In my humble opinion, Kevin Lo is one of the best radical graphic designers in North America these days. The man behind Loki Design also designed the logo and art for this show, The Rebel Beat. But people have been seeing his designs and art up around phone polls, at demos, in zines, and in galleries across Montreal for years. Check out this awesome interview with Kevin below, done by our friends at Free City Radio.
An interview with designer & community activist Kevin Lo, founder of LOKi design studios, recorded on a winter afternoon at Kevin’s parc avenue apartment in Montréal.
In this interview, Kevin highlights both contemporary and historic examples of radical design practice, carried out and developed in dialogue with the currents of social activist movements, both locally and globally. There are important references to the key role that art and design played during the Québec student strike in 2012, also on the essential role that cultural initiatives played within the anti-capitalist globalization movement. Kevin also highlights historic movements when grassroots design work was able to communicate the spirit of rebellion taking place, like the Paris 1968 uprising.
Critically this discussion also looks at ways that capitalism works to co-opt radical artistic practice and design languages, from modernism, to the grunge style of the late 20th century. Kevin also offers some stinging, design-based insights on the post 9/11 hipster embrace of imagery that speaks to a conservative cultural nostalgia for the US neo-colonialist culture of the 1950s.
This interview was recorded and then transcribed for publication in the fourth edition of the Free City Radio zine project, all accompanying graphics/photos via LOKi design. — Stefan.
Stefan Christoff : To start, wondering if you could share some reflections on the current state of artistic practices being developed in connection to social movements in Montréal and beyond. As a designer and artist, can you speak on some important patterns and also challenges within this context?
Kevin Lo : Today, protest art is perhaps becoming more visible and this is taking place in relation to the growing strength of social movements, like the Black Lives Matter protests across the U.S. right now. Artists have always been integral to articulating movements for social change, this is not something new.
Now, if we just flip back to a couple years ago in Montréal, we can look at the artistic components of the student strike and in a way, at a local level, now compared to then, it could seem that locally there isn’t as much activist art being created, but this observation is just a reflection on the larger profile of corresponding social movements, and there isn’t a mass social movement taking the streets right now in Québec, although clearly underground, below the headlines, there is still a great deal taking place.
Also at the same time, within community art institutions, I do see art playing a growing role in helping to push critical discourses about society, this has been developing for a long time. I think there’s a necessity for this process to expand, which is happening locally for sure, like during the resistance to the Charte des valeurs, but it still needs to grow.
Recently I have been thinking a lot about artist run centres, here in Montréal but also in Canada, which have an important radical and community oriented history. Also by extension, I have been thinking about the interconnections between the ways that Conservative politics at a larger scale translate into more conservative practices at art institutions, how this must be resisted, and why in this context artist run centres and social activists need to create more connections and bonds. A broader context of state repression and austerity does create a climate of fear in society that directly impacts artists and art institutions.
Also today, some artist run centres, like articule, are doing really good work in terms of anti-oppression practices and integrating those ideas into artistic process and discourse. The resurgence of a rooted type of identity politics within these spaces, can work meaningfully to help mobilize against systems of racism and colonization, manifested locally in the oppression of indigenous peoples, also in the realities today facing Black people today, and the sustaining impacts of colonialism on many other immigrant communities and cultures.
These ideas are manifesting even in the mainstream culture, in films like Dear White People, or the mainstream artists supporting the current anti-police violence protests in the U.S. So I think that this discussion and affirmation of identity politics in relation to art, culture and even fashion, is really good and is becoming more present, despite the increasing state repression and violence against communities raising their voice.
Stefan : In terms of how this is expressed through graphic design and art, are there some examples that you would like to point people toward that you find interesting and inspiring?
Kevin : In design, I think there are really some interesting shifts in discourse, but there is really a very far way to go in the mainstream design world.
At the margins, during an event like Memefest, that just happened in Melbourne, there are critical discussions taking place on the role of design in expressing identity politics and also in developing protest tactics expressing these struggles. Memefest has been happening over many years in different locations around the world, trying to make these connections.
At the events in Melbourne we were addressing some material at a very conceptual level, around ideas on intimacies and dialogue, in relation to art and design. But also at this event, we worked hand-in-hand to develop ideas with indigenous activists, from the Brisbane Aboriginal-Sovereign Embassy, with the goal of supporting struggles against the ongoing genocide facing Aboriginal peoples in Australia.
I fundamentally think that art, at the core, is about expressing emancipatory ideas.
Now obviously there is always the commodification and commercialization of art taking place, the many ways that art is co-opted for mainstream political propaganda. However in general, I do think that the real drive behind art, creating visuals, making music, writing poetry, is at the root about emancipation, about trying to express desires and dreams for freedom from oppression.
Today, I think that we are seeing the translation of this artistic spirit within certain struggles, that are becoming more and more prominent, that are gaining momentum, like the Palestinian struggle, or the Idle No More movement. As the oppressive weight of colonial capitalism presses down, becoming heavier and heavier for more and more people, as the injustices become more extreme, we are also seeing more intense reactions from both activists and activists.
Stefan : In terms of art having a fundamentally emancipatory spirit, that beautiful idea which you just pointed to, I would really love to hear about your research work as a designer in relation to the emancipatory history of design, which is a narrative on design very underrepresented in mainstream discourse on the role of design in society. Could you could share some ideas on this?
Kevin : I think that it’s really important to look at the continuity of graphic design practices developed in parallel and allyship with social movements, design work rooted in critical and countercultural ideas.
One important example, illustrating a resistance to the co-optation of art by reactionary forces, is the Dada movement, which openly resisted the first world war and generally the violent nationalisms being expressed in Europe at the time. By extension, you can see Dada’s influence on protest art in the 1960s, the poster art developed during the May 1968 protests in France, which were also heavily influenced by the ideas of the situationists.
There is a clear link between the situationist art movement, people like Guy Debord, with the protests in France and beyond at the time. In the work there is a clear critique of capitalism, a calling out of the spectacle, the necessity to break it down. Many phrases and texts linked to the ideas of the situationists directly inspired the texts on street posters at the time, the grassroots art giving voice to worker and student movements. A lot of the romantic potential of the ideas expressed by the situationists were also being embodied or translated into the direct actions that were taking place at the time.
Also at this time new aesthetics were being created, rooted in refiguring, or subverting, existing signs and visual language, translating into a new collage culture that later became keyin the birth of punk rock culture, specifically for bands like Crass. There are lineages that you can trace and this is clear, however its also important to highlight that no artistic movement, or visual language, has only one specific influence, there are always many, many influences.
A major interest for me has always been seeing the continuity of language and thought between different art movements and periods. For a local example, we can look at the graphics created during the student strike, you can see references to protest graphics and art done in the late 1990s and early 2000s, like the work of Ne Pas Plier in France, who helped to createthe silk-screen bandanas for the Québec City mobilization against the Summit of the Americas in 2001. Also referenced in the student strike graphics, especially in the work of École de la Montagne Rouge, were the Paris 68 graphics.
Stefan : Extending on some of these ideas on how design concepts and artistic movements are incorporated into new practices, there is this constant practice of corporate design ripping off grassroots, or revolutionary art movements. At a Howl event on art and activismlast year you outlined this constant reality of innovations in design being eaten and co-opted by corporations. Wondering if you could address this idea in some detail and highlight some examples …
Kevin : One clear examples for me, although every example is actually complex and multilayered, is Modernism, both as a visual artistic movement, but also as a philosophical movement. Modernism at the roots was very utopian and progressive, even socialist, rooted in ideals that were perhaps misguided in ways but inherently progressive at the start. Modernism did aim to create a common visual language, to level the playing field between people, to create ways to communicate progressive ideas across social and economic barriers. Many of the ideas essential to the origins modernism were radical.
Stefan : Radical in what sense ?
Kevin : In ways that are similar to our understanding today. So the language was very, very different from the existing visual languages and art practices at the time. This was a movement with a political orientation that was anti-authoritarian and critical toward unfettered capitalism. There were representations of these ideas around the Bauhaus in the early 20th century, practices rooted in the idea that we can find ways to communicate universally as people of this earth.
Historically what ended up happening, during and after the second world war, that saw the violent breaking-up of the physical spaces around modernism, was that many designers and architects working on these ideas ended up finding refuge in North America, mainly in New York City. Relatively quickly the idealism of these thinkers and artists was subsumed by the American context and their ideas made very useful to capitalism.
If you are talking about communicating with as many people as possible for idealistic and progressive reasons, that could be very positive, but that idea was very quickly co-opted toward trying to sell products, the concepts became essential to the success of modern capitalism.
Many of the modernist artists in the American context, like Jackson Pollock, weren’t necessarily thinking about things in idealistic ways, they were in many cases pulled strongly into the capitalist dynamic and logic, illustrating so clearly why artists need to maintain a clear opposition to capitalism, a clear anti-capitalist orientation inherent to their work.
Its very interesting to see the ways that concepts of expression become culturally understood and then the ways that capitalism attempts to co-opt these new visual languages, even if the new languages, or art forms, were developed within a context of struggle. Eventually the market always attempts to incorporate all new successful aesthetics, modernism is one major historical example that is complex, but you could also point to clothing items embraced by stores like Urban Outfitters, who at one point even tried, unsuccessfully, to co-opt thekeffiyeh!
Generally speaking, I always felt it was important to understand the codified systems of how we view the world based on aesthetics and the ways that we always try to challenge and subvert static definitions.
So for example, there are clear ideas as to what the aesthetic of a black and white photocopied zine represents, or codified ideas on what high fashion represents, or how silk-screen techniques carry a whole history of meaning, as opposed to how digitally printing embodying a different social meaning.
Challenging these diverse meanings and playing around with them is definitely a place of interest for me and I think that these critical vantage points of practice are important for all designers and artists to really reflect on.
Stefan : There is another period of movement design history that you were directly a part of and that relates to anti-capitalist design practices, the anti-corporate globalization movement, which you mentioned. Wondering if you could highlight this period in relation to design and how it continues to influence things until today?
Kevin : That was the period and the movement that I grew up in, learning about both design and politics. Generally speaking I think that we can’t put any period, or art movement into historical isolation, but there are a couple important things to highlight about this time.
First, in thinking about the design culture within North America at that time, the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was the growth and deepening of the anti-globalization movement, also the corresponding philosophical questions that were being taken up. During that period many people were moving toward post-structuralism, this impacted language and the use of language.
During this time we see design experiments happening in the university context, but also happening within protest movements and grassroots collectives. This was all taking place as design technologies were becoming more accessible, there was a certain democratization of the tools involved, with the birth of design possibilities on Apple computers.
For many designers, this was a period where things shifted, because it marked moving from having to do real paste-up work, to actually being able to manipulate things on a screen, rather than having to create the actual physical mechanics. All these factors were combining quickly, you also saw the incorporation of a certain aesthetic labeled in design as grunge.
That style was exemplified in a mainstream sense by Ray Gun, the music magazine designed by David Carson, a style that really challenged the traditional, but as the medium developed, it became more and more commercialized and commoditized, but I would also say that commercialization is also happening within the design programs and schools now.
Also this all needs to be examined within the context of the birth of the Internet, as an incredible platform for experimentation, for art work and for design. This was the time that I grew up politically and there were really interesting challenges to the legitimacy of the dominant, corporatist modernist, universalist language of design.
One main symbolic response was seeing fragmenting narratives, the breaking apart of the visual symbols, occupied by corporate interests, that were connecting people around the world. In response, during this period, there was a lot of experimentation with layering and transparency, with aesthetics, that were quickly codified and commercialized, so people kept breaking them apart. These graphic experiments were questioning the way that we see and perceive the world, to push people to constantly question the visual language of design.
Stefan : In many ways it seems like you are describing the visualization of a rebellion against corporate design.
Kevin : Yes in a way. However in relation to the design practices we are discussing, I wouldn’t say that the grunge aesthetic was overtly political for most people involved, however when measuring the politics of design you need to take into consideration the broader social and political context. I do think that this design style spoke to the idea of challenging a narrative of a liner history. On a visual level the work focused on experimentation, on playing with dominant languages and dominant narratives.
In some ways, this period and style of design was a visualization of rebellion, but in other ways the rebellion taking place became ingrained in the design work being created.
The interesting part to me is that I think there were many political and philosophical questions associated with the aesthetic explorations that were taking place and I think that this cycle of experimentation died, with an incredible turn toward conservatism, after 9/11. This is clearly a strong statement to make, not just one date and event can totally change the momentum and direction of design, however with 9/11 there was a clear swing toward very safe, nostalgic, conservative design language, paralleled with conservative, full-on colonialist politics in the west. There are cycles and changes in design that correspond to the political landscape.
Also at that time web design experimentation became more about normalization, also we see a turn away from linguistically difficult design concepts and experimentation toward much more straightforward, romantic takes on mid-western Americana. This trend is still present, you can also see it in the obsession around that Mad Men show.
Also if you look at the trends in ‘hipster’ graphics today, you can see clearly how much they are referencing a nostalgic 50s past, in terms of the typography, the layout, the colours. The entire idea of a fake authenticity is running as a main design current today. Rather than a challenging and innovative take on design which we did see in the late 90s as a major current, this shift toward conservatism in design on a mainstream level is still holding thirteen years after 9/11, which really says something about how political realities impact design choices and the trends that are embraced.
I work in many different aesthetic approaches in design and in that context I am really interested in looking at and understanding what political contexts are carried within different aesthetic frameworks. I always try to think about these things when designing, when working on a project.
Stefan : In a way it seems that you are translating the various layers of graphic design history that feed into and are embodied in different design orientations, whether its a broader design trend, or a particular designer …
Kevin : Yes. I find that many different designers influence my work, some from a really aesthetic level, but certainly a large part of my reading of design is rooted in the ideas that are being explored in the different work.
This reading of design might be lost when just looking at the surface of design work, but I think that everyone can, with some reflection, unpack and read the various political and historical layers that are involved within a particular work. I think that designers also need to be really aware of the references that they are invoking and the historical context to their work that is being recalled.
I think that there is a lineage to radical protest graphics, but at the same time there can be a calcification in protest design because specific frameworks and limits are set, defining what protest oriented graphics should look like. I think that this signifies a dead end in design, when a style, or a visual language, becomes so specific, it establishes an expected framework, the work becomes already boxed in, this is really the opposite to innovation.
I am really interested in always trying to evolve our work as designers and try to create new ideas. An aesthetic language becomes reduced in meaning if you just enact it because people expect it.
Stefan : In this context I am interested in hearing your thoughts about what you see as the importance of people involved with social movements, with activism, in understanding radical design histories.
Given that design plays such an important role in the ways that movements communicate their ideas, their demands, I am really interested in hearing your thoughts about the importance of discussing within activist movements these ideas and questions about design that you have been highlighting during this discussion.
Kevin : I think that this speaks to returning questions around design and activism. In these contexts we have to always think about the concrete means, when we are talking about working as designers with various movements, various organizations, that have very limited means to actually spend their time, energy and money on design.
In this context, design can seem at times like an effortless thing in an urgent context, just a simple poster that we have to throw together to get the word out and I understand this perspective for sure. Like a quick flyer for a protest, an action, that outlines the basic details, the time, place and location, which are for sure fundamental points to communicate urgently.
However from the longer term perspective, I think that tracking and being aware of the ways that movements and activists communicate their ideas visually is important, because over time we are talking about a language of communication with the wider world. In this context I think that having some discussion and critical reflection about design is important. I really see design as an evolving language, both designers and people within movements should be thinking about this and be aware of design as signifying many larger political questions.
The reality is that there are many artists who want to support activist struggles and movements but don’t have ways to engage, an open door to explore collaboration, so keeping an open door between the arts and activist circles is really important, to create the conditions for deeper collaboration, because I think that both the activist movements and the artists benefit.
One basic point to outline here is that I think its really important for artists, as people in society, to be engaged with and be aware of frontline struggles, this is essential. Today, artists need to come much closer to what is happening in terms of resistance movements in Canada and beyond, artists are part of society and are therefore part of politics.
Also I think that activists and community organizers need to recognize more openly and assert the value of avant garde art, which has been historically and is today a radical political force. Real transformative social change is more possible when artists and activists collaborate more intensely.
I think that the trick of capitalism is social fragmentation, isolating people and social practices from each other, disconnecting artists and activists in this case, which actually serves the interests of neoliberalism, as art can be more easily co-opted and activists have a more difficult time getting their message across.
If we think about these questions historically and pragmatically, the priority for both activism and real art is revolutionary change, so on that basis finding ways to enact solidarity between the two practices is really important. Both being an artist and being an activist is generally about idealism, they are different, but most certainly people are engaged in both not with the goal of getting rich, so in that sense there are common priorities that we always need to align more closely.
Stefan : Finally this brings up a current reality, which is that as austerity, as an embodiment of neoliberal capitalism, that continues to advance, as the actual economic and social space in society for people to have the breathing room to be creative, both individually and collectively, becomes more and more minimal. Under austerity the common valuing of artistic experimentation, simply for the sake of emancipatory artistic exploration, becomes more and more limited. Could you comment on these ideas?
Kevin : Yes. Basically in my mind creating the space for art and fighting for a more equal and fair society are deeply connected. I think that its essential for artists and activists to work together to find more points of commonality and convergence, even when difficult.
In this context, I think that one of the best things that happened at Memefest in Melbourne was working with members of the Brisbane Aboriginal-Sovereign Embassy, who had just participated in the mobilization against the G20 summit that had taken place in Brisbane right before Memefest.
So members of the Brisbane Aboriginal-Sovereign Embassy arrived at Memefest, that was taking place at Swinburne University, a symposium that had a wide range of speakers, including many people talking about the philosophical implications of visual identities, talking about specific avant garde art practices around the Venice Biennale, things that were distant in the immediate sense from the direct concerns that the indigenous activists had just expressed around the anti-G20 protests in Melbourne.
Rightfully so the members of the Brisbane Aboriginal-Sovereign Embassy were quite cynical at first, and during the first few days they were openly questioning why they were present at Memefest, spending time there when so many urgent and concrete anti-colonial actions that need to be taken in Australia and beyond.
I totally understood their sentiment and communicated to the indigenous activists there that I agreed with and understood their sentiment. At the same time, during the time and space of Memefest, when we all started working on collaborative projects together and started applying the ideas and the knowledge that was collectively present around the event in concrete ways and also abstract ways—in terms of thinking through the issues at hand—because representation is such a huge part of the contemporary struggle for indigenous sovereignty.
At the event we really were thinking through the best ways to try to communicate the struggle for sovereignty, such a complex idea to communicate in ways. Also making sure throughout this process that the other participants at Memefest were open and were able to really hear what the indigenous activists from Brisbane were saying, the critiques being voiced.
In the end, over that period of time, where we were almost forced together for around a week, we found that our struggles did had common points and by the end of the week there was a really amazing bond of having come together and produced art together that was committed to indigenous struggles for liberation. One of the specific struggles that we highlighted was the efforts to draw attention to the ongoing reality of stolen children, the stolen generations, of indigenous kids who are forcibly removed by the Australian government from their families and communities.
In a way I think that this is a good example of a situation, that given the time and the space needed to actually address differences, people can find points of commonality, within this context something really powerful and meaningful emerged in terms of street art initiatives that really speaking to the issues at hand.