Monday, November 12, 2007

The beautiful Brett Whiteley

Brett Whiteley was born in Sydney in 1939 and died in 1992 of a heroin overdose. There something about the fact that he's relatively unknown outside the art world, that he was found dead in a motel room and that i can tell from his strokes that this was a pure, innocent, highly sensitive and beautiful person, that makes me love him. I can't resist wanting to see each and every one of his beautiful works, reminiscent too many times of styles that recently became too trendy in an annoying way. But they have nothing to do with these half-talented opportunists of the design world - his works pay hommage to the history of art and design by reminding (or inspiring) some great and loved ones: Henry Matisse, David Hockney, Javier Mariscal, Loustal, Ralph Steadman - even the drawings of the late Alan Fletcher. I now learn from the web that there was a documentary on him that was screened on ABC in 1989, and that his studio in Sydney is now a museum. Did he ever think all this would happen? I can just tell from his drawings that this was a guy that only drew because he loved it and because his mind and heart were ever-burning with passion, pictures and sensations. He had a huge T-shirt collection: i think that tells a lot about him. Brett Whiteley, you are wonderful. Wherever you are, you surely still draw those magical things.

Penguins in Vouliagmeni

Saturday 10th November, Vouliagmeni Bay, Athens. About 20 people out. Who would have thought that 5 or 10 years ago? All clad in black wetsuits, looking like penguins, riding cool boards. Half of them actually knowing how to do it. A couple of them amazing. A curious crack in the clouds and the beautiful afternoon light making them look like unspecified creatures longing for deliverance from above.

Le geant fran├žais

Love these "Make your mix" ads for French N9UF Music Radio.
They're done by Parisian advertising powerhouse Agence V. Just by looking at their premises in their website, you feel intimidated. Sometimes I wonder, is it because they want to impress the big clients, or because they trully love working in such too-impressive-in-their-own-right places? Not sure - but these ads are beautiful.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Beachcombing and chance

Looking for stray objects washed up by the swell on an abandonned seashore at dusk can be a magical ritual. You're probably hungry, after a whole day at the beach; the sun has set and the sea is getting darker, the waves are getting bigger, gulls are screaming and you're wondering if a huge strange fish stranded on the sand is something you should take with you in your plastic bag or not. Some invisible force makes you want to look everywhere, and for more: find more love letters forgotten under the sand, more nautical maps stuck under a piece of wood or more debris from cargo boats with amazing typography on them.

I started doing this on Kolybithra bay on the island of Tinos. I expanded my activities on more islands and beaches and collected about a thousand of them in a period of five years and an amazing photographer, Yiannis Hadjiaslanis photographed them on a white studio backdrop. Then we paired them in funny or just nice ways and now a little book is out - called "flotsam & jetsam". Three hundred of these objects parade the book's spreads and, disintegrated as they are by the sea and the sun, they look like "artefacts from a distant alien civilisation" as a friend artist, Zachos Varfis, told me. There's also some great texts in it - the Ian Jeffrey one is a typical academic tour-de-force. I love this book and this project, and i wonder now, now that the project is done, will I ever look again for more of these objects? Or will they forever remain unwanted garbage on the dunes of Kolybithra?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The rare joy of biting on the Momus tangerine

Yesterday Nicholas Currie, a.k.a. Momus performed in Athens.

I wasn't aware of the fact till last minute, when a friend that knew my fascination for the Momus thing called me up and informed me. At the time I was watching the Eurobasket semifinal where Greece fought bravely against the Spaniards and the referees - and at the end they lost.

At about 10 i was at "Bios" (the venue where the live would take place) but i wasn't till 12 till Nicholas got out on stage. (The picture is from a very nice italian blog called "comme un garcon" - would take some pictures from last night but regretfully my digital camera's battery was dead).

Last time i saw him live was at the cult "An" club, maybe 10 years ago, and i remember sitting at the front row watching him play "The animal that desires" and tears coming down his face. This time he appeared with just a portable mac filled up with mp3s and a microphone that almost didn't work.

Sound quality was so shit, the audience had to shut the fuck up (being noisy - and smoking - are typical Greek habits in live spaces) and the volume had to be higher if you were to be able to listen to anything - but none of it happened. But Nicholas still had his body and his performing talents with him and used both by running among a surprised audience pretending to be a cat while singing "I am a kitten", grabbing chairs and sitting on them, taking drums off the drum set and turning them into improvised tambourines, mimicking rock n' roll or traditional Scottish dance moves in fierce energy, becoming Bowie himself when he played Major Tom, his perfect vibrato making him look almost as good as bowie himself - and artfully blending the classic "Voyager" with "The Windmills of your Mind" in a way that made you feel you were exploding back into a 90s night sky full of possibilities, floating carelessly above dream European cities, where "The Thomas Crown Affair" would be playing on Watchmans in a Place du Tertre little flat or Saint Etienne would sound appropriate playing in an Athenian flat overlooking the city lights. Of course this is but a personal interpretation, cause this is probably how i lived my Momus experience back in the beginning of the 90s, listening to "Summer Holiday 1999", wanting to visit all of the Bretagne lighthouses (only made it till St Malo) and feeling "this rush to live and this wish to die".

There were others there that seemed to know Momus and his songs, and they were there 10 years back at the An club. There was a blond little girl standing close to me in the audience that was looking at him as if he was God himself - and she wasn't the only one. Momus has this effect: once you're a Momus fan, you really fall in love with his universe.

The audience, somehow, at some point shut their mouth and at least half the live took place in less noisy conditions. Requests were mouthed and the predictable I Love yous but i don't need yous (a song that curiously seems to strike some unknown sensitive Greek chord - i even heard this song at parties) and "Hairstyle of the devils" were shouted in a glorious Greek accent.

After about half an hour that Nicholas asked for a guitar, someone (at last) gave him an electric one and he tried playing some guitar-based classics like Lucky like st Sebastian and Murderers the Hope of Women.

He was in great shape and a happy mood, making him laugh at himself when he couldn't find the right chords and would give up laughing. Actually he was, joyfully, like this during the whole set: a guy from another planet (one with a Japanese name), mashing up cultural and musical references like a genius child-anthropologist, orbiting about in his own space, gracefully and playfully, a space just close to ours but a trillion years away from our dirty and shameful reality: the one of our humorless way of dealing with things, of our elections, of our decadent political and social condition, of the green forests turned to black ashes.

Last night would otherwise be indifferent, bleak, ominous, surreal.

But Momus made it radiant, and let us bounce with him on his enormous trampoline: a rare and highly eclectic treat.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Getting wet and killing the bees

Every summer I perform one of my mini-customs: I go to the Kolonaki square kiosk and look for Surfer magazine. In this year's June issue there was a full-page ad about a new HBO show. It pictured a wet-suited surfer standing on a sandy beach watching the ocean (his back turned to us) and his body slightly elevated from the ground. The name of the show was "JOHN FROM CINCINNATI". I torrent-searched it and started watching it a few hours later.

The titles were part Sopranos, part Six Feet Under. The typeface, a clear, white, sans-serif title font that looked a bit like a Myriad condensed or a Blast Gothic, was immaculately placed on the right part of the moving pics in one size and one weight. The footage was a perfectly edited mix of surfing and suburbia and the music made a perfect match. A little masterpiece. I knew this song from somewhere - hours later, i grabbed randomly some cds from my cd rack and played them. First song i played was the title song: "Johnny Appleseed" by Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros. Weird.

As in every series pilot, first scenes and first impressions count. (Remember the plane-crash scene in Lost's pilot?). So there were these beautiful titles and then the first scene: a guy longboarding on an empty beach at dusk, seen from a distance, far away from the shore. Just a figure moving into a shore-breaking wave and a long sandy terrain in the foreground. The guy floating on the wave silently, no sound, just a bit of wave-breaking - it looked like a fleeting snapshot from a forgotten morning dream, where, before waking up in the real world, you dream about ideal surfing moments placed in utopian places and times.

I was hooked and saw the first 8 episodes back to back. Not just because of the surfing action and the surf-related semiotics in it, but because it was interesting, fresh, raw, ambitious and often emotional and heart-breaking in this strangely marvelous neo-american, "Magnolia" or "American Beauty" kinda way.

The cast included a mature but beautiful Rebecca De Mornay (80s icon next to an almost underage Tom Cruise in "Risky Business") playing the ballbreaking mother/grandmother in a very, very convincingly ballbreaking manner; a Luke Perry NOT bringing you to mind Beverly Hills 90210, full of wrinkles, his lips getting smaller than before; and a Ed O'Neill reminding you less of Al Bundy and more of a cartoon-character mouthing self-pitying, philosophical vietnam-vet monologues. The dialogues, in general, were bordering on the incomprehensible, a true showcase of American
rough-and-rugged language full of creative swearing, hilarious metaphors and surfing lingo- making it more than obvious that Deadwood and the Sopranos played their part in their creation.

As for John himself, he is portrayed less like a human being than an extra-terrestrial or a mirage, bringing insight and luck to the persons he's getting close to. Being a mysterious mix of a healing messiah and a retard that repeats all the words and phrases he hears around, this hilarious and strangely grave-sounding "parrot-talking" is mimicked perfectly by new actor Austin Nichols and his rockabilly-like hairdo adds up to the character's otherworldliness and surrealism. Phrases otherwise told on a casual way by protagonists get another meaning repeated by the strange, miracle-making, "slow" John; as if echoing their words, he almost makes them look themselves stupid and slow, and himself a sage from another planet that knows the score better than anyone.

So there you have it - a new, fresh mini-series, or long movie if you prefer, full of emotional power, intriguing and super-clever dialogue, interesting characters, great acting, amazing art direction, and a lot of ocean spray and wave-breaking in your face. Maybe John from Cincinnati is the natural result of the brewing in the creator's heads of influences by Six Feet Under, Deadwood, David Lynch's universe and the whole boardsports myth that seems at its peak now more than ever, in some strange way. And, yes, adding a bit of stereotypical California beach scenes and babes in the mix wouldn't hurt anyone.

The only thing that did hurt someone was the ratings - they weren't bad, but they weren't good enough. Yes, HBO decided to cancel it and bring a finale on the 10th episode of the 1st season.

As one user in Youtube comments sourfully, echoing the title song's lyrics:

"HBO is after getting the honey, but they're killing all the bees".

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Jazz Uncle

My uncle is a graphic designer, like me. Actually, he's more of a graphic designer than I am, for reasons i might try to explain later. He's designed countless vinyl record and book covers, posters, logos, magazines, and virtually anything that can be designed and printed. He started his carreer designing countless medicine boxes, back in the dawn of the 70s. I think it was for a pharmaceutical company called Faran. Not sure though, cause the memories are very faint - i was very little. But i remember Faran's premises seen from the inside of a car (probably my dad's) on the side of the highway just out of Athens - and I remember him coming to my grandparent's house in Halkida (where my parents sent me to stay there for a year just before i started school) clad in his moustache, perfect shirts and perfume, his mother being in love with him, cooking him dinner and ironing his shirts, and him accepting the goods before he'd leave off to get back on his life on the fast-lane graphic design business, his leaving being to my disappointment.

But there were remnants of him left in granny's house: His paintings (a bleeding heart, drawn Pop 60's style, a Warhol Marilyn replica with a tear running down the cheek), and the totemised pieces of his work (like his annually printed yearly calendar with 70s Milton Glaser style illustrations) or scraps from a magazine or newspaper writing about him. And there was his Jazz radio show, that granny never missed, just after midnight. Actually, uncle and jazz are two concepts so intertwined it's hard to seperate them.

Growing up I so wanted to be part of this: Jazz music, fine italian shirts like the ones John Lurie wore in films or Giardino's heroes in comics, Memphis-like furniture, cool chicks with gray eyes and short-sleeved dresses - like Debra Winger in "Sheltering Sky". During the summers I lived at granny's house in Halkida, she was still listening to the midnight jazz shows, and that has got to be one of the finest, greatest, most atmospheric and a bit funny memoirs of my whole life: A typical greek granny holding a pocket radio next to her ear, listening to Thelonious Monk in the middle of the night. But the track would end, and the voice would announce the next track or talk about the artist presented this time, and that surely was her pride and joy: her son on the radio. And there were no indy stations back then, just 3 or 4 state-run ones and lots of oriental sounds heard over a lot of mystic static on the AM scale.

I started taping the shows when in highschool. After my father died, the uncle probably replaced somehow him in my mind. I think I even spent some days with him just after this sad death, when i was 13, back in 1986. It was escapism, being in his house in Athens among thousand of jazz vinyls and videotapes playing arthouse movies at night on his brand new tv and VCR. Even glimpsing tits and legs in Playboy mag while sitting on the loo (loved the magazine rack in his toilet) was a joy.

I remember how i tried to grab a Milo Manara comics album and how he told me off "not for you yet, kid" and how he sat down on his scetching desk and started work for the layout of popular "Tahidromos" and "Ena" magazines, rearranging neatly lettraset typefaces and bits of coloured paper on a mockup. I remember his visit to London and him bringing back the Style Council's "My Favourite Shop" (i still remember the black and white photos on the cover and Paul Weller's haircut), Alison Moyet's maxi single for "That Ole Devil Called Love" and even Tears for Fears and "Everybody Wants to Rule The World". I remember him being ecstatic about the jazz revival in pop culture happenning in London at the time with films like "Absolute Beginners" and bands like the Blow Monkeys.

Soon after that i remember watching "Absolute Beginners" on cinema and listening to Conte Candoli spitting out frenetic solos in the 50's West Coast Jazz presented on his radio show. And then I remember learning by heart (all almost by heart) the Clifford Brown solo in "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home Too" sung by the cool goddess Helen Merrill. And I remember the moments when one rainy afternoon i first listened on his state-of-the-art hi-fi system the horns sounding almost regilious in Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments".

The list is endless. Stan Getz, Coltrane, the songs of Cole Porter and the beauty of Abbey Lincoln singing about how "Love Walked In" and Barney Wilen's soundtrack to the comic by Paringaux and Loustal "La Note Bleue". I played this thing maybe a trillion times and fell in love with the musicians and their solos. I still remember their names, particularly the pianist, Alain-Jean Marie, and still remember most of their solos by heart. This album was a true initiation to the wonders of Jazz. I had bought it at a curious shop in Berlin in summer 1989, then lent it to a friend, and then he lost it. I was sad, but years later i found the CD in Paris. Then I lost that too, and then I found it again in London, second hand.
I still listen to it with interest and joy. And jazz still fills me with delight. It's a shame this music still stays a secret, hidden under endless layers of boring stereotypes. Sometimes I listen to amazing jazz, live, at Jazz Upstairs here in Athens. Perfect sound system, perfect drinks by the best barman ever, and ocassionaly some lives that knock your socks off. How can one forget Sheila Jordan playing there 3 years ago? Or Benny Lackner, this fresh, amazing pianist from NY.
Jazz is pure joy - a music that sits on a stool wearing summer shoes gazing over people's shoulders at visions of a world full of happiness, colours, intimacy, exciting ideas, dancing and singing: excactly as it should be.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

They make films, not websites

Designer/Artist & friend extraordinaire Filippos has been living in Stockholm, Sweden for the past two years working for Design mega-house Framfab. We have been friends in London and in Athens, we worked on projects together (and still do) and we nearly opened a design studio ensemble with another designer extraordinaire, Chris, but all three of us eventually led seperate ways. We don't get to see Flip that often now, but we often do accept a fair amount of interesting spam by him in our mailboxes. He is the expert on that - sending stuff that's always interesting to look and surf at.

One of his last spam emails contained a link to the website of Traktor, which he told me is a "group of Swedes that make great ads". I visited the link and found myself in their simple, white webpage. The simple typewriter font on the white background and the few words make up for a minimal and nearly poor web experience, but them you notice the site is all pumped-up with subtle and cool Flash rollovers and contains hi-res mpegs of their videos. They feel compelled to tell us, though "hey, we make films, not websites". And next thing they say is "if you fell curious, drop a line here". If you saw their videos, you'd know why they play the aggressive/arrogant act and why they couldn't wear a serious, corporate personna on their splash page when they make videos for Nike where angry chicken chase people all over a city. You see, they must be split between the two themselves: the big world of Nike, full of sweatshops and multi-billions of dollars sitting side by side to the humorous, hillarious world of funny evil chicken.

Clicking on their ad clips and waiting till they load is worth every nanosecond of your time. Watching ads like "Angry Chicken", the one with the dirt-bike riding beaver for Miller Lite or the Men vs Women battle for Mail On Sunday (genius scenes where posh girls unleash their dogs or lads their RC cars to them) makes you feel this familiar mix of envy and enthusiasm you always feel when you see creative work that's way beyond anybody's expectations. For videos, it last happenned to me when i saw Michel Gondry's videoclips in a DVD that Flip gave me about four years ago. Then it was Wes Anderson, then Donnie Darko and after that it was the films of Jacques Tourneur and Six Feet Under. Now it's Traktor.

The six Swedes that live and work in California seem to know how to present unusual scenarios in such a self-assured, nearly arrogant way, they make you believe everything is possible. The technique is imacculate; the casting fantastic; the use of time exemplary; and the ideas so fresh it's like Swedish cool breeze on a Califronia heatwave.

Indeed, watching their ads you can't help thinking there's gotta be some bit of European flair and sarcasm in the air, totally Gondry-style. I just think most American filmmakers would miss this or in the best case scenario come up with something that would be either Jackass or indie-looking. (Ok, there's Spike Jonze out there, I know). But in Traktor's case there seems to be a perfect amalgamation of Jackassness and European sense of the surreal at work - the Evil Beaver video being a perfect example: the scene where the humanized Beaver grabs a dirt bike and attacks the campers is 2 parts boisterous Jackass humour, 1 part unapologetic european surrealism.

Whatever it is, these guys are worth all the big bucks they're obviously getting and all the American big-time arrogance they acquired living and working in fame on the sunny boulevards that overlook the Pacific. The reason why is simple: they make you laugh. They make you laugh genuinely, and in a liberating, "at last something really clever and fresh" way. And then you can't help associating that great feeling with the brand advertised - and you fall for it.

I don't think Mountain Dew is out in the Greek market, but if it was, after watching the "Master" video for about ten times (and never failing to laugh at the last scene), I would go and buy a six-pack. Simply cause the moment i'd see it on the supermarket shelf, i'd think of the video, smile, and for two split seconds, feel this splash of uknown chemistry in my system produce this warm sense of happiness.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

No, not HAROLD Pinter

My visit to the annual International Comics Festival (organised by the veteran comics mag "Babel" for the past 12 years with great success and visiting artists from around the world) would be just pleasing pastime hadn't it been for a spectacular relevation: the exhibited works of a Hungarian illustrator, graphic designer and painter named Ferenc Pinter.

Yes, there were a couple of other artists i found really noteworthy: namely the young Italian Paolo Cossi and Greeks Derveniotis and Kiriazis. But entering the building where Pinter's work was displayed I experienced this rare, mild shock that occurs about once or twice a year and fills you with this special mix of creative envy, fascination, and an innocent belief that the world is a beautiful place where miraculous events take place and people live a colorful, wonderful life. Yes, only exageration and overenthusiastic rhetoric could describe the feelings I experienced looking at his work and the staggering quality of the work itself.

Amazing technique, meticulous attention to detail, breathtaking use of colour and light, intimidating multidisciplinary skills that span the whole art/design spectrum; a beautiful sense of space, a thought-provoking and surprising use of concepts, ocassionaly a mysterious and violent undertone - and a highly original personal style that brings to mind a hundred things and nothing you've ever seen at the same time.

Apparently Pinter is a true master, a heavyweight member of the exclusive Pantheon of the great ones. In my mind's eye I can see him smoking his pipe and joking with other great unknowns like Raymond Savignac, Max Cabanes and Miroslav Sasek not caring a bit about the fact he's about 100 times less known than designers a 100 times less original and talented than him. Why should he, when he knows he sits there in Art Heaven just meters away from the Picassos and the Paul Rands. He doesn't mind if we, Google or Amazon know nearly nothing about him.

From a designer's point of view, I can only bow humbly to Mr Pinter. "Chapeau" as my uncle said as we left the exhibition room. I really hope that history itself will feel the same about him.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Icons, Posters and Design Awards

There has been change in the graphic design scene in Greece during the last 5, or maybe 6, or even 10 years.If we exclude the rather shit market conditions, which, post-Olympics depression kinda way have become even more shit, there has evidently been some westernisation in the field. That may translate into better designers (whatever that mean - probably people with a proper design education - thank you UK, wake up and smell the humus, Greek Ministry of Education), or more design-aware clients (who actually think design DOES matter - they must be out of their minds!), or a number of other things - but the thing is, it's happenning. Part of this belated rise of Greek design to more international standards is the introduction of the first 'official' national design awards, called "EVGE" - a wordplay with the initials that form a greek word for "Congratulations". (For some untraceable reason wordplays have recently become a very hip element in graphic design here).
So these awards have been around for about six years now and this year's ceremony took place in Salonica, which for some other untraceable reason has recently been producing a remarkable number of gifted new designers.

So i submitted 3 posters and 1 leaflet and so they called me up and told me i had won an award and that i would have to be at the awards ceremony on April 14th to find out what i'd won. So, after an agonizing hunt for a plane ticket and via some novel kind of tourism from a random hotel room and through the architecturally intriguing streets of downtown Salonica to the charming little theater (the "Olympia") where the event took place, i won first prize in the "Poster" category for a couple of posters i made last year for some jazz gigs at the Bar Guru Bar in downtown Athens.

The crowd emitted a foul air of hectic competitiveness and the ceremony lasted TOO LONG. So long me and my girlfriend nearly starved, slept and pissed ourselves. But the hosts were ocassionally funny, at least one third of the work awarded excellent and the guy who gave me the award, a cool young graphic designer from Salonica, told me from his heart how much he liked my posters. Truth is, I liked these two posters much myself. I remember how I fully enjoyed using felt pens and markers to produce the typography and I remember how I thought that I wanted to come up with something that felt like a cross between some hand-painted murals i'd seen in Senegal and heroic jazz-warrior portraits gone a bit naive. Or something like that.

The day after the awards ceremony we literally tripped away into the newly built Museum of Byzantine Culture in Salonica. Mariliza had a mild attack of claustrophobia, and not only I noticed how the place was rather deliberately given the vibe of a medieval castle or monastery, but also how a couple of the icons from the last byzantine period, covered with a sparkling gold in the background, resembled somewhat in their basic language my awarded posters.

One thing is certain - the architects of the Museum must have been listening to a LOT of goth music. Maybe playing some medieval-themed online RPGs, too. I seriously suspect they added a lot of humour to their project, and I also suspect the client hasn't suspected it yet.

The Elephant in the Living Room

Did recently some graphics for Global Canopy in Oxford, a bunch of fellows that try hard to show the rest of the world that stopping forest burning around the planet will eventually help us reduce dramatically those notorious carbon dioxide emissions whose mere reference evoke images of Al Gore speaking to dazzled audiences (and his dvd selling like hotcakes), Dubya being completely chimpanzoid about it and giant tsunami waves engulfing skyscrapers and the statue of Liberty.

Was asked to come up with a temporary launch page for their website and a layout/design for a pdf report they needed to post on it before Monday the 14th of May, when an article on the very subject would eventually appear on the first page of The Independent . So it did, and it seems that the Global Canopy people got a rewarding amount of much deserved publicity. Check out the video in their website - those flying chimpos are the cat's pyjamas.