Slowly, slowly we are witnessing, how the dominating discourses, which for decades have defined the acceptable taste, are being compromised. The myth of apolitical design, as a discipline defined by some kind of objective, neutral criteria is being exposed and dismantled through the voices that until now, we have merely heard, and which were actively marginalised and omitted. As Pierre Bourdieu wrote, “Taste is first and foremost distaste, disgust and visceral intolerance of the taste of others.” , suddenly these others are cracking through the silencing mechanism of cultural and visual hegemony.
Through the process of constant research, parallel with the one of unlearning the mythical aesthetics, principles, and norms, domineering our visual landscape, Benedetta Crippa achieved in her artist’s book “World of Desire” something remarkable. She has developed a new visual language, at the same time making a political statement.
The juxtaposition of lines, drawing, painting, and writing underpinned with a thorough research of ornament as a design-category opens up a myriad of possibilities for a new radical systematic change, presenting a tangible, material alternative to the design as we were coerced to define and accept.
Zürich, 20th December 2017, Maya Ober
World of Desire is an artist’s book and research project by graphic designer Benedetta Crippa, developed during her Master in Visual Communication at Konstfack, Stockholm (2017). Here, Benedetta gave an open talk as a conclusion of her MFA titled Things I Had No Words For, where she addresses graphic design, visual democracy and the impact of feminist approaches to design education. We publish here parts of the talk, together with images from her degree work. Benedetta will bring Things I Had No Words For at Beyond Change, a 3-days symposium organized by Swiss Design Network discussing the impact of design within current social and political landscapes.
As Rebecca Solnit says, “the quiet of the listener makes room for the speech of others”, and “Silence is the ocean of the unsaid, the unspeakable, the repressed, the erased, the unheard.” I believe we live in an era of visual silence. There is something violent in the way our world is polished, in our categories of “beautiful”, “ugly” and “neutral”, in the way our Western society calls for visual homogenization. These categories are confirmed and reinforced by design education, a field still dominated by clear hierarchies between visual expressions.
Everything we see around us has been drawn before coming into being. And yet, drawing is the great absent in the field of graphic design. By entering graphic design education, it is very easy to lose one’s drawing practice as a result. Drawing is seldom included, nor encouraged, and it quickly becomes a faint memory, a relic of a distant past – a naif one.
I draw as a way of switching from an object, to subject: to affirm my existence and give form to the world beyond the way it was presented to me. If I can work to build a visual vocabulary that is meaningful to me, I can speak about my own reality, visualize it. “When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains” novelist Ursula Le Guin once said.
Roundness is everywhere and yet it is rare. My heart was so longing for shapes that could embrace me, rather than elevate me, that could translate my inner complexity, rather than representing me in a straight line, that I have filled my visual world with them. Physically surrounded by my drawings, I felt mirrored for the first time and felt I was in a place I belonged.
I also force myself to bring decoration into the work. It does not come naturally; it is an active effort to be aware of and go beyond what I have been taught to perceive as beautiful or pleasant, or “enough”. To me, decoration is about generosity and identity. By pushing myself to decorate every detail, I put care and love in something that will ultimately be given to others, and I also define myself. As Llewellyn Negrin points out in her essay Ornament and the Feminine, among other things ornament fulfills the need for identification and serves to contextualize objects in time and space. By speaking about our own identity, we drop the pretense of neutrality and contribute to a plurality of voices.
I usually write by noting down short pieces here and there – titles, captions, short or longer sentences, in a very similar way to how artist Marlene Dumas works. Reading her work gave me back the confidence to believe in and use the many short texts I already collected. It felt as if I had woken from a sleep of lack of confidence caused by the learnt stereotypes about how a text “should” be, and how we “should” write.
I am interested in disrupting the hierarchy between content and form and work in ways where images can be inspired by the text, but also words can be inspired by images. Through drawing, I have learnt to start from my visual references and mental imaginaries, and create narratives from the visual rather than the written.
In my previous years as a student I wondered why design education had to be based on intimidatory, shaming and fundamentally violent practices, all held together by deeply hierarchical thinking that tells us that we are only as worth as our work is. I found in our program a safe space, where I knew that my sense of worth as a person would have not been threatened. Away from the male gaze, I could work at peace with myself. To give us women space where we can lower our defenses so that we can focus on doing good work is to me the greatest and rare gift.
When the idea of “timelessness” is the criteria to distinguish between ‘good’ or ‘bad’ design, labeling something as “trend” becomes the ultimate slur. I wonder if this idea of timelessness we celebrate and seek is, in fact, a chimera designed to preserve and reiterate the same systems of power, while dismissing anything that tries to take space.
We live in a world where our visual literacy is crucial to the way we interact with each other and look at one another, and I see a direct correlation between the construction of visual hierarchies and the construction of hierarchies between people. I would suggest that a feminist design practice must ultimately be concerned with disrupting such hierarchies and celebrate multiple visual expressions as carriers of the meaning of a plurality of stories.
We have the ability and the responsibility, through our individual and collective practices, to describe the world beyond the way systems of power have designed it for us. We need art schools that help us achieve our full potential as human beings; where we can re-discover what we have always been, and gather the strength to be just that. We need to be given a safe space to break the silence – visual, or otherwise.
If we are resilient, the more we are shamed, the more our making becomes political. The more we are diminished, the more we grow.
Benedetta Crippa is a graphic designer and communication consultant based in Stockholm, Sweden. She holds a Master degree in Visual Communication from Konstfack University where she graduated with World of Desire, a handmade artist’s book celebrating plurality and visual democracy. Engaged across visual cultures and languages, her practice is concerned with ways in which graphic design can expand beyond current boundaries of methodology and aesthetics.