This week the world’s leading and largest Berlin-based conference and festival of contemporary character design reopened its doors for the eleventh year running with a playground of character designs for us to feast our eyes on. Kicking off with a talk by Helsinki based director and animator Lucas Zanotto, the festival showcases a plethora of talks, workshops and exhibitions by a stellar lineup of international artists, animators, graphic designers and more.
I caught up with co-founder Lars Denicke to chat about the festival, its origins and why Pictoplasma is that little bit more special than your average conference.
Pictoplasma and character design seem to embody a huge variety of different mediums, practices and domains, how would you best define the terms?
Characters aim at our empathy and emotional involvement and function around the very essence of what makes something an image: that it gives us ourselves, the feeling of being looked at. They often have an animist quality, as if they were real and alive, or at least create belief in a virtual existence, as a character in a play.
Characters also function on the principles of abstraction and reduction, as if they were typographic characters, taking away all arabesque details and contexts to maximize a common denominator for us to relate to, neglect of cultural difference. A post-digital play with media is a common strategy; artists and creators play with the same character design in different media. Many, for example, have a digital background for creation, and a longing to leave it behind and experiment with more permanent media. Staging the same character over and over again gives it a virtual identity, each single picture adds to depict this virtual character that supposes to exist somewhere else
How can we use character designs as tools to improve our own understanding of the real world?
Firstly, it’s hard to define the real world, but it is true we feel characters play with our understanding of reality in creating the virtual. Given this, they can increase our understanding of realities being relative to others, interdependent, constructed and not solidly defined. In their animist quality, they tickle us to reflect on the essence of what being alive involves.
Tell me about the initial stages of Pictoplasma and then the Festival, how did it develop? You began as an online and print based publication, right?
In1999 Peter started Pictoplasma as a research website, he came from animation and was looking for a new generation of characters that were more appealing, with fewer targeted audiences, less slaves to the ever same narration. This led to publications.
In 2004, coming from cultural studies and inspired by discourses of the iconic or pictorial turn, I joined Peter with the idea to make a conference out of it. We were looking for a way to present the loud, varied and playful aesthetics in a modest setting, so we thought a conference and not a festival or convention would be best. Just 40 minutes for an artist to talk about his/her creation. We managed to stick to this formula, as these talks get very personal – there is always a reason why someone creates these characters, and it gets through in every talk. Gallery exhibitions and animation screenings were part of this event from the very beginning, which made it a festival.
From 2006-2009 we started to produce ourselves, firstly giving characters designed by other artists a corporeality through the hands of costume designers who passed them on to dancers to discover how a character would change personality when having a certain body; then with installations that played with the idea of creating a world for us to get immersed - this culminated in the exhibition Prepare for Pictopia (2009, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin).
In 2010 we created the Missing Link, a character reflecting on the Yeti myth, and investigated artistic strategies of community, tribes and following in the digital age; this led to the exhibition Post-Digital Monsters (2011, La Gaîté lyrique, Paris). In 2012-13 we focused on characters in visual communication, the terror of photographic realism, and the commercial character as mascot, (White Noise, La Casa Encendida, Madrid 2013).
And then in 2014, the celebration of a decade of the festival was done in correspondence with the time-honoured genre of the portrait gallery, again giving each character that shaped our festival a place in an exhibition that performed the idea of being pre-digital, as in much earlier, or a memory of the digital age, as in much later.
What makes Pictoplasma different to other conferences?
Pictoplasma encompasses all design practices – we don’t make a difference as such, we just follow characters, not the artists or concepts. Therefore it is open to all, it is not an elite fine art club as such. The contexts give the creation to the characters and we are accessible to all.
I think this is what is important. Often people are repelled by fine art, it’s an exclusive form of art, which character design tries not to be. Character design is a concept that is open to all and is rooted in the classic conference and exhibition style.
Is there a year that stands out for you?
2006 for me was a good year, the second big edition. It was that moment when you realise you’ve started something new. That feeling of continuity is very exciting. A bit like a puzzle, piecing it all together.
What is the theme for this year’s festival and the inspiration behind it?
Form Follows Empathy goes back to the basics of Pictoplasma and the empathic quality of characters. When everything gets so functional, tech-gadgety, planned characters remind us that we have to like things in order to be ready to interact. Obviously, it breaks with the Modernist credo (Form Follows Function), but not in a strict opposition: the graphic quality of many of the characters featured in the project obviously stand in a Modernist tradition.
German design is very serious and functional, with little space for fun at all. It is important to put a character on these things – it’s not just about pure function, you have to like it. Characters are there to remind us that it is not just about function but also appeal.
(Lars took the example of a mobile phone to demonstrate)
Mobile phones are like big eyes that watch you. They are completely fixed on the eye and the way you perceive things (such as watching, learning, touching). All very perfect. The appeal is neglected here and I think that, in the long run, the appeal has to be in a more comprehensive set up. The phone is now our mobile companion but is it our best companion? They improve function but what about empathy? Is the phone the right device for this? Form Follows Empathy plays with this idea.
A very interesting thought...
How is the digital age impacting contemporary character design today?
We started our project 1999 when the Internet became available for the masses, and implied the promise of a virtual world. In a time where photography was not yet that widespread due to slow data transmission of modems, graphical characters were the inhabitants of this supposed virtual world. At that time, the digital age informed the way characters looked. This is obviously over: we can play with styles and media and diffuse them instantly through digital media, so the digital age now is less about aesthetics and how characters look, but more about distribution and diffusion.
Now, the terror of photographic realism is everywhere - everything is depicted and consumed while we move. There seem to be less room available for characters, and yet the artistic production is blossoming. Maybe they function as an antidote to this photographic realism of today. And then there is the afore mentioned post-digital practice, where digital is just not interesting per se, but part of our reality and characters move from digital to analogue and back, or where everything is both at the same time.
You’ve managed to get some pretty impressive speakers on board – what is your selection process?
Step by step, we build up the line up. Research, chance, recommendations, even artists contacting us – this all leads to a growing watch list. In conversation of the two of us, Peter and I agree on the artists. Somehow, the fact that their characters are appealing to us in a very personal, empathic way is a secret rule. But the real love affair starts after we have met the creators and begin to get to know their characters.
Every year I worry that I won’t be affected in the same way that I have been before, but it always happens, both in terms of the artists as people, and their creations, the characters.
Special thanks to Lars for taking the time to talk to us
Pictoplasma Festival | April 29 – May 3 2015