Hyper Links

“Great cultural changes occurred in the West when it was possible to fix time as something that happens between two points”

McLuhan, Understanding Media 

Once it’s typed…

What follows is a project undertaken by the visionary designer J. Christopher Jones in the early 70s. Described as an experiment with new technologies of Xerox and microfiche, he wrote about it under the heading ‘Once it’s typed it’s published‘ (now part of Dexter Sinisters excellent serving library), and in doing so produced the most succinct and far-sighted premonition of the short circuiting of the production and distribution cycle that was to come. The project, in essence, involved him writing typescripts, and at any given point you could contact him and buy a book, compiled from a selection of his writings that you as reader would choose. He would then create a copy in whatever state it was in at that point, bind it, and send it to you. In a single step it cut out the lengthy and laborious elements of book production involved in finding a publisher, finding a printer, pre-financing its production and establishing a distribution network. Jones elaborates on the motivation and implications; “…eventually anyone may write what anyone may read, and the term ‘writer’ will come to mean, not that one has written a commercially published book, but that one can write at all, that one is literate, in touch.” The project, and more importantly the idea,  pre-empted the publish-then-edit online cultures that would subsequently emerge, and while not fully social in its production, it embodied the idea that a ‘thing’ could have multiple iterations of itself, and directly ties to more recent endeavours with RSS feeds, processing and generative software as a means of deliberately ‘incomplete’ or evolving states of production.

Sites

With creation, publication and distribution no longer distinct activities, interesting opportunities arise for public creativity. With specific reference to networks like Central Station, it is equally possible to see potential in the (web)site as a place for creation, not just connection and distribution, a continuation of some of the work of net-art pioneers and protagonists such as Anton Vidokle. The web can perhaps lay claim to being a primary location for ‘public art’ if we accept, as Seth Price suggests, that “collective experience is now based (as much) on simultaneous private experiences, distributed across the field of media culture”. In this sense, if a popular mp3 could be regarded as a more ‘successful’ incidence of ‘public art’ than a civic sculpture or intervention, the web opens up some contentious debates as a tool and a vehicle.

What is also interesting is that as well as compressing creation and publication, it reduces the distance between production and criticism and/or reappropriation. The chance to critically engage with the medium is another latent layer of potential, engaging with some of the issues Geert Lovink and others embrace via research centres like the Institute for Network Cultures. Far from the sunny utopia envisaged by California’s first wave of cyber-hippies, the web has emerged full of conflicts and contradictions and it’s important to tackle these head-on. As Lovink notes, “at best the net will be a mirror of the societies, countries and cultures which use it not the sweet and innocent, sleepy global village but a vibrant crawling and crashing bunch of complexities, as chaotic and unfinished as the world we live in”

RSS will feed itself

We need to then think about how effective the tools we have to hand are at realising these potentials. A common sensation associated with web 2.0 is that of ‘information glut’ – a level of noise and static that at times almost overwhelms the signal. It would be possible to write this off as the natural flip-side of ‘free information‘. But as this tide of information increases, so does our ability to sift it. The issue is mainly one of literacy, and several interesting projects have started to think critically about how we ‘create’ within this hyper-linked environment, not least Limited Langauage, a web/book project engaging with critical writing on design in a feedback culture.

The endism is nigh: against newness

Wired magazine’s latest breathless pronouncement is that the ‘web is dead‘ (though as a caveat they claim that the internet will go from strength to strength, via ‘apps’, services etc.). It’s the oldest trick in the book, neatly dissected by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid who view technology (and technologists) as being ‘obsessed’ with an unrelenting desire to see everything new as the death of what went before. In reality what emerges is a layered environment, subtly shifting practices, each layer augmenting what went before.

In the same way that tweets, as an abbreviated form of messaging, have a robust and healthy lineage via text messaging through telegrams to the advent of the telegraph and beyond, so the activity in networked creative communities is not new, it is just provided with new platforms and technologies on which to operate. The interesting question is not whether the technologies, in and of themselves, are any good, but whether they bring anything new or useful to these pre-existing communities. We then need to ask whether this, in a chicken-or-egg sense, may in turn cultivate new activities and modes of production. Text-based messaging, between the telegram and SMS messaging, may not have advanced much in that they were built on a similar social model of one-to-one or one-to-few communication across distance, but Twitter creates a much bigger shift by planting the short message in the social realm for all to consume. So the networks that operate on Central Station and other platforms are made visible, and in the process more open to interactions, input and chance encounters.

Post-production: sample culture

It’s a slightly glib way of putting it, but author Matt Ridley suggests that we’re on the cusp of really seeing what happens when ‘ideas have sex‘, because of the way ideas circulate online. We may also be able to put to bed the myth of the lone creative genius in the ivory tower. Historically, this myth seems to have some resilience. But whether via Bourriaud and his ideas around ‘post-production‘ or Sara de Bondt and her collaborative projects to unearth more nuanced (and realistic) versions of design history, there are interesting and taxing issues about ‘ownership’ and ‘ideas’ which online networks bring to the fore. In this sense the value of the network is increased as both a channel for production and distribution, but with the potential for parallel debate about the issues involved. But how open is this discussion? The lawyer and prolific writer Lawrence Lessig asks many critical questions about the future of ideas, our culture in ‘read-write’ terms, how our laws are badly out of step with behaviour online, and the potential benefits of a creative commons. To this end, we’re always teetering somewhere between open and closed networks, and an inbuilt conflict between the online masses and those who control the cables and connections.

Open and closed

Talking in a TV interview in 1995, Neil Postman discussed what he saw as ‘cyberspace’s Faustian pact’ – embodied in the many trade-offs we encounter online daily; between privacy and the desire to connect, the benefits of ‘collective intelligence’ and (some would perhaps rightly argue) a misplaced desire to be identified as sole originators of our own ideas. ‘Open networks’ are of course not always exactly that, but sometimes a semi-closed environment also has benefits. Writing on the discussion board of one particular semi-hidden archive, a member suggests; “There’s a utility to being closed. It makes things possible. In this age of connectedness, places where small groups can meet, both online and off, are to be prized.”

Digital and analogue

Technology is shot through with numerous false dichotomies, and digital vs analogue and online vs ‘real world’ are two prime examples. To characterise online networks as digital would be to completely miss the point. More useful distinctions, if indeed they are needed at all, would be between networked and non-networked artifacts. Much of what is passed off as ‘interaction design’ is actually, as Daniel West observes, ‘interpassive‘ – limited to a restrictive set of human/machine sensory interactions. As soon as interaction design connects to a web or network (of other people) it suddenly enters another dimension. In the same sense that a book is a ‘linked object’ and therefore more interactive than, for example, a motion graphic sequence, people and ideas are the only thing that really matter. In the unlikely event that Wired magazine’s web-death predictions did transpire to be correct, the network will still exist and will always be able to find other platforms. Just as some of the more covert and clandestine archives and sharing networks that contribute to the web’s ‘share’ culture simply change their URLs when they get shut down, there is always ‘somewhere’ for the network to go.

Undisciplined and other boundaries

One of the most exciting features of online creative networks is that they kick, more persistently and more effectively, at the false silo-ing of creative disciplines, formal and informal education and petty sector-specific cultural turf wars, than any top-down or heavy-handed attempts at inter-multi-trans-cross-diciplinarity. Just as at the grassroots, in studio complexes, artists rub shoulders with designers, craftsmen with writers, model makers with architects, the online platform is equally unprejudiced (or at least relaxed) about ‘discipline’ and other distinctions such as educational background, geographical location, or professional or ‘amateur’ status, which weigh so heavily on funding bodies and state educational institutions. This ties into a wider emerging ecosystem, embodied in projects such as the Parallel School and Department 21, where the benefits of self-directed and augmented collective educational experiences are realised.

Network of networks: multiples and parallels

Therefore, an interesting future for Central Station could counter-intuitively be found in it supporting other networks, and thinking about whether it could devolve itself, de-brand itself, relocate itself. The future benefits of these platforms lie in their ability to ‘be nothing’, or at least morph and spawn in equal measures. The web is an environment of multiple realities and parallel worlds, where the same information can be accessed from numerous different angles and as parts of all sorts of different constellations. It is, fundamentally in its DNA, not either/or but both/more/extra/at the same time.

There are pressing issues of ownership, in the same way that all internet endeavours are inseparable from problems of openness and organisation, but it is possible to argue that one of the best things a government could do would be to fund, with as few strings attached as possible, this kind of platform (or multiple platforms), taking a joyously open-minded approach to many of its members being from outwith its geographical borders, and seeing the richness that brings. Richard Barnbrook and Andy Cameron, writing in Mute magazine in 1995 with some degree of foresight, suggest “… hypermedia in Europe should be developed as a hybrid of state intervention, capitalist entrepreneurship and DIY culture … once people can distribute as well as receive hypermedia, a flourishing of community media, niche markets and special interest groups will emerge. However, for all this to happen the state must play an active part.” In the spirit of connectivity, funding is connected to form, is connected to function.

The five-handed, thirteen-faceted Central Station clock, (whether deliberately or not), says something about McLuhan’s ideas on time and its measurement. While he was using the concept of a clock as an example, to suggest that society needed to find new analogies for its electronic networked existence, the two have ended up blending into one another, just as the physical network blends into, and is, the digital.

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Featured in Central Station Book. The fee from this article has been donated to Telecom Sans Frontiers, www.tsfi.org

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Endnotes

1. Once it’s typed it’s published, J. Christopher Jones,  Reprinted in Portable Document Format by Dexter Sinister, published by Lukas & Sternberg, 2009, and available online in PDF format from the Dexter Sinister Library: http://www.dextersinister.org/library.html / http://www.dextersinister.org/library.html?id=160
2. See: Anton Vidokle, Produce, Distribute, Discuss, Repeat,  published by Lukas & Sternberg, 2009, and http://www.e-flux.com/
3. Dispersion, Seth Price  Reprinted in Portable Document Format by Dexter Sinister, published by Lukas & Sternberg, 2009, and available online in PDF format from the Dexter Sinister Library: http://www.dextersinister.org/library.html
4. http://networkcultures.org/wpmu/portal/
5. Dark Fiber, Geert Lovink, MIT Press, 2002
6. http://www.limitedlanguage.org/
7. The Social Life of Information, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, Harvard Business School Press, 2000
8. PostProduction, Nicholas Bourriaud, published by Lukas & Sternberg, 2002
9. http://www.manystuff.org/?p=6913
10. The Future of Ideas, Lawrence Lessig, Vintage, 2002
11. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49rcVQ1vFAY
12. Digital Blur, Ed. Rogers and Smyth, Libri, 2010
13. http://www.parallel-school.com/
14. http://www.department21.net/
15. Proud to be Flesh, Ed. Josephine Berry Slater and Pauline van Mourik Broekman, Mute Publishing, 2009

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Once the Dust has Settled

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Here’s hoping. Reflections to follow, once the dust has settled.

Quietly Daring

Via Experimental Jetset, we came across this article: Brand Minimalism - An Art in America report on a 1980 exhibition exploring links and dialogues between late modernist art and american corporate identity design.

Massacre

Radiant Discord: on brand, design and Mexico ’68. Click through to the Byrne article.

Branding the Baptists

Interesting post about the visual identity of the Westborough Baptists, using primary design research, by Emmet Byrne on The Gradient — Walker Art Center.

Free Beer

Good beer branding for good beer.

In lieu of the new

Political Colours and New Year messages.

On fewer handles and more system bending

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).

Less War War, More War War.

“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.”

Joe Glenton, in the The Independent. (See previous)

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.

Ornament and iOS7

Adolf Loos contributes to the iOS7 debate:

“…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.”

This is how we walk in the Whitney

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.

Le Musée des Erreurs

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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

from: Sainte-Victoire Corporate Identity

Munari

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