Fuzzy logic for furry animals
FUSE'98: Beyond typography - the new body electric
It rained for three days in San Fransisco, which is bad for late May in California, but good for a conference. Hundreds of typographers and graphic designers huddled inside the Masonic Theatre for shelter from the drizzle. But was it comforting? Three days of lectures, presentations, short films, music, debates and conversations left me with the impression that we - the audience - were considered desperately in need of a broader horizon and fresh input. Our systems needed to be rebooted. Our safe assumptions needed to be defied. In short, we were in for re-education. So, no typographic showcases, but Mathew Carter's poetic reminder that all type decayes and whithers away. No learned addresses about 'type design in time-based media', but Jon Wozencroft's challenging choice of experimental short films and multi-media clips. No demonstrations of the latest technology, but Neville Brody's intense reflection on what to do with all those gadgets. In his opening speach, Brody stated: "We are so obsessed with the Net and technology that we forget the message... We imagine to be able to do anything, and our software helps us believe we can... But we must move beyond the 'how' to reconsider the 'what' and the 'why'..." This, of course, is a perfectly sensible ambition in times when the ultimate responsability of designers is to rescue meaning from the information deluge that threatens to engulf us. But there are many ways to address that question. FUSE chose for confrontation.
'Beyond the how', in the context of this third FUSE conference, meant to go beyond typography, into the realm of the 'new body electric'. The term evokes a vision of man as a docking bay for a mirriad plug-ins, and of a body of technology that is out there, threatening to go its own way if we don't pay attention to its proclivity towards a post-human autonomy. The confrontational aspect of the conference was that these problems were not so much discussed or analyzed, but rather adjured and exorcized. "We are both senders and receivers...", Brody solemnly said, before falling silent for about a minute, as in silent prayer. Then he softly closed off with a "Thank you". As in Amen.
That set the tone for the rest of the procedings. The conference's co-organizers and acting Masters of Ceremony, David Berlow (The Font Buro Inc. and Interactive Bureau), Bill Hill (MetaDesign San Francisco), and Erik Spiekermann (MetaDesign and FontShop), attempted to moderate the somewhat religious zeal of Brody and the conference's editor Jon Wozencroft, but (although at times humorous - Bill Hill: "'scuse me for using paper - my Newton doesn't work...") they weren't too successful. Wozencroft, especially, kept hammering on the need for opening up our minds to experiences that were both closer to our personal lives and away from our daily chores as 'problem solvers'. His choice of short experimental films, inserted between the lectures, was interesting enough; they established a horizon of historical reference (minimalist videos from the 1970's) and topical multimedia plenitude (signal overload from PanSonic), but Wozencroft was just too eager to convince us beforehand of the mindblowing qualities of each tape to leave much room for a personal assessment of how these cinematic artworks could relate to the practice of the average graphic designer. That was a problem throughout the conference. FUSE's intention "to catalyze a new and vital vision of the fundamental nature of the communications world, and to inspire a renewed understanding of the technological context in which that world is embedded" boiled down to an almost religious appeal to total commitment to self-reliant communication.
Brody said that "The problem of the 'problem solving' approach is that mostly, all that's being communicated are the problems." If the conference proved anything at all, it was that the focus of 'problem solving' has - at least theoretically - shifted from structurally arranging information to making sense of an information overload. My problem with that concerns not so much the idea itself as well as the strategy implicit in the conference's offerings. The most accomplished works presented at FUSE were rather celebrating a profusion of stimuli than counteracting it. Sound-and-image works like those of SKOT and PanSonic and some of the products presented by Mike Williams of Laboratory and Research Arts, a London-based CD-ROM publisher of experimental multimedia, stressed the audience's sensorial capacities to their limits. I saw people with eyes closed shut and fingers in their ears - they had enough trouble coping with the signal entering through their guts. Even Chris Watson's 'acoustic landscapes', unmanipulated recordings of the rich nightly soundscapes of African wildlife, were reproduced at earsplitting volume. This exageration of scale was symbolic: instead of relying on the implicit density of the audio signal, introduced by Watson as the experience of a "wall of sound" (indeed, an abundance of voices from crickets and other insects, an encyclopaedia worth of birds, dozens of animals including the odd lion), it was the audio system's volume - the 'public address' - that did the job. The result was that one heard the loudspeakers, rather than the recording. This is not merely a technical matter - it goes to the core of the conflict between technology and meaning wich was supposed to be the essence of the conference.
Thus, the idea that we need to open up to other - more sensorial, if not spiritual - faculties than the mere rational approach of processing data that has constricted modernist design from its inception, was often smothered in a forced holism that was essentially as reductive as its converse. Technologically, addressing the whole of body, mind and soul often merely meant opening up every channel on the mixing board to ten. Mentally, it meant that we were frequently asked to stop thinking altogether and give ourselves over to the pure sensual pleasure of things made from the heart. As Brody repeated over and over: "This is an experiential event..."
If there was any answer - however implicit - given to the questions of the "what and the why", it was: 'experience'. To both. Technology was there to deliver experiences, not information. When not occupied with the druddgery of designing yet another typeface, FontBuro's Tobias Frere Jones experienced data extracted from decades of records of daily high and low temperatures by translating them into tones which resulted in a nice rhythmic audioclip, presented as "a composition writen by nature itself - I didn't invent it, I just found it." His brother, composer, musician and writer Sasha, stated that creative processes are no more "about how to make stuff, but what do you do with it once it's made?" and concluded: "Processing is more important than creation - everything is remix." Chris Watson related that "...some animals use their environment to enhance their messages..." and David Carson pontificated that "seeing is a big part of what we do..." Experiencing the totality of one's environment by being open to its rhizomatous, non-linear occurances, and returning the experience through the work that relied on intuition rather than on analysis, was the underlying narrative of FUSE'98.
Rebeca Méndez's catchword 'Reasonsense' is the embodiment of the mixed feelings I have with this holistic approach. Never mind that the word, coined to conjure up the idea of a balance between reason and the senses, between thinking and feeling, is primarilly a tautologism - 'reason' and 'sense' meaning roughly the same thing in normal speach -, Méndez tried to bring out the subtle differences by associating 'sense' to Roland Barthes' concept of the 'third meaning', "significance that we cannot name, a communication beyond language..." I'm not so sure if this is an accurate rendering of Barthes' idea, but apart from that, it is very questionable if this concept theoretically has any relation to 'sensorial experience', 'emotion' or 'feeling' at all. Trying to be sensitive about reason may feel to be a sensible thing to do, but one is bound for trouble - mixing up established meanings of poly-interpretable words is the least; murky thinking is around the corner... On the other hand, Méndez is a very sensible designer who can explain her own work in rather unequivocal words - not a murky thinker. But in her best work, her fascination for theory and systems results in the kind of poetic licence that is more indicative of an artistic approach than of the old rational 'problem-solving' method. In her design for video-artist Bill Viola's recent Whitney Museum catalogue, for instance, Méndez translated one of the "formal aspects of the video signal", the fact that it is composed of two channels that project alternating lines on the screen, into a structural aspect of her lay-out. The book's pages are bisected into a top and bottom part. Apart from the fact that she is sensitive enough to discard of this system whenever she doesn't need it, it is of course a purely visual association that has very little to do with the reasons for the split video signal. Rationally, such formal analogies are utterly arbitrary and, yes, intuitive. Perfectly viable as personal inspiration as these associations may be, it is a frequently occuring mistake amongst graphic designers that such formal analogies carry any information or meaning, or that explaining them enhances the 'experience' of the design.
In at least one respect, Rebeca Méndez's concept is salutary - it prevents her from becomming either a ridgid systems freak or a completely ideosyncratic artist. At the end of her presentation, she quoted Sanford Kwinter as a source of inspiration. Now Sanford Kwinter, editor of Zone Books, New York, likes to pose as the complete opposite of anything as hybrid or redundant as 'reasonsense'. But in San Francisco, he was the murky thinker. Kwinter presented himself as the conference's last refuge for stern intellectual discipline, but turned out to be a deeply ideosyncratic theorist, who's wild speculations about the 'predatory nature' of 'taking in information' were thinly camouflaged as rational argumentation by the most horrifying scientific jargon I have heard in years. His conceptual soup of "typographic continuums of fluids" spiced with "recognition scenarios operating as 'catastrophic' processes" that link with "survivalist adaptations from our days on the African planes", summarized a semester's worth of academic material, without resulting in anything other than the most fleeting impression of a desperate professor trying to engage his reluctant students to "for God's sake, go out and make something difficult! Instead of making things fast and cool..." Kwinter's blatant disregard of both conceptual clarity and an audience's limitations regarding the "seizure of external energy" amounted to intellectual intimidation of the most condescending kind. Needles to say that it didn't help the discourse - the audience either yawned and went out to enjoy the rain, or became indignant about such an apparent refusal to communicate.
The 'intellectuals' on the programme - Kwinter, his partner (in Studio Kazam) Bruce Mau, architect Zaha Hadid - all shared a predilection for vagueness disguised as deep thought (Mau: "Uniqueness is a traffic hazard when you travel at breakneck speed"). So, in the end, it was neither the holists nor the intellectuals that made the day. It was the designers who intensely concentrated on the 'how', and who left most of the 'what' and the 'why' to their clients. "Why would you want to make type move?" Eric van Blokland rhetorically asked his partner in LettError. To which Just van Rossum answered cheerfully: "That's for the content providers to decide." Meanwhile they showed how it could be done, stressing the importance for designers to know their own tools and software. LettError's home-made programming generated complete fonts in a matter of a mouseclick, that by other mouseclicks could be set into a whole range of vibrations and other movements. Far from being daunted by the existing plethora of typefaces, they introduced their 'Robot Fonts' type-engine, a set of filters that "allow you to make 'families' of hundreds of varieties of the same font ... naming them becomes the most dificult part of the job." It was a celebration of the kind of technology that liberates a designer from painstakingly reproducing standard elements (basic forms, fundamental operations) and allows them to concentrate instead on the more playful aspects of the job.
Funny and entertaining, their presentation was the perfect illustration of a remark that AntiRom's Andy Cameron had made earlier when he pondered the question "what kind of spectatorship do interactive media produce?" His answer was unequivocally: players. "Behind a screen, people are bored quickly, but everyone likes to play." AntiRom's range of 'tooltoys' has been developing steadily over the past years and in San Francisco they showed how much technology, and their grasp of it, had evolved in the meantime. The music engines Cameron presented may not have been the pinacle of stylish graphic design, but their interfaces were clear and user-friendly. It was the programming that was sophisticated. Some of these little engines could generate complex polyrhythms that only a few years ago you would have needed a couple of thousand pounds worth of sequencers and other equipment to achieve. With AntiRom's interactive music engines, instead of defining parameters, one is playing with elements to see - hear - what comes out of it. In interfaces like these, 'intuition' is used to its best advantages. Instead of demanding from the reader or user to reconstruct the designer's associations, these interfaces allow the user to be intuitive themselves. It takes quite a lot of thoroughly systematic thinking to achieve that.
In the most critical address of the conference, Jeffrey Keedy dismissed the intuitive approach to design that was so prominently advocated by others (Méndez, Carson, Brody, Wozencroft et.al.): "...it's a bit weak for describing the computer-graphic multi-national imperialism that is reshaping our global culture. Maybe we should leave 'instincts' and 'intuition' with our furry little friends." That may be too harsh a verdict on the softer sides of design as operation. Intuiton, after all, still is, and has always been, a sine qua non of creative work, whether in the arts, design or science. But it can never be the content of the work unless that work is a product of and for the 'disinterested mind' - a work of art. Without an applied discipline, the struggle for an equilibrium between heart and mind may shift the balance to the other side: much of the multimedia works presented at FUSE'98 consisted of beautiful moving images, well mixed soundtracks and virtuoso programming that illustrated a story not told, a message left open. Meanwhile, the how (with which technology? in which media?) still fundamentally informed the question of 'what': What is there beyond typography? Images, movement... waiting for 'content providers' to be used in meaningful ways. What is the new body electric's favorite input? Sound, music... waiting to be put to informational usages for a playful and volatile audience. It was remarkable how much work had gone into programming, sampling, editing and remixing the soundtracks for the presented multimedia products - an indication of how fascinated graphic designers are with the new tools and the new range of formal possibilities that technology puts at their fingertips. If one thing became loud and clear at the Masonic Theatre, it was that the Next Big Thing in graphic design is... sound.