Left: Cover of MATRIX/Berkeley: A Changing Exhibition of Contemporary Art (2009). Right: A view of Project Projects and Elizabeth Thomas in the Berkeley Art Museum archives.

To mark the thirtieth year of the Berkeley Art Museum’s MATRIX program for contemporary art, Prem Krishnamurthy and Adam Michaels of the design studio Project Projects have created a new book with documentation and ephemera from each of the series’ 229 past exhibitions, together with a set of commissioned interviews. This 560-page catalogue, which Krishnamurthy discusses here, will launch November 6 at the museum. Project Projects is currently working on the 2010 Whitney Biennial catalogue, a research project on East German designer Klaus Wittkugel, and editing and designing the Inventory Books series with Princeton Architectural Press.

IN JANUARY 2008, Adam and I made our first trip to Berkeley to discuss the book and get a broad sense of the MATRIX program. We spent several days with current MATRIX curator Elizabeth Thomas in the archives, randomly pulling exhibition files as a cross section of the program history. It was important to begin without preconceived notions of what we might find. After several days in the archive, we had an initial sense of what materials were available, how the program had developed since 1978, as well as distinct moments where transitions occurred.

The MATRIX archive suggests how making exhibitions has changed over the past thirty years. Early shows were organized quickly and had scant documentation––perhaps just a couple slides or black-and-white images. On the other hand, there was often extensive correspondence between the curators and artists. As we reached the late ’90s, shows were planned further in advance and had better digital documentation of the installations; however, most correspondence consisted of bits of printed e-mails regarding logistical issues. In the book, these shift in modes of organization, communication, and documentation are subtly apparent.

The project was a close collaboration with Elizabeth. Early on, we decided to take a comprehensive approach and represent every past MATRIX exhibition in the book. We wanted to avoid a retrospective recurating of the history of MATRIX; instead, we were inclusive to allow the program’s diversity to speak for itself. The book design uses a flexible, modular system that allots each exhibition from one to four pages, depending on the materials available. Newly commissioned interviews between curators and artists were slotted in to expand on the discussion of specific exhibitions.

In spring 2008, we developed a preliminary design proposal; that summer, we returned to Berkeley and went through all the exhibition folders together to pull initial selections for the book. Then, the museum staff scanned and prepared the materials for us. We had around one hundred gigabytes to wade through, a digital archive on an entire spool of DVDs! It was far more material than we could ever use in a single book, but it gave us a basis for presenting each exhibition.

We also sought to communicate our experience of discovery while browsing the archive. For example, we opened a James Lee Byars exhibition folder and found these beautiful letters to the curator written in white ink on black paper. One had gold dust in it, and another unfolded to over four feet long. Other files contained research notes and budgets, which were telling records of the curatorial process. In addition, we came across ephemera such as invitations, flyers, and press clippings. We designed the book as if laying these disparate things on a table––by spreading them out and seeing their overlaps, shifting objects from the front to the back––to enable varied relationships and narratives to emerge.

The MATRIX program has consistently implemented a standard format for exhibition brochures: 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches. Since the program’s inception, a sheet with an essay and checklist has accompanied each show. Initially, these were black-and-white, typeset on a typewriter, and three-hole punched for collation in a custom binder. Since the late ’90s, they’ve been printed in color and designed digitally, but they still maintain the same standard size. Therefore, it seemed natural to us that the book’s format would respond directly to this size; it is exactly one inch larger than the brochures on both dimensions. The first four pages of the book introduce MATRIX’s mission by reprinting the original pamphlet by museum director James Elliott (who brought the MATRIX program and brochure format to Berkeley from the Wadsworth Atheneum) at 100 percent scale. Thereafter, the covers for each exhibition brochure are reproduced as thumbnails at a uniform size; flipping through the book, you can get a quick sense of both the past thirty years of MATRIX and concurrent changes in design and technology.

The book itself is a MATRIX project, included in the book under the number MATRIX 229. For us, it was important to consider it not just as a documentary catalogue but as an active project. MATRIX 229 is an exhibition––in a compact, traveling form––conceived with self-reflexivity about context, materials, and means. This approach is specific to the MATRIX project, as well as indicative of Project Projects’ practice in general.

— As told to Lauren O’Neill-Butler