Summer 1994

Spiritual values in a digital age

April Greiman graphiste-designer/ Los Angeles

Arc en Reve Centre d'Architecture, Bordeaux
3 March to 22 May 1994

April Greiman occupies a special position in contemporary graphic design culture. She remains one of the few women to have achieved international status and, apparently unaware of the idea of “technology” as a male preserve, her pioneering use of new imaging techniques in the 1980s earned her the title “Queen of the Mac”.

Today the techno-guru image is one Greiman plays down. She opened the lecture which accompanied this retrospective of her work with the statement that for the last five years, the Macintosh has been the main tool for her design and production, but added pointedly: “I know nothing about the technical aspect.” Greiman in the 1990s no longer presents herself as the messianic spokesperson at the frontiers of electronic graphic design. Certainly she retains her creative interest in new technology, and is “gearing up conceptually as well as technologically” for big new interactive projects with NASA and the Smithsonian Institution. But one series an increasing emphasis in her work on inspiration drawn from the symbolism and mysticism of indigenous cultures. Her lecture juxtaposed slides of her own projects with quotations from Aboriginal and Navaho Indian beliefs: electronically generated design meets spiritual values.

Most of the work in the exhibition was print-based rather than time-based. No unsightly Macintosh workstations cluttered up the elegant gallery interior, though a fast-moving Greiman video at least hinted at screen-based possibilities. The problem of how to show graphic design was addressed imaginatively, with the work hung between large perspex sheets arranged one behind the other through the six rooms of the gallery, giving the display a layered, three-dimensional feel. A pair of red 3D glasses on the first frame reinforced this point. Publications and were packaging displayed in suspended cabinets – a less successful arrangement since it denied the viewer the opportunity of holding the objects and flicking through the pages.

The design of the exhibition had the drama of an installation, the energy of a manifesto. The show played with scale as well as space: one spandex frame contained a selection of business cards, while in another the poster of the 1989 “Graphic Design in America” exhibition was displayed at billboard size. Quotations – from Terrence McKenna’s Food of the Gods, Francisco Varela, and account of the Aboriginal concept of “the dreaming” – and details from individual projects were shown on giant lightboxes suspended from the walls. Process was revealed through the inclusion of proofs and artwork.

During the 198s Greiman developed a visual strategy she called “hybrid imagery”: the combination of elements produced in different media – including video- through the computer. Today this notion of electronic collage has become accepted practice, but we should not forget that it was Greiman who pioneered it. She applied a mass of new technical possibilities to graphic design – and, crucially, she aestheticised the results. To label the early work “dated” is to miss the point.

Of the recent work, the posters, brochures and broadsheets for SCI-Arc are visually and texturally exciting. The large-format poster for a summer programme, printed on both sides and designed either to be trimmed horizontally into three separate posters or to be displayed intact to promote the school as a whole, is dense with information yet powerful in impact. The imagery uses digitised ancient symbols at various scales.

The exhibition is the most comprehensive retrospective of Greiman’s work to date – an extraordinary achievement for a provincial gallery specialising in architecture in a country hardly renowned for its graphic design profile. But in France culture is a political issue – the legacy of Jacques Lang lives on – and support for regional cultural activity has been a matter of government policy. France is busy constructing a graphic design identity, and this exhibition is part of a process of encouraging a graphic design culture.

Positioned by the title of the show as indisputably West Coast American, one might ask what Greiman’s design could mean in a historical European city like Bordeaux? But identity is complex, and certainly the culture clash between LA and Bordeaux? Is not simply polarity. Perhaps some of the references to indigenous cultures carried less significance for a French audience, but now that new technology has been assimilated worldwide, it codes no longer belong exclusively to the hothouse of California.

First published in Eye no. 13 vol. 4 1994