by Ben Eltham
Reviewed in Artlink magazine vol27 no3
Inkahoots is a Brisbane-based design firm with a difference. Founded in Brisbane in the late 1980s and with roots stretching back to protest posters against the Bjelke-Petersen governments of that time, the small firm directed by Robyn McDonald and Jason Grant is a beacon of political literacy and aesthetic responsibility that seems increasingly incongruous in an intellectually impoverished Australian design environment.
Unsettled, their first exhibition in several years, continues Inkahoots’ long-standing commitment to the political use of the means of visual production. Triggered by participation in new book by Anna Gerber and Anja Lutz entitled Influences: A Lexicon of Contemporary Graphic Design, the show presents ten posters based on ideas culled from the firm’s history, geography and wide reading. Inspirations include Bob Dylan, the Dirty Three and Karl Marx, but also Rosalie Gascoigne, John Berger and Redback Graphix.
Unsettled is a multi-layered show that conceals considerable depth behind its querulous and agitated exterior. For a start, there is more on show than just the ten posters; one of the exhibition’s most impressive works is a 4-minute video piece of real ingenuity. Then there is the firm’s rigorous commitment to environmentally considerate inks, paper stock and print processes. And accompanying the visual aspects is a sophisticated textual exploration of the exhibition, including a dense and closely argued catalogue essay by Tony Fry, On Good Design, developed from a paper he presented at the Brisbane Ideas Festival in 2006.
The posters themselves effortlessly encapsulate the principles of Fry’s introduction, which might be called post-utilitarian or anti-high-modernist (Fry defines ‘good’ design as “design for the common good”). Superficially high gloss and vectorised, careful examination reveals a commitment to found materials and analogue media.
Dirty Three for example, is a gorgeous, abstract colour swirl (made with sprayed shaving cream) that defies the common understanding of the experimental art-rock 3-piece as ‘dark’ or ‘experimental’. Rosalie Gascoigne, inspired by that artist’s adventures in found materials on the desiccated uplands of the Snowy Mountains, is a pixellated riot of repeated patterns that seems to merge references to Bridget Riley, John Aslanidis and the artist herself.
The video is another mix of the analogue and the digital, cleverly using everyday objects in a montage series of smoke clouds, whirling turntables and finishing with an intoxicating fly-by of a deeply pitted and scored pseudo-brain. It’s a work as reminiscent of Orson Welles as of Coldcut’s 90s cut-up videos.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is the political collage of Redback Graphix which juxtaposes TV screenshots of John Howard in 1997 holding up a map of Australia showing pastoral leases supposedly threatened by the Mabo High Court decision, and a scene from the 2005 Cronulla riots. Printed over the top of the Prime Minister’s domed forehead is the exhibition’s title, UNSETTLED. Inspired by the powerful screen-print posters of Redback Graphix’s 1980s output, it’s a vicious assault on Australian settler culture and our incipient jingoism worthy of John Heartfield. It’s also a Brechtian metaphor for the unsettled nature of Australia’s cultural identity.
The final impression is one of a design firm deeply disillusioned with the commodified mainstream of their own practice, and of the progress of the Right in two decades of culture wars.
If contemporary graphic design is, as Jason Grant argues, “the dominant vehicle of the ascendant ideology”, then Unsettled is – to paraphrase Walter Benjamin’s closing sentence in his 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction – an attempt to politicise that design vehicle.