Summer 1994

Information sculpture

Tomato are a group of friends, a physical space somewhere in Soho, a multimedia workshop, descendents of Warhol’s Factory… anything but a design group. ‘Graphic design?’ they say. ‘We don’t know what it is’

So far this has been Tomato’s year. Need a talking head for the BBC Design Awards? Call Tomato. A design team with a difference for the lifestyle pages of Arena? Think red. In the nightclubs an album by two of the team is a dancefloor hit. On the college lecture circuit their gospel of self-expression has bemused tutors accusing them of irresponsibility. The students love it. Colleagues are taking notice. On the afternoon set for our first interview, Peter Saville, ex-Pentagram, ex-Frankfurt Balkind, drops by their Soho offices to check them out. From Saville himself to Why Not Associates, the cult names of British design in the 1990s are by and large the cult names of the 1980. Tomato, whatever else they might have achieved, are the first home team of the new decade to equal this impact.

In many ways they are natural successors to Britain’s earlier wave of graphic pioneers. But Tomato go a crucial step further. There has always been an uneasy match between what the more corporate-minded experimentalists say they are doing in their work and what they actually do. The rhetoric they use to explain their intentions when pressed is no different in essence from the rhetoric employed by the more traditional competitors they affect to despise. They claim to offer their clients ‘solutions’ specially tailored, just as the textbook says, to fit the ‘problem’ at hand. Self-expression, they will argue, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, is always subordinated to the client’s communication needs.

Tomato abandon any such pretence. ‘You can’t “solve” a problem,’ says Simon Taylor. ‘You can only respond to it for that moment in time…When we are doing what we do best it’s not about doing it for the client, it’s not about business, it’s about making the images.’ They draw no functional distinction between commercial work and their ambitious extracurricular projects. They are all part of the same continuing process and this process – a word they use constantly – is the key. ‘They are not by-products,’ says Graham Wood of his explorations in typo-video. ‘They are the main thing.’

This openness about their real motivation is invigorating. Many will reject Tomato’s approach, but at least it can be seen for what it is. If the much needed debate in British graphic design has yet to take place (see Monitor, ‘I don’t use a Mac but I know a man who can’) it is partly because the new guard still claims to be performing substantially the same service as the old guard. So the discussion becomes bogged down, simplistically, in a dispute over matters of taste: do you like your graphics garnished with ‘ideas’ or ‘style’? Tomato’s challenge is much more fundamental than this. Rejecting conventional categories as limiting, they roundly dismiss the very idea of professional graphic design. ‘What does “graphics” mean?’ asks John Warwicker, professing to be none the wiser after 14 years in the business. ‘I have absolutely no idea.’

Tomato emerged three years ago from the collapse of Warwicker’s previous venture, Vivid I.D, the print wing of pop promo-maker Luc Roeg’s production company. Collectively dedicated to the idea of cross-pollination, its eight members are linked by friendship, shared office space and the loosest of financial arrangements. Four – Warwicker, Wood, Taylor and illustrator Dirk van Dooren – have a background in graphics. Karl Hyde and Richard Smith are two-thirds of the techno band Underworld and there is a film-maker now based in New Zealand. Everyone stresses the lack of hierarchy in the group, but Warwicker, the oldest designer at 38, is clearly a pivotal figure. ‘He taught me a hell of a lot,’ says Taylor, and Wood, who met Warwicker as a student and then went to work at Vivid, agrees.

For Warwicker more than any of the others, Tomato provided a chance to take stock and start again. After studying graphics in the mid-1970s, he spent two years at Birmingham Polytechnic researching electronic interactive media. The technology was in its infancy and he concentrated on the philosophical and linguistic dimensions of the changes to come. In the early 1980s, as a member of the CBS-signed rock group Freur with Hyde and Smith, he operated computers and video on stage. His early conviction as a student that ‘there are no borders – the definitions are ridiculous’ has become Tomato’s operating principle.

In the 1980s, before Vivid, he put in stints as creative director of design studio de Gama and at A&M Records, where he was art director and head of video. He learned a great deal, but it was hard to produce truly personal work for stars like Janet Jackson and Chris DeBurgh, whose music he did not even like. ‘Those years were not wasted,’ he says now, ‘but misplaced maybe.’ After Tomato started, it took another two years of tough collective criticism and ‘cleansing the system’ before he was happy with his new portfolio.

‘We are all on a journey,’ says Warwicker. ‘All your work is just experience. What you are drawing is maps of your experience and Tomato is the place where we go to compare experiences through these maps. We often take our reference points from areas outside the medium we are using – to enrich it. We bring a map from one territory and overlay it with another to see what happens.’

Typography is treated filmically; video is reconceived, in accordance with film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky’s dictum, as a kind of sculpture in time. Hyde, a former environmental artist, reworks graphic notations from Warwicker, who edits and rewrites words generated by Hyde that will be used in songs for a CD or in a book that may combine with the mutating graphics to become the shooting script for a collectively made film. The common platform that makes these interactions so fluid is the Macintosh. It is rare for a piece of work with only one author to emerge from the flux of the studio.

Language is another shared preoccupation. ‘The reason I like type is because I can read,’ says Wood. ‘I like paintings with words in. I like films with words in. I like title sequences.’ His MA thesis, completed in 1992, is less conventional dissertation than a piece of compressed and elliptical creative writing. Hanging on the studio wall is a quotation used in the thesis taken from The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Werner Herzog’s film about the acquisition of language and the making of personal identity. Kaspar sows his name with cress seeds. Somebody comes into the garden and steps on them. He plans to sow his name again.

Next to it is another typographically treated extract from the thesis that begins with the first line of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: ‘The world is all that is the case.’ Wittgenstein, it emerges, is the patron saint of the team; three out of the four of them mention his name. ‘The last thing he wrote, two days before he died, was ‘outside I can hear the rain on the window’,’ says Wood. ‘And that’s what it’s about: it’s about life. For me, the last line of Tractatus, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” is just about the most beautiful thing I have ever read.’

Conversations with members of Tomato have a way of circling inevitably back to this point. What is this intensely personal work about? On the face of it the answer is always vague. It is about ‘experience’. It is about ‘life’. It is about the ‘process’ of doing it and this process, says Wood, ‘is as much about breathing and heartbeat as about the things that you do’. We may not be able to enter or understand or say anything useful about Wittgenstein’s silence (‘the mystical’, as he termed it) but we can make work about the fact that it is there.

‘We’re sculpting information,’ says Warwicker, ‘and the process goes through various media and you cut that media at a certain point and that becomes your piece of work.’ Taylor likens the process to a road movie: ‘It doesn’t matter where you came from or where you end up. Anything can happen en route and it’s not restricted by its beginning or its end. In design terms I like the same approach.’

Tomato’s work is not so much about ideas, though it is richly informed by them, as about emotion and expression, an attempt to snatch and log the fleeting multiple details and momentary atmospheric sensations of daily experience. In literature this tradition has stretched from Joyce to Woolf’s stream of consciousness to the transcribed-as-they-came-to-me typewriter confessions of Kerouac and the Beats. Tomato’s exaltation of the moment leads to imagery whose natural state seems to be one of digital transition – next time you see it it might look entirely different – or that is ‘finished’, in the sense that no more work will be done on it, without being definitely resolved or complete.

Nowhere is this essential instability clearer than in a 300-page book made by Warwicker and Hyde evoking a ‘typographic journey’ through New York. Titled Mmm Skyscraper I Love You, it emerged from their collaboration on the sleeve of Underworld’s first album Dubnobasswithmyheadman. While there is no single Tomato ‘style’ the sleeve’s graphics (‘Art by Tomato’) come closest to encapsulating the dominant mood of their printed work. The spirit of New York Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline – ‘a vast influence on our typography’ according to Warwicker – animates the huge hovering blocks and impacted shards of typographic matter. Kline too rendered the city as a brutal rhapsody in black and white.

In the book, assembled from their joint output, the sense of typographic collapse and renewal takes on greater complexity. ‘When you walk along the street you are assailed by noises, textures, smells,’ explains Warwicker. ‘The atmosphere and emotion of walking through the city forms the content and description.’ Randomly spliced together by Hyde, Skyscraper’s pages are a subjective documentary seen one moment in an overpowering close-up, then in long shot so that only mass and outline remain. Hyde and Warwicker’s texts, bizarre and disjointed urban narratives based on conversations Hyde overhears in the street, move in and out of frame. In Tomato’s imaginary paper Manhattan, as in Archigram’s instant cities of the 1960s, the parts can be removed, replaced and recombined. The laserprinted book represents just one possible version of events and both individual pages and unifying structure continue to evolve.

The next step, using the book as screenplay, is to make Skyscraper into an hour-long film for television. They are talking to potential backers. ‘We’re going to New York with a blank canvas in all the different media,’ says Warwicker. What do they want it to communicate? ‘That’s for the viewer to decide.’ Again the final outcome seems less important than the process itself – and here, perhaps, they may run into the limits of their improvisational method. Holding a channel-zapping audience’s attention for 60 minutes is an altogether tougher challenge than ‘jamming’ for your own pleasure and ‘sending secret codes to each other’ – as Warwicker put its – with the Macintosh.

Like much recent graphic design, Tomato’s work seems to aspire to the condition of film – or if not film exactly, then some still more plastic and permeable synthesis of media. Warwicker cuts his teeth directing promos for rock stars at A&M Records. Taylor and Van Dooren also have projects on the showreel. It is Wood, though, who has emerged in the last year as arguably the most original and Zeitgeist-attuned typographer working for British advertising, with commercial for the Guardian, Nike (see Eye no.12 vol.3) and MTV and a string of other moving-image projects. For six months, he was in-house typographer at London agency Leagas Delaney, before coming to the conclusion it was not for him. ‘I don’t know what my opinion is of advertising per se,’ he says. ‘But I’ve come to understand it over the last year and sympathise with it in a way.’

The long hours Wood puts in at The Mill, one of Europe’s best-equipped and most expensive TV and video facilities houses, qualify him for free studio time. ‘You’ve got to put manure on a rose to make it grow,’ he says bluntly. In other words, the advertising pays for the art. The roses in this case are two experimental videos which exploit the same reverse-order, print-to-video production techniques and low-res textures as his commercials. Wood generates ordinary flat black and white artwork with the Macintosh, then cuts it together with live-action footage, treats, blurs and roughens it up. Soundtrack and image clatter along in sync. ‘I always had problems with pop videos because I thought, why aren’t people cutting to the rhythm? It’s so obvious it’s almost stupid, otherwise what’s the point of making a piece of film to the music? Most of the things I do are the wrong way of doing it, or the most obvious way that everyone seems to have forgotten about.’

What Wood has created is a kind of ambient typography comparable to the ambient music and ambient video of artist-musicians such as Brian Eno, David Sylvian and David Cunningham. The earliest experiments in ambience in the 1970s were characterised by their deliberate, calming slowness. They gave a reduced quantity of musical or visual information relative to their length. You could dip in and out while doing other things because you would miss nothing crucial. The point was the way they coloured the atmosphere.

In its most stroboscopic form (see the Guardian commercial) ambient typography insists on your attention, speeds you up rather then slows you down, prefers ultra-compression to the theoretically endless continuum postulated by Eno – this is advertising, after all – and bombards you with more typographic information per screen-second than you can possibly absorb. But in one crucial sense the effect is the same. The meaning lies as much in the atmosphere generated by the flashing wordshapes as in their particular linguistic content, as much in the pattern as in the solitary particle.

There is no reason, though, why ambient typography has to be so fast. In Wood’s video for the Underworld dancetrack ‘Cowgirl’ there is less information and a higher degree of repetition, with the words on screen sometimes supplementing or contradicting what is said. A metallic voice sings ‘everything, everything, everything …’ Wood expands it with Wittgenstein’s ‘The world is all that is the case.’ The voice sings ‘I’m invisible’. Wood amends it to ‘indivisible’ – as good a description as any of his own method. Cutting words and phrases to the beat and echoing, or not quite echoing, the verbal with the visual turns screen typography into a medium of almost physical sensation. The effect is compelling. In a more recent video for Estonian composer Arvo Part’s inherently ambient ‘Festina Lente’ (‘make haste slowly’), for strings and harp, Wood achieves something even closer to the original slowed-time conception of ambient video. Brief poetic phrases written by Wood himself emerge in a leisurely cycle from the tinted mist of the abstract background.

Is Tomato’s work art, graphic design, or some new yet improperly understood communication hybrid – ‘information sculpture’ to use Warwicker’s term – somewhere in between? Tomato recognise the existence of the categories, but they waste no time wondering where they fit. ‘To categorise something is to put it into a box,’ says Wood, ‘to build barriers, walls. Process is about evolution and development. Categories and process are anathema to each other.’

Tomato would be much less significant if they were alone. Among British designers working in this area they stand out for being unusually clear about their aims. But their attempt to inject personal art into commerce is part of a wider Euro-American tendency which, though bitterly resented in some quarters, is transforming our conception of graphics.

If potential clients feel Tomato’s aims are compatible with their communication needs they can buy into the process, but the team will not suppress, distort, or disguise or otherwise change its approach to fit the brief. To date they have worked for advertising, publishing and them music business, electronics giant Philip (a 350-page multimedia strategy report), the BBC (an identity for the corporation’s entry into the Internet is in progress), a Japanese footwear retailer and architect Richard Rogers. As for solving their clients’ problems, here is that rare phenomenon: a successful, sought-after design team that makes no claim to have solved any problems at all.

First published in Eye no. 13 vol. 4 1994

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