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Interview: Peter Saville on New Order Untitled

published on 25 August 2015

Peter Saville discusses his barely-seen work New Order Untitled.

Peter Saville discusses his barely-seen work New Order Untitled.

Lou Stoppard: What is New Order Untitled?

Peter Saville: Well, Lou, it is not a magazine.

LS: What is it then?

PS: I’ve never been able to come up with a word for it - it was a one-off thing. It’s called ‘Untitled’ because it had no specific purpose, and therefore it had no specific title. It was 1989, and New Order were about to go on tour in the US, so I suggested doing a kind of ‘book’ which could be sold on the tour - so you could call it a tour book.

LS: It’s interesting because it doesn’t reference the tour at all. It’s just a collection of images with seemingly random pieces of text over the top.

PS: It was very much the style of work that I was doing at the time. It was about putting found imagery together with almost random text. You can see it in the Yohji Yamamoto 'Game Over' campaign. I got words, phrases, soundbites from film titles and art book indexes. Basically I was just looking for phrases that I liked, and then setting them in type, printing them out and putting them on pictures - it was like concrete poetry, chance juxtaposition.

LS: So you just made New Order Untitled because you could?

PS: Yes. I’ve been reflecting recently on how Factory [the British independent record label behind Joy Division and New Order] was, in a way, a stage for various individuals to perform on as they wished. Autonomously. Factory manifested itself in the image of different people. So there was Tony Wilson’s Factory Records, just as there was a Peter Saville’s Factory Records, as there was a Rob Gretton’s - the manager of New Order - Factory Records. There was Joy Division’s Factory Records and there was New Order’s Factory Records. Factory Records was what any of the key protagonists wanted it to be for them. Individuals could make of the opportunity what they wished.

LS: Beyond the use of images and words, how does the publication fit with the context and narrative of your work?

PS: Around about 1985, I found myself reaching back to the mid sixties, to what I recalled as ‘modern’ before post-modern occurred. By the end of the sixties the idealistic dream of modern was beginning to turn into something almost dystopian and less idealistic. When there is a moment where there is a loss of faith in the future, society tends to look back. So from my early teens, right through until I was 30, I was on a ‘grand tour’ - this tour of the history of things that weren’t my reality and weren’t the world that I knew. They weren’t the cities that I knew, they weren’t the culture that I knew, but other cultures. You know the culture of the grand tour where the children of the privileged families of the 18th century would go off to see the classical world. So post-modernism was, in a way, a grand tour for the masses. But by the mid eighties I felt that we needed to be back in touch with our own reality. So in 1985, I embarked on my new modern. There’d been a lot of concoction and confection in the early eighties and suddenly it seemed the time to sweep it all away. So the mid eighties reconnects with the last coordinate of modern in the sixties. I then go through a decidedly reductive minimal phase, which I referred to as ‘essentialism’ and started wearing black polo necks and white jeans. Then in 1987, Trevor Key and I made an image by a process we invented and called the ‘dichromat’. I’d said to him that I wanted to make a picture of a flower for the lobby of IBM in 2000. At first he suggested an X-ray, but I wanted something that had not been seen before, something new. We made the flower pictures - the peonies - which are in Untitled. They were the very first ‘dichromat’ images we made. The process was like silk-screening but using a colour enlarger and putting light through it instead of ink. Using masks and layers exactly the same way as silk-screening. We did not know exactly what we were doing and didn’t know what was going to happen. It all felt very Warhol. We’d be there in the middle of the night making these images of flowers. I remember saying, ‘Trevor, it’s like Andy and Gerard.’ Gerard Malanga was Andy’s assistant in making many of the early silk-screens. So this neo-modern feeling evoked the Warhol Factory. This was different for me because it was not re-creating images, it was not using found or sourced historic images so it felt very progressive.

LS: Those images appear in Untitled alongside images of the band.

PS: Yes. Running parallel with the ‘dichromat’ was an interest in reportage photography. I was getting a bit tired of staged photography. It felt laboured and lacking in spontaneity. Amongst all my Warhol books, I was looking at black and white reportage of all the Factory people. I wondered ‘is anybody doing this?’ And that’s how I found Donald Christie. He was a new photographer and it was exactly what he was doing. Donald needed a commission and I thought it would be interesting for him to try and photograph New Order. They never wanted to be photographed. They were publicity shy and in a band because they liked being in the band. They were not pursuing an agenda of self-promotion. I was the image-conscious one. Usually there was no pressure on them to be photographed, because they were not operating within the standard system. It was a bit of an experiment to put them together with Donald. But Donald is quite genius, he just melts into an environment. People feel very comfortable with him. Some people are quite demanding and their presence is always in the atmosphere. Donald is not. He just blends. New Order were playing some gigs and Donald just hung out with them. Within a day or so, they forgot he was there and then he began to take these fabulous pictures when they didn’t know it was happening. So these pictures materialised – they were not for anything, just like the work I was making with Trevor Key. And I thought, ‘what am I going to do with this?’ There were no demands on me but I thought of Andy Warhol’s Interview. I thought that we could just make a magazine and put the pictures in it. New Order were about to go on a tour of the US, so I thought I’d get it ready for that.

LS: You missed the deadline didn’t you?

PS: Yes, of course, ironically, it was late. I just carried on working on it because I didn’t think it was finished, and then they got to the last week of the tour and it still wasn’t finished. I think we managed to get a few hundred to wherever they were. I think we made about 1000 in total. It was just a little bit more difficult than I thought. There was editing, there was the printing of the photographs. I was notorious in those days for deliberating over things. I wanted it to look effortless but of course it was not effortless at all.

LS: And how did this fit with what New Order were up to at that time?

PS: It was a key phase for New Order around the time of the Technique album in 1989. They had spent the previous summer, 1988, in Ibiza. Fine Time, the first single from the Technique project, is a very ecstasy-influenced track. The ecstasy thing began to bring this kind of neo-LSD spirit to things. It’s there in the music and it’s there in the imagery. Ecstasy ends up being the late eighties version of late sixties LSD. It’s a synthetic rerun of the sixties. Drugs don’t really suit me, so I never really took any. I tried ecstasy once, but I didn’t like it. I never liked smoking dope and I don’t like drinking too much. I don’t like things that take one over so I never took LSD. In one way, I regret it but in other ways I don’t because I don’t know what would happen and at least I didn’t find out in a bad way. I was always a little scared of drugs. If you were in your early teens in the late sixties, when the older kids were dying, your older brother’s friends were dying and all the pop stars are dying, Jimi Hendrix is dying and Brian Jones is dying…

LS: Given that it was sort of a tour book, were you also trying to capture the sense or mood of what it would be like on the tour within the pictures and images?

PS: Sort of, but calling it a tour book is too concrete. It’s a mood board. It’s a look book. People were puzzled by it. It was just the convergence of music, art, fashion, which is how we live now, but that wasn’t recognised at that time.

LS: It’s interesting, isn’t it, because the notion of that niche product - a one-off printed special publication - is so common now? You see it at fashion shows, parties, store openings, everything. Everyone does it now.

PS: Yes, so it was a kind of a pre-cursor to that.

LS: I’m interested that each page has a number. Can you explain that Factory obsession with numbering everything – music releases, posters, graphics? Fac 1, Fac 2 and so on.

PS: It comes out of a shared fascination for abstraction that Malcolm Garrett and I had at art college. It’s about the coolness of a number. So a BMW 2002, rather than a Ford Capri. A Nikon 21K, rather than a Kodak Travel Snapper [both laugh]. There was this cuteness in England of giving products names. Cars had names, cameras had names, everything had names. They were all a bit naff. American things had names but they were cool. A Harley Davidson Electra Glide! The way America labelled stuff was exotic, and the way the Europeans did it, especially the Germans, was cool. The Bauhaus had given everything a number. I made a fetish out of the numbers of things. So when Factory started, I imported that. Tony Wilson took it up passionately. I think too much actually, you don’t give a catalogue number to someone’s cat. You’re slipping back into a quaint Britishness there. I suppose, for me, it was about the heroicising of product; the understanding that this is product, not a dream or a fantasy, it’s a product – let that be your dream.

‘Untitled' is that impulse to share something with other people but without having to concretise it into some sort of bogus product that has to be a vehicle for business. Really, this is a blog. A blog is a great way to understand it.

LS: The use of the hashtag is also very interesting.

PS: Very interesting. We co-opted the hashtag in Untitled. Just as we co-opted the @ sign. It is a an example of where you can see our influence. New Order were a source of inspiration - so many of the kids that then went into the arts were New Order fans. They absorbed it. The Hashtag is typical of American pop art. It’s a very sixties thing. We didn’t use them in the UK, so we appropriated it but shifted the context. #HowCoolIsColdness? It just works.

LS: Talk me through some of the other imagery.

PS: It’s a mix. There’s the canal behind the Hacienda. There’s a brilliant shot of Andy Robertson, New Order’s tour manager, with Stephen Morris behind him. The grain of it is perfect, just like sixties reportage, and there’s life in it. It’s a real picture. You can see it’s not staged. But then there are also all the ‘dichromat’ cherub images. At this point I had got interested in antiquities. So I was going to Pimlico Road and admiring classical ornaments. The cherub was a lead garden statue and then there is Louis XIV. It’s sort of Antiques Trade Gazette meets Andy Warhol. The serial repeats are very Warhol, different colour ways. And of course, it looks like a Photoshop doesn’t it?

LS: Explain the selection of the wording.

PS: It’s neo-pop, post-pop strategy. It’s what’s beginning to happen in eighties New York art with the image generation. It’s that time. Nobody wrote anything for Untitled because it was not a formal project, it was totally informal. The How Cool is Coldness? text was from a review in The New York Times by Jon Pareles who was observing and commenting on the phenomenon of a cult album selling in New York stores, that had no titling – it was New Order’s Technique. There was no group name or record title on the front cover. In the American music business, a record company would not allow you to do that. But as Factory was not a conventional record company we did it. And of course New Order fans are quite capable of finding New Order records. The last 25 years have established that actually, people who want to buy something can find it and will buy it regardless of how labelled it is. To Pareles, at the time this was a phenomenon. To have half a page in The New York Times afforded it a certain gravitas. He made some very interesting observations. He refers to the notion of ‘a mass-produced secret’ and how the purchase makes each fan an aficionado. He comments on how it flatters the audience that they know what it is. This is Apple’s culture – on the way to iPods and iPhones. It’s the learning consumer, the consumer that doesn’t need to be led. In fact they react against that, they resist that and want to feel like a connoisseur. They want a certain amount of anonymity. They want to feel that they are in the know. They want to feel flattered. And the purchase flatters them. We live entirely within that culture now. The product that’s not in the shops yet. The product that’s hard to find. The pseudo-rarity. The limited edition.

LS: So that wasn’t the intention with New Order Untitled also?

PS: It was not intentional. Factory gave me the opportunity to do things the way that I would want them to be if I was the audience. How would I like this to be? How would I like a record cover to be? Usually, within the channels of mass production, individuals are not normally afforded the liberty because gate-keepers say, ‘great idea but we must have this, this and this.’ Factory gave me the opportunity to bypass all of that with what was increasingly popular product - increasingly mass product. Blue Monday, five years earlier, had become the biggest selling 12-inch single of all time. The interesting thing about disseminating ideas through the channels of pop is that you reach an audience at a very formative stage at their life in a context of obsession. We were touching a nerve because music – much like fashion these days – was something young people felt passionately about and engaged with. Something that wasn’t about family, school, the state – something of their own. Information or ideas, or difference that you impart to them at that time, has a quite profound effect. To go and buy something that you want that has nothing written on it places a demand upon you of your own intelligence. Introducing you to something you’ve not seen before. It’s somehow hip and cool, but addresses you as a connoisseur, as a grown up, as somebody who knows. This is really just advanced consumerism, a sense that it gives you something. It isn’t just there to take your money, it talks to you, it makes you feel good about yourself, it tells you something you didn’t know yesterday. Such possessions become a part of your identity.

LS: I wonder how much New Order fans understood all the references and the subtleties in Untitled, because there was not a lot of explanation.

PS: Joy Division are a perfect insight into that. There were people who’d read the books that Ian was reading. That always happens with pop music. There are always fans who want to know everything. Ian was taking references from literature, and the books, the authors and the philosophers become essential reading for a certain cohort of the fans. The same happens with the imagery. The typography that becomes evident in the nineties is the result of a handful of people making typography cool. Untitled has Helvetica all the way through it. By the time we get to the late nineties, there’s a film about Helvetica.

LS: As much as this was created to document one tour and a moment in time, it does seem to also try to define who New Order were and what they were about in more general terms.

PS: It’s an image statement from me more than an image statement from them. They’re in it. They’re the vehicle for it. Untitled is an example of that feeling to do something because you feel it would be good if it existed. There was no rationale beyond that. Many magazines are the same. Some happen for one issue and then disappear. Others turn into something.

LS: Do you not think that impetus has become a bit of a problem? It’s the notion that everyone has something to say and should start a magazine…

PS: It went through a period when it was terribly interesting. In the last ten years it has become incredibly tedious because everyone is doing it. Now there’s a glut of them. Almost a tsunami of vanity publishing that has very little to offer. It’s quite extraordinary, the endless stream of new titles. I mean, you go and look in Selfridges at the magazine rack and you think, ‘where are all these coming from?’ I am still astonished every time I pick up another magazine called, you know, ‘Atrium’ or something - I flip through it and I think which group of people think that this is missing in the market? But to found a magazine, you have to have an editor who has an ongoing agenda that they wish to pursue. There was not an agenda to publish with Untitled. For me it was a snapshot of a moment. That’s why I think it’s like a mood board.

LS: I think a lot of New Order fans probably don’t even know that this exists.

PS: Probably. Most of them weren’t shipped and remained in a basement in Manchester. Factory was gone within three to four years, so who knows what happened to them. Maybe they were thrown away, maybe someone took them home.

LS: Did New Order like it?

PS: I never really spoke to New Order themselves about it. The only thing they ever said about this were just sarcastic comments about how late it was. They like to laugh about the tour book that never was!

LS: Do you like New Order Untitled? Are you proud of it?

PS: I love it. It’s interesting. It’s amazing it happened at all, because so many things like that do not happen. I suppose the Internet is the thing that finally occurs that allows people to do things like this. Really Untitled is a blog. Untitled is that impulse to share something with other people but without having to concretise it into a product which has to be viable business. A blog is a great way to understand it, or an Instagram feed…

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