Winter 2002

Britain’s cutting edge is only skin deep (text in full)

GB: Graphic Britain

Book, Debate, Exhibition

A debate! Bring it on! The prospect of duelling Londoners clashing in passionate argument about the nature of British design had a hundred or so of us queuing up outside the Design Museum. Unfortunately there was no passion, no debate and barely a discussion.

The session was part of the launch for the book GB: Graphic Britain, a showcase of new British graphic talent. A compact exhibition of some of the work ran downstairs at the Magma bookshop in Clerkenwell. With Patrick Burgoyne, one of the anthology’s editors in the chair, there were brief presentations from three of the book’s contributors: Digit, State, and Johnny Hardstaff. This could have been a forum for exploring notions of identity and engagement, of responsibility and relevance. But despite the quality of the work, it appeared that British designers are moved more by technological innovation and visual stunts. Extended soliloquies about the virtues of Flash and the likelihood of the end of print may be some designers’ idea of a good time but the event did not live up to its promise.

The book reveals an eclectic array of visual and conceptual concerns – evidence of a pervasive global media culture rather than any kind of unique British sensibility. Not that this isn’t an honest reflection of the contributors’ lives; it just makes ‘GB’ a tenuous theme for an anthology. From the dark wit of Bump’s ‘trouble map of London’ to the homemade inventions of Lizzie Finn and Rick Myers, there are some positive surprises.

Much work, though, suffers badly from lack of supporting information (websites don’t even have a URL for reference), so while motion stills may cue the familiar viewer, for the uninitiated they evaporate, decontexualised on the page. Many images are as ghosts – weightless spirits floating vacant and detached.

A few do stand vital and playful – alternative voices and visions for a Britain losing the momentum of its history. This is Britain’s ‘cutting edge’ – but presented in this manner the cuts are skin deep. In the closing moments at the Design Museum debate, a lone voice called out that the discussion had left her cold and she wondered whether we should be talking about ideas that actually affect people’s lives. In response Hardstaff suggested that designers probably do have a social responsibility. Now if the discussion had started here . . . we could have had a genuine debate.

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