is In Wild Air
Despite the appearance of being a ‘grown-up’ (design editor of Art + Australia; Enterprise Professor of Design at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne; Visiting Professor at Zokei University, Tokyo, and since 2004 a member of the Tokyo Type Directors Club) I am an Amateur (in every sense of the word). It was a shared love of experimentation, journeys, and an interest in others that led to the formation of Tomato, a collective of similar spirits that included the band Underworld, in 1991.
Thursday slightly after 6.30pm, 6th July April 1972
There are rare moments when you are present (along with others) when a tipping point in culture occurs, the point at which when what was changes into what is. Often these events go unnoticed because, like the butterflies in the Amazon jungle, they are small and in themselves ‘insignificant’ but the process of cause and effect can lead to events of a far greater magnitude. For me, and all the other teenagers watching, the moment when on Top of the Pops David Bowie turned to camera, pointed to the invisible multitudes behind it, and sang "I had to phone someone so I picked on you" was such a moment. All the kids watching thought he was addressing them directly. I remember the next day, on the bus to school, the kids on the upper deck were all imitating his actions and singing the song, the next line of which "Hey, that’s far out so you heard him too" just reinforced its impact on the stage floor of the number 126 bus to Bromley.
It’s probably hard to understand for anyone in this day and age why this moment had such a profound, consequential effect on British culture and British identity but Bowie tapped into not only the zeitgeist of the moment but the deep history of the dandy and tribal fashion within British culture. Top of the Pops was a weekly show on the BBC showcasing the music in the top 40 and it regularly attracted audiences of 15 million. That was around a quarter of the total population of the British Isles at the time. This was a time before the internet, streaming, YouTube and even video recorders, so if you missed the programme that was it.
1972 had started off with a nationwide state of emergency caused by the Miner’s strike; unemployment was over a million, the highest number since the 1930s; and in Derry, Northern Ireland, fourteen died when British troops opened fire on a large number of demonstrators. In other words, Britain was a bleak and depressing place and ironically the first number 1 that year was I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony) by The New Seekers. The weekly record chart was fanatically followed even though the number 1’s preceding Bowie’s appearance was the usual mixture of pop rubbish (Son of my Father by Chickory Tip) and hip pop (Telegram Sam by T Rex). Suddenly into this mix there was Bowie with his new band The Spiders from Mars. Glam rock was the latest ‘movement' in its early days but Bowie’s appearance was something else. Unlike most glam rockers Bowie, clad in his multicoloured, multi patterned one piece costume, actually looked good rather than than a regular ‘bloke’ with mascara and glitter on, Bowie was stylish rather than styled. Up to that point (Space Oddity notwithstanding) Bowie had achieved little in terms of record sales, being a ‘pop star’, or taken seriously as an artist. Starman got to number 10 but the following album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars has gone on to recognised as one of the most significant albums of the last 50 years and positioned Bowie as one of the most important contributors and protagonists of contemporary pop music right up to his death last year.
"There’s old wave. There’s new wave. And there’s David Bowie". (The advertising campaign by his record company RCA for his album Heroes, 1977).
I am drawn to people who plot and walk an idiosyncratic path, whose life and work are inseparable adding in a meaningful way to the richness and experience of the human condition, and whose life and work somehow resonates uniquely within me (we are after all odd, peculiar composites shaped and made from the life and work of others, reformatted into our selves). Of the many that I would like to write about here one is a constant presence in my life and who is responsible in no little part to who I am, what I do, and where I’m going (to paraphrase Gauguin).
Ever since I found the work of Katsushika Hokusai in a book on Asian Art in my grandfather’s library, his work and his life has held an intractable fascination for me. It taught me to embrace and be entranced by the small moments of life as well imaginative flights of fancy. Moreover it was this quote that set both my head, heart, and ultimately my hand racing, "From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention. At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and ﬁsh, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive. May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this is no lie". (postscript to 100 views of Mount Fuji, 1839). In our contemporary where the immediate holds so much traction, this mad, idiosyncratic long view holds more relevance than ever. Why do you do the thing that you do? Is it to please others or is it a wordless thing that burns brightly inside of you? Something that propels you forward and is yours alone? Yes, it’s romantic but without this type romance what have we got? Art schools that are called institutions? Art that is shaped by markets and the marketeers? Design that is thought of in terms of industry? A life shaped by algorithms? I tell my students that their sole duty to themselves and everyone else is to be
"interested" because if you are interested you become interesting, and if you become interesting you will make interesting work then someone will be interested in you. I urge students to "grow old alive", embrace the immediate but walk slowly, take in all that’s around you and move forward.
Hokusai’s countless painting, prints, and drawings all exhibit that restless enquiry and experimentation that kept him interested and interesting throughout his long life.
As a postscript, on my 60th birthday I was in Tokyo attending the annual Tokyo Type Directors competition and my friends there celebrated the occasion by giving me an early edition of one of Hokusai’s ‘manga’ (sketchbooks of the everyday). It is one of my most treasured possessions and a spread from this edition is above.
Sussex & Kent
I spent many of my childhood summer holidays at my grandparents house and walking the surrounding undulating hills, in Rottingdean near Brighton on the south coast of England. The cliffs there are made of chalk and as any young child would do I drew on the stone promenade with chalk that had fallen from the cliff face. One afternoon after a morning of drawing my grandfather, father, and I travelled along the coast road to Birling Gap and headed inland down the Cuckmere valley to Wilmington. The whole of this coastline is replete with historical narratives. Pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries used to base themselves in this area; Edward James, the eccentric, millionaire supporter of Surrealism lived nearby; the church and priory at Wilmington is almost 1000 years old, and a magnificent yew tree in the graveyard is reputedly 1600 years old; Wilmington is mentioned in the Domesday Book and Earl Godwin the father of Harold II (who was killed in 1066 by William the Conqueror) owned all the land in this area; and the village has been occupied from pre-Saxon times as burial barrows have been found on the Downs above the village on Windover Hill. Looking over the village is a remarkable chalk drawing (shown above, taken on my first visit there in 1963), some 70m high, incised in the hillside called The Long Man of Wilmington. No one knows when the Long Man was created and whether it belongs to the neolithic drawings that adorn other hills in southern England but for me at that time, when I first saw it, it became a magical, alchemic, totem linking the chalk drawing that I had be making that morning with a drawing made from chalk from the distant past. Time and space folded within the child and this deep resonance has never left me.
Further up the coast in Kent and another childhood holiday destination is Hythe and linking the ancient town of Hythe (Hithe is an Old English word meaning haven or landing place) with a spit of shingle called Dungeness is the Romney, Hythe, & Dymchurch Railway. Opened in 1927 this railway is peculiar because it is fully working miniature railway, just big enough to carry passengers in tiny carriages the 13 and half miles along the Kent coastline. The journey takes you past the medieval marsh at Romney to what can only be described as the café at the end of the world. Near to this café are the wooden shacks of fishermen, one of which was beautifully restored by the English film maker Derek Jarman with its garden of driftwood and hardy plants, sandwiched between the silence of the marshland on the inland side and the constant aggravation of shingle next to the coast. Beyond the cafe is the concrete mass of Dungeness nuclear power station best experienced within a blanket of sea fog, the living embodiment of Tarkovsky’s Stalker.
Rottingdean was named after the Rota the old english name for a Saxon tribe who decimated the local Anglo-Romans in the 6th century and adjacent to the village pond are the houses of Rudyard Kipling and his uncle, the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. Just a few miles further east is the town of Brighton, again an ancient bronze age settlement, made famous by being the favoured holiday destination of King George IV who constructed the pavilion there in an eccentric mix of British Georgian and Anglo-Indian architecture. It was on the coast road between Rottingdean and Brighton that another formative moment in my life happened, my Quadrophenia moment. I was about nine or ten at the time and spending a lazy summer’s afternoon walking along the clifftops next to the coast road. Because the road undulated I couldn’t see what was making the incredible roar that was fast approaching. Then over the hill came a phalanx of 60 or so Mods on their Lambrettas, with flags at the end of ariels, the RAF roundel on the back of their parkas, and clusters of mirrors adorning the front of the scooters. To me they were like living embodiment of the early medieval knights on their chargers whose armour I had seen exhibited in the Tower of London. It was the first time in my life where fashion, music and graphics all combined into one cultural, dynamic expression of identity. They were on their way to Brighton to engage the other tribe, the Rockers, in pitch battle on the seafront; continuing the history of tribal conflict that had been present in the region and all over Britain for thousands of years.
The English Language
Co-opting a previous definition used by Guy Keulemans – "an entity that manipulates, creates, describes, or implements others", (this) indicates the agency of objects in their extended relations, feeding and informing the systems of their own genesis – I would like to nominate the English Language for this section.
In general terms English is more elastic and absorbent than any other language that I know of (apologies to any another language or languages if my assertion is incorrect). This assertion seems timely given the some of the underlying themes in the recent action to remove Britain out of the European Union. In many ways it’s our greatest and most valuable export and generator of wealth.
The story of English starts in Europe, it’s origins lie in the Anglo-Frisian dialects of the mid 5th to 7th centuries and it continued to absorb the influence of other languages already part of the everyday such as Latin or those brought to Britain with by invading armies such as the Normans in 1066. From 1500 onwards the language developed though cultural exchange when, in renaissance times, Latin was reinforced alongside Ancient Greek as well as elements of Dutch, German, and French brought in and adapted through trade and sometimes war. And thereafter through the building of Empire and the process of assimilation.
Rather than obliterate the previous language or languages, English mutated and adapted to keep previous words alongside the new (modified) words of the invaders; for example, cow, sheep, kingly, shirt, deem (Anglo-Saxon) and beef, mutton, royal. blouse. judge (French) - both forms lasted and are used today. This ability (or inbuilt ‘design’) allowed for and encouraged new words to be created; most notably by Shakespeare (apparently 1700 of them) or at least there were around 1700 new words that appeared in Shakespeare’s plays by either connecting existing words or adding prefixes or suffixes and changing nouns into verbs and verbs into adjectives. Wordplay became an integral part of the English language and therefore English/British culture. This process continues, everyday. For example, Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce; on it’s first page is a word describing the the sound of the thunderclap that accompanied the fall of Adam and Eve – and is partly comprised of different words for thunder from French (tonnerre), Italian (tuono), Ancient Greek (bronte) and Japanese (kaminari). Of the words that Joyce invented I guess Quark is the most commonly known or used – after American physicist Murray Gell-Mann changed his original description of ‘quork’ to ‘quark’ after reading this sentence in Finnegan’s Wake “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” and noticing that quarks cluster together in threes to form other subatomic particles called baryons. It is this process of scavenging, of absorption and creativity that is the lifeblood of the English language.
The Idea of Ideas
Thought into form, placed in the world by means of language, irrespective of material and dimensions. I am fascinated by this process and the tipping points within that process, as well as the process between the internal voice and the external utterance; the translation, the transliteration, the limits of a particular language, the accent and intonation, the mistakes, and the response to its presence in the world and the conversation that happens thereafter that blossoms into a myriad of conversations and responses. Where is the edge of an idea? What are it’s limits? When does one idea become another? There seems to be a physics, or more accurately a physicks – in the alchemic sense to this process, and an ecological, biological process at work. And at what point does an idea gain enough traction and mass to become cultural? And, and...
Because of who I am and what I do there a few reoccurring personal obsessions; the invention of geometry and the invention of writing that abstract our experience beyond everyday basic survival and propel us into the realm of the ‘other’, into the realm of the imagination and the making of culture. It’s a narcotic that effects and shapes all of us, and of course, contains its tipping point towards its fragmentation and end. The idea of progress, so endemic within our world, has to be tempered in equal measure with the idea of actioned sustainability (by everyone), and for the greater part of our human narrative this necessary balance has been conspicuous by its absence. It’s the Nash equilibrium on a global scale. The sun will rise and fall and rise again long after we and our ideas ("consensual hallucinogenics" - William Gibson) have disappeared. There is a fashionable theory doing the rounds at the moment that we are all living in a simulacrum. We are, but not the one postulated by these philosophers, we live every moment of everyday in a simulacrum of our own making, we live in our idea-space which is interwoven with every thing at every moment of our existence; nothing more and nothing less.
Uniformagazine is a quarterly publication by Colin Sackett in the UK. I suspect like many who read this newsletter, our eyes are occasionally caught by a modest publication that has a poetry to its intent that somehow resonates within us. Uniformagazine, for me, is one such publication. It is centred on the visual and literary arts, cultural geography and history, music and bibliographic studies and is a quiet joy to behold.
In concert with the magazine is Uniformbooks, producing simiarly modest publications with a bewitching resonance; Sonorama, Listening to the view from the train, In the field, the Art of Field Recording and Anticipatory History being a few of their titles.