In the book Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, the French philosopher Jacques Rancière writes, “critical art is an art that aims to produce a new perception of the world, and therefore to create a commitment to its transformation. This schema, very simple in appearance, is actually the conjunction of three processes: first, the production of a sensory form of ‘strangeness’; second, the development of an awareness of the reason for that strangeness and third, a mobilization of individuals as a result of that awareness.” I’ve always thought Double Dagger’s music is an act of critical art. Would you consider your music and artworks critical in a way? Do you expect to activate awareness or mobilization of individuals through your music?
Bruce Willen: We’ve always been pretty self-aware of the way that we approach music, songwriting, and performance, to the extent of knowing that you’re not going to change the world by writing a punk song. Maybe in the ‘70s or ‘80s there was a little more of that feeling. We also understand there’s only so much influence you can have. But at the same time, with Nolen’s lyrics and the performances, we’re trying to get people engaged with social and political stuff—that cultural stuff which is happening around all of us.
Denny Bowen: Especially in the performance aspect of it, Nolen acted as the critical arm of the whole operation, very confrontational, putting himself in the middle of situations or getting in people’s faces—especially right around the time when I joined the band, where that seemed like a very unpopular thing to do, to insert yourself into the crowd or do something that is confrontational. But being slightly younger than Bruce and Nolen, it felt good to feel more of a purpose to being in a band than just having cool songs. I think there was a reason for every song that we had written. A lot of it was, early on, graphic design-based, which isn’t my field, but I understood that these were things that have an effect beyond just the graphic design and art world. It’s everywhere. It affects everybody’s lives. It was exciting for me to know that we existed at least as a vocal counterpoint in some capacity.
Nolen Strals: I don’t think I would ever write something thinking, “oh, this is what’s going to kickstart some action.” It was more, “these are things I’m feeling and I care about and that people who are close to me care about, and this is something that I want to amplify.” If that does spur some action, that’s great, but hopefully it just helps the listener feel like they’re not the only one who feels this. It would be great if something that I wrote could inspire someone to take action, but I don’t delude myself into thinking that it will. Through all the years of being with the band, some of the most meaningful moments for me came from when strangers in other cities, or even here, would come up to me to thank me for something that I’ve written, because it helps them to work through something or to figure out how to express something that they were feeling, whether it was political or personal.
Jaddie: Graphic design plays a massive role and influence in the digital era, and in The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z, Rand writes that “capitalism could not survive in a culture dominated by mysticism and altruism, by the soul-body dichotomy and the tribal premise.” That means capitalism encourages production and profit, being prosperous, independent, confident, and active. And it’s guided by social, economic, and political justice; it does not allow anyone to demand to have anything that was not fairly earned in the first place. Based on her theory, it seems extremely difficult to ask clients to consider the impact and influence of their product on society or the environment, and it compels graphic designers into ethically dubious pathways that are tough to deviate from. Do you think there is a way to escape from capitalism?
Bruce Willen: I think a lot of art-making happens in a pretty ethically gray area, whether or not people recognize it. I have been feeling a little burned out on graphic design for that specific reason. I think graphic design is very much a tool for selling stuff, but also for me it’s a communication tool essentially. It’s primarily being used in our society to promote, market, and sell things that, at best, are not necessary and, at worst, harmful. I’m diving into the weeds a little bit with this, but there’s been this real incorporation of behavioral science into design and marketing with the motivation of trying to influence people through design and art, and trying to use visuals, whether it’s music or design, to tap into people’s identity and make it feel like, “I need to do this thing,” or “I’m buying this thing to self-actualize.” We obviously don’t think that way when we’re doing it, but we’re getting these little rewards, and it’s tough breaking out of that cycle. I think that the focus should be, if you’re a designer or a communicator, using your skills to build community or do something that is not solely focused on selling something.
Denny Bowen: Something that I’ve noticed, to tie back to social media or technology, is that a lot of design work is now wrapped up, like Bruce has mentioned, on getting people to click on things faster, getting the quickest sensory response. It’s even gone into people designing YouTube thumbnails. That’s a service, which is very bizarre because it’s funneling everything a particular way. I always thought that there were inherent flaws with things, where you’re not supposed to acknowledge altruism as a valid human emotion but you can operate based on the concept of individualism or self-determination—but if you’re self-determined to be altruistic then it doesn’t make any sense. Whatever flaws there are with that, we’ve basically speed-run that for decades now. I can’t speak as someone who’s worked in the field of design but there are points when you’re observing things and you are aware that they’ve been constructed in a way that’s to encourage consumerism only. That’s the only end result. It’s not to communicate anything other than the transactional process of interacting with or buying a product—a means of gaining profit.
I think one thing that’s helpful is that people are becoming more design-savvy now, but one side of that is that people are using design in a very insidious way to exploit people, to get them to buy shit they don’t need. The flip side of that is people are also learning more about when they’re being manipulated. And hopefully when people become more savvy to advertising, communication, and design marketing, they’ll develop a resistance.