Design Museum opens Hope to Nope, Graphics and Politics

I witness the global financial crash, enter the Arab Spring, observe Barak Obama’s vibrant presidential years, then Trump’s messy aftershock – sit in support of demonstrators in the Occupy movement and Deepwater Horizon oil spill, feel the shock and horror of the Charlie Hebdo attack and face the tragedy that is Brexit. The lack of windows and natural light in the basement gallery space at the Design Museum magnifies this feeling of complete immersion, of being wrapped within the political and social turbulence of the last decade. It also reveals the sheer visual and visceral power of the graphic images that have come to define this era.

This is the premise for the new exhibition here Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008-18 (until 12 August), a study of how political graphic design reached new powers in the turbulent last decade, and how it spread with such speed to steer in the most unpredictable of directions thanks in part to social media. A decade ago, who would have guessed the way new media will completely alter how we view news, see image and digest information. What was then a new medium for communication now sits semi-comfortably with traditional media, as journalists and broadcasters work alongside hashtags and memes and influencers. We are all trying to find a balance but what is evident here at the Design Museum is that new media has completely altered how graphic political messages are made and distributed, and the power of graphic design has arguably never been greater.

Hope to Nope comprises three main sections: power, protest and personality with a large graphic timeline dissecting the gallery space to chart the role of Facebook and Twitter in global events of the last decade. Power explores how graphic design is used by the establishment to assert national and political authority, and how that iconography can be subverted by activists and opponents. Protest displays graphic design by activists and demonstrators, while personality examines the graphic representation of leading political figures. One wall, for instance, is dedicated entirely to Donald Trump, his trademark features caricatured across the covers of more than 50 international magazine covers – including The Economist, TIME, Der Spiegel, The New Yorker.

Cocooned here under the safe architectural walls of the Design Museum, I am transported to my former life, a childhood of war and revolution, of displacement, of composing childlike copy for equally naïve hand-painted political posters, of the excitement of carrying these messages to the streets. Ultimately Hope to Nope exposes the sheer power of arts and ideas to help make change.

Nargess Banks

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Can cultural spaces and galleries be landscapes of ideas?

I have strong views on the vital role of the visual arts and culture to help shape society and vice versa. My thoughts are that a degree of social engagement is necessary, especially in these volatile times. Without which these are just decoration, an ego massage, or worse strictly commercial enterprises. This applies as much to architecture and design as it does to the fine arts, film and music.

Public cultural spaces are in a great position to be an open landscape for ideas, to bring isolated voices together and instigate exciting discourse and debate.

Last week I met with Yana Peel, the chief executive of the Serpentine Galleries in London – two small galleries in terms of their footprint, but with a ‘local, national and international reach’, she says.

Grayson Perry, Death of a Working Hero, 2016, Tapestry, 250 x 200 cm © The Artist Courtesy the Artist, Paragon Press and Victoria Miro, London. Photographer: Stephen WhiteI admire the Serpentine and sister Sackler for they are proof that art galleries need not be grand institutions to make an impact – that sometimes it is often these more independent establishments that are willing to shake things up.

Peel talks of utilising her privileged position, this public platform, to bring in dissenting voices. Alongside the Serpentine’s artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist, they have set a courageous programme to explore voices from outside the mainstream art circles.

So, expect some interesting dialogues to emerge this summer as Arthur Jafa, the provocative American cinematographer and filmmaker, exhibits alongside Grayson Perry at the galleries.

Jafa is set out to explore how black film can achieve black music’s sense of theatre and he will be reinventing the Sackler space, teases Peel. Whilst across the Serpentine Lake, Perry’s provocatively titled The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! will do just that – question, as the British artist often does, art’s popularity and populism.

Then on the grounds next door to the Serpentine, in the midst of Kensington Garden’s beautiful nature, Berlin architect Diébédo Francis Kéré will connect visitors to the park and to one another through his winning Serpentine Pavilion project. His work is inspired by a tree which served as a central meeting point in his childhood village of Gando in Burkina Faso – as Peel puts it ‘bringing a little of Gando to Kensington Gardens.’

And the Serpentine Marathons – the supporting talks, debates, conversations – at the Pavilion, across London and on social media will keep a lively debate running all summer. Peel’s hope is that these events will connect with those from outside the art world and with younger generations. She tells me, ‘we need to make sure we are listening as well as talking. It must always be a dialogue’.

Public cultural spaces have to be risk takers – if they don’t, we are in deep, deep trouble. The Tate Modern, with its sheer size and reach has a responsibility to continue to make a stand, show unusual exhibitions, provoke, excite – not just entertain. These should be spaces where culture, politics and art can happen naturally – feed off each other and learn from one another.

Equally, architects and designers (yes, even car designers, a world I’m very familiar with) involved in public work, or grand gestures of creativity, or simple objects that occupy our landscape, should use there platforms to defend the planet, protect its citizens and living species. That is the power of creativity.

Nargess Banks

Design Talks | The Textile Building | 29a Chatham Place | London | E9 6FJ | UK
Design Talks is published by Spinach Design
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Book review: Design as Politics

Our world is nearing a state of structural unsustainability- a truism so obvious that even global-warming deniers deny it under their breath. In Design as Politics, author Tony Frey develops his previous thesis on the role of design in preventing the coming catastrophe  somewhat further.

Sustainability (with a capital S) is to be achieved and catastrophe prevented by placing design at the heart of vital social transformations. Here Fry uses design not in its politically neutral aesthetic definition of design as taste, applied to such products as architecture, furniture and fashion, but to design as it defines our very existence, our life styles, our values and hence the very core that defines our being, our existence and our relation to the environment.

Fry’s critique of the use of design currently in operation ranges wide and introduces many useful ideas. Thus technology has been designed to render us impervious to the way we are being manipulated, and becomes internalised to our very being such that ultimately it is technology that is designing us. The tools themselves effectively design the user. Man becomes defutured through unthinking, unlimited consumption, what has been called ‘consumption as grazing’.

Instead of being the political subject, mankind is instrumentalised into becoming the object of politics. Under these circumstances liberal democracy gives the illusion of change while reproducing more of the same, conjured up to pose as a difference.

Furthermore, under democracy pluralism is seen as a collection of atomised and individualised beings as opposed to collectivities, unities or bonded communities, with communal joint interests and goals.

Design as Politics by Tony Fry. Berg Publishing

For Fry, Sustainment is the acceptance of plurality within one unified goal, a meta-diverse end which he identifies as fundamentally changing our behaviour in order to avoid a defutured world. In this goal he can only be lauded by any sane person. And he rightly recognises that this future is unachievable within a global liberal political structure designed to turn the entire human race into a machine for consumption, using design (and education and the media) to obscure the unsustainablity of their project.

Here democratic politics, as he says, is reduced to providing consumer satisfaction, and hence politics is presented to the consumer as another product for consumption. What we have, he says, is ‘autonomous techno-centrism’ which shows us a ‘future from which we are absent’.

Fry is clearly well read and takes us through a fascinating, though somewhat complex and at times linguistically dense, journey touching on a large number of philosophers, social scientists and thinkers.

So far so good, and not very contentious. But when Fry goes into providing what he sees as a road to solution he goes badly wrong. While recognising the enormity of the problem he separates the political from the class-productive relations that are at the roots of the unsustainability of our current level of consumption.

Moreover, despite his repeated assertion that his solution is the only one that is not utopian, the world of Design as Politics is essentially built on a series of unsupportable assumptions.

He clearly understands that the fundamental cause of the unsustainabilty of our existence is anthropocentrism that was accentuated by the introduction of the capitalist mode of production that, in his words, has no reformative other.

Moreover he spends countless pages showing the undemocratic nature of democracy but then wishes to rebuild it from the inside (see page165). He then, contradicts himself by proposing to reform capitalism. The entire Design as Politics project aims at reforming capitalism (and democracy) so that it is changed from creating a technology for consumption to one for sustainment.

Central to his thesis is that design determines our fate – hence to change that fate we must begin by changing our understanding of design, to ‘rethink and redefine and reinvent the very nature of urban and rural life,’ and at its core a, ‘design becoming more dynamic, more powerful and more able to communicate the significance of designers to society in general’ he writes.

The agency for this change is an (hopefully) ever-widening, but tight, circle of people – designers – who have woken up not just to the horrors of a defutured world (after all many of us are already there) but on the root causes of that defuturing.

And what are those root causes? It is design for consumption, or ‘consumption as grazing’. And the solution is design for sustainment. And since democracy (I guess he means parliamentary democracy although nowhere does he define it as such) is also a system designed to cloud our vision we need to go beyond it. But by going beyond democracy Fry does not mean more, and more meaningful, democracy, which he dismisses as utopian radical democracy, but less – much less.

What Fry proposes is a cabal of designers and teachers who will in what he rightly recognises as a hard and difficult road, convince global capitalism to reform itself before the entire system collapses under the mass migration induced by global warming; and for the rest of us to consume for survival not for pleasure.

They, and we, will do so through teaching and persuasion, turning ‘knowing into the service of economic ends’. The hoped for outcome: a self-imposed ‘dictatorship of Sustainment’, or if people won’t, by imposition from above by an ‘adaptive design directorate’.

And if that change cannot rely on agreement it must ‘aim with material force’. Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat, which was his shorthand for the democratic control of the majority on society, becomes the dictatorship of a committee or at best an idea – ‘thought itself as redirective practice’, as Fry puts it or ‘designed and managed interventions’ to impose ‘unfreedoms’.

His main foe is democracy with its laisser-faire attitude to the rampages of technology gone wild. His heroes are Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, both neo-romantic critiques of democracy and philosophers of authoritarianism. His effectors are a clique of educators – in the form of enlightened designers educating (read imposing) a new form of design that safeguards our future by taming the rampages that capitalist profit motive has sown on our planet. A modern version of Plato’s philosopher king transposed to twenty-first century globalised world.

Somewhere among his solution both the real effectors of unsustainability, capitalism, and its dictatorship imposed through apparent parliamentary democracy is lost. Here Fry not only misses the real critique of Heidegger of the roots of technology, but aims to reform capitalism by educating it to respect the future of the human race by ceasing to be so anthropocentric – a socialised capitalism, so to speak.

It is like educating the thief to patrol the neighbourhood. Marx had identified commodity fetishism as central to capitalist relations. By placing design at the centre of the futuring of the planet, Fry is demonstrating the most extreme form of commodity fetishism to defetishise commodities. No wonder Marx barely gets a mention in these pages.

Fry rejects utopian solutions but opts for the impossible. To ‘induce a being otherwise’ by design begs the question of who is the designer, chosen by whom and answerable to whom.

Dictatorship of sustainment will become just that – an imposed unfreedom imposed by unelected designers, answerable to no one but that very global capital (where ‘the capitalist commodity sphere was constituted as a world of desire’) that presumably employs the designers.

It is not entirely accidental that the word profit does not appear anywhere in this book. Does Fry imagine a capitalism without profit. Without it would they be persuaded to create a world where ‘to live is to suffer’ reigns eternal?

Guest blogger Mohsen Shahmanesh

Design as politics by Tony Fry is published by Berg 2011. You can purchase the book directly at Design Talks Bookshop here.

Tony Fry is a director of the sustainment consultancy Team D/E/S and adjunct professor of design at Griffith University, Queensland College of Art, Australia. Among his publication is A New Design Philosophy: an Introduction to Defuturing, and Design, Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice.

Also read another interesting take on this by Peter Radziszewski in Rock n Roll!

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