Spring 2006

What is the matter?

Experimentadesign 2005, Lisbon Biennale [WEB ONLY]

3 September–30 October 2005

The theme of fourth Experimenta biennale was The Medium is the Matter – with an emphasis on design for communication. As in previous years the event was superbly organised by Guta Moura Guedes, and co-curated by ever-capable type designer / founder João Paulo Feliciano. Of course, themes of programmes like this are not to be taken too literally: while ‘medium’ in Portuguese also means ‘context’, and ‘matter’ can do service for ‘material’ and ‘content’ as well, neither context nor content was seriously addressed.

This year in Iberia and beyond we have been celebrating 400 years of Don Quixote, and one of Cervantes’ many fruitful insights is that translation is ‘the other side of the tapestry’. Coincidentally at the schools’ show ‘S* Cool Ibérica #2’, Aviv Shany + Heinrich Lentz from the Instituto Europeo del Design, Barcelona showed a rug from which thick long threads were hanging out. I consider graphic design to be a kind of translation (among other things) and I can’t but help regret that apart from many crass translation errors in the programme (‘conferences’ for ‘lectures’) which should not have gone unnoticed, there were some cases of alternative readings such as ‘ascetic’ for ‘aesthetic’. Although Moura Guedes is a highly accomplished fundraiser, there was not enough money to go round for a translations editor obsessed with getting things right.

The major exhibition, ‘Catalysts’, was curated by Max Bruinsma, former editor of Eye, who was also involved in planning the graphics component of Experimenta. One can hardly fault Bruinsma’s statement of intent, which I might paraphrase as being that graphic design – structured or structuring graphic utterance – is ‘inscribed’ into our lives when the visible media objects pass beneath our gaze. Since they are not passive they invite us in. As Goethe put it, ‘translators – [or designers] – should be regarded as busy procurers who praise [or pass round pictures of] the charms of a half-hidden beauty’ so we can then appreciate them at deeper levels of performance-information, engagement and history . . .’

The more obvious stratagems of the procurers are subjected to the critiques of Adbusters, and friends who were present in the show, but pastiches and jokes, when put together between covers or on a wall, soon cloy. However, one of the most seductive, memorable and enlightening pieces, Peter Moser’s poster for the Museum für Kommunikation in Bern, with its digital studio photograph of a well preserved grown-up model in her underwear, and the H&M logo transmuted into M f K, succeeds because of Moser’s evident linguistic conviction. Sadly absent in the ‘Catalysts’ show is a section on graphic design-influenced architecture, of which the Swiss architects Herzog+de Meuron are the best known pioneers.

Engagement or political graphic design was the subject of a debate, chaired by Bruinsma, which at these affairs is meant to be carried on informally over lunch, at chance meetings or wherever. The possibly intriguing format, with panel and nominated ‘provocateurs’ did not work because the brief of questions to be addressed was not clearly formulated. Of course, democracy obliges something softer, but still Garth Walker, a militant designer under apartheid, told us how Africans from the townships came into downtown Johannesburg to claim their share of the(ir) city by setting up stalls to sell shiny carefully polished oranges, a sight which summed up for him the long worked-for revolution.

The logo for ‘Catalysts’ is an adapted copyright symbol. Author’s rights are not meant to interest designers, but in fact the harmonisation of design rights in the EU has given new currency to ideas that have been around since the beginnings of graphic design, but in Portugal at least are barely known. Back in 1890, another Austrian, Christian von Ehrenfels, rhymingly coupled Form and Content as Gestalt-Gehalt, and now intellectual property is seen as being as not being limited to form, since in music, abstract painting or typography the boundaries between form and content are at best fluid. This implies that the designer must take responsibility for the content of a job.

As it happened, another exhibition at Experimenta, of recent Portuguese work, carelessly curated by Henrique Cayatte, contained at least two examples of plagiarism and ‘passing off’, and much, though not all of the work, was in no way experimental, but offered only mediocre ‘default options’.

The point is surely: Matter Matters.

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