Jon Santos: Freebird Story

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If you catch Jon Santos busting a jit at a Manhattan warehouse party, then consider yourself lucky. When 32-year-old Santos isn’t holed up in his Chrystie Street studio working on one of a dozen projects, he’s usually traveling the world. Case in point: He’s just come back from Hong Kong, where he was supervising the printing of an art book he curated on the theme of “resurrection,” and Tokyo, where he shocked tastemakers by showing them work he did for Phil Collins’ farewell tour. Last year, Diesel China invited him to Beijing to DJ at an exhibit celebrating 25 years of iD Magazine (who named him one of the “Top Forty Under 30” in 2000); Santos ended up creating videos showcasing the strides the Western brand has made in the fashion economy of the “new China.”

The reason Santos can dance the jit at all has to do with his Detroit upbringing. Raised in the suburb of Troy–but educated at rave parties downtown and in nearby Windsor, Ontario–Santos, also a longtime DJ, got the connection between music and design early on; indeed, much of his work in the last 10 years has been sonically inspired, from album covers for ~scape, Carpark, and Broklyn Beats to motion graphics created for MTV and VH1.

We caught up with this human whirlwind, and asked him about the process, the product, and the space in between.

XLR8R: Do you prefer motion graphics or print design?

Jon Santos: Since the two inform each other I approach them in a similar manner. I like working on motion graphics if what I am creating is a learning experience or challenges what I already know or have seen. If someone asks me to do the same thing twice, I like to switch my focus to print design or illustration. This is how I keep interested in the work I am doing. Regarding style and aesthetic, I am driven by experimentation; I don’t have a preference for particular mediums or styles.

What did you get out of going to art school?

Before I entered CCAC [California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland] in 1996, I was self-taught. I wasn’t there to learn technical skills; I knew that I had to build some kind of a foundation and it was not easy to do on my own. A theoretical foundation, history lessons, my peer group, studio time, and critique were the most important elements of spending time and money on an education. It was only after I graduated that I understood the importance of having an informed critical perspective. Simply having an opinion and knowing why you have one is crucial.

How did you change as an artist when you moved to the East Coast?

New York is not as colorful as California–[it inspires a] timeless, sort of “universal” palette that is very basic and limited in some ways. Being away from San Francisco for a few years, I can see how strongly that environment influenced my color sense. I work more now with black, blue, purple, and grey.

I have been looking at photography and conceptual art more than ever. I am collaborating more these days, illustrating more with figures, and making photo collages. I am revisiting installation and video work; the first and last time I exhibited [that stuff] was at the Bay Area Now 3 show at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts back in 2002. While designing a lot of work for television at Brand New School (2002-2004), I discovered photo-compositing, which has changed my approach to graphics almost completely.

Much of the work I was doing before was process-oriented. Process as content (process as message) was definitive of the 1990s aesthetic in design and inevitably I shared a curiosity about the composition of form; the process of designing a building, programming interactive graphics, computer-based music–and how all of those things relate. I am now more interested in developing strong concepts and themes in which there is a message and the process remains what it is.

What was your biggest obstacle in design and how did you overcome it?

A big obstacle for me was always figuring out what the end result was going to be. I overcame [that] by engaging in the process of creating and learning the end result along the way. Expectations can also be paralyzing. You wonder if people will like the work then you come to understand that the priority is that you like the work first. Also, having friends that support what you do is so important.

Tell me about the Canary Project you are currently involved with.

The mission of The Canary Project is to photograph landscapes around the world that are exhibiting dramatic transformation due to global warming. We will be photographing at least 16 landscapes throughout the world. These images will show that global warming is affecting the world in a variety of ways (melting, sea-level rise, drought, extreme weather events, dying habitats, etc.). We also hope to address something more fundamental that possibly lies behind apathy towards this issue in the U.S.: people’s sense of removal from the forces of nature.

What music are you listening to right now?

Wire, Hannoda Taku, Can, Deerhoof, mix CDs from Jeremy Campbell and DJ Language, Magda, Alva Noto, JimiHey, Lovefingers, The Field, Magnetic Fields, This Heat, The Voices of East Harlem.

What is your favorite memory of your years in Detroit?

There are too many. Hanging out with Nancy Mitchell who I threw parties with and who introduced me to Jeff Mills. Working for Steven, Marke, and Alan from Voom, who introduced me to graphic design and the concept of an “art collective.” Learning to DJ by watching Claude Young prepare his mix show at 96.3 WHYT where my brother was an on-air DJ at the time. DJing parties at the famous Packard Plant. Richie Hawtin’s birthday parties. The clubs: Bankle Building, The Shelter, City Club, Majestic Theater. 1217 Griswold. All the kids! Driving to Toronto for the mega-raves and Chicago for the loft parties. Detroit was a very under-produced, strobe-light-and-acid, lo-fi, cold warehouse party scene. But, since you were asking me for one favorite, it’s the memory of unity and being free!