The vexed cultural politics of branding
have been distilled into a 21-minute delight in Dexter Sinister: Identity

IN 1966, whilst on holiday with his wife in Greensboro, Vermont, one of the most powerful figures in the history of museums had a small epiphany. Alfred H Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and by many ­accounts the man who invented our very idea of modern art, became obsessed with a tiny detail.

Dexter Sinister: Identity

Tramway, Glasgow

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He thought that the Museum of Modern Art’s official ­abbreviation MOMA, would work better if the O was switched to lower case. He contacted his colleagues back in New York City, and received short shrift from his friend James T Soby. “Haven’t you two characters got anything better to do…” wrote Soby. “It may be correct but it gives me terrible visual hiccups.”

The hiccups have not yet subsided, as Identity, a sly audio­visual essay on show at Glasgow’s Tramway, reveals. In subsequent decades MOMA did eventually become MoMA. Amongst the later innovations in its visual identity was a project to revise the Franklin Gothic typeface it had been ­using for branding and communications.

The nation’s leading typographer, Matthew Carter, was employed to try to restore the quirks of the original hot ­metal type that had been lost in the transition to digital. In a project that cost somewhere in the five figures, the result was a tiny variance, a stretching of the typeface, measuring by some accounts just 0.08 of an inch. In a cultural marketplace that had become dominated by big brands and visual identities, it seemed that invisibility had become the new luxury.

Identity is the work of Dexter Sinister, the New York-based duo Stuart Bailey and David Reinfurt, a pairing who occupy an uncertain ground between artists, designers, publishers and writers.

Where such a partnership might be routine in a world of “creatives” and design guns for hire, Dexter and Sinister are more gently subversive, ­teasing out the ideas behind design, publishing and display as they exist in the big corporate art world, producing books, lectures and essays as much as printed matter.

Presented as an alternating three-screen installation that falls somewhere between elegant cartoon and public information film, and voiced by the pleasing tones of Scottish writer and curator Isla Leaver-Yap, the film uses three examples of the history of logos in a museum context: the Centre Pompidou in Paris, MoMA in New York and the Tate brand in Britain.

We learn about the first ever British trademark: it was the red triangle of Bass Ale. Coinci­dentally it is prominent in one of the most famous paintings of the 19th century, A Bar At The Folies-Bergère (1883) by Manet, making it also one of the earliest and most lasting examples of corporate product placement.

And there is a fascinating detour into the development of logos at IBM, the DTI or Department of Trade and Industry, ascendant during the Thatcher years, and the changing (type)face of the Bauhaus from its evocation of medieval artisanship to functional modernism.

But Identity is more than a pleasant excursion into design history; it’s a deceptively ­gentle interrogation of the ­potential corroding and corrupting ­effect of corporate branding on cultural institutions.

It’s no coincidence that of the three institutions the Pompidou has been the most resistant to brand values: in the wake of 1968, logos were discredited corporate tools in Paris and Pompidou still has an unstable identity as a museum, a library and a public plaza that is as often known by the geographical term Beaubourg as by it’s official title honouring a former conservative prime minister. The flip side, of course, is that France’s high cultural model often pays more attention to accepted cultural hierarchies than innovations or audiences.

And it will come as no surprise to students of Blairism, New Labour and Cool Britannia that one of Britain’s most important cultural institutions fell into the hands of consultancy Wolff Olins, the British pioneers of this sort of thing.

Identity’s accompanying booklet recounts in details as hilarious as they are weirdly chilling elements of the Tate brand strategy prepared by the agency, including these kinds of gems: “Tate solid>Tate porous Tate foreground>Tate background Tate fixed size>Tate Flexible”

Anyone following the current debates over the direction of our national funding body Creative Scotland would do well to read this little book, which includes the writer J J Charlesworth’s observations that in the last decade rebranding exercises at many cultural and funding institutions became conflated with new managerial trends and gobbledygook taking hold at places like the ICA, Arts Council England and the British Council. These changes include the dismantling of art form expertise, and a culture of “celebration” rather than excellence or criticality, both of which are the source of disquiet in the recent Scottish context.

It’s territory, of course, that has been covered by many cultural critics and in Scotland, particularly, by Variant magazine. But for those who may not delight in dense essays on cultural policy or have the ­expertise to wade through ­detailed critiques of neo-liberal capitalism, Identity is a simple and succinct 21-minute delight.

It obeys some of the rules of the branding gurus themselves, while employing ironic distance, and it’s visual economy reveals the efficacy of the brands it sets out to dissect. It’s entertaining, and just ­ambiguous enough.

Where exactly do Dexter Sinister stand on all of this? Well, they have been known to use their own little heraldic device and they do, of course, have their own dual identity and joint name. But it’s notable that although funded or supported by a good half dozen organisations and institutions, each of them no doubt trademarked up to their eyeballs, Identity’s little publication credits them all without using a single corporate symbol. 
No Logo. «

Until October 28