Interview: Noel Douglas, Occupy Design

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Published:  March 28, 2013
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Interview: Noel Douglas, Occupy Design

Noel Douglas is an artist, activist, and academic, who is also one of the founders of Occupy Design which has been described as an opportunity to “change design, and design for change.” Noel speaks here about exactly what this project is, how it relates to the international Occupy movement, and the role that he sees design playing in this turbulent period of political discourse.

What is Occupy Design, and how does it relate to the broader Occupy movement?
Occupy Design in the UK was set up as the camp at the London Stock Exchange was in full swing at the start of this year. We were partly inspired by Occupy Design in the States and designers from the group had been working on The Occupied Times, a newspaper that had developed in the camp (and continues now monthly). Our mission as we saw it was “to use design to support the Occupy movement and use the Occupy movement to transform design.” We’ve supported aligned projects like Occuprint and as the Occupy movement here has died down a little, we are currently focusing on how to politicise the design field to spread the Occupy meme.

The label, Occupy, is a powerful one, and essentially offers an ‘open source manifesto’ that can be owned and interpreted by different groups for different purposes. How then do you prevent the concept from being diluted or corrupted?
Movements are always open to this kind of threat, and it would be a lie to say that Occupy both in the US and here did not suffer from having all sorts of difficulties, not least the extreme cold, dealing with the homeless or drug addicts that came to the camps or indeed political opponents and opportunists.

But, despite this, the movement did succeed in putting the City and the banks back at the focus of political debate, so it worked. Occupy in the UK is part of a growing anti-cuts, anti-austerity movement, so although Occupy as a movement occupying physical spaces has been repressed for now, the spirit is still there with groups like UK Uncut occupying banks and High Street shops to creatively debrand them for their tax dodging, which we’ve helped out with to give them bold graphics for media shots and passersby on the street.

What do you believe Occupy can learn from other movements that have lost momentum, or had their platform eroded over time?
That movements go up and down! We may not see Occupy come back in the same form, or even the same name, but we can say for sure that more struggles will kick up and they will hopefully be bigger and more effective as people learn through struggle. All the governments of Europe are opposed to their people currently. Some of the people in Occupy Design are Greek and they can tell you first-hand of the appalling suffering going on there at the moment. It’s not quite that level here in the UK yet, but here food banks are growing at an exponential rate, millions can’t afford to heat their homes, suicides are increasing and our welfare state is being sold off piece by piece. We are being sent back to the 19th century, all so the banks can rebuild their balance sheets with our money!

Some parts of Occupy are still very active. The Occupied Times goes out once a month, Occupation Records is set for another release soon, and events and forums are put on by Occupy London, the last of which was with members of the Bank of England on the role of finance. Others are assisting local occupations of libraries due for closure in the cuts. Occupy in New York has morphed into providing mutual aid as Occupy Sandy for people left in difficulty by Hurricane Sandy.

A motivation of the Occupy movement seems to not simply be a search for answers, but to find the right questions and reframe political discourse. What role does design play in this open forum?
All creative practice at some level is about reimagining the world, rethinking the everyday. We think design has a lot to offer a process of political realignment. Whether it’s in making complex processes like the various financial instruments used by banks to rip us off visible and understandable to ordinary people or helping movements build visual languages that are of their time and effective, there are many issues to take up.

Also, there are interesting ideas around designing for the ‘commons’ (commons are resources that are accessible to all, held in common and looked after and maintained for the next generation).

Culture is a commons, and the best example we have of the power of design for the commons is the world wide web. Tim Berners Lee’s original design idea, of the hypertext connected webpage was so powerful and yet simple, it has allowed others to flourish, a brilliant example of the potential of design as a framework to enable others.

A lot of politically motivated design is made to both shock and critique. One way of doing that is to reuse corporate symbolism and slogans in subversive ways. Another is to use iconography that has been historically associated with political dissent. Do you think this type of approach still has the power to persuade and resonate?
Absolutely! But it’s not that one poster or banner changes the world though; it’s that using the power of visual form we can affirm what others feel in their heart, but cannot express. But also we can ‘defeat’ our opponents visually as a rehearsal for defeating them in reality. We build the resistance layer upon layer. Signs are just as active parts of the struggle in this way as a political speech or a rally or a march are. All signs have effects however slight. Advertisers understand and use this, of course, for different ends, but also, as a crisis get worse, this struggle with signs does become more visible and I think it’s become very visible in social networks – the way that images are propelled virally to reach millions if they hit the mood of the moment. On a more street-based level, you only have to look at some of the fantastic graffiti in Cairo that has been happening since the Revolution began to see the importance of image to the struggle.

What are some of the politically motivated graphics that have left an impression on you, throughout your life?
Speaking personally, a small list would include, Russian Revolutionary poster artists like Victor Deni, German Dada, especially John Heartfield, Hannah Höch, the Spanish montage artist Josep Renau from the same era, Atelier Populaire, May ’68, Emory Douglas, Ne Pas Plier and Grapus, Pierre Bernard, ’60s counterculture magazines, Gee Vaucher, Linder Sterling and Jamie Reid from the Punk era, Peter Kennard, Polish poster artists, Adbusters magazine, and now all the many, mainly anonymous people who make images and put them up on social networks or graffiti on walls. I really like how people use the ‘off the peg’ meme generators for political attacks or critiques. They’re interesting if thought of as a design framework too.

When is a piece of politically motivated design serving a genuine purpose, and when is it simply an aesthetic or self-promotional exercise for the designer? Obviously, it’s always great to see designers engaged with current events, but should we be more selective and deliberate in how, when and why we use our skills?
This is where a connection and activity with social movements is important. To me, it’s the combination of making the work and then the work and maker of the work being active within these movement networks and visible in the media and street that is the measure of the effectiveness. John Heartfield, Hannah Höch, Emory Douglas, Peter Kennard, Gee Vaucher and many of the other people I flagged up earlier worked this way.

But if people only have time to do a poster, then that’s fine too! Occupy is about inclusiveness, so we do also want to provide a platform on the Occupy Design website for contributions like posters. If that’s all people can do, that’s still great. We need much more imagery that communicates the real issues at stake today. In the coming year, we’re going to give this a focus on the G8 summit, which has themes about food, security and tax, so we’ll be making a call soon for that. But we want to encourage anyone to send us work on political themes. We do want to build a community of political designers, as well as a platform.

Do you have any thoughts on how mainstream design education can help students not only equip themselves to respond to political and social issues, but become motivated to do so?
We’ve done a range of workshops, seminars and talks this year in venues as varied as squatted buildings to V&A. Sometimes these have had a specific goal. At our launch event, we wanted to get people making images that respond to the crisis, which laid the basis for the ‘Debrand The City’ and ‘Expose The 1%’ projects we did this year. In others, such as at the seminar at the V&A as part of the London Design Festival, we initiated discussions about thinking about what design is/could be/should be when freed from capitalist logics.

We’ve done a number of talks in design schools in the UK this year and now want to develop this into workshops where we go into schools and develop work alongside students as part of building a platform for this kind of work. Education in the UK is in a poor state, 100 percent funding cuts, tripling of tuition fees to £9000 a year and now government moves to shut creative arts out of primary and secondary education. These are all working to create and reinforce a commodified, consumer-orientated student laden with debt model of education and redirect the meaning of education to being about merely getting a better paid job than a non-graduate. This instrumentalisation of the system is very dangerous, but especially so for the arts.

So your question is a pertinent one. There are many good tutors in design education, but
the system is working against them all the time. So I guess we are, with the workshops, hoping to counteract that a little, and create motivation for this type of work, to create/hold onto the student ‘subject’ the government wants to wish out of existence – a critical, intelligent citizen capable of wielding their skills to hold power to account and with a vision of a better future.

What does a future where the Occupy movement ‘succeeds’ look like?
A world of peace and of social justice, where we all have the possibility to realise our potential in harmony with the environment – that would be a start!

I think it’s important to ask what designers can offer toward that success too. This quote from (US anthropologist) David Graeber seems apt: “Why is it that, even when there is next to no other constituency for revolutionary politics in a capitalist society, the one group most likely to be sympathetic to its project consists of artists, musicians, writers and others involved in some form of non-alienated production? Surely there must be a link between the actual experience of first imagining things and then bringing them into being, individually or collectively, and the ability to envision social alternatives – particularly, the possibility of a society itself premised on less alienated forms of creativity?”

The tension in design now is this, between being led by the destructive, suicidal logic of fossil fuel capitalism or by human need (in the widest sense) that works in a beautifully designed harmony with the environment. Occupy is part of trying to work out the path
from one to the other.

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