Cover photo: Boris Cvjetanović
Boris Greiner was born in 1959 in Zagreb. He began working as a designer and artist in 1983. He collaborated with Stanislav Habjan on a series of projects in various media (graphic materials, prose, performance art, exhibitions, actions and experimental films) as part of the twenty-year conceptual project Greiner&Kropilak Mailart Office. From 1992 he was part of the art group Slipa Konfidenca together with S. Habjan and Danijel Žeželj. In 2001, he and S. Habjan, D. Žeželj and Boris Cvjetanović established the art workshop Petikat. In 2003 he concluded the twenty-year project Greiner&Kropilak Mailart Office and since then he has mostly worked independently. He has published several books of prose and essays, had about twenty independent exhibitions and performances and shot ten films. He is a graphic designer by profession.
You have been working as a graphic designer your entire professional life, that is as a designer of visual communications— popular historical overviews of the time period take your design for the cover art of Azra’s record Krivo srastanje from 1984 as your very first commission (which you did together with Stanislav Habjan as part of the twenty-year art project Greiner&Kropilak Mailart Office). However, in your case this starting point branched out into numerous different directions: performance art, experimental film and video, literature… Still, despite the diversity of your opus, I would say it is still held together, not so much by a universal idea, but rather by a consistently unconventional worldview. In this sense, how exactly did design serve you as a jumping-off point for all of your other activities that followed, and what is it about design that made it such a suitable cohesive layer?
First, a tiny correction: before Krivo srastanje (showing my photography as an emblem, designed by Stanislav) I did the graphic design for Rdeča turneja of the Slovenian punk band Pankrti. As far as your question is concerned, I would say — completely! Namely, if we take the postulate of the G&K Mailart Office that with a postal item both the front and the back side, i.e. both the text and the visuals play an equally active role, and that they generate a message together, just as in the ideological LP textbooks of the time the music and the text had an equal role, design emerged as an arrangement, a principle that subsumes the image and the text into one. In other words, the principle of editing has remained my favorite tool.
As it happens, as a high school student I attended the Puppetry Studio of the ZKM theatre and was strongly attracted to the design and “artworks” of Greiner&Kropilak, as well as of Slipa Konfidenca and Petikat, your later artistic organizations with old and new associates (the design for the book published on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the ZKM theatre and the silkscreen printed poster for the play Majakovski’s Smile (2001)). Looking back, what I find most attractive in these artifacts is their sturdy character of artisanal products, although they were (as far as I could tell) designed digitally, produced and distributed in large numbers. Simply, your approach to design gave them a completely intimate and immediate impression of artifacts directly addressing the person holding them, and no one else. How do you see this?
In the examples you mention, computers were used in the entire process of their production. I think the last manually prepared design was done for the exhibition in the Old printing office. I don’t feel that the technology of production plays a significant role. That is, of course, if we ignore the fact that is impossible to ignore – that the way of thinking was created in an analogue system, in which the prints on tracing paper played the role of layers. I still feel that, regardless of everything, we always deal with layers! As far as the ‘sturdy character of artisanal products’ is concerned, I will take that as a compliment. In this sense, I feel the intimate impression is a result of a personal approach, a sort of fraternization with a particular material. You have to fall in love with a material to be able to recommend it wholeheartedly.
“I feel the intimate impression of my design is a result of a personal approach, a sort of fraternization with a particular material. You have to fall in love with a material to be able to recommend it wholeheartedly”
Do you feel the need to distinguish between the design work you do for commissions and the work you do for art projects or do you see them as parts of an integrated project, as in the period of Greiner&Kropilak? Would it be more difficult for you to do the self-initiated projects you did before the complete digitalization of design tools today or is it vice versa? It seems your practice as a designer and artist through the years has not been determined decisively by such changes — its language has developed in small steps intended for a seemingly narrow select circle?
When approaching individual projects I do not distinguish between commissions and art projects, but they have not been part of an integrated whole for a very long time, nor can they be compared to the period of the Mailart Office since everything that came out of this workshop had a very distinct trademark. Other than that, I would say it is vice versa. It is definitely easier to do self-initiated projects today. For one thing, all tools are much more accessible. However, could it be that it is precisely this accessibility that is the problem? If we compare a photocopier with Photoshop, the only advantage of the photocopier is its organic graphic quality, considering it does not include pixels; on the other hand, Photoshop will effortlessly produce a print identical to the ones that used to be produced by the gestetner machine. As Valéry said, steps cannot be taken without obstacles, which is why form is so important: the form must take from the obstacle as much as it needs to keep on moving, but no more than what it needs to keep on moving.
This is, perhaps, why the language has developed in small steps, but digitalization emerged all at once, which is why I do not necessarily see a connection between the two — it does not matter whether I cut out letters with scissors or a computer mouse. With regard to the narrow select circle, things could perhaps be different, but I wouldn’t really know since I never received an “indecent proposal”, meaning I was never in the position to really have to choose between money and my convictions.
If we had to find a common denominator for everything you do, from design and writing, to directing films and doing performance art, I feel it would be the emphasized narrative nature of most of your works, although it is, naturally, always achieved differently in different media and techniques. Still, what they have in common is your conceptual understanding of narration— your stories very often have a certain meta-moment?
I would like to use this opportunity to include here, in my defense, a story from the recently published book Friend Photographer:
“The director decided that at a certain point in the film a director of photography should be introduced. He sits at the table together with the characters portrayed by Krešo Mikić and Pjer Meničanin. At a certain moment during their dialogue, which they are reading because the director imagined the film as a read-through, when Pjer reads: ‘we start here’, that’s the cue, the director of photography will stand up and take his place behind the camera on the tripod, which was also part of the shot. The action continues seamlessly, and after Pjer says ‘we start here’, the perspective shifts to that of the camera taken over by the director of photography. This way, the plan for the action of the film, i.e. what is written, is connected to the film recording plan, a step in its production. What you get is a meta-film.
After the cue is said, however, nothing happens, the director of photography sits there and doesn’t move. The shot does not change, the action continues, the actors keep reading their lines until the end of the sequence, which is when Krešo turns to the camera, raising his arms in confusion… Then, all crew members start laughing. The director of photography is the only one to remain serious, and doesn’t understand what everyone is laughing about…
— We are waiting for you to stand up…
— Did he already say ‘written’?…
— No, he said ‘we start here’.”
You published most of your books (novels, collections of stories and essays) independently, with the exception of your debut book — Interkonfidental, co-written with Stanislav Habjan (1999), one could say you published them in a DIY mode, as part of your own artistic workshop Petikat or in co-production with a publisher, such as Ocean More for the novel Her and Him (2013). Why? Do you feel that going “solo” and DIY publishing facilitate the journey of books and texts to potential readers, circumventing the entire standard network of book publishing, which has in recent years suffered a downward trend? Or is it simply an intimate choice on your part, rather than a social statement?
Rather than being a social or personal statement, it is an artistic statement. Petikat was established as the result of the desire of a group of artists to retain full control of all stages of their projects, which was possible only if the artists themselves were also the publishers. On the one hand, this symbiosis allowed for greater freedom, while on the other it logically led to unconventional publishing practices. Emphasizing the artistic integrity of a product, every dimension of which is conceptually active, steers publishing into a different direction, through the forest rather than by the road. We force our way through the forest with the content of individual projects, regardless of the particular medium selected, acting like a crew setting up ideological signalization equipment on a piece of cleared land. The role of Petikat can be imagined plastically through the example of Interkonfidental you mentioned, whose real title is actually Greiner&Kropilak Interkonfidental. In an extensive report of the TV program Transfer, done on the occasion of the book’s publishing, G & K explained the platform in the following way: “Greiner and Kropilak is not our autobiography, although they also live in Zagreb, have the same professions, and drive the same cars as us. The situation in which two authors represent two characters is not that unusual, Oesterheld and Breccia have Ezra and Mort, Fuis and Maurović have the Old Cat and the Slow Seath. Our case is more complex in the sense that we share the same names with our characters.” Viewing the book title in this sense, since it includes the names, one can conclude that the characters are the authors. However, with a manifesto of the authors, the characters have been removed from the stage, in other words they no longer exist. Seeing as the authors feel that it would not be fair to take the credit for the book written by the characters, and the characters no longer exist, the responsibility for its fate has been taken over by Petikat, an artistic enterprise based on the ideological model proposed by the book.
“Criticism must remain aware of the fact that objectivity as such does not exist, and that it is an ideal to which we aspire by reducing our subjectivity to a minimum”
As a member of the selection committee for the 1718 Biennial Exhibition of Croatian Design, have you noticed any new tendencies within the last two years? If yes, how would you explain them? Has the exhibition finally overcome its period of “saturation” with visual communications design? How did you distribute the selection between different genres of design?
When you find yourself before about 400 works in about 20 categories covering the entire field of design, it is difficult to find a tendency in them that could, as a result of contemporary circumstances, mark a specific dimension in the development of the entire field or of certain categories, and even more difficult to compare them to the state of the field two years ago, in which it was also impossible to discern a concrete tendency. The period of saturation with visual communications design, as far as I can tell, is not waning, which is to be expected considering it is still most represented in society, life, and reality. As far as different genres of design are concerned, the selection committee was comprised of representatives from various fields, but this heterogeneous group nevertheless worked in complete unison.
The field of design in which you have been most successful professionally is the so-called editorial design, the design of books and magazines. Printed magazines in Croatia are more or less dead, whereas book design has become and/or remains a true “battle field” of designers of all generations, and there doesn’t seem to be a lack of excellent solutions despite everything. When discussing the different generations of designers, do you feel there are basic differences in the understanding of book design between household names, emerging designers and among these groups, and why? If not, also why?
When I pick up a book, except in very rare situations or if I am already familiar with it, I cannot really assess the age of its designer. Perhaps it’s true that it is the emerging designers who were the first ones to apply the so-called “cover without a spine”, and perhaps it’s not. If in book design, as in anything else, things are constantly moving forward, I would say that most of us actively involved in the production are moving in accordance with these tendencies, regardless of age. On the one hand, this is due to a relatively fixed framework, and if there is no framework this is the result of individual design solutions. It is, therefore, not age that creates a recognizable dividing line in the understanding of book design, but rather the approach to design as ancillary to content or to content as ancillary to design.
“Only a constantly shifting mechanism is suitable for non-standard formats, which make up the majority of contemporary visual arts”
Since you have been working as an art critic for a number of years now, although you wouldn’t necessarily call your essays in the field of visual arts critiques, have you had the opportunity to use the specificity of your approach in this field to “evaluate” design works? Is this feasible? In what ways and to what extent are the evaluation criteria of these two close, but still different fields of visual culture — art and design – different?
Criticism must remain aware of the fact that objectivity as such does not exist, and that it is an ideal to which we aspire by reducing our subjectivity to a minimum. This measure is often the result of negotiating with the subjectivity of others, since the subject of our investigation cannot be measured by concrete values, but by relational categories. This is why it is precisely by continually confronting our own subjectivity with that of others that we can gradually create an apparatus. This apparatus should always take into account that the principle on which it is based is constantly constructed and reconstructed. Only a constantly shifting mechanism is suitable for non-standard formats, which make up the majority of contemporary visual arts.
Seeing as I have been sitting on two stools, eating from two plates and drinking from two glasses from the very beginning, existing simultaneously in one medium that is applied by default and another that is not applied by default, I use the same criteria in their evaluation. However, in accordance with the principle of constant construction and reconstruction, I had to include in my mechanism of evaluating design the key difference compared to art, which is the existence of clients commissioning the work.