The Daily Heller: The Cockroach Writer Turns 140 Metamorphic Years

Posted inThe Daily Heller

To celebrate the 140th birthday of Franz Kafka, to be observed on July 3rd, the Israeli type designer and typographer Oded Ezer allows us an exclusive sneak peek of a new project, “The Samsa Enigma.” His homage to the great Kafka involves the creation of 24 covers for the unpublished books of Gregor Samsa, the main fictional character, who mysteriously transforms overnight into a cockroach in Kafka’s classic 1912 story, “The Metamorphosis.”

The concept behind Kafka’s timeless masterpiece of surreal, social satire revolves around the idea that Samsa was a real individual, an obsessive writer who authored 24 books within a prolific span of eleven years before tragically taking his own life. Although the books were never published, Kafka was acquainted with them and used their titles to form the iconic opening paragraph of “The Metamorphosis.”

I took this opportunity to ask Tel Aviv based Ezer what underpinning Kafka has on his life and how his approach to the subject came together in such a dynamic manner.

What is the trigger that inspired you to create an entire set of books by Kafka’s character Gregor Samsa?
When my son returned home from school, he shared that he was currently studying Franz Kafka’s story, Metamorphosis. His revelation rekindled my desire to revisit the tale. I reminisced about my younger days when I, like my son, was deeply captivated by Kafka’s fascination with the absurd and his exploration of life’s purpose. I yearned to determine whether his works still possessed the power to stir my emotions as they once did.

A significant but not immediate stimulus was my wish to return to my creative methodology from earlier years. Specifically, I yearned to regain the capacity for crafting imaginary situations that would satisfy my urge to explore fresh conceptual and creative solutions, surpassing mere immediate commercial demands.

This method has previously resulted in the creation of several noteworthy Design Fiction works, including “Typosperma” and “Memory Palace” (which were also exhibited at MoMA in New York), as well as the more recent “Veining” project.

Furthermore, in recent years, particularly during the global pandemic and the recent turbulent demonstrations that occurred following the change in government in my country, I have devoted considerable attention to social and political issues. This focus has been evident in my creation of posters that directly confront the vulnerable state of our society. As a result, I have temporarily distanced myself from engaging in experimental endeavors. 

This made me yearn for the experience of creating design fiction projects, while also causing uncertainty about my ability to resume that pursuit. As anyone involved in visual communication understands, it is not common in our field to focus on fictional content. 

This operational approach of design fiction works, which I have cultivated throughout over two decades, finds acceptance within the realm of visual art but stands out as unconventional in the field of visual communication. This distinction arises from the fact that, as designers, it is challenging to sustain such a methodology for an extended period. It involves elements of experimentation and unpredictability, often pushing the boundaries of conventional design practices. As a result, it occasionally raises suspicion among the design community.

I would not recognize this as being your work, perhaps because I’m used to your type and lettering. Is this indeed a new approach for you?
Yes. I get where you’re coming from because on the surface it is a slightly different project, at least visually. At a glance the works are not experimental typography works and everything looks like a normal commercial project of a series of title covers, the likes of which we can find in any bookstore.

But if you penetrate under the thin outer layer of what is visible to the eye, you realize that there is actually a use here, perhaps in a slightly different way, of the same techniques that I have always worked with.

What’s new for me in this project is that I took on the task of illustrating the images myself for the first time. Typically, my work focuses on typography, but this time I decided to incorporate unusual drawings of creatures. Interestingly, these drawings still have a strong typographic influence. Even when I’m drawing, I approach it systematically, similar to how I design a font with different letters and symbols. Additionally, I aim to give these drawings an iconic character, akin to the ambition I have when designing letters. So, in a somewhat contradictory manner, this project was approached from the perspective of a font designer rather than an illustrator.

From a methodical point of view I stand on the shoulders of old school giants such as Milton Glaser, Romek Marber and others, in that, like them, I illustrated the covers myself, and do not use images created by others, and thus the design and the illustration work together to form one conceptual unit.

My transition (around 2012) from creating experimental typographic work based on imaginary scenarios to a phase where I abandoned the attempts to produce expressive typography in favor of a direct statement perhaps similar to artists like Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer (for example in the video work The Note from 2015 and in the performance The Original Design Flag) and now back to design fiction work, shows that I have always moved from one type of visual expression to another, according to the need, in a continuous organic development of my activity as a creator. 

But again – type is always present in one way or another. In this specific case, in order to create the typography of the book titles, I have used a readymade one: To support the scenario, I have used a scanned and enlarged words from Kafka’s printed first paragraph.

It has been a long time since I read any Kafka, no less “Metamorphosis”— where do the ideas for your fictional fictions come from?
I can relate. It has been a considerable amount of time since I last delved into Kafka’s works myself. If it weren’t for my son reminding me about this iconic story, I don’t think I would have picked it up to read. However, that’s the remarkable result of this project – almost everyone who sees it feels inspired to read the story.

However, experiencing Kafka’s essence doesn’t necessarily require reading Kafka’s stories. Kafka, in my view, captures the very essence of our existence, especially in the present age of AI. He taps into our collective subconscious, speaking in the language of our shared subconsciousness while simultaneously shaping that very lexicon.

It is worth noting that Kafka’s formulation of absurd writing coincided with Freud’s development of psychoanalysis. Both responses authentically reflect the events of their time, which, unfortunately, bear striking similarities to our own experiences in the present era. The alienation individuals feel in the face of the “social machine” and the vast disparity between their limited personal power and the overwhelming power of technology and history—these emotions continue to resonate with us even a century later.

Kafka has this amazing ability to make the reader identify with the hero of his stories. Although the story is completely imaginary – the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning in his bed only to discover that he has turned, for no clear reason, into a giant vermin – it is told in such a realistic and ”ordinary” way, that makes the reader believe that it could happen to anyone, including himself.

That is how I came up with the notion that Gregor Samsa was actually a real individual, an obsessive writer who authored 24 books within a prolific span of 11 years before tragically taking his own life. Although the books were never published, Kafka was acquainted with them and used their titles to form the iconic opening paragraph of “The Metamorphosis.”

The foundation of my ideas always stems from the “text,” whether it be written, spoken, or experienced. Surprisingly, many of my ideas are sparked by a single word or set of words. In this instance, everything began with the name Gregor Samsa. This name, seemingly an alter ego of Kafka himself, possessed such vividness and authenticity that it compelled me to envision the intricate scenario for this project.

I presume “The Metamorphosis” reaches deep into your psyche (for me, it is The Trial and Penal Colony). What does it say to you?
Instantly, I sensed a profound connection between Gregor Samsa and myself, viewing his family as a distorted reflection of the one I came from. This integration became intricately woven into my internal contemplation of childhood experiences.

Each person carries their own inner demons that they must confront and strive to overcome. The intensely tragic conclusion of Gregor Samsa’s story serves as a powerful reminder. Furthermore, there are elements within the narrative that prompt profound introspection, fostering a deeper understanding of my personal growth. Engaging in my inventions, these design fiction projects aids me in processing reality and embracing a more vibrant existence.

What is the ultimate goal of this body of work?
The primary objective of this project is to pay tribute to Kafka and express gratitude to him on the occasion of his 140th birthday. Additionally, I aspire for this work to reignite discussions surrounding this impactful and significant story.

In today’s world, the majority of individuals no longer engage in extensive reading, let alone delve into the works of Kafka due to their challenging nature. However, I have observed that those who encounter my work feel compelled to revisit or explore “Metamorphosis,” regardless of whether they have read it previously or are encountering it for the first time. To me, this outcome would be an immensely gratifying accomplishment in itself.

What does Kafka mean to you?
As an atheist at my core, I find resonance with the existentialist philosophy that allows individuals to forge their own subjective meaning and purpose, even if it entails challenges and occasional discomfort.

To me, Kafka serves as a metaphorical “third eye” that impartially scrutinizes the world and sheds light on unsettling subjects that would otherwise remain unaddressed. His writing acts as a profound source of identification and awe, evoking a sense of admiration for his literary genius.

Posted inThe Daily Heller