Dutch Design Week in Three Lexicons: Nadine Botha
Writer and editor Nadine Botha examines the language of the future, the paradoxical role of the designer, and the act of institutional refusal. When will design face the past, if not now?
Lexicon I: The Future
"If not now, then when?" Intending to dispel procrastination, the theme of Dutch Design Week 2019 follows the previous year's "If not us then who?" that sought to inspire us to take responsibility. The question and its green-and-black branding is plastered on walls, stuck on cars, distributed on handouts, flashed on screens, and shared online, connecting the more than 120 venues across the city of Eindhoven. Drawing over 355 000 visitors and exhibiting 2 600 designers annually, Dutch Design Week (DDW) is the largest design event in Northern Europe.
As the visitor numbers and venues increase year on year, so too does the need to manage the flow of people and information. This year the emphasis was on routes that connect venues of similar design discipline -- the bio design route, art and collectibles route, craft and new materials route, digital route, future living route, architecture and public space route, talent route, and social design route. Eindhoven's own public transport supports neither the visitor influx nor venue sprawl, necessitating DDW-chartered buses to connect venues like nodes, routing visitors themselves like information through a network. Treating people like information and navigating space by thematic tagged taxonomy introduces the same risks we have observed on our social networks: How do these different design disciplines and audiences avoid becoming self-justifying echo chambers? What of the pioneering work that falls outside the known information hierarchies? Should we aspire to homogenous communities and clusters to stimulate greater competition and depth, at the risk of creating othering separation, or do we distribute and diversify so as to create more interrelations and exchange, but possibly more flatness and tokenism? These are questions of our time, and pertain not only to digital reality, but to any time the logic of digital networks is applied to any context. Events like Dutch Design Week are opportunities to witness spatial performances of different information hierarchies.
It will be interesting to observe the urban impact of all this, but there is not a hint of either self-awareness or critical reflection on techno-solutionist strategies and accelerationist philosophy from the DDW, its organising body the Dutch Design Foundation (DDF), nor the hordes of technological "solutions" presented in the flagship venues. The flagship activity is concentrated in Strjp S, part of the disused Philips manufacturing campus that has been converted into a lifestyle complex. Here the Ketelhuisplein hosts temporary pavilions that demonstrate experimental building methods, while the Klokgebouw and Veem building house expo-like booths, pedestals grouped by institution or campaign, pop-up cafes, and seminar hubs. On the walls and hanging from triple-volume ceilings, banners bear words like 'optimistic', 'what if&', 'new', 'change', 'do' and 'future'.
On their websites, both DDF and DDW proclaim they are "optimistic and believe(s) in the problem-solving capabilities of the designer". "Dutch design" is neither a nationality nor (an) aesthetic, but an attitude of identifying "with a solution-oriented approach, functionality, humanism, free thinkers, brutality, humour, ability to put things into perspective, single-mindedness, not hindered by thinking in terms of hierarchical barriers, the unconventional". The virtues of some of these values are questionable, but nonetheless Dutch Design Week "concentrates on the design of the future and the future of design. It is so firmly entrenched in the future that the website bears is no record or documentation of previous years.
Maybe the future seems at odds with the theme -- "If not now, then when?" -- that appears to demand a present action. However, there is an implicit future in this call to action; it is a call to act on the future. As director Martijn Paulen explained in a press release: "In the field of technology, developments are moving faster than ever and the possibilities are endless. The economy is running at full speed again, there is good education, and society is opening up to innovation, change and improvement. In short, the future looks bright. At the same time, significant obstacles to urgent issues still need to be overcome and a clear impetus to action is needed. The question 'if not now, then when' applies more forcefully than ever."
Yet the future is not a universal temporality, but itself a designed cultural artefact. Consider for instance that in the West the future is considered ahead, while Mandarin speakers refer to it as below and the Aymara people of the Andes refer to the future as behind. As Hal Niedzviecki explores in his book Trees on Mars: Our Obsession with the Future, the future as a societal goal emerged during the industrial revolution, particularly in defining the ends of economic systems as fostering societal wealth and growth. These aspirations have become entangled in the consumption craze of the past 100 years, with selling and having more stuff becoming indistinguishable with a better society and world.
The future is also a projection of the past, and if the present is fleetingly acknowledged in the theme, it is the past that is chillingly absent. Critical race theorists like Kathryn Yusoff and Achille Mbembe have explored that the future is what is denied to a subject when objectified. This is one of Yusoff's criticisms of the Anthropocene, that it implies a future destruction of the world, a future that denies that extinction and world destruction for Black and Brown people already commenced with colonialism. Mbembe warns of the "becoming black of the world" in which every person of every race is becoming objectified by algorithmic surveillance capitalism. The past is not dead, like the societal biases we have seen mirrored in our technology and AI, the unconscious past lives on in our designs.
If not now, then when will design face the past?
Lexicon 2: The Designer
"How do you perceive the world around you, and which character do you play within that world?" These are the "two essential questions" faced by "today's designer" according to the Design Academy Eindhoven's graduation show introduction text. This was the second year that the school held its graduation show in the Campinaterrein [a disused milk factory], previously presenting it inside the school building. It was also the fourth year that the exhibition included an arena in response to students' increasingly intangible graduation projects - like performances and films -- and to foster a space for critical reflection. This year the programme was structured around a daily "panel discussion" and people sat in wooden church-like pews lined up in front of a narrow stage.
Navigating 181 projects is overwhelming, and for the first time the projects were not grouped according to departments, but curated around concepts, in the hope of making it easier for the visitor to engage with projects in batches. The 120 bachelor projects were grouped according to eight worldviews -- Channel Eight, Landscape Amnesia, Unknown Caller, Training Set, Seven Continents One Ocean, The Scavengers, Hidden Publics, and The Guests -- and the 61 Master's projects according to five design characters -- Performer, Critical Observer, Material Appropriator, Situated Agent and Empath.
The very fact that these themes do not reveal their meaning at first glance, points to an attempt to find a new language with which to speak about design -- in line with the Design Academy's stated vision of "designing design". The origins of the words are not credited in the explanatory texts printed on flags that hang from the rafters of the post-industrial landscape of the disused milk factory, but they seem to play from a larger post-humanist and critical theory glossary. For instance, the performer brings to mind Butler, the situated agent Haraway and the empath Braidotti. The worldviews seem to cluster projects around conceptual themes -- the projects in Training Set cluster around actor network theory, and The Guests around care theory -- but like Peter Sloterdijk's networks and spheres, they are all interlinked.
What is immediately striking, however, is the lack of the word "solution", or any functionality or utility in fact, in a discipline that has long distinguished itself from other creative pursuits accordingly. This is indicative of a discipline that finds itself at odds with its own existence. If design is to be considered a utopian world-making act, as per European design ideologies such as the Bauhaus, then what does it become when its primary strategy of making and selling more stuff proves to be destroying the world? Does it acknowledge itself as dystopian, design its own demise, or does it find a different utopian world-making strategy, and if so what, especially in this era of complexity?
This sense of design grappling with its own existence could be seen throughout Design Academy's presence at DDW, which stretches much further than its graduation show, and is arguably the biggest institutional footprint after the Dutch Design Foundation. Officially it would include the Geo Design Junk exhibition at Van Abbemuseum that extended into installations at various retail spaces, and the exhibition by the Re-source collective of places and traces readership. Unofficially, it is the countless graduates with open studios and self-initiated exhibitions at TAC, Sectie C and the like, and included in group exhibitions. This includes Object is Absent at MU, curated by and predominately featuring DAE graduates.
Are we placing too much stock in the designer, even in design's utopian ambitions? After all, the post-humanists themselves criticise the Anthropocene for placing too much stock in the action of the human species, neglecting not only the social, cultural and other intangible drivers, but also the entanglement with other species and ecologies. The limiting corollary of this is that the more it emphasises the need to not just be about humans, the more we're left to confront our own irrelevance. Is it a cheap trick by the politicians, to blame the designers, and the designers' false narcissism to underplay their own socio-economic entanglement? How do designers acknowledge their impotency without deepening their economic precarity?
It's important not only for design, but for the world's overflowing landfills, that these questions continue to be asked, even if it does bring design to a grinding halt. However, just as this self-critical turn in design warns against quick fixes and easy solutions, design should not settle for quick questions and one-dimensional answers. The standard criticism of post-humanism is that its good intentions acknowledges White colonialism's role in the Anthropocene, but then immediately resorts to an apolitical universalism that, by failing to acknowledge difference and power, unwittingly produces Whiteness. Design and designers needs to get dirtier, savvier and more self-reflexive about these political power differentials, to avoid repeating the injustices that have amounted to this point.
Can designers turn our critical gaze on themselves?
Lexicon 3: The Refusal
"How do you relate to what is not built for you? How can you see yourself in these spaces?" Amal Alhaag opens a roundtable conversation inside the This Is A Takeover: Researching Remix exhibition presented inside TAC by Metro54. A stained-glass installation by Leana & Funs replaced religious with urban culture iconography, inviting the question of "who can participate in the installation". A multimedia installation by Wes Mapes paired re-contextualised music and materials to examine the class dynamics of vernacular architecture. A photomural installation based on Sydney Rahimtoola's investigation of the folklore from the Dominican Republic played with the visual codes of black signification. The film Bukundu Gi Mi by Laeno Lashawn drew on influences from the Surinamese, Afro-diaspora and drag community to imagine a world that is free of racism, transphobia and other structural forms of discrimination.
With only these four works, the exhibition creates a very different temporality to the information-dense spaces of the rest of Dutch Design Week, a temporality that can easily be missed by a brisk walk through. It is the conversations, with audience and speakers sitting together in a circle on cardboard stools, that inhabit the exhibition space and time. Nonetheless, the conversation drew a small crowd -- Blackness does not have a route or even a legacy at DDW. On the walls are quotes credited to critical race scholars Katherine McKittrick and Alexander G. Weheliye, and decolonial sonic archivist DJ SCZ. A lot of attention has been paid to crediting sources and naming people who have inspired and assisted. Missy Elliot's lyric "Is it worth it?" ripples and glitches down the wall, with each repetition evoking a different meaning.
The conversation is full of words not heard anywhere else during DDW, like Black Atlantic, black and brown folk, fugitive, wayward, power, urban culture, cultural appropriation, hip-hop and colonialism. These words show a refusal of the DDW de facto, and introduce a pluralism to what is taken for granted. Metro54 itself took its name from the Amsterdam metro line that goes between the centre and Bijlmer, refusing both the centre and the periphery. Originally when founded, it would host its events in metro stations, refusing to work in institutions. Now it would seem to play more like that small stone in the shoe, refusing to be either the wearer or the shoe.
"It is not only about being able to see representations of oneself in these institutions," art historian and curator Vincent van Velsen pitches into the conversation, describing how he made a picture composite of all the staff pictures to be found on the websites of art museums in the Netherlands. It's about recognising oneself in the words. "Hip-hop music is very language-based and these narratives are far more relevant to me than most books, especially in Dutch. I like to think that this music feeds into my practice."
It's 4pm on a Saturday afternoon, and the next event on the programme is 'Designing For The End of the World'. It is not about the future, but the world that ended with colonialism.
Is it worth it?
Nadine Botha is a research designer and writer preoccupied with the unseen social, political, economic, scientific and cultural values embedded in taken-for-granted materials such as sugar and shit. Through installations, exhibitions, digital media, performances, publications, workshops, journalism and academia, she explores how these materials design our objects, bodies, homes, cities, technologies, experiences and knowledges. Based in Rotterdam, she is a recipient of the Creative Industries Talent Development Award 2019-20, and is a mentor at Design Academy Eindhoven. She launched her ongoing participatory research project Sugar: A Cosmology of Whiteness during Neuhaus at the Het Nieuwe Instituut in 2019. In 2018 she co-curated the 4th Istanbul Design Biennial--A School of Schools. She graduated with a Master's in Design Curating and Writing from Design Academy Eindhoven in 2017, winning the Gijs Bakker Award for her project, The Politics of Shit. Her writing has been published by the _Design & Culture Journal, Financial Times, Dirty Furniture, DAMN, Mold, MONU, Extra Extra, Design Observer _and Z33 research, among others. Originally from South Africa, she was previously editor of Design Indaba magazine, recognised as one of the top 100 most innovative magazines in 2009.