RELAY involved around 150 illustrators, film-makers, typographers, photographers, advertisers and multimedia designers graduating from the London College of Printing in May 2003. The students participated in a vast visual narrative which resulted in a collective publication and exhibition art directed by David in collaboration with John Brown Publishing. Leading international figures from the worlds of design, art and the media were invited to take part, including Rick Poynor, Neville Brody, Dixon Baxi, Joshua Berger, Ken Garland, Alexander Gelman, Anja Lutz, Jake Tilson, Graham Wood, Alison Jackson, Ekow Eshun and Steve McQueen – passing on the baton of ideas from one to the other exploring the notion of influence, interactivity and inspiration. Based on the Surrealist parlour game Exquisite Corpse, Relay allowed students at the London College of Printing to create an artwork for 24 hours before passing it on and creating a trigger for the next contributor. Like a giant game of Chinese whispers, this consequential visual journey provided a unique cultural commentary of its time. RELAY was reviewed by The Guardian (24.05.03), Graphics International (no.106, p.34), Creative Review (May 2003, p.16) and Creative Review (Jan 04, p.42). You can also read the closing article by Colin Davies at Limited Language or visit the RELAY website to see the students’ work.
From the very beginning of the project David decided to make a ‘Relay Uncut’, a 50m long publication printed on rolls of fax paper (hence the name) containing all the non-edited material, conversations, realities, process and other experimental outcomes leading to what became a graduating event.
Here goes the introduction by Rick Poynor, writer-at-large of Eye Magazine:
In interviews with creative people, one of the most awkward issues to raise is usually the question of influences. This immediately implies that there must be some limit to the originality of the person you are interviewing. If they answer it in anything other than the most general way, they are admitting that some aspect of the activity that earned them their reputation has been taken from someone or somewhere else.
The myth of absolute originality dies hard, but the truth is that it is impossible not to be influenced by things around you and in particular by your own milieu. If you are part of a culture, then you are necessarily steeped in its assumptions, beliefs and values. Naturally, there are diverse views on any single issue, but more fundamental attitudes tend to be shared, certainly among peer groups. The design scene celebrates people whose work seems to break with the norms of the time, but new directions soon become normalised. At any given moment there is a widespread, perhaps not entirely healthy agreement about what looks and feels right to express the current mood. It may not be a conscious process, or one that we would care to admit to, but we constantly monitor and readjust our position in relation to the cultural landscape.
What is so heartening about the Relay project is that it accepts the reality of this chain of influence, this interconnectedness, and the challenge each student faces in somehow trying to find an original voice. It gives direction and expression to an educational exchange between students that is happening anyway and, if it were not happening, there would be little point in spending several years at college. After they graduate, creative people often say that they learned most from their fellow students. This is less a criticism of the teaching than an acknowledgement that the daily interactions that come from studying and working side by side have an enormous shaping impact on personal development. It can be a bruising process. Work and thinking are constantly exposed and tested in the court of collective opinion. At the end, students have been strengthened; even more, perhaps, than they realised at the time.
Yet the process cannot stop there. The relay from student to student may be the most fundamental form of influence, but a rounded education requires other kinds of input. One of the Relay students voices the familiar fear that whatever one comes up with, someone, somewhere has probably done it already. The only way to make it different, and capture the viewer’s attention, is to add ‘our own artistic insights into the equation’. But how, and from what material, will these insights be formed? Another student has produced drawings of interchangeable, look-alike celebrities, who function as vacuous blueprints for the life to which we are supposed to aspire. ‘We need to recognise how much we can be controlled by the media and society,’ writes the next student in the relay. ‘Do not be at the mercy of their conspiracy.’ It’s the kind of raw, unqualified statement that was once routine among student radicals. Through repetition it turned into a cliché, until finally it was unusual to hear it stated at all. One doesn’t have to believe that there is an active ‘conspiracy’, though, to recognise that the only viable antidote to the narrowness of so much communication today is to seek out and try to create wider networks.
The transfer of knowledge and the acquisition of critical tools plays a vital role in equipping students to examine the world – and the communication problems it gives rise to – in a spirit of sceptical inquiry. A familiarity with the history of one’s creative discipline and with the broader currents of cultural history is essential to this process. Without this, individual views will be moulded largely by the influence of prevailing attidudes, received wisdom and unquestioned professional norms. An awareness of history helps to reveal the contingency of present-day beliefs. It gives a distance and perspective from which to ask questions about the present, recognising that the phenomena we obsess about today (such as celebrity culture) have a tendency to look rather odd and sometimes completely wrong-headed from the long view of history. It also helps to avoid the pitfalls of recycling and retro – a consumerist form of received wisdom that reduces its source material to the lowest common denominator of meaning. Visual communicators who understand the significance of earlier forms of expression, as they relate to their own time, are less inclined to plunder them for surface effect, though they may well be inspired by the spirit and intentions that led to their creation.
There can be no substitute, for anyone working in the communication arts, for the life-long habit of personal research. By pursuing their own interests wherever they might lead, students are able to make discoveries and connections that are uniquely their own, rather than handed to them on a plate by the usual media sources. Each individual has the potential to act as the relayer of information and other findings through their own projects. By broadening the terms of discussion in unexpected ways with their discoveries and insights, they can help to enrich the field of design and perhaps society, too. This may seem obvious, but it needs constant repetition, especially in places of higher education, because design is a practice that too readily defaults to styles and positions that are merely fashionable. Moreover, in the world outside, with its focused briefs and precisely defined targets, visual communicators quickly discover that the opportunities to relay more questioning kinds of message are often limited. Those who lack a well-defined personal agenda, honed by commitment to their own areas of inquiry and research, can do little to resist these powerful tendencies.
For what, ultimately, is the purpose of all this communication? We are so thoroughly immersed in our complex, hugely sophisticated and economically advanced media reality that it is easy to take its processes for granted. Its output is a kind of air that we breathe in, often without thinking. If that is all it is, then it might not seem to matter very much what material one relays as a visual communicator. The main thing is to keep the air circulating. On the other hand, if you feel that these messages can have definite consequences, and that breathing them in changes us in some way, then the question of how to position yourself as a visual communicator and what sort of messages you would like to relay needs careful thought. For any creative individual about to enter the market-place, this an exciting moment of self-definition. The most telling advice comes from one of Relay’s participating students: ‘Make an original choice.’