The conversation that follows was conducted by way of preparation for the exhibition Counterfeits, Disinformation and Frozen Images – the Design of Dalibor Martinis in the 70s and 80s in the HDD gallery. The interview was primarily to serve us as a guideline for the story we wanted to tell in the exhibition, but also to acquaint the public in as much detail as possible with the work of Martinis as graphic designer, with the circumstances in which this work was created, and also with the way the artist looks upon his design oeuvre today, which has over the decades been sidelined in comparison to his achievements in art. As one of the most important Croatian media artists, Martinis had a retrospective exhibition in the Museum of Contemporary Art (Muzej suvremene umjetnosti – MSU) in Zagreb. However, at this occasion, and because of the concept of the exhibition, his designs were left out regardless of extraordinarily tight connections, precisely through design, between Martinis and this central Croatian contemporary art institution. What is more, due to years of his work as a poster and publication designer for this institution, the MSU (in the 70s and 80s known as the Gallery of Contemporary Art), keeps in its collection probably more Martinis’ works of design than his works of art. In parallel, Martinis was also engaged as a designer for cinema, designing posters for films by directors such as Rajko Grlić and Lordan Zafranović. The most interesting ones were created for special occasions such as guest appearances at European film festivals. In the early seventies, he designed and did the layout for several journals, and between 1972 and 1974 with Sanja Iveković produced a series of television graphics as a part of the new visual identity being created for Radio Television Zagreb.
MG: When and in what circumstances did you begin to work in graphic design? Who were your first clients in the early seventies, before you began to work regularly for the Gallery of Contemporary Art?
DM: If I’m not mistaken, the first job, or one of the first, was to design and layout the weekly youth paper TLO-Tjedni list omladine which I did together with Gorki Žuvela in 1970/71, while we were still students at the Academy of Fine Arts. We knew almost nothing about this type of work, but we were self-confident enough to rush into it. The printing was done in the newspaper press still today known as Vjesnik, and the technology was letterpress. The graphic worker typed the text line by line on the linotype machine; every jab with the finger on the keyboard would throw out a steel character and when the line was ready, it was immediately cast in lead. Every printing block of cast text would weigh several kilos. We would be waiting by the table on which the workers would bring the setup blocks and check if everything corresponded with our drawings of the individual pages. We worked late at night when the newspaper press was not busy with the daily papers. In fact, the youth press was a proving ground for young artists, designers and photographers, because it was not subject to the same standards as the “official” press. It was possible to experiment more and make mistakes.
MG: To what extent did people trained at the Academy of Fine Arts at that time have the knowledge needed for them to practice design? Where was it possible to learn something about the practical aspects of design or acquire the first more or less painless experience?
DM: At the painting department of the Academy of Fine Arts, where I was, there were no courses on graphic design whatsoever, and I do not know whether there was anything of the kind in the graphic arts department, so we could find out about design only through practice or design journals. So-called youth press occupied a good deal of media space in the early 70s and provided some kind of more or less natural field of work. I had done some film posters for my schoolmate Rajko Grlić and then I started getting design jobs from Jadran Film. Despite all the technical constraints of silkscreen, I got the greatest pleasure out of making large sized posters in silkscreen printing because they afforded me more freedom than the standardised commercial offset formats that had to contain photos of the actors, scenes from the film and the entire cast.
My generation went into graphic design during the time of Letraset so that I did not have – as my older colleagues did – to master the technique of the hand writing of letters (although it was actually taught at the Academy of Fine Arts), which had previously been a precondition for any dabbling with graphic design.
“The reduced formal language of conceptual art on posters was identifiable from the standard unpretentious typography, the elementary composition, the minimal use of colour.”
MG: If we look at your generation of artists, particularly those who moved in the circles of the Student Centre Gallery and the GSU (Gallery of Contemporary Art), then the focal points of the New Art Practice, almost all the important artists among them produced larger or smaller design oeuvres – Sanja Iveković, you, Boris Bućan, Goran Trbuljak, Jagoda Kaloper, Davor Tomičić and others. I assume that naturally one of the reasons was the need to earn a living, but were there other motivations and reasons?
DM: Certainly, the prime reason was making a living. With our artistic activity, somewhere between conceptual and media art, we could not make a living, and graphic design was something that we could do in parallel with our artistic work. Nevertheless, apart from that, we who endeavoured to develop media practices and work with an awareness of the social and urban context in which we lived in graphic design we saw a chance to expand our field of action. The poster is something that belongs to the urban space and communicates directly with passers-by, which was certainly interesting for me because in the seventies I developed a very clear critical attitude to artistic institutions, museums, galleries, academies and so on. One of the exhibitions in which almost all of us that you have listed before took part was Possibilities for 71. The exhibition was curated by the late Davor Matičević from the GSU, but it was entirely oriented to urban interventions, that is, to public city space as the site of artistic communication. I did the poster for this exhibition which was itself a graphic and visual intervention in the city space because it could be stretched out modularly depending on the surface it was placed upon.
Possibilities for 1971, Exhibition Poster, Variable Dimensions, GSU 1971.
MG: In one of his articles Dejan Kršić actually describes this generation, and within it mentions artists like Boris Ljubičić, Davor Tomičić and Željko Borčić, as the first generation of “designers as art directors”, if I recall well, meaning someone whose job is not in the realm of manual skills or recognisable authorial visual style, but rather in the realm of concept. If we can simplify, the mood of the visual artists of the late sixties and early seventies was very similar. Did this have a part to play in your understanding of design as a practice, as a medium?
DM: I would say that several things came together here. The conceptual approach is something that we simply transferred from the sphere of art into graphic design. Ipso facto we automatically arrogated to ourselves some of the power of editors or art directors. Therefore, we did not work, as is usually the case, according to the ideas of an art director, but we had the freedom to create from concept to design. In my art practice, I have made use of photography, video, collage, clearly looking for space for work outside the classic artistic disciplines. If, for example, I made use of drawing, it was mostly in the sense of some meta-drawing, a quotation of a drawing or playing with the medium of drawing. All this often spilled over into the posters that I was then doing. The reduced formal language of conceptual art on posters was identifiable from the standard unpretentious typography, the elementary composition, the minimal use of colour.
MG: I find it interesting that the characteristic material artefacts of conceptual artists are actually those that belong in the domain of graphic design – printed matter, posters, publications, journals, artist’s books and even video, in the sense of it being correlated with mass media like TV and film. How would you account for this artistic preoccupation with these media in general, and particularly in the context of design?
DM: I think that all this stemmed from the need to move the work of art away from the sphere of classic exhibitions in the neutral gallery space, the so- called white box, in which the work of art is neutralised and fenced off from the real outside world. I think that an awareness of being steeped in some real social, cultural, political, media and urban surroundings was critical for my work even then, and so it is today. Hence, it was logical to make use of media and techniques that were not then recognised as artistic but did offer the possibility for reproduction and distribution outside the existing institutional framework. In the framework of the Podroom Artists’ Working Community that Sanja Iveković and I founded with a group of artists – Mladen Stilinović, Vlado Martek, Goran Trbuljak, Goran Petercol and others – we published an alternative journal, The First Issue/Prvi broj. With this journal, we wanted to create a platform for the distribution of our ideas and viewpoints independently of whether existing papers and periodicals showed an interest. The cheap offset technology-enabled such enterprises.
MG: In 1973 came a batch of posters with various objections, as it were: Why is there nothing on in the cinemas? Why is Zagreb so filthy? What about the funicular? How did this come about, what were the reason and intent, what connection did it have with other works of yours of the period?
DM: This batch of three posters is an example of what I was talking about. These posters were not commissioned, I just produced them myself. They were imagined as an intervention in the wider urban space and into the sphere of city living that concerned everyone, not just me. They were in a sense an extension of my work on Counterfeits of 1973, collage interventions into the tram tickets of the time that contained a graphic display of the city’s layout of the time and the tramlines. There were small, hardly visible interventions and changes on the tickets that at the same time suggested big changes in the layout of the city. Qua document, such a ticket was a fake. In the making of the posters I also made use of graphic elements of tram tickets because it was then a generally recognised graphic portrait of the city, of life and movement around it, an image that every inhabitant recognised. The poster Why is Zagreb so filthy? could be pasted up around the town today too, for it is just as filthy as it was 44 years ago. The poster What about the funicular? was about it being closed for repairs for such a long time, while Why is there nothing on in the cinemas? speaks for itself.
“I saw the A4 format as a liberation from the aesthetic framework that in design wanted to keep up with the formal compositions and abstract forms of modern art. The A4 format corresponds to the letter format, the page written on a typewriter, without aesthetic pretentions, without any specific meaning, and it is equally suitable for image and text.”
MG: How did you get your first design commission for the GSU? There you succeeded designer Ivan Picelj – what did the Gallery expect from you then, and what novelty did you bring into the language with which the GSU communicated and documented its exhibitions?
DM: The first poster that I did for the GSU, I think, was that for the event Possibilities for 71. The seventies, with the emergence of the generation of young artists that you mentioned before, meant the end of the dominance of high modernism. The programme of the GSU was undergoing huge changes because the people who ran it felt and respected this change. Conceptual and media art became the leading factor of contemporaneity. When I was invited to do posters and catalogues for the gallery it seemed to me that the previous visual principle that Picelj had established with supreme, impeccable skill was no longer the best way to represent the new art practice. The first catalogue in which I announced these changes was, I can now admit, very arrogantly laid out manifesto-style for the Ivan Kožarić exhibition. I substituted the classic square modernist format of the catalogue with the standard A4 format, but in such a way that with perforation I retained the previous format in which everything was treated graphically in the existing manner. On the rest of the format, everything from the square to the full A4, I drew in and noted my positive remarks on the exhibition. I saw the A4 format as a liberation from the aesthetic framework that in design wanted to keep up with the formal compositions and abstract forms of modern art. The A4 format corresponds to the letter format, the page written on a typewriter, without aesthetic pretentions, without any specific meaning, and it is equally suitable for image and text. As an artist, Kožarić himself had in the middle of his career moved away from abstract modernism into the realm of concept, and I permitted myself to carry out this contextual leap for his exhibition.
“The poster was an invite to the exhibition, but it also existed for those who were never going to see it and it was there on some fence as a document of someone’s – mine in this case – visual utterance.”
MG: In the posters for the GSU in the seventies, even in those for solo shows of artists, you pretty well consistently managed to avoid using reproductions of concrete works. Indeed, where some sign or pattern did appear that directly evoked somebody’s artistic expression – for example in the case of the French artist Daniel Buren – it was not authentic but deliberately taken from some completely different and unexpected context. In other words, these posters worked – within the borders of professionalism and decency – as almost completely autonomous works, as a witty and suggestive original comment, not as an illustration of what there was to see at the exhibition.
DM: Yes, that’s what you get when you have an artist for a designer. I have to admit I used the artistic work of other artists as my own artistic or designer’s expression too often. In my defence, I can say that I did endeavour to establish a rapport that respected the work. The actual technique of silkscreen printing, at least then, was not suitable for the visual reproduction of artworks. Mihajlo Arsovski, for instance, used it for the typographically oriented poster design. What is a restriction in one sphere can be an advantage in another because it offers a free space for interpretation. A photograph reproduced in silkscreen had a rough grainy structure like the photos reproduced in the daily papers. It could not then offer much of aesthetic experience, but would above all give information about some event. In my case, it was in contact with the content communicated on the poster, for example a given artist or an exhibition when talking about GSU posters, that it had to give something to this content that a classic reproduction could not. This picture or photo was a form of disinformation that required an effort in the search for “truthful” information. The poster was an invite to the exhibition, but it also existed for those who were never going to see it and it was there on some fence as a document of someone’s – mine in this case – visual utterance. The poster for what was actually an excellent Daniel Buren’s exhibition had a photograph that showed the part of a room with a bed and a shelf above it. The stripy cloth the bed was covered with, if the viewer concentrated on the part of the picture inside the slender frame, might correspond with the Buren work that consisted of the application of a stripy pattern in different contexts. The picture is then an untruthful depiction of Buren, but the detail perhaps isn’t. By the way, if you look more carefully, on the same photo there is a poster for the Papanek exhibition produced earlier the same year.
Daniel Buren, exhibition poster, 70×100, GSU, Zagreb, 1974
MG: What was your starting point when you got the task to make a poster? What inspired you, what did you think about, what was and what was not important to communicate?
DM: I looked for a chance to make use of a procedure that I considered stimulating and, say, innovative. My approach was based on the media understanding or media-fusion of the content, the poster and my own preoccupations at the time. We have already mentioned the drift to new media in contemporary art as well as in graphic design. I often used Letraset as a media frame, primarily with photography, but in such a way that I brought time into photography as a constitutive factor. The poster for the Ivan Kožarić exhibition contains a sequence of two photos – one from the pre-exhibition preparation and the other with the artwork on the show. So, the time was brought in, or the idea of art as primarily a process that takes place in time was brought into the poster. In film posters too, such as You Love Only Once and Bravo Maestro, I found a chance and a justification for the procedure, because time is a constitutive element of the film image, and there is, if you like, theoretical grounding for it in the Deleuze concept of the time-image. For sure, the introduction of the image as a part of time must have been influenced by my rather intense engagement with the video, the image and the screen from which it shines on us.
Bravo maestro, film poster, 140 x 200, Jadran film Zagreb, 1978
MG: What kind of experience was it doing posters for the film industry? What was expected from a poster at that time, were there some common requirements and rules?
DM: Film posters were, and are, completely standardised, for they are part of an industry in which the commercial outcome is really essential. Within these standards, there was minimal creativity. However, I did manage to persuade them to produce alternative large format posters that were outside these standards, which we were able to do for special purposes, like the Pula Film Festival or for some specially expected premieres. Some directors too wanted to have not only the commercial communication package but also something that would suggest more the artistic dimension of a film, and posters in silkscreen technology with their dimensions, simple lettering and minimalism in design would refer to the authorial procedure of the director. This is how posters for the feature films of Rajko Grlić and Lordan Zafranović were created. For me, it was particularly interesting to try to convey the basic message of the film, or what I understood it to be, in a single picture, or through the sequence mentioned. In Bravo Maestro these two phases of movements are demonstrated by clapping hands that look as if they were swatting the maestro, played by Rade Šerbedžija who is standing on the orchestra conductor’s platform. In the image sequence on the poster You Love Only Once, one picture shows the relation of characters prescribed by the ideology – the profiles arranged like worker and young communist woman à la Mosfilm, and the other shows their love affair.
MG: At that time, did you keep up with what other, foreign or local, designers were doing? Were any of them, in their approach, their way of thinking, particularly close to you?
DM: I liked Bućan’s posters a lot, and I kept up with the goings-on in graphic design, especially via the Graphic Art Biennials. In Maribor, I got a prize for the poster Possibilities for 71.
MG: Some of the posters could really be interpreted as ironical, like the Buren already mentioned, or the poster for the Design for a Real World of Victor Papanek. How important was this cheeky kind of humour for you and why? Did any of the artists or curators make a fuss?
DM: I have already tried to apologise for this rather impertinently taken freedom in the example of the Kožarić A4 catalogue, but it was clearly stronger than me. However, I think that in my artistic work too I have retained the irony, and even the irony at myself, as a form of attitude towards the world I live in. Clearly, I am not exactly enthralled about this world, otherwise I would have developed an unquestionably positive attitude, while this ironical one points to the need for a distance. The poster for the Papanek Design for the Real World exhibition is particularly dear to me because it represents my favourite ironical understatement. A sheet of Letraset represented that “Swiss” totally arranged design with perfect typography and universal signage, while Papanek’s design referred to the Third World of poverty and famine. In my version, the Letraset sheet consists of various sizes of the figure of a hungry woman and child. Any use of the figure in one or some other size would neatly indicate the magnitude of the problem of hunger in the world according to the assessment of the user.
MG: On some posters (two for the exhibition of Animation of Zagreb Film, Lujo Vodopivec) you are playing with a sexual imaginary in a way that today few do any more. The posters are highly provocative, especially if one takes into consideration that they were done for two serious institutions – Zagreb Film and the GSU? What got into you? And what got into them that they were not scared?
DM: Obviously it amused me, but now when I look back from a distance at those posters, I think it was also about Deleuze’s time-image. In these approaches, again as an understatement, one can discern the idea of process in time, for, we can agree, sex is a process. For the exhibition Animation, which presented the Zagreb School of Animated Film, I did two versions. The first was overtly sexual, almost pornographic, and didn’t get through even though the poster was already printed. So I made a second version, which was graphically and visually more discreet, but it concealed somewhat more animalistic form of sex. In the trademark of Zagreb Film, there is a little horse, and I connected the idea of animation by doubling up the whole content of the poster and shifted the figure of this little horse too so that it mounted the other one. Freud got involved in the poster for the exhibition of the sculpture of Lujo Vodopivec – after the sculpture of the naked runner runs his shadow, but with an erection.
“Vulpe’s advert for Chromos showed a house-painter repeating the gesture of painting with a brush a red semicircular line, left and right, left and right, endlessly. This pointless gesture was already familiar to me.”
MG: Talking about the design, the Vulpe mascot for Chromos company was for a long span of time one of the central visual references of your own artistic oeuvre. It appears appropriated on the poster for the exhibition Primary Painting from 1983, as well as in a number of other works of yours. It is still alive today, rescued from oblivion several times. Why is it so important to you?
DM: Yes, and also at the Data Recovery 1969-2077 exhibition in the Museum of Contemporary Art I showed the Museum of the Artist at Work. This was an installation, as well as a little archive of artefacts that primarily institute my relation to the neon painter on the roof of a building on the former Republic Square. Vulpe’s advert for Chromos showed a house-painter repeating the gesture of painting with a brush a red semicircular line, left and right, left and right, endlessly. This pointless gesture was already familiar to me. I often felt the futility of my own artistic gesture, so I really did identify with this neon artist. Over the years I produced various pieces that generate this gesture, but now as an immanently artistic act.
I planted the three-phase drawing of the housepainter as an image on the poster for the exhibition Primary Painting in the Gallery of Primitive Art. On the roof of the new Museum of Contemporary Art I put a replica of this advert, which was now programmed in such a way as to light up various pictures that the painter might perhaps have wanted to paint. Those were images that would sometimes light up in the original advert when it was breaking down, so I attempted to promote this state of error to the level of artistic intention. Now, my neon work on the MSU roof does not work at all, which is a proof that institutions can turn art on and off according to their own institutional criteria. However, even this non-picture is a picture of some non-world. It is the second death of Vulpe’s painter.
MG: In the seventies, you and Sanja Iveković did a series of graphics for Radio Television Zagreb. How did this collaboration with the television come about and in what circumstances was the project produced?
DM: In the early seventies, Radio Television Zagreb, in association with the Centre for Industrial Design, I think, announced a competition for a new logo. The winner was a work of the Slovene designer Jože Brumen, and RTZ formed a body to coordinate the development of the new visual identity, in which, among other people, was Matko Meštrović. Dušan Vukotić did the animation of the logo, but since Meštrović found it more cinematic than televisual in its approach, he proposed that I, being the artist who had already oriented my interests towards video as a medium, should work on the graphics. These graphics were static visuals that in the frequent pauses in the programme, at least from today’s viewpoint, were a common image on TV screens. I did one series using the new logo and putting it into various “unforeseen” situations. A particular favourite of mine is the series of graphics with the well-known TV presenter Željka Fattorini, whose face was also an RTZ trademark. I also did two series of graphics for the sports programmes. Sanja Iveković did a number of television graphics too.
MG: The posters for the solo exhibitions of artists in the eighties in some sense were different from those from earlier on, but the art was different too. It’s mostly painting whose patterns regularly appeared on posters, and you no longer engage so much in the dialogue with the presented art as with the idea of its consumption. These are posters that already have viewers, people and dogs, and the designer is at a distance. Or am I reading too much into what I see?
DM: Very nicely read. Yes, sometimes I would bring into the picture that was reproduced on the poster a spectator who would at the same time refer to the process of looking but would also by his presence hinder the direct contact with the picture. Perhaps I only went on with what I started with the performance or action Custodian at the Exhibition from 1976, in which I guarded certain works of art on show thus giving them greater importance, while at the same time blocking the view of them with my body. On the poster for the exhibition Minimalism, to a minimalist form that looks like a wrongly drawn Julije Knifer meander I added a drawing of the faces of the appalled public. An observed observer instead of that Sprinkler Sprinkled in the film, something like that.
MG: There is a whole series of posters dedicated to “national” exhibitions – French, American, Finnish and Cuban art – which are graphically as well as in their approaches very similar, based on collage, abstract patterns and textures, all giving very cryptic impressions. From my way of looking at things, I just cannot decode them, although they reflect, in some way, the spirit of the times. What is going on there?
DM: They are de facto examples of fatigue with graphic design. In particular, I had a problem of finding any stimulus in this unbroken sequence of so-called “new images” to which I felt no connection. I would say that this was already an irony that became self-destructive. I would recycle remains of the collage from the previous into the following poster. “New Image” out of old, right?
MG: How and why did your work with the GSU come to an end? What were the last projects?
DM: I think it was about Sanja and I increasingly travelling and spending time on artistic residences abroad, so that I could no longer keep up the continuity of the work. I worked for Jadran Film a bit longer and did the television graphics for RTZ, but it was as if I had used up my motivation for doing graphic design. Somehow, I just naturally left the area, or it left me.
MG: Did design, in any sense at all, inform your artistic activity? Did the experience with design in any way affect your way of thinking, your way of solving problems, the way of communicating in art itself?
DM: Yes, I believe it did. Since in my work I often use the project format, that is, a set of elements that can emerge in different media, a certain procedure for designing this set seems inevitable.
MG: When you look back at your design work today from such a distance, do you think there are any things you missed out on doing, any ideas that failed to be implemented completely, some contexts in which you think you might have done something good but didn’t have the chance? Do you ever miss it?
DM: Perhaps I am sorry that I didn’t pull off some ideas in which posters or billboards were the medium or communication field for certain works. However, some I did manage to realize. For example, for the Variable Risk Landscape project, together with exhibiting the work in the gallery or museum, I would usually do a billboard that would be created while the local segment of the project was being performed.