Skip to content

Behind and beyond. Graphic design in the white cube

Certainly graphic works entered the white cube well before 2006. However, the exhibition curated by graphic designer Peter Bil’ak that year at the Moravian Gallery on occasion of the 22nd International Biennale of Graphic Design in Brno (CZ), Graphic design in the white cube marked a significant moment for the relationship of graphic design with the exhibition context – one that raises questions and allows to develop further considerations. Let us summarize the main assumptions and reflections behind the exhibition as outlined by Bil’ak himself in the text (available via typotheque) where he explains the concept of the show [1].

Bil’ak begins by stating decontextualization as the main problem of organizing graphic design exhibitions: «graphic design does not exist in a vacuum» he underlines, «and the walls of the exhibition space effectively isolate the work of design from the real world.» Just as many survey books and magazines do, when they present design as “objects” out of their context, with no trace of the process behind them. And yet magazines, books and exhibitions of the kind seem to appeal designers a lot. This is a phenomenon which Bil’ak explains in terms of recognition and promotion of the «the trade aspect of design.» As a curator Bil’ak seems not eager to go this direction.

He then introduces another issue facing those who aim to organize an exhibition of graphic design. He turns to design that is out of trade and draws instead «parallels with art»: uncommissioned and self-initiated design, or the «limbo between art and design.» This is an area encompassing activities such as writing, organizing and reflecting rather than just preparing business cards and logos. Here is the issue: does this kind of experiences reflect the common and established definition of design, and the expectations of the public of an event like the Brno Graphic Design Biennial? The solution that Bil’ak gives is that graphic design should be read rather as a «field in flux,» or a “ghost discipline” and a “grey area,” to use the words of Stuart Bailey which he quotes. Or as a synthesis of diverse elements such as «art, politics, poetry, industry, etc.,» to use instead the words of Experimental Jetset, that are also quoted by Bil’ak.
This move he makes – from the usual notion of design to the wider reading of it – helps him supporting/explaining, in front of the public/reader, the selection of designers he has made for the exhibition, all of whom work between «the worlds of art, design, music, theatre and writing,» challenge the established notion of graphic design, and «are no strangers to the gallery world.»
For example designers like Experimental Jetset, Bailey and Dexter Sinister, and M/M Paris (it is worthy of mention that the latter refused the invitation to participate in the exhibition curated by Bil’ak) [2]. Bil’ak mentions, for instance, the involvement of Dexter Sinister in the organization of the Manifesta 6 to be held in Cyprus in 2006 (and which, by the way, was cancelled), and the involvement of M/M in an exhibition held at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2005 and which featured renown artists such as Koons, Cattelan and Kelley. These cases are not really examples of graphic design exhibitions [3]; they are used to evidence the relevance of graphic design for visual culture, making Bil’ak conclude that it is important to «critically discuss the work [of graphic designers] in the context of other visual arts as well
Also in this direction, however, Bil’ak warns that when graphic design is presented in the museum «the exhibition should attempt more than just passive presentation in glass cases.» To provide other examples, he refers to the exhibition curated by Rick Poynor, Communicate (Barbican Gallery, 2005, and then traveling to other venues), that examined «graphic design’s influence on contemporary culture, highlighting experimental work created by designers who aren’t limited by working to fulfill a commercial client’s brief.» About this show Bil’ak notes that the organization and presentation were similar to the structure of a book, with the rooms as chapters introduced with texts – an organization that he attributes to Poynor’s background in journalism and publishing.
Another example that Bil’ak makes is the exhibition he himself curated in Brno in 2000, Work from Holland (graphic design in context), focusing on the relationship client-designer-public. In this case Bil’ak decided to bring to the exhibition’s public not just the design work but also the “missing component,” that is the voice clients, whose words were presented instead of descriptions given by the designers themselves.
But Bil’ak is not content with the examples he brought and with his experience in 2000. In fact, the retrospective approach that tries to recreate the context for the work on display appears not the best solution. Again he quotes Experimental Jetset who warn against such false attempts and insist instead on the museum/gallery as «a valid context in itself

These reflections led Bil’ak to develop the concept for Graphic design in the white cube. In brief, it was decided that the Moravian Gallery acted as a client, inviting/commissioning 19 designers to design posters for the exhibition. Posters were then spread in the city to communicate the event, while the briefing of the project and the sketches of the designers – including “failures” – were displayed on the walls in the rooms of the gallery, in order «uncover the process of work.»

Indeed Bil’ak – who finally proposes his concept as a format for other design exhibitions – recognizes that the strategy he pursued may be risky, like a snake-eating-its-own-tail. Yet the issues that this kind of exhibition raises probably are more than those envisaged by its curator. First of all, isn’t it just another attempt to re-create the conditions for graphic design, and its context of existence? Isn’t it just an artificial reproduction of the relationship that normally links cultural institutions and designers in the real world, but usually with a wider scope than the occasional event?
Also, if we acknowledge that design is a “grey area,” then why stay sticked to the client-designer relation? Moreover is the poster on the wall the only, or best, way to present and represent contemporary graphic design? (A white cube is more than 2D, and history tells that graphic design has a multi-dimensional vocation.) Additionally, what about retrospective exhibitions: should we forget them?
But there is more. For example, one can detect a rather narrow and limited idea of the exhibition context, based on a too deterministic distinction between the outside, real world and the inside world of the gallery/museum. Another point that is not well on focus, albeit implicitly always there in Bil’ak’s discourse, is his position as curator, or as designer and curator. In this regard, also, the insistence on the process behind the work as an important feature of design that should be brought to the public of the exhibition reveals the bias of the designer for the production side of design. This is an aspect which certainly is of interest to some people but not necessarily to everybody in the “public” (a target which, by the way, is elusive); most of all, it is an aspect which is not at all sufficient to let visitors understand the impact of graphic design on visual culture or, more simply, the cultural role of design.

Of course it is not our intention here to diminish the work and ideas by Bil’ak. On the contrary: without them, probably we would not have even raised the topic of our research project. But his ideas and work encourage us to move beyond, to further investigate the relationship of graphic design, exhibiting and the curatorial.

[1] A book was published on occasion of the exhibition. Unfortunately it is out of print. Beside projects on show the book includes an essay by M/M Paris «on the relevance of posters today, and reacting the concept of the exhibition.» See
[2] In a short essay included in the catalogue (p. 50), while they praise Bil’ak for his attempt to bring a critical approach in the context of the “extremely conservative” Brno Biennale, M/M explain the reason behind their decision not to participate. This relates to their idea of and approach to graphic design, and their use of posters. According to M/M «the poster is the future,» not as a fetish object but as a «strong and effective medium.» «Since posters are not about the medium anymore, but about the content and context» they continue, «we have been using them to make statements in the white cube universe, out of the real world.» Thus they critically judge the very idea of Bil’ak’s exhibition of gathering a group of designers to «create posters about posters,» that is an exhibition «based around the medium only.» «If we had accepted to be a part of this exhibition, we would have given a fake artistic value to the project which is a wrong thing. A poster remains a poster in any graphic design event, as there is neither translation nor transposition. In this context it has no aura of a ready-made.»
[3] The Paris exhibition to which Bil’ak refers here should be Translation, which featured a number of pieces from the collections of the Greek-Cypriot industrialist Dakis Joannou. M/M were invited to conceive and design the display of the artists’ pieces; consequently they acted as translators and as authors of the “contexte graphique” for the exhibited art works, rather than just being exhibited themselves “next” to the other artists. The distinction might have been not so clear, though. More info in the press release).