Benjamin Tong: Can you tell me about the genesis of The Special Edition of Aspen Times newspaper, published during the Aspen Design Conference June 20-24 1971?
Sheila Levrant de Bretteville: I wish I could say that my special edition of the Aspen Times was the direct result of Walter Benjamin’s suggestion that we look at the “Letters to the Editor” pages in newspapers for a model of how spectators could become producers. That brilliant source noted, I must confess the idea was the result of two more immediate and personal causes. First I had been asked to create a journal article about the IDCA 71 conference and then give a talk on design from a feminist perspective. I imagined trying to balance my infant son in Aspen with me for that week and the difﬁculty of doing this while nursing. I was also thinking about how an inclusive and horizontal process might take place and be completed within that week and not drag on for six months the way an offset printed journal would. As important to my ideas were my familial heritage of egalitarian and populist values in addition to the experience of late 60’s participatory democratic ideas and practices. All of this combined to create the idea of a participatory newspaper produced with the spectators and given out on the ﬁnal day of the conference.
I had no family nor au pair and simply brought our infant son with me to the meeting with the IDCA Board when I explained the plan for the special “participatory issue” of the Aspen Times rather than a journal “after the event.” That’s what I intended. No doubt Dick Farson’s support played a role in the approval needed to proceed. The visual effect of participant responses and methods of the represented was not shown as I really did not know precisely what the ﬁnal newspaper would look like. I could just show them the structure that I included on the pieces in the packets and speak about the process of receiving these pieces back from the participants.
BT: One of the unique elements of this newspaper is its principle of participation. What concerns of yours did this address at the time?
SLdB: There were several unexpected outcomes. The best surprise was that the newspaper was more visually lively and less classically elegant than my work up until that point — and since then for that matter! There is a list Tom Finkelpearl created for his article in Raising the Rubble on David Hammons’ amazing work. This special issue of the Aspen Times belongs with the qualities listed by Tom as DIRTY - much to my delight -while the rest of my work ﬁts more into the side entitle CLEAN. I will always be grateful to the spectator-producers for the variety of visual methods used and given to me -and letting my work ﬁnd itself among all the “Dirty” organizations and artists on Tom’s list!
Another valuable lesson regarded exclusion and inclusion which has had a lasting effect on my practice. My ideal is inclusivity, indeed I become distressed when I cannot include everyone as I lack any tolerance of exclusivity. I was shocked by the number of responses received because I had not calculated the number of people who might respond to this invitation to participate. I did not take note of responses being turned in to me at The Meadows -this was far more than I could ever put into the 16 page newspaper. In my defense, simply attending the conference as a nursing mother as well as giving my talk and handling all the comments I received afterwards as I moved about during the subsequent days, my husband Peter and I taking turns in making sure our son was alright, all this was simply the limit of what I could do at that time. I chose the most varied responses in terms of content and form. I have been troubled by those not included ever since then.
BT: How does this inﬂuence your art practice now?
SLdB: It took a while before I discovered how to combine the permanent with the inﬁnitely mutable. In the trajectory of my practice each successive site-speciﬁc permanent installation used a different formal device to create an inﬁnitely inclusive aspect in the work. The importance of unlimited inclusivity to me in my work is a direct result of both the participatory democratic values of that period before the newspaper and my self critique of the limits of the special issue of Aspen Times’ inclusivity.
For example, I have used ellipses several times because they ... ... create a place for the viewer’s thoughts. The ﬁrst time I did this was an installation in the northern terminus of New York City’s longest subway line — the A train at 207th street. Recently I received an email from a woman who lives there.
Frances Sadler wrote: “I love that station...my favorite part is “At long last...” Usually I’m dragging home long past dinner time. When I get to the wall, I look at it and sigh and repeat the words. It makes me feel that the universe is empathetic with my feelings about the day. More importantly, it makes me smile.“With another project (completed in 5 days) a decade later,”Step(pe)" in the Russian Urals, the trajectory of my participatory practice evolved further. I saw how to add the possibility of the inﬁnitely mutable to a permanent site-speciﬁc piece of work. Before arriving in Siberia I read a book by Dale Pressman and arrived with the notion of using the local Chastuschki-folktales told in two stanzas of four lines. For the the old water tower in downtown Yekaterinburg I created a new concrete step. With the help of an intrepid translator I worked with a half dozen twenty-somethings to write contemporary Chastuschki. Again expediency fostered creativity. Realizing at four in the morning that I lacked enough time to cut out all the Russian letters out of foam I decided to use only the ﬁrst letter of each word, the question mark, exclamation point, commas and period. The entire idea is embedded in a single photo taken at the opening when one of my young helpers wrote the rest of the words in chalk.
What is not there -the lost letters -implies the façade that has been selectively effaced by history; a seemingly incidental “breakdown” of type whose meaning is nevertheless clear to the initiated. In this way I was able to extend an invitation to enter the process of signiﬁcation at the threshold of meaning and the threshold of the tower to everyone “forever” -or as long as the concrete step is there. I did not know it would be this when I started. The project was simply to go to Yekaterinburg to do a permanent public installation in concrete. A friend of mine Sarah Oppenheimer, a sculptor with whom I share a mutual support system, wrote much of what I am saying here in a long email; I include her summary comment that “the cultural producer provides a link or a letter and the social speciﬁcity of the project’s location completes or correspondingly enter the remaining meaning.”
BT: Have recent changes—for example in technology—affected any of these ideas?
SLdB: Of course the web and interactivity clearly are participatory formats -at least those whoﬁrst implemented the world wide web shared that inclusive and participatory goal. The student lounge I created from raw space at the Hong Kong Design Institute during autumn of 2010 includes an interactive LED display that runs the entire 100 feet of the room. The space is sometimes called “Snail’s home” in Chinese “蝸居”, or “... 所以 ...” -which is one of the thirty ﬁve conjunctions that ﬂoat by on this LED strip. Conjunctions are connectors between two ideas and in the Chinese language conjunctions only appear within sentences. My thought was that these conjunctions would invite the viewer to “text” whatever content they want in whatever color they choose. Their words travel the length of the room twice and then disappear — no censorship! Anyone can choose to participate (or not) using their smart-phones and computers to email@example.com.
BT: The open non-hierarchical form of the Special edition of Aspen Times is a political one. Here’s a platform where a multiplicity or mosaic of sometimes conﬂicting voices can exist to speak. Did this reﬂect a desire for a shift in the world around you at the time?
SLdB: It is my intention that these permanent site speciﬁc projects reﬂect and support the people who pass there. That is why Frances’ comment means so very much to me. Democracy includes the notion of a diversity of thinking and that in public places we meet people we do not know and may not be like us. Moreover we should be able to accommodate these differences. At each site I try again to include all the conﬂicting attitudes that plurality means. At 207th street there are two hundred and seven diverse voices on tiles that replicate and extend the “...” These are reﬂections of various and conﬂicting ideas about life in that neighborhood over time.
My ideal is an egalitarian, generous society which does not eliminate contradictions and ambiguities -these are included and inform my work. In Hong Kong I tried to provide an environment that was exceptionally comfortable as well as illuminating. And frankly it was an attempt to transform a pervasive timidity and reluctance to take risk. The LED signs all over Hong Kong tell you things. At HKDI the conjunctions suggest you speak up and say something. I knew from the start that an open interactive work would require a minimum of risk. I had seen how difﬁcult it was for the Hong Kong students to participate while the visiting students from Singapore felt immediately free to participate. Perhaps over time the conjunctions will work to open up more kinds of participation. In the meantime I created a place to hang out and be together. Esther Yau, a ﬁlm historian, described the opening in an email the next day: “The LED was really marvelous and I was glad to be able to see the creative interaction! I love that Yan and Phil interfaced with the space of motion with their bodies, not just by simulating the animation but co-creating something playful and thought-provoking with your LED. They caught the unexpected conjunction of”justice and bananas“— isn’t this what conjunctions are wonderful for? Yan mentioned that the local”公民党”（the “civic democratic party”) promoted social justice and threw bananas in the government’s council meetings. Their conjunction of “justice” and “bananas” reminds one of the HK comical ’non-sense’ ﬁlms of Stephen Chow (Chow Sing-chee). Yes, shouldn’t radical politics and social justice involve fun and joy in reaping fruits instead of a long face...”
BT: How did other elements, within the organization or execution of the IDCA 1971 conference, address certain issues and concerns surrounding design discourse and praxis at the time?
SLdB: Richard Farson and the board of the IDCA would be able to answer this better than I. Clearly they chose all the speakers and were reacting to the previous year ’s conference in which the participants revolted at the hierarchical and privileged aspect of the organization. The year before I was pregnant and inﬂuenced by my experiences in Milan where Peter was a Team 10 member working for Giancarlo de Carlo -a politically engaged architect with whom I had many a conversation. A graphic designer Emmanuel Sandreuter and I made a poster for the Communist Party regarding freedom of the press and TV. Peter and I marched against our war in Vietnam along with Giancarlo’s son. I was designing many pieces before CalArts opened that reﬂected my democratic and participatory values.
BT: Richard Farson, the program chair of IDCA: 1971, was one of the founding deans at CalArts—which was just inaugurated at its new campus in Valencia in 1970. You were also one of the founding faculty at CalArts at this time. Did CalArts play a role in conceiving/planning the Aspen Design Conference in 1971?
SLdB: Yes, Dick Farson was the founding dean of the School of Design and very supportive. I had been designing everything with virtually no interference. The ﬁrst stationary I designed for CalArts was made of a selection of rubber stamps.
In retrospect these demanded a level of participation by the secretarial staff that I imagine they hardly appreciated! And the “Taste and style aren’t enough” shrinkwrapped poster (the text written by Dick!) included in the Now Dig This! exhibition Kellie Jones recently curated is one of my favorites. Yes, there were a group of students involved in the creation of the IDCA 71 materials. One of the students, Ron Barnett, is the person who designed that logo you see across the newspaper’s front and back cover.
BT: Were there salient experiences from organizing/attending the IDCA conference which you took back your teaching at CalArts?
SLdB: Boundaries of the disciplines were dissolving in the 60’s and 70’s and democratic pluralism was playing a role in opening up the borders of disciplinary speciﬁcity. These loosened boundaries began to change my work and my teaching as well. When I brought print materials to class then in use in public schools as a way to introduce the subject of menstruation, the result was my ﬁrst experience with video. In talking about the ways in which these materials could be better, what was lacking in the informative process we realized, was the process of talking together. The series of videotaped discussions we produced at CalArts included one of young boys and girls aged eleven to twelve and another of young women and men aged eighteen to twenty-one. People were sharing their thoughts and experiences regarding Menstruation - a subject that was seldom spoken about in public.
BT: Reﬂecting on what was written by the participants in the Special Edition of Aspen Times, it seems that focus of the 1971 IDCA conference was placed towards sociopolitical issues and experimentation in communicative formats. What was your experience of attending the conference and was there a particularly memorable moment or idea?
SLdB: It may be difﬁcult to understand what it was like to be trying to balance so many roles and activities during that week. I had only given one public lecture before this one at Aspen. I had never been in Aspen before either. In addition to this new form of newspaper there was also dealing with the people at The Aspen Times (nice as they indeed were), as well as nursing Jason and leaving him at a local daycare for part of each day. The previous year I had taught a seminar as part of the Women’s Design program at CalArts. I had also given one public lecture in a Pasadena auditorium showing images that reﬂected the relationship of public and private and the way my work was trying to bridge the two spheres as described by Virginia Woolfe:
“Before us lies the public world, the professional system, with its pugnacity, its greed... The question we put to you is how do we enter the professions and yet remain civilized human beings...”
In teaching the Women’s Design Program I had showed the utopian and dystopian graphic work of Superstudio, and we read works by Catherine Beecher Stowe, Eva Figes, Germaine Greer, Shulamith Firestone and Betty Friedan. Of this group of texts Friedan’s book was most difﬁcult for me, as I come from generations of women who worked outside of the home in cities like New york and in Poland. I knew nothing about suburbia and the housewives there.
In Aspen my slide talk included images which reﬂected attributes associated with men and others associated with women. I suggested that these attributes could be free ﬂoating and yet they had become attached to the feminine and masculine. I suggested that those attributed to women needed to be made available to everyone for a more human society. This is a different idea than women taking on the attributes ascribed to the masculine in order to get ahead the society as it is. In 1971 I saw this binary distribution of attributes as damaging to society in which we live. Betty Friedan came to my slide lecture and was the ﬁrst to speak afterward. She claimed that I was sending women back to their homes “to making up beds." That was quite a shocking interpretation of my intentions. Luckily, despite my distress, I asked if there was anyone in the audience who understood my talk differently than that.
BT: Reading the comments in this Special Edition of Aspen Times, there is a feeling of an urgency to question the role of the designer and an energy and desire for such change—very exciting stuff! In your view is this ethos present in current thinking and practice of design.
SLdB: I knew the work of architects who had been in the resistance, such as Giancarlo de Carlo and the work of Shadrach Woods as well. Members of Team 10 were deeply committed to creating forms which reﬂected democratic open ended values. After Lissitzky I know of virtually no graphic designers connecting graphic forms to politics until Grapus and the May ’68 revolts. In the States the inventiveness in the visual language is most marked in the Fillmore and Avalon ballroom posters by Moscoso and others in San Francisco, in theatre with the Public theater merging spectator and stage performer -whether you wanted participation or not. I believe the right to not participate must be preserved as well.
BT: Are we still addressing same problems or have concerns shifted?
SLdB: The horizontal structure of the occupy movement, Wikileaks and Metahaven’s work with and for them, the role of internet in Obama’s campaign for president reaching people who had never voted before (I went door to door for him and had many conversations that revealed the population “seeing a way of connecting” that was fresh and current). Design programs that respect the diversity of the students’ perspectives and the blurring of boundaries between disciplines appear to me to be on that same horizontal track albeit within institutions.
Looking at the historic underpinnings of participation and open work I am drawn to those practices that are not legislating that students repeat or develop from this view of the past — all this and more is hopeful. Alas, school is so very costly and debt a deterrent for people who have little funds. Yale is generous but most students leave with debt. There is much negative at work. Especially heinous is gross evidence of greed running many of our institutions and prevailing among the powerful and privileged. This is so well described by Negri and Hardt in Empire, and by someone called Unemployed Negativity.
BT: Are there any revolutionary shifts occurring in the ﬁeld of design today?
SLdB: We always have some students who are focused on those without power, becoming more empowered by design, on ways of working professionally which put them in direct contact with those who share their values and want their work, whose sense of community and building communities of interest around them is or becomes well developed in their work and their studios. This has to be bottom up in an educational program. Everyone has a right to shape their own practice. Our role is to help the student to be dextrous, learn to be the authors of their own work and to present lots of different models of practices so that each can create her or his own practice rather than the same model for everyone.
Interview with Sheila Levrant de Bretteville in an email conversation
conducted by Benjamin Tong, August 2012.