Following an AIGA-organized trip to Cuba in 2006, Smith was inspired to explore the meaning of imagery in a post-September 11 world. By examining American and foreign design side-by-side, Smith wanted to look at the design parallels between the US and countries often considered to be “the enemy.” The shows demonstrate that design can break down preconceived notions and political agendas and put a human face on “the other.” In this sense, Smith, through this triad of exhibitions, has become a diplomat of design.
Smith’s third exhibition, The Seattle Moscow Poster Show pairs designers from Seattle and Moscow, Russia, and will be on display at Bumbershoot, September 5-7, in the Seattle Center’s Shaw Room. Festival admission is required. A curator’s talk and preview hosted by Seattle AIGA will be on September 3.
exhibit we can recognize as being rooted in Russian constructivism. Jon
Smith’s “Ghostland Observatory” has a similar, angular structure and
two reaching hands, one robotic.
Jewish Music, Dmitry Kavko (Ostengruppe), Moscow, Russia, 2005 Offset
print, 25.5 x 36.5”
Observatory, Jon Smith, Seattle, USA, 2008, Silkscreen on wood, 24 x
I decided to pair it (Havana poster work) up with what was happening in Seattle, especially with silkscreen. I ended up talking to a friend of mine who was interested in Cuba and it turned out he was booking art shows for Bumbershoot. Because concert posters are the bulk of the show, it made sense as a venue. From the Seattle premier, the exhibit traveled to Havana. This was significant for (the Cuban design community) as it was the first city-to-city art exhibit there since the revolution – a show that distinctly linked a major city in the US with Havana was a big deal.
hyperactive, illustrated posters by young designers with a hiphop
Luka (16:59) (Mainstreamers), Moscow, Russia, 2008, Digital print, 16.5
Def, Junichi Tsuneoka, Seattle, USA, 2009, Silkscreen, 18 x 24”
The Havana shows here and in Cuba went quite smoothly. The process was challenging, but nobody ever said “you shouldn’t do this.” I anticipated some resistance and found none. When I saw the show was actually going to happen I began thinking ahead – if I were to continue, where would I go? What would be a more challenging country to work with? I thought about Iran as an interesting destination, but wasn’t sure Americans could go. When I found out it was possible, I had my mind made up. I wasn’t sure the trip would lead to a show, but I had to try.
I wanted to do three shows as a unit. For the third show, I labored over the destination. North Korea was the next logical country, but going there is extremely tough for Americans. I looked into Burma and even had support from the US State Department to go, but then a typhoon devastated the country. Moscow made sense to me both from a historical perspective of tension with the US and design history. It was refreshing to go somewhere so accessible for Americans, but I have to say it felt a little anticlimactic not to go deeper into the “Axis of Evil”.
I know you had to overcome a lot of logistic and political challenges with the Cuba and Tehran exhibits. Was Moscow any different?
A big issue for me is that we can talk politics. For example, there is so much sensitivity about American involvement in Tehran. So we can’t talk politics, we have to be seen as celebrating the design, purely from an artistic, neutral point of view. “We like design. You like design. Let’s get together.” Anybody who monitored the show from Iran did not see posters that were political, pro or con, in any way. To this end, both the Tehran and Havana shows highlighted cultural posters only.
In Moscow, I started out with the same idea (of cultural posters), but there are definitely posters that are political, for example, the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl and a Russian poster that references 9/11, so just being able to include this content is different.
But even if the posters themselves in Havana and Tehran weren’t political, didn’t the shows themselves have a political overtone, at least for the American audience?
Absolutely. For everyone in the shows it’s been a political act simply to be involved. What was important was to avoid overt political messages for the sake of the designers on the other side. For Americans, the political message was in the form of a question, who is “the enemy”? We have to recall the context of these exhibits. Under the Bush administration, prosecutions against Americans traveling to Cuba illegally were up, Cuba and Iran were part of the “Axis of Evil.” Iran was being accused of supplying weapons to Iraqi resistance forces fighting US soldiers and – what’s more – of actively seeking to develop a nuclear bomb. The perception was that Bush was looking for an excuse to widen the war and bomb or invade Iran.
The shows, Seattle-Tehran especially, really opened people’s eyes because it presented a human face of a group of people Bush was actively demonizing. You can’t find public support to bomb people we recognize as being like us. The protests in Tehran following their elections are an amazing example of a PR turn around. Based on the images and stories about real Iranians – Neda for example – Republicans who wanted to wipe Iran off the map are suddenly their best friends, demanding that Obama support the protesters.
A key thing about the shows is that when people see how similar the posters are aesthetically, it’s a small step to realize that we think like people who are framed as “the enemy.” This humanizes the other side in an instant.
Kuryokhin International Festival (SKIF), Igor Gurovich & Anna
Naumova (Ostengruppe), Moscow, Russia, 2002, Offset print, 25.5 x 36.5”
Rufus Wainwright, Andrio Abero, Seattle, USA, 2008, Silkscreen, 18 x 24”
There is an interesting symmetry when you put it together with Ostengruppen’s Twin Towers. The way the image is set up, the capital R is bisected by the name of the artist, and the name of the artist is surrounded by pink flowers. The artist’s name parallels a plane hitting a structure that looks like the towers and these pink flowers look like flames. The read that you get out of this poster would otherwise be totally different. One mirrors the other.
playful combination where similar content and color palette conspire.
And how better to represent
Seattle to the world than with a coffee cup labeled “Crappuccino”?
Festival, Dmitry Kavko (Ostengruppe), Moscow, Russia, 2004, Offset
print, 25.5 x 36.5”
Raye (Modern Dog), Seattle, USA, 2008, Silkscreen, 18 x
In Havana and Tehran there are cohesive communities concerned about Cuban design and Persian design and a concerted effort to develop it and preserve it. Moscow was such an interesting contrast, because there is no cohesion. It’s been destroyed by rapid westernization and commercial interests. I found no desire to talk about a community identity.
I always seek out young designers to include in the exhibits, and in Moscow their influences are from the west. They are inspired by pop culture and graffiti–New York City graffiti from the ’80s came up in several conversations. I love that they are making it up themselves, synthesizing street art and culture into their own, but it’s hard to celebrate at the same time. When Nike and American pop supplant thoughts about Russian design history and identity, you wonder, is this the future of Tehran and Havana if they open up to us? And once again, who is the enemy?
Mary Onettes, Chelsea Conboy, Seattle, USA, 2007, Digital print, 12 x 18”