Design in the expanded field
Interview with M/M by Lionel Bovier

Today design, in its broadest sense, is not only the site of important economic and cultural praxis, but equally an interface for questions of identity, politics of representation, and redefinition of social models. It is this "expanded" conception, as observed in cinema and sculpture of the sixties, which should lead us to reassess the frontiers and models structuring the field of "graphic design" — and that in spite of the still restricted territory where these modifications occur. The following text, in the form of an interview, hopes to contribute to this inquiry.

This interview was conducted in Lausanne on June 24, 1998, with the designers of this catalogue, Michael Amzalag and Mathias Augustyniak, founders of the agency M/M (an acronym) in Paris. It is one of a series of open discussions about the role of visual communication in today's socio-cultural context. An earlier contribution in March 1998 brought together Cornel Windlin, free-lance designer based in Zurich, Martin Heller, director of the Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich, and François Rappo, free-lance designer and head of the department of graphic design at the Ecole cantonale d'art de Lausanne. The transcription of that interview was intended for the catalogue accompanying an exhibition of the contemporary Swiss art scene (Freie Sicht aufs Mittelmeer, Kunsthaus Zurich 1998, published by Scalo) and served as a starting point for the following interview. In this way a new set of answers to a considerable number of the issues raised on that occasion are given-questions about the respective place of the creator in the realms of visual communication and contemporary art, as well as the necessity of re-evaluating these in the light of recurrent mechanisms of hybridization which effects can be widely observed as much in contemporary photography, as in fashion, exhibition spaces, magazines or the audiovisual fields.

M/M It is important to remember, if one is to describe the special position occupied by Cornel Windlin, that he started off working for Neville Brody, one of the key figures of the eighties, inasmuch as he embodies the change of status of the designer in this decade. Brody (like Peter Saville and Malcolm Garrett) was in fact one of the first to exchange the identity of a "service provider" for that of a "pop star"-an image which one finds again in the British art scene of the nineties. If graphic design was able to assert itself as a specialized form of activity, then it was only because it managed to institute and sustain a certain number of communication networks (publicity, corporate identity etc.). For Brody, however, as well as for us, these data highways already exist and only ask to be used. It became possible in this way for English designers to develop, from the beginning of the eighties (the emergence of punk), a work which sets in motion a certain number of discourses exceeding their own product. The networks of communication became for them useful means of expression, enabling a reflection on the form of visual communication as a commentary on the content. Cornel, like us, inherited this situation. And it is this freedom, this extremely open field, where it is possible to work for a client, for industry, and to deliver a commentary on the subject of communication, for which we are all responsible. To some extent, being a graphic designer today seems to us like the best position for transmitting one's point of view on the world. Today, tomorrow, or in ten years, who can tell. For the moment, this position seems to us to be more open than that of an artist or a writer.

LB Is that because you benefit more from the means, in the economic sense of the word, ie. from efficient networks of distribution, situated in the cultural industry?

M/M Yes, in the sense of openness of the field and the public. We have neither a target group, nor fixed points of distribution, as do art or the cinema. We have, however, the opportunity of utilizing the various communication networks simultaneously, the very specialized ones, as well as those of the general public. We can continually vary the form of our intervention: sometimes it is a single image, sometimes a contribution to fashion magazines, sometimes a conference, sometimes a worldwide poster campaign É

LB And yet, one often hears designers complaining about being enslaved, through this or that commission, by networks with very strict rules.

M/M Obviously the commission depends on a pre-established network. But I think what you are talking about, refers to the recurrent complex of inferiority of the designer vis-à-vis the artist, a dilemma which also arose in your discussion with Martin Heller and Cornel. We do not believe that you can only use a network when you've mastered the codes, or can only then convey a relevant message-for that you only have to take a look at the history of art. What interests us is establishing dialogues with different partners or clients, in order to pose certain vital questions. For that reason whilst we respect the work of artists, we have taken the position that what we do is, in a certain way, more pertinent than what they do. We believe we are dealing with reality and are confronted with the same questions which many artists ask and have asked, but we have in addition the means to answer these using real networks of communication, and to take into account that which is happening around us. We are living in a society which no one can really call into question any more without falling back on its communication systems. The problem that artists have, is that they work within the restricted field of art and its distribution structures.

LB But it is also within this protected zone, this immune space, that the artist can freely develop models, projects and discourses which take stock of reality without having to conform to a 1:1 scale.

M/M Too often these ideas do not emerge beyond the frontiers of this protected field. Either they do not succeed in adapting so as to resist constraints imposed by the spaces where art is displayed, or they do not survive the demands of the market. Excellent ideas often proposed in the field of art remain at the level of scale models. The work of art exists as if by default. I always have in mind this image of scientists completing their calculations without taking into account frictional coefficients. Today one cannot afford to ignore these frictions any longer. Because they have overlooked these forces in their calculations, scientists always come to the same conclusions. This is what we want to avoid. This is why we think it is necessary to shift the field of investigation.

LB One cannot, however, reduce the function of art to its system. What justifies the existence of a work is by no means as simple as you characterize it: it is not a question of commodity made for a specific market, but rather of a creation of values (whether symbolical, philosophical, esthetical, or ideological, etc.). In this sense, the work always exceeds the medium in which it is embodied or the context in which it is inscribed.

M/M Nevertheless, I am not sure that art creates values whose interest exceeds the body of the system. The museum, like the gallery, is an institution which has lost its meaning. When we make a catalogue for Yohji Yamamoto we hope to extract ideas, values and questions specific to our time. It is an opportunity for us to pose a relevant question which exceeds the context of this particular production. Fashion, here, is only a means to an end.

LB I have the impression that you are perfectly describing the function of a work of art?

M/M Except that the work, produced in the context of art, never escapes it. The economic context which is provided by the gallery, which has the aspect of a thrift shop or a sunday fair, the fixed and "auratic" discourse in which the museum places the work of art, are some disadvantages. All the same, I was struck, whilst visiting the exhibition Passions Privées shown at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris a few years ago, by the discovery of photographs of contexts into which works are displayed: that of a Hausmannian apartment where the Mario Merz igloo plays the part of the stuffed crocodile, or of the polo trophy, or that of a hyper-designed apartment where abstract painting corresponds to the Sottsas vase. In the end it is always the Le Corbusier chair, present in both types of environment, which in my opinion comes off the best. Is it still necessary to encumber the world with all these objects? Why is our generation of artists, represented for us by Philippe Parreno, Angela Bulloch, Liam Gillick or Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, desirous of creating new relationships with the world-rather than objects or fixed situations-question the system of art without ever leaving it? Why do they play along without any real hope that their production will stand up to reality? In my opinion, Philippe Parreno could have found stronger forms for his ideas than those which the system of art often forced him to adopt. Pierre Huyghe's film, Snow White, is one of those very rare examples of a wholly successful work-that is to say it escapes the system and exceeds the character of simple suggestion. Doesn't the museum sustain things which would have found other, more relevant formula using other networks, or which are unable to exist any longer without it? The work of the designer which is not submitted to this principle of added value and which takes into account the coefficients of friction from the beginning seems to us, therefore, to be a more relevant form of intervention.

LB I understand and I am interested in this position which evidently offers you a larger field of action. Your work, by the way, has aroused great interest in the art scene, where it is judged not by its degree of liberty vis-à-vis the commission, but rather by the questioning which it engages in with various dominant representations in our society.

M/M An image never interests us as such. Its relevance lies in the fact that it contains the sum of preceding dialogues with various interlocutors, and the fact that it induces a questioning of these values. This it what makes for us a pertinent image. We would feel very self-conscious if we had to exhibit our work.

LB But you did just that at the Consortium de Dijon.

M/M Yes, but with "educational" intent. For us, it was a question of showing the public the field of graphic design today.

LB In brief, you advance the position of a graphic artist, but in an expanded field, integrating other practices, other skills, other engagements whether political or esthetical.

M/M Design is quite simply our "métier". And it allows us to transmit a certain number of points of view, of positions and to maintain a realistic scale of relationship to the world. Our ambition, naively said, is to re-invent relationships between individuals using existing networks of communication. This is what we are trying to demonstrate in a fashion catalogue or in an advertising campaign for APC: what constitutes the worth of a piece of clothing, what is the meaning of a fashion image? This examination gains strength, if we can convey these questions, without simply providing a model, without the enormous strain, which a work of art requires outside the institutional context in order to be reactivated. Sometimes I ask myself why we still archive our old productions, thus reproducing old schemas which we criticize.

LB Without a doubt, because you know that one day or another it will prove possible to reactivate the relevance of this or that proposition, on the occasion of an exhibition, for example, or a publication, and in order to do that it is necessary to preserve the material traces of this production. In the same way that artists criticize the museum, but cannot in the end do without it.

M/M I would rather put it this way: going to a museum is a bit like going to a zoo to see an old lion, who doesn't move any more, who can't screw. I would rather give myself a little time before thinking about that too seriously! (Laughter)

LB What about the Nuits blanches catalogue for the Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris? How did you consider the transmission of a certain number of problems and of a multitude of information raised by the exhibition?

M/M We crafted an object of seduction, something like a consumer product assimilable by everyone. We conceived the catalogue in the same terms as an album by Björk. The idea is to always respect a contract-without necessarily avoiding contradiction, criticism or commentary. Here the artists are given importance by the distribution of small self-contained leaflets within the book and the bold graphic design. The whole thing remains a simple object, a sort of "quality entertainment", and amplifies the reception of the exhibition. Sometimes this method fails to convince the client. This was the case with Sony, where we proposed an image for their research department which showed a picture of broken eggs lying on the ground. In other cases, as with Yamamoto, the images raised complex issues, provoked an interest in the world of fashion which was then projected on the clothes of this Japanese creator, reviving to a certain extent the potential of a praxis which then seemed a bit dated, in an eighties way.

LB But don't art and fashion offer privileged interfaces for this type of realization, and do you think it is possible that these methods can be implemented in a worldwide, globalizing way, with clients like Sony, for example?

M/M I don't know, but you've got to try. It is a question of scale, which is important in the avoidance of dysfunctions. We never walk along a freeway, it's useless and depressing! We have no intention of working within the field of mass communications, and we are well aware of the benefits of a privileged relationship with certain forms of communication. We do, however, produce standard images, in the sense that they are destined for recycling, in such a way that they conserve something of their original state in the mass of copies. After all, there are realms, like information design, which we have never ventured into but which we very much appreciate. A well-made metro plan is something worthy of respect. I remember an excellent plan in the suburban trains in Paris, some years ago. For me this was an "objet d'art" of the same caliber as an Egyptian or African statuette, i.e. something produced in extremely restricting conditions, exposing a civilization in a synthetic way.

LB In this way you present a necessity which one could classify as "realistic solubility". Are you afraid of the "signature" effect which the work of certain graphic artists seems to engage in?

M/M I don't think you can say our work is characterized by a distinctive style. It is not about fashionable typography, or circles, squares, or a particular genre of photographs. In my opinion, what makes the work identifiable to the public is the recognition of certain recurrent questions, even if these are simultaneously asked by many others, like, for example, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, with whom we regularly collaborate. We do not, however, agree with the separation they try to establish between their work for fashion and for galleries-a separation which results in the lost of most of its interest, as it loses touch with its real environment. I think that Paul Elliman, through his work and his educational engagement, Cornel Windlin, in most of his projects and in the ateliers which we shared at the Ecole cantonale d'art de Lausanne, GTF in London, and many others, share this way of working.

LB Isn't this cultural criticism of images and signs generated by artistic practices?

M/M We certainly owe a lot to artistic experimentation. Through design, we have been led to be attentive to all signs, to the history of art as well as that of the cinema. Moreover, many people will visit our atelier in one month: creators of perfume and fashion designers, photographers, musicians, and theater directors-this forces us to be open to a wide range of cultural practices. And it is precisely because of this that we maintain that we occupy a relevant position: it is almost by virtue of a logical development in the history of art that we have been called today to work in the field of design. In order to continue this critical analysis of everyday signs, rather than limiting ourselves to producing specialized signs which are cut off from reality. Let us take for example this catalogue for the berlin biennale: we started off with the idea of travel guides for a major European capital. We wanted to make a functional object, but one which derives its functionality from elsewhere. Rather than outlining a cultural event, we would like the public to think about the nature of the occasion (entitled Berlin/Berlin, one exhibition, which together with the Congress 3000 and this catalogue constitute the first chapter of the biennale), and the relationship which it maintains with the city together with the significance of the guidebook itself, vis-à-vis the urban phenomenon. In the models produced in the fifties and sixties, which have interested us, it was important to be able to orientate oneself quickly and easily, and to extract information which was not necessarily objective. It seemed pointless to us today to limit the discussions about issues, which the different chapters of the book call upon, to a local problematic. As Hans Ulrich Obrist likes to say, the local is global today, and vice versa. Each piece or block of information corresponds to an entry which is also a chapter in itself. All the keywords refer to one another, and offer another way of circulating through the various subjects. Each artist's contribution is conceived as a sort of publicity insert, as in traditional guides, or in the color sections of old dictionaries. Where a page could not for editorial reasons be filled completely, we used the space for signs which are a type of "graphic stopgaps" and which refer to the city of Berlin (the silhouette of the new Mercedes, the "Currywurst" or the somewhat terrifying gothic pharmacists emblem). These hieroglyphics are conceived as text and function as supplementary commentaries. In this way, we intervene using our means of expression, whether in the texts, or in the book as a whole. In addition, we have included statistics, at the suggestion of the organizers, which throw light on other aspects (initially intended as serious, but then lightened up by usÉ), and which add to the different levels of reading. An information emblem which interests us, is the typeface marking the entrance to each section. It is the same as that used for German license plates, which has sparked off heated debates among designers. Stephan "Pronto" Müller, the graphic designer (of Swiss origin) with whom we are realizing this catalogue and who is our "man in Berlin" has undertaken the digital transcription of this typo and has told us about its history. What designers criticize the most about this typeface, is its total absence of any esthetic quality. They thereby ignore, whether willingly or not, that it was created by engineers following totally different criteria: its objective was to be through its irregularity and randomness, impossible to forge. In this way the esthetical canon and the "ideological correctness" -ideology of the "perfect form"-here stand in the way of a pure and technical functionality. This brings us back to our fascination for the "Canigou"spoon, which we have so nicknamed, because it was conceived for scraping out the last scraps of a dog food can, and because it represents a dog gnawing on a bone. This object fascinates us because it surely took a lot of people working together to conceive, realize and distribute it. If objects such as these can be produced today, it's up to us, the designers, to prevent them invading the world and to stop them from throwing us overboard. It is our duty to make people think about these objects, and to oppose them by means other than a simple commentary, issued from under the protective wing of a gallery. Commentary is no longer enough today. It is necessary to produce just as many images which convey a critique of these signs, as there are negative examples circulating in society. And that means quite a few...