[Published in Extra-Curricular, edited by Jacob Lindgren (Onomatopee, 2018)]
Some months ago I found myself in Berlin attending Re:Publica, an international conference on innovation meets politics meets branding meets tech. On the main stage, just after the vocal intervention of Russian chess master and activist Garry Kasparov, it was the turn of Dr. Nelly Ben Hayoun, experience designer and "manufacturer of the impossible". Ben Hayoun is unanimously described, by the likes of Hans Ulrich Obrist and Micheal Bierut, as a force of nature, "an inexhaustible source of renewable energy". While the sheer scale of her design experiences for clients like NASA, MOMA or Airbnb implies the work of a team ("we work, "we believe", etc.), Nelly Ben Hayoun Studios is evidently framed around a charismatic leader. Their productions are truly impressive, often including two dozen lines of credits. Faced with such a vast and energetic orchestration of talent, any practitioner blanches.
Nelly Ben Hayoun was there, in prime time, to present the University of the Underground, a new postgraduate course created by "dreamers of the day" with the goal of forming the "very hard working" critical thinkers and radical designers that our world is so much in need of these days. A school for the "the Willy Wonkas of modern times, the contemporary Joy Division’s, JG Ballard’s, Marie Curie’s and Rauschenberg’s, action researchers and designers, mythologists and makers of new worlds!" The experience designer stayed faithful to her endorsements: the performance was cheerfully chaotic, with an often giggling audience and multiple plot twists (speaking of charismatic leadership, at a certain point there were three Nelly’s on stage).
The University of the Underground, hosted in Amsterdam by the prestigious Sandberg Instituut but implanted in London as well, is just one among the copious amounts of shorter or longer experiments in alternative education and pedagogy. To stick with the field of design, the Scuola Open Source in the south of Italy comes to mind, as well as the Parallel School or the nomadic Relearn sessions. And, to zoom in the Netherlands, I can mention Hackers and Designers or Open Set. So, what makes the UUG a particularly fascinating case study? Besides its laudable commitment to tuition-free education (more on that below) and the ambitious plan to run the MA for 100 years, the bombastic branding, positioning and charismatic leadership of the University of the Underground, winking at grassroots movements and do-it-yourself experiences but at the same time emphasizing free will and personality, represents a good opportunity to reflect on the meaning of counterculture today and evaluate its potential role. As someone who is intermittently involved in design education, I’m interested in the ways in which institutions are able to seamlessly neutralize, regurgitate and later administer or even steer countercultural expressions. The main motivation behind these notes is an attempt to provide a multifaceted articulation of this process and understand some of its consequences.
Mythmakers, Creative Soldiers, Future Presidents
Within the UUG, chaos is considered "a method of public engagement". Rooted in Dunne and Raby’s critical design, influenced by theatrical practices and inspired by Roland Barthes’ idea of the mythologist, the school trains "creative soldiers" to infiltrate institutions in order to "engineer change" with the hope that -who knows- some of them they might become presidents one day. "Manifacturing countercultures" and providing a "positive inspiration and disturbance" is the way to go. The set of references informing the culture of the school is maximalist and eclectic: punk, Artaud’s theatre of cruelty, Marie Curie, "pirate utopias", The Smiths, and so on. The school originally presented itself a bit like a teenage bedroom: a ludic space organized so to signal a sense of belonging to certain groups, to express different breeds of coolness.
Signaling plays a crucial role here. Describing the International Space Orchestra project, Ben Hayoun elucidates her understanding of counterculture, somehow derived from Bordieu’s distinction of the forms of capital. In a sense, it looks like the University of the Underground has incorporated Bordieu’s analysis a bit too well. Its branding combines a "critical"/"disruptive" lexicon with an array of progressive cultural icons, a dream team of advisors (a very diverse one, which is something that deserves appreciation), and a street aesthetics reminiscent of punkzines involving stencils, xerography and markers. This straightforward mobilization of cultural capital in both its embodied and objectified state at once addresses the current institutional landscape –which is not afraid of "radicals" anymore, instead it welcomes them– and pitches the school to mildly progressive media outlets and their audience.
Clearly, mobilizing various forms of capital is both unavoidable and necessary. Yet, it seems that the UUG, like many other instances of "radical change" in design, simply replicates traditional dynamics of accumulation, obfuscating them under the veil of criticool jargon. Working with institutions? That’s boring… We "infiltrate" them. Designers? Please call us "creative soldiers". A semblance of antagonism is the perfect accessory to the casual look of prestige. Paradoxically, the manifestation of a pseudo-antagonist social and cultural capital becomes a means of acquiring more of it in a pacified, institutionalized form, disguising direct and indirect economic conversions that happen somewhere else. "Anti" is the precondition of "into" and then it becomes its corollary.
Culture and social relationships become respectively cultural and social capital when they are used to compete, consciously or not, against other agents. Compete for what? Platforms of expression, attention and therefore subsistence. And not enough attention is given to the alternative pedagogy endeavors that are willing to bring about a genuine diversity of language and praxis, those brave enough to question or even reject the disruptive raw models institutionally tailored to the docile and innocuous high-end creative worker. Shouldn’t the goal of countercultural education be to reveal the hidden automatisms behind the acquisition, mobilization and conversion of, not only economic, but also social and cultural capital?
During the Re:Publica presentation, one candidate’s application was showcased to convey the vibe of the school. His application consisted in a videoclip of himself playing an 80s song featuring several clichés of contemporary design discourse ("I want to change the world", "I’m process-led, concept-driven"). Ironically, his gig communicates the idea that radical expression as an institutionalized practice is the new default. The performance was a parodical mise-en-scène of character disposition, inspired by a common part in a usual play, that of the creative mind addressing an organization. The irony is in the juxtaposition of the presumably solemn and enthusiastic ambition of changing the world with a dry inflection and a frivolous tune for entertainment and mindless consumption. In other words, enthusiastic engagement as muzak. Was the applicant trolling? Maybe. One thing is certain though: that on a meta-level of irony, what was a joke on enthusiastic commitment is then unironically used to actually display this attitude.
The Indiani metropolitani, a post-hippie and art-oriented subcultural youth group which was part of the Italian ’77 movement, used irony as a disorienting strategy for public protest, yelling slogans like "We demand to work harder and earn less!" Inspired by both Grundrisse and Dadaism, they were fascinated by the ambiguous nature of irony:
What interests us is the sense of bitterness that irony leaves us with, its flattening action. Irony opens spaces, it unhinges, it reveals what cannot be hidden anymore […]. Irony lacks flesh and blood, it is only partially a practice of liberation, as partial as is violence and its organization. Finally, irony is a frustrating "language that marks the space between our desires and the difficulty of their realization".
Nowadays, we live in post-ironic society for it has learned to neutralize irony’s subversive power by simply incorporating it. A global online marketplace can shamelessy launch a campaign that promotes unhealthy workaholism, while H&M can successfully bring to market UNEMPLOYED hoodies. As David Foster Wallace pointed out, irony, especially in its postmodern breed, moved away from its antagonistic origins to evolve into a mere advertising technique that, while pleasing the audience, acts as a protective shield against criticisms, because how can you ironically criticize something that is already ironic about itself?
Paraphrasing DFW, the applicant’s videoclip manages simultaneously to make fun of itself, the design world, and the ones who are meant to evaluate his attitude, pleased by the fact that they get the joke. However, I’d like to offer another interpretation of the ironic stance of the videoclip, one that has to do with detachment. Commonly, irony functions as a means of coping with a feeling of powerlessness and irrelevance. When switched on, the ‘ironic detachment’ mode allows us to alienate ourselves from collective and individual miseries. For this, we pay the toll of disengagement. Thus, the song can be read as a disengaged take on impotent engagement.
Can irony still be countercultural? Are there ways to develop an ironic attitude that doesn’t lead to immobilization? Is it possible to forge an irony that produces proximity and becomes action? "Ironic attachment" would need to counter the dominant detached attitude characterizing ironic statements. Given the ironic contradictions we are surrounded with, ironic attachment should be a sort of meta-irony, which involves the capability and willingness to find ironic detachment ironic in itself by contextualizing it within societal and structural conditions.
Clash of Countercultures
At a first glance, the most revolutionary aspect of the University of the Underground is the fact that is tuition-free, which is a noble pursuit, given the rise of scholarly expensed and the subsequent extortion which is student debt. Ideally, the UUG’s tuition fees would derive in part from philanthropic contributions and donations (80%) and in part from state funding (20%). Currently, the contributions from the government amount to 50%. Generally, obtaining financial support entails a compromise regarding the way in which a project is presented to the funding bodies. Individual artists asking for grants are required to adopt the néolangue of the creative industries, and to detail, say, their "competitive advantage". Antagonistic purity is not a good investment.
At a certain point, the UUG’s conspicuous countercultural stance clashed with a more traditional expression of counterculture: a group of Sandberg students penned an open letter to criticize (fiercely but politely) their own institution. Their core concerns revolve primarily around the issue of corporately funded education: yes, the school is tuition-free, but the 80% of private and individual contributions opens the doors to "direct privatisation". Other concerns include the lack of transparency regarding roles in the school and the smearing, so to speak, of the critical reputation of the Sandberg Institute. Finally, they condemn the UUG’s countercultural branding, maintaining that it is improperly reminiscent of activist endeavors. Perhaps as a result of the open letter, much of the original countercultural jargon disappeared from the UUG website, as well as the characterization of private contributions as philanthropy.
The concerns about countercultural branding and Sandberg’s critical purity leave me hesitant: what it means nowadays to be an immaculately critical institution? Would that be effective anyway? If even Pepsi can adopt protest imagery, why wouldn’t the UUG do the same? And yet, between the lines of the dispute between school management and students (and apparently some Sandberg teachers as well) I perceive a glimpse of what counterculture might be and perhaps has always been: a permanent distrust of opaque administration, a constant tension against the ossification of certain power relationships. Maybe counterculture is just crippling institutional self-doubt.
During the Re:Publica talk, my attention was caught by the notion of "performance of politics", understood as a technique to incite public engagement. Tweaking the idea a bit, it can be used to identify one constitutive aspect of design’s ambiguous value system. Design has long learned to abhor its commercial, utilitarian, wasteful and dehumanizing nature. Key figures like Victor Papanek or Ken Garland vocally criticized the sheer amount of time and energy spent by designers into polishing the cogs of the capitalist machine. More recently, the aforementioned Dunne And Raby advocated for a design that makes us think instead of making us buy (I wonder what they think of, say, Black Mirror). Designers have learned to jot down manifestos (and so have advertising agencies). The UUG has its own one. In the meantime, plenty of labels like "social design", "critical design", "speculative design", etc. followed one another and continue to do so. Each of these iterations contributed to an increasingly urgent but also abstract focus on the "big issues" of our time, which is the mirrored image of design hubris ("with great power comes great responsibility"). Want to help local cheesemakers to be more palatable to their customers? Meh. There are more important problems to fix, solve, correct. Don’t underestimate yourself! After all, you’ve been studying design for half of a decade.
The spectacle of design super-heroes vs societal problems has been successfully packaged in events like the Dutch What Design Can Do, a platform created to "demonstrate the power of design; to show that it can do more than make things pretty. To call on designers to stand up, take responsibility and consider the beneficial contribution that designers can make to society." Each year a new challenge is launched, such as the "refugee challenge" or the "climate change challenge", where a multidimensional geopolitical issue becomes, as the Volksrant reported, a Dragon Den-like competition. And, as designer and writer Ruben Pater boldly stated, design positions itself as the "ultimate problem-solving discipline", superior to governments or NGOs. Global tragedies become design opportunities. I mean, literally: Bruce Mau, author of the reknown Incomplete Manifesto for Growth, reportedly stated that "a terrible situation is a great opportunity to use design thinking". The same design thinking that can be sold to companies and corporations. The wet dream of a universal design language comes true in the paradigm of design thinking-as-consultancy.
While the design discourse evolves, its focus becomes more abstract. I have no doubt that individual designers are genuinely concerned with specific little or big issues and empathize with particular people or groups, but I feel that design as a field tend to focus on the general problems concerning a category, a user-group, a set of personas. A bit like humanitarian liberalism, design is not concerned with some men, but with the man. This is, at least partially, a form of professional propaganda targeted at policy makers that will in turn pour more money in the creative industries machine, financing yet another social design event or prize. An abstract and conflictless notion of relevance and societal impact is appealing. Political and social engagement is thus performed, at least in some measure, to please the policy-making "great Other". It is manifested. In doing so, design tends to construct a highly artificial world and offer an assured solutionist happy ending. Who will "interrupt the cycle of capitalism"? Designers, of course.
Inevitably, this sort of magical thinking influences education insomuch as students, consciously or not, are trained to wield "conspicuous morality". Progressiveness, together with social and political engagement, becomes a form of positional consumption and, as such, it is an added value to the project and to the designer, something that sets the context of evaluation for teachers, audience and stakeholders. It’s not a coincidence that in its original FAQs the UUG candidly denied to be neoliberalist… ’cause we all know that neoliberalism is bad, amirite? Thus, design schools offer a dispositional grundkurs where one is urged to feign a more or less standardized expression of critical and socially-concerned thinking within safe and somehow predefined ethical boundaries. A sort of humblebrag of good intentions that doesn’t hurt or upset anybody. "To hell with good intentions", Ivan Illich once said. Clearly, no one is innocent, myself included: this very text is a positional product targeted at what is still a niche market.
Against this background, the notion of performance of politics becomes less a form of deep engagement with diverse parties than a frill to apply to one’s own projects and practice. Ornamental politics decorates design’s intrinsic utilitarianism. The problem here are not the specific values, but the fact that they become a formula, a mantra. Within this context, which sometimes resembles a "choose your own underprivileged social group" type of game, the issues connected to one relatively disadvantaged category are often excluded, that of designers and creative workers themselves.
The University of the Underground suggests that its students will "enter the realm of authors, directors, politicians, planners, dreamers, activists, mythologists and musicians", thus resonating with the common idea that it’s time for design practice to expand its reach. Such hybridization, combined with the efforts of cultural entrepreneurship, will lead designers to "create their own job titles". This perspective well fits what I would call the designer++ model. During a recent talk, Thomas Castro, founder of Lust studio and head of department of Graphic Design Arnhem, proposed a mathematical formula of expertise: designer + educator, historian, activist and so on. Peter Biľak, graphic and type designer who teaches at KABK, during Agi Open Paris 2017 substituted the "+" with "as", adding such qualifications as "entrepreneur" or "C3PO" to describe the many roles he played during his career.
The longer the clock ticks, the more the activity of designers intermingles with other practices and fields of knowledge. Is this the much coveted triumph of multidisciplinarity or rather an expression of professional dilution? It seems that this urgency to hybridize design is a response to the progressive loss of its specific content. To put it bluntly, if no one takes me seriously as graphic designer, defining myself as such is no longer neither sufficient nor strategic. So, I brand myself as a futurist, a technologist and so on. However, the actual added value brought by my field of expertise remains unclear. As Thomas Castro appropriately asks in the same talk, "What are we still doing as designers when we’re living in template culture?" One needs to be ‘designer as X’ since ‘designer as designer’ is not enough anymore. Thus, all these design permutations might be understood as an instance of the "there is no job, create one" mandate. The designer full of qualities resembles the mirrored image of a designer without qualities.
‘But designers have been multidisciplinary all along!’ one might say. Maybe multidisciplinary, but surely not diluted. Let’s consider for instance the design masters operating between the 50s and 60s. They also used to write, paint, teach, ‘do research’ etc. Yet, they could easily decide to interrupt those activities in order to devote themselves solely to logos, posters, books and corporate identities. Unlike this recent past, nowadays tutoring in a school, obtaining a scholarship or a grant, or even doing shifts in a bar is often the only way to practice design, in particular graphic, while making end meets. Slowly graphic design, which until recently represented a professional and identity pivot, shifts centrifugally towards the margins. So its content dilutes into complementary activities that at best integrate it, at worst erode it.
The Critical Graphic Design group, an obscure Tumblr blog criticized (unjustly IMHO) for its ironic yet spot-on critical stance towards the critical design discourse itself, presciently understood that hybridization is more a matter of survival than an expression of professional agency. Along a similar line, German artist Sebastian Schmieg speaks of ‘survival creativity’, i.e. "coming up with whatever idea it takes to survive in a competitive field."
Back in 2006, Metahaven’s Daniel van Der Velden identified a major threat impending on designers: that of becoming "the proletariat of the creative industry" as a result of the globalization of design marketplace. He also lucidly understood that "if there is something that needs to be designed, it is the designer himself". While the former warning went unheard, the latter advice has been religiously followed. High-end design practice was rebranded as ‘research’. Design thinking successfully infiltrated the corporate and institutional world, but the vaguer and purely humanistic "design research" rebrand turned out to be mainly a survival creativity strategy, indifferent for the most part to the overabundance of supply for such type of practice.
In a picture shot in 1977 by Enrico Scuro during the occupation of the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna, we see a couple of students against a background full of drawings. One graffiti stands up. It reads "university is a garden where unemployed flowers blossom". This statement still makes sense by today’s standards: schools and universities are and will increasingly be factories of unemployed, underemployed or occasionally employed workers. While it’s not something education itself can prevent, it has the obligation to critically address this "big issue".
In this respect, I would like to focus on graphic design –the most diluted among the various design branches– and try to sketch what I think it’s a realistic composition of the workforce between now and the near future: a small elite of designers defines guidelines for global services and brands; an even smaller elite builds tools that facilitate the application of these guidelines; a narrow pool of ‘white collar’ designers handle these tools and guidelines; a vast majority of ‘Creative Cloud’ freelance designers compete locally and globally by offering their services on online marketplaces like Fiverr (what Guy Julier calls the Uber design precariat); a niche of artisanal/authorial/hybrid designers and specialists (type designers, cartographers, illustrators, etc.) tries to stay afloat in the market. Since the first, the second and the last category are generally understood as design excellence, their members also work as design educators in high profile schools, partially shaping the professional expectations of their students.
Most highly-trained designers are too educated to find gratification in the average freelance commission, so they compete for the few spots that ensure them a semi-autonomous freedom of professional expression. Together with knowledge and skills, higher education provides also itw own sorrows, as Raffaele Alberto Ventura explains in its disenchanted portrait of a disempowered leisure class fallen in disgrace. This is also why many well-educated designers spend their weekends in self-initiated projects, often the only ones in which they can fully express the skills matured during their education. Design education, for its part, mostly ignores this situation and focuses instead on publishing doubtful employment statistics depicting a rosy future for their alumni or simply promoting an entrepreneurial mentality. The latter approach is well exemplified by the blurb of a 2011 book by Steven Heller and Lita Talarico, co-chairs of the MFA Design program of the School of Visual Arts:
The design entrepreneur must take the leap away from the safety of the traditional designer role into the precarious territory where the public decides what works and what doesn’t.
Substitute ‘public’ with ‘market’ and you will get a good expression of the mandates of contemporary employability ideology. A more recent example is Don’t Get a Job… Make a Job, a self-help book by Gem Barton targeted at creative graduates. From the introduction:
You will be aware that the prospect of "finding a job" is tough. You have heard nothing but horror stories since the economic downturn began in 2008, yet you still chose a design degree, you are still chasing the dream. Why? Because secretly, deep down, you know that the future will be led by free-thinking, forward-looking, rule-bending, problem-solving, question-asking social-radicals, that’s why! Think about the biggest problem we face today: poverty, dwindling energy resources, and war– it is design, not money, that has the potential to solve these problems.
Here it is, in all its splendor, the commonly cheerful and optimistic articulation of the cognitive dissonance experienced by designers and creative workers, who must face the hardships of finding a job while, at the same time, being expected to address “the biggest problems we face today”.
The entrepreneurial push belongs to an idea of higher education functioning as a training for the "real world", i.e. work. Among the many reasons why this philosophy is problematic, I’d like to mention the most important one: we have no idea what work will look like in the near future. On the other end of the spectrum, people understand school as a bastion of intellectual activity not polluted by the demands of the economy and the job market. On one side there is a few years-long internship, on the other a leisurely Arcadia.
The debate on higher education seems too much focused on either submitting to the logic of work or rejecting the material reality of work altogether. While and adoption of the former mindset would defeat the noble purposes of education, it is undeniable that higher education functions as an investement into one’s professional identity. As such, it is already work. From the Italian workerist perspective, students are already a section of social work, their studies contributing to class reproduction and -ideally- on social mobility. Students are "workforce in progress". By preparing technically and ideologically to work, they are already working.
Is there a third way to orient higher education? Schools should situate themselves at the same time inside and outside the logic of social reproduction: they must be both protected and temporary space of purchased leisure but also a ground of critical analysis of work polarization, precarity and social competition. By being at the same time endogenous and exogenous, students and teachers would be able to address the rhetorical regimes that have infiltrated education to serve the purposes of work reproduction. Instead of cooperating in order to address their common problems, students and teachers are urged to individually tackle the biggest issues of our time. They are pressed to save the world while partially ignoring their world. Ironic, isn’t it?
Some people are questioning the Schroedingerian paradigm of the creative worker simultaneously entrepreneur and underemployed. Among them, the Precarious Workers Brigade who in their Training for Exploitation? maintain that "employability normalises certain subordinating attitudes toward work and the self, promoting free labour and individualistic behaviour, which discourages collective practices and solidarity."
When Garland penned his manifesto, one thing that he, together with other twenty designers, subtly denounced was the reductio ad laborer of the creative mind. Wasting time on improving the sales of "cat food" isn’t only a problem of common good, but also a matter of professional frustration, of work drudgery. The "trivial purposes" of advertising dumb down, day by day, the activity of designers offering them no gratification.
The demand for professional fulfillment has found various expressions during the years. Daniel van der Velden concludes his 2006 essay with the following appeal: "Let designers offer the surplus value, the uselessness and the authorship of their profession to the world, to politics, to society." His very concrete worry was that "holding a mouse [might prove] cheaper in Beijing than in the west of Holland." Authorship, which is what many high educated designers aim for, is another word for creative autonomy. Unfortunately, it’s easy to realize that nowadays design surplus value, genuine creativity, isn’t fully absorbed by affluent societies.
Did I say "creativity"? Sorry designers, I know you despise the C-word. It is vague and tacky, lacking rigor and method. However, here I’m not concerned with this understanding of the term, I rather refer to the way it is intended in the "creative industries": a qualifier for a series of jobs and practices like design, journalism, or architecture. In places like the Netherlands, creative autonomy is partially administered by the public sector through a shrinking system of grants and subsidies. Don’t get me wrong: better this than the desert of cultural funding that is Italy. However, this administrative process has a series of effects on the the way projects and practices are conceived, performed and presented. The management of creative activity affects it, projecting a bureaucratic shadow on it. Creative work goes through a plethora of forms to fill, deadlines and standardized requirements in terms of outputs, documentation, and social media PR. Designers craving for (financial) autonomy paradoxically become administrative agents, organizing their own work in a way that is institutionally pleasing, which generally means adherent to the creative industry paradigm. In one word, bureaucreativity.
You think that MTV is creative, and paperwork is bureaucratic? Think again. Bureaucreativity looks like a flashy glaze on boring procedures. It is the creativity required to fill in a funding application for an experimental videogame, or to come up with a budget for an idea that doesn’t require one, ’cause – hey, I also need money. It is creativity that feels like a chore. Bureaucreativity is creativity subjugated to work, for more than creating, it preserves power structures. Take this excerpt on the role of creativity in an organization tweeted by design guru John Maeda. Here organizational theorist Russell Ackoff maintains that
Organizations that value creativity must develop tolerance for unconventional behavior. They should realize that such behavior is not a form of protest but a requirement for effective work.
What about schools and their students? Should they simply reject bureaucreative cool? Perhaps counterculture means going for a traditionally bureaucratic inclination, with grey walls and lack of fun or tacky creativity. The renewed appreciation of brutalism seems to go in this direction. Maybe boredom and gray realism is to way to go defeat the compulsion towards glossy bureaucreative self-administration and self-optimization.
In a 2015 inquiry for the Atlantic, journalist Hanna Rosin investigated an unusually high rate of suicides among well-off kids living in Palo Alto. Among others, a tremendous pressure to succeed and the high expectations from parents are identified as elements contributing to this bourgeois tragedy. Something that puzzles Rosin is the absence of a counterculture in the schools she visited. "Why isn’t there a sense anymore that you shouldn’t trust the authority?" – she asks.
Above, I’ve tried to highlight the way in which a more or less internalized conspicuous disposition involving enthusiastic and broad socio-political engagement is (sometimes ironically) packaged by design education and field discourse to titillate bureaucreative authority. To do this, I focused on the University of the Underground both because of the mediatic resonance it received and because, as an instance of alternative education, is still fresh. As such, it might be able to incorporate some of the ideas included in this text. Its design of experiences manifesto reads:
Our work aim to challenge power structures by initiating and engineering events. It rejects absurdity and boredom in the everyday and responds to it with passion, thrill and free will, thereby generating new forms of individual and social imaginings and actions.
In this regard, I argue that the sociable, indefatigable and committed creative worker (in one word, passionate) offers a raw model to be performed by everyone else. While this attitude can be fruitfully contagious, it can also be perceived as an obligation. "As a designer, I have to be optimistic", Bruce Mau admits in the aforementioned interview. What about those who find it hard to be optimistic? I’d like to conclude this text by exploring a possible form of counterculture, one pivoted on sentiments and emotions. Such counterculture should be able to offer some sort of catharsis to the white noise that surrounds bureaucreative engagement. A noise made of ethical disorientation, self-doubt and a sense of unfulfillment, passionlessness and missionlessness.
Education is a privileged territory for present and future workers of the so-called creative industries to organize, be that in the form of a collective, a studio, an activist group or a loose bunch of like-minded friends. Higher education offers what is often the last chance to construct a critical understanding of the realm of work, both for current students and for the wilderness of part-time teachers and tutors that intermittently contribute to the program. In this sense students and teachers are allies. In a time when school management increasingly promotes an entrepreneurial approach rooted in personal responsibility and thus individual culpability, collective forms of resistance become more necessary than ever.
Even within the schools with a critical bent, there is not even the slightest distrust of the emotional labor required to thrive in the art and design world, no wariness towards the ‘feeling rule’ of enthusiasm. Enthusiasm, together with corollary expressions of niceness and ersatz sympathy, is the fundamental lingua franca of design and the creative industries in general. This set of predefined emotional articulations is needed to interact with teachers and collaborators but also to address clients in that kind of psychotherapy session that is the debriefing. Not to mention the religious zeal prescribed by job interviews.
Design is generally understood as creative work. But what is presently called ‘creativity’ is less a matter of intellectual or physical dexterity than a feature of one’s character, a personality trait. Creativity is first and foremost an emotional endeavor emerging relationally, a jubilant manifestation of the recombinant potential of ideas. When was the last time you stumbled on a melancholic expression of creativity? I bet you can’t easily recall. As a confirmation that creativity is more a sentiment than an exercise of inventiveness, the reality of creative labor is for many mostly a matter of micromanagement and dull repetitiveness.
The idea of creativity underlies an emotional disposition more than one rooted in the mind or the body. Yet, there’s no such thing as a ‘course in enthusiasm’. This is because such positive disposition is so foundational that it doesn’t need to be made explicit. Max Stirner might have been right when he declared that the main reason of education is to instill sentiments. So, we are left with no ground to question these sentiments and with the solitary task of nurturing them inside of us. I believe that design represents one of the epitomes of the production of the creative –read enthusiastic– subject. Designers understand particularly well that a big chunk of their job is to streamline their personality into an optimistic and cheerful parody of temperament. Whereas for some people this is a natural tendency, for some other it is a demanding or even repellent effort: a work that doesn’t only involve face to face interactions but also digital communication, by means of email uplifting, LinkedIn smiling, Behance congratulating. This is not to say that enthusiastic people should feel ashamed for their upbeat attitude, but to point out that enthusiasm can be oppressive. Not to mention the fact that enthusiasm itself is reduced to its bright side: one could ideally be enthusiastic and hostile, but this is not what agencies looking for "a young and enthusiastic graphic designer" want.
Since people are allowed or even urged to be themselves as long as they’re not negative, or even worse, sad, I’m launching a ‘call for sadness’. I invoke a poetics informed by the mild alienation of not-so-creative labor, by professional indifference, by cosmic purposelessness. A poetics of extraneity topped with self-deprecating irony serving as an informal means of solidarity, but also of ironic attachment as a way to engage with the world. I address all those who suffer from imposter syndrome, those who struggle to imagine Sisyphus happy. Let’s adopt the iconographic and textual grammar of existential memes, twitter accounts like @sosadtoday and popular icons of social awkwardness like Addams Family’s Wednesday.
If design becomes just an expression of bureaucreativity hidden by an exhausting online and AFK emotional labor, the refusal of work, of its bodily and cognitive dimension, should go hand in hand with the refusal of mandatory enthusiasm, of the positive disposition that such work requires. This is why my call for sadness is actually a plea for an emotional counterculture, a collective reaction against the occultation of material circumstances by means of artificial self-motivation.
Fellow imposters, stop smiling and coalesce.
[I’d like to thank Cristina Cochior, Luigi Amato, Cristina Ampatzidou and Ania Molenda for their useful feedback and Anna Moreno for inviting me to discuss some of the ideas elucidated in this text with the fine art students of the Royal Academy of Art of The Hague.]
Also published on Medium.