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Post-Identity Design: Brands, Politics, and Technological Instability

Federico Pérez Villoro is a New York–based artist and designer interested in the influence of networked technologies on human behavior, economics, and politics. He is currently teaching at Rhode Island School of Design and doing work on the relationship between language and identity. Christopher Hamamoto is a designer. He is an assistant professor at California […]

Federico Pérez Villoro is a New York–based artist and designer interested in the influence of networked technologies on human behavior, economics, and politics. He is currently teaching at Rhode Island School of Design and doing work on the relationship between language and identity.

Christopher Hamamoto is a designer. He is an assistant professor at California College of the Arts, is working on design tools at Figma, and maintains an independent graphic design practice. He is interested in how automation and algorithms effect social relationships and aesthetics.

The pair wrote the following essay as research for “Debranding and Post-Identity Design,” an MFA studio course they designed and taught together at California College of the Arts in Fall 2016.

In September 2015 Google redesigned its visual identity. As part of the new system Google’s engineers created an automatic process that could generate thousands of different vector-based iterations of the logo. This action was taken to satisfy potential viewing scenarios based on, for instance, screen size, or the background against which the logo is displayed. Within these variations they made a tiny version that only comprises 305 bytes of data. The older logo was formally more complex and its smallest version was approximately 14,000 bytes; this relatively larger file size prompted the adoption of a text-based variation as a workaround for weak Internet connections, a compromise that allowed room for inconsistencies if the proper fonts weren’t available on the user’s end.1



The former Google logo rendered in an incorrect serif typeface due to a hypothetical low-bandwidth connection as illustrated in the new identity announcement.


The relative simplicity of the new logo, then, was about more than just the formal, aesthetic qualities of the mark. A major part of it was about the desire for pixel-perfect efficiency and cross-platform accessibility—the need to accommodate the thousands of possible scenarios triggered by computers accessing the logo. As users embrace diverse communication devices, visual consistency has become very difficult for brands to maintain. Google’s new 305-byte logo instigated discussions online and motivated skeptical compression specialists and aficionados to research different ways to generate the graphic while maintaining its extremely small size. The process of re-creating the logo outlined on blogs—explaining its elemental geometry, with its few circles and lines—is an interesting narrative. One wonders how small another logo with more anchor points could get. And how this logic of design for mass dissemination driven by data constraints could transfer to other brands, and to our broader contemporary visual culture.

In the new identity announcement, Google articulated the need to have such a small logo for “broader distribution,” explaining that “consistency has a tremendous impact when you consider our goal of making Google more accessible and useful to users around the world, including the next billion.”2 By “the next billion” they meant Southeast Asia, where Google recently established an engineering team to help improve online connectivity in the region. Internet access is certainly beneficial, but we cannot forget that Google is a business that grows as the Internet expands. Furthermore, we need to analyze these actions beyond the corporate sphere and within a political perspective, since developments in technology are blurring distinctions between private and public entities and driving complex shifts in notions of agency and power.

This essay is an effort to investigate the changing landscape where visual identity operates. It explores an alternative perspective, within and beyond graphic design, to the capital-oriented purposes of branding and the absolutist logic of design itself. Not only does identity design remain bound to old ideologies that have become obsolete in our technologically evolving world, but it also reinforces the economic hegemonies that have led to the political instabilities we see today. Information platforms are altering traditional forms of governance, as state and non-state powers embrace surveillance, digital propaganda, and globally distributed data networks as their own brand strategies. Yet there is room for optimism that these technologies might also enable pluralistic information systems and decentralized forms of power.



Mark Zuckerberg gives Pope Francis a model of a solar-powered drone that Facebook hopes will enhance the Internet in developing countries.


The principles of much twentieth-century modern art and design involved the development of a universal visual language. Through notions such as simplification, abstraction, consistency, and differentiation, artists and designers aimed to communicate through form-making regardless of the connection between signs and their contexts. After World War II, many artistic movements aimed to develop a sort of graphic grammar charged with inherent meaning. Looking for clarity and objectivity in visuals, these approaches sought to contribute to postwar order and to improve international relationships. The transition to a neoliberal society, however, brought new complexity to industries, and accelerated technology in remarkable ways. With the rise of the Internet and desktop computing, design tools became ubiquitous, opening up the study of the contextual and relational dimensions of the discipline. As Andrew Blauvelt writes, design today “explores its effects on users, its pragmatic and programmatic constraints, its rhetorical impact, and its ability to facilitate social interactions.”3



Ruin of Buckminster Fuller’s Union Tank Car Dome.


Within the last decade, identity design shifted focus from enclosed systems to systems that react to external parameters. Dynamic identities have become not only a stylistic expectation, but also a technical necessity. Yet while much contemporary design does include performative, programmatic, and participatory elements, current forms of social organization—whether institutions, corporations, or nations—are more interdependent, unpredictable, and indeterminate than ever. And contemporary visual systems are proving incapable of communicating such levels of intricacy, persisting in their unrealistic usage of restricted sets of visual forms. We tend to think about new approaches in design as expansions of the field, but we could also understand them as recalibrations following a loss of control over the continuum from form, to content, to context.

We mainly engage with services and products through third-party vocabularies, in tweets and hyperlinks. Uber is Lyft and a Toyota Prius; MoMA’s mark is textable; McDonald’s is filled with Pokemon. Corporations are nesting within one another. Platforms like Apple News or AMP aggregate information from diverse sources yet distill their graphics to present feeds within their own template logics. This presents a whole new set of relationships toward information and among companies, as platforms subsume and dictate other brands’ signifiers. Furthermore, technology companies become parasitical—able to embed themselves within other entities’ visual systems. Using the New York Times website as an example, Facebook and Twitter are featured more prominently and with more repetition than the New York Times itself.



Tips requested at an Uber and Lyft car in the Bay Area.


Technology is increasingly dictating how we interact with companies. Yet current platforms of communication are highly unstable environments, and designs easily become obsolete as platforms mutate or disappear. Contemporary visual culture is subject to unpredictable variables, ranging from screen resolution to color calibration, browser settings, software updates, file formats, programming languages, distortions caused by malware, and malfunctions and misuses in computing. The haze manifests itself in (and is determined by) the peculiar and the global, from the struggle of customizing an email signature or the typesetting limitations of iOS, to cultural idiosyncrasies and technological accessibility across entire countries.

In “The Weak Universalism” (2010), Boris Groys questions whether it is possible to make artistic atemporal work in the context of rapid technological progress. He explains that the historical avant-garde operated by producing “weak images” with low visibility in order to transcend time and space. As opposed to rich images, which are filled with empirical meaning, weak images represent the knowledge that the world is in a permanently transitory state. Groys argues that the status quo of our time is change, and that since the goal of art is to counter the status quo, art should escape change.4 Yet the act of challenging the status quo as an artistic action has itself become predictable. Therefore, paradoxically, to challenge the status quo could also be not to do so: not to escape change, but to embrace it.

The reductive nature of branding is in part rooted in the limitations of older reproduction technologies. Yet current communication platforms are becoming more flexible. Screens and interfaces are multidimensional as layers, windows, and storing features that allow users to travel data sets over time. Identity design systems can incorporate such plasticity and manifest multiple formal, conceptual, and contextual expressions simultaneously. Design has the potential to reflect the complexity of the world, instead of filtering it through distillation strategies. While doing so designers can embrace weakness, not necessarily as reductive formal gestures but by using signs whose meaning is in constant flux. Images can be visually simple or complex, but weak in the cultural and historical associations they carry. Rather than atemporality, weakness within design can aim for immediacy and impermanence.



McDonald’s blue arches in Sedona, Arizona.


Identity design principles were founded on the notion of a universal language, but within a neoliberal framework, inequality becomes normative. If the goal of modern design was to communicate across boundaries, corporate design is by nature exclusionary. Brands now are the visual articulation of intellectual property as a form of currency. Given the networked conditions of economies of scale, the origins of products have blurred, and copies have multiplied. As objects and services increase in similarity, the more valuable it is to be perceived as unique. Thus the need for companies to develop and manage identifiers that distinguish them from competitors. The value of commodities lies not on their tangible dimension and potential to satisfy actual needs, but in the signifiers that make them desirable to consumers.

Branding is one of the most profitable service in visual communication. For many small design practices it is a crucial form of solvency. With entrepreneurism increasingly tending toward immaterial labor and attention economies, design becomes key in strengthening figurative value. Visual identities are rarely accurate images of entities, but rather manipulations of how these entities want to be perceived by their presumed markets. Identity design is not a practice of representation, but of speculation—it is not about visualizing manifested identities but about codifying subjective predictions, and aspirations, in graphic form.



Apple Store replica in Shenzhen, China.


Design is a powerful tool for analysis, but the perceived identity of an organization doesn’t emerge from mood boards, brainstorming sessions, or type explorations. The meaning of logos and cultural signs comes a posteriori—after actual exposure to the world. It is only through interaction that people develop affection toward organizations. And new graphics will only hold meaning in relation to other, existing ones. Paradoxically, in the desire to be unique, the only strategy to express identity seems to be by association: by deliberately differentiating the organization from those it wants to be different from and imitating those it wants to be like.

The value of brands is such that many companies keep tight control over their trademarks, copyrights, and patents even as they outsource production and distribution. However, the speed of the networked ecosystem of manufacturing seems to be outpacing traditional patenting processes. Take for instance hoverboards, where a dispute over the product’s intellectual property allowed small companies around the world to quickly work with white-label manufacturers in China to import and sell almost-identical products under their own names. The off-brand vehicle embodies the dissolution of identity design. Opposite to the genericized trademark effect of products such as Aspirin or Kleenex, the “hoverboard” descriptive name-in-use emerges from memetic patterns rather than strategic pursuits. As consumers disconnect from particular brands, a video of Justin Bieber riding a knockoff hoverboard goes viral.



Justin Bieber riding a hoverboard at the Power 106 Studios in Burbank, California.


The premature nature of design that we have been describing imposes limited reads over multiple possible brand manifestations and forgets the evolution of organizations and their contexts. We need to think about identity in terms of flexibility and avoid preconditioning entities to fixed visual attributes. Identity design requires approaches that go beyond the logic of corporate legitimization, and that are able to recognize and cast nuanced experiences in relation to the organization they represent. In doing so, designers can more actively address their involvement within capitalism and, if interested in claiming spaces for change, engage in reshaping such relationships.

Design can operate from a position of uncertainty, and projects can act as indeterminate propositions rather than affirmative statements. Uncertainty can be used to generate critical work, and an ongoing sense of doubt that constantly questions the project’s outcomes. Embracing uncertainty might be not only an ethical decision, but a necessary one. As we continue to incorporate technologies into our knowledge production systems, new forms of cognition are being introduced to our conceptual landscape. Complex algorithms and pattern recognition are challenging our capacity for abstraction. We need to reevaluate our capacity for knowing, understanding, representing, and communicating.

Traditionally, branding metaphors have related to human qualities, a common practice being to identify the core personality traits, values, and overall “voice” of a company. In the recent past, this tendency has become simultaneously validated and challenged prominently in three scenarios: the capitalization of individuals’ identities by business and advertising, the dehumanization of economic models through the adoption of computer systems, and political actions that grant corporations human rights.

The free flow of capital in the second half of the twentieth century reshaped conceptions of personal identity. We saw a shift away from long-standing cultural identifiers, which emphasized family, community, and nationalism, toward transactional ones, which privilege social, cultural, and monetary capital. The dynamics of the modern economy permeate our day-to-day lives. As global goods and services become private, people are rendered as market actors. And it can be argued that people measure one another with economic principles in mind—evaluating the potential value of relationships based on forms of capital. Wealth is not determined by productive and tangible assets, but by hypothetical financial value. In this scenario, individuals are literally “worth” money based on speculative qualities. All our activities, even those seemingly unrelated to profit seeking, are seen as investments and opportunities to catalyze social capital. Picture taking has become PR. Exercise routines have become SoulCycle. As Wendy Brown writes: “Whether through social media ‘followers,’ ‘likes,’ and ‘retweets,’ or through rankings and ratings for every activity and domain, or through more directly monetized practices, the pursuit of education, training, leisure, reproduction, consumption, and more are increasingly configured as strategic decisions and practices related to enhancing the self’s future value.”5



The South Korean app Snow, allegedly a replica of Snapchat, has a camera filter that makes users look like Steve Jobs.


In the financial sector, the adoption of computer-driven trading systems created new modes of economic exchange. Computer trading that uses algorithmic processes for stock exchanges and other commodities has now surpassed the human capacity for such actions. Internet connectivity and the rapidity at which data transfers can be completed has become the competitive edge in finance. Our planet’s topography has been reconfigured in order to lay fiber optic cable along the most efficient routes. An example of this is the 580-mile trench dug between Chicago and New York to speed up stock trading across the country. And while large swaths of land get appropriated for data hubs, the ocean and the sky become the next frontiers for cloud storage. These infrastructures are constructed in ways that are isolating to humans but beneficial to machines, for instance eschewing windows to reduce server cooling costs, or reducing the height of floors to fit the maximum number of servers within a building. As humans become economized and the economy dehumanized, branding practices insist on applying human traits to commercial actors that are fundamentally nonhuman… while it may not be seen by many humans, Google color-codes its data centers hardware with their brand colors.

Our capacity to articulate social norms cannot keep up with the speed of advancement within computing. In our contemporary era, policy making is more damage control than planned progress. Within American politics, the passage of the controversial Citizens United bill in 2008 confirmed the legal status of corporations as people, granting them certain rights that had previously been regarded as the exclusive province of human beings. Most significant was the establishment of spending as a form of speech. This has resulted in a stilted political landscape where super PACs can raise unlimited amounts of money on a campaign’s behalf, extending and deepening the influence of money in politics. And Citizens United is just one instance in a several-decades-long trend involving impactful expressions of corporate power within citizenship. President Bill Clinton’s “welfare to work” initiatives (ending welfare as an entitlement) and the increasing reliance on free-market agents that followed has entrenched financial systems as powerful actors in worldwide politics. This has caused a backlash against government workers and pensions, and resulted in the deregulation of social systems in favor of free-market solutions. An emboldened financial sector and accelerated technological reliance culminated in the 2008 financial collapse—the result of unfettered confidence in trading algorithms and little government oversight—after which the federal government “bailed out” the banking system by paying off its debts. The computer-economic machine has become too big to fail.



Stanford University and Virginia Tech autonomous vehicles together at an intersection in the DARPA Urban Challenge—a prize funded by the United States Department of Defense.


As the tactics of branding are widely embraced for corporations, and increasingly individuals as well, even countries have begun to define their identities in marketable terms. Nation branding has become a fertile field for design and advertising agencies around the world. It is common to see symposiums on the topic, and industry experts such as FutureBrand rank the “world’s leading country brands.” The manipulation of reality through persuasion has become a celebrated state practice. For instance, South Korea’s brand was developed by the Presidential Council on Nation Branding Korea, a governmental authority established by an executive order by Park Geun-hye, the now-impeached president. A study developed in 2012 by the council and Samsung ranked the country above the OECD average.6 The report backed its findings with parameters that included numbers of clicks and likes online: it went as far as mentioning Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video as being the world’s most watched on YouTube. Such a simplistic representation of South Korea’s complex social systems raises questions of credibility and enforces cultural stereotypes. In some ways it is not far from North Korea’s poorly Photoshopped propaganda images that circulate online.

Building credibility as a country involves not only soft-power strategies, but also developing strong relationships with other nations and corporations. Networks equal power. As Metahaven asserts: “Networks become social structures that tie parts of the world together, independent of sovereign borders and even independent of ‘international relations.’ While indeed, sovereign coercion may have become a thing of the past in this new situation, there may be structural coercion involved through the standards which networks adopt.”7

The rise of cloud computing demonstrates the complexity of power dynamics within a networked society. The formulation of a metaphoric space that is accessible worldwide as a distributed network of devices has reshaped our geopolitical landscape. As the Internet extends lawful jurisdiction through computer servers and data centers, the power of nation-states has transcended areas defined by physical territory to areas defined by the potential reach of a nation’s messages. Distributed online networks surpass geographic boundaries and local regulations, increasing the influence of postcolonial powers. In this context, technology companies are assuming new political roles as they dictate social and diplomatic norms within such infrastructures. The complexity of these overlapping forms of power has led theorists such as Benjamin Bratton to suggest a reformulation of our understanding of political geography itself—one where computational technologies are forming a sovereign “megastructure” that finds itself superimposed onto territorial state governance.8 These frictions present political spaces within the order of data and mathematics—algorithmic topologies. “A new collective geography opens for colonization,” writes Matteo Pasquinelli.9

This condition has raised the involvement of non-state actors in resolving questions of statehood and public policy. As capital becomes political power, corporate interests “facilitate the increasing power of large corporations to fashion law and policy for their own ends, not simply crowding out, but overtly demoting the public interest.”10 While this may take the form of lobbying for tax breaks or the allocation of public resources for private use, there are other, indirect effects and complex quandaries. Two recent paradigmatic examples would certainly include the Costa Rica–Nicaragua San Juan River border dispute, which arose due to maps displayed on Google Earth, and the 2016 terror attack in San Bernardino and ensuing legal fight between the US government and Apple to unlock the shooter’s phone in order to access his personal data. With these examples in mind, it is evident that we are experiencing shifts in power away from nation-states and toward private interests.



A Pokemon Go “Gym” was claimed inside the Pentagon a couple of days after the game was released in the United States.


As we become citizens of Facebook, Google, and Apple, corporate actors become politicians. Political leadership is being reframed as business leadership. Thailand’s former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, was fond of calling himself “CEO of Thailand Inc.” and made billions selling his shares of Shin Corp, his family media company, while in office. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi—one of the wealthiest businessmen in the country—has served four times as prime minister and consistently appears in Forbes’s list of the World’s Most Powerful People. During his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s press conferences blurred the line between informational and infomercial as they prominently featured Trump Steaks and his other consumer products. Now that he is in office the conflation between private and public in the White House is at a new high. Consider for instance Melania Trump’s $150 million lawsuit against the Daily Mail for tainting her brand and tarnishing her “once-in-a-lifetime” business opportunities as First Lady, or Ivanka Trump’s feud with Nordstrom, which prompted Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, to break the Office of Government Ethics law and endorse Ivanka’s products in an interview on Fox News. Perhaps as a sign of things to come, Mark Zuckerberg is currently on a tour of the United States followed by a camera crew and “status” updates that meditate on the nature of America.

Part and parcel of the shift toward private corporate actors operating in the public sphere is the adoption of branding techniques by politicians. Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign’s design and outreach strategy was voted Marketer of the Year by Advertising Age magazine. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign hired Michael Beirut at Pentagram to design its brand identity: a dynamic “H” that aimed to be visually adaptable but failed to connect with voters. Popular responses to political branding are just like those to commercial rebrandings; for instance Donald Trump and Mike Pence’s logo was walked back after a negative online reaction. Political parties have made media manipulation a top priority; White House policy is now being disseminated through Twitter posts rather than press briefings, Steve Bannon of Breitbart News Network is Donald Trump’s chief strategist and sits on the National Security Council, and Trump has labeled the mainstream media his top opponent and purveyors of “fake news.” These marketing tactics take on new meaning as misinformation becomes propaganda, influenced by technological platforms that, through bot armies and curation algorithms, present skewed visions of news and history.



The Pirate Bay adopted a new logo, which incorporates its various domain extensions, after the seizure of their .se url.


As postcolonial powers embrace networks of surveillance and global jurisdiction based on server locations, distributed organizations arise in protest. From liberal activists to radical extremists, anti-establishment groups expand their reach and express their nuanced sense of identity through the same network structures. Anonymous is predicated on anonymity. The Occupy Movement was explicitly nonhierarchical. ISIS defines itself as borderless. Low visibility allows these entities to act with agility. Though they are branded operations, their identities are collectively built. It is the network in operation that defines them, instead of a pre-formulated visual system constraining the operation. The Swedish anti-copyright organization Pirate Bay has a logo embedded within a logo within another logo. When the Swedish government seized their .se domain, they relaunched a series of new domains and updated their image to include a Hydra, which in Greek mythology stands for immortality and exponential growth: for each head you cut, it grows two more. The identity system formulates itself as it comes to action. In part this is possible due to their use of generic, non-original identifiers as supposed to custom-tailored signs. During the Euromaidan demonstrations in the Ukraine, protesters adopted matching clothing and improvised helmets not only for physical protection but as identifiers of the revolution. More recently during the women’s marches after Trump’s inauguration the Pussy Power Hat demonstrated the powerful effects of what Michael Rock calls “open-source branding.”



Ukrainian Revolution helmets


While these groups derive their structures and strategies from the network structure, their relationships with specific technologies further complicate matters. For a time ISIS fighters used Doseai, a Turkish file transfer service, to transmit encrypted messages because of its perceived freedom from Western government regulations (it turned out that Doseai was actually a French company). More recently, as Dropbox has incorporated end-to-end encryption, it has been adopted by the group. The promise of anonymity with cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and browsers like the heavily encrypted Tor led to new online marketplaces such as Silk Road. While meant to be a platform for non-destructive commercial exchanges that are outside of the law, Silk Road was shuttered when its founder was apprehended for contracting murders on his staff and vendors via that platform. These examples highlight how companies that promise anonymity and end-to-end encryption often sit in precarious positions as both defenders of free speech and enablers of destructive acts, calling into question the utopian ideal of technology as unbiased.

The current capitalist hegemony is leading toward increased precarity and geopolitical chaos. If design can contribute to the construction of a different reality, it must first question its own mechanisms that sustain the neoliberal agenda, legitimize traditional brands’ power, and enable the flow of misinformation. Design can be calibrated toward a systematic redistribution of power and wealth, while remaining at ease with globality and technology. As suggested by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, the gains of late capitalism are not to be fully dismissed but repurposed beyond their capital constraints, value systems, and power logics.11



The Nike swoosh with a Shutterstock watermark preventing from copyright infringement.


Design can mobilize its forces toward a reduction in subjective creativity and private authorship and favor the development of systems toward cultural commons. In the future, identity systems might no longer consist of fixed design components, but of the programmatic interpretation of interrelated, ever-changing experiences. In this process we suggest considering “complexity” as a condition of status, “uncertainty” as an ethical stance, “weakness” as a degree of load and impact, “impermanence” as a time-based factor, and “automation” as a generative process.

We need to design software and interfaces that can process information and visualize difference in nonlinear ways, and networked spaces where points of view are permanently being exchanged—where meaning is built through interaction and direct experience rather than by the construction of figurative value and speculative attributes. This could lead to degrees of stylistic standardization but also to the enhancement of collectively controlled technologies able to modulate and extrapolate diverse perspectives. Communication platforms are the power infrastructures of today: they both dictate the behaviors of society and enable spaces for change. As Bratton suggests, platforms “centralize (like states), scaffolding the terms of participation according to rigid but universal protocols, even as they decentralize (like markets), coordinating economies not through the superimposition of fixed plans but through interoperable and emergent interaction.”12




2 Ibid.
3 Andrew Blauvelt, “Towards Relational Design,” Design Observer, November 3, 2008,
4 Boris Groys, “The Weak Universalism,” e-flux, no. 15 (April 2010):
5 Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 38.
6 OECD stands for Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
7 Metahaven, “Brand States: Postmodern Power, Democratic Pluralism, and Design,” e-flux, no. 1 (December 2008):
8 Benjamin H. Bratton, “The Black Stack,” e-flux, no. 53 (March 2014):
9 Matteo Pasquinelli, “The Spike: On the Growth and Form of Pattern Police,” in Nervous Systems, ed. Stephanie Hankey, Marek Tuszynski and Anselm Franke (Berlin: HKW/Spector books, 2016), 250.
10 Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos, 42–43.
11 Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World without Work (New York: Verso, 2015).
12 Benjamin H. Bratton, “The Black Stack.”

2016: The Year According to Zach Blas

Zach Blas, Face Cage 1 (2015) Zach Blas is an artist and writer whose practice engages technologies of control and security with queer politics. In his recent works, he responds to biometric governmentality and network hegemony. Facial Weaponization Suite (2011–2014) consists of “collective masks” that cannot be detected as human faces by biometric facial recognition software, […]

Zach Blas, Face Cage 1 (2015)

Zach Blas is an artist and writer whose practice engages technologies of control and security with queer politics. In his recent works, he responds to biometric governmentality and network hegemony. Facial Weaponization Suite (2011–2014) consists of “collective masks” that cannot be detected as human faces by biometric facial recognition software, while Contra-Internet (2014-present) explores subversions of and alternatives to the internet. A lecturer in Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, Blas has exhibited and lectured internationally, recently at Jeu de Paume, Paris; Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; e-flux, New York; Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane; Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City; and transmediale, Berlin. Blas is also producing two books, Escaping the Face, an artist monograph (Sternberg Press and Rhizome, 2017), and Informatic Opacity: The Art of Defacement in Biometric Times (in preparation). His work has been featured in Artforum, Frieze, Art Papers, Mousse Magazine, Wired, and Art Review, in which Hito Steyerl selected him as a 2014 FutureGreat.

Here, he shares his perspective on the year that was, as part of our annual series, 2016: The Year According to                               .

2016 may well be the most violent, painful, and destructive year since my birth. That said, I see this list as not so much of a “top 10” but rather a gathering of events, occurrences, writing, and artworks that I find necessary to engage with—both to better understand and struggle against contemporary forms of control and to celebrate and fight for other possible futures that are more livable for all of us here on earth.


Bomb denotation robot used to kill Micah Xavier Johnson


On July 7, 2016, Johnson, a black man and Army Reserve Afghan War veteran, shot dead five police officers in Dallas. This took place amidst a protest over the police killings of black men Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, during which Johnson stated he wanted to kill white police officers. In an unprecedented act, which is only one of numerous instances that horrifyingly exposes racial violence against black people in the US, the Dallas Police Department utilized a bomb detonation robot to blow up Johnson, who was in a nearby parking structure. Never before had a bomb detonation robot been used by police officers in the US to execute a person. Johnson’s killing indexes the further transformation of US policing into war, as military equipment is integrated into law enforcement.


Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist

Atkinson’s documentary film on the militarization of the police in the United States is unsettling, to say the least. After attending a screening at the Frontline Club in London this October, I realized my body was aching all over because I had been so tense throughout the duration of the film. The documentary begins in Ferguson in the wake of the murder of Michael Brown, and depicts police officers turning into “warrior cops,” aggressively suppressing African-American protesters with an arsenal of military gear. The film also exposes police training seminars that emphasize the use of “righteous violence.” What especially struck me is when Atkinson focuses on predictive policing, which are algorithms supposedly able to predict—and thus prevent—crime. This, of course, leads to older modes of profiling—racial included—sedimenting in new software. In my current studio practice, I am developing a new body of artworks that confronts the informatic nature of policing today, and this will materialize as a series of immersive installations, titled The Prison-House.




“Post-truth” is the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year and defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Today, post-truth is popularly used to describe political strategies implemented during the EU referendum in the UK and the US presidential campaign. Consider the outright lie fabricated by the Vote Leave campaign on bus ads, pictured above, that contributed to Brexit; Donald Trump plainly stating that Barak Obama is “the founder of ISIS”; or the proliferation of fake news, provoking incidents like Pizzagate, which involved a man shooting an assault rifle in a pizzeria because of its supposed connection to a child trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton. If truth is slipping away from politics, perhaps artistic practice should make use of this by telling a better lie, in order to reroute us back to democracy—or better, queer utopia.


Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene


Every autumn, I teach an undergraduate class at Goldsmiths on “Feminist and Queer Technoscience.” One of the foundational texts we read is Donna Haraway’s 1988 essay “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” which argues for a feminist objectivity in science. I have read this article more than 20 times, and yet each time I sit down with it, I find it thrilling—I get chills. Needless to say, for me, a new book by Haraway is a major event. Staying with the Trouble had a delayed release in the UK, and I was going all over London looking for a copy. I finally picked it up during a trip back to New York. The book tackles climate change with science fiction, myth, and art, all bound together by what Haraway terms “string figuring.” A striking (and rather queer) claim: “One of the most urgent tasks that we mortal critters have is making kin, not babies… It’s making present the powers of mortal critters on earth in resistance to the anthropocene and capitalocene.”


Frankfurt Airport Security Area video

In November, I gave a talk at the Digital Disorders conference at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. On my way back to London, déjà vu stopped me in my tracks at the Terminal B security area in the Frankfurt airport. Among airport workers and agents, security belts with luggage, and a variety of scanning devices, numerous monitors were broadcasting a single video on repeat, dramatizing a young, white German woman and man’s airport security experience. As their bodies—including genitals—are rubbed and prodded, the woman and man smile and flirt with one another, as if their gazes transform the administrative touch of the security agent into a sexual caress. Upon successfully completing their security screenings, they find one another in Duty Free and have a romantic meal together—all before their flights! I had seen this video years before, when passing through Frankfurt in 2013. I find it as menacing as ever, as it normalizes security through heteronormative romance. The video promises that you too may be lucky enough to have such an encounter if you comply with regulations. The entire Frankfurt airport security area, with its many screens and security apparatuses, began to resemble an art installation to me, like some Nam June Paik piece gone terribly wrong. What appeared most pernicious was the placement of monitors playing this security romance video directly above Pro Vision 2 body scanners, as these are the 3D imaging full body scanners that, because of the reductive ways they encourage staff to assess gender, have caused transgender persons to be detained on terrorist suspicions over “gonadal anomalies.” Bizarrely, this security video is on Vimeo, and now that I have access to it, I am developing an installation around it.


The Black Outdoors: Fred Moten & Saidiya Hartman

This year, I found myself intensely searching for material on political imaginaries, utopias, and alternatives. I spent much time thinking about ideas of “the outside,” which is a concept that comes up in a variety of theoretical writings, but I’m quite taken by the versions in queer and feminist thought, such as when J. K. Gibson-Graham argue that there is an outside to capitalism or when José Esteban Muñoz writes about queerness as an escape from the hegemonic present. That said, I was moved by this conversation between Saidiya Hartman and Fred Moten, as they experiment with thinking and imagining their versions of the outside, through “the black outdoors.” Hartman articulates the stakes of this project well: “The enclosure is so brutal.”


Future Queer Perfect at Station Independent Projects

Yevgeniy Fiks

Yevgeniy Fiks, Toward a Portfolio of Woodcuts (Harry Hay) 3, 2013

An exhibition on queerness, utopia, and communism!? All I can say is yes to that! Curated by Olga Kopenkina and Yevgeniy Fiks, the artworks presented utilize queerness as a modality for considering leftist rebellion and utopias of the past. The School of Theory and Activism in Bishkek created an incredible archival project on the Kollontai Commune, a queer communist group from the Kyrgyz Republic. Yevgeniy Fiks’s Toward a Portfolio of Woodcuts (Harry Hay) consists of text-based carvings that explore communism and homosexuality in the life of Harry Hay, a noted gay rights activist and communist. I am quite fond of the woodcut shown here, but another beautifully states: “Sometimes an agitprop circumstance could overlap with a pick-up ‘Join the union! Join the union! The truth shall make you free!’ And with the employment of a not-universally-noted eye-look, I could connect without speaking ‘Join me in another kind of union! This way lies another freedom!’”


The Empire Remains Shop

Photo: Tim Bowditch

I wish I could have attended the majority of the events that took place at this art installation-meets-pop-up shop on Baker Street in London. The Empire Remains Shop looks to the remains—or leftovers—of the British Empire with food, geographies, and exchange, through a vast public program of performances, meals, and discussions. Initiated by London-based duo Cooking Sections, the shop immerses you in questions, feelings, pasts, and futures of the postcolonial. Some highlights: a screening and discussion with The Otolith Group, a “midnight masala” performance by Shahmen Suku (Radha La Bia), and consultation sessions on how to devalue real estate provided by Cooking Sections.



Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Vapour 


In April, Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul screened his new feature Cemetery of Splendor at the Tate Modern, along with a silent, black-and-white short titled Vapour. For 20 minutes, thick fog engulfs a village. It is haunting, foreboding, and spectacular to watch. Before the screening, then Tate Modern director Chris Dercon explained that this village, named Toongha, has been the site of violent struggles for land, between residents and the state (and is also where Weerasethakul currently lives). The fog is enigmatic: is it a creeping horror, the fog of war, a safety blanket, or simply the opacity of the world?


Facebook Live stream of battle for Mosul


On October 18, various news outlets, such as Al-Jazeera and Channel 4, used Facebook Live to stream a military operation led by Iraqi and Kurdish forces to retake the city of Mosul from ISIS. This appears to mark the first time warfare has been broadcast live by major news channels over Facebook. The result: more than a million viewers tune in to watch a cascade of emojis glide over images of war—a bombing and a thumbs up. This is undoubtedly what James Der Derian calls the military-industrial-media-entertainment network—a network that looms ever larger today. As images of war and crisis ceaselessly circulate, their inundation into our lives keeps forcing a question: how to engage with them?

2016: The Year According to Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung

Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung caught our attention at the 2016 Creative Time Summit in Washington, DC, where he presented on SHIT WARS, his interactive (and oft-NSFW) web-app project that mashes up pop-cultural imagery—from Breaking Bad, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and others—with political figures and internet memes. The aim, he writes, is to “document how both [the] left wing and right wing uses populism to their advantages […]


Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung. Photo: Alex Tu

Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung caught our attention at the 2016 Creative Time Summit in Washington, DC, where he presented on SHIT WARS, his interactive (and oft-NSFW) web-app project that mashes up pop-cultural imagery—from Breaking Bad, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and others—with political figures and internet memes. The aim, he writes, is to “document how both [the] left wing and right wing uses populism to their advantages in 2016 presidential election, and to expose Donald Trump as the most dangerous demagogue.”

Born in Hong Kong and based in New York, his work has been exhibited around the world at venues including the New Museum; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; the Berkeley Art Museum; Sundance Film Festival; and ZKM Karlsruhe, Germany, among many others. In addition to his work as an artist, Hung also freelances as an art director for clients including Facebook and Adult Swim. He co-founded a startup,, and co-owns a boutique wine store in Brooklyn called The Winey Neighbor with his wife, Young.

Here, as part of 2016: The Year According to                                , our annual series of artist-generated top-1o lists, he shares his perspective on the most noteworthy moments, experiences, events, and ideas from the year that was.



Creative Time Summit

Held in Washington, DC this year, the Creative Time Summit is the leading international conference exploring the intersection of the arts and social change. It expanded my mind tremendously and made me think about how little I’ve done compared to many other activists, artists, and creative thinkers out there. I strongly recommend that anyone who cares about our world attend the next Creative Time Summit. It will move you, it will motivate you, it will make you roll up your sleeves and work to make our world better! Let’s “occupy the future” together!



I was ecstatic when I heard that the Army Corps of Engineers denied Energy Transfer Partnership’s easement to cross Lake Oahe with the Dakota Access Pipeline. To the Water Protectors and every person who took a stand with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, I salute you! The fight is not over: #StandwithStandingRock!


DIY Fake News

Remember last year’s Face2Face technology about “real-time face capture and reenactment”? Now, you can pair that with Adobe’s new VoCo (voice-conversion technology)—a way to to create “Photoshop voice-overs”—to make your own 100-percent fake news. I hope artists will use these technologies to create artworks that reflect our time and create social changes.


Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop


One of my highlights of the year is meeting with the poets Faloon Branham, Carlos Tyler, and co-founder Tara Libert from the Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop!

“Free Minds uses books and creative writing to empower young inmates to transform their lives. By mentoring and connecting them to supportive services throughout their entire incarceration into reentry, Free Minds inspires these youths to see their potential and achieve new educational and career goals. Free Minds serves 16 and 17 year old youths who have been charged and incarcerated as adults at the DC Jail. Free Minds serves more than 500 youths each year across three successive phases: DC Jail Book Club, Federal Prison Book Club, and Reentry Book Club.”

It is amazing what they’re doing to help incarcerated youth. Please go to their website to read some of their powerful poems and give them support!



Pedro Reyes’ Doomocracy

Jenny Tibbels and Sammy Tunis, Gun Party, Photo: Will Star/Shooting Stars Pro

Gun Party, part of Pedro Reyes’s Doomocracy. Photo: Will Star/Shooting Stars Pro, via Creative Time

A brilliant idea with excellent execution! Pedro Reyes’s political haunted house at the Brooklyn Army Terminal was my favorite art installation of 2016. It touches everything I deeply cared about—corruption and government, environmental justice, Wall Street and the financial industry, gun control, women’s rights and abortion, the fast-food industry, institutional racism and marginalization, art and money, xenophobia, terrorism, drone warfare, climate change, and Big Pharma. Now that Donald Trump has been elected, I really feel that Doomocracy is what we are living in now.



Yang Youngliang 杨泳梁

Yang Youngliang, From the New World , 2014 (giclee print)

Yang Youngliang, From the New World, 2014 (giclee print)

I discovered Yang Youngliang‘s work earlier this year. He created these absolutely beautiful and intricate videos and photographs based on Chinese Shui-Mo (水墨) landscape brush painting that question urbanization and it’s impact on the environment.


The National Museum of African American History and Culture

Opening ceremony of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, 24 September 2016, Photo: Joel Mason-Gaines

Opening ceremony of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, 24 September 2016. Photo: Joel Mason-Gaines

2016 was perceived as at the start of a new civil rights movement. Under the backdrop of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and politicians shifting our country towards xenophobia due to fear of terrorism and immigration, the opening of NMAAHC could not have been better timed. Two hundred years of African American history are not only an American story, but everybody’s story. Slavery and racial oppression shaped the world we live in today. Please visit.


The Centennial of Dada’s Birth

Marcel Duchamp, a key Dada artist. Photo: Eric Sutherland, Walker Art Center

Marcel Duchamp, a key Dada artist. Photo: Eric Sutherland, Walker Art Center

Dada is the only art movement that really influenced me because it is subversive, revolutionary, and it challenges the conformity of culture and questions the status quo. Dada, according to the poet Hugo Ball, is to “get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, Europeanised, enervated.” Dada emerged amid the brutality of World War I and the nationalism that had led to the war. Sound familiar? We need more “anti-art” now.


For Freedoms

Dread Scott, A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday, 2015, ©Dread Scott. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

Dread Scott, A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday, 2015, ©Dread Scott. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

For Freedoms is an artist-run super PAC founded by Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman that empowers artists to create art that comments on timely political matters. Great examples are A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday by Dread Scott and the Make American Great Again billboard at Pearl, Mississippi. I believe the arts can impact social change and they are doing it within the system.


Donald Fucking Trump


Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung, Ep. VIII: Jizz Trumpredator vs Thug Life from #ShitWars- The Shit Awakens

I really don’t want to put Donald Fucking Trump here, but I have to. It’s like I am trying really hard to hold my projectile vomit. I spent a huge chunk of my time this year making the #ShitWars—the Shit Awakens project, and on November 8, as my friend said: “Your art project turned into reality overnight.” I can tell you, on the day Donald Trump got elected, the color of my vomit was red, white, and blue.

2016: The Year According to Asli Altay

A graphic designer and creative director living in Istanbul, Asli Altay is the founder of Future Anecdotes Istanbul, a design collective that pursues the role of design as editorial input and integral collaboration. The studio has been working closely with artists, architects, curators, publishers and cultural institutions, in search of design as a structural link between […]


A graphic designer and creative director living in Istanbul, Asli Altay is the founder of Future Anecdotes Istanbul, a design collective that pursues the role of design as editorial input and integral collaboration. The studio has been working closely with artists, architects, curators, publishers and cultural institutions, in search of design as a structural link between content and context. She also founded and ran Apendiks, a temporary bookshop, from her studio, which provided in-depth showcases for independent publishers.

Here as part of 2016: The Year According to                             , our annual series of artist-generated top-1o lists, she shares her perspective on the most noteworthy moments, experiences, events, and ideas from the year that was.


Kirklareli Muze


Kirklareli, a small city at the Northwest corner of Turkey, is where my father is from. We went there for a weekend this year and found out that there is only one museum in town. And it is called MUZE, the museum. It is “the museum”— biology, archaeology, and ethnography all rolled into one in a small two story house of roughly 120 square meters. Stuffed animals in panoramic displays, folkloric mise-en-scenes, and relics from antiquity sit side by side, packed into the Noah’s Ark or the time capsule that museums are believed to be. At the entrance, there is a framed sign that reads: “What is a Museum?”—an overarching question that we’ve been dealing with, perhaps the most, throughout this year.

“What is a Museum for?”


This question has been keeping us busy since we started collaborating with the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, initially for an exhibition titled Who Owns The Street?, following up with a reorganization of their collection display. It has been a process of unlearning, reimagining, Skyping, dining, strolling, and testing out the very idea of the museum.


The Menu, Chios


An unexpected encounter: a restaurant in Chios, by the sea. Good food, bad wine, but then again we should have gone for ouzo. Twelve individual menus written and illustrated by the 9-year-old niece of the owner of the place. Amazing piece of design work.


Emoji Silent Film Tournament


Held in numerous WhatsApp groups with various friends, this was the game of the year. A primer in hieroglyphics.


Back courtyards of Kurtulus


We finally made the move to a new neighborhood in Istanbul, we now have real neighbors. Every time I go out to the balcony, it’s the same bliss. The courtyard is her yard. It starts with one woman coming out to put up her freshly washed linen, then another woman from a different balcony starts chatting her up. The rest is a tilt effect inter-balcony conversation, that goes on for hours. My soundtrack for the rest of the day.

Island-themed books


Bibliotheraphy of the year has manifested itself in semi-conscious choice of island themed books. Two highlights: Foe by J.M. Coetzee, woven around the existing story of Robinson Crusoe, but this time the story is told by a woman. Second highlight: Satin Island Tom McCarthy. We never come close to knowing the truth.


Friends leaving Istanbul

The post-truth has its toll on our daily life. Everybody is in search of islands, one way or another.


Palindrome of the year


are we not drawn onward to new era?



We’ve worked on this sporadic publication years ago as one of our first collaborations with Can, imagining that it will continue for years to come. Creating its own ways, its temporary communities and audiences, issues continue to multiply and accumulate. Following a quiet period after an anthology was published, this year was a good year for Ahali. Installed in new forms and with new selections in Bolzano (ar/ge kunst), London (tenderpixel), and the Glasgow School of Art, Ahali keeps on.




We’ve spent the half of our summer in Stockholm thanks to the invitation by the Iaspis residency program. The physical studio space ended up extending the rooms of my mental space. Pleasures of working, everyday life, and getting ready for the change. Celebrating possibilities, adaptation, and celebrating hanging out… 2016 was a milestone.

2016: The Year According to James Bridle

James Bridle‘s writings and art often explore the intersections of technology, politics, culture, and citizenship. Launched the day before his 2015 keynote at the Walker’s Superscript conference, for instance, his Citizen X creates a visualization of web users’ “algorithmic citizenship,” all the geographic locations one’s internet data passes through. And his 2014 Artist Op-Ed examined a movement in his native […]
jamesbridle_speaking James Bridle‘s writings and art often explore the intersections of technology, politics, culture, and citizenship. Launched the day before his 2015 keynote at the Walker’s Superscript conference, for instance, his Citizen X creates a visualization of web users’ “algorithmic citizenship,” all the geographic locations one’s internet data passes through. And his 2014 Artist Op-Ed examined a movement in his native UK to “deprive” terror suspects of their citizenship. Fittingly, his contribution to the series 2016: The Year According to                              touches on these core themes, but from a new geography—his new home in Athens, Greece.


Refugee Crisis and the Flag for No Nations

On the 17th of January I planted a flag on the shoreline in Athens made from a foil emergency blanket. It’s not a particularly new or unique artistic gesture, but for me it connected a number of thoughts about technology and politics which set the tone for the next 12 months, with an emphasis on DIY and critical thinking. The refugee crisis has been very hard on Greece, and it’s not over yet; in fact, this is merely the initial phase of a far larger and far more devastating global crisis. But I’ve been privileged to see the myriad ways individuals and groups respond, from those braving the sea crossing to the Greek islands to those working to help them in camps and squats on the mainland. The future is hard, and it starts here.


Xylouris White


I saw Xylouris White—Cretan singer and laouto player George Xylouris and Dirty Three drummer Jim White—play the opening of the Niarchos Foundation in June. Everybody danced. Their album Black Peak, released a month later, has been on heavy rotation ever since.


Jo Cox

Nigel Farage, the tinpot leader of the UK Independence Party, declared on the morning following the Brexit referendum that his side had emerged victorious “without a single bullet being fired.” Eight days previously, Member of Parliament Jo Cox had been killed in the street by a fascist yelling “Britain First.” UKIP’s own election material was filled with racist and xenophobic material. Personally, as a UK citizen living in the EU, I have no idea what the future holds, but I benefit from an immense amount of other privileges. What is more concerning is the abdication of hope, the refusal to believe that we can do better than this. I say now what I said then: Fuck hatred, fuck violence, fuck borders, fuck Brexit.


The Santa Cruz School


In October of 2015 I saw Karen Barad speak at the Through Post-Atomic Eyes symposium in Toronto: a rare and genuinely life-changing experience. Since then, trying to catch up, the work of Barad and companion writers have become central to my thinking and doing: Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble and the particular success of Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World (both published this year) point to the growing awareness of this work, and along with Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter and Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark have been personal touchstones for 2016.  


Lightbulb DDOS

Just ahead of the Ethereum heist, the Brexit flash crash, and the first automated driving fatality, the massive attack on the internet performed by household objects—fridges, lightbulbs, cameras, and thermostats—gets this year’s award for WTF Futures. The Internet of Angry Things is here, and your toaster hates democracy.  



Photo: Angelos Giotopoulos

Photo: Angelos Giotopoulos

Watching my friend Zachos Varfis’s project Latraac evolve over the last year has been wonderful. A skate bowl and social space in a once-vacant lot in the Kerameikos neighbourhood in Athens, Latraac is visionary and beautiful.



Turbulence is on the rise. Just another marker of a world on fire but one that strikes a particularly dark, anthropocentric chord: low-atmosphere Kessler syndrome, the metaphors becoming real, and vice versa. Global warming is not a threat in the future: it’s happening now and everything is entangled.  


Journals and Newsletters


In response to the above, the Dark Mountain Journal has been particularly helpful, as has Rob Meyer’s Not Doomed Yet. Journals and newsletters are resurgent/emergent forms full of necessary and nourishing goodness: many thanks to Dan Hon, Warren Ellis, Charlie Loyd, and Salvage for their regular appearance in my inbox.  


Suzanne Treister

Suzanne Treister, HFT The Gardener video still, High Frequency Trading Floor, 2014-15

Suzanne Treister, HFT The Gardener video still, High Frequency Trading Floor, 2014–2015

I was lucky enough to see far too many exhibitions to pick from this year, with some wonderful recognition for some of my favorite artists, including the Jarman Award for Heather Phillipson and the Turner Prize for Helen Marten. Alongside Sophia al-Maria’s installation at the Whitney, and Cecile B. Evans and Hito Steyerl’s work at the Berlin Biennale, I’d like to highlight Suzanne Treister’s HFT The Gardener, which I saw at Annely Juda in the summer. Gematria, algorithms, and psychotropics FTW.




I moved to Athens in September 2015—this has been my first full year in Greece. One of the highlights of the summer was the Syros Film Festival, and the highlight of that was a drive-in screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey on a village football pitch. About half-way through the film, the bright point of the International Space Station passed in an arc over the screen, the sky already filled with bright Aegean stars. When the film finished, all the cars tooted their horns to The Blue Danube, and I fell asleep, brimful with raki, on a beach.

2016: The Year According to Paul Soulellis

Photo: Antoine Lefebre, Artzines Paul Soulellis is a graphic designer, artist, publisher and teacher. He works in New York City and Providence, RI. Soulellis is the founder of Library of the Printed Web, a physical archive devoted to web-to-print artists’ books, zines and other printout matter. He curates, designs, and publishes print-on-demand publications that have featured […]

Artzines / Antoine Lefebvre

Photo: Antoine Lefebre, Artzines

Paul Soulellis is a graphic designer, artist, publisher and teacher. He works in New York City and Providence, RI. Soulellis is the founder of Library of the Printed Web, a physical archive devoted to web-to-print artists’ books, zines and other printout matter. He curates, designs, and publishes print-on-demand publications that have featured the work of over 180 contemporary artists. Soulellis is a faculty member at Rhode Island School of Design and a contributing editor at Rhizome, where he curates The Download.

Here, Soulellis shares his perspective as 2016 closes, as part of our annual series 2016: The Year According to                               .



Dennis Cooper, Zac’s Freight Elevator

Dennis Cooper’s novels really worked on me in the early ’90s. I lost track of him until this year, when I discovered that his latest work doesn’t contain written language at all. Now he tells stories with stacks of GIFs that he finds online, packaged into ZIP files. They feel like long scrolls or Tumblr posts; he develops them on his well-tended blog, which was famously deleted by Google this past summer. (All of the work was eventually returned.) These browser-based GIF novels and poems have characters and plot lines, but no words. And they feel every bit as violent and transgressive as his literary works. I recently wrote about Zac’s Freight Elevator, his latest novel. This deep dive into the possibilities of the found GIF helped me to understand how distributing open-source(-ish) downloadable ZIP files on the network can be an act of preservation, a form of protection, and a good way to publish art.



Lorna Mills, Ways of Something, Episode 4, minute 7, Dave Greber

For Lorna Mills the GIF is a kind of cinema, and her work is a fantastic explosion of GIF-making energy. But she also has this remarkable way of bringing people together around her practice. She recently curated more than 113 artists to remake the four-hour-long television-broadcast version of John Berger’s 1972 Ways of Seeing. Each artist chose a one-minute clip and provided their own one-minute work in response. Lorna assembled them into a rewriting of the original series. It’s a tremendous, generous work that’s larger than its parts, and it’s featured in the Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905–2016 exhibition at the Whitney right now. I watched Lorna’s communal parade of digital makers and then laid down on the floor in Ben Coonley’s Trading Futures, a 3D experience in a cardboard geodesic dome that shares the same gallery space at the Whitney.  




I seem to be into collaborative works this year. It probably has something to do with a renewed sense of urgency around collective belonging, which feels especially threatened right now. Since this summer I’ve been in awe of Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke’s epic collaborative work, The 3D Additivist Cookbook, which was three years in the making. The 360-page publication, inspired by William Powell’s Anarchist Cookbook, features 120 artists. It’s a manifesto-in-action for #Additivism, their movement to radicalize, queerify, politicize, and otherwise critically provoke 3D printing, additive technologies, and maker culture. I’m totally fascinated that they released this work as a 3D PDF—a file with dozens of embedded objects that can be viewed and manipulated in Adobe Reader (and printed at home). An archive of source files was also released as a 6GB torrent, making this a stunning example of network-based experimental publishing. I was honored to be a part of the launch at Printed Matter on December 2.



Christopher Clary, My Porn, Volume 1 [pic Paul Soulellis]

Christopher Clary, My Porn Volume 1, Photo: Paul Soulellis

Christopher Clary in Printed Web 4 [2016]

Christopher Clary in Printed Web 4, 2016

Attending the launch of the Cookbook with me was Christopher Clary, an artist who works with gay porn. In his practice he tries to provoke by finding it, collecting it, re-making and restaging it, and eventually destroying it. Shame and disappointment always seem to lurk just below the surface of Christopher’s practice. I was introduced to him years ago, but we only met in person last year, when I curated him as the first in the Rhizome Download series. Since then, I’ve seen him transform that commission (Sorry to dump on you like into an all-encompassing, obsessive body of work that keeps him and his audience very busy. Every Sunday at 5 pm he restages a single JPG from his collection, performs it on CAM4, and auctions the props on eBay (FKNJPGS). His work around image, body, appropriation, identity and queer performance is significant and I can’t wait to see what he does with these 52 performances in 2017.


Printed Matter’s NY Art Book Fair / zine tent [pic Paul Soulellis]

Zine tent at Printed Matter’s NY Art Book Fair. Photo: Paul Soulellis

Christopher and I both exhibited at Printed Matter’s NY Art Book Fair in September. I can’t overstate the importance of the art book fair as a model for growing creative communities. Given the looming threat to arts funding, supporting (and enjoying) the fairs feels more relevant than ever. Printed Matter popularized the form in New York and LA, but artists, collectors, fans, and independent publishers like myself are now addicted to new fairs that are being held all over the calendar, all over the planet. This year I was able to attend Miss Read in Berlin for the first time, and this month brings me and RISD to the Odds and Ends Yale Art Book Fair for the third year in a row. But it’s Internet Yami-Ichi (“a flea market for browsing in real life”), started in Tokyo by the Japanese duo Exonemo, that totally transforms this indie spirit into something else. Not really a book fair or a flea market but somehow drawing on the energy of both of those models, this is a place to celebrate network culture and weirdness in physical space.


NYC / November 12, 2016 [pic Paul Soulellis]

NYC, November 12, 2016. Photo: Paul Soulellis

Gran Fury, _Silence = Death_, yearTBD

Gran Fury, Silence = Death, 1987

Gathering at the front door of Trump Tower the night after the election, in a spontaneous act of protest, I was sad, confused, and disoriented. By that weekend, marching up Fifth Avenue, the massive public display of energy had transformed into solidarity and action. I showed up without a sign and realized that carrying messages and symbols of resistance in this political crisis will be crucial. Whether we march in physical space or broadcast and amplify online, how do we send clear messages that cut through the noise? This is an essential question for today’s graphic design students. As a teacher, I recently looked back to the work of Gran Fury during the Reagan-era AIDS crisis for inspiration, and traced the history of the pink triangle. Graphic design that feels urgent, necessary, critical, even dark. Do we need a symbol now? What’s our message of resistance in the current crisis? I don’t have answers, but I’m looking.



[pic Paul Soulellis]

Photo: Paul Soulellis

In the middle of the march that first weekend after the election, somewhere around Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, I ran into my friend Sal Randolph. Sal is an artist and she recently started a new listening/publishing space called Dispersed Holdings, with David Richardson. They now host screenings, happenings, and reading events, enjoyed on grey felt cushions with red stitching, fashioned by David. The space, on the third floor of a very old building on the Bowery, used to be Eva Hesse’s apartment. Sal and David refer to Eva casually, like she’s still in residence, and keep her diaries and a photo on the mantle. These are two remarkable people who are devoted to nurturing creative space for community gatherings—friends, fans, and strangers communing in experience and experimentation. Their events are public, but intimate, occupying some sweet spot between a salon, a dinner party, and an open reading.



Bulletin [pic Paul Soulellis]

Bulletin. Photo: Paul Soulellis

We need small, independent artists’ spaces now more than ever. They’re safe places for experimentation, where time slows down—real resistance to the commercial art world. Alternatives to the corporate paradigm. Philip Tomaru of Arts and Sciences Projects and Metropolitan Structures is soon to start a new one: Bulletin (located within Bullet, an artists’ space in the East Village). I dropped in to preview the tiny space, which contained an ad hoc display of zines by artist friends on a white shelf. A window looks directly out onto East 3rd Street, and I get the sense that this will be a kind of inside-outside laboratory, with just enough space to install and celebrate. A minimal move that yields something communal and powerful. This spirit of risk-taking and making public feels more and more valuable; urgent, even. Especially now.

2016: The Year According to OK-RM

OK-RM. Photo: Lena C. Emery OK-RM is an independent studio founded in London in 2008 by Oliver Knight and Rory McGrath. Known for its distinctive perspective on design and art direction within contemporary art, culture, and commerce, OK-RM fuses a dedicated content-driven approach with a grounding in conceptual thinking. Recent commissions include the exhibition design and campaign […]

OK-RM. Photo: Lena C. Emery

OK-RM. Photo: Lena C. Emery

OK-RM is an independent studio founded in London in 2008 by Oliver Knight and Rory McGrath. Known for its distinctive perspective on design and art direction within contemporary art, culture, and commerce, OK-RM fuses a dedicated content-driven approach with a grounding in conceptual thinking. Recent commissions include the exhibition design and campaign for Fear and Love (Design Museum), visual identities for Manus × Machina (The Met), the British Pavilion in Venice, and Under the Same Sun (Guggenheim New York) as well as book projects with artists Fos and Shezad Dawood. In early 2015, OK-RM founded InOtherWords, a publishing imprint creating books and other printed matter in close collaboration with artists, writers, galleries, and other cultural protaganists.

Here, Knight and McGrath share their perspectives as 2016 closes, as part of our annual series 2016: The Year According to                              .


A reflection on what it means to live today


Real Review, Issue 2, Autumn 2016. Photo: Max Creasy

September 2016 saw the launch of Real Review as it set out to celebrate the review format, an under-appreciated and underused critical writing format that has the ability to encompass an entire epoch. It’s dedicated to all reading levels: those who have no knowledge of architecture, and those who have been practicing for decades. It’s aim: removing barriers for the casual reader to enter into the world of architecture, without making it a dull or generic read for actual architects.

Too many magazines are taking on the qualities of books. They become these beautiful objects, technically well-executed but often empty of content. People own them, but they don’t read them. The Real Review is an exercise in minimums and constraints. It is engineered to be the most efficient and resourceful design. Making a printed publication is expensive and complicated, so every square millimeter counts. In this sense, we treat the page like real estate. It’s also a reflection on contemporary ephemerality. All magazines should be something that reflect their own time. They should be disposable, with only a precise moment of being useful, and then they are lost. This is why we say the Real Review is pursuing “what it means to live today”—it’s beautiful, but not precious.

A place for production, research, conservation, presentation, and mediation of art


Approaching Sitterwerk

Our close friend Roland Früh is the librarian of Sitterwerk. Nestled in a Swiss valley not far from Zürich in Sittertal, it’s one those perfect examples of a nonprofit multi-purpose center for arts.

An exhibition that points toward the importance/changing role of design in our time


Fear and Love at the Design Museum, 2016. Photo: Max Creasy

Fear and Love is an ambitious opening exhibition that “steps beyond the traditional certainties of design in which form follows functions and problems are solved.” It questions the role of design within a complex world and sets out to challenge its audience’s perception of what design is. From our perspective this is a refreshing and exciting stance for the Design Museum to be taking.

An art collector, museum director, curator and book specialist that we should have know about before


Pontus Hultén. Photographer unknown

Pontus Hultén was director of the Moderna Museet for 15 years (1958–1973). Hultén defined the museum as an elastic and open space, hosting a plethora of activities within its walls: lectures, films series, concerts, and debates. Outside of museum walls Hultén disseminated the ideas, processes and works of artists through a set of catalogues that offer insight into the potential of close collaboration and the form of the book.

A compulsive volume of books


Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness is one of the most beautifully obsessive, material-aware books we have ever had the pleasure to flick through. It is a hybrid artist’s book come exhibition catalogue available in three colors (yellow, red, and green), each featuring remarkably subtle differences in layout. Apart from the consciously minimal words “Printed in Germany” on the back page, the book is pure image and space, paced to perfection.

An exhibition curated through time in the home


Home Economics, British Pavilion, Venice Architecture Biennale 2016

Curator of Architecture section of the Venice Biennale 2016, Alejandro Aravena called on each country to define its own “frontline of architecture,” and by doing so tried to question the entire definition of architecture. At the British pavilion, a team of young curators—Jack Self, Finn Williams, and Shumi Bose—looked at the societal failure to provide sufficient housing in Britain today, making the statement that this is “not just a housing crisis; it is a crisis of the home.” Home Economics was founded as an exhibition that proposed five new models for domestic life. Curated by time of domestic occupancy the models are presented as full-scale 1:1 interiors in the British Pavilion, displaying architectural proposals as a direct spatial experience.

An exploration into the borders between virtual and material reality/fact and fiction 


Shezad Dawood, Kalimpong (Ekai Kawaguchi) and Kalimpong (Alexandra David-Néel), 2016. Copyright Shezad Dawood, courtesy Timothy Taylor

Shezad Dawood works across film, painting, and sculpture to juxtapose discrete systems of image, language, site, and multiple narratives. He is a keen collaborator and enjoys bringing a team close to investigate the lines of enquiry. We worked with Shezad for the second time on Kalimpong, where we dived with him into a world lost in time where the past echoes the present—where historical fact meets the fictional or speculative.

An artwork that gives back


Federico Herrero, Pelican Estate, video still, 2016

Federico Herrero’s site-specific work in a playground at Pelican Estate, Peckham, was one of the highlights of Under the Same Sun, presented by South London Gallery and the Guggenheim New York. The artist expressed his intention to create a work that was part of an experience within the locality, rather than being a decoration on top of it. This work plays closely to one of South London’s Gallery core aims to bring art closer to its community.

A stimulating read by one the most eminent social theorists


Zygmunt Bauman. Photographer unknown

In his book Liquid Modernity, Zygmunt Bauman examines “how we have moved away from a ‘heavy’ and ‘solid’, hardware-focused modernity to a ‘light’ and ‘liquid,’ software-based modernity.” A 91-year-old socialist who has lived through many political, cultural, and social eras and seen more changes than most, his passion and clarity on today’s complex matters humbles us.

A Healthy View


View from OK-RM studio, 2016

After eight years of OK-RM we have moved studios, not far—just round the corner—but now with 180-degree of views of the London skylineFrom the east we can enjoy a cacophony of concrete, brick, and glass, from Denys Lasdun’s “Keeling House” to Norman Foster’s “Gherkin.” We recently learnt from a “NetDoctor” that studies have shown that a view can boost self-esteem and those who can look out of a window have greater job satisfaction than those who cannot. With this knowledge we look forward to what 2017 brings…

2016: The Year According to Mary Ping

Mary Ping. Photo: Joyce Ravid Mary Ping is a New York–based designer. In 2001, she launched her eponymous collection, following it the next year with her conceptual line, Slow and Steady Wins the Race. Her work is included in the permanent collections of the Museum at FIT, the RISD Museum, DESTE Foundation, and the Victoria and Albert […]


Mary Ping. Photo: Joyce Ravid

Mary Ping is a New York–based designer. In 2001, she launched her eponymous collection, following it the next year with her conceptual line, Slow and Steady Wins the Race. Her work is included in the permanent collections of the Museum at FIT, the RISD Museum, DESTE Foundation, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. She is a member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Here, she shares her perspective on 2016 in this year’s edition of 2016: The Year According to                               .

2016 was a year that was bookmarked by the passing of cultural heroes and the dawn of an unknown that has been a reality in the making. Too much to distill, so these ten moments were chosen more about their inherent sense of longevity. We are moving faster than we can keep up in many ways, so paying attention and adhering to a long path is crucial. Memory is a responsibility.

Taryn Simon, The Paperwork and the Will of Capital 

Decision of general principle to ban third-party ownership of players’ economic rights. Zurich, Switzerland, September 26, 2014 Photo: © Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Taryn Simon, Decision of general principle to ban third-party ownership of players’ economic rights. Zurich, Switzerland, September 26, 2014. Photo: © Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

The last show of Taryn Simon‘s I saw was Contraband at Lever House, a photographic series of more than 1,000 items seized at JFK airport and exhaustively documented over five days. It continues to sit with me. Her show at Gagosian at the start of this year had a similar investigative approach. We forget the charged potency that mundane objects sitting in plain sight can carry with them and yet hide so well. From the press release: “Paperwork and the Will of Capital addresses the instability of executive decision-making and the precarious nature of survival”—a foreshadowing of how 2016 ended and the new world order of 2017.

Maira Kalman in Conversation with Rolf Fehlbaum


I’ve been a fan of Maira Kalman since discovering the work of her husband, Tibor Kalman. Oh duh! I thought, a genius with a genius muse at his side. Hearing her speak only made me hope that one day I would get to hang out with her.

Marni, the Final Collection


I’m a huge believer that when women design for women; there is a lot more interesting subtext happening within each thing that goes on the body. Conseulo Castilgioni, the founder of Marni, announced that her Spring 2017 collection was to be her last and that she’d be stepping down to spend more time with her family. Take a few minutes, put the collection on slideshow, and watch in sequence and in its entirety—it’s better than most films.

MoMA : Items A to Z

Working with Paola Antonelli, Michelle Fisher, and the other members of the MoMA Architecture and Design department has been a true highlight of the year, and I am excited that it will continue into the next. The email exchanges alone make my hungry brain feel full while simultaneously forcing me to step up to the plate. The full day’s symposium addressing topics from A to Z in the anthropology of fashion is available to view. I had the challenging task of reminding people about the Rana Plaza factory tragedy with my co-presenter, Carmen Artigas. I hope these world conflicts further cement the need for responsibility in the supply chain.

PYE Pajamas


Photo: Rory Van Millingen

PYE is a brand based in Hong Kong that truly does go from seed to shirt. They are in charge of planting the cotton, ginning it, weaving it and so forth. Aside from meticulous shirting for men, they also make the best pajamas.

Stranger Things


The Duffer Brothers created the best memory album of the’80s this summer with Stranger Things. It is a shared nostalgia of my generation’s childhood passed onto those who were too young to experience it first-hand. It is also very important to point out at that these are kids spending time together using their imagination, going on adventures, and not looking down at a mini screen in their hands, ignoring each other. I must have watched all the episodes seven times each.

Cass McCombs’s Mangy Love


Cass McCombs’s music has an incredible and inexplicable way of making you listen to all the new work on repeat while also conjuring up all his previous albums at the same time. All of a sudden “Windfall” from Dropping the Writ begins to emerge again from the back of your brain, or “Everything Has to Be Just So” from Big Wheels and Others is waiting to be called up next. The music is timely and timeless, yet untethered to any era or anything. I’m only repeating what has been written many times before, which is that he really is one of the great songwriters of this generation and now that role is more important than ever.

In Valentano, Italy


Many heartfelt thanks goes to the curators and president at Fondation Galeries Lafayette. Without the commission of the Slow and Steady Wins the Race installation for their exhibition in October, I would not have met the Made-in-Town organization in Paris that introduced me to the mind-blowingly amazing enterprise and artisans at Monteneri, an atelier project situated in the 13th-century lakeside town of Valentano. Working side by side with expert leather craftsman who were combining both traditional knowledge from the region and forward thinking practices of lean and green manufacturing made me even more confident in a better future for the endless production cycles created by our own consumption.

Mark Van Yetter at Bridget Donahue


Mark is one of those friends who is just your friend. A pal. A bud. Multiple story lines exist where and how you became friends back in the day. He is also one of those people who will surprise you with the fact that he actually paints and then go on to completely sandbag you with how excellent those paintings are. Mark is both face value and a mystery. Spend some quality time with these paintings and it will be more clear.

Don’t Blink by Robert Frank

Finally, if I had to place some films in a time capsule, this documentary—along with In No Great Hurry, about the life of Saul Leiter—would be immediate choices. Writing about this film won’t illuminate anything, you simply have to watch it. Robert Frank, a Swiss immigrant, responsible for some of the most historically emblematic moments of America.

All Printing Is Political: Fredy Perlman and the Detroit Printing Co-op

Above: Fredy Perlman, The Incoherence of the Intellectual, C. Wright Mills’ Struggle to Unite Knowledge and Action, Black & Red Press, Detroit, 1970 With resurgent interest in things such as letterpressed invitations, silkscreened gig posters, and Risograph publishing—relatively benign tokens of print’s post-Internet afterlife—the exhibition Fredy Perlman and the Detroit Printing Co-op at 9338 Campau Gallery in Hamtramck, Michigan, comes […]


Above: Fredy Perlman, The Incoherence of the Intellectual, C. Wright Mills’ Struggle to Unite Knowledge and Action, Black & Red Press, Detroit, 1970

With resurgent interest in things such as letterpressed invitations, silkscreened gig posters, and Risograph publishing—relatively benign tokens of print’s post-Internet afterlife—the exhibition Fredy Perlman and the Detroit Printing Co-op at 9338 Campau Gallery in Hamtramck, Michigan, comes as a timely reminder that all printing was (and is) political. The connections between politics and printing shouldn’t surprise us since its fundamental rightness is enshrined in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution as a founding trope of American democracy.

It wasn’t always the case. The colonial governor of Virginia, Sir William Berkeley, in 1671 decreed: “I thank God there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these [for a] hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both!” He pretty much got his wish. Because, as several social commentators have pointed out and certain publishing magnates have aptly demonstrated, freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one. Thus, an elemental principle of democracy often collides with a fundamental law of capitalism, as ownership offers both the power of control and the privilege of access.

The Incoherence of the Intellectual

Fredy Perlman, The Incoherence of the Intellectual, C. Wright Mills’ Struggle to Unite Knowledge and
, Black & Red Press, Detroit, 1970

The Detroit Printing Co-op existed from 1969 to 1985 in southwest Detroit, and as its founding manifesto decreed, offered printing facilities and equipment as “social property” to “provide access to all those individuals in the community who desire to express themselves (on a non-profit basis), with charges made only to maintain the print shop (rent, utilities, materials, maintenance of the machinery).” Perlman was not by training a printer or a designer. He had studied subjects such as philosophy, political science, European literature, and economics at places like UCLA, Columbia, and the University of Belgrade, where he received his doctorate. He went on to become an author, editor, publisher, printer, and designer. Despite a brief period in academia, Perlman was what designer Jan van Toorn calls a “practical intellectual,” someone engaged in ideas and issues but whose vocation is materially productive—more blue collar than ivory tower. Such a figure seems like a chimera today. However, in the fervor of the 1960s with its blend of Left politics, social activism, and union strength many more alliances across classes and races seemed possible. Working outside of systems, whether military, industrial, or academic, seemed less idealistic and more necessary.

In 1969, Fredy Perlman and his wife and partner Lorraine Nybakken moved to Detroit, a hotbed of countercultural activities and alternative publishing, including the Fifth Estate, an underground newspaper where both would become longtime contributors. Shortly after their arrival, Perlman and a group of kindred spirits purchased a printing press from a defunct Chicago-based militant printer and shipped it to Detroit. The Detroit Printing Co-op was born, which included the Black and Red Press, Perlman’s and Nybakken’s own imprint.


The union seal or “bug” for the Detroit Printing Co-op, 1969

The large window that fronts the 9338 Campau Gallery in Detroit’s Hamtramck neighborhood displays a greatly enlarged union seal, or “bug,” which declares in all caps: “Abolish the Wage System, Abolish the State, All Power to the Workers!” Such seals were used to identify those goods produced by union represented shops, although few were emblazoned with such slogans. This act of political defiance reflected the Co-op’s choice of belated membership in the Industrial Workers of the World, a union first formed in the early twentieth century with strong socialist, anarchist, and Marxist roots.


Left: Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Black & Red Press translation and edition,
1970; Right: revised second edition of the book, 1977

Perhaps the best known publication of Black and Red Press is Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, for which Perlman and others had provided the first English, albeit unauthorized, translation of the Situationist philosopher’s influential 1967 treatise on the conflation of advanced capitalism and mass media. In Debord’s view, authentic social relations had been replaced by its representation. Illustrated with striking black-and-white images culled from various archives (the original text contained no illustrations), Perlman it could be argued performed a détournement of sorts, using the cult of the image against itself. A first edition of the book from 1970 shows the front cover depicting, like windows onto a soulless landscape, the exterior of a banal office building, its workers visible inside through a grid of illuminated windows; on the back cover a crop of an rather impassive audience watching a film wearing 3D glasses—their dark lenses obliterating the eyes. Readers may remember the book’s 1977 revised edition better, when the back cover image became the front cover.


Fredy and Lorraine Perlman printed Radical America from 1970–1977. The journal was birthed by members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the 1960s and later adopted a thematic approach covering a wide range of socially progressive topics and leftwing political issues.

The Co-op would print journals like Radical America, formed by the Students for a Democratic Society; books such as The Political Thought of James Forman printed by Carl Smith of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers; and the occasional broadsheet, such as Judy Campbell’s stirring indictment, “Open letter from ‘white bitch’ to the black youths who beat up on me and my friend,” the victim of an assault after leaving a Gay Liberation Dance. The work of the Co-op reflects both the agency and urgency, to borrow a phrase from designer Lorraine Wild, of the period’s tumultuous times.


Left: Wildcat Dodge Truck, authored by strike participants and supporters, Black & Red Press, 1974; Right: Judy Campbell, “Open letter from ‘white bitch’ to the black youths who beat up on me and my friend,” Black & Red Press, 1973

If one is expecting to see a series of dry, colorless political texts or propagandistic tracts, then you would be pleasantly surprised. What is perhaps most striking about the work on display is its engagement with the processes and materiality of printing. The exploration of overprinting, use of collage techniques, range of papers, and so on underscores the point that behind the calls to action and class consciousness there is innate sense of experimentation and pride of craft. As the curator of the exhibition, Danielle Aubert, a Detroit-based designer and educator, duly notes, Perlman’s works “illustrate the evident joy he took in the act of printing.” Working with a printing press that was, in 1970, already 50 years old meant that the final product would retain a certain roughness and inexactness, which nevertheless got the job done. It’s impossible not to view the work through today’s Risograph printing revival or even the Gestetner-fueled mimeograph revolution of the 1960s.

Lining the walls of the gallery are color enlargements of portraits of revolutionary leaders throughout history overlaid with blackletter drop capitals. The images are culled from Perlman’s satirical critique, Manual for Revolutionary Leaders (1972), a text that expresses the disdain Perlman had for authoritarian ideologues of all stripes. As Aubert relates: “When leaders proclaimed ‘All power to the people,’ Perlman heard ‘All power to the leader.’” Perlman’s use of collage and overprinting is also on grand display in his text influenced by his former teacher, The Incoherence of the Intellectual: C. Wright Mills’ Struggle to Unite Knowledge and Action (1970). Perlman’s interest in materiality as an expression of labor as well as the power inherent in self-publishing was already apparent in the early 1960s, before the Co-op was founded, when he authored, and with his wife Lorraine, printed and published, The New Freedom: Corporate Capitalism (1961). A simple chipboard cover with a decal wraps a stack of hand-cranked mimeographed signatures—humble materials for sure, but a painstaking process of production yielding just under 100 copies. Inside, they note: “The choice of materials was influenced by the extremely limited financial means of the author and artist, but both hope their attempt to make a book whose outward shape was consistent with its content has been successful enough to encourage others to follow their example.”



Above: Fredy Perlman, The Incoherence of the Intellectual, C. Wright Mills’ Struggle to Unite Knowledge and Action, Black & Red Press, Detroit, 1970





Above: Fredy Perlman, The Birth of a Revolutionary Movement in Yugoslavia, 1969

The exhibition that Aubert has assembled is refreshing on at least two levels. First, it adds to the history of graphic design a seemingly unlikely contributor working from not only outside the mainstream profession and economy, but also from the ground up. Secondly, it offers a counterpoint to the thinness of content that too often circulates in the design world of self-publishing. After all, the point shouldn’t be just to “make” something, but to also say something. Many graphic designers have taken up the printing press in its varied forms in recent years, and the motivations undoubtedly vary from person to person. The social dimension of independent printing, evidence of its current evolution, was on display in one of the public programs that accompanied the exhibition, which focused on skill- and tool-sharing enterprises. However, I’m left to wonder if the cult of the entrepreneur and its lone disruptor model that has governed twenty-first-century life thus far has not displaced the potential of cooperative action and collective invention. At the heart of the Detroit Printing Co-op was a radical economic model that opened a space for personal experimentation, and not the reverse. As Aubert rightly surmises: “I would argue that some of [Perlman’s] experimental energy stemmed from the political and economic structure of the printing co-op itself—the decision not to work for wages or monetize his time. The concerted attempt to work, to labor, as a printer, but not for money, led to design and printing decisions that would not be rational in a for-profit environment structured according to the rules of capitalism.”

—Andrew Blauvelt is director of the Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

Modern Nostalgic Fantasies

The following text was originally published in Modern Nostalgic Fantasies, a collection of texts about politics, virtuality, and science-fiction and their relation to a graphic design practice. All texts were written by Raf Rennie during the completion of a two-year MFA in graphic design at Yale University. Rennie is a designer and writer from Toronto, now […]

The following text was originally published in Modern Nostalgic Fantasies, a collection of texts about politics, virtuality, and science-fiction and their relation to a graphic design practice. All texts were written by Raf Rennie during the completion of a two-year MFA in graphic design at Yale University.

Rennie is a designer and writer from Toronto, now based in New York. He currently serves as the designer/art director of Canadian art criticism magazine C Magazine and his previous work includes select projects for Scapegoat Journal, Serpentine Gallery, TBA21, and Metahaven.

A special thanks to Jan Horčík for his typeface Atlantic.

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His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

— Walter Benjamin, about Angelus Novus (1920) by Paul Klee



October 4th, 1957, Elementary Satellite 1, better known as Sputnik, broke through the barrier of our atmosphere to become the first object to originate from Earth and enter Space. The journey of Sputnik signified the end of one history of progress and the creation of a whole new one—Sputnik was a catalyst that introduced modernity to the world. I am speaking less of the means of modernity in this, than I am speaking of the space in which modernity is concerned—that, as an endlessly utopian project, is the future. Marked by its relentless order, modernity is the aim to draw rational responses to the zeitgeist and extrapolate them into a vision of the future, so we can, in present, begin to develop infrastructure to shape the future of civilization on this planet into a rational utopia. To think about the future is to be modern.

The Soviet Union was a massively modernist experiment that took over trying to structure a union of countries under a strictly rational system, that of communism. While the Soviet Union struggled to continue on, politically and economically, they managed to put together a space program and became the first nation to enter space. This was possible because the core of the Soviet project was an immense importance placed on the shaping of the future. From after, the Tsar was the image of the new Russia and with this the modern Soviet man. The Soviet Union believed that the joint project of technological advancement and exploration would become the economic and spiritual backbone that kept the union together and ahead of the rest of the world—especially ahead of the United States whom the Soviets where in a cold war with accelerating technological threats and shows of power. The future was the endgame for the new Russia.


Left: Russian science-fiction film The Sky Calls (1959), Right: SpaceX lands rocket on drone ship (2016)

So, the Soviet Union put Sputnik into space, showing the world they were literally and figuratively on a technological and raw powerful level above the rest of the world—though Sputnik means “fellow traveler”, it was a body of a ballistic missile, a tool of war. It was the punctum, the apex, of the Soviet Union’s futurist, modernist ideal. By being the first to enter a new unexplored terrain, the Soviet said to the world the future belonged to them. It was off this fear of losing the future to Russia, that the United States founded their own space program, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), on July 29th, 1958, nearly 11 months after Sputnik had made it to space. With NASA, the United States revitalized their modernist project that once kickstarted the American economy before the World Wars with the Industrial Age and Fordist manufacturing and economics. Thusly, the Soviet Union spread modernity back into the United States, sparking what would be considered Late Modernity. Over the next few decades the Soviet Union and the United States raced their advancing space programs aiming to be the first to put man on the moon. This space race had many implications for the nations as world superpowers, enemies, and the eventual outcome of the Cold War. However, there was a side effect of this race, the massively accelerated invention of new technologies. This acceleration drove the American economy for those decades as subsequent technologies and advancements came from the research and work being done at NASA. NASA put together a sub-part of their association called the Technology Transfer Program to showcase and explore practical applications of the strides being made when aiming for the moon. New inventions were catalogued in an annual report called NASA Spinoffs and introduced; freeze-dried food, infrared thermometers, heart monitors, LED lights, artificial limbs, and much more. These technologies fed into the American dream of the future, from this rapid growth in technology artists, designers, manufactures, all started to imagine an American future. DisneyWorld built the “World of the Future” amusement park, designers like Ray and Charles Eames showcased America’s technological utopianism at the World’s Fair, manufacturers pushed ideas of the homes, the food, the car of the future. Dreaming about the future became the galvanizing force of the whole American economy—America became modern.


The overlay of Modernity

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July 20th, 1969, just shy of 11 years after the founding of NASA, the space mission Apollo 11 brings the first men to the moon. America’s race with the Soviets was over, the new frontier was won by the United States. The modernism passed on by the Soviet Union found a better system for itself and flourished past the Soviet communist ideal. Forward-thinking became the mantra of the “American way”, which pushed their industries and economy into unprecedented production and wealth, spurred by an unbound hubris that America could achieve anything. Through new technological breakthroughs and abundance new products would fuel American commerce while industry used the latest manufacturing technologies, or took advantage of a new age of globalization, to maximize their returns. Here began that period of Late Modernism, the utopian future thinking, joined with American style capitalism to thrive in the existence of emerging mega-corporations that saw themselves as the tools to create a new future.


“We are ready and willing to ignite just born too late.” — Peter de Potter

As America continued in a Cold War with the Soviet Union and a hot war in Vietnam, the political left found this new American hubris to be a dangerous flag to fly. The American economy, driven by technological advancement and superiority, had led to the boom of a major thriving industry, the military-industrial complex. Corporations that lauded themselves as the builders of a better future worked with the American government and military, and their quick growth and globalization posed a threat of the exporting of American idealism and capitalism. In such, the left took opposition to this mantra of the American-way and therefore took up opposition to the future project of Modernism. As philosopher Simon Critchley put it, “we have to resist the idea and ideology of the future, which is always the ultimate trump card of capitalist ideas of progress.” The future was modern, the future was therefore capitalist, and to build a world outside of capitalism the people had to stop thinking about the future and start dealing with the reality of the present day. This thinking ushered in a movement of post-modernism, an ideology that aimed to reject the utopian promises of late modernism and remove the glossy veneer it had coated prevalent thinking with. Across America spread the notion that, in the mists of wars and a plateauing economy, spending federal money on missions to the moon was a frivolous vanity project, that was no longer needed as the United States had already claimed the moon and beaten the Soviet Union in the space race. Under growing pressure and economic difficulties, NASA’s budget was cut drastically. The last manned mission to the moon took place in December 1972 and no person has gone to the moon since.


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With the end of the manned missions, NASA’s missions switched from the near frontier of our own satellite to the exploration of deep space. The late 80s and 90s usher an age of probes, telescopes, and rovers, tools that no longer focused on the immediate but set out to explore the vastness of the universe. What led was the discovery of whole new worlds and planets outside of our solar system. From being taught in schools there are nine planets we have come to learn there are solely nine in our solar system, elsewhere, in hundreds of other solar systems exist thousands of other planets, some much like our Earth—these planets are given the name “exoplanets.” As the changing thought and politics of the time seemed to push NASA aside in favour of focusing on our world, our countries, and local, tangible issues, NASA pushed back the other way, instead of looking at the local and at hand, to the very distant and unreachable. In 2004, NASA constructed the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) to search deep space for new Earth-like planets—it has discovered 130 planets, a small part of the over two thousand known exoplanets in our universe. With the discovery of whole other possible worlds, solar systems, and possibly lives, Earth becomes decentralized in our understanding of the Universe.


Construction of the James Webb Telescope, NASA’s new deep space telescope set to launch October 2018

Modernism, which looked to a singular whole, and post-modernism, which looked to act upon the present, both were eclipsed by the decentralizing of Earth within the universe. The Earth now was neither a totality, just a singularity in a vast cosmos, a planet that seems as a small pale blue dot in the night sky of another planet. Semantically, the human race no longer were the sole authors of the cosmological reality, but perhaps just a subjectivity in relation to 2,000 other planet’s realities. This model of thinking is shared, within the same vein, as the basis of an ideological, that is a predecessor to post-modernism, known as post-structuralism. Post-structuralism is an ideology that rejects singular narrative by rejecting the author as the sole authority or voice, it aims to seek out the peripheral to decentralize an idea from a singular subjectivity. The discovery of exoplanets does so on a, literally, universal scale—and such was the argument made by NASA. By exploring outwards, deep space, distant planets, dying stars, we could learn more about our own planet and existence than we could from an archeology of Earth.

Post-structuralism ushered in a model of thinking where subjectivity is everything, denying the notions of “objectivity” and “rationality” presented by modernism on the grounds that they were de-fined under a euro-centric, masculine, paradigm. Post-structuralism stands on two tendons, the first being Foucaultian anthropologies of all the standing structures we see governing in the world. The second, being more confusion, not listening to singular narratives or the belief in non-bias media, but an openness to varying voices and the proliferation of the minority’s voice, in order to disrupt any attempt at the creation of hegemonic structures.

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In the time of Late Modernism progress—societal and economic—was created through the aims of a singular goal. For everyone to work towards this goal they must understand each other as part of a whole, Modernism was a structure that was used to encapsulate nations and move them towards this goal. However, with emergence of Post-Structuralist thinking, the ability to maintain a super-structure is becoming challenging. The structure of Late Modernism no longer fits the public as the minority has come to view themselves in the position of being parts within the structure but not of the struct-ure, therefore they reject the goals of the structure. If the notions of progress and capitalism that Late Modernism proliferated and replicated, for its own expansion, were to continue, the fundamental structuring of those notions would have to adapt—and adapt it has.

Nearing the end of Late Modernism, before the Post-Modern moment, a collective of academics and theorists formed an inclusive society where they set themselves the goal of directing the global thinking to what they saw as a sustainable structure. The new structure would be open enough to allow multiple narratives and voices to exist in constant exchange, in fact it would be encouraged, so it could subsume political discourse within itself—for this the idea was named Neoliberalism. The specialty of Neoliberalism was a combining of Late Modernist notions of progress with Post-Modernism’s desires for locality. In place, Neoliberalism would encourage minorities and local politics but would proliferate an ethos of collectivism through it. By acknowledging all this disparity we could celebrate diverse people coming together to achieve a singular goal.

NASA, in 1998, became part of such a project, that would bring numerous people and nations together. In fact, NASA would come to work with their competitor that caused their creation and spurred on a Cold War, the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), and Japan whom the United States had attacked with atomic weapons fifty three years earlier. The project of the International Space Station brought together the United States (NASA), Russia (Roscosmos), Europe (The European Space Agency), and Japan (JAXA)—later on The Canadian Space Agency would join in the project as well. This International Space Station was a proving to the world, that regardless of history and politics, all kinds of people and nations could come together and work towards a better future—a wonderful case-and-point proof for Neoliberalism.


Orbiting Neoliberal base

Diversity, the political calling card of Neoliberalism, also functions as its economic model, the freedom of choice. Late Modernism gave the world large mega-corporations that worked within a Fordist model of capitalism. Companies like IBM and Microsoft dominated the emerging technological market and ruthlessly tried to shut down competitive companies in order to maintain a monopoly. Neoliberalism instead encourages diversity, no large monopolies, but endless small companies that could be hyper-specialized to make them act at a local and global scale. This is the market of Silicon Valley and start-up culture, a womb for technology companies to build up and die out at unprecedented rates.

Within this market the investment into a singular entity is not financially sound. Why make one company to try to do everything when you can have numerous companies hyper-specialize in different areas and then bring the pieces together? It is also a way of hedging your bets, why invest everything in one pot? Diversify. Long standing entities have fallen to this new logic, even NASA. NASA is no longer seen as the one entity for the hopes of space exploration, but in the mists of smaller budgets has had to diversify and export some of its functions to smaller new companies. NASA now offers contracts to competing small companies to take over functions that NASA used to do exclusively, let delivering payloads to the International Space Station. Notably, a large portion of NASA’s contracts have gone to Silicon Valley company SpaceX, founded by the start-up veteran Elon Musk. NASA now functions as the overseer and manager of Space exploration, it is the neoliberal who brings together dispersed parts towards a singular goal.


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Through the dispersed model of space exploration, NASA acts as the determinant, it defines the goal and brings various individually autonomous parts together to form relationships that work to-wards that goal. What goal is that? As a product of and the engine of Late Modernism, NASA functions through ideas of exploration and frontierism. The aims of the International Space Station as a laboratory for scientific experimentation had failed to capture the imagination of the public who could not grasp the intangible new grounds that would be made. As a result, NASA struggled on with diminishing funding. However, the new model of the Neoliberal market and the new ability for NASA to start exporting larger tasks, allowed NASA to refocus and now pull in other entities to work together towards a new goal that would spur on the public to support progress. NASA was looking for a renaissance of the golden age of Space Exploration when they were racing to the moon. The best disciple trying to bring about this renaissance of NASA is Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who is known for his poetic and passionate speeches about why we need to economically support space exploration. Tyson appeals for support by evoking the technological and economic boom that accompanied the Apollo missions to the moon. To re-invigorate the space program he fantasizes manned missions to the next closest heavenly body, Mars. Mars is a tangible frontier, akin to the Moon, with new “firsts” to be made, something the public could understand and celebrate. Effectively Mars is to the current times, what the Moon was in the 1960s.


As the ISS brought together old Cold War enemies Ridley Scott envisions space as answer to American anxiety over relations with China in The Martian (2015)

Thinking and fantasizing Mars has been around in science-fiction since the birth of the genre, but now the push to get the general public joining in has become stronger than ever. On August 6th, 2012 the Curiosity Rover successfully landed on Mars, two days later it began to send back our first images of the foreign landscape. Not since the moon had we seen another world the way we see our own. Mars was no longer something we saw through a telescope, as a dot in the sky, we did not see it as a massive distant whole, but we viewed it as we experience our own world, limited, with perspective, and a gaze that lead to a horizon line. We were no longer looking at Mars but through photographic transmutation able to experience it—images from Curiosity have now been stitched together into 360 degrees images explorable through virtual reality to further push the feeling that we are in fact already on Mars. With the new images flooding in to NASA and being released to the public almost daily, Mars began to play a part in the cultural zeitgeist. Space exploration became not just resigned to the world of science-fiction, the obsessives, and the “nerds”, but entered into a total cultural space. Neil DeGrasse Tyson revised the classic show Cosmos (2014), first recorded by astrophysicist Carl Sagan in 1980, blockbuster film maker Christopher Nolan creates his space epic Interstellar (2014), and science fiction legend Ridley Scott directs the heroic survivalist film The Martian (2015). Based on the novel of the same title by Andy Weir in 2014, The Martian is a tale of an astronaut stranded on the planet Mars after his team mistook him for dead and his struggle to survive on the foreign planet to make it back home to Earth. The film plays out the mythos of American determination and ingenuity that became the marker of the “American spirit” through the industrial and technological age. The can-do and ability to overcome any obstacles in the name of progress is the same mythos that drove the Cold War space race. The Martian presupposes that NASA, and therefore the United States, have already made it to Mars and began temporary colonies for exploring how one could sustainably live. When stranded alone against unimaginable odds, the hero, Mark Watney, learns how to tame and control the new world, a recurring theme in American history and mythos. At one point in the film, after having gotten potatoes to grow in Martian soil, Watney even claims that he has now officially colonized the planet. While set in a near future the film looks back to a nostalgic fantasizing of the American spirit, when America was great, innovative, and able to make new grounds through their dominance and greatness. Even more, under the guile of Neoliberal togetherness, the film imagines all the world coming together in support of the American heroic figure. As the ISS brought together old enemies to work towards one project, The Martian  imagines a future were their current tentative relationship with China is overcome, in the Chinese space program willingly offering up their aid, resources, and secrets to the Americans. At the climax of the film, shots are shown of people around the world watching out on the streets, from New York to London to China, anxiously to see if the American hero has in fact been able to overcome all odds and survive.

The film in itself appears as propaganda for a new space age—an age that is relentlessly American. This space age is already subsumed by the same rhetoric and ideology of the first space age of the 1960s and the missions to the moon. Mars is already claimed and a part of the capitalist progressive framework of Late Modernism, now reborn through Neoliberalism. It is simply an updating of prior rhetoric which it is looking to re-institute, a modernization of past fantasies.


Government-backed nostalgia



What is there now for the left? For those who aim to step outside the ideological encapsulation of the capitalist progressive narrative? If Modernity means to be focused on the creation of the future, the future as laid out before us is already subsumed under its rhetoric. Neoliberalism, Modernism, and Capitalism have already exported themselves to become extra-planetary frameworks. What is the future if we keep playing out the same fantasies out of nostalgia? It is as Walter Benjamin describes the angel of time in Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, instead of a chain of new events we keep piling the same wreckage upon wreckage—our time is not linear but a circular loop transpositioning rhetoric and ideologues into the present and future. Perhaps what there is now is the attempt to step outside our natural history, out of our time and space, to worlds without a past and without nostalgia. The legendary and progressive science fiction writer Ursula K. LeGuin once called for science-fiction writers to pick up where theorists have failed and to start imagining the end of capitalism. In her novels, such as The Left Hand of Darkness, LeGuin defines new worlds with their own genders and non-genders and its own concept and working of time. Perhaps, it is by these propositions we can begin to step outside of our world into new ones where we can think and posit outside the looping nature of our time. In these worlds we are free to define progress for ourselves, not left to the modernist-capitalist understanding which we keep falling back upon. Through these postulations we can begin to imagine new futures that differ and reject the ones we are presented with. Instead of Mars, which is a modern nostalgic fantasy, we should look to the exoplanets and embrace their multitude and the confusion and possibilities they bring. In these worlds, upon these distant heavenly bodies, we are the Ubik, outside of time, the creators of suns and worlds.•


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