Metahaven vs Responsive Projects

Published:  April 11, 2013
Heath Killen
Metahaven vs Responsive Projects

Metahaven is an Amsterdam-based design collective on the cutting blade between politics and aesthetics. Founded by Daniel van der Velden and Vinca Kruk, Metahaven’s work reflects political and social issues through research-driven design, and design-driven research. In 2010, Metahaven published Uncorporate Identity, a design anthology for our dystopian age, with Lars Müller Publishers. Vinca Kruk teaches editorial design at ArtEZ Academy of Art and Design, Arnhem. Daniel van der Velden teaches design at Yale University, New Haven, and at the Sandberg Instituut, Amsterdam.

Responsive Projects is a collaboration made up of four Australian designers, Luke Robertson, Aaron Gillett, Gem Copeland, and Nikolaus Kaiser. The impetus behind Responsive Projects is to facilitate new dialogues in design through events, workshops and interviews. The four of us share a keen interest in exploring the full potential of design and where it fits as a key element within our cultural, societal, and economic ideologies.

This interview is an exploration of ideas and topics around the intersection of technology, politics, and design – providing a glimpse at the philosophy and practice of Metahaven and a look at some of their recent projects.

Transparent Camouflage (2011) Scarves and t-shirts for WikiLeaks. Photography: Meinke Klein

RP—Metahaven’s practice centres on research-driven and speculative design. Can you tell us more about your approach and how this informs your work?
MH—What would be the difference between our approach and our work?

RP—We mean approach as in your methodology or your design philosophy. We’re interested in how your way of thinking about design influences what you create.
MH—It goes both ways. What we create also influences how we think. Our starting point was never a finite design philosophy or design ideology. It was quite a bit more impulsive than that. Over the years we’ve said a few things about design being informed by research. Other things we’ve said and done are about the the construction of identity, aesthetics and strategic practice in a post-internet age.

RP—This idea of “strategic practice in a post-internet age” seems to encapsulate much of Metahaven’s work. Now that the internet is a ubiquitous part of our lives, the way that we communicate and transmit information has changed dramatically. In 2010 you approached the organisation Wikileaks with a proposal to work on a new identity. Reflecting on this process, you stated that “the last thing they need is a new logo” and explored multiple iterations and potential identity systems to better visualise Wikileaks’ core aims and positioning. As an exploratory exercise, was this different to other identity projects you’ve worked on? Could you tell us about the process and thinking behind it? How does your “solution” fit into a post-internet context?
MH—We sent an email to WikiLeaks in Summer 2010 with the message that we’d love to work on their identity, because we really admired what they did. That email received a 2-line, positive response from “JA.” We considered ourselves in. Previously, with Sealand—our first experiment in alignment with the project of cyber-libertarianism—we needed no more than this kind of an endorsement to start working on a project. Economically, we saw this as a gift to WikiLeaks, a gift which was paid for by other work we did at the time.

As soon as we really started making things, WikiLeaks had already become highly controversial because of Cablegate, and was unreachable by email with its infrastructure under attack. Via friends of friends, we re-established contact, and could, in early 2011, finally show to WikiLeaks what we had done so far. At Ellingham Hall, Norfolk—Julian Assange’s place of house arrest at the time—it became clear that WikiLeaks was somehow amused by, but not really interested in any systemic take on their identity. Instead, Assange told us that we might want to do a t-shirt, or a mug, for WikiLeaks. That got us thinking about where graphic design actually stands vs. where one hopes it stands :)

Transparent Camouflage (2011) Scarves and t-shirts for WikiLeaks. Photography: Meinke Klein

Transparent Camouflage (2011) Scarves and t-shirts for WikiLeaks. Photography: Meinke Klein

RP—That’s an interesting reaction from Wikileaks, very much in line with the traditional perception of graphic design as an aesthetic veneer. How do you think we can move beyond this assumption that all design can do within activism/politics is posters and shirts?
MH—Not necessarily. With Assange we found that some of his ideas are pure free market ideas. Merchandising is a way to survive financially, and it is only something to monetize on. That is enough to connect it to the transparency mission—while for a designer, it never is. It was refreshing because when you only hang out with those who intellectualize your work a great deal, it won’t necessarily help you understand the needs of those who don’t.

RP—So you think there’s a disconnect between how designers understand what they design and how “non-designers” do?
MH—That is not the main point of what we are trying to say. “Identity” and “design” as complex, architectural constructs are one thing, and another is the ruthless and haphazard occurrence of events one tries to (but fails to) control. This is much more how progress works. We are not interested in an “in crowd” understanding of design, but nevertheless the people most interested in making design important are actually designers themselves. This is often at odds with the world. But not always.

Facestate (2011) Images from a project exploring social media and statehood.

Facestate (2011) Images from a project exploring social media and statehood.

RP—Could you tell us more about your thoughts on the role that design can play in demanding transparency (from both governments and corporations)?
MH—Design can play a role in creating the tools to help enabling such transparency, it can play a role in enabling collective decisionmaking processes which, rather than reactively exposing decisions already made, facilitate more legitimate decisions in the future, it can play a role in creating modalities (polities) of self-organization and horizontal democracy, and it can play a role in the images, symbols and visual languages associated with all this. All these problems are not purely and narrowly design problems; and they can’t be treated by designers alone, but design can play a role.

Stadtstaat (2009) Installation view, Künstlerhaus Stuttgart Photography: Bernhard Kahrmann

Stadtstaat (2009) Installation view, Künstlerhaus Stuttgart Photography: Bernhard Kahrmann

Stadtstaat (2009) Installation view, Künstlerhaus Stuttgart Photography: Bernhard Kahrmann

RP—Let’s talk about one of your more recent projects, Nulpunt, which is a tool that aggregates government documents onto an online database, enabling users to access, annotate and share these documents. Obviously, there is a connection between this idea and Wikileaks: both are tools that demand transparency in government, using technology to influence politics. Could you tell us more about the process you went through to develop Nulpunt? Did what you learnt through the Wikileaks project influence your decisions with Nulpunt? How do you see the project from the point of view of the “non-designer”?
MH—Nulpunt is a collaboration with the artist Jonas Staal. In essence it is a simple tool for government transparency that tries to work with the question: “Why are documents produced by FOI requests so boring?” Because they aren’t visibly shared, read, and worked at by anyone; the editing and review is private and

Nulpunt makes it public, shared, “social.” Nulpunt aims to do this to enable other forms of power than the one we are presented with as the dominant one. We believe that the principle by which the democratic State grants itself a privilege of secrecy is essentially perverse. If we are to believe that it is necessary to have state secrets on our behalf, then popular elections are merely formal procedures to select new keepers of secrets. We believe in a democracy without secrets—the mission statement of Nulpunt.

The project visually is wireframe simple. It’s like Twitter merged with WikiLeaks. It should be extremely user-friendly. There is a clear difference with WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks is, at the heart, a centrally managed group without much transparency; it is for that and other reasons not democratically accountable to anyone. That is not necessarily a big problem—but it also means that WikiLeaks’ recurrent issue is a sense of conflict between transparency and secrecy. Our designs for WikiLeaks played with that conflict, reflected it. This is markedly different from Nulpunt.

0. (Nulpunt) website screenshot

RP—A key factor in the success of Nulpunt is the cooperation of the government in allowing access to political documents. How do you see the framework expanding or adapting to suit its potential use in other countries with different laws governing access and ownership?
MH—The problems start right in The Netherlands where the new FOIA which Nulpunt presupposed has now stalled in the Senate which deems it too transparent; the Netherlands will be stuck in 1980 in this regard. Not even 1984, but 1980. 0. could be developed as a transparency app for any willing and able context or organization. The principle remains the same everywhere; provide access to documents through accounts which can follow and be followed, make it easy to annotate these documents and then to share and broadcast them.

RP—Nulpunt would be considered an unusual project for a design studio, in that it’s self-initiated, outside the traditional realm of client-commissioned work and a framework/tool rather than a discrete “graphic design solution”. Rather than solving a client’s problem, you’re posing a question and using research and design to formulate a conceptual response. Is this speculative, critical model of graphic design realistic? What are methods, platforms and audiences for such forms of practice?
MH—0. is actually not a design project per se, but a tool which aims at direct political intervention. It is what it is. There would not so much be an “audience” for it, but rather a user base.

RP—Nulpunt aside then, what do you think the platforms for critical/speculative graphic design are?
MH—When critical design was “coined” (by Dunne and Raby we suppose) there was this optimistic notion of public debate into which its proposals would intervene. This would be the contribution of critical design—making us think where we want to go (add “as a society” for extra importance). This certainly

has happened, but aside from that critical design is now pretty much its own field. Like always, it’s about being careful what you wish for—many people, in exchange for having become critical and having become speculative, are now simultaneously looking back with some sort of half hearted nostalgia to the era when design really made a difference. If it ever did. Sorry if this is no direct answer to your question…

Islands in the Cloud (2013) Poster from Metahaven's first museum show at MoMA PS1

Islands in the Cloud (2013) Poster from Metahaven's first museum show at MoMA PS1

RP—Why does Metahaven utilise vernacular design strategies that are deliberately not normatively “beautiful”?
MH—How about asking someone who by today’s standards makes “normatively beautiful” design… someone like Wim Crouwel? In his days his approach was called “the new ugliness” in The Netherlands. Seriously, we are not that concerned with what is “normatively beautiful.”

RP—Black Transparency has recently found a new publisher. Could you explain this project?
MH—It is our next book. A new, vigilante type of transparency has emerged with the revelations of WikiLeaks. We call this movement Black Transparency. It is an attack, not on governments, but on the paradigm of government and the infor-mation privileges that come with it. Black Transparency does not act alone but is part of a global movement, now known by names like ‘Occupy’ and ‘Anonymous,’ which takes back fundamental goods of the state and redistributes them publicly. Public squares, public money and public information – which always belonged to the citizens – are saved from going under with a system wrongly entrusted with their management.

How does Black Transparency operate? There is no lack of spaces for it to appear, but all of them are ruled over by governments, their courts and their cyber armies. The global cloud of social media and Internet information is the indispensable, hydra-headed, chaos-mongering powerhouse of Black Transparency, but this house is built on territories over which sovereign rulers preside. Thus the appearance and shape of Black Transparency is always changing to fit the legal and political loopholes of the states whose legitimacy it opposes. Black Transparency finds temporary homes in jurisdictional enclaves while forming short-lived informational tax havens. Because its architecture depends on acts of evasion – and power – Black Transparency is not just transparent but also black.¹


Released today through Strelka Press is the new e-book from Metahaven "Can Jokes Bring Down Governments?" Cover design by OK-RM

Could the leftovers of graphic design be turned into jokes? Might design rediscover actual societal impact? Can jokes scale? Can they supersize?

For more information or to purchase this new book from Metahaven, visit Strelka Press.

This interview was first published in Desktop #290 — Activated

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