Today is our last official day in the studio until 2017! We've got many thoughts on the tumultuous year that has been, and exciting plans for the year to come, but for now here's a quick overview of some of the great projects we had the opportunity to work on over the last year. Many, many thanks to all our clients and collaborators! 🎉 🏴 👍
In a month's time I’ll be travelling to Melbourne, Australia to participate in Memefest 2016, at Swinburne University. My relationship with Memefest goes back over 10 years, and I'm very excited to participate in this edition as a symposium presenter, workshop facilitator and mentor.
In the world of graphic design, discussion of its social role has been in vogue (again) for the last few years, with the rise of catchphrases such as design thinking, social good/social innovation design, human-centred design, etc. However, much of this discussion and work fails to critically engage with the problematic infrastructures of design practice itself, question its strategic approaches and processes, or position itself in relation/opposition to neoliberal capitalism (imho, the most important design challenge of our time) and other systems of oppression and exploitation. More often than not, this social design framework simply implies using the same commercial design approaches applied to a non-profit clientele, holding a focus group and calling it participatory design, or using recycled paper and claiming to be building a sustainable future. A deep distance exists between designers and those on the ground actually working for social change.
Memefest, as a network and event, has always acted in opposition to this framework, engaging in deep interdisciplinary communications theory, and intensive productive collaborations with local and global struggles. It does not take commercial or institutional design as an a priori definition of the discipline.
At the last Memefest (2014), we worked in partnership with Aboriginal decolonial groups in Australia, creating support campaigns and strategies against the forced removals of children, a wide variety of anti-racist graphics and poster interventions, documentary video, facilitated a teach-in and fundraiser, amongst many other projects (download a report of our activities here). This year, under the tantalizing theme of Pleasure, we will continue this engagement while also working with the growing refugee community in Melbourne.
Memefest is a rare opportunity for me to meet with an international group of communications activists, to discuss, strategize and work together. Before the event itself, I'll be curating work submitted to the website, and providing feedback on selected projects.
I will also be taking what promises to an inspirational trip to Hong Kong (it's kinda on the way!) before heading to Australia. I'm certain it will have a great impact on my thinking and design practice. I'm very much looking forward to these experiences, and hope to highlight my activities in both Hong Kong and Melbourne on here. Hope you'll follow along!
- Contemporary capital is understood here as a purely abstract value, an accretion of time and energy. It’s pretty much useless, it just sits there and stagnates. It weighs down heavy on us.
- This abstract value is only made useable through design, transforming it into an exchangeable commodity, that also carries symbolic value. This is an alchemical and concretizing process, turning (pretty much) nothing into something. This includes our stories, our songs and images, the reification of the structures of our social relations.
- The feedback loop, with these commodities processed through our labour and consumption, generates (extracts) more value for capital, made abstract and intangible again, and added to the pile.
- It’s important to realise that Design operates on both sides of the production and consumption cycle. We often hear about the problems of conspicuous consumption, and design’s mediating role therein (the evils of advertising), but we ignore design’s role in mediating how our labour is made abstract, made useless for us, but valuable for capital. Marx’s alienation is all the more relevant when we think of our current conditions of precarity, and how affective labour is now bought and sold.
- Design’s role here can be thought of as “softening the edges of capitalism”. It’s the grease that keeps the motor running. The bevelled edges, the sheen on the surface, the stylish colour blocking, the chill room and casual Fridays, the critical distance that allows us to live, work, and consume under oppressive conditions.
- This can easily be seen as a critique, but it’s probably a very useful and necessary social role for design, albeit an ideologically compromised one.
- Removing the mediating role of design results in real violence. When design fails, communication breaks down, when the veil is lifted in moments of crisis, oppression resorts to its raw form in order to continue to extract value. This can perhaps be most clearly seen in the design of our democratic and civic systems, but is certainly not limited to them.
- The flipside to this is that design in and of itself is therefore a form of structural violence. Delineating impenetrable borders, ascribing hierarchies of value and worth, defining inclusion and exclusion.
- If we ignore capital for a second (or a minute), we can imagine another model for design based on the lived experience of the communities we exist within.
- Communities created through shared values/knowledge, based on lived experience, concretized through design into cultural objects (books, posters, websites, music, recipes), that then circulate back into an expanding community. This is what we are referring to when we include "Cultural Production" in our mandate.
- It’s important to qualify “created” here. We should avoid the fallacy of innovation. Struggles are happening all around, people are organizing and making art. How can we support them/us.
- It’s also important to qualify the generic use of the word community, we should be speaking of specific communities, about real people, real experiences.
- Side question: How do we maintain a level of orality, of fluidity and motion, of openness, when materialising these experiences.
- Design can thus act as a symbolic counterpower to the hegemony of capital. It can create alternative space(s) and circulation beyond capital, and it can actually push back against it (and not just “soften”). This is where I would like to situate LOKI’s practice.
I should clarify that I don’t see these skeletal diagrams as necessarily accurate representations of the world, they are oversimplifications, the terminology is vague, and design has been placed in a far more central position than it probably holds within our society. I do, however, see them as practical and helpful tools for thinking about these issues.
“Design requires positioning. You need to know where you stand, to know from where you are speaking.”
Since launching LOKI in 2014, we’ve been dedicated to working with organizations and individuals who share our values of collaboration and community building, with an anti-authoritarian, anti-oppressive bent, and an appreciation for thoughtful, and dare we say beautiful, design. Doing this in a sustainable way in a climate of austerity is a challenging task, yet it has led to many meaningful projects for us, with an expanding roster of inspiring clients and collaborators.
The spring has been a particularly busy one, with projects launched for WIOT Magazine, Metonymy Press, Friends of Public Service, Solidarity Across Borders, and Articule, with many others still to be unveiled. However, this has left us little time to address some questions we raised in the winter, to critically self-reflect on the studio’s own positioning, mandate and practice in a concerted way.
Sandy Kaltenborn, of the Berlin-based activist design studio Image-Shift, has been a long time inspiration for us, as a mentor (at the Declarations conference way back in 2001), a colleague (through Memefest), and as a friend. In the work that he does, and the way it is presented, we see an inspiring, yet practical model of a socially engaged design studio.
Image-Shift's non-manifesto sketches out 13 points that share his views on (graphic) design and visual communication practice. It clearly and concisely sets the parameters for his work (including and beyond "actual" design) and resonates deeply with how we'd like LOKI to operate and communicate.
9. it is a privilege to speak, to design in a society where most are not even asked about their opinion. this leads to "response-ability" not to abuse this specific power designers have. we believe that (visual) culture and its different forms are a matter of solidarity and critique. we honour this matter.
So we've decided to slow down our production schedule over the summer, to take back some time to do this kind of necessary thinking. With the help of our summer intern Julie King, we plan to be asking and thinking through plenty of questions. What do we mean by cultural production? How do we negotiate the line between our commercial work and our activism? What do we mean by activism? Do we even like the word activism??? What types of future collaborations are we seeking, and why? How do we define and present and extend our output? Why the emphasis on typography? Do we even like colour? What are frogs? etc.
As we slowly move towards our third year of existence, we hope to share many of these thoughts here, and we would like to invite you, as clients, collaborators, designers, activists, friends, etc. to participate in this thinking with us. We're excited that we've made it this far, and we feel this process is an important next step in order to better understand ourselves and the communities we serve.
NB: The studio will be closed between June 27 – July 10, as we head to the West Coast for some much needed time off. We'll be back on July 11th!
The Milan studio/gallery t-space is currently showing Exhibition of the Year 2016, a group exhibition acting as a creative response to Pantone's Color of the Year campaign. LOKI is honoured that the exhibition was developed based on our article "The Propaganda of Pantone: Colour and Subcultural Sublimation", published by Kevin in February. It's inspiring to see how far our words have travelled, and the resonance they are having.
The exhibition features artists Lorenzo Kamerlengo, Luca Loreti and Alessandro Moroni, and is curated by Alberta Romano. T-space aims to promote discourse surrounding design practice, photography, cultural trends, and the research potential of the artist's studio.
A fanzine published by the group in conjunction with the show features a short interview with Kevin, that explores the need for critical thought in design and everyday life, the role of the critical artist living and operating within a neoliberal society, and the perpetual marketization of subcultural aesthetics.
A subculture such as Vaporwave, that uses an engaging and insistent aesthetic to reach its goal, I’m thinking about your definition of a “Jester in the King’s Court”, don’t you think that Vaporwave could find in Pantone’s appropriation, not a brutal sublimation of its content, but its major moment of glorification?
In Pantone’s case, the subculture is not being showcased or promoted (and even if it were, this would most likely lead to dilution and death), it is simply propagating a very specific aesthetic tool (colour) that is part of that subculture, in order to colonize more symbolic territory. This is what makes the tactic different from, and perhaps more insidious than, more traditional forms of corporate co-optation. Furthermore, the goal of reaching the most people, despite a distorted or ineffectual message, is intrinsic to furthering the capitalist notion of infinite growth, and doesn't seem like a very relevant goal, much less a moment of glory. Exposure = Death.
Find t-space on facebook here.
We're very excited to announce the upcoming Howl Arts Festival 2016 in Montréal. The annual festival brings together artists and activists for over a week of events, concerts, exhibitions and discussion, drawing the links between social justice activism and artistic practice. A celebration of art + revolution!
RSVP and details here.
LOKI has moved down the street into a bigger and brighter office space! Our new address is:
5333 Avenue Casgrain, #903
We're happy to be sharing the offices with our collaborators, multimedia producers KNG FU, and to be just a couple floors down from our longtime clients and friends at Cinema Politica. We're slowly getting settled into our new space, so please feel free to come on by to check it out and make us feel at home.
Aesthetics can be understood as the system of a priori forms determining what presents itself to sense experience. It is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience. Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time.
— Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics
Questions of representation are central to the practice of graphic design. An understanding of who we are speaking for, and who we are speaking to, is the starting point of any design brief. It is through this role of mediation, expressed as aesthetic form, that design enacts its power and responsibility. However, this mediation often happens uncritically, guided by a designer’s intuition, stylistic trends, and the instrumental framework of marketing and PR concerns. A multiplicity of factors, conscious and unconscious, play into a designer’s aesthetic choices of imagery, typography, composition and colour. And as much as some might argue to the contrary, none of these choices are neutral.
In the case of colour, Pantone Inc. holds incredible influence with their increasingly marketed and mediatised Colour of the Year campaigns. Purportedly determined through a prescient reading of the cultural zeitgeist (by a select cabal of colour specialists), it is important to understand that the company, and the industry it serves, have their own specific interests and agendas that drive these selections. Pantone’s choice of “Rose Quartz” and “Serenity” as the 2016 Colour of the Year is the most insidious move by this colour-industrial-complex since “Blue Iris” in 2008. As with “Blue Iris”, Pantone has once again mined the subcultural landscape and used their monopoly within the creative industries to propagate their colour properties to the world.
I left Montreal a bit earlier than usual for the holidays this year, heading to Toronto to see the family, and also to reconnect with a couple of friends running local design studios I greatly admire. Despite the Toronto-Montreal rivalry, I have to admit Toronto is an inspiring city, full of hustle, and it was great to see what these studios were working on and what they’ve accomplished in the realm of social change/social justice design in what must be a very challenging context.
I first stopped off to visit Studio Jaywall, whom we collaborated with last year on our Reading/Writing the Junction project. Jay’s been working on a lot of initiatives related to urbanism and public civic engagement. We chatted about ways to possibly collaborate, and how our studios approached the idea of socially engaged design practice in very different, but complementary ways. One thing that also came up was the real challenge of maintaining a creative engagement in our projects, when so much energy is required in the management of running a studio.
Later, I had drinks with Sheila Sampath of the Public Studio. As usual our conversations spiralled between TV shows, self-care, teaching, bureacracy, precarity, studio structrues, love, dogs, creativity… and the thread of an embodied political design practice tying all these things together. Sheila’s a true powerhouse and I always leave our conversations feeling inspired and grateful to be able to call her a friend.
Between my visit to Jay’s studio and drinks with Sheila I stopped by one of my favorite bookstores in Toronto, Swipe Books. A dedicated design bookstore is a rare thing coming from Montreal. I spent a lot of time there, but sadly found nothing that genuinely sparked my interest. Browsing the graphic design section, I found a few old copies of Fresh Dialogue (not looking so fresh), and Michael Bierut’s new monograph was tempting, but far too big and heavy. I found very little that came even close to design theory, and it made me reflect on the current (and it’s been a long while) dearth of smart, accessible, and critical writing about design. It made me long for the heady days of Emigre, Critique, Looking Closer, etc. and question whether this kind of thinking and writing is even happening anymore, and if so, where?
These visits have left me with a lot to think about for the new year, about my practice, my studio, and the state of graphic design in general. For the studio, sustainability is always a concern and a challenge, but beyond that, where do we really want to go, what are our ambitions, and how can we situate ourselves to make them achievable? Is the dearth in writing something we'd be interested in attempting to fill? Are other designers feeling this need?
But for now, it's time to sign off for the year. We're really proud of all that we produced in this initial year of the studio. Many, many, many thanks to our clients and collaborators, wishing everyone a happy holiday, and we'll see you in the new year.
About a year ago, we launched the Precari-Tee, as an experiment in the possibilities of fashion as a carrier of theoretical critique. The designs have proved popular, and the critique ever more pertinent.
These behind-the-scenes photos were taken by Thiên in the studio on a sunny November day in 2014, featuring Jenni, Sophie, Faiz and Maude.
After 13 issues, 1200 pages, 120 contributing artists and writers, 2100 copies, 6 bricks wrapped in butterflies… launches, parties, concerts, fundraisers, readings, performances, and 12 years of striving and hustling – Four Minutes to Midnight has decided to call it a night.
It’s not a decision that was taken lightly, but it was important for us to recognise that the moment/space/communal nest from which 2356 was birthed, within which it thrived for a little/long while on its own terms, has moved on — children have grown, relationships blossomed and faded, cities and oceans crossed and bank accounts drained, sadness transformed to anger transformed to beauty and back again — & our lonesome corner where those flowers bloomed is now a sad mash-up of a food court, university dorm, and perpetual office-mall incubator, the Korean dep streamlined white to sell third-wave coffee and $200 toques. The night doesn’t fall, it gathers…
We can celebrate how this project brought disparate people together, created alliances (artistic & political) and lasting friendships, how we spoke our time in a way that seemed honest, if maudlin. How we did what we could to provide a cultural ballast to the onslaught of neoliberalism in our streets. But if those 1200 pages are a testament to anything, it is simply to friendship and dumb punk dedication, and that seems more than worthwhile.
Many many thanks are due. In saying goodbye we’d like to think it means see you soon, but the reality is we don’t know what’s coming next, so this is more a way to just say thanks for the time we shared, and that we hope you’re all well, and a little warmer in your hearts for reading this and remembering.
John & Kevin
As the Syrian refugee crisis continues to deepen, we’re heartened to see that the work we did with KNG FU and Al Jazeera on the Life on Hold web documentary is continuing to reach new audiences, and that the project is continuing to inform and spark discussion.
The project has been nominated for several prestigious interactive content awards including selections from the AIB (Association of International Broadcasters), IDFA Doclab (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam), and RIDM (Montreal International Documentary Festival), alongside official selections for design excellence from the FWA and AWWWARDS.
LOKI is honoured by this recognition, and to have had the opportunity to help tell these important stories from an intrinsically human perspective, to address the dire situation of refugees, in the hopes of genuine movement towards the requisite political action.
View our project page here.
Visit the Life on Hold website.
Very excited about this upcoming project...
Originally published in Four Minutes to Midnight Issue 13, Spring 2014.
Graphic design is a shell game, a cheap hustle, when it could be a language. A practice of seeing and listening, speaking and writing, thinking and making, that might point towards a way out from under the wire, and maybe, just maybe, out of the game entirely.
The constant buzz of the semiotic stock market. Endless Tumblr feeds filled with nothing but blind utopianism, nostalgic sentimentality, or hollow cynicism. Empty words set in a geometric sans-serif, centred in white space and framed in black. Faux-weathered lettering pasted over a photo of a forest, or the ocean. Stretched Times New Roman is as radical as it gets here.
What does it feel like to be living in the world today?
On this side of the world, the apathy of the infinite scroll seems like an apt metaphor.
I have enjoyed Print Magazine for 15 years now. But I have to say, the cover of the current issue upsets me. If you were to tell me an eight-year-old child designed it, I wouldn’t believe you. I’ve yet to meet an eight year old as aesthetically inept as whoever duped you into printing this “thing.” Seriously, who approved it? Also, can I have their job?
— Comment posted on printmag.com by ChrisAtAcces in response to Metahaven’s design of the October 2011 issue. Repeated three times (likely a Wordpress error), this is the only comment about the issue.
The new ugly ain’t got nothing on the old ugly. It’s hardly a cult, more like a gang ; a pack of wolves circling the contemporary art galleries and fashion magazines. At least the dramatically labelled ‘legibility wars’ of yore held something of a promise, the belief that something was worth fighting for. Where are our Emigrés now?
It's been a long time coming, but I've finally decided to move the blog from 2356 (which will remain as an archive for now) on to the main LOKI platform. From now on, you'll be able to find posts on graphic design, grassroots activism, visual art and music (and especially where they all intersect) here.
Please give us a bit of time to iron things out, import some old content, and expect to see much more activity on here soon.