In the show catalog for Graphic Design: Now in Production, at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis through 22 January, curators Andrew Blauvelt and Ellen Lupton (working with a larger team) make this much clear in the introduction: 'Because our focus is on ways that contemporary designers are using their talents to create, author, edit, produce, publish, and distribute works, our exhibition is not an exhaustive attempt to showcase the work of "deserving" designers (a list so long we could not shelter them in one museum, let along in a couple of galleries). Nor is this exhibition an overview of typical works encountered in daily life,' they say. 'Instead, we have sought out innovative practices that are pushing the discourse of design in new directions, expanding the language of the field by creating new tools, strategies, vocabularies and content.'
Not only are the subjects and 'categories' of the show pushing the discourse of design in new directions (and sometimes pushing each other, playing tug of war), but the sheer physical existence of this show, which attempts to give shape to something as amorphous as 'graphic design' of the past decade (what is that, anyway?), forces the tongue to twist to new ways of talking, and the brain to contort accordingly. Exhibit A: A day after I've seen the exhibition, I meet Blauvelt for coffee at the Walker's café. Blauvelt tells me about a school group that recently came to see the show, and specifically about one loudmouth who blurted: 'Weird! It's like walking through a live blog.'
You're right, kid. It is remarkably weird. The contents of this show are a bit like quicksand, impossible to grasp entirely because of the rapidity with which they move — the tools of graphic design change at speeds quick enough to break one's eyes, to say nothing of the contexts and definitions. As Blauvelt puts it, 'We joke that it's a contemporary show when it opens and a historical show when it closes.' Take into consideration that the iPad was just released when Blauvelt and co. were still in the planning stages, last year. Today, that original iPad is as new to us as the Gutenberg Press. Then again, there are yet developing ways to use the thing. The iPad is at once old news and the new frontier, its uses and users in the field of graphic design still up for grabs.
'Shows of such a broad scale are rare,' says Blauvelt. Indeed, it's the biggest show of its kind since the Walker's Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History (1989), and the Cooper-Hewitt's, Mixing Messages: Graphic Design in Contemporary Culture (1996) — the current show is co-organized by the two institutions. 'At times I wish I had six shows to address all of the topics I want to cover,' Blauvelt continues. 'What does its mean to be a designer, now? It's hard to tell anymore: who's the graphic designer in the room, and who's the product designer, and who's thinking about what. Everybody wants to "solve the problem."' Appropriately, the show simultaneously asks questions as it answers them; it is as fluid as the field it addresses. I would call it an organized representation of sensory overload.
Owing to multiple entrance points, the exhibition does not make entirely clear what it considers to be its beginning or end. It is not a chronological show, or a 'ranked' one — to reiterate, this isn't a 'who's who' or 'best of,' so there is no centerpiece to gravitate toward, or a piece of cheese at the end of the maze. In fact, one can exit through the gift shop (or 'Storefront,' in this case) just as easily as one can enter through it — and the gift shop, by the way, is part of the show. Design and commerce: you've met before. Buy some of the designed books or magazines you just saw under glass cases, and consider it viewer participation. To quote directly from the show: ' No longer satisfied merely to create the packaging for existing merchandise or the brand behind the product, many graphic designers are using their skills, experience, and energy to conceive of marketable goods of their own.' Point taken.
The structure of the show is not 'narrative' so much as it is exclamatory. It doesn't tell a story; what it does is envelop the viewer in a stimulating 'thought bubble,' in which multiple things are being communicated at once — brandingbooksposterstitles — but still make sense. Even if there is a curated division between the 'infographics' section and, say, 'typography,' one's mental thread inevitably connects them. Scratch that: it's not a thread, it's a web. A strong one, at that, but easily adaptable. The mind makes sense of this show in a nonlinear way because of this show's nonlinear subject matter. One section bleeds into another, allowing the curious visitor to jump from one element to another like a pinball. The nature of the field is porous, says Blauvelt. And so 'the sections of the show are in dialog with one another.' The question is, what do you call the language they're speaking? Katya Tylevich
Graphic Design: Now in Production
Walker Art Center
Through 22 January