Common Places - The National Grid


The National Grid – edited, designed and published by Luke Wood and Jonty Valentine – first appeared in March 2006. Fundamentally a publication for and about graphic design, The National Grid has attempted to chart a path through the murky territory between professional practice and academia, and between art and design. It is published roughly twice a year, is produced independently in New Zealand, and is distributed internationally. While never specifically thematic, the publication has been quietly subtitled issue by issue – in small print, on the spine only. In the following text, Luke and Jonty pass around and consider aspects of the publication’s content so far, extra-curricula activities, winners, losers and supernatural occurrences.

THE NATIONAL GRID: The back cover of our last issue. This seems to be a good place to start to begin to try and articulate something in hindsight. We asked Dylan from Stink Magnetic if he'd do an ad for our back cover. Except it's not really an ad as such. We don't carry ads, and he didn't pay us anything. I also doubt he'll get anyone who saw it there taking him up on his $40 song offer. So really we saw this as Dylan producing a piece of work for us, in much the same way as an artist might be asked to produce a 'page work' as they call it.

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In the middle of the first issue, in lieu of an editorial, we did begin to 'Index' and map the field we were interested in then. We called it "More [a] paranoid-critical map than an editorial".  This was a reference to Salvador Dali's Paranoid-Critical method for seeing links between things that are not obviously connected... I guess it is interesting to see how many of the indexed terms keep coming up three years later. Also I like how a lot of the issue seemed to be about starting to stake a claim for various fields - laying out the case, weighing founding documents, monstrous manifestos and personal process maps.

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That initial speculative mapping and indexing of territory is funny to look back on now. In Issue #2, Pauline Ng mapped the 'Internal and External relationships' between participants in a design project. This impulse to map out or chart relationships also reminds me of the reference to the movie Kitchen Stories that we made in Issue #1. Something about our mapping of the territory is like Folke's mapping of Isak's movements around his kitchen. The premise of the movie is that: "under no circumstances can the observer interact with the subject of their observation." A lot of our content may have come from a spirit of 'neutral observation' of the industry at first - maybe more from a desire to depart from, or be on the periphery of, the 'established' design community here. But actually most of our content has come from and become about the opposite - ie, it is all about personal interaction. We were originally interested in referencing Kitchen Stories because it made fun of the Scandinavian positivist scientific method that the Design Taskforce's Better By Design prospectus glorified.

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This 'Three Ring Circus' venn diagram made for the website fits in here too. Maybe the point to make really clear here is that we weren't very happy with how graphic design was being articulated and referenced in that whole Better By Design thing. It felt like losing a fight that you never got the invitation to or something. Reading through their document, a manifesto of sorts, we were amused by their use of pseudo-scientific diagrams and formulae. The overall effect was of some sort of business self-help book put together by the likes of Patrick Swayze's character in Donnie Darko.

While referring to these things as 'spooky' and 'magical' in a condescending way at first, we began to realise that as this document was aimed at clarifying design as a process for the business world to see, we wanted to push off in the opposite direction. We began to think people needed more magic in their lives, we certainly did, and so these sorts of things - obfuscation and voodoo - work towards pointing at what we don't understand: trying to locate the complex parts of what really, on the surface, is a pretty simple thing to do. 

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It was Bruce Russell who pointed out, in Issue #2, that "for a very long time there was no difference between science and the occult." This CD cover, designed by Bruce, employs a visual mnemonic by Giordano Bruno (1548-1600).

Reproducing two more of Bruno's "cosmological, physical, and mental maps of obscure significance" in Issue #3, Bruce mentions that "Bruno's quest to introduce the worship of ancient Egyptian deities to Renaissance Europe ended predictably at the stake."

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This spread is from the end of the image section and the start of the text section of Issue #3. On the verso page is an image of a sandwich board sign on the pavement in central New Plymouth. The sign is from a series of 'City Tours' that Kaleb Bennett organised in various towns around New Zealand. The theme of the New Plymouth Tour was 'Isolation and Escape'. The black van is Kaleb's tour bus. The abstract of terms for the tour that day are:

Temporary Insanity

On the recto is the title page for the text section of the issue and, under the main heading, is a list of words that are meant to be read in juxtaposition to Kaleb's, but also to suggest a summary of the upcoming content. The list on the right is actually abstracted from John Berger's Ways of Seeing. The whole paragraph reads: "Yet when an image is presented as a work of art, the way people look at it is affected by a whole series of learnt assumptions about art. Assumptions like: Beauty, truth, genius, civilisation, form, status and taste, etc."

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These are steel panels from the old scoreboard at Carlaw Park. We've reproduced them twice, in Issues #1 and #2, and they are now hanging on our studio wall. There's something about the spirit of these signs that seems to follow on from, or sit in behind, Kaleb Bennett's and John Berger's lists above. One being fundamentally cynical and dark, the other optimistic and attempting some sort of illumination.

These signs together like this also work like a venn diagram. There is obviously some overlap - some POSSIBLES will make it, you presume, and some PROBABLES probably won't. Like sporting tarot cards these signs speculate about the future. However, both are euphemistic, pre-loaded with a sense of optimism. Why couldn't it be PROBABLES vs PROBABLY-NOTS?

I think it was Robin Kinross who complained about the "relentlessly rosy picture" often painted by writing about graphic design. And perhaps design is like sports - losing/failing is of little use, or interest? But, in some ways, The National Grid could be seen as a catalogue of losers - of projects that didn't quite 'pay off'. The sorts of things we like, looking back, are often produced independently, make no money, and survive off grants, subsidies or goodwill. For reasons that seem obvious enough, these sorts of projects are infinitely more interesting than what we see from the 'winners' represented elsewhere.

Something like this came up in the editorial to our first issue. We mentioned that we thought all our best students were probably unemployable. We were half joking, but it was funny because it's half true. It is clear then that our 'best students' would be POSSIBLES rather than PROBABLES. But, being optimistic, that sounds about right. I think we can agree that we're more interested in possibility than probability.

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Possibility is something Lisa Grocott talked about a lot. She was always quoting Clive Dilnot who talks about design being in the production of possibilities, asking 'what if?', as opposed to science which, describing the world, asks 'what is?'

This is one of three diagrams she did for Issue #1. She supplied some 'notes' to go with these under the heading 'Negotiating Lights On/Lights Off'.
In the notes she describes that, for her, the agency of design rests in negotiation, 'the push and pull 'between opposing events, situations or ideas - concrete/abstract, talking/listening, science/design, sex/PhD, light/dark...

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In a panel discussion at the Typeshed11 conference in Wellington recently, Paul Elliman said that "graphic design does not solve the darkness". We used this quote on one of the posters we made as part of our contribution to the event. That statement may seem curious here, out of context like this, but he said it, I think, to derail one of those typical save-the-world conversations designers are always getting carried away in.

It was good to hear someone like Paul say this, because sometimes you start to feel like you're sitting in this church but you're not a BELIEVER, and you get nervous you're the only one, and perhaps everyone else, sensing your discomfort, can tell...

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The series of posters we pasted up around Wellington for each day of the Typeshed11 conference were inspired by the mock-newspaper The Double Standard.

In Wellington in the late '70s, during Rob Muldoon's term as Prime Minister, A1-sized screen-printed newspaper 'scare sheets' mysteriously began appearing on the streets. The newspaper, with the masthead 'The Double Standard', was the work of a clandestine group of Wellington women (who remain anonymous today). The headlines of the scare sheets were a cryptic commentary on the sexual hypocrisy of Muldoon and other members of his National Party government: for example, the cleverly kerned: "P.M.'S PEN IS BUSIER THAN BASIL'S".

While New Zealand's mainstream media organisations avoided all mention of alleged scandalous behaviour by Ministers of the Crown, it was considered common knowledge amongst well-connected Wellingtonians in the inner-city suburbs.

The title of The Double Standard was also a nod to The Standard which was the name of the New Zealand Labour Party's newspaper, established by the New Zealand Labour movement activists in the 1930s. The Standard was started as a vehicle to promote the perspective of an audience that they felt the mainstream media was representing poorly.

In Issue #3 of The National Grid, for her article on Springbok Tour protest signage, Elaina Hamilton also quoted from The Double Standard: "P.M. BRAGS: I STUFFED GLEN EAGLES I'LL DO LAURA NORDA NEXT!"

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This was the first poster we produced as The National Grid. It was for the launch of Issue #3 at Artspace in Auckland. It was a good night. We sold a few copies including some back issues, Bruce Russell came up and played, and there was a lot of sponsored alcohol, thanks mostly to Anna Dean.

This was the beginning, I think, of our starting to think about doing other sorts of things, under the aegis of The National Grid, outside the immediate parameters of the actual publication itself. There was something really enjoyable about the social aspect of this sort of thing, because, up until this launch party, we'd kept a very low profile. Making the publication in our free time (at night mostly - while maintaining full-time jobs elsewhere) means we are often hidden away at home working like hermits.

In comparison, these other sorts of projects and events are so much more immediate. They've also been a good way to get to meet and talk to people - something we tried to capitalise on at the Typeshed11 conference in February by setting up a sort of office/meeting space... and having beers available after 5pm.

We've talked before about using the publication as a vehicle through which we are able to try to connect up a previously disparate community of like-minded people. Which it sort of does. Whatever, it's increasingly apparent that the publication provides us with a good excuse to organise events and throw parties. Some have been more successful than others. It'll be hard to beat that night at Artspace.

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Also, luckily we've been invited to other people's parties too. In 2007, we curated a collection of publications, as a kind of southern hemisphere contribution to the Reading Room component of Forms of Inquiry: The Architecture of Critical Graphic Design. This exhibition was organised at London's Architecture Association School of Architecture by Zak Kyes and Mark Owens: "Forms of Inquiry presents a group of contemporary, international graphic designers who base their work in critical investigation." We were asked to write about and send some examples of publications from New Zealand that have influenced The National Grid.

The writing we did was a bit like what we are doing now; we used it then as a chance to have a dialectic about what we were doing with The Grid. A lot of good things came out of being involved in this exhibition. One was simply that the thesis of the exhibition was really great. It did begin to crystallise ideas for us about the kind of graphic design projects that we were really interested in. The exhibition and writing was all about 'self-propelled' projects that are devised as an 'inquiry' - or part of an extended body of work by designers that are essentially vehicles for openly exploring an area of interest... This is sort of the antithesis of seeing graphic design projects as problem solving (from science), or being about clear communication to a narrowly defined, but paradoxically ubiquitous, invisible audience (from marketing).

The forms of inquiry we are interested in are ongoing, often don't have a firm solution and are often personally motivated and mostly only locally relevant. Daniel van der Velden wrote about this in his article 'Research and Destroy: Graphic Design as Investigation' in Metropolis M (2006, No.2): "It is not strange that a branch of graphic design has evolved that no longer hangs around waiting for an assignment, but instead takes action on its own accord. It [graphic design] has polarised into the 'willing to work', who often have little or no control over their own positions, and the 'out of work', who, with little economic support beyond re-channelled subsidies or grants, work on innovation for the sake of innovation." I cringe a bit at the word innovation because it reminds me of Better By Design rhetoric, but that does sound like how The National Grid is produced. Van der Velden warns about the threat to, or even death of, design because it is being taken over by 'communications managers and marketing experts' engaged on behalf of clients to direct the design process, marginalising graphic designers to becoming the "proletariat of the creative industry, silently carrying out whatever the client dictates". Yep.

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The people at the AA School of Architecture knew about The National Gridbecause Wayne Daly, who works there, discovered us after Issue #1 appeared on the Dexter Sinister website. Wayne emailed us, sent us a cheque, and was our first 'mail order' customer. We'd already started sellingThe National Grid in a couple of bookstores overseas, and we quickly realised there was more interest 'over there' than there was here at home in New Zealand.

In an interview with Bruce Russell in our second issue, the picture of his various record or CD releases as a sort of 'message in a bottle' became quite clear. This occurred at about the same time as we were starting to get more and more feedback internationally. It had never really been our intention to operate in this way, but increasingly one of the biggest benefits of doing this publication has been that we are able to tap into, and engage with, a much wider community internationally.

The image here (previous page) is of one of Bruce Russell's Corpus Hermeticum releases of a CD by Thurston Moore. This fits in here because, like Bruce, we've opened up The National Grid to international contributions. We've received some criticism for this, some sort of anxiety about it not being a 'New Zealand' publication anymore.
I know Bruce couldn't care less about being a New Zealand label. For him these things are a lifeline, a sort of noisy umbilical cord extended out over the Pacific and around the world.

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Brian Butler, during his tenure at Artspace, placed a lot of emphasis on publishing and distribution. Interviewed for The National Grid #5, he talked about this and why the periphery is the most interesting place to be. The iceberg off the coast of Dunedin adorning the cover of Speculation, edited by Brian, seems to be a fairly direct reference to this train of thought, along with his conversations about "the seamless push and pull between the local and the international." It seems a forlorn gesture though? The iceberg was lucky to make it this far north, let alone further into the Pacific.

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This "seamless push and pull" Brian talks about in #5 is apparent here, in the same issue. Following our participation in Forms of Inquiry, I went to visit Wayne and Zak at the AA School in London. While I was there, they showed me the Risograph printer they'd recently bought. We talked about them doing some sort of contribution for us in return, and this is the result. This is a spread from the 16-page section they edited, designed and printed for us.

We nicknamed Issue #5 'A Colonial Outpost for Graphic Design' because, more than any other issue we've done so far, it seems to address the issues of distance, travel and time.

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Each issue has had a different subtitle on the spine. Issue #1 was 'A peripheral publication for graphic design'. All of these spine titles are about being on the periphery, the outside, at the edge of 'the rest'. It is definitely a defining motif for us: partly because of our trying to write about marginalised practices or ideas in graphic design, but also maybe from our trying to write about what we don't really know about, but want to find out about. Maybe it's also something about being more interested in quiet-local or even exclusive-private stories than in grand narratives. Or maybe it's simply us trying to graft local stories onto larger cultural ideas because they are what we really know more about. In Issue #1, I briefly wrote about Max Hailstone's Treaty of Waitangi project, in an article about founding documents. It's impossible for that not to be part of a/the grand narrative in New Zealand.
I guess Max knew that when he started his project in 1990. But he was a relatively recent English émigré to New Zealand and perhaps didn't really understand our colonial history (although arguably not many New Zealanders of his generation understood any better). But I think he was sincerely searching for a way of elevating the role of graphic design in New Zealand by taking on 'important' cultural projects like this. But Max's point of view on this project, and mostly in his lack of consultation on how to go about it, was really (perhaps unknowingly) anachronistically late-colonial at a time when he couldn't get away with it.

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It makes sense then, seeing as we began with the back cover of our latest issue, that we finish here with the front cover of the first issue (right). This cover featured a close up, cropped reproduction of an old (c.1970s) postcard showing a young woman looking out over the Karapiro Power Station. The cover of #1 was something of an unspoken homage to Max, a part of whose book Design and Designers, we reproduced in this issue. Max used Helvetica ubiquitously, and the typesetting of our cover is similar to his.

However, if Max was attempting to elevate the role of graphic design in New Zealand, our own motivations certainly aren't so bold. Like Max though, and like the girl in the photo, we are interested in achieving a slower, more contemplative point of view.