Interview: Dan Black (Landland)

The next Artist Interview Project installment features Dan Black, one of the two the artists behind Landland. The first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary. It is followed by the full interview text.

Learn more about the Artist Interview Project course assignment in Dr. Jenkins’ introduction to the series. You can follow the Philosophy School of Phish on Facebook, Twitter (@phishedu), and the course’s public website.

Find more information about Landland’s art on the duo’s studio webpage. Follow Landland on Twitter (@Landland_USA), Tumblr, and Facebook.


Image from artist's website

Image from artist’s website

Finding Landland in a Sea of Phish

For my final project for the Philosophy School of Phish class, I was given the amazing opportunity to interview Dan Black, who, along with his creative partner Jes Seamans, comprises the design studio Landland. Landland has designed, illustrated, and screen-printed limited edition gig posters for some of the most well-known bands touring today, including– you guessed it– Phish. Recent posters that Landland has produced for Phish include a print for the June 24 & 25th shows at Wrigley Field, as well as one for the January 15 & 16 shows at Riviera Maya. I spoke to Dan both about Landland’s process and style, as well as their relation to the music, musicians, and fans for whom the studio creates.

Overall, one of the biggest things that I noticed about my interview with Dan was the idea that he considers his art to be work. He writes of the processes for drawing and printing not necessarily as an art form, but as a skill that he employs in order to produce a final product, one that can be “really repetitive, and hugely meditative in completely different ways.” Despite being highly reliant upon artistic prowess, Landland, in Dan’s mind, is “more utilitarian… like we’re both performing tasks and responsibilities to our company or collective, rather than putting ourselves in the spotlight of it,” and he seems to prefer it that way.

In his essay What Is Art?, Leo Tolstoy discusses his beliefs about what defines a work of art (and what doesn’t). Tolstoy condemns those artistically talented people who create their work for profit, rather than for the communication of emotional expression.  He writes:

The activity of art is based on the fact that man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it. … it is upon this capacity of man to receive another man’s expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself, that the activity of art is based (Tolstoy, Chapter 5).

Tolstoy labels as counterfeit those visual or auditory works that do not serve this purpose, and says that “[t]he cause of counterfeit art, as of prostitution, is gain” (Tolstoy, Chapter 18). In the modern era, fine art and commercial art are merging together in ways that would not have been imaginable in Tolstoy’s time, and I think that this has changed the definitions of an artist and their art greatly.

However, for Dan, the line still exists, and he is interested in observing it; he says, “I’ve always had a really tricky relationship with considering myself ‘an artist’,” and notes he is far more comfortable seeing his work as a use of skills that create a product–a much more utilitarian vision that correlates, perhaps, with the commercial nature of his work. While certainly not as condemnatory of the idea of selling art as Tolstoy is, Dan’s desire to remove himself from the label of artistry is, perhaps, an acknowledgement of the different uses of artistic talents for more than just art. Of the idea that commercial gig posters are becoming an art form in and of itself– solidifying the idea that commercial art is the same as fine art– Dan says:

 There’s been talk that this whole gig posters thing is a movement in itself that will end up talked about later…I don’t know if I totally buy that, but if it’s true, I’d love to have as much of a hand in that as I can.

I was previously unfamiliar with the Phish community at large, but have come to learn a lot about phans, and their dedication to the band as the Philosophy School of Phish class progressed. One of article that brought home why phans so eagerly flock to the live concerts was John Drabinski’s essay, “The Everyday Miracle of the Occasional Community.” In it, Drabinski describes the concept of ‘occasional community,’ which is found amongst folks who repeatedly find themselves in similar situations with other people, and thus have a connection to each other that might not have otherwise been there. For Drabinski, certain spaces “[are] a community, not just a space in which community may or may not form” (Drabsinki 36). This is, I think, part of the quintessential connection that phans feel at Shakedown, and at the concerts themselves. Because of this, I was interested to hear Dan’s perspective on the bands that Landland designs for (Phish in particular), and how he relates to the communities that they inspire.

Image from artist's website

Image from artist’s website

While Landland ultimately doesn’t have immediate contact with phans through their line of work (see below), Dan and Jes do interact with the community through the dialogue that their work creates. Dan writes:

I’d … like to think that we probably offer a bit of a departure from what [Phans] were expecting from posters, and that it keeps them on their toes and maybe comes off as refreshing, though I guess that’d be a diminished response now that we do a fair amount of work for [Phish], and some people are expecting it a lot more often.

This idea of adding to community or being appreciated by it through difference, I think, speaks to the ways in which communities come together in Drabinski’s occasional fashion. Drabinksi describes occasional community as the ultimate performance of compassion, and imagines that “the undergoing (passion) of a scene together (com) is the moment where we overcome not just our alienation from one another, but also take a leap across a sense of connection to an undergoing together” (Drabinski 36).

This idea of “alienation” is the same element, I think, that Dan calls a “departure,” and the refreshing nature of it is what makes these communities, and their reaction to art, all the more stronger. The work that Landland does, therefore, is representative of what makes phans all the more stronger of a community for their willingness, and perhaps eagerness, to accept and incorporate different and alternative works.

Reading Dan’s recollection that the first Landland poster for Phish “was HATED by the fans online,” I was reminded of the concept of multiple aesthetics in contemporary culture. Unlike previous eras in which there was a clear and dominant aesthetic that all artists–including musicians–prescribed to if they hoped to achieve a certain modicum of success, philosopher Pierre Boulez argues:

One cannot speak of a single relation of contemporary culture to music in general, but of a tolerance, more or less benevolent, with respect to a plurality of musics. Each is granted the “right” to existence, and this right is perceived as an equality of worth. Each is worth as much as the group which practices it or recognizes it (Boulez).

I would argue that this is a phenomenon present across art forms, and that there is a general tolerance in the modern age for artistic styles that are not perceived as pleasing to the eye by one person or another. This has occurred as, like in music, art has accrued more and more styles that challenge conventional beauty, and gain both detractors and fans because of it. However, while this universal acceptance of art exists, there are still parameters of convention that are present within a culture, and subculture, as seen in the message from the woman who, as Dan describes, “wrote just to tell [Dan] how disappointed she was that the only thing they had to commemorate the show they’d waited all summer for was our ugly poster.”

Image from artist's website

Image from artist’s website

This outright rejection can be explained, perhaps, by Michel Foucault’s elaboration of Boulez’s characterization of contemporary culture. While it is indeed a much freer collection of aesthetics that dots our cultural landscape, repetitive exposure to similar media types– dictated by both preference and commercialization– influence how tolerant we are as individuals to works of art. Foucault explains:

the laws of the marketplace will readily apply to this simple mechanism. What is put at the disposition of the public is what the public hears. And what the public finds itself actually listening to, because it’s offered up, reinforces a certain taste, underlines the limits of a well-defined listening capacity, defines more and more exclusively a schema for listening. Music had better satisfy this expectation, etc. So commercial productions, critics, concerts, everything that increases the contact of the public with music, risks making perception of the new more difficult. Of course the process is not unequivocal. Certainly increasing familiarity with music also enlarges the listening capacity and gives access to possible differentiations, but this phenomenon risks being only marginal; it must in any case remain secondary to the main impact of experience, if there is no real effort to derail familiarities.

This not only offers explanation as to why Landland experienced heavy critique for their first Phish poster, but also why Dan has found that:

[s]ince then, there’ve been detractors, as there always will be, but for the most part I think we’re over the hump of winning people over (for now). We’ve been put in front of the fans enough times that people either like or dislike what we’re doing, but at the very least it seems like they can tell that we’re doing something deliberately, which is all I ever really want.

Speaking to Dan with the intent of gazing through both the lens of philosophy and the lens of Phish allowed me to learn a lot of really interesting things about Landland’s work and about the Phish community itself. Putting these ideas about art, philosophy, and Phish together has encouraged me to focus in on how the three pieces to this puzzle relate to one another. I see connections in how the artist (or not-artist) relates to their collective work, how a phan relates to Phish, and how a fan of any kind relates to the tangential art that they are exposed to through their fandom.  All of these are intricate and unique relationships rely upon the strength and uniqueness of an individual relating to the strength and uniqueness of a whole. This interview helped to illuminate for me where these connections can and have been made, and also where I might find them being made in the future.

Interview Transcript: Dan Black of Landland

What made you decide to work together as Landland rather than separately as Dan and Jes?

When we originally started, the idea was that it was going to be more like a creative agency, and that our work would be a lot more based on traditional design projects. We were in Minneapolis at the time, which has a really great community of really small creative agencies that work for all sorts of companies, from non-profit galleries to giant corporations like Target and Best Buy. I think our plan was to aim for some of that stuff, and also do screenprinting and design for bands and things like that. Ever since I was in school, I’d been surrounded by people who did a good job of inflating their one-person operations into much larger things, largely by just giving it a name other than their own. Hire Dan Black, the individual human, to do a job for you, and you might feel a little limited in what you can expect, but if it’s a company (or a perceived company, I guess), the sky is sorta the limit. Or something.

I also think that the push to be Landland (rather than individual artists) has to do with the fact that we didn’t want to really emphasize ourselves as artists. I’ve always had a really tricky relationship with considering myself “an artist,” and it becomes a WHOLE LOT easier to stand behind all of this work—and to be our own hype-people in a way—if there’s an umbrella that it all falls under where we’re not constantly talking about ourselves. We have to promote our work a LOT out in the world, and neither of us are really inclined to show off much or brag at all, so being able to talk Landland up as a job we do, or a partnership, really helps de-emphasize the parts of this that make me uncomfortable in talking about myself as an artist. “Working at Landland” and being part of a team (however small), sorta feels more utilitarian to me; like we’re both performing tasks and responsibilities to our company or collective, rather than putting ourselves in the spotlight of it. Hopefully that makes sense.

There’s also just the practical thing of not wanting to really do this stuff alone. I wouldn’t be doing this stuff if Jes weren’t in it too…there are so many parts of doing all of this alone that are just not at all appealing to me, and not even just from a “I’m one person and I can only do so much work” standpoint. I’d always had it in mind that we operate a lot more like a band than a design studio, and certainly more like that than solo artists… we work on our own stuff separately plenty of the time, but because we’re always in close touch with all of it, or passing things back and forth, everything sorta feels like a collaboration on some level. I think we both feed off of each other’s validation and critique in a way that pushes us both forward as artists, and we have to live up to each other’s standards with this stuff, in a way that I imagine the quality of our work really suffering if we didn’t have that other person to check in with and hold us accountable.

 Are there artistic movements you would say you identify with or have been inspired by either separately or together as Landland? If so, how do you feel about labeling your art as belonging to this particular aesthetic? Is there anything that you have designed that you have said: “No, this doesn’t work for what we want our collective style to be?”

There’s been talk that this whole gigposters thing is a movement in itself that will end up talked about later…I don’t know if I totally buy that, but if it’s true, I’d love to have as much of a hand in that as I can. I studied art a bunch in school, and definitely took a lot of how I view this stuff from parts of that, but I also have spent so much time pushing away from that in recent years that I really am able to just distill a lot of what we’re doing down to just “we are problem solvers, and we have the tools in front of us and that’s the whole deal.” I know that’s a digression from the question, but that’s mostly to say that I recognize and appreciate so much about other aesthetics and movements and I’m looking at everything constantly, but I don’t know if I’m so good (anymore) at seeing how what we’re doing fits into all of that. A lot of my standards for my work, and how I regard where I’m at with aesthetics and skill and everything else, really just comes from the people and friends around me…I’ve got a really great network of buddies who do this stuff, or exist within this realm, and we’re all in touch a lot about what we’re doing; I think that’s probably the biggest influence on me, moreso than anything I’ve studied, or even anything out there that I’m interested in.

As far as our collective style, we’re so fortunate that it’s just the two of us, and that we trust each other and respect each other’s work enough that we don’t really have to check in like that. There’s really not a moment where we have to weigh whether or not something fits into our overall body of work. We have plenty of blips and variance here and there, and we’ve definitely made some questionable moves (and will again), but I think for the most part, we’re really good at taking those things and looking at them in terms of “what is there to learn here?” and pulling out the parts that we need to make the rest of our work better.

Jes probably has a completely different answer for this, as my work is generally a lot more “consistent” than hers is, but I’ve often said that the only reason I can get away with doing the kind of work that I really like doing—without totally boring our fanbase to death—is because she’s always got weirdo wildcard projects up her sleeve and nobody ever has any idea where that’s going to go, which is pretty exciting to be a part of for a person who really tends to play things safe.

Do you find creating art for commercially to be different from when you are working on your own projects (for example the “Touch of Class” line that Jes created)? How would you describe the difference (if there is one) in the goals that you have? Are there elements that are similar?

I think we’re REALLY lucky, in that we are generally afforded the luxury of being able to treat commercial/client projects almost EXACTLY the same as what we’d be doing on our own, without any other cooks in the kitchen. There are exceptions to this, of course, but more often than not, we’re being hired based on the body of work we’ve already put together, and in that, there’s a trust that we’re going to make a thing that the client can rely on. We’ll often ask a band if there’s anything they don’t want to see (everyone has a list of things they find off, or are sick of seeing, etc.), and that usually frees us up to do anything outside of that. Or, sometimes we’ll work with people to realize their direction (Phish is one of our favorite bands to work with in this aspect), though usually they’re just waiting for us to pitch ideas to them.

I think the main difference between working with clients on these things, and working on self-initiated projects like the Touch of Class things is that with client work, there’s definitely a person on the other end who will be holding you accountable at some point. You’re working on getting approvals from them, and there’s a few different stages in there where if something’s not working, you get checked on that and change the things that need to be changed. With self-initiated work, there’s always a bit more of a leap of faith, because there’s not always another person there to look at it more objectively and tell you when your idea is terrible (or just not viable). That’s another arena where having a design buddy is really great, though I know we’ve both been totally ok with some pretty bad decisions. There’s just no way of ever knowing 100% what other people are going to be into, at least from where we’re at.

In an economy where mass production is normal, limited edition work is, in my opinion, becoming far more valued; do you find the idea of creating your art in limited quantity for a particular event to be a different experience than designing something that is not attached to a particular place and time?

That’s great to hear! We always hope that the limited edition aspect holds a bit of weight with people; we have a number of collectors who are really excited about that part of it, and I know it’s also a big deal that we handle all of the production ourselves and all of that. I don’t know if I really differentiate between things that we’re making for events, and things that are just like, art prints, or work that isn’t attached to other properties. I’d like to think we put a little more effort into the unaffiliated work, or that there’s more of “ourselves” in that, but really, we tend to sink whatever we’ve got into what’s in front of us (for better or worse), so there really isn’t much of a difference there. At least not for me.

You have a hand in both the design and printing of your work. Both require a large amount of skill, and both–though related–are quite different from one another. Do you find your experience of each medium different? Is there a different set of emotions that you get out of drawing a design over printing the posters of it?

I love that there are a few different parts to this, and that they’re SUPER different from each other. We spend so much time on each step of this, that by the time that we’re totally exhausted with drawing, moving onto the computer/pre-press part is totally refreshing, or feels like a victory. And then when that’s finished, launching into  printing requires a whole different skillset, and flexes muscles that were totally taken into consideration in the previous steps, but are unique to that process. Drawing and printing are both really repetitive, and hugely meditative in completely different ways. When things are going right, it can really be the most relaxing thing I can imagine doing.

Landland isn’t the only designers that Phish work with for their tour posters. Why do you think they were drawn to your style in particular? Is there a quality to their music that you see mirrored in your work?

I think that for our part, they’re interested in our attention to detail and our use of color, which I guess could be a suitable parallel to what they’re doing too. We do a whole lot of four-color process (CMYK) work that allows for more of a full-spectrum color range, whereas a lot of screenprinters (working on the large editions Phish requires) will limit themselves to a handful of colors. I’d also like to think that we probably offer a bit of a departure from what fans were expecting from posters, and that it keeps them on their toes and maybe comes off as refreshing, though I guess that’d be a diminished response now that we do a fair amount of work for them, and some people are expecting it a lot more often. I also think that there’s a mutual respect that makes for a really great working relationship. I tend to skirt around the topic of their music, because I still consider myself largely uninitiated, but I’m very, very open about the fact that they’re one of our favorite people to work for, and when they hire us to do something for them, we work a lot harder on it than we would normally, because we know they appreciate what we’re doing, and they trust us to do a good job for them without feeling like they have to steer us all over the place with it.

What has the response to your work been like from diehard fan communities like that of Phish?

Our first thing we ever did for Phish was a poster for their shows in Commerce City, Colorado, and it was HATED by the fans online. We actually got hate mail from people, one of which wrote just to tell me how disappointed she was that the only thing they had to commemorate the show they’d waited all summer for was our ugly poster. It was CRAZY. After that, we did a poster for Alpine Valley in 2012, and that went over a whole lot better. Since then, there’ve been detractors, as there always will be, but for the most part I think we’re over the hump of winning people over (for now). We’ve been put in front of the fans enough times that people either like or dislike what we’re doing, but at the very least it seems like they can tell that we’re doing something deliberately, which is all I ever really want.

How much influence does the style of the artist you are working for have on what you end up designing for them?

Honestly, not a whole lot. I think that there might be a little chicken-or-egg thing going on with that, in that our body of work might be attracting bands that seem aesthetically lined up with what we’re already doing, so by the time we’re talking to each other, we don’t have to work too far outside our normal realm to meet their needs. I try really hard to never pitch an idea that I’m not interested in following through on, and that’s sorta my top priority with that. We spend so much time on these things that having to push through a particularly bad idea can really be miserable, and we tend to run into bad ideas when we’re working outside of our relatively wide comfort zone to cater to someone else’s whims. So we generally aren’t factoring that in a whole lot; either what we’re making makes sense for the people who are hiring us, or it doesn’t.

We don’t really end up with a whole lot of surprises…a friend of ours who is fairly aesthetically aligned with us just got asked to do some posters for Alice in Chains, which we all thought was sorta hilarious. It ended up not panning out, but for a minute, we were all trying to imagine the task of meeting their needs while still making something that didn’t feel too detached from something we (or our buddy) would normally be inclined to make. It’d be a fun challenge, of course, but not one that we ever seem to run into.

Related: Do you listen to the artist while you are designing for them? If so, how does that affect your emotional or artistic mindset?

I have, but it’s actually only ever been accidental. To be really honest, most of the times when we ask for the “what not to do” list I mentioned before, what we get back is a list of things like, “Don’t make anything based on our band name, or photos of us, or our song titles. Don’t base anything on our lyrics, or our album art…etc.” So, it can actually be a little bit of a liability to focus too much (or at all) on a band as we’re working on projects for them. There are exceptions to that, but it’s really only happened with us a couple times, and it’s always ended up in situations where nobody involved felt terribly great about the outcome, so we generally try to steer far away from that territory unless we’re being forced that way.

How do you decide which artists you are going to work for and which, if any, you aren’t? Have you been surprised by any of the artists who have asked for you to work with them?

We don’t do a whole lot of reaching out to people; most of the time, bands (or their management) is coming to us, and a LOT of the time, we’re totally unfamiliar with them, so we have to do a bit of research to figure out what they’re about. We were pretty surprised when Phish got in touch, or later on, when Dave Matthew’s people called us up, but I think the most surprising/unlikely thing was working on posters for country music guys like Eric Church and Luke Bryan. I really don’t know if we made sense for that at all, but not for aesthetic reasons. Country music, like hip hop & rap, is a world that doesn’t really have much need for limited edition posters; there’s just no market there at all, and as far as I can tell, things don’t really go that well when they try to do things like that, unless the poster is just the guy’s face blown up huge (which we aren’t likely to provide for anyone). I also didn’t really know much at all about those guys when we were asked, so Jes and I had to do a little research to make sure that there wasn’t, like, any weird racist stuff underneath all their weird patriotic stuff. Our main criteria is that the people we’re working for are ethically and morally on the up & up—not only because our names are attached to it, but also because in some situations, we’re actually helping make them a lot of money, which would feel really weird if they were outwardly questionable folks.

Oh, I think the actual most surprising project we’ve been asked to do—which was only surprising after the fact (because nobody knew who this was at the time)—was when I got asked to do an illustration of a song for the album art for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. I was recommended by a friend who works for Sub Pop, and for some reason it made sense to somebody over there to have me involved. I didn’t know them from anything, of course, and then that album ended up being kind of a big deal in some circles. I think of anything we’ve done, that might be the one thing where people are like, “really?” when I bring it up.

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