The trouble with fiction… is that it makes too much sense. Reality never makes sense.” John Rivers in The Genius and the Goddess (1955)
“When we see a rose, we immediately say, rose. We do not say, I see a roundish mass of delicately shaded reds and pinks. We immediately pass from the actual experience to the concept. — Aldous Huxley
This is NOT a project about fake-news in the contemporary sense. It is a project aimed at looking at meaning at reality, and what role graphic design plays. Specifically, it is meant to question how fiction influences our personal reality.
Graphic design is sometimes compared to art as a discipline that answers questions and solves problems, while art is a discipline that expresses, questions, and exposes. I wonder if graphic design can do both. Maybe not at the same time.
Author Michael Connelly’s Hieronymous ‘Harry’ Bosch is a murder detective in LAPD’s Hollywood division. To explain his Mid-century, stilted house in the hills, as well as reflect common practice, the hero Bosch made a lot of money working as an adviser to a movie based on a fictionised version of one of his cases. When Amazon started to adapt the books for a TV series, the poster to the fictional movie hangs in his house, for purposes of exposition probably. Based on the success of the TV show, the new version of the book uses the design of the fictional poster on the cover of the latest edition of the book. I am not sure what is imitating what here anymore.
Interestingly, Bosch is considered a TV show that portrays the real LA, one that Angelenos would recognise. Los Angeles is a character in the stories, but even then, the cinematographer/director makes use of allusions to famous Julius Shulman) images to show the protagonist watching over Los Angeles. And it is a Los Angeles that SOME Angelenos would recognise. It is still not the real Los Angeles, and I am not sure a film or TV show can ever achieve that.
I was born in California because my father heard the Mamas and Papas’ ‘California Dreaming’ while driving in the rain and decided to move there. I then grew up in central Germany, which also has plenty of rain, and like much of the rest of the world, also has plenty of American-(Hollywood)made entertainment. An export that propagated American values, beliefs, and culture throughout the world. When I moved to Los Angeles decades later to experience it for myself, I now realise that I was experiencing it through a personal lens, shaped in part by these films and television shows, and I am assuming that this continues to this day. My fascination with the city is still in part influenced by fictional versions of it – if only due it forming a contrasting version and tension of what I now see and experience.
Design frequently includes a ‘definition of target audience’ element in its process and rightly so, but nature went out of its way to make sure each human is different. While we may agree about some things some times, we are influenced by our individual histories, stories, memories, and backgrounds. There are individual personal readings of any object.
And fiction can have an influence on these.
Los Angeles has acted as more of a set than a city for the last century according to Thom Andersen, and while it still does that to an extent, it has also added another element. The reality show, which if it did not originate in Los Angeles, has certainly grown up and become cynical in this city. Is Keeping up with the Kardashians a documentary? It isn’t, there are multiple takes, there are edits, there are even writers on these shows. It is not the truth, but it is also not a lie, it is not satire like a mockumentary, it is perhaps the most dangerous of all, it is a myth, it is a very long campaign or propaganda. It should also be mentioned that news has become entertainment and entertainment has become a better source of news in some cases; most famously, though not the first, John Stewart’s The Daily Show ran on Comedy Central and became a source of actual facts, which has arguably been taken to the next level by Daily Show alumnus John Oliver whose comedy show now borders on investigative journalism using all the tropes of newsroom and VTRs.
Many of the designers involved in creating sets have also branched out into creating spaces outside of the film industry, which however use the same trompe l’oeil approach, The Grove, complete with tram, looks like a small village but is in fact a privately owned shopping mall.
The American West has always been a place for people to come to start over and change their name, their history – Eadweard Muybridge was plain old Edward Muggeridge in Kingston-upon-Thames before making it to the U.S.West Coast.
‘The West presented many opportunities to become what is commonly called a self-made man, a man of wealth, but it offered more profoundly an opportunity to make oneself, as a fiction, a character, a hero, unburdened by the past’*
Much like art and design use the same tools and media, so to do fact, fiction, satire, promotion, and myth. All are presented in the same medium, television or online. How can we expect viewers to tell the difference? If I walk down to the beach and fill a cup with water, is this an accurate representation of the Pacific Ocean? Even facts presented in isolation can be paradoxically untruthful.
‘But I deal with it by having no access to information, except in rare circumstances. Again, I prefer to read poetry. If an event is important enough, it will find its way to my ears… The same methodology can explain why the news (the high scale) is full of noise and why history (the low scale) is largely stripped of it (though fraught with interpretation problems). This explains why I prefer not to read the newspaper..’**
Graphic designers are at times complicit in the deception, they might not be there during the crime, but they definitely helped with the planning of the heist – maybe they are a look-out. Packaging designers are maybe the most obvious culprits, but there are designers working for pharmaceutical companies, the Trump campaign, FOX news. I am not saying that every designer is cynically trying to manipulate a ‘target audience’ but designers like to think that they work with the truth. Even maps that should be one of the most objective of the graphic design outputs (scale notwithstanding) cannot help but be biased in some way. Some times it is, of course, intentional, which was used during the Cold War, redistricting and gerrymandering are forms of this too. But even the Mercator map which was aimed at making navigation easier distorted the sizes (and importance) of landmasses. And then there is Algoe, New York. Still, maps and signage designed, intended, and used to navigate a space remain some of the most objective forms of graphic design.
This is a large topic, too large for this four-week project, I am going to mainly focus on factual and fictional accounts of Los Angeles, and rendering these in a graphic format. which may or may not get close to art rather than design. the juxtaposition and literal and metaphorical layering of text, media, and images asking if an honest fiction is the only form of truth?
*Solnit, R. (2004). River of shadows. New York: Penguin Books, p.33.
**Taleb, N. (2008). FOOLED BY RANDOMNESS. 2nd ed. New York: RANDOM House, INC, p.67.
Courbet and Manet, art depicting life happening. “The most interesting art to me is always kind of a critique of the culture,” she says. “Technology gives us a false sense of confidence that everything is always evolving.”
ethics for designers
What is the graphic designers role in a post-truth society?