by Ali McGhee
Artist, graphic designer, and academic Rachele Riley’s path through the development of her craft has meandered through locations as varied as Germany and VCU (where she went to school for design), Washington, D.C., the Piedmont of Western North Carolina, and the blasted zones of Nevada Test Site. The designer of Holler’s distinctive, award-winning logo (more on that in a moment) currently teaches at UNC Greensboro in the New Media and Design Program, where she spends time creating–and teaching others to create–distinctive, carefully designed visualizations of personal and brand identity. She also dives deeper into questions of being and becoming in her own art-making and her research, which concentrates on data visualization and its relationships to landmarks and violence.
Piecing together traces, studying the residue and exploring its aesthetic and narrative, is a hallmark of Riley’s work. One project she’s spent close to a decade on centers around Yucca Flat, one of the four main nuclear test areas in the Nevada Test Site, an area of desert located around 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas that was established in 1951. Riley went to the site in 2008 and created a project, The Evolution of Silence, a web-based, non-linear mapping of every detonation (828 total) on Yucca Flat, after her time there. “The data is partially accessible via the Department of Energy,” Riley notes. “There are lots of documents out there, but what I felt was missing was a visual mapping. You can see craters there on Google Earth, but which bomb created which crater? It was a chance to understand and uncover what happened, and could happen at any time.”
Traces and Fragments
The Evolution of Silence is a frustrating, mysterious, and revelatory work. It was not designed with navigability or ease of use in mind. Instead, in invites exploration, giving up its secrets slowly (if at all). What is memorialized here is not that sublime moment of nuclear denotation, but rather the “before and after of transformation and . . . the traces and fragment of what occurred,” according to the project’s “About” page. Riley notes that the project “violates every accessibility code and would fail Web Design 101. It’s about being confused and overwhelmed, and about immersing yourself and digging down. Feelings of being frustrated and lost are emotions at play.”
For Riley, the work is partly about the movement beyond, around, and through bordered and bounded areas. At a site that was so tightly controlled by the U.S. government, we are able to experience the unfolding of space and time before, during, and after the atomic era. The question of aftermath becomes especially interesting, as the damage that occurred to the landscape rendered it, at least for a time, silent.
Currently the project is in its first phase, which includes historical photos taken from airplanes (rather than satellite or digital images). Riley had to file a Freedom of Information request to get them, and the process took almost two years. “I hounded them every month and they didn’t want to scan them in,” she laughs. “I even offered to come out and scan them myself, and the librarian [at the Henderson Nevada Archives] at first was like, ‘Sure, no problem,’ but then said, ‘Well, maybe we should check.’ After a year, I eventually got 9 CD-ROMs with 300 images that had never been published before.” When she asked who she should give credit to for the images, her contact shrugged. “They’re government property,” she was told. “Technically every American citizen has the right to them.” She ultimately decided to credit the National Archives. “I wanted to give credit so people would know you can look up anything there,” she says.
One particular element of the Yucca Flats detonations that interests Riley and will be a part of the project’s next phase is the use of mannequins at the testing site, which were set up in a town, referred to as “Survival City,” that was built especially for them. The mannequins, fully clothed and engaged in various daily scenarios, were meant to show what could happen to objects + people in blast zones, but they were also part of an advertising campaign for JC Penney.
She first discovered the mannequins when she visited the Atomic Testing Museum, where she saw a large facsimile (the actual mannequins have gone missing) of a JC Penney ad featuring the unlikely fashion models before and after the atomic test in 1953.
“It blows my mind, especially from a design point of view,” says Riley. “Not only in the way this violence was presented, the way the destruction was captured and systematized for us to process, but also the fact that there’s a mannequin before, and then after with its head torn off and leg missing. And it’s described in the marketing language of JC Penney, because they’re also marketing their clothes! ‘Black gabardine dress,’ and after–’Gabardine dress has torn sleeve and tear at the hem.’ That has captivated me.”
While the landscape and Riley’s renditions of it can feel more abstract, the mannequins resonate in a different way for her. “The lines, crevasses and circles of the craters are beautiful, but the mannequins are a figural element. They were working with the body and the way those mannequins represented us. And that representation was only of the white, heterosexual, ‘normal’ family– a man, woman, and kid. That’s who America was for the administrators of that program, so that’s part of the narrative too.”
Currently, Riley is working on a generative cinema project with the mannequins and Survival City as its centerpiece. The work so far blinks between scenes of the family, images of the exterior of the houses, aerial images of the Test Site, and swathes of color, flickering yellow, purple, and orange over the other objects. Riley began this next phase recently, in a summer workshop focused on code, experimental animation, and video at Anderson Ranch in Colorado.
Questions of Identity
Riley’s work falls under the larger umbrella of her challenge to our notions of images and maps, particularly their uses and the assumptions we make about them. For instance, in one collaborative project she worked on in Detroit in 2014, she and a larger group used officially collected images of “every single parcel in the city,” which had been taken to determine the use of areas in the depths of its economic and social crisis. “I saw a sinister, underlying quality to it,” she says. “Parcels were categorized as residential, commercial, institutional–and then this category, ‘unknown.’ So I took the data sets and images for the unknown group and worked with those, and we brought it all together into a map that revealed other ways of experiencing the city.”
Riley’s creation of the Holler logo was one of a few shorter-term projects she takes on each year. She and Holler’s founder, Colby Caldwell, worked together for around three weeks to get it right. She initially created some prototypes by hand in a sketchbook, then created three digitally that made it to the shortlist. Riley, who teaches courses in design and typography, relished the chance to make something. “It’s not really a picture of something,” she notes, “it’s more symbolic than iconic.” The typeface is Franklin Gothic, one of Riley’s favorites. “It’s not a geometric sans serif like Futura, which can feel colder and is based on the geometry of the circle,” she explains. “Franklin Gothic has no serifs, but the proportions and relationships in the letters are tied more to Roman typefaces, so it’s more classical in its form.” She points to the lowercase letters in particular, like the “a” and the “g,” which are double-stacked.
“It’s more humanist rather than pure geometry,” she continues. “It goes back to the early nineteenth century–the burgeoning of advertising and newspaper and that kind of calling out. When you look at newspapers, you notice headers because they’re darker and not in the serif body font. They’re meant to grab your attention. And this logo is bold and has a heavy, darker feel. It’s to be noticed, like a call.”
A warm reception from some former students she shared it with helped motivate Riley to enter the logo into the 2018 Communication Arts’ annual Typography Competition. Last October, the journal announced that Riley and Holler’s logo had won in the Identity category. It was published in the January/February issue.
Riley has no further plans for the logo at the moment, though she has considered using earlier ideas for it, such as dynamic letters that shift when a user hover over them, as a case study in future classes and workshops.
For now, she’s focused on this summer. She just wrapped up an exhibition, Get Stuck in Trees, up at Laurel Park’s Crate Wine Market and Project. The works in that were from a series she started at Penland, and asked questions about the relationship of human to object, text to object, and object to object. Riley cut up the text, from a New Yorker article about the environment, and reassembled it to create a poem, which she then printed on letterpress and combined with found natural materials.
As far as the Evolution of Silence goes, she’s excited by the new direction for the mannequins, and she’s open to possibilities with the website. “I’ve shown the project a few times,” she says. “It’s a website, so it’s never really done. I could keep adding to it, but I’m interested in how the image of it is never the same. That’s true of any website with dynamic features. It’s never one fixed image.”