Beta Testing Architecture: Yearning for Space with Tom Kaczynski

December 2, 2013

Koldo Lus Arana interviews Tom Kaczynski.


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“Structures” series (Detail). © Tom Kaczynski.

Working now from his office in Minneapolis, Tom Kaczynski has made it all the way from science fiction reader to architecture school, comics author, educator, and, finally, comic book publisher. Founder of indie publishing house Uncivilized Books, Kaczynski has put in the market a steady flow of iconoclastic comic books, both by himself, notable newcomers, and consecrated stars of the alternative scene, such as David B, James Romberger and Gabrielle Bell. In a conversation with him, we covered his new book, Beta Testing the Apocalypse (Fantagraphics, 2013), the influence of J.G. Ballard and the appeal of dystopia, minicomics, Archigram, architecture, and architects as an audience for comic books.

Oh, and his background in architecture.

KLA: One more interview. There has been a great demand for Tom Kaczynski this year, with your work receiving a lot of attention.

TK: Yeah, my book [Beta the Testing Apocalypse] finally came out, so all of a sudden there were a lot of interviews, but that’s the reason basically. Before that I was confined to the fringes—not that I’m now all that popular at all but…

KLA: You’re making your way towards mainstream indie then.

TK: [laughs] Yeah, I guess so.

KLA: You keep producing comics as an author while publishing other authors with Uncivilized Books.

TK: Yes, my own work is always a separate project from the publishing venture. Publishing has grown into a bigger thing, but I keep making stuff. A new thing just came out in Noir Anthologies, the detective fiction anthologies published by Akashic Books, which aren’t even comic books. This is a publisher based in New York, and they are doing this for almost every city in the world: there is an LA Noir anthology, a New York Noir, even a Gotham Noir. All have their own “noir” collection now.

I was brought in as the only cartoonist in order to do Twin Cities Noir, about Minneapolis and Saint Paul. The premise is that the stories are set somewhere in one of these cities, and I chose the Minneapolis skyway system. Minneapolis has the biggest skyway system in the world. Pretty much every building downtown is connected with these little bridges, which basically turns the whole downtown into a mall, because you can go from building to building without ever stepping onto the street. It really killed the downtown for a long time—it had a dampening effect on the street. However, recently that’s been reversed. The street is becoming popular again in Minneapolis.

KLA: In your comics you always seem to be particularly interested in this infrastructural aspect of urban growth.

TK: Yes, it’s always this silent organizing process, where someone has put together an infrastructure at some point, and we have to deal with it for generations afterwards. Structures are such an important part of our life—much of our life is in where we go, and how we get there. I find some drama in there.

KLA: The structures (urban, infrastructural) that you usually depict are in a way alien beings that people have to inhabit, which feel unnatural, not particularly suited for human beings.

TK: That’s always fascinated me about built environments. They are designed, constructed, and built. Basically they’re unnatural beings, but to the generations that come later they are a new nature. It’s something that preexists, and they have no input whatsoever on it unless they make a strenuous effort to change it in some way. So their strategy has to be to inhabit it somehow—unless, of course, you’re Baron Haussmann or Robert Moses [laughs].

I. Testing Architecture [Beta]: Architecture, utopia and other nightmares

KLA: I understand you have an architectural background.

TK: Yes, I focused on architecture and art in my undergraduate studies. I never pursued graduate studies—for a long time I thought I would go back to school to finish, but I got caught up in the internet boom of the late 90s. I learned HTML very early on, and I ended up doing a lot of design work in advertising, graphic design, and I did a little bit of programming—flash for a long time. I kept doing comics throughout this whole time of course, and I was also teaching at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. I still do, actually. I just took a break because I’m too busy now that I’m publishing. So I saw architecture fall by the wayside, from an educational point of view. From an artistic point of view, it was something that became more and more important in my production.

KLA: Were you still doing comics while you were an architecture student, too?

TK: Yes, I was drawing comics since I was 8 years old or so. I wanted to be a cartoonist, and I needed to go to school, so architecture was the natural choice: it’s practical, and it involves art. But I didn’t go as far as others. I was already making and amateur-publishing mini-comics just before going into college in the early 90s, participating in the mini-comics scene explosion of the 80s and 90s in America.

KLA: So, while you were studying architecture in college, you already knew you would go into comics afterwards?

TK: Yes, but it’s a “yes, but” kind of situation. I was doing it, but I didn’t think I was very good, so I’d be doing all these other things just in case, such as graphic design or HTML. I thought, “Oh, I’ll be able to design my own comics, or at least, I’ll be able to do that, if I never get to be a cartoonist.” It was a goal, but it was always tempered by reality, like the fact that I wasn’t making enough money with that work, so I needed to do something else to pay the bills. Comics were always the major secondary activity, until more recently.

KLA: Did you enter architecture thinking that an architectural education could somehow help you as a comics creator? Did you foresee that before starting?

TK: Well, I guess I thought that at least it would help me draw the backgrounds well [laughs]. Perspective definitely seemed like an important thing to know. I have always admired those cartoonists that could create whole worlds, believable worlds on paper. In architecture school I did actually draw some comics to show buildings, trying to use comics as a way in for myself into architecture as well. I think I learnt more in terms of drawing from my architecture classes than I did from art ones. My art teachers at that time were still very focused on non-representative, gestural work, and figurative, representational drawing seemed to be frowned upon. Comics were looked down upon in my art classes, whereas in architecture, there was a “Oh, well, this is interesting” attitude.

One of the professors I had in architecture school loved using perspective as an expressive tool, using the vanishing point (or multiple vanishing points) very intentionally, and taking sections of very specific places in buildings to elucidate certain relationships. In one of these assignments we had to do some drawings of Casa Malaparte, watching Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963), trying to elucidate the relationships of the different characters and this building. It’s something that I come back to a lot when I do my comics, trying to find that relationship between architecture and the characters, to pick the right angle, the right moment.

KLA: However, the architecture in your comics usually leaves the reader with a feeling of emptiness, of un-naturalness, because the way it is represented. People are shown living in those linear, white, empty vessels. There’s actually an ongoing, very “Ballardian” “silent desperation” feel in your work, more akin to J. G. Ballard than, say, Phillip K. Dick.

TK: I’m a big fan of anything Ballard. I have pretty much read everything he has ever written, and the few books that I haven’t read I’m kind of savoring them. In the early stories in Beta Testing his voice is very easy to detect. Later on, I think I depart from them a little bit. Philip K. Dick is someone I also admire, but he was less influential on a writing basis. I think in terms of voice I’m closer to Ballard, even though I’m trying to be less of a Ballard cover act. Actually, I came to Ballard quite late. I was aware of him in college, but I didn’t actually read him. I’d read The Atrocity Exhibition (Jonathan Cape, 1970), and my young mind at the time didn’t really get it. I came back to him later through his early science fictional work.

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Cozy Apocalypse. A suburban tale in modern housing with a somewhat Ballardian feel. © Tom Kaczynski.

KLA: You seem to be interested in showing the dystopian side of the modern city life, with its cold, anonymous city blocks and modern houses. That is where I find this “Ballardian” feel. Because in Ballard, for every Concentration City or Billennium, you also have all this lonely suburban-ness, this quiet, downplayed, silent dystopia.

TK: I am attracted to dystopias. I am also attracted to utopias (I’m a little conflicted here). Beta Testing the Apocalypse is such a dystopian work. I wanted to have an utopian counterpoint, but it always evolved/devolved into a dystopian narrative. I just never got there. I feel it’s so much easier to create the dystopian. It’s so easy to inhabit the mid of everything falling apart. It’s so easy to imagine the dissolution of everything, but it’s so hard to create something against that.

KLA: Utopia is a very unstable, fragile state, also difficult to imagine. You have no data, so you have to design it from scratch; as opposed to dystopia, which is much more welcoming for a designer, especially in a postmodern context.

TK: I probably agree with you, but it’s something that we need, probably as a species. We need that “something” to undermine, that utopia that we can start pulling apart. I love reading utopias, both the classic and the modern ones, although it seems that there was an uptake in the nineteenth century, early twentieth century, and since then, utopia has waned. I hope we go to another cycle of utopias, if we can make them work [laughs]. I tend to think of it almost as a verb. It needs to exist, just not necessarily in the real world.

KLA: It’s interesting that the look of technological utopia from the early twentieth century, epitomized by Things to Come (William Cameron Menzies, 1936), has become the dystopia of today, with its antiseptic environments (I’m thinking of Logan’s Run (Michael Anderson, 1976) and THX 1138‘s (George Lucas, 1971) reversion of that type of dream).

TK: Yes, their utopias have turned into our dystopias. A lot of later utopias tend to be more organic, less sterile, let’s say Ernest Callembach’s Ecotopia (1975), where the Western half of America secedes and becomes this ecologically-based utopia. Another ecological utopia I found fascinating was Alasdair Gray’s A History Maker (Canongate Books, 1994). Again, those can become dystopias too. One of the subtexts of the 1,000,000 Year Boom story is that this ecological utopianism can also carry a lot of negatives. A lot of these utopian notions are some kind of virus carrying this weird disease into the general system by way of positive thinking, I’d say.

KLA: “There are other dystopias, but they’re in this one.”

TK: [laughs] Exactly.

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One of the “Archigrammy” capsules in Beta Testing the Apocalypse. Kaczynski had this to say about it: “Being more mobile, just-in-time production, more temporary, faster product cycles… I feel that architecture expressed it in many ways. Obviously it’s become even more so these days. I’ve had jobs where I never had to go to work, and in a way this was part of that dream. That’s a utopian notion which I find these days to be very dystopian: working never ends. I miss the 9 to 5 cycle where you can say “I’m done.” © Tom Kaczynski.

KLA: I sensed the presence of Archigram, inflatables, and this fun & flexibility, free-will 60s utopia in Beta Testing. In “The New,” you have a small panel with this experimental village that reminded me of Greene’s inflatables. Is it there, or is it just me?

TK: It’s interesting that you saw it. I don’t know if these drawings survived, but I had a bunch of referential drawings that came from Archigram that I ended up discarding in the comic.

KLA: One of your latest published books is James Romberger’s, Post York (2012), which is again a post-apocalyptic book. How did this one come into being?

TK: I think he’s an amazing artist and here’s this work that he had never published—he was sort of unsure about it—and I just fell for it. It’s a very simple story, in the sense that it’s a character moving through. James Romberger was in Columbia, studying modern film and this was his sort of comic take on The Camera Writes [movement], where as he moves through his narrative he rewrites it and takes it in a different direction. Obviously the apocalyptic dimension made it just beautiful to look at. Decay is very pleasing aesthetically. Albert Speer wrote this book [he refers to Die Ruinenwerttheorie] on the theory of ruin value in architecture. Apparently all his architecture was done with the ruins in mind, thinking that in 1,000 years the ruins of it would have the grandeur of the ruins of Rome. The other weird thing about Post York is, when we were publishing it, New York itself was going through Hurricane Sandy, and some of the locations in the comic are the locations where Manhattan flooded. It was a bizarre confluence of events.

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Double-page spread (4-5) in James Romberger’s Post York. © James Romberger & Crosby.

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Double-page spread (6-7) in James Romberger’s Post York. © James Romberger & Crosby.

II. Writing for the Architect: Trans utopia, Structures, and more

KLA: Could you talk about the Trans series, and how it happened? It also seems to touch on some of those ongoing themes: utopias, dystopias, urban life, cities… but with a very different approach.

TK: It really happened out of desperation. I think it was 2005. It was the second year of the MOCA festival in New York, I wanted to have a comic book for it, and I had been beating my head against the wall of what I wanted to do with comics. My notebooks were filled with these theoretical diatribes, and it was something that I really liked to read, to write about, but I never felt could really work in comic form. It was out of desperation that it poured out, very quickly. There was no penciling, just all straight to ink. I got a really great response, and slowly, as I got deeper and deeper into it, I thought, “I need to come up with some sort of unifying idea. I can’t just be regurgitating.” So that is the genesis of the project. I just kept doing it with the other mini-comics, Trans-Siberia, Trans-Atlantis and Alaska. It is probably something that I will continue doing, because it was a great way to generate ideas. There are some proto-ideas that ended up in the Beta Testing stories. I really liked this very informal, but somewhat structured way of putting down ideas and cross-linking them.

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Cover of the Trans series, a journey with “Prominent stops in Soviet Siberia, Communist Poland, Plato’s Atlantis, 19th century New York and Sir Thomas More’s Utopia.” © Tom Kaczynski.

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Cover of the Trans series, a journey with “Prominent stops in Soviet Siberia, Communist Poland, Plato’s Atlantis, 19th century New York and Sir Thomas More’s Utopia.” © Tom Kaczynski.

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Cover of the Trans series, a journey with “Prominent stops in Soviet Siberia, Communist Poland, Plato’s Atlantis, 19th century New York and Sir Thomas More’s Utopia.” © Tom Kaczynski.

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Cover of the Trans series, a journey with “Prominent stops in Soviet Siberia, Communist Poland, Plato’s Atlantis, 19th century New York and Sir Thomas More’s Utopia.” © Tom Kaczynski.

KLA: And the Trans Terra volume? Is it part of the series?

TK: Trans Terra was going to be the fifth part, but then I decided to collect them all, which will encompass and finish off that thought. [Trans Terra is now the title of the compilation]. There is going to be notes, and there will be an index. I want it to be this rich in ideas project that feels almost breathlessly created—very quickly rich.

KLA: Can you speak a little bit about the Structures volumes?

TK: Comics have a lot of great drawings of architecture, and a lot of times they are done by artists that maybe don’t have any architectural training. I always wanted to create some kind of project with cartoonists and architecture, and it just bubbled up under this. The first volume [by himself] came out of a story in Beta Testing. It was a completely different story, before it ended up in the form that it did. Originally there was an autistic architect that was creating crazy structures in a third world megalopolis, and I wanted to inhabit his mind a little bit, so I created drawings to feel my way into this character. I ended up abandoning that character, but I still liked the drawings, so I created this little Structures book. After that, people started asking me if there were going to be more books, I started talking to people about it, and now it has become a full-fledged project where I continue working not only with cartoonists, but also with people who are doing interesting work in other disciplines as well. There was a lot of interest in Michael Deforge’s one, and it spawned interest in the previous ones, so it is a growing project right now.

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Cover of the Structures series, where an increasing catalogue of structural follies reflected in the cover of each issue, which is named accordingly: 1-11, 12-23, 24-34. © Tom Kaczynski.

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Cover of the Structures series, where an increasing catalogue of structural follies reflected in the cover of each issue, which is named accordingly: 1-11, 12-23, 24-34. © Tom Kaczynski.

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Cover of the Structures series, where an increasing catalogue of structural follies reflected in the cover of each issue, which is named accordingly: 1-11, 12-23, 24-34. © Tom Kaczynski.

KLA: The interaction of architecture and fiction is something that’s coming to the front nowadays. Do you feel comics (fiction, narrative, graphic narrative) can be a tool to analyze and explore architecture, and to speculate on the design of architecture and the city?

TK: I think comics are underutilized as a medium for criticism. So much of architecture critique is word-based. Images are often used, but there’s something that isn’t done in comics, which is criticism. I think there is potential for that. I do a little bit of that myself in Cartoon Dialectics and Trans Terra, but I’m just dipping my toes.

KLA: Do you think there is a kind of comics for architects? I do think certain comics—Chris Ware, maybe Victor Moscoso, or some of the comics in OuBaPo—can really appeal to architects. Do you think architects are a good potential audience for comics in the future, now that they have come out of the ghetto, in a way?

TK: I do, partly because it’s a very visually literate audience. It’s an audience that understands the image, which has spent a lot of their professional life examining images and trying to understand the meaning behind them. Obviously, not every comic is going to appeal to them, but I think that comics as a medium can hold a lot for architects. The people that you mentioned are especially resonant. In a weird way, if I look deeply underneath Uncivilized Books, it is almost like I am trying to find the comics that will appeal to architects.

KLA: I get the sense that you still keep an eye on architecture. On the cover of Beta Testing, for instance, we can find Rem Koolhaas’ CCTV building.

TK: Yes, I definitely do. I love architecture magazines. It’s something I come back to very frequently and Rem Koolhaas has such a media presence that he’s hard to ignore. He was also here when the Mall of America, the largest mall in North America, was being built in Minneapolis, talking about bigness in architecture. He made a big impression, and I’ve followed him ever since. I don’t agree with a lot of what he says, but he’s definitely an interesting figure. I loved Content (Taschen, 2004). I thought “Junkspace” was an amazing piece of writing. In some ways, I think a chunk of that influenced the first story in Beta Testing, “100,000 miles,” which is also very “Ballardian.”

KLA: You said that at some point you considered going ahead in your architecture studies. Do you feel any desire to design, to build?

TK: I do. At the same time, my life has its own trajectory. Maybe in the future I’ll consider it again. I would like to build. I feel like it’s a failing in me that I haven’t. And maybe partly why I focus so much in architecture in my art is because I feel guilty not to have taken that route. [laughs]

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Structure by Tom Kaczynski.