Using the Drone Survival Guide to blind the viewer, 2014.
Drone Survival Guide
Ruben Pater is, imho, one of the 10 most interesting designers to follow at the moment. You might have encountered his name already. He’s behind the Drone Survival Guide that enables anyone to spot and recognize the most commonly used drones. More interestingly, the guide also provides information on how to hack, hides from and dazzle the machines. The guide has been translated in dozens of languages and can be downloaded over here.
Pater has a mission to create visual narratives about complex political issues. He is not only interested in flying machines of death but also in disaster floods caused by global warming, Dutch sweets that evoke everyday racism, fishermen vs oil tankers, citizen journalism in countries with censorship, digital surveillance, etc. Any complex issue that grabs his attention is turned into an impeccably well-researched, elegantly designed and intelligently communicated work. His calls his projects ‘untold stories’ because of the way they weave new connections between journalism and design.
Pater studied graphic design in Breda, and later at the graphic design master programme of the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam. He is exhibiting his work, lecturing internationally and is teaching at the communication department of the Design Academy in Eindhoven, at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam and also at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in the Hague. I’m glad he has accepted to answer my questions:
Life after the Flood, First Dutch Flood manual. Design: Ruben Pater, 2011
Hi Ruben! You create visual narratives about complex political issues. Why do you think it is important that design approaches political topics? And why do you feel that design is an adequate medium for public discussion?
Do you think that design has a different role, audience or strength compared to art in that respect?
Discussing topics of political or public interest happens everywhere. Whether we categorize it as art, journalism, or film is not really relevant. The label of design works for me because designing visual communication means creating a dialogue beyond your immediate reach, and therefore a work can only achieve its goal when it reaches an wide audience. When addressing issues which are of public interest, this is for me an important aspect of a work. The nature of (graphic) design expects designers to be empathetic towards a diverse audience, because their clients are different all the time, and so is the receiver of the message. That skill gives designers the potency of have a more meaningful role in communicating the important issues of our time to a larger audience.
Behind the Blue Screen (English trailer), 2014
Teheran streets, December 2014. Photo: Ruben Pater
I was particularly fascinated by the project Behind the Blue Screen, an experiment in ‘sneaker journalism’ that you developed with the help of director Jaap van Heusden and the complicity of people living in Iran. What can we, as European, learn from the stories and tactics of the people who shared their stories for the project?
My ideas about Iran have definitely changed, not in the least because news coverage on Iran is so one-dimensional and hyperbolic. Through watching more than 100 video stories, my image of Iran has become much more nuanced.
It’s funny that the more you learn about another culture, the more you learn about your own. For instance with media censorship, we tend to rate Western Europe as much more ‘free’ than a country like Iran. This is true in the sense of journalists being jailed and the internet being restricted. But in Western Europe we have a different kind of self-censorship which is equally invasive. Our dominant ideology of multinational capitalism with Christian values is hardly questioned. Although it is criticized in the margins, the media reaffirms this ideology and promotes it actively through its advertisements and reporting. We do not even regard it as propaganda anymore, but as a simple fact.
The question is if it is really that much different than the way the media is controlled in a country like Iran, where there are blogs and underground media that pose opposite and alternative views.
And more generally, do you feel that we might also want to watch our back and worry about surveillance?
â€¨â€¨Always watch your back, or in this case, your browser.
Ruben Pater, Double standards (Photo installation at the graduation show of the Design Department of the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam, 2012)
Ruben Pater, Double standards
Double Standards publication. Printed on newspaper stock and hand-bound with flag rings
Your page about Double Standards of Somali Piracy is a fascinating and very informative read. Could you give us more details about the work you did with the flags? Explaining the choices you made when you transformed them?
If we send warships and soldiers to protect a national maritime fleet far away, that is an act of war by a sovereign state. When this merchant fleet has sold its nationality in favor of ‘cheap’ nationalities like Panama or the Bahamas to dodge taxes and underpay its workers, this stands in stark contrast to the military sent to protect them. This paradoxical reality of global capitalism is something that I felt was best visualized by buying all these flags and cutting them up by hand. By violating these national symbols, I felt like this was more appropriate representation then when I would create new flags, or new realities.
Double Standards of Somali Piracy was developed in 2012. Do you still follow the issue? Has the situation much evolved since you last worked on it?
Recently I worked with a filmmaker on a documentary about Double Standards. That was challenging because piracy around Somalia has basically disappeared almost completely since then, and when something is not in the news, people simply lose interest. Even though Somalia still has many problems, and the illegality and problems in the shipping industry remain. I think a follow-up on the project would focus more on life of crews that work in the maritime industry, who are basically doing slave labor for super-rich shipping tycoons.
And similarly, i was wondering whether you were ‘haunted’ by the projects once you’ve finished them? Do you keep on following closely the news or do you rather dive head down into the next project and try not to be too distracted? â€¨â€¨
A consequence of the way I work is that I have to keep track of the news happening on different topics. There are dozens of ‘sleeping topics’ that are not projects yet but are waiting for an opportunity. They could turn into a project, or not, so I need to keep collecting information on them.
You trained as a graphic designer but i noticed that you also write a lot. Each of your project is detailed in a long essay. So how do you keep the balance between text and graphic design? Do you feel that a project like Twenty-first Century Birdwatching, for example, can be fully understood without the text? Just by looking at the Guide with the bird silhouette?
18 months ago someone asked me to write an essay about the Drone Survival Guide, and I decided to do that with all my larger projects. It complements my work because it pushes me to reflect on the context beyond its immediate effect. I think during a design process many interesting things happen that are as interesting as the result, even if they are invisible in the end. I try to avoid using the essay to inflate my work, just to as an invitation to the reader in the way I work. That gives me parameters. When projects are too small for an essay format, they do not go on my website. Outside of the website, all of my works are meant to function without any additional text, especially in the case of the Drone Survival Guide. All my projects should work without explanation, although sometimes that turns out to be more difficult than others, for instance my Double Standards project which needs a bit more time from the viewer.
Negro Kiss. ‘Dutch Sweets’, Leon Dijkstra and Ruben Pater, 2011. From A Taste of Dutch Colonialism
Jew Cookie. ‘Dutch Sweets’, Leon Dijkstra and Ruben Pater, 2011. From A Taste of Dutch Colonialism
I’m from Belgium so i immediately connected with your work A Taste of Dutch Colonialism. Both our countries are quite fond of Zwarte Piet. I grew up with that figure and never thought much about it until i found myself in Eindhoven in early December and saw how shocked artists from other countries were when they met blond people dressed as Zwarte Piet in the streets. How did people reacted to your work about Dutch Sweets? Do you feel that our cultures are ready to leave behind all these traditions based on old (and embarrassing) racial stereotypes?
Currently the colonial heritage of ‘Zwart Piet‘ is heavily debated in Holland. It is shameful to see that so many people, including the Dutch prime minister, do not understand even the most rudimentary concept of racism. In general, what we need is a better understanding of our colonial past in Western European countries, and we are still far away from that. Dutch Sweets, and the book I am writing now about design in different cultures, hopefully help this discussion forward. I am hopeful for the future because there are some very brave artists, activists, and writers out there who are at the forefront of this civil rights protest and their numbers are growing. Now they are threatened, arrested, and ridiculed, but I am certain they will eventually be recognized as heroes.
You are teaching at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam and will also be lecturing at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in the Hague. What are you teaching there? Does it relate to your attempts to narrate geopolitical issues? What are you teaching there? Does it relate to your attempts to narrate geopolitical issues?
As a teacher I try to ask students to think about how their work relates to the political and social realities. It is not that they have to make work about political subjects, or become politically active, I want them to realize all the choices they make are political, whether they intended it or not. With the research of my new book that is coming out next year, I am getting more into postcolonialism and designing across cultures. This element of graphic design is often overlooked. I would like students to think about hidden cultural contexts of their work and how they can communicate to different audiences, not just their peers.
I think design has the tendency to become entertainment for the elite; expensive, exclusive, and abstract. Designers will be taken more seriously if they reach a wider audience, and become more inclusive.
What are the ‘untold stories’ that you think deserve to be told at the moment?
There are so many interesting and important topics, but unfortunately my time is limited. I soon hope to start working on a project about a more humanistic representation of cyberwar, which is still not available. Even though it is talked about a lot, it is always visualized in the same visual vocabulary security nerddom and military propaganda. Another topic is the role of raw materials in our economy as an literal and metaphoric underground foundation of our capitalist system. Thirdly Data discrimination. It is already being discussed quite widely, but nonetheless a very important topic, perhaps one of the most important topics of the coming years.