Seeing Power For What It Is

Why showing up matters

We tend to focus on power as something that has already been amassed. Presidents, executives, nation-states, corporations — these are institutions the word brings to mind. Power feels forceful, pervasive, and overarching. But this obscures a fundamental truth: Ultimately, power is about support.

Over the past few months, we’ve been working with the Rubin Museum of Art, “one of the biggest-thinking small museums in Manhattan,” to develop an identity for a year-long series of exhibitions and programs about power. Home to a renowned collection of Tibetan and Himalayan art, the Rubin has established itself as an oasis of calm in the midst of Manhattan’s sturm und drang. The museum adopts year-long themes that reframe its collection in order to attract new audiences by connecting ancient art with contemporary culture. The selection of power as 2019’s theme posed a provocative design challenge for ThoughtMatter:

How does an institution to which people turn for spiritual and intellectual refuge engage visitors around a subject that can connote something hard, threatening, even violent?

The resulting concept, Within and Between Us, frames power as a diffuse and ephemeral force. Within the visual system developed for the series, the circle is used to represent power as something infinitely scalable. Alone, a circle has a clarity and simplicity; together, circles form patterns and grids that can inspire or intimidate. At the same time, there is beauty in the visual chaos created when these constellations break apart. Energy can’t be created or destroyed. Whatever grand designs these circles form can be reduced to individual, indivisible pieces. Power is merely the ability to reorganize what already exists, for a moment.

Throughout our work with the Rubin on Within and Between Us, my mind has kept returning to a famous passage from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot wherein he describes a photo of Earth taken from the Voyager I space probe in 1990:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

During our work together, our friends at the Rubin introduced us to the concept of cosmic consciousness, a higher state of mind in which one perceives everyone as interconnected. To obtain cosmic consciousness is to see intention and meaning in all things, no matter how random they may seem in the moment. From this perspective, reality is not something that exists on its own — it is created through collective experience and observation.

Human beings live in the present, where institutions loom largest. But the arc of history is long. To riff on Sagan, the organizations we perceive as powerful are subatomic static on a mote of space dust. Whatever authority we exercise in life, we’re likely to be forgotten as individuals. Our legacy is left in the support that we lent to things larger than ourselves. In the end, our smallness as individuals is what guarantees inner power, because it means that we all need each other. We connect, therefore we are.

As a studio focused on work worth doing, we look for ways to use design to connect with like-minded people, and to help others do so as well. Thinking about power in such a different way while working on Within and Between Us has helped us reframe our approach to projects like our Women’s March posters. This year’s set of posters was designed for teens. We set out not just to amplify the voices of people already heading to the march but help build a sense of urgency and invitation to engage the next generation.

Writing about the novelist Walter Percy’s ‘theory of hurricanes,’ Walter Isaacson explains that “Percy’s diagnosis was that when we are mired in the everydayness of ordinary life, we are susceptible to what he called ‘the malaise,’ a free-floating despair associated with the feeling that you’re not a part of the world or connected to the people in it. You are alienated, detached. [But while] ‘people help each other in catastrophes,’ he wrote in Lancelot, ‘they don’t feel good because they help each other. They help each other because they feel good.’ The hurricane blows away our alienation.”

When a hurricane hits, we get a flash of the kind of cosmic consciousness that Within and Between Us explores. We feel good, as Percy writes, because we aren’t bogged down with larger existential questions. We gain clarity in a crisis because we see, at least for a moment, how we fit into the world around us, and we understand how to connect with the people around us. Our options are dramatically simplified: work together to stack the sandbags, or be swept away when the tide comes in.

Events like the marches scheduled for January 19th are a kind of psychological sandbag-stacking in response to threats that feel so large we can’t yet imagine what the solution looks like. You go to a march to be seen and heard not as an individual but as part of a group. And while “inner power” is a phrase that has taken on a feckless, New-Age-y gloss, it’s something we all have and have the ability to reinforce in each other. The things that we choose to support matter because we’re one of many — not in spite of that fact.

So, we’ll be out in the streets this Saturday. We hope to see you there.

This post was written by Brendan Crain. ThoughtMatter is a creative branding, design and strategy studio in New York City’s Flatiron District. Find us on Twitter.