An interview with PWR studio

, 3 June 2014

Hanna Nilsson and Rasmus Svensson are the Berlin-based design duo known as PWR studio. For this interview, we agreed to meet on a street corner in Schöneberg on what turned out to be the only rainy day in a long stretch of summery ones. Having never met them before, I asked pretty much everyone who idled there for a minute if they were “supposed to meet me here on this corner”. When they did arrive I had already fallen silent (aware of my creepiness) so we ended up staring at each other for a while across the intersection. Though everything about their appearance fit my preconceived idea of young, Scandinavian designers, the baby they had brought along was an initial surprise.

We settled in a café to talk about the recent work they’ve been doing. PWR studio seems to be involved in designing most of the documentation –material or immaterial –for a certain niche of the art world. From Future Gallery’s website, to Harry Burke’s latest poetry anthology I Love Roses When They’re Past Their Best, to the upcoming digital catalogue of the Art Post-Internet exhibition in Beijing, their prolific body of work is now an unmistakable aesthetic pillar. While much of their design is internet-based, or inspired by the internet somehow, they spoke at length about the importance of the physical book.

Say my name say my name. Graduation catalogue, Städelschule, Frankfurt am Main 2013.
Say my name say my name. Graduation catalogue, Städelschule, Frankfurt am Main 2013.

Reflecting on the term ‘post-internet,’ they see the role of printed matter as not necessarily being about the content. While one could easily, and perhaps more conveniently, read the content digitally, the book’s importance as a physical presence or anchor for the work is a valuable concept for PWR studio. They currently have plans to work with a handbag designer called New Ultra Group on a single copy book, modeled after a Medieval approach to the format as a kind of fetish object.

This month, PWR studio is launching the web catalogue for Art Post-Internet, so much of our conversation revolved around this loaded concept hovering over much of the contemporary art world. It seems increasingly impossible, and in some cases undesirable, to step away from online proprietary systems, but PWR studio is critical of their stronghold and manages to make use of creative subversive tactics in their web designs.

Tell us a bit about what you do at PWR studio and how you got started?

PWR studio: We used to publish a magazine called PWR paper. I think we published six or seven issues. Basically, we accumulated materials from artists who are mostly active online, on to this piece of paper. That was our starting point.

They were people whose work we found interesting and that was the start of the personal connection. It acted as a way of getting in touch with people. From paper we went to online again. We did something called PWRSHARE, which was an online magazine, another version of PWR. Then at the beginning of last year we decided to make it into a studio. What we are doing is a continuation of the work we were doing with PWR paper. We’re doing a lot of work with the same people. We call it a design studio now as a way of fitting into the system of how things operate.

Both of us equally do the practical design work.

You called PWR paper “the web materialised” which I thought was interesting, given that your narrative now seems to come at it from a different angle, from paper to internet.

Ps: Yes, that’s the core of what we’re doing. We’re acting as a sort of middle-person –the representation of content either from physical to internet, or the other way. This is the background of everything we do. We’re sort of past this post-internet conversation, like we don’t see some sort of distinction between the internet and physical things. We had PWR papers printed in New York and we had to deal with the printer. It was an industrial set up and we got this big bunch of papers. We had a friend pick them up there and send them to us. And then we would send them out.

The Infinite Webring of the Eternal Internet Brotherhood, A project by Angelo Plessas interpreted by PWR, 2014.
The Infinite Webring of the Eternal Internet Brotherhood, A project by Angelo Plessas interpreted by PWR, 2014.

The post-internet discourse seems to encompass what you’re saying though, that everything is already effected by the internet so even physical art or publication is a reaction to that…

Ps: We definitely think that’s true but it’s also already a banal topic. The word post-internet is interesting in the broad sense that we are already affected by digital communication. But we’re not so interested in it as a category for art. It’s more like an internal affair to the art world.

You did a website recently for the Eternal Internet Brotherhood, can you tell us a bit about that design?

Ps: It was based on the webring phenomenon –the old early internet way of making connections. In the 90s/early 2000s you could join a web ring and there would be a banner that would take you from website to website. It could be a web ring about German Shepherds and you click through sites. [It’s] comparing this to much more sophisticated ways of making connections now.

In the 90s there was still this utopian idea of the internet as some sort of frontier and now, over the last five years, it’s become clear that it’s a completely controlled environment. Of course, there’s always a need to connect to these bigger networks, like you need to have interface with Google and Facebook, but it’s important to find ways to subvert them. There are so many systems that you have to rely on but it’s good to find ways to retain autonomy.

In the case of the ‘Internet Brotherhood you are never sure where you’ll end up, you are put in a random position and you have to make your way in either direction. These are creative ways of dealing with our normal mode of accessing information.

Disruption begins at home, Martti Kalliala and Jenna Sutela with PWR Studio 2014.
Disruption begins at home, Martti Kalliala and Jenna Sutela with PWR Studio 2014.

One of you worked as an intern at Metahaven design studio in Amsterdam, right? There are some aesthetic similarities…

Ps: Yes, Metahaven is one of the few design studios we find interesting, both aesthetically and in terms of ideas. [It’s] pretty much the only design studio we like. We don’t see ourselves as graphic designers so we have a distance from that world. All the research and writing that Metahaven does is connected. And they actually take the aesthetics very seriously. In the end their expertise, and ours as well, lies in making visual things that are connected to the content.

How would you describe your aesthetic?

Ps: Our aesthetic is an ongoing struggle –we like to make things that we feel a little uncomfortable about, aesthetically. In general it needs to feel fresh, like a challenge. There’s an edge of things feeling not-quite-right. Things move quickly and we try to ask ourselves, “why do we like this?” and we often very quickly find the reason. Occasionally it’s a good reason, and sometimes it becomes clear that it’s because of a shallow reason. And we try to avoid those, and to avoid applying a style to everything we do. We have certain obsessions with things we do, but it’s more of a method that creates the aesthetic.

You’re launching the Art Post-Internet digital catalogue this month?

Ps: Yes, we’ll see if it actually comes out then. We didn’t see the exhibition actually, it was in Beijing, but there is a lot of material collected digitally. We see it as a chance to revisit this constant question of the conversion from internet to physical, and back and forth. All of these works we have seen are images online and they travel that way, but now we are dealing with images of them gathered in one physical space.

In a way, the fact that you never saw them in person seems quite logical to the whole concept.

Ps: Once again we’re seeing these images, knowing they’ve been displayed together in China, so with this publication we’re more directly getting back to the digital-analogue question. In general we’re involved in facilitating this conversion, usually with presenting gallery exhibitions on the internet.

Deep Data (connect the dots), Workshop at Performing the Archive at Skogen, Gothenburg, 2014.
Deep Data (connect the dots), Workshop at Performing the Archive at Skogen, Gothenburg, 2014.

Do you have a personal preference between digital and analogue design presentations?

Ps: No, we think both of them are annoying in their own ways. There’s a lot of labour involved in any case, whether programming or working with the printers. In a way the manual, technical labour is so much more clear than the creative work. It’s a technical problem-solving activity. In both cases it’s easy to get lost in those problems. It’s the kind of Modernist idea of the designer, that you identify a problem and find a solution. Of course, this is not the way we see it. It’s never one problem and one solution. It’s about making something that will be a good something.

This disjuncture between the conceptual part of the work and its realisation can be very shocking; how different the modes of working are. You also design gallery websites, like the one for Future Gallery. How is that process?

Ps: We’ve done a couple of gallery websites and it’s very difficult, because they are so strict in general. It doesn’t have to be that way, but people can be quite conservative. They don’t want to be, but in the end it should always be about the work, and that should be in focus. We agree that it is about presenting the work in the best way possible. But most galleries are still white cubes and the website can also become an extension of that.

As a studio, we work closely with the content of our projects, the editing and selection. We have many different roles but we like the role of the designer because you are connected to people through representation, as a kind of middle-person between their projects and their audience. In general we’re not that into graphic design studios, but we do enjoy acting in this role. **

The Art Post-Internet digital catalogue, designed by PWR Studio, will be coming out later in the year.

Header: template.mud ♻ PWR CLASSICS. Stadium, New York, 2012. All images courtesy PWR Studio.