Wipe Out
by Joel Matheson

AustraliaQueensland College of Art, Griffith University
Published online
October 15, 2014

In this assignment students map an issue they want to explore, anything from the intimately personal to the social. The map must be typographic in nature, and the role of metaphor as a tool for understanding and engagement must be considered. Tutor: Jason Grant

With Wipe Out Joel has mapped surfing’s regression from a radically independent counterculture to a market-led globalised trend. He also reflects on his own cultural identity, interviewing surf culture participants to present an equally subjective and objective portrait.

Referencing Dick Hebdige’s 1979 critique of British, working class youth, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Joel argues that surfing has followed a typical trajectory; beginning as a symbolic form of resistance, and eventually extinguished as the dominant culture contains its subversion through assimilation and commodification.

He has produced a series of T-shirts to codify surfing’s themes and commercial development in each decade since its popularity boomed in 60′s Australia.

The decades’ broad cultural shifts are portrayed on shirt fronts, with a pastiche of fashionable graphic and typographic cliches from each period presenting a relevant interview statement – from the naivety of nostalgic hand drawn lettering in the early decades, to digitally forged type culminating in the “Perfect Storm” of overwhelming corporate forces (“…becoming a normalised part of mainstream culture”).

On the shirt backs, the synoptic chart (weather diagrams surfers can use to predict waves) is applied as a metaphor for change and direction over time, showing both an increase in air pressure, indicating big swell (good waves) but also, symbolically, erosion of subculture and the series of cultural events leading to this “Perfect Storm”.

Lines of interview text are rendered as isobars showing “surfing’s proportion of influence in society”. Coded symbols interact to articulate surfing’s strength as a subculture, its general popularity, and degree of commercialisation.

The project has been conceived as an installation or performance, depending on whether the shirts are worn (walking single file in chronological order slowly down the beach?), or displayed as surf-shop merchandise.

  1. Guest comment
    by Anne Elizabeth Moore

    T-shirts, of course, are the most mass market of mass market products, and as a form they will always perform the logic of marketability, even if the content seeks to question it. (In fact, some of the most successful t-shirts in history do so, underscoring the inherent marketing value of problematising commercialisation.)

    It’s a tricky—if not impossible—feat, to critique marketability from the standpoint of the marketplace. Ultimately, Wipe Out can’t mount a substantial critique of the commercialisation of surf culture, but it is an interesting attempt; surfers, too, learn as much from wiping out gracefully as they do from successfully catching a wave.

    Even if the T-shirts are created in a limited edition, Wipe Out does reflect and participate in the inherent mass marketability of the form with its sequential installation, whether as objects or in performance. They are to be read as consumables, in other words; and if the “perfect storm” the series seeks to end on is a violent meeting of two equal forces, it is clear which one the project believes to be naturally superior to the other. This, too, is reflected in the creation of a logo for the project, a symbol that this project, however much it looks at, primarily participates in the market-based project of branding.

    As a typographic project, the design of Wipe Out is quite clever, referencing pop surf tropes over the decades of the lifestyle/sport’s emergence. The synoptic-chart conceit is sharp, although I don’t have a clear enough image of it—nor the intimate knowledge—to track its accuracy. This calls to mind questions of audience, which is also the primary issue raised by the project’s suffusion with market logic: who is the intended viewer of this project, and are they intended to purchase it? Consume it? To what degree is this project intended to instruct viewers on the history of a form they may already participate in, and to what degree must a potential consumer not already know surfing in order to truly appreciate the series? Is this project reflecting a subculture, in other words, in which the gradual acceptance of surfing as a mainstream activity had negative effects—if so, where are they?—, or is it only reflecting on how surfing became popular, for folks who like to do it? Is the viewer supposed to sympathise with the story arc here, or buy it, in a literal way, allowing the market logic questioned throughout the shirt series to prove its inherent superiority?

  1. Comment
    by Joel Matheson
    August 6, 2015

    First of all I would like to express my appreciation for your commentary, it is an honor to have your critical perspective. Your feedback helps motivate me to continue to learn and grow as a designer.

    As you say, there are areas of the project that seem to contradict my intent to critique a variety of issues regarding globalisation and commodification that have influenced and effectively re-scripted surf culture, therefore diluting its efficacy. I projected the map onto t-shirts – a material item with a history compromised by commerce. I wanted to use this clichéd object (something familiar to each period and a relevant piece of the cultural fabric) and to deface it in a way that mimics yet challenges its commonly accepted role. So at first glance, it seems just another ‘season’ or ‘line’ of apparel, yet on closer inspection it can interrogate that which defines it (its history, the industry etc). And I should have clarified that the shirts weren’t actually intended to be sold, rather exhibited as an installation or intervention.

    I agree that the creation of the logo has allowed the project to participate in the act of branding and therefore obstruct its agency as a critique against the commercialisation of culture. What I was trying to achieve here, though, was more of a ironic pun – reconfiguring the typical ‘care’ instructions to respond to the content (e.g. tumble dry low tide, do not beach…) as well as to further amplify context through time, replacing what usually would be the sizing of the shirt with each distinct decade (i.e. 1980, 1990 and so on).

    As much as the mapping exercise was meant as an investigation and deconstruction of culture, it was also very much an exploration of self. This brings into play your question: “who is the intended viewer of this project?” The ‘who’ for me was three key facets: The surf fashion industry; corporate surfing businesses; and the surfers themselves. As mentioned, this was intended as an equally subjective and objective outcome. I conducted personal interviews in order to show how individual experiences responded to the underlying theory (cultural shifts through time). In this way I hoped to achieve a more accurate and truthful mapping of culture, considering and consolidating both first hand experiences and historical documentation. As Dick Hedbidge notes in Subculture: The Meaning of Style, this formulates a “kind of conversation between the ages and movements”.

    I appreciate your use of the ‘wiped out’ metaphor – the idea that you learn by failing, and I can see this applied to certain dimensions of my project, however hopefully I also made a few ‘cutbacks’ towards a greater understanding of surfing culture, albeit there is still a lot to learn.

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