Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

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Underground evolved

3 June, 2009

As a consequence of not having had the chance to post over the last couple of months, I’ve missed out on announcing news just as it was breaking out on the aggregated feed circuit. But that’s not to say that any of the initial excitement or relevance has waned at all since then, especially when the headlining content added another unique dimension to the way in which we surf and enjoy the web — precisely the reason why the new site launch of R.fm still deserves a much coveted honourable mention as the site to watch closely in the upcoming months as it continues to reshape the frontier that exists between interactive blogging and dynamic multimedia. Taking off on 15th April and flying high ever since, the redesign of the online music channel/magazine/library/gallery dubbed ‘Acid Squaredance‘ was one that was much anticipated not least due to knowing how well the dynamic team of curators, designers and music-lovers over at R.fm Headquarters have managed to provide the much-needed answer to what was once music-based television programming in the past, but is now streaming on-demand in today’s digital and mobile age.

I have myself lamented on more than one occasion here previously over both the scattered nature of genuinely good music video content and the (lack of) comprehensive accuracy with which it’s reported (it’s precisely for these reasons that I began compiling my own finds onto Ampersound, so as to not lose track  of the bookmarks whilst doing the daily browse-through on YouTube, Vimeo, Dailymotion and countless others that are often not M[usic?]TV). Fortunately for the genuine music fans out there, the Acid Squaredance ethic is obviously one that serves to remedy this gap in the market by not only putting great videos into correct context, but by also allowing viewers to explore the artists/musicians/directors behind them — plus an added bonus of live sets, recommendations, and news at the fore in the world of art, design and culture. What’s more is that the new site layout is incredibly attractive, with its sleek monochrome interface punctuated by accents of colour and seamless navigation inspired by the Grid-A-Licious theme.

Pre-relaunch, my first experience of R.fm had been on the net-TV hub Joost a long while back, by then already a popular music gateway featuring a finely curated selection of recordings and video clips showcasing some of the finest specimens that the club scene has had to offer in recent years. With a solid following locally on the video/premier mobile platforms as well as spinning off into the Last.fm community and across the Facebook grapevine, the Stockholm-based network is deeply embedded within the culture it aims to curate as they work ‘in close co-operation with artists, directors, creative studios and imprints’. Post-relaunch, R.fm has come to aptly demonstrate the great potential of how well music-based content found across the web and in the hottest clubs worldwide can be compiled to form a single online hub through intelligent design. And the credit is owed to the creative team led by founder/creative director Joel Brosjö and design partner Suprb — the studio founded by Andreas Pihlström, who himself has recently relaunched his own site on the Cargo Collective platform where you can browse through his brilliant portfolio.

Alongside co-founder Ebrahim Isaacs, channel manager Gustav Bagge, and ambassador Lucho Ojeda (also running the dB night in Stockholm) on-board, you can rely on their channel for daily servings of visually stunning, high-resolution videos featuring equally impressive tracks ranging between techno, house and minimal to IDM, dubstep, and the more experimental variants of electronic music. You can sign up to the monthly newsletter, and also keep track of the regular stream of R.fm conversation, updates and current trendspotting news on Twitter @acidsquaredance and via the site’s Twitterfeed @rfmupdate. And after you check out R.fm’s must-see interactive section titled ‘Lookbook‘, you’ll have no doubt that the underground has truly evolved.

Sarah Badr © MMIX

See also: R.fm – Underground Evolved

Freeloading limit (pieces at random)

Ampersound (pieces at random)

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Arvikafestivalen

28 March, 2009

Click here for poster at higher resolution

Now that March has seemingly flown by without a trace, little obvious sign of the winter workload relenting has brought on the desire to fast-forward to the summer and some semblance of a real vacation. After thoroughly browsing through the summer festival pickings up for grabs, the selection has finally been narrowed down by the help of a friend who knows exactly which musicians to whom I’m most likely to fork over my hard-earned cash for three memorable days of performances and crowd revelry in celebration of some of the most talented acts on the festival circuit. And in this case it’ll be 1195,00 kronor (roughly £100) channelled for the Arvikafestivalen 2009 line-up that is massively (if not absolutely) unparalleled. Of course others such as Hultsfred, Roskilde, The Big Chill and Glade festivals are all fantastically enticing alternatives in and around the UK. But with this one being in Arvika — not to mention the inclusion of Nine Inch Nails on their ‘last tour‘ alongside new material featured by Fever Ray, Depeche Mode, Röyksopp, Jenny Wilson, KoRn, The Mars Volta and the eclectic list goes on — it’s almost impossible to pass up on the opportunity. Having said that, it might also be worth applying for a press pass prior to the 31st May deadline for some exclusive insights if you’re a photographer or journalist.

So if you’re reading this and already planning on going, feel free to get in touch for some fun camping coordination in July. And don’t forget to switch off your lights tonight at 8.30pm local time for Earth Hour!

Sarah Badr © MMIX

See also: Fever ray (pieces at random)

Beginning the end (pieces at random)

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Freeloading limit

25 March, 2009

As far as predictions go, this is likely to be the beginning of a series of features on the sustainability of various net-based business models experiencing the expository glory of the Web 2.0 surge over the last few years. And conveniently helping to kick-start this debate, revolutionary social music network Last.fm very briefly announced on the Last.HQ blog yesterday that they are to begin charging a non-optional subscription rate (should you choose to continue using the service) to users living outside the United Kingdom, United States and Germany. This €3.00-a-month decision is suggested to come as a result of the international licensing fees that have restricted the likes of Pandora from fully tapping into markets beyond their conventional core user-base back in 2007. Understandably, this creates a veritable dilemma once considering how it is precisely the regions beyond the UK, US and Germany in which such multimedia platforms have been seeing unbridled interest, use and support amongst a diverse forum of users and music listeners as they become increasingly connected and integrated with one another through technology and word-of-mouth. Of course this wouldn’t be the first instance of a move towards charging a premium for content, seeing as online news publications and Google (TBC) are already foraying into a world where free content is yielding to the need to compensate for falling advertising revenue in face of the economic downturn.

But before I grind my axe about YouTube and others, it is important to highlight the fact that the current state of free content simply cannot be sustained forever if one is to also expect product innovation, service differentiation and the expansion of  services offered online. I have written numerous times about Last.fm, very much in praise of what it has done to shape the media landscape in terms of enriching the music listener’s experience whilst facilitating interaction with enthusiastic and perhaps like-minded individuals on an international scale unparalleled despite the recent flood of new music-oriented web platforms. Slightly less obviously so, it has additionally helped to cultivate one’s passion for a variety of musical stylings that may have ordinarily taken a lifetime to explore, furthermore helping to dispel the notions of bad science linking music to the twisted world of profit-based corporate initiatives and targeted advertising (although when examining the nature of the press release, that latter point can easily be disputed). It is for these reasons and many others that the current model would undeniably need to be modified to sustain the company after the CBS acquisition and, sadly, the subsequent laying-off of staff here in East London this past December.

Now Last.fm states that the ‘business decision’ was needed ‘in order to keep providing the best radio service on the web’ and ‘support all the other free services’, promising to provide ‘unlimited access’ alongside improvements ‘for years to come’. One should emphasize, however, that user communications support, scrobbling, charts, recommendations, the events calendar, etc., will remain free for access worldwide. They optimistically state that there will also be a ’30 track free trial, and we hope this will convince people to subscribe and keep listening to the radio’. But despite that all seeming to be in the user’s best interest, the expected backlash will perhaps supersede that which took place following the major interface overhaul last summer. The flood of comments and forum dialogue already provides a fair amount of indication of such, with statements ranging between a series of disapproving expletives and those highlighting the increased attractiveness of alternatives such as Grooveshark, Deezer, RadioVeRVe and Spotify (especially in France). People have also enquired about the precise geographic determinants of the charge (IP address, postal address, nationality?), whilst expressing that the service should either be free for all or free for none.

It is that final note that directs attention to the notion of freeloading and the future of content consumption in a world where not only licensing varies extensively, but also purchasing power parity of currency differs between countries in a manner which makes a move such as Last.fm’s seem highly discriminatory. And it may be the case that the lack of consistent pricing across the board in member countries may prove to be at odds with EU law. But there does seem to be a general view that loyal users who may already be subscribed will go unaffected regardless of location; meanwhile, freeloaders will switch to the alternatives mentioned above, therefore increasing the cost of competition throughout the entire marketplace for everyone (including the competitors). In theory, Last.fm can take this risk now, especially if there is concern as regards to how the recent spike in the popularity of Spotify’s free on-demand service will cut into the Last.fm radio-listening user-base — that is until the two applications become more complementarily integrated. Whether the move will lead users to turn to Spotify or revert back to illegal filesharing is yet to be seen, though I suspect a younger audience located outside the G3 nations who are without the convenience of credit card access will resume (if not doing so already) the use of P2P and mirrors without any trouble at all.

According to Last.fm’s Matthew Ogle, the UK, US and Germany ‘are the countries in which we have the most resources to support an ad sales organization, which is how we earn money to pay artists and labels for their music. We are focused on the US, UK, and Germany as key markets, with the help of the CBS Interactive salesforce and our own sales team here in London. Our headquarters are in the UK and we’ve always had a strong presence in [Germany]. And so we’ve made the decision to focus on these markets for free streaming radio.’ But it would be naive to think that this only impacts specific markets, because web developers will be affected as well. As Steven Bengtson, a creator of the application Songbird, has pointed out, ‘this is also a big pain [because] we are releasing an update to our Last.fm add-on that allows streaming [and now] too bad for those other countries’. In addition, the same goes for labels whose main operating base lies outside of the G3, as a representative from a Brazilian label mentioned in discussion, making Last.fm less prominent of a feature in terms of marketing the music of a label to a home audience facing a price barrier under the proposed scheme.

Out of all the Last.fm user comments, perhaps this one best sums up the current situation: ‘It’s been a pleasure building up a global database for you so you can turn it into gold and then screw people over.’ A successful business strategy is, after all, extremely difficult to fine-tune and maintain whilst adapting to market forces fluctuating in a volatile global economic climate — not to mention the difficulty in appeasing everyone involved, especially when everyone is the massively infinite online community. Evolution is absolutely necessary in order to stay afloat and survive in the longrun, and a good demonstration of prospective monetization of web-based applications to build up the coffers in ways surpassing the potential of advertising was the spoof article in recent circulation on Twitter, itself about Twitter and the creation of premium accounts. Already Twitter has begun to test its own advertising model, bringing it closer in line with Facebook’s Beacon. But whereas content on networks such as Twitter and Facebook is user-generated rather than licensed by media industries (music, mainstream news and ‘premium’ video content) long struggling in the advent of piracy and online technologies, advertising no longer seems to be helping to balance the books.

To be honest, as I am currently in London and already a Last.fm subscriber, I am not particularly affected. However had I been in either Stockholm or Cairo at he moment, I would have to reconsider the burden of my subscription (probably dropping it for the latter city in question due to the exchange rate). Having written my IB dissertation on socio-economic disparity rooted in exchange rates and purchasing power parity in relation to the Third World some years ago, €3.oo will never seem to me to be a ‘mere’ €3.oo to be spent on something in a country where bootlegs are no more taboo than breathing the polluted air is. But for the time being, I will have to ask fellow neighbours and Last.fm users about whether or not they would be willing to pay the premium — especially if they are Spotify users as well. And I’m sure that the general outlook will change once Spotify becomes available worldwide, though considering the headache of all the licensing red tape it’s currently up against, part of me thinks global domination will be very unlikely for some time yet. But until then, perhaps Last.fm would be best advised to adopt Facebook’s recent approach of democratization if it is to maintain its popularity — and hopefully then it will take into serious consideration the feedback it has received from its users thus far after such a significant proposal of change.

Sarah Badr © MMIX

See also: Spotify v Last.fm (pieces at random)

Love thy neighbour (pieces at random)

Site overhaul (pieces at random)

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Beginning the end

28 February, 2009

I absolutely refuse for this to be the last time I write about Trent Reznor — and it won’t be. But what I’d like this to be is an open letter, less for protest, but rather more for clarification. Because the phrase ‘disappear for a while’ is certainly one of the last things you’d like to hear being spoken by the man responsible for producing the music you discovered you couldn’t not love the first time you watched Mark Romanek’s ‘Perfect Drug‘, then enamoured by its absinthe-coloured allusion. Indeed that was also the same year I had listened to Bowie’s ‘I’m Afraid of Americans‘ and eventually figured out the connection amongst others that bound NIN to the 1997 hit single as well as to Tool, Jane’s Addiction, Aphex Twin, Mötley Crüe and producer Bob Ezrin. But I know better than to plead, for as any fan of Nine Inch Nails would know, Reznor’s announcement at the end of last year doesn’t really come as a surprise. Any exacting musician has good sense of when a break is needed. And the ongoing decline resulting from the industry’s marginally adaptive 1990s MO further backfiring in the face of the tightening of fans’ purse-strings in difficult economic times hasn’t exactly made it easy to fill concert halls to the brim.

So the news of an impending and indefinite hiatus has again resurfaced lately, in preparation for what may be considered the final assembling of NIN on-stage, touring alongside resurrected fellow Alt-Nation legends Jane’s Addiction. In an earlier statement issued by Reznor on the band’s official site, he wrote ‘2009 marks the 20th anniversary of our first releases. I’ve been thinking for some time now it’s time to make NIN disappear for a while. Last year’s ‘Lights in the Sky’ tour was something I’m quite proud of and seems like the culmination of what I could pull off in terms of an elaborate production. It was also quite difficult to pull off technically and physically night after night and left us all a bit dazed. After some thought, we decided to book a last run of shows across the globe this year. The approach to these shows is quite different from last year — much more raw, spontaneous and less scripted. Fun for us and a different way for you to see us and wave goodbye.’ He asks, ‘Will it work? Will it resonate in the marketplace? Who knows. Is there big record label marketing dollars to convince you to attend? Nope. Does it feel right to us and does it seem like it will be fun for us and you? Yes it does.’

And perhaps he’s right. After all, the NIN canon has continued on strong since 1989, and the last few in particular have led to milestones that would be best kept untarnished in memory. The output of Reznor’s multifaceted genius coupled with his ever-changing team of musicians, engineers and producers has survived a spate of conflicts facing music corpocracy since as early as the 1990s with TVT Music up until Reznor’s decision to split with Interscope in 2007. As he puts it, ‘Corporate rock still sucks.’ That considered, an intimate tour allowing fans to remember and revel in the previous twenty-seven halos would be just the thing that’s needed at a time like this to celebrate all that’s been put forth since Pretty Hate Machine. As such, there’s a real chance that I may fork over a large sum of money I don’t yet have for a ticket when the tour schedule is announced. I had the opportunity to see NIN perform in Brixton back in October 2007 whilst on the European leg of their Live: With Teeth tour, and my memory of the performance which culminated in a profoundly moving keyboard solo for the very same ‘Hurt‘ that Johnny Cash himself later re-interpreted to great effect is reason enough to see them again. And the Beside You in Time DVD (clip below) provides additional incentive, though unlikely needed.

It may be worth mentioning that I respect Trent Reznor as much as I enjoy listening to NIN, for his understanding in the complexities of groundbreaking composition as much as for his having endured twenty years whilst making progress through well-made decisions rather than following a falsely lucrative spiral down. Having stood his ground in regards to both preserving his creative independence and being outspoken with his view of the previous US administration (to the extent of choosing not to perform), Reznor has come a long way in achieving the career he has whilst also evolving into the man he is today. He’s known for having told fans to ‘steal‘ his music. And upon finding out that the US Military had reportedly been using his music in the torture of detainees, he immediately issued the following statement: ‘It’s difficult for me to imagine anything more profoundly insulting, demeaning and enraging than discovering music you’ve put your heart and soul into creating has been used for purposes of torture. If there are any legal options that can be realistically taken they will be aggressively pursued, with any potential monetary gains donated to human rights charities. Thank God this country has appeared to side with reason and we can put the Bush administration’s reign of power, greed, lawlessness and madness behind us.’

But I must admit that I dislike to even think that the word ‘final’ fits into this equation. Deep down, I still have a sneaking suspicion that a special edition DVD will follow, alongside a greatest hits round-up and perhaps some more of that phenomenal instrumental dreamscape composition from Reznor as seen on Ghosts I-IV (the first to be released under a Creative Commons license under his independent imprint The Null Corporation, accompanied by a visually successful video competition about which I shall be posting shortly). Maybe Tapeworm will be brought out from under the dust and revived, or maybe Reznor will produce IDM under an alias, to be released on his own net-based label to continue the trend he helped to begin with Radiohead and that now Portishead is considering to follow (more on that soon). Or maybe he’ll help to turn-out a few more protégés to combat the increasingly uninspired ‘twee‘ sound of the industry mainstream. Or eventually (ideally) this would culminate in a reunion tour of sorts, five or so years down the line…Who knows? But I do know one thing: This is most definitely not the last time I will be writing about Nine Inch Nails.

Sarah Badr © MMIX

Nine Inch Nails – ‘Beside You in Time’, 12 of 19
North America, Winter 2006 (
Halo 22)

See also: The slip (pieces at random)

Downward spiral (pieces at random)

Rainbow revolution (pieces at random)

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Science machine

26 February, 2009

Who would’ve thought the Adobe Illustrator workspace could be such a winning backdrop for Portishead? That aside,  the hours of painstaking work and attention to detail that went into this beautiful piece by Brooklyn-based designer and illustrator Chad Pugh is inspired. In fact, it is this piece in particular that has helped in part to pave the way towards Vimeo‘s spotless interface and login illustration that we get to enjoy today. Commissioning the redesign earlier this year, the Vimeo team fronted by Jakob Lodwick and Zach Klein sought the expertise of the man whose portfolio has provided front-end output for the likes of Janet Jackson and Bon Jovi at the Fearless Concepts studio, and the success has been tremendous both for the site in terms of user feedback as well as for Pugh’s own career success. And seeing as I’ve spoken out considerably against YouTube‘s seeming lack of attention to image and general operation strategy in recent times (inevitably more to come soon), it goes without saying that a site like Vimeo provides much relief to the black-and-white eyesore that can be added to Twitter’s ‘#gfail‘ rap sheet.

Pugh’s filming of his Science Machine rendering in timelapse over several months totals approximately forty hours of working in depth on the elements featured in his landscape, with a screenshot taken every five seconds. Trimming the eighteen-minute total down to seven, it was set to Portishead‘s ‘We Carry On’ track (Third, 2008) for full dramatic effect. A truly incredible thing to behold when you know how much drive it takes to complete an illustration like this for personal enjoyment. And it’s obvious that that enjoyment has translated into Pugh’s work with Vimeo. On the two projects, he has said that ‘before working in-house at Vimeo I provided their login page illustration, which is used throughout the site in many different forms. It was inspired from some other personal illustration work I had just started pursuing and can be found at my store for purchase. I then had the opportunity to work with the staff on-site. Most of my time was spent exploring ideas for the sites interface, new sections, product branding and other features. My life has changed a lot since I started this.’

Unsurprisingly, the largest two prints are already sold-out. However ‘Afloat’ is still available, and it’s well worth checking back later at the The Big Pugh store to see if more becomes available.

Sarah Badr © MMIX

See also: Speed painting (piece at random)

Content awareness (pieces at random)

Flash fantastic (pieces at random)

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Going indoors

4 February, 2009

As the young Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude overlooked the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, a tag was described in narration as being ‘a reply, a call to those who heard, like a dog’s bark understood across fences’. Set on the Heights Promenade in The Fortress of Solitude, a sentence from that chapter still lingers with me years after having read it: ‘Under oblivious eyes, the invisible autographed the world.’ It was through this monumental saga by Jonathan Lethem that I first began to understand street art and the multifaceted history that has brought it off streets and into galleries today. In a plot spanning generations in Brooklyn’s Gowanus projects between the 1970s and 90s, the Solitude‘s story was one painted by graffiti as representation of cultural identity, musical heritage and gentrification. Tags representing names were the artists’ signatures sprayed on the sides of  buildings and trains, to be displayed to the world en route to the next destination. A fine line running through the graffiti underground defined the segmented yet not entirely separate areas of self-expression, vandalism, and street culture that were so richly diversified by an impoverished creative youth and their livelihoods often stereotyped by gangs and crime. Yet since its very inception, the cryptic messages alluding to the characters bearing credit for colourful blurbs and stencilled imagery were just as much a mark of their own brands as it was their ideas.

The cover of the Faber edition of the Solitude pays homage to the tags within: ‘DOSE’ etched in black, sprawling in its myriad ways. Anyone from Gowanus would have known that it was the work of Mingus Rude. And Dylan Ebdus’ as well, although he himself had no ‘name’ of his own, and therein lay the metaphor of his personal conflict. Since before the time of Christ, the etches and inscriptions on surfaces (‘to scratch’ in Italian’s graffiare) served as signage to communicate messages for public consumption (initially believed to be that of prostitution). It’s interesting to think that even the current revival of graffiti in the Middle East, for example, can be drawn back to examples of proto-Arabic Safaitic in the Arabian peninsula region in prehistoric times. But ‘modern’ graffiti as we understand it today began to take its overt shape in the late 60s on the streets of cities such as London (‘Clapton is God‘), Philadelphia and New York. Implemented by music-lovers, activist ideologues and groups protective of their urban territories, New York City came to the fore as a graffiti centre in the 1970s, where the use of tags as ‘bombs’ was introduced onto the subway network, and the mirroring of a growing hip-hop music scene in both competitive quality and source of inspiration was undeniable. It’s this street sub-culture with its off-shoot terminology and music that’s conjured the names of Lethem’s characters (Bob Dylan and Charles Mingus) and the likes of Bomb the System.

Written by Adam Bhala Lougha, the award-nominated film features a group of New York graffiti artists and coincidentally enough, a fantastic score composed by alternative hip-hop artist El-P. But it took until halfway through the 1980s for street art to go indoors and formally enter the art world. The very foundation of the United Graffiti Artists in 1972 served the eventual purpose of drawing artists into a gallery environment that would spotlight their work with a respect often lacking in its habitual haunts of the urban built environment. Neo-expressionist painter Jean-Michel Basquiat was the graffiti artist formerly known as ‘SAMO’ (Same Old Shit) whose work bore the ‘wildstyle’ combo of hip-hop and spray-paint. Graffiti artist John Fekner was said to have demonstrated the plight of New York’s deteriorating standards in urban living through ‘art interventions’ portraying many concerns towards the social and political welfare of the city’s inhabitants throughout the 80s. Fekner is well-known for these word installations underpinned by contemporary urban issues and stencilled on buildings throughout New York. And consequently, as city officials moved to drive forward ‘clean-up’ campaigns to rid the streets of what they viewed to be vandalism, graffiti became more commonplace in galleries overground.

It is this move that helped to continue the ‘culture jam’ of political and socio-economic subversion dominating as artists’ themes. While a debate raged on as to whether or not graffiti was ‘art’ in the first place, Basquiat and others like him exhibited in their own studios. A show at the Brooklyn Museum in 2006 has since paid tribute to such graffiti legends, and designer Marc Ecko has long been an advocate of graffiti as art. Increasingly popular in the commercial mainstream over the years, advertising has picked up on graffiti in tactical account planning to push product hype: IBM launched a campaign in 2001 which saw the spraying of sidewalks in San Francisco with tags such as ‘Peace, Love and Linux’. Last year, Youdoodoll founder Sarah Lu launched a ‘paint-off’ in association with Pepe Jeans, stencilling some colour onto Portobello Road’s façade. And of course who can forget Obey Giant’s Shepard Fairey (headline photo) and his iconic posters for Barack Obama? Widening acclaim for his cross-hatched propaganda and street art has landed him at the Irvine Contemporary with Regime Change Starts at Home, and Manifest Hope over at the DC Gallery. Fairey has also collaborated with Syd Garon and Paul Griswold on N.A.S.A.’s debut promo for the track ‘Money’ — once more seeing the meld of hip-hop, street art and bold political statement.

The current exhibition of subversion artist Brad Downey over at StolenSpace‘s Dray Walk Gallery in East London is another fine example of street art being contained within the confines of a gallery setting. Titled An Honest Thief and running until 8th February as his first solo show in the capitol, Downey presents visual challenges to urban archetypes through the mangling of street signs and riddling of traffic markers (photo above). His concoctions of ‘found art’ in the urban spaces of Atlanta, New York, London and Berlin are founded upon his being a member of a family within which his upbringing inextricably bound him to the US Marine Corps’ itinerant lifestyle. As such, Downey’s understanding of varied systems of regulation endemic to geopolitical landscapes is one of the reasons why he is so fine-tuned in producing provocative displays of de-regulation in the public setting. Currently a lecturer on ‘unsanctioned public artwork’ (himself a graduate of the Slade School and Pratt Institute), his understanding of urban art within a framework of social context is translated into his assembled pieces. By removing the facets of mundane objects succumbed to the status quo, he re-interprets them only to then put them back in — infusing re-instalment with a new-found sense of meaning still relevant to their initial metropolitan situations set out by political city officials and ‘official’ urban planners.

Another exhibit I’ve visited (although almost exactly a year ago to date) was an Urban Angel retrospective in East London. The primary grassroots urban art dealer comprised of a small group of private collectors and affiliated artists diversified in the creative styles of stencilling, urban sculpture and contemporary street art is set firmly amongst my favourite of creative London rosters today. With the work of street artist PURE EVIL‘s Charley Edwards and his vampire bunnies featuring last year with pieces such as the pink-sprayed ‘FUCK ART LETS DANCE’ and infamous ‘LIVE EAST DIE YOUNG’, the space presented many more examples of graffiti artistry. Edwards, influenced by San Francisco’s skateboard culture and graffiti artist Twist, launched a spray-campaign in London to examine what he states as being the question of the ‘big picture’: ‘What does evil look like?’ The  positive reception it received is certainly far from surprising: February 2008 saw the industry puritan Bonhams‘ first auction dedicated to urban art, further anchoring the style in commercial mainstream. Having newly opened its permanent Art Lounge space on Redchurch Street this past December, the show titled XXI is previewing tomorrow by invitation and will run throughout the month with original features from artists such as Copyright, Derek Albeck, Dotmasters, Inkie, Know Hope and Zeus (of the distressed Chanel graffiti given mention here a while back).

And bidding us return back to New York is yet another specimen of London graffiti via the world-trekking Banksy. Obviously not needing any more formal introduction, Banksy exhibitions taking place since 2000 and his recent selling of works at auctions for unprecedented sums in the urban art world is news buzzing regularly through today’s media circuit. He is, of course, one of the most recognizable icons in the graffiti street art movement; and with a reputation that precedes him, he’s acquired fame despite his adamantly maintaining pseudonymity. In October last year, Banksy’s comical ‘Village Petstore and Charcoal Grill‘ sprang up in New York’s West Village (see video below), taking his incredibly intelligent style of satire to even higher levels. The tongue-in-cheek guerilla installation, as filmed by the talented filmmaker Seth Brau, pokes fun at everything from consumer culture and fast-food, to surveillance society and its own self-deprecation. The animatronics involved so greatly departs from anything else seen on street art’s urban horizon that it nearly inadvertently demonstrates the great diversity and potential in street art as an artform in its having done so.

And so it is in the midst of all such irony that it appears the artworld’s institutionalized industry of traditional, ‘un-street’ setting most famously adorns the greatest visual impacts of artists whose autographs are no longer invisible — and whose audience is not so oblivious after all… Filmed and edited by Seth Brau. Music title ‘Barefootin” by Daniel Holter and Kyle White of the Burst Collective. Courtesy of Burst Labs and Extreme Music (Sony/ATV).

Sarah Badr © MMIX

See also: Street value (pieces at random)

Warhol v Banksy (pieces at random)

My playground (pieces at random)

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RIP tDR

1 February, 2009

1986 – 2009

Traipsing between those fine lines of celebration and remorse, it’s difficult to know just how to begin when writing an obituary. Sentiments of grief are best kept at a minimum should you not wish to upset anyone, whilst vacuous praise may have a rather opposite effect. But how does one go about writing the necessary retrospective when the deceased is not a person at all but an enterprise, a conceptual entity shaping the era in which it was up and running? Short of having lived on another planet for the past six months, news of the global recession having taken its toll on major business leaders and small players alike is nothing new. However, one closing its doors in particular has brought on the sort of sentiment felt when a good friend moves away. In fact, this very piece has been sitting in my draft box for the past three years, left to ferment as a blank page at large reserved for the studio that inspired my career choice and passion for a field that — let’s face it — hasn’t always been as experimental as it is today. Admittedly I was so enamoured, so enthralled by what I saw to be (and indeed was) at the very pinnacle of graphic design enterprise at the time that I’ve been too wrapped up in navigating my way through the realm which it has created for itself and for the many clients whose successes were partly hinged on the humourous, constructivist visual impact it provided them across boundaries.

But never did I expect to be writing on such a sad occasion of finality. And it is thus after twenty-three long and successful years, The Designers Republic has bid its farewell. In founding the studio in Sheffield all those years ago in order to provide graphic support for the flourishing ‘SoYo‘ music scene and the band Person to Person, creative director Ian Anderson managed to create a dynamic home-grown alternative to the overrated London design scene. The byline to be ‘Made in the Designers Republic, North of Nowhere’ soon became a desired branding of its own, though ironically tDR’s roots were based on a vision less ‘branded’ and rather more frank about big-city commercial culture and the insatiable consumer demand that went along with it. But it is precisely this paradox that has dominated throughout its lines of work in recent years whilst setting itself apart from the rest, catering to big-name clients such as Nokia, Nike, Saatchi & Saatchi, Orange, and commerce’s favourite target of criticism: Coca Cola. Today, the quintessential tDR style noted to have been inspired by Moscow’s VKhUTEMAS school of the 1920s is perhaps one of the most recognizable of UK studios abound: bright colours, abstract shapes, in-your-face images and modern disjointed typeface in English, Japanese and binary code that screams out whether it be in print, screen, a national flag or a European Space Agency logo.

All of these elements played into the tongue-in-cheek aesthetic that shaped much of its famed output. But to be honest, it’s wasn’t the corporate shelf of Anderson & Co.’s portfolio that first caught my attention. Referring back to its initial connections to the Sheffield music scene, I actually discovered tDR through the work it had done for electronic labels such as Warp Records and the now defunct Em:t Recordings — and for groups such as Moloko and the similarly defunct Funkstörung (see video below). Who can forget Richard D. James leering in a bikini on the cover for the Windowlicker EP, or the vintage sci-fi number for Mat Jarvis’ Gas 0095? The Nine Inch Nails lithograph concert poster series fatigued and true to the band’s industrial heritage proved a further irresistible pairing between the studio and music, as well as the more recent steel-clad limited edition of Quaristice following a long line of covers for Autechre with the hypnotic accents of tDR’s ‘Customized Terror’. I had drawn a comparison some time ago between Anderson and both Warhol and Hirst, and it was vis-à-vis the inextricable links to music that their tremendous impacts paralleled on the cusp of visual representation viewed by an audience of listeners who enjoyed such imagery built on the sounds that lured them into collecting merchandised memorabilia via concert venues and niche online retailers.

And this impact has certainly not gone without ample recognition: In 2001, Q magazine chose the 1987 cover of Age of Chance‘s Don’t Get Mad… Get Even! as one of the ‘100 Best Record Covers of All Time’. Meanwhile, a sold-out 1994 Emigre issue revolving around the Republic was auctioned off for more than $750. Even more recently, tDR was featured amongst the roster of twenty-four artists in the Maxalot projections at the Hague for the TodaysArt Festival in 2006,  with a statement of simply ‘Wait Here. Help Is On The Way.’ spanning across the City Hall building in a fashion that went beyond correct kerning demonstration: it was another example of the ethos that brought about the wordplay visuals of ‘Thinking and Doing’, ‘Design or Die’ and ‘Work Buy Consume Die’ en route to the ‘This is the Emperor’s New Clothes’ theory. Incidentally, TodaysArt also brought the work of tDR alongside that of Universal Everything, another Sheffield-based studio whose director Matt Pyke served at tDR as a senior designer for eight years. Which brings me back to the point of the studio being in Sheffield: the playful anti-capitalist ethos so evident in Anderson’s work stems from his world-view (and love of good music) that led him there in the first place. ‘Sheffield doesn’t have places like Hoxton Square,’ he told the Creative Review in August 2001. ‘And I think, Good, that’s why we’re here. I’d rather slit my throat than have to work with people like that.’

‘The majority of clients haven’t the faintest idea what they’re getting into when they work with us, and a lot of them just haven’t got the balls to see it through. It’s really disappointing to realise that so many people involved in commissioning creativity haven’t got the faintest idea what creativity is.’ Amen. Finally somebody said it, and I couldn’t agree more. The fact that Anderson doesn’t ‘really give a shit about what anybody else does, or about being in anyone else’s band’ is why the legacy of The Designers Republic is worth more attention than much of the rest out there (though it does seem they buckled under commercial pressure throughout the last three years). But their ingenuity and individuality has always counted so positively in terms of a socio-anthropological relevance throughout a broad spectrum of visual communication. Now, not having had a chance to purchase any of the limited edition prints from the tDR online ‘disinformation’ merchandise flagship lovingly tagged as ‘The Peoples Bureau For Consumer Information‘ (the neon night-scene Tokyo print and catchy T-shirts were amongst some of my favourites), I’m glad to know that Anderson has indicated that eventually tDR ‘will rise again’. In the meantime, a copy of the LovebytesVolatile Media DVD, several albums, and various videos will serve just as well amongst the prized memorabilia to reminisce in anticipation for the second coming of the Republic.

Sarah Badr © MMIX

‘Grammy Winners’ directed and produced by The Designers Republic
Funkstörung, Appetite for Disctruction (!K7 Records, 2000)

See also: V&A Forever (pieces at random)

Ambient space (pieces at random)