Peter P. Bella is an Assistant Professor in Visual Communication and Design at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW). His latest exhibition Grimm & Grotesk is an exploration of the intimate and yet bizarre relationship between the written word and the typographic manifestation.
The term Grotesque has come to be used as a broad adjective for the strange, fantastic, ugly, odd, unpleasant, and even disgusting since the 18th century. Consequently, the expression is often used to describe weird shapes and distorted forms. In art, theatre, and literature, Grotesque refers to something that simultaneously invokes a feeling of uncomfortable bizarreness and even concern or shame. The term “Grotesque,” or “Grotesk” in German, is also frequently used as a replacement in typography for “Sans-serif,” meaning to be without serifs. The origin of this association in typography can be traced back to typefounder William Thorowgood who first introduced the term Grotesque in 1835 when he produced “7-line Pica Grotesque.” This insertion of sans-serif typography caused quite a stir in the typographic and publishing circles due to its intense departure from traditional serif typefaces that dictated book printing of its time. Thus, it gave way to referring sans-serif styles as “Grotesque” …ugly, incongruous, unpleasant, even disgusting.
Grotesk typefaces are synonymous with The International Typographic Style, also known as the Swiss Style. A graphic design style that emerged in Russia, the Netherlands, and Germany. It had, and still maintains, a profound influence on graphic design and has impacted many design-related fields including art and architecture. The style emphasised cleanliness, readability and objectivity, with asymmetric layouts, proportioned grid systems, and sans-serif typefaces such as Akzidenz Grotesk and Neue Haas Grotesk, better known as Helvetica.
The Grimm’s Fairy Tales is a collection of classic German fairy tales published by the Grimm brothers Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm. Although they were called “Children's Tales,” they were not regarded as suitable for children, because of the 'grim' subject matter. In the Grimm version Cinderella, the life of a motherless girl, is peppered with bloody and explicitly painful mutilations; made more grotesque as the step-sisters were greed-induced and provoked by their mother. In the Grimm’s “Little Red Riding Hood,” the grandmother was devoured by an evil wolf, which then eventually eats Red Riding Hood who was later rescued by cutting open the wolf’s stomach... Very grotesque, gory and grim indeed!
Grimm & Grotesk
Peter's Exhibition brings the Grotesque, Grotesk, Grim and Grimm together in large format graphic outcomes. To create the works, Visual Communication and Design, Imaging and Photography students, from IPFW were asked to visually respond to the narratives and themes in the Grimm brother's work, these visual representations of the classic fairy tales are collaged in dynamic and intriguing glitch-ridden formats and overlaid with grotesque typography (and language).
Grimm & Grotesk is a manifestation of the theoretical connotation of the grotesque, tell-tailing the expressive bond of the bizarre between the ugly, dark, and odd written words of fairy tale’s centuries past and the absurd, disagreeable, potentially repulsive typographic manifestations of expression with Akzidenz Grotesk. The viewer is taken on a suggestive story that has potential to mislead the viewer into manufacturing a visual story without context and accurate information. Implication and authenticity of the word are far too often taken out of context and assigned connotation to the provisions and directive of the messenger. It is the accountability given to the viewer questioning them to interact with the exhibition to seek out truths of the bizarre through intermingling with the whole of the works and the written word.
I caught up with Peter to find out more about this fascinating project...
Hi Pete, congratulations on the work - it is an exciting exhibition! Can you tell us a little about how the project came about?
First, thank you. I greatly appreciate the opportunity you have given me to share with you—and the world—my exhibition. My exhibition, Grimm & Grotesk, came about from a few directions. Perhaps infatuation best describes my directive. As a Professor of design typography is my area of focus within graphic design and in a reverse path of interest I began to grow fond of the typeface Akzidenz Grotesk by way of Helvetica. We, as in type and design nerds, are all exposed to the Helvetica story and exposed to the use of Helvetica all around us—it’s numbing. The historical reference of Neue Haas Grotesk to Akzidenz Grotesk was appealing to me and captivated me further knowing the historical importance of Akzidenz Grotesk with its varying weights by the Berthold Type Foundry. The ideology behind the design of varying type weights with Akzidenz Grotesk was to produce visual emphasis in a design. During the industrial revolution, this also allowed for better utilization of a page-format to type-scale ratio. Designers used visual emphasis as a tool to direct the viewer to information, and across information, giving the viewer a desired message in a planned order. I wanted to hold as true to the era in which Akzidenz Grotesk was released hence the industrial feel and use of the Grimm Fairy Tales.
The discussion world-wide regarding how media is blamed for delivering selective information, or ‘Fake News,’ really excelled my intentions. My objective was to mislead and distort the stories from The Grimm Fairy Tales by carefully selecting phrases from a chosen story and rearranging the content in varying visual emphasis to selectively retell the story. Most importantly I needed to be sure that the viewer was aware that they have been misled so that they reconsidered their first impressions. To do so, and to create an engaging and interactive exhibition—and an honest one—the original Grimm stories were included in the exhibition along with the original photographs used in the large prints. The large prints practically forced the viewer to engage with them first and make observations and begin formulating their interpretations. The text of the original stories was intentionally smaller and placed towards the back corner of the exhibition partnered with the unaltered image used on the large print. This allowed the viewer to create the link between the large print and the actual complete text of the story as intended by the Grimm Brothers. The aim was to inform viewers that our first impression of information shouldn’t be our only source for developing our perceptions of a story or of information provided.
There are nine artworks in total and nine photographic references, so I guess(?!) there were ten people who collaborated on the exhibition? How did you go about pitching, the photographic brief for the students, selecting the photographs to work with and how was it collaborating with such a large team for the project?
Correct. The nine large prints correlate with nine Grimm stories and nine partnered photographs. The exhibition was the collaboration of myself as the designer of the work and includes the assistance from our photography students in our program which created the partnered imagery. I pitched the project to our student photographers for two reasons; the first being they are given an assignment to retell a fairy tale of their choice as a class project, the second was that I didn’t want my directive to influence the story telling image. I believed that if I was supplied an interpretation I could elaborate on that interpretation two-fold with selecting words and phrases to continue my aim to distort the story.
Did you learn anything from your student collaborators? (perhaps through their interpretation of Grimm or via their process?) Or what discovery did you make through working on this project?
I feel that I learned not to expect what I expect. I did inform the students that I didn’t want the story of Little Red Riding Hood told through imagery with a photograph of Little Red Riding Hood. I was seeking a modern twist on the characters so the viewer wouldn’t be aware of the story, or character, in turn withdrawing the opportunity to allow familiarity to form the perception. The students impressively lived up to that request.
You show great mastery of typographic hierarchy in these pieces, using multiple weights and styles of Akzidenz Grotesk in the artworks. Given how many prolific Grotesk type families are today what made you choose this particular typeface to work with?
Thank You. The abundance of Grotesk typefaces to choose from today is astonishing and exhausting. As I mentioned already I’ve grown fond of Akzidenz Grotesk. There are so many options. However, the historical importance of Akzidenz Grotesk charms me and captivates me. It is quirky as can be as well—unlike the geometry of Helvetica and Futura to name a few. If you look closely at a word that begins with a capital letter the stroke weight and contrast of the majuscule is odd next to its miniscule counterpart. It’s disturbing and charming at the same time—it’s grotesque. Besides, what could better partner with the bizarre, grotesque, and grim tales than a quirky typeface like Akzidenz Grotesk.
How did the Swiss-Style influence/inform your graphic treatments of these artworks?
My influence, in my opinion, was informed by the Dadaist typographic works from the early 1900s with perhaps the order of the Swiss style. Designers and artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger, Filippo Marinetti, Fortunato Depero, Kurt Schwitters as well as Alexander Rodchenko, Jan Tschichold, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Massimo and Lella Vignelli, Neville Brody, and Paula Scher are all big influences in my work. The list could go on and on. But I try to pull from graphic design and art history to build upon my visual voice as an artist.
And with 211 Grim Grimm tales to choose from how did you select the text and language you wanted to play with in the works?
My selection was based on three objectives; lesser known tales, a story context to provided photograph relationship, and length of the tale which was not as critical. I gave a suggested 24 tales to give the photographers a starting point but also let them know that they could pick a tale of their own liking. My biggest request was just to avoid the familiar tales and fables that we all know and love.
I am particularly interested in the narrative interpretation. As words were taken out of context and or repurposed, how (if at all) did your experience with the Tales (or the meaning of the artworks) change?
My objective was to mislead and distort the stories to emphasize how the we are all subject to ‘Fake News’ and can be deceived. The narrative did change as I began to dissect the story into chunks and scrutinize the implication of phrases chosen to alter their connotation. The insinuation and impact transformed due to type weight and size in relation to others selected text. Everything from placement to reversed color—white on black or black on white—forces a contextual change.
How did the viewer/reader/visitors to the exhibition interpretations differ from your own? And how was the exhibition was received?
I had concerns when constructing the works and during installation regarding intent and clarity. Gladly the experience for the visitors to the exhibition was very well received. During the opening reception, I intentionally watch how the viewer would navigate the exhibit. Where would they go first? Next? And why? How many viewers would actually investigate the full textual story versus how many would just take in the large misleading works? To my surprise more visitors read the stories and reviewed the original photographs than expected. Perhaps it was because the opportunity presented itself—I pondered if the stories were not included would the viewer have sought out the full story. I observed all visitors that involved themselves with the full text and original photography return to the large format works and re-evaluate the implications.
Gladly, a visitor asked why I chose to display the works in the fashion I did. Nothing was framed, the work was all arranged and hung by sheet metal screws on galvanized steel framing studs used in commercial construction. I wanted it to have an industrial sensation to evoke a cool stark sensibility adding to the communication and experience.
My belief is that every single aspect of an exhibition effects the viewer’s interpretation of the implied meaning. The gallery originally asked for me to send framed art work for them to install, however, I kindly described my exhibition and the significance of the installation style. They cautiously agreed. After the installation was complete, and during the reception, it was welcomed and complimented upon many times. With all of my exhibitions I make an effort to consider the style of installation as well as the exhibition space to be certain I have controlled the message as much as possible.
Where can people get in touch with you and learn more about the project? (or your work!)
If anyone would like to contact me further or learn more about my works they can visit my website, which I have been redesigning and repopulating due to a recent server issue, at the following web address is www.petebella.com or by visiting my LinkedIn account at www.linkedin.com/in/petebellajr/. I also would like to so my appreciation to Kaylie Dunn, Liz Masson, Rachel Miller, Jennifer Neill, and Alison Resac for their photography collaboration.