ESSAY: OUT OF FIELD
A local puncture shop in Bangalore, India, tending to all kinds of motor repairs.
It was the summer of 2005. I was twelve years old, and I found myself spending an otherwise perfectly serviceable weekday afternoon at the local car mechanic shop with my father. Amused by the typos I found on pieces of signage at the shop, I began to laugh hysterically.
“Appa, take a look at this,” I said, pointing gleefully at the shop’s sign-board that spelled “Puncher Shop.”1 Being in sixth grade, the satisfaction of putting my freshly minted yet far from spotless spelling skill to use was exhilarating. Except, I wasn’t engaged in anything constructive—I was just being petulant. I continued to peruse every piece of printed material that the shop carried: “Tubeles tire repare,” “Stepanie repare,” and “Wheel alinment.” What followed were continued ripples of laughter only to be abruptly stopped by the disapproving voice of my father asking me to behave myself. All he said was “Stop making fun. You have the privilege of going to school that the mechanic doesn’t.”
I was just given my first lesson in semiotics.2 Back then, however, I drew a different but equally important lesson: of comporting oneself with compassion and not harboring contempt for the less literate.
The question I should have asked myself back then was, why do people make typos? Or what do typos reflect? Unfortunately, like every other profound moment of reckoning that I have had with social phenomena over the years, this one, too, occured in the context of frivolous social media chatter. Two years ago, I encountered a genre of meme3 pages on Instagram that documented the various typos that one would experience during their travels in India and South Asia. Much like my own reaction to these linguistic stumbles in the past, the commentary that surrounded these images was raucously contemptuous of the “culprits,” as if to suggest that a shopkeeper in Madurai4 must do better by the priggish standards of the Instagram prude. By this time, my cultural and political conscience had matured, allowing me to contextualize these memes within larger tapestries of the social order.
The “Puncher Shop,” then, wasn’t just a typo. It was more—it had to be more. It stood for the boundless aspiration that consumed the mechanic as he tried to keep abreast with an increasingly global country. The typo captured a nation still trying to come to terms with a colonial past. It signified an implicit internalization of the corrosive belief that equated the English language with cultural sophistication. And most importantly, it attested to the several structural inequities that hamstrung the mechanic, making social mobility a herculean enterprise. As my father said, this man was trying, but the fruits of his strife it seems had made an inexorable descent into the realm of the meme.
The Center Pompidou / 1977
The Center Pompidou by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers exemplifies a formal honesty in its display of the services and structural elements that hold it together.
If I learned one important lesson from the whole experience, it was that the cultural and visual infrastructure of our lives is replete with things that seem ostensibly trivial, but are profoundly complex. Pictures of typos, shared enough number of times, become sources of sheer entertainment, obscuring the rich confluence of social forces that give rise to them. Consider another example requiring a similar conceptual pivot in order to be understood: The Art Gallery. Long considered to be a theatre of human passivity, the art gallery today has instead become, as the artist John Kelsey observes, “[a]n activated space where information, bodies and money are rapidly circulated, and where this power of circulation is momentarily frozen in images and objects.”
In every one of these cases, there exists a fierce dialectic between the prosaic and the latent, and I take it to be my role as a graphic designer, the disseminator of visual discourse, to reveal the strata of complexity belied by the trivial.
I submit that any object or phenomenon can be defined in terms of the particular, or the universal. The typo can be defined both as a linguistic stumble, and an honest attempt at communicating a message, but neither of these definitions sufficiently captures the strident interplay of causes and contingencies that give rise to the phenomenon. Such a comprehensive definition requires us to amble back and forth between states of particularity and universality, ie., the typo as an attempt at English by a car mechanic in Bangalore to keep pace with a swiftly globalized nation, and a piece of signage on a wall with a certain formal treatment.
Having made a transition from architecture to graphic design two years ago, I noticed that discourses within the field of design made practitioners like myself eminently capable of partaking in aesthetic critiques of work, but less capable of contending with critiques at a structural level, a domain that architectural theory has mastered. In essence, I grew adept at speaking about visual devices such as typographic grids with a Muller Brockmann-like alacrity while marginalizing the equally rich social critique of the device from figures such as Rosalind Krauss,5 and Vadim Ryndin.6 By extricating the grid from the political associations and historical contingencies that brought it into existence, and examining it instead in its purely aesthetic, reified form, my critique was incomplete.
Jennifer Karady / Soldiers’ Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan / 2011
Former Sergeant Jason Lemieux, U.S. Marine Corps Infantry, 3/7 Lima Company, veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, 2008.
To be clear, this is not to value one paradigm of critique or mode of artistic production over another, but insofar as social efficacy is a priority for designers today (as it is for me), learning to produce work that inhabits the world in a better way, as the philosopher Alan Badiou frames it, becomes an ethical obligation.7 As a consequence, I chose to center my design practice around the erasure of aesthetic autonomy and emphasize instead, the need to produce work that responds to the social apparatus that surround it—in essence, an ethical enterprise.
A version of this aspiration was realized in a project titled Reified Realities.8 Comparing two species of social expression, the sixteenth century oil painting, and the modern Instagram feed, I chose to look beyond their immediate representational capacities and focus instead on their use as frames of competitive individualism, and conspicuous consumption where people displayed what they owned as a way of asserting their social standing.
Reified Realities / A Case Study in Conspicuous Consumption / 2018
A comparison of Bartolomé Esteban's Young Man Drinking, and a photo from the popular Tumblr page, Rich Kids of Instagram. Photo by @thuniss (2012)
Continuing to straddle the line between materialist critique and formal responses, I responded to the political crisis that came to consume the state of Kashmir in India in 2019 by dissecting the photographs and imagery that were being propagated by popular news outlets operating in the region. By scraping metadata off of the photographs documenting the conflict and setting them on posters with their resultant images layered in front of them, I was able to document every visual move that the photographer made in post-producing and narrativizing the realities of the region. This hybridized strategy of orchestrating a play of image with data; of using the formal affordances of the poster to take a critical stance on a social issue helped give shape to Kashmir: The Metadata of Conflict.9
Kashmir: Metadata of a Conflict / 2019
By juxtaposing images of conflict with metadata gleaned from each of them, I sought to find out if these varying communication channels evoked different responses from viewers.
It is this inclination to dissolve the barrier between the formal and the social that drew me to the work of the photographer Jennifer Karady, who, over the course of several years, collaborated with soldiers and veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, restaging aspects of traumatic war events within their civilian lives. Karady intended her photographs to help soldiers reconcile with their pasts, and serve as documentation of a performance that may help people close to them understand what they had experienced abroad.10 Similarly, the work of the London-based research and design group, Forensic Architecture too proved to be a model for an ethical practice. By using traditional architectural techniques synergistically with geo-spatial technologies, the research group investigates cases of state violation of human rights around the world. To Eyal Weizman, the founder of FA, architecture is never static, it is “political plastic—social forces slowing into form” with buildings serving as valuable indexes of the political health of a given region.11
The success of Karady’s and FA’s work, to me, resided in their ability to design across our habitual sense of the separation of the formal and the social, destabilizing the notion of a siloed aestheticism and elevating the primacy of ethical efficacy as the sine qua non of any artistic endeavor. Their work was urgent, and their method, almost Brechtian in its impact.
Forensic Architecture: Herbicide in Gaza / 2014
The Results of Forensic Architecture’s Analysis Show the Distribution of Concentration of Herbicide as It Travels Westward into Gaza. Image Courtesy: Forensic Architecture and Dr. Salvador Navarro Martinez.
It is my hope that I construct a practice around work that is as reflective as it is declarative, behaving both, as outward looking windows and inward looking mirrors; work that helps us see the complex in the trivial and the trivial in the complex; work that collapses the barriers between designer and audience, requiring a constructive coauthoring to be realized in its full form; and work that shatters the age-old separation of aesthetic and ethical judgements12 carving open space for us to be gentle moralists and strident critics at the same time.
In the end, questioning what led me to this space of aesthetic and ethical coalescence, I realize that as a designer, what I am devising is a new method for me to visually represent things in the world. And that process of representation is a factor of my ability to see things critically, and a desire to evoke the rich cultural latencies of the day-to-day. Our present moment has taught us to prize constant productivity over paused reflection, and has strung a tenuous thread equating a relentless accumulation of wealth with cultural insight. However, if I learned something fifteen years ago at a local Puncher Shop, it was that, sometimes, the visual banalities that surround us are the most truthful windows into the current zeitgeist.
1 A ubiquitous misspelling of the phrase “Puncture Shop” in the Indian subcontinent. Puncture shops are a common urban fixture in any Indian city, tending to all kinds of vehicular repair work.
2 Semiotics as defined by the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy: The general study of symbolic systems, including language.
3 The online Oxford English Dictionary defines a meme as “A cultural element or behavioral trait whose transmission and consequent persistence in a population, although occurring by non-genetic means (esp. imitation), is considered as analogous to the inheritance of a gene.”
4 Madurai is a major city in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Located on the banks of the river Vaigai, Madurai has been a major settlement for two millennia. The recorded history of the city goes back to the 3rd century BCE, being mentioned by Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to the Maurya empire.
5 Rosalind Krauss, in her seminal essay "Grids" described the grid as a manifestation of “modern art’s will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse” and to wall “the visual arts into a realm of exclusive visuality..”
6 Margarita Tupitsyn, ‘The Grid as a Checkpoint of Modernity’, in Tate Papers, no.12, Autumn 2009, https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/12/the-grid-as-a-checkpoint-of-modernity, accessed 21 April 2020.
7 Badiou, Alain. 2001. Ethics: an essay on the understanding of evil. London: Verso.
8 Reified Realities can be found here
9 Kashmir: Metadata of a Conflict can be found here
10 Ritchin, Fred. 2013. Bending the frame: photojournalism, documentary, and the citizen.
11 Weizman, Eyal. 2019. Forensic Architecture: violence at the threshold of detectability.
12 Tanner, Michael. “Aesthetics and Ethics,” 1998. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780415249126-L001-1.