On the second iteration of our short interview series, we discuss with Laura Pappa her previous experience with the Asterisk Summer School in Estonia and aspects of her own practice.
By Kristina Ketola Bore
Kristina Ketola Bore: This is the second summer school you are participating in as a tutor. The Asterisk Summer School you organise with Elisabeth Klement is also happening for the 3d time this year, in Tallinn. What role do you see the summer school playing in the context of graphic design, both educational and practical?
Laura Pappa: For us one of the key elements at play here is that the summer school format allows us to be completely independent. This means that we can offer a relatively diverse and perhaps experimental curriculum, without worrying about possible failure or whether we are innovative enough, etc. We can test things out and adapt accordingly in the following edition. This is the premise under which we accept students as well – of course the list of participating tutors is fixed, but what exactly will be happening – who knows. Something we like to stress is that we never strive for an outcome when it comes to the workshops.
It’s really all about experiencing something, about working together and thinking together, about getting to know people, perhaps also yourself, about having a good time, and so on. Of course essentially it is still a graphic design summer school but I think it’s safe to say that we’re keen on leaving what that exactly means for everybody participating to interpret, and also contribute to. There are some designers involved for sure, there’s some workshops happening, some people will be there, and something will most certainly go down. But the idea of getting out of the classroom is definitely something that prevails. You could say that the buzzing summer atmosphere is a kind of starting point to the whole endeavour, and that by itself fills or puts together the programme one way or another, with a little help from us and the people participating.
*PS, I’m not teaching at the ASS this year, just organizing.
KK: You've recently worked on the publication series ‘Exercises in Practical Mischievery’ (Speculative Press) – what do you think looking at different forms of communication can tell us about the way graphic designers communicate?
LP: The series of pamphlets sets out to explore the variety of communication tools at our disposal on a daily basis – not us the graphic designers, but rather people in general. The series as a whole could primarily be looked at from the point of view of self-organization and a kind of ad hoc attitude towards finding means to get the word out on more or less anything. This is also the common practice of the protagonists in the series.
But to answer your question, the series is not at all a commentary on how graphic designers go about using the tools at hand. It would be easy to say that perhaps we’re not always as open-minded in this as we could be, but that’s not the bottom line. What could be interesting here is to think about the future prospects of a designer’s practice, both on a service-based but even more so on a self-appointed level. How could we make further use of our set of abilities, skills and external tools? What could this enhancement (or call it what you will) result in?
I get the feeling that the practice hasn’t really reached its potential, but at the same time I wonder if what I have in mind could actually still be called graphic design. But perhaps that’s not important at all. The important thing is: we’ve got some pretty powerful, I keep saying tools but I just can’t find a better word, at our disposal, what are we going to do about it, how can we put them into practice and what could be the potential outcome of that.
KK: Something that I am very interested in, is the way the GD scene in Estonia has such a close relationship with the Netherlands through institutions like the Rietveld, for example. You have also had an education that started off in Tallinn and then brought you to the Rietveld and Werkplaats Typografie – and then back to Tallinn as a guest tutor at the academy. As an independent nation, Estonia is still very young – how do you see this exchange affecting the heritage of Estonia, and the development of a national aesthetic identity?
LP: Having had the opportunity to observe the above-mentioned institutions very closely, I can say they all differ from each other a whole lot. It’s difficult to exactly pinpoint what these institutions represent in the present moment – but I think it’s safe to say all these places are in a constant state of change, reconfiguring their identity as they go along. This definitely goes for the art academy in Tallinn as well. Connection to Netherlands and the approach to design there has brought in a lot of fresh air in terms of working methods and models, as well as how graphic design and graphic designers are perceived and commissions handled. Quite a few young design studios have sparked – something that more or less didn’t exist five years ago.
But more specifically about aesthetics, somehow I don’t see this ever becoming an issue. I find it a pity that this relatively specific approach to design is often diminished into talking about the aesthetics of it, while in fact to me it rather signifies an attitude and a means of thinking about design. Of course a kind of aesthetics has developed hand in hand with that thinking, and indeed you can witness signs of that in Estonia as well. But to begin with, as this model of working (as well as aesthetic) is distributed via the art academy and the people teaching there, you could say that at least at this point it only reaches the margins of the society. As this approach is still relatively new there, I imagine it’s only in the coming years that it can start taking a face of its own. So you could say it’s a kind of trial period we’re witnessing.
I’d rather welcome it with open arms that students are keen on trying out forms they come across on a daily basis – it’s only later that they will begin developing a language of their own. Looking back at my days at the art academy in Tallinn, the approach put forward there was very much an analytical as well as social one, where the way of working and approaching work derived from the so-called Dutch model, as well as the aesthetics of it, were soon confronted with the minds of these awfully down to earth, rational and straight-forward Estonian people. I imagine this could be one of the key differences in this questions you’re raising.
KK: There was also a recent debate in Estonia in the GD community, where a practitioner from the more commercial part of the GD field went so far as saying that the Estonian academy «didn’t exist», meaning he didn’t see them as being relevant to the national field at large. This divide – how do you see it affecting the GD field in your home country?
LP: As much as I root for my colleagues back home that are working there independently, this professional reality you describe is one I’ve never had an opportunity to be a part of. Thus I can only comment on this as an outsider. In fact, luckily or unluckily I’ve had very little contact with the commercial graphic design world in general.
As far as this divide goes, I believe this exists everywhere. Also at the art academy in Estonia you see how some students, perhaps even a half of them, after graduating decide to join a more commercial agency. Obviously working as a freelancer or setting up a smaller studio doesn’t happen overnight. It requires work, time, contacts, etc. But as I’ve understood from friends active in the graphic design field there and nowadays smaller studios have more and more access to bigger commissions. Thus I imagine there’s currently a relatively healthy situation in terms of diversity in the kind of players around. The more independent part of the field is slowly gaining more relevance, which makes for a richer field in general, and contributes to establishing the practice as an integral part of the cultural sphere.
KK: When we were teaching parallel in Tallinn last year, I was fascinated by the difference in outcome generated by the students. I particularly loved when one of the students did a rap performance inspired by Kanye West (How great was that?!). What does it mean to you to teach graphic design where the performative aspect is as its core?
LP: The Articulation Convention is a project centred around a very specific aspect of life – it proposes to look at our daily communication as a set of inherently constructed situations where movements, gestures and words are all dressed up to suit a specific context. The workshop model is a sort of guided self-help book that is meant to be performed in a group in order to learn the tools necessary to cope with the reality described above. These abilities are of course essential in a work setting (as described by Erving Goffman in ‘A Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’ (Anchor Books, 1959). This is where we come to the daily routines of a designer.
LP: My understanding of the graphic design practice one could say is a relatively conservative one, where the emphasis lies on the people I’m working for and with. I’m very much interested in working closely together with clients, but for each project I like to define what that specific collaboration exactly means. Matters like analysing the behaviour and personality of whom I’m dealing with have become increasingly important; in order to produce the kind of work that serves the intentions of the project as well as the people behind it. This is one of the key moments where I see this performative aspect coming to play. Analysis of the people could very literally be approached via a kind of role-play, where you’re trying to metaphorically become someone else to understand how they function and think. On a completely different note, I also see this performative tool being useful in the context of persuasion and, more generally, presentation. If we’re all so often playing a role anyway, why not consciously use it in order to reach both personal and professional goals? These kinds of questions are generally not covered in design education, and that’s where the above-mentioned workshop project sets off.
KK: A lot of your work is concentrated on self-presentation and different ways of expression – why do you think it's important for graphic designers to work based on personal interest and self-understanding, both on the professional and personal level?
LP: Though self-presentation I find an incredibly fascinating subject, I mainly see it as a tool among many other tools. I guess you could say that when it comes to commissions, I rather prefer to keep personal interests out of the game, and concentrate on what old or new there is to find within the assignment. Expression and means of expression might indeed be better terms though – as in the end, what else is graphic design rather than an expression or presentation of something. Visual communication should to some extent be able to cater to covering the multitude of different voices and nuances present in human communication.
Ever since I began working and thinking within this field, one of the key questions for me has been how to produce work with very diverse character out the material that is already there, without falling into the trap of constantly repeating oneself. Of course when working on multiple projects at the same time, patterns begin to occur and obviously it’s difficult to run away from developing a kind of aesthetics or underlying principle specific to your work. But perhaps forever chasing the tail of this language that constantly reinvents itself is enough to keep up the attitude of curiosity that can in the end still produce work with a diverse nature. And in the end of course it’s the context that defines the meaning of the elements present in the outcome.
About Laura Pappa
Laura is a freelance graphic designer based in Amsterdam. She has graduated from the Estonian Academy of Arts in Tallinn, Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam and Werkplaats Typografie in Arnhem. Since 2014 she has been the coordinator of the Critical Studies masters programme at the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam.