Subversive Guidelines: On the Evolving Landscape of Visual Identity Design
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Subversive Guidelines: On the Evolving Landscape of Visual Identity Design

Student Tianfu Liu’s tour through Googleplex via Google Earth

In the spring of 2018, San Francisco-based designer Jon Sueda conducted an interview with Christopher Hamamoto and Federico Pérez Villoro as a revisiting of the duo’s essay “Post-Identity Design: Brands, Politics, and Technological Instability,” published on The Gradient in March of 2017, as well as their course “Debranding and Post-Identity Design,” taught in fall 2016 as part of the MFA Design program at California College of the Arts (CCA). Both interrogated assumptions and norms connected with the design of graphic identities and explored how formal, social, and political aspects of branding are rapidly changing thanks to technological advances.

In the year since the essay was published, this landscape has experienced significant shifts, from the public’s gradual understanding of the true scope of a presidential campaign and election where branding and calculated/manipulative digital communication strategies played a significant role to the growth of “influencer marketing” strategies that leverage social media platforms and memes as promotional tools, to the ten-year anniversary of the blog Brand New, which has transformed logo critique to a “spectator sport,” as Michael Bierut suggested in a 2013 essay in Design Observer. Here, Hamamoto and Pérez Villoro talk with Sueda—chair of the MFA Design program at CCA and a 2016 Insights lecturer—about the outcomes of their course and new research and findings in this quickly evolving space.



Jon Sueda (JS)

What were the motivating factors behind the essay “Post-Identity Design” and the course that followed?


Federico Pérez Villoro (FPV)

Practically speaking, we wrote the essay and designed the course as an outcome of your invitation to teach at CCA. We were both a few years out of graduate school, pursuing independent practices, teaching, and working for clients. We weren’t particularly interested in identity design as a focus for our client-based work, but rather as a subject of study.

The technical and social nature of branding is rapidly changing as technology advances. For instance, the materiality of logos is mutating from pixel-based images to bits of code as browsers become more skillful at drawing vectors. But more importantly, the structural relationships among corporate, institutional, and political organizations are evolving, and those interdependencies are becoming harder to represent through graphic systems. Companies and institutions may nest within each other, and there is, with this, an increased complexity to their structures and behaviors. At the same time we’re seeing a reconfiguration of territories and geographies themselves, as power and diplomacy rely so heavily on distributed digital networks. In design, this disrupts what used to be a more linear continuum from form, to content, to context.


Chris Hamamoto (CH)

We’ve noticed branding migrate outside of a “traditional” commercial capacity into things like nation branding or branding of educational institutions. This shift coincides with a larger trend we’ve observed over our lifetimes, where so many facets of our lives are moving into a neoliberal mindset in which a monetary value can be applied to anything and everything.

I was just reading an article by Dylan Matthews, titled BuzzFeed’s Founder Used to Write Marxist Theory and It Explains BuzzFeed Perfectly,” about Jonah Peretti. Peretti published a paper after graduating from UC Santa Cruz in 1996 titled “Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Contemporary Visual Culture and the Acceleration of Identity Formation/Dissolution.” In it he’s interpreting Fredric Jameson’s “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” (1982) and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972). These works use schizophrenia as a metaphor for a lack of ego, and in his 1996 essay Peretti remarks on how new media outlets decontextualize and juxtapose culturally different identities almost instantly:

The rapid fire succession of signifiers in MTV style media erodes the viewer’s sense of temporal continuity. To use the same words that Jameson uses to describe schizophrenic experiences, the images that flash across the MTV viewer’s retina are “isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence.” … Capitalism needs schizophrenia, but it also needs egos. The contradiction is resolved through the acceleration of the temporal rhythm of late capitalist visual culture.

This type of acceleration encourages weak egos that are easily formed, and fade away just as easily.

Essentially, in a capitalist culture there will be a need to produce identities for people to adopt at a constantly accelerating rate. Matthews argues that this is in many respects how Buzzfeed markets itself, by creating quizzes for people to construct identities around and critiquing and promoting celebrity culture alongside political reporting. We feel that design has become instrumental in identity formation beyond how it’s thought of in a branding context, and we wanted to see if we could interrogate these ideas further.

The 2015 MTV Video Music Awards featured Miley Cyrus posing over green-screen backgrounds, inviting users to intervene and publish their own versions of the campaign



Do you grapple with these issues in your everyday practices, or was the classroom an opportunity to research topics and methods you think contemporary designers should be examining? Or both?



We do deal with these issues in our practices, but we also consider teaching an integral part of our everyday work. While it’s important to recognize the distinction between theory and action—especially with work involving politics—it’s also important to not disconnect the development of ideas from the notion of practice.



There’s often a distinction drawn between academic work and commercial work that devalues educational pursuits because they’re not “real.” I think it’s reflective of what we were saying earlier about how neoliberalism has impacted the lens through which many people view the world. But if something isn’t oriented toward making money (although I’d argue most schools are), in my mind that doesn’t make it less legitimate. So, to Federico’s point, we see teaching as part of our practice and something that informs our work every day.



The course and the essay fundamentally argue for a reduction of figurative attributes—a de-emphasis on abstract representations in design in favor of strategies of implementation, concrete manifestations. While I think it’s productive to understand discourse as practice, I also think it’s important to integrate pragmatics with education—ideas that can be applicable, distributed, replicated, reinterpreted in non-speculative environments. We were interested in doing this especially in the context of the San Francisco Bay Area, in a school embedded in rapid demographic and economic transformations, caused in great part by a notable jump in international enrollments, and the proximity of the tech industry.



What would be some specific case studies in the contemporary design landscape that successfully transcend academia yet straddle both the “practical” and the “theoretical”?



One example is Dexter Sinister’s ongoing identity redesign for the ICA in London. Recently, Stuart Bertolotti-Bailey of Dexter Sinister took on the role of design director there as a move to both research and perform what an in-house design team within a contemporary institution could look like. In a recent interview for the podcast Scratching the Surface, Stuart talks about the job as a bureaucratic challenge, but also as an opportunity to put into practice ideas that came about from the duo’s video installation Identity (2010), where they investigate the graphic identities of MoMA, Tate, and Centre Georges Pompidou, while reflecting on their social impact and questionable relationships to the corporate sphere. For the ICA Dexter Sinister set up, a temporary, under-development website that coexisted with the main website, The temporary site worked as a functioning sketch to “incrementally” test ideas for the redesign. Hence, the website and other identity applications came about through real needs over time, rather than being outcomes of the presumed determinations of an identity that is fully formed before it is ever implemented, as is often the case with identity design.

Dexter Sinister’s new identity for the ICA in London



A simultaneously practical and discursive example would be K-Hole’s cultural trend reports, which in their inception were critical satire, but ended up finding their way into commercial practice. As a result K-Hole started to consult with real brands, and popularized the neologisms “normcore” and “acting basic”—concepts that describe adapting situationally by embracing normalcy.

K-Hole’s diagram on “normcore” and “acting basic” as included in their “Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom”



Is this shift in approach because the delivery of branding and identity today is largely digital and/or web-based and always in a state of instability, no matter how comprehensive or complete an identity program is? What are the conditions leading to these outcomes?



To an extent I think this is true. For example, along the same lines as the ICA’s dev site, but without an external “client,” starting in 2013 Sulki and Min’s website announced itself as being “under construction” and informed visitors that it would regularly change as they worked to establish a final design. I think it’s an interesting tendency we’re seeing among designers today to embrace an iterative approach in which the audience is a participant. Laurel Schwulst discussed these traits in Sulki and Min’s work and a trend toward dynamic and flexible websites among museums in Art in America. In the case of the latter, Schwulst sees a shift toward museums conveying “provisional and context-specific” authority in their identities via dynamic websites that seem to grapple with the contents of their collections, their places in the art economy, and even the seasons. As a result, their identities become more multifaceted, allowing them to embody a spectrum of moods and stances.

While there are myriad reasons why this may be happening, I feel developments in technology both enable and create the expectation of frequent change, and the need to embody a diverse set of moods. For instance, the frequency with which we get software updates on our computers has shifted the way we perceive technology companies and their identities. This is a very concrete example, but it radiates outward, with implications for our reception of information feeling generally less fixed and predictable. I think this condition changes our expectations around graphic identity entirely.

Sulki and Min’s website in 2016, describing the in-flux and transparent design and development process



In the course’s first project, “Subversive Guidelines,” you asked students to intentionally misuse and abuse some of the most celebrated (and controversial) contemporary identities in recent years: the Whitney, the Walker Art Center, the Stedelijk Museum, Artists Space, et cetera. What did the students learn?



We hoped the assignment would accomplish a few goals. Practically, we saw it as a direct way to familiarize students with the notion of “identity designs” and how they’re currently framed, reinforced, and distributed. Working with identities that are well-known and successful was a kind of shortcut toward exposing the students to the rules that make them compelling. As we stated before, we’re interested in understanding how graphic design responds to changes in our communication and commercial landscape. A direct way to do this is to approach lauded identities of cultural institutions and seek out their limitations.

One idea that threaded through several students’ works was the notion of platforms—how the delivery devices for our communications are so difficult to control, and impress their own logics on whatever they transmit. For instance, the typeface a message will appear in when you send it depends on the service transmitting it and the device on which it is received. So you see a conflation of logics between a brand and the platform on which it communicates. Lev Manovich writes about this succinctly in The Language of New Media (2001), making the point that computer interfaces are not neutral, and have profound effects on how the “content” they mediate is viewed. He uses the metaphor of copy and paste as an example, where anything on the computer—a two-hour film, a phrase in a Word document—can have the same action performed on it, which applies a sort of leveling effect on what is being manipulated.



The students were also interested in thinking through social variables. Beyond gestures of graphic distortion, they looked for specific processes within realistic uses that could potentially affect designs. Lai Xu investigated the new identity of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, exploring the ties between the museum and the Fisher family—the primary donors to the recently renovated museum. A legal agreement binds SFMOMA to exhibit a certain percentage of works from the Fisher collection in several of their galleries. So Lai Xu reflected on institutional donations as commercial investments, and visually explored a variety of configurations juxtaposing SFMOMA’s mark with the logo of the Gap, the clothing company owned by the Fishers. In addition, he developed a processing script that renders the Gap logo and the museum’s graphic materials at the same percentages of legibility as those dictated in the legal contract.

Student Lai Xu investigates the SFMOMA redesign through the relationship between the institution and the Fisher family, who are primary donors to the museum



In most cases, designers create “guidelines” for graphic identities to be implemented by others—in many cases wrongly or improperly, given the complaints we often hear from notable designers. You reference in your essay the low-bandwidth versions of the new versus old Google logos, and how technology mediates our experiences with identities. How can we leverage these different kinds of “uncertainty” in contemporary design in a conscious way?



The first part of your question relates to the dynamics of design processes and applications. How to manage the potential discrepancies of a design system implemented in unpredictable circumstances? We can think of this challenge in terms not of graphic systems but of systems of working that blend the roles of designer, client, audience, and so on.

In their 2017 essay, “Ronald McDonald Ollie Dos & Don’ts: What Mascots Can Teach Us about Branding,” the design studio Other Means addresses the subject, arguing that guidelines and other forms of identity design directives are the result of a “misguided belief that graphic design is a problem-solving profession with the ability to create stability in a world where answers are increasingly hard to come by.” Instead they favor long-term, highly involved partnerships between institutions and designers, so that designers can respond naturally to evolving complexities within institutions: “The alternative to a corporate, style-guide driven approach to branding is developing a visual language over time. This is a bottom-up vs. top-down approach, or what philosopher Gilbert Ryle describes as the difference between ‘knowing how’ and ‘knowing that,’ which Keller Easterling has used to explain a dispositional approach to design that unfolds over time.” In the context of identity design, this can refer to a sensibility to adapt to an institution’s changing situations and contextual specificities.

In many cases, identity design outcomes are too premature and function primarily as a form of social legitimization. In this sense the discipline has been less concerned with aiming to represent manifested identities than with predicting, manipulating, and pivoting the way entities want to be perceived within their markets. This of course limits the possibility of the work being truthfully responsive. We think it’s not only necessary but productive to acknowledge the unpredictability of companies and institutions, together with the instability of communication media. Design can embrace indeterminacy and sometimes operate even better in propositional terms. In doing so, graphic systems, systems of working, and technologies can be demystified and better embody the complexity (or lack thereof) of the organization they represent.



To leverage uncertainty, it’s valuable to reassess how identity is defined and communicated. For instance, rather than imposing strict standards like traditional style guides, designers can look for more fluid ways of creating an identity, perhaps through the appropriation of un-charged symbols, leveraging cultural touchstones, or allowing context and conversation to solidify identity. Looking at fashion, Vetements and Demna Gvasalia’s work for Balenciaga are interesting examples. Vetements appropriated the branding and clothing of IKEA and DHL, contextualizing them in highbrow culture, and selling them at high prices. At Balenciaga we see Gvasalia setting “Balenciaga” in the style of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign logo or making platform versions of Crocs. While these acts are in many ways commentaries on the economics of fashion, as actions they seem very contemporary, given our increased access to bootlegs.

“Balenciaga” typeset in the style of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign logo

It’s also about leveraging production methods, by using the mechanics of supply chains to build identities upon genericized goods. For instance, LOT 2046 is a clothing subscription service that customizes your deliveries; it adjusts the products it sends you based on your responses to previous shipments. The branding on the clothing is minimal even at its most noticeable. Furthermore, the clothes aren’t meant to be thought of as particularly valuable in and of themselves. They’re described as “dispensable: as they wear out they can be bundled and returned, eliminating clutter.

LOT press images


Something that’s been discussed a lot, but I’d be remiss not to mention it, is embracing memes or the logics through which they operate. A recent example that I found fascinating has to do with Kanye West and his Yeezy Season 6 collection campaign, which is currently under way. It was first “announced” via Instagram with a series of photos of Kim Kardashian, his wife, in what looked like a collection of paparazzi shots taken over the course of a day. It turned out the shots were commissioned, to serve as a look book for the collection. Then more recently, they hired (or asked) other celebrities to re-create those photos as a series of “Kim clones.” It seems like a very self-aware statement around their clothes’ appeal, and takes advantage of communication platforms in canny ways.

Paparazzi-like photos of Kim Kardashian and “Kim clones” for Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 6 collection campaign



I’m interested in unpacking the title of the course. Does to “de-brand” mean to literally remove branding? And if the term “post-identity” is often used in the context of race and gender politics, how are you reframing it within the context of branding and graphic design?



We’ve actually been dropping the term “de-branding” in more recent discussions. For one, it’s being adopted by corporate branding and strategic marketing as “sponsored content.” Given consumers’ fatigue with traditional branding, some companies are reducing the distribution of their visual expressions. However, they still distribute their voice and values through content, which at first glance can seem cultural or journalistic, but is in fact commissioned and motivated to push commercial agendas. In addition we think the term “de-branding” feels too passive—it implies a removal but not necessarily an articulation of necessary new approaches. Although the course was skeptical of corporate power and traditional branding, we were interested in not fully dismissing all that, but in calibrating those strategies and language toward new sets of values and ideologies.



In addition, we feel that framing things in opposition to branding restricts us from discussing graphic design topics outside of branding that identity encapsulates and overlaps with. There are new approaches within branding, but also ideas ancillary, auxiliary, or adjacent to branding, that we want to investigate. For instance, how the infrastructures of our communication systems and social networks are creating individual realities, or “reality bubbles,” that shape a person’s identity. Or how new technologies—VR, digital avatars, et cetera—allow people to embody new and more fluid identities.



Talking about identity design unavoidably touches on personal identity and its politics. Branding, as we know, relies on human metaphors: a company should have values, voice, personality. And this has been both legitimized and challenged through the humanization of corporations and, as Chris has noted, the capitalization of individuals, resulting in the leveraging of political power through money. The course questioned neoliberalism as an exclusionary economic model and Modern design as failing to make possible a universal visual language.

We hope the course reflected on the expressive capacities of design and instigated a recognition of our diversity and similarities as individuals and citizens. The term “post-identity design” can be read in two ways: one where “post-identity” is one compound with its own history and references, and “design” is a response to such; and another where “post” is a preposition to “identity design” as its own term. In the course we explored the latter: the present and evolving manifestations of visual identity design as part of a design practice.



Now that the discourse around “branding” and identity design is becoming democratized, thanks in part to blogs like Brand New, is it not a relevant topic of discussion anymore?



It’s paradoxical, because we aren’t saying that identity is no longer relevant, just that the graphic design terms in which we discuss identity are perhaps too narrow. So I don’t know if we’re really “post” identity. As Federico mentions, we see limitations in the modern approach today. Much of this is due to the neoliberal, capital-oriented mindset that encourages exclusion and is incompatible with the Modern ideal. There’s also the question of communications being fundamentally different than they were even twenty years ago. If we cite Andrew Blauvelt’s essay “Brand New Worlds” (2011) as an encapsulation of identity design at the time it was written—specifically the rise of dynamic identities—we’re interested in positing and speculating on what our current context indicates. For instance, it’s super common for us now to interact over text message, asynchronously, with many parties at once. Or communicate with artificial intelligences that have their own human characteristics. Graphic design can’t be disconnected from these situations, just as it can’t disconnect from issues of race and gender, or “identity” politics.



It’s been a little over a year since you wrote your initial essay and taught the course. Did the course results point to a “next,” or have you since worked on projects that explore these ideas? Has technology advanced in any discernible way that has affected something you observed one year ago? The one-year mark is also significant since it’s about the length of time our new president has been in office—someone who you might argue has deviously used digital media as an effective branding tool.



We’ve seen a number of changes related to topics covered in our essay and in the course. Looking at nation-states and national identity, for instance, we’ve recently learned more about the role of the Russian-backed Internet Research Agency (IRA) in global politics. It involves foreign agents’ use of VPN networks to look as if they are in the United States, and personifying activist and political organizations that don’t have online personas on social networks, such as Facebook, to exert super-jurisdictional control. It’s a bit hazy how this is different than, say, a company or individual using a super PAC to funnel money and hire people to promote a message, and it is fascinating.

Relating to boundaries of public space and ownership, we saw the notion of augmented reality spaces being branded. Specifically, Jeff Koons made a deal with Snapchat to have his works “installed” near national monuments. This raised questions around ownership of digital space and how it intersects with the physical world.

Promotional video for Jeff Koons and Snapchat AR collaboration

Most recently, we’ve seen the phenomenon of deepfakes, or accessible software using deep-learning neural networks to create videos in which actors’ faces are superimposed on other actors’ bodies. So far, this has been used for nefarious purposes—for instance films where mainstream movie stars’ likenesses are inserted into pornographic films. This brings up issues of consent. I heard an interview about how the topic is legally complicated by the idea that neither actor is being solely represented, but rather a blending of the two. As well as serious concerns about video, which has been a standard for validating events, being abused to create misinformation. At the same time, these techniques, as they inevitably become accessible to non-experts, pose interesting opportunities for new notions of personal identity. When we can manipulate and combine our likenesses in such significant ways, it’s both fascinating and frightening to imagine what may come next.



In the course we looked at the potential political power of weak images, non-original signifiers, and memes. We discussed, for instance, the DIY nature of Bernie Sanders’s campaign, and the memetic strength of the “Make America Great Again” hats as wearable generic objects. Which were in contrast with a more sophisticated and, in our view, limited form of adaptability suggested by Hillary Clinton’s dynamic H. It wasn’t until after the elections that some of those ideas fully soaked in, especially after reading opinion pieces about them. For instance, Michael Bierut’s reflection on the partial failure of his design for Hillary Clinton as being too calculated, professional, and hence potentially perceived as a top-down invitation to participate. Bierut ends his piece with a note of admiration regarding the pussy power hats from the women’s marches as expressions of “individual creativity in the service of collective solidarity.” In an Instagram post Michael Rock also praised the pink hats as a form of “open-source branding,” where rather than “being limited to consumption, the user participates in the construction of the system.”

Donald J. Trump’s free hats with new slogan “Keep America Great” as sponsored advertisement on Instagram



Are most people conscious of the role design and technology play in mediating, or manipulating, our everyday realities? For example the way social media platforms flatten all types of information, from real to fake, into a unified formal language?



I think there is more public awareness of the political potential of mediascapes, and how these interact with the algorithmic construction, manipulation, and distribution of ideologies. Since the election there have been many conversations regarding the responsibility of digital platforms, through their policies and clickbait design, in spreading misinformation and the formation of information bubbles. Even more troublesome has been to see the mining, monetizing, and selling of personal data—as highly specific profiles, including ideological traits via psychographic analysis—to advertisers and political efforts.

This is something we also investigated in the course. Students studied the role of distributed media and design in the fabrication of perceived realities, and using automated processes they created graphic symbols that validated or challenged a system of thought that they personally believed to not be truth. In some cases the work crystallized the so-called untruth, making it accessible for debate; in other cases the symbols positioned themselves as critical devices in opposition to what they represented. We explored the capacity of forms to work as thought devices capable of fluctuating in meaning through time and context.

For instance Louisa Savage highlighted the biased nature of corporate-funded research within the food industry. Her project explored notions of gender and ways in which rigid roles are perpetuated in their materialization as corporate signs. To these ends she made and distributed chocolates bearing images that responded to recurring industry messages and symbols, such as the Nestlé logo of a mother bird feeding baby birds in a nest.

Henri Nestlé uses his family’s coat of arms as inspiration for the logo to protect his products from imitators



I feel like an important contextual framework for the course was technology. Did you find today’s twenty- or thirty-year-old student literate and engaged in technology? To restate one of your goals for the course, how did students explore the relationships between, and the boundaries of, the physical and the digital?



We found the students highly aware. Things that at one time seemed controversial to me, or realizations it took me a while to wrap my head around, were self-evident to them, for instance the lack of privacy we have day to day with services such as Facebook and Instagram, our phones tracking us, and so on. While the students may not have all the technological knowledge around how our information is being gathered, they understand implicitly that this is our contemporary condition.

Also interesting were cultural differences based on the backgrounds of the students. Those from China were savvy about VPN—a software used to confuse your geographic location from the websites you visit—as an everyday means to avoid the “Great Firewall.” Whereas for US students (and much of the general public in this country), VPN is totally a “techie” thing. Their concerns are more related to how corporations such as Apple impact our day-to-day lives through their technology.

In the project “New Territories,” students looked at liminal internet spaces—meaning, spaces that challenge our perception of geography, and how they impact identity. For instance Emily Scheffler-Jones researched Apple’s AirDrop feature (a proprietary Bluetooth file sharing system that allows sharing between Apple devices) and decided to distribute a revised version of Apple’s terms and conditions. It was a criticism of the company’s policies on intellectual property and copyrights, which are long and written in legalese, and difficult to opt out of. Unsurprisingly, when she distributed her own TOS, most people didn’t bother reading them before accepting them, either. She went as far as distributing her new terms to computers that had the AirDrop feature enabled at the San Francisco Apple Store. Wenbin Li investigated the United States’ and China’s embassies’ and consulates’ use of VPN services, and put together a website that pointed to a particular consulate’s use of a single IP address at multiple physical locations.

Student Emily Scheffler-Jones sharing cat photos, via AirDrop, to self-service screens at a San Francisco Whole Foods



The course lent itself to explorations using technologies and new media, but it wasn’t really a technical class—rather a mix between a studio and a seminar. It did lead to the design of another course we’re currently teaching in tandem, Chris at CCA and me at RISD, which deals with the politics of the web from a programmatic perspective. It explores the relevance of network technologies in the context of design and art discourses, but also strives for students to use the internet as a medium for critical action. It deals with notions around preservation, access to information, and privacy, and deploys methods such as digital archaeology, platform critique, and data obfuscation.



Federico Pérez Villoro is an artist and researcher living and working between New York and Mexico City. His work explores the materiality of language and impact of technology in socio-political behavior. He currently serves as a part-time faculty at Rhode Island School of Design.

Christopher Hamamoto is a designer and educator based in Berkeley, CA. He holds an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design and is an Assistant Professor at California College of the Arts. In addition to teaching, he maintains an independent practice—pursuing his interest in how automation and algorithms effect social relationships and aesthetics, a topic he explores through graphic design, software design, and production.

Jon Sueda is a graphic designer and the chair of the MFA Design program at California College of the Arts. He is the founder of the design studio Stripe, which specializes in print and exhibition design for art and culture. Sueda curated the exhibition All Possible Futures for SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco (2014), and was recently selected as a member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale.

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