Www.culturalfarming.com                                                                                                                                                                                 http://Www.culturalfarming.comhttp://www.culturalfarming.com/shapeimage_1_link_0

By:  Holland Wilde

Re:  Lecture Invitation:  German Design Universities

December 1995  and  April 1996


Institute for Visual Media - Stuttgart

HKM Cologne - Cologne

FH Audio Visual Media - Augsburg

Filmakademie - Ludwigsburg

Hochschule fuer Gestaltung - Karlsruhe

PictureMedia - Mainz

Its an honor to be invited here today.  I don't often get an chance to address a captive audience anymore; let alone German student audiences.  It reminds me of the times many years ago when I taught university in Boston.  But I have long since left the academic environs in favor of my present career in television design.

This however, in no way, means I have turned my back on education, or for that matter, living the life-style of a student; for these are strange days.  And if there were ever a need for a deeper study into the state of our world and its media... one might have to scroll way back to the days of Gutenberg's printing press.

I have a curious relationship with television. You've seen some of that already in my approach to my work.  But now, I want to speak briefly about my grave concerns for the "idea" of television.  American television.  For those of you who have not traveled in the states during the past 3 or 4 years - and have not witnessed the recent and profound changes in American television - comprehension of our fast-mutating media environment may be vague at best.

*American television is changing, seemingly sinking to ever-new lows.  Signs are everywhere.  Today a typical news industry joke is: "if it bleeds, it leads", ...meaning the more bloody, sensational or gruesome a news story is, the better chance the piece has of being shown first.  The dramatic increase in the new rage of sexually explicit daytime talk shows is another example of this downward trend.  And, one only needs to remember the O.J. Simpson TV trial to recall how an entire nation can be transfixed when blood and murder are packaged as entertainment.  The entire scope of American TV is learning quickly that to get noticed - content must become ever more sensational.

Much of the artistic quality in broadcast design has also diminished in recent years.  Most new design ideas today are launched merely because of breakthroughs in new software technologies.  Morphing, 3-D character animation, electronic key mapping are driving the hottest design trends today simply because they are new and unusual, not because they have necessary design merit.

Ironically, this "seduction of the new" is the biggest reason there is so much copycat design.  This rush to mimic every new look results in a universal, homogenized design environment.  And then, of course, that look is exported to other countries as well.  At this very moment, there are several American companies doing much of television design work in Germany.  They are determining the look of German TV.  This can only lead to a loss in the uniqueness of a German design identity.  Unless you want this.

Personally, I have not traveled in Germany for twenty years.  And then, I was too much in awe of your beautiful country to spend any time in front of the few available televisions.  So, I cannot comment accurately on your media situation here.  However, I am well aware that America's largest and most lucrative world export is entertainment.  The influence of the American movie and music industries, MTV, CNN, and a host of others, have washed across the shores of the entire planet and into every town and village with electricity.

That sad fact has wide ranging implications.  It has created massive global change.  Change in information, change in communication, change in family, government, education, privacy, community, language, memory, change in history...all fundamental changes in the human condition.  And, we are in this boat together.

I believe we are on the brink of an upheaval that may indeed rival that when the Greeks invented the alphabet in 5th century BC.  As written languages evolved, it changed forever the way people perceived their world. The old oral means of interpreting the world were replaced.  The very essences of recording, cataloging, and transmitting information - even historic perspective - were forever changed.  For better or worse, it created a new form of human interaction.  This, today, is the power of the NEW television.

Why is this happening so fast today?  One major reason is the mountain of money made and spent in television every day.  I believe this to be the major attraction for many students considering it as a vocation.  I will not comment here on some morality of that position.  But, I might simply take time here to remind you of an old proverb: "the love of money is the root of all evil."  I believe the focus of one's career should be toward making a good life - not merely a good living.  Visionaries are never driven by economics alone...may your conscience be your guide.

So... given these seductive scenarios why wouldn't all art students lust to work in this exploding field?  I cannot find any reason.  I too have made it my home.  But my concern, instead, comes from the void created when designers neglect other fields of study.  Television today, even more than most subjects, needs close examination.  Its newness makes this vitally important.  To be the best designer-and-citizen possible, one must be able to communicate critically.  But, the pace of our new-forming media has now rendered this difficult at best.

One reason is that television "discourse" makes no room for public conversation.  Television is imaged based, not language based.  And it's awfully hard to have a discussion with a picture.  Especially when those pictures are non-reality based and packaged together at the rate of one edit every two seconds.  If only the newest, the oddest, and most sensational content gains attention, we must be prepared on the front end for the rigors of wrestling it's inadequacies.  And I firmly believe that that can only happen through an education in how TV functions.

By this, I do not mean how the machinery works, or how the latest software can provide the newest, hottest tricks.  Tricks are the easiest part of TV design.  Instead, I mean - how does TV work? How does it affect discourse?  How is it lacking as the primary form of communication?  Why is it impossible to rely on it for informational content? How should we watch TV?  Only through close examination can we understand its pit falls and curtail its negative impact.

*Television is a "one-eyed monster".  By that, I mean, it selects our point of view.  It is impossible for us to sit on our sofas and control the camera framing the pictures.  And that makes its truthfulness limited at best.  This point is imperative when contemplating the old adage, "a picture is worth a thousand words".  The quote may well be true...but in television they are merely a thousand words from one, single, limited point of view.  Seeing is no longer believing.  There may come a day when viewers will operate remote-control joy-sticks to determine their own camera shots... but that is far off in the future.

Additionally, the screen itself typically occupies a mere 15% of our field of vision.  Therefore, images appear minuscule, smaller than real life.  To compensate for this (as well as other home distractions) television must become "spectacular" in order to hold our interest.  Blood, explosions, lightening, guns, sex, speeding cars, quick editing and a host of other techniques are all proven ways to maintain viewer attention.  The physiology of our eye-to-brain connection is trained by evolution to notice and watch the unusual.  We cannot help but look. Advertisers have known this for decades.

Another point to remember is: Commercial television is motivated by numbers.  Polls and ratings are driving every decision made in television today.  Numbers mean profits.  It has been said many times before that broadcast programming is simply the filler between the commercials. So, ever-increasing sensationalism is the hook used to keep viewers ripe for the next sales pitch.  From this perspective, the distinction between "free" and "pay" TV never existed.  Cable TV was simply an invention to make viewers pay twice.

Greed, by definition, leaves no room for television's improvement.  For when numbers rule - there can be no room for failure. No room for risk.  No room for diversity.  No room for art. Programming must only prove itself appealing to the largest share of the viewers...and that means bending to the lowest common denominator. ..."DIE QUOTE" (rating share).... and all translates into more money.

However, in the area of information delivery, television reveals it's biggest failures.  Television is now the only outlet for "news" for a large segment of our population.  I believe this has done a grave disservice, in fact caused harm, to a nation where informed people are essential to self-rule democracy.  The airwaves are free yet the mechanisms for broadcast are controlled by a handful of corporations.  Therefore, they control the content.

I do not mean to imply that all of broadcast ownership is plotting to subvert the U.S. citizenry.  Although, recently CNN did deny airing advertisements criticizing the cable industry...a blatant, if not unprecedented, gesture.  And, just last month, CBS withdrew a report critical of the tobacco industry for fear of possible legal costs.  When the emphasis is strictly on profit, there can be no neutral voice.  Any company that cannot show substantial profits ceases to be a company - so the message must reflect this motivation.

Another failing of "news and information" is that television's structure offers a constant stream of disconnected images.  Each news item is packaged, short and sweet, and separated by commercials.  No one item can be brought into sharp focus.  News is packaged into a mind-numbing contortion of rapid-fire headlines.  In fact, all of the words spoken during a hour-long newscast would only fill one single page of a newspaper.  When condensed in this manner, TV news becomes merely an exercise in trivial facts wrapped in hyper-packaging.

Moreover, there is no opportunity for simple reflection on the topics discussed.  This offers the viewer no time to respond or to consider action.  News items are simply strung together and presented as an endless chain of hopeless situations...all seemingly well outside our realm of daily existence.  We secretly understand that each unsettling fact and image on the screen will quickly dissolve away - into the next trivial fact.  And that silently dismisses us from rational opinions and becoming active participants in our world.  TV disengages us from the normal methods of democratic activity.

This point is proven again and again by simply observing a news anchor.  News reporters skip emotionlessly back and forth between the most horrific topics imaginable onto others packaged to be warm and fuzzy - without even a change in tonal inflection or facial expression.  So then, why are we to care about the items expressed?  Why should we treat these stories differently than the teller?  At best, this creates a demented, dysfunctional, surreal method of communication.

(A fact exploited in the growing number of angry TV talk shows.)

Why do I mention these points here today?  What does this have to do with art and design training?  What can the average student do in this field of "influence" that is expanding exponentially?  How does television affect us? How, personally, can you affect it?  To me the answer clearly boils down to way we conduct and uphold our profession.  I believe the future of television (indeed much of the future of our planet) rests in the hands of media designers.  For the future of this new world may well be written, cataloged, and defined within the language of images. We designers will make those images.  Therefore, we are the makers of the new discourse in the New World.

This, fortunately, is not a new revelation.  Many before me have spoken of our future living with television.  But, rare is the critic that offers solutions or guidance; most likely because accurate future-vision is impossible... and predictions cheap.  But this much is true: German media designers have a unique and historic opportunity to explore what is right for German television and their citizens.

Television, right or wrong, is at the very heart of the global transformations happening today.  One needs to look no further than China's continued resistance to mass technology or Cuba's struggle to scramble foreign broadcasting to understand this point.  Strong arguments can also be made that the upheavals in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (even re-unification here in your own country) can be linked directly to the insurgence of television.

But, television is an imperfect medium - as I have described earlier.  Constant vigilance must be maintained to steer its growth. Its inadequacies must be revealed, ...recognition of it's failings, understood.  We must forever be students of television.  I, for one, struggle with this every day.  I encourage you to do the same.  I often comment that all designers should start by designing themselves, first.  For to be the best we can be means to constantly move forward in our own personal growth.  And, to be good television designers we must first be thinkers, readers and writers, speakers, artists, activists.... citizens. It is our obligation to ourselves and to our planet.

However, I am observing an increasing failure in this area. It disturbs me. I 'm finding more and more, my colleagues have little time to ponder the implications of their work.  Their daily design directive is only to do something ...anything

...and fast.  Working 10-12 hours a day they have little personal time.  Their marriages are breaking; their children are growing up alone.  They are stressed, overworked, and racing after money.  Needless to say, there is little time left to further study their craft, let alone contemplate larger social issues.  And, in this confusion one's personal voice is lost.

In this environment we designers cease to have our own thoughts.  Newness springs only from the desire to be different and clever.  However, we barely even have the time to imitate the latest fads.  We all borrow the newest trends simply from lack of time to develop our own style.  This sad solution is faster and easier.  So, we further play into television's "corporate-death-grip" by not designing as artists, ...but instead, like factory workers.  Constantly feeding the insatiable machine.  I know of no colleague of mine who would deny this.  Yet, the circle goes unchecked.

I recently had the privilege of spending time with a delegation of Russian and Ukraine designers during the Broadcast Designers' Association's conference in Washington DC.  I was struck by their eagerness to learn...by their hunger to understand and harness this new media.  Their work had uniqueness, a roughness that clearly separated itself from American TV.  Theirs were virginal voices honed from the heart - from a land not yet addicted to the "squalor of money-television".  Yet I was troubled. For much of their talk was about how they wanted to learn the latest tricks and imitate the look and style of MTV.

These are students from a country with one of the world's richest art traditions.  They would do well to study the influences of Diaghilev's ballet, or Marc Chagall and Vasily Kandinsky in art.  Yet, there was little discussion of drawing from and building upon that tradition.  Only outward expressions for making TV like Americans.  Why?

Likewise, I might direct the same observation to you.  Your country, too, is so rich with design history.  Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius in the Bauhaus movement, Max Ernst and the Dada group formed right here in Cologne....so many others...yet, I wonder if you sense honor in them?  I worry we are somehow terrified of our pasts.  And if that is the case, I shudder to consider the possibilities.  For if our past is not acknowledged, from what do we build the future?

Is it in Germany's best national interest to adopt American culture through the language of television?  American TV, in it's present form, is a drug...a poison to culture.  It is no secret how this new visual medium rushes into any cultural vacuum.  There is much potential in the field of television... much, much more than mindless entertainment.  Nonetheless, it will further infect your culture if you neglect to draw upon the vast treasures of your heritage.  It is not too late.  You must find your own voice.  The planet may already have more TV than it can tolerate... and, it surely does not need more American TV.

In my own country I see students neglecting their duties as responsible humans.  For whatever reasons, they are failing to gain full, well-rounded educations.  They lack skills in critical, analytical thought.  Few know of history, language, philosophy, Nature.  Not only will this handicap haunt them forever, it renders them incapable of functioning in a democracy.  For any in-depth education into one's craft cannot be complete without an immersion into the other peripheral areas of learning.  Without proper, effective, critical education, our new digital tools can just as easily be turned into weapons against one and all.

I believe one of the best solutions to this dilemma is in the "traditional study" of art and design, as well as the classics. It is true more than ever today.  I find many students now leave school after learning a few software techniques, and then offer themselves as media artists.  Yet, they have no real understanding of the principles of design.

The fundamental knowledge of art: composition, color, rhythm, balance, perspective... cannot be mastered with the push of a computer button.  The astonishing array of gimmicks found in today's computer tools is no substitute for true design.  This fact must not be ignored.

Communication is the primary tool for constructing our lives.  The future of communication is the language of images. We are the image makers - the inventors of the new language.  So... I urge you to evaluate your existence as an artist, designer, citizen.  Read a book.  Spend time in Nature.  Walk in the woods. Smell the trees.  Become active in your community.  Honor children and the elderly.  Volunteer.  Engage friends in discussions of today's new world.  Ponder solutions.  Be a student of television...and of your world. 

For you are soon to be its spokesmen...and its leaders.