Metahaven’s work reflects a plethora of references: online trolls, propaganda, fake news, time, the nature of reality. With influences spanning from Eastern-European politics to the Van Eyck brothers’ Ghent Altarpiece, from Superstudio’s utopian architecture to the Bayeux Tapestry, from 18th-century industrialization to VR, from the Eurovision song contest to Tarkovsky, their work is filled with seductive, dream-like spaces, poetic inquiry, materiality, information, fiction, and the contradictory feeling that reality is falling apart.
Based in Amsterdam, Daniel and Vinca have been working together since 2003, at times as a conventional design studio, at other times in a collective and open-ended fashion. This October, they are opening two major shows—at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the ICA in London—that will introduce these cult favorites to a much wider public. “Metahaven are unique for me for how they have married a critical and intellectual rigor, an engagement with and active production of theory, with aspects of visual and stylistic spectacle,” ICA curator Richard Birkett points out. What makes their work so special is the fact that, far from being incidental, the aesthetic is key—meaning and medium, surface and content are all intertwined.
Their approach to graphics always felt one step ahead of their contemporaries. Their 2010 book Uncorporate Identity explored branding from a geopolitical and emotional perspective: “Can design itself, however, dream? In the human mind and body, dreams play an essential role in ‘post-producing’ our lived experiences. Thus can design, devoted as it is to life still be healthy and self-repairing when it can’t dream?” The book presented a truly fresh approach to text and image, infused with the influences of digital experience. “I got to know them as visually savvy and conceptually sophisticated graphic designers,” recalls Tensta Konsthall director Maria Lind, who invited them in 2012 to create a visual identity for the small art centre, to make it recognizable beyond branding. Metahaven created a new graphic system including flags, office-printed handouts, and an ever-changing mark instead of a logo. “This was a way of highlighting the immaterial infrastructure of the institutions—blinking at Centre Pompidou and Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’ way of making the architectural infrastructure very visible on the outside of the building,” Lind enthuses.
Often touching on the political—their first project was the branding for a fictional state called Sealand—Metahaven’s practice increasingly shifted towards theory and writing over the years. Their books Can Jokes Bring Down Governments? Memes, Design and Politics (2014) and Black Transparency: The Right To Know in the Age of Mass Surveillance (2015) and essays such as “Captives of the Cloud” (2012) have positioned them among the most interesting contemporary thinkers engaging with our relationship to the I. As curator and collaborator Lesia Prokopenko observes, “Metahaven draws our attention to the fact that there is too much noise around us and we don’t seem to hear each other at all.”
For the past four years, film has been the central focus of their output. For film theorist Maja Bogojević, “Metahaven’s work is the epitome of how academic interdisciplinarity has influenced designers’ work today. They create their art at a time when many theoretical, artistic, ideological boundaries collapse or seemingly blend together. Also, they have efficiently highlighted through their artwork the vulnerability of the contemporary artist, who cannot be completely autonomous as she/he depends on various (organic or less organic) systems around them.”