Ellen Mueller

Interview with Aggie Toppins

by Ellen Mueller on August 20, 2023, no comments

five Critical Theory Cocktail zine covers

Critical Theory Cocktails – Zines by Aggie Toppins

As part of the run up to the hardcover release of my book, Walking as Artistic Practice (softcover comes out in April!), I’m going to be publishing some brief interviews with the various artists, authors, researchers, creatives, collectives, and platforms whose art practice, written material, or other works I cite and mention.

First up is the talented Aggie Toppins, whose work I’ve been admiring for years. Toppins is a designer, writer, and educator. She is an Associate Professor of Communication Design and Chair of Undergraduate Design at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. Aggie’s work has been exhibited across the United States and published internationally. She is currently working on her first book, Thinking Through Graphic Design History: Challenging the Canon which will be released in 2025.

EM: First, thank you for chatting with me about your zine series, Critical Theory Cocktails. I cite your description of Walter Benjamin’s understanding of the flaneur in chapter one of Walking as Artistic Practice, “History of Walking as Artistic Practice,” in the subsection on “Thinkers and Walkers,” and your definition of phenomenology in chapter three, “Observational Walking,” in the subsection on “The Personal Experience.” How would you describe Critical Theory Cocktails for people who might not be familiar with it?

AT: Critical Theory Cocktails was a zine series I made for about five years. It was a side project that helped me be accountable to a rigorous practice of reading by translating what I understood from complex philosophical texts into cocktails recipes. I like projects that allow me to be generative while learning. I also like cocktails.

EM: What are your thoughts on walking as artistic practice?

AT: Creatively, I’m quite invested in ideas like the Situationist notion of the ‘drift’ or dérive, feminist psychogeography, and other practices that return our attentions to the material world. A large part of my studio output is committed to a collage-based image-making practice in which I gather materials that pass through my life while traveling or otherwise moving through public space. Walking reminds me that I’m a body in a fascinating and beautiful world, not just a worker attached to a screen. I make things in response to long walks, train rides, experiences with real places, real things, and real people all the time.

EM: You are also an author and designer; can you tell us about any recent or upcoming projects you are excited about?

AT: Yes, and thank you for asking. I have two exciting projects happening now. First, I’m in the process of finishing my first book, Thinking Through Graphic Design History, which will reach market in 2025. In it, I discuss the overlapping space between historical research and interpretation and applied design work. My interest in history is another influence in my studio practice. I mentioned my collage work previously. The process for this begins in my sketchbook, using the detritus of consumption, communication, and transportation (all aspects of what Marc Augé describes as the ‘non-place’). As fragments of experience, these ‘found graphics’ are essentially sources. I use them to interpret my world, like a historian might interpret the past. While this has personal provenance, I hope to engage viewers in an open-ended space of meaning. The fragments of a collage are signals from prior times and places, much like a document in an archive or an object in a museum. Following Benjamin, each fragment is a window into a world, not pieces of a unified whole, like a broken vase. The priority I place on sourcing, arranging, and curating indexical signs is a point of convergence between my scholarship and my studio practice. In October of this year, I’ll have my first national solo show, Two Halves of an Orange, at Paul Mesaros Galleries at West Virginia University. It’ll be a busy fall!