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Issue 142

Letters
by Salena Barry, Jacquelyn Ross, Fan Wu, and Muhan Zhang

Dear C Mag,

Thank you for highlighting so many smart, alternative design practices that have nothing at all to do with that already mile-high stack of slick-looking photo-lifestyle magazines that drain my soul and make me question the role of publishing.

In respect to Chris Lee and Ali S. Qadeer’s question, “how graphic design as a visual practice gives form to power,” I couldn’t help but think of the many artists and micro-publishers I know working around me today (many of them, internet-savvy millennials) whose practices are similarly involved in calling out the design industry’s obvious complicity with the status quo. What’s different about these practices, though, is that most often they take a playful and/or ironic approach to this warfare—one that, in its self-consciously “bad” design, takes into account our own roles as consumers and purveyors of trends.

The bad design that I am referring to looks rather amateurish, and intentionally so. It crowds information rather than communicating it clearly. Its graphics are clumsy, noisy, awkward. It has no message, or at least not one that’s literal or straightforward. Sometimes it has the look of a zine you put together with friends one night while drinking heavily, with pages so ephemeral that they may not exist tomorrow. Sometimes it has the look of a website from another century, an overly personalized Myspace or Geocities profile. Or maybe it is a painting that uses an ironically airbrushed effect, or a piece of video art featuring a poorly rendered three- dimensional object (in spite of all the technology that typically makes this kind of thing easily avoidable). Almost always, bad design embraces a quality of effusiveness, of too-muchness, and what I would argue is our long overdue rebellion against that rather boring minimalist design trend. In short, bad design is everything that no real client (outside of the art world that is!) would ever, ever want.

Sadly (or not), even the bad design I am describing here has been catching on as a trend in recent years (just take a look at any number of contemporary art museum websites these days, designed with the same so bad it’s good aesthetic), something that David Schnitman’s “Now in Circulation” addressed in the issue. Just like any other anti-trend-turned-trend, it will finally face its decline. For now, though, I’m happy to support whatever it is that it’s doing—at least until Kinfolk is off the rack for good.

Jacquelyn Ross
Dear Ms. Bruneau and Ms. Cynwar,

Issue 141 elucidates, examines and interrogates design and power’s vine-like entanglement and moves the discussion forward with timely regard for a particular manifestation of this coupling: design as resistance.

In his interview with Winona Wheeler and Joi T. Arcand, Chris Lee asked Wheeler if her partiality for paper is linked to its ease in securing institutional approval. Wheeler asserts “I’m a little too rebellious for that,” and explains, more specifically, that she operates unfettered by dominant or prescribed forms of academic legitimacy. This lack of concern with being recognized (as Glen Sean Coulthard would likely articulate it) and valued by the dominant group is brave. However, her familiarity with creating academically sanctioned knowledge, which, with its standards of production and presentation, could be considered a graphic form in its own right, is an advantage. She is able to reap the benefits and presumptions of legitimacy and intelligibility afforded to academia while embedding it with alternate narratives that challenge colonial myths, like the missionary James Evans’ establishment of the Cree syllabary. Wheeler’s academic work offers a form of resistance that facilitates a broad engagement and support in a diversity of communities, an important step in building networks of care and action.

Arcand’s resistance work in her Here on Future Earth series, takes a less accommodating approach by comparison. The images—bridges between speculative futures and ancestral tributes—demonstrate how design can help to legitimize and create oneself. The Cree syllabic signs in Arcand’s work are meant to be understood, meant to designate places of community, commerce, nourishment—but only to those with a particular knowledge or understanding. Arcand resists colonial intelligibility in her work and in her choice to not translate the text within it (sometimes to the disdain and discomfort of her audience). This resistance is in service of giving autonomy to the community of people who do understand syllabics and concurrently, teaching those who don’t to eventually discern the visual poetry of this typeface and link it to the Indigenous communities that established it.

Salena Barry
Hello,

I’m a graduate student and graphic designer at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU. I did an archival research project last fall examining the logo and graphic design of a 1970s Asian American magazine called Bridge. In it, I argue that the evolution of its logo from the Chinese character for “bridge” to a more inclusive English text reading “BRIDGE: An Asian American Perspective” demonstrates the entanglement of ideographic and political concerns. I find that graphic design’s built-in concern for legibility and efficacy (political or otherwise) are powerful lessons for the present world of contemporary art. Controversies like Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till or Omer Fast’s installation in NYC’s Chinatown stem, in my view, from clinging to the dated notion that authorial intent trumps actual reception. It is 2019, and yet artists and curators seem to continue to struggle to shed Alfred Barr’s treatment of viewers as “idealized, atemporal” (and most definitely white and able) bodies.

So, my answer to Chris Lee and Ali S. Qadeer’s question “What does design do?” is this: design is intrinsically attuned to audiences in a way that I think artists, curators and critics must be in order for their work and their shows to not only aspire or proclaim to do such and such, but to actually do it.

To acknowledge that our work, our art history, our exhibition frameworks are mired in an “unjust epistemology” is to acknowledge the need for more diverse and direct ways to speak through art. This requires systemic changes to bring marginalized voices into the fold, and demands that critics understand that art must acknowledge the physical, cultural, sociological specificities of its viewers. No clever design will resolve all of our problems, but absorbing design’s intrinsic creative attentiveness to audience and specificity, I think, can be part of the answer.

Muhan Zhang

Dear Abby,

I swallow graphic design subliminally. Because I am ignorant of its histories and techniques, and know only its effects on me, graphic design moulds the geometry of my unconscious. It blends into the worldhood of the world as such, much like the forbidden Pop-Tarts that Tucker McLachlan—writing about “incidental design” in issue 141—snuck onto his parents’ grocery list.

While I’m reading C Magazine in a Parkdale waiting room with its carefully arranged new layout, I’m surrounded by hideous yellow posters in a clinical incidental design; CP24 hisses out a continuous stream of drivel; the baseball-capped boy beside me (whose hat reads “McCheezus”) plays Bejeweled. Graphic design always takes place in a dynamic scene; because I’m poor at boundary-crafting, I cannot see design apart from the sensual complexity of each moment. What comes into focus is not the design of things themselves, but spider-webbing relationships that draw across scenes of attraction and repulsion, reality and fantasy, the arrangement of text on a bag of beans and the way a lover flicks back his hair. It is my desire, with its frazzled attention span, that designs the graphic world for me, intention extracted from the picture.

McLachlan outlines four categorical quadrants of graphic design, in the vein of Rumsfeld’s famous schema of “known unknowns,” which are: expected content- expected form, expected content-unexpected form, unexpected content-expected form and unexpected content-unexpected form. Both design and desire are, it would seem, haunted by two extremes: a totalitarian conservatism where only the same repeats itself, and an apocalyptic radicality that swivels reality into an utterly new arrangement.What would it mean to never think about graphic design as an art or skill or disciplinary object, but instead as an element in the singular, unique, unrepeatable scenes of our lives?

Fan Wu

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