Yesterday, on the 5th of July 2019, the exhibition Add to the Cake curated by Vera Sacchetti and Matylda Krzykowski opened its doors at the Kunstgewerbemuseum [Museum of Applied Arts] in Dresden, Germany. It introduces and continues conversations that evolved during the symposium A Woman’s Work, and additionally shows projects of women from the design field, who had been absent from the initial event. depatriarchise design is part of this exhibition, represented through our platform statement as it was published in the conference program of Beyond Change conference. However, we decided to contextualise our contribution in the form of a text that discusses our political stance towards additive change. It is both shown at the exhibition and published here, on our website.
Who doesn’t love cakes? Cakes are sweet, colourful and bring joy. Everyone wants to be invited to a cake party. Unfortunately, not everyone is. And even more so, “being invited is not enough”, as Dori Tunstall says. The design cake follows a very specific norm, its visual and formal language, its internal hierarchy (which cake is good and which is not), as well as by whom (read: what type of bodies) it is made, subscribe to a narrow, Euro-centric, male, heteronormative understanding of design. Those very specific bodies are the sole narrators of the history.
This is how for instance female, Black, queer, indigenous ways of designing are rendered through their otherness, as they don’t form part of the universal formula, and are therefore excluded from the canon. White, masculine prerogative though is assumed as “natural”. Through expanding this cake by simply adding layers of formally omitted narratives and biographies, we are not looking at its very foundation – which we believe is rotten. Design at large is based on the patriarchal Euro-centric, presumably, “universal” model. By adding practices – that have initially been excluded – to the cake, we insert them within the very structures that uphold their exclusion. Hence, we merely create an extension of the existing canon.
This is why we do not believe in adding to the canon, or: cake. In our point of view adding to museum collections, historical accounts, collective memory and possible futures is an approach that stays on the surface. It is necessary to address deeper layers: Why did museums come into existence in the first place and who created them for which benefits?
The concept of museums were developed at the same time as the idea of the nation state, white supremacy and colonialism – at the time when only men of a certain background had unlimited civic rights. Museums had strong didactic tasks: to not only create a national identity, but to “educate” a country’s citizens about what it means to be German, French or Dutch, for example, and to contrast this with “exotic” art and artefacts produced by “savages” from the conquered colonies, and to show superiority towards those cultures as well as towards rivalling European countries. Museums are constantly used as a tool in order to “teach” citizens what “good” art and design is and to even supervise their behaviour as part of “civilizing” them: no eating and drinking within the museum, no running or shouting.
While art and design by white men is collected and represented as the standard, art and design created by anyone else is rendered through their otherness. It is our believe that the history and the structures of institutions like museums must be addressed and analysed, in order to resist the discourses that they foster, instead of adding more layers to the already complex body.
Only after understanding how current systems of oppression and privilege came into being, we can try to build alternative structures that allow for plural worldviews and epistemic diversity. This first step of understanding and unfolding the rotten foundations of the design cake is crucial in order to make sure that structural inequalities are not being reinforced and that the foundations on which we build are not static and rigid, but fluid, informed by the process of searching and unlearning, always moving. This is only possible through collaborative processes of imagining “otherwise”, in a mutual dialogue, fostering political engagement and aiming at emancipation.
Believing in everyone’s agency to pick their strategies of resistance, we decide to “transcend” the additive approach, as Lucy R. Lippard and Maura Reilly put it, and to choose a relational one that is not merely concerned with a “levelling of hierarchy”, but rather with a “fundamental redefining of [design] practice”.
- Abdulla, Danah, Design Otherwise: Towards Locally-Centric Design Education Curricula in Jordan (PhD research), Goldsmiths University, 2018.
- Bennett, Tony, “The Exhibitionary Complex”, in: New Formations, Number 4, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1988.
- Hesse-Biber, Sharlene Nagy, Handbook of Feminist Research: Theory and Praxis, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2012.
- Klonk, Charlotte, “The Spectator as Citizen. The National Gallery in London in the Early Nineteenth Century”, in: Klonk, Charlotte, Spaces of experience: art gallery interiors from 1800–2000, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
- Lippard, Lucy R., and Reilly, Maura, Curatorial Activism, Towards an Ethics of Curating, Thames & Hudson, 2018.
- Tunstall, Dori. “Decolonising Design”, Berkeley Talks, transcript, Jan 25, 2019, accessed Mar 1, 2019. https://news.berkeley.edu/2019/01/25/berkeley-talks-transcript-dori-tunstall/.