The wide glass door of the ground floor gallery in the Triennale building is completely covered in a brightly coloured pattern: beyond it, visitors can discover the first international graphic design exhibition of this size and scale in Italy. The title chosen by the curator, Venetian graphic designer and cultural organizer Giorgio Camuffo, is Graphic Design Worlds. In itself, it doesn’t reveal much: but, at a closer look, one gets the impression that the word worlds was chosen to leave the structure as open as possible for the invited participants. The intention is to show, on one side, how graphic design is able to shape or even to “create” worlds, and, on the other, how different these worlds are, in terms of approaches and contents.
And this variety is immediately evident: visitors, by entering the multicoloured door, find themselves walking across a number of dense and often contrasting spaces that, first of all, scream out loud the presence and force of graphic design. The surface is entirely occupied, up to the ceiling, as if to reclaim a territory that is not as easily available in the daily practice of the profession. Beware, though: daily practice seems to be, in several cases, quite distant from what we can see here on show. Except for a few, participants have designed their intervention specifically for this occasion, and the results, albeit extremely different, are a collection of examples of what graphic design can do when it’s left free to act on its own.
And what does it do? If we have to trust our eyes, it still prefers printed media (posters and books) but, when it’s offered the opportunity, enjoys expanding into installations and even architectures (Geoff Mc Fetheridge, Anthony Burrill and KesselsKramer); screens are quite rare here, surprising as it may be, but their traces appear, in the form of image search results printouts (Metahaven) or low resolution leftovers (Christophe Jacquet/Toffe, Tommaso Garner).
The words graphic design are clearly spelled out on the exhibition’s posters around the city. But “graphic design is a continuously changing landscape”, claims the curator’s text at the entrance: that’s probably why designers having radically different approaches to the field have been selected to represent it on this occasion. Still, graphic design is the proclaimed starting point, and it’s inevitable to wonder about the positions each one of them holds in (or in relation to) this field. To a certain point, the statements collected by Mieke Gerritzen in her wallpaper installation give us a clue.
Daniel Eatock says: “I’m an artist, but my work does reference design”: the reason for the presence of his “No Photo” project, scattered around the exhibition and the museum, lies exactly in his view on design, its codes, modes, failures and contradictions.
“The work speaks for itself”, say Dexter Sinister, and in their case the statement is perfectly true: a text plainly set in six “pages” on the wall, a sample from the work, a clock and, most of all, the story of a project told honestly and without arrogance, where the (temporary) result is still open to discussion and further development.
“We don’t like the concept of glamorous superstar designers”, claim Experimental Jetset: accordingly, they chose to arrange their posters in a mobile structure, instead of a clearly defined space, a closed world.
“Our design process is not very intellectual”, affirm De Designpolitie, as to react to some of their neighbours in the gallery. Their presence in the show is almost completely based on Gorilla, the graphic daily commentary they keep, with Lesley Moore and Herman van Bostelen, on De Volkskrant’s front page.
“Our books are like little worlds”: this is what Fuel say about their publishing activity, that has sprung from their studio as the ideal place where graphic design and their personal curiosity could easily join.
There’s no doubt where people as Norm and Harmin Liemburg, to name just a few, belong to: they clearly express their belief in the discipline and its tools, and both rely on print and its combinatory possibilities to represent the process of designing communication.
In other cases, the answer is not so evident. It’s difficult, and probably unnecessary, to try to classify as design Åbäke’s Museum Septalianum, an abstracted interpretation – in the form of striped posters, coloured shelves and a few objects – of the relics of what used to be a scientific collection, subsequently scattered in Milan’s museums and then lost. The same applies to M/M (Paris)’s self-presentation in the form of an exhibition model, that shows how the same room could have looked like – overcrowded with objects to the point of being non-accessible – if time and resources had allowed them to make their project real.
Paul Elliman’s biography on the Werkplaats Typografie website presents him as an “artist and researcher who prefers to call himself a designer, in order, he says, ‘To be able to get on with the kind of work I want to get on with’.” Even if Elliman does not participate in this exhibition, this use of graphic design as a “mask” is not unusual here. For example, Geoff McFetheridge, in the interview given for the book, declares that “Calling myself a “designer” has offered me a great freedom to explore all sorts of projects that were linked by my personal creativity or ideas. (…)”. In the end, graphic design seems to be a comfortable starting point to get to many possible outcomes, without having to struggle with other definitions.
The role of self-initiated projects in graphic design is often questioned: part of the design world sees them as the only way for renewing and developing the practice, while on the other side they’re often seen as an unrealistic detour from the main function of graphic design, that is the visual and cultural mediation between a “source” and a “receiver”.
While I believe that graphic design can exist without commissions, I doubt it makes any sense without “receivers” – be they called users, audience, viewers, readers and so on. But some of the interventions we meet in contemporary practice, and in this exhibition, seem to cultivate a sort of autism, where little or no effort is put in communicating with those who happen to be outside the immediate circle of interest.
The choice of the curator was to avoid any presentation or “explanation” of the works in the show. Copies of the accompanying book, in Italian and English, lay here and there, available to visitors looking for connections and clues.
Political and critical attitudes are not missing. In Metahaven’s WikiLeaks project, the analysis process activated by design proves itself a powerful tool for the understanding and presentation of facts and structures inherent in the contemporary world. In the Triennale presentation, the project goes beyond the logo proposals and “leaking” posters seen so far, to present a huge mass of information (chats, news articles, Google image search results) that form the basis of WikiLeaks’ perceived image; in this ongoing research, the posters hanging on the walls – based on concepts such as censorship and transparency – seem to be the comments, surely not the conclusion.
As a consequence of a controversial choice, all the Italian participants were gathered in the central room, giving each one a small cubicle to present their “worlds”. In this setting, that creates a forced homogeneity, some interesting proposals can be seen, such as those by Lupo & Burtscher, Joseph Miceli, Tankboys, and especially Brave New Alp’s Laboratorio Campano, a hands-on enquiry into the so-called “waste emergency” in southern Italy and its connections with the illegal economy. In this last case, graphic design provides the tools for the analysis and publication of information on crucial issues. The room’s walls are covered with the graphic presentation of a discussion between the designers held at the Triennale a few months earlier, as if to frame this section’s contents within an ongoing debate in Italy.
The closing piece of the exhibition – “Graphic Design Wonderland” – is the work of Mieke Gerritzen, who chose to cover one of the walls with her signature logo wallpapers, a summary of the current visual culture. Parallel to this one, another wallpaper collects phrases and statements by the designers in the show, interestingly presented on t-shirts silhouettes, as ready-to-wear ideas and attitudes.
Controversial as it may be, this exhibition proves to be a valuable attempt at looking at the current state of affairs in graphic design. Its preparation – made of meetings, readings, conversations – was documented in a blog (A Diary of an Exhibition), and has brought to the publishing of a book, Graphic Design Worlds/Words – edited by Camuffo and Maddalena Dalla Mura, with essays, interviews and other interventions, both by participants and critics – and to a rich series of video interviews, available to be seen on show. This reflective side of the project is hopefully what is going to remain after the closing of the exhibition in Milan.
As for a definition of what graphic design is, this is not the place where a clear statement will be found. We may decide, at least for now, to accept what Fuel say in their interview: “We’re graphic designers, so what we produce is graphic design”.
(This is the original text of the article that was published in French in étapes: 191, April 2011, and in English in étapes:international 24, summer 2011)