Daniel R. Smith, Diplomat of Design
In a series of three annual city-to-city poster shows at Bumbershoot, an arts and music festival held at the foot of the Space Needle every Labor Day Weekend, Seattle curator and designer Daniel R. Smith has set out to explore the poster as a form of dialogue between the city and its supposedly metropolitan polar opposites: Havana, Tehran, and now, Moscow.
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.
Dmitry Kavko’s Klezmerfest poster is one of the few in the 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.
Klezmerfest, 2nd Festival of Jewish Music, Dmitry Kavko (Ostengruppe), Moscow, Russia, 2005 Offset print, 25.5 x 36.5”
Ghostland Observatory, Jon Smith, Seattle, USA, 2008, Silkscreen on wood, 24 x 36”
Charlotte West: What is the background for the three shows?
Daniel Smith: In 2006, I traveled to Cuba and I was really surprised by the work that was being done there. We have an image of state-sponsored propaganda frozen in the 1960s or 1970s, but it was actually much more personal. In Havana, individuals and collaborative groups were creating silkscreen posters for…their friends, for their portfolios, for the fun of it. This was the Cuban “Do-It-Yourself” aesthetic in action – a close parallel to the punk-inspired attitude that dominates rock poster production in Seattle.
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.
Two hyperactive, illustrated posters by young designers with a hiphop aesthetic.
Linesmag.com, Nootk & Luka (16:59) (Mainstreamers), Moscow, Russia, 2008, Digital print, 16.5 x 23.5″
Mos Def, Junichi Tsuneoka, Seattle, USA, 2009, Silkscreen, 18 x 24”
So why did you choose Tehran and then Moscow to follow the Havana show?
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.
Sergei 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”
Are there any pairings from the Moscow show that really stand out for you?
One that certainly stands out is this 9/11 pairing. I found this poster by Ostengruppe online and remember being really shocked. This image of the twin towers with one of the towers being hit by this sketchy little pencil drawing of an airplane was just strange. It was strange to think that someone in Moscow would use this image, and use it for what? I obviously couldn’t read it when I first found it, but it turned out to be for an experimental concert series. When I asked Seattle designers to send me some posters they thought would be interesting in a Moscow show, I got one from Andrio Aberro. He sent me a Rufus Wainright poster, the main imagery being a black uppercase R.
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.
A 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”?
Deep Throat, Voice Music Festival, Dmitry Kavko (Ostengruppe), Moscow, Russia, 2004, Offset print, 25.5 x 36.5”
Icograda, Robynne Raye (Modern Dog), Seattle, USA, 2008, Silkscreen, 18 x 25.5”
I think one of the things that struck me about the images from Havana and Tehran is that there is what you might call a national design identity, similar to the Polish Poster School in Poland in the mid-20th century. A distinctive style developed precisely because they were cut off from the rest of the world. What was your experience in Moscow?
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?
Another playful combination with similar colors and content. Surkov’s poster features a photo of him as a young man in a forest, staring at the viewer, surrounded by silhouettes of wild animals and birds, a green star overprinting his chest. In Conboy’s poster, an owl echoes Surkov’s gaze, the green star now embedded in its eye.
Natura List, Yuri Surkov, Moscow, Russia, 2004, Offset print, 27.25 x 38.75”
Mary Onettes, Chelsea Conboy, Seattle, USA, 2007, Digital print, 12 x 18”
VOTE ON-LINE BY AUG. 31 Smith’s poster series has been nominated for a $10,000 “grant for change” from Nau clothing company in Portland. The top 5 vote-getters will be interviewed for the grant. He is currently in the top 10 out of nearly 300 projects. If you’d like to help him stay in the race, register with Nau, then give him a rating.