The Joseph Goebbels Project™ is an onion: The outside skin protects layer upon layer of meaning. Try to slice it up into something simple and digestible, and it might bring tears to your eyes.
At first glance, one sees the familiar components of many branded advertising campaigns: a logo, an image, and a familiar name—Joseph Goebbels. Most of us have heard of the infamous Nazi propagandist, but we probably don’t know his face. Look into this face on a poster and you see it composed of corporate logos instead of halftones. Closer yet and you see that the logos all belong to media giants and builders of the modern infosphere.
Detail from billboard. © 2005 Alexandar Macasev
If you have made it this far, artist and graphic designer Alexandar Macasev (mah CHA shev) has succeeded in his first objective as an advertiser—attracting and holding your attention long enough to see something interesting—maybe a little perplexing. The onion is now in your hand, wanting to be peeled.
So, what is the inference? That these corporations (Motorola, Internet Explorer, Disney, Apple, CNN, Windows) are evil? If this was Adbusters, that might be enough—a simple damnation; a sermon to the choir. This is not a niche magazine; but a full media assault: TV, radio, internet, postcards, billboards, and street posters—plastered as wallpaper—demanding you to notice. The Joseph Goebbels Project asks many questions, and offers few answers. This is where Macasev succeeds as an artist. The onion has many layers, and none of them are easy to peel.
If invoking the atrocities of the Third Reich were his only objective, it would have been much easier to use Hitler’s face; his intense eyes and cropped mustache are iconic enough. Macasev chose Goebbels as the star to put the focus on media consumption—not personalities. The Joseph Goebbels Project ran on the Streets of Belgrade during the BELEF Summer Art Festival of 2005. Macasev’s goal was to plant the seeds of doubt and a healthy questioning of media messages, and also to consider the vanishing boundaries between art, design and advertising by making an artwork out of a media campaign:
Sixty years after Goebbels, we find ourselves in a highly developed infosphere—the internet, twenty-four hour news, direct broadcasting, countless non-stop radio, TV and cable stations, mobile communications, etc.—which constantly barrages us (its intended recipients) with messages. There are ads for products, political programs or activist’s ideas, weather forecasts, information about terrorist actions or fashion trends. The overwhelming power of the media sometimes gets under our skin, but we nevertheless remain gluttonous recipients of the messages. Truth becomes completely irrelevant. We can freely say there is no truth. In the place of truth, we consume ideas from a huge marketplace of messages and narratives that we believe in without any immediate experience or judgment as to their truthfulness. As Goebbels might say today, “If you repeat the message frequently enough it becomes the truth”. From the above, we can derive the following Joseph Goebbels™ principles:Dueling billboards. © 2005 Alexandar Macasev
- There is no truth.
- All information is irrelevant.
- History and media messages are mere narratives.
- Truth is what you choose to believe.
Philosophy has been debating the essence of truth for thousands of years, so while these are not new concerns, Macasev found a way to frame the question in a contemporary and relevant manner. As the onion layers peel back, some interesting ironies are exposed:
Macasev had the unusual luxury of a client who gave him free reign over content and form. Without the City Council of Belgrade to support this project, it likely would not have been produced. The content is simply too strong, the commentary too controversial to be funded at the level necessary to be presented by a corporate sponsor. This ironically put Macasev in the position of propagandist—supported by the state, no less.
“Propaganda must be planned and executed by only one authority.” —Joseph GoebbelsPosters on the streets of Belgrade. © 2005 Alexandar Macasev
The fact that it was produced at all makes the Joseph Goebbels Project successful on a certain level: It found an audience. By using an advertising media mix, Macasev sidestepped the marginalizing effects of both art galleries and underground street art and brought it directly to the public. There were some vocal complaints during that Belgrade summer about not being able to escape Goebbels’ stern visage in the pursuit of summer’s frivolity.
Another layer is the contradiction of using this manipulator to create a message intended to help people respond to media in a positive way. Gauging the success of this effort is more problematic, but one thing is clear: Goebbels also had the effect of helping Macasev’s practice as an independent designer. By remaining faithful to his own vision of this project, he took a step forward as an artist. His courage was rewarded with a higher professional profile and more clients.
The strength of this work is its ability to raise questions through layers of ambiguities, without losing the original intent. Recently, Macasev was asked to help an anti-Bush campaign, which he obliged by adding a red capital “W” between Joseph and Goebbels. With that small edit, I fear he could be diluting the integrity of the original project with politics. Our current political and cultural climate surely needs its critics, but it also needs dialogue—exactly the kind that the original Joseph Goebbels Project still can provide.
I sliced up this onion, hoping it might reveal some kind of truth. All I found were more questions, and an uncomfortable irritation in my sinus. Are these tears real?
Somehow, I doubt it.
Alexander Macasev is a Serbian graphic designer and artist, macasev.com
Mark Notermann is a Seattle-based graphic designer. He thanks Marcela Vorel and the Seattle AIGA for bringing Macasev to the Henry Art Gallery to present his work on December 7, 2006.