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Richard Niessen on his participation in the Archieftraject

Graphic designer Richard Niessen is one of eight participants in the Archieftraject 2022, a professionalization program for cultural institutions and makers in which they learn how to take care of their archives. As the most recent trajectory is drawn to a close, it's time to look back on Niessen's process and participation.

2 May 2023

Flyers, posters, books, newspapers: as a graphic designer, Richard Niessen frequently works with the flat surface. But if you lift those sheets of paper, then the back sides become as visible as the front sides. Flat printed matter then suddenly takes on a spatial quality, Richard realised. He began using his own work as building blocks. He created piles of flyers that he made soar like skyscrapers and he presented posters as upright buildings or sprawling squares. Gradually, an entire city began to take shape: TM-City.

Richard calls it ‘typographic masonry’, this building with signs, symbols and ornaments. In addition to a city, he has also created a palace: “An imaginary museum for graphic design,” he explains. “And nobody actually knows where it is or how to get there.” At the end of April, an exhibition about this Palace of Typographic Masonry will open under the same title in the Grote Kerk in Breda. The installation will consist of all kinds of drawers filled with graphic inspiration images that are explained with index cards. Fellow designers are invited to activate the collections, for example by making a publication, giving workshops, designing a floor pattern or making posters. With his growing and travelling installation, Richard wants to illuminate and preserve graphic culture in its full breadth.

Archive Richard Niessen. Photo: Anna Klevan

Cross bracing

If you usually regard arranging your own projects or inspirational material as a dull, dusty activity, Richard’s mysterious palace and city models will quickly change your mind. Behind these two presentations, however, a much larger archive is hidden, Richard tells when we visit him in his Amsterdam studio. One chest of drawers is full of posters, and another has more than 30 archive boxes, each filled with sketches of projects from a specific year. Boxes are filled with books designed by him. When he opens the box marked ‘2023’, he pulls out a plastic folder. “This is not allowed,” he says. “We recently learned this during a workshop organised by the Archieftraject (Archive Trajectory). Plastic and staples don’t seem to be good for the paper.”

During lectures at the art academy in The Hague where he now teaches, Richard not only shows the final results, but also sketches, proofs and other process material. “I collect quite a lot of try-outs and references,” he says, reaching back once more to grab another example. “Slowly, a connecting narrative emerges: a story about your oeuvre and the choices you have made in it.” His participation in the Archieftraject, which is supervised by performing arts network and the Network Archives Design and Digital Culture (NADD), seems motivated by a desire to be able to tell that story more effectively.

He took his boxes to one of the workshops to discuss new steps for his archive in the group. His City of Typographic Masonry was discussed, especially the streets that ran through it. Richard named those streets after his main sources of inspiration, such as Aldo van Eyck, Tadanori Yokoo, and Lego. If buildings are located on the last street, Lego was the main source of inspiration for them. In this way the streets function as cross connections; they make visible the common denominators linking the projects. During the group discussion, applying a similar pattern throughout his archive was suggested, in order to create a ‘texture of works’ from which his maker DNA can be discerned.

Building blocks

One tip he would like to pass on to other makers and institutions is: link the building blocks of your archive. “When working on your archive, you can choose to stack all your projects on top of each other. But only when you put all those different objects and projects in relation to each other, does the knowledge and experience you have gained really rise to the surface.” He remembers that, during one of the sessions, the online archive of dancer, choreographer and artistic director Pina Bausch of the Tanztheater in Wupertal was shown. “It’s so impressive: you can click from every object to the next object, which has created an enormous fabric.” Wanting to make the same kind of archive is perhaps a somewhat ambitious goal, he admits. “But it does raise interesting questions. Because what will the entrances to your archive be like in the future? What could you sort it by?”

What he likes about the Archieftraject is thinking along with others about the challenges involved in compiling an archive. “I myself have very tangible end products, which are also flat and therefore reasonably easy to archive.” The work of other participants is sometimes far trickier to capture. For example, the objects of a participating design agency take up much more space and also require certain climatic conditions. In the case of performing artists, it is often a matter of searching for an archive form in which to pour the work. “Do you then use the recording of one performance of your play or piece, even though no two performances are the same? Do you record all your rehearsals? There are a lot of choices to be made in this respect,” says Richard.

Archive Richard Niessen. Photo: Anna Klevan.

Humus layer

Such meetings lower the threshold for getting started with your archive and all the complicated questions that come with it. “Sometimes working on your archive feels a lot like homework. But taking part in the Archieftraject makes that less of an issue: there you are in a ‘class’ with people who all have the same homework,” jokes Richard. In the end, you'll be happy if you’ve done that homework anyway, he explains. A usable archive prevents you from burdening others with a disorganised pile of projects, and it provides you with the necessary insights.

Because Richard has recorded his work process over the years in all kinds of books and folders, he can now reconstruct manufacturing processes. “Some side paths are no longer in it, but overall those books are pretty true to how we went about it,” he says. Through them, he becomes more aware of certain patterns in his work. “The gaze of makers and institutions is often forwards; you especially want to do and make new things. But the question is whether that is sustainable. Anyway, at a certain point you have existed for so long that you have inevitably created your own history and context,” says Richard. “It's a shame not to look back at that; you can see it as a humus layer that feeds new projects.”

Text: Marsha Bruinen

Archive Richard Niessen. Photo: Anna Klevan

The Archieftraject

The Archieftraject is a path to professionalisation for cultural institutions and makers to learn how to take care of their archive. How do I map out what I have in house? How do I organise it easily? And what should I do if I want to share it with others, such as colleagues, researchers, other makers or the public? These are all questions that the participating design, digital culture and performing arts organisations will find answers to during the project’s five months.

The last Archieftraject ran from November 2022 to March 2023. Read more about the eight participating makers and organizations here.

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