Part 3: Charlie Don’t Surf (DIY and Anti-Graphics)

January 6th, 2011 by Art Chantry

To be totally fair, even though Jamie Reid’s situationist appropriation (DIRECT appropriation – with intent still intact) may have been the LOUDEST voice out in the wilderness, it wasn’t alone. One of the things that has always impressed me was how this new style of anarchy-as-design seemed to erupt all over the world within a few months of the media first noticing it. It was like a plague of great intensity. The hipster underground seemed to suddenly do a violent shift on its axis. It was a firestorm.

In reality, this new baseline culture rebellion, as if mocking the situationist credo, had already been going on for a long time. in a way, people like Debord were only (in retrospect) seemingly documenting what was already long in progress. In cities all over the world, this sort of new way of “speaking” visually had been going on for a long time. It was as if teen angst and snotty brat behavior had become the new high hip standard of Western Civilization.

The accepted narrative states that this new “punk” style emerged in New York City and then exploded out of London onto the world stage, but the truth is far more complicated. I’ve found obvious and direct examples spreading in places as far flung (and ignored) as Detroit (obviously), Seattle, Austin, LA, Georgia, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington DC, Vancouver, Mexico City, Tokyo, and so on, over a full decade before the big worldwide spectacle of the Sex Pistols and the onslaught of Jamie Reid. Even in England, the visual scold and primal scream of Jamie Reid’s graphics were not all that new. It was just media- splattered in a HUGE way, thanks to the genius of those assholes in that little band.

The first punk poster in Seattle (the first classic full-on DIY cruddy pasted-up trashy punky style street poster I’ve ever found, actually) was produced by Tomata Du Plenty a full year or more before the Sex Pistols’ first show anywhere. It gets extremely hard to credit Jamie Reid for that influence, since it wasn’t even there, yet…

For instance, the work of Genesis P. Orridge had already established a new visual culture style with his “industrial” stylings. The philosophical position in a nutshell was the machine of culture dehumanizes the individual to the point where we are really soulless cogs in a larger devouring contraption. And this is a GOOD thing. The graphic language of the culture was an embrace of cold, sterile corporate graphics depicting the worst horrors that modern man can create – genocide, death factories, serial murder. It was a celebration. His musical noise combo was called “Throbbing Gristle.”

Also, out bouncing playfully around the edges of the mainstream graphic world was the trickster godhead of Barney Bubbles. His “irreverent to the point of ridicule” design work utilized errors, confusion, inappropriate retro appropriation, and a desire to constantly push a stick into the eye of the larger mainstream market. He worked for record labels like Stuff and F-Beat (and acts like Elvis Costello, Devo, and the Damned).

The “Art School” misfit student intelligentsia were about the only people out there disenfranchised enough to actually pay attention to what was going on in British design, though. Being fashion hungry and bored out of their skulls with “no future,” they very quickly embraced the thinking of these three individuals (along with scores of other on shot and more obscure designers and artists). Because the three major voices seemed so similar in message (try to spot the defining difference between industrial and situationist – it’s not very clear to the average viewer) the young avant-guard hipsters automatically absorbed and fused it all together.

The earliest new voices that emerged from this new underground graphic design dialogue seemed to come from up in Northern England. For instance, designers like Peter Saville saw Genesis and Reid and reduced his DIY graphic design language down to a bare minimum statement, but an extremely bold and cold and emotive statement. His work for bands like Joy Division echoed fatigue and depression that immediately struck a cold note in the British youth market.

But the most important inital conduit for the radical ideas of Jamie Reid’s culture annihilation and Genesis’s celebration of this annihilation and Bubble’s playfully nasty monkeywrenching was a young student named Malcolm Garrett.

He started work on his friends’ pop/rock punk band, the Buzzcocks (so sharp and nasty). His approach was identical to the band’s and the uncommercial thinking of the moment: he immdiately designed a corporate logo, a coprorate color scheme and approached thie product design from a severely stilted position.

Garrett seemed to embrace the idea that selling product was the single most important thing (typically trained mainstream advertsing thinking, right?), but what was different was that he totally embraced the band’s (and Reid’s) idea that if they all managed to sell a lot of product, it would spread the new culture style and hasten the end of Britain. Basically, “Buy this product and you can help destroy the world.”

They went to so far as to produce carrying bags and shrink wrap for the record that only sported the new logo and a huge catalog number (bigger than the brand logo) – “Order even more and help destroy even more.” The perversity of such a concept was so sharply contrasted to the standard order of things that it virtually became a new demographic position. “Chaos from cash,” as it were.

Even though Malcolm Garrett’s early thinking was the first real purely evocative pop cultural resonance of the situationist destruction of culture, the rest of the new British punk scene erupted with such a fury that it became impossible to ignore. Everything that this youth market desired was suddenly ugly, vicious and pushing an exclusive love of itself that bordered on pathological.

Within what seemed like weeks, this new voice echoed across the planet. The idea that you didn’t need the larger world – you could simply do it yourself, took in a stranglehold. Self-produced zines erupted across the planet in the smallest possible markets. Thousands of new punk bands toured across the world focusing on the new small markets revealed by the existence of these zines.

Since the mainstream corproate world saw no profit in this new “fad” (due to the commercial failure of the New York punk bands) new local and otherwise ignored bands had as much exposure in these zines as the more renowned touring bands. The result was the DIY stitching together of an alternative world economy culture. In fact, a very large international community saw the popular culture in a new way and decided to abide by it, as well. The mainstream media began to refer to it as the “Alternative Nation.” Alternative to what? What ya got?

This new culture had a huge economic and societal reach. They were the children of the hopelessly self-absorbed corrupt Baby Boomer generation – the second wave. And the explosive growth of this new culture was dizzying. Yet, the Boomer generation still hasn’t quite been able to understand that it even exists.

Dozens of new voices emerged from a second wave of British graphic designers doing posters and record covers and publications (Neville Brody, Vaughan Oliver, Terry Jones, etc. etc.). They took the laughable idea of “New Wave” graphics as promoted by the business world and shoved it back into the dark alternative culture of their reality. We saw them because we looked and liked what we saw. What we didn’t see was the thousands of other less spotlighted graphic designers popping up everywhere at the same time. The firestorm had become truly international.

In America, a hurricane of new snide voices exploded onto the scene – Gary Panter, James Stark, Shawn Kerri, Frank Kozik, Tomata Du Plenty, Steve Albini, Winston Smith, Gibby Haynes, even myself. So many new people, way too many to continue listing. Let’s just say that the new design voice became legion. The majority of those voices were anonymous one-off DIY designers just doing what came naturally. Take a graphic mainstream advertising promo and shove it back in your face as a weapon.

This became a noticeable problem for the mainstream. As these new radical thinkers used their graphics as weapons of ridicule, the effort was made by the corporate interests to cash in and usurp what was making money (usually their only focus). So, they absorbed the new music and design and art and re-named it something less violent and ugly – “New Wave” (coined by record executive Howie Klein). The nomenclature was an echo of a past hip period of rebellion in french cinema. It also sounded so ”fresh” and “new” (and safely familiar). Perfect for exploitation.

So, they dressed up these new creative voices in bright cheerful colors and made everything sound and look so darn cute and peppy. Even talented designers like Paula Scher and Tibor Kalman stumbled into the trap, thinking they were doing a new safe and intelligent and hip graphic style, never realizing they had invited plaque into the kingdom. The prestigious conservative design firm of Pentagram went so far as to hire Peter Saville, since his work looked so conservative and clean and tidy – at least to the uninitiated – but the underlying theme of culture destruction came along and kept chipping away at everything it touched. Saville didn’t last very long at Pentagram, who afterward seemed old and tired and exhausted.

At the same time this bizarre culture war was unfolding, a new technology came onto the graphic design market: the computer, a solid gold hammer. Eventually it allowed literally anybody to become a functional graphic designer. Any level of competence was acceptable. You no longer really needed to hire a graphic designer to do your graphic design – you could learn the software and just do it yourself.

Does any of this sound familiar?

The blind and fearfully knee-jerk embrace by the design industry of this new technology sowed the seeds for its own decimation. And it played directly into the hands of these snotty anti-mainstream DIY punk kids. Before too long, the old school was erased and replaced by an army of untrained, unskilled labor all doing adequate versions of graphic design – all working in the latest hip new looks, no depth, no understanding, but they really understood “Cool.”

David Carson was a surfer. At one point he was ranked 6th in the world. He also taught grade school. He was still a bored outsider, but he was also a hip hustler. Through skateboarding, he landed a job as the designer/art director of one of the premier skateboard zines on the west coast – Transworld Skateboarding. His work there was a mess; it was all over the place, but the guy had an eye and INSTINCT that served him incredibly well. Some people are just born this way. Carson definitely was. I guess you could ay the guy had “TASTE!”

Everything he did was drawn from every strange dented subcultural world he encountered: surf, punk, skate, thrash, psych, hot rod, new wave, and even mainstream graphic design. His style became a huge polyglot of application and appropriation. Best of all he understood the attitude – the style of the big three – Reid, Genesis, and Bubbles. I assume he knew their work and ideas, but I really have no idea.

What Carson started to do was throw everything into the bath water WITH the baby. It didn’t quite go down the drain, he kept using it, sometimes even if it DID go down the drain, he’d use it. He took errors and mistakes and used them. Then he began to replicate the fuck-up as a tool. Upside down, grainy, crooked, illegible, chaos: it’s all good. Classic polyglot.

He and I had a short correspondence when he started his next primal magazine, “Beach Culture” (it lasted only 6 issues, but changed the design world). At one point, I was looking at a particularly disasterous two-page spread featuring an interview with David Lynch. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The style he used appeared to be “classical editorial design layout,” but closer inspection revealed that everything was way, way wrong. The biggest type on the page was the page number, which as in the middle of the page. The photo was blurry and a rusty staircase covered Lynch’s face. If there was a headline anywhere, I couldn’t find it.

Most of the two pages was empty, except about three randomly placed columns of small type. Worst of all, one column of text type literally jumped the gutter. Now, this was saddle stitched magazine. You CAN’T DO THAT! They can’t hold the registration in the bindery process of folding and stapling. It DOESN’T work! It’ll be all off-register and illegible. Yet, there it was. It was so fucked up.

In a letter, I challenged him on that. He giggled (or so it read) and he said, “Yeah, I know. That’s why I did it.” He then went on to tell me about a list he had from from some design class somewhere. It was titled “The Rules of Graphic Design.” In it, there were listed a couple of dozen concrete rules of graphics that are never violated – rules like, “never mix typefaces on a single page,” and “never obscure your message,” and, “never jump the gutter.” He then said he hung that on his studio wall and tried deliberately to break as many of those rules as he could on every single piece he did. He was doing anti-graphics!

Beach Culture was David Carson’s primal work. The above sample of a simple editorial page layout from Beach Culture magazine points to what I’m talking about. It’s a right mess and every rule I can think of is busted wide open and put on display. You can’t even read the damned thing. And it’s beautiful! (It’s also all done by hand. For years, hipsters assumed he was using computers to create this look, but he was using garbage and fuck-ups. It just happened to look the same as the fucked up stuff that amateurs were producing on their new computers). After Beach Culture collapsed, he jumped around a bit and then ended up directing a new hip rock magazine called “Ray Gun.” Then everything exploded.

You see, all of these hip new designers who had just begun to master the computer design programs were now entering the job market. They had never taken a graphic design class in their young lives. They knew almost nothing about design theory or history or practice, but they knew computers and they knew what looked cool – all they had to do was look at the magazines, records, and posters, etc., around them.  Then they copy-catted – that grand old design language staple. And there was that really cool looking “fresh” stuff by David Carson! Utter Anti-Design became, almost by accident, the “new cool hip fresh style of today’s youth.” Crazy…

Even though (for my money) Carson never again achieved the levels of greatness he managed in Beach Culture, his own copycatting in Ray Gun of his own thinking made an enormous impact. The whole graphic design world turned into an amateur version of David Carson – for ten whole years or more. You can still see people working to look as much like David Carson as they can. For a brief moment, David Carson was the “most famous graphic designer in the world.” A house-hold name. The first rock star designer.

It was a perfect storm moment. A vast culture of DIY combined with powerful new technology alongside an invisible pop culture acceptance of culture destruction built right into the style. In 1991, punk broke into mainstream acceptance when Nirvana hit the top of the charts. The culture went ravenous and a million new ships took up the battle – unknowingly. Anti-Culture came of age when DIY became the dominant style. The Situationist revolution seems to have been achieved, and it was achieved in classic situationist style – BLINDLY.

The entire graphic design world collapsed (for all intents and purposes). Design schools lost students as computers and their programs became better and cheaper. Two weeks versus minimum two years to become a graphic designer. Which would you choose? Most art and design courses emphasize technology and ignore actual design theory and history. In fact, the history of design is only now being written, but the old school narrative – no longer appropriate – is still being sliced and diced and re-packaged.

Literally every powerful new graphic design voice of the last 30 years has the punk culture to thank for their world view. The top of the design industry mavens like Chip Kidd and Stefan Sagmeister and Shepard Fairey are enormously derivative of punk culture and all the baggage that comes with it. The “fine design culture” is so ignorant of the source of their ideas, of this new culture in general, that they’ve hailed them as the new geniuses. The truth is, I can point out to you where virtually every idea they have done originally came from. They are just accepted as heroes, but they are not the true defining warriors.

The reality is that the world of graphic design changed forever (and very very dramatically) back in the mid 70′s. It happened quickly and subtly and it took a couple of decades to finally achieve the full changeover, but the old world is gone. The old thoughts fade to black, the good old boy network feeble and confused. And we, the enemy, are now in command.

And the newbies? Well, they just do what looks cool, do what they want. Just do it themselves. Who needs a designer? Or a copywriter? Or an illustrator? Or a photographer? Or a printer? Or a client? The new crowd goes for the cool and they can do it fast and easy and change it whenever they want, no big deal. Everybody that’s important already understands. They don’t need you any more. Everybody knows that Charlie don’t surf.

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