Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Collaboration with Cuba

After the ICOGRADA conference, Claudio Sotolongo created a project to engage design schools in various corners of the western hemisphere: Columbia, Canada, Cuba, UK, US:

I just completed text to accompany the publication associated with the project:

The concept of “branding” has, over the past decade (if not longer) shoved itself into an extra-wide seat at the designer’s table, along with such design activities as political statements, publications and book-design and other fine print materials, web and interactivity. This is of growing concern to those of us who fear that the current generation of design students —or the current generation, period — may no longer be able to separate the concept of cultural identity from what they buy, and what they think about buying. This project is an effort to chip away at this link. It is an effort to ask students to look at the much deeper, much more human questions. Who are “my people”? Where do I live? How do I engage with them? What do we do/share/teach each other? How do we contribute to a “way” in which something is done/made/conveyed?

My students surprised me. When asked to define a concept for their piece, all of them seemed to be reacting to a perceived glut of messages of consumption and consumerism. As a group they seemed to say that they too were put off by the alarming quantity and ubiquitousness of the messages telling them what to buy and how to think. Maybe we teach them these things when we ask them to be sensitive to their environment: to take their ear plugs off and give the brain time to think about not only how their environment affects them but how they affect their environment.

To varying degrees students are “tapped” in to the media. One student uses this forum to create a piece about his connection to electronic music-making. For him, this project allows him to make a bridge between two passions: digital image-making and digital sound-mixing. He demonstrates a sophisticated desire to be “plugged in” to current aesthetic trends. Another student, also deeply affected by media, points to the disturbing way US media (television, film, video games) presents random violence in almost a pathologically casual way. Another student, also a musician, makes light of the unapologetically aggressive aspect of metal music. He was concerned about offending anyone with this piece, and had alternative text lines, but I encouraged him to submit this one. Graffiti is another theme picked up by a student who calls attention to the way his friends are treated like criminals: to a city that looks at all “tags” as destruction of property even in places where serious artists with highly-evolved styles have found canvases in hidden culverts, and abandoned buildings other wise giving over to urban blight. This ethics of graffiti is hotly debated around here, and this student uses this forum to make a legitimate statement about legitimacy.

Other students take on more personal issues. One student is active in issues that call attention to inequalities in social welfare — a product of capitalism, one might say —, and is trying to come to terms with her sense of injustice and her chosen profession. She sees this project as way to address her concerns, both personal and political. Another student’s concerns are personal: recoiling from the obsessive consumer culture to promote her love of making things herself. An example of when the personal and the political become one act, one intention.

What makes this project so valuable, partly in hindsight is that it allows us to begin to look at how culture and identity are inextricably linked to consumerism in societies driven by capitalism. Graphic Design is indivisible from politics and economics, especially in such fields as branding and advertising, but this project tells us that graphic designers need not be driven my these forces. The most powerful force we, as graphic designers have to counterbalance is the way mass media chips attempts to chip away at our impulses to build community and identity around what we truly desire, experience and want. This is one project that allows us to see that the drive for authenticity is alive and flourishing with students around the world.

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