Self-Determination in Western Sahara: Metahaven and Independent Diplomat

Aug 26, 2014 12:36 pm

A casual glance at the cover of A.i.A.‘s August issue reveals little: a desert expanse bordered by low hills in the distance, occupied only by two figures with backpacks, looking toward the sky. In thick, bold, sans serif text appears a simple stack of terms—2014, Guide, Museums, Galleries, Artists, Western Sahara. The discrepancy is highlighted by a smaller chunk of text below. “Now that we’ve got your attention: Morocco is plundering natural resources and abusing human rights in the last colony in Africa. Find out more.”

A Spanish colony until 1975, Western Sahara has been illegally occupied for nearly 40 years by Morocco. The occupation is opposed by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which seeks to establish an independent state for the Sahrawi people, the main inhabitants of Western Sahara before colonial rule. Despite the United Nations’ repeated recognition of the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination, little has been done to oust the Moroccan occupation, which plunders Western Sahara’s natural resources and has subjected the Sahrawi to multiple human rights offenses, including torture.

The cover is the product of a collaboration between the New York-based non-profit advisory group Independent Diplomat, which has worked with the SADR government to promote self-determination since 2006, and Dutch graphic design studio Metahaven. Known for ambitious, speculative work addressing political and social issues, Metahaven has participated in multiple exhibitions, including “Islands in the Cloud” at MoMA PS1 in New York, and published multiple books, most recently Black Transparency:  The Right to Know in the Age of Mass Surveillance (2014, Sternberg).

Metahaven and Independent Diplomat spoke with A.i.A. by e-mail, discussing their partnership, the August cover and making conflict visible.

MATTHEW SHEN GOODMAN How did your collaboration with Independent Diplomat come about? In these sorts of unusual cases—I’m thinking of your work with WikiLeaks as well—does Metahaven approach the client? Is it typically pro bono work?

METAHAVEN We love to collaborate with people who do strange and sometimes difficult things, who believe in what they do and know why it must be done. We encountered Independent Diplomat through its founder, Carne Ross. Carne was a high-ranking British diplomat who resigned over the war in Iraq. He participated in a spectacular and sometimes hilarious 2011 debate on WikiLeaks in Doha, had a role in Occupy and has written several books. Independent Diplomat provides advice and assistance to marginalized and unrecognized governments and political groups. After we became mutual Twitter followers with Carne, we approached him to see if Independent Diplomat could use our help. Through a few conversations we had last year at the organization’s New York office, we learned about what’s going on in Western Sahara, and proposed a manner of addressing the topic which Carne and his colleagues immediately liked. Independent Diplomat’s own work for Western Sahara is largely pro bono and so is ours. We are not a pro bono design studio in general, but some projects are so interesting that you simply have to take them on and learn from them.

The collaboration is ongoing and the campaign will continue to manifest in several ways. Just prior to the August A.i.A. issue, [arts nonprofit] the Luminary, in St. Louis, Mo., exhibited a billboard that is another iteration of this campaign as part of its exhibition “Speculative Spaces.” It has been an edifying process to utilize such a variety of venues—exhibition, billboard, magazine cover and more—to initiate different parts of the collaboration. It’s a good example of the way the studio operates, in which a variety of work is produced under different conditions and in various contexts.

SHEN GOODMAN The cover is remarkably different from much of your other work—I was surprised by how pared-down it is compared to other Metahaven projects (like the 2013 “Islands in the Cloud” exhibition at MoMA PS1 or your book Uncorporate Identity).

METAHAVEN The Western Sahara campaign is designed in a manner that feels almost like there is no design to it. Indeed much of our other work is visually extreme, baroque and gothic, and we feel this campaign may be too, but in a slightly different way. The work we do often deals with how the Internet affects, distorts and recreates politics, conflicts, economies and emotions. The A.i.A. cover is an exception in that all but the Western Sahara bit of the text was given. So, unlike the billboard in St. Louis, the references aren’t to the Internet and pop culture, but instead to the art world.

SHEN GOODMAN  Do you have any thoughts on the cover as medium, i.e., using what’s essentially a book of exhibition listings and a directory of gallery and museums to convey such a singularly political message?

METAHAVEN A.i.A. is very self-consciously an institution. Its name and image give the political intervention extra weight. The contrast with the apparently nonpolitical items in the list makes the cover work better, as when you read the words you think about potential links between these seemingly unrelated items. Specifically, the refugees and other issues surrounding Western Sahara are made invisible by the lack and/or manipulation of information that is out there on the Internet—while the other items on the list are very visible.

Everyone is tired of the classic NGO messages that just tap into pictures of suffering children. Not that these aren’t terrifying, but our senses have found ways of navigating around these images, which have become the property of multimillion-dollar aid organizations and are used to leverage various other hidden political agendas. Click-based contribution or pinkwashing companies [companies that falsely market their products as benefiting a philanthropic cause] have created a cynicism toward the effectiveness of public support. With the campaign we hope that the visual vacuum around Western Sahara becomes filled with new and unexpected images. This is a sincere pursuit to aid the visual strategy of an organization that works on the level of diplomacy, as well as an experiment in navigating the circulation of images and topics of interest across popular culture to inform people about something that is not in their immediate vicinity or usual social media feed—which these days renders an issue or place almost non-existent.

We would now like to pose a question to Independent Diplomat. In the recent past we’ve worked with ideas about the visibility of information. You (Independent Diplomat) provided a great point-by-point list of facts that is featured on the back page of the magazine (which the line “Find out more” on the cover alludes to). Is creating visibility for a conflict, which might be inconsequential for people in other fields, something that Independent Diplomat usually involves itself in, or is it on the periphery of the organization’s concerns? Do you see it as effective in any way?

INDEPENDENT DIPLOMAT Independent Diplomat’s mission is to help those countries and groups that are most marginalized from diplomatic processes to improve their access and effectiveness. Helping to create visibility for a conflict is certainly part of what we do, because the situations facing many of our clients are unfortunately rarely at the top of the international agenda. In the case of Western Sahara, this is especially important because the situation has languished unresolved for so long and receives very little attention. Thousands of Sahrawi refugees have been living in desperate conditions for almost 40 years. They have been promised a referendum on the future of their country which has never taken place. Getting the issue into the public consciousness is critical because it could help put meaningful pressure on the governments which are actually in a position to promote a definitive solution to the dispute (particularly the United States and France). Public diplomacy is an important element of our work and we’re always on the lookout for creative ways to help our clients achieve their goals. Collaborating with Metahaven has allowed us to look at the issue with fresh eyes and find innovative ways to encourage non-expert audiences to take notice and get involved in overturning this important, but often overlooked, injustice.