Like Quentin Fiore in Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage, Brian Roettinger has been given equal billing alongside Aaron Rose and Mandy Kahn as co-author of Collage Culture. Here, Martha Read shines a spotlight on how Brian Roettinger’s design concept plays a pivotal role in how the book is read and exactly why that was relevant to the subject matter within it.
Roettinger’s dynamic typography gives Collage Culture lightness, employing design to rescue an argument that could have been taken as a classic case of the older generation grumbling about the shortcomings of the next one (“young people nowadays just don’t know how to rebel properly…” etc.). His design also lends broader, contemporary appeal to the book, intentionally distancing it from too academic or serious an image, and allowing it to be read it in a nonlinear way by providing visual variety – all of which should appeal to a generation whose attention spans have been shot to pieces by the daily bombardment of images, sped-up film edits, and so on. The typography does nothing to distract from the content; indeed it serves to reinforce the arguments, almost forcing the reader to ‘slow down’ at certain points rather than skim through.
It’s authors state that Collage Culture is intended to provoke conversation rather than provide any answers, and the central essay, ‘Rules for a Composition’, does just that. In the midst of a book that calls for artists to create original work, we are presented with ‘artworks’ from which the artist is removed, with computers instead generating some surprisingly compelling images based on a set of rules for composition set down by Roettinger, in the tradition of John Cage and Sol LeWitt. This was not the authors’ original plan: they invited artists to produce collages devoid of references, but most came back to them saying they were unable to meet the challenge. The computer assisted solution, executed by Chandler McWilliams, raises issues of agency, automatism and the creative process, and is complemented by a film version in which McWilliams created a programme which chooses then compiles images based on Google searches of words or phrases from the book.
The whole Collage Culture enterprise – including tapes, recordings, readings, and movies – is a collage of media that throws down a gauntlet to artists, urging them to do something new and stop rehashing the past, or culture will eat itself. The idea of collage is used as a metaphor for this tendency, which Roettinger puts down to a commercial culture which requires things to look “fresh”, but resists novelty and the risks it entails. Just as films get endlessly remade, the decades of the last century are as mined and re-mined in graphic design as they are in fashion, art and music.
Roettinger himself prefers to get his inspiration from fields other than his own, and does not aspire to novelty for its own sake. The results of this unselfconsciousness should be heartening for those fearing that capitalism is destroying original thought. I’ll describe one of his projects as an example: a poster advertising an autumn lecture programme while he was design director at SCI-Arc, the school of Architecture in Los Angeles. Instead of the usual folded or rolled up two-dimensional poster, people were sent a box containing a hard, amorphous, bright pink, shrink-wrapped object. Piercing the wrapping, the recipient released a scrunched up ball of paper which opened out to become a beautiful poster with a soft fabric- like texture and crumpled surface. The three- dimensionality of the poster referred to the fact it was advertising lectures on 3-D art, while recalling Frank Gehry’s use of crumpled paper to get ideas for building forms (as mythologized in The Simpsons). The ‘poster’ also refers to the fate of most graphic design – ending up as rubbish – while the act of scrunching it up is both reversed in its ‘uncrumpling’, and given an ironic twist through being shrink-wrapped – a process usually applied to something that needs to be preserved. So, within this single, original work was fused (not collaged) various concepts (not empty visual references) relating to Los Angeles architecture, form, graphic design, value, waste, durability, and texture. And that is before we even get to the typography and printed design. The work may not be a subculture in the making (hard to keep this stuff away from prying eyes) but it is, like all of Roettinger’s work, rich in creative prowess. The authors of Collage Culture should take heart.