Hello Kitty. Emily the Strange. Mr. Toast. Cartoons? Not only! All of these little doodles are part of “character design”: bold, minimalist graphics that draw heavily from 1950s cartoons, folk art and the Japanese kawaii (cute) aesthetic. Peter Thaler’s been a character connoisseur since 2001, publishing numerous books (the latest, Character Compendium, comes out this month) and curating the Pictoplasma Conference and Festival here in Berlin since 2004, a veritable explosion of color, cuteness and more than a hint of the grotesque.
For an even better look at the 2- and 3D mayhem, check out our picture gallery in the link to the left.
The fest hits .HBC, Babylon, and other Berlin venues April 11-15. Check pictoplasma.com for more details.
How did you get into characters? You don’t seem like that much of a cartoon freak.
I started off in animation. I was working as a classical pen-on-paper animator and I absolutely detested it. But that was around 2000, and there was this huge boom of the internet being populated by “characters”. And because everything was really slow, you had very reduced images. And I thought they were much cooler than anything I’d ever animated. This idea of a technical limitation that brings out a visual quality – that’s how the project started.
But now the festival has painting, glassblowing, plush animals…
The technical limitation doesn’t play a role anymore, but what it introduced is still very striking: a reduced character that doesn’t have a biography. It doesn’t have to narrate a story. It just has to make a connection and communicate something very simple: “Hello”, or “I’m cute.” We’re interested in the idea of a character as a container to convey some kind of meaning.
So how does that happen? If I drew eyes on this lamp, would it be a character?
Well, one thing that’s very necessary is eye contact. If you look at something and it looks back at you, it helps build up a relationship. And the more you leave away, the better. It’s a horrible example, but Hello Kitty has no facial expression. You don’t know if she’s happy or sad; you just see these two dots. You’re projecting all the narration, the biography. “Who is this Hello Kitty and why do I have a relationship to her?” Opposite to say, Mickey Mouse, who’s constantly grinning, doing this burlesque theater, telling you what to do.
Speaking of Hello Kitty, a lot of the characters in Pictoplasma have that kawaii look.
Not everything we do is kawaii. I’d say about 50 percent of artists have some kawaii tendencies, and of course 70-80 percent work with imagery that we’d refer to as playful or childlike. But for example, Gary Baseman is not a kawaii artist, he’s an outsider artist. And then we have 20 percent who do something completely different.
In general, though, character culture is very tied to Asia, particularly Japan.
Of course Asia is a very strong influence. A lot of the speakers that we invite – if they’re male, they end up with an Asian girlfriend [laughs]. But it’s not that everyone is going crazy about Asian characters. It’s about the mutilation, cross-referencing and remixing of American consumerist characters. It’s about post-war Japan absorbing American characters on cornflakes and Saturday morning animation, and then turning this around and puking it back into the world.
So what’s Europe bring to the table? Why have this festival in Berlin?
It’s happening in Berlin because we live here. But we’re only able to do what we’re doing the way we’re doing it because we’re in Europe and we get cultural funding. We have the festival in New York as well, but it’s much more corporate. Here, it’s not an industry event. Even though it’s pop imagery, and Americans might refer to it as lowbrow, we don’t have these distinctions in Europe. We’re much more able to address this in theory and make a cultural festival out of it.
At the same time, many of your speakers come from the commercial art world. Where do you draw the line between cultural and corporate art?
We don’t. We can feature gallery or commercial art, we don’t care. It’s more like, is it interesting to us or not? We’d never invite the owner of the cornflakes company, but we’d be interested in the poor guy who created that character, and what other characters he’s created. It’s interesting when you see these artists as Frankenstein – they create a creature that becomes bigger than them and they don’t know how to get rid of it. One guy who’s talking is Rob Reger, who created Emily the Strange. Now it’s everything he’s known for, but he has a completely different art history. So we don’t care if it’s Emily the Strange or Murakami, it’s how we approach this idea.
What’s exciting about this year’s festival?
This year we’re opening it up as a festival, more than ever before. I have this idea… everywhere in the world, you have music festivals. Thousands of people go for a long weekend in the mud; they listen to bands, take drugs, and have the best time of their life. Why is not possible that a wide audience that was raised on MTV aesthetics – they know these images, they understand them – why can’t there be a festival like that? We’ve been trying to do this for several years, and we’re getting closer.
So who’s your favorite character?
[laughs] It’s a love-hate relationship. I’m not running around in a tight T-shirt with Hello Kitty on it. The topic’s kept me excited for 10 years, but only because I can see it as a matrix, see behind the cuteness. I do get excited about stuff. But at the moment I’m drawn to a sterile white room where I can sleep!