Be embraced: Base gives Ruhrtriennale a visual makeover

This edition’s artistic director Johan Simons selected Belgian creative agency Base Design to give the unique art festival a complete visual makeover, one that reflects its inclusive, unconventional approach and of course this cycle’s theme: “Be embraced”. By Sarah Schug

Simons, formerly artistic director at the Münchner Kammerspiele, has quite a penchant for unusual locations. With his theatre company Hollandia he put on plays in unlikely places such as empty churches, stables, and even under bridges. The Ruhr region’s architectural remainders of the coal mining era with its turbine halls, rail harbors, coal mixing facilities and salt warehouses offer a great playground then for the Dutch theatre veteran. “The power of the Ruhrtriennale is these unbelievable locations, and they definitely inform the program thematically. For example we’ll show Accetone, a piece that deals with unemployment. We want to integrate the industrial locations into the plays as opposed to covering them up and make them look like theatres. We want their aesthetic influence to unfold”, he explains enthusiastically.

But for Simons it’s not only about the venues, it’s also about the people living in the region, a concern well-reflected in his motto “Be embraced”, which is not only a reference to Schiller’s Ode to Joy, but also a gesture of artistic, geographic and social inclusion. It is this idea that built the foundation for Base Design’s communication concept: “Following his motto we wanted an approach that focuses on bringing the region together as well as activating the participation of the viewer”, says Lara Berg, designer at Base and responsible for the Ruhrtriennale project together with design director Sander Vermeulen, who adds: “One rule that was determined quite quickly was to not assume anything in terms of audience. We were really against any approach that could come across as ‘dumbing it down’ in order to reach a broader public. Instead, we were more interested in finding a universal way of communicating that could grab the attention of a wide range of people.”

The question of how to make the content of the festival, which might be seen as elitist by some, accessible to all, became the guiding principle during the development of the communication material and proved to be one of its biggest challenges. “ I hope that by making theatre in these unlikely places we will attract visitors that usually wouldn’t go to a theatre”, says artistic director Simons, while acknowledging the difficulty of the task: “With Hollandia there was the problem that even though we played in stables in the countryside, it was mainly the artistic elite that would show up.” Base’s communication campaign for the Ruhrtriennale is set on changing all that and bridging this divide, with a concept that is inclusive, fresh, dynamic, bold and beautiful all in one.

The centrepiece is an interactive, easy-to-use map available both on paper and online, visually uniting the entire region and replacing the former main means of communication, a rather traditional book. “The map adds a lot of practicality and really reflects the Embraced idea,” Simons confirms. Indeed it is a very helpful tool for discovering not only what the art festival has to offer, but also for guiding you through the Ruhr region and its many treasures. The map reveals the favourite local spots of the triennale team, and also gives tips for hotels or restaurants. “It’s a universal code, accessible and understandable for all”, Sander explains the choice for designing a map. “We wanted to help blur the boundaries, both culturally and geographically”, Lara adds. As the festival cycle stretches out over three years, visitors are invited to extend and modify the map by contributing their personal recommendations, giving it an interactive, participatory touch.

The map is accompanied by a website, a poster campaign including large-scale ground posters in train stations from Cologne to Bochum, and a Ruhrtriennale newspaper of 24 pages, which tells stories about the region and the festival, for example about the encounter of Johan Simons with a former miner. Handily the newspaper is also available in Dutch and readers can order it online. What’s evident throughout the whole campaign is Base Design’s successful attempt to step away from the typical art festival imagery, trying to reach out to the not-so-typical-visitor.

In line with the “Be embraced” motif, the entirety of the communication concept is built around the idea of the sum (x+x = x), opening up a flexible, playful game of associations that links artists, venues or the director with other images or words related to pop culture, current events, or collective memories. “It’s meant as an open dialogue with its viewers. The posters are not just something you merely look at, but they actually invite the viewer to read or interpret them as they wish, leaving the meaning of the sum open”, Lara clarifies.

Naturally, open interpretation also leaves room for misunderstandings and controversy, and one of the posters combining the words “work+stinks” with an image depicting a torso graced with a Jesus tattoo ended up being taken down by angry critics. Originally, it was meant to illustrate the theme of Italian movie Accattone, a tale of an unemployed man with references to the passion narrative, which Simons will bring to the theatre stage for the very first time. But provocation is nothing Johan Simons isn’t familiar with, in fact, it kind of runs through his veins. “I don’t want people to say ’well played’ or ‘beautiful stage design’ when they get out of my plays. I want them to discuss the issues at stake, I want to make them talk and argue and be upset. Provocation is essential”, he says. It is rather fitting then that this fearless approach has also found its way into the communication material, creating a real connection with Simon’s attitude and way of working.

This sense of boldness does not only reveal itself in the content, but also when it comes to the choice of the typeface: Swiss Typefaces’ New Paris Skyline, an expressive, curvy and extravagant pick with a high recognition value, has become a key element of the Ruhrtriennale identity. “We needed an iconic, eye-catching typeface, something that would be recognizable in any context. “We wanted something emotional and dynamic; a typeface with character and charm that stands out visually”, Sander explains the choice. “What’s great is the duality of the typeface: you have this regular version which is very basic and simple and at the same time you have these glyphs that show something more glamorous, eccentric. It fits well with the large diversity of the region as well as the concept of the festival: refined art forms performed in rough, industrial sites”, Lara adds.

A clever, inspiring and fresh communication campaign for a cutting-edge, one-of-a-kind festival that hopefully will bring the arts closer to everyone and a bit of beauty to a region far away from the big artistic capitals. “The communication strategy needed to be clear, simple, aesthetic and a little bit provocative. It has to stand out and get people thinking. If people ask themselves ‘What’s this?’ it’s already a success,” Simons concludes. Something Base Design undoubtedly achieved.

Find the full programme of the Ruhrtriennale here