Johnny Hardstaff imagines the future; interview

Michael Fassbender in David Promo, by Johnny Hardstaff (RSA Films)

Michael Fassbender in David Promo, by Johnny Hardstaff (RSA Films)

Johnny Hardstaff and Liz Farrelly
Interview, 13 December 2013

A shorter version of this article appears in étapes 218, translated into French; the issue is themed, Fiction and Anticipation, published March 2014.

A director and designer who includes the title “modern storyteller” in his biography, Johnny Hardstaff studied Graphic Design at St. Martins School of Art (now called Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design), graduating in the early 1990s and going on to teach design and illustration at Camberwell College of Arts (both are part of University of the Arts London). Hardstaff’s exploration of graphic imagery and use of drawing within his practice are prompted by a desire to build fantastical but believable on-screen worlds; two early short films, “History of Gaming” and “Future of Gaming” suggest that the concepts of utopia and dystopia are inextricably linked. Whether working with commercial clients (Sony, Smirnoff) the entertainment industry (often in collaboration with filmmaker, Ridley Scott) or cultural institutions (Tate, Victoria and Albert Museum), Hardstaff aims to imagine the future.

Liz Farrelly: How do you imagine the graphic language of the future? Do you see other designers trying this too?
Johnny Hardstaff: I used to think that I worked in a cultural vacuum and it was a positive thing. I was adhering to the principle that you don’t have heroes, don’t look at other designers’ work. Instead, you look at interesting triggers and stimuli that are erratic, and fuse them together in a postmodern way. When I try to help students to be original, I say, take two things that do not belong together and see what happens when they implode.
LF: Like the quote by the 19th-century poet, Lautréamont: “As beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella”.
JH: That’s absolutely the principle. I love thumbnails of things that you can’t quite see, images that are so broken you don’t know what they are, so you have to decide what they are.
LF: Like an inkblot test; by deciding what an image is, you are interpreting those half-formed marks, and that comes straight out of your head.
JH: And it’s a trigger. I like industrial languages and detailing on cars, things that already exist, but then you mess with them. They already have cultural resonance, but you remake it. It comes down to monsters; I like the idea of weird cultural monstrosities.

LF: Because monsters are a bunch of weird elements (fire breathing, acid blood, lethal claws) put together to create a new whole that doesn’t exist in nature.
JH: Yes, things that don’t exist, but you know, because of your cultural background, what these things mean. A great example of this is the illustrator, Peter Nencini. He visits Pound Stores and buys tiny plastic products, and makes amazing things by combining them; his understanding of materials is exquisite. I can read what he does because I fixate over real things too. Perhaps there is a fear that what I make isn’t authentic enough…
LF: …unless it includes real elements?
JH: Yes, so I borrow corporate languages and bend them; use industrial produce and sort of twist it.
LF: Do you find inspiration in science and technology museums?
JH: No, I literally get it off the street. I’m not a big fan of the latest technology. I’m interested in discovering science and narrative. The design of every telephone says something. I think there is an opportunity to take people on a journey, because we live in an age of mass distribution when you can put something out there that has real resonance.
LF: So, how many people watched your “David” promo for “Prometheus” (Director: Ridley Scott 2012)?
JH: The PR company said 50 million people were aware of it in the first five days.
LF: Viewed on YouTube?
JH: The interesting thing about YouTube is, you think it’s just dancing cats, but actually its success is built on strong, original content but with a lot of hype around it. And it works because you can get clips of almost anything.
LF: Talking about narrative, are you making movies? They may be two-and-a-half minutes, or 30-seconds, but is it the same thing as a 90-minute movie? Plus, it is interactive because the viewer is choosing when to watch it? And if so, is it still your story?
JH: It doesn’t have to be a narrative. We come back to the notion that the writer is 50 per cent of a book, but it’s also about perception and what the reader gets out of it. So, I think a piece of film is innately interactive; if it’s a good piece of film. The best work is interesting because it’s open to interpretation. A film like “Holy Motors” (Director: Leos Carax 2012) is frustrating; it’s a cinematic workout, but amazing films aren’t sewn up and it is deeply interactive in that way. Narrative is for bending; Hollywood tends to make films that aren’t at all interactive.
LF: How does your vision of the future and this idea of interactive narrative fit with bigger questions about the future? Is it utopian or dystopia? Is it shiny and new, or does visual language mirror a less positive narrative?
JH: I am chasing the excellence that I think is in my head, followed by abject disappointment on every project.
LF: Because you can’t manage to realise it?
JH: Yes, but it gets a little closer each time. It’s about developing a visual language using graphic design and illustration; that’s where I still am.
LF: Do you storyboard each scene?
JH: Yes, I draw everything, design everything, which is horrible for the people who work with me, they hate it. It isn’t dictatorial, but it is frustrating for the production designers, but the good ones surprise me. I’m developing a visual language that gets closer and closer to the weird feeling of an ideal diffusion of beauty and darkness. I’m trying to achieve a graphic state of being — for want of a better phrase — graphic in the way that you can feel it; it’s lurid. I think I’m trying to build a world.
LF: “Reality”.
JH: Yes.
LF: Are you creating the future through science fiction?
JH: It would be quite a master plan, and I think it does happen.
LF: The aesthetic of Steam Punk, for example, has done just that; now you can buy “real” products inspired by a fiction, a movie like “Delicatessen” (Directors: Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet 1991) and its imagined aesthetic.
JH: That is so thrilling. I like it when these mythologies start to blend. It’s accidental that I am represented by Ridley Scott’s company, (RSA Films), but when I was younger he filled my world with art, with amazing aesthetics and stories. He made an ad for Chanel No.5 called “Share the Fantasy” (1982). The soundtrack was “I don’t want to set the world on fire” by The Ink Spots, and it’s beautiful; Versailles with aircraft flying over rooftops and slightly Freudian imagery. As a ten-year-old, I thought, I want to live in this world. Ridley Scott, Jean-Paul Goude, David Bowie’s “Heroes”; it was a super-stylised aesthetic of seduction. You know that you are being seduced by this visual language.
LF: In Scott’s “Blade Runner” (Director: Ridley Scott 1982) the hero, Decker, is seduced by a replicant (synthetic human), even though he tries to resist. And the audience is seduced by the world Scott creates, mixing the iconic exterior of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House (1924) with an interior that feels intimate and claustrophobic; the lighting is incredible.
JH: In The Vatican to Vegas: a history of special effects (The New Press 2001) Norman M. Klein explains how design can manipulate us. He picks through every theatrical layer of a cathedral, to show how the Catholic Church used architecture. It’s what Ridley does, creating low-lit interiors and moody atmospheres; it’s all about manipulation.
LF: But unlike those “big screen” cinematic spaces, your work is about detail and surface, it feels closer to the screen, and a small screen at that.
JH: Everything is smaller, and I think that is to do with my illustration and design background. There is economy with the scale, but it’s gradually expanding out.
LF: It fits the technology, the delivery mechanism of the SmartPhone and Tablet. David Lynch says: “It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone phone”. He’s really upset about it.
JH: I’m not horrified by that; it’s how we live now. I like visiting Japan (I have to stop myself going too much), because everything is wonderfully compact and dense. I also love the idea of fighting against formats and cinematic conventions; the screen’s particular orientation is an irritant, whereas my phone is deeply interactive.
LF: Watching Prometheus in an IMAX cinema you are enveloped, turned from subject to object. But watching the David promo on my phone, in that format it feels so real too.
JH: The David promo is very old fashioned; it builds the future by referencing the past, using something that already exists.
LF: In the future there is always a time lag; traces of the past co-exist and continue into the future because we don’t start from scratch; unless you’re setting up a Moon colony, but we’d still bring our old photos with us.
JH: That’s my reading of the future, unlike the mainstream idea of the future, the visual shorthand for “the future”. I get excited about suggesting the future in different ways.
LF: Describe the future that David inhabits; it looked circumscribed and yet holistic.
JH: It’s about control. I subscribe to a slightly dystopian view, purely on the basis that it’s a lot more exciting. On the train today, I was thinking about whether or not I was a socialist, and if everybody was living in a happy, utopian space, how would I feel, and I think I’d be horrified. I don’t wish darkness on the people I love, or on my own life, but I want to be thrilled, I want to live in a fantasy, so I guess I’m trying to build that.
LF: The most powerful people live in a world of their own creating…
JH: And that’s what directors do too; and impose their fantasies on others. I often shoot in Prague because I love the socialist interpretation of modernism. I think that’s where real inspiration lies, in looking at how people do things differently. David presents a sort of Soviet version of a controlled future.
LF: You chose a particularly controlled aesthetic, but in the movie, the company that produced David is a super-elite, capitalist organisation, which has become a completely autonomous entity.
JH: I’m assuming that in the future we’ll be governed by corporations. You can see it now, for example, the energy companies are so powerful; corporate agendas are translated into government policy. There are economic models in Asia, which we’re marching towards. I think it’s interesting to play with those languages and allude to those power struggles, because you know deep down that there is an innate darkness in it.
LF: But you are part of the machine, simply by playing with it.
JH: Wholly; I’m in love with it.
LF: How can you criticise it if you’re in love with it?
JH: Well I don’t know if I am criticising it; this is the curious thing. I adore advertising, and it’s almost kinky to say that.
LF: A lot of people feel, even if they do love it, that they shouldn’t because of the element of manipulation.
JH: As a child, rightly or wrongly, I was accustomed, like much of the population, to getting my art through advertising.
LF: The society of the spectacle?
JH: It’s much more than that, for good or bad. At St. Martins College of Art, we were imbued with a version of modernist values where we thought we were pushing society towards a better future. And there is a socialist dream, which I believe in deep down. But, I had the idea that I was being controlled, and my thrill is with dancing around these languages and carving a space where you have the liberty to do what you feel.
LF: And that can happen in the commercial world because it sets up attitudes of freedom, whether they are real or imagined, whether that’s a myth or not.
JH: Yes. There is a dogma, which is, corporations are evil, advertising is bad; we can see grains of truth, you’d have to be insane not to. At the same time, I don’t want to subscribe to one particular way of working. I think that advertising is culturally important, for good or bad; it is such a seductive playground, it crafts seduction and yes it is developing. But at the same time, when you are an aesthete of visual languages then you’re like a moth to a flame. There is a loftier mission; advertising continues to exist so how can I make it interesting, and push it and test it and prod it, and try to shift it into new areas that reward viewers. If I make something and expect people to watch it for 30 seconds or two minutes, I want them to feel that their time wasn’t wasted.
LF: But how prescriptive is an advertising brief?
JH: Every project is different; with some there is massive freedom, with agencies saying, what the hell do you want to do? Perhaps it’s because of the work I’ve done that people ask, how do you want to play?
LF: When that happens, how do you start?
JH: If there are no parameters at all then I’m screwed. I sit and have ideas all day long, but I just do not know which to alight on. And I’m a victim of design education; I’ve been trained to solve problems. But the parameters can be incredibly slight and then it’s permission to run. And often it’s the brand.
LF: Do you begin by analysing the brand?
JH: There is always baggage or something that needs reinventing. These are great opportunities to make things that I might have had tucked away for ages. But I’m not trying to sneak anything under anyone’s radar, I just want to test it. It’s like with PlayStation and the Future of Gaming, that was utter mischief.
LF: You made these interesting, provocative films that went viral. But Sony had to officially distance itself from them.
JH: They adored them, and I just didn’t realise it, I wasn’t astute enough to realise what was going on. I thought that it was just my agenda, which was naïve. The History of Gaming was retro-fitted to meet Sony’s needs, they saw it and commissioned the next. “History” was made to buy the right to make something stronger, the Future of Gaming. It was a half plan, but it worked out. It was just thinking, what can be done? I’m not trying to start a revolution.
LF: We have a tendency to resistant change, but are you one of those people who doesn’t resist change?
JH: When I’m not confronted by it, I love it. But I’m not an early adopter because I know that fifty per cent of it is absolutely shit. When I spoke at a recent symposium, there was a question from a design lecturer who asked me about ethics, and I was quite baffled by that. She said: “I teach my students about ethics”. Really, what does that mean; having an ethical responsibility to what, the idea that we can perpetuate our own existence and that we can ring-fence our right to be on this planet?
LF: In his book, Design Futuring: sustainability, ethics and new practice, the design theorist Tony Fry defines “the future” as all the time between now and our annihilation. He states that, in the practice of design, the most difficult questions are being ignored. Teaching ethics to design students is about understanding the implications of their role in all of this.
JH: It’s perverse and interesting to think about us marching towards this big implosive moment. I think it’s interesting to flirt with danger and I love the politics of why we do it and what things mean. And I am taking no moral responsibility for it. But, I’ve had conversations with clients from corporations asking, how do we feel about that, what is our moral stance on this?
LF: Do you feel that you are being asked to supply it?
JH: No. In truth, I think it all comes down to surface. I’m very surface-driven and yet I’m constantly thinking about what it all means. It is not inconsiderable, the visual language that we craft and wield.
LF: Almost every decision we make has a visual element to it, and we make choices constantly.
JH: It’s exciting to see what happens when you create fictional worlds. It’s actually, to a degree, quite infantile.
LF: The fact that you have that ability and power to make a fictional world is in itself seductive.
JH: I get addicted to making new stuff and you instantly dislike whatever you’ve made, it’s never good enough, so you have to take something more on. With advertising in particular, there is a great allure in a new project, and another new project.
LF: So you’re a workaholic?
JH: Yes.