Joël Vacheron: Let’s start with a little introduction about your background ?
Daniel van der Velden: I am a Graphic Designer. I originally was trained at a time when Dutch design was really booming. After having worked for both cultural and commercial clients for about seven years, I became more interested in the idea of combining commissions with research. That is, to have a stronger role for your own agenda but, on the other hand, to keep working with clients. And that led to Metahaven that I founded with Vinca Kruk in 2006. We were doing research, being interested in society, political issues, trying to make a combination between commission and research. When we started it, some people looked at us as if we were half crazy. But since then, we have been ever very busy. Our first project started from a very unarticulated interest at the time in the relationship between design, sovereignty and politics. As a child, I was very interested in politics and I think that this interest was put on hold for many years but suddenly came back with Metahaven. We are also very interested in visual culture and not keeping politics as just politics and theory as just theory.
JV: What did motivate your interest for questioning the visual significance of political institutions ?
DV: At the time, there was no real reason to think that there was anything wrong but, actually, more people can see why it’s important. After the financial crisis, those topics become basically more mainstream, together with the rise of the transparency movements in politics, it is now much more of a common thing. At the same time, we have also tried to work around themes that are a little bit better known to people. Our first project was Sealand and the second one dealt with a Stalinist palace in Bucharest, Romania. We felt that at the time that we had to introduce a lot of people to these topics but now it feels like some topics are more or less common knowledge and you can work with them more easily. WikiLeaks for instance is really interesting because it became, in such a strange way, part of pop culture. There is a really under investigated idea of the whole Wikileaks phenomenon, the visual culture of WikiLeaks.
JV: Talking about Wikileaks, how did this whole saga started?
DV: In our case, we contacted them a year ago because we admired the way that they had dealt with the release of the ‘apache video’ which they titled Collateral Murder, where a Iraqi civilians and journalists were killed. The video was withheld and they managed to publish that or to help publish it. We thought this was very courageous and we decided to contact them. We recognized that their architecture, the fact that they use various servers in various countries, has a lot of similarities with the whole Sealand story, where they tried to put servers on the island outside of jurisdiction basically creating the equivalent of a tax haven. We thought that maybe we could make a proposal for their visual identity. Now that we are a bit further along, we are realizing that maybe that whole idea of a new WikiLeaks identity will simply never happen. It is much more of a project that should radically investigate the visual culture related to transparency issues.
JV: What is the main frame of reference you took into consideration for expressing these ideas ?
DV: We believe that the whole idea of the transparency movement, as we see it now, is trying to re-invent what an organization is. So WikiLeaks started as a hacker phenomenon, and it became a global phenomenon. But it was never designed to become this global phenomenon. So you could almost say that certain design issues that keep coming up could have been better treated in the beginning. On the other hand, you can expect that this whole transparency movement will expand and that maybe the organizations that follow it afterwards will benefit from a clearer design perspective from the start, instead of implementing it afterwards.
JV: That lead to innovative propositions, like the dismantled Multi-Jurisdictional Logo for instance ?
DV: The idea of the Multi-Jurisdictional Logo was that it would be a logo hosted in different jurisdictions. So you would have these organizations with different data servers all over the world reflected in the identity. If a government or corporation decided to shut down one of these servers, you would immediately see that in the identity. One part of the identity would basically disappear. One of the things that we are going to explore with our contribution at the Gwangju Design Biennale 2011 in Korea is especially this kind of visual culture aspect which supersedes the traditional NGO image of chairperson, logo, advertising campaign. Those are usually the main components. But in this case, you have such an almost accidental piling of events, an incredible amount of faces and people. This is the aspects that will be explored in this project.
JV: The goal is to create a kind of fragmented identities that can not be reduced to any kind of symbols ?
DV: Yes, something that is rather psychedelic. There is a certain enthusiasm that people have about organizations like Wikileaks, not because they are willing to start reading all these cables but because it is something significant that is happening in the world, which they believe gives a voice to people normally without a voice in power.. Paradoxically, it is influencing visual culture almost only through text. Assange personifies the figure of someone who became a kind of celebrity almost against his own will. Although he seems to enjoy part of it, he is not Bono, nor Nelson Mandela. At the same time he is one of the most enigmatic figures imaginable, which is you could say almost transparency-as-camouflage This exploration of hyper transparency should be a really important part of the project.
JV: How did you manage to render this idea of transparency in the other projects you lead that are related to politics?
DV: Of course the idea of transparency is an idea that is hostile to all government because, basically, government is about secrecy. Some exceptions notwithstanding, the basic paradigm is that matters of state are secret. So the design of a transparent government comes either from bottom up or it comes from top down. So you have these kinds of ‘e-governments’ or open government initiatives which are top down redesigning, let’s say, freedom of information, and you have bottom up redesign which consists of civil society movements, activists, intellectuals, and artists. I think that the issue of transparency is in itself an issue that partially fits within a libertarian model of politics where you have as little as possible executive power in the hands of the few, so that more people have freedom for themselves. On the other hand it is also partially an anarchist idea because it denies the fundament of power, that it is exclusive, that authority is exclusive. I think the Principality of Sealand, as a kind of pre-transparency thing, tied in with that because it was trying to restage authority as something fictional. It uses symbols and a visual language that is completely invented. At that point, we were also interested in the potential of Sealand to be this exception, so that if you wanted to do something different, you could do it on Sealand. It was very non-articulated, almost as if we were just basically having a lot of fantasies about global politics and putting these into these design examples.
JV: You are also examining critically how these principles of governance could be apply to social networks, in particularly with Facebook ?
DV: I am not anti-Facebook but I actually don’t believe it is making the world more transparent. I am concerned by the fact that the larger Facebook becomes, the more important it becomes that the users have a real voice about how it is governed. Right now, if you look at the terms and conditions, you wouldn’t accept these from anyone, but you accept them from Facebook because they give you a great service for free. You comply because it gives you a lot of assets and possibilities that you otherwise wouldn’t have. So few argue for a kind of rebalancing of the transparency of Facebook itself and the way that they govern themselves with their users and the fact that they are such a useful tool for many individuals. You could take that both ways: it seems that governments are trying to replace parts of the welfare state by civil society initiatives. This is happening in the UK coalition government, in a very stupid way. And also in China where the future of the state is really thought of as a kind of civil society initiative built on top of a super-authoritarian mainframe. In the UK you see that the real civil society movements, the protesters against the government, are ruthlessly persecuted. Universities even hand over to the police CCTV footage with their own students engaged in peaceful protest. On the other face of the social network, you could say that if social platforms like Facebook become so large, they become almost like states themselves, and the problems that they are facing with regard to their governance are becoming similar to those of states because they have citizens. Even though those citizens happen to live in different sovereign countries, they are all to some extent inhabitants of the same constituency when it comes to being a Facebook person. I think we are just beginning to scratch the surface of that whole thing. What if a global society is organized along these digital networks ? Should or can these networks be governed. Finally, it is also a little bit about trying to exploit the totalitarian aspect of Facebook. Actually, Facestate will be a little pocket book that we will be making with Actar in Barcelone, which grapples with these issues, just like Transparency, Inc.
JV: Could you present the contents of this book ?
DV: Sure. Transparency, Inc. is partially starting as a description of what has been talked about when we talked about transparency in the field of design and architecture. Because there is a lot of discourse about transparency already in modernism, such as in the use of glass,, and transparency being a quality of organization, of space. And then the first chapter goes into the relation between governments and secrecy, going back to the ancients. The second chapter explores the relation between network and architecture. We might have experienced our online world as a sort of cloud, but in fact the cloud is hosted somewhere on a server which lies within some government’s territory. So there is always a question of sovereignty related to the cloud. We try to bring ideas from a design and architecture perspective to this very legalistic discourse. Then the third chapter talks about the most prominent example: WikiLeaks. It describes what we think is one of the most interesting aspects of Wikileaks: that it has made science fiction a reality. There is an interesting but quite tense text that Bruce Sterling wrote about WikiLeaks. It outlines the fact that they have done in practice what science fiction writers only fictionally dreamed up. Of course there is an aspect of “don’t try this at home”. That is understandable. But the fact is that WikiLeaks has made many science-fiction writers superfluous because it has pursued a very radical technological and political frontier, for real. Then the last chapter moves into the design of new organizations. It discusses what should and what could a pro-transparency organization be now. In that respect, we are going to make our own proposals but we are also may have great thoughts in this respect. The enthusiasm for transparency is with people who have less to lose than to gain from it. We cover everyone from ultra leftist action groups to people who are working in design and process innovation, and who you could say are politically libertarian-conservative. We see what their thoughts are on this, we interview them and we integrate all that in a nice essay with lots of visuals. We hope that it can be a book that someone can read on a train ride or two. That’s the idea. Also because our latest book, Uncorporate Identity, is 608 pages and we need something lighter now although we’ve terribly enjoyed doing it.
JV: What are the shifts you are expecting with respect to the traditional ways to communicate political or humanitarian issues ?
DV: I hope that we can get rid of the advertising approach and that we get to a more viral approach, something that is more open source. That is the real essence of all these recent movements, basically they do not own their own identity, they don’t claim something from a central point. They follow a very permutable border between organization and movement. This is a really necessary step, now that advertising with humanitarian goals has become such a cynical thing. Showing all this distant suffering. And now, of course, there are all the populations that we were supposed to look at as humble people under dictatorship. These people communicate themselves so they take their image into their own hands. I think this is really positive and much more inspiring and operative than an advertising agency designing a brand for this. It might also maybe funnier strategies because you can try many more things at a much lesser cost. So I am really optimistic about that.
JV: Let’s talk a little bit more about the book “Uncorporate Identity”. What ideas did you have when you started this project ?
DV: When we started working on the book, it was only intended to be about Sealand but it made sense to do much more with it. So eventually the focus moved a little bit away from Sealand and became more related to branding and network society. In a way, it is a book against corporate identity, which describes what corporate identity really is now. Not so much along the lines of ‘No Logo’ but really describing how the reality of today is ‘No Logo’. It is not what Naomi Klein had in mind because nowadays organizations know very well how to be invisible. Naomi Klein is aware of this, too, of course. An example is the Starbucks coffee shop in San Francisco which is branded as something local. The reason being that if people see the Starbucks logo, they don’t want to go in. Same thing with Blackwater Security, which re-branded itself to become invisible or, to quote one of their representatives, to have “no meaning”. The main point of the book is to talk about identity and the state. In what ways have states use corporate design and branding strategies to make themselves either visible or invisible and in what ways are these strategies themselves political strategies instead of merely strategies of image. That is the loop that the book takes. It finishes in a somewhat open ended way with the idea of communication and networking standards becoming much more important than brand image. And of course the book has our visual projects in it.
JV: The book provides very impressive insights about the contemporary manifestation of power, could give some examples ?
DV: There is this interview with David Grewal. He who wrote this book called ‘Network Power’ in which he argues that the power of a network standard is that you don’t even need to like it in order to join it. So if you join Facebook, it is not because you like it, but because you get some benefits from joining it. If you don’t speak English, you need to learn it, not because you like it but because otherwise you can’t join the network. The whole idea of branding has always been about persuasion, seduction and having people influencing others’ subjectivity so that they might start to like you. And it now seems that the reality that lies under that sort of seduction is actually the idea of adopting a standard. So there is a power that is even stronger than the power of persuasion and seduction. That is something like: “Do you want to join the standard or not?” or “Do you want to face social isolation if you don’t join the standard?”. So this is what explains why all those state brands look the same, because they are only about joining a standard. And the belief — which may be completely irrational — that this would bring you certain benefits. But this has got nothing to do with how the brand looks. That is irrelevant.
Interview by Joël Vacheron