This article is excerpted from the first issue of Eye on Design magazine. Pick up a copy of Eye on Design #01, the “Invisible” issue, for a deeper dive into our exploration of intangible subjects like identity, data, and mental health.
Artist Alexandra Bell reveals hidden media bias with her series Counternarratives, which explores the impact of language and editorial design in formulating cultural narratives. In 2017, the work appeared in the form of large-scale printouts of articles from the New York Times focusing on issues of race, which were stuck to walls and subway stations around New York City. Bell’s work has since been shown at various institutions, from MoMa PS1’s courtyard to this year’s Whitney Biennial. We speak with her about the print and digital media biases that are apparent in the hierarchy of editorial layout.
When did you start working on Counternarratives?
In August 2016, after a number of police shootings. I kept trying to turn over the language that was being used in the news; something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on was amiss. I started playing around with the text, seeing if I could keep the intended meanings of articles while maybe implying something else.
Can you talk us through your process?
I read the newspaper, find something that’s off—a word choice or photo misplacement—and flag it. I then re-create the article on InDesign from scratch and mark it up. Some of the notes I add are commentaries, while others are instructions for the second half of the project, where I re-create another article.
You typically intervene on news pieces that aren’t too recent, which makes your work seem more reflective than reactive. How do you choose your content?
In all the content that I end up picking, the writing is usually pretty sound but there’s a “hiccup.” The New York Times article about Charlottesville—“White Nationalist Protest Leads to Deadly Violence”—isn’t poorly written, but the visual aspect of it on the front page diminishes the importance of it. When I see things like that, I’m curious: Is there someone at the paper who is being really shrewd about the subject matter, or is there a desire to make white criminality invisible? Why is this getting this kind of treatment?
You don’t simply rely on text edits then, you also focus on photographic choices and layout hierarchy. In your opinion, which is the most impactful design decision?
I think people are really moved by visuals. Images are important for relaying something, as long as they operate within boundaries of fairness. For me, it’s about layout and placement just as much as it’s about the image.
Can you tell us more about the annotating process?
For every edit I make, I ask: Is there a reason behind this decision? What is interesting is that, sometimes I make a lot of notes about things that I don’t end up changing. In the Charlottesville article for example, there are a number of moments when I question the language being used, flagging expressions like “racial skirmishes” and “racial taunting” that feel weird to me. Although I don’t necessarily find an alternative, I want people to think about how the article talks about racism.
You work in printed media, what about digital?
I feel like you can’t see a lot of bias online. I think the hierarchy’s violations are clearer in print: This article is in color, this one is in black and white, this one got the front page, this didn’t. I can contend with that a bit more. I also think there’s a different type of impact with something that publicly circulates in that kind of archival sense. Things are different online, you have the SEO to contend with. In papers, you don’t. And the public art component is important. I’m interested in the collective reading.