Vivek Menon on the importance of using design to express cultural identity

Matter + Form

Vivek Menon, a London-based designer, approaches art as a process that requires distillation of meaning, research into reasoning and finally, creation. His most recent work has a dreamlike manner that comes from a desire to project the cinematic. He steers you through illusory journeys, where repeated scenes, plenty of panning and tactful zooming come at you in an instant. Menon has a firm grasp on what imagery has the power to make you think.

We caught up with him to discuss the melting pot that is design:

Vivek, where is home to you?

I am originally from Kerala, but based in Bangalore. I actually grew up in Dubai, and I shuttled between India and Dubai for most of my life. I definitely consider both places home.

How did you first become interested in design?

Drawing and painting were always something that came naturally to me, from the time I can remember. I was also lucky enough to grow up in environments that facilitated my development in art, both in school and at home. I never had any specific artists who influenced me, I was always more inspired by things like nature, and visual cultures of different cities.

How would you describe your aesthetic?

My aesthetic is quite fluid and usually emerges from the project themes. As a Graphic Designer I think each project demands to be branded and packaged differently and I enjoy the challenge of trying to come up with a new aesthetic each time. I do perhaps have certain concepts that I like to explore and I'm not afraid to borrow references from Indian culture as it just has such a rich visual vocabulary.

Can you explain the ideas behind your recent project Samsara?

One of my recent projects is called Samsara, which refers to the Eastern worldview of living many lives. This is in contrast to the Western belief of living only one life. This way of thinking generates a linear narrative structure that has a clear start, middle and end, which is the dominant narrative that is imposed on the world.

So for example, the western way of eating is starter, main course & dessert. Whereas the Eastern way of eating is in a thali, with all of it presented at once. In Hindi, the word 'kal' could mean yesterday and also tomorrow, so the east has always seen time as cyclical and not linear. This difference in perception of 'time' between the east and west manifests in many other spheres of life as well.

My friend and I were inspired by this idea and created a projection-based installation which presents all parts of the story at once. The frames are still at first, but then come to life only when the wheel starts to spin. This is a way of showcasing that the past, present and future are not mutually exclusive. This could be a new and unique way of telling stories, inspired by early animation devices, but presented using new digital technology.

The actual concentric circles also tell the story of an explorer trying to conquer a jungle, where they confront a lion. The lion is a metaphor for the British Empire, while the Jungle represents India. However eventually they learn to include this foreign environment as a part of their self. Our message is therefore one of inclusion and acceptance of differences.

What was the response among your peers?

The project was exhibited at my University, and the response was quite positive. People were drawn to it because it looked fascinating and was displayed for many to experience and discuss together, unlike other device-based digital experiences that only one person can experience at a time. As my university comprises students from all over the world, it was interesting to see students from Asia and Africa immediately find familiar themes in it that they could also relate to, while students and tutors from the west were quite open to discussing familiar topics using new models of thought. In fact, we had one tutor who said we were possibly too polite, considering the damage done through colonialism.

A project like that utilizes multiple mediums, which leads us to the question - do you see yourself as a designer or an artist?

I was trained during my undergrad at NID as a designer, and I think I still see myself as a designer producing work that is more utilitarian. Although, frankly, Samsara may have been bordering more on art than design I was strictly practicing as a Graphic and User Experience Designer. However my masters degree at the RCA has challenged that perception greatly. I have come to realize that art and design highly feed into each other, and they do not have to be so exclusive. Creative education in the west seems to recognize this and there is no expectation to conform to any strict discipline.

When you study things like performance art, you start to realize how say, User Experience Design is about designing the performative behavior of users. More designers need to be thinking like artists, and stay aware of the social and contextual implications of their work. Simultaneously artists can benefit from following a more research-driven design approach.

My intentions behind discussing decolonization are not to bring up the differences between the east and west and cause further divide, but instead to make us more aware of what makes us unique, so we may then consciously choose which aspects of the other to include in ourselves.

Decolonization and our understanding of it has been changing gradually over the last decade. What has been your personal experience, especially with Brexit potentially around the corner?

To be honest I had not given much thought to decolonization before going to the UK, where I found it to be a word that was discussed quite a lot. It struck me that as a former colony, we don't ever really bring up this topic enough in India, in spite of living with a kind of dual identity. Since the previous project however, I find myself constantly reading more about it and I plan on doing my final Graduation project on it as well. There is so much left to unpack that was not covered in Samsara. My intentions behind discussing decolonization are not to bring up the differences between the east and west and cause further divide, but instead to make us more aware of what makes us unique, so we may then consciously choose which aspects of the other to include in ourselves.

It's all about understanding ourselves better. I didn't realize how much my subconscious was shaped by western ideals until I moved to London and became more aware of it. We still somehow perceive certain western frameworks as aspirational, and they are invisibly embedded in our education and political systems. The clash between Indian and western narratives is then misunderstood as the clash between traditionalist and modern narrative structures, as if both cannot coexist.

You’ve worked and studied across two cities, how does that play into your work?

Traveling and living in many different countries has certainly influenced the way I think and work. I think the biggest takeaway is that there are many different ways of doing things, and it is dangerous to presume or expect a singular homogeneous framework of thinking. There are many different ways of doing things in all cultures and they are all equally valid, so long as they are not hurting anyone.

Do you think it’s important that art - in any form - sparks conversations or nudges the viewer to look at things in a new way?

There are many different purposes art can serve. It is often used as a reaction to a situation, to raise awareness or question something. Perhaps that's why Samsara ended up as an art piece, because linear narratives were something I became aware of and had the urge to challenge. The course I'm currently studying is about the future of storytelling and narratives as well, so we pushed ourselves to use a unique storytelling structure to tell this story.

Do you think your cultural identity has been accentuated since you’ve been away from home?

There is just a simplicity in our way of life, that you really start to appreciate when you live abroad. I began to assert my identity more and more in class, because I figured my way of thinking was very different from other students. You start to realize that you have so much to bring to the table, and people are quite responsive to new ways of making conversations more inclusive. Our identities and individual experiences are what make us interesting, and this is highly different for each person.

It was surprising to me that outside of India, people were more interested in how orality is an alternate form of transferring knowledge, and we just don't study it that way.

What do you think is lacking in the creative scene in India?

While contemporary visual design in India is surely seeing a trend of a quirky Indian aesthetic, there is a lack of critical inquiry beyond the aesthetic surface. For some reason, we just don't understand or acknowledge how sophisticated some of our creative practices are. Throughout Indian culture, we see examples of social organization in the absence of an organizer - our great epics don't have centralized authors, our classical music systems do not have orchestra conductors, our folk dances do not have choreographers or leaders... And we have for centuries known how to pass down knowledge orally. In fact, it was surprising to me that outside of India, people were more interested in how orality is an alternate form of transferring knowledge, and we just don't study it that way. These are not backward systems but highly complex decentralized narrative structures and need to be studied through that lens. I'm currently doing a lot more research in this area and do not want to give too much away.

Storytellers today also find themselves grappling with newer technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, augmented and virtual realities and Interactive film-making; All of which expect or have the potential to rethink traditional linear and deterministic forms of storytelling. This differs from traditional media such as books or films where the whole narrative is predefined by an author, and follow a classic start, middle and end structure. If we have always perceived time as non-linear, it gives us an opportunity to look inward for creative solutions.

What is your process of bringing an exhibition to life - from the idea to the execution stages?

Most communication design projects are about telling a story. This involves identifying who the story is for, and whose voice is being heard. In general every process is an iterative journey through research and ideating, making and testing. Once again, a linear process would imply that the project comes to an end and never touched again, but increasingly products are being viewed as processes where they are given a life beyond that fixed time period, and technology enables us to do so.

What tools are absolutely essential for your practice?

With technology constantly evolving, the only absolutely essential tools I use in every project are sketchbooks, post-its, and trust in the creative process. Everything else keeps changing.

Do you have any advice for artists who are looking to get into the industry?

Creativity is absolutely something that can be acquired, and you don't have to have specific per-existing skills to enter the industry. The most important thing is to make connections between unconnected subjects, and constantly reflect on everything you've learnt. You have to discover your own path, by assimilating your own experiences.

Lastly, when you’ve been burning the midnight oil, where do you recommend grabbing a bite to eat?

That depends on which city I am in, but as long as there's chai nearby I am good.


Images by Karthika Sakthivel and Vivek Menon Muralidhar.

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