Plux Quba: the Era of Neoliberal Design
“But if you’re gonna dine with them cannibals
Sooner or later, darling, you’re gonna get eaten”
-Nick Cave, Cannibals Hymn
It is 2016. I am at a dinner party in Tokyo. It is my friend Matthew’s birthday. He has turned 43 years old today, the same age that I am. Matthew is half-Japanese, half-Italian, but is an Australian citizen. He works in the finance industry. His girlfriend Andreia is an architect. Andreia is from Portugal. Throughout the evening, a number of other architects trickle into the one-bedroom apartment. Most are female. Most are Portuguese.
We drink wine and chat, leaping from English to Japanese to Spanish. I strain to understand the rapid-fire, yet mellifluous Portuguese, able to piece together only bits. I am asked to look over one woman’s resumé and cover letter. It is in English.
“Not going back to Lisbon?”, I ask.
She just rolls her eyes at me and shrugs. She doesn’t say where she’s headed, but it’s probably New York.
All of these architects work at a large firm. None of them will be returning to their home country anytime soon. These architects are working in Japan due to the implosion of demand and the mass unemployment caused by the Portuguese financial crash and resultant recession. These young women are labor mobility personified.
They are involved with assorted projects internationally — all of them quite important. Most of the buildings are connected to large corporations, cultural institutions or state governments. The company which employs them is poised to design the new Olympic Stadium in Tokyo after the fiasco that was the summary rejection of Zaha Hadid’s proposed plan.
The firm which employs these young women is very much immersed in the creation of structural symbols of and containers for capital. Meanwhile, the local economy of their home country continues to flounder after the series of economic crises over the past decade.
It is 2012. I’m in Hamamatsu to work on the identity and interior graphics for a manufacturing company. Most of the signage around the city’s core is in Japanese and Portuguese, reflecting the large local blue collar Brazilian population. The signs are the reverberations of Portugal’s colonial history and as much a reflection of Japan’s sublimated approach to foreign labor.
Since the late 1980s, the Japanese government has labored to offer work visas to ethnically Japanese Brazilians who sought to escape economic hardship in Brazil’s own unstable economy. Most work in trades or positions undesirable to Japanese — the “three K’s” of Labor: Kitsui (cramped), Kitanai (unclean) and Kiken (life-threatening).
Almost all of the Brazilians I know in Japan reside in Tokyo. They are either models or work in the design department for a telecommunications company. It punctuates something I think about often — Tokyo and Japan are inherently different. There is more wriggle room in Tokyo’s economy. There is slippage. There is more space for opportunity, but inherent risk due to the sheer cost of living being much higher.
I breathe a sigh of relief when I board the first of the three trains that will take me back home to Tokyo. Sweet, expensive Tokyo.
It is 2016. I am in my home office in Tokyo. I think about economies. I think about aesthetics. I think about Brazilian models substituted for Japanese in high fashion, advertising for seemingly naughty underwear, and how the national libido and model populace is being slowly supplanted by faces who do not have the same rights as citizens. I think about phone cards marketed to Brazilians in the age of FaceTime and Google Hangouts and cultivated markets. I think about the ambi-visual, chameleonic graphics applied to these 86mm by 54mm sheets of plastic with rounded corners — the visual subjugation of being unfamiliar with technology in the Age of Big Data. I check the phone card company’s website — it is now offering overpriced data SIM cards to foreigners, financial remittance services, dubious IP phone services with wired LAN connections and handsets with coiled cords and traditional telephones, and an odd phone chat ‘café’ service for the provision of selling company data packets (AKA the soon-passé term “minutes”).
The website is slathered in Orientalist clip art and a mix of Japanese, Portuguese and English. There is a language selector with Portuguese, English, Japanese, Russian, Indonesian, Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Thai options. Changing the language options reconfigures the offerings on the home page. Manga-esque characters chat on flip phones. There are no web fonts. There is no responsive theme for mobile devices. There is no CSS3. There is design, but circa the last decade.
We have reached the dissolved border of nations. Most of you reading this will never comprehend this. You can read English. Perhaps you can read German, and perhaps French. Maybe Spanish on a good day with enough red wine, feasting in Barcelona on paella and startup money and a ravaged economy. Perhaps another European language. Perhaps two. Count yourself as the privileged of the world.
Breathe. Consider your privilege.
The subtext of that navigation menu at www.brastel.com is this: the people who read and speak Indonesian, Spanish, Russian, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Thai are the grey area of the world. English and Chinese, those contemporary equivalents of Esperanto — they are the drag net — the catchall for everyone else fresh off the boat and seeking to phone home amid the melée of fallen economies, financial inability to obtain an iPhone, much less an iPhone for family members back home, much less our data plans, much less our internet provider, much less our connectivity to the world.
I think about all of the Portuguese signage that I have seen in Hamamatsu over the past decade — being there for the ex-girlfriend’s sister’s marathons, work projects, and visiting friends. I think about the Spanish signage that is starting to crop up throughout the city of Sano in Tochigi Prefecture north of Tokyo due to the high volume of Central and South Americans there. These signs are the symbols of otherwise hidden workforces — of segregated populations.
I think of a radio broadcast I heard last year where a Japanese politician stated that Japanese citizens would rather die than accept imported help in the health care sector due to low birth rates and a declining workforce. He stated that they “have too much pride”.
I think to myself, “that’s bullshit”. If Portuguese labor props up Japanese architecture and the down and dirty is being undertaken by Brazilian labor, how else does the Japanese economy instrumentalize others in ‘unseen' ways? I see the Filipina nannies pushing baby prams through Azabu and the Chinese prostitutes that populate Dogenzaka at night and the Pakistanis laboring in indentured servitude in restaurants throughout the whole of Tokyo and the Rwandan refugees hawking outside of streetwear shops.
It’s a quiet, quiet subjugation that denies its own very existence.
It is 2015. I am sitting on the couch in my living room in Tokyo. I peruse issue #22 of Slanted again, seeking one thing out in particular: Jeffery “Mr.” Keedy’s essay “The Global Style”. It talks about the look of design today:
The Global Style looks new, but still familiar… it radiates newness and very little else… it is obedient to the point of near transparency. On an emotional level it sublimates quotidian boredom into a contemporary expression of cool, ironic, quotidian boredom into a contemporary expression of cool, ironic ennui.”
Most of the formal and aesthetic attributes of the new Global Style are lifted directly from the International Style. White space backgrounds, sans serif typefaces, minimalist asymmetrically balanced compositions with limited color palette. No extraneous decoration, ornament or complex patters, a love of simple geometric shapes. The one notable exception is the grid.
It’s not that the grid is no longer there — it’s that the grid is no longer visible or even detectable. It is embedded in the 0’s and 1’s and x and y coordinates of digital space… just like the movie Tron, the digital environment is built on a grid (it just doesn’t glow like neon). So it is understandable why designers would stop fussing with grids when it is the ground beneath us, the water we swim in and the air we breathe in our virtual/digital world.
Keedy’s thoughts on The Global Style transcend mere aesthetics — they function as stand-in for the designer as laborer in the Neoliberal economy, unmoored from economic structures and standards of the late Fordist policies of developed nations (E.g.: in the economic spheres of design, freelance/contract-to-contract-based designer and/or adjunct design faculty sans steady employment, health benefits, et al).
Within that essay, Keedy is referring to academic or academic-seeming graphic design from the mobosphere. However, it refers just as much to the opposite end of culture — the floating badly-drawn vector koi from the other side of the world of California or the Netherlands, the 50-fonts-for-$20 ‘deep discount’ of MyFonts, image-traced silhouettes of Mount Fuji, image-traced traditional Japanese chiyogami patterns, image-traced Brazilian flags, image-traced understanding of colonialism and Empire. And I think about this from my home office — the promise that “one can work from anywhere” fulfilled. Fealty to an employer has been supplanted by ‘independence’, but at the cost of the snowball effect of exponentially increased and diversified labor for lesser returns and a simultaneous reliance on much-misunderstood PostFordist interdependence.
Though there is one thing — much of contemporary design does glow. From the ‘Galapagos phone’ to the smart fabrics on display at the Isetan department store in Shinjuku to the synced chime of the smart watch worn by Google staffers — the displays of the world glow for what they are — the luminous veneer of late Capital. Some may not have that AfterEffects plug-in radiance, but those devices at night — they glow like motherfuckers. You’ve seen them. They lead people to follow their devices wandering into traffic, onto train tracks, in front of oncoming cyclists, their cars drifting into the opposing lane — they are both the surface and the leash, unmooring individuals from the mundane while simultaneously deskilling them.
This is where we are: in a new era. I am giving it a name and staking the claim that we have entered into a new era of design history: the Era of Neoliberal Design. What Keedy calls “The Global Style” is just the skin, the ‘landlord paint’ of a world unloosed from obvious structures — both visual and economic. Design, particularly graphic design, looks the way it does now because the grab-bag of history is the ’52 pickup’ of technocratic plutocracy. Understanding graphic design today through the lens of political economy gives context and semantic space for subservient theories of post-postmodernism and metamodernism. Efficiency and flexibility in the market opens up a porousness that we can use to understand our desire to oscillate between the past and the present and the future.
This is the reality we have dwelled in since the death of grunge (a.k.a. postmodernism with the intellectualism neutered). A landscape of sans serif typefaces used in a centered axis composition overprinted with tetrahedral, futuristic ornament and browser-like images with varied dimensions and aspect ratios — and why so much design looks like the Internet printed out… and why so much design looks like different eras of the internet printed out. Locale and class bely the ‘appropriate’ aesthetic.
We cannot further deny an understanding of the synthesis of these varied aesthetics and their reason for being. We live in an age where a technology corporation has more cash than the leading economy of the world. With the opening of Cuba and the continued ascendance of Apple, an important concept has come home to roost (again) — late market capitalism is the only way forward in terms of global economies, a la Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. In a world bereft of options other than the rush to the bottom of market goods and services provided, we are forced to efficiency — it makes sense that the Internet of Things and the Design of Things look so similar. This sameness — it is the function of a market economy. It is the evidence of the pervasiveness of results/evidence-based policy, practice, design, and education.
“The poet — the contemporary — must firmly hold his gaze on his own time. But what does he who sees his time actually see? What is this demented grin on the face of his age?
The contemporary is he who firmly holds his gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light, but rather its darkness.”
Giorgio Agamben, from “What is the Contemporary?”
It is 2016. I am at my desk. To write about the contemporary involves an incredible set of problems:
- Who are you to write about this?
- How is it that you might see something that others don’t?
- What is it that makes the author a reliable narrator of an epoch or era?
I am an American who has stepped outside of my country. I live in a country where I will quietly, politely never receive full acceptance. I have spent years intellectually probing the edges of the remnants of the modern, and the postmodern eras. The alternate histories and values of design history according to my native culture and my adopted culture — attempting to make sense of it all.
The underlying tenet of what connects so much of this theorizing, the tyranny of global capital, is the administrative rationalization of the adjunct economy in education, the permalancer as the operating norm, the co-working space as the perpetual non-permanent site of labor. The knifed babies. The stolen oxygen. The cloud-based leaky wallet. The monopolization of technologies. The very ground shifting ‘neath our feet and the whispered, enraptured chant of the masses:
“Change. Change. Change…”
What narrator is ever reliable, especially in the continuum of design theory? Adolf Loos was a pedophile. William Morris employed child labor. Eric Gill thought he was Jesus reincarnated and fucked his own daughter. As a designer who writes, I am born of a legacy of the historically sick, depraved, and morally corrupt… so why not throw my own hat in the ring? Why not try? Why not understand my own existence?
This thing that I call Neoliberal Design — it is something as heuristic as it is rationalized — it is this thing I call a career: from my roles as student to intern to contractor to student to contractor to adjunct to freelance. It is my own lived history as mobile laborer in economies and between economies. It is something I have lived for nearly two decades without offer or mere mention of steady employment and all that comes with it — the phantom pain of the economic mercenary.
It is 2016 again. I am back at the dinner party, smoking on the balcony and looking in at all of the Portuguese architects. Their skin tone is light. They are not ethnically Asian, and therefore will not suffer many of the same iterations of discrimination that other foreigners in Japan will have foisted upon them. They will be discriminated against, but because of how they look, they will fool themselves into believing that they are ‘expats’, not immigrants. They will follow the glow of their devices, as we all will. And most likely, at least for them, the devices will not lead them home.
They will just lead us further into the cloud. And into the fog within.
Note: This essay is a companion piece to the exhibition and essay-as-website “That’s Entertainment!” held in York, Pennsylvania and the related series of diverse presentations given in the U.S. under the collective title “There’s Chocolate in my Peanut Butter” about the relationships of art, design, political economy and the preconceived split between design theory and design practice.