Q & A with Dan Black
Minneapolis artist Dan Black is the main man behind Volume Three of the Little Otsu Annual. We were immediately drawn to his poster work for Landland, the art/design collective he runs with Jessica Seamans (who contributed drawings to Vol. 3 and collaborated with Jennie Smith on A Collection of Ten Postcards) and knew he was the perfect person to tackle the next volume of our annual planner. He did an amazing job and was kind enough to take the time to share some insights about posters, process, planning, and philately.
How did you get started designing and printing gig posters?
In high school, I made posters for bands I was in... pretty much because nobody else was going to do it. They were all sort of objectively terrible, but then it got to be where nobody wanted to do it for their bands' shows either, so I ended up making those too. After I moved up to Minneapolis, I kinda met some kids who were booking shows in their houses and stuff, and I was a little better at making posters by then, so I just bugged these people about making posters for their shows until they gave in and let me. Eventually, I started getting asked to make them. Now it's about half and half: sometimes people ask me to do them, and sometimes I'm really geeking out about a show that's coming up, so I try to make a case for why I should do the poster instead of any number of other absurdly talented people in town.
What is your process like when making a poster?
I'm kind of all over the place with this, which doesn't always feel all that efficient. Sometimes it's all analog, with piles of cut-up drawings and photocopies and lots of unplanned Hail Mary color combinations, and sometimes (even though it doesn't look like it) it's all about working with computers and doing a lot of planning and seeing pretty much exactly what the poster will be like when it's done. Sometimes it's a bunch of both. A lot of times I feel like Jes and I are being really experimental or "out there" with stuff, because it feels like sometimes we're really not in control of the outcome as much as we should be, but then I see people who actually are pushing things and doing this really bizarre work, and I realize that we've definitely got our safety zones. This is probably pretty apparent, but we both spend a*lot* of time drawing--that always takes the longest. Longer than the actual printing, for sure.
How do you decide when to collaborate with Jes on the posters and who decides who does each poster in the first place?
We're trying to get better about actually collaborating on things, but up until fairly recently, we were pretty much working independently on things. We both have our own different avenues for getting work and the types of projects we're working on and all of that, so we would kinda just do our own thing and usually end up asking each other for feedback or advice, but mostly staying pretty separate. Now we're a little more conscious of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, so if there's something I want to do that I know she'd be better at, I sort of play Art Director and we figure out how to make it work. Sometimes it's also just a matter of who has time to do what. We're both super busy all the time with all sorts of things, and sometimes with the nature of what we're doing, it just makes sense to have the other person take care of certain things. That sounds vague, I guess. As for the posters, we both really want to get more involved with true collaborations, more back and forth and teaming up and all of that. I think our drawing styles are finally starting to work well enough together, and we're at a place where it can make more sense (and be way more interesting) to work that way.
How much influence on design or art does the band often have?
I like it a lot when the bands have a pretty clear idea of what they want. I feel like by now, bands are asking me to do posters because they sort of already know what things will be like, you know? For example, the bands that want the naked goat-ladies on their posters just end up asking someone else. As for the situations where I have "free reign" or whatever, I feel like the content is always pretty tied-in to what I feel like the band is going for. Sometimes it's a little bit of a stretch, or sometimes, honestly, there are situations where I'm kind of allowed to be a little self-indulgent, but I try to keep it on the level of always at least feeling appropriate. I'm not sure if that answers the question or not. There's a big part of the whole gigposter culture that gets really uptight about posters that don't match a band's "image" or whatever, but then at the same time, it seems like some folks get really excited when a Wilco poster is covered in fiery boobs or skulls. I just try to not make crappy posters. It works out about half the time.
You guys went to Flatstock this year and seemed to do pretty well. How do you feel about the rise of gig posters as an art form?
Flatstock was a really cool experience. It was so great to go out and see an overwhelming amount of amazing work, and meet all these other poster people that I'd known about, but never really talked to. I'd been really nervous about signing up for a booth, like "Oh man, is anyone going to actually take this Landland thing seriously? All we have are posters for our friends' bands. No one knows who we are, etcetera," but in retrospect, I can't believe we didn't get on that sooner. Everyone was absurdly nice and welcoming.
I remember when the term "gigposter" came about, I hated it. I still kinda do. "Gig" is kind of an ugly word. It sounds so "Pro-gear, Pro-attitude," you know? Like "rehearsal" and "lead vox" or whatever. I sound like a snob. Anyway, about these posters as an art form... I think it's great. I guess that's pretty obvious. I remember before things really took off, before Flatstock and all of that, there really wasn't a lot of that going on in Minneapolis at all. I'd go to Chicago and see posters everywhere, Jay Ryan's stuff was all over the place, but we didn't have any of that here. It was kind of a bummer, all these amazing venues and shows going on, and tons of absurdly ugly flyers where the only real difference was which Astrobright paper it was printed on. Now there's a huge pool of really great poster designers here (and everywhere) that are kinda divvying up all the shows and sorting out who does what, and things are a lot more exciting. And the fact that none of it feels all that gross or competitive is really a pretty strong testament to the kinds of people that are involved...at least as far as I can tell.
It's kinda funny though... at the same time, it's kinda becoming more and more apparent that posters hanging in record store windows aren't really how anyone is finding out about shows anymore (at least not the ones that people are generally making posters for). They're a whole different thing now, and they have a life outside of the context of the two weeks leading up to the show, and I think that's really helping encourage people to raise the bar a little. Knowing that people are receptive to the idea of these posters as art that they might want to hold onto for a while. The other side of that though, which is also great, is that because of their utilitarian nature, they can also be super temporal and disappear if you make a bad one. There's something nice about that. The worst thing that can happen is people just forget about it. I've made a couple bad moves with some posters and, for the most part, they're off the record now. I guess that's a pretty good win-win situation--the good posters hang on peoples' walls and the bad ones can be chalked up to practice or learning and then they're gone forever.
What's the name of your band and what kind of music do you play? Are you making posters for your own shows?
It's called Everybell & Whistle for some reason. I think that we thought that it would eventually become imbued with some kind of meaning or significance, but so far that hasn't happened. I like to say that we're a punk band, because that's what it seems like to me, but I'm finding out more and more that that's kind of misleading. We don't really fit in very well with a lot of what's going on here, "punk" or otherwise, but when that's not super frustrating, it's really freeing--to know that no one's really paying attention and nobody's going to be calling you on your weirdnesses. As for what it sounds like, I'm really bad at describing it, but I guess I'd say that it's a bunch of loud, mathy time-signature games that are maybe a little bit too complicated for their own good, and then I try to figure out how to sing over it. It feels really, uh, arty sometimes, especially when we're playing shows, but it probably isn't any more ridiculous than anything else.
I usually make the posters for our shows, unless I can talk anyone else into doing it. I actually get really nervous about having our band stuff locked into my aesthetic (whatever that might mean), so I'm really into the idea of other people doing them, especially when I have people around whose work I really admire.
I feel like I'm pretty organized, but it's in a really weird way. Actually, it's probably the same thing everyone else does... I'm constantly making lists of what I need to do, and breaking them down into sub-lists and super minute details and writing out all sorts of stuff all the time, and checking things off as I go. I need that kind of structure and momentum to feel like I'm accomplishing things in order to keep accomplishing them. Up until a few years ago though, all of that happened on pockets full of receipts and other peoples' business cards and whatever happened to be around. I'd end up with these piles of scraps of paper that I'd just transfer from pair of pants to pair of pants, and that was how I kept track of things. It was kind of ridiculous, but it was a system that I guess I got used to. Then I got totally into these Field Notes notebooks my friend Aaron makes, and I use those pretty religiously. I use a planner now too--when you guys sent me the ones Martine worked on [Annuals Vol. 1 and 2], that was how that started. I think before that, I was always scared off by the ugly Office Max ones. Or I'd buy them with the intention of using them, but then they'd be so cold and weird and counter-intuitive that I'd never touch them. That sounds like a weird testimonial or something, but it's true. I also kinda use them as a way of keeping track of passing time, so I write in things that I've already done (as opposed to just things that I need to do) so that I don't end up losing whole months of my life. That's what happens if I don't write things down. I'm coming to terms with being the kind of person that needs to write that stuff down all the time, which is hard. I used to pride myself on my memory.
You used a lot of stamp iconography in the Annual and some of the posters you have done before--have you always been interested in stamps?
Yeah, I'm not a stamp collector by any means, but I'm definitely interested in them, especially in that they can be a really beautiful and smart way to organize important information within a framing device. A lot of poster making has to do with dealing with the information at hand, so to see something that can call out all these hierarchies and deal with it in a really elegant and organized way is really inspiring sometimes. I also get really into all of the nice formal detailing and all of that. Decorative edges. I use them as containers to call attention to the information I need attention paid to. That's sort of the idea with the Annual too, or at least part of it... to put a nice emphasis on whatever you've got going on that day. It feels better than just scribbling it on a credit card receipt or something like that.
In the Annual you used some typography from places in Minneapolis. Is there a lot of art happening there? How does living there influence your art?
One of those typography drawings (the "Welcome" sign) is from this old pizza place in Mankato that used to have punk shows when I was in high school so that's a tribute to that, but yeah, everything else is from Minneapolis. In general, I think we've got a lot of art going on--a bunch of galleries and the Walker and everything. There's also a lot going on that's kind of under the radar too. Little pockets of friends that all have their own stuff going on, like rap crews, except that it's drawing parties and homemade zines. I guess that probably exists everywhere, but it feels really inspiring to see this stuff all over and know that it's happening right here. A lot of it also has to do with our winters, which can be super brutal to the point where the only thing that makes sense is staying in and working on projects. I mean, it's not impossible to get around or anything, I'm not a total baby, but 30 degrees-below-zero usually makes a pretty convincing argument for not going out on a Friday night.
When and why did you move to Minneapolis?
I moved here for college. I've lived here for eleven years. I went to high school and a good part of grade school in Mankato, which is just southwest of here. Before that, up until I was in fourth grade, I lived in Monticello, Utah, which is this really weird desert town kinda near the Four Corners area. My memory of it is mostly centered around me and my little sister tearing around unsupervised and breaking into abandoned buildings, sleeping outside and trying (poorly) to tame semi-feral cats that our neighbors would eat. Kids from the neighborhood and I would pretend to be Transformers and spray-paint our faces gold, then get in trouble with our moms.
How did you get started with Landland and where did you come up with the name?
Landland came out of this other thing some friends and I were doing called "2222," which started as just an umbrella name for whatever was going on in the apartment I was living in right after school, mostly screenprinting and design work, but then we ended up keeping the name as we moved the screenprinting operation from basement to basement, slowly wearing out our welcome with roommates and uptight landlords and all of that. We set up the "2222 Screenprint Facility" in, I think, six different places, some of which were just friends' houses that weren't even really affiliated with our work in any way. The last incarnation of that set-up was in Matt Zaun's basement, and the crew at that point was me, Matt and Jes. We started to realize that with the type of work we wanted to do (larger editions and physically larger prints, huge record sleeves and things like that), we would be pretty quickly outgrowing that space, so we started talking about getting our own (non-basement) dedicated studio space. It also made sense that ditching the old and confusing name would also be a way of ditching our weird nomadic history that no one even knew about anyway. So we turned into Landland, and Matt and I spent the whole summer and most of fall of 2007 building walls and tables and a sink in a warehouse in Northeast Minneapolis. Jes was living in San Francisco at that time, and now she's back.
The name Landland doesn't really refer to anything in particular. It was one in a long string of kind of ridiculous possible names that Matt and I were excited about, and one of the ones that didn't have cusswords in it or was a gross amalgamation of all of our human names, so it stuck. I like that it doesn't refer to anything, so that ideally it will end up just refering to whatever we're doing.
Where did you go to art school? Was that a valuable experience for you?
I went to MCAD. The Minneapolis College of Art & Design. I started in 1997 as a Fine Arts Printmaking major, spent three years taking every single printmaking class I could, and then had a sort of huge weird breakdown and dropped out. I don't even really remember it, except that I was positive that I had no business being there, and I guess after spending enough weeks of literally* getting five hours of sleep in as many days, I just checked out. So the next move, of course, was to get the job at Kinko's and be The Guy Who Dropped Out Of Art School Who Now Works At Kinko's Ha Ha, which was funny for about a year before I realized that maybe school wasn't so bad after all. I went back and changed my major to Graphic Design, which meant all my printmaking classes became elective credits and I still had two years left of straight-up design classes. So that's what I did. I still did the days on end of no sleep and whole weeks of not leaving the design studio, taking naps under the fluorescent lights and getting woken up by prospective-student tours, but in the end I finished the thing, graduating in 2003.
I miss the community of it. I think that was probably the most valuable thing for me. Critiques and working in groups and just having people around to constantly talk to about whatever we've got going on. It's a lot easier to push through the night to finish a project if you know that all of your friends are also pushing through, and you can all order pizza and listen to Kool Keith all night long or whatever you need to do to take care of business. I keep trying to get back to that model, of having a bunch of people around and working, even if it's on completely different things... just having the momentum of other people getting things done.
*when i say "literally," that's not to be confused with "literally-but-I-actually-mean-figuratively" as used in statements like "I literally ate three hundred pounds of goulash and then I literally died laughing." Ok. That's all.