Paul Soulellis talks with Christina Webb
Paul Soulellis is a New York-based artist and creative director, maintaining his studio in Long Island City. He founded Library of the Printed Web. Paul published Printed Web #1, the first publication devoted to web-to-print art and discourse.

Hi Paul, thank you for making time to talk today ... you studied architecture originally?

Originally I studied architecture and got my degree, that’s my only degree. I never became an architect. And so from there I just started this long process of sort of self-determined, self-initiated, self-taught graphic design, branding, brand strategy, etc. It’s taken all sorts of forms. And then after that and continuing on now, all sorts of things related to publishing.

Can I ask, what was the catalyst for that departure from architecture?

It wasn’t so predetermined by me, it just sort of happened. I came out of school, thought I was going to work as an architect, but it was like 1991 and a major recession was hitting and I had a hard time even getting interviews anywhere, let alone a job. But eventually I did, I got a job working on the client side of things at the Brooklyn Museum, so that was my first big job after school. And that was fine I did that for a couple of years. I wasn’t working as an architect, I was working for them and working with architects and kind of doing admin stuff and it wasn’t very satisfying. It was satisfying but not really what I wanted to do. From there I answered a job in The New York Times for a firm that I didn’t know, called Donovan and Green, as a project manager for their 3D projects, and I came in and saw this big office and they were doing retail projects, exhibition design, graphic design, branding, all of these things and I thought “Oh my God, What is this?”

I didn’t know that this kind of studio existed, that’s how sheltered my design education was. It was a great education but we didn’t learn about design, we learned about architecture. So I kind of just fell into it at that point, I loved everything we were doing, I was just absorbing it all. And then at some point while I was there I started thinking that maybe I could actually do some of the graphic design stuff that the other designers around me were doing.

In terms of what you are doing now and how you define your practice, is there a short way to describe it and if there were other models you looked at while you were trying to define it?

Well, interesting because I am trying to define that right now, and I’m not there yet. Because for many years I ran my own studio — Soulellis Studio for over twelve years. And that was a practice that I would say was I was calling strategic design at the time but basically I was doing any work that came my way. That was my strategy, just do everything. But I tried to make all of the work be grounded in some kind of strategic reasoning. I was trying to use design as a way to express business strategy and branding, even if I wasn’t being asked to do branding I was always trying to bring it back there. And that was great, I was really successful. And then I would say a couple of years ago I went through a major shift, a pivot, all sorts of ways to describe it. A break, I also called it. I decided I didn’t know who I was as a designer without clients. I had been so focused for my entire career on servicing clients and doing everything I could to make clients happy I realize that I didn’t know what kind of work do I do when I am not working for clients. So I decided that the only way to really ask that question.

So really what that break was about for me looking back on it now was giving myself permission to ask questions like that. And so I decided I wasn’t going to do any client work for a while. And that was a whole journey, I mean I could go on and on about that, but I defined it as a six month sabbatical but six months turned into a year, one year turned into two years, and now I’m over three years and it’s not a sabbatical—obviously—it was a transformative moment. And during that time I allowed myself to do all kinds of other work that I had only dreamed about. Like doing things that were part of an art practice or start something like Library of the Printed Web. These were all issues that I wasn’t thinking about before. So now that I am realizing I do need to get back to client work because I need to sustain what I am doing and it isn’t sustaining. So in order to do that in the very near future I am going to relaunch my studio and it’s going to be different. I want to use these three years as a way to redefine what a studio can be.

That’s exciting.

Yeah, and actually I gave a talk this past fall in Ireland at Build and I have the whole thing online, it’s called counterpractice, it’s a giant long tumblr. So in there I don’t really answer any of the questions but I basically talk about all the steps that have gone into trying to so this new kind of work and in the end I call it a counterpractice and I am thinking of relaunching under that name.

One of the things I also saw when I was on your site is that you are saying that your bookwork explores image, place and identity and I wonder how that has a relationship with the browser based work that you are exploring now.

Its not really a division, but I would separate those two kinds of work. I think when I wrote that I was thinking about a couple of different major book works that I’ve done over the last couple of years where I was on some kind of residency, in a place. And this happened four times; once in Rome, Venice, England, and Iceland this past summer. In each place I did bookwork that was direct output from the place; using image, typography, interviewing and other relational ways of trying understand where I was and have it come out in some kind of printed book object way. And then the printed web stuff, in my mind, is kind of separate. There were moments in all of those projects where the web and data and the idea of public archives was all there very strongly—in at least three out of four of those projects. But it wasn’t until a little but later on in that three years when I started doing projects that were very much only about that, about the printed web.

Yeah, which is then more about data and archive than things like place or identity. I can see how there could a relationship in that, as these things that are being recognized in a space that you visit.

There can be, but they are kind of different areas of work. Back to counterpractice, one of the reasons I want to explore a practice that I can call one thing, is because rather than — its tempting to say (everyone says) “oh those are your side projects”, or “that’s your self initiated work” or “that’s a hobby” somehow all that diminishes, can position the work in a diminished way. I am trying to say, well now client work is different, I am trying to say is it possible that a practice can be research based and could encompass all of those activities. I am actually looking for the connections. That’s the gist of what I want counterpractice to be. And for one of the readings for today for relational design that I am teaching. Clement Valla assigned Research and Destroy. It’s by Metahaven in the Netherlands. I actually had read it before but it had been a while. But I read this many times to prepare for todays class and I realized: oh my goodness, this is a counterpractice, this is one version of what I am trying to get at. I would call this almost a manifesto of where he’s saying “designer need to be doing more than just design”. That we need to create a practice that is outputting things that are other than design that could be considered some kind of research or investigation that contributes to culture in a different way. So this got me really excited.

So more specifically related to things that we are doing in our class, you mentioned that browser based work is working more with the archive and data that exists there. Are their characteristics of browser-based projects vs. other platforms?

I have been consciously trying not to define them as types of projects, but to define them as kinds of techniques and as a way of getting back to a new kind of artist practice. I definitely touched on it at the Design Office, but I am interested in whether or not it makes any sense to say there is a new kind of web to print practice. Web to print is very specific, you mentioned browser-based work. But I think it opens up larger questions. I know other people are asking these questions and it gets silly to get too far into these definitions — like what is a web artist vs. just someone making art today in a way that incorporates digital tools and technique. So I guess I am less interested in that but I am very interested in artists who are incorporating that transformative jump between mediums into their practice. And maybe we could say that that’s always been the case that artists have done that. But how and why is it different today?

With other methods besides the browser.

Right, like we could talk about — this is kind of an exceptional case — but Marcel Broodthaers, who did books of poetry and they were a failure and so he was having an opening and he took all the books and threw them into a big pile of plaster and so you couldn’t tell they were books anymore. So at that moment he was sort of crossing over from literature to sculpture, literature to art to visual art from something ephemeral, poetry. From the ephemeral to the object to materiality; and that comes along with a whole discourse and set of questions in itself so I guess today I don’t think any of this is new. And that was just one example; I am sure we could go way back in history and talk about more.

So this question may be less relevant at this point in our discussion, but can you talk about the connection between the medium for which is something is created and the tool that is used to create it. Or maybe, what is the connection in the substance of a project when something is crossing over from one medium to another? How does it change?

Marcel Broodthaers

Well I do believe it changes, our experience changes. The content may not change that much, the nature of it might not change but our experience of it definitely does. I mean I am interested in the book as interface design, as a piece of technology, as a historical piece that’s got a long history. And our user experience in interface design in browsers is very new, relatively, and that is very different and it brings up all sorts of issues between the two. Those can be very basic, but for me they can become more nuanced when you start talking about things like speed, and recently I had the thought, in that counterpractice talk, I talked about slowness, I talked about thingness, slowness, chance, and giving away --as many qualities I’ve been looking at in my work. And recently I thought “it’s not that the book is slow”, it’s too easy and too simplistic to say that print is a slowing down of something. Although I believe that slowness is a kind of resistance and I am interested in that. But I think what’s interesting about the book and about print — is that it’s variable.

I think it’s difficult to talk about the browser in terms of a variable user experience and what I mean is that I can experience like this, [PS flips through a book] and I could call that fast. Or I could sit here and spend an hour on this page [PS gestures to a page of book] and it’s very easy to do that. The point being that I can control that. Or I can go like this and its neither fast nor slow [PS uses fingers as placeholders while jumping to multiple pages in book]. But I control the speed and the way in which I interact with this technology. I believe we are still in such an early stage of the browser, of the web, of lets say the screen because that includes these things as well, that were less in control. That we have more of an illusion of control.

I was going to say that I feel like we think we are in control, because I feel like I go on sites and do something similar to a book, probably not with as many degrees of control, but I can either skim or focus in.

I do the same and I think you can do all those things. But I would say that the trajectory in screen-based design is only moving towards faster. The quick read, the scan, how fast can we consume. The idea of the endless scroll; the appearance and quick disappearance of material. All of those are techniques for consuming faster. So I believe on the web or screen the idea of disappearance and varying your interaction with the material becomes more and more an act of resistance.

As an aside, when I was working on websites around 2008 scrolling was still verboten and it was all about fitting pages on the screen and “clicking through”. Then there was the sideways scroll trend that came along; maybe it was the transition to re-embracing the scroll. Now we are back into the scroll, and taking it to another level. We can play with scroll-- with endless scrolls and parallax tricks and more. So now the browser has been around long enough to cycle and have these retreads that then build on where it’s been.many ‘yeahs’ from PS throughout this comment

I’m thinking about the different techniques, about what’s implied by each of those techniques. Like clicking through is sort of a dismissive gesture because you are leaving one place and going to another. And you sort of obliterate where you’ve been.

Its less of the back and forth

Yes, I can flip back and forth and create an index [holds fingers in place in pages of a book]. It’s hard to do this on the web. I don’t feel like we’ve quite gotten there with the web. And yeah, the scroll is another kind of dismissive gesture, which is literally the swiping up and off.

Yeah, especially when you have the touch pad gestures.

It would be interesting to think about how our actual hand gestures are involved in each of these. From here to there, and the back. I mean I love the web so it’s not like I’m trying to fetishize print because of some disapproval or disapproving stance on the web, it’s not that at all. But it’s more the act of resistance. Like how do we resist dominant paradigms that are driving us toward certain kinds of consumption?

Back to browser based projects. When I try to identify the different techniques that artist are using and I wrote about that on my site its called search, compile, publish, towards a new artists web to print practice. In there I tried to define specific techniques that many of theses artists are using and almost all of them in Library of the Printed Web are using the techniques, which were grabbing, hunting, performing, scraping. That’s why I was so interested in your class. Because I was never really thinking about browser based things, I was thinking more of the thing we do with the content, like grabbing and scraping and with data. And I think those are I do like to think about the archive, collecting, artist who uses archives. This came up when we had a launch for printed web at printed matter. Clement Valla, Penelope Umbrico and other artists were there. And I brought up the archive, and a few of the artists, especially Penelope, were uncomfortable with the idea that artists are working as archivists. She said she sees it more as artists who are using techniques of the archive, but that the idea that the archivist finds things, isolates them and preserves them, she believes is not really where she’s at. And the artists all agreed with her and I thought, I need to rethink the archive as this big general thing, because maybe it is really different. I personally, with that project, am very interested in new kinds of archives that are appearing online. Like big collections of image or geo or text based data that are now publicly available to us as artists.

Can we talk about Library of Printed Web as a time capsule?

Printed Web #1 at the Providence launch

I believe that came from something Clement [Valla] said, a quote that he has about his work with Google Earth. He says he was pulling his images out to archive them and pause them from the update cycle. So the idea of accelerating the image, which Hito Steyerl talks about in the essay Printed Web #1, accelerating the image as a way of circulating it and circulationism in image economy. And then the power we have to then selectively take form that and what is the nature of that. Is it a slowing down? Is it a pausing? The way we circulate images and things now is getting fast and not just faster but constantly updating and changing. So when Clement talks about the update cycle, he’s talking about algorithmic processes that are going in and automatically refreshing and smoothing out. I think about what smoothing out of the digital landscape constantly. That’s one way to look at it—of course there are others?

Regarding smoothing out—not just literally but more about refining and perfecting content?

Yeah, like mainstream interface design when you look at the trajectory of something like Google Maps and it the bumpiness, clunkiness of the interface and where it’s gone with each update. Faster, smoother, easier, that’s the path. So anything we find along the way when we interact with this data is going to be temporal and time based. So the idea that one could take a slice through some area of the internet, or lets say through culture through the lens of the browser/screen interests me, and I do believe that the Library of the Printed Web is that, and the artists that I’m interested in are artists or designers who are doing that in some way. Even unconsciously doing that. Somebody’s interested in playing with this kind of content they may not be thinking about pausing anything, or taking a slice through anything but that is in effect what’s happening. I mean something like Wikipedia, this sort of liquid—I think of it as a liquid—liquid in buckets sloshing around. So just the ability to take a screen capture can be a political move, a social move. That’s why I go back to gesture and technique. As opposed to project. What is the agency that the artist has today, what is the implication of taking a screen grab? When we think about things like Wikileaks and Aaron Swartz and other activist moves that involve data and downloading that’s sort of the other flip-side of this. There are artists, activists, there’s political motives where the action you perform on data becomes the thing that can ignite, can upset, can disturb, disrupt. Less about “it” and more about an action. That’s also why I am interested in Metahaven. They did a big proposal to redesign the Wikileaks logo and that became more of a discussion than resulting in a thing, but the way they went about it and what that meant to them as designers and graphic design in general I think its really important because here’s a thing that is not a traditional commission by any definition, it’s not commercial, it’s sort of this thing floating out there that they’ve defined. But it is also reacting to a specific problem and need; it’s not a vanity project.

I am wondering where is the Library of the Printed Web headed next conceptually?

I see the Library of Printed Web as a platform for me, and Printed Web #1 was one actionable moment that came out of this platform. So for me that is almost for me than the platform itself. Because you know I am not setting up a research library, its not that this is being set up as a library itself. I would like this to be used more as a tool, but I think that might happen more with a robust web presence; where it could really be used more as a database of this kind of work. But that’s more of a tactic. Conceptually I think it pretty much more of the same. I am starting to think about another kind of actionable moment, which is, how could I both work in some kind of commercial way with Library of the Printed Web, like start a gallery space, but how could I also subvert and work around the idea of the gallery and the art market as an institution. So my idea is to maybe represent not artists, but specific works that are rarely seen or acquired or difficult to acquire. And I have several of these in mind. The idea of representing a work as a single edition, like one thing.

So works that are living on the web but not easy to acquire or discover?

Yes generated on the web, but living in a printed way. Hard to discover, own, possess in any kind of way. Somehow the counter-practice or counter-studio idea is because it is very easy to circulate the image and sometimes really important and you know we could talk about what it means to go viral and things like that, and even that as a political strategy. But the idea of disturbing that or pausing that, a material thing, and all the implications that come along with that is there a way to actually deal in that world? To deal in the circulation of things that come from that world? It’s an idea and it might happen before the end of this year. Printed Web #1 was just that in an accessible, $12 way, and anyone can have it. So it’s actually just another take on that.I don’t know if that’s a conceptual direction, but these are my ideas.

Can you remind me of what your distribution method is, and making this accessible?

It has all been do-it-myself which has been really a challengePrinted Web #1 is primarliy sold online. I originally approached Art Book and DAP to distribute this, they’re one of the biggies. They were really interested when they saw that list of artists but they said they have a difficult time distributing things that don’t have a spine. Suddenly I was faced with the reality of a shelf in a bookstore. So that is making me rethink this thing.

It seems that it could also stand out in a lovely way

Yeah, you know Irma Boom’s book that comes in the little tiny box, I think it’s the same issue. If it were on the shelf it would be flopping around. I really like the newsprint thing and the 64 pages so I’m tempted to do it again, but if I have a good idea I might try to shake it up.

You asked about distribution. I printed 1,000. They were all sitting in my studio; about half of them are gone. So I decided to sell them directly online and just take them around. They originally launched at the LA art book fair so that was good- they got a lot of exposure there.

There’s a great community for it there

Yes, we had double the people this year form when it started. And the one at PS1 is just incredible. I like the fairs, and using them as a way to mark a deadline and create a schedule.

And having that community must be nice.

Yeah it’s really great.

My last question is what advice would you offer our class as we embark on printing our HTML projects?

I’m more interested in knowing what you guys are thinking about, and that could help.

Right now we are assembling our projects and written content such as interviews, some code snippets and we are working in teams on different aspects. There is a browser to print direction.

Here’s one idea, on the one hand a lot of the artist in the Printed Web #1, are artists who are, like Kenneth Goldsmith and his Printing Out the Internet tumblr project, literally just printing stuff out, and he came to my studio and was going through every work in the library, he loves the project, and he talked about the “dumbness” of some of the projects and there’s a kind of dumbness when a book just prints out from a data feed or an API for 3 days or something. Or the dumbness in a sweeping gesture and just dumping it into the page, into a format. I love what we can call dumbness or transparency or literalness. It’s directed; its kind of matter-of-factness. And then there are projects that are less so, that are taking things and re-formatting, re-digesting, re-interpreting for the printed page and those can be interesting as well, but those are more designed projects. You know in the sense that I’m going to design a book and I’m going to take from the web. Maybe those are two distinct approaches that you could be thinking about.

So I think there’s something exciting about saying our publication is this web presence, or this page like the idea of one gigantic tumblr, and here’s one instance of the printout and you print a stack and set it on a table. That to me would be an exciting proposition because you’re denying its sort of bookness, by making it about the printing and the paper and the output and maybe there’s more connection to where it’s from.

Another way to say this is that any movement from one medium to another is a translation and so to what extent to you highlight the translation or not. Either of those directions would imply different things.

I was thinking about that with printed web work in general—that it could easily not be obvious enough that it is from the web, and a viewer just think its an interesting design.

Yes, and I purposely kept the explanations short and confined in Printed Web #1. My original idea was to not have anything at all, just the title and the work, no back matter or front matter because Seth Siegelaub’s Xerox book was just like that: seven names, his names, the date and then the work. Again, it’s kind of the dumbness factor but then I thought for anyone who’s not going to get it I would add more.

Well thank you, that’s all my questions unless you have anything to add.

No, I’m just excited that these discussions are even happening.

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