The public relations industry fills the void left when investigative journalism and visual communication fail to act in an active way.
Placed as a barrier between the public and most institutions, making available only what they deem necessary, and leaving persuasive interpretations hard to challenge.
It is here that mistakes are often more revealing and cracks can be found in this thin veneer that expose and undermine their confident dominance.
The Responses to the 3rd
poster, printed on the forth are as follows:
the System! or think twice:
'Debate what debate?' - written by Ian Noble for the second issue of the 'Debate' project - summarises the objections this London-based designer and teacher has against the way commissioned design practice relates to the experimentation and theorising within the 'hothouses of art schools and universities'. 'Whilst this (experimentation and theorising, DvdV) is a laudable and positive move forwards, it currently receives little or no support from the 'industry' and design lead bodies.' Noble says. He thinks these experimentation's are a potential benefit, but make little sense when they don't receive their place in the real world, and essentially, he must be right. Who would disagree? According to Noble, industry and commerce use the experimental design work made outside practice as a sketchbook from which they only adapt the looks without the underlying mentality. By this ongoing colonisation of visual style by the commercial world (also referred to as 'the system') even work that is directly reactive or critical quickly becomes the enemy's tool.
One first remark could be that this process is certainly not limited to design. The guitar playing of Jimi Hendrix could hypothetically turn up in in a commercial for a bank - but separated from the 'liberated' atmosphere it was created in. In the case of Hendrix, the bank won't give you the lethal overdose, the Vietnam war, the unbelievably dirty men's room of the Woodstock rock festival, and other essentials of the time. The wildness of Hendrix' music would be used to support an 'everything is possible with us'- atmosphere, likely to be aimed at young people, rightly assuming that the viewer will fill in the rest, forget the context, and uncaringly undergo the message. For sure, the world would be more simple if advertising companies would limit themselves to audiovisual productions that look and sound as boring as their actual intentions are. But this isn't the case.
Ultimately the Hendrix example will show that the 'critical value' of a work in its ability to react to a certain contemporary condition - and in its ability to be perceived as such - is always limited by context, and that the so-called 'recuperation by business' can take place almost anywhere, anytime, with almost any kind of work. As much as this could prove, in support of Noble's argument, the omnipresence of hidden, status quo-affirmative free market power relations, the fact that the phenomenon is much bigger than graphic design only does also prove it will not accurately be studied - nor changed - by the simple dismissal of commerce. Many of the objections of people like Ian Noble are directed towards advertising and the more 'advanced' regions of corporate design. These areas are out of scope for most individual graphic designers. Instead, the 'groundbreaking design work' is supposed to take place much in the safe haven surrounding art, architecture, and theatre, and designers have left the commercial field largely to advertising which is, by its nature, structured as a direct service to commerce.
Advertising can hardly be blamed for that when graphic designers have more or less agreed with it and have instead chosen for complaining from the sideline. This, in return, has learned a lot of clients to simply dismiss graphic design as much as Nobles dismisses commerce. Both parties have formed caricatures of each other: a lot of designers do think about commercial clients as proverbial bad guys with cigars, in return the latter tend to regard graphic designers as failed advertising people who want to be artists. When the discussion is about whether and how commerce and design should approach each other, it is clear that such caricatures don't help, even if they give a short term satisfaction whilst preaching for the converted.
When the conclusions on this subject have already been taken and are accurately represented by the words 'business sucks', there is no need for discussion at all. Further on, Noble makes his move to ideology: 'The mediating role of design as a positive force in society has been sidestepped', says he. To which pre-commercial wonderland does he refer? According to himself, this utopia was the heyday of European modernism, which occurred seventy to eighty years ago. Since then, however, according to Noble, design has seen a 'progressive dilution into a thinly veiled acceptance of capitalist values and hegemonic world orders'. So here we are back at the start: the retrospective call for a future avant garde.
In itself, this moaning is bearable because it has become the elevator music of graphic design - there is always some of it in the background. But it can in no way be justified other than by taking us, once again, to the selection design history has made out of the period; to some famous examples of early design. It is too easily forgotten that a lot of the more 'mainstream' examples of work from those days are left out since it is design history - not a matter-of-fact archeological report. The assumption that it was all better when the likes of El Lissitzky were still in charge is based on a substantial lack of examples from this period and an overexposure of the better ones. Noble's 'analysis' of the current situation however is based on a non-selective view. All the boring and uninteresting work is taken into account, and is even, at the heart, the basis for his argument against the industry.
I don't think an idealist view on design (or any other creative discipline) is ridiculous. Few do actually possess such a view and are capable of showing it and speaking out about it. But I find it ridiculous to call for a design vanguard based on 80-year old evidence. In the rest of the world such a method of referring to the past is even called conservative. Didn't Ian Noble learn this in school? He certainly has an opinion on what should be taught there. For instance, he thinks 'there is a lack of an ideological project within design education'. He forgets that most design schools do teach their students precisely his widely-affirmed views on European modernism as part of their art history courses. 'Ideology' can never be a neutral thing: it immediately implies the question: 'which ideology?'. Noble doesn't reveal which one he has in mind, but may I propose it be something against 'capitalist values and hegemonic world orders'? I think what Noble really means is that he wants to teach the children this highly subjective, cliche-embracing and painstakingly tiring language as part of his official classes - nothing more and nothing less. All I can advice him is find a more original form for his complaints, and dare to forget about Piet Zwart, Moholy-Nagy and other heroes from the past.
Warner, Berlin, Germany:
The 'intellectual war-cries' of the Jan van Eyck are nothing strange to me, since the degree course at Portsmouth was, and still is, working in a similar pro-activist direction, encouraging its students to scratch away at the surface of this thing called design, and to try to build up a broad cultural and theoretical base upon which good and intelligent work might be made. And not just design. By typing this I am doing something very different.
Now though I need to create a happy balance between the theory, and satisfying my own ambitions, and in paying the rent and selling out to the whims of huge faceless corporations who are hammering on my door everyday wanting me to sign lucrative design deals in return for my intellectual credibility. What I'm puzzled about here, is just why Kinross responds to Debate with an "out with the academy", almost anti-intellectual stance. The cynic in me asks immediately, if this kind of debate doesn't take place inside the academy, then where on earth will it take place? Kinross says "I'm all for dissent in the media", but is there really any room for critical debate on the highstreet? Dissent in the media certainly won't start in WHSmith. The reason it takes place within the academy and why it's so "caught up in the discourse of design", is because designers, when in the role of mediators of information, are faced with this kind of debate on an internal level at every mouse click, or scalpel swipe, everyday of their working lives.
In contrast, I am actually inclined to say that there is not enough debate of this kind going on in the various academies around the world, not enough people asking these sorts of questions, and not enough projects of this kind to start with. No one will pay for activism (do you see a Nike sponsorship logo here?), and "small and very concrete manifestations" don't get any more small and concrete than the one you're reading. This is not blind embracement of all that is activist (and the rock-throwing motif of this page is, I think, purely symbolic), this is a real call for more Debate-like projects. In fact, far from being entangled in design ideas like some high-profile American projects (hello Cranbrook), this is working with a very different set of ideas, and a very different set of ambitions.This isn't about a big intellectual, or student-lead revolution a la Paris 1968, it's about the slow process of unpicking current norms, with the help of as widely distributed contributions as possible. Ideas are parasitic, so go forth and multiply.
to Ian Warner - above: Robin Kinross, London, England.
Opposition within the UK to this adventure was largely conducted in the ancient media of the public meeting, the public demonstration, the leaflet and newssheet multiplied in a few thousand copies and handed out. It's true that many people in Britain did seem to be carried along with the wave of crude UKanian nationalism, and that the war did seem to work the trick of turning around the public perception of Margaret Thatcher's government, from unpopular to popular. But the opposition discovered itself outside the the mass media, and could grow from this base.
Then there were incursions into the mass media, such as the celebrated incident in 1983 of the British TV phone-in caller, seemingly a very ordinary middle-aged bourgeois woman - a voice of sensible disquiet - who questioned Margaret Thatcher about the Belgrano sinking, and seemed to catch her out. Where does design fit in here? In my remarks about the 'theoretical war-cries' and 'shadow-boxing' in the academy, and particularly the Jan van Eyck Akademie, I was thinking especially of some of Jan van Toorn's compilations in articles and publications, which seem just soundbite culture, without sustained thought.
It's true, and to its credit, that the Jan van Eyck has in its brief life sometimes tried to address real issues. (I write from the experience of a few visits to the school, and as a contributor to one of its published projects.) But I don't think that the fixation on the media and on 'reality is always mediated' is fruitful. Visually it has produced the clich ('clich' indeed) of the re-processed image. This theoretical inhibition gets in the way of something simpler and truer. Yes, I agree that the 'academic' / 'on the street' distinction now hardly obtains in terms of structures and institutions.
Many people move quite freely between the different spheres. But full-time academics who are able to speak plainly about the desperate issues of war and peace are rare. Edward Said and Noam Chomsky come to mind. They are exceptional because they have left the academy behind in their political work: Said in his work with the Palestine Liberation movement (a professor of English who helped to write a political constitution), Chomsky in his anarchist willingness to turn up at small local gatherings or to publish in entirely unacademic places. Those are real interventions. The interest that Chomsky and Said have shown in 'the media' is also much sharper and tougher than is usual in the gentle pastures of media studies: they speak from their experience of being censored out.
dissent and the business of culture: Tony Credland.
For many people this comment will not pose a problem. Emigre, and many in the profession need to function as commercial businesses, their intention and guiding principal is ultimately to make money. However in analysing the examples presented in VanderLans' article that included images of Hip-hop / Rap, the Sex Pistols and Grunge, you get the feeling VanderLans is neglecting the everyday commercial world. Instead he is presenting ideas which are more applicable to a discussion of design within a broader social context, and in this he fails to acknowledge that a progressive idea and its commodified end result are not one and the same. When movements or ideas are appropriated often by the business-minded few, they are stripped down to vessels of empty rhetoric which is no longer able to offend, shock or surprise. The stylisation is what becomes marketable and this is where lessons must be learnt.
The examples VanderLans cites
are the later versions such as the Sex Pistols revamping of Situationist
ideas, this time round without those uncomfortable revolutionary thoughts,
later still with 'grunge' the empty shell has been re-packaged and re-presented
ready for a quick sale to the mass audience. VanderLans asserts that:
VanderLans is not only talking about a stylistic 'avant garde' here but starts to bring in the political. The article continues saying that the 'avant garde' in typography is doing well through "a few adventurous art directors" and that the commercial mainstream should be given credit for taking these risks. This is about as naive as it gets when looking at the role of business in visual culture, and clearly sums up VanderLans' position on independent ideas and their place in the society. To re-enforce this VanderLans' states: "the Macintosh has accommodated the independent manufacture and distribution of typefaces, there are many products that can be realised by entrepreneurial individuals" And talking about Robin Kinross' Hyphen press, goes on to say:"What is important is that these books were published undiluted and untouched by the influence of a major book publisher. Whether there is a need for them will be decided by the market place"
By looking at a different text on the relationship between the 'radical avant garde' and the mainstream business culture, VanderLans' argument can be seen in a different light. "Why Johnny can't dissent" by Thomas Frank (Baffler # 6) argues that the business community has understood and repositioned the idea of the 'radical' especially in relation to individualist consumerism. In his article Frank outlines the changes since the 1950's in the corporate structure positioned in relation to the dissident ideologies of the radical left; "The ways in which this system is to be resisted is equally understood and agreed-upon. The Establishment demands homogeneity; we revolt by embracing diversity, individual lifestyles. It demands self-denial and rigid adherence to convention; we revolt through immediate gratification, instinct uninhibited, and liberation of the libido and the appetites" Frank goes on to demonstrate that through the examination of today's business gurus; "Advertising teaches us not in the ways of puritanical self-denial (a bizarre notion on the face of it), but in orgiastic, never-ending self-fulfilment. It counsels not rigid adherence to the tastes of the herd but vigilant and constantly updated individualism. We consume not to fit in, but to prove, on the surface at least that we are rock 'n' roll rebels."
In general, the Left have been slow to recognise their changed situation. By privatising the visual styles of youth culture many have employed new business ideology to further their own ends, while at the same time managing to fool themselves into believing they are acting radically against conventions. Like rabbits caught in the headlights, many in society have accepted this and turned to cynical resignation, persuading themselves that this is just the way things are and will remain, so why shouldn't they cash in? Where consumerism is no longer about conformity but about individualism, a matter of a new style, another gimmick, or so-called extended choice. Guided by the soothing hand of the designer our everyday is commodified, their imagination used to find new spaces to colonise. Facades are formed, immediately replaceable, ultimately it is the very meaninglessness of the veneer that gives it such impact.
With such confusion in the air, what we really need is difference and personal presence. This is in opposition to ideas of alienation and separation and does not relate solely to individualism. VanderLans is not alone in espousing and reinforcing such corporate ideology. The same attitude can be heard through out the mainstream design world by those unwilling or unable to see the picture beyond their own status and self-aspirations. The American computer magazine Wired, for instance takes a stance which pushes a techno-corporate ideology, linking new business rhetoric to developing technology, while incorporating false ideas of freedom and choice from the laissez-faire right. Like many magazines with all its radical posturing, Wired relies on it's readers' insecurity about not being up-to-date, to push merchandising and technology through 'avant garde' design. Layering techniques are used here to mystify and entice, that shouts non-conformist, but underneath the same old tried and tested conventions of product promotion are used to develop a new market.
Now that everything is seen as "for sale," devoid of it's original spirit and left empty without direction, it is imperative that we create spaces of our own, outside of the commercial arena. In a commodified environment, where designers work along side business, they gradually consent to their ideological framework, and cease to be independent. Visual communicators should not help create and encourage new and unnecessary markets, and to prevent this they must constantly be aware of and try to negate capitals' constant ability to assimilate. Well thought out work can avoid this recuperation by the ever hungary style market and retain its original intent. As always, the problem has to be realised before any relevant solutions will appear, and the solutions to this impasse have to be varied and personal.
This argument is often discussed
but ideas are rarely put forward to remedy what is therefore a continuing
situation. In general, we are now wary of grand schemes and are looking
for more local personal answers. Whether this can be done whilst working
for corporate clients, as mediators of hidden strategies, or from the
autonomous edges is still an important debate where we have to find our
own position and needs. Whether it is possible to decide which is a lesser
evil or what constitutes a good cause, plays into a much bigger argument
about the all encompassing nature of commodity culture and who has ultimate
control of meaning. As Frank goes on to point out in his article;
What we understand as 'dissent' does not subvert, does not challenge, does not even question the cultural faiths of western economic structures. What we are seeing is a simple and direct convergence of interests, the 'radical' designs of visual culture and the enthusiastic corporate individualism of business culture. It is this paradox that we must seek to address, and where 'Radical commodities' misses the point.