In the recent years, I have been skeptical of art in general. As evident in the current art exhibition in New York "The Sensation," many artists rely on the "shock" and controversy to attract attention. Not too long ago on another occasion, I came across a gallery opening in Soho that displayed close-up photographs of male and female genitalia and human feces. Those photographs showed no sign of technical excellence or any message the artist was trying to tell. Although art was one of my majors in college, my faith in art has been fading away slowly. And I'm probably not alone in this view.
This exhibition at the Church of St. John the Divine gave me a hope that art is not at a dead end. It was also one of the few successful examples of art as a meaningful communicative medium that can convey a powerful message.
Devised as his master's thesis at Yale University, Bradley McCallum, in collaboration with Jacqueline Tarry, created a sequence of multimedia installations in altars of a church. Unlike some artists today (or designers online, for that matter), McCallum and his partner have something to say: perspective on police violence, which has been making headlines in New York City during this past year.
In high, narrow altars of this monumental church (fig 1), McCallum set up light boxes (3,4,5), on which were police manuscripts and reports of crime scenes, in which innocent victims were unfairly killed by police. The spectator hears a narration by a victim's family member describing how police brutality could have been saved, what could have been done in the scenes of police violence, and how other police officers could deal with such situations. Several meters high on the wall of the altar is a video projection of the family member silently starring forward (2). There are about eight altars with these installations.
A strong story combined with an appropriate setting makes a moving message. There are little or almost no bells and whistles that "wow" the spectator. What McCallum successfully utilizes in this show is the use of technology and how he keeps it "invisible." The spectator is directly confronted with the message. The method that delivers the message becomes transparent. In many cases, that is how art should be. The same applies to graphic design.
In one of the smaller chapels of the church is another installation on a similar subject matter. Faces of victims are printed on pieces of white cloth, which are hung from the ceiling (6). With the voices of families narrated in the background, the space becomes surrealistically real, bringing the presence of the dead. Behind are the tables with custom-designed atlases (7), on which people have recorded the deaths of their close family members. These atlases themselves are very nicely designed as well.
Art may not be the same as it was at the beginning of this century. But what hasn't changed is that it still could be used as a vehicle to communicate. Especially with an advent and rapid development of technology in the 90's, it is ever easier for one to "create" something (whether it's art or design or anything else). Consequently, it is increasingly becoming important for artists and designers to have something to say.
It is time for us visual designers to take a step back from all the technologies and look at what art and design really is. Design is not about how to use the latest Photoshop filters or Flash tricks or making things look "cool" with bells and whistles.
Art and design are a means of communication. Without anything to say, how can you communicate?