With Ever Changing Contours:
Graphic Scenarios and Design for a
Project on Europe
E u r o p e? i s? O u r? P l a y g r o u n d ?
In the face of global economic and geo-political events that one witnesses through the interpretative lens of media, one sometimes can?t help feeling a loss of proportion, a deep sense that any possibility of appropriateness in our relation to these events and respective decisions seem utterly infeasible. Contemporary concepts of Europe have had - not only in their recent hysterically narrated episodes - a similar effect, a lingering lack of proportion and subsequently, of appropriateness of constructive actions in its conception, construction and consumption on many of the
implicated people. So, to develop a response and, above all, a scale for a strategy on how to visually frame, facilitate, articulate and inquire into a set of scenarios about Europe and the continuing project for the various cities, has been a situation not short of questions and dilemmas, either. However, if we are to embrace the possibilities that the notion of a ?scenario? suggests to us, and if we try to exploit the intrinsic speculative potential of design and art and see this project as a semifictional series of events, it might be precisely the feeling of something being completely out of proportion ? a thing that we struggle to make sense of ? that makes it worthwhile.
From the very start of the project, I believed that the great opportunity in the ?scenarios? was the possibility to take risks, however moderate. Aurelia Markwalder and myself as the designers put ideas and historic graphic languages, which where considered toxic by many - yet seemed full of different promises - to the test. These were for instance the indestructible substances in the visual vocabulary of the 1890s Jugendstil of the German artist Otto Eckmann, the stark forms of subcultural graphics of 1990s by the English graphic designer Neville Brody or the streamlined information graphics of a New International Style that became globalised, and multilingual European networks in the age of the Internet had started to communicate in. We could assess their potential by putting them into practice. The Graphic Scenarios themselves represent the testing ground for visual ideologies related to Europe? the monstrosity and the mystical hope in equal terms? and how these are fairing in our specific context.
T h e? D e s i g n? S c h e m e
The overall design approach is at least threefold. We can divide it into the following components that can act autonomously and are yet carefully intertwined:
a) The visual identity of the Scenario series and the Europe project and how it can be graphically articulated to the wider public in printed matter and other media.
b) The use of exhibition design tools to facilitate and investigate the relationships between the artworks and the community of participants of
this project and theirrespective cooperation, complicity or tension in the given spatial arrangement.
c) The Graphic Scenarios themselves, in the entrance area, as practical investigation of three historical graphic languages and their stylistic potency today.
In a sense, the design can be seen as a range of threads - lines of practical discourse that run through the project(s). They overlap, stop, run parallel, continue, come visually to the surface and disappear again; some of them visible in the scenario exhibitions, others only in this book, or will be in one or another involved city, but are all connected in their pursuit of prepositions on thorny issues such as, multitude, dissonance or participation.
I a m? n o t? a? N u m b e r ! ?
Just as the idea of a rigorous Brussels-centric power that controls things in one?s life from afar, the sound of corporate identities is still striking fear into the hearts of people in the not-business-savvy arts, and artisan-designers, too. In a historic illustration by the French artist Abraham Bosse for Thomas Hobbes? political analysis Leviathan, we find arguably the first graphic manifestation of a corporate identity, literally. It was published in 1651. Here, the king as giant, his body made up of thousands of his citizens, is articulating the idea of a utopian absolute state. Today an assumed one-fits-all attitude is the worst world highly individual minds can dream up - designers handing down the rule-book on how to visually communicate with consistency: a nightmare that curbs all individuality. However, just as the suspected enemies of the self in the public paranoia have changed over the decades, the dystopian visions of visual identities have too. Originally, state-power originated visual identity. Nowadays, the commercial sector - with its multinational corporations - is orchestrating manipulative communication via synchronised signs and symbols. So let?s set up a scenario that takes a speculative view on identities of Europe and the deliberate functionality and disfunctionalities in them.
For this, I would like to use an example from a pop culture sediment exploring a compromised model island as a trajectory. Patrick McGoohan?s seminal 1960s British TV-series The Prisoner imagined a blissful surveillance state on a Mediterranean-style island in which its citizens are permanently exposed to various forms of brainwashing. The only town on that island is tellingly called ?the Village?. Marooned amongst the other inhabitants that live in a permanent state of leisure, only one man, ?Number 6?, tries to resist and fails over and over, each episode anew, to escape from the island. This fictional place sums up many contradicting fears of the time, and the British in particular: excessive control through state-power; homogenised and streamlined living through design; and isolation yet loss of individual freedom. It already displays a universal idea of Europe as a synthetic and hallucinogenic holiday resort of a Pre-Ballardian conception. Pivotal in this portrait are the very precise set designs, and the inhabitants? varied yet consistent cheerful dress-code, which makes brilliant use of clich?d Breton striped shirts and 1960s futuristic capes and caps. Another component is the corporate style, which is interestingly demonstrated by the use of one universal typeface for all signage and printed matter on the island. What we are looking at is a modified version of Bertold Wolpe?s Alberta typeface from 1935: a very idiosyncratic yet functional serif typeface with an oddly medieval emphasis in some key characters, like the lower case ?e?. The original Alberta is still used for street-signs in London?s City district. To add even more enigmatic quality to the bizarre scenery: a logo that depicts a Penny-Farthing is used on badges worn by the security forces - an unexpected touch of Steam-Punk, a strand of science-fiction, which merges Victoriana with futuristic technology. However odd these visual clues seem at first, they are used very consistently throughout the series and cunningly frame a territory in hiding? - a reversal of Francis Bacon?s enlightened island of New Atlantis.
Times when visual identities, as coat-of-arms and crests on flags, would identify friend or foe, seem long over. What they share with today?s corporate world is that they indicate, above all, property. It is precisely hyper-territorial identities, or exterritorial ones like in The Prisoner that emerge increasingly. The commercial power of tourism has been the dominant motive for redesigning visual identities and logos for nation states all over the world. Particularly countries, which either have just joined the European Union or want to, such as countries from Eastern Europe have been pushing these branding exercises. The PR-driven networkpower
of economic relations was to overwrite traditional military might and the influence of informal empires. It remains to be seen if, in a climate of economic uncertainty, the empty optimism of graphic chiffres, like many of these generic logos or the design of the Euro-banknotes4 with its sad and bogus fictional bridges (since no committee could agree on either real architecture or real people to face the real tender) will produce the desired soft-power. ?Character? became ?identity?. Architectural icons, which have come to represent the ?old Europe? - as Donald Rumsfeld called it under much protest in 2003 - still possess enormous iconographic power. An Arch de Triumph, Tour Eiffel or Big Ben of the Houses of Parliament transmit ? despite their tainted colonial or hegemonic background, even in a decorative state of decay - the feeling of stability, a stability of tradition, however flawed. A Post-European condition could see the transfer of that symbolic potential into ex-territorial spheres that go beyond the franchise and replicas of European icons but as a fictional currency that is, at least in parts, based on graphic mythologies. In this sense, the focus of the Graphic Scenarios can be seen as the emergence of style or a graphic idea and the speculation on how it becomes an ideological current. A Post-European era would be an era in which a Hyper-Europe continues to exist, but in a disembodied state that has shed the confines of a Brussels-type Europe - just like a stock market.
A r e n a
If we return to the practicalities of design in exhibitions we will find an area in which functionality and irritation are regular bedfellows. For the Scenario exhibitions, not a singular style, but a range of graphic vocabularies were used: sometimes to identify different possibilities, sometimes to produce a cacophony that would mimic the various interests or categories of content. As was the case with the logos of the numerous supporters and participating institutions: they were not discretely hidden, but celebrated, regardless of their graphic qualities. Even extra, fictional logos were added and appeared on banners and flags.
The exhibition displays were deliberately referencing and challenging conventions of the discipline, tackling the role of design in the exhibition context. In each scenario the architectural setting - such as wall space, floor space and constellation of objects and materials - exploited differently and information was positioned in distinctly various ways. An area of constant contention is the way that graphic means are employed in galleries together with the works of art. Since text and, therefore, also typography are permanently interacting with the visitor and with the art, this is an interesting conundrum that touches upon some fundamental questions about what an exhibition actually does - considering how much reading is often done by the viewer. The intricate design and production of captions was subsequently explored in the entire series. In the first exhibition, unified A4 portrait sheets were used throughout the areas, which were typographically consistent. In this scenario, the European cities of the curators were indexed by having signs ? with differently sized random and irreverent Google images ? placed in the respective spaces. An alternative approach was used for the second scenario: all curators were asked to either design and produce the caption without any restrictions themselves or by a designer of their choice, or consult with us for a desirable solution. Besides allowing for idiosyncrasies, this was designed to have different house-styles appear in the Leipzig setting. In the third exhibition we opted for a design that used one typeface and layout, yet placed it in various sizes and formats, according to the specific requirements. In this book we have tried to mimic the designs for the captions in the sections concerning the displayed works.
To relate the scenario designs in a physical way too, one piece of clothing was customised for each scenario. They ranged from graphics for t-shirts to a silk blouse, and hinted at tribal and musical codes, and political communities, groups that define themselves through intricate fashion and class insignia. Branding uses devices like accessories and clothing very effectively. Because of a heightened sensibility, some museum staff rejected our wish to wear the Europa T-shirts in the first scenario. But was it snubbing Europe as such, or an unwillingness to carry someone else?s ambiguous message? Here, and in other parts of the overall graphics approach, we can see not only design as a mode of realisation, but its capacity to conceive and manifest fiction, too. If we assume that Europe can still create influential narratives, it might be the improbable, playful and non-result-driven ones that prove most powerful. One could argue that contemporary graphics are already hybrids of scenarios of possibilities, subsequent tests or ready-mades and finished products. Through digital production methods the design process has turned the traditional
sketch into an immediate prototype that is already a publication in itself and only a click away from wider distribution. This book is this: a publication that blurs the lines between sketch and draft and finished position.
1) Europe is Our Playground, song title by Bret Anderson and Mat Osman from the Suede album Sci-fi-Lullabies,
Nude Records, 1997.
2) Can ?Number 6? maintain his resistance to the ongoing attempts to make him crack? And hasn?t his identity been irreversibly altered already?
3) In a conversation with the series? hero ?Number 6? the island?s ringleader, ?Number 2? ponders the prospect of a soft version of an essentially Cold-War set-up that coincides with Marshall McLuhan?s infamous phrase of the ?global village? (1962):
?Number 2: But both sides are becoming identical in what in fact has been created as an international community. A perfect blueprint for a world order. When the sides facing each other suddenly realise that they are looking into a mirror, they will see that this is the pattern for the future.
Number 6: The whole earth as the village?
Number 2: That is my hope, what's yours??
(The Prisoner, Episode 2).
4) The Euro banknotes were designed by the Austrian designer Robert Kalina.