Back Alley Poster Show
Designer Erik Brandt’s world-famous garage gallery
In Minnesota on a 20-below-zero day, Erik Brandt is certainly not alone in his liberal use of windshield-wiper fluid to stave off ice formation. But he’s not using it on his windshield.
For the past 15 months, Brandt, a professor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, has been curating an outdoor poster show by an array of global graphic design innovators. He’s featured work by icons, iconoclastic young phenoms, and little-known student talents alike, mixing names likes Ed Fella, Shiraz Gallab, Felix Pfäffli, Reza Abedini, Janneke Meekes, and Terrell Davis.
Brandt’s gallery is a 36 x 72-inch panel on the side of his garage in Minneapolis’ Powderhorn Park neighborhood, a humble space that every Friday counts among its visitors the stinking truck that clatters by to haul off garbage. Come January, this is where the wiper fluid — and more critically, its methanol additive — comes in handy. “Even with hot, right-off-the-stove wheat paste you can see it brrrrrrrrrrt, foaming up,” he says, inserting a crystalline sound effect. “I figured out a way to add a splash of windshield-wiper fluid, and it worked. It gives you 10 seconds to work before it freezes.”
Designers from literally all corners of the globe — South Korea, the UK, Russia, Singapore, Australia, Italy, Chile, the Netherlands, Brazil, Egypt, and South Africa, among others—have submitted work for presentation on this unlikely canvas in this unlikely outpost of cutting-edge design. Nearly 650 works by more than 300 designers have been featured since June of 2013, each printed out by Brandt on a high-quality black-ink printer on white, green, blue, yellow, or pink bond paper.
Dubbed Ficciones Typografika, the project has no rules, no submission fee, no pay, and no deadline. “It feels very intimate and private” during these early stages, when it’s just Brandt, his wheat paste, and eventually the designer, who he’ll invariably mail a snapshot to. But then comes its life online: each work — sometimes a design by one artist filling the entire space, sometimes a trio of 24 x 36-inch posters by three artists, curated and arranged by Brandt — is photographed and shared on Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, or Facebook, where a typical post can get up to between 10,000 and 50,000 likes. From there, it gets picked up by design media: It’s Nice That (UK), designboom (Italy), Desktop (Australia), IDPURE (Switzerland), étapes (France), Creative Review (UK), to name a few.
The project seems to scratch an itch for designers who feel encumbered by the strictures of client work or design-school projects. A temporary autonomous zone in a weird enough place to be appealing, it’s become a platform where designers and artists can play, experiment, and then converse about their ideas. For Brandt, though, the itch it scratches springs directly from his biography. A third-culture kid who’s lived more of his life abroad than in his native U.S., Brandt has finally settled down in Minneapolis, yet his global wanderlust remains unabated. Ficciones Typografika is one of his vital links to the rest of the world.
Born in Missoula, Montana, Brandt, now 46, spent most of his youth abroad. His father’s tenure with the Peace Corps moved the family first to Cameroon then to Malawi. As his dad shifted to work as a teacher and schools administrator, the family moved around more: Montana, New Hampshire, Cairo, three cities in northern Germany. Enrolled in international schools there, he remembers playing soccer with friends: “We’d be speaking five or six different languages together. I didn’t know everything, but I knew key phrases. People would just stare at us: “Where are these kids from?!”
It was college that brought him back to the States — first Middlebury, then, after dropping out to spend a few years as a bike messenger in Washington, DC during the height of the city’s punk hardcore heyday, William & Mary. He spent a year in Germany putting his university philosophy degree to work as a teacher. Then it was off to Japan, where he caught the design bug.
While teaching English in Fukuoka, he stumbled upon Radar magazine, an English-language monthly. He began drawing a comic strip for them, and eventually worked his way to writer and then editor. The omnipresence of design in Japan, both contemporary and historical, was striking. “Walking down the street there was like moving between the sublime and the profane every few seconds,” he says. After Radar, “it was a really logical leap from an interest in words and language and culture to then creating form out of that.”
Returning to the US, he earned his MFA in visual communication at Virginia Commonwealth University and began teaching. After a few posts in the US, he was back to international travel. With his wife, Elisabeth Workman, a poet now known for her affiliation with the Flarf movement, he moved to Doha and taught at VCU’s Qatar campus. In 2007, he accepted a position at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and finally put his nomadism — at least physically — to an end.
“As a kid, I envied people who had grown up somewhere,” he recalls. “I don’t think I ever lived in the same house for longer than three years, until this house. I definitely admire and respect people who have strong roots somewhere.” With the 1921 two-story on East 36th Street, it appears Brandt may be becoming one of those people.
When he started out as a professional designer, Brandt’s multilingual background inspired the original name for his studio: ¡ü16.øäk! (pronounced “uh-zhe-schten-ük”). It’s a nod to some of the languages he speaks and others he likes — German, French, Norwegian, Swiss — with the K from his first name thrown in. “I thought it was a cool way to retain both an old-school design anonymity, where you’re a servant of the message and you don’t show off your personality, and a way of having an idiosyncrasy,” he recalls. But nobody could pronounce it and, as a design mentor pointed out, it’s a name that couldn’t easily be reproduced on a paycheck. He changed the studio name to Typografika, the Czech word for typographic unions.
For his garage-wall poster project, he decided to mash that term up with the title of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges’ famed anthology, Ficciones. “I loved the worlds he built within these short stories, or even smaller paragraphs, which were so erudite, so academic, and so dense that you believed them, but they were complete fiction.”
But what are “typographic fictions”? It’s hard to explain. By way of example, he points to two tattoos, one on each forearm. With the weight and structure of letterforms, they appear to be typography, but the forms are not actually from our alphabet. They’re reproductions of experiments he did years ago with Letraset, sheets of waxy paper filled with lettering that can be dry-transfered to paper. He created them by overlaying letters from the typeface Microgramma, and they were featured on his first two installations for Ficciones Typografika. “These forms are completely fictional,” he says. “They may look like a language — that’s OK with me — but I’m more interested in the form, its dynamic and how you’re pushing the edge of the paper or challenging the oblique — these kind of formal concerns.”
Put more succinctly, Brandt says the project is “just a way of inviting experimental work that’s non-commercial-based.”
That’s the appeal for many of the contributors to Ficciones Typografika. “It means that you write your own story, your own brief,” says Sarah Boris, a French designer based in London, who created a poster (below) for the project shortly after Nelson Mandela passed away, inspired by his life and work. “It’s stories written by designers. It’s like a giant ongoing exquisite corpse that doesn’t necessarily make sense as one narrative but that makes sense day by day, each time a new poster appears online and on the wall of the garage.”
The project’s open-endedness ensures diverse content, from the overtly political to the puzzlingly cryptic; and styles from traditional to transgressively experimental. Some of the more direct messages have come from Brandt himself — addressing drones, guns, the unjust imprisonment of Ukrainian designer Anton Stogov, and NSA spying.
Iranian designer Iman Raad used the full board for a commentary on US/Iranian relations: identical monsters, each holding a telephone and each country’s flag, can’t seem to make eye contact. Alluding to the former alliance between countries, text between them reads, “Can you ever be friend with your ex?”
Minneapolis designer Matt Rezac’s triptych reads: “If the guns don’t get us, the ocean will.”
“As designers and artists, we produce more than we actually can show,” says Rejane Dal Bello, a Brazilian designer working in London. “And most of the work is controlled or dictated by a ‘why’ and ‘for whom.’ This space takes that out of the equation and lets us show whatever we want.”
For Dal Bello and others, this is where they can break the rules. Says Brandt: “Some of these designers are doing things that you don’t do. You don’t stretch type. You don’t emboss. There’s a lot of really cutting-edge kids, and there’s a genuine conversation happening among them… Some young French designer is probably wanting to talk more to his peers in England, but he’s doing it through this weird node in Minneapolis.” He cites contributors like the UK’s Kia Tasbihgou; UK-born, US-based David Rudnick, Singapore’s Darius Ou, and the French team My Name Is Wendy (Carole Gautier and Eugénie Favre), to name a few.
Most of the contributions—and much of the attention garnered by Ficciones Typografika — come from overseas. The response within US design culture, however, has been “tepid,” says Brandt, who attributes it to a fixation with commerce instead of innovation within American design. As evidence, he points at the AIGA, which recently changed the rules for its national competition, requiring designers to “justify” their work; that is, each entrant must write an explanation of its effectiveness in meeting a client’s goals. Famously decrying the move in 2012, Pentagram’s Paula Scher argued, “When we cut creativity and innovation as a primary goal out of the criteria of AIGA’s last remaining competition in order to prove our ‘value’ to clients, we not only lose our opportunity to learn and our capacity to grow, we also lose our souls.”
Brandt positions his project at the other end of a spectrum. “It’s a community of people who are — it sounds so corny — just dreaming. People experimenting and doing something idiosyncratic, for no other reason than that they want to do it.” He pauses, then adds, “What other art form that was ever good came from wanting to be a commercial superstar?”
Sarah Boris, who has worked at the Barbican, ICA London, and now Phaidon Press, concurs: “The graphic design industry is so elitist and tends to only highlight the same designers over and over again, so what Erik created is incredibly refreshing. It gives a voice to many designers in the world, from the famous to the unknown.”
Brandt himself is known internationally for his work, and his network of peers includes many graphic design legends. But locally, it’s this little project on the alley that has garnered him the most celebrity. During a recent visit to Target, someone approached him and said, “You’re that artist — the posters!”
For the most part, these encounters happen at the garage, as Brandt puts up the latest work. One day a shirtless construction worker came down the alley in a truck: “I’ve gotta ask you, man: What the fuck is this? It’s driving me crazy. I love it, don’t get me wrong. Just, what is it?” And, Brandt reports, neighbors (this writer included) have altered their dog-walking and biking routes to make sure to pass by and see what’s new on the poster wall.
For Brandt, the location is key, simply because — as with all the global cities where he’s invested time, energy, and rent— it’s the place he now calls home. Powderhorn Park, a block to the north, is at the heart of a working-class neighborhood shared by many artists and social justice activists. It’s home to immigrants from South and Central America, and more recently, east Africa. It’s his global village in some ways, although he confesses that “it’d be so cool if [Ficciones Typografika] was in downtown Amsterdam, but it would totally be taken for granted.”
The strangeness of the locale is what appeals to Dal Bello, who has never been to Minnesota. “It’s not the online aspect at all that interested me. It is exactly that it is in the streets of a real place and a humble setting, but it is real! That is what is great! This is not a designers-to-designers project only. It will touch people on their way to work, or people can say, ‘Shall we go to that garage today and see what’s on this week?’”
For others — including Index/Index, a collaboration between Isaac “Izzy” Berenson and Sarah Honeth — the geography is inconsequential. “How you become aware of something today is not what the thing is about,” they write in an email. “Erik can put something on a wall in Minnesota but it might as well be on the wall in Siberia. The poster is short-lived in installation and extends its longevity in the digital world.”
While wheat-pasting the stucco garage in below-zero temperatures may be a solitary act, Brandt is acting as part of a massively distributed but strongly connected network of collaborators. “To me, this is a borderless and timeless project that is the start of a new community, online and offline,” says Boris. “I would love it if we all could meet one day on Erik’s street. But he has already managed to do that, in a way.”
All photos courtesy of Erik Brandt.