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Adversary: a exhibition (of) contesting graphic design


(Installation view, Old Dominion University gallery, Norfolk, Virginia)

adversary: a exhibition (of) contesting graphic design
Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota Duluth
March 13 – April 8, 2001
and later traveling to other venues

Curator: (exhibition collator) Kenneth FitzGerald
Statement: «adversary presents graphic design that challenges and/or expands common conceptions of design’s purpose, content and process. A primary challenge is to the construction of design as solely a commercial activity – and which promotes the politics of a consumer culture. Print and interactive works directly confront this representation and/or offer alternate forms/contents. The exhibition features design made expressly for the exhibition (printed at the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Visualization and Digital Imaging Lab) along with pre-existing designs from a variety of contexts. The participants cover a range of positions within the field, including professional practitioners, academics and graduate students, to beyond and between.»
Organization/support: «adversary was commissioned by Zero Station, a gallery of contemporary art and design in South Portland Maine. Printing of original artworks was supported by a grant from UMD’s Visualization and Digital Imaging Lab. Additional support was given by the UMD Art Department.»

See also the essay written by FitzGerald providing more details about the exhibition concept and the designers whose work was featured in the show.

Essay by FitzGerald:

«Graphic design is popularly considered a commercial activity. This isn’t so odd as it’s how mainstream graphic design has presented itself to the public. The omnipresence and sheer volume of graphic design material (print work, advertising, web sites, motion graphics, etc.) churned out by consumer culture makes a definition of graphic design as a commercially-determined profession seem natural. Design as an aspect of — or servant to — business looks obvious. “Good design is good business” (the title of a 1975 speech given by former IBM chairman Thomas Watson) is a legendary maxim in the graphic design field — which additionally inverts the equation with little trouble.
When examining the probable roots of graphic design, this view becomes problematic. Notable design commentators have proclaimed advertising as the “mother” of graphic design. With the omnipresence of commercially-driven design in our culture, this argument has considerable authority. Constructing a lineage is almost effortless. The published histories that exist of graphic design also project this image of design as business-derived. The conclusions are reached first — then supported by evidence.
One of the few areas of agreement in graphic design history circles is that the roots of contemporary Western graphic design lie in the soil of European avant-garde art in the early 20th century. In seeking an anti-elitist, direct, and contemporary creative idiom to reform society, these artists turned to print. The processes and strategies of graphic design were the necessary methods to carry out their populist and progressive agenda. Graphic design was an earnestly political activity — in both the medium and the message.
What is also generally agreed upon is that this utopian project (Modernism) dissipated into a formal orthodoxy. To use the politically-correct form was enough. The purposes to which graphic design was put — the clients whom a designer worked for — was of little matter. Even staunch Russian socialists like El Lissitzky designed advertisements, considering commerce to be another populist activity. (Though for him, it was for Pelikan ink, which allowed every person to create and join the formal discourse.)
While the graphic design-commerce connection contains many links, a major reason for the conjoining is self-interest. Both graphic design and corporate interests sought to promote themselves to the public. Though the power relationship has never approached equality, graphic design regarded it as a mutually-beneficial partnership. At its best, it provoked statements such as Thomas Watson’s — one which arguably continues to fall on deaf ears and is impossible to confirm.
A prominent critique of graphic design’s golden days in the middle decades of the 20th century is that it created a facade for multinational corporations. Simply by adopting the approved formal livery, these companies attained and spread virtue — in graphic design’s eyes.
Critiques of this stance and the corporate determination of graphic design accelerated in the later decades of the century. Politically-motivated graphic design has always been present but became more assertive and visible. Graphic design protesting the Vietnam War or promoting causes popular in the 1960s are an obvious example. Just as quickly as graphic design produced its first dedicated history text — Philip Meggs’ A History of Graphic Design in 1983 — counter-conceptions were put forth. Meggs’ book acted to solidify a graphic design canon which privileged corporate design — along with white male practitioners, Western practice, and a Modernist aesthetic-based valuation.
And as in the first decades of the century, the last two saw profound technological change (the development of the personal computer and attendant design-production software), formal explorations, and intellectual ferment. Graphic design has hosted itself to investigations of literary theory’s application to design, designer-as-author, design-as-liberal art, and the designers’ responsibility to society.
Instead of the expected delight when commerce quickly adopted the outwardly radical forms of the 1990s, graphic design found itself despairing the effortless consumption of its avant-garde. Questioning where the true avant-garde resided turned to questioning the need for one — and if a graphic design avant-garde ever existed in the first place.
From obsession over how a graphic design should look, the field began (re)asking why and for who it was made. Design further confronted the economic, ecological, and cultural impact of its operations. Along with other voices across society, graphic design interrogated consumer culture. The discussions, though furious at times, were largely unfocused. After a burst of inquiry in the past decade, an inexorable return to “business as usual” (notably expressed by a design student as “the time for being against is over”) is noticeable in the years just prior and now following the millennium.
Adversary seeks to gather together some elements of the current graphic design counter-force to the prevailing conceptions of design activity and its activists. It is a sampling of actions and attitudes against a strict determination of graphic design as neutral intermediary, apolitical profession, and commercial service. Graphic design’s definition is expanded to that of rhetorical process. It is seen not merely as the vehicle for content but as content: the surface is substance. The media of design have taken on a life of their own.
The designers included in this exhibition cover a range of positions within the field. For all, the adversary activities are first a personal expression of concern for culture and society — and design’s role within both. A number of participants are academics, where these works also function as research. Some have professional design careers for which their adversary design takes place outside or alongside commissioned work. Often, the forms and sensibilities of advertising are used. Then there are designers who straddle the positions, producing commercial products where design plays a prominent role, or bring new products to the marketplace, or whose design work is part of new creative situations.
The works challenge orthodoxy in their formal invention, their overtly political commentaries, and the use of design conventions to defy convention. They propose new working methods, new insights into culture, and enlightened making by all designers.
Admittedly, the presentation of graphic design in a gallery situation is also problematic. The power of graphic design is in its accessibility. A show which appears to beg status as “Art” distracts from the works’ true import. Design exhibitions overall decontextualize their works, remaking them as esthetic objects of contemplation.
By necessity (economics) and choice (immediacy), adversary’s installation is meant to be flexible, direct, and portable. “Practical art” is a long-standing self-definition of design, and adversary follows this in its choice of venues. Galleries offer obvious display conveniences. However, in the rhetoric of the exhibition design, adversary attempts to suggest the desired life of its works.
Reclaiming the gallery space is but a side-benefit of this exhibition. Ideally, these works would be prominently public. As the individual works ultimately seek to spur viewers to action, so does the show as a whole. Making a difference, an adversarian work, and an exhibition is within everyone’s reach, if you want it.
about the works
If there is a “keynote” statement for this exhibition, it is the web site collaboration of Women’s Design + Research Unit and girlsinflight which directly addresses the topic of design responsibility. The site functions is a resource for designers to learn and communicate on issues of ethics.
Thomas Kovacs includes nine student projects created in response to his assignment on propaganda and power. The projects confront social issues and the possibilities and problems inherent in graphic design and (ir)responsibility.
Catherine Ishino’s video and installation work, World War II: Spaces of Re-Remembrance is an ongoing documentation of first-person oral and visual histories. Ishino’s subject is public and personal as she collects family accounts of the Japanese internment.
SUPERRAGE is a collaborative of students at California Institute for the Arts. Their posters are made of commercial design: they glue together a background of supermarket and department store circulars. Onto these they literally layer their commentary: silk-screened images and texts. Their statements are pointed questions and confrontations to designers: “WHO’S PAYING THE BILL?” and “EVERYTHING YOU DO IS TRASH”.
Rick Valicenti’s works indulge in, celebrate and also denounce graphic design’s fixation with glossy production values and stunning visuals. “Truth” visually undermines the verity, while “All about the money” reveals the bottom line of our technology-obsessed culture. His book The Good Life celebrates a career of high-profile, risk-taking design.
Emigre is a design company whose marketplace is other designers. It is a type “foundry” which also publishes a quarterly magazine and other self-directed print projects. Emigre includes three works: two self-published books and a series of wrapping papers derived from their extensive typeface library. The books, Cucamonga and Palm Desert, are photographic tributes to cult musicians Captain Beefheart and Van Dyke Parks. They reside somewhere between mass-market books and artists books: more eclectic and personal than the former and more accessible and affordable than the latter.
Elliott Earls exists as a uncategorizable figure who has synthesized a unique position for himself in the culture. Earls produces his own interactive CDs in which he is designer, writer, composer, lyricist, musician, actor, programmer, dramaturg. Eye Sling Shot Lions is also used by Earls in his performances, in which he triggers and interacts with the program.
Stephen Farrell works in close collaborations with writers on chap-books, posters, and visual essays. Instead of his design involvement coming at the end of the process, Farrell works with the writers at all stages to create meaning. “Visible Citizens” (which previously appeared in Emigre magazine) is one such project which mixes graphic design, poetry and biography.
Kali Nikitas and Rich Shelton’s booklet (given away at show sites while supplies last) “For the Record” offers a suggestive, contemplative structure to encourage contemplation of one’s own biography. The “workbook” is “designed to help 1.document the past, 2. understand the present, 3. imagine the future”.
Joellyn Rock’s installation “Hot House” explores the structure and meaning of myth and its relationship to graphic design. Combining her original texts and imagery in a pre-digital interactive piece, Rock invites participation in our culture’s creation of meaning.
Brian Schorn is a designer who is also a published writer and poet. His texts, however, are usually designed by others. His own graphic design work, usually small-run posters, has been recognized for its formal experimentation. “105 minutes” simultaneously breaks from and adheres to design conventions of structure. The poster advertises a campus film showing yet intentionally neglects the movie’s title. Instead, Schorn highlights the data of first importance to a tightly-scheduled student: the film’s running time.
Language and its representation is also the focus of John McVey’s web piece made for this exhibit. McVey improvises upon an obsolete lexicon: a cable codex from 1896. To save money on telegrams, long statements were compressed into single terms. In them, McVey finds an “accidental poetry”.
Bonnie Thornborough offers a deliberate poetry with “Progress Haiku,” an interactive piece which “addresses the dialectic between economic progress and environmental awareness. As we search for meaning and purpose in the world, the wind of progress in our culture often ends up leaving environmental concrns in the dust. Poetic expressions of natural beauty mutate, like genetically-modified priorities, into mournful haikus about global warming.”
Kay Huang and Sara Cambridge include works that are similar in their presentation methods and emphasis upon language. Huang points out the inherent sexism of Chinese characters. Her “hanging” method suggests the domestic role relegated to women. Cambridge documents a struggle for identity and authenticity as a designer and within her design work. Her work also remarks upon the uneasy relationship between art and design in its text and intrusion into the gallery space.
Shawn Wolfe’s triptych of posters are part of a body of work which eerily parallels the imagery of the corporate design and advertising world. The triptych is a further set of advertisements for the “Installer Remover”, a desirable object with no discernible function. Wolfe’s slogans can propose startling (and seemingly counter-productive) proposals for the buying public — “PANIC NOW” — or calmly reassure us of the reality of consumption-attained transcendence: “Your sale is real”.
Steven McCarthy offers exhibit visitors the opportunity to involve themselves directly into the social graphic design discourse happening in this show and society as a whole. The vertical scroll is “a landscape where brand names cannot be distinguished from everyday language”. McCarthy gives visitors space to place themselves in the increasingly graphically-designed and “branded” environment.
Amy Franceschini devises another landscape, both technological and organic in its imagery and method of creation. Franceschini, founder of the interactive design company Futurefarmers, regularly combines dreamy, cartoonish visions combined with biting political commentary — such as a computer game called “Kosovo Elf” (also included in this exhibition) which allowed players the opportunity to save innocent civilians from NATO air strikes.
Other designers also use the iconography and artifacts of graphic design to comment upon the wider world. Robert Appleton transforms the icons of the computer desktop into still and animated works of art which comment ironically on the domination of American culture by greed. Reminiscent of John Heartfield’s collage, these Art works stand apart from his Design for clients such as The Verve Music Group and Herman Miller. They come from a place deep within the psyche. A place where the world has unhinged, shuffling hopelessly to the ‘tune’ of great American music.
Gunnar Swanson combines the “universal” symbols of Isotype with other common information-design marks to create an ambiguous poster out of supposedly self-evident emblems.
Mark Andresen self-employs himself primarily as an illustrator but makes occasional forays into graphic design. His most notable is the typeface “Not Caslon” which (re)assembles a character set from segments of another font. The exhibition presents a promotional booklet for the typeface rendered as a poster.
Garland Kirkpatrick’s banner-scaled poster addresses the lynching by dragging of African-American James Byrd in Texas. Kirkpatrick’s work — printed on butcher paper — utilizes the cool, concise style of information-graphics to amplify the horror of the event.
Chris Corneal’s postcard series confronts the inequity of Tennessee’s tax system. “By taxing food, but failing to implement a state income tax, Tennessee ends up harming low-income families, who pay over three times the taxes as a portion of their income than do high-income families.”
Kendra Coggins demonstrates the facts glossed over in the milk industry’s omnipresent “Got Milk?” campaign with her website “MooZoom”. She contrasts “the superficial commercial aspects of milk promotions as seen from a distance with the startling information about milk’s dangers evident when one ‘zooms’ in.”
Michael Worthington and Mike Machin collaborate on a poster which harkens back to (and “rips-off” from) the protest movements and publications of the 1960s. Styles change but the struggles remain the same.
John Kramer creates works from the ephemera of mass-produced communication: junk mail. His prints of flattened envelopes invite us to contemplate artifacts regularly disposed-of.
Both Colette Gaiter and Steve Bardolph include compilation — posters of images taken primarily from the vernacular. Gaiter’s “Unofficial Communication” arranges snapshots of graffiti and other markings to showcase unmediated graphic design, imagery and public political commentary happening in public places around the world. Bardolph’s “Beautiful” collects 1000 images selected by an image search engine tasked with the title term. His collection offers an alternate process for selecting and interpreting imagery and terminology.
Ed Fella has been an inspirational figure for a number of contemporary graphic designers who have challenged the formal boundaries of graphic design. Ironically, he has done so primarily through hand-made collage designs and drawings whose inventions draw heavily upon the vernacular of non-professional design. Included in the show are pages salvaged from one of his numerous sketchbooks.»