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; it was conducted above all with the intention that it should serve us too as a guideline for the story we wanted to tell in the exhibition. Another aim was 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, but also with the way the artist looks upon his design ouvre 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. His design work was not represented in spite of usually quite tight connections, precisely through design, between Martinis and the central Croatian contemporary art institution. What is more, thanks to his years of work as a poster and publication designer for this institution, the MSU (in the 70s and 80s called the Gallery of Contemporary Art), keeps in its collection probably more Martinis’ works of design than of 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 which I did together with Gorki Žuvela in 1970/71, while we were still students at the Academy of Fine Arts. This was work that we knew almost nothing about, but we were self-confident enough to rush into it. The printing works were in what is today called 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. When the line was ready, it was cast in lead at once. Every printing block of cast text would weigh several kilos. We would wait 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 printing shop 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 mainstream 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 deal with 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 subjects acquainting us with graphic design or providing us with specific skills in the field, 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. The youth press, as it was called, occupied a good deal of media space in the early 70s and provided some kind of more or less natural field of work. I did some film posters for my schoolmate Rajko Grlić and then I started getting design jobs from Jadran Film. In spite of 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, focuses of the New Art Practice, almost all the important authors 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 provide for ourselves, 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, saw in graphic design a chance to expand the field in which we worked. The poster is something that belongs to the urban space and communicates directly with passers-by, which was certainly interesting for me, as in the seventies I had a very clear critical attitude to artistic institutions, museums, galleries, academies and so on. One of the exhibitions at 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, public city space, as a place for artistic communication. For this exhibition, I did a poster that 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 some of the authors in it like Boris Ljubičić, Davor Tomičić and Željko Borčić, as the first generation of “designers as art directors”, that is, if I recall well, someone whose job is not in the realm of manual skills or recognisable authorial visual style, rather in the domain of concept. In a simplified sense, 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 authorities 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 for the work of art to move away from the sphere of classic exhibitions in the neutral gallery space, so- called the white box, in which the work of art is neutralised and fenced off from the real outside world. I think that 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. It was logical then 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 put out the alternative journal First Number/ Prvi broj. Throughout 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 tram lines. 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, for it is just as dirty or even worse than 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 corresponded to the letter format, the page written on a typewriter, without aesthetic pretentions, without any specific meaning, and it was equally suitable for image and text.”
MG: How did you get your first design commission for the GSU? On those tasks you have succeeded designers such as Ivan Picelj – what did the Gallery expect from you, and what did you bring into the language with which the GSU communicated and documented its exhibitions that was new?
DM: The first poster that I did for the GSU, I think, was that for the event Possibilities for 71. The seventies, with the appearance of the generation of young artists that you mentioned before, meant the end of the dominance of high modernism. The programme of the GSU underwent huge changes because the people who ran it felt and respected this change. Conceptual and media art became the leading factor in 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 for the classic square modernist format of the catalogue the standard A4 format, but in such a way that with perforation I retained the previous format in which everything was treated graphically in an 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 corresponded to the letter format, the page written on a typewriter, without aesthetic pretentions, without any specific meaning, and it was 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 jump 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 an almost completely autonomous work, as a witty and suggestive original comment, not as an illustration of what there was to see at this exhibition.
DM: Yeah, 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 have an attitude that respected this 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 in one sphere a restriction 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 substance the poster communicated – using the example of some given artist or exhibition when we are talking about GSU posters – it had to give something to this substance 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 the first-rate Daniel Buren 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 of making some posters? What inspired you, what did you think about, what was and what was not important to communicate?
DM: I looked for the 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, poster and my own preoccupations at the time. We have already mentioned the drift to new media in contemporary art and in graphic design. I often used Letraset as a media frame, primarily with photography but in such a way that I brought time into it 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, like that, for You Only Love 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, my rather intense engagement with the video, the image and the screen, from which it lit us up, must have had influenced on the introduction of the image as part of the time.
Bravo maestro, film poster, 140 x 200, Jadran film Zagreb, 1978
MG: What kind of experience was it doing posters for the movie industry? What was expected from a poster at that time, where there some regular demands 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 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 emblems 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 Only Love Once, one picture shows the relation of characters that ideology prescribes – 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 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 I have retained the irony, and 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 is a sign for 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 nicely 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 few do today 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, not to say pornographic, and didn’t get through, although it was already printed. I made a second version, which was graphically and visually more decent, but still retained something of the 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 housepainter 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 of 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 MCA I showed the Museum of the Artist at Work. This was an installation, as well as a little archive of artefacts that primarily ascertain my attitude to the neon painter on the roof of a building on the formal Republic Square. Vulpe’s advert for Chromos showed a housepainter 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 Contemporary Art. On the roof of the new MCA 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. They were images that would sometimes light up in the original ad when it was going wrong in some way, so I attempted to promote the error state to the artistic level. Now, my neon work on the MCA roof is not working at all, which is a proof that institutions can light up and extinguish art according to their own institutional criteria. 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 work for 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 set 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 as to Meštrović it seemed more cinematic than televisual in its approach, he proposed that I, as the author who was already oriented in 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 did as well the two series of graphics for the sports programmes. Sanja Iveković also did a number of television graphics.
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 about painting the patterns of which regularly appeared on posters, and you no longer get into a dialogue with the art presented so much as with the idea of its consumption. These are posters that already have viewers, people and dogs, and the designer 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 of 1976, in which I guarded certain works of art on show, giving them greater importance, while at the same time blocking the view of them with my body. On the poster for the exhibition Minimalism, with a minimalist form that looks like a wrongly drawn Julije Knifer meander, I drew on 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 in their approaches and graphically are very similar, based on collage, abstract patterns and textures, all giving very cryptic impressions, and I from my way of looking at things, just cannot decode them, although they are, in some way, in the spirit of the time. What is going on here?
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 with 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 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 manner of solving a problem, the manner 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 several elements that can arise in different media, a certain procedure for designing this set seemed 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 did not manage to be brought to an ending, 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, usually, as well as exhibiting the work in the gallery or museum, I did a billboard that would be put up while the local segment of the project was being performed.