‘BETWIXT AND BETWEEN’
During the ‘long’ 1960s cultural theorists such as Herbert Marcuse, Norman O. Brown and the early post-structuralists in France (psychoanalysts such as Erich Fromm, R.D. Laing and Jacques Lacan) and critics of the arts such as Susan Sontag and Lucy Lippard, all in their different registers recognised that what was taking place during the period was a fundamental paradigm shift, a transformation that in many ways is summed up in Susan Sontag’s declaration - the last sentence of her essay ‘Against Interpretation’ (1964) - that ‘In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art,’ or as Michel Foucault put it in more measured terms in the mid-1970’s:
For the last ten or fifteen years the West had witnessed the immense and proliferating criticizability of things, institutions, practices, and discourses; a sort of general feeling that the ground was crumbling beneath our feet, especially in places where it seemed most familiar, most solid, and closest to us, to our bodies, to our everyday gestures. But alongside this crumbling and the astonishing efficacy of discontinuous, particular, and local critiques, the facts were also revealing something... beneath this whole thematic, through it and even within it, we have seen what might be called the insurrection of subjugated knowledges.
The sociologist Julie Stephens has argued that the sixties witnessed the emergence of what she calls a culture of a fundamentally ‘anti-disciplinary’ kind, a term she suggests allows an historical analysis that bi-passes many of the ‘problematic distinctions which shape the familiar paradigms of the sixties, most notably the boundary between so-called political radicalism and cultural radicalism, between activist and the hippie.’
TYPOGRAPHY IN THE SIXTIES
The progressive typography of the period also reflects this paradigm shift. It was developing, broadly speaking, along three interconnected routes.
Firstly, there was the modernist style inherited from the pioneering work done in the 1920’s and 1930’s by the Bauhaus and by designers such as Jan Tschichold and Paul Renner. The purist and universalist rhetoric lying behind their sans serifs embodied aspirations towards a utopia based on rational and egalitarian ideals, and was modelled on the cool and simple forms of science and technology. They communicated a sense of readability, functionality and cleanliness. But by the 1960’s, the descendents of such modernist designs - now called ‘International or Swiss Typography’ - had been absorbed into the mainstream. Indeed, fonts like ‘Helvetica’, for example, appealed not only to the cultural avant-garde, but also to executives of capitalist enterprises who were increasingly employing designers and advertising companies to aggressively brand their businesses.
A similar fate awaited the second kind of radical typography characteristic of the sixties. This was more stridently futuristic in style, and also emerged out of the same anti-traditionalist principles as modernist fonts. These designs, however, were overtly visual in intention, and signalled an even more thoroughgoing embracing of technology and rejection of historical models. For example, an influential sixties font like ‘Stop’, created by Aldo Novarese, was obviously not intended to be supremely readable, and instead aimed to work on a more complex visual level, conveying abstract and geometric qualities that echo the imagery and forms associated with the latest developments in science and technology.
This, in fact, is the genre of typography that Dorit Margreiter discovered gracing the wall of the Brühlzentrum in Leipzig, a communist-era shopping and residential complex built in the sixties, and was subsequently exploited by her through a range of interventions, re-medialisations and re-contextualisation. The style had been chosen by the East German authorities to convey a sense of ‘a model place for a model life in a model state’, as Yvonne Volkart puts it in a review of an exhibition of Margreiter’s work. But, as Barbara Clausen notes in another review, this font actually has associations that resonate throughout the history of twentieth-century design: ‘In its mode of construction as well as in appearance, it is strongly reminiscent of Josef Albers’s Kombinationsschrift (Combination Type)’, she writes, ‘a stencil-based typeface he designed at the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany, in the late ’20s.’