The intertwingled discourses of design and art
One of the most explosive episodes in the Dutch discourse on the boundaries and permutations of art and design in recent years was triggered by a graduation project from Eindhoven’s Design Academy in 2011. The project by Massoud Hassani, called Mine Kafon, was a prototype for a wind-powered, autonomously moving and easy to build device for clearing mines in post-conflict areas.
True to its place of origin, it was presented within the rhetorics of design, which meant it advertised itself as practical solution to a pressing problem. Which it wasn’t – the quirky wind-blown path of the contraption would not result in certainty that no mines were left in its tracks. The design was highly applauded for its symbolic qualities but also heavily criticized for its functional flaws and some went so far as to state it was dangerous and even “immoral.” 1) Critics were keen to remark that the design, which stirred international interest, was acquired for the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and not, for instance, by a military corporation or Ministry of Defense. Needless to say that this reference to an art context was meant disparagingly.
On the other hand, there were voices (mine included) who pointed to an effect of the design that might be called collateral, but that was nonetheless significant: that it stirred the debate on the problem of left-behind mines in post-conflict areas, and stressed the urgency of designing and engineering feasible and accessible solutions to this problem. Next to its professed workings, Hassani himself highlighted the autobiographical aspects of the design: its shape – a dandelion-like bowl of bamboo sticks, mounted on a central metal sphere and topped by black and white plastic circular pads – was inspired by the kind of wind-powered toys Hassani and his comrades tinkered as kids in Afghanistan, a war-ridden country in which he grew up under the constant threat of stepping on discarded mines. The combination of the device and the story amounted to a narrative that can be viewed as fiction (art) or as factual (design), but that actually epitomizes an intricate mix of the two. The almost inextricable entanglement of two different discourses that we see here, that of art and application, is in my view worth looking into in more detail.
Viewed as a design, and taking into account that it is a prototype, one would analyze Mine Kafon’s virtues and flaws, test it in realistic conditions and adapt and develop the design according to the outcomes of such analysis and testing. This is what happened during and after the initial phase of the design process (the speculative phase one may call it, the phase in which one hypothesizes a potential solution to a well-defined problem and tests its chances of success). Next to the idea that triggered the whole concept – Hassani’s connection of two deeply contrasting aspects of his childhood: toys and mines – there were several marginal conditions that the designer set himself as briefing, guiding the design: the device should be able to set off mines without the near presence of personnel to steer or control it, tracking its own path; since it would no doubt become severely damaged by detonating mines, it would have to be easily reparable or replaceable, and therefore made from cheap, ubiquitous materials; this last aspect also touched upon an environmental concern; and lastly it needed to be designed in such a way that no specialist expertise was needed to assemble or repair the device. All of these functional, material and technical aspects are addressed in the design, and more or less directed its form, with a sturdy casing at the core, holding a GPS instrument to track its path, and bamboo sticks with simple plastic pads screwed onto it to both propel it and detonate mines.
In my view, this fervor was strongly energized by the Mine Kafon’s symbolic and monumental, i.e. artistic, qualities, which, as will become clear in the following, are seen within the traditional design discourse as potentially (or undoubtedly) undermining a product’s function. As an object, one could easily take it for a sculpture that in its own shape, with dozens of sticks shooting out from its dark and almost hidden core, represents the essence of an explosion. A kinetic sculpture as well, when one watches it rolling along a sandy beach, driven by the wind. It has strangely contradictory characteristics – the elegance of its overall form and movement contrasts with the rawness of its materials, and its airy shape, reminding of dandelion fluff or tumbleweed, denies its 70-kilogram weight.
Art = Design
Over the past decades, the discourses and practices of art and design have been persistently merging, a trend that was heavily influenced by discussions about their social responsibility and economical and cultural value. While in design such debates have always accompanied the critical assessment of the trade’s raison d’être, in art they have been banned effectively since the late 19th century. This is not to say that art was not supposed to relate to social or political issues or respond to current events – it did, and often quite incisively –, but it did so within the doctrine of ‘autonomy,’ which leaves no room for any idea of ‘application’ or ‘function.’ Art, so this doctrine goes, knows no ‘briefing’ other than the artist’s own reflection on art’s inner procedures, and his own personal reasons for making it, be it as investigator of formal problems, critical observer of social processes or as political activist. This also limits the critical discussion of art; one cannot assess an artwork’s quality or significance by holding it up to criteria of social or economical usefulness or political effectiveness, while its cultural value is more or less axiomatically established. Art’s autonomy, in other words, is the Modernist interpretation of Kant’s “disinterested pleasure,” which categorically ousts any notion of utility. Design, on the other hand, and as categorically, serves the purpose of providing society and the market with practical-aesthetical solutions for specific problems. That at least has been the leading idea of the Functionalist design theory that has been at the heart of the trade until the 1990s. Also here, this does not mean that design can never have aesthetic value beyond its direct functionality, nor that design products cannot have a cultural significance outside their immediate use, but any such notion is framed by design’s essence as applied art. So when Donald Judd designs chairs 6) in the visual language of his autonomous minimalist work, these cannot be seen as artworks simply because they have been conceived as functional objects and not as sculpture – their usefulness impedes any thought of art. And when Ettore Sottsass designs a piece of furniture 7) that to the disinterested eye is a gem of a constructivist sculpture, from a design point of view it can only be criticized as a dysfunctional container because its undeniably beautiful form is in the way of its utility. These discursive boundaries, once stable and intransient, have become increasingly permeable since the 1990s.
There had been earlier attempts at breaking through the barriers: the ‘counter-design’ movements in Italy and England in the late 1960s, for instance, mixed the conceptual and visual languages of art and design to criticize Functionalism’s obsessive focus on ‘problems’ as mere technological and logistical challenges. And Pop Art incorporated not only the products but also the visual languages and strategies of design and advertising already in the late 1950s. But it took the rise of Post-Modernist theory and its fall-out in artistic practices of “appropriation” and design movements like Alchimia and Memphis to almost completely merge the two worlds. One of the results of this process of blurring boundaries and merging discourses was a gradual reversal of hierarchies between the once clearly defined ‘high’ or ‘autonomous’ arts and the ‘low’ or ‘popular’ arts. There developed a broad understanding within art theory that ‘popular culture’ can and should be scrutinized with the intellectual means previously reserved for art. Marshal McLuhan 8) and Roland Barthes, 9) for instance, applied the kind of ‘close reading’ typical for literary and artistic analysis to the texts, images and visual languages of advertising and design. And in the 1980s art scholars like Benjamin Buchloh 10) and Andreas Huyssen 11) effectively declared the Modernist paradigm of art’s autonomy obsolete. Although I did not mention him in the text, Buchloh’s analysis of “institutional critique” as artistic practice was an important reference in my Metropolis M essay. Buchloh remarks that “materials and procedures, surfaces and textures, locations and placement are not only sculptural or painterly matter […] but that they are always already inscribed within the conventions of language and thereby within institutional power and ideological and economic investment.” 12) There is in other words an ‘interest,’ which infuses the contexts, content and substance of art and inextricably links it to other cultural practices. This is not to say that there can be no notion of autonomous intervention anymore, or of ‘fundamental research’ into the formal or conceptual procedures of art. It does mean, however, that art has evolved as well: from a separate discourse, freed from interference by other interests than its own, to a discourse within the expanded field of visual culture’s paradigms of mediation and referentiality. Art has become an integral part of a pervasively mediated visual culture that informs its formal and conceptual languages and methods at root level. This, I wrote, has meanwhile become such a strong ‘meta-aspect,’ that ignoring it amounts to art becoming culturally irrelevant.
The connotative turn
The first to understand this shift, this ‘connotative turn,’ were artists. 14) Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage “Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?” is not the first image to combine clippings from the mass-media, but it does represent a starting point of a more direct link between what is depicted and what it represents. Hamilton is one of the first artists who artistically represents how we experience our world through a direct quotation of media representations of products and the way they are, or should be, used. Things, products, become their own metaphors, and thus the main focus of artistic representation shifts from invention to editing. 15) This, of course, is a central concept of design.
Especially in graphic design – although I hold that this goes for all design – the editorial process of re-arranging and recombining existing information and material (images, texts, fonts, media) in a meaningful way is the key to a design’s quality and accessibility. Although, like in art, association and idiosyncrasy play an important role in the creative practice of design, the choices made in the design process need rational and practical rather than emotional or academic argumentation. One needs to consistently construct links and clear hierarchies between the parts in the context of the publication at hand, and make these links ‘readable,’ i.e. understandable for the targeted audience. And most of all: the ‘briefing’ for most editorial products – along with their contents – comes from sources beyond the editor’s own personal motivations. All of this represents an ‘interest’ that is incompatible with traditional ideas of autonomous art. In the contemporary critical debate on early 20th-century art, the argument that saved art’s autonomy when artists started appropriating (‘editing’) objects of design was that these objects were successfully alienated from their original contexts. In ‘ready-mades,’ for instance, the bias represented by the bottle rack’s or pissoir’s original function, which informs its design and shape, is neutralized by the artist’s decontextualizing act. That may have been acceptable in the 1920s and ‘30s, although even then the critique was voiced that incorporating objects and shapes into an artwork that were designed by others gnawed at the root of some of art’s basic paradigms: formal invention, originality and a specific rather than contingent materiality.
But at least since the early 1990s, and certainly since the rise of the internet, the comprehensive mesh of the mass media and its ‘flattening’ effects 16) have spawned a visual culture, in which all expressions have become linked in one way or another, and therefore have become invested in one-another. There have, to put it in semiotic terms, grown links of interest between signifiers and signifieds that are, as I stated above, both much more direct, more resilient and more arbitrary (or transient 17) than they once were. For these links are not a matter of academic convention or traditional symbolics anymore, but they are forged in a state of “liquid modernity,” 18) a precarious, nomadic cultural condition that compels us to constantly edit and (re)design them. ‘Design,’ in sum, has evolved from a specific discipline to an encompassing cultural discourse, that incorporates art.
Concurrently, this new condition and the ensuing reversal of hierarchies have changed the practice of design – it has become operational in an “expanded field.” 19) One would fatally underestimate the current cultural significance of design when one would insist on approaching design objects from a strictly functional vantage point. Yes, one may criticize Mine Kafon for not cracking one of its essential challenges – establishing a reliable path through a mine field. But if one ignores the possibility that this may not have been the essence of the design (or its meaning), one is bound to miss a lot, perhaps the whole point of the thing. The same is true of contemporary art: one misses the point of much of art’s most interesting and culturally significant expressions, when one insists on art’s autonomy – this modernist article of faith – and ignores, for instance, the situative or social practices within art, that both in terms of mediums and procedures mimic or emulate design. As Andreas Huyssen already noted in 1987, “high modernist dogma has become sterile and prevents us from grasping current cultural phenomena.” 20) This is one of the reasons why I advocated a “design-critical approach” in Metropolis M back in 2000. Not to discard art criticism entirely, but to acknowledge the entanglement of a variety of disciplinary discourses in the practices of today’s art and design in the first place by expanding the set of critical tools and criteria by which to analyze them. Given design’s central place in today’s visual culture, and its importance as generator of cultural signification, I would also advocate the reverse: bring an “art-critical approach” to design and project criteria by which we judge art onto objects of design as well – if the design invites or necessitates such scrutiny.
At the same time, I want to emphasize that I do not promote a complete mixture of the traditional discourses in critical practice (although I do hold that there has developed a new meta-discourse that, as argued above, is heavily imprinted with the paradigms of design). For critical and analytical purposes, it remains very insightful to judge a work based on criteria from several specific disciplines – again, if the work invites or necessitates such combinations. I have sketchily tested this approach above in my analysis of Mine Kafon, and hope to have shown that this critical meshing facilitates a much more differentiated analysis of the work than either of the disciplinary vantage points separately. My assessment of the work was (and is) that Mine Kafon can be seen as functionally flawed design when it comes to its professed mine clearing capacities, but that this is more than compensated for by its functioning as communication tool and symbolic reflection on the problem at hand. Also from the vantage point of yet another set of disciplinary criteria, that of communication design, it is a fine example of a merging of art and design practices and strategies. Since the mid-20th century, with a significant boost in the 1980s, art has successfully appropriated branding and advertising strategies from the mass-communication media. Artists as varied as Andy Warhol, Hans Haacke, Barbara Kruger, Richard Prince, Jeff Koons and many others have incorporated the content, methods and media of advertising and design in their work, not merely as reference to an external reality, but as core-concepts of the work’s performance. In an interesting reversal, Mine Kafon shows how such by now accepted appropriations of conceptual art can inform a design that poses as practical solution, but that essentially is a critique of society’s lack of interest in solving the problem.
In today’s “intertwingled” 22) visual culture it is absurd to take any discursive rhetorics, be it the rhetorics of art or design, for granted or use it as quarantined idiom – it can be productively contaminated. For the practices of art and design this necessitates a heightened sensitivity for the meta-discourses around the work, that inevitably will inform the work. It is invested in connected narratives and will thus not be interpreted in a ‘disinterested’ way, therefore it cannot remain disinterested itself.
For criticism this demands a trans-disciplinary approach to any artifact within current visual culture that merits critical attention. A balanced and transparent consideration of all discursive forces at play is in my view the only way towards “grasping current cultural phenomena” and avoiding the opaqueness that results from perceiving art and design as mutually exclusive domains.
Postscript from an educational point of view
1^ Timo de Rijk: “Deze design-mijnenveger is levensgevaarlijk”, NRC-Handelsblad, 12 February, 2013
3^ In a conversation between Hassani and Theo Jansen, the latter remarks that the Mine Kafon is “an animal,” just like his own “Strandbeesten” (beach animals). Ref. http://edition.cnn.com/videos/international/2013/06/17/blueprint-mine-kafon-massoud-hassani.cnn
4^“The Medium = The Message. De grensvervaging tussen kunst, design, reclame en massamedia,” Items, 15 #2, 1996, pp.22-27, and “Elke kunstenaar is een ontwerper. Pleidooi voor een ontwerpkritische praktijk,” Metropolis M, 21 #1, 2000, pp. 16-21. Both essays have been recently republished in Annemarie Kok (ed.): “Kunstkritiek in een tijd van vervagende grenzen. Over engagement, design en commercie, 1989-2015,” nai010 publishers, 2016, pp.137-153.
5^ I put ‘design’ between quotation marks, because the term currently denotes a cultural discourse rather than a specific trade.
6^ Donald Judd designed and produced chairs and other furniture for himself and his family since the late 1970s. From the mid-1980s onward, they were produced in small series for the general market.
7^ Ettore Sottsass, “Carlton” room divider, Memphis, 1981
8^ Marshal McLuhan: The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, New York, 1951
9^ Roland Barthes: Mythologies, Paris, 1957
10^ Benjamin Buchloh: Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art. (Artforum 21 #1, September 1982, pp. 43-56)
11^ Andreas Huyssen: After the great divide – Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, Indiana University Press, 1987
12^ Benjamin Buchloh: Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions. (October #55, Winter 1990, pp. 105-143)
13^ Now, of course, I would add the internet in general and social media in particular.
14^ Although one might add that, unwittingly, the designers of the representational codes of Post-War advertising were the true pioneers. They were not called “art directors” for nothing, it turns out.
15^ I use the term ‘representation’ in a broader sense than mere realism. Representation encompasses ideas, ideologies and interpretations as well as literal depictions of reality.
16^‘flattening’ here meant in the sense of weakening hierarchies, not necessarily in the Kierkegaardian sense of becoming shallow.
18^ Ref.: Zigmunt Bauman, “Liquid Modernity,” Cambridge, 2000
19^ I borrow the term and its connotation from Rosalind Kraus: “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” (October #8, spring 1979, pp. 30-44), in which she states that ‘sculpture’ is “a historically bounded category and not a universal one. As is true of any other convention, sculpture has its own internal logic, its own set of rules, which, though they can be applied to a variety of situations, are not themselves open to very much change.” In a very similar vein, I use ‘art’ and ‘design,’ as “conventions with their own internal logic,” that can be “applied to a variety of situations.”
20^ Andreas Huyssen, 1987, p.ix
22^ Ted Nelson (1937), sociologist and pioneer of information technology, coined the term ‘hypertext’ in 1963. His most famous quote: “Everything is deeply intertwingled.”