creates some of the underground’s most engrossing artwork
Documenting emerging scenes and sounds as they take shape, the prolific record label PAN maps out parallel themes in conceptual art, underground dance, and experimental music.
Since its inception, PAN has been held in high regard for the fearless music it releases and the community of producers it has helped forge.
Just as essential is the way in which this music is presented. PAN releases often have a dreamlike or surreal quality to them, from the early success of Lee Gamble’s reinterpretation of jungle, Diversions 1994-1996, to more recently the futuristic darkness of M.E.S.H.’s Piteous Gate, or the quivering choral fragility of Visionist’s Safe. The label’s artwork expands on this feeling; the visual output contributes extra depth to unplaceable sounds. While PAN is celebrated for its diverse and wide-ranging musical output, it’s Bill Kouligas’s approach to artwork that ties everything together.
Working as a graphic designer in London before moving to Berlin in 2008, Kouligas collaborated on the initial artistic direction with visual artist Kathryn Politis. PAN began with a sharply focused aesthetic, and together they constructed the backbone of its appearance – stark, graphic lines screen-printed on clear PVC sleeves, housing an inner sleeve baring photography or artwork. Playing with the component parts that make up a physical record release and reimagining them gave PAN a uniquely modular aesthetic. The concept of collage, that these components could be rearranged and reorganised through layering and (re)arrangement, and new and unique patterns constructed – in turn reflecting the acutely experimental nature of PAN’s releases – helped to solidify the notion that the artwork binds the label’s output together.
When we make contact with him after a few weeks of abandoned meetings – due to his many project commitments and a short US tour – Kouligas is keen from the outset to keep our discussion present in time and futuristic in scope. So while you could argue that a shift has been visible in the recent move away from the style he created with Politis, Kouligas states that the label has always been evolving; it’s an “ever changing platform of ideas” that has grown organically from the humble beginnings of PAN 1 – a release by his own musical project Family Battle Snake.
And of course there are more practical reasons. As the label grew from a few hundred copies per release to “thousands and thousands”, it became impossible to screen-print the PVC sleeves by hand any longer. Initially, Kouligas had treated the releases as art editions – individual, unique and produced in small amounts. While the first 10 records featured found photography from “personal research and collections”, the label soon reached out to photographers, visual artists and often the musicians themselves. Many of the musicians came from visual art backgrounds, or continued to be active in those fields (Steven Warwick, aka Heatsick, creates, performs and exhibits visual work extensively alongside the wonked-out long-form Casio jams he produces for the label). Other collaborators who have worked alongside Kouligas include revered anti-art activist Henry Flynt, photographer (and Stereolab drummer) Joe Dilworth and designer Traianos Pakioufakis.
As the approach on which the label made its name is a chapter now closed, the current style returns to more traditional full-colour card sleeves. The imagery for Visionist’s recent album Safe, photographed and digitally manipulated by Daniel Sannwald, uses the newer canvas to explore the Uncanny Valley, encasing Visionist’s face in a hyperreal amorphous barrier that creates a strong audio-visual link to the musical concepts. Taking a more graphic, though equally stark approach is visual artist Louis Reith’s artwork for Afrikan Science’s Circuitous. Mapping his signature abstractions and Kouligas’s cyrillic-referencing typography to a heady black and gold colour palette amplifies the afro-futuristic, inter/outernational sound of the album.
Albeit exceptional and striking in their strange beauty and their weird distortions of the banal, these too are temporary. “Being a designer, I’m trying to expand on the idea of what a designer does and what it means,” Kouligas explains. His restless and voracious desire to push forward, to remain at the vanguard and to keep everyone on their toes while releasing art and music designed to whip them from out from under, means that a deep dive into the depths of the web is the next logical step.
The week our conversation takes place is when the first piece of that future puzzle is released. In late 2015, PAN revealed an audio-visual work by the composer and artist ADR, which comprised a limited edition SD card, live performance, and a playable video game-like environment hosted through the label’s new Deli Near platform. Created by Berlin-based artist and programmer Harm van den Dorpel, Kouligas describes Deli Near as “a publishing tool and online environment for artists to host work endlessly”. Based on a social network, the site provides artists that release on the label with “more longevity and creative freedom” than that currently offered by standard digital and physical release models.
These models, where the process ends when the record is released into the public sphere, seem to present boundaries to Kouligas that can be traversed. By providing a platform where artists’ work can “endlessly develop and evolve over time”, it begins to question what constitutes a release in and of itself. While records will continue to be a part of PAN’s future, they won’t be “the main focus”, rather becoming a “component to a greater work that will be placed online”. Essentially what this boils down to is the ability to offer PAN and its artists considerably more freedom regarding the creation and dissemination of artwork than the two sides of a record sleeve currently allow. “It was inevitable to try and create a ground for all these interests to be more well placed,” Kouligas says, “and to create links between all these things that we’re fascinated with on a daily basis.”
It’s this free-flowing narrative that seems essential to PAN, especially in its present form, and an approach that Kouligas believes in strongly. “We give and take constantly,” he explains, “it’s an exchange of ideas. It’s very important to me.” There is an argument that a lot of extreme electronic music is alienating, and cathartic only for those involved in its creation, but Kouligas wants to present it as exclusive and interactive, “to let people in and have them make their own narrative out of it.”
It’s clear that Kouligas intends to do this music thing indefinitely – it’s what he knows, where he comes from, and where he wants to be. For now, the future seems to rest on the infinite possibilities offered by the Deli Near platform, and what that means
for the artistic expression of the label and the artists that orbit within it. Artistically, the future of PAN is uncertain, even if the survival of the label isn’t.