Projects like the visual/literary journal Four Minutes to Midnight (23:56 from now on) evoke Steve Baker’s “A Poetics of Graphic Design?” The 1994 article—which appeared in the Andrew Blauvelt-edited New Perspectives: Critical Histories of Graphic Design—is one of the most intriguing essays written about graphic design criticism. It proposed a unique method of representing design activity.
Baker drew upon the writings of French feminist writer Hélène Cixous to propose a “more imaginative form of critical writing.” It would “…take(s) its lead from Cixous’s demonstration that the visual and verbal need not always be kept strictly apart, but can escape to each other’s territories and beyond.” This “graphic design poetics” would be a critical method that (no surprise here) evaded the “’masculine’ linearity” prevalent in criticism and multiplied meaning. Before that, graphic design’s nature as a hybrid form of text and image interplay simply calls for a distinctive form to discuss it.
Baker affirmed his article was only “very provisionally gestured” toward what a graphic design poetics might be. Which, depending on your viewpoint, made it either literally nothing to consider or an inspired provocation. As a fan of contention, I’ve long been content to contemplate the latter. As a profession, graphic design asserts definition, not uncertainty and open-endedness. Practicality and practicability are keynotes. An eventual mystery is invoked—why a talent will select this color or typeface over that—but only within the field.
As the overwhelming majority of graphic design activity involves crafting prosaic artifacts, a “poetic” graphic design study begs a label of double pretension (the first pretense is, for many practitioners and outsiders, criticizing design at all). Utilizing it to consider more challenging (i.e. less standardly commercial) graphic design products at least removes the initial incredulity.
This brings us to 23:56, a limited edition (300), independently published journal by Kevin Lo and John Stuart. Issue 10—as were the prior issues—is a paperback-sized (roughly 4.5″ x 7″) soft-cover book. Contents are an assembly of submitted and composed elements, curated more than edited.
The theme of the issue is “Radical Beauty,” something I know from messages soliciting material (and announced on their web site) but unstated in the book itself. Submissions are subject to reconstruction and combination with other material. This process is beyond the typical adaptation that graphic design traditionally does. By-lines are provided (along with a list of contributors) but it can get fuzzy who’s done what. The book is paginated but not indexed.
Formally, the layouts move between classic, straightforward representations of texts (stories, verse) and “expressive” treatments tending toward layering, bleeds, and fragmentation. Writers can get very touchy about how their copy is presented; however, even the most intrepid settings evince a respect for the word.
23:56 is a descendant of Now Time, the L.A. cultural magazine that lasted only four issues from 1992–95. The publication (three of the four issues designed by ReVerb and friends) was similarly a varied blend of formats and content, marked by an arresting farrago of typography.
For the design aficionado with a ‘progressive’ leaning, 23:56 is a satisfying, well-crafted typographic and compositional piece. The typography utilizes a limited base set of stylish contemporary faces, which imply “serious reading” without being staid.
However, there is a constant sense of menace, of gravity about the content. The monochrome page inking is surely an economic decision but it contributes to a sober sensibility. On the title page, the issue numeral “10” is rendered in skulls. The title itself indicates suspense and is literally “dark.” Not much light at four minutes to midnight.
The issue as a whole mixes light and dark: day is invoked along with night. A tempering and counter-pointing of emotions occurs throughout. But shadows are always looming. For instance, the color cover design is primarily sunny and bright. Against a vivid green background, a deft collage of images resolves into a pleasant image of a seated woman in a floral dress. However, a fragment of text extends from behind a grey-scaled turned-away face overlaid with a text fragment that—like a thought balloon—in a graceful, serif italic jarringly declaims “…laughing ‘fuck them!’”
What keeps the content from becoming oppressively dour is the stylish (in every good sense of the term: considered, aesthetically affirming) design, particularly the typography. Though it’s bad news for the writers, I’m content to let the typography to move me on its own, like melody. The texts become lyrics whose purpose is to add the human voice element—and not be distracting (or dumb). In this sense, it’s off point to enjoin them to “lighten up, dude!”
The open call solicitation makes 23:56 a grab bag, hit or miss collection of images and writings. The quality is variable but never embarrassingly low. What’s significant is that there is, throughout, a marked consistency of tone and outlook. Memes of struggle, resistance, troubled desire, and doubt threads through all the texts. The imagery begins light-hearted—a photographic sequence of a woman (girl?) blowing bubbles gives way to more enigmatic and disturbed graphics.
The public politics that are implicitly (and explicitly) espoused are earnest, liberal-progressive, centered on resistance to intellectual control and corporate hegemony. The personal politics negotiate classic themes of estrangement, regret and yearning—for intimacy and the language to foster it. These politics are intertwined within the texts, and their collation within the book.
Many of these expressions, image and text—seem familiar, often expected. At some point, I knew I’d encounter documentary evidence, here photographs from Kosovo and Afghanistan, which keep it all publicly real. Eventually, I’d encounter the personally frank, in the form of erotic—but tasteful—nudes (here, always women). Eventually, some comics set at the end, complete with some character cussing.
It comes close to a template of progressive literary art journal. The result can be a sameness, a set of predicable expressions repeatedly shuffled. Of course, this is, to a degree, a simplistic reduction few publications could endure. Yet, in reading the issue, there was an absence of surprise. It was admirable, pleasant…but comfortable.
My notion of beauty wasn’t radicalized. If anything, it was affirmed and gratified. The theme could have acceptably been exchanged for any number of concepts. It may be that I’m really jaded and/or there’s no more axis to extend on what’s considered “beautiful.” We can only loop/twist back in on ourselves like a Klein bottle.
The consistency of attitude and the relative ease factor raises the concern that the “architecture of resistance” becoming codified, diagrammatic. 23:56 serves as a call to and document of a community. Establishing an identity is important. But fashioning tropes and clichés of “alternative” content is as insidious as the hegemony of the corporate/consumerist mainstream. Do we exchange one uniform for another?
I don’t want to overstress this point, as I worry more about no think than groupthink (I am positing that there’s a distinction). What’s most important is that a project like 23:56 continues to hang in there. As a graphic design artifact, it’s thoughtful and finely crafted. If it’s a “uniform” of resistance, it’s a damn good looking and tailored one. I can only applaud an effort that is surely a financial (and often emotional) burden. There’s little external affirmation in these kinds of efforts. It’s pride in keeping to one’s principles and the delight gained in bringing your ideas into form. It may be my own predilection but I have more faith in the product of those impulses than commercial determinism (or prodigiously-funded creative-celebrity-driven products). That faith is that the 23:56 will knowingly and willingly explore and adapt in response to real needs of community.
Meanwhile, I don’t know about the viability of a poetics of graphic design. Artifacts as subtle as 23:56 deserve a criticism that’s similarly imaginative and expansive. As part of this speculative poetics, Steve Baker proposes utilizing ekphrasis. This poetic device (here Baker quotes Grant Scott) “…might be a ‘featured inset’ which ‘digresses from the primary narrative.’” It’s a “strategic…form of interruption.” I don’t know if this is a graphic design poetic criticism you’re reading. But consider my discussion of it your interruption.