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  New media ideas, what's in it for illustrators? A selection of thoughts from the Transmediale Festival 2013
Nanette Hoogslag
posted on February 8, 2013 at 9:32

Transmediale is a longstanding annual festival/conference in Berlin where computer technology, new media, freedom of information and social change are at its heart. Here the concerns of illustrators are very much addressed. Mind you, not directly - most of the attendants or speakers wouldn’t know an editorial illustration if it bit them - but if you listen, it’s not difficult to place illustration within this context of technology, engagement and media and in turn see the potential of these ideas to expand the illustration-horizon.

Let me present three of the ideas I heard and how they are relevant to (editorial) illustration.

The Transmediale theme this year was BWPWAP - Back When Pluto Was A Planet - geek-speak for the days when technology was still dumb and Facebook and YouTube were ‘startups’. The title refers to 2006 when planet Pluto was demoted to the status of dwarf-planet, effectively shrinking our solar system by one. 

Transmediale looked back over the past seven years. When Web 2.0 with social media and user input really kicked off with a global audience of billions. The past seven years created a generation glued to its smartphone, people from third world countries who never even had landlines before were connected, and niche businesses were now able to operate worldwide. In this time corporations discovered how to mine and make money out of user-data. A start was made to restrictions on free access and sharing and the introduction of the tablet and apps took place.

BWPWAP was the time when editorial illustration still flourished (just), when print publishing still seemed to go strong and art directors still called you up. Publishers started to bulk buy pictures for a dollar a piece at online stock sites and Flash was still the application to watch. I believed that we were going to see a golden dawn of the image-based media that would need pictures and animations with personality.

So what say Transmediale? three ideas...

Evil Media

example of evil media-anonymous from http://projectmagma.net/downloads/myth2docs/fear.html

In a lecture by Matt Fuller and Andrew Goffrey on Evil media, on their recently published book, connected to an installation by the artists YOHA. They looked at the present computational culture, where we need to formulise and format the human language in order for computers to become part of the interaction. The more we rely on the computer and its powerful ability to extract and collate, the more we find that there is too much in human interaction and language that’s still ‘incomputable’. Depending whose side you’re on, it creates ‘evil’ or cunning opportunities for ‘misuse’ of information and language.

They see this forced human-computer interaction most present in the kind of media we don’t think about; the so called grey media we use for our everyday communication and actions, like manuals, inquiry forms and tick boxes. Look close and see how they are constructed, how they have a political agenda, and a way that manipulates thinking. Look closer and you see their manipulative strength and how it permeates our existence.

Fuller and Goffrey question the drive to transparency and formalization. They make a plea for an ambiguous space to be left open for intelligent interpretation, to fill in the blanks yourself.

Without wanting to call illustration 'grey media' I see a lot of links. Illustration is often not consciously seen for what it is, yet with its rhetorical powers it is the part of the editorial where in the most pleasing of ways the reader is manipulated towards a certain reading. Illustration might be perhaps  considered as 'grey', but it can use this ambiguity in cunning ways. Consider illustration a very particular kind of evil media.

The Meme


Olga Goriunova presented thoughts on the meme; the images, quotes, songs or jokes, etc. that are altered versions of existing images, formats and ideas. They are created anonymously, spread through social media, and when successful spread like wildfire. They can be political, surreal or just plain stupid, like the LOLCATS series. There are even meme machines; websites that can help you alter slogans or pictures.

The ‘creative’ alterations and tinkering with images are not intended as professional products - they are often more ugly than brilliant - but reveal the same desire to play, comment and publish through images we find in illustrators.  The difference might be that it is not about individual expression, but about the continuation of work by others. The intention is to let the image be part of an global language of pictures, rather than a recognizable personal expression. 

The success of these memes questions the professional illustrators desire to be original and unique as a standard of quality as well as the outmoded laws of copyright.


no free pitching

One other topic I felt very important for illustrators, was that of crowdsourcing presented by Florian Schmidt. Crowdsourcing evokes an image of a happy collective effort of the many to help out a single course. The Wisdom of Crowds, a book by J. Surowiecki, has been the buzz for some time and deals with flashmobs, crowdfunding, swarming and crowdsourcing as phenomena. 
In reality crowdsourcing has become a marketplace in search for the cheapest labourer. For instance, part of Amazon web services is a crowdsourcing site called Amazon Mechanical Turk. Here simple network based tasks can be 'farmed out' to a global workforce. Anything from tweets - like the paid-for tweeters in the Berlusconi campain through to  'liking' a product, data sorting, or searching pictures. Each task can pay as little as one dollar-cent through to a few dollars. If you live below the poverty line  this are a form of income you will consider.

There are many variants on this type of employment markets and some of them directly affect us, the workers of the creative industry. There are thousands of 'design' sites where designers and illustrators can so called pitch for a job. Disguised as competitions, creatives are asked to make near perfect proposal for anything from a logo design to a company brochure. The winner takes all. The chosen designer gets to 'finish the design' for a fee which is still well below the recommended average by design or illustration trade standards.

Meanwhile the client gets to see dozens of proposals, which in the process of the competition he can ask to be tweaked. For the price of one, the client can pick from a selection twenty, thirty designs. Not a bad ratio. Crowdsourcing practices are now part of mainstream labour practice, part of the creative industry and part of the illustration world. With the shrinking job market this is a worrying development.

More about free pitching:
Design Institute of Australia

At Transmediale much more was explored and discussed. The workshops on ‘post-digital publishing’ were very relevant for illustrators who want to create their own authorial books and publications. This I’ll explore in more depth in a following article.

Themes around 'e-waste', 'code as material', the state of social networks and many others might seem worlds apart from illustration. But I think they are not, they reveal impacts on the way we work, on the context of our work and the way audiences read our work. Best to explore the archive of Transmediale itself, where not only the lectures and papers of this year can be found, but also all those of previous years.