-publishing does it go a long way back?

In the summer of 1982, I edited my first publication. I was 11 years old. With my pocket money, I bought foreign newspapers like the Bild or Gazzetta dello Sport. I cut images out of them because I liked the effect of the four-colour printing on the pink paper of the Gazzetta. It was called Naranjito, la revista del Mundial 82.  It was my counter chronicle. That’s where it all began. From there I passed on to fanzines. The most famous one is the fanzine I made with Jordi Mitjà Pus de iaia (Granny’s pus).).

From there to conceiving a work in the format of a book?

In 1997 I made a publication called Tipografías Inflamables. I sent fonts I’d designed to 30 designers in 11 countries, from the United States to Australia, and they had to design a page with one of them. Months later along with Jordi Mitjà we made TPS, the initials for ‘tipoesia’ (typo-poetry). We illustrated his poems with my fonts. And this was before Cru.

What is an artist’s book?  

The artist’s book doesn’t exist. If you look in the dictionary, the definition of a book is a collection of sheets joined with a cover. Whereas, I’d ask you the question: what is art? It’s clear that since Duchamp anything is art; and since Beuys anybody is an artist. It is impossible to define what an artist’s book is when we can’t define who is or isn’t an artist or what is or isn’t art. More than an artist’s book I like to talk about publications conceived as pieces of work. In the sense, the work doesn’t exist in any physical format other than a publication.

Why was Cru born?  

Cru was a need. Cru was born because I saw the work of some of my artist friends who, at that time, had no publications about their work. A page would appear in collective publications but made no sense. I believed in their work and thought that if I didn’t publish them, at that point, nobody would. We were in our early twenties.

The punk philosophy, “do it yourself”?

Now it’s easy to publish but in the 90s it wasn’t, and it cost a fortune. We’d learnt from the DIY philosophy of the shabby fanzine with photocopies. But it had to be taken one step further. The first Cru came out in 2000, and it’s by Jordi Mitjà. It’s a box made of steel marked with a letter punch. You open it and find inside a sculpture of cast aluminium, accompanied by a CD of music that Jordi made at that time, six screen-prints and a book with pages from a dictionary where all the words are crossed out except for the definitions of Loop and Culture. There is a large quantity of crossed-out pages that contribute nothing. After the second one, I decided they all needed to be A5 in format. I planned it with the idea of a collection. Over time, I realised that limiting all the projects to the same format didn’t make sense. I opted to adapt the format of the publication, to the nature of the project.
Is there a guiding theme behind “a Cru”?

Is there a guiding theme behind “a Cru”?

No. The only guiding theme could be the hand of the designer, but there is no design, the endeavour is always to be aseptic. For I believe that the design shouldn’t compete with what it is showing, it has to stay on a second plane, to comply with premises that can be optimum legibility, order, composition but never, never be over and above the work of the artist. I can’t bear over-designed things and much less tendentious ones. My aim is that they age well. I’m satisfied when I pick up a book I did 15 years before, and my face doesn’t crumple with embarrassment.

Taking design into another context and giving it a twist; sound familiar

Definitely! At the beginning when they commissioned me to do a poster I thought of it as the cover of a record. If they commissioned me to do the cover of a record, I thought of it as the page of a book. If they commissioned me to do a book I thought of it as a calendar. I never did the job I was supposed to do so much as turned what I was expected to do on its head. I interpreted the basic parameters of design and extrapolated them to another context; I was very proud of this way of doing things. I’m never satisfied with the work I’ve done, but I like this capacity to turn things around. To do something, by proposing something else. It is the negation of the established. The contradiction. It’s “I don’t know what I want, but I know how to do it”.

Artists, designers, editors, do the roles matters?

It’s really a relation of symbiosis. They are three characters working side by side. In the publication of the artist, the artist must take the lead as she has the most specific role. The role of the designer is to place all the skills acquired in the service of the artist. To seek out the optimum solution for the reproduction of their work, be it in the selection of papers, systems of printing, or the format. For example, in the case of Sin principio/Sin final by Ignasi Aballí, we assessed how to reproduce the exhibition on a scale of 1:1 in the publication. In the end, we decided that the pieces that didn’t fit in the publication would be published as life-size details, or we’d reproduce life-size books wherever the pieces we wanted to show appeared.

Many designers present themselves as artists…

For many designers, design is art, but not for me. Design is function. I can’t bear designers that present themselves as artists; I also don’t like designers that make their work prevail over what they are showing and they impose their design upon what is being published. I like to pass unnoticed. I believe good design is the design you don’t see.

But for some reason, you are interested in working with art…

What’s interesting with art is something lies behind it. It’s not like the painting of the eighteenth century that sought for a faithful realism to the last detail and valued virtuosity. Now an idea applies. Since the concept began to be applied, the idea has become irreplaceable. The conception of a piece is personal. It pisses me off when a witticism is confused with an idea. There are those who think they have an idea and in reality, it is a witticism, and this means the art is of little interest.

One of the great satisfactions of my work is being able to work with artists because one really learns. If you stop learning best just to disappear. For example, in the case of Dora García each of her projects is different, calling for a different solution. Now we’ve abandoned the format of the book, and we’re making newspapers with a massive print run of 25,000 copies as she considers this is the ideal format to show her work. We’ve made three. Dora is a great artist, a great researcher; I’m always discovering new worlds, new people through her.

What are you seeking with your publications?

In the end, what you want is that whoever holds it in their hands enjoys it. It’s important because you are stealing time from their life, dedicated to looking at something you have made. That someone lends you their time, is amazing.

How do you see digital editions?

In the 90s was talked about, but who’s making 20 years later? Since David Carson foresaw The End of Print in 1994, a debate began about the disappearance of books and they’re still there, stronger than ever. I don’t know, holding in your hands the weight of a book, the texture, different papers, colour, everything. It’s like having sex or watching porn on the Internet. I prefer the former.

What do you feed off?

To be honest, I don’t look at what other designers do. Each time I have something to do I analyse what has fallen on my desk. From there I look for the optimum solution. Are there people who have interested me, and interest me? Yes, many. Marcel Duchamp, Gordon Matta-Clark, Chris Burden, Dora García, Mabel Palacín, Danny Lyon, Tacita Dean, William Klein, Christian Marclay, El Lissitsky, Anri Sala, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Kern, Man Ray, Hugo Ball, Kurt Schwitters, Piero Manzoni, João Onofre, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Mark Leckey, Miroslaw Balka, Raoul Hausmann, Dan Graham, Marc Nagtzaam, Jeremy Deller, Asier Mendizabal…

Your five key designers

If we’re focussing exclusively on graphic design, people like Rudy Vanderlans, Neville Brody, Vaughan Oliver, Aleksandr Rodchenko or Jamie Reid have at some point brightened up my life.

What state of health is design in today?

Everything I see is pretty much a remake, and I’ve become a bit of a stickler, nothing interests me. Today to create is to recycle. Perhaps it’s something to do with the weakness of current thinking and the lack of critical spirit, but that is quite another subject. In the last twenty years, have you seen anything that you haven’t seen before? You can say yes, but if you analyse it, you will soon find its point of departure. It lacks originality and its own language.

As you mention remakes, lately I’ve seen a lot of appropriation of Bauhaus…

Nor do I believe in the chemically pure design that Bauhaus defended. Everything influences you.

Cecilia Martín is the arts and culture brand strategist. Cecilia is based in London and has founded the Cultural Connection (CC) network-agency that helps museums, art galleries, biennials, orchestras, auditoriums and universities around the world to break the mold and find new ways to connect with their public. Cecilia is a professor of Communication and Branding in Art for the Master of Contemporary Art of the IL3 at the University of Barcelona.

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