We are hosting today Prof. Griselda Flesler, head of Design and Gender Studies Department at FUDA, University of Buenos Aires in Argentina, with whom I will talk about the new department, design patriarchy and intersectionality.
Department Staff: Prof. Griselda Flesler- Assistant Professor: Valeria Durán- Lecturers: Gabriela Gugliottella, Natalia Laclau, Celeste Moretti and María Laura Nieto. Photo: Solana Trucco.
depatriarchise design: Could you please tell us a bit about your experience and how did you start your research on gender within the design field?
Prof. Griselda Flesler: I come from a family of feminist women. My great-grandmother (Jewish immigrant) used to dress like a man in order to be able to drive and smoke without any hindrance. My grandmother was one of a few female academicians in the 1940s’. My mother, a scholar herself, always used to teach us to be independent. There was no way, that I wouldn’t become feminist. My primary education was a very progressive one and when I entered the university I began to experience the profound androcentrism within the architecture field. At the age of 20, I began to teach and my interest in training in gender studies was growing. In 2002, when I did my specialisation, I had an opportunity to define the cross point between design and feminist theories. From then on, I have always tried to create academic spaces where I could deal with these issues.
As a designer, I got very excited to hear about the opening of the Department of Design and Gender Studies at FADU. Our professional, practical and academic environments have always been very androcentric. What processes had occurred, which permitted the opening of this Department?
When 15 years ago, I became interested in thinking about design from a gender perspective, I encountered many prejudices and objections regarding the relevance of introducing these issues to the design field. Generally, during lectures at my faculty, “gender” was associated with a linear understanding of the term “feminism”, in other words, it was interpreted in an essentialist way, by assuming that the focus would be on discussing exclusively female architects and designers while disadvantaging their male counterparts. This binary and reductionist perspective was constructed as a reinforced concrete wall. And then came the challenge of creating some cracks in it (in the wall – added by translator). Three years ago, after having taught every year a theoretical class on the subject as part of Graphic Design Department´s curriculum, I presented the project of the elective unit. At first, I was asked to start teaching a unit at the graduate course, and that I have been doing ever since. However, it seemed crucial to me that these subjects already be taught at the undergraduate level, and finally, with the support of a group of executive directors, in 2016 the unit was unanimously approved for all students enrolled at FADU-UBA.
I think that the national context helped to understand the necessity of including this content (in the curriculum – added by translator). In recent years, Argentina passed exemplary laws that recognise the particularity of violence against women, adolescents and girls, extended the recognition for historically marginalised groups of the society (Equal Marriage Law, Gender Identity Law, Humanised Labour Law, etc.) and incorporated sexual education as a human right.
Lecture by architect Zaida Muxi about Feminist Urbanism Photo: Natalia Laclau
What is the difference between FADU and other design and architecture schools? What is the origin of FADU’s progressiveness?
One of the characteristics of FADU-UBA is that it is a faculty which teaches not only Architecture but also different design disciplines (graphic design, industrial design, fashion, and textile etc.). These degree courses are daughters of the democratic and progressive processes that started with the return to democracy in 1983. In my opinion, the fact that FADU is a public, massive, free and co-governed university is crucial. FADU-UBA is an institution embedded in Argentinian political, social and cultural processes.
There was a genuine interest on the part of the authorities to incorporate this content (gender studies), within a context of recognition of women’s and LGBTQ identities rights: This year at FADU, we have started to implement the “Protocol of institutional action for the prevention and intervention in situations of gender and sexual orientation-based violence or discrimination ” initiated at the Gender Department.
It should be noted that once the enrolment for the unit was opened, students’ response and demand was enormous and very satisfactory.
Do you think that there is a different approach towards feminism within the design field in Argentina in comparison to other countries?
I think that Argentina has got a tradition of women’s activism and struggles for human rights. The example of Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo is an inescapable precedent which portrays us in the world. We have been having the National Meeting of Women, the demonstrations organised by Ni una menos (Not even a one more – is an Argentine feminist movement, which has spread across several Latin American countries, that campaigns against gender-based violence – added by translator) were massive. Also, since the 1970s, feminism has been influencing various academic disciplines. However, in the design field, this approach is a quite recent phenomenon. Hence the importance of replicating spaces like the one we have created.
In Switzerland, where I am based, there are some design schools with no tenured female professors, with a few female lecturers or visiting lecturers, even though the majority of students are women. I have noticed, that the same pattern repeats itself in schools and institutes around the world, the majority of students are women, but the participation and representation decrease the higher we climb the hierarchical ladder, how would you explain it?
This phenomenon can be observed in the majority of professional environments, it is not exclusive for design schools, and can be explained through the patriarchal and heteronormative logic.
How does the academic environment at the design schools in Argentina look like?
It is similar to what you have just described. It is a pyramidal process. Higher you go, less and less women you see. However, we are working to implement gender quota in different areas. We have already achieved this in the jury of the academic competitions.
What strategies in your opinion, should be implemented by design and architecture schools in order to achieve gender equality and to combat discrimination against women at the highest positions in the hierarchy?
I believe in dual-faceted approach: gender quota laws and education from a gender perspective. One without the other is insufficient. The tools adopted to end the underrepresentation of women at all positions within the hierarchy are insufficient without gender perspective in educational policies for the entire academic community. Without education, what was conceived as a floor is easily transformed into a ceiling.
Deconstructionist clothing. Students project Photo: Mauricio Kohut Schönknecht
Multi-identity toy. Students project Photo: Mauricio Kohut Schönknecht
Design books tell the design history dominated by men architects and designers. The work of women designers is marginalised or non-existing, and the whole design history is told without the context of patriarchy within which’s framework female designers have worked. How can we redefine and decontextualise the history of design?
I am concerned with most of design and architecture research, that pretends to apply a gender perspective, focusing only on biographies of women makers. We propose a different perspective, which doesn’t neglect to investigate and to make the work of female designers visible, in the same time, it understands that design thinking is reflected in the commitment to an inclusive, flexible design. Design that does not strive for neutral and universal form. In this sense, our approach is rooted in the identity discourse that has emerged in the last decades, especially since the crisis of certain universalist concepts and their consequent deconstructive rethinking. The cross-point between design and gender studies creates an interesting mechanism to reflect on the symbolic violence, the construction of stereotypes and the reproduction of hegemonic discourses.
As women, we are victims of oppression in a myriad of aspects. Being designers or architects, the professional environment discriminates against us and makes it difficult to reach the academic positions and to collaborate with the majority of the most important stakeholders in the industry; design historians and journalists omit our work or write about us only within the context of our sex… The division into masculinity and femininity and the gender binarism caused, that we are assigned sex-specific skills. We are also victims as design users and as objects of representation. How would you define design patriarchy?
Design patriarchy is marked by Modernism and the discourse it implemented in the beginnings of the discipline. I consider every piece of design to be connected with imaginary, that, as well as social, is always sexual, which means that it is structured on the sexual distinction. Thus, the hegemonic design discourse centred on the production, functionality, and rhetoric of neutrality, considers some designs to represent the standard or the neutral, generally associated with traits stereotypically considered to be masculine, as opposed to “the Otherness” engraved in ” decorative morphologies”, associated with the feminine and the effeminate, therefore less legitimate. As Adolf Loos said, “the ornament is a crime,” and from there through the “neutrality”of Helvetica, it hasn’t stopped yet
Even though in recent years new streams of design appeared that have been trying to dismantle the Modernist ideal as the only accepted reference point, still much has to be done in terms of denaturalising this model.
What topics are you going to incorporate into the curriculum within your department and why?
Griselda Flesler: Some of the contents which constitute the curriculum are: The feminist critique of universalism, humanism and rationalism of Modernist Design (for example, the case of urban routes designed for model subjects, which usually follow linear track or use vehicles); The issue of class, gender and ethnicity and the dominant voices in the field of design, architecture and urbanism; The heterosexual normative as violence in the design artefacts and the contemporary urban planning (some groups worked on their final project – the deconstruction of the binary signage in the public bathrooms); Political and technical management of the body, sex and sexuality, body regulation, prosthesis design, devices, cyborgs.
I personally think that nowadays Internet as a tool allows us, women, to exchange information in a much easier way and perhaps it is the moment in which we can end patriarchy, thanks to the technology and to the exchange of information. How do you think Internet favours or disadvantages women and the feminist cause?
We are particularly interested in tackling the “new technologies” from a gender perspective, at Design and Gender Studies Department, we analyse how recent, powerful demonstrations which demand rights– both in the region and in the world – reclaim historical pleas, appealing to new communication modes. Different groups and collectives are challenged by new tools and technologies and it is in this context that graphic design and its rhetoric of identity, visual identity, corporate identity etc. becomes an interesting subject of analysis.
I am especially interested in researching design and its role in the construction of political identities and the ways in which it takes over the politics in the 2.0. sphere
Definitely in our country many groups have been promoted and have achieved mass participation in the streets (for example NI UNA MENOS collective), through social networks.
To give some inspiration to our readers, I would like to ask what we can do as women, students, teachers, and designers to change the chauvinist environment and gender bias within academia?
My strategy is to make clear that the gender perspective is not just a matter of women, but an excellent mechanism to address differences and inequalities at all levels. The design field deals with the study of the diverse needs and the particularities of specific individuals, in order to provide them with liveable environments.
Also in theoretical-critical terms, it is constructive to discuss the limits of the professional field, the hegemonic discourses, the regulatory practices which guideline what is considered to be good design and what is not etc.
*The interview was originally conducted and published in Spanish, and then translated into English by depatriarchise design.