How Mirko Borsche contaminated Venice
Words Mark Hooper
Photographs by Bureau Borsche
How a German design studio brought situationist ‘contamination’ to Venice…
To mark the 2019 Venice Biennale, graphic design studio Bureau Borsche was invited to design the official identity for one of the most prestigious exhibitions in the art world. That’s a lie. They were actually asked to provide a work of art for the Venice Pavilion – which represents the city itself in the Biennale – by artistic director Alessandro Gallo.
‘The original brief was that they wanted us to be part of the Pavilion as artists,’ explains Mirko Borsche, famed for his art direction work for <Die Zeit>, Balenciaga, Givenchy and Nike. ‘And there was also a second brief to design some graphic signage for the inside of the Pavilion. I told them right from the beginning, we’re not artists, and it’s quite difficult to act like artists in Venice during the Biennale, among all these fabulous, very famous people.’
But Gallo already had a riverside setup on a prime location next to the Rialto Bridge, and suggested creating a 3D sculpture for it. However, practical concerns convinced Borsche to demur: firstly, there was the time factor – they had just four weeks to create something that he estimated should really take seven months to complete. Secondly – and more crucially: ‘I’m a graphic designer so I don’t really know how to build something like that.’
After the initial disappointment, Borsche concentrated on producing the graphics for the Pavilion, using the iconic San Marco lion – a symbol of Venice – and translating it into a two-dimensional logo, incorporating the six stripes of the Venice flag (representing the city’s six boroughs) and the lion’s wings.
And this is where Borsche’s mischievous streak comes in. Taking as his cue the ‘fake news’ theme of the Biennale as a whole – under the title ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’ – he found inspiration from an unusual source.
‘At that time I was watching the TV show Man in the High Castle,’ he says – referencing the series based on Philip K. Dick’s dystopian novel that imagines an alternative reality where the Nazis have won WWII and installed a puppet government in the United States. ‘For me as a German, it’s even weirder to see all these hakenkreuz (swastikas) everywhere – and you see them in places where you’ve never seen them before – in the American flag, in telephone booths, stuff like that… then I thought, a little inspired by that, it would be a nice idea to have some strong symbolism that feels very significant… and we came up with the lion!’
Taking this concept of sinister propaganda ‘contaminating’ the city, Borsche decided to run with it. ‘Having this huge façade on the bridge – you can see the lion design from the train station as well – I think even for the tourists it became the corporate identity of the Biennale itself. And so we tried to take that concept of fake news, where you see something and you don’t really question it. And then you come somehow to the conclusion that this is the actual official design for the Biennale.’
Like true agitators, Bureau Borsche then started using social media to its advantage. ‘Once you post on Instagram, no one really reads the hashtags. So we were posting it on Instagram – and the first thing we said on all our posts was ‘FAKE NEWS’, with an explanation that this not the original, official artwork of the Biennale. But still even my friends were saying, “Congratulations on doing the Biennale logo!” – so it really worked for us.’
The colourways helped too: Bureau Borsche settled on a deliberately disruptive neon yellow that brashly contrasts with subdued browns and pastels of Venice. ‘That colour reflects so strongly on the water too,’ he explains. ‘It looks super artificial!’
By – in Borsche’s words – ‘branding that colour’, they were able to unleash a ‘media experiment’ that is brilliant in its simplicity. ‘Everything you see that is neon yellow, even if it’s not from us, seems to be another installation as part of the Venice Pavilion. We thought we might not have a lot of media coverage in that short time – or money – so we needed to find the easiest way to find that visual eye.’
Installing ‘guerilla’ techniques that used just the colour itself – be it draped over a sculpture, on a sheet strung across a washing line, on tennis balls or on street signs stickered so that they show the colour but no words, Bureau Borsche filled the city with neon yellow.
‘There is a really weird wayfinding system in Venice,’ Borsche explains, ‘because the locals don’t actually want you to go the right way, they want you to follow the tourist path, so they asked us to do a wayfinding path to the Pavilion, so we had just these neon yellow signs that don’t say anything – but they also imply these colour markers and all this tourist stuff. In the end it’s a bit of Disneyland for artists, right? It’s not real.’
Not everyone was happy – a fact that only played into his hands. ‘There were these kids in Venice who thought it was the official identity and made all these cards protesting against it, posting the lion all the time on Instagram saying “Mirko Borsche tries to sell Venice!” and putting up posters around the city. All of which actually helped us because if somebody is against something, it only makes it more believable and real. And then I started reposting their posts and they were writing to me saying, “Are you stupid, we’re against you, we’re against your campaign, your logo, tourists in Venice, the Biennale…’ and I thought – wow you really need to read the posts because then you’ll realise it’s not official. It has nothing to do with the Biennale itself, just the Pavilion – it’s not an art piece but an experiment, almost as propaganda.’
To complete the guerilla approach, the logo and typeface were made available to download for free, together with links to customise T-shirts, bags and other merchandise. ‘People asked us about buying T-shirts and we said, “Just make your own, you can order 10 on Alibaba, you don’t have to pay us.” So people started making it themselves!’
Having, in his own words, ‘contaminated the city’ with a heavy dose of vulgarity, Borsche does have some sympathy for its residents. ‘You have this flood of tourists in the city – and I completely understand that the locals are quite annoyed by all these people. I live in Munich, which is super touristic too: for half the year you can’t get a seat in any of the restaurants and everything is more expensive. But we wanted to play with this whole idea – of overexaggerating something that actually doesn’t have a big meaning.’