STRANGE PLACES, A PROFILE OF JOHNNY HARDSTAFF
20 May 2006 | interviews
This is a partly edited-out extract of an interview with seminal artist filmmaker graphic-designer Johnny Hardstaff for Graphic 9 – The Story.
Interview by Marc Valli
Marc: When one looks at your more recent work one almost feels like two dimensions are just not enough. Do you still work with print?
Johnny: Exactly that. Two dimensions are not enough in one sense. That was the whole issue for me. Throughout St. Martins I had been responding to graphic print projects three dimensionally. Through model making. Anything to bring more substance, more physicality. Whilst a printed image can of course conjure truly great narratives, it was both the previous and next frame, and another dimension, that was missing for me. It took me a long time to identify what it was that was missing. I like protracted stories and detail and mythologies and history, and I like ‘real things’. I want things to ‘exist’. Objects. Products. I imagine that is what my work is. A hybrid of all of these. It seems in some way a fitting medium from which to look at our collective ‘now’ perhaps.
However, if I spend too long away from print, or the two-dimensional image, then I miss it greatly. The satisfying immediacy of a solitary image, and the control you have within it, is irreplaceable. I want to try to work increasingly in all kinds of media. I don’t feel moving image to be the answer, or even the ambition. I never wanted to be a director. It was never my ambition. I love books. I love sculpture, and new media and print and model making and all sorts really. I’ll be happy just to switch back and forth between these, and let the idea dictate the medium. It’s all masturbatory really. I only do it to push and please myself, and I’m always wanting something more, something different, something new.
Marc: Has the three-dimensional design ever resulted in objects, products, toys?
Johnny: It hasn’t, but I have always felt like it should have. People have said that I should make die-cast models of some of the forms and machines I design. Johnny Wells of Resfest and I got all excited about making the AV Baby available as a plastic model, but there was no time.
It all feels really pertinent because, throughout my childhood, my father worked for Mattel, so I grew up with the toy industry. It’s probably one of my strongest inspirations. I love the functionality of toys, and the intoxicating fetishistic desires that we nurture as children for whole ranges of toys. There’s something of the autistic child, the collector, in all of us.
As a child I developed entire cinematic narratives around something as simple as the box art for Parkers ‘Escape from Colditz’, and inwardly, mentally I lived them out wherever I was. An absolute, graphic seduction. As with Kenners Star Wars merchandise. I lived in a world of box art, and as my work these days testifies, I’m somewhat still there, amidst an imaginary graphic hybrid of print and plastic fantasy. I like it. There is something dirty, something that screams ‘consumer’ about all of that, but I kind of like that too. Anything that triggers imaginary episodes can only be a good thing. Shouldn’t imaginative toy manufacturers be getting Nobel prizes or the like?
I’ve had a notion for something toy related for years now. I’d love to do it. It’s just finding the time.
Marc: Do you read a lot? Look at books?
Johnny: I read voraciously and quickly. Novels, broadsheets, periodicals, manuals, anything at all really. It’s the absorption of data and information. I like to re-read novels two or three times immediately upon completion just to be sure I have not missed anything salient. I hate the idea of overlooking an allusion, and I like to dissect narrative structures once I’ve got the complete picture.
I find books desperately seductive. The act of appropriating them and consuming them. There is an early, self-published Hans Bellmer volume that he had individually hand scented very subtly with children’s perfume. I adore that attention to detail. I spend a lot of time in the National Art Library at the V&A. It’s really quite erotic. Miles of tightly bound knowledge and the scent of antiquated leather. I was sorely tempted to pursue history and archaeology when I left school, and I still have this rather crass, fawning love affair with academia. I think to an extent this shows within some of my work.
Marc: Does a lot of what you see around you in art galleries or books ends up in your work?
Johnny: No. I really hope not. That’s what I try to absolutely avoid. Obviously it can happen. No one is immune. Some things just do slip under the radar. But I try to avoid being infiltrated or infected.
I purposefully never watch contemporary work. I never watch showreels, or look at what other people in contemporary design are doing. I think it’s really unhealthy. It’s not out of ignorance. It’s just there is never enough time in the day. I’m interested in what I can do, not what someone else is doing right now. I’m interested in the past and the future. Not someone else’s ‘now’. It seems the emptiest moment, ‘now’. You can feel a sense of competition in some people. You can smell it. I think it’s really destructive. They have to know what everyone else is doing. They rate their own success by others. I find that a bit ugly. They claim to be your ‘competition’. We’re not in a competition, and if we were, I’d be the judge of who my ‘competitors’ were. There’s a scene for all that which I try to avoid.
Clearly, certain very obvious books do have an unavoidable impact. Whilst it’s regarded now virtually as a school text, ‘1984’ in every way informs everything that I think about. It conjures up all that both terrifies me and secretly excites me. As much as I deplore fascism, in some ways its existence defines and galvanises us.
I do find that a great deal of news and political thinking and economic data is readily absorbed in my work. I kind of feel entitled to it. It’s my existence. My daily life. I find the first fourteen pages of most newspapers to be very rich in inspirational triggers. As with the New Scientist. World financial news is always fascinating in a very morbid, fatalistic way, and yes, it all gets boiled down into some kind of odd synthesis. A good example of this is the ‘Future of Gaming’ film I made. I made it shortly before the Twin Towers attacks. The film features airliners dropping out of the sky onto US cities, extreme Arabic calls to arms and US military aggression, and in every way it is indicative of everything I was reading at the time of its making. I just didn’t expect it to be quite so literally prophetic. I find it fascinating, the way current events subtly sway our collective psyche so imperceptibly at the time, but so dramatically in retrospect.
Read full interview in GRAPHIC 09 – THE STORY
A graduate of St. Martins School of Art, Johnny Hardstaff initially worked in print graphics for amongst others fashion designers Paul Smith and Katherine Hamnett. In his own time, Hardstaff privately began to experiment with his own peculiar hybrid of graphic design and moving image, his first 'film' 'Phenomenon One' coming to the attention of Sony Playstation. The subsequent film Playstation commissioned, 'History of Gaming', became an immediate critical success. Awarded a place in Creative Reviews 'Creative Futures' 2001 for Animation, the project led Hardstaff to be signed to Ridley Scott Associates and Black Dog Films.
Hardstaff's second film for Playstation, the dark and uncompromising short 'The Future of Gaming', earned him a place in the New Directors Showcase at the Cannes Festival, and having seen 'The Future...', Radiohead asked Hardstaff to select a track from their album 'Amnesiac' and produce a film outside of the traditional commercial music video constraints. The completed film, a rare two track extended promo, though deemed too challenging by music television for public consumption, proved highly successful internationally and led to D&AD silver nominations amongst others.
Working in both print and moving image design, for not only the likes of Radiohead and Playstation, but also with the BBC, Resfest and the Super Furry Animals amongst others, Hardstaff's graphic design, image making and films have been exhibited extensively internationally, as well as through many of the more innovative film festivals including Onedotzero, Resfest and Mirrorball. Onedotzero itself has exhibited Hardstaff's work at premier visual arts centres, contemporary art museums and film forums across eastern and western Europe, and as far afield as Hong Kong, Japan and Korea, where his first retrospective was recently held.
Increasingly private, Hardstaff works from his London studio, currently concentrating almost exclusively on his personal book and film project. For much of the year he also lectures and contributes to academic research and development within experimental graphic design / moving image at one of the UK's leading schools of art and design. AB/05