R10, the name that identifies Jorge Rodríguez Diez in the field of graphic design, is an authorial signature that is also beginning to leave its mark in the plural scene of Cuban contemporary art. And not only because of his work in different specialized or promotional publications, or in institutional identity projects, but because of the real artistic work he has been carrying out for some time now. It turns out to be a patently obvious truth that all which concerns the art world today is the result of some work, of some process that materializes in an expression of meaning –be it physical or virtual (it does not matter much, as far as the effects of meaning are concerned)–, and not of the type of education that the individual who carries out such eidetic materialization has. You can call artists those who have proved their ability to produce meaning of high connotative level by using a language, whichever it may be, and not for the simple arbitrary fact of holding a degree from an academy of art. On the other hand, the unlimited universe of ways of assuming creation brought about by the postmodern aesthetic spread, allows reaching art through very different ways of intellectual training. Rodríguez Diez avails himself of this vein in full knowledge and right; by exploiting his great training in visual thought and his abilities to express a concept with the greatest possible synthesis of formal resources, he has been making incursions into the structuration of visual messages in the way of posters, but ones that are kept at a distance from the communicative rules of graphic design to completely shift to the communicative specificity that is typical of art.
However, before going into the analysis of this area of R10’s artistic production, it is necessary to open a theoretical parenthesis to clear up what I state as “communicative rules of graphic design” and “communicative specificity of art.”
There is a basic operative scheme of the factors that take part in an act of communication and which make it possible, and it is still accepted today by both structural linguistics and semiotics. I am referring to the communicational model completed by the eminent Russian linguist Roman Jakobson in the lecture entitled Linguistics and Poetics (Indiana University, 1958). Jakobson’s model was structured in six factors, which make communication possible, and in the functions of language they determine. In his terminology: speaker-message-referent-code-channel-receiver. The message acquires a referential function as long as an orientation predominates along the context or referent in communication. If the message focuses its interest on the speaker’s attitude (emotional state), it is about the emotive function. The conative function can be clearly seen if the message engages the receiver directly. When it reflects on the transmission channel then the phatic function predominates; and if emphasis is made on the communication code itself, its function is metalinguistic. Lastly, when it draws attention on itself, it becomes a message with a poetic function (aesthetic, we would say today). Jakobson adds that a message does not carry out a single function of language, several of them generally coexist. It is just that the structure of the message will always be determined by the predominant function, while the rest of the functions that take part in communication participate in an accessorial way, subordinate to the leading one.1
If we apply this operative model to graphic design, to the poster, for instance: which function of language should be predominant in a kind of message whose social object consists in communicating a piece of information with the greatest possible degree of efficiency? If we agree that, in graphic design, communicative efficiency is a synonym for synthesis, for legibility, for objectivity –and its practical value, and exchange value, lie in this quality–, then the function of language that should predominate, thus determining the message structure, is the referential function. The graphic designer, as a communicator, is the sender of some content that must satisfy the demands of a client. For that reason, information graphics, to a certain extent, sometimes to a great extent, turns out to be a sort of communication conditioned by the ideology and interests of those who make the commission.
Let us take one of R10’s own posters to illustrate these theoretical principles. In the year 2007, the German Embassy in Cuba entrusted him with the making of a promotional poster for the German Cinema Program in the Havana International Cinema Festival. That year the exhibition venue was changed to the Acapulco movie theater: that was the essential information that should be conveyed to the interested public. On a white background and in the upper half of the poster, Rodríguez Diez placed a text in big black and red characters: German Cinema Program moves to Acapulco. Below, in red color, fading into black towards the extremes, we see the cab of one of those old American trucks in which we Cubans still make our jumbling removals. In the truck’s window, the well-known face of Marlene Dietrich seems to command the action. The relief of meaning between the text and the image turns out to be very effective; it generates a humorous hidden message of good taste. Nevertheless, although the poster manages to allure the receivers by making them stop for a while in the mischievous rhetorical game woven by Jorge between image and text, although the addressee experiences a nice aesthetic feeling faced with the shrewdness of the “joke” and the attractive formal solution, the referential function remains predominant, the essential information is expressed with clarity and objectivity: the German cinema moves to Acapulco. That is all there is to know, there is no room for any other kind of content. To sum up the issue a great deal, we would say that graphic design is committed to communicative efficiency since the objectivity of the message is an essential value, even when this message aspires to be expressed with an aesthetic quality; the poster must firstly inform, and as an accompanying effect, induce aesthetic pleasure. The designer may exploit the rest of the functions of language, but none of them must actually distort the hierarchy of the referential function, otherwise the content would become ambiguous, indeterminate up to a point, and in this case it would not be a good poster.
Meanwhile, it is well-known that in art the leading function of language par excellence is the aesthetic one, which does not mean that aesthetics is either exclusive or unique of art; on the contrary, it is a constant feature in the great majority of human experiences. Taking up Jakobson again, the message whose predominant function is the aesthetic one has the quality of drawing attention on itself in the first place, therefore it is defined as an ambiguous and self-reflective message. When the supremacy of the aesthetic function mediates and subordinates the rest of the functions of language, particularly the referential dimension, it always surprises itself, and this is essentially due to the fact that when language is put to an aesthetic use, the structure of the message turns out to be ambiguous with respect to the conventional and automated codes of ordinary communication.2
When R10 begins to elaborate those simulacrum-posters –which he brings together in the exhibition Rorschach (Centre for the Development of Visual Arts, November 2009)– he can move towards the communicative artifice characteristic of art, because in these works the aesthetic use of the visual language is no longer subordinated to any invariable referential content, nor to the conditions and interests a client imposes. These simulacrum-posters were created on the fringes of, or rather out of the logical working order of the graphic design field; that is precisely why I use the term simulacrum in their conceptualization, inasmuch as these works “play” at looking like posters, but they are not, since they lack a “real” referent (they do not inform of any specific event, noteworthy happening, commemoration, etc.). Therefore, they are fiction-posters, that is, simulacrums. When the receiver faces these works for the first time, the superficial impression refers to the codes of traditional graphics. But when receivers start looking into the visual fabric in greater depth, they can realize that the structure of the message demands to be read (deciphered) some other way: the message begins to draw attention on itself, it forces us to stop in its semantic ambiguity, in its polysemy of signs, it challenges us to struggle with the referential indetermination…
It is not at all unwarranted that Rodríguez Diez named this, his first really artistic series, Rorschach, it is quite the opposite actually. In the title of the exhibition, all of this creator’s intention is encoded: each of the twelve pieces is thought as an intelligence test, all of them try to get more information than that which they provide, they only work in correspondence with the intelligence and ability of each potential receiver-subject to articulate meaning. La cosa está clarísima (The thing is quite clear) –Jorge says so in one of his artworks– is not now just about reading, but about knowing how to read to interpret. Those who cannot undertake the hermeneutical game of understanding will miss the feast; it is as simple as that.
In one of my favorite pieces, a frog “hangs” –with its elastic leg– from a red star over the American continent. In the lower right bottom it can be read: Cuento Chino.3 When we properly notice the map, we are aware of the fact that the continental area is a mattress of flies, a continent of flies… and the frog is throwing itself into the banquet from on high… Then we ask ourselves: what will this visual tale have to do with the enunciated/announced “cock-and-bull story?” And the moment the question bursts in, art arises, because a possible space is opened for the construction of meaning, for the production of knowledge, for the ‘unfamiliarity’ with automated issues, for the increase of awareness of what has been made invisible, for the unalienated concretization of “reality.” According to the hermeneutics of eminent German G. H. Gadamer, every work of art is presented to the receiver as a question, a question whose resolution is the addressee’s task. To this thinker, understanding, in hermeneutical terms, means to value all the possibilities of truth that are kept in suspense when a question bursts in, that is, when there is a dialogue with the potential for meaning that every work of art should aspire to become.
If at this point we remember the previous analysis about the poster for the German Cinema Program, we can establish a basic and essential distinction. In that poster, R10 achieves his objective with excellence, to inform the public about where to go see German cinema, but in this case the message does not involve the receiver in a joint process of producing meaning. Here communication is linear, to put it some way. The greater the objectivity of the message, the less quantity of information, which means less distortion (more efficiency and quality for the design). Meanwhile, in Cuento chino, communication is not linear, nor is the message objective, quite the opposite; the artwork opens a dialogue that flows from the sign structure to the receiver, and vice versa. So that the quantity of information that this piece can generate in its dialogue with the individual who interprets it, exceeds the data contained in the denotative dimension of the message, and this is due to the fact that the latter has been structured in an intentionally ambiguous manner. It could be concluded from the above, that graphic design produces pieces of information, while art produces knowledge; which does not imply at all that one practice must be superior to the other, it is just that art and design fulfill different social roles, no matter how interrelated they may be. I have heard my fellow countrywoman Elvia Rosa Castro to put it this simply: design is efficiency, art is emancipation…
Jorge Rodríguez Diez is a graphic designer by education. When he makes posters, visual identity logos, publishing design, etc., he cannot completely violate the profoundest rules that constitute the functioning logic of the design field. But when it is about a need of personal expression, then designing becomes a tool to create another kind of discourse. The appropriation and digital manipulation of images, the flat colors, the power of synthesis, the formal minimalism, the game between image and written text, are resources R10 masters perfectly and they are his main weapons. In art, the true value of an artwork can only be measured according to the power of the aesthetic experience it prompts –which can be both the pleasure of the senses as well as of the intellect. For more than half a century now, the hegemony over the traditional artistic procedures, and over certain aesthetic values associated to the material, has shown clear signs of crisis –at least in theoretical terms, the market is something else. So, the simulacrum-posters by R10 are a singular profit for Cuban contemporary art, because they manage to tempt the carnival of meaning along a way that has disconcerted and disarranged many.
An artwork that is a delightful example of how Rodríguez Diez, by using a specific procedure of design, manages to involve the receiver in another kind of communication and receptive experience is Manual de identidad (Identity manual). This piece –as its title asserts– seems to be at first sight (again the simulacrum) a proposal of a visual identity for a brand: «All modern institution needs to have an organized system of identity signs at its disposal, so that it can make its position clear on the public’s mind with a systemic, harmonious and stable image» –we read. Below, there is a repertoire of images where the applications of the logotype on different color backgrounds and on a sample of products are illustrated. So far so good, pure design; but, when we notice the possible semantic nature of the brand –Creesys–, the deliberation arises about whether the systemic, harmonious and stable image that is hoped to be inoculated (positioned, or made aware of?) in the public’s mind is the spreading of a historical brand (crisis?). When such an effective resort is capable of provoking the connotative activity in the receiver, we undoubtedly step into the land of art.
In the beginning of the year that is almost over, R10 makes his second exhibition –SinBolos (Lloyd’s Register, Havana, March-May 2011)–, along with Adriana Arronte, in which he proposes six pieces for a new series entitled Los pasos perdidos (The lost steps). Here, the work of selecting-recycling the symbols from a very precise political past; the parody of the aesthetics from the socialist graphics in the seventies and eighties; plus the use of texts-phrases –sometimes in English, others in Spanish, and also in Russian–, produce a mixture of reminiscences from the past, anxieties from the present and the always uncertain shadow of the future, carefully structured by the creator. At least in three of the pieces, symbols like the Lada brand automobile, the Sputnik, or the Soviet Revolution leader work not only as metonymies of the great utopia of a whole political era, but also of the historical fracture, of the distortion of a path whose trodden steps are perceived, from the present, as footprints lost in the thaw. And in this collection, the laconic phrases by R10 are like the image’s stings, they do not allow sense to be numbed, they are like the energetic source of subversion.”
In one of the artworks, a little Lada car faces immense darkness –the effect between background and figure does not allow finding out if it is a wall or pure absence of light–; but both its headlights are enough to light only a small portion of the darkness. Above, the enthusiastic advertising slogan assures us: Un mundo por delante (A world ahead); a little higher up, in Cyrillic characters, the details of the product. The visual composition cannot be more minimal; R10 dispenses with the excesses, only what is necessary: the iconic sign, the struggle between light and darkness, the ideological promise, and the identity of the Soviet brand. However, what could look like an advertising message characteristically charged with ideological manipulation and rhetorical seduction, is on the contrary a self-reflective message, as far as its own semiotic organization allows to be activated by the receiver according to the deconstruction of the ideological rhetoric that floats on the denotative surface. What is the world we have ahead of us: the small portion of light a Lada is able to project towards that future, dark and unknown? –uneasy receivers could very well ask themselves. In this artwork the creator manages to reduce a complex and fundamental question to the minimum: over what past, with what ambitions, and from what perspective (here the cultural issue in a broad sense comes in, including ethical, ideological, political and theoretical issues) do we rush into building a future project? I think Un mundo por delante sums up in a shrewd, clean and elegant gesture, an idea expressed in the catalogue for this exhibition: «The study of the past and its persistence in the collective memory of several generations, its revision and confrontation with the social experience of the present, and even more, its projection towards an evasive future, constitute the conceptual platform that supports the Los pasos perdidos series by R10.»4
If it is a question of beauty, an artwork (Symptoms) in this series also falls within this context and I personally enjoy it as authentic visual poetry. On a white background, two big, intensely red hemispheres have begun to separate from the center of the composition. Moved towards the lower left side, a text set in an upright position, also in red typography, informs us: If symptoms persist consult your doctor. And then the red balloons beginning to somewhat melt, drip, leak, corrode in their red perfection as an effect of we do not know which cause; we only bear witness to the symptoms… Undoubtedly this is an artwork of abstract visualization: pure color, pure form, pure retinal pleasure; but, the text bursts in like an anchorage in the extra-artistic reality, and the autonomy of the plastic forms and the peaceful delight they bring about for our gaze begin to be at risk. It is clear once more that R10 is far from being satisfied with offering a disinterested aesthetic pleasure to the receivers; his game, I repeat once more, is that of polysemy, the ambiguity of meaning, the aesthetic provocation, the challenge to the intellect of his potential interlocutors.
I am interested in highlighting another vital aspect, and that is, contrary to what one could think, that Rodríguez Diez’s creative procedure has nothing to do with traditional Pop Art.
Andy Warhol and company appropriate the visuality generated by the industrial-advertising aesthetics of the second world postwar period: it is about a strategy of selection-appropriation and reiteration, to reproduce again in a mechanical and industrial way. To take an example at random, in Brillo Box the method is very similar to that of the Duchampian ready-made, but even more deceptive: Warhol does not create an image, but he chooses it among many possible ones. Previously, Duchamp had selected ordinary objects (serially produced) to propose them as works of art. The fundamental difference lies in the fact that Duchamp’s gesture frontally and radically denies any formal aesthetic value associated to beauty; while Warhol uses aesthetics (beauty) as a façade: he does not appropriate ordinary objects but images, and the image is already charged a priori with aesthetic values, no matter how kitsch or automated it may be (as it is the case of Brillo Box, the Campbell’s Soup cans, the Coca-Cola bottles, the image of Marilyn Monroe, etc.). Nevertheless, in spite the explicit cynicism, the alibi of the conceptual game consisted in that the appropriation and reiteration of the objectified image ended up revealing the true being of its condition, namely: its turning into merchandise.
In relation to the ready-made procedure, the important German aesthete Boris Groys has suggested that with its historic irruption there occurs a displacement of the act of artistic creation from the ways of traditional production (from which the rest of the avant-garde –isms do not escape) to a process tending to the selection and manipulation of what already exists (what is prefabricated).5 As is well-known, this basic procedure is used until its logical conclusion by the art that acquires dominance in the last century, starting from the sixties –which we call today postmodern art.
In the horizon of this productive logic –which is undoubtedly an epochal condition–, R10 operates by means of the selection of visual information that goes around in the cultural sphere, or that is available in culture’s symbolic warehouses (all kinds of signs, styles, aesthetics, etc.), and he turns them into signs belonging to another system: the system he himself creates by manipulating the recycled information with design tools (herein lies the pointed-out distance from traditional Pop Art). This creative process results in a new message-structure, which generates a communication process, at which the receiver is required to look twice, both inside and outside the artistic message. Towards the inside, because these signs manipulated by the artist, when entering new relations, get new meanings and acquire different connotations; and towards the outside, because that information which has been expropriated form its original significance contexts, when integrated into the new communicative structure, depends on its initial signified substance to make sense, and that is why it demands to be read also in relation to that original system. That double articulation while looking is induced by the creator, but it ends up being the receivers’ responsibility: it depends on their cleverness to trigger the intellectual effort capable of putting the system (artwork) into movement and filling it with meaning.”
However, I do not think it productive to question at this stage the origin of the symbolic raw material that may be worked with, or the final appearance of the visual outcome of this kind of creative process in terms of dichotomies that do not favor us at all between a peripheral aesthetic and another one from the developed West; between the needs of the local culture and a supposed Europeanizing aesthetics, etc., etc. Are we or are we not part of a cultural dynamics that has been transnational for quite a while now, one in which information circulates in a multidirectional way? Are there not today global problems caused by local needs? And are there not local problems caused by global processes? Are we not living in a cultural tangle, which is both local and global at the same time? As long as the aesthetic remake is capable of condensing a solid concept and is not reduced to some mere and empty intertextual gloating, there will be a cognitive gain over our historical context-present (since it is created and understood from and for the present), along with the pleasure prompted by the effort of holding talks with the potentiality of meaning, which all text with artistic aspirations should be. I think the simulacrum-posters by R10 are a good example of this.
The series he is developing right now (Ay que delicia…Doña Oh! (What a delight… Ma’am!), which must already be public knowledge by the time this text is published), will not only reassert all that has been pointed out before, it will also confirm that Jorge has not been playing, nor flirting with ‘the art business,’ nor indulging himself with a whim to give expression to his artistic or creative impulses outside the limits of commissions, to return then relieved to the security of his trade as a designer. Ay que delicia…Doña will not let anyone6 doubt that the irruption of R10’s signature in the exhibition sites of Cuban art is quite serious. In parallel to his successful career as a graphic designer, Jorge keeps making progress with rigor, with solid, well-calculated (designproof) steps, towards the consolidation of a creative method that begins to distinguish him as one of the most original and noteworthy artists of Cuban plastic arts right this minute.
In this new series, the object of recycling is the Cuban commercial advertising of the fifties. Jorge turns to a new visual style that is practically unknown to the post-Revolution generations –a visual style that constitutes the tropical version of the aesthetics of abundance in the postwar period that the United States exports. R10’s recycled posters abound in beautiful, very slender, smiling, provocative, sensual women; it is the world of glamour, pleasure, hedonism and full satisfaction, but all of this is seasoned with very autochthonous ingredients like cunning, flirting, ambivalence and a certain callow-people naivety. However, I think the intention is not parodic this time; here the appropriation is sustained by a much more complex and subtler intellectual operation than mere parody. How to make an aesthetic of the past speak about our historical present? Or rather, how to speak from an aesthetic of the past about certain peculiarities of the insular present? That is, to my mind, the creative challenge R10 has imposed upon himself in this series; and the outcome is encouraging.
These are beautiful, elegant artworks, with great visual cleanness, which invite a conceptual game based on a flirting of subtleties that is necessary to trace in the color, the backgrounds, the phrases, the gestures, all in all, in the entire sign textuality, which in some cases is still very minimalist. An example: there is an artwork in which Jorge uses the image of a beautiful young woman who gives away a smile of satisfaction while at the same time she is looking at a small rectangular artifact she holds in her right hand. Next to the object, he has placed a pink little stamp with the ad: double your credit for free. In the lower part of the oval enclosing the image of the young lady, he has written: Oh daddy.
Outside this sort of speculative vision, in the lower left corner, we see Cubacel’s logo, plus some recharge-from-abroad options. I will not fall into the egocentrism of articulating possible interpretative hypotheses this artwork incites us to; I give that pleasure to the readers who have not seen it yet. As well as this one (without ladies feeling excluded…):
She gives a side-glance; the lips, saturated with red, begin to show an orbital opening; the slender hand prowling near her mouth shows her nails off, also in red; it is the held up instant of a whisper: Do you like red, mi chino?7
1. Roman Jakobson, “Closing Statements: Linguistics and Poetics,” in Style in Language, ed. (Thomas A. Sebeok, 1960).
2. The linguistic explanation of the aesthetic function is brilliantly summarized by Jakobson in the following sentence: «The poetic (aesthetic) function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection to the axis of combination.» Roman Jakobson: cited work, 350-377. In this essay, it is not possible for space reasons to go into this aspect in any more depth; but this semiotic conceptualization on the specificity of the art phenomenon from a communicative perspective has its origin in Russian formalism and Czech structuralism, finding a more sophisticated continuation in the structural semiotics of Umberto Eco. A systematization of these questions can be consulted in Hamlet Fernández: “Fundamentos para una teoría de la recepción de las prácticas artísticas posmodernas” (Fundamentals for a theory of reception of postmodern artistic practices), (Degree thesis, Arts Faculty, University of Havana, 2008).
3. (Literally, “a Chinese story” which is Spanish for a cock-and-bull story).
4. Jorge Rodríguez Diez (R10) and Adriana Arronte, “Temporada de caza (Hunting Season) and Los pasos perdidos (The Lost Steps),” SinBolos (Catalogue, Havana: Lloyd’s Register, 2011).
5. Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism (Princeton, N.J.: Oxford, Princeton University Press, 1992).
6. Not even the most suspicious ones, or those whose heads still spin over that way of thinking in which it is not possible to reach the “privileged” scene of art unless one goes through the established channels.
7. Literally ‘my Chinese man’: a term of endearment in Cuba.