March 14, 2018

w-t-f: A Conversation with Seniors Eric Li and Jonathan Zong


How did you come to be collaborators, and how do your shows relate to one another?

Jonathan Zong: We share a studio and we’re roommates, and have known each other since freshman year, and we have a lot of the same interests in graphic design and art, so it naturally made sense that we would collaborate a lot. Since it’s the first year that we have the new Hurley Gallery, we wanted to play with the format of doing independent shows but having the same title and related content going on at the same time in different spaces.

Eric Li: It started out as a joke … “Let’s have the same show!” Then we started doing more and more work collaboratively. Like these pieces with the spoon and the orange: the spoon is supposed to represent me, the orange (or, clementine I guess?) is Jonathan. It’s a representation of how these two are always in dialogue, and the way our shows have come together.

metal spoon and an orange

Why a spoon, and why an orange?

JZ: (to Eric) I’ll explain yours, and you can explain mine. The spoon is a reference to an essay by Max Bill called “Continuity and Change.” He talks about true form, a form that captures everything that’s necessary for its function. The spoon can take on a lot of different forms … and all these different variations on the spoon are part of a process of searching for its form. That’s an idea that pops up a lot in both of our work, a process that might never be done, but is still significant and worthwhile.

“I do, however, believe that the spoon is continually changing because we haven’t yet found its true form – the form that corresponds to all its different functions” —Max Bill

EL: Jonathan had an orange that he brought to his studio at the beginning of junior year, and left it on a piece of styrofoam and it sort of sat there for the past two years. Over time it shriveled up and decayed, but remained recognizable … and it ties into Jonathan’s own interests, especially the general idea of identity and representations of identity over time and in different spaces. What’s nice about the orange is that it’s been there over such a long period of time, its very nature and identity has changed over the past two years. Plus there’s the fact that it’s just his thing, his mascot.

How has your collaboration shaped your identity as an artist?

JZ: Collaboration has always been important to me. I’m not so interested in myself. I know what I know … I’m more interested in other people and in the process of coming up with something that’s better than what each individual would be capable of, working on their own. I work through ideas by talking with other people about them, and it’s been so valuable to have Eric as a sounding board.

EL: Conversations are one of the best ways to be more productive in artistic practice. You go in with one set of ideas and come out with another. Through talking, we’re able to get to a higher level of understanding about an idea. Our podcast, Interface Your Face, is all about that. It’s a way to set a time every week to talk for an hour, with no agenda really, and often it ends up somewhere enlightening. Working with Jonathan has especially made me more aware of the societal impact of design, one of his interests is bias in machine learning and data science, and I think that comes across strongly in his show.

JZ: Thanks Eric. Yeah, the election of 2016 has led a lot of people to reflect more on how technology and media have an effect, by virtue of being ingrained in our daily lives, and how designers have a responsibility to consider how their work is going to be used in the world.

Visual arts gives you a platform to have a point of view about how you think the world should be, and then make things that express that point of view.

How does your work engage with those problems?

JZ: Somewhat indirectly … but the idea of a designer setting up a set of rules or constraints that influences how a process unfolds downstream, is something I think about in my artwork.

EL: We’re both Computer Science majors, but what’s nice about the Visual Arts program is that it’s given us both a set of tools to engage critically with the world around us. There’s a tendency to be “tech happy” and ignorant of the issues that attend technology. The Computer Science department is offering ethics classes now, but through Visual Arts we were able to engage with these issues much earlier, I think.

JZ: As someone who codes and designs things, visual arts gives you a platform to have a point of view about how you think the world should be, and then make things that express that point of view. I think that’s a really powerful thing.

How do you see yourselves sustaining your artistic practice in the future?

EL: My entire show is an effort to understand how graphic design is dealt with at Princeton, and how that sets up a model for a type of practice that is half artistic and half focused on production. So after graduation I hope to be in a smallish studio, engaged both critically with current design practices but also creating work that circulates.

JZ: I think of my creative practice and technical research as different aspects of the same process. I’m a bit unwilling to separate the two, so I’ll definitely carry that critical approach to thinking and producing into whatever context I end up working within after I leave Princeton.

So what are some of your thoughts about design at Princeton and how the “vis” graphic identity relates to what came before?

EL: It started because I needed to design a favicon for the website – I didn’t want the default little browser icon. I wanted it to be plain and simple, because the program’s work speaks for itself. And I didn’t want to assert an overt identity to the program. It ended up just being Times Italic.

JZ: I love that it started online and then transposed itself onto paper.

EL: I took a class with Fia Backström called Art as Research, and one of the first things I did was go into the archives and study the background of the Visual Arts program. And that history shows a constant push and pull between the program and the University. Some people in the University don’t really consider the work that’s being done in the program to be as engaging or as rigorous as other, more traditionally academic programs. Plus there’s the relationship between the visual arts and graphic design, which people sometimes refer to as “applied art.” Graphic design used to be taught by Aaron Marcus in the Architecture school, and then it wasn’t taught at all for like twenty years until David Reinfurt started teach graphic design courses when Joe Scanlan was the director of the program. So there’s a complex history, and it’s good timing to examine it now, with the opening of this new building – and Visual Arts still at 185 Nassau St.

It feels like you two have built a bridge between the new Hurley Gallery and the Lucas Gallery across campus.

JZ: Eric, I love that you planted the “vis” flag so prominently in the gallery here. It’s like we’re on the moon.

EL: We really wanted our shows to be in conversation with each other, and with each of the two venues. One of my favorite pictures that I’ve taken in this space shows the “wtf” flag, from the forum level, juxtaposed with the “arts at Princeton” flag below.

I love that you planted the “vis” flag so prominently in the gallery here. It’s like we’re on the moon.

What are some of the challenges of using graphic design to communicate the identity of the arts on campus?

EL: To begin with, there’s the question of what does it mean to practice graphic design within the Visual Arts program, because it is a bit more separate than the other mediums even though at the end of the day, it isn’t that different than working in photography or sculpture. There’s also the question of how to convey that you’re a graphic designer, without all the baggage of graphic design’s relationship to advertising, and how to convey the difference between the way we practice graphic design and the way it circulates around campus.

JZ: There’s always baggage when you label something …

EL: Like when you call an orange an orange.

JZ: Both of us have struggled with labeling ourselves, I guess we’ve settled on graphic designer but in some ways that doesn’t apply to us, or capture everything we’re trying to express in our work as visual artists and computer scientists. One of the nice things about the “vis” logo Eric designed is that it gets a little closer to the way people within the program think of themselves. It’s not “The Princeton University Program in Visual Arts,” it’s just “vis.” It’s our pirate flag.

EL: Speaking of Princeton University, this project entailed chopping the serifs off the official University font, Princeton Monticello, to create “Monti Sans.”

JZ: I think it’s brilliant because it expresses the feeling we both have about Princeton.

EL: The serif is like the baggage of cultural elitism. Monticello is based on the first typeface to be designed in colonial America. It’s interesting that Princeton decided to move away from a much more modern earlier graphic identity to a font that is so traditional. The serifs give it power … what happens when you emasculate the serifs?

JZ: Graphic identities represent how an institution sees itself, but they’re also aspirational, they tell us what the institution wants to be.

papers and photos on display

So why “w-t-f?”

JZ: “What’s True Form?” (laughter) … Well there’s something fun about getting “wtf” to circulate in official University channels, and the dashes are an homage to our advisor David Reinfurt (e.g., and it speaks to the kind of humor that is important to us. It’s the initial reaction some people have, upon seeing this work. WTF?


w-t-f is on view in the Lucas Gallery at 185 Nassau Street and in the Hurley Gallery at the Lewis Arts complex, 122 Alexander Street, through Saturday, March 17th. 

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