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August 24, 2021

The importance of Aesthetics | Transform Drugs UK | MFA Sculpture ’22 | Zibby Jahns

by Zibby Jahns

As I’ve continued to explore new visual ways to focusing on systems of harm and harm reduction, I’ve been frustrated with the reality that I don’t aesthetically like the work I’ve been doing. Is that important? The efficacy of an image doesn’t exist solely in its concept. It also has to wrangle the viewer, give them a feeling. The feeling of stigmatizing imagery is what so often makes it problematic, as I’ve delved into in previous posts. Stripping the feeling can strip the moralizing factor, but does it do the work that successful design does? How to elicit interest in a text with an image that doesn’t play on heart strings or preconceived notions? And how to still be attracted to the image?

The emotional impact of sculptural collage as demonstrated by Najeebah Al-Ghadban
Re-representing history through collage of its artificacts, rendered by Mike McQuade

I have been researching design that I like–even if it has nothing to do with drug use or harm reduction– to build some groundwork for an aesthetic I would like to play with in these illustrations. I have also been researching previous successful harm reduction campaigns and their stellar graphics (particularly in the realm of the AIDS crisis) as well as anti-drug (from reefer madness to acid house) and satanic panic design that wasn’t successful–i.e. Its inadvertent coolness and irony fed into drug culture. 

Act Up’s campaign (these images from 1989) around the AIDS epidemic spoke to systemic priorities instead of on stigmatizing imagery and striking, simple, boldness to get its messages across.

Lara Ann Frazier’s Info Graphics about the overdose epidemic use soft and warm watercolor palettes to deliver cold, hard facts.
These anti-drug campaigns deeply appeal to counter-culture aesthetic, making them ironic candidates for t-shirt designs.

These campaigns are all essentially about a lack of trust in the youth as opposed to transparency about systems of control. In his new book, This is Your Mind on Plants, Michael Pollan looks at how legality around psychoactive plants ultimately boils down to whether or not they serve the capitalist project. Caffeine is nearly institutional while mind-expansive chemicals that undermine productivity are classified as a schedule 1 drug. The ridiculous “Satanic panic” followed a similar thread: it perceived youth who listened to subcultural music –which spouts a distrust in systems of governance– as dangerous or in danger, succumbing to the seduction of Satan. Our country has a long history of intertwining its objectives with Christian morality, and this was no exception.

The fear-mongering marketing schemes against such subcultural movements were mocked and re-appropriated by drug users and underground music fans. The past few decades have been saturated with imagery appropriated from subcultures and then mass marketed to the benefit of corporations. There is some poetic justice to the kitsch delight anti-drug campaigns return to these overly-mined subcultures. Can these images also invigorate an interest in decriminalization outside of subculture?

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