After making satirical fanzines in the late ’80s, and flyers for squat raves in the ’90s, Ben Freeman decided to follow the undercurrent running through all his work—a love for the visual arts.
Coupled with his interest in fashion, subculture and “the darker side of things,” Freeman went on to co-found two forward thinking companies that challenge what we know about publishing and objectivity in the digital age. The first of which is Ditto, which Freeman founded in 2009. From photo books that document the world of cultism, to sexually explicit illustrations of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the London-based publishing company is Freeman’s outlet for his offbeat fascinations.
Moving forward and taking with him eight years experience in printing and a passion for DIY culture, Freeman set up Future Artefacts, a project that explores the role of physical media in today’s society. At a time when nostalgists are eager to dismiss technological advancement in favor of fetishizing older forms of media, while tech heads jump from one revolutionary gadget to the next, Freeman makes a stand for both sides and instead poses the question: What objects are actually worthwhile in an age where culture is becoming increasingly digitalized? We visited the Ditto studio to find out.
What point is Ditto at right now, and where are you taking it?
Ditto right now just reflects my tastes and what I want to do. That’s what it exists for. It doesn’t have any other goal than publishing things that I strongly believe in. It’s not my intention to take over the industry or anything like that. I just want to do what I love.
We’re no longer printing. We only started that to support the publishing, which is what I’m really interested in. Printing to me is more of a tool, in the same way graphic design is a tool. After resurrecting the forgotten art of risograph printing and watching it boom, it started to take up all of our time. I love production and all the technical challenges involved, as well as the colorful and unique result risograph printing provides, but I didn’t want that to be my career.
So printing for you was just about the income?
Yeah, it was mainly about the income, but I also strongly support DIY culture and having a print studio helped us to do that, which I found really rewarding. I like when people just get on with it and do it themselves. Making printing accessible was part of that, but having an event space like we do now is an equally good way of promoting the culture.
“I’m an avid free speech proponent, so we actually printed things that other people wouldn’t touch.”
Is it true you were willing to print anything?
We were entirely non-selective about the stuff that we printed. Our policy was that we would print anything for anyone. I’m an avid free speech proponent, so we actually printed things that other people wouldn’t touch. I found that really interesting and it was a statement in itself.
With publishing and design I’m very selective. When we did design consultancy we only took on projects that we thought were great quality, even if they weren’t to our tastes. When it comes to publishing it’s a really rigorous selection process and we only accept things that we love.
Of the things you’ve published, which is your favorite?
I’m very proud of everything that Ditto has ever published, so there’s no particular favourite. Though, I’d say the standout things that define us are Skinhead: An Archive, Ninja Turtle Sex Museum, God Listens to Slayer and some of the fashion collaborations we’ve done recently with people such as Grace Wales Bonner and Claire Barrow.
There are some publications that we’ve made that didn’t sell well at all that I absolutely love and I don’t care if no one ever buys one. They’re like artworks—it doesn’t matter to me if they’re entirely non-commercial, I’m still really proud of them. I’m also very interested in broadening what publishing means to us. It’s not just about books anymore; we’re looking at lots of interesting digital and events projects and collaborations in music, fashion and film. I want Ditto to have a vast cultural output, but within the framework of a publishing company.
A selection of publications by Ditto Press
So there’s no specific criteria for the sorts of projects you take on?
It’s absolutely specific. It just has to be what I like and I have very specific tastes. There are some things we published very early on that we definitely wouldn’t publish now. This was when we were trying to find our feet and we thought we needed to do some stuff that had art world and academic integrity, but we realized over time that’s not important at all. The work that people have responded to the best is just the stuff that I’ve found beautiful.
Speaking of things you’ve found beautiful, your other company, Future Artefacts, celebrates the beauty and development of physical media. How did that come about?
I started Future Artefacts with my colleague Deano Jo, who has been producing really amazing events in this area for a long time and has become a keystone of East London nightlife and culture. He and I have been friends for about 12 years and we’ve been working together for most of that time. We used to publish a really weird and niche magazine called FUN, which is probably my favorite thing I’ve ever done. Under Ditto we’d attend lots of publishing fairs and we found these to be quite dry. Founding Future Artefacts was a reaction to that.
We later changed the framework to be about the future of the object, because that’s what we’re really interested in. It’s not necessarily aimed at functional objects, that’s not what we care about—it’s the object within society and how it relates to digital culture. This is a very strange area because there’s a fascinating tech scene and an incredible creative scene in London at the moment, but the two don’t communicate well together. As a result there are all these objects that are evolving independently of technological revolutions, and there’s all sorts of amazing technological advances happening without any real contact with the creative minds around, and so Future Artefacts is about bringing them together.
“The reason for setting ourselves the goal of always having a digital component is so that we question why the physical part exists.”
Is that why you’ve committed to creating a digital element for every physical project you produce at Ditto?
I used to say that a lot in interviews, but what I was really saying is that I’d hate to be seen as a luddite that thinks printing or books should be protected. I’m a very big believer in Darwinism and the market. If people don’t want something anymore then it’s fine if it dies. So the reason for setting ourselves the goal of always having a digital component is so that we question why the physical part exists. Does it need to exist at all? Equally, does the digital side need to exist or can it be purely physical? As long as we are aware of this and constantly challenging ourselves then it’s fine for them to coexist.
Would you say that is the ethos of Future Artefacts? That it believes in the future only the highest quality products should exist, and the rest should disappear?
I think that’s always been the way. Wax cylinders were replaced by records, and so on. Now we live in an age where most of what you need in terms of culture can exist within the cloud. So the reason we own things at all is because we love the object. You don’t need to own a record to listen to the music, but it has an experience attached to it that digital doesn’t have, and the experience is the interesting thing. The power is now in the consumer’s hands to decide whether they value the object or whether they want to discard it completely.
“I don’t think people will ever stop producing print, but the market will definitely change, as it did with records until it reached the point it’s at now where there’s a stable culture and production economy.”
What was the selection process for the objects that featured at the Future Artefacts fair?
Because it was the fair’s first year, if you had produced a beautiful art book in this post digital culture that was aware of its place, that was enough. It didn’t need to be interactive, digital, or be able to transform—that wasn’t what we were after. We just wanted to find objects that were aware of their context.
In the fair we also had people like One Little Indian, Reify and AnOther Magazine, who had produced sketches for the way things might go in the future. For instance, One Little Indian had Bjork’s Stonemilker VR headset and the beautiful vinyl releases that went along with it. Reify made 3D printed sculptures of the algorithms of music and she made an app so you can interact with the sculptures while you listen to the songs. I don’t think anybody believes that’s definitely where music and media is going, but the sketches show what could happen and I think that’s where we’re at right now. Some people are trying to envision the future and others are just making amazing, coherent and culturally aware artifacts.
Despite the ongoing notion that print is “dying”, the demand for quality in this area is higher than ever. What are your thoughts on this?!
I think the whole print is dead thing is a massive red herring. Printing is just a tool, and it’s no more dead than chiselling is. It’s just a process that people are treating as a hashtag and slapping all over everything. I think all that’s happened is that the marketplace has been given a choice, and if you give people a choice they’ll go towards quality. If people have no choice you can give them any old shit and they’ll have to buy it. But the negative backlash to the rise in quality is that people start jumping on the bandwagon and producing things that appear of high quality but are really just derivative. You have magazine publishing events where people realize that there is an appetite for these rarefied things and they decide to produce loads of them and make them look like that, but they’re not original or valuable.
Ultimately, I don’t think people will ever stop producing print, but the market will definitely change, as it did with records until it reached the point it’s at now where there’s a stable culture and production economy. I have to say, I don’t really care how it pans out. I would just like to see fewer things being produced, and what’s left being of a higher quality. I want people to respect themselves and buy things they think are truly beautiful.
Thank you, Ben, for taking time to introduce us to Ditto and discuss developments in print with us.