Seven Private Epiphanies

An essay commissioned by Escuela Superior de Diseño de Aragón, May 2014, as a follow-up to my keynote. I was asked to reflect on my path as a designer, and how it could inform the teaching and the profession in 2014.

 

My work as a communication designer and audiovisual creative is intrinsically interconnected with a belief that visual communication demands integrity: ultimately an existential issue, in face of our individual responsibilities towards others, but equally a responsibility towards oneself. As an academic, having obtained my PhD in Design in 2003, and having been involved in the implementation of Design Research as a scientific discipline since then, means I have been particularly interested in developing design work that rehearses, in and by itself, the role of knowledge carrier, if not a challenger to perception, interpretation and expectation.

Ever since my days as an undergraduate student at the Oporto School of Arts, in the mid-1980’s, I toyed with the possibilities of self-publishing: fanzine and DIY cultures arrived as faint, delayed echoes of UK Punk and the Movida Madrileña – even Lisbon seemed like a world away, intuition rather than evidence. Information was slow and scarce, so a lot of what we inherited was a strange hybrid between second-hand newspaper articles, word-of-mouth recounts, and sheer imagination. Enough to get me salivating.

I was certainly not the only one doing this projective draft based on foreign (or at least narratively distant) subcultural templates, applied onto a fairly set creative milieu of our own: gradually sketchy blueprints for experimentation and recalibration began to emerge, trials and errors and a tentative shedding of one’s own creative inhibitions by force of dominant templates. Brody’s design for The Face was a bible of sorts, an anti-template-template, demos of post-modern pop dominated late-night radio, xerox and performance art, manifestos and noisy post-punk make-up: a hunger for modernity, unaware of the evidence that Portugal was never to be modern, jumping straight from rurality into a strange kind of orphan post-modernity, a puzzle devoid of underlying image, endlessly reconfiguring itself to this day over uprooted heritage.

I moved to London in 1988, then Chicago in 1990, then again London in 1997. I decided to move back to Oporto in 2002, sensing a duty of reciprocity, a willingness to put my accumulated and often disparate experience at the service of Portuguese design education and research. Amongst a wealth of dialogues and partnerships throughout these travels, the most fruitful had been by far my experience with media label Touch, primarily via a mutual creative and cognitive bond with Jon Wozencroft: we still conspire to the present day, be it through stage visuals, cover designs, sound publishing, lecturing, or debriefing with students afterwards.

I have been fortunate in having the opportunity of developing design work in my own terms. I have always been able to choose the people I want to work with, often creatives themselves, and I have always had the good grace of choosing the projects I want to develop or co-develop: challenging and multi-dimensional, often part of a larger endeavor in co-authorship, allowing me to learn continuously through the process of speaking through images. As a result, I actually often prefer to describe myself as a cultural operator, rather than a designer: the term “design” still carries substantial stigma next to a wider segment of the population, often equated with frivolous aestheticisation or, on a good day, digital gadgetry. I am not that interested in either one, really, holding instead the belief that communication through images may invite a training of perception that translates as an increased awareness of our own realities. Images as documentation, as metaphor, as composition, as myth, paradox, provocation. Images as ecology, as enigma, as subtlety, as epiphany, risk, redemption. As discreet antidotes to a culture of over-abundance where each media product seems to scream louder than their counterpart, disorienting rather than enlightening us.

In the end I believe that sense of distance and displacement throughout my formative years is still present, and still plays a decisive role in my current output: placing ourselves one step away from the highlight these days often enables us to maintain a better critical eye. Self-publishing, the chimera of our youth, is now both a tangible blessing and a curse, in that the promise of self-expression has both been fulfilled and simultaneously betrayed onto banality.

As such, these are again formative years. I say this not as a declaration of some nostalgic longing for extended youth, but rather because I am still excited at the learning possibilities every time I take on a new design task: every time I design I want to learn in the process, just as much as I want this learning experience to be communicable through the work itself. The whole dilemma of whether design is itself a science is one inalienable step away from resolution if we consider the communicability of the knowledge contained herewith, but word notwithstanding, here are seven epiphanies I experienced during various processes of designing. There were other epiphanies, and other processes could be present in the present essay: the choice was purely intuitive, and may somewhat reveal an unexpected (or at least unbalanced) prevalence of music sleeves. While being one of my passions, record sleeve design is far from my dominant activity, but here we are: in hopes they will inspire, if not enlighten.

 

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1 UBIQUITOUS ETERNAL LIVE
Photography for Autodigest CD, Ash International 2004. Design by Jon Wozencroft.
Ten years ago I decided to release a one-hour sound piece signed by my conceptual sound alter-ego Autodigest. The piece consisted of one hour of audience applause, an expanding acoustic collage, from theatre audience all the way to some apocalyptic carnage towards the end, polite handclapping having given way to a chorus of agony. The search for an appropriate cover image that would engage with this sound critique of the “Society of Spectacle” led us to include an x-ray of a hand fracture on the inner sleeve, but ultimately the front cover holds the key to the paradox: spectacle versus hallucination. In the wise words of Debord then: “The spectacle is the nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of sleep”.

 

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2 POSTSTOP
Photography and layout for KREV 6 7” single. Ash International, 2009. Design by Philip Marshall.
This edition surfaced as a tangible outcome of the concert we organised in a bankrupt shopping mall, where over 300 musicians have been renting the former shops as rehearsal rooms over the course of 15 years. In October 2008, over 100 musicians performed for one hour as one ectoplasmic collective throughout the corridors, rehearsal rooms, and common areas of the 4-storey building. Of course there were hundreds of extraordinary photos of the event, and Anselmo Canha and I experimented with layering, sequencing and merging them, only to surrender to the evidence that documentary photography would never do justice to the extreme energy levels of the actual event. Enter my photography archive, where an image of low tide by the River Thames reveals a rotting shopping cart. Documentary image becomes metaphorical, the rebirth of a cathedral of consumption as an epicenter for creative creation: a cart in the mud, a crane against the sky.

 

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3 NOMADIC’0910
Photography and design for Meetings between Art and Science. U.Porto, 2009.
Nomadic’0910 was a challenge by the Rectorate of the University of Porto, a challenge to co-curate an extensive cycle of exploratory multi-disciplinary activities joining various Schools that usually do not engage in collaboration. The search for an image led me to using everyday photographs of people eating Soup: a mix of ingredients, the whole greater than the sum of its parts, but also a way to signal a degree of humility present in scientific activity, the idea that scientific knowledge weaves itself into our lives. Plus it was a pleasure to see a gigantic mouth gobbling down a spoonful hanging from the Rectorate building, in sheer contrast with the more traditional institutional visual languages usually present on that particular spot. The one design presented here was actually a printed flyer, conveying a slightly cooler approach.

 

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4 333:5
Artwork and design for digital single. Online release at 3-33.me, 2012.
In early 2012, Philip Marshall and I were given a large box containing demo rejects from a music label we collaborate with. Unsure of what to do with it, we decided to create a music label specialising in random audio layering. 333 was born, and is still going strong. All editions are exactly 3 minutes and 33 seconds long, and stem from the superimposition of three randomly selected tracks. All associated creative production follows the same principle: the liner notes, courtesy of Leslie Winer, are equally a mash-up of three random texts, and the layouts are superimpositions of three random images. Yes, there is editorial control, but it is strictly performed after the pieces have come to existence: no tweaking throughout the process. The creative act therefore focuses on perception rather than production. The logo is by Oscar Henriquez of Rebels in Control.

 

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5 FUTUREPLACES
Photography and Illustration for media lab for citizenship. UTAustin-Portugal, 2013. Design by Manufactura Independente.
Futureplaces is a medialab I direct since 2008, primarily concerned with how new media can contribute to a better social and cultural fabric. We have incubated numerous national and international projects involving citizens of all contexts, under the belief that it is through social promiscuity that we can move forward. The design of our annual meeting has always been an attempt to capture the ethos: in 2013 the mood was definitely sombre, in face of the economic crisis and its devastating effects on the Portuguese social fabric. Rather than produce an image of deterministic optimism, this overwhelming feeling of desolation became transparent. A mascot was born, Antifluffy, and he contemplates its own corpse on a winter beach. Yet the Sea is also a metaphor for endless renewal, a promise of rebirth. Ricardo and Ana worked out the type (often my struggling point) and enhanced the mood through colour calibration.

 

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6 MANOBRAS NO PORTO
Test spread for monograph. Photography by Luís Barbosa, Heitor Alvelos and the Documentar o Manobras collective. Porto Lazer, 2013.
Manobras no Porto was a program of over 200 creative actions in Oporto’s historical centre, involving the hybridisation of local talent and craftsmanship with artists and producers. It generated a range of citizen-led projects that now persist independently, two years after the ending of the official program. I was invited to be Editor of the monograph that closed the cycle and contains its memory. Amongst textual contributions, an archive of over 40,000 photographic records was tightly scrutinised, in an attempt to do justice to the diversity and fertility, and sheer scale, of what had been produced on so many levels: human, aesthetic, historical, existential, emotional, strategic, tactical. I thus created an extensive visual essay that extended this sense of convergence and perplexity: image compositions that defy gravity, that open up unexpected similarities, a sense that the visible record holds something endlessly subject to re-interpretation: a cosmos.

 

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7 FAITH
Photography and design for music release. Date and format TBC.
Faith is a sound opus that has been 10 years in the making. Deeply autobiographical, it weaves fragments of field recordings, family mementos, reconstructed pop shards and my own voice onto an abstract landscape, expressive and foreboding. The cover contrasts a video frame of a view from a high-speed train on the way to an airport with an image of the Atlantic ocean on an intercontinental flight. Instant capture as codification, a fraction of a second versus an endless ocean, a nanosecond as eternity. Home in all its scales.

 

 

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