On Hybridization

The boundaries between art and commerce, as with much else, have become increasingly blurred, but if we are to make sense of this new hyphenation nation, writes Rick Poynor, a sharper focus is needed…

Early in the 1990s, I was contacted by a Japanese magazine seeking nominations from design people for a word or concept that would, according to their crystal balls, “define the coming decade”. My suggestion was hybrid. What a frisson that word then seemed to produce! It suggested a cultural landscape in which old categories of design artificially – and boringly – held apart by outmoded convention would merge in productive and exciting new forms. It contained more than a hint of transgression, as worn-out ways of thinking, making and acting gave way to liberating creative practices, ideas and experiences. I was thinking about the old dividing line between art and design, often questioned for sure, but in most real institutional situations still firmly in place. The drive to blur it all seemed everywhere apparent, and postmodernism, still much talked about then, actively encouraged blurring as part of the ongoing meltdown of ‘high’ and ‘low’.

A decade later, the idea of hybridity is now deeply entrenched in the design world. Both the idea and, to some extent, the activity have become commonplace, although that doesn’t stop designers from enthusing about hybridization as though it were the freshly cut key to a whole new cultural kingdom. In his heavily promoted book Life Style, Bruce Mau, Toronto-based graphic designer and sometime collaborator with Rem Koolhaas, rehearsed a view of hybridity that few of his designer readers would have been inclined to dispute: “Attempting to declare the discrete boundary of any practice, where one ends and another begins, has become arbitrary and artificial,” he writes. “On the contrary, the overlap is where the greatest innovation is happening.” The two examples that follow this assertion are oddly lightweight, to say the least. Mau mentions the intersection of cinema and digital manipulation seen in Gap commercials and The Matrix’s action sequences. These media forms are neither one thing nor the other, he proposes, but “a monstrous and beautiful child of the two”. Then, to represent the birth of a new kind of culture, Mau jumps to an image adapted from Nietzsche of a chorus in which every singer is a soloist, pushing forward to outsing the others, pressing against the audience and surrounding them so that they are “embedded” in this singing mass. It is impossible to tell from this passage whether Mau regards this condition as desirable or undesirable, enabling or disabling. Are we, for some reason, supposed to welcome what appears to be an oppressive restriction of our own free movement?

Hostile takeover

Whether we are talking about image technology, global markets, or digital infrastructure, Mau continues, all of these things demand a “predatory colonisation of open space”. We have reached the point, he explains, where “Spheres once thought free [from the logic of the market], and even resistant or opposed to it – the museum, the academy, public democratic space – find it ever more difficult to retain autonomy in the face of corporate culture and its sponsorships, educational initiatives, and so-called civic gestures.” As small-scale examples of this intrusion, Mau cites print ads above urinals and video ads in elevators, and rightly says these represent just the beginning of a process of “inscription” by commercial imperatives to which there is potentially no end. In the space of just a few hundred words, Mau has moved from an excited declaration that hybridity and the dissolution of boundaries are generating our most significant cultural innovations to an almost neutral-sounding acknowledgement that practically nowhere, apart from a few unspoiled bits of nature, is free from “hostile takeover” by market forces. The direction of his argument implies a link between the two, but he doesn’t acknowledge it outright and this reluctance to make and act on the connection is symptomatic of the bind in which many designers now find themselves.

The market itself shows no such hesitation to engineer and exploit the link. Business literature provides an abundance of evidence that cultural ideas that might have seemed avant-garde and progressive in artistic circles ten or 15 years ago are now routine shoptalk in business circles. Funky Business by Jonas Ridderstråle and Kjell Nordström, a pair of Swedish PhDs who brandish their hairless heads as a hip personal trademark, is an international bestseller translated, at last count, into 19 languages. King of the corporate gurus Tom Peters, for one, thinks they offer a “defiantly funky perspective on the new world order”, and this new world order is founded on the twin principles, interminably reiterated, of continuous change and exhilarating uncertainty. According to Ridderstråle and Nordström, we live in a “blurred society” in which conventional divisions and structures, once used to sort experience into neat categories, are falling into a state of disarray: industries and relationships between companies are blurring, products and services are blurring, and so is the traditional distinction between leisure and work. “Everywhere we look, we see blur – East-West, Men-Women, Structure-Process, Right-Wrong.” For entrepreneurial individuals and organisations, they argue, these changes are not mysterious or threatening and they don’t spell chaos; they should instead be grasped as opportunities to restructure and innovate.

Funky Swedes

The funky Swedes offer a vision of the future in which we inhabit a cut-and-paste “hyphe-nation” where the solution to having more than enough of what already exists is to create a neverending stream of brand-new things by combining old things in novel ways – “The weirder the combination,” they exult, “the more unique the result.” They list some recent hyphenations: edu-tainment, info-tainment, distance-learning, psycho-linguistics, bio-tech, corporate-university. As they see it, variation has the potential to breed ever more variation as gleaming new hyphenates are deliriously spliced together in a chain of multiplication that is potentially limitless, so long as value is added in the process. “At the same time,” they caution, “it needs to be difficult for the consumer to unbundle the offering. Because if the customer can easily separate the things that have been combined, he or she can use increasingly perfected markets to get one or all of these items from someone else.”

While it was doubtless not their intention, Ridderstråle and Nordström have succinctly expressed the problem faced by many cultural producers today and, perhaps above all, by designers. The question is precisely how it might be possible to “unbundle the offering”. In the relationship of business and culture, the process of blurring, hyphenation, hybridization – call it what you will – is so far advanced that it is easy to take it for granted and cease to question what might have been lost on the way. All the rhetoric focuses relentlessly on what is supposedly gained. Merely to use the word “innovation” as a rallying cry, as Mau does, as the business-friendly Swedes do, is to suggest developments that cannot be gainsaid, wealth-generating outcomes that, according to the logic of the market, are inherently desirable, irrespective of their ulterior meanings or effects.

Foolish to resist

By the end of the 1990s, the feeling that there was almost no resisting these changes ran deep and, this being the case, the only sensible response was to collude. In December 1999, an issue of Utne Reader with the cover story The Great American Sellout noted that “The rewards are now so high it’s often seen as foolish, even pathological, to resist.” A British novelist, writing in the style magazine Dazed & Confused, set out the new priorities for herself and her friends: “Fuck all that spiritual bullshit about mental growth and exploration and experience, we wanted the goods. The hardware. Cash, clothes, cars, luxury apartments.” Design writer Alice Rawsthorn phrased the issue more delicately, though just as materialistically, in promotional copy for the fashion company Caterpillar. It took eight years, she notes, between Jack Kerouac setting off on the road and his appearance in Playboy’s Beat issue, while hot artist Tracey Emin made it on to billboards for Bombay Sapphire gin in a matter of months and was handsomely recompensed for it. “Maybe the commercialisation thing we get so hung up on these days comes down to just that,” Rawsthorn offers. “If everything’s now up for grabs, then are you master or servant of your own life’s commodification?”

In 2001, the style magazine Sleazenation provided one possible answer with what some might have regarded as a truly innovative cover concept – “Absolut(e) sell out”. On the back cover, it ran an Absolut ad, Absolut Morph (the product blends vodka and citrus flavours; hyphenation and mutability are, once again, the visual theme), while the front showed a model sporting covetable items by Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci, and Chanel, with prices and supplier details attached. “To a certain extent we are all sell-outs now,” the editor confessed in a note. “Any individual or organisation attempting to disseminate their cultural message will find that corporate involvement – ie cash – is becoming increasingly necessary to facilitate this. This is not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. It is also inevitable.” No argument about its inevitability from the business side: an issue of Fast Company proposed that fringe ideas generated by social and artistic deviants are the very stuff of mass markets. The magazine’s advice? “Sell out! Sure, it lacks integrity, but the benefits can be pretty nice.”

Once we dissolve the old boundary lines and concede the territory to corporate forces, it is extremely difficult to win it back. From our compromised position embedded in the new hyphenated reality, in which the culture-business depends on the drip-drip-drip of corporate largesse, it becomes hard to imagine that there could be any other way of doing things, especially if this is the only reality we have known. Any misgivings can be waved aside with the claim that this state of affairs is now simply inevitable, so we might as well grab the benefits with both hands, and any criticism can be rejected as a point of view that naively fails to understand the financial expediency of culture’s pact with commerce. When Morgan Stanley, sponsor of Surrealism: Desire Unbound at Tate Modern in London, draws a parallel between the way the surrealists “threw back the boundaries of conventional art by challenging conventional thinking” and its own history of “challenging traditional thinking to help our clients raise their financial aspirations”, such a comparison has long since ceased to strike some of us as the slightest bit absurd.

Cultural revival

In a fascinating polemic, The Twilight of American Culture, social critic Morris Berman takes a scathing look at the US today and concludes that, despite the vigour and vitality of contemporary commercial culture, the nation is locked into a pattern of decline – evinced by social inequality, loss of entitlements, decreasing intellectual abilities and spiritual death – which it is powerless to prevent. This decline will play itself out regardless and the outcome will not be known until we are no longer around. What can be done then, here and now, to ensure that, when the time finally comes, enlightened values still survive so that a more receptive society can make use of them again to revivify itself? Berman’s answer is a strategy inspired by what happened to classical knowledge during the Dark Ages when the manuscripts were faithfully copied and preserved in the monasteries by monks who almost certainly did not understand their contents. When the moment for cultural revival came in the 12th-century, the knowledge was there to be used. Berman calls his proposal “the monastic option” and the essence of the idea is that people who don’t feel they fit in with consumer society’s prevailing values find ways of practising at a local level – and so keeping alive – the values they hold dear. He stresses the individualistic nature of this strategy, cautions against the constant dangers of institutionalisation and co-optation by commerce, and rejects the notion of a life based on kitsch, consumerism, profit, fame and self-promotion. Among his examples are Adbusters, David Barsamian’s Alternative Radio programme on National Public Radio and violinist Olga Bloom’s Bargemusic, which presents chamber music in a wood-panelled concert hall in a converted coffee barge floating off Brooklyn. Berman accepts the fact that we have no way of knowing how the future will turn out and that his idea might be no more than wishful thinking. Yet, as he reasonably observes, “If we make no attempt to preserve the best in our culture, we can rest assured that the possibility of cultural renewal is pretty much ruled out.”

Our culture is corporate culture

Even if they agree with this conclusion, most designers will probably wish to find a way of collaborating with commercial forces. They frequently talk about ‘changing things from the inside’, but to do this, if it is possible at all, will require a clarity of political analysis, a strength of critical purpose and a tactical readiness to accept the fact that most interventions are likely to be shortlived, while the fundamental nature of the political and economic system remains intact. Few seem to possess these tools in practice and even those who come closest have drawn legitimate criticism. The late Tibor Kalman, starting from the premise that “Our culture is corporate culture”, proposes a “modest solution” in his book Perverse Optimist: “Find the cracks in the wall.” In other words, hook up with entrepreneurs crazy enough to allow you to use their money to change the world. Kalman’s most sustained attempt to do this was with Benetton, for whom he conceived and edited 13 issues of Colors magazine. Thomas Frank, writing in Artforum, was perhaps the only commentator to point out the naivety of Kalman’s political position, which posed no fundamental challenge to the knitwear giant. In Life Style, Mau’s opening gambit is to distance himself from culture jammers (such as Adbusters, presumably) who do at least make it clear where they stand with their anti-corporate rhetoric and actions. Mau’s definition of engagement with the conditions of our time, or what he calls the “global image economy”, apparently requires that judgement be postponed “while we search for an exit”. If this sounds unhelpfully hazy, much of what Mau has to say in the book about his practice seems simultaneously oracular and opaque, a warning sign that he wants to have it both ways, to reap the professional rewards of working for the “regime of the logo and its image” (Mau’s words) while affecting to critique it.

A canny move

One senses here the influence of Mau’s colleague, Rem Koolhaas, an architect and observer for whom the suspension of judgement has become an operational strategy. The problem, as always, is how to ‘unbundle the offering’ as these culture-business hybrids become increasingly imaginative, persuasive, and compelling. Dan Wieden, founder and CEO of Wieden+Kennedy, Nike’s advertising agency for the last 20 years, renovated a 90-year-old landmark building in Portland’s downtown Pearl District. Then, in a canny move, he invited the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA), a fledgling arts organisation with a reputation for promoting edgy young artists, to become a tenant. Wieden was already a PICA board member, and he hoped that the presence of artists would help re-energise the agency’s creative atmosphere by blurring the boundaries imposed by traditional conceptions of advertising and by opening up fresh ways of communicating.

Extremely selfish

“It’s not altruism – it’s an investment,” he told Fast Company. “And in some ways, it’s extremely selfish. The bet is that there will be concrete rewards and spiritual rewards for us and for our clients.” It is easy to see the appeal for a struggling arts institution of finding a home in such a spectacular space (designed by Brad Cloepfil and his firm Allied Works Architecture), just as it takes no great leap of imagination to grasp what a pleasure it would be for agency personnel to work in such an ambience. Yet the relationship is troubling because it crystallises a systemic truth about the relative power of advertising and a local arts organisation, as the larger of the two entities literally ingests and displays the smaller, weaker one for its own purposes. The implication for both advertising and art, and for people in the community who visit PICA in this space, is that the boundaries are now fully permeable and that art and advertising are not so different in essence – it is all just ‘creativity’ and ‘communication’. The process of boundary-erosion is happening everywhere and PICA’s presence within W+K only confirms its normality.

At Prada’s Epicenter store on Prince Street and Broadway in Manhattan, this erosion is even more subtly embodied. The hybridization of culture and commerce has been so artfully achieved here that, walking around the 2,276-square metre space designed by Rem Koolhaas and OMA, one doesn’t experience the queasy sensation of being an interloper that snooty fashion shops so often induce. The underlying sales function is giddily subsumed into something much more loosely defined. With its half-hidden video screens in all shapes and sizes, its huge cylindrical glass-sided elevator, and its vast wallpapered wall, it is more like the latest thing in funky, high-tech arts centres than a shop. If the Italian fashion company means to convey the impression that its Epicenter store is, at least in part, a public space, then it succeeds; on Saturdays the place is reportedly thronged by people who have dropped by to hang out and take a look. Prada planned to stage public performances in the auditorium sculpted from a ravishing sweep of zebrawood.

A pathway in a fog

“In a world where everything is shopping . . . and shopping is everything . . . what is luxury?” asks Koolhaas in a Prada book about the project that is as thick as a telephone directory. “Luxury is NOT shopping.” The book defines luxury in four ways: as intelligence; as attention – once captured, this is generously “handed back” to the consumer; as roughness – an antidote to the unremitting smoothness of the commercial realm; and as waste – “Space that is not ‘productive’ – not shopping – affords contemplation, privacy, mobility, and luxury.” Then, a few pages later, under the heading of Street, there is a mysterious hint about eventually returning “the public back to the public. . . .”

This and other statements by Koolhaas, along with Mau’s attempt to locate the exit, suggest that we shall one day emerge from the hyphenation nation. How it will happen, they don’t say. How projects that serve commercial efforts are going to bring it about, they also don’t say. Maybe the time has come to insist on the validity of some of our earlier categories and distinctions – between art and non-art, between instrumental work and work undertaken for its own sake. Operating without them is about as effective, as a method of resistance, as looking for a pathway in a fog.

This essay appears in Designing Pornotopia by Rick Poynor (Laurence King Publishing, 2006), laurenceking.com. It was first published in Harvard Design Magazine in 2002.

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