Paper & The Digital Age
Interview by Véronique Vienne for a book by Arjowiggins

What place does paper occupy in your graphic design practice?

I was trained as a graphic designer but I don’t consider myself a graphic designer. The reason is that for me the word « graphic » suggests an image, and I am not so much concerned with images. I am much more concerned with concepts.

Yet your concepts are translated into forms — forms that are often made of paper.

For most graphic designers, paper is a surface on which words and images can be printed. But for me, paper was never a medium for graphics. Even as a student, I considered paper to be an object, one with with six sides: a front, a back, and four edges.

Today, I use paper as a material, and the thicker the paper, the more obvious its materiality. I even stack sheets of paper to create piles of it. That’s the principle I use when I make my felt-tips designs. I observe the way the ink from the magic markers penetrates the various sheets of paper, layers of it. I do not consider the top layer to be the original, on the contrary. I am just as fascinated by what happens as the ink seeps through the next four or five layers.

How would you describe the “materiality” of paper?

What I like about paper is the fact that it’s so humble. It’s a quality that I have appreciated all my life. Paper is ubiquitous, available, affordable, and generic. I am fascinated by the everydayness of it. A blank piece of paper has infinite potential — you can do so many things with it: you can write on it, draw on it, paint on it, fold it, cut it, etc.

What’s more, paper is forgiving. I don’t get frustrated with paper the way I do with computers. The screen, the interface… they are limited, and I don’t always understand how to work with them. With the digital tools I quickly meet my own limitations whereas with paper I can experiment as I please.

Are you saying that the humbleness of paper, its non-assuming qualities, its muted presence — these are the very qualities that make it precious to you?

What I am trying to say is that what you do with paper will elevate it to another level. You can transform the most ordinary paper into something sublime by bringing out one of its conceptual dimensions.

The things I make are always conceptual objects. I happen to be making a lot of conceptual objects with paper. In that sense — and in that sense only — is paper an extension of my practice.

What other conceptual objects do you make with paper?

I do something called “one-minute circles”. I draw circles freehand, with my pen moving at the same speed as the seconds around the clock — without it leaving the page. I also do “60-minute circles.” It’s a lot more meditative! One-hour circle means that my hand must move on the surface of the paper no faster than the minutes around the clock.

When I do workshops or performances in museums or galleries, I can enroll participants to draw larger circles freehand. Eventually, I figured out how to fit 60 people around a single sheet of paper to draw “one-hour circles” in one minute — or “one-minute circles” in one second. In both cases, the circles are drawn simultaneously in 60 sections.

You also create quite a few “card” projects: postcards, greeting cards, business cards. How do these cards figure in your work?

I love books — but printing books is expensive, whereas you can make an edition of 100 cards for almost no money. In the past I would print these cards on the edges of other people’s projects, on the parts of the paper that are usually thrown away. I would speak to the printer and he would let me fit my cards into the margins. But these margins are usually small, thus the format of my small editions!

Do people collect your cards the way they might collect posters?

I don’t want to encourage people to collect what I make. I refuse to do stuff that contributes to the clutter. Even though paper is quite ubiquitous and available, we should be conscious of the way we use it. We should not print things that are unnecessary.

Are you saying that cards are less wasteful than posters?

For me, what matters is the conceptual dimension of a project. As a rule, I like to create objects that can only exist in the format they are in. In that respect, some of my cards are something of a dilemma, because more and more people send invitations by emails. If a greeting card or an invitation can be replaced by a digital file, I don’t want to print them.

On the other hand, I still do postcards because they have a front and a back (and four edges) and the experience of looking at them recto-verso cannot be replicated digitally.

I am not a collector. When people send me cards, I don’t keep them — I don’t like to keep too many things around. The same way, I don’t send my cards to people who are going to collect them. I prefer to send them to friends who will look at them and then dispose of them in the waste bin. As I said, what I like are concepts more than images. Once you get a concept, you don’t have to hold on to it. That’s the beauty of it.

I noticed that you also like to turn books into concepts.

Yes, I am interested in aspects of books other people tend to ignore: the weight of the paper, for instance. I have a small installation with heavy books lined up on a thin shelf in such a way as to make the shelf bend, but the top of the books are perfectly lined up.

In another experiment, I photocopied every page of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary to produce a stack of more than fifteen hundred pages. The copies are more valuable than the original due to the time and expense invested in making them. The height of the stack of copies (about three times that of the book) makes the amount of information more tangible and more weighty — physically and conceptually.

Once, with the twenty volumes of the Oxford Dictionary, I created a big circle of books with their binding opening up slightly and their covers touching the covers of adjacent books. In a way it was a perfect circle, one formed by every single word and every single definition of the English language.

Some years ago, I designed a book of photographs in which the horizon of the pictures disappears into the centerfold, forcing readers to crack the binding to get the full view, thus generating a morphologic change in the shape of the book as a whole.

How about the way you reuse adhesive labels — the stickers that you peel and reapply on different surfaces?

I can see what you are driving at! You are connecting these projects because they are all made of paper, but in fact they have nothing to do with each other — or at least paper is not the connection between them. I work with books, for instance, but it’s not because they are made of paper. It’s not why they interest me. What interests me is their thingness.

I am known to use books as currency, for example. I like to swap them as an alternative to money. This is the way I got quite a few of my favourite books.

I get inundated with requests for interviews. I usually spend more time responding than people do sending me an email. So by asking them to give me a book in return, I weed away those who are not sincerely motivated. At the same time, it’s so much nicer to own books given than books purchased. And when I open one of these books, I remember what I did or what I made in order to acquire it. It charges that book with a backstory.

What can I give you in exchange for this interview?

I’d like to ask you for the most beautiful conceptual book ever made – plus it uses paper in a perfect way. It’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip by Edward Ruscha (1966).