Noam Youngrak Son navigate the field of design fiction. They create visuals, objects and scenarios for worlds that we do not know yet – always starting from the perspectives of those who are underrepresented in the world we currently live in. A well-designed fiction has the potential to lead to thoughts, insights and discussions that not even the designer themself might anticipate. Noam refuse to define one’s gender as neither exclusively male nor female. Noam refuse every norm of gender-binary. As a queer person of colour, Noam’s identity is one of the axes of their design practices. Anja had a conversation with Noam for depatriarchise design.
depatriarchise design: Noam, since you first reached out, some time has passed, now finally we manage to have a conversation. I’m happy to meet you online and hear more about your projects.
Noam: I’m also happy and excited that we have this conversation.
depatriarchise design: There are actually several links between your work and what we do and believe at depatriarchise design. The first that comes to my mind is a project of yours about the design of public restrooms – we also have a text about this topic on our website. Public toilets as we know them in our Western society today are designed around the segregation of people into “men” and “women”: before entering, we have to decide based on their respective signage between the facilities for male and those for female users. We were wondering why the design of public restrooms treats women and men unequally: Baby change units are mostly placed in women’s restrooms. When menstruating it is difficult to manoeuvre the spatial segregation of toilet and washbasin. Apart from this, the segregation does not accommodate people who neither identify as male nor female and also makes life hard for those who do not conform to gender stereotypes in their appearance. – From which ankle did your project about the design of public restrooms start?
Noam: The project that you mentioned is called Queerlet – like: queer toilet. It started from the simple observation that gender-neutral toilets are now present in more and more places (especially cultural institutions), but the sign language that they use is still very much based on the binary idea of gender. Some for example use a combination of a typical male symbol and a typical female symbol. I started thinking about a queer alternative to that.
depatriarchise design: Often the actual really gender-neutral toilet is the one for people with disabilities, which is also problematic because it suggests that in this case, the gender of the user (who is depicted in a wheelchair) doesn’t play a role at all.
Noam: Yes, there is a de-sexualization of disabled people. They’re not treated as sexual subjects. Also, only a small percentage of disabled people use a wheelchair, but the design with a person in a wheelchair is meant to represent the entire disabled population. There is a project called Visability93 with visually interesting signs that represent each disability, indicating very specific differences.
dd: How do you understand the word “queer” in the title of Queerlet?
Noam: I see “queer” as both a noun, an adjective, and a verb. However, I find it difficult to define, even though I identify as a queer person.
dd: Especially since queer in its essence is against having clear or universal definitions.
Noam: Exactly. I think it’s important to remember that it is a poly-vocal adjective. When it comes to the queer toilet sign, I didn’t want to dictate: “This is a queer toilet sign”. So, I chose to make an empty template for people to just share whatever idea they want. I was curious to see the outcome. My design choices were really minimal and open: The sign itself has a subtle silhouette that indicates a human. It isn’t white or black or grey but coated with holographic film so that it looks different depending on the angle it is seen from. I understand it like a probe that collects the symbolic representation of queer people’s gender identities. Once I had this template, I brought it to many different public toilets in Eindhoven (in the Netherlands): from a queer party hosted by the organisation Day Day Gay to any kind of restaurant in the city. This was also extensively used during Qtopia Queer Art Festival in Nijmegen. 50 pieces of Queerlet were installed on every toilet door in the exhibition venues; Queerlet functioned as a part of the festival’s identity, as well as a video installation exhibited at NEUS gallery.
dd: How did people react?
Noam: It was very – unidentifiable. I could not discover any kind of particular tendency or differences between what straight and what queer people tend to draw. But I find this undefined outcome very pleasurable.
dd: Have you been there while people were drawing?
Noam: In most cases, I was somewhere else, and could not associate the drawings with their creators. I could only witness the drawings while they were being made when I brought queerlets to a few public drawing workshops. Actually, those workshops really helped me to diversify the demographics of the audience, from my classmates to elderly people that vaguely understand the concept of being queer. But even they found it very interesting to define and symbolise how they see their gender identity. I think the most interesting drawings came from people that I didn’t expect to surprise me. For instance, there was a symbolic drawing made by an elderly man that had a very colourful, sort of phallic shape at the centre and two balls. I believe it was a representation of his straight male gender identity, but the representation of it was so aesthetically pleasing and also way more interesting than a stick figure standing. While some drawings were relatively explicit about what they signified, others were very ambiguous and nuanced. In total, I collected about 30 to 40 pictures. I’m interested in expanding that collection into a database of queer symbolic representation, it’s just a matter of time and resources.
dd: What was the next step of the project?
Noam: I was speculating on what I could do with the outcome. There is an article that really influenced me, called “Trashgender: Urinate/Defecate, Masculine/Feminine” by Paul B. Preciado, published in The Funambulist 13 (September–October 2017) Queers, Feminists and Interiors. The article critically investigated how the interior environment of toilets is determined by the binary way in which we are labelling it. Preciado proposes a framework that can help to grasp this binary: public or private, visible or invisible, decent or obscene, man or woman, penis or vagina, standing up or sitting down, occupied or empty. The binary framing of the toilet does not only define the genitalia of the users, but also the environment of it. I asked myself if these binary distinctions of the toilets are formed by the binary signs, and I began speculating about the question: What could be behind the queer toilet signs that my audience created?
dd: Like: How does the respective sign change the interior space behind that door?
Noam: I set the binary parameters proposed by Preciado in his article and assigned them numerical values of either 0 or 1, and reframed that binary system into a spectrum that can also include “ambiguous” numbers like 0.5 or 0.6. Based on this, I created a digital software (which works like this) and then analysed the drawings that I had collected, using a simple computer algorithm on just a few scripts of code, asking for example: Is the image assumingly representing a person who is standing up or sitting down? In each case, with the help of the results, a computer program automatically created a floor plan of the toilet. For instance, the parameter for decent/obscene determines how luxurious the toilet pieces are. The logic is very absurd, but nevertheless, the logic that has been determining our toilet designs so far is pretty absurd too, maybe even more absurd than this interpretation. So, I think the absurdity of it is justifiable.
dd: Yes, if you examine the various designs of currently existing public toilets, they can be very absurd. This reminds me of the initiative “People in Search of Safe and Accessible Restrooms” (PISSAR). It was a group of students at the University of California in Santa Barbara who in 2003 mapped every facility on campus. They were equipped with a tape measure, clipboard, and a checklist which included questions on toilet door signage, on the availability (or otherwise) of handrails, on the height of mirrors, washbasins, and tampon dispensers, and on the availability and location of baby-changing tables. With the help of the data that they gathered, they could draw attention to the issues at hand and put pressure on the university managers to address them. However, sometimes I really wonder how certain designs are implemented; some seem to be quite random.
Noam: I feel like a lot of poor designs are being created based on gender binaries. There is this article by Jan Diehm and Amber Thomas about the design of pockets, it has visuals comparing the pocket patterns for male and female clothing.
dd: I know this one, yes. The visuals also show different objects in relation to these pockets, to make a point about what actually fits or doesn’t fit into the respective pocket. But then also, when we look back into history: Until the late 19th century, most women in Europe and the USA wore pockets that were tied around their waist under their dresses. Through slits in their skirts, they could reach into these invisible pockets from the outside. And those pockets were quite large, some women would carry a book or a sandwich in them.
Noam: So smaller pockets for womxn are a quite modern phenomenon?
dd: Yes, definitely. And of course, the dresses were very voluminous: You could put many things into your pockets without anyone seeing it.
Noam: This reminds me of the association with the colours blue and pink. It’s also a very modern phenomenon of how they are ascribed to gender.
dd: Yes, first it was actually the other way around: pink for boys and blue for girls. But even earlier, baby clothes in colour (other than white) were not really practical or affordable for the majority of people (because of handwashing and bleaching, but also to pass them from one child to the next regardless of gender). You also did a project where you played with the binary of male and female.
Noam: It was one of my first projects, called Made in Egalia. It is based on the Norwegian novel Egalia’s Daughters by Gerd Brantenberg. Most of the premises are borrowed from this novel, which was written in the 1970s. Like the idea to reverse the roles of men and women. And then also a few like the background information about the garments that they use or, the technology of them. It was very fascinating to read the novel, and it made me curious. Being a designer, I was wondering about the visual representation of the things that are mentioned in the book, I really wanted to see those bizarre objects and customs and rituals in real life. Another interesting aspect is that the novel was written almost 40 years ago. There was nothing about the use of Internet technology or space travel, for instance. What if the novel took place with contemporary understandings of culture and technology? In a workshop that was part of my project, some participants pointed out that the sexism of patriarchy described in the novel is very intense because the author reversed the sexism that existed in the time that novel was written in. However, I believe that sexism is still very predominant in the world that we’re living in now. Most of the issues that are problematised in this novel haven’t had significant progress, especially I would say, in the non-European/American parts of the world. I mean, I’m from South Korea and the intensity of sexism that I experienced while growing up was way more severe than what I witness here.
dd: How did you go about materialising some of the novel’s elements?
Back then, around two years ago, I was more at home in the field of industrial /product design. I was mainly interested in making things, whereas the novel contained a lot of garments. So, I teamed up with a fashion studying friend of mine, Alice Watel. The project was also supported by the organisation Day Day Gay, I mentioned them earlier. There is a big design event that goes on in Eindhoven each year and it’s called Dutch Design Week. In short DDW, in Dutch pronounced like “Day Day Way” – so that organisation twisted this into Day Day Gay, because they problematise that the design industry is so heteronormative. Day Day Gay supported us in exhibiting the project during Dutch Design Week 2018 in a small container in Strijp-S. I designed the objects and Alice designed the garments. I think the most provocative artefact was Peho, which is lingerie meant to be worn by Egalian menwim (this is how men are called in the novel) to secure their versatile genitals. We also designed a calendar based on the menstrual cycle, because we thought in a matriarchal world, religion would be based on the bodily qualities of wim. [In the novel the terms “woman” and “women” are replaced with “wom” and “wim”. In our conversation “wom” and “wim” stand for womxn.] It consists of 13 months and 28 days each. And then we also made two versions of a computer, one outdated computer of the 1960s and a second one that looks more like an iPad. The Internet and computer technology that we use nowadays is based on US military research. So, we were speculating, what would be a prototype of Egalian Internet and computer technology? We think it would be like some sort of remote working technology for the wims for their time of pregnancy when they don’t want to come into the office, a technical aid that supports them to still be active. The exhibition space looked like a living room filled with those objects. It was a bizarre scene, because those are not the objects that we use in our world. But also, if those objects that are formed in matriarchy are bizarre, this indicates that our material culture which is heavily relying on patriarchy, is equally bizarre. The main idea of this project was not about that we support matriarchy, but to provoke how ridiculous the world built for one of the binary genders is.
dd: Yes, most people who fit into certain norms don’t reflect on them. They don’t reflect upon how our world is built, because it just works for them. They can just easily navigate their home and the public space, without coming up against any difficulties. But as soon as you come across difficulties and you cannot use something in the way it was intended to be used, you start wondering: Why is it designed like that? So probably you created that kind of feeling for the visitors of the exhibition, maybe even for the first time in their life.
Exactly. During the design process we were really into the specificities of inequality between men and woman, but not really about the beings that don’t fit neatly in the gender binary, which includes myself. So later we questioned, if this project is actually queer. I think that could also be a shortcoming of the original novel that we referenced because there wasn’t any gay or queer depiction in that novel. This is one of the limitations of the project.
dd: Did you already think about this while you were designing those objects? If you should go into the space between, reflect on the spectrum between and beyond those binaries and how that would look like?
The moment when I really noticed the necessity of that was when we were doing a photoshoot for Peho. We were looking for people with a penis to work as a model for this lingerie. There was a transman without phallic genitalia who asked if he can be a model for Peho. I had a serious conversation about it with my fashion collaborator. She really wanted to have a phallus in the photoshoot, so we had to decline this model. I was feeling very bad. Even the Egalian garments are not inclusive when it comes to trans and non-binary beings. I really think that this is the biggest pitfall of this project. This realisation was a pivotal moment for all of us. I think there should be a second phase of this project. I wish that during my career there can be an opportunity for me to investigate the topic further. Like, what if Egalia was also queer-inclusive?
dd: And if it was, maybe it would be more about designers collaborating with the people who are actually going to wear these things? Because what now happened is, you designed it and then you went out looking for the person who fits into it.
Exactly. I mean, what this project referenced was a novel merely about a reversal of the patriarchal world, in which gender-non-conforming people were still excluded, and that was an excuse that we used for our naivety. If I was to do something that can supplement the constraint that the project has, I think it should be something completely different, something beyond just reversing the unequal relationship between men and women. This was the first gender-related project that I’ve ever committed on a scale like this. After that my research started diving more into queer topics. It’s now more about intersectionality.
dd: Can you tell us something about the more recent projects?
Let me introduce the Gendered Cable Manifesto that I wrote, designed, printed, published, – now it’s in multiple bookstore in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Eindhoven, Brussels and also in an independent SF library in New York City. It starts with the observation that we are not only gendering ourselves, but also objects, including the cables. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with calling cables male and female?
dd: No, actually not.
They are male and female, because solely because one end inserts the other. I was mind blown when I discovered this. I was actually looking for a proper description of these jumper cables for Arduino, to indicate a specific type of cable that I was searching for, and I realised that these are called “male to female” cables. And then I realised that there are a lot of terminologies that are beyond our political understanding. For instance, the Bluetooth module that controls multiple other Bluetooth modules is called the “master module” and the other one is called “slave module”. And these terminologies are still being used very often in the tech world, although, there are many alternative suggestions to replace them. I then critically reflected on the use of the concept of male and female and what it means if it operates like among humans. Apart from that, it’s extremely problematic that it reduces the concept of gender into the genital relationship. I discovered that there are also some differences: First of all, it’s not monogamous. They can make a limitless number of connections to each other. If I were to bring that back to human, it could be almost like an orgy, like a stadium full of people that are somehow intertwined with each other with their genitals. One cable can also have multiple setups of genitals because it always transports electricity from one place to another. If it’s a cable, it always has more than two connectors, a.k.a. genitals, so multiple sets of genitals. If it’s a male to female cable, for instance, the genitals themselves are very rigid. But in a way, it ambiguates the gender of a cable. I discovered some queer possibilities that we can learn from those cables. I mean, the cables are actually a bit more queer than us. Even though their genitals are labelled in a binary way, they are overcoming gender binary by having multiple sets of those. This reminds me of the signal that is used in computers, it’s based on digits 0 and 1. However, thanks to myriads of those 0 and 1 combinations we are having full colour tv and video channels now. I wanted to apply this to human life with the premise that human has multiple sets of genitals. I began speculating about what kind of architectural infrastructure or artefacts humans might use in case of having multiple genitals and maybe even orgies taking place.
The writer of the article that I previously mentioned, Paul B. Preciado, a wonderful scholar when it comes to the relationship between gender and space, he also wrote a very interesting article on how the spaces like brothels in the 19th century or the suburban American housing complex or the container of a contraception pill, too, are designed based on gender (Preciado’s lecture text). Partly inspired from this kind of analysis, I designed a sex chair for the individuals in this imaginary society where people have multiple genitals and I also imagined the architecture of a reproductive building. And I wrote a manifesto text that goes with these images. It starts as an analytical text about the points that I just described to you, but concludes with very speculative writing. From this, I began to look into how the concept of gender has been defining us and our material infrastructure.
dd: And the other way around.
Definitely. I don’t have profound knowledge of electronics, but a friend of mine who is really into the way circuits work investigated if there is gender-neutral instances of electronic connection. There is a circuit where the signal can go back and forth from one cable. By doing so, it creates a sort of feedback, like when you bring your microphone closer to your speaker (like the sound generated from the speaker, collected by a microphone and amplified again and again). Similar consequences happen, because of the unidirectional flow of electricity in this circuit. It’s fascinating to learn that this circuit is actually used in electronic music to create a sort of feedback sound. So, this investigation started from problematising gendered electronic cables and then moved to create new ways of living.
dd: Do you have a description of your practice? Is it design fiction?
Yeah, I would normally say it’s design fiction, but there are many different terminologies used by a lot of initiatives to describe this genre of designing things that don’t exist. I think the term speculative design is the most famous one. But I’m trying to reject it because it’s appropriated by big techs to speculate about the apolitical futures they envision. I think the point of involving fictional elements in design is to make it political. And if the fiction still has the power structure that we have now, then I wouldn’t call it fiction, because then it’s political nonfiction practiced by speculative designs that are driven by those big techs. Because it never questions the power structure of who owns the technology and who profits from it. So, I prefer to use the term of design fiction.
dd: You said that through involving fictional elements in the design it can become political. But is not all design already political?
Of course. Every artefact, every inch of design is political. But my point was if the initiative who designs that narrative actively questions the political dimensions of the ownership or the exploitative relationship that it forms. These days I see a lot of projects that just use back-to-the-future techno utopian views and styles, never politically questioning them.
dd: And therefore, reproducing what we already have.
Yes, exactly. I wrote in my CV: “In my design practice I inscribe myth for the underrepresented in various mediums”. I’m doing my best to be deliberately queer-biased, because the world is biased the other way around.
dd: That’s on point, yes. What you just said reminds me of a book by bell hooks, called Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre. In this book she explains how a practice (in her case feminism) has a great potential when it starts from the margins, because members of marginalised groups often have more and better insights into power dynamics and hierarchies than members of privileged groups. To start from the standpoints and perspectives of marginalised groups can therefore lead to understanding and exposing inequalities, and inform the creation of visions of more just worlds or futures.
I wish this was enough of a description of my practice. Also, I’m working on a COVID-19 related project that is about to be released. It’s in collaboration with Niet Normaal (Not Normal) Collective in the Netherlands. They curated the “Robot Love” exhibition last year. And now they’re planning a new virtual exhibition called “(Im)Possible Bodies”. My new project is part of that. That’s very much like economic science fiction with the premise of the virus being used as currency. But in that economic system, bats which are now being accused as the creature that transferred Coronavirus to us, play a very important economic role in that system because apparently, bats are so good at containing and distributing viruses in their body. The queerness of this fiction is that I define the distribution and sharing of a virus as also sharing kinship. Viruses do not only inject their DNA into our cells but also add or change a certain part of our DNA, the genetic information that is contained in our cell. Approximately eight percent of the human genome is derived from a species of viruses that have the ability to inject their DNA into their host’s gene. In my project, I defined the sharing of viruses as a sharing of genetic information, because if we share a virus, then we would also share certain parts of genetic sequences with others. This could be a way for us humans to share kinship not only through sex and reproduction of the population, but with sharing virus. This thinking is also influenced by Donna Haraway who says in her book, Staying with the Trouble: “Make kin, not population”. With that, I just want to emphasise that even though not all of my projects focus necessarily on queer subjects, it is always present in my perspective and methodology regardless of the topic that I deal with.
dd: This is also very true for our practice. At depatriarchise design we share a notion of working from within. Therefore we don’t look at intersectional feminism as a topic, but rather use it as a perspective that can be applied to a myriad of topics.
That also brings me to the questions: What is queer art? What is queer design? Is it queer art, because it is created by a queer artist or can a cis-hetero, white guy also produce queer art if they have a queer perspective?
dd: We get this question a lot: How does feminist design look like? We believe that it is best to avoid the essentialist approach that automatically assigns a feminist approach to projects by and about womxn. First of all, not all womxn are automatically feminists, and then there is also a variety of feminist approaches – which means: there is not the one and only feminist approach.
I think it’s very easy to define the thing that is already in power: heteropatriarchy. But usually, that without privilege is very badly articulated, like pixelated images. This comes back to the unidentifiable quality of queer.
dd: We don’t have the language to articulate it properly. The words that we have were created in this very hetero-patriarchal system that is based on binary thinking: that there is only men and women, whereby men define the standard and are seen as superior to women, and also that romantic relationships only unfold between the two of them, and not among men and men or women and women. I see a direct link here to design, because “[in] designing tools (objects, structures, policies, expert systems, discourses, even narratives) we are creating ways of being”, as Arturo Escobar says [my emphasis] in his book Design for the Pluriverse (2018). He refers to Anne-Marie Willis (2006) who called this “the double movement of ontological designing” – the world we design, designs us back.
Yes, exactly. With the tools (words) available to us it is then difficult to define what “queer” is.
dd: Yes. The thing is that words like “queer”, “gay”, “dyke” and so on were initially used against us queer people and then appropriated by us and turned around. Which is not as easy as it might sound: As a lesbian I know how difficult it can be to unlearn the internalised negative connotation that even the word “lesbian” has. But, to appropriate and own words can be really powerful, because then you define what these words mean and you refuse to leave this up to those who look down on you. What is interesting in your work is that, for example when it comes to the cables, you are doing exactly that: You appropriate something that is out there, for a queer purpose.
I think it’s an effective methodology that is not only being used by my practice. Also, if you talk about the bats: East Asians in this time of Covid-19 have been offended as “bat eating savages” who contributed to the spread of the virus. With the fact that I included the bats and the economic science fiction that I’ve written, I try to attempt to subvert that language like queer people, but also other minorities do.
Noam Youngrak Son are an Eindhoven-based designer. They inscribe myths for the underrepresented in various mediums, from books to performances to 3d printed sex toys. They are excited about the unexpectedness that a well-designed fiction can open up, and critical political discussions that it may cultivate. They use their capability as a designer to visualize and materialize the setup for the technological & ecological bodies in their fiction to play roles in.
Noam refuse to define their gender as neither exclusively male nor female. In other words, Noam socially, culturally refuse to be neither male nor female. Noam refuses every norm of gender-binary. Noam’s identity as a queer person of colour is one of the axes of their design practices.
They’re currently enrolled at Design Academy Eindhoven. Since September 2018, they’ve been running a self-publishing project d-act magazine, a quarterly publication that features their own design projects. The most recent issue of d-act magazine is being sold in 5 different cities internationally.