Spring 1994

P. Scott Makela is wired

Does Minneapolis-based Makela’s electro-futurism embody the end of the 1980s or a new avant-garde?

In my studio, headphones over my ears, Macintosh screen flickering, desk and floor littered with posters and brochures, telephone off the hook, television glowing mutely at the other side of the room, I am having a P. Scott Makela experience. The tape recording blaring in my head, of a discussion that took place in a corner booth at Coffee Shop, a model bar on Union Square, New York the week before, is so densely packed with ambient noise – the clatter of cutlery, the crack of Rolling Rock bottles slapped down by the waitress, the deep bass thump of ‘I’m Every Woman’ – that Makela’s stream-of-consciousness thoughts monologue, full of insight, mysticism, truncated literary allusion, sci-fi futurism, post-structural jargon, cyberpunkisms, skate-rat slang and straightforward mid-Western charm, is practically subsumed in audio texture.

‘Texture’ is one of the top Makela terms, along with ‘tribalism’, ‘cyberspace’ and ‘muscularity’. I can think of no other person who could deliver the sentence ‘We need to maintain secretions and the liquidity of work …’ without a hint of irony. This is the new boy-language of fin-de-siecle futurism developed within the loosely organised subculture that includes computer hackers, cybersurfers, skateboarders, post-grunge alternative fanatics and disaffected D + D (for Dungeon and Dragons) fantasisers. Add in a dose of New Age mysticism and trippy 1960s drug talk and you get the underpinnings of an aesthetic wave that has swept into the public consciousness in everything from MTV to Crystal Pepsi.

Cyberpunk is last year’s instalment in the endless cycle of newness. Not a real movement, notes New York Times journalist Nick Ravo, ‘it’s really just an attitude, one that tries to give computer geeks’ interests (science fiction, comic books, computers) a cool image by infusing them with an aura of male teen-age rebellion (sex, drugs, rock-and-roll) and a pseudo-libertarian philosophy (anarchy, distrust of authority, apocalyptic gloom).’ For the most part, cyberdiscourse (primarily in text form) happens in rarefied cyberspace that exists between people with access to powerful workstations attached to ubiquitous Internet – the grand system of linking networks that connects cybersurfers worldwide. In the last couple of years Makela has mined this exotic digital world and constructed a visual analogue that has given the wizened computer hacker a total fashion make-over.

Thirty-three years old and just three years out of graduate school, Makela makes extravagantly ornamented paraphernalia for art schools, cable stations and cultural institutions in a quasi-electro-futurist style that is increasingly making its way into mainstream media and design competitions, and passes for our avant-garde of the moment. As I am neither a modernist curmudgeon not a post-structural apologist, I see Makela’s work neither as the focal point of all this is evil in the world nor as a harbinger of an egalitarian age of unrestricted information flow. Rather, for me, this work represents the ultimate extension and exhaustion of the little baroque period of the 1980s.

‘Hello, my name is Scott Makela and I don’t draw well.’ Makela, prophet of pixel, virtual reality, the Internet, information platforms, organic interfaces, is sitting bolt upright, hands in his lap, imitating the gravity of a new member of a twelve step programme. ‘I work at weird hours of the night, listen to strange music, I had a difficult childhood and I’m dyslexic.’ His conversation is peppered with self-deprecatory revelations and moments of genuine openness that lend him the soft charm of a natural salesman. You can see immediately how he gets his difficult work – work that shares that same honest enthusiasm and positive energy – past his clients.

Makela has the ability to mould himself to fit his habitat – a skill that is especially useful in his inordinate pursuit of the Zeitgeist, or to use his term, ‘edge’. As a teenager in St. Paul, Minnesota in the 1970s ‘during the Jesus-freak time’, he defied his Roman Catholic parents and joined a fervent evangelical Christian sect. But in a typically Makelan act of hybridisation, he grafted his intense religiosity to his interest in music to form a proselytising, heavy metal Pentecostal band that toured the circuit of revival meetings and church outings.

By the time college came around, the object of his devotion had begun to shift. Makela muses, ‘I am a deeply religious person about whatever I feel at that moment … it’s just that it changes quickly.’ After studying economics and political science for long enough to realise that he was not garnering any appreciable skills, he enrolled in the graphic design department at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and was indoctrinated into the International Style by the Swiss Modernist pedagogy still popular in the early 1980s. As for many frustrated art students at the time, the new wave typographers Wolfgang Weingart, April Greiman and Dan Friedman offered respite from the boredom of painting leaves and keys. Upon graduation in 1984, Makela followed Greiman to Los Angeles.

Though he remembers the time spent building his LA studio Commbine (with partners Paul Knickelbine and Laurie Haycock) with fondness, the LA lifestyle of the high yuppie period left him burned out. ‘I feel like we had a failed business. I did so much work, I made a lot of money …’ After playing the young, hard-living West Coast entrepreneur for five years, he abandoned the life of identity systems and signage programmes for graduate studies at the Cranbrook in the late 1980s. ‘When I was at Cranbrook I became interested in a kind of future that might have a certain sensuality in it, that might have room for independence and a kind of tribalism. At Cranbrook we were all little one-person tribes and I was the first wire-head.’ He also had the good fortune to arrive at the tail end of the schools’ meteoric arc before the publication of the retrospective Cranbrook Design: The New Discourse had the effect of codifying the visual experimentation of the previous ten years into a readily defined style. His poster announcing the publication of the book – replete with ‘screaming orange brain’ (see cover, Eye no. 3 vol. 1) – marked the beginning of a new body of work and growing visibility.

After graduation Makela returned full circle to Minneapolis – where his now wife Laurie Haycock had been hired as an art director at the Walker Art Center – to start his most recent venture, Words and Pictures for Business and Culture. In Minneapolis he has managed to build a new career around his very personal view of what signifies the future. ‘I’m interested in positioning myself with clients who have a message they want to communicate with some kind of muscularity, and are also open to a vision of a future that might be, even though we don’t have the technology to create it right now.’

Since returning to Minneapolis Makela’s work has become significantly more eclectic. Especially notable are his collaborations with producer Jeffery Plansker – including a music video for the late Miles Davis, television commercials for a shoe store and a Brazilian cigarette company and network promotions for a Canadian cable television station. Though his contributions so far has limited to the insertion of bits of skewed typography, he looks forward to getting more deeply involved in the direction and production in the future. He also continues to produce printed work, including two catalogues for his alma mater MCAD, a visual essay for Design Quarterly and a poster for the American Center for Design’s ‘Living Surfaces’ conference. ‘I’m really interested in this concept of ‘living surfaces’ … in merging mystical elements with industrial elements or alloys, cultural alloys.’

It is a concept that infiltrates his work on a variety of levels. After a hard labour, Makela and collaborator Keith Lewis have also delivered a music CD, released a marketed by the Emigre label, entitled AudioAfterBirth. It is a collection of songs and compositions – with titles ‘Waiting with Baudrillard’, ‘Telepresence’ and ‘Biohemispheric’ – constructed from snippets and sounds collected from the media environment. Featuring occasional vocals from Haycock, it serves as an “audio elaboration” of Makela’s visual ideas.

The theme that ties this eclectic array of projects together is an omnipresent sense of unlimited hybridisation and ‘scratching at the future’. Makela plays on popular fantasies of what the future will look like – though as sci-fi author Ursula LeGuin notes, ‘Science fiction isn’t about the future’, but about our existing state of desire projected on to images of the future. The current imagination holds that the future will be wildly complex, with a lot more electronic information buzzing around. And so Makela makes fantasy pictures of a world we do not yet have the technology to produce – a utopian dream world of expanded access and individual freedom in which the masses are liberated by the silicon chip, as opposed to a nightmare of growing corporate control or a sterile laboratory purified through increasingly sophisticated electronic filters.

The Makelan future bubbles with an exuberant psychedelia. ‘I’m trying to make it more like a dream or a hallucination.’ It is not really interactive media or virtual reality, but rather carefully constructed cacophony – two-dimensional illustrations of the exotic world of electronic circuitry set to a wall-of-noise soundtrack supplied by Black Flag, Henry Rollins Band or a heavily sampled but of Public Enemy rather than spacey synthesiser of traditional sci-fi. ‘My mantra is it must bleed on all four sides.’ Type spills on top of type, pictures fade away and radiate, images of mundane objects slide seemingly unwittingly into the frame. Metallic inks, drop shadows and super bold type push the information layer to the surface. The typography floats above the images like bright leaves on an iridescent puddle of oil.

The sense of a microscopic / macroscopic play in scale gives these highly impacted pictures an aura of terra incognita. The fractured, subjective language, typical of the Cranbrook style of the late 1980s, is taken to an extreme. All the elements lose their inherent form as they are sucked into the soup of pixels. Looking from close up or from far away does not make much difference, while the individual objects represented – obscure pieces of machinery, tools, blurry video scenes, fuzzy textures – appear merely to service the overall mood. ‘I think it might help average people who aren’t designers to imagine what we can expect in our periphery when we see things every day, in what will be our electronic world.’

This idea of leading the public to the door of the twenty-first century is one of the few references to an end-use to enter our conversation. Makela’s concern is not so much function as vision. But perhaps his promise of a digitally interconnected techno-world is not so different from the sparkling optimism of a 1950s Popular Science article predicting a 1990s in which we would all ascend to our suburban rooftop landing pads to board our single-passenger helicopters for a trouble-free commute to the office. Makela’s vision assures us that the technological mayhem that plagues contemporary life will magically fall into place to clear the way for a trouble-free transit on the information super-highways of tomorrow.

These bright pictures of a future world constructed from the current palette of digital detritus are in effect dummies standing in for the real technology wave to come. They are complex not to signify complex ideas, but rather to signify the idea of complexity. Though the highly articulated surfaces call our for careful reading, the result of that deciphering may reveal only a jumble of oddly juxtaposed, enigmatic objects suspended in a web of pixels. The message – disorder and fragmentation – is always the same.

So complexity becomes an end in itself rather than a metaphor for a parallel system. Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow is incredibly dense and complex, almost impenetrable, but close reading and effort are rewarded by the discovery of the novel’s deep structure. The same can be said for certain buildings, paintings and even designs. Makela’s images, on the other hand, often suggest a dense web of meaning, the ingredients of a Berthesian readerly text, but close inspection may reveal a paucity rather than a fullness of meaning. It is as if the future world will be one pixel thick, full of sound and fury, signifying… what exactly? The designer cannot say for sure, what is the reader’s problem.

First published in Eye no. 12 vol. 3, 1994

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