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Metahaven

Interview by
Nav Haq
From Issue 24 — SS 2014

Having rehearsed and critiqued the idea of branding from a political standpoint, the Amsterdam-based design and research studio envisions a future where standards and platforms will bring the identification industry beyond the logo.

NAV HAQ  I’m particularly interested in this link between identity and identification. Logos and branding are part of a wider desire to create an identity for all things in life, at least at the level of surface. Do you have any thoughts on the future of these kinds of symbols?

METAHAVEN  The logo is part of an identification matrix, an approach that’s about recognition, repetition, and predictability. The logo will probably survive, but we should not overrate it; the absence of a logo can itself become a logo, such as with deliberately unbranded brands. Its critique can become a logo too, as it happened with Naomi Klein’s canonical book, No Logo. Logos are merely one small part of the identification industry. They were perhaps first associated with graphic design’s early 20th century conquest of the spectrum of public information, and later on became associated with capitalism, consumerism, and branding. We have studied, rehearsed, and critiqued the idea of branding nation-states in our 2010 book, Uncorporate Identity. We think that the future will have little to do with the logo andmore with standards and platforms.

NH  Brands are special types of symbols or languages in late capitalism that have a way of tapping into our emotions. Do you imagine that this emotion can be diverted or negotiated towards a different kind of engagement or movement?

MH  Emoji have a way of doing that. They take us back to the hieroglyph and the ideogram, to forms of writing that precede the alphabet but are inherent to written language. Lately we’ve been looking a lot at Islamic State. For example, there’s one particular ISIS fighter, a former soldier in the Dutch army, who is crazy about M&Ms. He is filmed, and tweets pictures, with bags of M&Ms lying around AK47s. These M&Ms are a kind of physical emoji. We’ve been talking about this with Maryam Monalisa Gharavi in the context of our new film series, The Sprawl, currently in production. It seems that the almost post-human violence of ISIS becomes aligned, articulated, experienced even stronger with this hint of humanity, of mainstream consumerism—the M&M.

NH  I think that is a very interesting analysis. For some, ISIS provides an image of the future. They curiously also seem against the idea of the nation-state, ignoring official borders, but ultimately believe in a monoculture. Do you see signs in anything that provides, shall we say, a more “progressive” future?

MH  It seems that progressives never quite get to have it the way they want. Born out of the corrupt UK/US-led war in Iraq and uprisings against the Assad regime in Syria, ISIS is structured around apocalyptic beliefs, creating an absolutist state with fluid borders, extreme violence, and the visual and cinematic spectacle of that violence. You say that ISIS is against the nation-state, but the official borders that it ignores are all remnants from the age of colonialism. There is no real way to maintain that these were the only true borders; like all borders, they are merely decisions that were made at one point in time. Some time ago we wrote: “Working intensively these past months with composer and musician Holly Herndon and her partner Mat Dryhurst has strengthened our belief in Pop as a carrier signal, as a force that can change the critical mass of a politically stagnant cultural field. Pop wants to be out there, heard, seen, shared, liked, and loved—and however superficial and corrupted this tendency may be sometimes, it is at least a basic human impulse that is universally understood. By contrast, within the (especially visual) arts, many seem happy with a position that no longer confronts any outside, but rehearses theoretical concepts inside a (global) inner circle. Ultimately we believe in Pop’s capacity to devour even the most grandiose forms of totalitarianism. In his essay “Post-capitalist Desire,” Mark Fisher searches for a Leftism that embraces “quasi- psychedelic crypto-Pop.” We fully agree with him. There are many important precedents, and some inspiring contemporaries. More importantly, there is a future for us all to win.”

This last part, the quasi-psychedelic crypto-Pop, seems important. Not long ago Owen Jones wrote a lamenting piece in the Guardian asking “Where are the new singer-songwriters of protest,” which seems to be asking the same question as Fisher yet misses his point: that in order for this type of movement to gain some kind of momentum, it needs to work through desire and aesthetics. That’s to say that the factuality of injustice, the juridical-political “reality-based” contestation of the status quo, may prove to be a less potent launch position than poetry or art.

There is no real way to maintain that these were the only true borders; like all borders, they are merely decisions that were made at one point in time.

NH  You have also developed some projects to develop branding for new kind of structures that try to exist in an autonomous way—for example, the micro-nation of Sealand or even WikiLeaks. Can you tell me a bit about your motivations and approach to these projects?

MH  This idea of proactive and investigative identity has been a way to work not so much autonomously, but rather in a new kind of relationship to the content and energies that in a previous era of graphic design belonged almost exclusively with assignments. WikiLeaks is a group in whose work we actually believed and we’ve vocally supported them through our design. Sealand was, in a much more innocent and jokey way, an experiment with sovereignty in a dawning age of networks. After Sealand and WikiLeaks, the anarcho-libertarian stance on the Internet has hardened and moved away from the middle ground; in many ways their successors are initiatives like Defense Distributed and Dark Wallet, which bring together elements of the libertarian Right and the anarchist Left. In The Sprawl, we’re trying to look at these developments in the context of the undercutting—if not downfall—of a global liberal political order governed by nation-states. In addition, we’ve been doing a bit of work with a New York-based organization called Independent Diplomat, who represent the unrecognized state of Western Sahara at the United Nations.

NH  Could you tell me about The Sprawl?

MH  The Sprawl is a documentary film project of five episodes. The idea for the film series naturally followed the final chapter of our book Black Transparency, called “When Pixels Become Territories”—a play on the Harald Szeemanncurated exhibition “When Attitudes Become Form.” This chapter, and consequently the film series, investigates the relationship between “planetary-scale computation” and propaganda, with a focus on conflicts like the one between Russia and Ukraine. The essay covers a shift from transparency to fantasy. “When Pixels Become Territories” tries to suggest what the subversive power of fantasy could mean for a progressive politics. The Sprawl is more concentrated on the obliteration of “truth” and “fact” as categories, in service of (geopolitical) fantasies and subversions. In relation to the logo, identities play an integral part in this story. ISIS subscribes to a new borderless state-form under a flag that is shared by other groups like Boko Haram; Russia creates vassal quasi-states like the Donetsk People’s Republic and the fictitious, historical region of “Novorossiya” which has its own 19th century-style heraldic signs and flags, surrounded by clouds of postmodern PR, anime, and so on. These new state-forms are also in their own, twisted way, “brands,” but they are at the same time cinematic plots. In The Sprawl, we are joined by Benjamin Bratton, Peter Pomerantsev and Monalisa Gharavi. We attribute a lot of the current disturbances of political geography to the effects and consequences of planetary-scale computation.

Metahaven is a studio for design, research and art based in Amsterdam. The Sprawl, an episodic internet documentary commissioned by Lighthouse, Brighton, for The Space, a free online public space set up by the BBC and Arts Council England, will be launched in June.
Nav Haq is Curator at MuHKA, Antwerp. Previously he was Exhibitions Curator at Arnolfini, Bristol, and Curator at Gasworks, London.

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