Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Signs vs Artists



An intriguing proposition implied at Homo Ludens: the legacy of the avant-garde is not to be found in an ever-more tedious conceptualism ('an endless rehash of old questions and debates', meaning presumably the readymade, is-it-art, the suffering artist, ad nauseam) but in the most basic means of orientation, such as railway maps. Harry Beck as a true Suprematist, and the maps based on his design as Modernism's most conspicuous presence, stressing abstraction and connection over 'the facts on the ground', in turn changing the facts themselves (the revelation that a geographically inaccurate diagram was more useful for navigation than the 'real' map) . Another possible version of this could be via the schematic road signs of the 1960s: those Playmobil people that can be seen still striding round and instructing one not to get run over on every intersection in the country, accompanied by the delightful tubular Transport typeface.



These, in turn, seem to show more than a hint of the example of Isotype, the system of pictorial information developed by Mitteleuropean Marxists Otto Neurath and Gerd Arntz. Intriguingly, Isotype could be used not merely as a means of description and orientation, but also as a schematic means of political protest. Neurath apparently selected Arntz as the appropriate designer for a universal modern language on the basis the image above, 'Mitropa', where the class war was represented in a form a child could understand, without being patronising (this was Kino Fist's little tribute a couple of months ago). Isotype ended up as 4000 pictograms, cut onto linoleum by Arntz. 600 of these can be found at this fantastic website, alongside activist linocuts, images from books of statistics, etc. This all suggests a possible answer to the quandary here - of what use a left-aesthetic fixated on the drift, the labyrinth and a gradual disappearance up one's backside might be. Instead, this work proposed a truly revolutionary sharpness and clarity, a Brechtian 'usefulness'.

11 Comments:

Blogger CR said...

ah, you know that's always where I've wanted us to head. You remember the Isotypes that used to adorn AWP, right?

I have a slight incoherent paper on this I should send you. Maybe. It'd be a bit embarrassing for you to see me in my work clothes.

8:12 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Oh yes (and where have the tower blocks gone...?). Please do send: I'm always more in favour of work clothes, if not perhaps work.

8:26 pm  
Blogger Savonarola said...

This book is a superb account of how Neurath et al.'s blending of philosophy of science and socialist planning was cleansed from the academic record giving rise to the bloodless logical empiricism of the postwar period.

It turned me onto Neurath's brilliant Isotype universal history, the 1939 Modern Man in the Making, very rare but available here.

It also seems that some folks in Den Haag have seen fit to resurrect the master. Whether this suffers from "curating" remains to be seen...

9:15 pm  
Blogger Savonarola said...

Here's that last link again.

11:23 pm  
Blogger Ithaca said...

The thing that's a bit odd is that Isotype isn't available as a font or other readily usable collection of symbols. So if you want to do your own Bildstatistik you have to start from scratch. tacticaltech.org has a booklet, Visualizing Information for Advocacy, which among other things talks about Neurath's methods, but it doesn't say where you can get a set of icons; I wrote and asked, and the only thing they could suggest was DIY in Illustrator.

10:23 am  
OpenID sam said...

i thought the above link was going to be to this, http://www.iisg.nl/exhibitions/art/, which is also an interesting Arntz collection, contextualised alongside some of his contemporaries in terms of motifs and symbols.

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