THE WORLD CONVERGED: CONTINENTAL SHIFT 2001 ICOGRADA CONGRESS

08 November 2006
Jacques Lange
Jacques Lange

This is the first article in a series in which Jacques Lange, the chairman of the Continental Shift 2001 Steering Committee, reflects upon the proceedings of the Icograda 2001 Congress, which took place from 11 to 14 September 2001 in Johannesburg, South Africa. This article will deal with the opening procedures on 11 September and the three keynote presentations that were presented on 12 September.

A new chapter of global design history was written on 11 September 2001 when the International Council of Graphic Design Associations (Icograda) staged its first world congress and general assembly on the continent of Africa. This day has subsequently become historic for other reasons Only a few hours before the opening ceremony of the Continental Shift 2001, Icograda Congress was to commence, New York City and Washington DC became the targets for four devastating terrorist attacks. Refusing to be paralysed by the cruel acts of terrorists who intended to disrupt all organised global activities, the Icograda community opted to proceed with its planned congress, even if it was in an adjusted form. These adjustments made the Congress more relevant and therefore more powerful.

Facing Cruel Realities and Future Challenges
On receiving the horrific news of events that transpired in the USA, speakers and delegates from 34 countries were forced to confront their personal emotions, while being stranded in a foreign country, far away from home and loved ones. For most, this traumatic experience was amplified by being surrounded by strangers and their only commonalities being an interest in the design profession and shared recoil of shock and disbelief of the cruelty of the terrorist attacks. The tragedies cast a sombre tone on what was previously planned to be a homecoming celebration of global designers to Mother Africa and her scientifically recognised cradle of mankind , which lies only a few kilometres from the Sandton Convention Centre where the Congress was taking place. However, human tragedy brought diverse peoples together and instantaneously, we experienced the formation of compassionate support structures and close friendships. For six days during the run of the Icograda Congress and General Assembly, the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg became a biosphere containing a sample of the world s nations who interacted in unity.

Against the odds, the Icograda Congress proceeded with minor disruption and the theme, Continental Shift 2001 -- World Design Convergence gained different meanings than what was previously intended. Firstly, Continental Shift refers to a natural occurrence when, thousands of years ago, nature moved continents and peoples apart, creating spectacular diversity and differences, especially amongst the human species. In the past millennium the divergent parts of the world again started moving , this time closer together. The movement transpired due to global social, cultural, political, scientific, trade and commercial collaboration, fuelled by rapid technological advancement in the telecommunications and transportation arenas. Unfortunately, many radical fundamentalists reject this coming together, as we experienced on 11 September 2001. Also, Continental Shift became a metaphor that reflects the dawn of a new world order, because 11 September onwards belongs to a new age and a different world order from that of the previous day. This was a sentiment that was repeatedly expressed by all speakers and attending delegates who participated in this event.

Secondly, the 2001 Icograda Congress was a true World Design Convergence where 34 nations from all corners of the earth were represented. But, instead of being a celebration of the global design community s first convergence in Africa as was previously planned, it became a convergence for sober contemplation and re-evaluation of the role that design and designers play in global society and its positive and negative implications, be it subtle or profound. It is short-sighted for designers to disclaim their contribution (at whatever scale) towards the complex tapestry that led to the USA terrorist attacks Design inherently contributes to the success and power building of selective economic entities, globalisation, breaking down of cultural borders, liberalisation of societal values or any of the myriad of aspects that led the fundamentalist terrorists to display their hatred for the systems that we service and support. I do not intend to say that designers were directly party to the tragic events, but a reoccurrence can be avoided in future through better design solutions. None of us previously imagined that a group of maniacs would utilise unforeseen design weaknesses -- i.e. gaps in airport and aircraft security or weaknesses in architectural structures -- to commit inhumane acts. My fragmented and clumsy comments are intended to loosely identify some of the minute particles of the new challenges that face us as designers after 11 September 2001.

It is in this context that speakers at Continental Shift 2001 slanted their instantaneously adapted presentations to become more relevant to the day, the unique circumstances and the daunting task that lies ahead for all of us. I applaud the amazing intellectual capacity, insight and wisdom displayed by the speakers who participated in Continental Shift 2001. They managed to transform what could possibly have been yet another international talk-shop into what became a seminal convergence of great minds, passionate spirits and individuals who were brave enough to face the world when it was mourning of a sad loss and a horrified by cruel acts. The speakers took on an unenviable task and made the design world talk when it least wanted to do so. Continental Shift 2001 became the first global platform where design challenges of the new future were addressed. Few other venues could have been more appropriate than South Africa, since it has became a benchmark for being a country that is able to face radical challenges and critical socio-political odds as it has proved in 1994...

The sangoma called on the wisdom of the ancestors to guide the way ahead
The opening ceremony of Continental Shift 2001 was initiated by a traditional South African sangoma (diviner/healer/spiritual agent) who threw her bones and charms , resulting in a reading of the voices and wisdom of her ancestors. The ancestors called for affirmative actions of reconciliation and collaboration between different tribes that would ultimately result in peaceful coexistence of all the inhabitants of this world. This transpired against a backdrop of dramatic drum beating and chanting by colourfully beaded South African maidens. Although it was a scripted theatrical act that was prepared month in advance, the messages that were conveyed became hauntingly appropriate and relevant to the events of the day. A spectacular display of indigenous South African music and dancing, reflecting many local cultures followed. The evening was a truly African experience that provided much needed cultural entertainment to an emotionally strained audience.

After the theatrical performances, Dr Ben Ngubane, South Africa s Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, delivered a passionate address in which he officially launched the first-ever governmentally sponsored Design Week on the Continent and heralded the international community for making the Icograda Congress part of this historic event. His address included poignant references to the role that design played in the liberation struggle of South Africa, as well as its critical contribution in the nation building process and economical development since 1994. He also gave appropriate recognition to Nelson Mandela (Madiba) who, in the early 1990 s, wrote a letter addressed to the General Assembly of Icograda, urging it to support South Africa s bid for hosting the 2001 Icograda Congress. Madiba s request finally became a reality.

Look into the eyes of the ape
"We are all Africans and part of the common, kind and peaceful species of the apes". These were some of the powerful words presented by the renowned paleo-antropholigist, Dr Lee Berger, who presented the first keynote address on the morning of 12 September 2001. His captivating presentation tracked the footsteps and evolution of mankind through many epochs since we first started walking upright and subsequently began the quest of domination of planet earth and all its creatures and elements. While telling the story of mankind s evolution, Berger highlighted the unique creative and problem solving (design) ability and skills that separates the apes from other creatures, making reference to the creation of artifacts and documentation (rock art). This brief exploration of our prehistoric past was intentionally included in the programme to serve as a critical revisit for contemporary designers to retrace their roots to their humble beginnings, the role and specific place that humans occupied in the original context of the cosmos. It was also intended to become an opportunity to do a reality check on how contemporary designers influence the fragile planet earth, and the consequences of their actions.

At the end of his presentation Dr Burger asked the audience to look into the kind eyes of a mountain gorilla displayed on a four-meter high screen, inviting the audience to bond with their prehistoric ancestry... It was a silent and touching moment. Twenty four hours before this address, Berger's words would have had little impact other than representing controversial science that is often considered to be science fiction.

Marilyn Martin, the second keynote speaker and director of the South African National Galley, based in Cape Town, stated that The context for my paper is one of hope, but also one of realism . Martin opted to asked many questions and offering few answers. She introduced her paper by asking What is Africa? She answered Historically Africa's identity has always been shaped in relation to the West. In his book 'Blank Darkness. Africanist Discourse' (in French, 1985, C L Miller ) conducts a fascinating and complex research into the sources and etymologies of the name 'Africa'. According Miller, the results are always the same - Africa was void and nothing until an Outsider arrived; today it often remains the blank slate on which the West projects its fears, imaginings and desire for the exotic. It is the negative opposite of European 'civilisation', forever primitive, primeval, tribal, ethnic, communal; it is perpetually static. And the West remains ambivalent towards the continent the 'heart of darkness', yet filled with art [and design] of the most extraordinary power and beauty persists, and the truth about Africa continues to be distorted, while her wares are sought after, displayed and bartered. Keeping Africa 'dark' valorises the western sense of modernity and cultural identity; at the same time the West looks towards Africa for its own redemption and revitalisation.

Martin continues: African artists [designers] are not experiencing any crises of identity or problems of 'transition to modernity' as many Western critics like to believe; they have no difficulty making art [and design] that is 'authentic', it just does not always fit in with Western notions of what 'authentic' African art and design is. There are artists and designers who are engaged in trying to discover what role, if any, Western art and design can play in their creativity, and they make works that are international in theme and execution. In fact, the tension between indigenous traditions and influence from the West or the East, gives much of African art its dynamism and interest. When dealing with art and design from our continent it is necessary to mention the art/craft/sacra and idea/process debate. These divisions came about under European influence and African began to believe in the hierarchical and institutional separation of 'high' (art) from 'low' (craft, folk and mass culture), of 'fine' from 'functional', of secular from religious.

After years of neglect, African art [design] in general and contemporary work in particular, are finding an international audience for its wide variety of productions, and, since 1995, a number of major exhibitions have focused on the continent. The most important current show is 'The Short Century -
Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945-1994', that started in Germany and has just opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Curated by Okwui Enwesor it is a stunning and ambitious overview of the contribution of this continent to the 20th century. And it reminds the world that Africa is a single landmass, but it is not a single entity. It comprises many countries, numerous groups and languages and therefore art and culture are characterised by diversity, complexity, multiplicity, hybridity, plurality and brilliance.... What contribution can South African artists and designers make to global culture and what are the obstacles in the way of such an achievement? What does it bring to the writing of new narratives and conclusions particular to the understanding of our time? Broadly speaking, the South African contribution is twofold. First, the country's artists and designers have found technical, formal and expressive ways to engage the political and social questions of their time and place, affirming that art and culture can interrogate centralised processed and developing ideas and metaphors that can influence society.

This could be an extraordinary and lasting contribution that has already made the world sit up and take notice. Second they have challenged, and continue to challenge, the north/south, centre/periphery binaries of Western domination. This is no mean feat. But what are the chances of these achievements being sustained and the hitherto untapped potential being developed?

South Africans have learned that unity is not always possible in diversity -- which it is hard to reconcile opposing cultural viewpoints while fundamental social divisions remain.'' -- a dear lesson learnt by South Africa and relevant to all countries and global societies that seek to homogenise cultural activity.

Steven Sack, the director of Arts and Culture in the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, presented the final keynote address at Continental Shift 2001. Sack reflected upon the local political landscape of arts and culture and its investment from a governmental point of view in a developing country s context. Their investment and his presentation highlighted the common conflicts of interests between the craft and truly professional design industries. The debate highlighted the expected conflict of the cultural industries, craft being the easiest to understand and interpret, within South Africa and many other countries who are classified under the title of developing nations . It became clear that professional design still had a long way to go before being recognised as an independent and valid player in the arena of critical trade industries in South Africa similar to the experiences of many other similar countries such as Brazil and Korea. We all realised that selective countries such as Korea, has managed to move beyond these contextual barriers. The challenges facing Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe and many Asian countries lie in the ability to lobby governments and making them aware of critical role that design plays in their unique societies. Most importantly, Marilyn Martin from South Africa made all of us who represent the Other, to become proud of our indigenous heritage and work towards a firstly local recognition of credible respect, and secondly aiming to become a respectable export commodity/product. But as Martin stressed, it needs to founded on a base of local credibility.