Dutch “design think-tank agency”[1] Metahaven were commissioned by Brighton’s Lighthouse and The Space to create The Sprawl, a documentary film and visual installation exploring how messages are transmitted and decoded in the radically new reality fostered by the permeation of Internet communication. The documentary is overtly political, concerned largely with governmental and institutional propaganda, but its arguments map directly onto consideration of how all communication – state to citizen, person to person, brand to consumer – operates.

Seeing Everything

In the early days of the Internet, its latent possibility for enabling transparency and freedom of information and communication was seized upon by techno-utopian thinkers. They envisioned a society in which the ability for messages to be relayed to anyone, anywhere, at any time brought with it a concomitant expansion of liberty, democracy and personal agency. Of course, the communicative power of email, Twitter, Facebook, etc., has had profound impacts on political organisation and activism, but communication is never as simple as sending a message and assuming it will be received as intended.

The documentary frames itself as “propaganda about propaganda”, and one of the piece’s overarching narratives is the complexity and instability of messages put forward by nations and political organisations vying for control over the truth. One section explores Russia Today’s open acceptance that they hold a pro-Russian bias in their reporting, and the channel’s confrontational stance towards Western news media they claim to be equally biased, toeing the anti-Russian line of Western states. Whereas once terrorist cells, grassroots networks and small-scale political organisations did not have access to the same HD, high-sheen production values as ‘the West’ and its allies, ISIS now wields Adobe Creative Suite as a weapon. Grainy footage captured from camcorders has been supplanted by the high-resolution cameras built into smartphones, and is assumed to be subject to the same editing as premeditated film.

Regardless of one’s political leanings, it is interesting to consider how the news media (in all its forms, particularly web-based broadcasting) is increasingly accepted as being inherently opinion-driven and ideological. FOX News is proudly right-leaning, the BBC is lambasted by many as being too left-wing, and more magazines, blogs, and discussion forums are overtly opinion-driven and aim at persuasion over objectivity. Objectivity itself seems an outmoded ideal in an age in which we are assailed by information from everywhere, all the time. Considering the context of how someone will meet your message, their underlying assumptions around the information and the medium through which it’s conveyed, and its interplay with the myriad other multimedia messages it is likely to be vying for attention with, is more crucial than ever. In contemporary society, ‘facts’ are complex and evasive.

The Sprawl - Installation

In its physical instantiation as an installation, The Sprawl challenges these notions of unmediated access to information and foregrounds the kaleidoscopic, fragmented nature of information reception in the Internet age. A multitude of screens display different sections of the documentary simultaneously. At first it appears they are playing the same film but simply along different timelines, having started at different points, until they reveal themselves to instead be phasing in and out of sync, occasionally overlapping and in constant tension with one another – physically embodying the nature of Web-based communication. This is mirrored by a companion piece,, a website consisting of shards of content whose interrelatedness and holistic structure, or lack thereof, need to be parsed by the viewer, inviting the kind of obsessional scrolling and transitory engagement of an overactive subReddit. The piece’s ethereal, ghostly ‘protagonists’ wear blank expressions alongside screens partially obscured by smoke in a potent visual allegory for the worst-case scenario resulting form this form of engagement – in fact a total lack of engagement.

The Sprawl Space

The way in which we interface with the messages relayed itself colours our perception of their truth and value. There is no way to communicate or understand the superabundance of information available without some means of stripping down, isolating and singling out, but this process imbues the relayed messages with the ideology of the interface. Algorithms dictate which content appears in our News Feeds based on shared interests, mutual friends, and previous actions; the salient content on our homepages is filtered through and informed by the assumptions, aesthetic considerations, and perhaps personal politics of teams of coders and designers.

The fact that designers are seen as wielding this power, and that it is a collective of designers who have created this manifestly political work, speaks to the importance of considering the aesthetic and experiential nature of any message or information one wishes to convey, and to the capability of design and aesthetic philosophy and thought to penetrate otherwise elusive or impermeable cultural artefacts to reveal their deeper messages, meanings, and influence. It’s long been the case that theorists have interrogated art to build and inform political and social theory, but in the continuing development of commercial and brand communications, the often-siloed ‘worlds’ of design, communications, cultural insight, qualitative analysis, etc. need to intermesh and use interdisciplinary strength to navigate the complexity of contemporary meaning.