The first things you notice upon entering the gallery room are bold colors and noise. These are colors that scream at you – almost as audibly as the high-pitched whine (reportedly, the result of a paper stuck in the motor on the day of the opening) of the curious device across the room printing out die-cut message posters on demand (Empty Words, Jürg Lehni & Alex Rich, 2008). What you may not have known upon embarking here is that you are about to bear witness to an eclectic collection that intimately details our love affair with visual communication. Lovers of advertising, of the internet and interactivity, of reading and the media, sit back and prepare to be amazed; you’re in capable hands here, and this is the good stuff.
Graphic Design: Now in Production is a tour de force of some of the boldest graphic design work out there, ranging from 2000 to the present. Because graphic design includes so many facets there’s a wide variety of pieces on display, with an equally wide variety of artists behind them. Posters, magazines, books, typography, branding, information design, and film and television titles serve as the themes that anchor the artwork into their various sections. Within each section there are so many varieties of type – from the traditional to the more experimental and esoteric – that the exhibition is full of rich treasures waiting to be puzzled out from the ones beside them.
The first room features posters – from traditional posters to the posters on demand mentioned above, to so much more. The interactive Poster Wall for the 21st Century, 2007 created by the Dutch design collective LUST, encourages interactivity primarily through two ways. You can send messages to the digitally projected poster, or send it a tweet via the indomitable Twitter with a #posterwall hashtag, and your message will appear among the melange. An algorithm also hunts through local websites for images and texts, which are then projected upon the wall. The user is the digital message; the consumer is the producer. But the poster wall also interacts physically with its viewers “in person” – images move along with physical motion, and become larger and smaller according to the gestures a user makes in empty space. Thus the Poster Wall is a living thing, inhaling and exhaling the data fed to it. Not only is it an entertaining experience, it’s certainly a foreshadowing of communication and advertising yet to come.
Although the interactive exhibits may dominate the attention of many visitors, the traditional posters deserve a thorough examination. Fanette Mellier’s Specimen, 2008, illustrates the multitudinous detail of color bars used in the printing process. While one bold idea unifies the image, the poster uses several smaller images to construct itself, pulling the viewer into a vortex of parts composing the whole, and vice versa. A wall of cascading band posters that puddle to the floor from the studio Aesthetic Apparatus, which produces screenprints of gig posters, is a true delight to pore over. These Untitled Test Prints, circa 2002-2007, are both symbols of product and advertisement; icons that are often made available as limited release productions for sale via the internet (Gigposter.com, Flatstock), while simultaneously selling us on seeing a show featuring our favorite bands. As the viewer hunts out names of bands both unfamiliar and popular, the interactive feedback mechanism of sale is explicit, and intriguing.
While magazines have been reportedly dying, becoming things of the past overshadowed by the convenience of the internet, the magazine section at Graphic Design: Now in Production is particularly vivacious. Here artists explore the format of magazines – from a block of wood with the words “nice magazine” printed on it (designer unknown, Nice Magazine, 2002), to the parasite magazine I Am Still Alive, which is printed inside of other various host magazines. Artists obviously intrigued with what magazines currently are, and what they have the potential to become, have transformed the glossies we’ve grown accustomed to into a multitude of forms.
Similarly, the section devoted to books delves into not only innovative methods of binding and presenting literature, but challenging and curious methods of creating content for books. Woman’s World, 2008, by Graham Rawle is a novel constructed entirely from segments cut-and-pasted from vintage women’s magazines. The resulting work is intriguing and sexy merely from the pages visible beneath the display case. Book covers as branding for authors is made explicit as a series of books by Chuck Palahniuk, with all their covers designed by Rodrigo Corral, are placed side-by-side. Such explorations are thought-provoking indeed, for despite the adage people make many assessments about the content of a book because of its cover.
Typography, an implicit partner to virtually all contemporary visual communication at some point, is gorgeously presented in this exhibition. The single most eye-catching display involves a series of logos created by Christophe Szpajdel for death metal and black metal bands. Requesting only a copy of a CD with his work printed on it as a payment for his endeavors, the logos are, quite simply, gorgeous. The level of detail alone elevates the letters, and the alternating curves, jagged dashes, dots, and detailed crabbing of lines co-mingle to create lush, iconic images. The fine lines coagulate and grow bold, or feather and trail away, but they always capture the eye to pull back into the center, and thus emphasize the various names of these bands.
The branding section, apart from merely displaying brands, asks the viewer to participate in evaluating them – specifically how the logo of a brand communicates information to a viewer – in a physical display representing the website Brand New (edited by Armin Vit and Byrony Gomez-Palacio). For Brand New: Before and After, 2006-2011, a wall of posters featuring “before” and “after” versions of popular logos from some selected brands such as Syfy, Pfizer, and the New York Public Library contains some commentary from the website – both positive and negative – about the change in branding. Below the content there’s a place for the user to vote on either the old or new logo by depositing a bright yellow chip into a clear plastic box divided into two sections. The act of voting on the logos is not only very satisfying, but visually intriguing as the favorites of the two versions become clear. The most successful logos tend to be ones that communicate their brand not only efficiently, but effectively, and what is effective in one design may vary to the next depending upon what the brand promotes. If voting on brands does not appeal, there is also a display of every Google Doodle ever created, the beauty of it being a flexible brand that draws a crowd merely because of its creativity and variation.
The heart of the information design section is, quite simply, how information is displayed and shaped. As technology progresses, so too do our methods for sharing data. Simple graphs and maps have evolved to communicate not only through statistics alone, but by the way they are shown. The silent star of this section is Kai Krause’s The True Size of Africa, 2010. A giant map of Africa hangs on a wall, but inside of the country’s borders are squeezed thirteen different countries, including China and the United States. This is done, as the map informs us in a paragraph alongside the illustration, to truly communicate just how large Africa really is, as people in America and Europe often appear to assume that their own country is “the biggest”. The visual display, along with the accompanying information, create a story of popular misinformation that is both conceptually frustrating and thought-provoking.
The film and television title section is perhaps the most underwhelming, featuring two television sets constantly displaying a series of different titles in a niche-like room that feels more like an afterthought than a full space. Although the content on the screens might be intriguing, the way the information is conveyed to gallery visitors could be improved upon.
Graphic Design: Now in Production is largely successful at provoking a constant internal dialogue with the viewer, challenging every preconceived notion one might have about what communication is, and what it can become. Is a magazine still a magazine when it becomes a digital slideshow replete with film clips and sound that you can read on a tablet? This exhibition instills the viewer with that rare, golden excitement of yesteryear, the excitement of what has yet to come. Rarely nostalgic, progressively and constantly searching for the truth of what works in communication regardless of our own personal prejudices, the artwork here is vibrant, and certainly alive.
In fact the only thing shadowing this exhibition is its overwhelming complexity in the amount and range of exhibits to see. There is so much to take in that there’s a sense of mental engorgement, a temporary gluttony of images and experiences. Daunting in its breadth and scope, Graphic Design: Now in Production would be better appreciated over a series of trips rather than crammed in a meager hour or two. So many well-crafted images that were designed to scream for your attention are screaming all at once. It would serve you well to take some time out to listen, but remember to shut your eyes once in a while to give your internal ear a rest.
Graphic Design: Now in Production, will be featured at the Hammer Museum until January 6th, 2013.