Interview: Toluen Art

Dark ambient is a genre where particular attention has to be paid when transferring an album to a physical format. Being lyric-less and vague by definition, run-of-the-mill booklets and packaging are out of the question, leaving artwork as the number one factor in how an album is going to be perceived, whether on CD or vinyl. And while some artists prefer to create the accompanying artwork for their albums themselves, others are not as well-versed in Photoshop as they are in Cubase. So what's it like in the artistic domain of dark ambient when your concern is not of musical nature? I tried to get a deeper look at this issue through a chat with Nenad Brankovic, the man behind Toluen Art, one of the better-known independent artists in the field and my countryman of sorts.

Greetings, Nenad. It might be best if we start this conversation off by your exposing your artistic portfolio. What does your work under the Toluen Art moniker comprise and whom have you cooperated with up to now?

Hello, Vladimir! First of all, thanks for your interest in Toluen Art. I've so far worked with: Toluen Design, Cyclic Law, Svartsinn, Elegi, Phragments, Prosper In Darkness Productions, Neuropa Records, Metrom & Yspotua, Atranenia, W:E:M I and II, Ethereal Pandemonium, Expedition Delta, Phragments & Korinth, and finally Northaunt.

You were born and raised in Serbia, yet you studied in Slovakia, where you’ve worked and lived to this day. Why Slovakia of all places, and how did you get there?

I arrived to Bratislava as a 15-year-old kid. I managed to enter a private art school, only to continue my artistic education on the Slovakian Academy of Fine Arts (VŠVU) in the graphic design field, which was oriented towards visual presentation and communication rather than pure technical skill.

Why did you choose Toluen Art as the name to sign your visual creations with? How did you get the idea for it and what does it mean to you personally?

The idea first came to me during practical work as part of a very interesting subject at the Academy, called Graphic Technologies. I got introduced to ancient painting technologies and techniques that started forming my particular style, or as we call it, handwriting. Toluene is a type of liquid used for colour cleaning, but it also destroys and degrades most types of surfaces, leaving a strange residual imprint; it makes for a bizarre visual impression which I’ve manipulated, examined and explored. Toluen Art is also related to my individual musical project Atranenia, in which I create sound as well as visuals.

How did you first get entangled in the dark ambient scene?

I’ve always wanted to couple sound with my dark and sombre visual creations; in my own creative process, this seems to be the best combination: sound-image, image-sound.

What’s the album artwork creation process like in your case? Do you let yourself get carried away by immediate inspiration, or do you form a clear idea of what you want to achieve before you even start working?

Definitely the former; I try to enjoy myself while working, which means that I listen to the album at hand and use the inspiration it provides me with to create artwork. The final product is the album cover which gives a certain perspective and implies the musical direction of the album.

Is your work more a result of the musicians’ requirements or your own vision? How much creative freedom do you have when you’re working on order?

I mostly do artwork for people and musicians who are already familiar with my work, approach and style, so they leave me a lot of creative freedom and room for my own vision. I’m used to and prefer to have this sort of broad liberty. There’s nothing better than achieving a result that satisfies me and the musician alike.

And now for the notorious question – what are your thoughts on the digitalisation of visual art? How much of your work is done by hand, and how much by mouse?

That’s an interesting question. I personally do all my work by hand, with the mouse being just an instrument enabling me to fit all the pieces in, finalise the shape, typography combinations and visuals. It’s true that we’re living in a digital world, but that’s not inherently bad, as it gives artists a fast and effective approach to their work.

Would you be able to pick your favourite artwork among what you’ve created thus far?

After reading your question, one instantly came to mind. It’s the artwork for a 4-panel digipak, made for the orchestral dark ambient project Phragments & Korinth, specifically for the album “Mysteries Of The Graylands”. It’s definitely my most cherished creation, especially because of its dark purple hue.

I’m sure you partake in activities other than those of a graphic designer. What else do you do on a professional level?

Other than visual and sonic design, I’m also an avid fan of cooking! A few years ago, I decided to make it a professional activity, so I opened a Russian-Serbian restaurant called “Prijatno” with my best friend Ashot from Russia. The Slovak people aren’t very gourmand, unfortunately, and they didn’t appreciate our cuisine too much. At the same time, I was becoming overwhelmed with my professional and artistic activities, so we were forced to close everything up, but I’m definitely proud of this very interesting experience and remain hopeful that one day I might give it another shot.

I’ve seen that you’ve even designed the label for one Slovakian brand of beer, owned by Heineken Slovakia. How did this come about?

It happened during my cooperation with the graphic design studio “CD Ogilvy”. I designed the label and bottle for the well-known “Kelt” brand of Slovakian beer, which ignited some new creative spheres inside me. In fact, I spend most of my working hours in the commercial sphere of graphic design, so it’s with great love and dedication that I express myself in the almost opposite sphere of personal artistic creation.

You’re also active as a musician in Metrom & Yspotua. Could you give us any more information on this project?

Metrom & Yspotua is a dark music project I’ve been doing with my buddy from the Academy, Michal Tornyai. We started it in the summer of 2007 in order to experiment with our musical ideas. The basic concept behind the project is to musically express the emotions and ideas related to death.

What’s your musical background like? Which releases do you consider to be classics, and which have you been listening to lately? Are there any bands or projects you’d like to recommend to a wider audience?

I grew up on metal, and I occasionally go back to some of my favourite albums from that time. Sound can be a powerful medium for bringing back past memories. However, my primary source of peace and inspiration is classical music, especially composers such as György Ligeti, Arvo Pärt and Krzysztof Penderecki. The type of music I feel like listening to often depends on the season. I usually spend winter days with ambient artists such as Deaf Center, Arbol, Christopher Bissonnette, Phragments, Sophia, Desiderii Marginis, Atrium Carceri – the list goes on. Anyone who feels like researching deeper into this genre is best off with one of the best dark ambient labels around, namely Cold Meat Industry.

Can an artist such as you survive solely on his artistic activity in today’s cruel world?

Ah, now you’ve brought me back to the real and, as you’ve put it well, cruel world. The artistic activities that serve to satisfy and fulfil me mostly don’t amount to considerable amounts of money, but it’s not my goal to create in that calculative, monetary way. The feeling of personal satisfaction with one’s own work is priceless!

If you got the chance to have your artwork featured on any artist’s CD, who would you pick and why?

I’d definitely like to see my artwork on something released by Cold Meat Industry, as the label has many wonderful artists. I’ve had good relationships with record labels in the past, such as Neuropa Records, Malignant Records, Cyclic Law etc. When there’s will and perspective, there’s also the way to reach your goal.