SECTION 02: LEARNING TO MEDIATE
Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog / 1982
A scene from Werner Herzog’s 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, centered around an opera enthusiast who is intent on building an opera-house in the Peruvian jungle. To realize his dream, the protagonist enlists a tribe of Indians to haul his boat by hand over a mountain. To fulfill his own vision, Herzog did likewise.
What is mediation? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “[a]gency or action as an intermediary; the state or fact of serving as an intermediate agent, a means of action, or a medium of transmission; instrumentality.”
To me, apart from being creators, designers are essentially mediators of content, occupying the liminal zone between intention and realization. The act of mediation, by itself, has no intrinsic relationship to the truth. Hence, historically, it has been the translation of intent, rather than truth that has determined the success of an act of mediation.
However, if there ever was a time that a recalibration in mediation’s relationship to the truth was necessary, it is now. We find ourselves in a time where information is routinely weaponized, and attention monetized. And it is amidst this unholy confluence of ideological and material circumstances that designers ought to reassert their commitment to the truth.
Someone who, in my view, has been committed to telling truths (one way or another), is the German director Werner Herzog. In several of his movies, Herzog reliably collapses the sacred boundary between fact and fiction, using aesthetic fabrications, scripted lies, and all manner of journalistic malpractice to convey “larger truths.” He terms this approach of intentionally deploying lies in the service of truth-getting, as “the ecstatic truth.” To Herzog, this method gets at the emotional core of a given subject, far surpassing in accuracy the banal “accountant’s truth” of data and statistics.
I find this to be a profoundly interesting strategy to take, à la Dorothea Lange’s repeated restaging of the photograph of the migrant mother with her children in Pomo, California.
In the pages to come, I explore newer ways of mediating and communicating abstract concepts, and speak to a designer who routinely publishes and breaks the most urgent news stories of our time.
Bhopal Gas Tragedy, The Yes Men / 2004
The 20th anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy was a day of embarrassment for Dow chemicals and the major news media around the world when the BBC fell victim to a hoax from a man claiming to be a Dow spokesperson who claimed full responsibility for the tragedy and announcing a multibillion dollar compensation package.
1 Herzog, Werner. “Werner Herzog Reads His Minnesota Declaration: Truth and Fact in Documentary Cinema.” Walker Art Center. Accessed May 9, 2020. https://walkerart.org/ magazine/minnesota-declaration- truth-documentary-cinema- 1999.
2 MUBI. “Herzog: Ecstatic Truths- A Werner Herzog Documentary Retrospective.” Accessed May 9, 2020. http://mubi.com/notebook/posts/herzog-ecstatic-truths-a-werner-herzog-documentary-retrospective.