In 1998, I was asked to write an editorial for the Melbourne design magazine Name; the issue theme was evolution. The multi-talented Andy Trevillian was behind the magazine, which was stuffed full of fold-outs, pockets, slots and loose-leaf inserts.
The last time I saw a copy of Emigré was through glass, a digital image on my computer monitor. The time before that, it was a physical copy under Perspex, ranged with others along a wall in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Emigré was on display in an exhibition tracing the new design sensibility of the 1980s and ’90s. The ironies, in an issue on evolution, are multiple. Emigré is now itself an artifact, a relic of an earlier age when digital design was something new; a distant forbear of our own moment, emerging from the primordial ooze of cyber space. The moment was one in which evolution both telescoped and collapsed. Telescoped, because the 1980s were made to seem eons ago; the museum stretched the rapid change of the past decade into a long view, like the unbearably slow motion of a Douglas Gordon video. Collapsed, because recent design still seemed novel, half-formed, and unsure of its own status, even when it was presented as a done deal.
The museum performs in miniature a juggling act we experience more broadly within culture as a whole. On the one hand, culture is the long view of a smoothly unfolding history; understandable, non-threatening. On the other, given contemporary society’s love of the here-and-now, culture is also the incomprehensible, but alluring, eruption of the new. Seeing Emigré in SFMOMA, I saw evolution corrupted; that is, evolution used to assimilate mutations to a familiar narrative. Displaying history does that sort of thing. History’s narratives are built on ideas like style (which assumes consistency), influence (which privileges synthesis), causality (the domino-theory of history), and teleology (a linear path to a preordained goal). It’s as if the universe began with a Big Bang, leaving history devoted to a perpetual clean-up operation.
But a graphic version of evolution that always appealed to me was Pete Frame’s ‘Rock Family trees’, those hand-lettered, trainspotting diagrams of the comings and goings of members of rock groups. Because while they looked like orthodox genealogical charts, they were full of all the wild variables of rock; ‘left to join Children of God’ (the cult, not the band), ‘OD-ed’, ‘fired because he liked the Beatles’. In their own nutty way, Frame’s family trees illustrate the flaws in the evolutionary model. History is structured around biological time, but Frame shows that time can be determined by institutions, corporations, individuals, coincidences and calamities. Historical evolution is seen as an organic flow, but Frame maps upheavals, mutations, disasters and dead ends. I love the way his charts are littered with walk-ons and bit-players, like so many Spinal Tap drummers and the hundred and one contenders for the title ‘Fifth Beatle’.
Evolution tells a good story, but it can’t account for the way that style now spreads globally, instantly, randomly, virally. I’m not arguing for chaos theory, but for a kind of story telling that can handle chaos.