Blakesy: Branding and Crafting Blake Online

"Tyger, Tyger" t-shirt, from Threadless

William Blake has an obvious appeal for subcultures who consume custom-made t-shirts, coffee mugs, and other ephemera. Part of this appeal might be attributed to what Mike Goode has identified as the proverbial quality of Blake’s work. Quotes from Blake’s work can easily be taken from their original context and emerge in films, comics, bathroom stalls – and yes, coffee mugs and t-shirts. Threadless, for example, offers a typically ironic and cute take on Blake’s “Tyger” poem with their “Tyger, Tyger” t-shirt – which depicts a Tyger setting fire to several kites. Threadless features designs submitted by its users, then a few are collectively chosen, printed on t-shirts, and sold by the company – with profits being shared with the designers. “Tyger, Tyger” is another example of what Steve Clark and Jason Whittaker call “the Blake Brand,” where Blake’s work is transformed and made to circulate apart from its original meaning for the purpose of making new commodities. In the case of “Tyger, Tyger,” the shirt emphasizes the cuteness of the Tyger and mocks the ferocity of Blake’s poem by presenting an image that is cartoony and childish. The line on the shirt reads “Tyger, Tyger burning kites/ in the forests of the night” along with a short note pointing at the tiger and stating that “he hates kites.”

"Heaven In a Rage" T-Shirt, from Threadless


A second example from Threadless is the “Heaven in a Rage” shirt, featuring a quote from Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence:” “A Robin Redbreast in a cage/ Puts all Heaven in a rage/ -William Blake.” Here, the cage links to both the bird cage and to the body’s rib cage, and the robin – presumably – is the soul weighed down by the body, with rib bones doubling as the door to the bird’s cage. This second T-shirt, rather than relying upon the tropes of cuteness and half-joking meaninglessness popular on shirts designed by the users of Threadless, actually reinforces themes of bodily imprisonment common in Blake’s work.

Cafepress, on the other hand, offers not only several Blake-designed t-shirts, coffee cups, decals, and mousepads (the most interesting being a t-shirt reproduction of the plate from “The Divine Image”), it also allows users to custom-design their own products – which are then sold back to the users. I know this because I received a “Book of Urizen” T-shirt from a significant other a few years back and was initially astonished that such a shirt existed. One wonders how Blakean either Threadless or Cafepress are, since both separate the designs of the shirts – which are conceived by their online communities – from their production – in the case of Threadless, designs are printed on American Apparel produced shirts. Indeed, the appearance of Blake on sites like Threadless and Cafepress could allow us to distinguish Whittaker and Clark’s “The Blake Brand” from more DIY (Do It Yourself) and open-source forms of Zoamorphosis. If the former is distinguished by a separation between design and production, the latter might be seen to follow what Kathryn Crowther identifies as a steampunk ethos.

Those who try to define steampunk return again and again to the idea that the reason that Steampunk takes its inspiration from the  nineteenth century is because it represents the turning point at which we lost the ability to “make” our own products or to open them up and tinker with them.  In a type of protest against the minimalistic, sealed-off aesthetics of artifacts such as iPhones or Macbooks, the artistic work of steampunkers ask the question – what is lost, or, what do we as consumers of art lose, when industrialization and mass-production render the individual creator obsolete?

William Blake Miniature Historical Doll

This is, of course, a question that Blake himself asked when publishing his own work or when he refused to engage in the mass-produced eighteenth-century aesthetic of landscape and portrait painting. In a Marxist sense, we could say that the Blake Brand retains the occult power of the commodity – in which the gears and threads of production are hidden from the consumer. Users design an image, or copy a Blake .jpg from a Google search, and it magically appears on a shirt that is delivered to their home. Zoamorphosis, on the other hand, encourages tinkering and punking.

Etsy by no means bridges the occult divide between design and production, but it does leave the production to individual merchants and – as an online vendor – challenges the mass produced models of other online shops. It’s a vision that Rob Walker, in a 2007 article for The New York Times, calls “nostalgic.” In a discussion with founder Robert Kalin, Walker imagines just how nostalgic it might be:

If the marketplace today has become alienating and disconnected, then buying something handmade, from another individual, rolls back the clock to an era before factory labor and mass production. That’s a lot of clock-turning, if you recall Adam Smith’s excitement about the efficiency of an 18th-century pin factory. Really, Kalin has a problem with the entire modern marketplace. “Everything since the Industrial Revolution has been so fragmented,” he told me, sounding more like a character in Slacker, wasting time in a cafe, than a guy running a briskly growing business.

Of course, one wonders if nostalgia can adequately capture what Etsy, steampunk, or Blake have accomplished. As an aside, Etsy features no less than 72,000 results for “steampunk.” Its return for “William Blake” is somewhat more modest, coming in at around 118. However, the diversity of crafts that Blake inspires is much more interesting than what can be found on either Cafepress or Threadless.

"William Blake 's Proverbs of Hell, Print No. 6" from RSFillustration

Consider the “Blake guitar strap” which is accompanied by the image of a tiger and the first stanza from Blake’s poem “The Tyger.” In the description, moxieandoliver notes “William Blake is one of my favorite artists, and recently when I became oddly obsessed with the idea of a tiger with stars I thought, what better to accompany it than the first stanza from “The Tyger”? So here it is, a white tiger with gold eyes, gold stars, and the first stanza from The Tyger, with an evening blue wash.” Other items include nancyfarmer’s imaginative recreation of the Marriage of Heaven and Hell as a literal embrace between an angel and a devil, uneekdolldesign’s “William Blake Miniature Historical Art Doll” which wears “velveteen brown breeches, white shirt with tied neck collar, and black wool coat with silver buttons,” and RSFillustration’s visualizations of Blake’s proverbs of Hell from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The visualizations include “Dip Him in the River Who Loves Water” titled “Charles Bukowski” and featuring a man who is presumably drinking alcohol, “The Cut Worm Forgives the Plow” with the roots of a sunflower cutting a worm in two, and “Drive Your Cart and Plow over the Bones of the Dead” with a skeleton entombed underneath layers of soil being plowed by a farmer.

Each of these designs, along with the entire philosophy of zoamorphosis and DIY-avenues like the site Etsy and the magazine Make, begs the question of whether a turn towards making and building is – in fact – nostalgic. One could, on the other hand, see  DIY as a reaction to a post-2008 Financial Meltdown ethos in which global corporations seem increasingly less invested in the communities that support them. Here, Etsy, zoamorphosis, and steampunk are similar to the spirit that animates Rachel Botsman’s collaborative consumption and the Move Your Money project: all are concerned with imagining new ways of relating to and transforming already existing communities and commodities.

Fernand Péna and Guy Pearson

Ode to William Blake. Fernand Péna. Lezarts, 2010. €15.00. lezarts.info.Glad Day. Guy Pearson. Issimo, 2010. £11.00. guypearson.com.

Fernand Péna, based in Paris, has been a rock musician since the 1970s, one who’s influences include Tom Waits, Neil Young, The Doors and Frank Zappa. His latest project, released in late 2010, is the result of several years’ labour to bring together these influences with another love of his life, Blake’s art and poetry, in the form of the album Ode to William Blake. Comprising sixteen tracks, with a very handsome illustrated booklet that includes Blake’s lyrics as well as short essays in French and English on Blake’s life and works.

Péna’s voice is somewhat reminiscent of Tom Waits (or indeed Tom Petty),  and Ode to William Blake is a determined rock record (indeed, the back cover describes it as “Rock Songs with Words from the Mind”). Péna is extremely faithful – indeed, literal – to Blake’s poetry, drawing primarily from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, with only two tracks drawn from elsewhere in Blake’s corpus. One of these, “Oh, I say you Joe”, shares its origins with the Songs insofar as it is located in An Island in the Moon (the original source of such Songs of Innocence as “Holy Thursday”), while the last track on the album, “William Bond”, is taken from The Pickering Manuscript, most famous for the poem “Auguries of Innocence”.

After a slightly disappointing start with “Songs of Innocence” (the “Introduction” to Blake’s own Innocence), Ode to William Blake quickly improves with two of my favourite tracks from the entire album: “The Little Vagabond” and “The Little Boy Lost/The Little Boy Found”. Actually, I have a personal block with more of less all versions of the first poem in Innocence, it being, for example, one of the weakest tracks for me on Jah Wobble’s  The Inspiration of William Blake. “The Little Vagabond”, by contrast, establishes very firmly Péna’s strong rock and blues style guitar, with a very mellow backing track. Very occasionally, his French pronunciation either jars or adds an additional exoticism to Blake’s lyrics, but in general his gravelly voice is rich and luxurious.

Throughout the album as a whole, what is most fascinating about Péna’s work is how successfully he transfers Blake’s lyricism into soft rock that is not simply professional in terms of its musical quality (entirely to be expected of Péna’s background), but rather natural. The virtue of Blake’s songs is that many of them may be transformed into rock ballads, though there remain – as is to be expected – a few surprises. The slightly unconventional metre of “The Little Black Boy” returns the listener to Blake’s words in new and fascinating ways,  while the acoustic accompanying guitar of “To Tirzah” throws the frankly bizarre lyrics into [new light?]

Many of the tracks, such as “A Poison Tree” or “William Bond”, are dominated by vibrant classic guitar licks (so much so that “William Bond” in particular struck me as something that could have been produced by a group such as Pink Floyd in the eighties or nineties). Not that the style is by any means monotonous, however: thus “Oh, I say you Joe” experiments with a  calypso feel, while “Holy Thursday” is mournful and thoughtful. Péna’s talent is to have transferred Blake’s poetry to a popular format with aplomb and very evident affection.

Guy Pearson’s Glad Day, also released in 2010, is in a very different style although it too also draws largely from Songs of Innocence and Experience. Classical piece, primarily for piano and voice, these draw on a different tradition of classical music (though one that, in a few cases, such as the introductory track, “Glad Day”, also echoes with filmic references). Pearson’s style works best when focussed on his own virtuoso piano playing in accompaniment to such singers as soprano Rachel Major or James Savage-Hanford’s delightful tenor voice.

Several of the tracks are direct translations of Blake’s lyrics, such as the delightful “A Dream” or “Ah! Sun-flower” (both sung by Major). Elsewhere, however, Pearson provides some extremely interesting interpretations designed to capture elements of Blake’s art or poetry. “An Island in the Moon”, for example, is a marvellous instrumental that captures the joie de vivre of Blake’s satire and something of its rumbustious, rococo style, while “Newton” offers echoes of Michael Nyman’s work in order to express the mechanical (yet also immensely elegant) world view of the scientist and philosopher. Ironically, perhaps, it is one of my favourite pieces on the album and puts me in mind of Blake’s ambivalence towards Newton in his famous large colour print from 1795 – the angelic spiritual form of one of England’s greatest mind’s as beautiful as Satan in his former glory.

Of the eighteen tracks, others that attracted my attention include “The Tyger” and “Lux Nova”. “The Tyger” actually begins with haunting whispered words from the opening lines of Auguries of Innocence, “To see a world in a grain of sand / And heaven in a wild flower”. The effect of this, particularly with Pearson’s minimalist introduction and – once more – Major’s wonderful soprano, is to focus the listener on the tiger as not merely an instrument of terror and the sublime but also return him or her to the beauty of this creature. “Lux Nova” does not draw directly from Blake’s own poetry, but this new light could clearly be one of Blake’s own innocent songs, or perhaps one of the those clear and lucid moments that emerge at the end of his grand prophecies such as The Four Zoas or Jerusalem, when the prophet Los emerges from the obscure and terrible darkness that has preceded. What is more, “Lux Nova” allows the listener to enjoy Pearson’s piano very simply.