Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Physical sensations

[a review of FUSE 1-20, a retrospective of the cult typography magazine, based on a commission for Blueprint 12/2012]

From today’s perspective, the 1990s seem increasingly like a somewhat lost, under-considered era. We have replayed the raucous/bombastic 80s aesthetic in all possible ways, but the 90s holds a strange in-between legacy. Technologies, political systems, styles from a fascinating decade stand still partially explored, with its hopes in technology and a strong futurist streak, now largely obsolete. FUSE magazine, whose lavish anthology has been republished by Taschen, was the brainchild of two designers-cum-theorists: Neville Brody and Jon Wozencroft and looks today like a dispatch from this blurred, and misunderstood transitional time.

Why transitional? The nineties saw a moment of great technological change: launching off the back of fax, where paper, print and immediacy were suddenly one, and more obviously, the personal computer, which became increasingly ubiquitous. Together with this emerged graphic design software, meaning the laborious techniques of designing, especially typography, suddenly became easy and within a reach of a click.

Brody, as the 2012's V&A exhibition on "Postmodernism" proved, is one of the contemporary classics of design and typography, someone who combined punk’s radicalism, early avant-garde’s rigour and glamour of 80s fashion. Both Wozencroft and Brody came from the sophisticated circles of high art and music, both involved in building the visual language of post-punk and new pop. Brody designed covers for Sheffield’s industrial gods Cabaret Voltaire, Depeche Mode and of The FACE – the “style magazine” and the era's true bible, which helped to define its erratic, eclectic, whimsical esthetic. Channelling something of the unpolished, radical, buzzingly creative energy of punk was key to providing an intellectual and visual extension of those aesthetic movements.

That also meant the pair had higher demands of graphic art, which at this point was swiftly being co-opted as the purview of advertising agencies and marketable products. Already in the 1980s the tandem issued a manifesto called “Death of Typography”, worried by the sudden eruption of easy corporate design. FUSE was established in 1991 and continued until the 2000s; designed to create a multinational workshop of the new possibilities of technology in typography as art, as intellectual provocation, as a catalyst. A look at Brody’s covers, with their blurry, fizzy metallic layers of dimmed greys, oranges and anthracites brings to mind the visceral futurism of David Cronenberg just as much as Sonic Youth’s album covers.

That was the time of floppy discs and MS DOS ecstasy, now wholly nostalgic accessories, but FUSE was trying to combine radical futurism and possibilities with a sense of bodily fragility of material. FUSE issues typically arrived in a taped cardboard box, including floppy discs, CD-roms, posters, cut-outs and bitingly intelligent Wozencroft manifestos, with topics varying from religion, (dis)information, exuberance, cybernetics and the virtual. The spirit of JG Ballard was always present, providing the more pessimistic undertones of Wozencroft’s visions (“Abuse is part of the process!”). As a result of the new more versatile software and treating design as one creative whole, typography and design were finally one and the same and a host of graphic luminaries including Peter Saville, Malcolm Garrett (of the Buzzcocks’ album covers fame), Pierre di Sciullo, Paul Elliman John Critchley and Blueprint regular Erik Spiekermann were commissioned to respond to FUSE’s ideas. Their influence shaped the title in a truly curatorial sense, as we’d say today, just like in the conceptual magazines of the Fluxus era, like Fluxus Yearbook or Aspen, which had contributions in conceptual, sculptural or other experimental formats.

The result, with typographic gems such as the Stealth font face by Malcolm Garrett or Chocolate Runes by Gerard Unger, is astonishing, an inspirational remembrance of the possibilities and ambition graphic design could have. Taschen’s retrospective is trying to repeat the format of cardboard box, but instead of a floppy disc you get a graphic card with free access to the last two, digitalized issues and fonts. We seem much more minimalist and boring now, aren’t we? Compressing everything in a chip we eliminated the first excitement of new inventions. Wozencroft is now more dedicated to his ‘audiovisual’ label TOUCH. (again, physical sensations!), but his darkly humorous manifestos are something we now truly miss.


  1. start coming again to his sound seminars, while they're still there, the manifestos have been veeery darkly humorous at the moment! next one 28 Feb, usual time 6pm :) belated thanks for this text, Agata! mx