Summer 2011

– Summer 2011

Contextual Essays


Events, Works, Exhibitions

A Flibbertigibbet, a Will-o’-the-wisp, a Clown (Or 10 Reasons Why Graphic Design Is Not the Issue)

Anthony Elms

Tags: Dexter Sinister

Modest beginnings of the cooperatively compiled collection of books for Dexter Sinister's The Serving Library, installed at Liveinyourhead, Geneva, as part of the exhibition and workshop ‘Re-Applied Art', 2010. Courtesy the artists

Modest beginnings of the cooperatively compiled collection of books for Dexter Sinister's The Serving Library, installed at Liveinyourhead, Geneva, as part of the exhibition and workshop ‘Re-Applied Art', 2010. Courtesy the artists

1. Always assume that the reader is capable.1

Dexter Sinister are a publishing concern. Dexter Sinister (Stuart Bailey and David Reinfurt) are not artists, authors, critics, designers, editors, impresarios, journalists, philosophers, printers, publishers or snake-oil salesmen — unless they are all of the above at once: a publishing concern. That is, they are focused on publishing, as in the craft and manufacture and management of published pages, from writing to typeface to design to printing to publication to release to distribution to library deposit to mood to retrieval to use to archiving. Dexter Sinister make you note details. Their website is plain and text-heavy, with seemingly endless diversionary links taking you to other pages with more links. The now retired journal Dot Dot Dot entailed words aplenty, often words republished in slightly varied form. The advantage to being a publishing concern that works at every level of the process is that specifics are emphasised: how one issue has been designed; how one text has been generated, edited and distributed; how this one text has been edited and distributed the second time; how this one text slightly differs from its last publishing.

Here the exuberance for publishing and passion for distribution, unhampered by the logic and the strategy of business acumen, tumble over each other in the work. Keeping the path to publishing, that oft-unheard voice of editing and attention to typographic detail makes itself apparent. Dot Dot Dot. Need it pronounced? Ellipsis? Something excised. In their designs, italics and all-capitals are often used to highlight words and enact a point — that during writing a change is recognised, a shift in the connotative balance between words to direct the reader’s attention to emphasis and inflection.

2. Always strive to sketch a broad area of knowledge, rather than to map a part of it in detail. Crossing greater distances will illuminate new congruities between both concepts and disciplines.

September 7 through 23 October 2010, Dexter Sinister’s exhibition ‘The Plastic Arts’, Gallery 400 at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Seventeen uniformly sized panels of vinyl wall-lettering and two framed prints by Dexter Sinister and a painting by Philomene Pirecki. The bulk of the vinyl wall-lettering is a slight variation of a text that first appeared in summer 2010 as ‘A Note on the Type’ in the book The Curse of Bigness, published on the occasion of the group exhibition of the same name at the Queens Museum of Art in New York City. This text centres on the creation of Meta-the-difference-between-the-two-Font, a continually variable typeface designed by Dexter Sinister and intended for use in all their designs from then on.2 The typeface, subject to the variables PEN, WEIGHT, SLANT, SUPERNESS and CURLYNESS, is shown in multiple variations by setting passages from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Passages from the American Note-Books (1868), Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005) and Will Self’s short story ‘Scale’ (1993) in the published text, and by repeating passages of William James’s ‘Habit’ from The Principles of Psychology (1890) three times in the seventeen wall panels.3 Any context for the citations is not given. The malleable font of the wall text in ‘The Plastic Arts’ only explains the font and the name of the font, never mentioning the prints or the painting on display. Dexter Sinister have throughout been promiscuous if tight-lipped in regards to the reasons for citations and illustrations.

Much is made in both ‘A Note on the Type’ and ‘The Plastic Arts’ of the name of the typeface, which was taken from David Foster Wallace’s description of his own writing as ‘meta-the-difference’ between two types of fiction, realism and metafiction.4 With Meta-the-difference-between-the-two-Font, Dexter Sinister meander between opposing poles (their examples being theory/practice, concrete/ abstract, modernism/postmodernism and handwriting/typeface), outlining the importance of stepping back to consider ideas conventionally thought of as oppositional without collapsing distinctions (and stopping to note the distance between them). Discussing theory and practice, they argue that outcome is affected as much by what is put in as by the time it takes to extract one format (wall text or computer programming, for example) from another (print or handwriting). As the William James quotation ends: ‘The currents, once in, must find a way out.’5

3. Always prefer the polemical assertion to the guarded equivocation. Ideally, aim to juxtapose apparently contradictory or unrelated statements.

September 30, 2010, 5 p.m., Gallery 400. Dexter Sinister offer a double lecture in support of ‘The Plastic Arts’: ‘Everything Is in Everything’ by Reinfurt and ‘It Is the Outsidedness Flavor of It’ by Bailey. I am told to introduce the lectures by letting the audience know that both talks relate to ‘The Plastic Arts’ and that both talks will say the exact same thing but in different languages. Reinfurt’s talk is a cursory introduction to pragmatist philosophy, Friedrich Fröbel’s pedagogy and the undoing of cause and effect; Bailey’s tries to explain why some Bill Callahan (or Smog) songs sound exactly like their subjects. Reinfurt in his lecture asserts that ‘the ongoing process of trying to understand is important’. And Bailey quotes Reinfurt saying this in his talk. There is nothing outrageous about Dexter Sinister when they speak; they are very charming sponges. Spend enough time with Bailey and Reinfurt — or Dot Dot Dot, ‘A Note on the Type’ or ‘The Plastic Arts’ — and you begin to see in the alternately dopey, severe, blocky, janky and friendly outputs of Meta-the-difference-between-the-two-Font that a flair for digressive and compelling communication is more valued than an accurate or clear presentation of fact. Comprehension is both in under­standing the text as well as in recognising how the text was delivered and how its style and format boldly affect your engagement.

Dexter Sinister (and others), True Mirror Microfiche, 2009, lectureperformance, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 30 May 2009. Courtesy the artists

For the exhibition ‘Graphic Design Worlds’ in 2011 at the Triennale Design Museum in Milan, Dexter Sinister produced A Note on the T. This series of five vinyl text panels and three acrylic plaques presented the methods behind The Artist’s Institute, a project by curator Anthony Huberman for Hunter College in New York.6 The Artist’s Institute is a tiny, garden-level event space on the Lower East Side where one ‘anchor’ historical artist is exhibited each six-month season, while additional artists’ works and performances are periodically added to the display of the anchor artist. The selection of additional artists stems in part from discussions in a seminar class that Huberman teaches at the space — discussions that commence only after the primary artist has been selected and announced, the idea being to stress surprise and play over textual scholarship and finitude. A Note on the T similarly argues for productive confusion, and in this vein avers that a better name for Huberman’s project would have been the more colloquial ‘Tony’s’. Two passages: ‘They’re really just reversible solutions: at Tony’s you get something straighter than the name suggests; at The Artist’s Institute you get something stranger than the name suggests.’ ‘We suggested quite recently to Tony that the T actually stands for Time. He didn’t quite agree, but we won’t press. We’ll just wait around till he sees it.’7

4. Always leave the reader to do some of the work.

Dexter Sinister do not point; Reinfurt and Bailey are too well-mannered for such behaviour. Up until the last issue, Dot Dot Dot almost universally included poor (i.e. splotchy and monochromatic) reproductions of artworks, logos and material culture (album covers and the like), rarely explained in full by the articles they accompanied, even if the illustrated items were the point of departure for digression. Periodically, exhibitions of the visual works and materials are mounted, such as ‘Re-Applied Art’ at the Institut curatorial de la Haute École d’Art et de Design in Geneva in 2010. These exhibitions display the objects or the reproductions without any curatorial theme beyond the items’ prior inclusion in Dot Dot Dot, and little attempt is made to relate the materials as a coherent group, except in very occasional texts by Bailey, in which the reasons given are predictably elusive.

If those works transparently articulated or exhibited are then opaque, I’d continue to argue that each individual piece of work (text, image or object) presupposes its own balancing act between the generation and killing of curiosity through supplementary material; and a return to zero in each case.

Dexter Sinister trust the materials together retain a distinctive emphasis relative to one another.

But the reason for not simply good-mannerdly letting the objects or images speak for themselves is precisely because here they’ve been stripped from their contextualising texts and so don’t have a voice to speak with.8

Contradictorily, this palpable muteness imposed by Dexter Sinister is an assertive editorial voice — and is often misidentified as a sly silence. In all re-presentations — be they exhibitions of visual examples from Dot Dot Dot or reprints of its texts — Dexter Sinister show a penchant for a quality that Christopher Nealon identifies in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry as ‘a materio-linguistic snapshot, where what is form one minute might be content the next. It is a poetics of fluidity’, balancing connotation, denotation, artefact and inflection.9

Before the double lecture at Gallery 400, Bailey requests that the gallery play ‘Youwanner’ by The Fall, from their album Fall Heads Roll (2005), loudly. ‘Very loudly.’10 The song does not connect either lecture, nor is it referenced. Reinfurt speaks first and is decidedly more scholarly in tone than Bailey, who in his lecture paraphrases Bill Callahan, recounting: ‘when you’ve listened to as many Fall records as I have you realise how much the particular sound is part of the song’. Fluidity in attentiveness to content and context — ‘Youwanner’ opens with: ‘There’s always work /in progress / You’re always in work in progress.’11

5. Giving all the answers implies knowing all of the questions.

Both Bailey and Reinfurt have unlimited critical assessments of the contemporary design field. Reinfurt, from his lecture: graphic design is ‘a discipline without the discipline of another discipline’. Bailey, from his lecture: ‘the preoccupations of graphic design have drifted over the past half-century from solving problems to creating identities, from a hard to a soft science’. Both share the belief this state is coming to an end — the end of marketing as it were — and that to design will once again do what the word implies: to create, craft, generate and invent. For them, a graphic identity should not be made and then later implemented in differing formats. Besides, the parameters of design’s role are not firm, and so there can be no disciplinary specificity with which to set a series of rules or outcomes. Design requires a search for specific responses to specific questions for specific situations.

6. The dichotomy between ‘literary’ prose style and ‘academic’ prose style is false and destructive of true knowledge. In this Nietzsche is the arbiter of fashion.

Reinfurt and Bailey rely on collaboration and a wide network of partners for the writing of their language. They are liberal in their editorial revisions and in the glosses they append to others’ texts, crafting a distinctly identifiable surface — a certain self-referential tone and digressive style of argument construction — to language throughout their productions. What we might call the ‘surface’ of their rhetorical language reflects and speaks meanings underneath, or to the side, of the text itself. Reinfurt has explained that at times he and Bailey substantially rework and rewrite chosen texts, and at other times, when they ‘just seem right’, a text or image will be used wholesale without comment or setup.12 Bailey, in a piece for the last issue of Dot Dot Dot, writes, ‘we’re just trying to stay focused on the fact that we’re in the business of communication rather than graphic design’.13 As design is ‘a discipline without the discipline of another discipline’, when Reinfurt and Bailey edit texts, plan layouts and set typefaces, the self-referential voice operates like a phantom chasing the content into view, upsetting habits of reading or acceptance of style.

They are liberal in their editorial revisions and in the glosses they append to others’ texts, crafting a distinctly identifiable surface — a certain self-referential tone and digressive style of argument construction — to language throughout their productions.

For example, the detailed and technical explication of theory and process in vinyl lettering in ‘The Plastic Arts’ that sets off and frames the William James passages — passages presented in nine differing permutations of Meta-the-difference-between-the-two-Font. The shifts in PEN, WEIGHT, SLANT, SUPERNESS and CURLYNESS in the panels of James’s quote relative to the tone of the expository framing text make the reader recognise how a change of format changes emphasis, tone and effect — the plasticity of the voice is in the design and the inflection of the content is in the format. Signal-to-noise ratio and system redundancy — again, consider Bailey paraphrasing Callahan: ‘when you’ve listened to as many Fall records as I have you realise how much the particular sound is part of the song’. I’ve not found the original source for Callahan’s comment. In attributing this statement to Callahan, Bailey provides himself with a good anecdote and a potentially fantastic primary source.

7. Ipso facto, sometimes we will be required to play the devil’s advocate.

October 17, 2010, 6 p.m., on the 31st floor of New York City’s Chrysler Building, in a plain, empty corner office with a dropped ceiling and grime-obscuring carpet. Slip out the window and there is a walkway offering fabulous views and an opportunity to slap a gargoyle, something a number of people attending the event do. A dedicated audience of about fifty sips wine, whisky or water and discusses the fear of heights or engages in other idle chitchat in anticipation of the performance of Sharon Ebner and Dexter Sinister’s An Octopus in Plan View (2010), involving a text by that name written by Angie Keefer. Where Keefer’s authorship ends and where Ebner's and Dexter Sinister’s editing or publication begins is far from clear. There are also two black-and-white framed pieces on the wall, each 8.5 by 11 inches. They are possibly photocopies or laser prints: one is of an image of octopuses that failed to escape from a container, their tentacles caught by its lid as their bodies hang down its side; the other a simple graphic asterisk as an outline for the text. A woman at a sound booth in London recorded Keefer’s eight-section text during the Frieze Art Fair, which opened a few days earlier. The recording of its sections happened at separate times over a week, the files were hastily edited the morning and afternoon of the New York event. The press release summarises:

Part 1: the etymology of the word ‘octopus’. Part 2: the inside-outedness of its eyeball. 3: how the subject disappears into its context. 4: shifting its shape and rearranging its privates. 5: how he or she gets from A to B. 6: is writing oneself in ink. 7: polysexuality and death. And part 8: post-symbolic communication, or speaking without words. It’s a metaphysical monster.14

Darkening sunset. Listening to the recording for the first time from an amplifier and two speakers on the floor in the corner of this corner office, whisky in hand, both Dexter Sinister and Keefer in person. There is an intermission. Depending on the typeface, an asterisk can be an aerial view of an octopus, or can set off a footnote, a jump in thought, obscure a profanity — or, of course, set emphasis. An Octopus in Plan View is connected to ‘The Plastic Arts’, given everything is in everything and everything is editorialised with an outsidedness flavour. Dexter Sinister, ‘The Plastic Arts', 2010. Installation view, Gallery 400, Chicago. Photograph: Tom Van Eynde. Courtesy the artists

Actually, in July 2010, during a meeting about ‘The Plastic Arts’, Reinfurt shared a video from YouTube of the last minute of ‘Intelligent Design’, a talk by oceanogra­pher David Gallo. The clip shows video footage of a coral reef; as it is approached, a section of it changes in colour and texture and remarkably reveals itself as a camouflaged octopus. The octopus squirts a cloud of ink and jets away. Reinfurt tells me this is how ‘The Plastic Arts’ should function.

Not so remarkably, my note-taking during Dexter Sinister events always fails slightly. Phrases with quotation marks around them, so the words probably come from either the recorded presentation or brief exchanges I had with Reinfurt, Bailey and Keefer. ‘High impact non sequiturs’, ‘is communication a message received?’, ‘is confusion self defence?’, ‘impersonators’, ‘if too specific, useless’. A last note, surrounded by asterisks and exclamation points: ‘look up: baffle performance’. With cursory online research I find a web page for a ‘baffle system’ product specifically designed to intercept currents and redirect flow back into the centre of a container, and something about improving mechanical ‘clarifier system’ performance. I have lost the point of the baffle performance detail, but not the mood: a long pause released in a corner office that directed me back into the centre of questions of publication.

In Zachary Lazar’s novel Sway (2008), a fictionalised retelling of the crisscrossings of The Rolling Stones, Kenneth Anger and the Manson Family, Lazar asserts:

Style has an aura that words only diminish. The words follow, trying to explain, but the glamour fades in the glare of opinions and ideas. There is no more Lucifer now, no more Prince of Darkness, no more Angel of Light. There is a return to what was always there before, the silence.15

Dexter Sinister are gambling that we can publish and distribute our way around this silence. The self-referential tone, the reformattings and the endlessly pliable Meta-the-difference-between-the-two-Font present opinions and ideas in plenty, and here is the crucial point: these opinions and ideas released into silence don’t directly explain their style beyond ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time’.16 This allows glamour and aura to shimmer and quiver across surface, light refracting off the shifting PEN, WEIGHT, SLANT, SUPERNESS and CURLYNESS as explication changes form in a cloud of ink and jets away.

8. Philosophical insight is indistinguish­able from true poetry.

Answering questions after the Chicago lectures, Reinfurt offers: ‘poetry is language turned into form’. Concrete shape and flexible connotation: sincerity, authority, humour, desire, narrative concision and attentiveness embodied by the same phrase in a different setting, be it plaque, journal, audio recording or the variation of typeface in vinyl wall-lettering. ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time.’ An enquiry into language turned into form. For example, the cover stock of a Dexter Sinister publication is not sturdier than the pages within because it aims to shut out problems; rather, the sturdiness gives support to a binding spine that, when opened, forms a gutter and offers two blocks of text, which generates a spread and offers the problems laid out in black and white. From this position I am still trying to parse a phrase Dexter Sinister used for True Mirror (2008): ‘Quality is merely the distribution aspect of quantity / Quantity is merely the distribution aspect of quality.’17 It is tempting to read these equations as a sly recursive tautology until I consider my own work in publishing and distribution, and feel these two elegantly succinct rules offer guidance on the public background to publishing (release, distribution, sales, remainders, library, retrieval), even as I do not understand how to make it merely explicitly useful. It might be best, then, to look to other maxims that, if employed in tandem with quantity-quality distribution, extend and expand working definitions of the relationship between form, language and presentation — for example, artist and critic John Miller’s ‘Orthodox Conceptual art: a fatal addiction to the bureaucratic protocols of capitalist institutions. Second-generation Conceptual art: an addiction to stationery. Poetry is always already “Conceptual art”.’18

9. The doing of philosophy is indissolubly linked to the practice of humour — but is all the more effective when this is not at first evident.

September 4, 2010, 7 p.m., the Saturday prior to ‘The Plastic Arts’ reception in Chicago, at the Just-In-Time Workshop & Occasional Bookstore in New York, Dexter Sinister present The Curse of The Plastic Arts. In this event, while five assembled readers read aloud from ‘The Plastic Arts’ text, Larissa Harris, curator of ‘The Curse of Bigness’ at the Queens Museum of Art, with the aid of an iPhone video-feed application fed to a projector, leads a curatorial walk-through of ‘The Plastic Arts’ via an architectural model of the Chicago exhibition scaled at one-sixteenth the size of the original. Whisky and water are served; Dot Dot Dot issue 20 is released. During the event the readers change as the visual characteristics of Meta-the-differ­ence-between-the-two-Font change in the text. Five voices, audibly distinct in tone and style and personality, providing the shift in PEN, WEIGHT, SLANT, SUPERNESS and CURLYNESS as Harris silently makes visible the public format of ‘The Plastic Arts’.

In the film version of The Sound of Music (1965), toward the beginning, six nuns gather to sing. The six nuns sing to debate the worthiness and values of flighty and song-filled Maria, who is at that moment missing. Maria, the one who disrupts the orderliness of the abbey. Think of Dexter Sinister as the nuns of the abbey. Within the vagaries and economics of publishing, Dexter Sinister give pause to the design and publishing industry’s desire for clear-cut and consistent formulas or methodologies, and debate the disruption of productive silence even as they adamantly partake in a great joyous sound, less transubstantiation than transliteration, or, better yet, transmittance. To the assembled audience: Meta-the-difference-between-the-six-Individuals?

10. Don’t forget that the reader has clues.

When too much is made of graphic design with Dexter Sinister, consider one of Sol LeWitt’s ‘Sentences on Conceptual Art’ (1969): ‘If an artist uses the same form in a group of works, and changes the material, one would assume the artist’s concept involved the material.’19 The material of Dexter Sinister — not the format or the design, but the language used in the formats, and think of the differing formats as one material: communication. Dexter Sinister transform what can be plainly transformed, industrially produced and/or distributed. Whatever offers an opportunity for formalised release, proving that a material in use equals a form in flux. This opportunity is manifested in multiplication: distribution and publishing an economy of making public, making multiple the locations of encounter and interpretation through changes in tone, style, format and context. In the Just-In- Time Workshop & Occasional Bookstore, soon to be packed up for The Serving Library Company, Inc., Dexter Sinister worry, like the nuns in The Sound of Music, ‘How do you find a word that means “Maria”?’20 In the digressive cadences of the Dexter Sinister songbook, once called Dot Dot Dot, soon the Bulletins of the Serving Library, what is demonstrated? Oh, so much reiteration, let rapper Jay-Z answer: ‘The danger is that it’s just talk; then again, the danger is that it’s not. I believe you can speak things into existence.’21

  1. This and all further section headings are from Bruce Russell, ‘Ten Aphorisms in Lieu of an Editorial Policy for Logopandocy’, Left-Handed Blows: Writing on Sound 1993—2009, Auckland: Clouds, 2009, p.19.

  2. For more on Meta-the-difference-between-the-two-Font, see Dexter Sinister’s ‘A Note on the Type’ in this issue, pp.28—35.

  3. A latter version of ‘A Note on the Type’ from Dot Dot Dot issue 20 quotes Michael Bracewell’s The Nineties (2002), Julie Burchill’s Made in Brighton (2007) and Alasdair Gray’s Old Men in Love (2007). The version published in this issue quotes three texts by Bruno Latour.

  4. Quoted in the exhibition plan document for Dexter Sinister, ‘The Plastic Arts’, Gallery 400, the University of Illinois at Chicago.

  5. Ibid.

  6. See (last accessed on 1 February 2011).

  7. From the exhibition plan document for Dexter Sinister, A Note on the T, 2011, Triennale Design Museum, Milan.

  8. Stuart Bailey, ‘If you stuck a tag on them to track them the way certain fish are tagged these days they would sink instantly’, Dot Dot Dot, issue 20, Fall 2010, pullout.

  9. Christopher Nealon, ‘Camp Messianism, or, the Hopes of Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism’, American Literature, vol.76, no.3P, p.587.

  10. I mentioned to Bailey that curator Bob Nickas had requested two songs by The Fall be played loudly before his talk at Gallery 400 in 2006. Bailey guessed he must have seen Nickas do this elsewhere, and that must be how he got the idea.

  11. See (last accessed on 30 January 2011).

  12. Conversation with the author, 3 January 2011.

  13. S. Bailey, ‘Another Open Letter’, Dot Dot Dot, issue 20, 2010, p.82.

  14. Email press release for An Octopus in Plan View, 9 October 2010.

  15. Zachary Lazar, Sway, New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2008, p.242.

  16. Quoted in the exhibition plan document for Dexter Sinister, ‘The Plastic Arts’, Gallery 400, op. cit.

  17. Dexter Sinister, ‘Message-Signal-Noise-Channel’, 2008, statement to the curators, available at (last accessed on 30 January 2011). During the 2008 Whitney Biennial, Dexter Sinister occupied a hidden room at the off-site Armory location, releasing a series of parallel press releases and texts that commented on the Biennial, the history of the Whitney Museum of American Art and anything else that seemed appropriate for the moment.

  18. John Miller, ‘Esthetics from Acorns’, The Price Club: Selected Writings (1977—1998), Geneva and Dijon: JRP Editions & Les presses du réel, 2000, p.95.

  19. Sol LeWitt, ‘Sentences on Conceptual Art’, 0—9, 1969, reprinted in Art–Language, vol.1, no.1, May 1969, p.13.

  20. The Just-In-Time Workshop & Occasional Bookstore is the name of the Dexter Sinister office on the Lower East Side, where they work, stage events and sell books every Saturday. This location is soon to be closed, as Dexter Sinister turn to a new project, The Serving Library Company, Inc., which is presently set up as an online project until the physical project can be fully initiated. See or (last accessed on 30 January 2011)

  21. Jay-Z, Decoded, New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010, p.33.