On the 'Now in Production' catalog

Andrew Blauvelt, Ellen Lupton, Graphic Design: Now In Production, Walker Art Center, 2011. 240 pages, USD $26

The most prevalent species of exhibition catalogue plays a primarily documentary role. Whether in the form of a large-format doorstop or a wiggly pamphlet, it is born with the mission of recording an otherwise transient exhibition, embodying in print the curator’s intentions, the works displayed, the significant dates, the donors. Lined up in libraries, they serve as the fossil record of living events. The more advanced descendent will sport an essay or several that attempt to augment the significance of the physical exhibition with wider-scope contextualization, to add to the amassed body of work a moment of self-awareness.

The Graphic Design: Now In Production catalogue, if it is of the same species as other catalogues at all, is a most highly evolved one. Compiled by curators Andrew Blauvelt and Ellen Lupton, it’s at turns loose and comprehensive, informal and serious. Essays are interleaved with works they reference, works they don’t reference but are relevant, and works that may not be directly relevant to the essay but are probably relevant to the other works. Though largely drawn from those exhibited at the Walker Art Center and the Cooper Hewitt over the last year, they are arranged with a fluency that seems completely unimpeded by the curatorial conceits of the physical show. The book, more than merely documenting the exhibition it’s associated with, stands on its own, as its book-form recapitulation.

Blauvelt and Lupton write in the introduction that their organizational strategy is inspired by Stewart Brand’s The Last Whole Earth Catalog (which they gloss as “the classic hippie guide to off-the-grid survival”), with images of various sizes staggered across the page and lengthy captions floating alongside. Blauvelt, in the colophon, recalls that this strategy was first employed in the promotions of the first Walker Art Center painting collection in 2009, based on founder T.B. Walker’s salon-style hangings in his nineteenth-century mansion. He calls it a “premodern” approach, but hints that it is also simultaneously the opposite of that (the thought occurred to me as I was reminded of the design of newer Tumblr blogs, that organize themselves dynamically into grids with the latest script libraries).

By reproducing important essays that first appeared in other sources, the Graphic Design catalogue amazingly — and perhaps a little disconcertingly — addresses most of the principal formal problems graphic design critics have grappled with in the last ten years. The first seven or eight deal more or less directly with a basic question about what constitutes the designer’s role, orbiting Rick Poynor’s and Michael Rock’s “Designer As Author” conversation, which appeared in Eye magazine in the 1990s. Though neither of the original essays appear, presumably because they fall outside the present historical scope, Michael Rock’s swaggering revision, “Fuck Content,” and Ellen Lupton’s “Designer as Producer” summarize them sufficiently. (“Designer As Producer,” actually, strikes me as a term perhaps preferable to Steven Heller’s “entrepreneur,” or, at least, if taken in the Studio System sense, capable of neatly coupling “entrepreneur” and “author.”)

If it’s distracting that such a large body of text is given over to wondering what the activity of its subject even is, it’s at least a proportion that seems to me representative of the most visible writing about graphic design in the last decade or two. And there’s a larger hand-wringing that has encompassed not only aesthetic and political categories of graphic production but also — as Blauvelt observes — the existential ones that it faced down in the wake of dreaded “desktop publishing.” Reading this opening sequence of essays straight through, it’s easy to get a little exasperated at a kind of anxiety that might even border on mawkishness; after all, is this really a question of the designer’s role? Or is it a question of what role the designer is best compared to? “Author,” “researcher,” “producer,” “critic,” “entrepreneur,” etc. Michael Rock — even as he bemoans this tendency — compares the practice to that of a film director; or rather, not any film director, but Alfred Hitchcock. “What makes a Hitchcock film a Hitchcock film is not the story but a consistency of style… His great genius is that he is able to mould the form into his style… The meaning of his work is not in the story but in the storytelling.” That’s pretty good, especially if you’re talking about the work of Michael Rock.

James Goggin’s contribution, “Practice from Everyday Life,” by contrast, swings in the extreme opposite direction: proposing an “expanded field” for graphic design, throwing a lasso around all these imagined frontiers — entrepreneurship, conceptual (art) work, writing. In so doing, Goggin gets precariously close to making the term uselessly vague, so broad so as to lose any specific meaning whatever. (He also quotes Stuart Bailey, always wonderfully gnomic, who sidesteps all this: graphic design is “a ghost: both a grey area and a meeting point.”)

If this ontological angst seems claustrophobic, the end of the catalogue departs from these fine grades of self-distinction into utterly new directions. Peter Hall’s measured essay on data visualization spreads out a great deal of scholarship on mathematics, information graphics and networks and cognition and despite that description it’s utterly readable and because of (or despite) that, should be syllabus catnip.

Rob Giampietro’s “School Days” compares the increasing importance of MFA programs in creative writing with the parallel graduate studies in graphic design. Drawing on Mark McGurl’s “The Program Era,” he finds that practice not only informs education, but education also informs practice, or perhaps, not so much informs as gives form. And the reflection or reification between work and school, and vice versa is not easily bound by their institutional categories. Giampietro puts it, “just as there are types of aesthetics that are not called art or are coming to be known as art, so too are there types of pedagogy that are not called school or are coming to be known as school.”