Tuesday, 16 November 2010
McSweeny’s politics and format
Typical McSweeney's cover design. A threequarters wraparound.
An example of using three wrap around bands for one cover.
The last two lectures have been about how sight itself can be used as a structuring device that can change the way we react to the world. Both lectures have looked at the gaze (the institutional gaze, Foucault, Bentham etc) where you were introduced to how the disciplining power of looking can shape behaviour and the psychoanalytic gaze which is more interpersonal, and about the power relationship between genders. Both these ways of thinking however link visual structures to forms of control.
I have been looking at McSweeney’s recently. The Dave Eggars’ led publication. The relationship between the formats of visual structures is something Eggars is always pushing the boundaries of and it is possible to think about how the subverting of visual structures can be linked to the way we think about power relationships.
You could think about the designer / audience /user relationship as being a power model. The accepted conventions of print based layout (the grid etc) and format (magazines/catalogues/pamphlets etc) being the equivalent to the existing dominant social forms (late Capitalism/consumerism etc)
However if we want to suggest a break with existing norms, such as perhaps the ‘making of a new political imaginary’ as Gibson-Graham suggests, we might need new formats to contain this new imaginary world.
We have an expectation as to how to read documents that are driven by the layout. The left to right convention, the breaking down of visual hierarchies into headings, sub-headings, bullet points, paragraphs etc, together with type size and type selection based on a particular set of conventions designed to stabilise and order information are all conventions designed to control the viewer. The designer’s training ensuring that the visual ‘knowledge’ therefore ‘power’ is firmly in the hands of the designer. However when something changes it causes discomfort. Especially if we are so used to it we don’t notice it.
We live in a particular Capital dominated political world; we are so used to this that it seems to be the ‘norm’. We are also very used to the left’s critique of Capitalism and this too has now become part of the norm. This is the same with most of the printed documentation we use. If though, for instance, the Zapatista’s goal of autonomous counterpower was realised; “by asserting and creating multiple other ways of being in the world…while at the same time furnishing new tools to address the complex set of problematic power relations it confronts us with…” (Osterwell 2004, p8) we might be asked to revision and rethink our traditional relationships.
So what’s this got to do with McSweeny’s which is about as far away typographically from the traditional anarchist zine as you can get?
For me it’s that “furnishing of new tools” for thinking that lies at the core of what Dave Eggers supports in McSweeny’s. He asks people to test out the boundaries of existing formats, not to destroy them but to see how they can cope with complexities of meaning. That old chestnut “how does the format of a printed publication reflect its content” being central to the debate.
In particular the reinvention of wraparound covers, embossing and the use of traditional typesetting, (It’s great the way they use hermeneutic text, often taken straight from the type setting of old bibles).
I would love to see Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia and A Thousand Plateaus typeset by Eggers team and illustrated by Chris Ware.
Chris Ware, cover for McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, issue 13, London, Hamish Hamilton, 2004 (top left quarter)
As their writing attempts to breakdown academic conventions (another form of invested power) the existing format and text layout serves to reinforce old patterns of thinking. But what is needed are formats that link different types of thinking. An example of this is Eggers’ cover for Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends.
Three die cut wrap around covers are used, one nesting inside the other to create a totality composed of separate parts. As a concept this could be used as a central device to construct a book about rhizomatic connections. A book could be mined, (i.e. cut into and holes bored to link other pages) paper stock altered to reflect types of ideas coming through and inserts or foldouts constructed to reflect parallel thinking. Kerning could be seen as a type of stuttering, introduced as a device to slow the reading down or express contextual worry. The grid molded into perspective devices to squeeze text and image into no spaces. Hmmm now the academic / practice divide starts to look interesting.
“A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organisations of power, and circumstances relevant to the arts, sciences and social struggles." Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus.
Gibson-Graham, J. K. (2006) Postcapitalist Politics Minneapolis: Minnesota Press