It’s appropriate that I’m talking to Metahaven on PiratePad. Having pushed for Skype and settling for ‘chat’, Daniel van der Velden – with creative partner Vinca Kruk always cc’d into email – sends a link to a ‘Hello!’ on the online etherpad doc, the design agency’s answers highlighted pink, to my green, in what is a last-minute interview graciously granted and swiftly started within a day of the suggestion. It’s a real-time conversation as both ends multitask – answering, waiting, working, searching for links – with van der Velden occasionally poking fun, once bluntly retorting, “is this an attempt at an art school examination?” to my inane inquisitions on a colour choice. Another time simply replying, “’magic realism’ sounds nice” to a long-winded interpretation of what the use of the term in the press release for their role in Auto Italia’s upcoming POLYMYTH x Miss Information exhibition is all about –apparently nothing much.
Dry humour aside, Metahaven’s insight on both the formal and political machinations of aesthetics and design is unparalleled. It’s something they already examined in their recent Black Transparency exhibition only to generously elaborate in conversation; from the influence of Walgreens and Sandra Bullock on the visual language of US intelligence agency, NSA, to the role 90s sci-fi and Ferrero Rocher plays in their recruitment strategy. This is, after all, the duo who developed the brand for renegade micronation, Sealand, and designed merchandise for Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks.
“We were always interested in pop”, says Metahaven, as they point to the “pop phenomenon” that is the aforementioned Australian-born enemy of the state, suggesting that the move to working on the visuals for cutting-edge electronic artist Holly Herndon is “not like a switch at all”. All pretty pastel icons and feathered circle cutouts their debut collaborative video for ‘Home’, released by RVNG Intl, is essentially a break-up ballad for Herndon’s laptop. After celebrating the embodiment of her complete being in her harddrive in ‘Chorus ’, ‘Home’ follows a betrayal, a breach of trust, where she suddenly realises nothing is as it seems and there’s someone else involved -her computer wasn’t the person she thought it was.
PiratePad doesn’t sound nearly as cute as Google Docs. There’s the gooey voiced velar stops of a baby in the latter, the pursed-lipped ‘p’s’ of the former evoking an off-the-grid exile stalking the peripheries of mainstream channels, cut adrift on the swampy surface of the deep dark web. ‘Home’ too looks nice and sounds like it’s safe but bad things happen where you least expect them.
I noticed the colour scheme for the major text in video you did with Holly was very similar to Google’s primary colours. Was that intentional?
Metahaven: No. You will see that of Google’s colors, yellow is missing. The colors used are red, green and blue.
Is there some special significance to those particular colours?
Mh: Not particularly, but they are RGB.
And RGB is relevant because…?
Mh: RGB is what our screens have. It is the CMYK of the digital world. But nothing of such portentiousness was behind the type color choice. We tried different options and this looked nicest, the most bubblegum like.
It seems like there’s an emphasis on this ‘soft’ aesthetic around of these enterprises like the NSA in the icons that inundate the screen of ‘Home’. Are these images that already existed or are they ones as imagined by you?
Mh: Trevor Paglen has done a lot of work on the so-called “black programs” and the patches that are worn by pilots who fly Darpa spy planes from Groom Lake Air Force Base, etc. The NSA’s secret programs have similar icons but ones that are mixed with a system administrator, USB key, Windows / Office art world that reveals the aesthetic realities of waging war from behind a fake wood veneer desk.
To us it is fascinating that these icons and brands were developed purely internally; never to be seen or understood by the public, which in a way gave their designers total freedom. One NSA program is called BOUNDLESS INFORMANT. A GCHQ homemade computer Trojan is called Ambassador’s Reception.
Indeed, the icons in ‘Home’, which are the NSA’s, are more Office and Post-It than these black world patches. All the icons used are found images. We designed none of them but on some occasions made them black or embossed them with marble, depending on how much NSA we wanted in that part of the video—highlighting their shape, or silhouette, rather than their content.
That’s interesting when you consider the internal branding of a corporate office; videos and slogans that try to humanise a purely economic, or productive intent. Also with advertising, that 4G campaign that says something like ‘now you have no excuse not to stay in touch’, like that’s something you should be excited about…
Mh: Why are you not excited about staying in touch all the time? (laughs). Telecommunications companies like o2 used to sell the idea of connectivity of which they were also the caretakers and providers, like you connected to the network using their equipment, their telephones, and now they are by comparison much more invisible and merging into ever larger abstract connectivity gateway corporations.
Those ads are interesting, as the experience of connectivity is nothing all that special anymore.
How do you achieve such insight into the internal processes of these organisations?
Mh: What do you mean?
Is it information that is readily available to the public? Like these in-office NSA icons etc…
MH: No, it’s basically us guesstimating our way through, based on having viewed NSA recruitment videos and having seen every YouTube appearance of Keith Alexander [agency Director]. As designers we have quite a keen eye for the psychology of font use, color use, and drop shadows, for example. You can tell that most icons for the NSA were done under quite nerdy and boring circumstances, coming out of something that is an overlap between army, office, hacker, and wannabe. The aforementioned British government Trojan AMBASSADOR’S RECEPTION refers to a Ferrero Rocher TV ad from the 1990s. That in turn may tell you something about the age of the person who has given the Trojan its name.
It is really interesting you mention these visual cues, considering the complexity of these systems and interconnections between economics, entertainment, war, food, business…
Mh: I recall many years ago, I was doing some teaching in an art school in the US, and you had to come to the system administrator to get access credentials to the network. This was pre-9/11. The system administrator was very corpulent, had a ponytail, and had a USB key and cell phone dangling from his belt, and was seated amid monitors, paperwork, and half-broken routers and so on.
Then he didn’t really look at me but just said, “ARE YOU VISCOM?” It took me time to realise that he meant “visual communication”. The NSA seems a bit like that; acronym-obsessed and wanting to appear really “robust” but it is all a lot messier than that. But you are right: entertainment, war, food, and business. That’s what it’s all about.
Like Newspeak – miniluv, minipax…
Do you think then, that these are conscious, systematic decisions being made by some kind of political elite or a culmination of all this imagery, ideology and conditioning, black swan events, that has lead to this bizarre visual culture?
Mh: The irony is that it’s probably not all that centrally controlled. The programs maybe are, but their iconography looks so chaotic. The NSA recruitment videos make the agency seem like a sort of Walgreens. They make it seem like everyone can get a job there, and it is in some way portraying itself as a sort of paradise of equality but you are encouraged not to think too much. They also have a public counsel, who puts everything the NSA does operationally which they can talk about publicly in very soft, democratic, and agreeable terms.
It sounds a lot like Silicon Valley.
mh: But without the competitive edge and the glam. There is no Evan Spiegel [Snapchat CEO] at the NSA… yet.
In what sense?
Mh: The NSA is a behemoth-sized state program with a large revolving door with the private industry. But it is not in itself innovative or cool. It is a state enterprise, and I think quite a good caretaker of its employees, because why would you encourage disgruntled former staffers to become whistleblowers? It may run on “unquestioned loyalty” more than on being a hip VC-funded startup.
Many of the NSA’s employees may have read some form of cypherpunk science fiction (Bruce Sterling has stated this—“They are my readers, those high-IQ spook geeks”) and then probably non-fiction books enlisting various “bad guys,” enemies of the state, etc. We think of the NSA as very The Net. Every time Keith Alexander says “cyber,” Sandra Bullock is hitting the keypad of her hacker pizza computer. That is also the scariest part. There is so much nostalgia and past in the NSA. It has nothing to do with the future—it doesn’t want it.
Okay, so you’re suggesting that they achieve this “unquestioned loyalty” by adopting an aesthetic that is different or similar to The Net? Because the Sandra Bullock movie isn’t very ‘bubblegum’…
Mh: Not really, no. We think that running the NSA, and creating all these icons, has a strong dependency on myth. Believing in certain myths, and some foundational imagery for these myths—the terrible cyberhacker, Julian Assange “the high tech terrorist” (© Joe Biden), and other things—are based on popular culture of the 1980s and 1990s, on spy novels, etc. It’s not that that gives you loyalty but there is probably some shared pool of references, internal memes, that run the show.
So then the other side of this is public entities that avoid these 90s science fiction tropes, visually and linguistically. Like the Google Glass colour range for example: “charcoal”, “tangerine”, “cotton” and “sky”, rather than black, orange, white, blue. It’s essentially a surveillance device, that you pay for but don’t own, packaged in smooth contours and neutral colours. If it looked more like a William Gibson character’s accessory people might react differently…
Mh: Totally, the aesthetics of totalitarian products are non-offensive and liberal; “apricot” rather than orange, “yoga” rather than martial arts, completely smooth, with the actual abstract power that is at work (in a Hannah Arendt kind of way, mind you) being neatly packaged on unilaterally positive and “amazing” terms. There are these Amanda Rosenberg videos where she (as the former PR lead for Google Glass) personifies various characters who are fascinated by someone they encounter who is wearing Google Glass. And one thing she says in this roleplay is that the glasses must be so helpful, because she always forgets names, and you can invisibly Google anyone you meet.
Do you recognise some sort of primal fear that drives all of this? This idea that as technology becomes more complex and its functions obscured, people seem to react in a similarly awed way… through conspiracy theory, myth-making, worship…
Mh: On the one hand technology is so integrated with life that we don’t see it and don’t question it. On the other hand it is some sort of ‘Big Brother’ or ‘Big Other’. So there’s the abstraction of technology’s embedded-ness, which is a bit like the classical idea that “good design is invisible”. We don’t question it.
Then there is technology’s overpowering Big Other presence, which is also an abstraction, but more Stalin than Dieter Rams.
It’s interesting to watch Holly’s work evolve as it has. From something acutely personal and seemingly uncynical to this overtly political project she’s doing with you. Yet, outwardly it seems as though your position hasn’t changed since working with Wikileaks and Sealand. Was there a point in your career as Metahaven where there was a certain switch?
MH: Holly’s music has always been acutely personal and it still is. But she is interested in looking over the fences and boundaries of the music industry, while increasing her impact and audience at the same time. It is amazing to work with someone with such a strong sense of artistic autonomy and, at the same time, such a capacity for collaboration. Working on this is obviously very different from working with WikiLeaks and even so much more different from making things for Sealand.
We were always interested in pop. Around the time of the Sealand identity we were reading a lot of Richard Hamilton’s writings, and WikiLeaks was itself a pop phenomenon with Julian Assange telling us that in every given merchandising situation there should be no more than five choices for the consumer. The continuation with cutting-edge pop music feels very natural, and not like a switch at all, with the added pleasure of an amazing record label, RVNG. We just last week spent three days in Amsterdam with Holly and Mat, filming a new music video, for a forthcoming track. It will be insane.
How did the collaboration come about?
Mh: They sent us an email last year, and everything evolved from there.
The press release for your POLYMYTH collaboration mentions ‘magic realism’.
Mh: We didn’t write that press release! In our forthcoming book [Black Transparency] there is an essay that deals with Russian internet memes and their deployment in the Ukraine conflict. That is what magic realism makes me think of… what if we are not going towards more transparency but to an unaccountable, free-ranging fantasy. **
Metahaven is an Amsterdam-based strategic design agency. They will be taking part in the POLYMYTH x Miss Information group exhibition at London’s Auto Italia, running from October 4 to November 16, and Lunch Bytes’ The Commons panel at the ICA on October 4, 2014.
Header image: Metahaven x Holly Herndon, ‘Home’ (2014). Screenshot. Courtesy Metahaven.