Interviews

Graphic Design as Political Practice: A Conversation With Metahaven [Part 2]

by Kyle Chayka on February 15, 2013

Metahaven's book "Uncorporate Identity" (Image via dutchartevents.com)

Metahaven’s book “Uncorporate Identity” (Image via dutchartevents.com)

Metahaven is an Amsterdam-based design studio made up of its two members and founders, Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden. They use their work with identity and branding to engage contemporary political and social phenomena. The first part of our interview ran yesterday. Metahaven has an exhibition currently on view at MoMA PS1.

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A Wikileaks scarf by Metahaven (Image courtesy Metahaven)

A Wikileaks scarf by Metahaven (Image courtesy Metahaven)

Kyle Chayka: So you ended up feeling good about the project and collaborating with Wikileaks? They became incredibly high profile.

Daniel van der Velden: Obviously there have been many people trying to benefit from associating themselves with WikiLeaks, or hanging out with WikiLeaks for a very short time, then publishing a tell-all book or article, or start working for The Guardian, and things like that. WikiLeaks has been in a better place in terms of all the battles they’re fighting. But what they and others are doing is unbelievably important. Try and imagine the past few years without WikiLeaks.

KC: They have so many enemies that it must be hard to survive and persist.

DV: You can see it in the timeline. There are three main periods of WikiLeaks’ wielding of power and influence which are important. The first one is the first few years, when they purely engage in “network  power” and you don’t see anyone behind the brand, you don’t see faces — its purely this website that leaks documents and it’s mysterious who’s behind it. WikiLeaks at this time is powerful purely because it is on the internet, and it can’t be taken down.

Vinca Kruk: The website uses the wiki format and calls itself an “uncensorable Wikipedia.”

DV: No one needs to be concerned about the hairstyle of the founder, or things like that — it’s pure network power, which is fantastic; WikiLeaks sets a global standard for leaked documents. Then, around the release of  the US Diplomatic Cables, WikiLeaks enters a period where it engages in “hard power,” issueing threats and seemingly taking on powerful enemies by themselves. For example, when Julian Assange announces that they have secret files on Bank of America, the stocks of that company go down. Or Julian Assange says that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should resign over her orders to spy on UN diplomats. This period is also when media start referring to Assange as a “Bond villain.”

Successively, during the court cases in the UK and the financial blockade by credit card companies and online payment handlers, WikiLeaks and Assange begin to wield “soft power.” Assange begins to wear suits, appear “statesmanly,” every other tweet links to WikiLeaks’ “donate” page or its web shop. The actual leaks become less and less frequent and decrease in impact. WikiLeaks begins to concentrate fundraising efforts around Christmas, with Christmas-themed graphics, and things like that.

In a weird way, a much more old fashion notion of brand has replaced a much more progressive and provocative notion which was purely based on the network standard. Now the organization seems to engage in classical PR. In a way, it’s a reversal.

Wikileaks design process from Metahaven (Image courtesy Metahaven)

Wikileaks design process from Metahaven (Image courtesy Metahaven)

KC: So WikiLeaks became caught up in concerns of the wider world.

DV: It was always caught up in the real world; the documents that WikiLeaks releases have consequences in the real world, even when you didn’t know who was behind it. In a way that’s made it very powerful. Now, they have to be “liked.” But at the same time, the nature of what they do makes it very hard for them to depend on that. So they are fighting two battles there.

KC: How do you think of graphic design as a tool? What can it do as a medium, in terms of effecting real tangible things or changing things?

DV: A lot, I guess, but only in combination with other things, not so much on its own.

VK: I think graphic design itself cannot accomplish that much. That is why we are interested in finding collaborations, or alliances, or conversations, where graphic design can become a useful tool. I think then it can definitely be very important and be influential. The most interesting graphic design is never …

KC: Purely on its own.

VK: Exactly.

DV: So graphic design can change things, but it also plays a very strong role in sustaining things as they are. So for every single thing that changes, there are a thousand more that want everything to remain the same, especially now with the predominance of Apple and the “Apple aesthetic.” It’s difficult, but important, to challenge the notion of design as it is embodied in Apple products — where increasingly complex architectures are increasingly hidden from view. So the system is incredibly complex, but you don’t get to worry about that because all has been solved for you, like with the Cloud where you store your files wherever. You basically get this Fischer Price interface culture with one or two buttons that do everything. And that’s really great. But Apple has evolved from leading an innovative and important fight against deliberately bad, bureaucratic design culture (Windows and the PC) into representing a deliberate oversimplification of the world. That’s where we are critical.

There’s this fight between Google, which combines being a corporate giant with providing tools which work with the shared internet, or an operating system like Android, versus Apple and Facebook, which are completely walled gardens, theme parks in a sense, malls. These architectures affect a great deal how we experience, and thus make graphic design. A 15-year-old is no longer experiencing the mediated world through printed matter, like through Wolfgang Weingart Swiss posters and the like; he or she is experiencing the world through an iPad. In a way it ensures that graphic design will survive because it is a very strong container for historical practice — Helvetica is in, and all over the iPad and the iPhone.

KC: How do you use graphic design in your projects to be critical or complicate issues like consumer techology?

DV: Through language, aesthetics, and narrative.

VK: And collaboration. The volunteer-based model that Daniel talked about before is very important. With organizations that we feel are interesting working with or for, the graphic design starts there.

Metahaven's Iceland branding project (Image courtesy MoMA PS1)

Metahaven’s Iceland branding project (Image courtesy MoMA PS1)

KC: Who are the people that you are interested in or recently worked with that fulfill that requirement? Are they different internet activists or organizations?

VK: Another project that is in the MoMA PS1 show is a project on Iceland.

DV: It’s actually a project that is still in its very early stages of development but it’s a collaboration with IMMI, a think tank based in Reykjavík which has been co-responsible for the legal reforms in Iceland on internet and information law, media freedom, source protection. IMMI is involved in writing code and law. That should be combined with design, we think.

VK: The financial crisis hit Iceland really heavily in 2008. Instead of agreeing to a bailout, Iceland reformed its banking system, prosecuted the bankers and had a delegation of citizens re-write and crowdsource the Icelandic constitution.

DV: That’s not entirely true, the constitution was re-written by the citizens, but there has been specific legal reform afterwards purely about internet hosting, freedom from surveillance, source protection, things like that. And that was IMMI’s work.

VK: They have been involved from the beginning.

DV: That’s also the big difference between a one-person, single-issue data haven because here there is a whole community of people behind it. It’s not just a strange entrepreneur, or sovereign, sitting on an island.

Our collaboration with IMMI is in development, which means that it’s looking for its funding right now. We have developed a set of images together which starts from the notion of “Come to Iceland. Bring Data.”

KC: It’s much more bottom-up.

DV: It’s a lot to do with the approachability and sensibility of certain people, a willingness to talk and a lack of ego. No one seems to care about that. Still, everyone lives this nomadic couch-surfing life and always on planes and in airports, but without the ego or the showoff. Maybe that could still come later. But not now.

Metahaven's Iceland branding project (Image courtesy MoMA PS1)

Metahaven’s Iceland branding project (Image courtesy MoMA PS1)

KC: It’s such an interesting breed of person I feel like has been growing, internet activists and developers, and rebels …

DV: There is this new branch of activism consisting of writing policy documents, and as strange as it sounds, its way of talking to power is through the protocol of policymaking. Of course there is criticism about that too. Some people claim that if you speak the protocol of the enemy, e.g. the State, you basically become the enemy.

KC: They try to integrate into the system and work through it rather than working outside of it like Wikileaks.

DV: Well, there is some criticism because the state is not fundamentally discarded in the proper anarchist sense; in a recent, quite brilliant talk by Smári McCarthy and Eleanor Saitta, both working at IMMI, the institution of the state was even defended. In our work, the state has always been important, also because of its ridiculousness, and we’ve gotten some criticism for that as well. Why do we need the state now that we have YouTube?

KC: The state is a brand with its own history and its own identity.

DV: I think even without the brand, even if you just say there’s a group of people who share a place, and do so consistently over time. Smári McCarthy and Eleanor Saitta have great stuff on that; on how institutions, for example, are keepers of what they call “tacit knowledge.” Iceland has an incredible brand already, because they have always showed off their quirkiness and strangeness as their primary sign of difference, while at the same time being embedded in a network of connections and on equal footing with other modern states.

KC: So do you think the idea of this national data haven has a place in the future of the country, in the identity of Iceland?

VK: I think so; I hope so. I hope it’s not going to turn into Sealand.

DV: The problem with the approach of Sealand is that it’s a single-issue approach. Larger issues of infrastructure and governance are not taken into account.

Another recent project of ours is Nulpunt, a proposal freedom of information website, initiated and developed together with the artists Jonas Staal. Nulpunt works like a combination between Twitter and WikiLeaks; FOIA database documents can be annotated, shared, and broadcasted by users. IMMI is helping with that as well, but their condition for involvement is that all the code should be open. That’s how they work — it’s an island, a fortress, but its code is open.

KC: How does Metahaven approach social media? I was curious as to how you guys think of that in relation to the published work you do or the art exhibitions that you do.

VK: In 2006, we had a website which was basically all pop-ups and structurally resembled the shape of Sealand. We got so much criticism for it, as it was incredibly user non-friendly. So we took that offline and made a single web page. And of course, a bunch of people started emailing us saying that they wanted the old site back even though they hated it before. Then we fell onto Tumblr. We’ve been using it also as a publishing platform, publishing longer texts and interviews. We’re not on Facebook, but we like Twitter.

S.O.S. L.O.L. graphic by Metahaven (Image courtesy Metahaven)

SOS LOL graphic by Metahaven (Image courtesy Metahaven)

KC: It seems to also reflect that whole idea of disseminating information: It just flows organically through a network or a system.

DV: Yeah, Twitter’s great, Tumblr’s great. Tumblr is also a way to publish stuff that’s not so completely well-conceived. You have an idea and you just put it on Tumblr. We had one “meme” on Tumblr that got a lot of likes, which we called “A definition of Now.” It was a hashtag-like cross that combined “S.O.S.” and “L.O.L.” We have used this with our students to explain Twitter, because, as the saying goes, bad news spreads on Twitter, and good news on Facebook.

Metahaven: Islands in the Cloud runs at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Ave, Long Island City, Queens) through April 1.

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