In the face of current environmental, economic and social challenge, what kind of conversations, responses and interventions can designers offer? What skills do designers need to develop in order to best respond to these challenges, and what new approaches, behaviours, pedagogies and places are emerging to address these?
These were some of the questions addressed by speakers and participants during Designing Alternatives: A Symposium of Contemporary Radical Design Practice we recently held as part of our Designing Alternatives research and teaching project. The symposium brought together a number of practitioners engaged in ‘alternative’ design practices. Together with an audience made up of students, architects, designers and educators, we explored some of the key themes and questions emerging in practices at the more speculative end of contemporary design. You can see more photos of the event here, and click here for a select reading list.
Freddie Yauner and Paul Rogers of Design Disruption Group, a collective based at Northumbria University Design School, opened the day. After showing some examples of recent work they invited the audience to engage in a disruptive activity of our own.
Paul Rodgers and Freddie Yauner introduce the day’s disruption.
Inspired by Deyan Sudjic’s idea of the ‘successful city’ as one in which all its citizens are able to take an active role, the group handed out signs that parodied cigarette packet labels, blank except for the words ‘warning’ and ‘kills’. Armed with marker pens, we went out and about around the city, sticking up signs that cautioned against the dangers that abound in contemporary society.
Two photos taken by Designing Alternatives’s disruptive participants.
Next in line were Bianca Elzenbaumer and Fabio Franz, two Italian designers who have been working together as Brave New Alps since 2005.
Informed by the challenges they face as young Italian designers, Elzenbaumer and Franz are currently engaged in two projects that are both informed by their desire to live in a ‘more just’ society; Designing Economic Cultures and Construction Site for Non-Affirmative Practices.
Construction Site for Non-Affirmative Practice workspace, Milan. Photo: Brave New Alps
Citing the influence of sources such as Donna Haraway’s idea of ‘Situated Knowledges’ and Irit Rogoff’s ‘Embodied Criticality’, they emphasised the importance of the designer’s immersion in the context of their work. They also took aim at design education, criticising its production of highly individualised, competitive practitioners, and instead affirmed the importance of collective and politically active practice that could contribute towards the creation of an alternative economic culture.
Paul Chaney and Kenna Hernly continued the theme of situatedness with FIELDCLUB, a four-acre project of self-sufficiency in the seemingly bucolic Cornwall countryside.
Local Bender, low-impact housing structure, 2006. Photo: FIELDCLUB
Their living breathing experiment questions the tenets of the green agenda and its romanticised vision of man’s relationship with nature. This latter led to some of few actual objects shown during the day – an evolving pair of scissors adapted to first kill off their slug problem, then count up how many they had dispatched and finally to create a mechanism that distanced the scissor holder from the murderous act.
Slug’o’metric Device III ( Triggerless Non-Complicitor/Remote Actuator), Scissor, electric motor, radio reciever/transmitter, electronics, 2009. Photo: FIELDCLUB
Drawing on Elie Ayache’s idea of ‘contingency’ and Quentin Meillassoux’s ‘Speculative Realism’, the duo challenged the audience to rethink the modernist hypothesis that still underpins much design. In a world of design briefs and problem solving, which implies the provision of a solution to a stable and well-defined problem – this presentation opened up a new and interesting terrain for a speculative design practice.
Occupy London Stock Exchange, 2011. Photo: Noel Douglas
His talk focused on the anti-capitalist politics that underlay several of the speakers’ approaches, and the potential of using the language of capitalism – such as advertising and Jonathan Wallace’s ‘ethical spectacle’ – in order to undermine it. Using these tactics design can make protest arresting and understandable – and therefore something that people can get involved in.
Occupy London Stock Exchange, 2011. Photo: Noel Douglas
The plenary session provided an opportunity to bring the designers and audience in a discussion together.
With questions addressing areas including the importance of historical knowledge for contemporary designers to whether or not these practitioners were indeed radical. No clear answers were provided. Instead, following Brave New Alps, it attempted to ‘introduce’ what Rogoff described as ‘questions and uncertainties in those places where formerly there was some seeming consensus about what one did and how one went about it” (Rogoff, 2003). We can say therefore that the symposium ended on the same lively, interrogative note on which it started – and in which we hope it will continue.
With an online publication of proceedings scheduled for the Autumn, we hope to put on future events and activities that provide a forum for debating and promoting these ‘alternative’ forms of design practice.
We would like to thank the University of Edinburgh’s Research Knowledge and Exchange Committee Fund for making the symposium possible.
Sonia Matos and Cat Rossi