A 'Reparative Reading' of DDW 2019: Gabriel A Maher & Carly Rose Bedford
CRB: We're going to do an interview and conversation about your experience of Dutch Design Week 2019. As I understand it, you wanted to have a conversation rather than write a review. You want a different way of reading the Design Week phenomenon what did you call it?
GM: A 'reparative reading', as an alternative to a 'paranoid reading'Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (London, 2003), p.123. where there is the expectation of critique. A reparative reading contrasts with familiar academic protocols like maintaining critical distance and rather enables an opening or enlargement towards encounters with forms of knowledge that depart from the confident pronouncements of professional critics. Instead of maintaining a critical distance, l wanted to enter into a close reading that could allow a subjective or personal 'thinking / feeling' approach to come forward, hence the idea for a conversation, giving permission to informality, perhaps enabling some emotion, or direct, naïve, gut reactions.
I'd like to zoom in to work that was moving and affective that should be given more of a platform; the kind of work that you want to see communities gather around. Work that centred around subjectivity and lived experiences that exist outside of the dominant narrative of the design week phenomena. That's where things become slippery in Dutch Design Week, because it's such an object-oriented experience, let's say, or an object-oriented overwhelm. By bringing that closer together, I felt like we could touch on something, maybe that's lacking, and in that see a type of 'concrete utopia' or 'reading' of possible futures. Having said that, I'm interested in critiquing Design Week as a phenomenon.
CRB: Have you ever deconstructed or critiqued any design events before?
GM: Yes, I definitely have. I think the first in-depth look at the phenomena of design weeks was looking at one of the largest design fairs in the world, the Milan Salone del Mobile. That was a couple of years ago, but it was a really interesting process, to do a deep dive into all the promotional material, web platforms, object lists and names from Salone product libraries. I deconstructed the official website which hosts all promotional material and communication for the fair. It's an incredible archive which charts both technical and emotional information relating to the design fair, including press releases, interactive maps, brand catalogues, product libraries, inspirations, advertisements, interviews, as well as exhibition, visitor, exhibitor and media information. Its extensive material was very much mediating a kaleidoscope of consumer goods through design ideologies and 'novel concepts for living'.
It was fascinating to see how things were framed, conceptualised, and positioned through language and representation. I particularly noticed how it demonstrates a dichotomy between design ideologies and the general output of consumer products. I saw endless stenography, showcasing props for living (table, bed, container) surrounded by linguistic values that went beyond their form; for example, phrases like, 'ethical and social commitment', 'design of the future', 'improve people's quality of life', and, 'the most meaningful and profound issues of contemporary society'. It created an epic kind of progress narrative, and I thought, wow, what an interesting discrepancy between the things being put forward and the underlying ideologies for specific privileged and exclusive identities. For me, this became an absurd script.
CRB: Did you see a similarity between the self-producing narrative of Milan and Dutch Design Week?
GM: I think they're quite different in the way they pitch themselves. You see a repetition of some form, so Milan is unabashed in its consumerist logic and logics of display - that's my naïve, generalised perception of it - while Dutch Design Week has a bit more of a decentralised or localised approach. Maybe that's because it's specifically positioned in Eindhoven, a producer-maker city. In the last few years I've particularly noticed a pitch towards a social, political, cultural vernacular. However, it's very often reiterating the production and reproduction of objects even under that kind of premise.
CRB: How do you relate to Dutch design in general?
GM: That's a really nice question because, of course, I am a designer. I've participated in Design Week in terms of sharing and showing work, however I always have quite an awkward relationship with it. It's an incredibly overwhelming experience on many levels, and I never really understood why that was until I started to consider how my personal or subjective response was at odds to it. When I brought that closer together and looked at it through the eyes of my lived experience, the awkwardness was clearer. To frame my lived identity a little bit, I identify as a queer, non-binary trans person. I'm from a working-class background, I'm able-bodied and I'm white, which affords great privilege, but my relationship to gender, sexuality and class is where I experience a disorientation in relation to design weeks, as well as the design industry and design education in general. I see and approach the design world from these positions, especially because there is still a very dominant overarching narrative of normativity, as in the white, middle-class, hetero-normative, cis-gendered, male-dominated baseline.
I know I'm saying that in general terms, but that's a general flood that runs through this context. When your subjective experience doesn't align with the principles of that kind of narrative, you could feel like you're viewing it as a confused outsider. I became more and more uncomfortable with consuming it, taking it all in, while not recognising any of my own narratives or positions represented. In short, I don't relate to the phenomena.
CRB: How do you navigate the scale of Design Week?
GM: It's interesting because this year I really avoided 'going to see things' at Dutch Design Week. I navigated the landscape through fragmented and distributed frames. I think what is avoided or what's turned away from says quite a lot. There is much I missed in this rebellion or retreat, but when following lines of desire (as Sara Ahmed prefaced Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomonology: Objects, Orientations, Others (London 2006), p. 19) and coming from a need to feel reflected, visible, or seen - a need, in fact, to 'feel' something - the scope is small. Rebellion, or retreat and lines of desire have a directional quality -- a turning towards those moments or things or spaces where your identity or position is acknowledged or held in some way. It is certainly desire that helps generate a queer and intersectional landscapes, a ground that is shaped by the paths that are followed in deviating from the straight line or normative frames. I navigated with blinkers on, trying to locate safer spaces where language is used well, where communities are supported, where knowledges are produced within queer, feminist, intersectional, and decolonial frameworks. That shapes how you orientate some works and not others. In saying that, it's quite compelling to unpack what I turned toward, and how this reveals what is lacking within Design Week from a particular relational perspective.
CRB: You're centring lived identity and experience in how you navigate the works, which sounds like quite an important way to orient. How much do you centre 'feeling' in relation to viewing works?
GM: 'Feeling' and sensitivity are almost the thing I'm craving - a thinking, feeling approach. When confronted with so much visual information, I disconnect easily, but I still feel like what I oriented towards were the works and practitioners who brought the reading, interpretation, or exchange closer to a lived experience, or to a subjectivity or personal orientation. They spoke directly from that position and they built conditions around it. Then the connection for me is established, and it becomes experience based.
CRB: It also sounds a little bit like the words that come to mind when you're saying this are risk and honesty. Does that resonate for you?
GM: Yeah, there's something in that. When your identity is on the line (because it's at odds with a norm), a vulnerability or risk is foregrounded, but it's powerful when we speak from that position. There's always a risk in being really honest; there's a risk in doing this interview. It's profound because there are lots of cloaks and veils in Design Week and there's a lot of adherence to established ways of doing things. Honesty and vulnerability, allowing that to be seen and shared, and for that to be given space.
CRB: Can you describe your experience or feelings towards the works you did see?
GM: There were three works in particular that I found very powerful and moving. One was the exhibition and experimental programme of Metro54, _This is a Take Over: Researching Remix. _Another was _Striptopia _by Maggie Saunders, a graduate of the Social Design Masters at Design Academy Eindhoven. Another was Mona Alcudia's _Peacock Chair _from the Contextual Design Masters at the academy - a powerful comment on decolonisation and southeast Asian identity.
What I took from these works was how they immediately disrupted the established narratives of DDW. The stance was questioning from the beginning, like in _Researching Remix _with its prompt, 'Is it worth it? Let me work it, I put my thing down, flip it and reverse it - (Missy Elliot)'. It opened with a reading of binary notions of how design is seen in contemporary culture. The exhibition gave space to thinking through remixes as a research method that could offer ways to produce alternative culture, design and art from a decolonial lens. Being in that space, listening to the curators, artists, performers and exhibition designers talk about their work and experience within Design Week was important. The dialogues ruptured the whole neutrality of the Design Week story.
Is it worth it? Of course, it's a duel thing. We all need visibility and exposure, but how do we navigate inside an ecology, inside a landscape that's not wholly acknowledging certain lived experiences and continues to perpetuate 'lifestyle' experiences that are at the cost of somebody else? That's just not addressed.
Perhaps, in light of this, we should have a conversation around the process of the pedagogic practice. Speak about the process of creating work that is specifically driven by lived experiences and identities that exist outside the dominant narrative of schools, the design industry, and institutional structures. When your work is not just the work but your lived experience on the line; there's a different tension built into the design process. You and I are coming from outside that kind of narrative so I think that could be really interesting to unpack.
CRB: We could discuss the design process of , as we became mentors and supporters of Saunders' work about halfway into it. She is an expert in a field that, from the outset, isn't given the credibility that it should because of other power dynamics that judge female sexuality. What I think is so interesting is her position - she is an expert on creating spaces conducive to seduction, creating respect between dancer and client to make an atmosphere that was enjoyable for both. She earned her living like that for a long time, so what she brought to this project was not a critique of the stripping industry, but a critique of another power dynamic that had lodged itself in there and made it toxic. That was the fact that 90% of these clubs are owned by cis men.
Saunders used all of her expertise and design sensibility to analyse and create systems that would remove the element that disempowered dancers. That was something that was difficult to watch in the framework of the academy because of the attachment to a reading of stripping as something that had to be justified and legitimised first. This produced a critical process which could be harmful. What we experienced was that Maggie was subject to a different form of critique than a lot of other students, so it was amazing to watch her persevere in spite of not fitting in to the general discourse.
Striptopia disrupted a context that is often harmful towards stripping - and that's not the consumption of the bodies. Rather, it's the perception people have around consuming this service, and what that engagement means - that perception creates a difficult environment. We were sitting in Striptopia and I saw a grandmother, and three young guys, and two young women, and saw everybody enjoying it and taking pleasure from it - because they were allowed to, because it is a space of permission and of openness. It became very pleasurable, and the strippers were seen, in that light, as experts. Nobody could do what they were doing on that pole, and that was a moment where we were in there for over an hour and I didn't see anybody walk out in distress. The space was held in a really specific way. And that, for me, is super healing.
CRB: Which reminds me, you were part of a panel for the Arena at the Design Academy during DDW, where you discussed what needs be considered in order to facilitate voices and projects like Striptopia. Can you elaborate on this discussion?
GM: The premise of this panel was to sketch the past, present and (ideal) future of the design discipline, as well as how we positioned our role as designers and cultural practitioners, at this moment in time. I felt strongly about this moment as a practitioner and educator whose lived experience is not part of the dominant narratives of design or education, and especially as an educator who has directly witnessed the challenges faced by students who occupy positions outside these narratives. You and I often teach together, and we occupy very similar social positions, so we work with students in a way that advocates 'reflexive' pedagogic practices like (self) positioning and accountability, and methods like consent-based feedback and collaborative learning. I wanted to put forward these methods as 'reparative' rather than 'paranoid' and preface an urgency that educational institutions need to address. This discussion centred around critique towards institutional practices and structures. Critique, however, was positioned as a form of love -- words we've both said many times -- and approaching critique in this way opens a space where critique is welcome, where we are held in it, where we can stay with the trouble and discomfort it brings. In terms of institutional critique, just like love it's sometimes risky, but comes from the heart and ultimately, when done well, is centred around care. Not necessarily care for the institution itself but for those who do, and will, come to participate within its walls.
This process of love and critique is super important right now, especially when institutions promote social and political work, and the students engage in work that reflects their lived experience, that needs to be held properly and it cannot be done unless the institution engages in self-critique, positioning and accountability. To say it again, a dominant narrative that institutions reflect, is one that privileges a white, hereto-normative, cis-gendered, able bodied and middle class -- of course this is not about individuals, it is about structures -- structures themselves are not personal -- but it's about who's identity and position benefits from the dominant narrative and are therefore is privileged by it. Within an institutional context, this privilege translates as occupying a position that is seen as 'neutral'. It is not neutral, it is a position and one that needs unpacking. The institution must take the labour off the students, and the teachers that occupy positions outside dominant narratives (by investing time, money, resources, representation, advocacy, equity) and hosting a multitude of positions within an academy is vital. This is the labour of the institution. Punt!
Carly Rose Bedford
Carly Rose Bedford is a multidisciplinary artist (AU/NL) whose practice consists of performance, sculpture, research and curation. Bedford's work examines sites where power is produced and naturalized under the premise of normalcy. Parallel to a sculptural practice, Bedford investigates methods for institutional critique that consider ways to engage and transform power structures standardized within institutions through a process of pedagogical exchange, positioning, workshops and exhibition making, showing work nationally and internationally at institutions such as the Palais du Tokyo (2017), the Stedelijk Museum (2019) and TENT Rotterdam. Bedford's work has been supported by the Australian Arts council, Ian Potter Foundation, Amsterdam Fonds for the Kunst and the Mondriaan Fund, and was recently awarded the MK Award.
Gabriel .A. Maher is a designer currently living and working in the Netherlands. With a practice based on interior architecture and social design, Maher's work centres on critical and analytical approaches to design and research, considering the effects of design and designing on bodies and the shaping of identity within this sphere. Maher investigates relationships between bodies and spaces, objects, systems and media narratives, deconstructing objects, spaces, sites, material artefacts or technologies to reveal how we - as individuals and communities - are positioned, organized and directed through design and media systems. These deconstructions are articulated in a visually analytic way and materialized as critical tools for dialogue. Maher's approach questions design and media practices through queer and feminist frameworks, seeking to articulate, physicalize and activate this position through situations where research and design come together in performance.