One of the personal highlights of Dokufest this year was meeting up again with old friends, and making new ones. We had quite a few illustrious lights of nonfiction filmmaking there, James Longely, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Gary Tarn, Marshall Curry, Alex Nanau, Pietro Marcello, Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, etc., etc. And then there was Mirko Ilic, wildman and creative force. The guy is fly. And while not a filmmaker, Ilic knows all about the intense power of the image. Here is a "reprint" of the article I wrote for the DokuDaily during the fest after Ilic's talk there. (Fisnik, you're a prince among men.):
Yesterday afternoon [24 July] in Prizren’s Hammam Museum, the great designer, illustrator and thinker, Mirko Ilic, delivered a talk to a packed house of young designers and artists in a lecture entitled, “Design of Dissent.” The Bosnian-born 57-year-old runs a very successful three-person commercial design studio in New York City. He was introduced by Prishtina-based designer, Bardhi Haliti, and later in the post-lecture Q&A, Ilic expressed intense admiration for the young artist, in fact, calling him “heroic,” since Haliti had chosen to give up a successful career in New York to come back and work in Kosova.
In his hour-long talk, the charismatic Ilic spoke eloquently and powerfully (and quite humorously) about his own personal journey to discover the power of good design and how it can be used to socially and politically charge a populous to think about the world around them. And, in turn, protest and agitate for change. In speaking specifically of the challenges young Kosovars might face in building a career in the industry, Ilic presented a cautionary tale. Acknowledging that building a local vibrant economy in this young, burgeoning country is of utmost importance, he did mention that this is a designer’s great dilemma. For if someone works for a commercial entity, he or she will constantly have to push products and ideas, which have little to do with the culture in which he or she is living. It is a necessity to make a good living and build a sustainable career. However, it can also sound a death knell for an up-and-coming artist’s ability to constantly create and present a singular vision and body of work that has substance, heft and meaning. The age-old quandary of any creative in the face of a lucrative career is that that career will most certainly present an encounter with the ethics of design and advertising, which can be sticky. (Portrait of Ilic by Lindsay Isola.)
Ilic “deeply believes in laziness,” and feels that the “lazy” creative—one who, say, might think about things six hours of his or her work day and actually produce something for about two—will, in essence, produce much more profound and meaningful work than the designer who “works hard” in front of his or her computer for a solid eight hours or more, for “thinking is the most creative aspect of this business.” It is important to question why one is doing what one is doing for, historically, according to Ilic, “thinking has saved art.” And the ability to produce socially and/or politically motivated work requires time to think.
In speaking specifically of designers and artists working in oppressive regimes, Ilic compared the landscape of working in a controlled and censored regime, or system, versus working in a totally free environment like the one in which he works in the US where he can create anything he wants and put it out for public consumption with little or no risk to his personal safety. In systems of oppression, designers have had to learn to survive by mastering the subtle art of delivering the double message, becoming fluent in “double speak,” the encoded language that is hidden beneath the surface of a, seemingly, mundane symbol or image. “Any idiot can do work that will land him in jail.” It is the intelligent artist who will constantly dredge the depths of his or her creative vision to deliver a wallop subtly, and artfully, to his or her audience, in essence, saying to the client, “If you don’t trust me, I can always mess you up. Trust me, and everything will be transparent.” This takes risk and bravery from not only the artist, but also from the publisher of the work itself.
This led Ilic to talk about the importance of building a personal aesthetic, a personal vocabulary of protest through art, and protecting that at all costs. He, himself, shills for big, corporate clients with big, fat budgets, creating commercials and other design work to sell television shows and other products. However, he also constantly creates, self-publishes and self-distributes work that is not beholden to any paying client. He says, “It is important to do work that protects the rights of others in order to protect your own rights.” If artists can’t or won’t speak for the powerless, the oppressed, the imprisoned, the work is, indeed, meaningless. “In order to be a good subversive, you need brains and the bravery to use them cleverly and clearly.” Speaking specifically of gay rights, women’s rights, black rights, human rights, Ilic emphasized that “you must know your symbols to insult someone on purpose.” In other words, effective insult never comes “by accident.”
To wrap up his talk, Ilic shared an extended slide show of images that he has published in his seminal book co-created with Milton Glaser, The Design of Dissent, sharing the subversive work of artists from all over the world, work that could, and has, resulted in some serious trouble for its makers—imprisonment, expulsion from their homelands, and even, in some cases, death. The book consists of designs that risk, particularly in their use of symbols and imagery of protest about what is happening in the artists’ own culture or country, protest “from within.” An extension of this idea was addressed in the Q&A with the audience (many of whose comments Ilic summarily dismissed as naïve or misguided, urging people to go out and live a little and “then come back and tell me something worth knowing”).
“Change must happen here,” Ilic stated emphatically to the audience. For it’s all well and good, he says, for the very few who will get a chance to study abroad, or get opportunities to work outside their own country to build successful careers. But for those who will stay and build an articulate creative landscape in their own country, the imperative is to have the bravery and intelligence to make a difference in your own backyard.