What is to be done?
In the days following a narrow decision by the people of Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom – after my personal sadness subsides – it’s difficult for your mind not to turn to imagining what might come next. What are the positives that can be built on? If 45% of the population think positive change could and should happen through independence, where do we go from here?(1) If this does signal a reborn or new type of politics, what might that look like, and in what context might it come in to being?
The return of Real Politik: A Ghost is Born(2)
Amid the tokenistic sound-bites about ‘wake up calls’, an already muddled non-constitution is set to get even messier. Unless a wholly unlikely political compromise can be wrought between labour and the conservatives, ‘The Vow’ (©Pirates of the Caribbean) looks likely to unravel, and whether or not that swung the referendum is now irrelevant as it has become a matter of trust inextricably linked to Westminster. Given that ‘No’ scraped through this following the most remarkably desperate and messy campaign I have ever seen, in the cold light of day it’s impossible to see this as anything other than a delay of the inevitable. Westminster politicians, in a desperate attempt not to lose the Union on their watch, and lose their jobs in the process, have created a new compromised set of circumstances that can only see it fall in the future. With the details of this ‘settlement’ thrashed out in the closed rooms of Chequers and Westminster, this only adds to the crisis of legitimacy already engulfing mainstream politics. Viewed through another prism, 45% of the people of Scotland were ahead of the curve, but it is a curve nevertheless.(3)
An embarrassment of riches
Throughout the last 2 years a natural curiosity and desire to debate has been evident on the part of ‘YES’. I’m fully conscious that this is where I spent most of my time and energies, (though did start off as an instinctive ‘NO’), but really struggled to find any engaging debate in favour of the Union. That’s not to say that it didn’t exist, but where it did, it seemed to exist in a much more limited form, and was frequently tied up with political theory, micro-constitutional machinations, and very much ‘marching in to the future, whilst looking in the rear-view mirror’, (to borrow a Mcluhanism). Where there are two protagonists in any discussion, over the long run, fortune will favour the inquisitive.
Another striking characteristic within the YES movement (and I’m aware of the difficulties in calling it that, but can’t find a better word for now) was the ability to tolerate differences of opinion, on policy issues, whilst being able to recognise common goals. This was wholly refreshing, speaking as someone in possession of their own mind who finds party politics to be utterly crushing of both the spirit and the will. ‘Pragmatists’ point to this as a weakness, but it should be viewed as a great strength. They will also critique choices to debate issues through plays, song, poetry and design – but again this was the most invigorating of all this referendums many revelations. By opening up the collective imagination as a space that can be occupied by the most ‘real’ of politics, a space to discuss issues was created that wasn’t subject to the usual political modes of engagement. A binary choice at the ballot box created the least binary (and most imaginative) political discussions I have ever been involved in, and that is something that the political establishment needs to reflect on. Engagement follows choices with consequence, and YES made the political weather in terms of provoking an informed and lively debate about what choices and consequences we might be faced with. Meanwhile, the ‘don’t know, vote no’ mantra of Scottish Labour is indicative of the intellectual ambition of ‘better together’, and, as mentioned earlier, that intellectual ambition isn’t heading anywhere fast.
While there will naturally be a massive desire and energy to address whatever perceived shortcomings there are believed to have been in the YES movement, and it’s failure to win the referendum, YES should continue doing exactly what it has done to date, in exactly the same manner. I would attempt to summarise that as a friendly, communicative, cooperative but essentially unorganised movement for independence and self-determination – one lived out with wit, warmth, and imagination, sometimes a little insular, and occasionally prone to conspiracy theories, but by and large a reflective movement that could think about itself, and it’s place in the world. Most striking of its characteristics is it’s distributed structure.
YES lost the debate significantly in one key demographic, 65+ – a demographic more responsive to the mainstream media (MSM), less involved in digital networks, and more receptive to the establishment onslaught – but won or came close in most other age groups. These new ways of doing politics have found favour with large parts of the electorate, and have engaged a number of people almost completely unheard of before. To lose the referendum should not mean that the potential pains of future losses force us to change this modus operandi. YES will be pressured, internally and externally, to identify its goals and ‘get its act together’ but I can only feel dispirited at the prospect. ‘Organisation’ and ‘discipline’ are of the old political paradigm we’re trying to leave behind, communication and cooperation are the new watchwords we should be aiming for. Questions of organisation are usually followed by ones of ‘leaders’ and ‘control’ – of money and ‘sustainability’. By organising and then collectively sticking ones head over the parapet, it only makes it easier for others to categorise and label you, and in the process neuter any opinion you may have. By keeping loose, but staying connected, influence and trust travels further. We can take responsibility for our own actions, and the movement becomes richer and more layered than it was before. YES functioned as a distributed network which makes total sense in the world in which we live, and should remain its key characteristic. In this spirit of undisciplined action, I’m going to share some of the following thoughts on what could be done next, varying from the practical to the ridiculous, but in the world of unorganised ‘YES’, they all get an airing.
Disbelief, Suspend Thyself.
Most fundamental to moving forward is the need to behave paradoxically. We need to join political parties but not be defined by them. Joining helps us identify as a group, and deal with the real politik of holding politicians to account. But we should also consider being part of a number of parties, as well as seeking to join groups with similar aims elsewhere in the world (be that in Wales, Spain, Hong Kong or elsewhere). By building networks internationally, we can strengthen the resources, knowledge and popular support for all of these movements. To extend this further, we could make links with groups in the rest of the uk in a campaign for the uk to declare independence from itself, striving for a constitutional year-zero, rather than the piecemeal concessions on offer.
YES should continue to develop strong citizen journalism. Already a strong commentariat has emerged, and through projects such as the Scottish Inquirer, we should support the development of these voices to include great independent investigative journalism, the likes of which have been largely missing throughout the referendum campaign.
We should set up the Scottish Institute for the Imagination (motto: “Disbelief, suspend thyself”), an initiative to bring about a reawakening of the collective imagination.
Collective remembering: in the heat of the final vote, it’s possible to forget the more surreal aspects of the referendum campaign. Keeping those minor insults and faux-pas to the front of the populations mind could be a key aspect of any future YES activities. By secreting speakers in the flagstones of Buchanan street, we quietly pipe in the Imperial Death March, on continuous loop. Just as the Spanish celebrate festivals and national holidays with giant paellas cooked in enormous dishes in the street, we instigate national ‘Eat your Cereal‘ day, where a massive bowl of coco-pops is placed in the centre of George Square for the population of Glasgow to feast upon.
We should research, design and develop a Scottish currency. By learning from other micro and alternative currencies, we don’t need to wait for a future referendum, but can start this project now. The hold that Westminster has over some parts of Scotland is directly channeled through the Bank of England, and by circumnavigating this, in our own time, and on our own terms, we demonstrate possible answers to the depressingly recurring ‘currency question’.
We need to support and encourage ‘independent mindedness’ in all spheres of life – at work, at school, in the home – building people’s capacity and trust for independent thinking.
We need to continue to work through the cultural sphere. Through creative thinking, we will get there, and we need to support and promote the work of the likes of Lateral North, regardless of whether we got the result we want or not. We need a heady mix of expertise and ideas of a particular type, those rarely found in single people, so we need to prioritise the connected collective over the cult of the leader.
More of the same
The worst thing YES as a group could do would be to seek to emulate any of the operations of mainstream political parties (and I include the SNP in that). We should refuse to mimic, and keep doing what got YES to this point – just do more of it, more often, with more people, having more political fun.
1. While talk of ‘reconciliation’ is occupying much of the MSM, this would assume that there was much acrimony in the first place (which there wasn’t, apart from in the collective imaginations of Nick Robinson, Jim Murphy MP, and the Telegraph). It is also the flip side of the ‘no more referendums’ coin, again peddled by the MSM, and difficult to read as anything other than an establishment uncomfortable with the idea of a large section of the public engaging in politics. The people of Scotland will decide if and when there is another referendum, not Lords or career Politicians or a subservient media. End of.
3. To further explore this I plan to re-read ‘After Britain‘ by Tom Nairn – a reflection on what politicians thought the Scottish Parliament was about and what it came to mean. Scotland, viewed across the last 30+ years, seems to be heading in one direction only, and this referendum, narrowly lost, can be read as simply another step in that direction.
Here’s hoping. Reflections to follow, once the dust has settled.
Interesting post about the visual identity of the Westborough Baptists, using primary design research, by Emmet Byrne on The Gradient — Walker Art Center.
Thought 1: Shaping Design Education at LEAP Symposium may have been very good. A few too many post-it notes, a few too many kooky documentary illustrations, but that aside, it may have been a well considered, far-thinking event. I’ve read the article, looked at the pictures, and of course broadly agree with the summary, it being so general that it would be difficult to disagree with. ‘Humility’ and ‘optimism’ are advocated as key qualities, (but of course, who wouldn’t agree with humility and optimism in their broadest senses?) and as anyone who knows me will testify, I have at least one of these things in spades. But there’s something not quite right, something that is *annoying* me.
Thought 2: I think perhaps this conference just crossed my path at the wrong time. Its possible I’m really frustrated by something else, and maybe it’s this; In Higher Education this type of thing seems to increasingly happen. Didactic initiatives keep cropping up to makes students be more sustainable, more employable, more ‘responsible’. Its undeniable that the academy now has a far stronger view, (and often goes to much greater lengths to realise that view) of what it’s graduating students should ‘be like’.
In the same way that conferences about ‘creativity’ seem to miss the point, a scheduled agenda about any of these big issues seem doomed to do them a disservice. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately in relation to some events I’m working on next year, loosely political in nature. But we can’t make people be ‘political’ or act ‘politically’. For that to have any value, it needs to come from the person, at the right time in the right place – to genuinely ‘respond’. The most we could/should do is create a platform for that to happen, which is in itself a political act enough. And it should be the same in education. Creating spaces – encouraging, supporting, challenging spaces – designed from the person or cohort outwards, not from a socio-economic political endpoint backwards.
Capital likes to know what it’s dealing with. Projects of the ‘what’s to be done about’ variety, while probably well intended, try to offer people too many handles on things, and at the same time set up too many fences around things, and (if you’ll indulge me in this triple-metaphor-a-thon), easy ‘pidgeon-holing’. Discussions about education, creativity, sustainability etc should come about as a by-product of doing other things, and be constantly open to revision, making things, abject failure, making things, delighting in specifics, making things, letting things not be named, and contrarian views.
Thought 3: This reminded me of another post I have never got around to writing. Celebrating ‘system bending’ – people and groups who can navigate, but more importantly ignore, subvert and generally distract from the prevailing meta-narrative of quantifying, modularising, commodifying, systematising (and yes, even understanding) contemporary creative life. Let’s try and learn more, understand less.
(And maybe watch this).
“Even as our government prepares for a multi-million pound rebranding of the First World War next year, ideas are being spun at the Ministry of Defence to mitigate opposition to current and future conflicts, a 2012 report has revealed.
Far from an institution which is divorced from politics, the report paints a picture of a military which is desperate to shape public opinion. Although the report’s suggestions have not yet been enacted as policy, the fact that these questions are being asked at all tells us something of interest.”
Interesting article, and as an aside; in the ‘privatisation of public services’ debate, why not privatise the whole military. See how that goes. If it works out well, then, (and only then), apply to Health and Social Services etc.
“…Nowadays, putting skeuomorphism on objects which, thanks to progress, no longer need to be decorated, means a waste of labour and an abuse of material. If all objects would last as long in aesthetic terms as they last physically, the consumer would be able to pay price for them that would allow the worker to earn more money and work shorter hours. For an object from which I am convinced I will get full use until it is superseded by an updated handset, I am quite happy to pay four times the price of another I could buy, and would gladly queue up from 3am in the morning to do so. I am happy to pay forty crowns for my iPod touch, even though there are mp3 players for ten in another shop. But in those trades that languish under the yoke of the skeuomorphic artist, no value is put on good or bad workmanship. Work suffers because no one is willing to pay for it at its true value…
…A modern person, who regards skeuomorphism as a symptom of the artistic superfluity of previous ages and for that reason holds it sacred, will immediately recognize the unhealthy, the forced–painfully forced–nature of modern skeuomorphism. Skeuomorphism can no longer be produced by someone living on the cultural level of today. It is different for individuals and people who have not yet reached that level.
The ideal I preach is the technologist. What I mean by that is the person at the peak of humanity, who yet has a profound understanding of the problems and aspirations of those at the bottom. One who well understands the way the African inputs data into his Blackberry according to a certain rhythm; likewise the Persian coding his GPS device, the Slovak peasant woman making her Android user interface, the old woman making marvelous algorhythms from lines of secondhand code. The technologist lets them carry on in their work accustomed way, he knows the time they spend on their work is sacred to them. The revolutionary would go and tell them it was all pointless, just as he would drag an old woman away from the wayside shrine, telling her there is no God. But the atheist among the technologists still raises his hat when he passes a church.
My shoes are covered with skeuomorphisms formed by sawtooth patterns and holes. Work done by the shoemaker, work he has not been paid for. Imagine I go to the shoemaker and say, ‘You charge thirty crowns for a pair of shoes. I will pay you forty-eight.’ It will raise the man to such a transport of delight he will thank me through his workmanship and the material used, making them of a quality that will far outweigh my extra payment. He is happy, and happiness is a rare commodity in his house. He has found someone who understands him, who respects his work, and does not doubt his honesty. He can already see the finished shoes in his mind’s eye. He knows where the best leather is to be found at the moment, he knows which of his workers he will entrust with the task, and the shoes will have all the sawtooth patterns and holes an elegant pair of shoes can take. And then I say, ‘But there is one condition. The shoes must be completely plain.’ I will drag him down from the heights of bliss to the depths of hell. He will have less work, and I have taken away all his pleasure in it.
The ideal I preach is the technologist. I can accept skeuomorphism on my own person if it brings pleasure to my fellow men. It brings pleasure to me, too. I can accept the African’s skeuomorphism, the Persian’s, the Slovak peasant woman’s, my shoemaker’s, for it provides the high point of their existence, which they have no other means of achieving. We have the art that has superseded skeuomorphism. After all the toil and tribulations of the day, we can go to hear Throbbing Gristle or Florian Hecker. My shoemaker cannot. I must not take his religion from him, for I have nothing to put in its place. But anyone who goes to Instal and then sits down to design a wallpaper pattern is either a fraud or a degenerate.
The disappearance of skeuomorphism has brought about an undreamed-of blossoming in the other arts. The Gristle’s symphonies would never have been written by a man who had to dress in silk, velvet, and lace. Those who go around in velvet jackets today are not artists, but clowns or house painters. We have become more refined, more subtle. When men followed the herd they had to differentiate themselves through colour, modern man uses his dress as a disguise. His sense of his own individuality is so immensely strong it can no longer be expressed in dress. In iOS7, flatness, and a lack of ornamentation, is a sign of intellectual strength. Modern man uses the skeuomorphs of earlier or foreign cultures as he likes and as he sees fit. He concentrates his own inventive power on other things.”
All the talk on the ‘blogs’ of late has been about the new identity of the Whitney by Experimental Jetset. I’m currently reading their account of it, while listening to a new arrival – This is how we walk on the Moon, by Johanna Billing (with design by Åbäke). This bit of grotesquely bourgeoise name-dropping isn’t entirely without reason, as it made me think about the critieria against which design has to ‘work’, and against which it is increasingly ‘judged’, in a very public way, by an audience on twitter and at the reductive idiots convention that is Brand New (and similar).
While the new Whitney identity undoubtedly ‘succeeds’ against its own criteria, it’s been interesting seeing how many people have been enjoying reading the ‘great’ ‘concept’ and ‘rationale’ and explanation of ‘process’ on the Experimental Jetset website. Being written, as it is, by the designers, this will always be framed to explain how an end product makes sense in relation to the brief they were given by the client. I agree it is well written, and makes interesting reading, and the outcome undoubtedly presents a highly consistent, corporate, and business-like image of the Whitney as a contemporary art institution. But isn’t it more interesting to ask if that’s what an art institution (in the times in which we live) could and should be. Their own text doesn’t question (or reflect on) this, and in the identity, I don’t feel that anything is being challenged here. (I know it’s daft to make comparisons, but…) in contrast to the art-design work of Abäke (with its intriguing and sometimes confusing idiosyncrasies), I feel I want it to be more open to ambiguity, assimilation, augmentation and out and out assault (which may of course happen over time). The only concession to this comes in their sign off; “In the same way, we hope that future designers, working with the graphic identity we developed for them, will be able to use this identity as a platform for their own authorship – and to leave their own signature, their own fingerprint, within it. After all, a graphic identity could (and should) never be a machine, in which one simply ‘inputs’ an image and a title, and out rolls an invitation. It will always be a human process, in which the aesthetic and conceptual decisions made by the graphic designer play an essential role – a role that can never be skipped, or erased.” — But without completely abandoning at least part of the lengthy rationale that precedes it, I’m a bit unclear as to how this can happen.
This is not a negative reflection on the designers, all of whom are excellent and working in specific contexts and responding to specific demands, or the work which I like in some ways, but on the forces that come to shape design work. And a request that if we’re going to reflect on design identity work, lets do that, not just concur that they made a good job of writing up their own rationale about it.
And it also reminds me that I still haven’t written that Stedelijk post yet.
J’ai toujours aimé réaliser des œuvres qui nécessitaient un minimum d’interventions, j’ai dû hériter ça de Duchamp. Dans les années 1960, j’ai réalisé un petit collage autour du logo de “Braun”, que j’avais simplement transformé en “Brown”, une traduction phonétique de Braun en anglais. C’était une intervention minimale. » Richard Hamilton