If you’re a designer, artist, art director, or any other kind of creative that’s moved to the United States from a foreign country, you’ve probably had to convince the government at some point or other that you are truly, exceptionally “extraordinary.”
But what exactly does it mean to be extraordinary, and how do you prove it? The O-1 non-immigrant visa, issued by the U.S. to foreigners hoping to reside long-term in the country, asks individuals to prove that they possess “extraordinary ability in the arts” and have “been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements.” To many this means demonstrating that you’ve been written up in the media, won an award, or been published somewhere prominent. To artist and graphic designer Jenny Hung, the O-1 visa indicates a system where work is not considered important—or to even exist in any legitimate way—until it has been written about or published.
To make this state of affairs visible and to celebrate work that might not have had major exposure, she’s begun producing O1 magazine. It features contributions by foreign-born artists, some with the O-1 classification, some applying for it, and some using or seeking alternative methods to stay and make extraordinary work in the United States. Many of the contributors are ones that Hung met during her graphic design MFA at Yale; others are artists and designers she’s been connected to while working in Manhattan.
“When you create a magazine, you are forming a community, or strengthening an existing one,” says Hung, an immigrant herself who grew up in New York. “The visa process has already, in a way, corralled an international community of art and design nomads.
“In its essence, the O1 project tries to look at how this movement of people from around the world can enable a cross-pollination of new ideas and perspectives in the U.S., especially at a time when the country is increasingly turning inwards and isolating itself.”
Released in January of this year, the first issue’s aim is to communicate the experiences and challenges faced by participating artists and designers through content and form. Designed like a map, it makes the labyrinthine procedure and obstacles the visa process poses clear: the issue is frustrating to fold and unfold with its large, clumsy pages, and it overwhelms the reader with huge amounts of paper, “mimicking the bureaucratic burden” of the application itself. Hung designed a special typeface for the issue called “Envoy”, which is based on a 19th century specimen of a slab-serif typeface that served as a precursor and possible model for early typewriter typefaces like Courier (the U.S. State Department’s standard typefaces for many years.)
The theme of bureaucracy and standardization is smartly coded into other details, too. Issue 1 costs $15.50—a nod to the $1550 applicants pay for processing—and its total word count is 10,891, reflecting the 10,891,745 immigrant visas issued in 2015. Each contributor had to work with individual word counts based on the number of visas that the U.S. issued to their home country (with one word representing about 1,000 visas). China-born and LA-based graphic designer Yuanchen Jiang’s 2,447 words occupies the largest terrain of the magazine, a polite yet tedious correspondence between a lawyer and an applicant. The slimmest contribution is from graphic designer Nejc Prah from Slovenia, who could only write one word. With experimental and absurdist zest, he chose the word “banana.”
The only illustrative detailing inside issue 1 is a series of elusive gradients designed by Hung, which puncture random sections of the magazine like ghostly voids. “I wanted to mimic the banding effect that occurs when there isn’t enough data to properly display color gradients, as a bit of a metaphor for the bottleneck created by the visa process,” she explains.
“There are talented people who get shut out of this country for one reason or another. That is a loss—like ocean currents ceasing movement, or gradients becoming unyieldingly flat and stunted.”
Issue 2 was published in July of this year, an altogether very different kind of issue to the inaugural release. It’s anchored to a temporary exhibition that took place on July 30 in an empty storefront in a Chinese mall in a largely Chinese community in New York, presenting the work of immigrating or immigrant artists. Australian art duo Superficial made a video that reimagined the space as a luxury apartment, UK-born artist Del Hardin Hoyle designed a bench for the bus stop situated in front of the space, and South Korean AGFW put together a workshop that offered advice on the O1 visa process.
“While the exhibition was only temporary, the printed magazine is permanent, a published proof of the event,” says Hung. “For visa applications, having your work published lends credence to your work. Translating your artwork into a flat reproduction with some printed text around it can be as important as the real work itself!
“It’s interesting to think of a magazine as something that isn’t just a documentation of existing things, or an end-product, but instead as a prompt for individual and group action.”
Its design draws from the location of the exhibition space itself: the speckled cover references the white flecked ceiling, the glaring pink pages reflect the pink paint of the walls, and the overall layout channels the proportions of the room. Qiong Li, another one of the artists featured in the show, translated the written content into Chinese to express the bilingual nature of the neighbourhood the exhibition was situated in. The exhibition’s space is almost ludicrously transformed into a printed version of itself, in order to legitimize and prove its own existence.
At the very back of the magazine, there’s a curious pair of photographs featuring two smiling men in a shop that seems to move away from the rest of the content. These two pictures are of Hung’s uncles, who opened an electronics store when they first immigrated to the U.S. “In a kind of poetic repetition, the space I found for issue 2 also happened to be a former electronics store. It felt important for me to remember that time in my life as I was preparing for this show, and to reference that memory of my family adapting to this new country. Not only adapting, but building from the existing economic and cultural fabric that was already here—transforming it,” says Hung.
This notion of adapting, transforming, and collaborating, and Hung’s own personal experiences as an immigrant, infuses the typeface created for this second issue. It builds on Franklin Gothic, a classic American typeface, by subtly adding a new weight in one case, as well as not-so-subtly diverging from it in a second iteration. This second version has wires that criss-cross and connect letters, poetically alluding to the idea of building solid bridges, and vaguely referencing the train tracks above the shopping mall where the exhibition took place. Spiral binding then reflects the atmosphere of the exhibition’s location even further: it makes the publication shake in your hand like the shop does when a train passes overhead, but it also elegantly reveals the nature of the community in the pages—one bound by shared classification; and how their presence in the U.S. binds their personal cultural experiences with their new home’s cultural and economic one to create something new.
“The O1 project is in many ways shaped by chance and circumstance,” says Hung. “I’d like to keep it that way so that it remains open, adaptable, and surprising to myself and the readers.”