“We are interested in the ways in which Facebook and government, Facebook and employers, Facebook and friends, Facebook and enemies constitute a power arrangement, and the way in which this constellation might influence politics, currency, and the social contract.” So says Metahaven of Facestate, a Walker-commissioned project in the exhibition Graphic Design: Now in Production. An Amsterdam-based studio for design and research, Metahaven was founded by Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden to engage in projects intended to spark discussion and foster inquiry. Recent activities range from research around and product design for WikiLeaks to the identity design for Sealand, a self-proclaimed sovereign nation-state located on a platform seven miles off the British coast. In 2010, they released Uncorporate Identity, an anthology of work featuring the studio’s writings and visualizations of networks, politics, branding, and the overlap among all three. In an interview with Walker designer Andrea Hyde, the duo discusses how Facestate presents the tools, the vernacular, and the identity of a fictitious, but all-too-familiar social network.
For full documentation of the installation, visit the Walker Design blog.
What are the components of the Facestate installation and, if not immediately apparent, what do they represent?
The “face” in Facestate refers to Facebook. Facestate started from our interest in social media and statehood.
In our earlier project Stadtstaat (2009), exhibited at the Künstlerhaus Stuttgart and Casco Office for Art, Design and Theory in Utrecht, we examined the ideology of participatory government as a disguised form of totalitarianism. We anticipated that anti-terrorism in the future would become crowdsourced self-censorship—the most effective Department of Homeland Security being your very own social network.
In 2010, in the United Kingdom, the Conservatives won the elections with a pro-austerity campaign promise full of social media brandspeak. Its main message was “big society, not big government.” A Wikipedia idea of commissioned civic voluntarism supplanting the last remains of the welfare system, like “we’re no longer paying for this school or post office, but feel free to start your own.”
These policies have enticed not an improvement of society, but a further privatization of wealth under an increasingly repressive policing regime. We predicted some of these developments in a contribution to Icon magazine, “Rebranding Britain” (2010), and talked a little about it in a Design Observer interview with William Drenttel (2010).1 For Open, a Dutch-based art journal, we mapped out a possible future of money, starting from the hypothesis that Facebook credits would come to “save” the Euro, staging talks between Merkel, Sarkozy, and Zuckerberg (2011).2
Facebook aims at far-reaching transparency of the individual before the system. This it has in common with many modern governments. In our society, there often is a bland acceptance of the terms of service given by the social network, just as we take it for granted that the state routinely infringes on civil liberties and privacy, and that much of what is nominally supposed to be free and public space is in effect completely policed—see, for example, the recently released “Spy Files.”
Facestate is a research project about these and other parallels between social networks and the state. It is about politicians hailing the entrepreneurship of Mark Zuckerberg, about the neoliberal dream of minimal government interference, about the governance of social networks, about face recognition, about debt, about the future of money and currency in social networks, and about the dream of total participation. And it is about Facebook as a back door for government surveillance. Some recent headlines are: “FBI pressuring Google, Facebook to allow ‘back doors’ for wiretapping,” “Should Government Mandate Backdoors for Snooping on the Internet?” and “What Could the FBI Do With Facebook?”3A 3B
Facestate would be a state of the type that Peter Thiel, the Paypal founder and Facebook angel investor, dreams about: no welfare and no taxes. The theorist of this state-form is Robert Nozick, whose 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia is an enduring inspiration for this project. We reference his idea of an “ultraminimal state” in one of the pieces in the installation at the Walker.
Finally, the project is about the visual translation of all these ideas, and the meme of standardization that is preponderant in social media. Facebook now has so many users, that if it were to be a country, its number of inhabitants would only be second to India and China. There is an incredible, almost eerie power in Facebook’s brand as a kind of new neutrality, a new standard. It is almost a second coming of the Swiss or International Style—a possibility we recently referenced in an interview with Experimental Jetset.4 This has been one of its key differences from predecessor MySpace, which assumed that people wanted customized teenage poster bedrooms as profile pages.
It has been both an honor, and quite odd, to realize this installation as part of a graphic design exhibition. The Facestate project has just started, and at the Walker, where it is situated among finished, often commissioned pieces, it is more of a prototype, a sketch, than a finished product.
Facestate is a world where, for the government, you are your smartphone. All the components of the installation at the Walker are models of smartphones. Not all of them “represent” something. Plexiglass smartphones and a passport that becomes a password are some of the objects shown. Some of the devices are more abstract than others. One phone is a platform carrying tantalum powder, the rare element mined in the Congo and used in most smartphones. Some other phones are shaped as masks. A mask is a tool important for its capacity to hide identity or present a pseudonym. We are opposed to the idea that everyone should always participate in the Internet under his “real name,” as is Mark Zuckerberg’s mission.
The grid of circles on the floor of the exhibition looks like the “Anti Icons” noted in your book Uncorporate Identity. If this was an intentional choice, can you detail what an Anti Icon is and why you chose to use them as you have?
In Uncorporate Identity, we reported about the so-called “Eurion constellation,” a pattern of circles included in print currency so that it cannot be scanned or color copied; the detection of the pattern prevents the software from permitting this. However, the pattern on the floor in Facestate is referencing something else: the grid of No-Stop City, a 1969 proposal by the Italian radical architecture group Archizoom. This grid assumed the equal and horizontal distribution of services. It is considered one of the most far-reaching architectural and urban proposals ever made, along with Superstudio’s Continuous Monument.
One of the trickier parts of No-Stop City is that it has two ideologies at once. It is radically communist and egalitarian, and at the same time, radically consumerist; consumption and production exist in the same space simultaneously, and there is no sign of “factories.” Archizoom’s grid today would be the omnipresent “cloud.” The original name for cloud computing was “grid computing.” With the cloud, we suspect that Archizoom’s No-Stop City has come closer to realization, but not in the way it was originally intended.
What are the main ideas and goals of Facestate? Who or what influenced your thinking?
We’re not sure whether the project has goals other than presenting an idea that will make people, hopefully, think for themselves about where this idea of large-scale online social networks under centralized control might be heading.
Facestate is also the title of a new book we have in preparation, the second and last one in a series of two. The first, Black Transparency, is scheduled for publication by Actar in spring 2012. All this to say that for us, this installment is part of a bigger research and that graphic design, given time and some resources, is a means to stage these more long-term inquiries.
We are interested in the ways in which Facebook and government, Facebook and employers, Facebook and friends, Facebook and enemies constitute a power arrangement, and the way in which this constellation might influence politics, currency and the social contract. There is sometimes a naive supposition that Facebook and other social media already constitute a form of democracy, because everyone can participate and take action, and there is apparently no leader. Facestate is a framework for all these same things—but it is itself not democratic.
Do you believe these ideas are best communicated within a gallery context? If not, do you plan to present Facestate elsewhere or in another form?
For this installation, we were keen to develop prototypes of digital devices and smartphones that have become such important tools in our daily lives. We’ve always been interested in the potential for the prototype or model in graphic design. Like many of our projects and themes, Facestate will be played out over different formats both printed or in digital form or in writing. The installation at the Walker can be seen as a first installment of this research. We are planning a visual scenario where the phones are photographed with people using them. That will be the next step.
How does the visual vocabulary you use relate to the concepts you present? Apart from the objects in the installation, how do the flat surfaces advance your ideas?
The interfaces of the devices show messages that refer to Facestate’s currency, control, and coordination possibilities of users. The mask, the face, is important. We wanted to suggest many forms of debt, including centrally administered “social debt.” “Invisible walls” materialize once a rule is violated in the cloud or on the grid. This allows for the system to be formally without boundaries or rules; it is only when the rules are transgressed that they become clear. All this takes place on the flat surface.
How does the language used in Facestate contribute to the project? Can you talk about the distinct phrases, commands, and warnings, as well as the use of “f” alliterations: “f friends, f family, f followers, f finance?”
The informality already pervasive in many of the cloud service system’s messages is echoed through Facestate’s standard greeting, “Hey.” So, the language for the project is derived from the interface language of social media applications, with a governmental air to them. In the Netherlands, the government has spent decades branding itself as friendly and anti-authoritarian. Postmodern graphic design brought the Netherlands an “ironic” government. With the not-so-recent Dutch turn to right-wing populism, this soft state is no longer the defining paradigm, but you could say it continues in its embrace of social media. The embrace of biometrics by both the state and online social networks is referenced by Facestate’s (fictional) URL, www.gov.face.
Here are two “poems” that appear on the screens on a few of the objects:
just another day in the techno-economic superstructure.
just another day in the ruin of infinite possibilities.
free agent nation.
the social market.
all in this together.
the great conversation.
We see this kind of language as a sort of textual Viagra of the neoliberal system. The term “techno-economic superstructure” is borrowed from Ulrich Beck’s book Risk Society.
Facestate is in the center of the branding section of our exhibition. Do you feel that the presence of other projects in the room affects the reading of your piece? Do you feel a formal or conceptual kinship with the cultural identity work, the corporate logo wall, both, or neither?
We look at branding as a form of standardization; we have written about this extensively, for example, in the essay “Brand States,” which appeared in Uncorporate Identity but originally was published at e-flux journal.5 Branding is making things more similar, not more different; it is compliance to a standard to gain certain benefits. In that respect, there is quite a contrast between the cultural and museum brands the exhibition presents, such as SMBA (Mevis & Van Deursen/Jonathan Puckey), Marres (Maureen Mooren), and the old Boijmans identity (Mevis & Van Deursen), and the brands selected by Armin Vit for the logo wall. The Google logo is the best fit with Facestate, predictably. We don’t feel as if Facestate is central to the branding section just because it is in the middle of the room.
From my understanding, neither Metahaven nor its members participates in Facebook. Coincidence, or by design?