“Work with against” – Interview mit Binna Choi (Casco) / Mariette Twilt & Irina Shapiro

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Im Rahmen von Open Set haben Mariette Twilt und Irina Shapiro ein Interview mit Binna Choi von dem niederländischen Studio für Kunst, Design und Theorie Casco geführt. Wir freuen uns, dass wir euch das ausführliche Interview über den Umgang mit Kritik im Designschaffen auf präsentieren dürfen. Wer übrigens noch einen der begehrten Workshop-Plätze für Open Set ergattern möchte, der kann sich noch bis zum 15.07. bewerben.


This year’s Open Set will call on the expertise of Binna Choi for their two-week Summer School for Graphic Design. Based in the heart of the Netherlands, dealing with artists, designers and theorists from all over the world, Casco can be seen as an important player in the field of critical practice. Even though design is one of Casco’s mainstays, one could wonder what brings this composer of debates to a Summer School for young graphic designers. Under the theme ‘commonomy’ Open Set tries to discover methods for dealing with the critical practice within a totally designed world. What is the designer’s influence on the behavior of the community? An interview about the importance of criticality and political activism for society, and in particular with regards to the design practice.

“I think it’s true, unfortunately”, Choi refers to the quote of a design student of Rick Poynor who stated that the time for being against is over. “If we think about criticality as a form of opposition I agree that this is not effective anymore. Being against immediately gives a connotation of people burning cars and throwing fire in the city. But we can politically participate on many different levels. Take for example a daily work situation. What would you do in the situation when a client is opposed to what you did? I would say it is a political situation where you have to articulate the rationale behind your design and negotiate with the client. Not everyone needs to or can have ‘political’ ambitions. However everyone can be political by taking part in the process of thinking, questioning, discussing and negotiating.”

With this notion Choi refers to the way Casco approaches criticality. “We work with a critical practice that is not one of being against, but one of being agonistic.” Chantal Mouffe is an important contributor to this theory and defined 'agonism' as the essence of the political process. In an interview with Red Pepper magazine Mouffe explained the term as allowing the possibility that conflict may appear to provide an arena where differences can be confronted. This role of an arena where friendly enemies can meet is a role that Casco likes to fulfill. “We want to bring different partitions together without making evil and good but to accommodate friction. Compose a constructive debate. At the same time I want to state clear: I’m not waiting for this moment of confrontation. It’s open for me and that is very important. Otherwise I become kind of a circus manager, anxious for this moment of clash.”

As an example of a confrontation between these friendly enemies, Choi refers to Cascos recent contribution to a conference at Rietveld Academie Stadium Generale. There she invited artist Ei Arakawa, who made a performance that included preparing soup with dried radish from Fukushima (the performance was conceived in collaboration with Stefan Tcherepnin, Hanna Törnudd and Green Tea Gallery). “The radish was contaminated, but till what degree? Arakawa used a Geiger counter to detect the amount of radioactivity. The radish was within the safe range but in fact we don’t know how safe that is. There is no reliable system for measuring what is safe or not. Some people from the audience and other conference contributors got upset and were outspokenly critical. It was a confrontation about a choice, which seems to be very banal: to eat a soup or not, a soup of which an insignificant amount of ingredients is said to be contaminated. This moment of confrontation enabled a lasting discussion and an agonistic space emerged.”

At the same time Choi explains that composing this kind of events is not always successful. Sometimes a discussion gets in a mode of attack. “It made me think of an article by Bruno Latour: there is no good or bad, or evil and good. There is well composed and not well composed. To compose well, Casco has to create a common framework of doing and thinking and act as a moderator of discussions.” The theory Choi refers to can be found in Latour’s Compositionist Manifesto: Above all, a composition can fail and thus retains what is most important in the notion of constructivism. Everything that happens has to be slowly composed instead of being taken for granted. Choi: “When it fails, you have to continue from the failing to compose again. When there is friction or failure, work with it. Work with against.”

Although the role of a designer is not always very visible, Choi wants to stress the significance of design in their approach. “I find the ability of designers to arrange and articulate information amazing. They immediately lay down a system with multiple layers of information. For graphic design it means space division through lines and typography. Space could be two-dimensional or tree-dimensional; there it could meet architecture. It’s about how to compose information between these lines.” Can a designer’s skill to organize and structure information also be applied to research? Choi wonders for a moment. “I think design can be applied to any field if you want to be re-inventive or conscious of what you are doing. Research and debate is part of design, although it does not define design.”

Not everyone agrees with Cascos more theoretical approach to design. It becomes clear by the responses they sometimes get. “Once we had a project that involved surveys about the assumption that graphic designers are not well paid, precarious, flexible workers. As a response we got ‘why don’t you just do design practice in proper conditions in stead of this research?’ It touches the notion of audience. Should Casco’s projects reach for a broader public than artists, designers and theorists? The question alone is causing Choi a headache. “I hate public,” she laughs. “ No. Actually, a reason for Casco to rent a storefront in one of the busiest areas in Utrecht is our desire to speak further to a more pluralistic public. However, I think that the general public has already a code embedded. How to have a cultural life? Go to a museum. What should you do there? You see things, have some comments around it and then you go for dinner. This thinking is of a mass-market logic, which cannot be applied to critical practices that have to work ‘against’ the established systems, the mainstream, and the popularity. I don’t know how to break that code.”

The problem that Choi is addressing here, however, leads to a broader one. How to make people think? ‘General public’ seems to trust expertise, an established label of good art. In order to break with this one should, according to Petra Loffler – professor of Media Philosophy at Bauhaus-University – promise their audience something. A cultural cookie. Promise a little bit of shock and you have a little bit of attention. Choi muses, “that’s interesting. So openness and questioning does not work. You need to have a shock effect. Shock as a product... Choi thinks about the idea for an instant. “Perhaps it could work, to use such cookies, as a reverse decoy. As soon as people are inside they appreciate the work of Casco. But the idea of coming here, that could be the problem. You might deploy all kinds of tactics to invite the public, without the need to change your actual content. Maybe we should change our language or style of communicating, we thought about doing that. At the same time I don’t want to lose our current audience. My proposition would be again: negotiating differences and compose. You cannot only insist that your approach is right, take distance and condemn the other.”

This complexity around the notion of general public gets harder in the context of the Netherlands. “I think criticality or negativity is not culturally welcomed in the Netherlands. There is this atmosphere of gewoon (ordinary, ed.) where people live in a culture of consensus. Maybe they don’t see hope for change, are in a comfortable situation or think that the present system is okay and will get better by itself. Yet, being part of a system does not mean you cannot question it. A system without questions gets corrupt. At the same time you should be aware that you are not outside the system.” Choi Laughs. “Take a look at Casco. We are an anti- or rather post-capitalistic organization financed by the neo-liberal government.”

But then again, how should you deal with critical practice as a designer? Reality is rather schizophrenic: designers conduct their self-initiated projects in a parallel world alongside their commissioned work. Choi is quite resolute about it. “It’s the opposite of an agonistic process: either you serve the client as a graphic designer, or you do your own work. I want to remain against this approach although I feel quite sympathetic about it. It assumes the otherness and a certain ethics of violence – betraying the other.” 

According to Choi, Metahaven is a good example where you see a certain integration of commissioned work and autonomous work. “Maybe it has to do with the context. In the Netherlands you have a general appreciation of graphic design. Even every annual report is designed.” But Choi acknowledges the difficulties that (young) designers have to deal with. “If you are a critical designer and you want to be socially and politically engaged it means you want some change. Does it mean you should refuse a commission by Coca Cola? It does not. Try it, go into the composition and dare to be antagonistic inside. Even if the commission in the end fails and the contract is broken down.“

How is this awareness embedded in contemporary design education? Binna: “I once had a talk with David Bennewith, our designer who also teaches at Rietveld. He stated that he did not want to educate his students to be political. He would be happy enough if they can do the job properly. But what does it mean to do the job properly? You should know how to deal with various conflicting and limiting situations. How toxic is the production process? And if you print, what kind of paper do you use? How durable are materials and what is the budget of the client? Without knowing how the material and social world works your words become empty signs, you become a parrot. Yet I don’t think there is an order of learning: first you should learn social and material knowledge and then you get politicized. But the problem is that the majority of the students have no interest in political questions. Maybe it is a chicken and egg discussion: from what point do you confront them with this? Young designers should know that the world is complex and is more than this front and backside. Having your opinion, reading about what is going on in the world, that is participating. It’s about contributing to a collective intelligence and knowing that everyone has an effect. Even in our own office: if one person is in a bad or good mood it has an effect on the whole. Everybody is able to influence.”

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