It’s about telling it forward

Christoph Niemann, interview

Interview with Christoph Niemann, illustrator


An image-person who loves being a reader


In spring 2010 Christoph Niemann published two books, continuations of a project that, as he says, enables him to fail. And to succeed majestically in the end. A book about riding New York subway with kids and the newest, I LEGO NY were first born as posts for his blog in The New York Times, Abstract City. A native German, who had spent 11 years in New York, is back in Europe, living in Berlin. His work has become recognizable and much cherished by readers all over the world. The illustrated commentaries he offers of the world we live in are some of the most profound, ingenious and warm explorations of what art today can be. We talked before an opening of an exhibition of his works in Ljubljana, Slovenia.


When you moved from New York one of the reasons was to take time to fail. It does not seem you are doing to well?


I am doing better. I do not want to fail and drop. Nor do I want to finish an assignment with a terrible result. But the blog I do for The New York Times is really a big failure assignment. It has been two months since the last post and I should already have the next one. I have been working on it for the last three weeks but I just can’t get it done. I know what I want but it doesn’t come together. I still hope I can rescue it because I like the general idea but in the last three years since I am doing the blog there have been many projects that I showed my editors who liked it, but then I realized I have to give it up because it did not work. I dare try things here that I would not dare try for an editorial assignment. If you have an assignment to do an illustration in three days you can not after three days say: “Ups, sorry, it did not work out.” For the blog, however, I deliberately do riskier things where I do not really know what the outcome will be. The Lego thing was easy. The idea came and after a day I could see it will work. The tree leaves, on the other hand, with which I was very happy was a struggle. Three, four weeks because I did not know what the topic should be, I cut them in different ways and it did not work. I showed it to a friend and my wife, who liked it, but I was close to saying: “It doesn’t work, it is too crazy!” Then one or two series came out the way I felt there is something happening, I realized it needed to be more observed and not so descriptive. It started to come together. But there was a huge amount of failure involved.


How can you afford this? In the times where everything is a rush and seeing value in such work is a rare shine of intelligence, this seems a great luxury?


Well, it does not really seem like a luxury because it is quite painful. At the very end when you are polishing things it is fun but at the beginning it is a real challenge. What makes all the difference is one little thing. It is online. In a magazine, the space is so tight and you have to plan so far ahead, that no newspaper could guarantee me this kind of space or freedom to bring it in a month or two or when it is ready. Online they may post it or they may not. There is no real pressure except to have at least some regularity so the readers can come back. Online there are no space constraints and it lives longer. The first blog post is just as available as the last one. It is like adding to a library. I haven’t figured it all out yet but the dynamic is quite different. The fact that it is online makes a huge difference.


This is probably part of the changes you said you wanted to think about before they become problems as you left NY. To what conclusions have you come? Can Internet be sustainable?


There are two things. First is the change in communication. When you write or draw for Internet it is different from print. The best explanation I have come up with is that when I read an article in a newspaper it feels like there is one person sitting on the stage speaking to a million people and I am in the audience listening to the big speech. It is how I know the newspapers and why I like them. If I read this same article online it feels like there is somebody sitting across from me, telling me a story. It feels like a very personal thing. This changes the language and the whole set up. Even the news articles feel more personal. My email is on the right, another page I just visited is on the left and the NYT or Spiegel article is in the middle. The context is very personal whereas a newspaper is like an official document. This has an impact on how you tell stories and how you deal with the readers. Is it better or worse, I don’t know, but it is somehow different.

The second thing is the technological side. Should it be all accessible or like Wall Street Journal only for subscribed readers or like The New Yorker with parts that are free and other only for subscribers? At the beginning I thought about this but eventually I realized it is pointless. As a producer of the content I can only care about producing the content and hope that whoever is the distributor has a model that works out. That can reach out to the readers but also pay at least a little something. Last year I did a tiny little drawing for Facebook, something that the magazine gave away to its readers. A hundred thousand little virtual drawings as a gift on Facebook. And I got money for that. It seemed strange that a very small picture that anyone could copy was a product that I was assigned to do. I realized that you just have to react very quickly. Today it might be a blog for NYT, tomorrow it could be an online TV animation and in ten years it might all be gone and something completely different will come up. If I try to anticipate what the next thing will be I will go nuts. That is Steve Job’s responsibility. I try to take my content and do something relevant.


In Slovenia the first thing to go, when things started to go downhill for newspapers, were illustrations. Have you felt this?


I have seen it but I have been lucky enough to have had enough work. The phone did not stop ringing. However, it is not just the smaller number of calls but also the size of drawings. I do regular drawings for some magazines. One add went away and instead of a full page illustration with a page of text, the illustration is half page and text the other half. Ultimately it comes down to a question how much the editors value the illustration. The challenge for the illustrators is to provide content. In the late nineties there were so many adds that it felt they needed to fill the extra space because they could not write fast enough. Now, everybody is fighting for space. My wife is a journalist and every time she has to urge her editors to publish the article because it will expire next week as the exhibition will close. There is a real fight for space. As an illustrator you have to put something more on the table than just a pretty drawing. It needs to be relevant so an editor is willing to give half a page for it.


Why is illustration relevant?


There is no reason why it would be relevant. Nobody needs an illustration. It is not a necessity. We can ask whether we need newspapers, but let’s say that if I want to see what the weather will be like or learn who won the election the newspaper tells me what and who and why. Illustration however, has to create its own relevance. Nobody is asking for it. If you are used to a certain comic you might want to see the next one but it takes time to create such a want. It is not there to begin with. The greatest challenge with illustration is that you have to artificially create the need for people to look at it, see it, enjoy it and say: “That was really nice. I want to see more of that.” By default nobody is asking for it.

If in newspapers the space is limited, on the Internet the challenge is attention. You can do a million drawings and put them online. At this point, there are no restrictions. But the problem is attention and visibility. Get a drawing on the homepage of NYT is not easy in itself. But on my blog it does not matter if there are a hundred images or five. The danger is that it gets drowned out by four billion other images.


Is there a difference how illustration is valued in US or in Europe?


I can say that in Germany the visual culture of illustration is not as deep as in New York. NY, being such a newspaper and magazine city is peculiar even in the US. If you do a drawing for a NYT Magazine, everybody knows about it. Not just your designer and illustrator friends but also your lawyer, doctor and supermarket vendor friends. People know about it. It probably has to do something with vanity but it is really amazing. In the online realm this means that it is likely that people will blog or twitter about it. In Germany this virtually does not existent. In the US people read magazines, articles and twitter about them. I haven’t seen this to the same degree in Germany. Is it important or not for the society at large? I do not know. However it makes my life easier professionally if there is a natural system of distribution that goes beyond magazine. When I post a blog and people start twit about it, I know it will become more and more visible. It is carried on to remote parts of the Internet just through people twiting it on.


You twit. Why does an illustrator twit?


I see it my job to communicate things that are happening. From politics to business, social developments and culture. I have to be part of this. I can not exclude myself saying I don’t care. I am perfectly happy without twitter. But it is so out there and in America it is gigantically important and prominent. I also work for Wired where every other article is about twitter. I cannot say, yes, I heard about it. When something then comes after twitter I will be lost. I have to do it from a professional point of view because I can be aware of it only if I participate in it. Later I realized it has great advantages. I can be on top of all the big developments by following just a few people on Twitter. This is important. When I read certain twits it is amazing that I do not have to go to a blog or web but have it all there just like a news sticker.

Many novelists complain that we live in the era of images that are crammed down our throats, each word illustrated. Where do you see yourself in this?


I am definitely part of this culture producing more and more images that eventually people might feel are being jammed down their throats. I have always felt a lot less critical about it, though. The more you have out there the more variety there is. For me it is a question of variety more than it is of quantity. I was as hungry for images at fifteen and I probably looked at as many as I do now. The difference was that the number of sources available to me was much smaller. The variety today is greater. What is interesting in the world of magazines, and I would assume also on television, is that the decision makers are all word-people. Editors who have the final say what will be the cover illustration or is the visual idea funny or intriguing or not are all writers who have no education in art. I do not know a single editor of a magazine who has been even a month at art school. Even though they are the ones who ultimately make decisions. Nobody would ever become an editor unless they have written five hundred articles and a book or have some writing degree. You have to do a lot of writing before you are allowed to make decision about other peoples’ writing. In the visual world, there is an art director who comes from a very creative field but the final decision and the large direction where the magazine is going is made by word-people. This is always a struggle. I do not think artist are in any way smarter, better or wittier than word-people. It is more of a surprise that the publishers do not give more responsibility to image-people. At lifestyle magazines you would think the art director is more important than the editor since two thirds are covered in images. It is not the case. I do not necessarily think this is horrible and we have to change it, but it is a curious fact. We live in a visual world still run by language.


But has image gained on its importance and prominence?


I think it has definitely been important. What I find extremely curious is that at contemporary art, the things that are insanely subtle are extremely successful. Works by Thomas Demand. You can gain from looking at them but the whole approach is extremely subtle. In photo series people put on Flickr or Fffound there is an insanely subtle visual humor that obviously works because otherwise people would not get it and make zillion copies. I have often been surprised at my work and also when you look at the blog by Maira Kalman, which has so subtle visual humor with just little hints and things that are below the surface with many layers, that people completely understand it. People are visually a lot smarter than editors like to think. The problem is that there is neither in America nor here visual culture that would pay tribute to this. One of the instances of such visual culture that was amazing and very successful was Colors Magazine that Tibor Kalman did with Benetton in the nineties. It was on AIDS and on guns and it extremely visual, subtle. Often there was one photograph after the other and the storytelling was only through images. Not heavy-handed, even though these were big themes but very subtle. And people understood it. There is still a lot of room for an amazing visual culture that is only starting and could happen.


You lectured in America, Germany, Mexico, Japan, South Africa. Are illustrations a universal language, is there a common universe of images around the world?


When I went to the States after studying in Germany I was really surprised that 98 percent of the images I have done not thinking about eventually showing them in the States, worked one to one in the US. People understood the metaphors, the jokes, responses were almost identical. I realized only later on that I would not have been able to get the same response if I went to France or England or Italy. Because American TV, music, politics, pop culture was something you grew up with in Germany as a natural part of your cultural surrounding. Even though I am politically interested I may not have been able to tell the names of the opposition leaders in England 20 years back, but I knew all the vice presidents in America for the last 20 years. Dynasty, Dallas, I was not a fan but these were all things you were aware of. And it made it very easy to make it in America. I am very Americanized in the use of images and there are particular images that are specific per country but then there seems to be more and more of a global language which I think to a large degree is a derivative of American pop culture. It grows bigger and there is a community, which might not include ninety percent of each state, but there is a young literate crowd that is as existent in Australia as it is in South America starting to think in similar images. You can move very freely among these circles globally. I probably would not be able to do political illustration in Korea, but I might be able to do something. The illustrations of suits climbing up the ladder holding a briefcase are quite a horrible example of a global image for a business illustration today. To offer sophisticated visual comments you can not do it in every culture but the visual Esperanto that grows more and more sophisticated surprisingly works better and better. Also because people are exposed to similar sources. When I look at the comments on the blog I can see that at one o’clock in the morning people comment from Asia and India, at six or seven it starts through the Middle East and Europe and then in the afternoon when I read from Berlin it is America. I can almost see how people turn on their computers in the morning and read NYT. It goes all around the globe. It is fantastic. I love it. For me this is politically and socially a wonderful effect of the web. People have the chance to be exposed in real time to news from the other side of the world and to a variety of opinions.


In your first picture book you introduce Chinese characters, in the last animation for Google you include hieroglyphs. Is this a conscious decision to add on to the variety with different cultural expressions?


The Pet Dragon was really a graphic fascination. But it was also fueled by being aware of the importance of China, by the fact that one in five people in the world is Chinese and speaks this language – in the West we sit in our little bubble and think the whole world consists of English language, as we don’t realize that there is this gigantic other world so much bigger and deeper. I wanted to stir curiosity about all these things out there. It’s a children’s book so I wanted to find a fun way. Not “we have to learn Chinese because they are going to take over the world” but more “there is this huge other culture and I am curious. It would be nice to find a little access to it.”


Do you speak Chinese?


Not a word.


Have you been there?


I have been to Japan where we also went to see many ancient temples. Japanese and Chinese are extremely similar in terms of the origins of the characters, especially the simple ones I use in the book. I met many Chinese designers there. They explained the origins of their language and how it is really a set of visual icons.


So your book is factually true?


I would say around 80 percent is true. A person is actually a person walking and big is a person stretching out his arms and when he is very very big, he reaches the sky. With some I took more liberty but I worked with a Chinese language professor who vetoed everything and made sure it was not completely illogical. Firstly, I wanted it to be fun so I always took the option that I found the most accessible. Often it was the actual origin, but sometimes I made it my way because it looked so interesting.


What I find especially wonderful with your illustrations is that there is nothing mean or evil or cynical in them. Is this a conscious decision?


One of my great weakness but also strengths in my design work is that I have a really big eagerness to please. Like a five-year-old running to my mum showing her my drawing and wanting her to like it. I really care a lot what readers think. This does not mean I want to do a stupid solution. I want to challenge the reader. When you do a crossword puzzle and it is too simple you do not like it. You need to play with it. I see no point in annoying readers. When I was teaching for a while there was a student who came up with an image that made no sense, saying: “I want to confuse people a little bit.” If you confuse somebody they will just look the other way. You can only engage them and then try to slightly alter the path. Like in a movie where slowly the director makes you believe that the butler is the murderer and makes him very sympathetic so that you are surprised when he actually turns out to be evil. I believe in collaboration with the reader. For it to work you need to really like the reader. I think this comes through. I love being a reader myself. I sit down with the newspaper and I want to read and know what is happening. I do not want to live in a Lala Land where everything is pretty and beautiful but ultimately I want a positive experience. If my message is utterly negative or pessimistic, there is no point. Why would I ask people to look at something where I just show my pain with the world? Maybe at some point I will come across an idea that I will think is relevant even though it will be utterly depressive but so far …


But this is very much the zeitgeist and with you saying that 95 percent of your work is effort, only 5 talent, how do you keep this magic alive?


Magic happens or it does not. I have hard time anticipating when will something be really well received. You can get a certain routine but other than that it is just luck and trying and trying. I know that the longer I think about something the closer I eventually get to something. It is also about consuming a lot. I read a lot and see many images and at some point I can recognize the little subtleties and things I enjoy as a reader. A tiny hint, that I pick up again later on and start building a small string. One of the most beautiful things in literature and in visual arts is if you recognize yourself in it. It can be a situation you have experienced or a little joke you think only you understand and nobody else not even the author. That is something I try to chase. It is the moment I as a reader enjoy the most. As if you put out these little crumbs that people follow around and then go the whole circle. I do not know how to create that out of the thin air but I know I try to recreate the joy I have reading other things. I try to build something similar.


What inspires you, what do you enjoy?


I am very much a newspaper and magazine person. I spent a lot of time online. I follow certain blogs. I am a great fan of contemporary art. I like to go to gallery shows and see things. I can not remember walking into a gallery and going: “Oh, wow, this is amazing, I want to do something similar,” but when you surround yourself with something you know that eventually it fuels your thinking and you get a different sense of what is happening out there. I try to read books, which is always a challenge with so much magazine reading but I am finally reading the Miranda July’s latest book and it is amazing. I hope she has no idea how good she is because otherwise she has a problem. It is one of the examples when you read something and it just enters your mind right away.


Do you tell yourself that you must not know how good you are as well?


I find my work so much about craft and labor in a good way that it never comes up. There is never a moment when I would feel: “O, this went really well.” I am sometimes totally wrong. Sometimes I think: “This is something that could work,” but then it falls flat. The Lego blog I really liked. I had a surprising amount of fun with it but I had no idea that people would be so excited about it. There were other posts when I felt that I really hit something. I think it is extremely important that you can not predict. Otherwise you would start questioning yourself while you work, when you just have to try and make the best possible thing. Then you send it out and it is what it is. If you try to be too smart about what you do I think you are in trouble.


In the tribute you wrote for your professor Hein Edelmann you mention the question you posed to him in 2001. The question was: Was there ever anything you considered so important that you decided to use your professional skill to change the world in that regard? Can I ask you this same question?


It is a good question. I think about it a lot. Maybe this is one area where I am a bit cynical. I am invited every once in a while to do something, like when after Katrina designers did posters. I am extremely politically interested but when I make a funny drawing on politics it usually talks to the people who already have the same opinion and angers those who have the opposite views. So I ask myself would I do a disservice? Whether it is gay rights or environmental consciousness or anti-death penalty or changing dictatorships. Energizing the people who are already for this cause has some value but I have always found it a little self-serving. If somebody could convince me that I really have something to contribute to change people’s opinions, I would do so but I have not seen it.  And there are many posters against child abuse and war … If someone could give me one example that one bullet was not fired or one child was not hurt because someone looked at a poster, then I would start doing these kind of things, but for now I think it is mostly about the designer’s vanity. My parents always told me to donate money. I believe I do more good in the world if I take an extra job and donate the money I earn to Doctors Without Borders to enable incredibly courageous fantastic people who do real measurable difference to do their work rather than spend the same time doing a poster to post it all over Berlin. Right now this is my angle. Financial contribution to people who make real change makes a bigger difference than me making a funny drawing. Maybe some idea pops into my head or somebody will approach me with something but I just do not see it right now.


I am trying to think though it is mostly photographs that have had an impact on our societies, even politics, especially I guess from WWII. Do you think these are fading?


I agree it is mostly photographs. The kid running away in Vietnam. There might even be some instances of illustration. I am a huge fan of George Grosz and John Heartfield, who are amazing artists, but I do not think their drawings criticizing the powers and insanity in Germany, the Nazis and the militarists had any impact whatsoever. I do not think that any of the anti war graphics in the 1960s and 1970s in America really had a lot of impact. Some were really nice to look at … These days everybody tries to use images to manipulate. I do not trust it and I can not imagine it for myself. The Barack Obama’s poster Hope by Shepard Fairey has been credited for raising excitement for the Obama crowd. Maybe it did a difference or maybe it did not but I almost think it is extremely difficult to create it purposefully. A photographer can not run out there thinking: “Now I am going to take a photograph that is going to change public opinion.” You do something and all of a sudden you hit something. It becomes a symbol. Maybe this is it, maybe one day I will create such image for one reason or another but I do not think it is a task you can give yourself. There is a great Paul Rand quote: “Art is not an intention, good work is intention, art happens when you’re lucky.” So all you can do is try to create good things and then in this case art or an iconic image that maybe even changes the world, happens. If it does. I think it would be a waste of time to try to purposefully create a logo to make people stop hitting each other in the nose, though.


Isn’t it funny that propaganda though seems to work?


Of course, it is what political propaganda tries to do, maybe not with just one image but a series. For my work, however you have to look at it very consciously. You have to look at it and really see it and understand it in a certain way and draw an active conclusion. With design it is completely different. Steven Heller wrote a fantastic book about swastika and the graphic design of the Nazis. I read a biography of Albert Speer, Nazi architect who was the organizer of the whole war effort in the final years. And it is really quite amazing. How they planned the political rallies, the light, the design. It was a strange mix of Nazis’ weird 18th century cult of old Germany, people standing around in fur coats, and on the other side extremely modern approaches. You can not separate the politics from that, but their ways were scarily modern. How they employed drama and the modern approaches to rally people with obviously a terrible success. Design in general can have a huge impact. If you are able to frame a good or an evil movement in a modern and appealing way it can be very powerful, even though people become smarter and smarter. An evil dictator can show himself in a nice, modern design and all of a sudden people will trust him. For me graphic or environmental design is something you never consciously experience. People in Nazi Germany did not walk in the rally and say: “Oh, this was really a very dramatic use of spotlight and quite fascinating use of type.” No, you see it and it is an unconscious, extremely powerful emotion. Witty posters or witty art, I think is something else.


What do you miss most from NY?


My friends. I go there a lot. There are also some really good places to get a stake in NY and though I am not a big meat eater it took a while to find something similar in Berlin and I missed that. My wife once said that America is like a four-year-old. For better or worse. For better, there is this juvenile excitement and in good moments a positive and anything is possible attitude that is extremely inspiring. I haven’t seen this anywhere else. I work closely enough with America that I feel I am still part of it because it is pretty unique. With all the technological changes it has been extremely tough in the magazine world. People were laid off, budgets have been cut, but still people are like: “Ok, now comes the next thing, how can we react?” They are not sitting there: “Oh, gosh, it was so nice in 1997 and 1998, everything was beautiful and now it is not, where are we going to be?” I can feel there is this optimism, maybe completely unjustified, but at least if you are optimistic, you have a much better time than if you just sit there with your head between you knees, all grumpy.


What comes then with Europe?


Well, I hate stereotypes, because society is so much more diverse. I mean, there are inspired people in Berlin and many grumpy ones in NY. I saw a lecture at a museum recently. There was an American and a German lecturer. They talked about history and society, how the two interact. The American came and gave a fantastic speech, about history but also the possibilities, about belief in human nature. At that moment I thought: “Wow, I miss America!” There is something that is gracious and humorous and utterly charming and it was really great. Afterwards came the German professor of history. He was a grumpy looking guy and talked about the same topic. History of the 20th century. He spoke in a more mumbled voice but started to lay out history of Poland, Russia and Germany and all the connections, all the pain, all the suffering and how it turned into this impossible knot of connections. He did not say the world was bad or screwed but showed its complexity, how you can not say: “Let’s just all be friends.” He did not rebuff the American. They had completely separate speeches. He showed this ability to have five different opposing views at the same time in your head and awareness of complexities, of certain problems that are deep and open ended. It was so un-American but it made so much sense. He said that every generation has to learn anew that it is not good when people come up with a quick solution of just getting rid of the foreigners or getting rid of the problems the easy way. World history is not so simple that you could just learn from your mistakes and America is no better than Europe in this regard. It was amazing to see this intellectual, complex worldview that made so much sense and it felt: “Yes, if you want to actually solve some problems of the world you need people like him, who know that things are so intertwined.” And as he finished I was like: “Vau, I am actually glad I am in Germany exposed to this deep, crazy, impossible worldview and that I am really torn between both sides.” It was amazing, within one hour, in the first half I was like: “Ah, America!” and then in the other half: “Ah, Europe!” So I kind of go in between.


Do you still have your American world in Berlin, though?


Yes. When you walk around some neighborhoods, from five people walking by three or four speak English. For some it is the language they share, but I also know so many Americans in Berlin that it is almost ridiculous. Sometime when I go out I am the only native German speaker. I really like this about Berlin, this whole influx from America, not so much culture but American people make me feel I still have many connections. Some friends from NY even live in Berlin now. It is a place where you can get a studio for a very reasonable rent. This makes a big difference. There is this freedom to make mistakes, people come there and try out things. It shows in the mood of the city. NY is extremely product and success orientated. You have a business idea? It better work out in three days otherwise you can not afford to go on. Cheep rents are a huge advantage of Berlin. They allow you to take the luxury to abandon something that seems successful but does not feel right. Of course if things get too lose and people have breakfast all day that can go the wrong way too. But Berlin has a unique spot of being relatively close to everywhere, it is already a big city and it is extremely open. This is actually something I know only from NY. People do not ask why you are there. Everybody is invited to come and do their thing and if they are happy they are welcome to stay. I have not experienced it or heard about it anywhere else.


Are there images you connect to Europe?


On the one hand you have the postcard images of Tower Bridge, St Peter and Eifel Tower, the classic European tour. Personally, and I have not really exploited this in my art yet, I connect Europe with separation of garbage, then the infrastructural things, trains and the connectedness. Also with the peace movement, people holding hands. I think it is a fantastic thing that people stand for peace or for environment but there is something that I know of Europe where people embrace the good cause with such motivation that it makes it almost funny. I do not want to make fun of it because I think it is a really wonderful thing but this idea of people in Germany spending so much time putting the plastic into this bin, paper into that one, that for me is very European. Being environmentally conscious, driving a tiny car, just because you believe in it. When people make fun of it, they say the do-gooder-mentality. I think there is nothing better than the do-gooder-mentality but it is a very European thing.



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