A Berliner’s work finds parallels between laptop music and design. By Adrian Shaughnessy
Angela Lorenz’s best work has been done for a cluster of small record labels mostly engaged in the production of electronic music; music that is variously described as ‘glitch and click’, ‘micro-sound’, ‘lowercase-sound’ and perhaps most commonly, ‘laptop music’. The laptop computer may not yet be the Fender Telecaster de nos jours, but within modern music, the portable computer is as democratising and enabling as the electric guitar was in past decades.
For many contemporary musicians, the low-cost, high-spec laptop running sophisticated music-generating software opens up previously undreamt of aural possibilities. As Rob Young, editor of The Wire, noted in an essay about the Berlin electronic music label Raster-noton, the music is made from ‘pulses, clicks and jitters that wholly evade traditions of structure, melody, resolution, harmony and scale.’
This evocative description also describes the graphic work of Angela Lorenz. Her design – at its best, a stripped-down digital minimalism – exposes fascinating parallels between the creation of ‘laptop music’ and the creation of contemporary digital design; it is also part of the deepening, though little commented on, intertextuality that exists between digital music and digital design. Her design looks as if the human eye or hand has played no great part in its creation. Nor does it appear to come from an obvious graphic design tradition, and its lack of the fetishistic detailing that configures much current graphic design (the faux-Baroque) makes it well suited to the CD covers of contemporary electronic music. It has, you might say, a laptop aesthetic.
But we should not be surprised by any of this. Lorenz’s design appears to come from the same hardware and software matrix as the music it accompanies: a matrix that Don DeLillo describes in his masterpiece Underworld as the ‘plastic, silicon and mylar, every logical operation and processing function, the memory, the hardware, the software, the ones and zeroes, the triads inside the pixels that form the on-screen image …’
Lorenz readily acknowledges the similarities in working practices between digital musicians and designers: ‘The working process is quite similar,’ she notes in a series of highly articulate answers to email questions. ‘It’s no coincidence that so many great musicians are designers as well (although I’m as musical as a brick, myself). The formal methods are the same, sometimes even the tools are the same.’
She lists a number of functions and processes that she sees as common to the making of both design and music in the digital domain: loops, repetition, filters, distortion, interference, enlargement, remapping, compression, layering, omission, alignment and conversion. ‘I find experimental music very inspiring in its methods,’ she says, ‘I’m probably much more influenced by this kind of music than by design or anything else.’
While still at school, Lorenz developed an interest in letterforms: ‘My original idea was not so much to take up graphic design, but rather to become a typesetter – I was fascinated with language as a system.’ When she was fifteen, she did an internship at a print shop, organised by her school to ‘put pupils in touch with the real world’. In Lorenz’s case the internship gave her the confidence to pursue a career in design. She left school in her late teens, and went to work at a local experimental newspaper in Berlin Mitte, called Scheinschlag. This was to be an important catalyst in Lorenz’s development as a designer. It was to be her art school: ‘I learnt a lot of basics, in terms of technology and organisation,’ she says.
The original design concept of Scheinschlag was by Berlin designers Cyan. ‘It was nothing like a standard newspaper design,’ states Lorenz. ‘For us it was a great basis for experimentation. We just tried things out and basically did what we thought was right; there was no client to sell ideas to. Of course there were editors, and the discussions with them (and among ourselves) were sometimes pretty hard, but in the end the designers were co-publishers with the same rights as everybody else.’
While she was still at Scheinschlag, Lorenz took a part-time job in a Berlin pre-press company called M8, where she remained for the next six years, before eventually going freelance and moving into design for music. But in the technological environment of M8, Lorenz was to expand her technical education in a way that was to have a profound bearing on her future work, and which she would not have gained if she’d had a formal design education and served a conventional apprenticeship in a professional design studio. As we will see, technical skills inform Lorenz’s work to an unusual degree: ‘Fixing other people’s broken fonts tells you a lot about how postscript works,’ she observes – a statement it is hard to imagine many other contemporary graphic designers making.
Since the early experimental work of April Greiman and the Emigre school of designers, the role of the computer in design has been to add complexity: in other words, implementing the contemporary graphic lexicon of layering, distortion, transparency and repetition. For Lorenz the computer enables her to achieve the opposite: she uses it to achieve sparseness. And by adopting a reductionist approach, she yet again exhibits her closeness to the micro minimalists of electronic music, whose signature is the barely audible hiss and flutter of digital filters.
But her work is about more than reduction. Take her series of covers (CD and vinyl) for Full Swing (aka Stephan Mathieu), perhaps the finest and most sustained realisation of her style to date. Here she achieves an invigorating fusion of pattern and abstraction. Lorenz explains her methods: ‘This is a series of visual remixes derived from another 12-inch sleeve (the music consists of remixes from that 12-inch); the motif of the Full Swing EP is an abstract pixel landscape which had been the unexpected result of a file conversion failure (originally a CAD file showing a floor plan). Images used on the series are remixes of that. I chose the motif for this EP (it is only a very small detail of the file) because of Stephan’s similar approach to the music: everything is made from one tiny sample, not even a second long, I believe. So it’s basically about magnification, both the music and the design … although you don’t have to know that in order to enjoy it – I hope.’
Lorenz is careful not to over-emphasise the notion of randomness in her work: ‘The motifs are certainly 100 per cent computer-generated – but are they random? I think the act of choosing this detail of that file is something that only humans can do,’ she points out. But there is undoubtedly an element of chance and error in much of her work brought about through her informed use of the computer as well as a sense of her tampering with the raw DNA of digitally generated graphic design. You can see it in other examples of her work. Her screen-based project 6.45KB RAM for the Lowercase website (www.lowercasesound.com) shows her fusion of randomness and design at its most refined. (The term lowercase-sound was coined by visual and sound artist Steve Roden to describe a certain sort of quiet, microtonal music – ‘the hum of the refrigerator … a plastic bag trapped in the fence rustling …’) ‘6.45 KB RAM is made from the output of Procedure #9, a small application I wrote years ago in an effort to learn C++,’ she says. ‘Its working method is basically a bug I had in another application – it reads the memory of the machine and projects it on to the main screen, in the form of black and white pixels. I believe that’s really the mythical zeros and ones in the brain of your Mac that you see there.’
In contrast, her cover for Heroin, a CD by Stephan Mathieu and Ekkehard Ehlers has an almost heraldic appearance with a ‘handmade’ roughness that suggests fabric design or ceramic tiles. Yet once again, it is ‘made by machine’. As she explains: ‘It’s from a close-up of a screenshot of a file that had been converted from lots of to 256 colours. I had made a series of this kind of pattern and Stephan (Mathieu) chose one. Later on I wrote a Max patch that generates this kind of pattern.’
When I ask her to name some favourite designers, in an attempt to root out sources and reference points for her work, she cites Plazm Design in Portland, US, for their www.anti-war.us initiative, though she stresses that her reason for choosing this website is not because of ‘its design but because of its political importance as a forum for graphic designers to post anti-war visuals.’ Lorenz believes in combining her aesthetic beliefs with her radically inclined political convictions. ‘I want to make the world look better’, she says. ‘And I’ve always believed that people will take any message more seriously the less shitty it looks.’ She still works for an anti-war organisation.
She also mentions as other sources of inspiration The Designers Republic ‘for their All Art is Shit / All Shit is Art double poster’, and furniture designer Lisa Norinder for her Benjamin chair. But the most direct influence comes from the people she works with: Stefan Stefanescu, Andreas Koch, Sebastian Fessel, Anke Fesel, Kai Dieterich (‘all of whom I met at Scheinschlag’), Stephan Mathieu and Christopher Murphy of Fällt. She notes the importance of Grappa Design: ‘We shared offices with them during the first year at Scheinschlag. We were young and they were our superheroes … along with Cyan, who are a Grappa spin-off and thus stylistically very close. Other than that, I’m trying not to be influenced too much.’
And in this she appears successful. Like the ‘other-worldly’ music she is so closely linked to, her work has few antecedents. If you had to liken her to someone else you might think of John Maeda. But in comparison, Maeda’s work appears dense, complex, self-conscious and ‘designed’. She is aware of Maeda’s work but rejects him as a direct influence: ‘I only know Maeda because Chris [Murphy] of Fällt mentioned his work to me, maybe two years ago or so. I like his approach, and I think it’s sometimes similar to mine … but the methods are not quite the same. All of the stuff mentioned above I did long before I knew anything about him.’
Typographically, Lorenz is no iconoclast. Her type stylings are tidy, considered and conventional, and unlike her ‘magnified pixel landscapes’, lack the shock of the new. And when Lorenz moves away from the severe aesthetic of her computer-based work, into the area of representational illustration, the pictorial, or the purely typographical, her work is less convincing. Her woodblock 12-inch album covers using the wrong side of the board for Preed, Laub and Stol on the Kitty-yo label, are charming and perhaps slightly unusual for the crystalline world of electronic music, but this tactile approach has been heavily used in sleeve design; the covers don’t stand up against Lorenz’s more radical work.
Lorenz’s greatest attribute is her ability to make her image-based work look entirely auto-generative, yet at the same time visibly crafted by a sophisticated design sensibility. She is helped in this by her self-effacing nature, which imparts a sense of weightlessness, almost a discarnate note, to her work. And just as many of the musicians she works with use pseudonyms and hide behind aliases, so Lorenz disguises herself under the genderless name, alorenz, to which she adds a geographical locator (alorenz, Berlin; alorenz, Vienna, etc.) depending on where the work was done.
Her best work has a purity that suggests the emergence of a second generation of digital aesthetics to rival the ‘layered look’ of the past two decades. Whether you call it laptop graphics or lowercase graphics, it represents a genuinely fresh voice in contemporary design.
As Lorenz notes: ‘I’m really rather uninterested in “classical” images. When I was working at the pre-press house I always found the repro part extremely boring – making skies bluer and teeth whiter and everything as “realistic” as possible – all this fetishism with the newest state-of-the-art FM screening on glossy paper to make it look “perfect” and like the “real” thing. I mean, in the end the “real” thing is little dots of ink on paper. That’s what I find much more interesting.’
Adrian Shaughnessy, creative director, Intro, London
First published in Eye no. 49 vol. 13 2003
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