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A Plea for Visual Disarmament

In many cases, graphic design is thought of primarily in functionalist terms, that is, as a rhetorical device to communicate certain content with “neutrality” or “objectivity,” and with a determinism rooted in the content being communicated.

But, what if we understand graphic design as a space of translation and interpretation that captures not only the content to be translated, but also the potential for subtle activism that is about our social interaction, in general?

Social activism is widespread these days: People engage in environmental protection, equality, diversity, or postcolonial discourses, for example. Graphic design plays an important role in communicating such commitments by giving them a visual voice. I call this activism with the help of graphic design. However, in the course of our thought experiment, at this point I would like to argue for activism within graphic design. And this activism could oppose the capitalist compulsion of simplification, uniformization, and escalating spectacle, as this compulsion makes diversity, mindfulness, and public spirit, for example, increasingly problematic.

The activism within graphic design, that I have in mind could be directed towards a critical reflection of our graphic design culture – its qualities and abysses. Just like we are lately busy questioning spoken and written language against the background of for example gender and post-colonial thoughts.

For there is no determinism in the design of a visual language for a particular concern. Ultimately, I have the free choice of choosing either the rhetoric of howling down or that of whispering. I have the choice whether my language is oriented towards pop cultural and/or commercial trends, or, for example, towards historical and/or postcolonial consciousness. I have the choice whether personal style is more important to me than mutability, etc.

So, in my eyes, it is not only a question of successful rhetorical function, but at least as much a question of the rhetoric culture in which we live, and in which we develop our utterances. For I wonder whether today’s visual culture supports an enlightened and discursive meritocracy – a community in which constructive achievements and skills help to make our voice heard and influential? After all, how enlightening and discursive can a language culture be, that is primarily characterized by loudness, egocentrism or rather stylistic urge, spectacle, and perhaps even aggressiveness?

We must be aware that visual communication can be as much an integral part of meaningful social and intercultural communication as its decay, since it not only supports the discursive element of public life – what I would call a quality – but also the monological, ruthless competition for attention in economized societies – what I would describe as an abyss.

In other words, visual communication potentially works just as well on social participation as on social exclusion. But isn’t the emphasis increasingly on the latter? And let’s be honest: Isn’t the orchestration becoming more and more important compared to the statement? Let’s just look at for example American election campaigns: Differentiated content disappears completely behind the orchestration.

So, are we increasingly living in a kind of “attention oligarchy” that displaces our meritocracy? In an attention oligarchy, authorship is replaced by rhetoric, because in the predatory competition for attention, the only thing that matters is gaining power through staging. For the more attention becomes the dominant currency of our time, and only an accumulation of it under the burning glass of a branding secures the existence of the individuals, the more the concentration shifts from the head to the larynx, and the spiral of individuation, spectacle and noise turns to ever more extreme heights. A spectacularly staged opinion (or conspiracy theory) then trumps any cognition – the basis of a meritocracy – since cognition means deceleration, ambiguity, modesty, listening and therefore silence.

But how could one concretize an activism within graphic design, which aims at a meaningful visual culture? My thesis is: an activism for so to speak “pacifist” and “sustainable” visual communication. Or better: an activism for visual disarmament. As someone clever once said: “They still exist, the brave ones. You just don’t hear them so well because the brave ones speak softly today.”

Or am I starting to generalize here? Am I formulating a supposedly universal, but ultimately Eurocentric view of graphic design? Honestly, it’s hard for me to escape this perspective, since I’m living and working in Europe for five decades. And therefore, I’m curious to learn about a for example Eastern perspective of this subject, since the Eastern concepts of humility, individuality and public spirit alter from the Western ones! In order to provoke this maybe altering view on the subject, let me try to elaborate my thought:

As a western graphic designer, I’m part of a system, that is completely and thoroughly economized, and characterized by neoliberal self-optimization and self-exploitation. I’m part of a society in which self- and trademark branding, and thus an omnipresent communication of overpowering is part of its DNA, and the struggle for a collective utopia is often replaced by charity. Therefore, I ask myself: How can I mindfully state something meaningful in a society of self-referential shouting necks? By shouting even louder? I have my doubts. So, would it be wrong to make visual disarmament the subject of an activism in nowadays European and/or Western design?

If I agree with this, the next question immediately arises: Are graphic designers not only rhetoricians of a message that is conveyed to them by others, with only limited power? Can graphic design evade the capitalist logic described above, pursue visual disarmament without becoming unseen, and thus contribute to the necessary nuances of an activist and porous social dialogue?

After all, we shouldn’t be deluded: The purpose of (graphic) rhetoric is the efficient use of seductive heuristics to form attitudes in other people and to influence their actions. Nevertheless, persuasion presupposes choices. And this is where I see the potential of graphic design to contribute to a constructive interaction: Graphic designers can be mindful wanderers between different ways of thinking, communicating and living.

Graphic designers can anthologize, collect, and seek and offer several answers at the same time, hoping that some of them echo with meaning. It would then not be a matter of transgression, appropriation, subjugation, or conformity, but rather a gentle back and forth, similar to the service of a ferryman. Visual communication would then not be a monologue one-way street of escalating rhetoric, but it would keep all communicative impulses attentively and dialogically in view. It would also seek the universal, but it would do this in the common, and not in the totalitarian one, or in the superficially similar, incorporable.

If graphic design wants to contribute to a constructive social coexistence – to “inter-activism” – it should echo instead of impose and (covertly) manipulate. Visual disarmament, resonance, multilingualism, tolerance of ambiguity, nuance, transparency and the willingness to transform could then be key concepts of a creative attitude that focuses on its inherent dialogic potential.

But, don’t get me wrong: The concept of visual disarmament does not mean to enforce a doctrine of generally quiet tones. It could mean, however, that for every contextually developed visual language, the question of mindfulness is raised, that is, how far the spiral of individuation, spectacle and noise can be counteracted.

Certainly, this is not an activism of grand gesture, because overpowering is contrary to the dialogical principle; after all, constant saber rattling with overflowing arsenals of weapons rarely stimulates open dialog. That’s why I think, that gentle gestures are exactly what is needed to make the conditioning by different value systems porous.

Ingo Offermanns is professor of Graphic Art at the HFBK Hamburg. In June, his comprehensive publication Graphic Design Is (...) Not Innocent was published by Valiz. It is based on the three-part conference series "Point of no Return", which took place at the HFBK Hamburg in 2019. The publication aims to initiate a dialogue between designers, scholars, critics and commissioners, who investigate responsibilities, potentials, politics, limits and risks of designing visual communication. How innocent is graphic design? Whom is it addressing, whom is it in/excluding? What does it bring about? When defining the role and impact of visual communication, what future questions lie ahead?

The text by Prof Ingo Offermanns was published first in Lerchenfeld #62.

Amna Elhassan, Tea Lady, oil on canvas, 100 x 100 cm

Amna Elhassan, Tea Lady, oil on canvas, 100 x 100 cm

Art and war

"Every artist is a human being". This statement by Martin Kippenberger, which is as true as it is existentialist (in an ironic rephrasing of the well-known Beuys quote), gets to the heart of the matter in many ways. On the one hand, it reminds us not to look away, to be (artistically) active and to raise our voices. At the same time, it is an exhortation to help those who are in need. And that is a lot of people at the moment, among them many artists. That is why it is important for art institutions to discuss not only art, but also politics.

Merlin Reichert, Die Alltäglichkeit des Untergangs, Installation in der Galerie der HFBK; photo: Tim Albrecht

Merlin Reichert, Die Alltäglichkeit des Untergangs, Installation in der Galerie der HFBK; photo: Tim Albrecht

Graduate Show 2022: We’ve Only Just Begun

From July 8 to 10, 2022, more than 160 Bachelor’s and Master’s graduates of the class of 2021/22 will present their final projects from all majors. Under the title Final Cut, all graduation films will be shown on a big screen in the auditorium of the HFBK Hamburg. At the same time, the exhibition of the Sudanese guest lecturer Amna Elhassan can be seen in the HFBK gallery in the Atelierhaus.

Grafik: Nele Willert, Dennise Salinas

Grafik: Nele Willert, Dennise Salinas

June is full of art and theory

It has been a long time since there has been so much on offer: a three-day congress on the visuality of the Internet brings together international web designers; the research collective freethought discusses the role of infrastructures; and the symposium marking the farewell of professor Michaela Ott takes up central questions of her research work.

Renée Green. ED/HF, 2017. Film still. Courtesy of the artist, Free Agent Media, Bortolami Gallery, New York, and Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin/Cologne/Munich.

Renée Green. ED/HF, 2017. Film still. Courtesy of the artist, Free Agent Media, Bortolami Gallery, New York, and Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin/Cologne/Munich.

Finkenwerder Art Prize 2022

The Finkenwerder Art Prize, initiated in 1999 by the Kulturkreis Finkenwerder e.V., has undergone a realignment: As a new partner, the HFBK Hamburg is expanding the prize to include the aspect of promoting young artists and, starting in 2022, will host the exhibition of the award winners in the HFBK Gallery. This year's Finkenwerder Art Prize will be awarded to the US artist Renée Green. HFBK graduate Frieda Toranzo Jaeger receives the Finkenwerder Art Prize for recent graduates.

Amanda F. Koch-Nielsen, Motherslugger; photo: Lukas Engelhardt

Amanda F. Koch-Nielsen, Motherslugger; photo: Lukas Engelhardt

Nachhaltigkeit im Kontext von Kunst und Kunsthochschule

Im Bewusstsein einer ausstehenden fundamentalen gesellschaftlichen Transformation und der nicht unwesentlichen Schrittmacherfunktion, die einem Ort der künstlerischen Forschung und Produktion hierbei womöglich zukommt, hat sich die HFBK Hamburg auf den Weg gemacht, das Thema strategisch wie konkret pragmatisch für die Hochschule zu entwickeln. Denn wer, wenn nicht die Künstler*innen sind in ihrer täglichen Arbeit damit befasst, das Gegebene zu hinterfragen, genau hinzuschauen, neue Möglichkeiten, wie die Welt sein könnte, zu erkennen und durchzuspielen, einem anderen Wissen Gestalt zu geben

New studio in the row of houses at Lerchenfeld

New studio in the row of houses at Lerchenfeld, in the background the building of Fritz Schumacher; photo: Tim Albrecht

Raum für die Kunst

After more than 40 years of intensive effort, a long-cherished dream is becoming reality for the HFBK Hamburg. With the newly opened studio building, the main areas of study Painting/Drawing, Sculpture and Time-Related Media will finally have the urgently needed studio space for Master's students. It simply needs space for their own ideas, for thinking, for art production, exhibitions and as a depot.

Martha Szymkowiak / Emilia Bongilaj, Installation “Mmh”; photo: Tim Albrecht

Martha Szymkowiak / Emilia Bongilaj, Installation “Mmh”; photo: Tim Albrecht

Annual Exhibition 2022 at the HFBK

After last year's digital edition, the 2022 annual exhibition at the HFBK Hamburg will once again take place with an audience. From 11-13 February, students from all departments will present their artistic work in the building at Lerchenfeld, Wartenau 15 and the newly opened Atelierhaus.

Annette Wehrmann, photography from the series Blumensprengungen, 1991-95; photo: Ort des Gegen e.V., VG-Bild Kunst Bonn

Annette Wehrmann, photography from the series Blumensprengungen, 1991-95; photo: Ort des Gegen e.V., VG-Bild Kunst Bonn

Conference: Counter-Monuments and Para-Monuments.

The international conference at HFBK Hamburg on December 2-4, 2021 – jointly conceived by Nora Sternfeld and Michaela Melián –, is dedicated to the history of artistic counter-monuments and forms of protest, discusses aesthetics of memory and historical manifestations in public space, and asks about para-monuments for the present.

23 Fragen des Institutional Questionaire, grafisch umgesetzt von Ran Altamirano auf den Türgläsern der HFBK Hamburg zur Jahresausstellung 2021; photo: Charlotte Spiegelfeld

23 Fragen des Institutional Questionaire, grafisch umgesetzt von Ran Altamirano auf den Türgläsern der HFBK Hamburg zur Jahresausstellung 2021; photo: Charlotte Spiegelfeld

Diversity

Who speaks? Who paints which motif? Who is shown, who is not? Questions of identity politics play an important role in art and thus also at the HFBK Hamburg. In the current issue, the university's own Lerchenfeld magazine highlights university structures as well as student initiatives that deal with diversity and identity.

Grafik: Tim Ballaschke

Grafik: Tim Ballaschke

Start of semester

After three semesters of hybrid teaching under pandemic conditions, we are finally about to start another semester of presence. We welcome all new students and teachers at the HFBK Hamburg and cordially invite you to the opening of the academic year 2020/21, which this year will be accompanied by a guest lecture by ruangrupa.

photo: Klaus Frahm

photo: Klaus Frahm

Summer Break

The HFBK Hamburg is in the lecture-free period, many students and teachers are on summer vacation, art institutions have summer break. This is a good opportunity to read and see a variety of things:

ASA Open Studio 2019, Karolinenstraße 2a, Haus 5; photo: Matthew Muir

ASA Open Studio 2019, Karolinenstraße 2a, Haus 5; photo: Matthew Muir

Live und in Farbe: die ASA Open Studios im Juni 2021

Since 2010, the HFBK has organised the international exchange programme Art School Alliance. It enables HFBK students to spend a semester abroad at renowned partner universities and, vice versa, invites international art students to the HFBK. At the end of their stay in Hamburg, the students exhibit their work in the Open Studios in Karolinenstraße, which are now open again to the art-interested public.

Studiengruppe Prof. Dr. Anja Steidinger, Was animiert uns?, 2021, Mediathek der HFBK Hamburg, Filmstill

Studiengruppe Prof. Dr. Anja Steidinger, Was animiert uns?, 2021, Mediathek der HFBK Hamburg, Filmstill

Unlearning: Wartenau Assemblies

The art education professors Nora Sternfeld and Anja Steidinger initiated the format "Wartenau Assemblies". It oscillates between art, education, research and activism. Complementing this open space for action, there is now a dedicated website that accompanies the discourses, conversations and events.

Ausstellungsansicht "Schule der Folgenlosigkeit. Übungen für ein anderes Leben" im Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg; photo: Maximilian Schwarzmann

Ausstellungsansicht "Schule der Folgenlosigkeit. Übungen für ein anderes Leben" im Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg; photo: Maximilian Schwarzmann

School of No Consequences

Everyone is talking about consequences: The consequences of climate change, the Corona pandemic or digitalization. Friedrich von Borries (professor of design theory), on the other hand, is dedicated to consequence-free design. In “School of No Consequences. Exercises for a New Life” at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, he links collection objects with a "self-learning room" set up especially for the exhibition in such a way that a new perspective on "sustainability" emerges and supposedly universally valid ideas of a "proper life" are questioned.

Annual Exhibition 2021 at the HFBK

Annual exhibition a bit different: From February 12- 14, 2021 students at the Hamburg University of Fine Arts, together with their professors, had developed a variety of presentations on different communication channels. The formats ranged from streamed live performances to video programs, radio broadcasts, a telephone hotline, online conferences, and a web store for editions. In addition, isolated interventions could be discovered in the outdoor space of the HFBK and in the city.

Public Information Day 2021

How do I become an art student? How does the application process work? Can I also study to become a teacher at the HFBK? These and other questions about studying art were answered by professors, students and staff at the HFBK during the Public Information Day on February 13, 2021. In addition, there will be an appointment specifically for English-speaking prospective students on February 23 at 2 pm.

Katja Pilipenko

Katja Pilipenko

Semestereröffnung und Hiscox-Preisverleihung 2020

On the evening of November 4, the HFBK celebrated the opening of the academic year 2020/21 as well as the awarding of the Hiscox Art Prize in a livestream - offline with enough distance and yet together online.

Exhibition Transparencies with works by Elena Crijnen, Annika Faescke, Svenja Frank, Francis Kussatz, Anne Meerpohl, Elisa Nessler, Julia Nordholz, Florentine Pahl, Cristina Rüesch, Janka Schubert, Wiebke Schwarzhans, Rosa Thiemer, Lea van Hall. Organized by Prof. Verena Issel and Fabian Hesse; photo: Screenshot

Exhibition Transparencies with works by Elena Crijnen, Annika Faescke, Svenja Frank, Francis Kussatz, Anne Meerpohl, Elisa Nessler, Julia Nordholz, Florentine Pahl, Cristina Rüesch, Janka Schubert, Wiebke Schwarzhans, Rosa Thiemer, Lea van Hall. Organized by Prof. Verena Issel and Fabian Hesse; photo: Screenshot

Teaching Art Online at the HFBK

How the university brings together its artistic interdisciplinary study structure with digital formats and their possibilities.

Alltagsrealität oder Klischee?; photo: Tim Albrecht

Alltagsrealität oder Klischee?; photo: Tim Albrecht

HFBK Graduate Survey

Studying art - and what comes next? The clichéd images stand their ground: Those who have studied art either become taxi drivers, work in a bar or marry rich. But only very few people could really live from art – especially in times of global crises. The HFBK Hamburg wanted to know more about this and commissioned the Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences at the University of Hamburg to conduct a broad-based survey of its graduates from the last 15 years.

Ausstellung Social Design, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, Teilansicht; photo: MKG Hamburg

Ausstellung Social Design, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, Teilansicht; photo: MKG Hamburg

How political is Social Design?

Social Design, as its own claim is often formulated, wants to address social grievances and ideally change them. Therefore, it sees itself as critical of society – and at the same time optimizes the existing. So what is the political dimension of Social Design – is it a motor for change or does it contribute to stabilizing and normalizing existing injustices?