“From attitude to form”, HQ Magazine, 2008

Otl Aicher once spoke of “the world as design”. Which also means: design need not always come from the various disciplines—photography, advertising, product, architecture, event, corporate design—but can also take on form as expression of an inner attitude. Indeed, the works that do not result from commissions are what fascinate me most, the ones, in other words, without deadlines or financial targets pushing this form in a certain direction. But on the other hand, works that cannot be counted as art in one of its modes of expression—music, painting, theatre etc.—for these are by their very nature free, even if they do have to adapt to other laws, such as those of art commerce, galleries, museums, theatre venues, and performance halls.

I mean the works that do not fit into any category and nonetheless, through their attitude, take on form. When the form then becomes visible, it is, of course,—like all other visible things subject to external influences such as criticism, power, politics, commerce, storms. But when they came to be, these works were free. At least free of the categories we usually assess them by, and above all free of the pressure of planned-for success. For success did not come about until afterwards, from the very fact that something had been created and taken on form.

That is why I intend to talk in this new edition of HQ—the subtitle—Magazine for Design—of which has been retained—about a number of projects and activities that did not come from the design disciplines, but developed a remarkable design quality because this inner attitude I am talking about was so strong. Phenomena that are, at first, only determined by the content component, but the content of which takes on such convincing form that it becomes just as striking, suggestive, or designative as a logo that has been meticulously arrived at in keeping with all the rules of art or even as an entire corporate design … extremely divergent projects which amply illustrate that attitude is where true design begins.

For example the chain of light in Munich in 1992, as a protest against xenophobia and right wing extremism. Here, Munich truly sparkled; the overwhelming participation of the population in the demonstration planned by Giovanni di Lorenzo and his associates was one of the outstanding events in German history since the unification and probably also since the end of the war. One reason for this great resonance was surely the wonderfully fitting form, that combined multi-faceted, harmonious symbolism with a simple and easily recognized symbolic element. Light, the age-old symbol of hope, warmth, and thus of humanitarian values, in its simplest conceivable and practical application—a candle brought along by the participant—produced an impressive, unmistakable, and immediately understood symbol.

A more wilful, but ultimately no less poetic symbolism is shown by my next example. Using a quarter million plastic bottles, Richie Sowa, a carpenter from Middlesborough, built a floating island in the GuIf of Mexico in 1998 and called it Spiral Island. He covered the 320 square meter area with sand, built a two-storey house of reeds with a solar stove and compost toilet on it, and planted shrubs and trees on the island. What a new twist on recycling! An act of reconciliation with nature and at the same time a socially relevant experiment: creating land from garbage. The combination of both extremes in a single form—lonely island and detritus of civilization—makes the field of tension and the social-ecological potential of the installation constantly palpable, not a work of art, but a pioneering step which makes ist point in its very form. —Seven years later, a hurricane destroyed this little paradise.

The famous Burning Man event, initiated more or less spontaneously in 1986 by Larry Harvey, has developed from an event on a beach in San Francisco among a circle of friends to a week-long festival in the Nevada desert with over 40,000 participants. The main event has remained the same: the burning of a larger than-life wooden sculpture (which has grown over the years from 2.4 meters [7‘ 10“] to 12 meters [39‘]) and other highly artistic works, such as Uchronia by the Belgians Jan Kriekels and Arne Quinze and their team (2006). The affair is far more than an over-sized summer solstice bonfire. The creative act of combustion, and thus actually a de-formation, pointedly indicates the true essence of the event: it isn’t the work that counts, hut the energy. Not matter, but spirit—what happens in the way of inter human contact, solidarity, experiences made together in the quickly constructed and then completely dismantled town. Utopia is tempor ary, utopia is the moment that cannot be held on to. Only the idea is preserved and takes on a new, different, temporary form from year to year—as Burning Man, as emblematic as it is programmatic.

Completely beyond the visual sphere is Daniel Barenboim‘s project (co-founded by Edward Said), the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Young people from Israel, the Palestinian autonomous region, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Spain come together in Sevilla every year to work out a concert programme. The furthering of understanding between peoples, surpassing cultural and religious boundaries, could hardly be realized more effectively, by virtue of its symbolic message as well as a practical act: an orchestra, as such the symbol of harmony, that is recruited in the places where today Jews, Moslems, and Christians mingle, as they did in historic times —from Andalusia to Palestine—and is named after the collection of poems by the German cosmopolitan Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who was in turn inspired by the poetry of the great Persian poet Hafis… All these preliminary signs have the effect of a symbolic emblem through which music, the most abstract of all the arts, takes on perfect form.

My last example is the well known Google site, which is characterized by a complete absence of design. A blank for the search ward, a search button with the naively colorful name above it—that‘s it. No design frills, and this with such consistency that it is its identifying insignia. With the search engine developed by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the potential of the World Wide Web could finally really be realized: the possibility of simply calling up a search word with no prior knowledge brought about a democratization of the Internet. So what could better correspond to this attitude than the rejection of all aesthetic spoon-feeding? Google is what it is: content without form—and consequentiaIly it found form as non-form.

Of course, the examples presented here have further aspects in common, beyond their self generated form. One of them—perhaps not the most noticeable one—is the tremendous discipline of each of these works or events. Take the spontaneous discipline of a large crowd of people to carry aut a certain act an a certain day at a certain hour, or the virtually mythical seeming patience and perseverance needed to collect 250,000 empty plastic bottles, or the effort and long-term commitment needed to assemble a wooden sculpture that will be burned shortly after it is finished. As to the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, no comment is needed: after all, a symphony orchestra is the embodiment of discipline. But the Google site bears witness to it, too: how many thousand design possibilities are there, and how unyielding must one be to resist them!

lt is by no means by sheer accident that these examples all have discipiine in common. On the contrary, this has to do with their very essence: for these projects—regardless of whether they were successful or not, have or have not become commercial in the meantime, are historic or still topical—are characterized in their conception by a strong impetus I would like to call “change through multiplication”. Each of these projects changes not only reality (basically, any act does that), but is motivated by a spirit to change it. The discovery of a broad solidarity against xenophobia in Munich, of all places, with its questionable past in this regard, in over stylized and on the other hand stubbornly provincial Munich, was a collective revelation. On the individual plane, the escape from the cycle of returnable bottles to a self-sufficient island world of one‘s own was a radical liberation of downright prototypical character. The common experience of a temporary city-state in the desert as weil as the joint dose co-operation of Jews, Christians, Mosiems, Europeans, Arabs, and Israelis in one orchestra have an obvious effect in transforming awareness—and Google‘s liberating achievement was already mentioned above: its aim is nothing less than to enable everyone in the world who has access to the net to have access to all the information contained on it.

This impetus, this attitude that places one’s own action in a greater context and applies and concentrates all energy to positively change our world without reservations, calculation, and possibiiity of evasion: this impetus is the attitude that finds its form despite all resistance. That is what interests me as a designer, for it is the only source of existence for our profession.

From Attitude to Form. Aus Haltung wird Gestalt.
In: Jürgen Rautert: HQ – high quality. Best of advertising, art, design, photography, writing.
Heidelberg 2008, 
ISBN 978-3-89904-330-3.