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  • Interview with Milton Glaser: Designing Light

     The alarms have already been sounded and the authorities are ready for flaring tensions during the Republican National Convention in New York City. Not all of the preparations target the anticipated demonstrations. There are news reports that terrorists plan to attack the massive gathering. Despite the warning from the Department of Homeland Security, demonstrators appear unwilling to cede their right to redress. So, the question is, How can legitimate disapproval and valid security concerns be balanced? Perhaps this is a job for Design (with a capital “D”). Milton Glaser’s “Light Up the Sky” acknowledges the Republican’s right to a peaceful convention and the opposition’s right to express their concerns in public. In this interview he discusses the rationale for the following proposal: 

    Poster for Light Up the Sky, by Milton Glaser.

    The Republicans have every right to meet and choose their candidate in our city without abuse. At the same time, the convention creates an opportunity for all of us who disagree with the culture of militarization and violence that our current leaders represent. It is time to change the mean spirited and abrasive tone of our civic discourse. We need an alternative to the harsh and degrading words and images that have filled our consciousness since the war began.

    An alternative response that requires no permit

    On August 30, from dusk to dawn, all citizens who wish to end the Bush presidency can use light as our metaphor. We can gather informally all over the city with candles, flashlights and plastic wands to silently express our sorrow over all the innocent deaths the war has caused. We can gather in groups or march in silence. No confrontation and. above all, no violence, which will only convince the undecided electorate to vote for Bush. Not a word needs to be spoken. The entire world will understand our message. Those of us who live here in rooms with windows on the street can keep our lights on through the night. Imagine, it's 2 or 3 in the morning and our city is ablaze with a silent and overwhelming rebuke... Light transforms darkness.

    Heller: What inspired you to design the lights project? 

    Glaser: I was thinking about how dreadful the city was going to be during the convention, the rage, the acrimony, the police beating people over the head - in short, all of the dreadful images that would be produced by the confrontation. I thought there must be a better way to deal with the anger and passion that people now feel. What was needed was a solution that would not create civic disorder.

    Heller: Within weeks after the 9/11 attack a New York public arts organization, Creative Time, launched its two twin towers of light spectacle as a testament to the victims. Is there a relationship between your light project and this? 

    Glaser: The image of light may have been, in part, stimulated by that brilliant twin towers of light project. But the idea of light transforming darkness is a long recurring theme in civilization.

    Heller: Given the planned demonstrations and terrorist alerts how do you think that your lights concept will impact the political discourse? 

    Glaser: The benefit of the light imagery is its simplicity and avoidance of conflict. I have no idea of its effect on political discourse.

    Heller: I understand that this proposal is an effort to thwart conflict, but do you envision any other effects, good or bad? 

    Glaser: The viciousness of political rhetoric must be lowered. The first group to do this will help create a climate of decency and good will.

    Heller: Presidential conventions have long been rallying events for the faithful, but we know from the riots at 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago that they can also have an impact on the average voter. Should the protests turn nasty at this convention would it have a negative impact on the rest of the nation? 

    Glaser: Yes.

    Heller: Former Mayor Edward Koch has recently become the poster boy for a televised campaign encouraging New Yorkers to be courteous, kind, and helpful to the city's Republican guests. How do you feel about these overtures? 

    Glaser: My instinct is to treat the Republican convention with benign neglect.

    Heller: The constitutional guarantee to stage non-violent protest is, of course, a good entitlement. But you obviously have qualms. 

    Glaser: I’m all in favor of non-violent protest having participated in more than a few in my lifetime. But when you have tens of thousands of people pressing up against police lines, violence becomes inevitable and ultimately counterproductive. Although people want to express their deep feelings about the political situation, what must be considered is the question of how their objectives can be realized most effectively. Rage encourages rage. Contempt encourages contempt.

    Heller: Can light (and seeing the light) really change minds? 

    Glaser: I don’t know if light can really change minds. What are our other choices?

    About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more. www.hellerbooks.com
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