In These Times: Pandemic Conversations – Emma Brown

surreal collage image-EmmaBrown

“You learn to make things work.” For our latest In These Times series in partnership with Liverpool John Moores School of Graphic Design & Illustration, we spoke to first-year student Emma Brown about staying creative and productive in extraordinary circumstances…

The Double Negative: Are there any reoccurring themes that you’re raising in your work, intentionally or on reflection?

Emma Brown: I’d say, if we’re talking about themes, I have noticed that black and white is a very strong theme in my work. I feel like colour can cloud the message. Also, I like to use handmade methods, and then take those methods into digital to create textures and things. So, for example, I’ve used a flatbed scanner, and moved the paper around on top of it to create a distortion, and used a rubbing technique. So, rubbing something over paper, over a texture and then scanning that in to create this animation of moving textures. I would say handmade techniques are one of the biggest things that I use.

If I work solely digitally, it doesn’t quite work as well for me. If I do something in the real world with my hands and take it into digital, it just tends to be more successful. It feels very clinical and just a bit flat when it’s all digital. The handmade helps to get into what you’re doing.

TDN: Is it fair to say that your work is as much rooted in art as it is in design?

EB: In my mind, art is anything that someone’s created using their hands, whether it’s digital or physical, and that it has meaning to them. That’s what I would consider art. So, I would say that there’s definitely an art influence in my work, because everything that I’m doing has meaning to me. And I think art is very subjective. Some people think art is just easy and you can just throw something on a canvas and frame it, and it shouldn’t be art. But I think if it’s done by someone’s hands and they have a meaning behind it, then it is art. There’s a fine line between [art and design] but there’s definitely overlap.

“It’s the process. I’m definitely influenced by process more than visuals”

TDN: Who or what inspires you?

EB: Most of my inspiration comes from Instagram; sometimes you’ll just see a specific creator come up and then get really invested in what they do. One of the biggest influences that I’ve had is someone called TraceLoops. He uses really interesting techniques. It’s quite hard to explain, but if I use an example, he took an image of his face, a photo, and put it into some kind of coding software on a laptop, and kind of broke up the code. He broke it up and then it distorted the image, so that it kind of sliced it up and made those slices askew. And then he took that and traced it onto a piece of fabric and did some stitching on it and he used the backside – where it was all kinds of loose threads and stuff – to create a really interesting piece of work with his face. It’s not the specific things that he does, but it’s the way that he creates this method of doing something and taking that elsewhere to create some really interesting things. I really like … that he does something before he does it digitally. It’s really intriguing to me and it’s really influenced me. It’s the process. I’m definitely influenced by process more than actual visuals.

TDN: What approach will you take to your future learning, how has this experience changed you’re understanding of being a student and being in education?

EB: I think that with the virtual learning side of it, I really thought that it would be quite difficult to be working in a space – when you go to uni for graphic design, you expect to be in big studios with huge tables and be in this space. Then you hear that you have to do it on a computer screen at a small desk in your flat and you think “this is gonna be really difficult”. But I think it’s quite easy to adjust to working in specific environments. So, also with being shipped back from home back to the flat – back and forth – you learn that you can adjust the way that you work, and where you work with the space that you’ve got, even just the lighting. You can adjust in different environments. And, I think, for future learning, I’m not gonna be in the same environment every time, so I’ve just got to learn to be ok in a different space, different desk, different room; it’s not about where you are, it’s what you’re doing. I think I’ll definitely take that forward.

typography sketchbook page

TDN: How do you feel your practice has been affected by recent events globally and nationally?

EB: I think I’ve definitely learned to be more innovative with what I’ve got because, with lockdown, you’re not always able to access things. You can order [things] online, but if you have a deadline it’s not always gonna come on time, so you learn to be able to make things work. For example, I had to do a model and I wanted to create fake water – so it looked wet, but obviously not, because it was a model. What I really wanted to use was resin, but I wasn’t able to get that in time. So I dug around, and I thought about what I could use, and I ended up using gel nail polish, and I would never expect to be doing that sort of thing, but when you have limited things to use, you do find yourself making things work. The positive with it being a practical course, is that – like I said before – you adjust to wherever you are. You find that there are things that stay the same no matter where you are: your process of thinking and how you come up with ideas. It helps you to understand your ways of working that isn’t dependent on your environment and where you’re sat; it’s just about your brain and how you think about things. It’s definitely pushed me to try and make things work with what I’ve got.

TDN: Are there any positives to studying a practice-based course during a lockdown?

EB: The thing that’s stood out for me is that you really figure out how you want to present your work digitally. I don’t think you really ever think about it until you’re forced to do it. With my module submissions, at first I was just compiling the images into a PDF, but then you figure out that you can do more exciting things, and you can create title pages, or a bookmark of different chapters. And so the last one, I used the actual sketchbook that I’d been working in, and I used that as a front cover and then scanned in the different project names, and used that as kind of like a little paper in between each project. You learn that you can present things in interesting ways, even when you’re limited – there’s no other way to submit it. It’s opened up the fact that I can do that, and you can make it really exciting. It’s quite exciting to think about what else you can do in that format.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself. It’s mainly about confidence”

TDN: Tell me about something you’ve enjoyed working on.

EB: I did a lot of sketchbook work for this recent typography project. I didn’t have set sketchbooks to work in for the first few semesters, I was working on paper and it just didn’t have the same feel. So, when I got this sketchbook, I was filling it with pages and pages of different letter trials and things, and they were just really exciting pages to look at; I think I just went a bit crazy. We had to design a typeface that was based on a specific character’s voice. I chose HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I was struggling to find a type of letter form that would represent him well, but then something clicked and I was just doing pages and pages, making these letters as best as I could. I really struggled with differentiating between the U and the V, because sometimes they kind of overlap, and they can be quite difficult to tell the difference between. I really wanted to get it right, so I just kept doing it over and over and over again – I think you can see my thought process on the page. They’re not exactly neat, but they’re organised in such a way that really does help to see the way I think, and they’re just nice to look at if I do say so myself. I’m really proud of that sketchbook!

TDN: Have you learned anything new about yourself and/or your process?

EB: I’ve definitely learned quite a lot about myself. I think it’s mainly about confidence. When we were first getting into the virtual learning and having these small groups where we’d have to talk about our work and get opinions and things, it was quite scary, because no-one’s really used to that environment, but I have found that I can be really collaborative in a virtual space – probably even more than I would be in a physical space. I slowly got really comfortable with just talking in front of, y’know, eighty-odd people, which I would never have done before. Being able to share ideas, or in smaller groups if someone’s talking about their work, I can find it easier to just chip in and say what I think. I’ve shocked myself with how I’ve been able to talk so openly. I’m a very shy person when it comes to social situations, so even when it doesn’t feel like that many people, I really shocked myself because I really thought I was just gonna be quiet. I really enjoy going to the little crits that we do. It’s a really good collaborative space, and it makes you really motivated to do it, and y’know, get work out and do your course, if that makes sense.

page from feminist zine

TDN: Do you have anything you’re working on now, or something on the horizon you’d like to tell us about?

EB: I’m currently working on a publication design that is based on manifestos that we’ve been looking at. The manifesto I’m looking at is called the Riot Grrrl movement and it’s about a punk rock feminist movement. I’m really excited to discuss feminist issues and bring light to them by making it visual and fun to look at. I’m really excited to just go crazy with the feministic notions and go crazy in teaching people. I think it should be a good project to really smash. I’ve been listening to Bikini Kill and Le Tigre – the messages within [their songs] is so strong. It’s easy to listen to the song and not think about what’s being said, but when you look at the lyrics, they’re so powerful and they’re so great – I love them a lot!

As told to Mike Pinnington

Check out more of Emma’s work. All images courtesy Emma Brown

This profile is part of the series In These Times, a partnership between LJMU Graphic Design & Illustration and The Double Negative. Acknowledging the profound difficulties posed to students in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the series recognises outstanding work produced during this challenging time. Profiles of students selected by their peers will be published between April and June 2021.

Posted on 07/05/2021 by thedoublenegative