This interview is fresh from my new book All Possible Futures, published by Bedford Press. The book accompanies the exhibition of the same name, which was on view at SOMArts Cultural Center from January 14 through Feb 13, 2014, and features texts by Rachel Berger, Max Bruinsma, Emmet Byrne and Metahaven, Catherine de Smet, and Emily McVarish. In addition to these texts, I conducted interviews with a variety of practicing designers in an attempt to get a deeper understanding of “speculative” graphic design practices and the various positions and orientations designers are taking today. Below is my interview with Experimental Jetset.
Jon Sueda: What does the term “speculative” mean to you and your practice?
Experimental Jetset: We realize that some designers and artists are doing really interesting (and brilliant) stuff under the umbrella of “speculative design” (Metahaven comes to mind, obviously), and we do confess we always feel a slight tingle of excitement when concepts such as “design fiction” and “speculative realism” are brought up. But, other than that, we have to admit we’ve always very much disliked that word, “speculative.” It just has too many negative connotations to us: spec work, financial speculation, et cetera.
Politically, we have always been highly influenced by the Amsterdam squat scene of the 1970s and 1980s—and, within that particular idiom, the figure of the spekulant (in English, the “speculator”) was the absolute devil. It represented the real estate broker, the person who somehow made a profit from the vacancy of houses. Within the narrative of the squat scene, there was a strong dichotomy between the symbolic, speculative value of the building (as channeled by the real estate broker), and the actual, material use of the building (as practiced by the squatters). And although we have never been squatters ourselves, that scene certainly has been an inspiration to us, and we still strongly sympathize with it. So it’s no wonder that we feel a certain suspicion when we are confronted with the word “speculation.” To us, it represents something we have always opposed.
You could also argue that it is exactly the practice of speculation that got us all into the current economic crisis. “Wild West capitalism,” financial gambling, stock brokerages, banking for profit, and so on. To us, the notion of speculation is intrinsically linked to the whole concept of neoliberalism.
We realize that your use of the term is completely different. But, still, we might just be a bit too materialist (in the Marxist sense of the word) to get excited about it. We like our environment to be clearly grounded in some sort of material base, and the moment things start to “float” is the moment we get suspicious. Our whole practice is based on this idea of going against the illusory power of the image by revealing the material proportions of the object. So it is only logical that this notion of the “speculative,” as something that only exists as an illusion, doesn’t fit well with our way of working and thinking.
Maybe we simply don’t believe in the speculative, in general. In our view, something is either real or it isn’t. A sketch, a proposal, a plan, a scale model—we see these things as real, not speculative at all. Between the sketch and the finished drawing, we see no gradients of realness. A sketch is a real sketch in the same way that a finished drawing is a real finished drawing.
Which reminds us of proposition 5.61 of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:
The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. Logic pervades the world: The limits of the world are also its limits. So, we cannot say, in logic, ‘The world has this in it, and this, but not that.’ For that would appear to presuppose that we were excluding certain possibilities, and this cannot be the case, since it would require that logic should go beyond the limits of the world; for only in that way could it view those limits from the other side as well. We cannot think what we cannot think; so what we cannot think we cannot say, either. 1
In other words, for Wittgenstein, something either exists in the world or it doesn’t exist at all, and in the latter case we can’t even speak about it. Or, at least, that’s how we interpret his quote: as an argument against the speculative. “We cannot think what we cannot think”—so there’s no such thing as “pure” speculation. Speculation will always result in something real: a real thought, a real sketch, a real model. It will always stay within the borders of reality, of language, of the world.
But, apart from these more philosophical considerations, when it comes down to it, we simply don’t believe that this notion of the speculative automatically has some sort of subversive or redeeming dimension. True, in some circles, “the speculative” is used almost synonymously with “the critical’ (which happens to be another word we’re quite wary of). But, in our view, the speculative exists on the same level as the spectacular: this whole floating sphere of illusions, false images, inflated signs, projections. Which is exactly the sphere we’ve tried to oppose all throughout our practice.
Guy Debord’s critique of the spectacular was famously titled The Society of the Spectacle. Come to think of it, we now find ourselves in something very similar: the society of the speculative. Having said that, we know we shouldn’t be too judgmental about this whole notion of the speculative. Nowadays, it might indeed be speculative projects that can give designers some sort of breathing space in an economic and political environment that is becoming increasingly tight and hostile.
Jon Sueda: One could say that the work in this exhibition represents a parallel universe, designers who practice on the margins of the profession, making work which might only exist because they were proactive about initiating it. Does this parallel universe exist?
Experimental Jetset: It’s interesting. Reading your question, we suddenly remembered our own situation after graduation. We actually come from a zine background. When we were studying at the Rietveld Academy, we were publishing our own fanzines, posters, T-shirts, et cetera. And even before we went to art school, we were involved in creating mini-comics, mix tapes, and mail art. So you could say that we are products of exactly the sort of parallel universe you talk about.
Right after graduation, something happened that changed our way of thinking about this whole notion of the parallel universe. We came across an interview in Emigre in which a graphic design group said something to the extent of, “It’s great that we produce our own little zines, so that we don’t have to bother our ‘real’ clients with our creativity.” (Now, we are paraphrasing this from memory, so we might have completely misquoted it. But, as we remember, this was more or less the way it was said.)
This sentence was quite an eye-opener. A shock. We suddenly realized the danger of a certain kind of self-publishing—the kind that functions as some sort of external outlet for creativity, as a way to redirect creativity to where it can do the least “harm,” so to speak. And from the moment we came across that quote, we abruptly ceased our practice as self-publishers and decided to fully focus on assignments.
In other words, we tried to stay away from the model of the “schizophrenic” designer, the designer carrying two portfolios: a portfolio with “free” projects (“for fun”), and a portfolio with “corporate” projects (“for money”). To us, this model was, and still is, an absolute nightmare. We want to drive our creativity exactly to the place where it can do the most harm, so to speak. In all our projects, we absolutely “bother our clients with our creativity,” as often and as relentlessly as possible.
During those years after graduation, we were often thinking about a sort of Hitchcockian model. Hitchcock didn’t distinguish between films “for fun” and “for money.” Rather, he managed to inject his subversive creativity directly into the heart of the Hollywood movie industry, and exercise his authorship right there. This model has always been an example to us, especially at the beginning of our practice.
Sixteen years down the line, we have softened up a bit, and think about it in a less dogmatic way. We now realize that every designer has to find their own way to organize their practice, even if that means artificially compartmentalizing one’s practice into “self-initiated” and “client-driven” work. The current situation (economically, politically, et cetera) is so bad, we totally understand that some designers feel the need to create some sort of parallel universe, just to stay sane.
As for our own way to stay sane, we would describe our current position as follows:
It may sound absurd, but we really regard all our projects as self-initiated, whether they involve clients or not. The way we see it, the moment we consciously make a choice to involve ourselves in a project (for example, by saying yes to an assignment), we are, in fact, initiating it. That makes everything that we do self-initiated (or maybe “self-inflicted” is a better word).
We see none of our work as “free,” in the sense that we really don’t believe that there is such a thing as a project that’s completely free of restrictions, free of limitations, free of specifications. After all, there is always a given context to respond to, a series of parameters to work within, a set of circumstances to react to. This set of circumstances might include a client or not, but in the bigger picture, that’s not even important, in the sense that it doesn’t make the project less or more “free.”
So, while we see none of our projects as “free,” we do see our own role within these assignments as “free” in the sense that, even within the most limited circumstances, we always have a certain freedom of choice. We always have the freedom to quit an assignment (which is one of the most reassuring securities that one has as a designer). Sure, quitting an assignment automatically means a loss of income. But, ultimately, we do have that choice, however hard it might be.
In short: the assignment is never free, the designer is always free. (We know, it’s an almost existential position, to be condemned to freedom and all that jazz.)
Jon Sueda: Design can be a way to solve a problem, to visualize complex information. A critical tool to provoke debate, and promote aesthetic and social values. These responsibilities seem to be ever expanding. In your opinion, what should the primary role of a designer be today? And in the future?
Experimental Jetset: We find it hard to define what the role of the designer should be. We have always disliked this tradition of designers dictating to other designers how to work and how to think. In all our interviews, we have always tried to emphasize that our views are strictly personal. We never want to force our beliefs onto other designers. So we only can talk about what we see as our own role, today as well as in the future.
The role we try to fulfill—or, better said, the obligation we feel—is to design in such a way that the reader (or viewer, or spectator) is constantly aware of the fact that he or she is looking at something human-made: an object that is made by humans, and thus can also be changed by humans. We want to contribute to the constructed, material environment around us, but not without also creating some sort of awareness that this environment is just that: material and constructed.
At a very concrete level, in our day-to-day practice (if there is such a thing), this basically means that we want to break the spell of the image and continuously reveal the fact that a printed object is “just” ink on paper—nothing more, but certainly nothing less. The graphic identity we recently designed for the Whitney Museum of American Art is a good example of that. It basically consists of a zigzag line occupying the available space within any given format. The zigzag is effectively emphasizing the material proportions of the designed object. The zigzag breaks the spell of the image, emphasizing the thing-ness of the design. Or, at least, that was our intention.
In our view, this role, this obligation, will become more and more relevant in the coming years. As we enter a future that seems more and more detached from the notion of a material base (a good example of this detachment would be the phenomenon of the Cloud), we think it’s good that at least a couple of people will try to keep things grounded. Just a handful of village idiots (we are talking about ourselves here) who, instead of pointing to the sky, are pointing at the ground.
Jon Sueda: In many cases, speculative projects are self-initiated efforts (sometimes with little visibility), proposals within academic contexts, provocations, or sometimes unrealized enquiries. How do you define the “realization” of a design idea or concept?
Experimental Jetset: As we already argued in our answer to your first question: theoretically speaking, ideas, and concepts are already real, in and of themselves. A sketch is a real sketch, in the same way that a finished drawing is a real drawing. In theory, they both possess the same degree of realness.
On a more practical level, however, and in our day-to-day practice (whatever that may be), we would say that something is realized the moment it is multiplied—when it is printed, or published online, or made public in some way. In a short text we recently wrote (“Socialism as a Graphic Language,” which appeared in volume 1 of EP, published last year by Sternberg Press), we described the act of multiplication as “the movement from one to many, from solitude to multitude, and from the individual to the collective.” So, that sounds pretty real to us. Or, at least, real enough.
1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C K Ogden (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1922).
About the author:
Originally from Hawaii, Jon Sueda has practiced design everywhere from Honolulu to Holland. After earning his MFA in Graphic Design from CalArts in 2002, he was invited to North Carolina State University to serve as a designer in residence, followed by an internship in the Netherlands with Studio Dumbar. In 2004, Sueda co-founded the design studio Stripe, which specializes in printed material for art and culture. He is also the co-editor of Task Newsletter, and the co-organizer of AtRandom events. Sueda has lectured, taught workshops and has been visiting critic many universities. In 2007, Sueda relocated to the San Francisco area, where he is an Assistant Professor in the Graphic Design Program at California College of the Arts (CCA).