no.32 vol.8 summer 1999

A very exiting time to be involved in this World
AIGA/DFTV.001 – Design for Film and TeleVision
Conference, New York, 11-13 March 1999

review by Sjoukje van der Meulen
I can’t remember ever having laughed so much during a conference as at AIGA’s DFTV.001 in New York. Such cheerfulness was perfectly intended by the organisers – perhaps it even was the sole strategy behind this two-day event, since according to producer Alice Twemlow the entertainment model “simply works.” Little surprise, then, that program directors Bonnie Siegler and Emily Overmann stressed in their introductory speech that the conference was “so much fun to make,” inviting the audience to “sit back and relax” and “enjoy the show,” mimicking a live television broadcast. The conference did fulfil its promise to raise a laugh. Scott Webb’s animations of dancing dinos in coloured boots were witty, for instance, as were Billy Pittard’s commercials for the New York Lotto with humorous contributions by TV celebrities. Other speakers performed hilarious acts on stage, such as the soccer game between “broadcasting and printing media,” directed by the creative directors of the British agency The Attic. Also short intermezzi such as MTV’s funny non-commercial ten-second clips of everyday scenes, or Twip, a product taking on multiple shapes while playing with the codes of advertising, kept the show apace. Besides fun, however, the conference did intend to convey a message, albeit a fairly simple one: that new technology in the field of motion graphics is truly exiting, that it challenges creativity, is boundless, and producing design stars, of which there were at least two present: Kyle Cooper and David Carson. The conference celebrated technology to the end, when moderator Kurt Anderson’s closing words confirmed the show’s underlying assumption that “it is an exciting time to be involved in this world.”

Yet this emphasis on entertainment easily leads to programmed laughter, as deceptive as in a television sitcom. Take the commercials by Chuck Willis, editor of Crew Cuts, an agency that produced award-winning spots for companies like Nike and Pepsi. After talking about the commercial editor as artist, Willis showed a recent spot for Pepsi, in which a boy playing on the beach is suddenly sucked into an empty Pepsi bottle. From a technological point of view the animation was indeed a fascinating digital conception, but on the level of content there is something rather uncanny about a boy being vacuumed into a bottle with all the resulting dubious physiognomic deformations. This type of vulgar humour is just one example of a whole range of puffed up, male oriented imagery that ceaselessly reigns the American commercial world, based on cliché’s about culture (Pittard), the sexes (Chuck Willis), and action (Wieden & Kennedy). The marriage between entertainment and technology, then, calls for a more critical discourse than the kind of celebration at the conference, especially when powerful commercial companies of the 1990s are involved, such as Microsoft, Nike and Pepsi, who reduce technology to yet another triumph of invested capital. This is not the place to elaborate an updated version of Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s analysis of the culture industry, but it is noteworthy that they consider entertainment as one rationale underlying the culture industry, while defining technology as another, pointing out the intricate relationship between the two.

Fortunately, the conference had more in store than just a neo-capitalist take on technology. Even within the commercial field, it demonstrated that there’s a subtler differentiation than Adorno ever wished to acknowledge because of his conviction that under the monopoly of mass culture everything is forced into ideological uniformity. The commercials for Calvin Klein are a case in point. Although part of the same capitalist raison d’être as Pepsi’s, they have a different strategy. Glenn O’Brien, co-writer of Madonna’s sex book and producer of Calvin Klein commercials, put the firm’s policy into words, referring to Warhol’s philosophy of the clumsy, the imperfect, and the unhandy as opposed to advertising’s cult of perfection. O’Brien showed a spot with inexperienced young models posing in jeans, while being interviewed about how they feel before the camera, which resulted in endearingly erotic scenes of embarrassment. Calvin Klein clearly found a less controversial approach than their campaign with half naked ‘anorectic’ looking girls and boys a few years ago (which attracted criticism for its 'paedophile' implications), yet without abandoning their play with psychological insecurity. O’Brien’s anti-celebrity attitude presented as a condition for stardom, however much commercially driven, can stand the test on many levels (even that of CK’s criticised languissant eroticism) with the uncomfortable tension in models photographed by artworld’s multi-award winning hero Rineke Dijkstra, one of whose shyish girls posing on the beach in her yellow bathing suit figured on Art Forum’s cover last year.

Remarkably free from any technological wizardry, one of the more convincing presentations was given by The Bureau’s representative Marlene McCarthy. After Ang Lee’s film Snow Storm was released, The Bureau received quite a few phone calls from companies who wanted to know with ‘which computer program’ their title sequence was made. But as with most of The Bureau’s unconventional typographical experiments with film titles, Snow Storm was based on patiently reworking celluloid instead of sophisticated software. So why does The Bureau’s work stand out in a conference on motion graphics? One answer is that they carefully tune their typography to the content of the film, in a much more direct manner than the formal digital tricks employed by Kyle Cooper’s Imaginary Forces. The lettering in Cindy Sherman’s Office Killer, for example, ingeniously passes, doubles and mirrors through the printing press shown in the film, sometimes lighting up, sometimes suspending in the gloomy dark atmosphere. Another reason for The Bureau’s success may be that their title sequences, however ‘analogue’ in terms of technique, are obviously affected by computer aesthetics. The ‘off-key’ glowing colours for the lettering in Velvet Goldmine look as if they were mixed on a digital palette. It was a pleasant digression from the presentations about the new relationship between man and machine, and from futuristic imagery generated by complex algorithms, as given by members of the Sci-Fi channel – acting as if from outer space.

Mitch Stephens was one of the few who attempted to theorise the transition from printed word to moving image. He argued that television, despite its present “stupid” use, is basically a “smart medium”. Stephens, professor of journalism and mass communications at New York University, emphasised that it took writing a long time to acquire its status of a “smart” medium. Since television is only half a century old, Stephens holds, we don’t know yet what the impact of this shift of paradigm will be. Television as a medium might become as powerful as writing, especially since the multi-media aspect of television escapes the two-dimensionality of the printed text. In line with his latest book, Stephens predicts nothing less than the rise of the image by the fall of the printed word. Stephens argument is clearly influenced by Marshall McLuhan’s books The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media. In fact, Stephens applies McLuhan’s analysis of the impact of printing and his understanding of the transition from typographic man to graphic man exclusively to the field of television. My objection to Stephen’s popular version of McLuhan’s prescient thoughts, was the context in which it was presented, functioning as an ideological justification – not for a new content worthy of a ‘New Paradigm’, but for the superficial merryness of what remains, at its worst, “stupid” commercial rubbish. Popularisation is a common intellectual disease: also Tom Hajdu (Tomandandy), for instance, explaining the new role of music in graphic design, didn’t really surpass the level of danceclub DJ-ing, ignoring the compositional complexity of sampling. Hajdu’s task was to seduce designers to consider themselves as a kind of multi-media artists, glorifying the manipulative powers of their new audio-visual tools to the detriment of the structural complexities of the content below the scintillating surface.

As at the Doors of Perception conference a few months earlier, children were a conspicuous topic at DFTV001, represented by supervising producer of Sesame street, Arlene Sherman, and Scott Webb, executive director of Nickelodeon. Sherman showed clips recently made for Sesame Street, such as a beautifully orchestrated ballet of a dancer with the letters of the alphabet. Webb disclosed the recipe for Nickelodeon’s success as being truly “kid-like,” designing a whale family, for instance, making music in a jazzband. These lively animations for children brings us back to the fun aspect, to a conference that celebrated the feast of technological progress in the guise of entertainment. When the public addressed the question whether there would be something that the speakers would not show to children, and the predictable answer centred on violence and other ‘adult’ themes, I couldn’t help asking myself this very question with relation to the conference: what did it not show us, grown-up kids ‘playing’ with digital technology? This is not to simply condemn technological progress, but the conference did not devote a single thought to this other side of technology, never swung one moment between acceptance and rejection, between intoxication and critical curiosity, even if we should know that every enthused embracing of technology is also a Faustian pact. If the designer will have such an increasing role in contemporary visual culture as the conference would have it, then it is questionable whether we need many more events that are mainly a celebration of the profession itself, an affirmation of the status quo, while having little to say on the level of critical content. Addressing the tough questions of what all this is good for may not be everybody’s idea of a party, but still, the questions remain. I doubt whether they will be heard at AIGA’s conference on American Cult and Culture, later this year, in the capital of fun, Las Vegas.

Sjoukje van der Meulen