Design Trouble symposium
Fueled by the promise for innovation and social change, university design programs are more popular than ever. Within the academy, design has infiltrated not only the arts, where it has had considerable influence and longevity, but also departments of engineering and business where it promotes widespread forms of economic development and entrepreneurship. This narrative of empowerment through commerce brings with it underlying disjunctures between design’s rhetoric of plurality and the power structures design tends to reinforce. By separating their work of imaging futures from production work on the factory floor, and by reinforcing the idea that certain people and not others are more suited to the world-building activity associated with design, designers often further entrench the racial and socioeconomic inequalities they often seek to upend.
But how can we — as scholars, activists, artists, designers, engineers, etc. — imagine and do otherwise with and through design? What other pasts and futures might we open, narrate or recover? How might we shift the practice of design to focus on what has previously been marginalized or made invisible?
On April 3rd and 4th 2019, Afroditi Psarra (DXARTS) together with Daniela Rosner (HCDE), Audrey Desjardins (Art + Art History + Design), Phillip Thrutle (CHID) and Sareeta Amrute (Anthropology) brought together a diverse group of international artists, designers, engineers and theorists to discuss issues of queerness, ethics, decolonization and non-human entities through a series of keynotes, panel discussions, workshops and performances.
On the evening of April 3rd Design Trouble started with the panel discussion: Memory and Place with Morehshin Allahyari, Trinh Mai, Sara Zewde, organized from UW Graduate School as part of their Public Lectures series and moderated by Priya Frank.
On Thursday, April 4th the event moved to the Gould Hall’s courtyard, and started early on with Daniela welcoming the participants and the volunteers and Sareeta introducing the keynote speakers.
The keynote sessions kicked off with Elizabeth Chin’s keynote Trouble ahead, trouble behind: making design trouble from the applied to the speculative.
Design and anthropology have quite a bit in common in ways both good and bad. While anthropology has already engaged in its own crisis of conscience, design has yet to fully deal with its zest for colonialist, racist, and missionistic projects. I’ll talk about the ways that I’ve been exploring a range of approaches to doing design in ways that challenge what I call design normativity. In Haiti, my ongoing “applied” work experiments with culturally engaged ways to develop low cost STEAM/technology curricula in rural schools; another project has illustration undergraduates producing beautifully illustrated early literacy books that feature Haitian content and are written in Creole. Through the Laboratory of Speculative Ethnology, I have been experimenting with performative technologies inspired by Afro, Ethno and indigenous futurisms: installing Wakanda University at the 2018 Annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, and making such objects as the “Hands Up Don’t Shoot Glove,” “AfroGoPros” and the “Hip Hop Flavor Flave Oppositional Gaze Necklace.” Together, this work troubles multiple assumptions that plague dominant design thinking, practice, and theory. Rejecting elitist notions of craft, competency, aesthetics and materials, I am invested in facilitating Haitian kids to build their own computers for their school, using scavenged parts from the boatloads of used electronics that are shipped in from the U.S. , creating safe spaces for scholars of color within our national organization, and having fun while I do it. The Lab’s latest offering, “Becky Be Gone” spray, will be available for sampling, and for sale.
And continued with Kalani Young’s keynote Constellations of Rebellion: Home, Makeshift Economies and Queer Indigeneity.
We not homeless. The State is homeless. This village is our home and this place is our birthright.”—villager at Pu’uhonua O Waianae, Titarella.
In Waianae, Hawai’i, and Seattle, Washington, the practice of tent city living offers important considerations for what it means to be alive, to be rebellious and to be close to the ‘āina (land/all that feeds and nourishes). This talk theorizes the radical possibilities of a “home-free” subjectivity that refuses to be anything “less.” Through ethnographic data collection and grounded theory (2014-2018), this work asks: One, how does an analysis of bare habitance, indigeneity, and rebellion enunciate the gendered potentiality for a counter-neoliberal insurgency? Two, how do the stories of tent city villagers from Seattle, Washington, and Waianae, Hawai’i, reconfigure cohabitation, direct action and Queer Indigeneity beyond the settler colony? And three, how and in what ways are maka’ainānā (people of the land) and ka poē honua (people of the earth) disrupting abandonment, unsettling sexualities, and decolonizing identity politics through makeshift economies of solidarity?
After the insightful keynotes Sareeta Amrute moderated the first roundtable on Activism and Ordinary Ethics with Azzurra Cox, Gabriel Dattatreyan, Nia Easley, and Sara Zewde, which offered a novel approach on the topic of ethics through critical design methodologies and participatory hands-on work with local communities.
The discussion on Decolonization continued through the engagement of the symposium participants in two workshops by writer Nisi Shawl and multidisciplinary artist Constanza Piña.
In the writing workshop The Street Finds Its Own Uses, Nisi Shawl used visual prompts to run low-cost thought experiments based on famous line from cyberpunk author William Gibson. The workshop participants had the opportunity to envision and describe future environments and their denizens, focusing on unexpected uses and subversive connections between the world to come and its denizens.
And the Prehispanic computers and science fiction ecologies workshop by Constanza Piña, which focused on Khipu, a collaborative work that the artist has been developing over the past year which consists on fabricating and sonifying an Incan khipu. The participants were introduced to the history of khipus as an prehispanic textile technology to store information, and experimented hands-on by fabricating a “ghost detector” device that is capable of detecting invisible electromagnetic fields.
The symposium ended with two sound performances that explore gendered sound art practices through movement and gesture.
In Raquetball Score, designer and performer Heidi Biggs reflected on aspects of being gender non-binary through an experimental soundscape strategically collected from and created through playing a solo game of racquetball.
The symposium closed with Constanza Piña’s sound performance Corazón de Robota, a live sonic improvisation consisting of handmade synthesizers, sequencers, drum machines, filters and distortions. These artifacts were created out of textiles, electronic trash and chocolate boxes by incorporating error-prone materials and electronics. The soundscapes she generated were chaotic textures, feedback and random patterns that are time-based and explore the rhythmical dimensions of noise.