Saturday sees the opening of the V&A’s Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1979-1990 exhibition. I won’t be making it down there as my London return ticket quota for this year has unfortunately been met, but as is the case with the internet buzz surrounding any major design or cultural exhibition, I’ll no doubt be reading a fair bit about the subject over the next few weeks.
I’m a bit contrary when it comes to blogging. I tend to avoid talking about the same stuff that everyone else is discussing in the belief that it’s unlikely I could bring anything particularly fresh to the table. It’s why my Kenneth Grange post currently sits in the drafts folder, unfinished and unpublished while I await the last few dregs of interest to die off and I can start enthusing about him safe in the knowledge that nobody is bothered anymore. But with the postmodernism thing I thought I’d get in a few days early before we’re all hashtagged into a trending stupor of opinion overload.
So here I am, up fairly early on a frosty morning, enjoying the low, bright sun, sharing knowing, friendly nods with just a few other early risers milling around taking in the calm before the masses have risen, then I’m suddenly and helplessly compelled, before I’m even finished, to tear apart my own metaphor for the timeline that is the internet trending of postmodernism by making light of the doing of it in the sentence you’re currently reading.
Because the thing I find most ridiculous about postmodernism is that I absolutely hate everything about it, whilst simultaneously accepting that I can live no other way and therefore can only allow it to define everything about me. My relationship with postmodernism is itself annoyingly postmodernist because I’m a product of it.
If the V&As take on the era is to be accepted (and who am I to argue? Did the late, great Alan Fletcher design for me a logo that became the most frequently used example of his mastery of ‘sleight of hand’? No.) I was born three years into the age of postmodernism. It is therefore, along with its spawn post-postmodernism, the only cultural movement I’ve ever really known.
In my home city of Sheffield the shining beacon of postmodernism that springs instantly to mind is Orchard Square. Even as a young kid I found the place eerily odd without ever really knowing why. I now realise it’s because it belongs to no one time or place. It’s detached from reality, dishonest. I can remember it being new, and it looked as wrong then as it does now. Even the way it references the old cutlery works on which it was built seems ironic and sneering with its eye-stingingly twee and inexplicably absurd animatronic buffer girl cuckoo clock swivelling into view every fifteen minutes.
Previously, Sheffield had been famous for embracing modernism in a big way. For years our built environment was dominated – whether you were looking up at the huge concrete monoliths of Kelvin and Park Hill or down into the subterranean world of the Hole in the Road – by brutal, logic driven, unsympathetically modernist architecture. Stuff that was mostly being pulled down (or filled in) during my childhood.
With our fingers burnt and our confidence knocked, and with the city’s outlook turning from industry to commerce it seems we limp wristedly flopped ourselves into postmodernism. Perhaps we did so in the hope that its noncommittal vapidity might at least water down any negative effects in equal proportion to any positive ones.
But it’s not just the architecture of the time that illustrates the legacy of postmodernism. In music Nirvana came along and overnight hair metal was killed stone dead. No longer could you just get dressed up like a peacock and enjoy yourself. The rock idol no longer died of drug overdoses or generally having too good a time. Now he had to put a shotgun to his own head in a sea of misery and mental torment.
The comedy I grew up with and still most adore was pedalled by Stewart Lee and Richard Herring. Ironically scheduled in the middle of a Sunday afternoon, it was knowing, self referential and self loathing. It tied itself in endless knots of complicated in jokes, with threads running long enough that they would transform beyond all recognition. “Or Queen.”
I’m a product of this era. The era that never knew what to do with itself, that never knew quite what it wanted, where it was going or how it could help itself. It was sure of nothing except its own existence. How could we possibly move forward from that? How do you leap from a surface that has no substance?
Well I’ve never known a time or situation where it was acceptable to just ‘be’, to simply indulge something without having an ironic sense of ones self doing it. I’ve lived my life with an extra pair of eyes watching its events unfold in the third person, because not doing that would seem somehow naive and foolish.
Conversation amongst mates can’t (and nor would I want it any other way) be conducted without more references to other things, including ourselves, than the thing we’re trying to discuss. We all seem to live our lives with the knowledge that we are lost, ridiculous and pointless, that we’ve never really belonged. There’s never been any culture that we can really call our own. We’re postcultural.
Or perhaps, conversely but just as tragically, we belong to every culture – perhaps we’re hypercultural. We buy modern rehashes of old products to try and capture the spirit of a bygone time, but we do it knowingly. We know purchases can’t make us happy, but we buy anyway. We know our systems don’t work, but we prop them up regardless. Anything we do find for ourselves, we immediately package up and sell on because we know of no alternative. As Irvine Welsh was quoted in King Adz’ excellent book ‘Street Knowledge’:
“It’s quite sad that street culture has become so global with the net that it doesn’t get the same chance to stay in the underground before it’s relentlessly sold back to kids”
It’s true, we’re all fully aware this happens, and we hate it. But we still go along with it. The world briefly found something valid in the work of Banksy, so he was turned into a commodity and now we all hate him. Next thing please.
We’re all so well aware of the realities of things, so defined are we by our own irony that sometimes it would just be nice to switch off and calm down. But as a product of postmodernism you can’t because there’s nowhere to calm down to.
As a designer you certainly can’t. We designers have to be aware of everything that has gone before, we have to know our cultural references, we have to be aware of ourselves as we work. We have to be able to tear ourselves and our output apart, reduce it to nothing and always look with fresh eyes and be critical of the world and our place in it. It’s our job to accept nothing at face value. Otherwise we’re no good to anyone.
It sounds like I hate this post-postmodern world, this post/hypercultural world, but if you take a look at my flickr stream or scan back through this blog you’ll see how much of my personal output fully and quite merrily indulges it. From customer ejecting kebab shops to pot washing computer games to hip hop infographics. Even my previous post on a running passion project of mine is littered with self amused shame. I can’t stop, even when I’m being completely positive.
As I’ve said on these pages before, I’d love to have been working in a time where culture wasn’t trapped in a cycle of self loathing. I’d love to be designing in the age of hope and ambition, with the belief that a better world can and will be built. The great pioneers, the old masters of our profession might have been ploughing a fresh furrow into the unknown, but part of me wonders if that’s perhaps quite a bit easier than trying to push forward a world that believes it has nowhere left to go.
We’re stuck in an era of remakes, reboots, rehashes, reimaginings, reworkings. Let’s clad that tower block, let’s update that classic car, let’s cover that song, let’s open a vintage store. Let’s wear daft sunglasses and deck shoes with tight white jeans in an attempt to be unfashionable enough that we go back round into being fashionable. Yes, I know over a half decade has passed since Nathan Barley but what’s happened since? Nothing, yeah?
This post has already shown me to be a fan of the preposterous metaphor so I’m going to use one to describe how popular culture in 2011 appears to me. It’s as if time is a torrent of water flooding down the side of a road in a heavy storm, and culture is a ping-pong ball that has been caught in the flood and carried downstream. Of course a ping-pong ball is too big to fit through the slots of the drain through which the water is all eventually flowing, so it can only helplessly and endlessly bob around, unable to follow that which has so far carried it.
But perhaps that metaphor can tell us something else. Perhaps the fact that we control culture is why we subconsciously hold it back. Do we put the grate there because we fear what’s down the drain? I don’t know.
Either way, it goes some way to explaining what I think has been the legacy of postmodernism. Or perhaps I’ve just suggested a ridiculous concept that has no validity whatsoever, and perhaps I only said it to lampoon myself and therefore you, the reader. Of course actually saying which of the two it is would undermine my point, so I’ll leave it hanging and hide behind the fact that I’m actually letting you draw your own conclusion that is or isn’t related to what you’ve just read.
I’m like that first picture of Orchard Square above. I know I’m crap and noncommittal, and in order to try and disguise it I’ve added a few supposedly modern frosted glass panels on extruded aluminium frames, even though I know they’re just as crap as the rest of it and it makes no difference. I’m fooling nobody. But nobody cares, so it’s fine.