Edges of the Experiment: an interview with designer Hans Gremmen, by Ollie Gapper

In my 1947 ‘Everyman’s Library’ edition of Leaves of Grass, Emory Holloway states how “…democracy seen from a partial and immediate point of view often appears wasteful, unworkable, and even contrary to nature, so a little reading of Whitman sometimes proves misleading” a point perfectly applicable to Edges of The Experiment by Marie-José Jongerius, where reading a snippet or even a single, entire essay may leave one confused as to the overarching premise of the book. Comprised of over 60 photographs by Jongerius and texts by some 15 authors, the book covers a lot of ground in its forensic investigation of the American (south) West – an approach that would leave many stifled by the sheer scope of topics to be covered and sub-topics therein. But rather than be paralyzed by this the book picks and chooses its areas of interest in an almost arbitrary manner, building, throughout the course of reading, a real Sebaldian sense of fluid narrative and rigid structure.

As a fan of Sebald and films like The Phantom of Liberty it was rather easy to fall into the world The Edges of The Experiment builds within its intricately designed pages. Somewhere between the wonderful photographic work of Marie José Jongerius and the precise design and research work of Hans Gremmen there exists a vacuum of intense curiosity that has no qualms with asking “why?” over and over again until its own peculiar hunger is satisfied. After that it’s your own hunger that has been awakened and left yearning for more.

I interviewed Hans Gremmen, the Dutch photobook designer behind the consistently interesting Fw: Books label. He wrote for, designed, co-engineered and edited this book and has previously published two other projects on the American visual landscape with Mother Road and Objects in Mirror.

OG: I’d like to start, if I may, by probing into your interest in American culture and its visual representations

HG: In 2008 I set foot on US soil for the first time, but I have visited the country years before that. I grew up with series’ such as ‘The Dukes of Hazard’ and ‘Knight Rider’, seeing commercials on tv which were inviting me to Marlboro Country, listening to Bruce Springsteen singing about Nebraska, and reading about the Mississippi in Tom Sawyer. In 2008 I realised all these layers and memories influence how I experience the landscape. I was chasing the cliché, but on the other hand it was also impossible to avoid this cliché. What is original? What is cliche? And how are these connected? These kind of questions have haunted me ever since.

OG: From these influences were there any that really began to offer any answers to these questions?

HG: Actually the book ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by Steinbeck did. Reading the book, about the harsh travels on Route 66 (The Mother Road as Steinbeck coined it) was for me in conflict with the romantic notion I grew up with. The road of freedom, motel, tumbleweed, dusty Cadillacs. So I started to trace the location described in the book with Google Streetview, just to see how it actually looks. Google Streetview is the perfect tool because there is no photographer so you are sure you have an objective view on the landscape. This was the start of a trip of 4-5 months I took on Google Streetview. I travelled the entire Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles with it and captured every step with screenshots. The result is a 5 hour movie in which you just see a changing landscape, as if you are driving it. No sound, no looking left or right; just a horizon with a vanishing point.

OG: What were your intentions for the purpose of Edges of The Experiment? On one level it is a forensic historical/ideological/geological/philosophical dissection of the American South-West and on another it’s a photobook that takes a new view of this environment.

HG: When we started working on the book we already knew each other and shared our fascination for the American Landscape. We exchanged our libraries and experiences we had while visiting the US. It became a bit of a game: always with her work as a starting point we started to talk about a phenomenon within the landscape – sometimes political, but also more trivial such as the importance of the movie Chinatown, or Paris Texas.  I made a folder with a record of these conversations and started to translate this into a table of contents for something that later (it took almost three years) became this two volume book.  I asked writers to contribute within there own specialization.  For us it was important that it would be a book about things we wanted to know, not ‘just’ about what we already knew. We wanted to make the book we always wanted to have about this topic.

OG: So working with this library of conversations it must have been difficult to tie everything together into a cohesive and logical publication. What were your intentions for narrative structure throughout the two books?

HG: That was a natural and very practical process. The two first essays are about the first traces of human presence within the landscape, so for me it was logical to put that at the start. After that with every essay I was puzzling to see what made sense. The practical aspect was also important: the book is printed very efficiently: colour sheets and black and white sheets are combined to save printing costs and the 8 pages on thin paper can only be placed on a few positions. In other words: it was a great puzzle, but in the end the pieces started to fit.

OG: This book-set feels very utilitarian in style but is also a very beautiful, lavishly produced object. How much consideration do you give to the position of your books as either art objects or functional communication devices?

HG: The book is for me the logical result of the research. The main decision is to make two volumes. When we came up with that concept we felt liberated: both volumes have their own logic and rules, in such a way that they make each other stronger in a playful way. The work of Marie José (volume 1) was always leading for the choice of essays (volume 2), but it could also happen that an essay would trigger another essay.  I tried to come up with a design which gave me total freedom to bring all layers to full attention. If thin paper is needed to make transparent diagrams: I would add 8 pp of special paper. If the grid of 2 text columns was not enough: I would add a third vertical column. The balance between having a totally chaotic or a pleasantly lavish book is thin. But the most heard comment I got so far is that people feel invited to dive into the book.

OG: I think that’s the best way to sum up the physicality of the book actually, its attractive enough to actually be literally attractive yet is a very ‘usable’ object. Do you feel excited to be able to create these publications as unique contributors of new knowledge or frustrated that you have to make them? Would you prefer to have had them years ago when your interest was triggered?

HG: I think the book is a bit balance of both worlds: using and quoting things of the past, but placing them in a new context. For instance what I did with the book by Powell. That source was there: he described in a great way the landscape of the Grand Canyon seen from the Colorado River. I added in the margins information on how that landscape has changed by damming the river.  The landscape is a living organism, so the documentation on the landscape should be exactly that as well.

OG: What artist or artists would you most like to collaborate with in future publications on American themes?

HG: I really would like to team up with Andy Warhol in combination with Ansel Adams. 

OG: Are you, with this book and your other like Objects in Mirror and Mother Road, building your own resource of visual studies on the visual construction of the American Identity?

HG: As I said; for me it is an ongoing project. While working on the one, I am already starting the next one. When working on Edges of the Experiment I ran into a collection of postcards from the US landscape which I bought. So know I have almost 10,000 postcards waiting for me to organize, and explore another aspect of the American Landscape.

Edges of the Experiment  by Marie-José Jongerius can be purchased here.

Ollie Gapper graduated from UCA Rochester in 2014 with a degree in Photography (Contemporary Practice). He is currently studying an MA in Photography with a long-term focus on photobooks and the American landscape.


Edges of the Experiment  by Marie-José Jongerius
Edges of the Experiment  by Marie-José Jongerius
Edges of the Experiment  by Marie-José Jongerius