BY TYLER ALEXANDER
ANIMATION BY TYLER ALEXANDER
Ben Ditto is a London-based creative director who is responsible for some of the most boundary-pushing creative work of the last few years, as well as the founder of Ditto Press - an independent publishing house that has redefined DIY printed media. We sat down with Ben in August 2020 to talk about his process, the future of DIY, and the joy of transgression.
How did you get into creative direction and publishing in the first place?
I started publishing magazines when I was a kid, in 1990. I was at school and there were these subversive comics around at the time. I started producing one with my friends and we did a few issues. In my teenage years I produced a few zines because I was into the hardcore techno scene, like gabber and that kind of thing, I had a zine called the Recovery Position and another couple. It was a really small thing, I would print 50 and sell them at a raves and record stores or whatever.
I worked in the fetish industry and ran some club nights in my free time then ended up living in a nightclub and running it, and I did the flier designs and stuff like that throughout. I left school when I was 16 so I hadn’t studied anything, it was all just made up as I went along. I kind of fucked around for a few years doing dodgy things, going to raves, and being a mess. When I was 23 I had sorted myself out and was working as a cook in a deli and delivering Dominos Pizzas in the evenings and I thought I would do an evening class to do something for a hobby. It was either going to be psychiatry or graphic design, and I don’t know why I chose graphic design but I did. I took an evening class and it became a foundation degree, then a bachelors, and then I studied visual communications at the Royal College. The BA was broader than graphics, we didn’t get taught much about typography or anything like that it was much more conceptual so we did a lot of filmmaking and at the time there was a lot of talk about interactivity.
I published a magazine called Fun Magazine, I was working for Vice part time when it started in the UK so this was like 12, 13 years ago and it used to be really funny but there was stuff that they couldn’t do because of their advertisers, so Fun Magazine was the stuff you couldn’t get away with anywhere else. We printed like 5-6000 copies of each issue and we gave them all away for free because I subsidized it by doing commercial work. I did some art direction for fashion at the time, and some stuff for VICE, Sony, Levis and stuff like that and just used the money to subsidize my independent publishing projects.
I also wrote a book about mass graves in the Balkans “Grobišče”, I couldn’t really decide… it had previously been a choice between psychiatry or graphics, at this point it was like do I become a serious investigative journalist reporter type person or do I do much more fantastical, weird, subversive trollish type things. Fun Magazine was that and then the book about mass graves was a lot more serious. I self-published that book, so the common theme going through all of it was publishing, self-publishing, DIY, but then there were these different directions.
I started a print company (Ditto Press) during the last recession, which was a stupid idea, fucking idiotic idea. At the time there was a thing called a Risograph which is a very colorful printer and nobody was using it so we had this idea like, it’s a very aesthetically fun thing to print a zine in florescent pink and blue, it’s more fun than photocopying it. There was one other company in Holland that had been around for a long time and that was it. We started this Riso independent publishing trend and it became this global DIY scene for a while. There was just us, then there was us and two other companies, then there were hundreds and hundreds of them, and then that market was oversaturated and nobody could charge a decent amount for printing. That served as a really good platform to get to know people, we printed commercially like 3500 jobs and they went really well but in that time I also published a lot of my own projects. We did a very successful book on skinhead subculture “Skinhead, An Archive", one called “Ninja Turtles Sex Museum”: a gay necrophilic re-imagining of Ninja Turtles which was really popular. We published dozens of books, but then got introduced to the fashion world in the UK, I had already been doing a bit of art direction for fashion before I started my company, but there was a moment in the UK where people like Claire Barrow, Grace Wales Bonner, Liam Hodges, all of these very good young designers appeared in the UK and I started working with them and doing bits and pieces and I hadn’t realized how fashion can be what you want it to be to a great extent.
It’s a bit like independent filmmaking in that there are some very talented and really interesting people working. There’s also some twats but there’s a lot of really decent people, some of the most free rein you can be given for imagination is in fashion editorials so you can literally have some fucking crazy idea and someone will give you some money to go and do it which is really nice. It’s not like advertising where brands complain about stuff and have to have their input. There wasn’t a lot of money working with young designers, but it was really exciting and fun. I also had a gallery and we did exhibitions and events every week for about 3 years, and I generally kind of built up my network and got to know more people.
I was doing all that stuff and I decided that printing was too stressful and I stopped doing it, I literally sold my apartment to subsidize this fucking printing company – such a bad idea. When I cut all of that off and started to focus on art direction and creative direction, I met Isamaya Ffrench who had been asked to creative direct Dazed Beauty. Me, her and the editor, a guy called Bunny Kinney, worked on the whole launch for that and it was amazing.
And through doing that work, I hesitate to say we created an aesthetic but we kind of rode the zeitgeist in a very major way and took stuff that was happening and did it with celebrities, really high quality production, and really slick art direction and it just kind of had a moment. That launched my career in a much bigger way, I got an agent at Concrete Rep and started working with a lot more brands and bands. Off the back of that I now work with The 1975, they saw the Dazed Beauty stuff I’d been doing and brought me on for one project and then that developed in to an ongoing relationship, I guess I still have a DIY ethos for sure in that it doesn’t really make a difference if somebody’s paying me a fortune or not I’ll still do the stuff I do, but I’m much older now and I think the attraction to doing just really, really independent DIY stuff all the time went away and I started to think actually, there’s a way of doing this with integrity and getting paid what it’s worth by bigger companies as well. When I work with people like Maison Margiela, Nike, or whoever we haven’t had to sacrifice any of the creative integrity. They see what I do and what my friends do and we get to do that, which is great.
How do you think coming to creative direction through subculture influences the kind of work you do?
I think that there are some things that existed when I was younger in the early 90’s, there was a whole strata of culture that was quite apocalyptic. There were things like Feral House Publishing and Answer Me magazine and very early Vice stuff and it was kind of, I don’t like the term politically incorrect but there was stuff that was… it’s like if you watch a film about a serial killer it’s not like you approve of serial killers. Stuff like Whitehouse, Peter Sotos (who wrote Tool), there were lots of people doing seriously transgressive stuff because transgression is interesting. And it wasn’t them saying oh yes, I approve of mass murder or hatred or whatever but there was a real raw kind of transgressiveness to it, and that’s not really possible at the moment for obvious reasons, you know, because everything just gets cancelled. Because I’m older that was the stuff lots of people were interested in the 90’s I guess, it was a very common currency and I’ve kind of held onto that with some fondness.
When it comes to zines, I think they are just an expression of the counter culture and like, counter culture to me like… I’ve lived in squats with vegan hunt-saboteur anarchists and I always was kind of on the edge of it, like I don’t really place myself anywhere on that political spectrum do you know what I mean? And I think bits of all of it can be useful and interesting and I think because I’m not ready to put a pin in it anywhere and I’m very open to listening to everything, it’s always left me in this position of being… it’s not even neutrality it’s just openness to all of it tinged with trollishness. I think we call it trolling now but it’s always existed. Fucking around with people has always existed and it’s always been fun. There was a series called Brass Eye and another series called Day to Day and they were these British mock-documentary series and they were so good, they left a massive impression on everyone in my generation, and it was just sort of fucking around with culture in a really sort of trollish way before the internet.
Now, some people kind of get that and understand it and understand that trolling is not you know… I’m going to be careful about what I say now because as you well know… (laughs) There’s a film called TFW No GF and there’s some internet trolls on there talking about what motivates them and I get it, being disenfranchised, not feeling like you have a voice and finding it through being just a bit of a cunt really and it’s funny, like ultimately this stuff is funny.
Another theme going through everything I’ve done is I like funny things, most of my current affairs understanding has come from satire in a very broad sense. I think that satire is very important, I think that trolling is very important, I think that interrogating stuff through – not like mean spiritedness – but not just accepting everything at face value because people tell you to is vital. Before that used to come from religion and authority, and now it doesn’t come from religion or authority it comes from within our own culture and it’s the same thing, like in the 90’s we would have been trolling politicians and the media and now those people are almost irrelevant, we need to troll ourselves more. Same thing though.
Do you use your Instagram presence as as a sort of moodboard to help visually digest things that are happening? I can kind of see a correlation between your posting and professional work.
I spend very little time thinking about what I put on Instagram, it’s literally like if I think it’s interesting or funny or beautiful it goes on there. But I’m very very rigid about that, like, if I have a tiny thing in my mind that says “this isn’t quite beautiful enough, this isn’t funny enough” it doesn’t go on. So I don’t give it lots of thought but that’s the way my mind works, like I absorb a huge amount and then a bunch of stuff comes out. And I think it’s, like, I don’t want to get too metaphysical about this, but I don’t think any of us create culture, I think it’s like in Dune where culture is this huge worm that you ride, you can sort of harness it, and if people are successful they can kind of steer it a bit or have a fun ride on it or whatever but really I’m just kind of absorbing zeitgeist-y stuff and then putting out my filter of it. That might turn into something a brand wants or that might turn into an interesting project or whatever. But the more I think about it the harder it is and the less I think about it… you know (Instagram) stories especially, I post stuff all the time and it’s literally like *snaps fingers* if it comes into my head I’ll write it and put it out there. It’s actually just publishing, like this is 2020 zine publishing, really, and if we’d had the speed of communication back when I was a kid, we’d have done the same thing.
I don’t know if I actually answered you about moodboard though, I’ll be a little bit more clear about that because I know this is about creative direction. I think what goes on behind the scenes if I do a commercial project is that myself and a bunch of researchers I work with will do absolutely fucking tons of research, and I’ll sit with it for days or weeks and I’ll go through it and think about it and separate things and make boards until it makes sense in my head, and then I’ll refine it and refine it, and I write short scripts for anything even if it’s like a single page image for a magazine I write scripts and then I just keep kind of refining stuff until it clicks. I don’t sit there for ages thinking of ideas, they just happen, because I’ve spent a lifetime, you know, absorbing culture. I guess the stuff that is happening on my Instagram is a bit of a reflection on that, like if I’ve spent a month researching a fucking mechanistic military AI or whatever, of course some of that will show up on my Instagram, but it’s like the fringes of what I’m doing professionally.
Going back to the idea of “riding the Dune worm of culture,” It kind of feels like we’re in this weird culture loop where people are taking a really surface level influence from older things but not a lot of new stuff is really being created. When I look at DAZED Beauty and your work more generally, it’s clear that you’re influenced by older things, but it doesn’t feel like a 1 to 1. How do you take inspiration from older work without just regurgitating it?
I can’t speak about the quality of my work because I don’t have any objectivity, but I will say that firstly: this is nothing new. What’s really interesting is, being my age like, when I was a kid people were being like this about the 60’s and the 70’s, people were like “oh, the 60’s are so cool” and it was fucking boring, you’re like “shut up about the 60’s.” So nostalgia is nothing new. I think that now there’s more of a marketing incentive to harness nostalgia quickly, so like the more that Netflix can make like the early 2000’s cool then they can commission a load of early 2000’s nostalgia series, whatever.
This is my problem with the use of the term “cultural appropriation,” is that all of culture is hybridized and all of it builds on previous human culture, all of it - absolutely everything. I do understand being respectful as well I’m not advocating for, you know, blackface pancake mix or whatever, that’s not my point, I think you can still be sensitive and not be a dick about stuff. I think that absolutely everything builds on previous human endeavors. For example, Japanese culture is far more ready to accept that, you can see a lineage from woodblock prints, to early lithograph, straight through anime and manga, all of it. There’s a very direct line of thought, and there’s no shame in that, there’s also no shame in that culture of things looking similar, do you know what I mean? Everyone draws eyes similarly and so forth. I think that we have this kind of fallacy in the west where we think that absolutely everything needs to be completely unique and original and that’s bullshit, like nothing is… well that’s not true, I think everything builds on everything else and the thing that makes something original is your unique voice. So you could make an anime or release a manga, for example, that looks really similar to others and draws on this lineage, but the way that the story is told or the way that all those parts come together is original. That’s what I’d hope to do myself is put my voice into this accumulation of culture and try to progress it somewhere. Anyone that tries to claim that anything anyone does is anything other than that is fucking lying! But that doesn’t mean that things have to be derivative at all, you know, all of us can put our own voice into that accumulation of culture and do something fresh.
Do you think DIY means something different in 2020 than previously?
Absolutely, when I was running Ditto Press, (which is the name of my publishing company which is why I’m now called Ben Ditto) my whole ethos when we were doing that is that DIY doesn’t have to look like DIY. When I was growing up, if you said DIY hardcore show, DIY zine, DIY whatever, you KNEW it was going to be photocopied, shit drawings, fucking typos, blah blah blah. And I remember, not this person is… whatever, but Jim Goad, he used to do Answer Me, there was an interview with him and he said “look, read Answer Me, you will not find a typo in it.” I really liked that fact that he’d taken pride in proofreading it, you know what I mean? Like absolutely, thoroughly proofreading it, and I think that’s a small thing but it really inspired me to think like, “DIY” does not have to mean “shit”. You can have DIY culture and it can stand head to head, shoulder to shoulder with mainstream culture and even be better. Especially now that technology has taken over, it’s caught up so much that I see people who are in their teens maybe, producing stuff that is of a highly professional quality and that just wasn’t possible when I was a kid, do you know what I mean? We didn’t have the money, we didn’t have the technology, resources, whatever. Stuff looked cheap because that’s what it had to be.
That’s what I’ve tried to push more than anything else, it’s not about DIY as an anarchist aesthetic, it’s DIY like, don’t wait for somebody else to subsidize your ideas just fucking do it yourself. That’s the difference.
For sure, growing up in hardcore punk people still do the photocopy thing to this day. It’s rough.
I still love hardcore, you know, I love all of that stuff. But whenever I see something truly progressive in that, I like it, but a lot of the scene fucking hates it. I remember when Blood Incantation came out, I was like “oh, someone’s doing like kind of spacey void metal, that’s nice” and then they get fucking rinsed on metal forums for not being exactly the same as Morbid Angel or whatever.
Totally, the orthodoxy of the DIY aesthetic is a funny thing.
I know this is kind of a meme and sort of cringe, but like “the intersection of art and technology”… I feel like the work that you do definitely seems to marry those things well, but in a way that’s not like a sanitized Silicon Valley neoliberal aesthetic. I wondering if you have any advice for people for facilitating those sort of relationships between artists and technologists, especially in DIY situations.
I’ve always been super interested in technology which is why it was weird I started a print company. On the one hand I think: it’s just a tool, so if you find out about some new piece of code, or you understand GAN technology, or some weird new Python script that does amazing machine learning - that’s great, but how can you use that as a tool for your idea to construct something? The issue a lot of the time with artists and technologists is they see the tool and they’re like “well, there’s the tool” and that’s actually not art, that’s just you presenting the tool to a bunch of people who haven’t seen it. I think that really good and effective use of art and technology is just using it the same way you’d use a pen or anything else, but you know, appreciating what that does when you use it in the time and context when it’s used.
The other side of technology is that it can be an inspiration in itself, for example, people constructing new life forms or making hybrid life forms out of bits of circuitry and nanotechnology and bits of DNA that they’ve taken from worms, just the fact that exists, that’s a subject matter unto itself. So there’s technology as a tool and technology as a subject matter and I think that people kind of lost in those places you know what I mean? They’ll sort of find the subject matter interesting but not harness the tool and not put it in a context and I guess. I’m far from the only person to do this, but whenever I see a new technology I just think oh, how can I fit that into my world of the stuff I produce? So, for example, with GAN technology - I’ve known about it for a long time, we used it with Kylie Jenner for a magazine cover and it was a very big thing, but in the back of my head I was thinking “what would it be like to train it on meat?” and then “what would it be like to then use that meat to draw porn?” That’s something that if you’d shown it to me 10, 15 years ago I would’ve thought that immediately because that where my brain goes, like what happens if you draw angels using coral, or what happens when you draw sea slugs using fire, you know, all of these things like, using it to draw. But then they’re also my areas of interest anyway, do you see what I mean? Whenever a new technology comes out, it’ll just slot into my existing interests.