We couldn't be more excited for the fourth annual Illustrative 2008 Festival in Zürich, Switzerland from October 18 – 26. The event, which has previously been hosted in Berlin and Paris by Pascal Johanssen (of Galerie Johanssen), has only gained traction and acclaim over the course of its relatively short life.
We reported on the week-long shindig a while back, so get the objective information there. Now, though, we present to you a conversation with Johanssen himself.
For starters, could you tell me a little bit about Illustrative, how it was formed, what the impetus was to create it, and what it's evolved into in the three years of its existence?
The idea behind ILLUSTRATIVE is to show free experimental works of illustrators and thus art from “craftspeople” and artists working on commission whose artistic outputs normally are not found in an exhibition context. The quality of this “forgotten art” being presented at ILLUSTRATIVE, has totally surprised many of our visitors in the first years.
Meanwhile one can observe a current has developed in recent years―we call it “illustrative art”―having emancipated itself from classical illustration. The result is a fresh independent art genre affected by handcraft and graphic, which is not only expressing itself in pictures but also manifesting in many facets – beyond the limits of handcraft disciplines, and fine arts. ILLUSTRATIVE annually presents a platform for this kind of art. The event itself is actually a two-week-festival part form, part forum, part exhibition alternately taking place in Berlin as well as in other international metro poles.
Where do you come from, exactly? I understand that your a gallery curator, but more broadly, what're your art world interest and skills?
I have no real art background, I am rather a discoverer. I was always interested in graphics and comic art, but I am not a typical art dealer or something like that.
Before starting the gallery I worked as a research assistant at the University of Arts in Berlin in the field of innovation research. What makes a new idea successful? How are the processes behind new economical or even cultural movements structured? The evolution of ideas : Why are some ideas successful, some not? These were the questions I tried to answer within the last years. Funny to see the reality now…
You seem very drawn to the notion of connecting art and commerce (and the tension that exists between the two). How does the art vs. commerce “battle” manifest itself today and what steps is Illustrative taking to approach and mend the problem?
Art and commerce were always connected. Pop Art freed itself only partially from being charged of economic dependency, which is said to restrict the liberty vital to art. At the same time the free artist as well needs to live on his work and therefore is bound by the market’s demand. At best this fact itself becomes subject of an artwork. Damien Hirst’s Diamond Skull itself seems to be much less interesting than its―in both meanings―performance in the market.
In contrast, designers have the opportunity to find forms and expressions in his or her medium without boundaries of the market. Because they live on forming products, the forms they find independent from a product just as a personal expression have no need to be sold. This kind of work by designers, what is free of appliance, is therefore to be regarded as art – even though their creator may be working applied as well.
Over the recent century the history of art offers numerous examples for the lively interchange between fine and applied arts and design and how similar their topics are. Fine and applied arts cannot be separated in the way which is implied by the separation of their institutions. Historians and theorists of art therefore began to discuss both as different manifestations of the same phenomenon. An exhaustive examination of art it is necessary to make the hitherto neglected works visible and bring them into the light of exhibitions.
The ILLUSTRATIVE presents a facet of contemporary art―and a facet of art which comes from a commercial background. More than that, our actual intention is to reveal a current, which already existed beyond contemporary art and its market, and will exist further on: the world of the new demanding handcraft deserves the same appreciation as art. ILLUSTRATIVE presents works which unite artistic and handcraft tendencies. It is the new forms of design emerging from this mix that we want to show. Illustration being rooted in handcraft, but artistically developing freely, is a prototype for this current.
What drew you to Zürich for this year's festival?
We have an deeply international approach. That’s why we are traveling: First Berlin, then Paris, now Zürich. Switzerland has a long tradition in graphic design. This will be our last show in central Europe in the next two years before coming to Dubai then in March 2009.
You're bringing thirty-five artists to the event, all of whom are working with different mediums, in different cities/countries, in different languages, and from different perspectives. How do you plant to bring the possible chaos together and how does the incredibly varied nature of the event benefit it in the end?
Illustrative is not documenta. We present a specialized type of artist. The artists working in the field between fine art, applied art and design. Illustrators are not respected in the art world. He is an outsider. This is the main intellectual challenge. According to the established definition an illustration is an image supporting a text, it is not considered apart from a text. Therefore the fine arts consider the illustration to be an antipol to free art and devaluated as „technically bounded“. The term „contemporary illustrative art“ is challenging this position. The idea of a free art being handled as a law in the art world today is pure fiction itself, lasting from the establishment as artes liberales in the renaissance on to the pretended sterility of the art modernism. We are giving up this fiction. That's what you see in this exhibition.
The cultural globalization is another point : A globalized culture is probably chaotic―we want to show the art of our generation. It’s purely globalized, different and difficult.
But when you look closer you will see that it’s not really a fuzzy front end but a common visual language which is similar in all projects and artworks. And, last but not least : Graphical styles and techniques―in contrast to the technical variety of paintings for example―are always very different. This seems to be surprising for a lot of people.
I'm very interested in your Young Illustrators Award. What is the purpose of this facet of Illustrative 2008? How did you organize it?
To make young, still unknown talents visible―this is the idea behind the YIA. Actually what every art competition wants to achieve. ILLUSTRATIVE offers the winner the opportunity to become part of the main exhibition and to exhibit alongside international renowned artists. If the main exhibition then moves from town to town with a similar selection and thus introduces the artist internationally it can be of great value for a young artist’s career.
We want to gain an international creative exchange. We try our best―that means we want to talk to artists all over the world in their native language (if we can). That’s also the reason why we started blogs in different languages: German, English, Chinese, Russian, French, Spanish, Italian… not everybody speaks English. And there is no need, there are so many valuable languages, styles and unique approaches which has to be respected. I love global diversity. And I am no fan of the idea of an mono-cultural global village. It’s good to be proud of the own roots.
You seem very theoretical in tact and approach. What are the core problems and questions that you're trying to solve or answer? Who of the past inspires you to look at the art world in such a way? Does your German nationality effect the manner in which you approach these things?
I am very influenced by the German Bauhaus. They build (in their international teams) a new world. In the 30ies they were innovative, in nearly every field. They tried to solve problems with the potential of art and design. This has nothing to do with our stylish and boring art market in these days. The Bauhaus really inspires me.
One important question is to re-think art again. We are talking―in all magazines―always about the art market and it’s commercial aspects―but is this really interesting?
We can think f.ex. about the fusion of fine art and applied arts again. Some terms sound so reactionary that one automatically stops thinking about them. Applied art has always been a term that depressed me. If you say “design” or “contemporary art” it immediately opens a door. It includes progressive forms, new concepts, and an alternative view of the world. Then there was Daniel Richter or Jonathan Meese in a frock and trainers in their studios. Art was Berlin, the galleries, the art fairs, the art market and the pool parties in Miami, which one had barely any chance to be invited to. So much depends on terminology. One catches oneself being fooled by words, although fundamentally they don’t change what it’s really about. Therefore we didn’t have a choice: This project is basically about applied art, so let’s call it what it is.
What we are talking about however differs quite a lot from traditional crafts. In this exhibition (Illustrative) we want to talk about art forms whose works were made in the spirit of applied art, but which are created in new ways. This art form has developed from the current culture living after the millennium; it is about new visual routines and aesthetic phenomena, which are neither design nor fine art in the conventional sense. Many works and attitudes of the 25- to 45-year-old artists, the illustrators, draftsmen, glass, pottery, textile or book artists don’t fit into any boxes. They are too idiosyncratic for a design that has to arrange with the mass market and too romantic for an art world removed from the real world, like back in the times of the courts. Illustrative is for an art that can live happily with being a combination of applied and free art.
This may be pointless to ask, but… what's in store for you and Illustrative in the future? Anything new and exciting on the table?
We have to discover a lot. We have to look behind the curtain of illustrative art, behind it’s trendy surface. Is there anything strong, strong enough to survive within the next years ?
Our goal is an exact theoretical description of illustrative art; real explanations, descriptions or art-theoretical analysis for this art movement are still missing at present period. In order to remedy this we are working on discussion forums panels of experts, and a publication for which we asked illustrators and academics to formulate their characterization of contemporary illustrative art.
The mixture of art and handcraft as well as such an intense exchanged between the disciplines is not understood. Only spatial proximity, forums, circles, joint exhibition projects, makes it possible. In the last decades the exchange between the forming elites of different disciplines was missing, which had its consequences. The classic art craft lapsed more and more and became unspectacular as it was no longer able to get its inspiration from art. The inner renewal failed to appear. On the other hand free artists who were depended on craftspeople because as conceptual or installation artists they were not able to realize their drafts, completely lost any relation to material, to technical skills and finally to sensuality. The “creative”, the flowing and unique character of designing was abandon in favour of the “good idea” in contemporary art. Today many notice that the “good idea” alone is no longer sufficient. The giant spectacular artworks made by many of today’s artists, which can also emanate from the brainstorming of an agency, pall after just a few minutes.
Sensuality is being rediscovered in illustrative art; the mutual enrichment across the disciplines is a characteristic of illustrative art. Graphic and illustration here, form the graphical basic discipline, which is sending creative impulses in different directions; advertisement, textile art and fashion, ceramics, wall painting (wall paper), or conceptual arts (which once was scenery painting for opera or theatre and now is set-design for computer games). This is the big difference to photography, photography in magazines has taken over a similar function as illustrations, namely describing and supporting a text, it is not affecting other disciplines that intensely. Illustration sends signals. Our intention is to make these signals more visible at ILLUSTRATIVE.