by j u s t i n . z on May 23, 2013
Any significant political event today is often quickly marked by the release of a meme into cyberspace. These simple graphical messages seize on an event’s most controversial moments, translating it into a digital file of less than a hundred kilobytes. In a matter of seconds after its creation, a meme is shared and read, and if effective, its message spreads like wildfire through the Internet and is received by a global audience.
Such memes, often created with just a clever juxtaposition of a tagline on an image, is an act of graphic design as its most basic—combining graphics and text to create meaning. Just as how graphic designers often tap on popular culture to create an attractive visual language for communication, these memes also appropriate images from popular films and iconography to grab attention for its messages.
One could trace political memes to political cartoons, as both take on the subject by injecting humor to create a graphical product whose goal is to make its readers laugh, and often implicitly criticize. While political cartoons have had a long history and is considered a discipline in its own right today, memes looks much more raw in comparison and are often plain ugly. Yet, it is their Do-It-Yourself aesthetic, cobbling together seemingly disparate graphic elements, that gives it legitimacy as a message that originated from the grassroots. Political memes are not the works of a professional cartoonist nor is it a slick advertisement from a politician or group with an agenda—they are the voices of the masses for the masses, an online version of the political poster.
Unlike professional graphic designers, meme creators only need to know where to Google and appropriate the image that is best suited for the message in their heads. Sometimes, it is the reverse, becoming a game of who wrote the funniest caption. The rise of memes has been aided by the emergence of simple web tools that allows anyone to quickly ‘generate’ one and share it, using a series of templates that codify how a meme works. One signature form that is characteristic of the genre starts with a lead-in text, followed by a ridiculous but somewhat relevant image, and ends with a punchline for impact. This three-step design process shows how readers often encounter memes, while scrolling in the web browser environment.
Although there are more complicated memes that allow a longer narrative to be played out, such as those based on the design of comic panels, they are mostly short and to the point. The choice of publishing memes via social media also explains its design. Clearly catered for viral transmissions that ride on platforms filled with competing messages, the design of political memes prize speed and compactness over cutting-edge aesthetics and depth.
Political memes are essentially a fragment—and at times, not even the most important—of how the masses see politics today. This is perhaps a sign of how everything in our lives today take on a certain ‘entertainment’ turn—even something as serious as politics. With so many other things in life to do, politics has to be reduced to punchlines and attention-grabbing antics in real-life and also in the form of memes.
This political form that is born from the convergence of technology, design, and society has become so popular that there are now websites dedicated to the generation, collection and distribution of such memes. Even politicians have got into the game, when during the 2012 US Presidential campaign, both candidates’ social media teams unleashed their own memes into their World Wide Web.
This new form of political expression of the times is another medium of society’s democratic conversation, adding richness to the online chatter amongst the masses, and definitely a good laugh too. But is there anything more after that? On the one hand, it can serve a vigilante function, cutting through heavy political acts by seizing on dubious messages and magnifying them through humor, but on the other, political memes often takes things out of context, mostly for the sake of entertainment.
Just as how computers made visual expression simpler for more, the simplicity and ease of creating and distributing memes is another example of how graphic design is being democratized, in this case for online communication on political matters. And like most media, memes are value-free, but entirely up to where designers — in this case, citizens — want to take them.
This was originally written for a graduate programme application.
by j u s t i n . z on May 2, 2013
Only one way out,
Eight numbers —
Call to unlock.
by j u s t i n . z on April 23, 2013
Horror in Architecture, a new book by Singapore-based architects Joshua Comaroff and Ong Ker-Shing, is not a book about horrible architecture. While it may be filled with examples of architecture most would not consider beautiful, its does not aim to measure their aesthetic value but rather to critique, categorise, and ultimately explain their existence.
The authors propose to look at “horror” in architecture as instances of failure that one can learn from, and in their 225-page book they have assembled a lens built upon fields including history, literature and even pop culture to examine this phenomenon. The result are nine typologies ranging from ”Doubles & Clones”, and “Partially and Mostly Dead” which provide a framework to understand such diverse work ranging from the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Pullman Building in Chicago, and even a pair of semi-detached houses along Singapore’s Jalan Haji Alias.
Despite the sometimes complex and conceptual language, this book manages to use the terms of horror to present an entertaining and often enlightening reading about architecture. However, the real punch of this paperback publication comes when it examines how some of these architecture have come about. As Comaroff and Ong conclude: the horrors we are presented with today are by and large driven by what they identify as “the geography of unevenness” or economic inequality.
The book can also be read as a kind of manifesto of what the authors represent in their architecture practice, Lekker Design. They have elsewhere talked about their fascination with informal architecture as well as buildings which most architects would find “disgusting”, and this book is a full-blown exploration of this interest.
Despite examining an “unpleasant” aspect of architecture, and warning practitioners of the bleak conditions the practice exists in today, Comaroff and Ong ultimately find hope in “horror” and how it embraces the problems of modern architecture, rather than attempt to hide it. This ultimately creates interesting buildings and suggests that there is a future for architects after all.
by j u s t i n . z on April 16, 2013
Some friends up north are putting together MEX, an exhibition of independent print magazines as part of the George Town Festival 2013. I ended up compiling a list of such publications in Singapore for them.
There’s a growing scene beyond the titles put out by media giants and localised international brands, I must say!
I-S Magazine (1995) by Asia City
JUICE (1998) by Catcha Media
Underscore (2009) by Hjgher
Terroir (2011) by Benjamin Koh
Encounters (2012) by Shin
Casual Days (2012) by Casual Poet
ARTS & CULTURE
Ceriph (2010) by Ceriph
Cinematheque Quarterly (2012) by National Musem of Singapore
Galvant (2012) by Dilys Ng and Nathalia Kasman
ISSUE (2012) by the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore
Corridors (2013) by Michael Lee
16/4 — to include The Design Society Journal and Singapore Architect.
18/4 — included VULTURE (Thanks Neville!)
by j u s t i n . z on April 11, 2013
Try calling the old National Library a “monstrous monument” and “a picture of total failure” today, and one can only imagine the uproar it will cause amongst nostalgic Singaporeans. But that’s exactly what architect William Lim and others of his generation had to say about this now extinct building after it was unveiled in 1960.
“A visit to the inside confirms without any doubt the complete and absolute failure of the architect to create the necessary atmosphere and delight for both the readers and the library staff.” — William Lim (1960)
“Aesthetically, the design and exterior materials used, which are in juxtaposition to the soothing, pleasing National Museum, constitute what might be harshly termed a major architectural abortion.” — Cecil K Byrd (1971)
Similar sentiments were shared when the government announced in 1999 that the library would be demolished to make way for the development of the Fort Canning Tunnel. The Urban Redevelopment Authority felt the library did not deserved to be conserved because “it was not of great architectural merit”.
But the outpouring against the library’s demolishment and declarations that it was a national icon shows how insignificant design is when compared against how it was used by people and remembered over time. While the criticisms of its architecture are fair and justified, but in this instance, those who supported the library’s conservation saw its value beyond architecture.
This also explains the struggle with buildings like Golden Mile Complex → ,in which sentiments are reversed — the architecture community thinks it is a gem, but the public find it an eyesore because it is seen as a home for a foreign community.
Granted that the quarrel is not about the criteria to assess design, but rather what is the value of a building. However, should our critiques of design be purely based on its design? Or should it be broadened to include non-design factors, in this case its value as a piece of Singapore’s social memory? Even so, there is also the question if such feedback be meaningfully incorporated into a design process or practice.
One recent project that addresses some of these issues is FARM’s effort to remember the National Stadium through “bench“. Designers were given old planks of the stadium seats to “recapture and rethink this piece of memory” of the stadium. The result are 30 benches inspired by the stadium’s architecture, its role as a sports centre, and also a community space. Most of the pieces are visual translations of these messages, and often at the expense of the seating experience. The designs also turned out looking rather similar, which could either hint at how narrow the brief was or how unifying the National Stadium was as a memory.
A side project of bench, WOOD, was much more interesting. Hans Tan led a design studio where 18 students from the Division of Industrial Design explored the materiality of the planks and essence of the stadium to greater detail. Freed from the need to create piece of furniture, the students pushed the experience of memory beyond visual objects and instead engage other senses such as smell and interaction. Do check out the exhibition of their works in The URA Centre till 31 May 2013.