Autumn 2000

Cultural chameleon

The German publication Shift! takes familiar signs from the world of image consumption and reconfigures them for its own purposes. The changing format, from disk to book to board game, is an essential part of its identity

The Berlin publication Shift! is always a delightful surprise. A bit like an impromptu present, you never know what form it is going to take and when you are going to receive it. Since its first incarnation as a fold-out poster back in 1995, the flesh of this chameleon-like publication has been the work of its contributors. Shift!’s creators, Anja Lutz and Lilly Tomec, wanted the publication to be a place where people from all creative disciplines could meet. The question every Shift! since seems to have asked is: ‘How do you make something out of this raw material, these diverse offerings?’

In the early days, the only starting point was a theme. Shift! invited material by mailing postcards to potential contributors and waited to see what came in. They then developed the publication out of the material received. The results, though always zany and inventive, tended to take the form of a binder containing a collection of pictures and words. Some were inspired, such as ‘Goethe’, a QuickTime movie and set of posters tied between green boards with string and decorated with a feather, or ‘Meat’, a shrink-wrapped sheaf of papers covered in a brown wrapper and stamped like a carcass which came complete with hole and meat-hook. The presentation tended to eclipse the contents – a motley collection of drawings, photos, illustrations, poems – some clever, some dull – all submitted in response to the given theme.

More recently, Shift!’s editorial intervention has become more premeditated. This has resulted in a publication whose parts and sum have become fused. Lutz, now the main creative force behind Shift! describes the project as that very German thing – the Gesamtkunstwerk – the artwork whose form and content are inseparable. ‘Power Games’, a small plastic lunch-box full of individually designed recipe cards, harnesses the diversity of the contributions through the graphical format of the card. The cards contain a mad range of offerings, from the ingredients of Adolf Eichmann’s last snack to a pack of seeds and instructions with which readers can grow their own salad.

The parameters may have become sharper, but if anything this has made Shift! more experimental. For the ‘Berlin’ edition, ten artists were given a week to spend in the city so they could document their experiences and as a group produce the publication. Working day and night, they came up with a cute touristy retro cover that holds together impressions, bits of photos, drawings, snatched words and phrases, scrawlings, mutterings. A grid system of horizontal lines employed throughout the publication barely keeps the raw material from spilling out. The publication is imbued with the atmosphere of the project – the immediacy of the experience and the participants’ failure to make anything whole out of the city.

Then there was ‘Doubletake’, on the face of it the straightest publication, yet the 150-page paperback measuring 230 x 170mm was possibly Shift!’s most poetic project. Participants were asked to take a photo every twenty minutes over the course of a day, then rewind the film and send it to a friend in another part of the world. The friend did the same thing and returned the film to Shift! The result is a crisply laid-out volume of pictures sifted from the 1800 frames that came in. Some of the pictures have a ghostly ungraspable quality; others are funny or surreal; some are just sumptuously abstract. The actual layout and editing was the work Lutz and fellow graphic designer Christian Küsters, who is based in London. As Lutz explains: ‘The double exposures had an accidental quality but the accidents required tight handling.’

While ‘Berlin’ may have taken a week to produce, ‘Get Rich with Art’, a complex board game with a cd-rom and soundtrack, the most ambitious Shift! so far, took nine months of close collaboration between Lutz, artist Jim Avignon and software designer Florian Thalhofer. Despite its use of up-to-the-minute technology, the game still gives players the chance to get out their scissors and glue to assemble some of the pieces. It is here – in Shift!’s ability to make its presence felt as a thing, a three-dimensional object that can be held, handled, smelled – that its essence lies. Shift! recalls the childhood delight in a cardboard doll with all her outfits to cut out, or a pop-up book. In Lutz’s view, as access to digital information becomes increasingly efficient, much printed material will become obsolete, especially the dull and poorly produced. It is not so much a question of conflict between print and digital media, but rather of print taking up territory that digital media may well not be able to reach: where it can give physical, tactile stimulation and be enjoyed for its objectness.

But the publication is produced as much for its creators as for its readers. Lutz describes the project as a playground that gives her and her colleagues the freedom to try out new practices and approaches not available to them in professional practice. The energy to be gained from working with constantly new constellations of people is also a big factor, as is the chance to look at working processes. ‘It’s not only about the end product: some work, some don’t.’ she says. There is no profit in it for them; the publication just breaks even. They get the odd discount from printers but no grants. But then, as Lutz points out, this enables them to keep their independence and freedom from commercial interference.

Like some kind of rocking capsule in a parallel universe, Shift! offers its readers a break from the regular, templated world. Readers are addressed as friends and the publicity leaflet invites them on board: ‘If Shift! was your local, you’d be able to give up your flat and spend the rest of your days there – you won’t find a better world.’ Shift! aficionados tend to be like the people who make the publication: designers and artists who get a kick out of possessing an object which has so clearly been made – not in the sense that it is shoddy or home-made, but in the sense that it is something that has been thought about in new and different ways. Shift! takes familiar cultural signs and puts them together them in upbeat, offbeat configurations. It is located in a space that is both outside but at the same time part of the world of image consumption.

In the Shift! universe, play is paramount and objects don’t need to be defined and processed according to the play-safe dictates of the market. Getting Shift! through the mail is like ordering a little blast of fresh creativity. It takes us to a place we all need to keep visiting – one that shifts our reality into another gear so we remember that things don’t always have to be the same.

Deborah Burnstone, artist, translator, London

First published in Eye no. 37 vol. 10, 2000

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.