May 6th, 2005


Get it quieter

Rick Poynor reports on Design Observer on a design conference he's been attending in Shenzen, China: Get It Louder, "a visual noise made by young creatives around the globe".

"We could have been anywhere," Poynor says. "The audience had the usual haircuts, shaven or spiky, and the same tastes in branded designer gear... It was striking how many of these pieces spoke in the lingua franca of young international design — the designers’ average age is 25. They showed the same concern with graffiti, T-shirt designs, doe-eyed cartoon figures, cute toys, robots and illustrations based on whimsical doodles. Although some of this work was produced outside China, its inclusion was clearly an endorsement of this imagery."

Well, something about the Primal Screamesque, air-punching, rockist title made me assume the worst: that Get It Louder was an exercise in "we are the world" arrogance, a celebration of gung ho capitalist luxury, an attempt to establish a corporate-sponsored pantheon of Chinese designer superstars in the Karim Rashid mold. I left a sweeping, snippy comment contrasting countries emerging from communism with countries emerging from capitalism:

"It's strange that "design" has come to mean this particular configuration of things ["graffiti, T-shirt designs, doe-eyed cartoon figures, cute toys, robots and illustrations based on whimsical doodles"], and that when this assortment is absent we say that design is absent from a country, and when it's present we say that design is present. One virtue of Vice magazine's recent satirical guide to design was that it reminded us that everything from glue-traps to home-made weapons is design, and that design isn't just something that follows Karim Rashid around like a cloud of scent. It isn't, in other words, an index of luxury, or of capitalist surplus.

"Countries emerging from communism often go through a period in which they parody capitalism, and I suspect China may be doing this now. Personally, I think countries emerging from capitalism, countries in which a "post-capitalism" can be seen, might have more to tell us about the future. I'm talking about "Slow Life" Japan, for instance. These countries are interested in exactly the kinds of sustainable design, low-tech, cheap, elegantly simple, which are being abandoned in the glitzy showcase design conferences of India and China, although they survive in daily life, particularly away from the cities."

But actually, having looked at photos of the stuff on display at Get It Louder, I have to admit that the contrast with Japan doesn't stand up to scrutiny. This stuff looks exactly like what you'd see at equivalent events in Japan, and the people making and looking at it look exactly like young Japanese. Well, let me qualify that. It looks like Japan five or ten years ago. The graphic design looks a bit 90s, and the incorporation of traditional Asian motifs, manga characters and so on looks like what Hiropon Factory were doing in the early days. But I have to say that it looks like China and Japan are doing pretty much the same kind of thing, and that China is presently mere seconds behind.

This brings me back to my first comment. The thing that can distinguish Japanese cultural production from Chinese has been narrowed to this question of upward and downward economic growth, and the mindset that goes with it. With economic growth comes an air-punching triumphalism, a get-it-louder, we-are-the-world vulgarity: colours too bright, consumption too conspicuous, DJs revered as superstars, skateboards revered as art, and so on. With economic shrinkage comes a certain sobriety, a certain responsibility, a certain respect for the rural, the environment, a certain mutedness and rootedness. This is visible in Japan: it's also visible in economically sluggish Berlin, where all the major art and design events tend to balance utopian themes with ecological motifs and a sober accent on urbanism, anti-capitalism, even terrorism (the recent RAF show at Kunst-Werke).

Yesterday saw the opening of Berlin's third annual design festival, Designmai. The theme is "Brave New World: Design for a Better Future". I'll be reporting on the shows I see over the next two weeks, but I can already tell you that the "better future" rising over Berlin's horizon won't have much to do with being better off.