The end of heroes as we know them — Aesthetics of societal storytelling

Musuta, ‘Resolve,’ 2018. A short film for peace mediation organisation Crisis Management Initiative CMI. © Musuta

Creative agency Musuta’s co-founder Timo Ramu talks about shifting narratives of peace and their short film ‘Resolve’ for peace mediation organisation Crisis Management Initiative CMI.

TEXT HEINI LEHTINEN | IMAGES MUSUTA

In 2017, creative agency Musuta’s co-founders, Jopsu Ramu and Timo Ramu, were invited for a lunch to discuss possible collaboration with Crisis Management Initiative CMI. Over the lunch with representatives of the peace mediation organisation, the conversation lingered to narratives of peace and war. What are the narratives that are traditionally communicated? What should they be?

Known for their work for global luxury and lifestyle clients such as Issey Miyake, Shiseido, Muji, Star Alliance, Nokia and Finnair, the awarded design agency Musuta also has created films and campaigns for third-sector organisations. In their work for SOS Children’s Village International, Musuta aimed at making visible the emotional state of children who are afraid at home. In a series of short films for Fragile Childhood, a campaign aiming at preventing alcoholism in families, Musuta visualised how children experience alcoholism of their parent.

Timo Ramu | Musuta

For Crisis Management Initiative CMI, Jopsu Ramu and Timo Ramu wrote and created a short film ‘Resolve,’ which depicts a society that falls apart due to war and grows back again. The film, which was released in December 2018, celebrates the 10th anniversary of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Crisis Management Initiative CMI’s founder, President Martti Ahtisaari. Challenging the conventional visual language and narratives of peace and war, Musuta and animation agency Fake Production use abstract and refined visual tone in the film — a visual language that is more common in the high-end commercial than in the third sector.

For Timo Ramu, making ‘Resolve’ also challenged his own perspectives on the imagery of war and hero stories traditionally shown and told. In an interview, he questions the traditional narratives of war and peace and sheds light to aesthetics of communicating social grievances.

Musuta’s aesthetics is refined and harmonious, and it differs from the aesthetics usually seen in the third sector. When communicating societal issues, the visual language could almost be said to aesthetise — beautify — societal grievances and dark sides of human behaviour. Have you received feedback about the aesthetics used in your works for the third sector?

Usually the feedback has been positive, but it’s a good note whether it’s wrong to aesthetise societal issues, or whether it’s just indulging in aesthetics. I think that it’s not. I see it as our way of looking into things and finding out what kind of a feeling is triggered by something.

If you look at marketing in the third sector, humour is often used as a means of communication. On one hand, using humour is healthy, but it feels bad to joke about things that are, in reality, just horrible. Talking about war is often avoided, or the discussion stays on the level of a child-talk. We don’t really want to deal with the emotions that could potentially emerge, but how to improve if we don’t recognize that what’s happening is just horrible? People die and after the war you have to deal with people who have killed even your loved ones. You don’t really want to joke about these things.

In order to arouse an emotion, it has to be aesthetised. Otherwise it doesn’t trigger a reaction. Emotional process is subconscious, and images and stories create an emotion. I think that critique against aesthetics as a means of communication nullifies itself, because then you wouldn’t be able to use an emotion-triggering metaphor either.

It’s really challenging to try to speak to the soul with facts — and by ‘soul’ I don’t mean a religious soul, but soul of humans. Robots and AI having a rational discussion with each other lacks humanity. And when humanity is lost, all is lost.

Musuta, ‘A like is not enough,’ 2016. A short film for SOS Children’s Village International. © Musuta

Filmmakers such as Isaac Julien and Richard Mosse are known both for their societal critique and beautiful, refined aesthetics. Richard Mosse’s film installation The Enclave at the Irish pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale in 2013 received critique for the use of strong pink colour when depicting the conflict in Congo, but the astonishing aesthetic experience of the film installation etched both the aesthetics and the brutality of the content to the minds of the viewers. How do you see the role of aesthetics in communicating societal grievances?

It’s really challenging, I think. Really showing brutality faces a risk of cognitive dissonance in the viewers. When what we are seeing clashes with our beliefs, we shut out the horrors we are seeing. This way, the message doesn’t reach the viewer. It works if the viewer has an open mind, but if they are not ready to face the brutality, it creates strong cognitive dissonance.

For this reason, toothpaste is marketed by showing shiny white teeth instead of rotten ones. If you show an image of rotten teeth, people don’t want to use the toothpaste.

It’s important to reach the feeling and the emotional reaction, and let people connect the pieces in their minds and understand. If you see a person on the street, it takes a lot of emotional and cognitive skill to be able to think of yourself in the same situation. If you achieve to transmit even a crumble of that feeling by means of an image or aesthetics, and enable the viewer to understanding and to be aware of the grievances close by or far away through aesthetics, it’s worth it. This understanding is something that can be communicated only through aesthetics — or at least it’s very difficult to communicate this by other means. Human beings are subjective and a subjective experience — and understanding — is born out of emotion.

Musuta, ‘Resolve,’ 2018. © Musuta

In our earlier conversation, you were talking about narratives of peace and war from a perspective of a designer and a filmmaker. How do you see the current or traditional narrative of war and peace?

History of a state, for instance, is often told through a story of war heroes. Veterans who fought in wars are idealised and statues are erected for the warlords. It is great that the veterans have defended the country and I feel very humbled when facing them and trying to understand what they have gone through. The traditional myth of a hero as a narrative is problematic, because it often glorifies that ‘winning’ in the war means having killed and having become a hero by killing others.

Warlords are responsible for killing masses of people, each veteran has had to see killing, and they have had to see themselves killing. For instance, post-traumatic stress disorder is not so much caused by what you have seen, but what you have seen yourself do to others.

As an example, aesthetising battle scenes in films is repulsive, because the perspective of the other side is always exactly the opposite. Our heroes are their murderers. We often think that history is easy to tell through heroic journeys. That’s the oldest story of the humankind, but it’s a wrong way to tell the story of war.

I understand that it’s easier to handle the history through heroic stories, but it avoids the real feeling of the horrors. Having killed is not heroic. The hero of the war is the one who doesn’t kill, which is quite a pacifistic view.

Musuta, ‘Resolve,’ 2018. © Musuta

There is a need for a more humane narrative. How would you approach that?

Why don’t we tell the perspective of those who do not wage war, but who suffer?

War around those who suffer is like a natural force, but it’s not. People start wars and they can also end wars. I have liked war films, but if you start to think about it, it would be a lot more interesting to see the war through those who are afraid.

For instance, I have read [children’s author] Astrid Lindgren’s wartime diaries from the WWII, when she was working as a censor in Sweden, reading mailed letters. She had good observations as an outsider, and also real fear and sorrow about what’s happening in the world. Someone shooting you is not heroic or gracious on either side, but a crime against humanity.

Musuta, ‘Resolve,’ 2018. © Musuta

How is ‘Resolve’ creating a new narrative of peace?

It may not create a new narrative; this narrative exists but it’s maybe not told that often. We tried to reach even a bit of the feeling of how plunging into a conflict feels emotionally, how you drown and end up in destruction. If you look at the story from the perspective of experience, there is no hero, but the story follows what happens when the conflict arises and destruction strikes. There is only one way out — through light and being reborn together.

At the very first lunch with Crisis Management Initiative CMI, we ended up discussing about how to think of peace as the heroism of peace. What is overcoming oneself in peace? What is the hero myth of peace?

From there, we started to think of how to come up with a piece that approaches falling into a conflict, how CMI aims in bringing the pieces back together, and how people — individuals — make decisions about peace and war. ‘Resolve’ was a long and technically ambitious project, and we were happy to work with Fake Production in realising the film.

I was once in a conference listening to Michael Johnson, the founder of London-based graphic design and branding consultancy Johnson Banks. The agency largely works on organisations that tackle big societal issues such as child poverty, education or open internet. Traditionally, private sector companies have largely worked pro bono for NGOs and other third-sector organisations. In his talk, Michael Johnson strongly stated that pro bono is not a sustainable approach, nor the approach they use at Johnson Banks with their third-sector clients. He argued that getting paid, even if some less, is the only sustainable way to produce high-quality design work also for the third sector. Musuta has also worked for the third sector organisations that tackle societal issues. What is your approach to this — how do you work on third-sector projects?

I understand his point. We often work with reduced fees for the third-sector organisations, and also do some pro bono work. However, doing pro bono is difficult; the small ones cannot fund saving the world, because it’s directly off of our own income.

As a large-scale question, it’s really wrong that there is funding and investments for developing hubcaps and what-not, whereas common good or building peace should be done pro bono. Do we go to war or not are issues that are negotiated, whereas it should be obvious that funding should be directed to building peace. The whole thing is upside down: societal issues and building peace are exactly the issues that the big ones should direct funding for.

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The interview is a part of ‘Spaces of Peace — Architecture as Contextual Diplomacy,’ a project and a series of talks, articles and interviews by design and research agency Raven & Wood Agency. ‘Spaces of Peace’ looks into crossovers of design, architecture and peace mediation in order to find synergy between the sectors.

RWII by Raven & Wood Agency

Thoughts on beauty, spatial health and architectural diplomacy.

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