Experimental Jetset: Disrepresentation Now!

Authors’ foreword (15 October 2010): We wrote the following manifesto nine years ago. It was written to function within a very specific context: we were invited to deliver a lecture at the first AIGA “Voice” convention, that was scheduled to take place towards the end of 2001, in Washington DC. Instead of a lecture, we planned to do something else. During the convention, we wanted to do a series of ‘hand–out sessions’, distributing stickersheets featuring abstract wristbands, nametags and badges. This stickersheet was printed in three different colours (red, blue and red). How we envisioned it, the people attending the convention would wear these abstract stickers, forming three different ‘political parties’ (a red party, a blue party and a black party), creating a sort of site–specific artwork. We were very much inspired by the fact that the convention took place in Washington DC, and wanted to create a work that would refer to political rallies, demonstrations, protests, Democratic and Republic conventions, etc. On the back of the stickersheet, we printed a manifesto. In retrospect, this manifesto didn’t have a lot to do with the front of the stickersheet. But at that time, we felt the manifesto was necessary, to clarify our views on graphic design. Re–reading the manifesto now, we fully realize the manifesto would sooner confuse our ideas than clarify them.In the end, it didn’t really matter. We never made it to Washington to hand out the stickersheets. Because of the ‘9/11’ attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the ‘Voice’ conference was cancelled. The stickersheets were already printed by then. Most of the stickersheets were distributed by AIGA, as part of a mailing. Some stickersheets were enclosed in issue 4 of the magazine Dot Dot Dot. The manifesto was also published by a German magazine called Perspektive, together with an accompanying interview, which was also published by Dot Dot Dot. And that was the end of the manifesto. Looking at the manifesto now, we see a lot of small things we don’t agree with. First of all, we think the title should have been “Non–representationism” instead of “Disrepresentationism”. Moreover, the categories of ‘representation’ and ‘dis–or non–represenation’ are not really part of our thinking anymore. We also used some other words in the manifesto (‘functionality’ and ‘amoralism’) that we would never use now; in fact, looking back at our body of work, we think our work has been very moralistic, from the very start. However, re–reading the manifesto, we also see a lot of things we still agree with. For example, we still believe that the political qualities of graphic design are situated foremost in its aesthetic dimension, and not necessarily in the direct message it tries to deliver. Furthermore, we are still very interested in the idea of a graphic design that refers to its own material context. And lastly, after all these years, we would still never work for an advertising agency. So in that sense, we still feel connected to the manifesto.

00 Disrepresentation Now!
On the social, political, and revolutionary role of graphic design.
More an attempt than a manifesto.File under:
/ Experimental Jetset
/ Washington DC
/ Voice 2001 AIGA
/ Disrepresentationism

01 In his vicious 1923 manifesto ‘Anti-Tendenzkunst’, architect, artist and De Stijl founder Theo van Doesburg stated that “as obvious as it may sound, there is no structural difference between a painting that depicts Trotsky heading a red army, and a painting that depicts Napoleon heading an imperial army. It is irrelevant whether a piece of art promotes either proletarian or patriotic values”. This quote can be easily misunderstood as blatantly apolitical, but in our humble opinion, it is far from that. In Van Doesburg’s view, it doesn’t really matter what a painting depicts; it is the act of depiction itself, the process of representation, that he regards as highly anti-revolutionary. Van Doesburg and many other modernists saw representative art as inherently bourgeois; suggestive, tendentious and false. Regardless of the subject.

02 Although formulated almost a century ago, we, as Experimental Jetset, have to admit we feel a certain affinity for Van Doesburg’s ‘anti-tendentious’ ideas. Although at first sight it might seem impossible to differentiate between ‘presentative’ and ‘representative’ graphic design, we do think it is possible to make a distinction of some sort.For example, it’s hard to deny that most graphic design produced within the context of advertising is inherently representative. No surprise, since the very concept of advertising is one of the purest forms of representation. As per definition, advertising never “is” in itself, it always “is about” something else.Advertising is a phenomenon that constantly dissolves its own physical appearance, in order to describe and represent appearances other than itself. Whereas presentative graphic design seems to underline its own physical appearance, even when it is referring to subjects other than itself.

03 Having said all this, we like to point out that our criticism of advertising is fundamentally different than the criticism expressed in the 2000 First Things First manifesto. Other than the signatories to that manifesto, we see no structural difference between social, cultural and commercial graphic design. Every cause that is formulated outside of a design context, and superficially imposed on a piece of design, is tendentious, representative, and thus reactionary, whether it deals with corporate interests or social causes.Likewise, we see no structural difference between advertising and ‘anti-advertising’. The former tries to sell you product X, the latter tells you not to buy product X, but on a fundamental level they are completely alike. They both contribute to what Guy Debord was so fond of referring to as “the society of the spectacle”: a world of representation and alienation.

04 Other representative tendencies in graphic design include the fact that nowadays more and more designers refer to their profession in (immaterial) terms such as ‘visual communication’, ‘information architecture’, etc. These particular notions painfully show the shift in graphic design towards the denial and neglect of its own physical dimensions.

05 In ‘The Republic’, Plato has Socrates tell the allegory of the cave. 2500 years later, we’re still imprisoned in this cave, watching shadows. The only way out of this representative illusion is through presentative culture.The immorality of advertising and the morality of anti-advertising are two sides of the same coin. What we need is a form of graphic design that is neither immoral nor moral, but amoral; that is productive, not reproductive; that is constructive, not parasitic.We believe that abstraction, a movement away from realism but towards reality, is the ultimate form of engagement. We believe that to focus on the physical dimensions of design, to create a piece of design as a functional entity, as an object in itself, is the most social and political act a designer can perform. That’s why we believe in color and form, type and spacing, paper and ink, space and time, object and function and, most of all, context and concept.

Originally published 25 August 2001


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