Observer: A Report from the Place Formerly Known as Graphic Design
I am in a darkened room queuing behind other people at the back of a building that was once an air-raid shelter in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark. We have been instructed to pick up a torch from a basket and look around, but there are so many people pressed into the small space that all the torches have already been taken. I can see sheets of paper on the wall with mysterious rectilinear markings, and I’m brushing against clothes on hangers suspended from the ceiling. At the back, there is a laptop showing pages from a book—it’s hard to read at a distance in the gloom. Some kind of street protest is playing on a video monitor back near the entrance. I have no idea what to make of all this, and even if I had a torch and could linger, I’m not sure it would make much difference.
This multimedia installation, which took place in July, was part of the graduation show for the Sandberg Institute’s M.F.A. design course. Annelys de Vet, a Dutch designer, heads the program, and Daniel van der Velden of Metahaven, guest designers of this issue of Print, is a tutor on the course. Seven designers were graduating this year, all women, and each student had put together a display.
The darkened room was devised by Anja Groten, a German student, and it represented a group of activists she called the Invisible Operators. We had been warned that these anonymous figures might be present among us in the room, though they wouldn’t make themselves known. It was only the next day, in the student presentations, that it became fully clear that the project was about squatting in empty buildings in Amsterdam, which was made illegal in October 2010 after years of tolerance by the authorities. The enigmatic markings, to be inscribed by hand on the cement between bricks, were a secret code by which the clandestine “operators” broadcast messages, bypassing phones, email, social media, and other traceable forms of digital communication.
I single out this event because I happened to take part in it—I was invited to join the graduation jury—but in many ways Groten’s challenging installation was no more than one might now expect from an M.F.A. course in graphic design, or a graduation show. Graphic design stopped looking like graphic design, as we once knew it, several years ago. Of course, one can still find posters and pieces of print to admire, but no self-respecting student at master’s level pays hefty tuition fees and prolongs her education to end up looking like a throwback; graphic communication, as it once was, is no longer the inevitable focus of designers’ thinking or concerns.
The other students’ projects in the Vondelpark were equally broad in their interpretation of graphic design. One took the form of a performance by an actor pretending to be the president of the Chimerican Union, a notional marriage of China and the U.S. He addressed us from the podium in tones of extravagant satire while a couple of women in nurses’ uniforms—one of them the student, Lauren Grusenmeyer— shouted support and tried to inflame the crowd. The banners and placards were certainly graphic but secondary to the symbolic concept and writing. Later, Janneke de Rooij, a student concerned with the public’s stereotypical views of Africa, attempted to subcontract the design problem by encouraging the audience to workshop graphic messages using texts and supplied pictures. A third student, Maartje Smits, showed documentaries. Her charming onscreen presence, entertaining writing, and compelling voice-over suggested she might have the makings of a future Miranda July: writer, storyteller, visualizer, and filmmaker.
As an observer and writer, I naturally find myself in the same volatile and ambiguous position as those I study, and so, like some of the people formerly known as graphic designers, I cast about for a more protean term to describe my interests: “Visual communication,” “visual culture,” “communication art,” and even “language and image” are closer to the nub, though old-school “graphic design” might sometimes still be part of the visual mix, or the glue that bonds everything together. Graphic design was always a place where interdisciplinary interests could find a home, and one can view recent developments as an inevitable fulfillment of the field’s potential. For this kind of work, though, “graphic design” has become an outmoded and even misleading term. We need a sharp new name to convey the purpose, contribution, and identity of an expanded, integrative, transmedia discipline of communication and expression.
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