The symbolism of the Ryugyong hotel, North Korea (image: Metahaven)
The globalised state is considered as a design object in this eye-opening, provocative book, says William Wiles
States draw their legitimacy from symbols. Crowns, currency, flags, passports, mythology, monuments, skylines, cultural output – these symbols constitute a state’s power, its brand identity. And the brand is a troubled one, with the state increasingly eroded by non-state actors from oligarchs to terrorists and from hedge funds to international agencies. Outside its walls are migrants who want in, and inside there are machete-wielding small-government freaks who want out. “In economic terms, the government provides a service with a very high barrier to entry (starting your own country) and a very high cost of changing providers (emigration),” says libertarian hacker Sean Hastings in one of the interviews in Uncorporate Identity. “In any industry, this leads to very poor service at very high cost.”
Given this apparent crisis, what’s a state to do? One of the answers is to rebrand, to work those symbols, to cultivate that image like a 16-year-old updating Facebook. Uncorporate Identity, a fat steak of a book edited by branding agency Metahaven and Marina Vishmidt, uncovers the role design plays in almost every aspect of modern state power, and in doing so makes the case that the rise in profile of the “creative industries” since the 1990s was in fact their wholesale co-option by geopolitics. But to characterise it as a single-minded polemic is misleading – it’s a menagerie of ideas and thinkers, at times bewildering but often brilliant. Four and a half chapters look at, respectively, unrecognised microstates, totalitarian megastructures, terrorism and paranoia, the EU’s boundary, and the branded state itself. These themes are served by essays, dialogues, graphic experimentation, epistolary exchanges and a short story, with contributors from Keller Easterling to China Miéville.
With these guides, all that is solid appears to melt away into a sea of uncertainty. Design (so it seems) is to the state what the curtain is to the Wizard of Oz, screening his puny figure so all we can hear is the booming voice. Sealand (a former defence platform in the North Sea turned into a microstate by an eccentric British family) and Transdniestria (a breakaway region in Moldova) are explored as two “unrecognised” states, clutching the symbols of statehood to them without quite making it into the club. Even the symbols of a state at its most gigantic and dreadful – the gargantuan House of the People commissioned by Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and the pyramidal, unfinished Ryugyong hotel in North Korea – waver in front of the eyes. “If the support structure of the monument falls into crisis – ideology discredited, lack of funds, or both – a monument’s message is up for grabs,” the book says impishly, in its finest section, discussing what is to be done with these excesses. A dialogue with philosopher and art critic Boris Groys suggests that the power of states to define themselves through monuments, “icons”, is lessening. In this context the icon-building splurge of the past 15 years or so looks more like mounting desperation than growing confidence in the power of architecture. And the whole debate is tied into one of the book’s central themes, a highly provocative one: that the network is the new wellspring of global power, and its architecture is the largest totalitarian edifice in the world today. “If there exists a ‘Totalitarianism 2.0’, it consists of fibre, aluminium and prefab concrete slabs,” says Metahaven of server farms. “Stalinist grandeur and ‘junkspace’ may be each other’s distant relatives.”
There is, of course, much much else. Miéville’s story is typically fine. The contribution from Keller Easterling – author of Enduring Innocence, still one of the definitive works on neoliberal place-making – is a brilliant semi-fictionalised riff on the International Standards Organisation, told through the medium of the airport novel. The segment on how European countries market themselves to each other (as carefree holiday paradises) and how they present themselves to those countries who might send economic migrants their way (as dangerous, unwelcoming fortresses) is a superb example of how design criticism is centrally relevant to the world around us. Given all this quality stuff, it’s a pity that parts of Uncorporate Identity stumble into the thickets of academic jargon and artspeak. These thorny, indigestible passages contribute too little of value to make up for the audiences they deter.
Uncorporate Identity, edited by Metahaven and Marina Vishmidt, Lars Müller, £34.90
Metahaven takes on David Cameron’s “big society” in icon 088 (September), in shops now