Ministry As A Design Metaphor

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Co-artistic directors Na Kim, Emily Smith, and Prem Krishnamurthy of the inaugural Fikra Graphic Design Biennial 01: Ministry of Graphic Design in Sharjah, UAE; November 09-30, 2018. (photo: Maryam Al Qassimi)

Last month Fikra Graphic Design Biennial 01: Ministry of Graphic Design (#ministryofgraphicdesign) (November 9-30, 2018, Sharjah, United Arab Emerates), the landmark graphic design Biennial was co-organized by Emily Smith, an educator, designer, and researcher focused on the intersections between graphic design, visual anthropology, and choreography. Her work applies observational, participatory, and conceptual approaches in reconsidering exhibitions and narrative practices. Based in Berlin, Smith is Vice Dean, Professor, and Head of Communication Design at the University of Applied Sciences Europe, BTK Faculty of Art and Design. It was by all accounts an exhausting and energizing experience. After coming down from the high, I asked Smith to fill us in on the event.

I’m intrigued that this Fikra Graphic Design Biennial is the first such conference of graphic design in the Middle East.Actually, there are not that many graphic design biennials in the world. It’s an existing format, yet contested. Whom does it serve? What’s at stake? One of our biennial advisors, Kiyonori Muroga of Idea magazine, remarked that historical design biennials are often associated with socialist contexts, in which graphic design was celebrated for its political and social potential. This kind of a move away from commercial, consumer-driven design was already of interest to us from the beginning. My co-artistic director Prem Krishnamurthy had been in conversation with Fikra Design director Salem Al-Qassimi for many years about the lack of a platform in the United Arab Emirates to consider the practice of graphic design from a more self-reflexive, critical, and experimental standpoint.

Like good designers, we wanted to play with the exhibition’s formats and rules a bit. It probably helps that the three artistic directors—Na Kim, Prem Krishnamurthy and myself—all have practices that are outside of a linear design career and hard to define. I am a graphic designer, visual anthropologist, and professor interested in the overlap of exhibition design and cultural representation, both in research and practice; I’m also heavily invested in developing new, interdisciplinary pedagogical models. Na Kim’s practice moves between commissioned graphic design projects, elaborate spatial and performative installations, as well as in-depth editorial and curatorial collaborations. Prem Krishnamurthy is a bit of a polymath, weaving together curating, design, writing, and exhibition making with a particular experimental take on how they are all connected.

We wanted this Biennial to present graphic design that didn’t necessarily look or function like typical graphic design. There are a range of practitioners all over the world who engage in the design discipline in decidedly experimental and unexpected ways, but who don’t show up on the graphic design festival circuit. Inviting such practices seemed much more interesting to us than “surveying” the state of contemporary graphic design. We also avoided making an exhibition that only looked at the medium of design itself. Rather, it was more exciting to ask how can graphic design can be a lens to look at the world at large. Finally, we wanted to have a global reach but also be rooted in local and regional communities. As such, we included mostly independent projects, from over 40 hybrid practitioners and initiatives from over 20 countries, including the UAE and the Middle East.

Design Metaphor

Site of the Ministry of Graphic Design, situated in a 1970s former bank building in the heart of Sharjah, UAE. (photo: Obaid AlBudoor)

Design Metaphor

Ministry of Graphic Design official department seals, designed by Wkshps with Fikra Design.

The fictitious MINISTRY OF GRAPHIC DESIGN sounds both ominous and optimistic, what is your intent in creating this entity?During our first visit to Sharjah, we came across a range of actual Emirati ministries and departments that captured our attention and our imagination. There is a Minister of State for Happiness, a Minister of State of Artificial Intelligence, and the Museum of the Future, just to name a few. We became fascinated with this particular approach to administrative structures. We came to think about a Ministry as a metaphor in many ways. It propagates, it regulates, it administers, it facilitates, it celebrates, it controls. We asked ourselves, if there were a Ministry of Graphic Design, what would it do? This became a basic conceptual structure shaping the overall Biennial.

We were also looking at other fictional institutions such as Marcel Broodthaers’ 1968 “Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles”; the idiosyncratic Museum of Jurassic Technology in West Los Angeles; and Monty Python’s absurd “Ministry of Silly Walks” from 1970 — these are all authoritative, pseudo-institutions that use their formal structures and bureaucratic nomenclature to make complex commentaries on norms and belonging. I often talk about how graphic design has a similar ability to move back and forth on a spectrum of strict constraints and poetic experimentation.

Exhibition view of Department of Graphic Optimism; Hisham Al Madhloum posters (photo: Obaid AlBudoor)

Design Metaphor

Exhibition view of Department of Non-Binaries; Manuela Eichner’s Monstera Deliciosa (2018) and Lizania Cruz‘ Flowers for Immigration (2017) (photo: P. Krishnamurthy)

We knew we wanted to house the Ministry of Graphic Design in a contextually relevant space. On the last day of our first visit, Fikra’s co-founder Maryam Al Qassimi gave us a tour of the Heart of Sharjah and showed us the abandoned Bank of Sharjah, a 1970s Arab modernist building set for demolition. It seemed like the perfect place to house such a Ministry and exhibition.

What are the criteria for the “Departments” you’ve selected and the programming you’ve planned?As “Ministers”, we founded six Departments, spread across five floors of the building. Each Department has its own mission statement and official sounding “Head of Department,” who is tasked with overseeing its creative development. These Head of Departments are the curators of the individual exhibitions (Departments) and projects.

The departments are: Department of Graphic Optimism, headed by Alia Al-Sabi; Department of Mapping Margins, h
eaded by Uzma Z. Rizvi; Department of Non-Binaries, headed by common-interest (Nina Paim and Corinne Gisel); Department of Flying Saucers, headed by Mobius Design Studio (Hala Al-Ani); Department of Dematerializing Language, headed by Kith and Kin (actually a pseudonym for Na Kim and me); and lastly, Office of the Archive, headed by Tetsuya Goto.

The curatorial team’s wide-ranging expertise and insight were essential for a project this large. Of the team, three department heads were either from the UAE or had spent considerable time in the region, while other curators brought on research assistants who had direct experience in the region. And so our scope felt embedded in what was happening on the ground, but still maintained an international perspective due the fact that almost all team members and participants studied, worked, or otherwise felt connections to more than a single nation or region.

The Department of Graphic Optimism looked at the role of graphic design in shaping the cultural psyche of the UAE from its formation in 1971 through the 1980s. It also focused on the graphic design practice of Hisham Al Madhloum, who is more widely known as a cultural administrator. These diverse archives had never before been brought together into one space,

The Department of Flying Saucers hosted four parachute presentations from independent initiatives: Seendosi, Public Fiction, Foundland, and Turbo, from Seoul, Los Angeles, Amsterdam / Cairo, and Amman, respectively. Like a mini-residency, each took over the space for a few days, activating the Biennial in unpredictable ways such as collaborative workshops, lectures, parties, and pop-up shops.

The Department of Non-Binaries embraced hybrid practices, where design moves out of being a a fixed discipline and is framed as a way of doing things The selection of participants was exceptionally diverse; they included Alexandra Bell, Amalia Pica, Benedetta Crippa, Cheb Moha, Jonathas de Andrade, Lawrence Lemaoana, Lizania Cruz, and Manuela Eichner, just to name a few. The installation works included in this department at times speak to urgent socio-political issues such as undocumented labor, borders walls, Brexit, and race relations, as well as more subtle considerations around literacy, gender and publishing, diasporic identity, and freedom of speech. In the context of the UAE, these topics resonate in an important way. What connects the twenty works in this department is the biographies of the artists themselves, many of whom identify with a range of practices, genres, and genders.

Design Metaphor

Exhibition view of Department of Flying Saucer; Public Fiction’s Object A, Subject B and and Nicole Miller’s laser works For Now and Michael in Lavender (2018) (photo: P. Krishnamurthy)

Design Metaphor

Astrid Seme’s Urbirds singing the Sonata (2011) (photo: Obaid AlBudoor

The Department of Dematerializing Language introduced sounds, words, scripts, symbols, and gestures to emphasize that language is not only a determinate puzzle to be solved, but a beautiful, mysterious, layered structure to be experienced. It is in these slippages that graphic design can move beyond straightforward signal-and-sound relations. We included eight interactive, sound-based, video, crowd-sourced, and performative installations and spread them out throughout the biennial in small mobile units we designed made of recycled bank office cabinets.

Who took part?Austrian graphic designer Astrid Seme, and French-born, Egyptian artist Dina Danish, independently revisited Kurt Schwitters’ 1920’s avant-garde Dada sound piece, Ursonate in two different language systems—Seme’s work in birdsong and Danish’s in Arabic pronunciation.

Knoth & Renner’s Common Canvas presented a live-streaming database of “photo-paintings” made in student workshops at numerous art and design Universities around the world using a custom software for mobile phone. Visitors to the Biennial could also create their own image and see it immediately on-screen.

Knoth & Renner’s Common Canvas (2018) (photo: P. Krishnamurthy)

Dina Danish’s Ursonate in Arabic Pronunciation (2016)

This work is nicely complemented by the 34 posters from a group of young Istanbul-based designers. The stark, mostly typographic posters were commissioned by Turkish designer Esen Karol for her Jeff Talks series (2010-2018). Karol’s project is an inspiring example of a graphic designer who is initiating wide-ranging projects that use graphic design in an inclusive way.

In Moniker’s participatory installation on the top floor of the Biennial, Dazzle Fungus, visitors are invited to contribute to a collective graphic pattern-making experiment. Day by day, the “white cube” on the fifth floor is transformed into a intricately tiled collective space.

The other projects in the Department of Dematerializing Language think about language systems in unconventional ways. Arcadian Studio’s posters Ra7 nwale3a, Tishbee7,

Wal3aneh celebrate colloquial Arabic texting and chat culture, language sometimes referred to as ‘arabizi’ or ‘arabish’. Uta Eisenreich’s video work The Language of Things orally performs the imagined sounds of everyday objects, triggering associations and fragments of meanings. Finally, Johannes Bergerhausen’s submission decodeunicode — the movie brings together all 109,242 Unicode characters into a single feature-length film with an accompanying poster that highlights the numerous scripts that have not yet been “unicoded.”

It’s also likely that this is the first self-archiving biennial in history. Our Office of the Archive was an ongoing performance that gathers content, conversations, hashtags, and other tangible and intangible traces and trajectories surrounding the Biennial, most of which is included in the Instagram feed @fgdb_oofa. One highlight for me, revealing our process, has been a 21 meter WhatsApp chat printout of the installation conversations between the Heads of Department, the Fikra team, and ourselves as Artistic Directors.

Moniker’s Dazzle Fungus (2016/2018) (photo: Obaid AlBudoor)

Esen Karol’s Jeff Talks commissioned posters (2010-2014) (photo: Obaid AlBudoor)

What, for instance, is the Department of Mapping Margins? And how does this address your cross-cultural scheme?The Department of Mapping Margins was our experimental conference format. It facilitated a space to talk about the conflicts, ten
sions, and other challenges facing the discipline. Headed by Uzma Z. Rizvi, an anthropologist and archeologist from Pratt Institute with long-term ties in the Emirates, she developed adventurous presentation formats such as communal feasts, performative panels, pedagogical experiments, and score-based game shows. This department helped to navigate discussions between the other five departments while also evoking the future of graphic design from a critical perspective. Designed to ask more questions than it answers, the on-going programming has been an inviting format to think about how graphic design is embedded in cultural, political, post-colonial, and consumerist agendas.

What is your mission and how is it underscored by your agenda?Our mission has been to challenge the oft self-prescribed limitations of graphic design and to create the foundation for further in-depth experimentation to happen in future iterations. We look forward to what this might look like. While the exhibition closed on November 30th, the conversations continue, in particular we thinking about how to support long-term research projects in the area, using graphic design as its main method.

How has graphic design forwarded the acts of collaboration among people of the region and the world?Based on the interests and biographies of everyone involved, we were intent to make this a collaborative, inclusive, and playful process. Designers are by their very nature collaborative, and while we came from very different backgrounds, culturally and professionally, we shared the trust and intimacy that comes with being the first group to make an exhibition of this scale in the region. And as a first, we each had to wear many hats to make it happen — mentor, advisor, researcher, writer, curator, project manager, exhibition maker, installer, public relations, tour guide, playlist maker, and entertainer. This breakdown of assumed roles in exhibition-making highlights the multidisciplinary perspective of many graphic designers today. In Naz Nadaff’s work Census of Hybrid Designers and Other Non-Binary Practitioners she draws attention to this reality in an interactive wall where visitors are asked, “What do you do?” Aside from graphic designer, she offers 180 other choices including; activist, barista, cartographer, dancer, fundraiser, influencer, journalist, moderator, poet, scientist, thinker, and workshop giver just to name a few. I would like to think this “designerly” creative flexibility and multivocal mindset is what not only makes good design, but also makes for a good global citizen.