Prof. Alex Coles and Dr. Catharine Rossi on EP

The cover of a book, titled The Italian Avant-Garde, 1968-1976.

Steve Pantazis talks to editors Prof. Alex Coles  and Dr. Catharine Rossi regarding the new publication EP and its first volume The Italian Avant-Garde: 1968 – 1976.


Steve Pantazis: Can you talk about how the idea of EP emerged? How the name EP came about?

Alex Coles: The name EP seemed appropriate because I wanted to introduce a new discursive platform in publishing (the ‘extended player’) that could operate between magazines (‘single player’) and academic journals (‘long player’).

EP is also an homage to Alison and Peter Smithson’s Economist Plaza in SW1. The topography of the Economist Plaza is intriguing – the way it, as the Smithsons say, “offers a…space in
which there is time to re-arrange sensibilities,” which I hope EP will do. The fact that the Smithsons were part of the Independent Group, a collective which moved between art, design and architecture and their practice and theorisation added to the potency of the reference.

There is also a very practical reason why I chose such a short title. I had edited a series of books in the mid to late 1990s while teaching at Goldsmiths with the series title de-, dis-, ex-. Could there be a title more difficult to remember?

SP: Can you tell me about the design of EP?

AC: The way textual knowledge is visually presented is key to its reception. Call it the art directing of knowledge. Selecting the right graphic designer for EP was important. Experimental Jetset are so inventive with typography and image, they seem like the right fit. I not only supplied Experimental Jetset with the rationale of the publication but also gave them a bundle of material relating to both the redesign of The Economist magazine in the early 1960s and the Smithson’s drawings for the Economist Plaza from the same period. A great example of the way Experimental Jetset work can be found with the EP logo itself: where The Economist sits its title in a red box, Experimental Jetset flip this over by obscuring the letters EP with the red box. In terms of overall feel and layout, Experimental Jetset responded to my initial brief with a series of designs using media theorist Marshall McLuhan and graphic designer Quentin Fiore’s The Medium is the Massage (1967) as a template – a novel size paperback that balances image with text.

SP: How did the series start up in a practical way?

AC: The seed of the idea for the series was planted in conversations I had with Emma Hunt and Stephen Swindells in the recently formed Creative Interdisciplinary Research Centre (CIRC), School of Art, Design and Architecture, at the University of Huddersfield, where I had just been appointed Professor of Transdisciplinary Studies. My main body of research in The Transdisciplinary Studio series seemed to be in unison with the goals of the research centre: to strive to create a greater fluidity between art, design and architecture. It was logical that EP would have the same remit.

SP: Why did you choose Sternberg Press to work with?

AC: They were the only publisher I could imagine working with on a project like this. Caroline Schneider who founded Sternberg with the important Lukas & Sternberg series and continues to explore new territory with the e-flux readers and the Institute for Art Criticism series, together with Leah Whitman-Salkin, the editor I was already working with there on my studio series, obviously had the visual and theoretical ability to deal with the nuances central to a project like EP.

SP: By being something in between a magazine and art journal, are you trying to open up EP to a wider range of readers? What is the gap you are trying to cover?

AC: A key objective is to introduce a new platform that can experiment with different types of writing about art, design and architecture: from the relatively academic text replete with footnotes through to the short caption and the informal interview.

A further objective of EP is the issue of readership. One of the reasons why most academic journals have such a limited readership is because they seldom consider their own design. Have you seen all of the design journals that Berg or Oxford University Press do? No one who is active in the field of generating contemporary design would want to read them – let alone be in them. Compare these publications with almost any of the publications that Beatriz Colomina included in her Clip, Stamp, Fold: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196x-197x (Actar, 2010) and the point becomes crystal clear. With EP, it was important to produce a publication that practitioners, not only historians and theorists, from art, architecture and design will want to read.

SP: Are you planning for each volume to announce a theme and accept writers’ submissions or do you already have certain writers in mind?

AC: One of the reasons that most academic journals are so uneven quality-wise – even if they have an amazing star-studded advisory board and editorial panel – is because they are premised on open call submissions. Breaking with this tired method that academic journals use was crucial. At the same time, retaining the more potentially engaging aspects of the format of academic journals, like having an editorial advisory board and avoiding the pressures that come with accepting advertising, was key.

SP: How will EP work?

AC: Each volume of EP will be co-edited by me in conjunction with a specialist on the particular thematic under investigation. Catharine Rossi was perfect for the first volume because, while being an academic with a PhD on post-war Italian design from the Royal College of Art, Catharine also has her own blog and writes for magazines like Domus and Disegno. So here was the movement between different registers of writing, and different platforms and vehicles for writing, I was looking for all in the one person.

SP: Why have you decided in your first volume to concentrate on the Italian Avant-Garde and in particular on the period 1968–1976? Do you feel that Italian art, design and architecture receive limited exposure outside of Italy?

Catharine Rossi: The years 1968 to 1976 were guided by a connected set of socio-economic, cultural and political conditions to which architects, artists, designers and other practitioners responded in similar ways: from the radicalisation that comes in ’68 and the strategies that follow in its wake to the frustrations that arise as its utopian ideals fail to come to fruition. While this period has been studied before, this has largely occurred on the level of mythologisation rather than in-depth, critical, speculation. Rare too are the considerations of the interconnections between art, architecture and design, and the political thought of the period.

SP: Do you believe that 1976 can be considered the end of the avant-garde in Italy?

CR: While attempting to pin down the end, or start, of any movement is ultimately an impossible exercise, from a design perspective 1976 represents the end of a collective avant-garde effort; this was the year that saw the dissolution of Global Tools, the largest coming together of Italy’s radical architects and designers, and the start of Studio Alchimia, the first identifiably postmodern design group, headed up by Alessandro Mendini and Alessandro Guerriero.  This is also a key year in political terms: while the Italian Communist Party considerably increased its national leverage in the 1976 elections, this was a period of increasing conflict amongst the Left, between both the Communist and Socialist parties, but also between the parties and the revolutionary youth.

SP: This first volume begins with an interview regarding the role radical magazines played in Italy at the time. Do you hope that EP will play a similar role?

CR: There are similarities on the level of critical writing. As with the progressive, intellectually informed content of Casabella, Domus and other magazines of this period, my hope is that EP can be a tool for critically reflecting on a moment of intense, and intensely political, activity. Hopefully the book can offer a platform for contemporary creative practice that is historically informed.

SP: This volume is coming out during a significant period, with a central left wing party gaining ground in the latest elections in Italy and the country going through financial difficulties, while internationally, capitalism is in crisis, and other major concerns such as global warming, poverty and war, have moved to the front line. Do you believe that in Italy and other countries, we are going to experience the formation of new groups, as was the case with Arte Povera, Grupo9999 and Cavart in the late 1960s and 1970s?

CR: There are certainly signs that, as a mode of operation, collectives are re-emerging in Italy and elsewhere.  This is in part a response to the current economic climate – there is a perceived safety in numbers – as well as a desire to establish alternative modes of operating to the current, highly individualistic, set up of many studios. To give one example is the Cantiere per Pratiche Non-Affermative (Construction Site for Non-Affirmative Practice) who promote a supportive and collaborative approach to critically engaged communication design. As with the groups from the 1970s, these endeavours only represent a small phenomenon and their efficacy remains to be seen. Today we live in a much more connected world in which their practice, and those of their antecedents, has the opportunity to gain greater prominence.

EP, Vol. 1, The Italian Avant-garde: 1968-1976 is published by Sternberg Press in April 2013.

Alex Coles is Professor of Transdisciplinary Studies, School of Art, Design and Architecture, University of Huddersfield.

Catharine Rossi is a Senior Lecturer in Design History at Kingston University.

Steve Pantazis is an online editor for Corridor 8, independent art historian, writer and associate editor for Versita Publishing in the field of Arts, Music and Architecture.

Published 21.03.2013 by Steve Pantazis in Interviews

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