"Un Mundo Mejor Es Posible"
(International Council of Graphic Design Associations)
World Design Congress | October 20-26, 2007, Havana, Cuba
Print magazine, April 2008
"A BETTER WORLD IS POSSIBLE." Those words and the faces of three handsome young revolutionaries of 50 years ago -- Camilo Cienfuegos, who fought alongside Fidel, Communist party founder Julio Antonio Mella, Ché Guevara -- greeted the delegates every morning as their buses rounded the bend approaching El Palacio de Convenciones de La Habana. There, in a hot, rainy late October, 550 designers from 67 countries gathered to learn, network, and experience a bit of life in Cuba.
For me, "Un mundo mejor es posible" came to symbolize everything that the 42 conference speakers showed that they have been doing to improve the world, including breaking down cultural barriers, helping people in third-world countries heal their war wounds, and making technology more accessible. As the week progressed and the chasm between being a privileged visitor and struggling local citizen sharpened into focus, "Un mundo mejor" also became a question: are Cuba's 11 million people needlessly suffering under a system that robs them of basic freedoms and necessities? And how much of their suffering is caused by the U.S. embargo?
No one came to Havana on a whim. Attending this conference took advance planning and up to two days of travel. Many of the 80 U.S. attendees chose to take the "legal" route; instead of coming in through Canada or Mexico, we spent weeks doing paperwork to get travel licenses from the Treasury Department, in my case as a freelance journalist, now eligible to board the bumpy charter from Miami. For most of us, this was a first-time, if not once-in-a-lifetime, experience. We were excited. And prepared -- for almost everything but the onslaught of anti-Bush, anti-American billboards that greeted us on the way from the airport to our hotels. I don't like him either, I thought upon seeing the first of many billboards in which Bush morphs into Hitler, but this is crazy. "Wow. We knew they didn't like us, but never expected this," said my seatmate, Joi Roberts, director of experience design at Motorola in Chicago.
After struggling through the confusion at the registration office, I arrived at the congress in time for lots of animated meeting and greeting at Saturday evening's opening party and exhibition of Cuban designer Eduardo Muñoz Bach's cinema posters at the elegant El Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Clearly, this was a joyful reunion of designers from all over the globe who'd last met in Copenhagen or Toronto (or in my case São Paulo) and were delighted to see each other in a new and extraordinary place, as well as to celebrate the accomplishments of an artist who deserved to be better known.
The next morning, after a bus ride that revealed the heartbreaking condition of much of the city's once-glorious architecture, I slipped into the two-day education conference just as Canadian designer and Icograda board member David Berman was saying: "I truly believe that we designers, more than any other profession, hold the future in our hands." If the presentations on such topics as "Social Responsibility and Sustainable Practices in Curriculum Development" and "The Relationship of Ethnography and Anthropology to Design" indicate what faculty and students are doing -- such as helping Mexican farmers of Mayan descent market their produce -- design will be playing a bigger role in global economic and social change. The speakers also helped illuminate some of Cuba's contradictions, such as the dual currency system. University of Michigan anthropology professor Adan Quan, in the course of describing "the modern other" and "globopolitans," noted that the average Cuban makes 264 pesos, the equivalent of 11 CUC (convertible pesos, the tourist currency, or about U.S. $12.50) a month. That's considerably less than what it cost us for a taxi ride and a not-very-good meal. (Don't come to Cuba expecting the luscious cuisine of stateside Cuban restaurants; there are severe food shortages.)
Cuba struggles with infrastructure problems and so did the conference. There was no signage, confusion about venues and transportation, missing moderators, and multiple changes to the one-page, badly photocopied program. Speakers were allowed to ramble on and few sessions started on time. Delegates who expected wi-fi, cellphone service, cash machines, and newsstands were in for a disappointment. We experienced a blackout and a flood that made the roads impassible. But most attendees took it all in stride, even reveled in the opportunity to turn back the clock. We were there, and thrilled to have the opportunity to connect with each other -- away from the technology that usually consumes our lives -- meet 50 Cuban designers, and experience the local music and culture. That included hanging out at the malecon, the sea wall, drinking and talking. "Most conferences are way too slick," commented a delegate from Australia. On the first night I talked well into the night with colleagues from Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, France, Korea, Mexico, and South Africa. "This is what it's all about," said former Icograda president Rob Peters, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, raising his glass to all the cultural diversity at the table.
Highlights of the three-day "Design/Culture" professional conference included:
– The keynote by Paola Antonelli, Italian-born design curator of New York's Museum of Modern Art, in which she called design "the highest expression of human creativity" and previewed an upcoming MoMA exhibition, "Design and the Elastic Mind."
– Three talks on "place branding": Russell Kennedy of Australia on incorporating indigenous art motifs into his country's graphic identity; Wally Olins of the U.K. on projects for Spain and Poland (the only presentation I've ever seen that seemed to be designed for heads of state); and incoming Icograda president Don Ryun Chang on images of "Seoulness" for Korea. Is the big story that every country is getting its own brand?
– Paula Scher's presentation on New York's architecture and typography, which showed how identity can authentically come from place. When the AIGA joined Icograda two years ago I wondered if the American star system would change this organization, which is based on ideas, not personalities. Not to worry. Paula energized the audience with the brilliance of her work and her clear, non-academic thinking. Everybody's cameras were up, snapping pictures of her work.
– Shigeo Fukuda of Japan, another crowd-pleaser, who showed a lifetime of posters, murals, and sculpture. His presentation went on until people's stomachs were growling, even for the mystery-meat sandwiches we were getting for lunch. No importaba. Juan de la Rosa, professor at the Universidad Nacional de Bogotá, explained, "Fukuda opens your mind, moves your guts, changes your work."
– Ahn-Sang Soo's demonstration of modular Korean typefaces that he hopes will "free Korea from the prison of the Chinese aesthetic." Describing his fonts as universally appreciated by designers but illegible to most Koreans, he's working to change the way his country reads and writes.
– Alan Jacobson of Philadelphia, former SEGD board member, on how he and other volunteers helped a village in Rwanda honor their war dead. Looking at his pictures of children and community elders working together to define a sacred space, paint murals, dig a crypt, and orchestrate a memorial service, I found tears running down my face. There was hardly a dry eye in the house.
Social events included an open house at the Instituto Superior de Diseño Industrial, with tours of student work and swimwear fashion show; "Taiwan Night" at a luxurious beachfront villa that gave us a taste of what pre-Revolutionary life might have been like for the bourgeoisie; and a museum dinner with entertainment hosted by the large delegation from Beijing, where the 2009 Congress will be held. There were live salsa and son bands at every event; the music was saucy and upbeat, if not quite up to the expectations raised by the Buena Vista Social Club.
After an inspirational presentation of international protest and peace posters collected by Victor Casáus of the Cuban design organization Prográfica, the conference nearly ended on a bitter note. The farewell, by Cuban vice minister of culture Fernando Rojas, turned into an angry political speech: "Due to the consequence of U.S. domination we are living with material deprivation. We have to face an oppressor, a great power, which is planning genocide against the Cuban people." He told us that Bush had just announced that Cuba would be 'liberated' by the U.S. Army. Was that true? What to do, and whose side to be on? Outgoing Icograda president Jacques Lange of South Africa elegantly defused the incident by presenting the minister with six white roses, each symbolizing one continent represented at the conference. (I later learned that Bush's speech was about promised aid to Cuba, should its government change).
Planning genocide? Could such a confusing moment been the result of mistranslation? Although delegates spoke everything from Afrikaans to Swedish, English is the new Esperanto, and most of us relied on English provided by translators supplied by the Cuban government. I tried to listen to the Spanish speakers without the aid of my headset but got pretty lost after the social niceties. The cultural differences between Latin American and American English styles of expression were striking; perhaps Latinos find us gringos curt and abrupt, while their language seemed formal, flowery, circuitous. Did every sentence have to start with, "Sin embargo, la misma también" (thus, even though, however, at the same time)? Yes, and the audience was patient with every speaker, from every country, including those who seemed not to understand the concept of "time limit." After all, we were there to celebrate cultural diversity and willing to forego plans for, say, a late afternoon swim.
While 110 delegates from various international design associations spent the next two days at the Icograda General Assembly ratifying amendments and electing a new executive board, I explored the city. I spent a morning at El Museo de la Revolución viewing Fidel and Ché's war maps, guns, teletype machines, and bloody shirts, then I left spiffed-up Habana Vieja and walked through the crumbling streets of Centro Habana, where people begged me to buy milk for their babies and called out things like, "Quiero su camera." My weekly Spanish lessons had paid off, but I wished that I had more to give, and hoped that at least some of the cash all of us spent on rooms, taxis, meals, and drinks would find its way back to the people. My little digital camera, which wasn't of interest even in the alleyways of China, was seen, I think, as something that could be traded for food on the black market. I almost lost it to a band of young boys. Would they be beneficiaries of the "One Laptop Per Child" program we'd heard about the day before?
The streets of Centro Habana looked like an after-the-war-is-over scene from an old movie: people spending their day trying to put a little food in their mouths. Were the neighborhoods where the most desperate people live clustered so close to the tourist area in order to make a point? What came across, however, was not that the conditions were caused by an evil foreign oppressor; it was that the glorious Revolution, so miraculous in 1959, had not been a long-term success. Or perhaps it had been successful in the sense of social equality; everyone is equally poor. A woman bought a slice of cake from a street vendor, and 20 people stood around staring hungrily at the treasure cupped in her hands.
Like other delegates who'd been using their limited free time to take pictures, I was finally able to get up close and photograph the rusting wrought-iron work and hand-painted tiles, now chipped and faded. Photos all of us had seen in books didn't subdue our visceral reactions to the condition of the building façades, especially those near the sea wall, where relentlessly pounding saltwater waves have compounded the effects of 50 years of neglect. "In ruins," is how local photographer and designer Pepe Menéndez, who's been documenting the city's architectural typography, described Havana in a presentation entitled "Walking the City I Live In." And yet, he said, he doesn't want to leave. The well known Cuban designer Santiago Pujol, who's taught communication design and run a studio for many years, told me the same thing: "I worked in Europe for a while and cried every day, I missed my country and family so much," he said.
There's a risk that any words I use to describe the Cuban people I met -- through the conference, at the hotel, on the streets, or at events like the drum lesson I arranged with local musicians -- might sound patronizing. But I'll use them anyway. They are: warm, proud, talented, joyful, patriotic, hopeful, affectionate, eager to talk -- as much as they can within a political environment that restricts their access to news as well as to the places where foreigners stay -- and apparently monitors their activities via surveillance cameras. It's a calling-out culture -- !Creo que sí! -- but people have to be careful about whom and what they can call. For me, the most poignant exhibit in El Museo de la Revolución was a 1961 8 x 10 glossy of people playing volleyball and relaxing on the sand at one of the beachfront hotels. The caption read: "After the triumph of the Revolution, recreational facilities such as these were taken away from the bourgeoisie and given to the workers for the enjoyment of their free time, su tiempo libre. However, Cubans, unless employed there, by law are not allowed to enter the hotels.
Since the conference, I've become a Cuba junkie, reading as much as I can about this island country where I left a chunk of my heart. How much is the embargo responsible for the economic conditions? Why have even our most liberal presidents and administrations supported and even tightened the embargo? On an island with some of the world's most fertile soil, why can't Cubans grow enough food to feed themselves? Cuba is five times the size of Israel, where the tables are loaded with fresh produce and there's plenty left over for export. Here is a country in which even the visitors to whom special hospitality is extended subsist on meager portions of rice, potatoes, cabbage, coarse white bread, a little meat, a little fruit; the same ingredients sliced and diced in different ways at every meal. The food in the conference cafeteria, hotel buffets, and expensive restaurants was equally terrible. The Cubans receive so much less: ration coupons for ½ lb. of fish, 1 lb. each of chicken and ground meat, 3 lbs. each of rice, beans and sugar, and a bottle of cooking oil -- a month. Children get a quart of milk a week. Fruit and vegetables must be bought from their wages, and a papaya costs a day's salary. Is it true that the culprit is Communism itself, as a few experts I consulted suggested? Under the collective farming system, sugar is grown for export and there's little land for grains, vegetables and fruit, nor any incentive to grow them.
And what about the social services that Cuba is known for? Is the free health care dispensed as depicted in Michael Moore's "Sicko," or are the hospitals crowded, dirty, and always running out of supplies, as the woman who works in the business center at my hotel, whose two daughters are doctors, told me? Why do I tend to believe her, and not Moore? She said she barely makes enough money to get to work in a decrepit bus (not like the shiny new motor coaches reserved for Icograda delegates and tour groups from Russia and China), to keep her uniform clean and pressed, to pay for her lunches at the hotel, and to turn on a light in her apartment when she gets home late in the evening. Indeed, one striking thing about Havana is that no one seems to be home at night; they are, though, sharing small, crowded, dark flats, where electricity is rationed or too expensive to use. Paula Rees, a Seattle-based, much-awarded environmental graphic designer who attended several meetings at the offices and homes of Cuban colleagues, characterized the living and working quarters as "claustrophobic, both physically and psychologically." David Grossman, a past Icograda president and chairman of Israel's leading university graphic design department, conjectured, "Sadly, the 50-year-old Buicks have aged better than the Revolution. Cubans are lucky that they have a good climate and nice beaches. Without those moderating influences they would have rebelled long ago."
Vivian Cheng Wai Kwan of the Hong Kong Design Institute, one of the delegates openly frustrated by the general lack of efficiency, later sent me this e-mail message: "Although I was not satisfied with their service performance, Cuban people are really cheerful, and I believe there is something that we could learn from them, perhaps the way to see life." I think it's safe to say that everyone who attended this conference was touched to the core and changed in ways far deeper than how they'll design their next poster. Maybe some of us even learned a new way to see life. Josephine Kabalan, a Lebanese designer working in London, summed up: "The conference wasn't really about the content but the opportunities to be here and to connect. "We can see everyone's work online," she said, "but being here was a whole amazing experience."
I flew from Havana to Mexico City, where the flash in the airport of all the operable cellphones and PDAs, cash machines, advertising, consumer goods, newsstands and cafes, came as a shock. I settled down to a delicious meal with friends, called home, and pondered things I may never understand: Mexico has far more than its fair share of poverty, but is there also more hope in a society with more freedom and more tantalizing choices? And was David Berman correct when he said that designers, more than members of any other profession, hold the future in our hands? Surely we have the ability to use words and images to create media that inform people and change minds. I pray that we also have the power to get our messages out there -- out there to audiences other then ourselves at our own conferences.
Photo: Leslie Ernst.
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