Poster Child

Posted on 01. Feb, 2009 by in Criticals

Yale is covered in text. I don’t always see it and I don’t always read it, but it’s all over buildings, statues, bulletin boards, portraits, and signs. It’s often titular: “John C. Calhoun,” “Nathan Hale,” “James Woolsey,” “Kingman Brewster.” It’s often institutional: “The Yale Political Union,” “Mory’s,” “The Whiffenpoofs.” Recently, it’s often been hateful: “N****r,” “sluts.”

For Jessica Svendsen MC ’09, this text is also masculine, connoting a mostly male institutional history and culture. When, this January, she began printing words on sheets of paper and piecing them into grids on bulletin boards across campus—in Linsley-Chittenden and William Harkness Halls, on Cross Campus, on Old Campus, on Rose Walk—she was re-covering Yale with text she hoped would actively make visual and conceptual space for women.

First, she recalls, she had to blanket a masculinized history with its feminine counterpart. “One of the things that has worried me during my time here is the lack of institutional memory,” Svendsen says, her slow, flat voice presenting her thoughts in an elegant grid. “Yes, we’re only here for four years, but we’re not aware of what has happened to women since 1969. Because there is no knowledge of history or recovering of history, we make the same mistakes.”

In order to assert this alternate history, she combed through Yale Daily News and University archives and read articles and reports related to women at Yale. She then excerpted parts of these articles and, in striking white font, set them on a black timeline from 1969 to 2009. This timeline, which Svendsen printed in 8.5-by-11-inch sections and arranged in 102-by-44-inch displays on bulletin boards across campus, was the first installation of a graphic design project she has titled “Graphic Feminism.”

Svendsen, an English major who takes graphic design classes and designs for several Yale organizations, began work on the project last semester. She obtained an Amy Rossborough Fellowship for service affecting women in New Haven and began rooting through archives, as well as interviewing undergraduate women about their experiences with feminism at Yale.

Svendsen’s project is historically saturated, both with the history of women at Yale and with the history of women in art. In the 1960s and ’70s, as the women’s liberation movement caught fire in the American political, social, and cultural spheres, women began to make feminist art. Art made by women, or even art made by women with a feminist intent, was not new, but this art was different. It was a movement in which, as Washington Post critic Blake Gopnik recalled in 2007, “the message has mattered as much as the medium.” Feminist artists challenged the traditional idea of the sacred art object and began to include voices and perspectives that had historically been silenced. In the field of graphic design, this meant displaying multiple perspectives in one design, breaking down the structured modernist grid to reveal the artist’s subjectivity, and cognitively engaging the viewer.

The message-over-medium approach was—and is—nowhere more present than in the work of the Guerilla Girls, a group of gorilla mask-wearing female artists founded in the 1980s that attacks gender and racial discrimination in politics and the art world using interventionist, often illegal posters, stickers, and billboards. Their designs are not meant to be savored in a museum but rather to catch the eye of a pedestrian and force him or her to think about societal structures in a new way. One of the Guerilla Girls’ most famous campaigns, in 1989, featured Ingres’s Odalisque wearing a gorilla mask and flanking the text: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” The poster is shaded a shocking yellow and purple, its typeface a simple black shot through with pink for emphasis.

Svendsen’s unauthorized postering can’t help but recall the Guerilla Girls, and in many ways, her posters reflect their designs. A key component of Graphic Feminism is its blog, which Svendsen updates frequently under a pseudonym; in person, “Grid Girl”’s cat-eye glasses cut an appropriately graphic image across her arcing forehead. When she tells me about her project, she uses the term “guerrilla” more than once. Having long navigated Yale’s postering policies, Svendsen simultaneously honors and trashes them with Graphic Feminism. University regulations allow one 8.5-by-11-inch poster per item on each of its official bulletin boards, so Svendsen divides her installation into twenty or thirty 8.5-by-11-inch chunks and then staples them over other flyers. “When you take up the entirety of a bulletin board to make people think about women at Yale,” she explains, “that inserts women into the campus space and makes people talk about it. When I post the designs up and cover space, then, in a way, I’m making space for women.” Her posters are often removed by Yale Recycling mere hours after she installs them, but this, of course, is part of the fun.

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, current director of the Yale Art School’s graphic design program, coined the term “feminist design” in the 1970s. After earning her M.F.A. at Yale in 1964, de Bretteville went on to upend the design world, founding the first design program for women at CalArts as well as Los Angeles’s legendary Woman’s Building, a feminist art and culture center, in 1971. When she was tapped as director of Yale’s design program in 1990, becoming the first tenured woman at the Art School, her radical theories prompted the resignations of several of the School’s more traditional faculty members.

Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, Yale had been a center of the International or Swiss Style, often characterized by clean, readable grids and strong sans serif fonts, and developed almost entirely by men. De Bretteville, who had been trained in this style as a graduate student at Yale, wanted to “honor the intelligence of the viewer rather than talking at the viewer,” she remembers. By engaging artist and viewer in a kind of dialogue, de Bretteville called both parties’ genders, and how these genders might affect their perspectives, into question.

“Feminist design looks for graphic strategies that will enable us to listen to people who have not been heard from before,”de Bretteville said in a 1990 dialogue with designer Ellen Lupton. Recalling feminist design strategies she’d pursued in the ’80s, de Bretteville continued, “Having the words and the images contradict themselves also creates a productive tension, by asking the viewer to resolve the conflict and thus bring his or her thinking process and point of view into play.”

Though de Bretteville still prizes the subjectivity of the designer and the intelligence of the viewer, she no longer views these factors through the lens of gender. “When I first began, in 1969, to think about questioning what gender has to do with how women make things,” she recalled recently, “I really enjoyed the question- asking aspect of it because it meant thinking, it meant feeling, it meant really looking at experience as well as what has been written about gender…. At one point in the ’80s, before I came back to Yale, I thought it was useful to call that act ‘feminist design’ because it’s so easy to discount gender as being participant in this discussion. I still think that’s conceptually important, but how you do it now, it’s worth considering.”

How Svendsen is doing it is indicative of a new feminist era less focused on gender differences and more focused on how gender affects the day-to-day lives of both men and women. While her work employs de Bretteville’s multiple-perspective and viewer-engagement strategies, it is also steeped in the Swiss Style de Bretteville was questioning and, as director of Yale’s graphic design program, replacing. Svendsen uses bold, simple fonts arranged on strict grids, and her posters are recognizably crisp and readable, but in no way does she consider these stylistic choices inherently male or female. Her feminism emerges not in the style of her work—the medium—but in its content—the message.

On January 15, Svendsen posted anonymous reader comments taken from the Yale Daily News website. She horizontally anchored her display with the large phrase, “Your comments here.” In a grid set over and around this phrase, she arranged the comments, all responding to last year’s most explosively gendered events: Zeta Psi’s online posting of a photo of twelve pledges standing in front of the Yale Women’s Center holding a sign that read “We love Yale sluts,” and Aliza Shvarts DC ’08’s projected artistic rendering of a series of self-induced abortions. These comments expressed everything from a reluctance to associate with the Women’s Center—“Women constitute 50% of the student body… Please don’t think that just because you are part of an institution that calls itself the Women’s Center you have the right to speak for all women at Yale”—to misogynistic jokes—“How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Two: One to screw it in and one to suck my penis.” The juxtaposition of varying texts and perspectives creates the kind of “productive tension” de Bretteville cited as a way to critically engage viewers and prompt the questions of difference needed to address gender disparity and discrimination, whether or not Svendsen’s style was originally developed by men.

Feminist dialogue these days, both within and without the art world, tends to center on glass ceilings rather than on gendered perspectives. At a much-talked about New York panel on book design, one of the questions submitted to panelists Milton Glaser, Dave Eggers, and Chip Kidd asked why there were so few “superstar” female graphic designers. Kidd broke the awkward silence with a Larry Summers joke, and then Glaser asserted that women miss out on foundational career opportunities by choosing to stay home and raise children.

This incident sparked uproar in many circles, especially within the design world. Michael Bierut, a senior critic at the Yale Art School and moderator of the controversial panel discussion, reacted on his award-winning blog, Design Observer. In a post titled “The Graphic Glass Ceiling,” Bierut acknowledged gender imbalance at his own design firm and contemplated the possibility that Glaser, despite his archaic phrasing, might have spoken a shred of truth.

Jessica Helfand, who founded Design Observer with Bierut and also serves as a senior art critic at Yale, certainly thinks that lifestyle choices weigh heavily on women graphic designers. While designing the New York Times’s first website,  Helfand became pregnant with her first of two children. Wary of endangering her job, she did her best to hide her pregnancy. “I think it’s a very female thing to assume that one thing would stand in the way of the other,” she says, “or that there’s a dissonance.”

A recent Graphic Feminism installment tackled the proverbial glass ceiling within the glass walls of the Bass Library café, one of several places where it was installed. Svendsen, who has worked extensively with the Women’s Faculty Forum, compiled statistics on everything from tenured women, to maternity leave policies, to the number of reported sexual assaults on campus, arranging the numbers in mathematical columns that add up to a blank space next to the words, “Number of Yale students who identify as feminist.”

Svendsen herself identifies as a feminist, thought not necessarily as a feminist graphic designer. In using graphic design to provoke discussion about feminism on campus, she takes a functionalist approach to her art. A recent display on the topic of the Women’s Center was not only cleanly laid out, with asymmetrical space, a central women’s restroom symbol, and striking orange accents—it was successful in sparking dialogue about feminism at Yale. This installation, which displayed anonymous statements from six Yale women who identified as feminists but took issue with the Women’s Center, drew more comments on Graphic Feminism’s blog than any other post. Some of these comments were, clearly, from current or former Women’s Center board members, but many of them were from men or women who chose not to associate with the Center. All were respectful of the other comments—a stark contrast to the YDN comments Svendsen used in her earlier installation—and much of the stream was back-and-forth and regarded specific Women’s Center policy or events. This, for the most part, is the kind of constructive dialogue Graphic Feminism seeks to incite.

Perhaps we no longer need to talk about how gender affects perception and presentation, or, as de Bretteville implied, perhaps this need varies according to an individual’s personal trajectory. But at Yale, today, there is an urgent need for discussion about feminism. There is a need for Graphic Feminism.

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