Sunday, 23 August 2009

Mother Courage

Very near the end of my third year at university I was speaking to a friend, a student of fine art, about his work; he needed to document all of the work that he and another student had done since September 08 (it was about March 09 when I spoke to him). They were also planning a number of events for the coming weeks and would therefore need somebody who could handle all of the information they had already as well accept more and more new material as they continued to work. They called themselves Mother Courage, after Berthold Brecht's character; they wanted to revive the concept of ‘the theatre of the oppressed’ whereby the audience is encouraged, at a play, to offer their opinion and even take the place of an actor in order to do so.

This concept does not necessarily end with theatre. Mother Courage used the concept of audience (the public) participation in activities which would engage them with a problem. The main issues they tackled during their studies were transport and sustainability in our crops. An example of their work would be the bike installation; Mother Courage set up a bike in the town centre of Bath which was connected to a screen. As passers-by would pedal the stationary bike, the screen was powered and a film was shown of MC’s interviews with a group of people who grow their own crops on local allotments.

Further information:

Being my first book-design project, I wasn't as comfortable as I'd have liked to be but I knew that all I needed to be confident was enough information about what it was MC wanted from me. I wanted to keep an open-mind at the early stages as ‘a book’ may not be the ideal solution to their problem. After looking at the content they needed to document, and considering the fact that they wanted to act like a practicing studio/consultant, I felt it best to stick with their original idea of a book – rather than, perhaps, trying an installation or some other approach.

The content for the book consisted, in the end, of six different types of information; e-mails (correspondence with the council, volunteers etc), messages to the reader (mission statement, event explanations etc) , messages from MC to themselves (invoices, checklists etc), prints and artwork, quotes of playwrights who support the ‘theatre of the oppressed’, and photographs of the events and installations.

As there was a huge number of e-mails to be added to the book, I felt they would act as the main ingredient – something constant that the reader would follow through the book. I received the e-mails as groups of forwarded messages, responses, threads of replies to replies and so on; I almost wet myself with excitement as I sat for days sorting through them…. Finally I had them in chronological order (the decision to put them in this order was because they offered a logical way to break up the pace of the book; the images of the bike installation, for instance, could appear on the relevant date in the book). As you can see, I chose a suitable line length for the content of the e-mails and worked around that to build a grid for the other information. The date is pushed forward with a condensed over-sized format, in red, and the words between it and the body text tell the reader the general subject of that e-mail. If you're looking for information about insurance for events, you need only follow e-mails whose subject list includes ‘insurance’.

I should say a word about the choice of colour for the book. MC had designed their own studio in the art department which was based on a high contrast division of the room – one side was painted black and meant to convey the radical side of their work while the other, a white Ikea-furnished office space, was there to suggest a service to the public. In other words, their public image would be quiet and orderly, while their working method was more unorthodox. I tried to reflect their studio in the book, using black backgrounds on messages from MC to the reader which tell us their real intentions without sugar-coating it, while white backgrounds show the correspondence and other administrative information like invoices.

Wondering what else I could do with the idea of high contrast, I applied to further pieces of content that appear now and then throughout the book to control the pace and give the reader something else to consider, like quotes and artwork completed by MC. On the subject of art and photography, everything in the book has been drawn/photographed by MC themselves and passed on to me for the design process. I learned that it really should be the designer’s job to handle the photography. For this project though, the usual process of book design had to be ignored as they'd already done half of their work and photographed it before coming to me. A lot of compromise had to made on which photographs could go where as, unfortunately, one of the cameras the students was using was not working at a high quality setting and some great photographs were only available up to a certain size; full-page bleed was not an option for a good number of images.

Some of the better images, however, did make it to full-bleed and really added to the book aesthetically. Next cover of Baseline magazine? …Aiming too high? These images were taken by one half of the MC duo as she was working on the design for the t-shirts which would be worn on the day of the event. I'd lost track of whose job it was to do what by then and limited my responsibility solely to the book…and some stationery I did after the book was complete – keep reading. Anyway, as is evident, the images work to a straightforward asymmetric grid, keeping in line with the e-mails. The decision to go with an asymmetric grid was informed by the need for the dates and subjects of the e-mails to always appear on the left; this way the reader could quickly find the relevant date by flicking through the pages.

Here we see the final product, a bit of it at least. At two hundred pages I'd say it was quite an achievement for a one-man-band; the content for the last twenty or thirty pages to the book was handed to me one day and I had to get the book to print the next, as MC’s dreaded deadline was nearing. You can actually see in the image a portion of one of MC’s prints, which acted similarly to the quotes in that they only appear every twenty pages or so to alter the pace of the book. The cover was originally going to include a rather iconic photograph of one of MC’s event t-shirts pulled onto a statue outside Bath Cathedral. The image turned out to be one of the poorer quality shots and could not be used. Instead I resorted to a simple typographic approach which worked on the high contrast characteristic of the book.

Mother Courage mentioned towards the end of Augusto Boal's obituary:

After the book had been made, MC exhibited their work during the Bath Spa University 2009 exhibition and asked me to provide them with a poster that would invite visitors to enter their studio at selected times and engage in conversation about their work. Using the same colour system and typeface, Univers (helvetica shmelvetica!), I came up with this quite bold and to-the-point poster which, I felt, kept to MC’s no-nonsense approach.

After a wee gentle persuasion, I convinced MC to let get them a suitable set of stationery to go with their book. Their logotype had already been designed by one of the students whose choice of typeface related well to the original form of play scripts (completed on typewriter). Carrying the high-contrast appearance and colour choices forward, I came up with the above business card (front and back). Their strap-line, ‘interact, educate, entertain’ comes from the theory of one of their theatre idols and explains MC’s work adequately.

The above letterhead was made to provide them with an inviting layout that uses the space on the page well. The vertical line on the lower left provides the details of MC, like their address, and also acts as a way of highlighting the content of the letter which would start at the top of the line, and about an inch to the right. The addressee's details are placed in such a way as to allow them to be seen when the letter is folded and placed in a window envelope. The strap-line will also appear in the window, just above the addressee, to give an idea of the addressor. I am learning more and more of the importance of function in design and caring less about the aesthetic result; where logic and geometry are put to good use, there is little chance of aesthetic inconsistency.

I mostly learned from this project that good preparation takes care of a huge amount of work and sees off most potential problems. For example, on sorting the e-mails I noticed a number of them had attachments, many were addressed to big groups of people and others included forwarded messages. If I'd decided on a grid/text format system before noticing this, I’d have wasted time. Quite obvious, perhaps, but when you're handling so much content you can get your priorities confused. I managed to figure out a way of pointing the reader to the page including the relevant attachments, making the addressees and addressors clear, and so on.

Looking for consistencies in the content you're handed is always worthwhile and repeatedly applying the basic needs of the brief to every problem can be useful. Early on in the process I began to consider possible designs for MC’s business card; I kept an open mind and tried not to resort to a simple business card. Could it be something unique? They had used a huge canvas which acted as the screen for the video that would be played while somebody pedalled the bike. I suggested cutting that up into pieces that were roughly business card size and screenprinting/painting/writing MC’s details onto them. This obviously didn’t happen in the end because of time restraints but would have made a memorable and meaningful object that visitors to the exhibition could pick up.

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