Designers Sulki & Min and guest editor HG Masters discuss the image and text curation behind the book The Making of M+.
M+ only recently opened its doors, but the museum itself has been long in the making. From its beginnings as an unnamed idea in official documents of the 1990s, M+ has developed into a fully formed institution with a collection of around 8,000 objects, a rich history of public programmes, and a 65,000-square-metre building occupied by people, ideas, and visual culture.
Behind M+ are hundreds upon hundreds of human stories from both inside and outside the institution. It was only fitting, then, that we enlist a talented team of outsiders to help us record them for posterity. In early 2019, we invited Choi Sulki and Choi Sung Min of Seoul-based design studio Sulki & Min to bring their penchant for playfulness to the design of a book about the museum’s first decades, compiled with the insight of guest editor and ArtAsiaPacific’s deputy editor and deputy publisher, HG Masters.
Together with the M+ team, they produced The Making of M+, a 720-page compendium of full-bleed images and snippets of texts from staff, architects, artists, media, and the public. As the book hit the shelves back in September, we sat down with Sulki, Min, and HG to discuss how they negotiated the multiple perspectives and ‘behind-the-scenes humanity’ of M+ to create a publication that is not your typical museum history book.
The Making of M+ has a distinctive look and feel. Tell us about your early conversations on the text and design concept for this book.
HG: It was a blank slate to start from, and there were different ideas from within the institution about what this book could be. Some of them included more traditional ideas encapsulating missions and objectives, or essays about the future of the museum in the twenty-first century, or a large coffee table book featuring the design of the museum’s physical architecture.
In our brainstorming sessions with M+ team members, we gravitated to the concepts of a timeline and a scrapbook, but we didn’t know exactly how to do that or what the proposals would look like in book form.
MIN: Ikko Yokoyama [Lead Curator, Design and Architecture] contacted us in early 2019 and mentioned the book was being imagined as a very visual publication: a lot of images and maybe some text and architectural drawings. Otherwise, the brief was pretty open.
We immediately thought of making the book purely visual, with only images. But we knew that we’d eventually need to include some text, so we came up with the idea of flowing the text across all the pages along a single line.
How were those ideas for a visual publication channelled into the proposal?
HG: The thing that was so amazing about Sulki & Min’s proposal was that they mailed us a fully realised physical copy of their idea, which looked a lot like the volume that we ultimately produced.
MIN: In a way, the proposal was the first draft of this book; it looks, feels, and weighs almost the same. We were really surprised that the idea was accepted without any major modification because we thought we were taking a risk. We didn’t know much about the museum and the institution, or what the people were like. We only had this idea and didn’t know whether it would work. We had to see it physically to convince ourselves. But we liked it, so we just submitted it.
SULKI: We had to post the hard copy of the design because, otherwise, it’s hard to communicate the mass. If you were to only see it in a PDF document, it wouldn’t tell you that volume.
HG: It was such a unique object that it was hard to put down. If the sample dummy was in the room when we were discussing ideas, everyone was constantly opening it up and flipping through it.
The thing about the design proposal is that it’s kind of a mystery: the cover is this thing that identifies where M+ is, but you can’t immediately discern the logic of the interior. There are images, but you have no idea how they're organised. So, on some subconscious level, you’re constantly trying to figure out what is happening with this book. You want to keep opening it to see what other images you’re going to uncover in these pages. How many images do I have to look at before I start understanding this logic?
What was the logic behind the content curation? How did you organise such a massive volume of images and text?
HG: From my side, I wanted to meet staff from the different departments and hear their personal histories with the museum. The institution already had this history of almost a decade at that point—what had it been like for all the people who’ve been involved with M+? How do we make a book about the making of an institution that’s more than just the top-down vision on curatorial ambitions or how objectives have been realised?
SULKI: With the images, we wanted to represent not just the people and activities, but all the people and all the activities related to the museum as widely as possible, just as HG mentioned. For example, we tried to include at least one image for each known event, whether it be a big exhibition or a small-scale seminar.
MIN: To make the proposal, we used images from the museum’s blog at the time, M+ Stories. We really liked how it informally told us a story about the museum in the making, so we arranged the images from the blog chronologically. In our mind, it didn’t matter whether the particular images were in or out; we just thought of ourselves as setting up a framework or rules for the game.
HG: When the proposal came back, we realised that one part of the game would be to give Sulki & Min a basket of images that represented the major events and activities at M+ to date, and then we’d let them select from those and not interfere too much from that.
One of the most compelling aspects of this book is its disjointed timeline—the date on the images quickly surpasses the date of the texts, and they don’t sync up until page 615! How does this disconnect relate to the story of the museum?
HG: The big difference is that the basket of images starts at a much later date than when the first textual mentions of M+—or what would become M+—first arise. We quickly realised that there was going to be a mismatch in chronology. There was no way to synchronise the first wisps of mentions in either official documents or the press with the density of images that M+ began to proliferate once there were exhibitions, a collection, and now a building.
For example, I could go back and find quotes from the Hong Kong government’s early planning for the West Kowloon Cultural District, which grew out of an ambition in the 1990s to create a cultural district connected to the larger infrastructure of the new airport and the Yau Ma Tei typhoon shelter. The development of the West Kowloon Cultural district at large was a long, complicated process involving proposals from many international designers and a lot of public debate. I wanted to include that history in the book as a precursor to the institution to establish the ground on which the institution is standing. This is nicely represented in the cover image, which wasn’t taken until 2017. You can see that the museum is built on a piece of reclaimed land.
We were trying to tell the story visually with these textual references to the past to say: ‘This museum didn’t come out of nowhere; it’s connected to the city in this physical and infrastructural way.’ This idea that there are misaligned timelines that eventually reconverge, that’s just the history of the organisation to date. Any sort of construction project is like this.
The mismatching timelines create image and text pairings that can be surprising, funny, or even poetic. Were these pairings intentional? Or beautiful accidents?
MIN: Well, from our perspective, they were not consciously paired at all. We suspected that people like HG and staff in the museum were struggling to make sure all the images and the text above them were making sense together, but for us as designers, any kind of meaningful pairing was purely accidental.
The page composition was almost an automatic process. Because repetition was the key to this design, we didn’t have to invent a beautiful layout every twenty-four pages. That would’ve made it a very boring book. Sticking to the formula was very important.
HG: If anything, we just let the text and image pairings go. We had a target from Sulki & Min of the number of words we could fit in the book, so then we tried to find the best quotes. By best, I mean the most interesting—they could be ironic in a sense, like some of these announcements about when the museum will open, but also very earnest, like old video clips or responses from kids who did the M+ summer camp. We tried to mix and match all these different voices, rather than pairing them with the images.
The logic is not spelt out, but the logic is there. You have to read a certain number of pages to figure out that it’s a chronological compendium, or you might never figure out the logic, but that’s okay because it’s just playful.
MIN: We don’t like the word ‘experiment’ in the context of design because an experiment is just a process, and the result should speak for itself. But for us, it was a kind of experiment in storytelling. We wanted to tell a story, but not in any sort of simple, tidy kind of narrative. Other than the chronological order, there is no clear structure intended. You don’t have to read all the pages from one to 720; you can jump into any spread and then start from there or even go backward. This can be disorientating, but you can also say that, in the long run, things are moving towards something over the course of these 720 pages.
Sulki & Min, you have another playful publishing project in the M+ Collections: The Book of Chances, a Flash animation that randomly superimposes layers from pages of your past publishing projects. It also makes a cameo in The Making of M+. How do the designs of these two projects relate to each other?
SULKI: Well, first of all, we’re really, really happy that the page of our Book of Chances survived the whole editing process.
HG: Of course, it did! We weren’t going to cut that out!
SULKI: Although the medium and the purpose of the two works are very different, The Book of Chances shares some aspects of the approach for The Making of M+, such as setting up rules and letting them play out within those parameters—we sometimes call these ‘designed accidents’. You step back and watch what happens with this kind of approach.
Did the design channel any other contemporary media?
HG: I thought the design had an interesting relationship to magazines because of the use of these full-bleed images, the thin paper, and graphic, visual orientation. I liked the way this recalled the 1990s and early 2000s feel of a magazine, which is just lots of images printed all the way to the edge.
But then I think that the book also has an interesting relationship to a social media feed. Even though you’re flipping left and right through the book, there is a constant rotation of images with this unseen, algorithmic logic. That’s how we experience Instagram and other social media platforms, where it’s just a constant inundation of information. I like how the book recalls this older print culture while having a relationship to this new digital culture that we’re constantly inhabiting.
MIN: We didn’t want to imitate any particular magazine, but we did want it to have a certain mass-produced, mass culture sensitivity rather than something precious or authoritative. A museum may be authoritative and full of precious objects, but there are also people who make and run it. Since they are sometimes messy and imperfect like any institution, we thought the role of this book was to capture the behind-the-scenes humanity. The choice of materials, like the glossy paper and paperback binding, also reflects that intention.
SULKI: We didn’t think much about any association with social media, but when we look back now, there is definitely a similarity. When you see just a few pages, the sequence may look random, but if you flip through the book, you begin to feel that there is a certain flow with an SNS feeling, so that’s interesting. The fact that we took inspiration from the M+ blog might have affected it, although we didn’t make any specific reference to its design. The book’s structure of presenting text and image in parallel but independently from each other reminds me of slightly older media as well, like TV news or even newspaper.
The book covers many events that have been happening in Hong Kong recently—you even addressed the pandemic, ending on a very current note. The effect for me as a reader is: what happens next?
SULKI: We really liked how the book ends, how it doesn’t have any grand finale and the last picture is just the building still under construction. And right before that are the names of the people who appear in the book—the people who made up the museum as a place and not just a building. I think that ending suggests something.
HG: We tried to keep it open for as long as possible—we saved some pages so that we could include the latest photos, up to January 2021 when it went to print. But then all these things have happened with M+ since January 2021, which would’ve been great to include, as these make up the current conversation about M+. All I can say about that is: there is already plenty of material for volume two!
As told to Gloria Furness (Editor, Web Content). The above interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. All photos: M+, Hong Kong (unless otherwise indicated).
The Making of M+ is published by Thames & Hudson in collaboration with M+. Order your copy through the M+ Shop.