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Interview: Le Dictateur’s Federico Pepe

The rarely interviewed Italian creative director speaks on art, advertising and the power of hard work

Federico Pepe is a slightly peculiar figure in Italy’s arts and cultural landscape. Advertiser, artist, graphic designer, video-maker, typographer—over the years his hybrid interests have seen him collaborate with celebrated artists like Maurizio Cattelan, Pierpaolo Ferrari, Nico Vascellari and many others on a diverse range of projects.

“I started my career doing advertising. Not long after, I realized that commissioned work did not give me the opportunity to express everything that I wanted to express and do everything that I wanted to do,” Pepe explains. The most well-known of these projects is certainly Le Dictateur, a unique e-commerce and editorial platform (and now also an exhibition space in Milan). Conceived as a sophisticated art magazine, Le Dictateur is synonymous with high-quality content and is equally worshipped by graphic designers and typography enthusiasts for the subversive design aesthetic found across its printed pages.

Preferring to express his creativity rather than talk about it, Pepe recently sat down with us for a rare interview at the office of DLV BBDO agency, where he’s the Executive Creative Director. We discussed his creative origins, his longterm research project and recent exhibition, “I Am Wasting My Time“—and the importance of working hard.

How was Le Dictateur born?

I started working as an art director, but then I realized that I wanted to do other things. I came into contact with some gallery owners and I collaborated on a number of projects and exhibitions. Things began to work well, but I was earning a living doing something else, so I was willing to accommodate only a few requests.

At first it was certainly not my concern to consider if you could sell or not sell—I was totally focused on other aspects of the creative processes, so at some point I disconnected from that world because I did not like how research is made in the art galleries. It was the early 2000s and I produced so much. This has always been my way to work, it turns out well when I follow many different things together. That’s my way to feel free. For this reason, I tried to build a mechanism that would go in the opposite direction with respect to the existing ones, and I invented Le Dictateur. I brought it forward immediately with Pierpaolo Ferrari, my partner in this adventure.

The first Le Dictateur was born between 2005 and 2006 as an editorial project. To start, I put together all my work, and since it’s very heterogeneous, it might seem like the work of many different people. I sent a mockup to a number of artists, trying to invite them to participate in the project, without saying who made the works. When the works of other artists started arriving, I removed mine and put theirs. Eventually I also left a number of my own works. So at first it was mainly a process of curatorship.

Would you say that you created a model that didn’t exist yet?

Exactly. In addition, each piece had to be specifically made on purpose. I wanted Le Dictateur to become a tool for all participants to create very sophisticated editorial work.
After a few years, Pierpaolo and I have also began to share a studio. [But] we never used it because at the end of the day we were working in other places, so we said, “We pay the rent and don’t use it. Either we return it, or we invent something else.” So we decided to organize an opening, but we wanted it to be different from what we were used to seeing, with boring exhibitions, few people, silence, heaviness. So we thought of a formula with live music, alcohol and one-night exhibits.

All the invited artists have always perceived Le Dictateur as a space of freedom, where they can open a parenthesis and pull out the things that otherwise, when they work in their galleries, they can not pull off. We do not follow a schedule and do not even have strict programming.

The magazine also doesn’t adhere to deadlines or a regular editorial schedule?

No, definitely not. The original Le Dictateur, the magazine, is now in its fourth issue. The latest was produced on the occasion of a series of exhibitions that we did at the Palais de Tokyo. But we also realized many other publications, projects such as Void, Maurizio Has Left the Building, we edited the series Toilet Paper and projects related to single openings.

How important is the concept of quality for Le Dictateur?

From a production point of view we are not keen to a concept of “underground fanzine” style. Le Dictateur must comply with high standards. Fast things are not always the coolest. There can be speed, but only when it represents a real advantage.

How many years of work are in the current embodiment of “I Am Wasting My Time”?

I would say three years. During this period there have been two exhibitions when I showed extracts, one at the Von Holden Studio of Palermo (a double solo that I did with a talented photographer, my friend Jacopo Benassi) and at the Maison Rouge in Paris.
And then it was time to present in Milan. From the beginning the idea on which I wanted to work was a sensation. While preparing this work, I always tried to imagine the reaction of people to the publication or to the works in place. I wanted the reaction to be, “How can you do such a thing?” Like when you meet those who do marathons and you wonder how they can do it, it seems physically impossible, and yet it is not. It’s just a matter of will. The result may be sick, but extremely lucid.

Since you embody both souls, from your point of view what is the difference between the work of an art director and that of an artist?

The art director is a trainer and a selector. Theoretically, the art director may not even know how to do anything. You need awareness and must be able to make other people work, must be a motivator.

There may be many points of contact with a specific figure of artist that has emerged more and more in recent years, that of the “I see, I understand, I do not do, but I make others do it.” For this reason figures like Maurizio Cattelan have often been addressed as being art directors rather than artists. Why so? Because he is the brains of many things, not physically doing anything with his own hands, but making others do things instead of him.

Probably being the art director of an advertising agency is a more difficult role because you need to be truly “schizophrenic” and must be able to move in a thousand different directions, both from a mental point of view and from the point of view of style. Stylistically you must be very open, while the artist instead needs to have a style, a style so clear it gives continuity to its work.

Is your art more local or more international?

Honestly I never pursued these goals.
Mimmo Paladino has always said, “If you want to be international, you must belong to a place.” What can bring Italy or an Italian artist to the international level? If we all become the same, honestly, who cares? I do not expect and do not like homologation. I’d rather prefer to discuss an “international provincialism.”
Ai Weiwei is Ai Weiwei because he is Chinese and lives in China. He would not be arrested and would not say the things he says if it he was not there.

I strongly believe in applying oneself… If you work hard and have talent, certainly big things happen, there’s no doubt.

How do ideas arise? Is there a unique process?

I think ideas are born from predisposition. Not in the sense that “we are born predisposed,” but for daily preparation. In this domain I believe that discipline is pivotal.
The real talents today are very rigorous people, those who work hard, exchange a lot, think a lot, and know how to apply and balance many different things. Being physically in good shape prepares a certain type of activity, also the activities of thought. Commissioned ideas arise from technique: you have a brief, you know what you are asked, then you apply yourself, knowing already the boundaries. Then ideas can come in so many other ways, because you’re working on a space, an image, a color, an object. I very often record things, the thoughts that I have, I let them settle and sometimes resume and reconsider.

I strongly believe in applying oneself, and it is something that I always say to the kids when they begin working at the agency. If you work hard and have talent, certainly big things happen, there’s no doubt. I see so many people full of talent but lacking will.

You frequently say that you follow many projects at the same time. If it doesn’t happen spontaneously, do you create this situation?

It simply happens all the time. For so many years I took care of many things and there is not a moment when I don’t have a good deal of things to carry out. I often have moments when I have to do extremely important things and logic would dictate that I should only work on those. But then I’m going to accomplish one thing extremely less important, but because I need—even for a limited time—to pull off something else. This calibrates me anew and when I get back, everything gets more focused.

Additional reporting by Luisa Aschiero. Performance image courtesy of Federico Pepe, all others by Paolo Ferrarini


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