Ambiguous Animation: Michael Salu Talks The Garbage Times/White Ibis

What do you do when a book cover design demands movement, dynamism, and mystery? If you are Soft Skull Press, you call designer Michael Salu, a writer himself, who approaches the uncanny with his kinetic designs. For Sam Pink’s The Garbage Times/White Ibis, a combination of two novellas, Salu filled a tall order by designing a cover that solicits curiosity both in motion and at rest.

The cover of The Garbage Times/White Ibis is, after all, two covers, so Salu created a pair of distinct visuals that could also be clearly linked. “Soft Skull had decided to put the two novellas together as a ‘fliparoo’ so I thought about what could look distinct enough on each cover but could be very clearly linked. So as with most images I create, I set some parameters. Could it be the compositions remain similar but still create a different mood for each?” Salu said. “I found a link in Sam Pink’s affinity with the furry and the feathered, which I could visualise both within the decay and detritus of a city’s underbelly as well as the swampy heat of Florida. So two motifs jumped out at me, the rat and the Ibis. Different beasts yes, but we tend to see each in design composition rather than the beasts themselves which are just alluded to. I often say I like to illustrate the spaces between the words of a book rather than echo them.”


Sam Pink’s novellas wed themselves to the underbelly of their respective settings: Chicago and Florida. Think freezing alleys and dewy bayous. Think filth, broken glass, and the humanity of a white ibis wandering through a wet driveway in the wake of a storm. Salu knew that the cover of The Garbage Times/White Ibis needed to connote seediness, so he drew on Freud and Lacan’s notions of the uncanny, that is, the familiar and unfamiliar elements of this world that rally both fascination and disgust in our guts. “When it comes to creating visuals as much as possible I like to opt for the space in between. The unseen as it were or ‘The Uncanny’ as explored by Freud, Lacan and others. This in between space offers a lot of scope to subvert those images we know or think we know and I find this helps me generate viewpoints that can seem familiar but have their own playful and sometimes disquieting personality,” Salu told Spine.


Salu’s attention the space between these motifs paid off in both the kinetic and still designs for The Garbage Times/White Ibis cover. “I decided to give this both a 2D and 3D feel through depth texture and movement such as the physics of wind to distort this indistinguishable mass. The title typography was started by hand and finished digitally,” he said. “The movement in the animated versions is a continuation of the concept, a weirdness that might be familiar maybe through the forced breeze of a passing subway train, or wet feathers encrusted with sand drying off at the beach, but ambiguity was the main intent.”

If ambiguity could also somehow be praised for its specificity, then this creepy cover undeniably deserves that praise. 

Mary Ryan Karnes is a freelance writer and a Master's candidate in fiction at the University of Southern Mississippi.


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