I am happy and especially proud today, as a graphic designer, to receive the Erasmus Prize. First allow me to express my surprise and pleasure in the fact that this award comes to me from the country which has already done more, indeed the most, for graphic design. Born in the hopes and torments of the 20th century, this new discipline has had a unique love affair with the Netherlands.
I often think of the magnificent example of the Dutch postal service and of the enlightened commissioning role played by Jean-François Van Royen, its general secretary. Starting in 1920, he understood that this institution, a service organization promoting communication between individuals, had, in addition to its utilitarian function, a cultural mission as well. Observing that the vast majority of formal inter-human exchanges, both nationally and internationally, took place by means of the postal service, he decided to give them what was necessary to create a refined humanism embedded in new forms. Turned over to artists, poets, the most skilled typographers, these postal vehicles became daily carriers of a social message and artistic education. Over the course of time, the Dutch PTT developed a policy of quality in all spheres of design, from architecture, by way of equipment and post offices, to postage stamps.
This intuition has been a continual lesson for me. The initiative of the postal service generated a determining cultural contribution. To my mind this contribution still constitutes a concrete and exemplary model of collective enrichment. It also teaches us that graphic design has the chance to develop in a modern, democratic society if it fosters standards of excellence in the venues and activities of the public domain. In this domain, where on principle individuals are considered equal, the tone of quality for everyone should be set.
The dissemination of public graphic design to the most socially and/or culturally deprived, is one of the means to achieve the desired aims of community and social justice. That is what provides light in our surroundings.
I cannot resist the pleasure of quoting my friend Gert Dumbar, the eminent graphic designer responsible for a large number of forms in the public domain here in the Netherlands. “The genius of Dutch Design, he said to me one day, is born from its geographic flatness “. He argued that decisions are taken rationally with the deciders and that there is a necessity to design everything so as to allow the existence of social life in a landscape that is judicious, horizontal and simplified.
This surprising and sensitive assertion is far from being false, but it seems to me to be incomplete. The image of a tabula rasa, like that of the blank page ready for creation, is behind the idea that some people have of the role of designers. But it obscures an essential point, namely that the flat country that is Holland did not simply fall from the sky!
Its creation and existence, its construction was given form over the centuries by millions of individuals: surveyors, engineers, workers, sailors, farmers, watchmen … Each one was led by the same necessary solidarity for the survival of all. This collective construction goes unnoticed today, yet I am convinced, has gone into the mindset of the Dutch. That, I believe, has allowed the modernity of design practice to be expressed here in your country, as a new tradition, bringing urbanity and in the best of cases, altruism.
Thus, in awarding my work as graphic designer in the public domain, the legitimacy you have acquired confers an even greater value to the award than my efforts. It awakens a reality of the history of French graphic design that some people would have liked to see slumber on. For, in honouring me, you honour first of all an entity that was imagined almost forty years ago now. This ‘banner-entity’ was invented right after the student revolution of 1968, with two friends, François Miehe and Gérard Paris-Clavel, who were also art students. For 30 years it bore the heroic and facetious name of Grapus.
Joined in 1976 by Jean-Paul Bachollet and Alex Jordan, Grapus was a collective studio which developed a political project. It considered itself Marxist and was active in the heart of French society: creating, designing, organizing graphic signs to be useful to the social classes that are exploited by the capitalist system, in their resistance, their struggle for emancipation and participation in the construction of a democratic alternative. It was a political commitment that I interpret today as eminently cultural and educational. It offered a view of social inequalities, which was the starting point for numerous cultural attempts to combat them.
Grapus kept itself apart from the world of advertising. It offered its services as an intermediary between organizations of the French Communist party, associations, labour unions, municipalities, cultural structures and French citizens. In its work, Grapus was open to the world. It received graphic designers from 7 or 8 different countries and dozens of interns for periods varying from a few months to several years.
Jean-Paul Bachollet who was the administrator for 15 years wrote in 1990 as a sort of summary, “Grapus has been involved in helping to create a better world. The material means to succeed in its task have often been cruelly insufficient. “
After 20 years of utopia in actions and images, when faced with this difficulty of organizing our economic resistance, our different points of view and our strategies could no longer be reconciled. I wanted to continue our adventure with public institutions, among them State institutions, but that idea was voted down. There was no alternative: we had to separate, we had to move on!
Sixteen years later, in this palace, I am happy, first of all, to thank the Erasmus Foundation for having commissioned, produced and published the work written by Hugues Boekraad and designed by the graphic designer Reynoud Homan on my work in the public domain. I am happy to be able to say to the Foundation and to these two, how much I have appreciated the investigative method and reflection that went into this joint effort, and finally how greatly the result has surpassed the ambitions put forward last March.
I am also happy to announce that the monetary component of the Erasmus prize awarded to me will allow the financing of a complete, documented research of the twenty years of activity of the Grapus studio. This study is all the more necessary today since times have changed. “The passion of reality, that of activating what is true, here and now”, as the French philosopher Alain Badiou defined the passion that inspired us, is often disparaged today as a superannuated ideology with only bad results. In its field, Grapus testified to the contrary and it was one of the principle sources of renewal in French graphic design. I thank the Foundation sincerely, therefore, for the opportunity to carry out this future project and for the pleasure we will have to comment on it and make it known.
Let me go back to 1990. Grapus left the scene. My organizational model as graphic designer was always that of the ‘collective studio’. Despite the tensions of this working approach in the encounter of two generations, it was the model I proposed to my two young, close Dutch collaborators, Dirk Behage and Fokke Draaijer. I was excited by the functionality which had trained them here in the Netherlands. They came south, drawn by the passion that I referred to just now. We had just won two competitions, one to create the graphic identity of the Louvre Museum and the other of the National Parks of France.
We decided to make our function very clear in the name of our studio: Atelier de Création Graphique. All of society suffered from an oversupply of signs and trinkets whose mediocrity often seemed only justified by their quantity. Convinced of our abilities, my two enthusiastic partners and I decided to combine the ‘Grapusian’ pugnacity with the functional and rational development of ‘modern designers’ to attempt to remedy wherever we could this grotesque ornamentation of social disenchantment.
I had acquired during those first twenty years the habit of a constructive dialectic between militant interventionism and the institutional, or if you will, official positioning that is expected of graphic work.
Those formative years were fruitful. They involved contacts with a large variety of clients: municipalities, various support and professional training organizations, social housing, but also friendships between groups of people, consumer organizations, labour unions in the most diverse areas. In addition, groups of students, engineers, librarians, journalists, sport clubs, theatre troupes, cinema clubs, universities, independent radio stations, and I cannot remember what all.
The need for visual communication has continued to grow in our country. In all of our activities, in keeping with our work for the Louvre or the National parks, the targeted public, but in particular the active protagonists of these multiple activities had to be affirmed and assured that their actions constitute a patent cultural wealth. The signs attesting their existence had to let them know this. Clearly this wealth most often has nothing to do with what we use to construct material reality. It is mental and symbolic. It participates in the cultural and civic conscience. Our project was to reveal this wealth in its complexity through the common language of signs and images. Starting in this second period I clearly saw the ‘public utility’ of graphic design in all of its social manifestations as the principle stage for our work, and not just the area of social and political struggles.
It continues to be so.
This flourishing of activities in the public domain was visibly vital in France thirty years ago. It moved through the independent and militant involvement of thousands of individuals who were committed to culture and civic activity. Little by little, mass media took over and all of those diverse activities were constrained at each level to revise their original form of expression. They were increasingly forced to regularize their appearance and often exchange the depth of their message for the required entertainment level, following the rules and customs established by the laws of both individual and big business.
At the same time, the public scene that city walls have traditionally been, were transformed into space that was expected to be financially remunerative. During this period the communication industries started to impose so-called ‘mass culture’ products which were able to bring in a great deal of money because they were directly related to the organization of consumption. They are still active in this way today, diversifying, multiplying and distributing them. They are ‘monetarizing’ public space and this has led to a general impoverishment of signs. A brief look at our cultural past will demonstrate this easily.
It would take me more time than I have here today, obviously, to offer a convincing demonstration. In this talk, I will take advantage of the authority this prize gives me to ask you to take me at my word.
In twenty years, the political, social and cultural network of my country – and I fear it is not the only country in this situation – has been transferred to the vast area of mass media expressions. Within this system, commercial licence and financial authority alone guarantee the authenticity, and even the validity of public communication messages. To refuse to obey this general tendency is part of a resistance to the dominant ideology of today, the market. An ideology that is incarnated in the consensual values of civic passivity whose accepted forms are the only ones that make up the general and permanent scene.
I do not consider commerce as a necessary evil. It is one of those social activities, whose attainments, opportunities and insights have contributed greatly to the development of all cultures. But I do not accept now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, its loud totalitarian pretension. And if I take the risk of seeming gloomy here, on this occasion when I am offering my thanks, which should attest only my happiness, it is because the situation I have briefly described is worsening every day.
Just like ecological deterioration, the damage created by commercial communication strategies has reached a global scale. These two alarms go hand in hand. They question the immediate future of our life as humans on this planet and in society. They call for a far-reaching reconsideration of the values that are the basis of our actions. In this case, that of public media communication. Clients and graphic designers are the two major protagonists in communication in the public domain. Together they create the visual social references, and consequently they should be informed and confronted with their responsibilities. It is the client who usually takes the initiative in wanting to communicate a social utility problem to the public. In the contract that binds him to the client the graphic designer takes the responsibility for transmitting the meaning of this problem. It will be born of a weaving of images and words which are the materials for the possible sharing of knowledge, sensitivity and emotions.
The act of communication is by its nature risky. It is an act that requires research. An open research, not just into graphic form, but into the orientation of the message which will give it its cultural dimension. It is not predetermined by a result that can be known in advance. The act must, to the contrary, stir public awareness, offer the greatest opportunity for consideration and judgement. Only if it succeeds in this will the act of communication not be abused and transformed into an act of propaganda. A declaration of trust to everyone, it will allow the greatest number possible to join the general forum. Conceived in this way, communication can presume to be a tool in the development of democracy, an enrichment of political life in the most profound sense of the word. My friend, the philosopher Marie José-Mondzain has expressed this perfectly in a text dedicated to graphic designers written two years ago. I quote: “Contrary to the instant, immediate readability of communication messages, the graphic designer produces objects that require time, demand patience to construct the divergent forms, the diversity of rhythms that attempt by sharing sensitivities to create public space and time where there is a role for speech. To produce visual enigmas which stimulate thought and invite speech is the only way for graphic design to participate in the creation of common space. Not a world where we are ‘as one’, but a world where there is dispute and exchange in the multiplicity of differences and divergences. A world that is a jumble of continual motion.”
This is why graphic designers cannot decide to be simple dressers of circumstances or regulations, be they cultural, social or political. Only by applying this responsibility and the freedom that brought it about, can the graphic act have the pretension of being art, without mimicking it in so doing. Graphic designers cannot disguise the values they have been asked to represent without contradicting the civic validity of the social act they have been asked to accomplish. The opposite amounts to a repudiation of their client and saps the authority of the values that both intended to serve.
This correct, ethical position was that of modern ‘designers’. Hundreds of graphic designers in our developed societies still consider it normal today and fight to have it respected. They can only do so in conjunction with clients who are convinced of the correctness and pertinence of this strategy for public utility.
Together, the graphic designer and the client have an essential task in the progress of democracy. They must assure the conveyance of common values, from one to another, knowing that the process itself is part of the general economy of this conveyance. This mission can only be accomplished on the basis of the responsibility acquired by creative freedom. In view of the difficulty of putting this process into practice, the Erasmus Prize you extend to me for my attempts underlines all of its social and cultural importance. It becomes a major political encouragement to all those who do not consider happiness to be found simply in the acquisition of material goods. It denies the market the role of determiner of values.
Our national states in their respective texts and despite their formal and historical differences have a large number of these public domain values in common. They are the ones with which we think we can construct our societies as well as our relations, both present and future. Most often they concern the totality of rules and opinions that regulate our daily life. The respect that the majority of citizens have for these values will depend to a great extent on the vitality and risks that clients and graphic designers were able to take together to succeed in transmitting them. This award opens the door to this hope. Europe, of which most of us are citizens at heart, can only be built politically in the lucidity of public, democratic communication, which is respected because it is responsible.
There is still a great deal to be done.