Self-evident, self-motivated, self-perpetuating
John L. Walters
Creative work by Experimental Jetset, Mother, Struktur and others
Self-promotion is a dirty phrase in some cultural quarters. The idea that a piece of work should have the primary intention of promoting the career, financial status and / or sex life of its creator might be thought shameful, except that for some people there is no gap between art and artist: the work and the process of promoting it are essentially the same thing. After all, can there be any more admirable goal than giving visible form to ideas, feelings and opinons, exploring the very depths of the soul and being?
To express one’s self is to reveal a personal vision – the style and signature that makes each of us unique. Though graphic designers undertake self-generated work for many different reasons, when taken together, this loose collection of greeting cards, diaries, calendars, posters, brochures, broadsheets, hardbacks, booklets and paperbacks say only a few different things, such as “this is who we are” or “this is what we do” or “these are the things we like.” Or – forcefully – “this is how we can change what you do” or “we don’t care what you think, but feel the attitude” or even “you don’t have to be crazy to hire us, but it helps.” Whether these examples of pure design arrive under the aegis of a distinguished imprint, drop unsolicited through the mailbox or accompany a portfolio, it is entirely possible – among the unfettered outpouring of naked ambition, personal enthusiasms and obsessive interests – to uncover some fine examples of self expression. (JLW)
Some graphic designers see the world in black and white, dividing up their work into the mutually exclusive categories of the professional and the self-expressive. Others, such as Erwin Brinkers, Marieke Stolk and Danny van den Dungen of Dutch studio Experimental Jetset, don’t see the difference. After all, the job of the graphic designer is to deliver an interpretation of a brief, and every interpretation is an act of self-expression. Experimental Jetset insist that their self-expression “exists only in the analysis of the context. Whether this context includes a client from the outside or ourselves as clients is not important. The amount of self-expression is the same. Besides, in those situations where we serve as our own clients, we don’t really feel more ‘free’ than in situations where we work with clients from the outside. We are our own most difficult clients.”
Packaged full of office paraphernalia such as business cards, a computer disk and envelopes, Advanced Economics is described as “a zine / multiple on corporate culture” (see also the keyrings on page 34). It is a piece of highly sophisticated anthropology examining the world of work. Unlike British group Crash!, who cover similar material but approach it with a hammer, Experimental Jetset demonstrate a creatively light touch. According to the group, part of the ethic of making and sending things out comes from a shared background in DIY ’zine culture and mail art. This history reveals itself in the group’s exploitation of unquestioned formats of communication and the kinds of mindset we wear when using these objects. What’s interesting about Advanced Economics is the way it highlights a basic truth about the graphic design profession. Rather than being pricked by guilt about how they earn their money (and running away from that to produce bad art) graphic designers are the people best suited to delivering a critique of the basic structures of work and commerce. Those who package can also unpackage. Their training makes them the ones most able to make sense of the social and psychological glue of contemporary communications.
You could say that the difference between the self-publicist and the self-motivated is that the former has something to sell, while the latter has something to say. Yet the paradox is that the good designer exploits content by being its slave. Stephen Banham’s Convoy is a design manifesto aimed at liberating designers from “the all-too-familiar role as Turd Polisher.” Strong stuff. Banham gets away with it through bravado and wit, and by employing the tools of design to unpick graphic design.
What he has in common with Dejan Krsic and Rutta DD is an enlarged sense of the possibilities of design and a belief in its impact. Their cover for the 150th anniversary edition of the communist manifesto with an introduction by cult psychoanalytic theorist Slavoj Zizek is a day-glo interrogation of the brutal version of capitalism that descended upon post-Soviet eastern Europe. The bilingual edition of Zizek’s Nato as the Left Hand of God juxtaposes the writer’s analysis with images such as that of pro-intervention Albanians protesting in Canada against Milosevic.
The Partners’ Third Brain Thinking is a model of convoluted ham-fisted pop-psychology. An allusion to the post-political notion of the Third Way, it appears to offer a synthesis between analysis and intuition. Both are absent in a book that can do nothing but damage the company’s reputation. Third Brain Thinking? No-brain thinking. (J. O’R)
If as they say, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, it’s only because time isn’t what it used to be. Where once our experience of time was simple – it had a beginning, middle and end – the twenty-first century self is flooded by demarcations of time: work-time, overtime, play-time, cyber-time, quality-time, family-time, Miller-time, the irony of Swatch time. As we remake ourselves to each slice of time, it’s no wonder we’re confused. But Struktur’s perpetual calendar offers the promise of mapping time . . . forever. Designed by Roger Fawcett-Tang, it was sent to friends and clients. The representation of time in the design of the calendar runs according to a strict logic. There are fourteen different ways that the calendar can fall. He worked out the sequence and was able to list the dates from 1900 up to 2334.
The colour fields work by laying out a grid section and the dates appear next to days of the week. The image in the upper half is an abstract reflection of the system in the typography of the lower part. He has now created a three-dimensional version of this as a light box with fourteen different acetates that can be shuffled to make the different permutations.
You could say that this is the ideal Christmas present for Modernist Vampires. You want to get the invites out early for that Kraftwerk-themed birthday party in 2136? No problem. But in fact the Struktur design is a deconstruction of the Christian calendar. This is Deconstruction in its original sense, pushing the logic of a system of meaning beyond its limit to the point at which it collapses. The rational order on which the colour code is built ultimately reveals a quiet symmetry of chaos: the pattern of time breaks down.
This desire of being able to anchor yourself in time is also played out in the Experimental Jetset wristbands. In hippie times you might have plopped out of the womb to be named Dewdrop or Sunburst: in post-industrial societies you are introduced to the world with a wristband. The official validator of experience – from the maternity ward to the three-day music festival – the snap-on security wristband confirms your identity, extending our bureaucratisation of everyday life to the most mundane experience. It’s the souvenir as a document of the self in time.
Perhaps the most poignant and disturbing representation of this phenomenon is design company Davenport Associates’ Images of the Century. Like the Struktur Calendar it plays out one rigorous concept. It runs through the history of the twentieth century through famous scenes. But each blank page shows only the caption and year for the image: Kennedy assassination, Abraham Zapruder, 1963. Man confronting tanks, Beijing, 1989. Car crash, Paris, 1997. You get the picture.
It’s partly about the power of images in shaping and registering memory. It’s a wake-up call in a desocialised world to the fact that there is a shared, collective database of time. But as the designers point out in their press release: “Images are privately owned – even such ineradicable images such as the death of Kennedy or the three overlapping circles that spell Mickey’s face . . . Copyright law makes it illegal to store or retrieve the images named in this book by any means whatsoever.”
To visualise the image of Diana’s death is an infringement of copyright. Just as the time of the twenty-first century person is manufactured and processed according to commercial requirements, so our psychic time, our memory, belongs to someone else. In different ways the work of Struktur, Experimental Jetset and Davenport Associates are a reminder of what’s at stake in self-perpetuation. (J. O’R.)
John O’Reilly, writer, London
John L. Walters, Eye editor, London
First published in Eye no. 38 vol. 10 2000
Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.