Reading Time: 16 minutes

Interviewed by Andrew Mark Creighton

Introduction

IMPRINT, an exhibition on dark-themed collages and print art, is currently being hosted at TYPA Gallery. The exhibition, which opened on November 30th and will continue until December 30th, is the initiative of Dylan Michilsen and Agve Urm, the editors of Semioculus, a zine dedicated to the “worlds of dark and surreal art”. To coincide with IMPRINT, I posed a number of questions to Michilsen, looking to delve into his experiences and views on zines, collage, Semioculus, his and Urm’s exhibition, and Michilsen’s own art. All of which are answered below. While Michilsen’s charisma and personality are fully tangible here, and while he creates a vivid and comprehensive description of his experiences, I recommend visiting IMPRINT and exploring Semioculus (Instagram) to gain a more immersive understanding.

Zines
Cover art for Semioculus xvii by Melissa Chalhoub

Andrew Mark Creighton: Maybe we can start out with just, what is a zine? How does it differ from a magazine?

Dylan Michilsen: I guess the main thing separating the two is their respective degree of ‘professionalism’. Zines are really quite inherently D.I.Y. — a single person in a basement armed with nothing but a typewriter, a Xerox machine, and a dream could quite easily crank out a zine, but you probably wouldn’t ever find that kind of publication lining the shelves at your local supermarket.

Magazines tend to have bigger teams behind them, a properly fixed release schedule, a far greater scale of circulation, and, most importantly, they have a profit motive. That’s not necessarily the case with zines. Of course, a lot of people in the scene do sell their zines at art fairs, cons or even online via places like Etsy and what-have-you, but there are just as many zines out there you can access completely free of charge. A zine is often a passion project, and any potential financial gain tends to come in second place or, in some cases, might not even be relevant to the creators at all. Another big thing that separates zines from magazines is that zines very often served (and in fact still serve) as a channel of expression for marginalised groups in society, so there has always been a pretty strong ‘underground’ streak to them in general.

AMC: What is Semioculus? What are your aims, goals, etc.? Can you give us a background on the zine, its history, when it started, some notable publications, etc.? What kind of work and art do you take?

DM: So, Semioculus is an independent international art zine & art community dedicated to showcasing surreal and dark art from all over the world. We generally try to narrow things down even more by focusing primarily on those artists who don’t already have tens of thousands of followers online. Basically, we want to shine a spotlight on some of the hidden gems in the field… or at least the ones that appeal to us.

We accept work in just about any medium of visual art that just so happens to be printable as long as we think it matches the general aesthetic we’re looking for. We also accept short fiction and poetry, but we’ve been publishing less and less of those as time goes on. The last handful of issues have been nearly exclusively visual art.

I originally started the project back in 2017, and it’s been going ever since. By now, we’ve released 17 (very soon to be 18) regular issues, as well as 5 specials. The very first issue of the zine came out on my birthday, which actually wasn’t something that was initially planned, but it sure as hell did make it easier for us to keep track of anniversaries in the long run. Some other notable publications include Issue IV (the first issue to feature Agve as the zine’s layout designer, also marked the moment we truly started reaching more of an international audience), Issue XV (released on our 5th anniversary) and of course, our special Semiaprilus/Oculustober issues. In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we started hosting our own annual art prompt challenges, and those special issues are meant to serve as compilations of works made for the challenge that we liked but weren’t able to share on our Instagram page. It’s kind of like a bonus highlight reel after the event, essentially. Oh yeah, we also recently released a special issue to go along with our exhibition IMPRINT; I guess that’s a pretty noteworthy one, too!

AMC: What kind of work do you put into the zine? Is it all volunteer work? How many people are involved in the production of the zine?

DM: All volunteer work, all the time. This is pretty much a passion project we’re running on the side alongside our regular daytime jobs. Currently, the whole operation is run by just the two of us, Agve and me. We always select the submissions for the zine together. Other than that, she deals with the design side of things and keeps the website running. I take care of pretty much everything else.

Back when we first started out, the editing team consisted of way more people — I think there were like five or six of us way in the beginning. All of the participants at the time were fellow coursemates of mine from Tartu’s Semiotics Department. It was a lot of fun, but over time, we sort of realised that a lot of the stuff we’d kind of compartmentalised at first could easily be done by just the two of us; and it also became more and more of a hassle to keep things going the old way after many of us had graduated and started moving away from Tartu (or out of the country altogether). You know how it goes when you have to try getting more than 3 adults together at the same place at the same time — you have better luck waiting for the planets to align than to hope everyone’s schedules happen to match up.

AMC: I remember this zine was originally started relating to semiotics to one extent or another. I think you’ve since gone your own way and away from that. However, does semiotics still have an influence on your work with Semioculus?

DM: Honestly, no — no conscious connection in any academic sense, at least.

AMC: It’s pretty obvious from just flipping through the various issues of Semioculus, or even looking at the different coves — that the zine tends to go towards a darker and fantastical theme. Also, on the website, you’ve written: “[…] we’ve made it our mission to showcase some of the greatest hidden gems the worlds of dark and surreal art have to offer”. So, why this theme? What is so special about it that you’ve dedicated an entire zine towards it? Moreover, Semioculus exhibits a considerable amount of art by many different artists on the dark and surreal, so the topics and themes obviously resonate with a lot of people; why do you think that is? Why are so many people not only interested in the themes but are so interested that they’re making art and expressing themselves on and through these themes?

DM: What makes people attracted to the dark and surreal is a difficult question to answer. There’s always this stigma attached to darker art that those who create it must surely all be mentally ill or depressed or whatever, but it’s like… maybe, but who isn’t nowadays? Even the painter spending his entire life painting pictures of happy suns wearing sunglasses or baby deer frolicking in a field might still be harbouring some deep inner anguish. We simply wouldn’t know until he’d decide to throw himself off a bridge all of a sudden or whatever. I don’t think I entirely agree with that particular notion. Yes, it might be true in some cases that artists create dark art as a means to channel their own dark thoughts, perhaps even in many cases, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that for everyone. At the same time, I, of course, can’t really speak for anyone other than myself here, so I guess I could go on by talking a bit more about my own relationship with the dark/weird side.

If you ask me, ‘So, why dark art?’, the short answer for me would be: I just think that sort of stuff is cool. The long answer; well, I’ve been a fan of monsters and other ‘out there’ stuff ever since I was a kid, really. I grew up reading books written by Het Griezelgenootschap, which was like a collective of Dutch authors writing horror stories for children that was active in the 90s/2000s. They released some kind of ‘monster handbook’ as well, which featured bits of info on all sorts of monsters from folklore around the world, as well as on a whole bunch of horror movies. I remember absolutely devouring that one. I must’ve rented it from the library a ton of times. I guess my fate was already sealed at that point. Funnily enough, even though I loved all this children’s horror stuff, I was always too scared to check out any of the ‘proper’ horror movies for adults, but I did always enjoy checking out their VHS covers at the local video rental shop. Aside from that, I was also always into fairy tales, folklore, myths and legends, especially the ones that — once again — happened to deal with strange lands and stranger creatures. I’ve always been somewhat creatively inclined as well, spending lots of time coming up with my own stories and creatures, that sort of thing, and I guess one thing eventually just led to another. Combine a love for the macabre with a desire for creative expression, and voila. Here we are.

I’m pretty sure this kind of fascination with the weird and fantastic is at the heart of it for at least some of my fellow dark/weird artists (and their fans) as well. After all, the human fascination with possible worlds beyond our own, things that go bump in the night and creatures lurking in the shadows, has endured for centuries. A part of us likes being scared, likes being shocked, and most importantly, people have always liked letting their imaginations run wild. There’s a lot of beauty in the real world, but sometimes, I think we just crave something that goes above and beyond that.

Exhibition
Letitia Gaba’s Rage Godess. Fabric Collage

AMC: So, you have this new exhibition, IMPRINT, in TYPA Gallery off Kastani Street, here in Tartu. It opened last night, November 30th, and goes until December 30th. What are your general impressions about the exhibition? Were there any major challenges getting it to fruition?

DM: Well, first impression: I’m glad we managed to get it up and running! This is our second group exhibition. The first one took place right in the middle of the whole COVID thing, and as such, we mostly only featured work by Estonian artists. This time around, we’ve got a far more international group of artists from all over Europe and the Americas. Seeing everything slowly come together over time was a great feeling.

The greatest challenge directly related to the exhibition itself was probably the entire process of getting all the works together. International shipping has always been a bit of a crapshoot for us, and so we never quite know what to expect. Luckily for us, everything went flawlessly this time around! All of the pieces arrived on time and intact, and we didn’t even run into any troubles with customs this time around. Aside from that, I guess the biggest challenge for me overall was tied more to my personal life. I recently rather unexpectedly lost my father, and as you can probably guess, it has taken quite a toll on me emotionally. The whole ordeal dragged me down into a pretty deep hole that I still haven’t climbed out of, and that, of course, ended up seeping into my perspective on the exhibition and everything else I do as well. There honestly were times when I wished I could just blow the whole thing off and retreat into my cave, but other people’s support managed to drag me through. And, like I said, finally seeing everything come together in the end was a wonderful feeling, regardless of everything else.

AMC: How was the opening night? Can you make a small recap? I visited the exhibition, but I missed your speech, so maybe you can give me a summary of that?

DM: I thought the opening night went quite well! Quite a few people turned up, and a bunch of them came up to us to tell us they felt inspired to start making their own collages. Knowing that you managed to ignite that flame of creativity in people’s hearts is a wonderful feeling. In my speech, I briefly introduced Semioculus. Basically, in the same way I did earlier in this very interview, and I also gave a short outline of the main ideas behind the exhibition: introducing more people to collage & print art, showcasing the variety of approaches to these two media one can take, and hopefully also inspiring them to want to create some of their own collages.

AMC: The exhibition was fairly international, with artists contributing from North America and many European countries, and one from Argentina too if I remember correctly. Everyone involved had similar themes common to Semioculus. However, with the exhibition and the journal as a whole, have you noticed any different cultural takes on the themes or at least trends?

DM: If we’re talking strictly about the works and artists featured in the exhibition, I’d say no. I haven’t really noticed any super culture-specific approaches or trends. I’m also pretty out of the loop as far as current trends in the collage world go in general. I kinda just float in my own niche of dark/weird. In general, when it comes to zines, group exhibitions and all those types of things, you always have to somewhat cater to what the curators or the people running things like. A lot of the artists featured in the exhibition are friends who’ve been with us for a longer time, so they definitely have a good idea of what we’re into. That’s not to say that everything shown in the exhibition was specially made for us or anything, far from it, but it does explain how so many of the pieces featured in the exhibition fit together so cohesively while simultaneously still clearly expressing their respective creators’ own voices.

AMC: I think someone with little experience with collages may intuitively assume these pieces are just constructed through copy and paste, so to speak. However, I sensed last night that there is much more to constructing a collage regarding the method. So, maybe you can discuss, what are some different methods and techniques for creating collages. Have you noticed more cultural trends in this sense, too? Or more idiosyncratic methods for various individuals? What are some methods we can notice at IMPRINT?

DM: There are, for sure, many different approaches to making collage art! Cutting and pasting, of course, is a fundamental part of the process, but aside from that, there are many possible roads to take to reach one’s destination. Once again, I don’t necessarily believe these techniques are dependent on the artist’s culture as much as they just depend on the artist’s personal preferences. Differences in approach already start from the initial divide between those who prefer to work digitally versus those who much prefer the hands-on analogue approach, and it only develops further from there. Some artists choose to adhere to a strict set of rules when they get to work. Others let the invisible hand of The Creative Process™ guide them. When I say ‘rules’, I mean something like exclusively using found materials, never printing out digital images for use in their collages, never using fewer than x amount of pieces in their collages, that sort of thing.

Aside from that, there are, of course, lots of different types of collages you can make. IMPRINT features a blend of more abstract pieces, mixed media works that add in other objects besides just the usual paper and glue, and also collages that have a more coherent, almost narrative style. Outside the boundaries of the exhibition, I’ve also seen artists who make collage sculptures out of crumpled paper, artists who make three-dimensional pieces by using layering techniques, collages done on just about any kind of found object possible (ranging from matchboxes to animal skulls). There are many, many possibilities.

Maria Fomin’s Saturn Return II (Left) and Saturn Return I. Paper collage.

AMC: Along with collages, IMPRINT also showcases print art. What is print art?

DM: We use the term print art as a catch-all term to refer to works made using any form of printmaking technique. The world of printmaking has a very rich history, and I’m pretty sure that TYPA’s staff would do a far, far better job at explaining things than I ever could, so I’m just going to go ahead and keep this as basic as possible. Printmaking is, as the name already suggests, the process of printing an image onto some kind of surface. I guess paper is probably still the most commonly employed material, but it can be done using lots of other ones as well — wood, stone, metal, basically anything that can be printed on. There are lots of different printing techniques out there, most of which are differentiated by the type of matrix that’s used to hold the image the artist wants to print. Some examples of different forms of print art include linocuts, lithographs, woodcuts, screen prints and many, many more.

AMC: I understand you’ll have a workshop as well, also at TYPA. What will this be about? Do you offer workshops at other times/places too? Or is this more of a one-time thing?

DM: That’s right! We hosted a collage workshop at TYPA as part of Aparaaditehas’ general Christmas event on December 9th. That marked our second time hosting a collage workshop there. The first one we did was back in 2020, accompanying an exhibition of our own collage works. We’re also supposed to be hosting a collage/zine-making workshop there in the spring of next year, so it’s definitely not a one-time thing. At this month’s workshop, people were able to choose between simply putting together one of their own collages or trying their hand at making a 3D collage postcard. Those all came out looking pretty spiffy, but they’re definitely a time-consuming process. We’ll be bringing those back for the future workshop as well.

Your own art
Lighthouse by Dylan Michilsen. Digital collage.

AMC: Can you talk about your own art, not just for IMPRINT or even for Semioculus, but your wider body of work? Why have you taken such a personal interest in collage and print art?

DM: Like I said earlier, I’ve always had some sort of urge to create wriggling around inside of me. It’s something that’s been with me since my childhood. I’ve tried getting into drawing on multiple separate occasions throughout my life, but I never managed to stick with it. I’m one of those people cursed with terrible, terrible impatience, and I often tend to give up on things whenever I feel like I’m not intuitively good at them. I’ve dabbled in a couple of other media as well, mainly poetry and amateur photography, but somehow, collage ended up being the medium that swept me off my feet. I still indulge in the other two from time to time as well, but collage art is most definitely my main fixation. I don’t even exactly remember when I first became acquainted with the medium or what it was that ultimately made me decide to pick it up. One summer afternoon, I just installed a photo-editing program and went to work. That was six years ago, and I’m somehow still at it to this day. Even I’m surprised sometimes.

One thing I really like about collage as a medium is its accessibility. It’s probably got the lowest barrier of entry of all art forms as it doesn’t require any expensive equipment or any in-depth training, so just about anyone can give it a go. Who doesn’t have at least a pair of scissors and a bunch of old magazines lying around? At the same time, there’s a lot of room for artists to carve their own niche and develop their own voice once they get started. Collage is varied and deep enough for artists to make it their primary medium of choice, but it can also be something to dabble in for the sake of brainstorming,  a form of art therapy, or just something you do for fun. I can say from experience that once you really get into the flow of things, it’s almost like entering a meditative state. Time just rushes by. As for printmaking, I haven’t had a chance to properly give it a go myself yet, but I definitely do want to. There’s a lot of overlap between the world of collage art (both the digital and analogue side) and that of printmaking, so I’m expecting it to happen someday in the near future.    

AMC: It is obvious that the Semioculus themes fit your work perfectly. What do you intend to explore and express with your work through these general themes? Or is the dark and fantastic atmosphere/impression the major part of what you go for?

DM: The most important thing for me is to simply create art that looks cool to me personally. Anything else going beyond that is less important. I strongly dislike this whole notion of art needing to have some form of statement or ‘hidden meaning’ behind it in order for it to be valid. That’s not to say that all of my pieces are entirely meaningless, of course, but I care more about leaving my audience with a certain impression and about depicting imaginary landscapes. Several of my pieces form a part of a larger, shared fictional universe that currently only exists in my head. There are also a fair number of works that were directly inspired by things I saw in my dreams the night before I made ’em. It’s more fun for me to treat my work as illustrations to nonexistent horror stories than to treat it as super serious business.

AMC: Collage art is really a form that you’ve taken a particular interest in. Why is that? How did you come to find the art form, and what has it been like developing your abilities with it?

DM: Like I said before, I can’t really remember exactly how I got into it originally. It was probably a combination of factors. I really, really like the works of Jan Švankmajer and Tadanori Yokoo, and they’ve been a great source of inspiration to me. I also came across the medium quite frequently because collage is often used in album art, especially in the punk/metal/indie scenes. All that probably ended up stewing together and finally burst up to the surface of my brain at some point.

My development as a collage artist went quite rapidly, I think. The first couple of months were, for sure, ones of heavy experimentation, as I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing just yet or what the direction I wanted to go in with my work was exactly. Took me a couple of years to really truly get to where I’m at now. I do have to say that I kind of miss that era of experimentation. A lot of the pieces I made at that time don’t hold up, and I can’t stand looking at ’em, but I sometimes feel like I don’t experiment enough anymore nowadays. I’ve kind of figured out what works for me and gotten complacent.

AMC: We talked about methods and techniques earlier. Do you, regarding collages and print art, have any favourites to use in your own work? Are there any techniques you personally admire? How come?

DM: I started my collage ‘career’ making digital collages, and digital is still my main approach of choice. It took me like two years of working exclusively digitally before I finally dared to dip my toes in the analogue collage pool as well. What I prefer about digital collage art is that it’s much less of a disaster to make mistakes when you can just undo them. With paper collages, you’re screwed forever if you accidentally end up ruining a cool piece of source material. Makes things a lot riskier. I guess that also makes those truly handmade ones more valuable, though. I try to make my digital pieces look like they could have been made analogue-style as much as possible, which is kind of like my personal attempt at bridging the gap between the two sides.

I’ve always admired people who have the patience to sit down and make intricate stop-motion collage animations. They take a ton of time to make, even the short ones — every piece comprising every frame has to first be cut out by hand, then placed correctly, and of course, making mistakes can be even more disastrous than with a normal collage, and there are also a lot more ways to screw up — you need to not only keep the material in mind but also the lighting, composition of the scene, etc. I have also always been a big fan of the more intricate 3D analogue collages. Those usually look beautiful. The same goes for pieces that lean more heavily towards the mixed media side.

AMC: Do you have any plans to take your art in a new direction?

DM: I have no clue what my future as a hobby artist will look like at the moment. There are quite a few things I’d still like to try my hand at someday, but who knows when that’ll be. Despite what I said in response to the previous question, I do actually really want to give the whole stop-motion animation thing a try, but it’s definitely something I would have to do in collaboration with others. I’ve also been dreaming about trying out assemblage art lately, so I guess that means I’ll have to double down on collecting cabinet of curiosities-worthy trinkets sometime soon.

Featured photo credit: Dylan Michilsen

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