KUTE: A CASE STUDY IN CULTURAL TRANSMOGRAPHY
9.25 x 11.75 inches // 211 pages // 2007
With the current state of globalization, international branding and new communication methods, the exchange and intermarriage of cultural visual language is increasing at an exponential rate. Through this process, visual language itself becomes progressively “multi-ethnic;” however, its initial displacement often communicates little about original context, nor does it speak to new context or viewer. This begs the question: how can designers consciously borrow from outside sources in more meaningful ways? In order to examine this constantly shifting, cyclical process of exchange in the context of graphic design, I developed a theory termed cultural transmography, defined as: the practice of transforming, translating and/or re-combining two or more culturally-bound visual languages to produce new hybrid forms.
With Cultural Transmography as the macro-view/umbrella topic for this inquiry, a focus on Japanese kawaii (“cute”) culture functioned as the micro-view case study. Kawaii as subject matter was chosen for several reasons:
1) it is a visual language highly influenced by American popular culture, which has been reinterpreted in myriad colorful ways over the past several decades in Japan, 2) it is currently being exported to America, and marketed for its “cool” factor, in (as yet) unaltered form, 3) it has contradictory psychological underpinnings that give it potential as a platform for more meaningful content.
In order to test the limits of my theory as a potential design methodology, I acted out the steps of transmogrification in my work: travel, appropriation, interpretation/translation and new hybrid form. Through this process, traceable shifts in my understanding of the subject matter became evident, as well as the fact that despite thorough research, my perspective would always be that of an outsider. For this reason, alternate readings became a key component of Transmography theory. Within the context of the case study, one such alternate reading was the aspect of irony and subversion American audiences read into kawaii visual language, which is not present for Japanese viewers. Ultimately, I devised the term “Kute”—an amalgam of the English and Japanese —to refer to this new hybrid interpretation of kawaii.
Through this process I discovered that while a useful design tool, the cycle of Cultural Transmography is in fact not a clean-cut and linear progression, but a meandering one, in which the steps of the cycle often become blurred and reordered.