Tell us the latest about the Subjective Atlas.
Firstly the series of subjective atlases has extended to six editions. And new ones are being developed. Currently we're working on a website, trying to cover the atlases and the context around them. For the draft-version, see: www.subjectiveatlas.info.
The Subjective Atlas of Palestine stays alive. I assume you know that it was republished in Arab-English, printed in Ramallah and sold-out now. According to Khaled Hourani it was a great success in Palestine, and Abbas has bought 100 copies as relational gifts. And still every now and then articles are being published about it.
Khaled Hourani and I are now working on a new project. We are setting up a design-label called ‘Disarming Design from Palestine’ under which new products will be developed that relate to the Palestinian reality. Most of the products will be produced and also developed in Palestine by local and international artists and designers, in collaboration with local crafts and businesses. Hopefully also with/in Gaza.... In September we will organise a 2-week workshop with designers and artists from the West Bank, and master-students Design from the Sandberg Instituut Amsterdam, where I'm heading the Design Department. And we have support from UNESCO.
How about a Subjective Atlas of the Arab Spring?
There is no plan yet to make an atlas of the Arab Spring. That would be a very interesting, but also very layered and complex atlas. But who knows, maybe your article can blow air in that initiative!
How did the idea behind the Subjective Atlas of Palestine come about? How did it all start?
The media often show us such powerful and complex images of a subject, an event or a nation that those images become like our own experiences. Reality seems to coincide with them. But nothing could be further from the truth. Still, we need images in order to feel connected to a place, a country, a community or a people. Palestinian representation speaks volumes about this. Their inhabitants are almost always associated with terrorism. This greatly distances them from us, and as a consequence we find it difficult to identify with them. They remain a ‘they’, and seldom become a ‘we’, and in this way the audience won't get curious, and changing public opinion (in order to change political strategies) becomes an impossible task. This problem was what motivated my attempt to capture the human experience of life in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.
One of the declared aims of the book is to counter stereotypes fomented in the mainstream media about Palestinians and their cause, and you do this ingeniously in portraying the 'ordinary', the daily life beyond the shocking and sensational headlines ... How difficult was it to strike a balance between sympathy for Palestinians and naivety (or turning a blind eye) to the more radicalised parts of Palestinian society that is also another reality?
This question I had to read twice, because I have really not been confronted with radicalism being on Palestinian soil. It was the most hospitable welcome, I had heart-warming contact with the artists and designers, they showed and told me about their culture, we walked around, had dinner in great places and they explained to me all the different delicious dishes. I expected to meet hatred and cynicism, but nothing is further from the truth. Of course I heard many shocking stories about losing property, not being able to use their own land anymore, the terrible injustices committed by soldiers at checkpoints. But the people I met were very intelligent and well informed, and that gave them an independent mind, art provided them with ways to express themselves, to find poetry in thought and survive without becoming neither cynical nor radical. They were such strong and respectful characters; they understood even better than I what the strength of a book like the subjective atlas could be. And they just made amazing work and I only had to bring it together.
The book does live up to the promise of its title, that of being a subjective and intimate view of Palestine as seen by its natives. I know your answer to the Dutch journalist who asked you whether you will do a similar book on Israel, but I'm more interested in knowing if you had any reactions at all from Israelis and Jews about the Palestine Atlas... how was it received by them?
Before making the book I also invited Israelis to join and asked them if they knew Palestinian artists that should join. The reaction was very positive, people wanted to join, and naive as I was I asked if they would be able to make it to the kick-off meeting in Ramallah... not realizing they are not allowed to cross the border. And also after talking about this with Khaled Hourani (director Palestinian School for the Arts) he explained how tense the atmosphere would be when Israelis artists would join. I understood.
So in general the reaction from the Israeli side was very good and motivating, but I guess the book is not for sale over there.
Your idea of design seems intimately linked with political commitment to "improve life". What does that mean exactly? How would you describe your view of your own work to a lay audience that by design understands only a 'neutral' and passive laying out of graphics and text?
Dutch philosopher Henk Oosterling called today’s society a media society (Premsela Lecture 2009): “Media have long since ceased to be things that we have made ourselves and are thus totally under our control. Media create their own worlds, and we learn to live in them. They are changing from form/function into content/message. TV has changed from an information medium into a pleasurable substance and finally into a necessary resource. The mobile phone is not solely a communication and information medium; it too is a necessary resource. The medium is indeed the message. But the media are not merely packaging, nor are they pure format. In all their ubiquity, the media are a discourse. Media society is our environment, the space in which we act.”
I constantly wonder what my relationship should be to this ‘media society’, in which populism determines the tone, and increasingly the content, of public and political debates. It’s a society in which fear influences our opinions and decisions. A society in which 40% of the Dutch population agrees with the ideas of the far-right-wing politician Geert Wilders, who derives his political power solely from being quoted in the media. It’s a society in which residents of communities with hardly any immigrants, such as the Dutch town of Volendam, harbour the greatest fear of them. Meanwhile, Israel, in spite of systematically ignoring UN resolutions, violating international agreements and waging a terrifying war at the beginning of 2009 in the Gaza Strip, and thanks to extremely clever press agencies and agents, they can still rely on support from the EU, with the Netherlands as outspoken voice.
As a citizen in this society, I am cautious, and as a designer I feel compelled to be critical. Designing is no longer about shaping information, but about how to deal with information. It is not the medium that is the message, but the mentality that’s transmitted. So the point is not to find solutions and answers but to identify problems and ask questions. It is in this context that I would like to deal with graphic design and in particular with designing as a public business.