Closer Looks at Beyond Change: What Can a Design Conference Do? Part 1
by Benedetta Crippa

From 8 to 10 March 2018 the FHNW Art and Design Academy in Basel hosted the design conference Beyond Change, organised by the Swiss Design Network and interested in the impact of design within current social and political landscapes. Here, Depatriarchise Design co-created the space Building Platforms together with Decolonising Design and Precarity Pilot. We publish a series of co-written reviews to share memories, impressions and thoughts from the conference with you. We opened the series with a piece by by Maya Ober. What Can a Design Conference Do? is written in two parts by Benedetta Crippa, followed by a piece from Anja Neidhardt.

The conference program with texts by Depatriarchise Design and Decolonising Design Group

My take at the conference is the one of a graphic designer interested in how our work can be shaped by an ethical practice and how it impacts, affirms, and challenges structures of power. How does design affect lives and bodies, how do we discuss its politics in conjunction with that?
Being engaged with these questions, Beyond Change became a profoundly human experience where I gathered not only new knowledge and new interactions, but also had the opportunity of associating with my profession a set of emotions not so often connected with it.

The conference for me began with giving my own talk, on Women’s Day as speaker in the panel Designing (at) the Margins; here I shared my experience on the impact of feminist and human approaches to design education, as well as drawing and writing as practices of liberation.
Right afterwards we moved to the main conference room for the first keynote, titled
Are We Human? by Beatriz Colomina. It was a surprise to find her connected through Skype, thanks to a quick and efficient reorganization by the conference team after her flight was cancelled, together with her friend and colleague Mark Wigley.

Chinese public health poster depicting the body as a machine (1930)

I did not know Colomina or her work beforehand; departing from, and referring to their work as curators of the Istanbul Design Biennale in 2016, her and Wigley took us on a journey through time to show how every bit of the world as we built it is designed – significant in order to remind ourselves that all which is human-made is shaped with intent, by someone and therefore never conclusive or unquestionable – arguing how the ability to design defines the very nature of being human.
Going even further, they demonstrated how through the artefacts we design we influence our own relation to the world, and ultimately re-design ourselves: the human being is agent, as well as victim of her or his own design and tools, as through evolution the relation with our own artefacts ultimately influences and modifies bodies and minds.

The two hours presentation was done so gracefully, and generously that the space felt as something in between a living room and a classroom where I sensed being in the presence of a rare generosity in knowledge demonstrating the human brain at its highest potential. 

In a particularly engaging section of the keynote, Colomina and Wigley delved into hopes and fears of the modernist project. The conversation departed from the very first human tools to discuss their ornamental nature in its evolutionary functions connected to attraction, beauty and sex – opposed to historical shortcomings that look down upon decoration as frivolous and expendable. Colomina then presented the reading of modern design as a form of anaesthesia, meant to cleanse the human of any vulnerability and leave no trace when it comes to feeling and emotion. She demonstrated how the project of a ‘modern’ set of aesthetics was aimed as analgesic to all sensations – ultimately coming to the notion of modern design as shock absorber.

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Cheryl Buckley. Photograph © SDN, Samuel Hanselmann

Decoration recurred again in the main keynote of the following day. Delivering an impeccable speech, design historian Cheryl Buckley delved into her research from the context that brought her to write the pivotal essay Made in Patriarchy in 1986, going through the relation between women, everyday craft practices, ornamentation, and oppressive structures; arriving to the present day and the importance, in a context – as she argues – that has pushed women’s struggles once again in the background, to keep the focus on the specificity of women’s experiences under patriarchy.

Affective Resistance

On the last day, a Saturday constellated with sleepy faces due to the conference’s dinner the night before, I witnessed two of the most meaningful keynotes I could expect, the first of which eloquently titled The Earth that Modernism Built. Here, historian Kenny Cupers delivered a careful, clear-cut analysis of the modernist project as rooted in colonialism of land, spaces and bodies – both home and abroad. Not only Cupers demonstrated a impressive, exact knowledge of the subject, but did so with an attitude of competence and generosity that made any ‘buts’ and ‘ifs’ feel out of place, and made me safe and hopeful of the future.

Little I knew about hopefulness, however, as Mia C. White took the stage for her keynote Love: A Blues Epistemology from the Undercommons. White spoke freely and effortlessly for over two hours, so beautifully and with such eloquence that an astounded audience agreed to postpone lunch to let her elaborate further on the importance of love, and feeling in shaping design and resistance practices.

How can design help us in developing our affect practices, and how can affect shape it back? Starting from her experience of a mixed black, asian woman, and from the history of racism and resistance of people of color, White spoke about the concept of affective resistance, as well as speculative design practices as a form of reaction to neoliberal thinking. She criticizes neoliberal models as output- and certainty-based, arguing instead that “if you do not engage in experimental thinking, accepting to not knowing the answer from the start, you are not engaging in radical practice”.

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Mia C. White. Photograph © SDN, Samuel Hanselmann

Design and affect

It does not happen often at a design conference to hear someone affirming that “the way that you feel is wildly relevant”, and speculating on how our world would look like if affect and emotion were points of departure for decisions on a societal scale.

One of the most beautiful moments happened when White addressed the kind of thinking that dissuades activism and resistance by arguing that each of us is too small to make any relevant impact or change anyway. Such argument can be powerful at times and leave us paralysed; however, White introduces the concept of “wake” to bring the focus back on personal accountability and responsibility towards action. For White, all of us are situated in the broader context, or the aftermath – the wake – of the work done by others before and around ourselves, a context we cannot either ignore or dismiss, and that can function as support to our own efforts when systemic oppression seems too big of a beast to engage. She asks, “Although we cannot solve this specific problem in the here and the now, what is the wake work we are engaged from?”

For White, to bring affect into design work also means developing interventions and design solutions that respond to, and welcome our vulnerabilities. “As designers, we can help people to feel moments of freedom”, she affirms as she brings examples of poetic design solutions in the public space.

“I can keep myself clean without disavowing dirt” is another thought she shared that will stay with me. White left us with a message of hope, stressing the necessity, and feasibility of radical interventions on reality, no matter how small, that give shape to the world as we wish for it to be, in the now. As she puts it, it is always possible, and necessary, through design practice to “force the alternative reality, right now”.?

Continue reading Benedetta’s review on Part 2 of this article.

Benedetta Crippa is a graphic designer and communication consultant, MFA in Visual Communication from Konstfack University. At Beyond Change she was a speaker in the panel Designing (at) the Margins with Things I Had No Words For, on the impact of feminist and human approaches to design education, and drawing as tool of liberation. She runs her own studio and research practice in Stockholm, Sweden.

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