Jonathan Castro has wild visions
Fans of boundary-pushing design will likely already be familiar with the work of Jonathan Castro. Born in Peru and now based in Amsterdam, Castro’s instantly recognisable work – flitting between animation, graphic design, music and video work – has appeared in collaborations with Boiler Room and Ssense, and in magazines like Borshch, Tunica and 032c. Taking his cue from 90s album sleeves and retro sci-fi book covers like William Gibson’s Neuromancer, he is also behind the kaleidoscopic, rave-inspired artwork for the upcoming Crack Magazine-curated Simple Things festival.
Over a wide-ranging Skype conversation, Castro tells me the main idea guiding his work is to communicate a kind of “spirit”. What he wants to avoid making, by contrast, is something “made without love, without emotion”. His background might help put this into context: Castro spent his early childhood in the highlands of Peru, cared for by his grandparents. Central to this remote existence, he tells me, was a deep and respectful connection to the natural world. Properly embedded in this place, his grandparents – and particularly his grandmother, who he describes as “kind of a shaman” – knew the properties of every plant, what to seek out and what to keep at arm’s length.
Chaos/Entropy exhibition in Shanghai
NXS Magazine #3
“Nowadays, it’s really difficult to talk about something that is really pure... nothing is pure any more.”
Unsurprisingly, it came as something of a shock when Castro later moved with his parents to Lima – a chaotic but thrilling megacity home to 10 million people. In the city, his role in a wider context, so obvious in his earlier rural life, became much more difficult to trace: “too much information,” he says. Connection was finally grasped in the city’s heavy metal music scene, introduced to him by an older cousin. As a tide of economic liberalisation threatened the fabric of Peruvian society, music was a way of expressing political dissent. Castro found community here, first as an observer and later as a musician. In his eyes, the scene’s DIY ephemera, fanzines and posters resembled propaganda for an alternative Peru.
In a sense, contemporary social media offers a similar way of locating yourself, socially, in a world that often feels vast and indifferent. For an enthusiast like Castro, it is just another way of accessing community. From his previous home in Peru, Instagram in particular allowed him to make contact with new artists, designers and clients – often ones who, before social media, would only have been accessible in person, if at all. In the past, this has involved working with Metahaven, the Dutch critical design collective much more interested in government surveillance and the cloud than finding the perfect type.
While he admires the purity of minimalism, it is definitely not Castro’s chosen path. His Peruvian heritage, his interest in animism, and his formation in Lima’s metal community, rings out in a colourful and maximalist approach to design. Whether he is creating posters, clothing, design identities or magazines, he is always trying to make objects that affect. The idea of a pure style is replaced by something that is as “multi-vocal” as Castro’s home city – “it’s not about style anymore,” he says, “it’s about ‘what do you want to say with that?’”
At its heart is this concept of community: that the person looking at his work will feel addressed by it, called to decipher it like his grandparents interpreted signs from the natural world. Recurring features – vivid and clashing fonts and colours, nods to traditional Peruvian textiles and design, bright swashes of flat gradient, along with elements of DIY metal and zine culture – are distilled into a language left for us to crack. “Nowadays,” he says, “it’s really difficult to talk about something that is really pure… nothing is pure any more.” For Castro, impurity is a much better fit.