Vernacular Spectacular

A conversation between curators

Vernacular Spectacular was co-curated by Drew Litowitz MFA 17 Graphic Design and Cem Eskinazi MFA 17 Graphic Design. The exhibition was held from December 2016 – January 2017 in the Gelman Student Exhibitions Gallery.

All students—undergraduates and graduates in any major—are invited to submit individual or team proposals for group exhibitions in the Gelman. The director of exhibitions reviews proposals along with an oversight committee that includes representatives from the Student Gallery Board. Once the concept for an exhibition is approved, each student curator or team works with the gallery staff to select the work, design the exhibition, prepare supporting written material, hang the show, publicize it and plan the opening.

The proposal Drew and Cem submitted was approved by the committee. In their own words, here's what happened next...

DREW: Hello, I’m Drew.

CEM: And I’m Cem and we’re here to talk about the show we co-curated, Vernacular Spectacular.

Photo credit: Diane Lee / Kyle Lewis

DREW: So, I’d been thinking a lot about a type of work I was seeing around that incorporated the languages of mass culture and consumer culture, almost like a new take on pop art. I pitched that to Cem as a concept for a show and he seemed really interested in it too. We knew that a few of our friends were making this kind of work so we used their documentation to support our argument and we also went onto the RISD Portfolio site to look for other stuff that might fit into our proposal.

CEM: But we didn’t really have a strong handle on what it was going to look like until we put a call for work out. We were certain wanted to pull from everywhere, throughout the school, not just rely on the people we knew.

DREW: As far as our decision to collaborate goes, I think we both came to RISD wanting to do as much as possible while we’re here. I also think we wanted to see how two graphic designers with different sensibilities could come together to make something like this, to put on a graphic designer-curated show, where everything—from the design of the labels, to the way that you moved through the show—was very considered.

CEM: For the work, we had an idea that we wanted to seek out textiles and furniture and painting students and sculpture.

DREW: And industrial design, maybe.

CEM: Yeah, but the turnout ... we didn’t know what we were getting into. We made a GIF and sent it to basically every student at the school.

DREW: We wrote this statement that ended up being pretty accurate to what we received. It basically said: if you’re making work that draws from the visual languages of mass culture, consumer culture, we want it. The GIF was really arresting. I think that’s why we got so many submissions ... it had all these logos that we transformed to say things like, “call for work, call for work.” And it gave people this kind of... it was energizing to see and people were attracted to it. I think that carried over to the work.

CEM: We really didn’t care if it was undergrad, grad or this or that major or even if they were alumni, because we also had alumni submissions. Brown University was represented as well—

DREW: It was a pretty eclectic collection of disciplines. And the type of work that came from those disciplines...we have photography from a painting student and, like, furniture from a—

CEM: ID student. Yeah and film from furniture. That was very surprising, all the people doing work but not necessarily in their own disciplines.

DREW: Bringing together fine arts and design was definitely something we wanted from the beginning. I think graphic design and industrial design often don’t get their due in museums and galleries because they’re seen as kind of utilitarian. But because of the ironic or playful nature of this show, we could subvert those functions more...take industrial and graphic designs and make them into art, which was our intention all along.

CEM: Yeah. One question that was very important for me and I think was very important for Drew as well was: how can we, through this exhibition, help different groups connect at RISD? We were motivated by the fact that our idea drove people to make new work. We got so many proposals, which meant they wanted to make work specifically for the show, which was interesting for us because then you give people a platform to be really—

DREW: Experimental.

Photo credit: Diane Lee/Kyle Lewis

CEM: We had, like, 40 artists and we probably were looking at a hundred-plus submissions, we were visiting at least three or four artists every week. We were going to their studios. Over time we realized that there’s actually a subcommunity on campus that is already interested in these topics and we had just become this magnet pulling everyone together. We started realizing that some of the artists were already friends and others, you could see that they could become friends because of how their work was related. The opening was pretty packed—it really brought the community together. We wanted to break the white-cube feeling of the gallery and turn it into an event space/happening through the performances. Everyone was there listening to music, participating and enjoying just being there.

DREW: Everybody was also kind of confused, but in a good way, because it was such a disorienting situation to walk into, with the performances going on. It was very interactive—it felt like you were walking into a store immediately, people were excited by the strangeness of it. Catching people off guard, especially in a place as weird and creative as RISD was exciting for us. For people to genuinely be dumbfounded or confused by something that’s going on at an art school is pretty cool. And these were people from faculty to students to parents of students.

Catching people off guard, especially in a place as weird and creative as RISD was exciting for us.
Drew Litowitz

CEM: According to Mark Moscone, the exhibitions director, there were close to 400 people at the opening. We should also say that working with Mark was really great because he’s extremely experienced. I think in the beginning we scared him a little bit, we came in with some really ambitious ideas—

DREW: But he asked the right questions out of concern that we weren’t going to be able to pull some of those plans off, and when we came through with almost everything we had proposed, he was so excited that we had. It was a collaboration like that, we would kind of push him to limits that maybe he wasn’t that comfortable with, initially. But he began to trust us more and we scaled back too. It became a nice conversation about what’s possible and what we’d envisioned and we were able to make compromises that didn’t actually compromise that vision of the show at all.

CEM: Neither of us had ever done a show before that. Mark’s done hundreds, so he taught us how to ... he taught us everything we needed to know, basically. This show was part of our thesis projects too—

DREW: Yeah, yeah. That’s what I was just going to say.

CEM: So, James Goggin and Bethany Johns, who are our thesis teachers this year, followed the process very closely.

DREW: And Ben Shaykin.

CEM: Yeah, Ben Shaykin. Also, Hammett Nurosi, my advisor, has been following. I talked to Clement Valla, my tertiary advisor, a little bit about the show as well, so the people on our advising teams and our professors knew about the show and we asked them a lot about our curation process and—

DREW: How to frame it.

CEM: The statement, you mean? Yeah.

DREW: They helped us a lot with refining the statement. It was a little tongue-in-cheek, so it was hard to strike the right tone and make sure we were getting our point across at first.

CEM: I mean, not to get too into specifics of our theses, but we both used this show for our Thesis Studio 1 class, so we actually didn’t do anything in Thesis Studio 1, other than work on the show. And the faculty was perfectly OK with this.

DREW: My thesis is a lot about the constructed realities we live inside and how those are framed by other people...how our experiences are framed by external factors. I’m always looking at the world that’s been constructed around me and deconstructing it. So that, for me, was the springboard, but I am curious to hear more about, from your perspective, Cem, how you see the show fitting with your work?

CEM: We were using one of the biggest themes in my thesis—the topic of honesty, the idea of acknowledging the roots of a piece of design. For the show, we didn’t create something entirely new. We really asked the work what it was supposed to be because it’s about mass production, consumer culture. When you investigate a topic, I think you can either create something new or you can dig down the obvious, which is sometimes the harder thing. We were interested in really digging down into the obvious and bringing that, “the real world,” into the gallery space, into this kind of white-cube exchange.

DREW: Yeah, like, figuring out what happens to the frame when you put unexpected content inside it. We wanted to turn the gallery into a retail space (laughter) and that sort of happened. There was an intercom saying, like “paging customer service” and “please wait in line” right when you entered the gallery and we had an “Our Promise to You All” message at the entrance as opposed to a curatorial statement. So it was a pretty stark contrast relative to what you usually see in the Gelman. And I think that’s, yeah, that’s related to both of our theses.

Photo credit: Diane Lee/Kyle Lewis

CEM: We should talk a little bit about the art direction, like the layout and promotion.

DREW: I think this was our favorite part. At least it was for me. I mean the whole thing is—

CEM: We’re graphic designers, so this is kind of our specialty. I mean the curating piece was also huge. But this was the cherry on top—

DREW: It helped us understand the identity of the show, almost like how you understand a business through its logo. It sounds cheesy, but we kind of pretended the show was a fake business. It often felt like we were acting out the role of business partners.

CEM: And when we were stuck writing the statement we put on cheesy ad songs to motivate us. We really designed the design process (laughter).

DREW: We have a friend in our studio who'd by chance designed a typeface that looked kind of like a Comic Sans, brush script thing. We were both really interested in that typeface, independently from the show. We didn’t even think about the connection until we started designing the logo, when we were both like, we should totally use that typeface! So we ended up with this naïve Comic Sans, referencing the way corporations sometimes are fumbly about their graphic design—like when they use stuff like Comic Sans or Papyrus—and we mashed it together with a corporate, clean modernist look to create a sort of disorienting, funky logo that was neither and both at the same time. We went to CVS early on, right after a meeting with Mark Moscone, and we loved the way that their price tags looked. We decided to make labels for the work that looked like a CVS price tag and then decided that that labeling system should be where the identity derived from as well. So, like, the colors came from that and from—I don’t know where else we got the blue from.

CEM: FedEx.

DREW: Oh, FedEx? Or there was blue on the—

CEM: I mean, blue and orange is one of the most used corporate color combinations. Orange is all over the fast food industry and blue is the “trustable” corporation color. It’s just these clichés. We wanted to hit on the clichés, but with a very fine twist.

DREW: We didn’t know that we were going to use the logo as a source of information, but that's what ended up happening. Because the “-aculars” in the title were always the same, we realized we could shuffle new words into the prefix spots. Essentially, we could design anything by hijacking our own logo and injecting new content into it. So we made GIFs and boxes and all these things that would convey the information with just the logo, which was super exciting for us.

CEM: And the packing tape we made not only became a poster, it became wayfinding, it became small stickers. It was this very multifunctional thing and it was a corporate tool. You know, it was a tool for the shipment of logistics.

Photo credit: Diane Lee/Kyle Lewis

DREW: Yeah, it was functional and aesthetic at the same time, and it’s often super difficult to strike that balance. Using the clear tape was something we were both excited about, but the idea that it worked as a functioning poster was incredible to us.

CEM: Yeah, it was just really fun to play around with those devices. What else surprised you about the way the show came together?

DREW: I think we trust each other a lot, which is good (laughter) and we knew we had to make decisions quickly. When one of us didn’t fully trust a decision, the other just said, we have to get this done, let’s go and that was super powerful. When there’s two people involved, you have somebody else kind of checking your back and making sure you’re not making any mistakes. So we had a back and forth that allowed us to push forward. I think what was surprising to me is how successful that was because we have very different sensibilities, aesthetics and styles, but when it came down to it, we complemented each other well. There was a kind of brash boldness and humor to the show, which is true of both of our individual work, but there was also a simplicity and directness which sometimes is not in my work as much as it is in yours. I think there was a lot of amazing overlaps that we didn’t really know could happen beforehand.

CEM: Definitely. I think another surprising thing is the—we didn’t expect this mix of departments. Like I said, we were expecting painting and textiles. But we ended up with a really great, really unexpected mix.

Photo credit: Diane Lee/Kyle Lewis

DREW: Like, I didn’t expect to get Furniture. We had two pieces of furniture, right? And sculpture. I was also super surprised by how fun it was to experience other peoples' work through a particular lens. All of this work speaks the same language, but it was fun to fit it together and see how amazing the work that’s being made at this school is. And bringing people together and revealing the community—

CEM: Yeah, it just made us really happy and proud and it’s not only the quantity of the people, but it’s also how everyone—

DREW: The energy.

CEM: Yeah, the energy was extraordinary.

Photo credit: Diane Lee/Kyle Lewis

DREW: And the fact that we could have performance art, and music...we had all the things that we wanted to see in a space. I was so excited that a woman in the Glass department was manning these fake transaction windows that she made...that couldn’t have been a more perfect thing, to walk into a gallery show about consumer culture and see these fake transaction windows and actually have to wait in a line and interact with greeters before you got inside. That was so...I was so happy that these people came out of the woodwork and were so on board and excited to be a part of this weird idea that we both had.

CEM: But more practically, if you want to go into exhibition design or curatorial practices, this is a real experience in a real gallery, so it can be a huge piece in your résumé.

DREW: And since the opening, every time I’ve gone to the gallery to check on things, there have been people in there. It’s not officially part of the RISD Museum but people who go to the museum go to the Gelman Gallery. It’s right upstairs.

I’d recommend that anyone interested submit a proposal. Don't be scared that it’s not going to be chosen or you're not going to be able to pull it off. You’re not alone in the process and your ideas come true because of the help of staff, faculty and the students. Everyone just works together...
Cem Eskinazi

CEM: I visited with my external critic, Alicia Cheng—she’s a designer from New York, one of the founders of the MGMT design studio—she works on exhibitions, too. She told me that the best thing about exhibitions is you can go and watch the feedback in real time. It’s not like when you make a website and track the clicks. But you can go into the space and see how people are flowing, hear what they’re saying, because they won’t recognize that you’re the curator. You can just act as if you’re another visitor and sit there and see the reaction and that’s a really one-to-one investigation of your design work, how it’s working and how it’s not working.

Photo credit: Diane Lee/Kyle Lewis

DREW: Yeah, you actually see them turn to specific things.

CEM: (laughter) You sometimes overhear extremely negative comments as well, which I think we’re really open to.

DREW: (laughter) Sure. Plus, it’s a great opportunity to see what’s out there because sometimes you get stuck in your department. But we got to go to a lot of studios. We got to help students carry work from their studios to the gallery, we got to know what’s out there at the school and got to see see all the creativity...we got inspired. We saw you can really bring people together and get them excited just by building a shared context for them.

CEM: I’d recommend that anyone interested submit a proposal. Don't be scared that it’s not going to be chosen or you're not going to be able to pull it off. You’re not alone in the process and your ideas come true because of the help of staff, faculty and the students. Everyone just works together—

DREW: And remember, don’t reinvent the wheel, buy one!

CEM: Yeah (laughter). Definitely.

A closer look at Community at RISD