Propaganda has a very negative reputation and people often consider it to be political. It's a pretty narrow definition. What do you think of it?
First of all I think that propaganda is a bit an obsolete term. It used to define dissemination of the ideas and information that are shaped in rather "incomplete" form, and in order to provoke very clear action, desire or a feeling. It was of course always clearly opposed to impartial and unbiased journalism.
In the context of media culture of the present day where you have an incredible informational glut and where everyone can be a reporter, a target person actually creates his own unique story by mixing and matching the myriad of offered pieces. And the story is not only about the recipient. It's also about the information emitter.
I think we could all agree that there is no such thing as an "objective truth" or "impartial journalism". Therefore, everything is propaganda. Every mediated form of communication is biased. At least when it comes to communicating "the truth". You often don't know what the real truth is and you definitely cannot claim that you are communicating the truth.
Things, of course, are not as simple as that. Propaganda as we knew it had a clear agenda behind it and it presented "the truth" in, let's say, modified way, if not totally false. If you say that propaganda is black and objective journalism is white I would say that the present state of mass-communication is in all shades of gray. The trap we used to fall into was that propaganda was often considered very obvious, preventing us to question objective journalism very much. What is more, we are always talking about news broadcasting. What about the transmission of knowledge and the school system? What about religion? Advertising? Or any other message transmission, for that matter. Every transmission is more or less damaged by noise that may be intentional or not, but it is always there.
We have a very interesting situation today because of the citizen journalism. I would like to quote a colleague of mine, Danica Radovanovic, whose expertise is social web:
And further on about Wikipedia as the contemporary vehicle for knowledge dissemination:
This proves that we moved on in democratization of distribution of information, but you still have editors who filter and arrange received material.
Joseph Goebbels™ art project was ignited by that a bit crudely put idea that everything is propaganda. I used the very means of mass communication that I was talking about to produce the work. The result was an advertising campaign that included billboards, posters, postcards, TV commercial, radio ad and a web site. A usual full-fledged media-mix used in so many advertising campaigns. In the beginning it was deliberately not marked as a work of art, because it would have lost its edge. When you walk into a gallery or approach something called "art", you are prepared and the message is already sterilized. This way I entered through the back door. It was like any other campaign you see in the streets where you are invited to see a movie, to buy a washing powder or vote for some political party.
Why Joseph Goebbels? First of all, you always need a very clear and recognizable carrier of your message. It could have been Edward Bernays, Gustave Le Bon or Chomsky, but not for the wider audience. Goebbels turned out to be the best choice to epitomize propaganda. On the other hand I wanted to cast somewhat different light to the usual villain-victim stereotype of the II World war. Joseph Goebbels was undoubtedly a war criminal, but going through his writing you cannot deny that propaganda principles are still very alive and kicking today. Centralism of the source, manipulation of the target's emotions, attention attraction, provocation of desire/anxiety and of course the famous statement that if you repeat the lie long enough it becomes the truth. That statement turned out to be apocryphal, by the way. According to historians he was referring to Winston Churchill.
For the sake of the project I devised some principles of my own:
1. There is no truth.
The message was quite clear. The face of Joseph Goebbels was made of logos of contemporary media companies. It doesn't matter which ones are included. I was referring to the entire media-sphere. Ergo, Joseph Goebbels is the father of contemporary media culture.
My aim was to provoke healthy skepticism towards messages transmitted by mass-media. General audience tends to believe everything they see on TV or read in the newspapers. That way you can literally sell whatever you want to almost anybody you want. Media skepticism is not a new thing but when you look closer there's only few people really challenge and question media messages.
Did you create this project only for BELEF 05 or is it a life time project? Who funded it?
First I tried to deal with Joseph Goebbels in my web art piece "Unstable Portrait of Joseph Goebbels" (www.kontrola.co.yu/goebbels). BELEF art festival in Belgrade was a great opportunity to expand the idea. The project was entirely funded by the city of Belgrade and the festival. To be honest I didn't expect it to be so vital. After almost 4 years the project is still alive in some form. I'm invited to give lectures, students are asking advice for their papers, a lot of people are still asking for posters, the project itself was printed in many publications throughout the world… Steven Heller did and interview with me for the AIGA journal and I even did a Joseph W Goebbels version for the Democratic party in Florida targeting George W Bush media. I try to follow all the activities of this project on it's blog www.joseph-goebbels-tm.blogspot.com.
It turned out that it could be a lifetime project, albeit it has already a life of its own. I just don't want to be remembered as "that Goebbels guy".
In your opinion, how important is the role of design when we talk about propaganda?
If we are talking about graphic design, it's a form of a communication, visual communication. And I think designers should bear that in mind. There's too much shallow embellishments and empty form. Adolf Loos somehow springs to mind. Ornament IS crime.
What make you go along with the way Adolf Loos's thinking? Related to your propaganda project, what is ornament for you?
A very important endnote: