The Art of the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is a boutique/gallery hybrid located in Old City, Philadelphia. I'd been meaning to visit since discovering that their beautifully packaged craft spirits were as good to drink as to look at. Also, how many stores take their name and inspiration from the writings of German social critic Walter Benjamin? This place, maybe TJ Maxx — that's it. Considering my thirst for both Marxist cultural theory and alcohol, an exhibit of music design was icing on the cake.
The AITA store houses a nicely curated selection of books, apparel, and miscellaneous other treasures, which in their own words "transcend the conventional definition of art." I'll have to assess their transcendental qualities another time; I was busy knocking these objects to the ground in my beeline for the exhibit.
Proofs, bluelines, sketches, and handwritten notes sprawled across the walls of the gallery space, leaning most heavily upon Sub Pop's grunge-era legacy (Nirvana, Soundgarden, etc) but also touching on more recent acts including Iron and Wine, and Father John Misty. In contrast to the carefully edited collection in the store itself, the exhibit has an engaging "Hey, look what we found" feel—handwritten notes from the label's owner, press sheets, and most interestingly, traditional mechanical artwork for a number of releases.
Though I came late to the paste-up party in my own career—essentially learning the process just as the computer rendered it obsolete—I've always found its physicality fascinating. Essentially photocopies topped by layers of tracing paper with scrawled instructions for the printer, these technical specifications, when associated with an image of, say, a baby peering into a toilet (see Sebadoh's Bakesale, below) lent an agreeable air of mad scientist to the mechanical process. Packaging files in InDesign doesn't quite have the same je nais se quoi.
While I can appreciate the desire to present a body of work in a cohesive, professional manner in monographs or exhibitions like these, I'll always be a sucker for the behind-the-scenes glimpse. The image that stuck with me most from Peter Saville's career overview, Estate, is not one of his many iconic sleeve designs, but a sheet of notepaper that he'd taped Pantone chips to. I want to see the artist's hand, as well as the curator's. On that score, this small exhibit delivers powerfully, with comically cryptic letters from band to designer (Lou Barlow writes helpfully, "It should look like it looks (?)" at one point) bringing new insights to familiar sleeves.
What came as a pleasant surprise was how interested people seemed by the lo-fi process on display. Younger attendees (i.e. those who have never operated a VCR), rather than seeing this artwork as archaic, were fascinated. I even found myself explaining what rubylith and waxing machines were and not overtly boring anyone, to my knowledge. (For more on traditional mechanicals, I recommend giving Gene Gabel's Waxing Nostalgic over Paste-Up a read.)
Part visual overview of a storied record label, part celebration of design craft, all essential, Art Debt runs from August 3rd through the 24th at Art in the Age, 116 N. 3rd Street, Philadelphia.
Thanks to Mike Smith for the heads-up, and Tim Beitz and Mike Dew for photos.