Climactic: Post Normal Design
AHMED ANSARI, DEEPA BUTOLIYA, AND KATHERINE MOLINE. OCTOBER 2016
The exhibition and symposium Climactic: Post Normal Design focuses on design and political activism surrounding issues of coloniality, crises around culture and race, and climate change in both the Global South and North. The curatorial premise of the exhibition is to engage audiences in thinking about the precarity of the age we currently live in, a precarity not in some small part due to the contemporary practices of design. Our exhibition, workshops and panel discussions present alternative models for design that broaden human capacity to understand and intervene in social and environmental crises. Climactic: Post Normal Design is co-organized by the CMU School of Design and Miller Gallery. It is the fourth iteration of a series of exhibitions and symposia initiated by Feral Experimental: New Design Thinking, shown at University of New Wales Galleries, Sydney, Australia, in 2014.
Three themes draw together the works in the exhibition and symposium; Climactic Change, Speculative Anything and The Anthropocene. Under the banner of Climactic Change, defined here as transformation that is the culmination of a number of divergent trajectories at the same time, the exhibition and symposium posit that design has failed to create a cogent practice that can tackle the nature of complex, global, and rapidly shifting futures. Often structured uncritically around the logics of coloniality at the foundations of the modern world-system, the design disciplines exist to uphold hierarchical structures that maintain the status quo of racist, sexist and class distinctions. In contrast, this exhibition and symposium bring together tacit and explicit design engagements with contemporary global challenges that are not only complex and multilayered, but are recognized as operating in different spheres: cultural, economic, and geopolitical. We see these spheres as connected to the social imaginary described by Cornelius Castoriadis and Arjun Appadurai, among others. When the social imaginary is defined by Appadurai as ‘central to all forms of agency’ and ‘the key component’ in globalization where the imagination is understood as a ‘social practice’ that is ‘no longer mere fantasy’, it is foregrounded as fundamental to the recasting of futures now possible in an era dominated by extreme weather, forced migration, and neoliberal economics.1 The curatorial team asks questions of our present capacity to develop and proliferate forms of design thinking that accommodate disparity, divergence and conflict, when these challenges are confronted on a global scale. What theoretical frameworks and practical examples of designerly agency demonstrate the available possibilities for addressing questions that connect to global events? How are designers to approach questions that link climate change in the Middle East to the creation of diasporas in Europe and the rise of conservative politics in North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia?
From the establishment of the Hochschule Ulm and the Design Methods Movement (if we can consider them originary landmarks), the 70-odd year history of design thinking is largely unchanged since Herbert Simon first proposed the definition of design as the movement from existing to preferred conditions, with ideal imaginaries in mind. We establish that this way of seeing futures as concrete things must shift from understanding the present as static, when the reality is the very opposite: the present changes continuously. Mindful of this fluid temporality the curatorial team has brought together a range of contemporary design alternatives that frame the future as unknowable from a present seen as unfixed and possibly unfixable.
The works assembled in the exhibition both tacitly and explicitly address the various dimensions of these rapidly shifting futurescapes of social upheaval and climactic change. For example, Design in Times of Crisis: OnÃria by Luiza Prado & Pedro Oliveira (2016) and Design in Times of Crisis: Algerinha Vive by Luiza Prado, Pedro Oliveira & Rafael Arrivabene (2016) question the idea of design fictions by drawing inspiration from interviews and media reports on Brazil. The works explore the imaginaries of communities that exist on the fringes of the modern world-system, and involve disenfranchised populations that, while often the subject of dystopian futural fictions, have their experiences and views rarely represented in those very fictions. Drawing Together Indigenous Futures by Tristan Schultz (2016) maps what cultural competency looks like from Indigenous perspectives, and how it might be activated as an event in process across a university. The cognitive map reflects commonalities-in-difference between a Canadian First Peoples Knowledge, Australian Indigenous Knowledge, and a Western conception of transformative knowledge. In this way, the map becomes a ‘mediating object’ for future intercultural conversations. The Possibility of Islands by Cairo based designer and architect Manar Moursi (2013) considers islands from a number of perspectives to create a survival prototype in the event of a tsunami engulfing the city of Tokyo, Japan. Rather than attempt to maintain a hard boundary between land and sea, repurposed plastic-crate islands accommodate both, and do so with the excess of plastic that may have contributed to global warming in the first place. Myths of the Near Future: CCTV by Katherine Moline (2015-2016) collects stories about the social imaginary of surveillance technologies, and the role that digital recording devices play in reframing the city as a public space where diverse communities are both monitored and connected. In the context of recent crime reports in the media the work suggests that surveillance technologies, such as CCTV, is an infrastructure and a technology with which to create new narratives of inclusion at urban intersections.
A second group of works brought together in ‘Climactic: Post Normal Design’ address the notion of Speculative Anything. These are designs that challenge the canons and lexicons of design thinking that are largely dominated by white, middle-class men – and therefore dismiss or trivialize the discourses that engage design in issues of race, gender, and class. We see little genuine collaboration with other disciplines and professions on an equal footing with design and we question how mainstream speculative critical design practice distinguishes itself from design’s racist, sexist and classist foundations. In response to the homogeneity of contemporary design discourse, especially in response to the challenges and critiques posed by critical and speculative design practices in recent years, we propose that alternative ways of thinking, such as the idea of ‘pluriversal studies’ described by Arturo Escobar, open up futural alternatives that are relevant to the majority of world populations who are marginalized in current design practices.2 Thinking pluriversally entails rethinking practices of design that take in ways of understanding the world that are inclusive of the voices of those who have been marginalized within discourses of contemporary practice. According to Escobar, what this global pluriversality also entails is developing models of sustainability and discourses for transition that are not only embedded in ‘inter-connectedness and interdependencies of ecology’ but also ‘advocate for a diverse economy that has a strong base in communities’.3 The curatorial team has assembled a wide range of works from around the world with the aim to include pluriverses that draw on science fiction, ancient traditions and celebrate make-do culture.
Works such as Night School on Anarres by Onkar Kular and Noam Toran with Nestor Pestana (2016) explore the Utopian proposal of twentieth-century anarchism in Ursula K Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed (1974). As an experimental workshop commissioned by Kings College, London, Night School on Anarres imagines how language can create a way of life that doesn’t employ notions of possession and ownership. Instead of the proprietary norms of capitalism, the workshop speculates on anarchic principles free of political parties and government. Because ownership has been eradicated with the erasure of money, and the allocation of work is governed by a computer, residents of Anarres represent the subtitle of Le Guin’s novel: ‘an ambiguous utopia’. Horizon, Open Fires by Liliana Ovalle / Colectivo 1050º, (2015) presents the reality of a matriarchal village in Mexico upholding ancient traditions in ceramics production where decoration is produced with the black traces of smoke and coal, a permanent imprint of the fire they are exposed to. Mangala For All by Superflux (2015) is a project that brought to the surface assumptions in Western media about the right of a nation such as India, led by pioneering women in science, to work around the costs of the space race. Auto Raja: A sustainable community driven Rickshaw Service by Shisti Labs (2013) proposes an entrepreneurial platform for Auto Raja drivers whose average wage is a few hundred rupees (less than fifty US dollars) a week. New Channel: Wishing Game by Tie Ji and Hunan University (2013) draws communities together to celebrate traditions that are disappearing as younger populations relocate to urban centers for employment. Jugaard and Jua Kali tactics that refute conceptions of design as status-enhancing ever-new objects, are explored in Eyewear by Cyrus Kabiru (2016). In a number of works, students of Speculative Critical Design at Carnegie Mellon University (2016) suggest that Post-Critical Design pushes the envelope of critical design practice by incorporating the theme of the pluriverse and thus challenge how Critical Design is practiced by North American universities. The Critical Jugaard mask by Deepa Butoliya (2016) taps into the potential of criticality practiced as a part of everyday make-do culture and frames jugaad as a tool for political resistance. The futural aspects of everyday ingenuity are projected through these seeds of resistance mobilized by design that is by everyone, and for everyone. The alternate futures are an extrapolation of alternate presents, and suggest the future most likely: one where everyday ingenuity replaces corporate systems. Guftugu by Ahmed Ansari and Mehwish Zara Zaidi (2016) takes a long term view and documents a conversation between two design scholars, one in the US and one in Pakistan, about the changing global nature of design practice and education. Likewise, Mapping Transition by Terry Irwin and Laurene Vaughan (2016) presents a workshop finale for the exhibition that maps the next phase of Transition Design envisioned by Terry Irwin for Carnegie Mellon University.
In deep considerations of design in the era of The Anthropocene, we take stock of different practices that have developed in response to situations where the nature of changing artificial/biological systems has become increasingly uncertain and the stakes high. Taking seriously the evidence for climate change in both the Global South and North, and of the increasing complexity of ecologies and environments that are neither totally natural, nor totally technological, we ask what new design practices might emerge to reverse and correct the rate, scale, and depth of ecological change? What alternatives to traditional ways of thinking about sustainability and survival, what strategies for coping and dealing with the rapidly shifting landscapes and ecosystems of a changing planet, have designers proposed in recent years? Of particular relevance in 2016: how can designers begin to make sense of this new, artificially created epoch, especially as it affects those parts of the world that are least equipped to deal with its changes? Inspired by the claim that ‘Disparate times call for disparate measures’, and the recognition that nature is by definition ‘unstable’ by McKenzie Wark, this selection of work provides alternatives for reimaging what is possible now.4
Works such as Gandi Engine Commission by the Tentative Collective (2015) recreate a walk to reflect on the waste and refuse that cities produce and dump into the Ravi river in Pakistan. It brings attention to the local and global circulation of waste in the service of neoliberal capitalism, and its relation to the continued suffering of the people who live on the banks of these flows of refuse. Energy and Co-Designing Communities (ECDC) by the Interaction Research Studio, Goldsmiths University of London (including William Gaver, Mike Michael, Tobie Kerridge, Liliana Ovale, Matthew Plummer Fernandez, Alex Wilkie, and Jennifer Gabrys) (2010-2014) worked with communities such as Whitehill Bordon Eco Town and Low Carbon Living Ladock to provoke debate about the increasingly alarming statistics of global pollution. It explored the Anthropocene as the epoch when the climate created by human activity may be further modulated by reformed activity, and imagined and lived alternatives. Shenango Channel (2015) by Create Lab, Carnegie Mellon University, documents toxic emissions by the energy company DTE Shenango Coke. According to ACCAN (Allegheny County Clean Air Now), the DTE Shenango Coke exceeds permitted emissions each week.1 At regular intervals DTE Shenango loses power which necessitates emergency venting and flaring for close to an hour, despite promises to stop power failures. As a result of these power failures neighborhoods downwind of the plant are exposed to toxic and carcinogenic emissions. In contrast, Design-Antropologisk Innovations Model / The Design Anthropological Innovation Model (DAIM) by Joachim Halse, Eva Brandt, Brendon Clark and Thomas Binder (2008-2010), informed by anthropological field studies, developed the User-Driven Innovation Box to reimagine collaboration with design users and waste management companies in Copenhagen. The Sensitive Aunt Provotype by Laurens Boer/Jared Donovan (2012) presents a provotype as a provocative prototype to encourage discussion about the ideal temperature with which to engage producers of climate control in Denmark. The Free Universal Construction Kit by Golan Levin and Shawn Sims (2012) extends the value of toys from childhood to tweenage years by providing two-way adapters that connect 10 popular construction kits, such as Lego, Fischertechnik and Tinkertoys and encourage new connections between otherwise closed systems. Similarly, BIOdress by Sara Adhitya, Beck Davis, Zoe Mahony, Raune Frankjaer, Tricia Flanagan (2014) links humans to plants by a dress and provides a heightened understanding of the environment’s quantitative state. In this the collaborators develop a broader exploration of interspecies communication and an approach to sustainable design that moves beyond the Anthropocene.
The exhibition ‘Climactic Post Normal Design’ challenges the weak logic of design thinking and aims to shift design debate from thinking about progressive design objects to reflecting critically on the design processes that exclude most of the world’s population from the debate. In sum, we hope that exhibiting this collection of works, and the discussions we hope to generate around them, expose design discourse to critical self-reflection, and seed the grounds for more radical discourses from the margins of design practice. Our aim is to challenge the design mainstream towards creating more diverse, fairer and better alternatives to the kinds of futures we have open to us today.
1. Arjun Appadurai, 1996, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, p31.
2. Arturo Escobar, 2011, Sustainability: Design for the pluriverse, Development, 54(2), pp. 137–140, p.138.
3. Escobar, A., 2012, Notes on the Ontology of Design. In Sawyer Seminar, Indigenous Cosmopolitics: Dialogues about the Reconstitution of Worlds, organized by Marisol de La Cadena and Mario Blaser, October (Vol. 30).
4. McKenzie Wark, 2015, Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene, Verso, London, p.i, p.200.