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The Graphic Arts Future

by Sonnenzimmer

Performance view, Sonnenzimmer, Dubbing Stills, MCA Chicago, 2016

All photos: Nathan Keay, © Sonnenzimmer

On February 9, Chicago-based graphic arts studio Sonnenzimmer (Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi) took to the stage for the MCA's Tuesday night programming series.

on graphic arts future

Pointless. This is what artist and curator Jordan Martins called our recent MCA performance of Dubbing Stills. He meant it in the best way possible. Elaborating, he stated that the performance followed its own rigid logic, answering to nothing outside of itself.

While we did have a point in mind (we’ll explain below), we understand his position. Our work, in general, isn’t necessarily pointed. Over the course of our ten-year collaboration, the output has meandered substantially between graphic design and fine art, performance and static impressions. Increasingly, our collective efforts (past and present) point toward a singular goal—the cumulative push to unify the graphic arts while testing their elastic edge. We call this “graphic arts future.”

on art vs graphic art

Graphic arts covers a lot of ground, encompassing everything from painting to drawing, logos to book design. We see little differences between these modes of production, but the common belief goes something like this: art’s subjective expression taints design’s universal marketability; design’s overt functionalism subverts art’s freedom.

There is no freedom in art! There is no universality in design! Art and design are from the same impulse, but their implementations have different constraints, and it's how you push up against these constraints that define you. Remember, for much of their lives, art's job has been to attack the picture plane, and design's job has been to attack the page. The picture plane and the page have never been closer than now. The division is evaporating daily.

Performance view, Sonnenzimmer, Dubbing Stills, MCA Chicago, 2016

on dubbing stills

This brings us back to our piece Dubbing Stills. The point was to explore the idea of a “performative image”: using a graphic interface (a projection) that responded directly to our stage performance. Over the course of 30 minutes we went through a series of loosely planned actions/gestures, which affected the projected image over time. This mostly consisted of us taping down keys on small keyboards with brightly colored tape and extending the tape to the ground or a neighboring keyboard. The result was a long-form melodic drone with directly correlating colorful imagery—a delayed projection produced via live feed of the stage. Pointless maybe, but the space between the start and finish kept the audience engaged and hopefully left them with more questions than answers. On their way out, the audience was presented with a take-away poster, one that attempted to invert the actions onstage into a single tangible moment.

Nick Butcher & Nadine Nakanishi, IMG38162.jpg, 2016. 9-color, 5-pass screen print; 23 x 35 in. (58.4 x 88.9 cm), edition of 175. © Sonnenzimmer

Image courtesy of the artists

Performance view, Sonnenzimmer, Dubbing Stills, MCA Chicago, 2016

on improvisation

In many ways, our work is inspired by our exposure to the improvised music community here in Chicago. It's our home away from home. As jazz musician Joe McPhee once said in an interview, “improvisation allowed me to process everything that I've learned over my lifetime, in real time, to come up with new ideas in the moment. It is a process which happens so fast that it is beyond thought.”<sup>1sup

We share this idea, in the sense that this similar nature can manifest itself into composition and images. The best images surface themselves through chance, play, seeing through one’s deepest self, and detecting one’s own artificial self-projection. It’s in this tide where we can tap into a conscious flow and create something beyond our expectation, beyond the matrix we are stuck in. Perhaps this is the most political thing images can do, to tell the audience to trust their own self, a sense of deep seeing through one’s heart. This is the graphic arts future.

The Graphic Arts Future video still


Video caption

Short interview with Sonnenzimmer from 2010


  1. Lloyd N. Peterson Jr, "Joe McPhee: Artistic Sacrifice from a Musical Prophet," allaboutjazz.com, Apr 30, 2012.


We would like to thank Michael Green for his invitation and encouragement; Zach Poff for the open source projection application that he shares and for his wonderful art; the AV team at the MCA, Michael and Dan; the house keeping team; the security crew for the help with loading and unloading; and to all who came out to be there in person to support us or the MCA.