Estando en Helsinki para el NORDES tuve el placer de charlar con Mariana Salgado en Diseño y Diáspora sobre el cuidado como una activación de otros diseños posibles: aquellos que aparecen pensando desde la diversidad funcional en En torno a la silla o desde el re-aprender a diseñar para todxs.
Diseño y Diáspora: El podcast de diseño social en español y portuñol. Conversaciones entre una diseñadora y Otros: a veces amigos, a veces investigadores en diseño, la mayoría de las veces diseñadores trabajando en innovación social o en practicas de diseño emergentes. Desde Helsinki, con ganas por Mariana Salgado.
#79: Diseñando para la diversidad funcional
En esta charla Tomás Criado nos cuenta sobre su trabajo en el ámbito del diseño desde la antropología. Él es antropólogo con especialización en STS (estudios de ciencia y tecnología). Trabaja en la Universidad de Humboldt en Berlín (Alemania). Nos explica conceptos como el cuidado, la diversidad funcional y las tecnologías de la amistad. A la vez describe algunos proyectos de diseño concreto en los que se comprometió luego del 15M, en España. Nos convoca a pensar el diseño desde la incertidumbre y entender los vínculos que se producen en procesos de diseño colaborativos. Al final de la entrevista también hablamos de la enseñanza de diseño a partir de un proyecto donde exploró con alumnos el diseño en situaciones de crisis.
Séverine Marguin, Henrike Rabe, Wolfgang Schäffner and Friedrich Schmidgall have recently edited a compilation in German featuring interesting and relevant work in different creative disciplines foregrounding modes of experimenting.
Forschen und Gestalten sind experimentelle Vorgehensweisen, die darauf ausgerichtet sind, etwas Neues, noch nicht Existierendes hervorzubringen. Sie haben beide Projektcharakter, denn sie führen an einen Nullpunkt des Wissens. Doch welche Strategien und Verfahren sind es, die aus diesem Nichtwissen, diesen Vermutungen und Ideen zu konkreten Ergebnissen führen?
ForscherInnen aus 23 Wissenschafts- und Gestaltungsdisziplinen berichten in diesem Band über ihr Experimentieren und geben Einblicke in ihre Praktiken und Versuchsaufbauten. Er bietet damit eine Bestandsaufnahme zeitgenössischer Experimentalkulturen im Spannungsfeld zwischen Wissenschaft und Gestaltung und skizziert eine Praxeologie des Experiments.
Erfahren: Experimente mit technischer Demokratie in Entwurfskursen
In diesem Aufsatz erzählen wir von pädagogischen Herausforderungen, denen wir an einem der größten deutschen Institute für Wissenschafts und Technikforschung (STS), dem 2013 an der Technischen Universität München gegründeten Munich Center for Technology in Society (MCTS), begegnet sind. Konzipiert als „integratives Forschungszentrum“ mit Lehrstühlen an verschiedenen Fakultäten, will das MCTS nicht nur verschiedene STSTraditionen unter einem Dach zusammenbringen, sondern auch mit Formen der Kollaboration und Intervention in den Natur- und Technikwissenschaften experimentieren. Zwischen 2015 und 2018 lehrten wir an der Fakultät für Architektur, wo wir einen vom STS geprägten stadtanthropologischen Ansatz zu aktuellen Herausforderungen technischer Demokratisierung vertraten. Im Folgenden möchten wir experimentelle Strategien aufzeigen, die bei den Entwurfskursen für Masterstudierende der Architektur zum Einsatz kamen. Unsere Experimente hatten ein zentrales konzeptionelles Anliegen: die Bedeutung und die Möglichkeiten von technischer Demokratie für die Ausbildung zukünftiger EntscheidungsträgerInnen in Sachen gebaute Umwelt entfalten.
Thanks to the joyful invitation by Joanna Latimer & Daniel López–possibly two of the best editors in the planet, capable of hosting the nicest people and make all of us enjoy wonderful and lively debates–, I am honoured to take part in their absolutely flabbergasting Sociological Review monograph ‘Intimate Entanglements’ with an impressive line-up. Do not miss this one!
The monograph focuses on rethinking the relation between “the abstract and general connection between entanglement and knowledge-making by grounding it within specific sociomaterial relations”, proposing us to pay special attention to intimacy not as a category of the local and experiential as opposed to the scientific or universal. Instead, as the editors suggest, “by foregrounding what is often made invisible in extant accounts of how knowledge is done, the authors explore how a focus on affect restructures possibilities for more situated knowledge, that involves non-anthropocentric modes of relatedness in a wide range of substantive domains and communities of practice”.
My own humble contribution to this collective effort is a particular ode, entangling intimately with the practices and spaces of ‘mutual access’ we pried open when searching to inhabit En torno a la silla.
Technologies of friendship: Accessibility politics in the ‘how to’ mode
This text is an ethnographic account of a singular, Barcelona-based activist endeavour called En torno a la silla (ETS): a do-it-yourself and open design and making collective engaging in a very peculiar form of accessibility politics beyond a ‘disability rights’ framework. In it, I entangle intimately with ETS’s relational interventions, in the form of making and documentation processes. What animates me is a political engagement with the practice of ‘re-description’, paying attention to the singularity of what relational vocabularies and practices bring to the fore. In describing the context of its appearance, as well as several of the collective’s endeavours, I address ETS’s relational register. Rather than being a clear-cut activist group with the aim of materialising the ‘inclusion’ of ‘disabled people’ through ‘technical aids’, ETS engaged in producing what they called ‘technologies of friendship’: frail and careful material explorations opening up interstitial relational spaces of ‘mutual access’ between bodily diverse people. Through circulating tutorials, poetic accounts, digitally and in workshops and presentations, ETS’s technologies of friendship became also ways of addressing how relations can be materialised and reflexively described, making available in its wake ways to re-enact them. Thus it produced an inspiring ‘how to’ accessibility politics: a material-political concern with the speculative opening up and materialisation of conditions for the very happening of relations, relating at the hinges of unrelatability.
This article has benefited from a series of kind spaces functioning as ‘technologies of friendship’ in themselves. I would here like to warmly thank: Isaac Marrero Guillamón and the 2016 Goldsmiths’ Anthropology ‘Research >< Practice’ seminar series; Gonzalo Correa and the 2016 MA in Social Psychology students at the Universidad de la República in Montevideo; Marisol de la Cadena and the attendees at a 2017 UC Davis ‘STS Food for Thought’ event; Joanna Latimer, Daniel López, and the commentators at the 2018 ‘Intimate Entanglements’ workshop in York; and a 2018 seminar of the CareNet group in Barcelona, all of whom greatly helped me finetune the article’s main ideas. I dedicate this account to my friends from En torno a la silla, in the hope that this could serve to bring ourselves closer to yet-to-be-found intimate others.
The Nordic Design Research Society (Nordes) organises its 8th biannual conference next 3–4 June 2019 at the Aalto University in Helsinki (Finland), under the timely topic ‘Who cares?‘, whose call looks fantastic:
What do, or should, we care about in design and design research today? Underpinning the question are issues of culture and agency – who cares, for whom, and how? Taking care, or being cared for, evokes the choice of roles, and processes of interaction, co-creation and even decision-making. Caring, as a verb, emphasizes care as intention, action and labor in relation to others. Care can be understood as concern for that beyond oneself, for others and, thus, human, societal and even material and ecological relations are at stake. The question of care is also a call for questioning relationships, participation and responsibility, democratic and sustainable ways of co-existing. From this expansive societal standpoint, we could even ask who cares about design? And what should we do about it? The 8th biennial Nordes conference poses the question, “Who cares?”, exploring related questions, issues and propositions concerning responsibilities, relationships, ways of doing and directing design today.
In the 2019 Nordes conference, we draw inspiration from notions of care as a lens through which to reflect upon and critique as well as potentially to refocus and redirect design and design research. Care might be understood in relation to philosophical lines of inquiry in other disciplines exploring theories, politics and ethics of care. Care might be understood concretely in relation to the ideals and infrastructures of welfare and healthcare systems, or service interactions. Care might be understood personally as a mindset seeking out what is meaningful for people, and for life, and with design as reflective and skilled action concerned with improving things and preferred situations.
Thanks to the generous invitation of the organising committee I will have the immense honour to act as one of the keynote speakers, contributing to one of the main themes of the conference: ‘How to care?’ (Care and care-ful materials, methods and processes in design and design research) – For this, I will be sharing my anthropological work on and my different modes of engagement with inclusive design (see the text of my intervention below)
HOW TO CARE?
Keynote speech, 3.06.2019, Helsinki (published online on 9.04.2020)
Before anything, I would like to warmly thank the organizing committee of the NORDES conference for their kind invitation to speak here today.
When I received your proposal I thought this was a fantastic occasion to attempt to think collectively on how to care in and through design practice. But also, an occasion to think through the recent popularization of the term.
Why such a recent fuzz about ‘care’, you might ask?
As the organizers of the conference have aptly identified, care has indeed begun to pop up in many design domains and situations beyond the arena of social and health-care services. And the concept is now being vindicated when discussing particular modes of architectural and design practice: ranging from participatory approaches to discussions around the ecological crisis as requiring designers of all kinds to engage in ‘critical care’.
Care, hence, has become a politically and morally-laden vocabulary for designers to engage with issues of energy transition, environmental concerns and social inclusion. This interesting expansion of the term is indeed bringing about interesting new repertoires of action for designers, but also newer problems: it is sometimes used as an all-purpose and generic term. Having worked in the vicinity of different uses of this term by professional and amateur architects and designers in the last decade, I have trained myself to pause a bit whenever I hear it being used.
To me, care as a concept has a very specific origin in the feminist politicizations searching to make palpable our constitutive vulnerability and to grant value to the ecologies of support and interdependence put in place to sustain our lives. As such, this term not only highlights the practices that can lift what might be heavy, might serve to protect and support. But also it is a fraught terrain with a very thorny legacy of asymmetries and further violence: sometimes, when coupled with a clear-cut knowledge of what needs to be done and how, care could also be a way of imposing understandings of what it might mean to lead a good life or a good death. Perhaps the best thing we might keep in mind is that, as the saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.
Hence, in what follows I will invite you to share a reflection that, at best, will try to incite you to think on your own practices on how to bring forth more careful modes of designing, rather than attempting to tell you what to do. My aim is to lure you in considering that rather than having clear and straightforward ideas on what caring might mean, perhaps to care is always an intervention into the very meanings and ways in which practicing care could be possible and desirable, or not.
In the last decade I have been practicing what I call hyperbolically an anthropology of, through and as inclusive design–having worked on a wide variety of settings where care was vindicated as a domain or concern, from telecare for older people to urban accessibility infrastructures, and in a wide variety of engagements as an anthropologist, from providing ethnographic input to design processes, to working in activist collectives or formally training architects.
Drawing from my work, I will sketch out different versions care: namely, as (i) domain of intervention, as (ii) a method (of inclusion or participation), as (iii) a mode of inquiry, and I will close (iv) advocating that perhaps the best way in which we could mobilize care would be as a way of activating the possible, what is not here yet, what could be otherwise, hence weirding our understandings of care in design, enabling to speculate with alternative knowledge distributions and materialisations of togetherness not based on clear-cut understandings of the good nor consensus and commensurability. Perhaps this is what we might need, to navigate the uncertain conditions of the present.
I. Care as a domain
Most people think that to care about care as designers relates to a particular domain of intervention: namely, that of care services and technologies. Indeed, since the 1990s and as a result of the fear of what some call the ‘silver tsunami’–the alarming prospects of population ageing and its alleged catastrophic impact in welfare systems and everyday informal chains of support–, many designers felt the call to engage in conceiving services and products attempting to bring solutions to this conundrum. Largely conceiving their role as that of technologizing or, more specifically, digitalizing these relations, the last decades have seen the advent of many promising devices and platforms, commonly advertised as solutions bringing a technical fix to care burdens. The list might be long: telecare, AAL, robotics, etc.
After my initial involvement in understanding the prospects of this technologisation, I learnt that despite the great investment put into them, these innovations sit on very problematic grounds: These projects and services tend to work articulating and bringing into the mix private actors, such as insurance companies, perpetually claiming that this could lead to more efficient ways of caring for care. However, the potential for their widespread use still resides on the state sustaining via pensions or direct payments the lives of a vast majority of vulnerable populations. An economy of hope that piggybacks on social states and their incentives to grant solutions for those who could not afford them.
After the 2008 crisis, this machinery was exposed at least in many countries of the European south, and it began to show darker contours: in deflating economies, and in the advent of a crisis of welfare systems, the technologisation of care and the prospect that we will all be taken care of by 1m€ robots seems to me rather flawed.
These innovations usually travel within the closed circuits of a handful of countries of the rich North; not only they do not substitute informal care, which is usually rendered even more invisible as an essential work for them to operate as solutions. Not to mention that we know very little of their polluting footprint. Indeed, making an educated guess, critical work on e-waste, such as Josh Lepawsky’s Reassembling Rubbish, indicates that we should include in the calculations of the impact of many digital innovations their environmental effects: not just in terms of its post-consumer polluting externalities, but also those related to the extraction of materials and their production. In fact, if we held all these things in sight, most of our understandings of welfare tend to be premised upon a human exceptionalist, colonial and extractive project of techno-centric innovation.
Welfare, seen in this light, is revealed as a deeply unsustainable machinery. I don’t mean to say that innovation in that sector is not important or even crucial, precisely to tackle our many social and environmental challenges, but we need to think hard beyond the present-day regime of innovation, revising the promise that nitty-gritty technologisation and hardcore digital infrastructuration will automatically bring the common good, as it risks not only creating further social divides when social states cannot work to redistribute wealth, but also further damaging our environment.
How to do it then?
II. Care as method
Against this background, a popular register for care in product, service and urban design has tended to reinvigorate it as a concern around inclusive methods or means of designing: namely, a worry for non-tokenistic forms of participation and inclusion of concerned publics in the creation and articulation of a wide variety of social and material arrangements. Care, then, here reads as an agenda for processes so that users’ voices, wishes or needs could be heard, discovered, interrogated, made available, shared and discussed in the hope that we could find a more inclusive common ground. In the desire to be more careful, more standpoints should be brought into the equation.
These issues are, for instance, constantly made to emerge in attempts at building urban accessibility infrastructures. Let me share an example: all over Europe a new pedestrianized paradigm has popularized, the ‘shared street’. It is premised upon a gigantic infrastructural transformation of squares and sidewalks using more durable and hard-surface materials, with the idea that if the zoning of street uses–and with it the differences in patterns and heights–was dropped, pedestrians and bikers would be safer, because cars would have to slow down, and pay attention to their surroundings. However, with mounting cases of older or blind or deaf people being hit by cars or motorbikes all over the place, many find these spaces paradoxically much more dangerous than before. Yet, finding a solution by consensus doesn’t look very promising here. Perhaps for these spaces to allow for good forms of pedestrianization the views and needs of some must prevail over others, for this to be a lasting good, and protective solution.
As this example shows well, participation is much more complicated than just bringing all concerned people in or back into the design fabric. Composing a common ground tends to be very complicated when we are not only in the business of the concertation of already known interests of well-articulate parts of a whole–that is, when we are not dealing with mere stakeholders–, but when we operate with wicked problems affecting us in strange and emergent ways, for which we have no simple nor common definitions of the problem, and therefore much less solutions, and where the process might need us to take part not as a clearly recognizable part of a whole but engaging in more agonistic, critical, and dissent-oriented design practices.
What about those whose views are not that articulate, those whose ways of being and acting do not make of them adequate liberal subjects in the social-democratic search for consensus? What about ‘the part of those without part’, to paraphrase philosopher Jacques Rancière?
In situations like this, to care might not be to enact consensus through the concertation of interests. This doesn’t work when we have incommensurable positions, and when we’re in a situation of uncertainty. How to care, then?
III. Care as a mode of inquiry
What these situations show is that care, rather than a clear path towards a solution, should be addressed as a domain of problematisations, in the sense that Foucault gave the term: that is, as problem spaces whereby we probe into and articulate competing and sometimes opposing versions of the world through particular material and semiotic assemblages.
In that vein, care as a mode of inquiry became an analytic in feminist initiatives: As a descriptive tool, it conveyed the importance not only of invisible or undervalued work — that is, the everyday reproductive tasks of supporting fragile and interdependent beings in both informal and formal settings — but also of affects and emotions going against the grain of modern societies obsessed with efficacy, justice and rationality. As a category of political intervention, it helped give value and articulate a wide variety of forms of interdependence.
These two meanings can be appreciated in the notion of care famously coined, almost thirty years ago, by Berenice Fisher and Joan C. Tronto as “a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible.” (Fisher and Tronto 1990, p. 40)
Many designers have been involved in producing conditions for such a feminist inquiry, in projects of mapping, visualizing and debating alternative cartographies of interdependence and invisible labour.
These projects search to make exclusions and forms of supports visible so as to debate alternative arrangements, also opening up discussions on the very effects of making visiblet.
The feminist legacy of care also points out at the requirement to practice care even though we might not know how to do it, even though we might not be fully sure of how we’re doing it, even though we might constantly be in a search for better ways of being and living or dying together, and even though we might fail most of the time.
Recent feminist works in STS have indeed readdressed care as searching to engage in understandings of ‘doing the good in practice’, to paraphrase Annemarie Mol; not only to dispute generic understandings of how, what or who to care for and why– in fact, care tends to be an art of the singular and the practical, rather than of the generic and the universal–, but also in some other occasions so as to not forget the violent prospects of care interventions. Highlighting the importance to remain, to rejoice, to learn from being troubled from the ways in which we care, not searching to explain them away.
As such, it resonates with the particularly lucid call by Michelle Murphy for a politics of care that unsettles its often-hegemonic histories, as well as contemporary alignments and circulations. Perhaps that might be the best way of caring: not taking for granted how to do so, doubting without ceasing to find ways to act, remaining aware of the potential exclusions it might bring to the fore, so as to find ways to retrace our steps and act towards more just modes of togetherness. And for this, care concerns with practices that stress not just the finitude of our particular bodies and their vulnerabilities, but also their openness and unfinishedness.
Seen in this light care, then, care could be understood as a way of protecting the constitutive vulnerability of being in a way that doesn’t easily conflate to the certainty of who these beings are and what their contours might be: securing hence our ways of remaining open to the unknown, perpetually ‘assembling neglected things’ as María Puig de la Bellacasa has so vehemently put it.
But how to do it, then?
IV. Care as activating the possible
Perhaps the current situations of planetary distress have made us aware that care is now more than ever an issue affecting us all. And yet, although vulnerability and the need to find supports cuts across social divides care risks becoming a too generic a term if not considering the different forms and gradients of intensity to exposure and carelessness.
My warning is raised in a context in which care is also vindicated for the worse in the brutal responses: with its connotations of good will and humanitarianism, care can be problematic if not extremely violent analytic for many collectives and ecologies of practice. For instance, refugees or other collectives subject to social are tend to oppose a vocabulary that renders them into passive subjects of someone else’s attention.
Yet, this problematization or troubling of the care analytic might have become more generic today, when the likes of Trump or Salvini regularly word out “we must take care of our own” as an exclusionary project, be it in the building of more steep and brutal borders or preventing rescue ships from having a safe port in the Mediterranean.
When care is invoked in violent nationalist, supremacist and macho projects of cocooning against our own constitutive otherness; but also when care is vindicated as an expert vocabulary of professional certainty, some of us feel we might need another word.
However, care is too important to be abandoned to its own fate. It is precisely under the influence of these brutal, palliative and reparative understandings of care–that is, those that want to keep things as they are, or restore things to an imagined or aspirational Valhalla of how nice things once were, that we should insist in vindicating and pluralizing care. As I see it, in such a context, care might be understood as a task of what philosopher Isabelle Stengers might call ‘activating the possible’: a way of making available what isn’t there yet, what could be otherwise.
Practiced in this unsettled way, care might be expanded even, not only to many other-than-human and more-than-human ecologies but also beyond the regular modes of politicizing care in all too human affairs.
One of the most interesting places for the recent renewal and expansion of careful design practices have been the many community-making endeavours that emerged after the doomed landscape of the 2008 financial crisis. In Spain, for instance, the indignados protests gave way to a wide variety of crowd-sourced, low-tech and DIY community explorations–analogous to others that appeared in many other locales–exploring forms of activist design with hackers, makers, maintainers, and menders experimenting with recycling, re-use and up-cycling, activating design as a practice bringing forms of care by other means.
Revitalising the critical debates of the 1970s these projects started to show how design practice, as a sometimes technocratic and consumerist-driven modernist endeavor, might as well be part of the many problems of our contemporary predicaments rather than a solution.
As a reaction to these modes of practicing design, these initiatives have created conditions for shared and distributed expertise going well beyond the technocratic pact of social utility of design: whereby designers act as experts in the closure of political and social conflict through solutions–services or products–for the common good, sometimes asking different groups their opinions, or enrolling social scientists like yours truly in learning about users and uses through methods like ethnography or participatory fora.
To me, the most interesting thing is that many of these projects reveal care as a project of what in STS is known as ‘technical democracy’, when searching to remain open to uncertainty, dissent and probing into complex yet collaborative modes of inquiry, with the aspiration to bring forth divergent ecologies of support.
Indeed, these different design enact other roles for designers: as facilitators of ‘socio-material assemblies’ or ‘design things’, as Thomas Binder, Pelle Ehn and colleagues would call them: staging and infrastructuring problems and different modes of engagement in design after design; or as bringing forth critical, speculative, poetic and more explicitly adversarial forms of design practice that elicit and provoke material modes of collective interrogation around design and its effects.
As I see it, these divergent design practices elicit a wide variety of repertoires of caring for the possible, precisely because they operate against how anthropologist Arturo Escobar defines modernist design practices, as operating under the ontological occupation of modernity and its natural and cultural, expert and lay clear divides. Indeed, these projects enact or activate the possible because they practically carve out alternative ontologies of the world and relational modes to the classic modernist ones, however unknown, unfathomable or scary they might seem at first. Indeed, caring for the possible in these endeavours is far from being an easy task.
Activating things: En torno a la silla
But allow me to exemplify. From 2012 to 2016 I actively participated in a collective space of this kind in Barcelona: an exploratory activist design initiative called En torno a la silla, a wordplay in Spanish signalling an attempt at situating ourselves around, en torno, wheelchairs, sillas, so as to activate other possible environments, entornos, for them. And have been searching ever since to learn from our hyperbolic aspirations, fraught methods and experimental practices to open up inclusion not as a solution but as a problem-space.
En torno a la silla emerged after the indignados protests of 2011, after the recognition that we had no spaces to meet in bodily diversity, and that we might need to make or carve out those spaces so as to keep knowing each other. It started operating as a collective including an architect, professional craftspeople, members of the independent-living movement in Barcelona and me in the role of a documenter.
What gathered us was the intention to prototype a toolkit to turn the wheelchair into something beyond a chair that moves with wheels, but rather as something akin to “an agora that produces agora”: that is, a political and collective space that brings further people in. This was not a participatory design project where designers lured us to work with them in their own solutions or aims, but a collaborative space of inquiry through making where all present contributed in different ways.
For instance, we discovered a lot in the process of creating from scratch a portable wheelchair ramp: not only that we needed to elicit a lot of knowledges about our partners’ bodily diversities and their different types of wheelchairs; but also to think through the technical modes of folding, transportation and unfolding, or the right materials for it to make sense. We also learnt a lot from using it, from the particular effects it created, and the conversations it opened up.
Upon using it the first time in an accessible bar, and publicizing the result on our blog, a debate with colleagues in the independent-living movement ensued; we were accused of undermining the collective struggle by proposing an individual response, but we tried to remain true to what the experience had allowed us: being together in places that had not been imagined for us, opening up an encounter with the people populating them by the sheer act of irruption.
We learnt that the ramp was no solution, but a way of unfolding the problem of inaccessibility in particular situations. And in the joyful way in which we always operated, we started doing it more purposefully: calling the practice that there ensued one of a-saltos, playing with the double meaning in Spanish of jumpy walking, as we were entering places after a jump, as well as one of assaulting, irrupting and disrupting the static normalcy that those places enforced.
Rather than being a project whereby designers cared for known needs and conditions, the intense 4 years that En torno a la silla worked at full steam was rather a process of learning together to care for forms of mutual access, and mutual exploration of whomever wanted to live in bodily diversity, making but also repurposing and recycling all kinds of materials to do so.
This is the reason why we speak in a weird way about what we discovered busy doing: as we came to understand, were not designing technical aids for the of inclusion of the disabled, but caring for the emergence of technologies of friendship, as we called them. That is, spaces of encounter without clarity of purpose beyond the very desire to keep on finding ways of relating at the hinges of unrelatability. Our open approach to design became in time for us a form of inquiring into the conditions of mutual access in bodily diversity.
But working in conditions of ontological occupation, to reiterate Escobar’s appreciation, tends to make things difficult for these attempts at sustaining critical, collaborative and speculative initiatives search to pry open other modes of relating and living together. Many of these projects prove extremely fragile and vulnerable. How could we care for them?
In the last years, much efforts have indeed been put to sustain the liberation of modes of designing that these practices entail. One of the most notable examples has been a concern to infrastructure and generate conditions of exposure to a wide variety of knowledges, through the critical involvement in open-access publication platforms and open-source infrastructures. In opening up to other knowledges and in making them available there lies a hope that we might create alternative resources for alternative modes of living together.
En torno a la silla’s legacy, for instance, remains in the open-source platform that I allowed to put together, with a careful attention to the documentation of our processes of doing and thinking in tutorials, accounts of processes or events, or poetic reflections. However, this liberation of design and its knowledge also needs a welcoming ecology. And for this we need to be aware that open design and its knowledges tend to be framed when not diminished by particularly market-centric and expertocratic conditions of circulation, subject to many disputes in deeply asymmetric contexts of variegated expertise, in many circumstances putting these strategies of opening in danger.
The fraught prospects, hopeful versions and capitalist deformations of the sharing economy are, indeed, here a case in point. As I see it, care here becomes a practical issue for designers whenever searching to test experimental modes of inclusion into the fabric of products, services, platforms, cities or environments. This way of understanding care, then, might demand from us to become activators, so that this openness might flourish. And, for this, to care might mean to open up experimental pedagogic spaces.
Activating pedagogies: Design in crisis
I especially learnt of the difficulties not just to sustain this openness but to create situations of openness when I moved to Germany in 2015. I started working from the belly of the Bavarian beast–if you allow me the pun to talk about the leading German technical university at the core of one of the golden cradles of global corporate capitalism, teaching architects and other types of designers more formally in the chair of participatory design, where I was hired to bring what I had learnt in my variegated engagements in Spain.
From the beginning I faced the many difficulties or sheer impossibilities of translating the modes of thinking and doing I had learnt in the previous years to a context I couldn’t relate to very easily. In fact, this stupid idea of believing I could do it has made me feel a great sense of loss in many a dark night.
I also had to face my naiveté or sheer audacity in having forgotten that institutional spaces of alleged financial or funding abundance are not devoid of other problems of scarcity: a chronic lack of time created by the many commitments and compromises that ‘spending money reasonably’ entail; but also, the lack of a generic care for free processes of collective thought that an individualist focus on career and unit-centric demarcations might create; not to speak of the problems deriving from how well-greased hierarchies might operate in places of monetary power…
Hence, for most of the first year, I was constantly accompanied by a sense if failure: a failure to carve out openings in a hierarchically conceived academic culture; a failure to capture the students’ attention beyond ready-made humanitarian gestures, facing an overall tendency to understand their role as one of ‘problem solving’ and perpetually reenacting technical-social divides, demanding from the social professionals that we provided information about users and uses or methods to deal with the problematic prospects of ‘the social’.
Indeed, and much to my dismay, students and colleagues seemed many times uninterested. But I also realized that perhaps my teaching methods were the problem: lecturing, reading and commenting proved deeply inappropriate.
Under such circumstances, I realized that the best thing one could do is to attempt to put the students’ design in crisis, forcing them to engage in processes of learning to unlearn, to undo, or even to undesign the trained habits, goals and practices of modernist design ontologies, and its market-centric and deeply unsustainable effects. But how to do so? Indeed, such was the premise of a radical pedagogical approach in a series of design studio settings called ‘design in crisis’ put forward together with my colleague Ignacio Farías, which lead to a collective reflection on ways in which STS could be made to matter to design and architecture students in the edited volume Re-learning design, published by the Chilean bilingual journal Diseña.
In our particular approach, we sought to design studio practice, searching to sensitise future designers to other forms of understanding their practice, exposing and confronting them with somewhat impossible tasks that force them to engage in other learning process, as well as exposing them to the potential exclusionary effects of their practice.
That became our aim in a series of design studio projects that we framed under the title Design in Crisis, where we tried to work on creating experimental situations that should function as operating a reflection on our student modes of designing, although
the idea was also to show that this was feasible to make students aware that, however crazy or strange our proposals were, the briefs responded to ‘real’ situations where their particular mode of designing should be readdressed.
In Design in Crisis 1 we made them design at great speeds a series of architectural solutions in a fake competition to provide solutions for a series of humanitarian disasters, such as the refugee crisis, then devoting 3 months to undoing and unfolding the problem of their proposals, making them confront their projects in a wide variety of ways with those who might suffer from them.
However, we realized that we might need to train them to practice these confrontations, and for this, in the following versions, we devoted great lengths to train them in multi-sensory approaches to design, then producing toolkits for an alternative architectural practice: in Design in Crisis 2, for instance, we confronted them with the impossible task to design a toolkit for a blind architect, which led them to develop a tool they called ManualCAD, a multi-sensory tool for co-design processes; and in Design in Crisis 3 the challenge we confronted our students with was to re-learn green space co-design by creating a set of devices–simulation and co-working suits, pipes and chemical substances– to establish enter in a relation with the beavers populating the river Isar, attempting to enable them to participate on its renaturalisation.
The outcomes our students produced might be conceived as potential toolkits for a different kind of architectural design practice. Despite being ‘gadgets’ these toolkits should not be seen as closed ‘objects’, nor well-packaged ‘plug-n-play solutions’.
Quite on the contrary, being accompanied by an open documentation of all the shaky learning outcomes the groups had been through in becoming a group, they function as a re-learning device of sorts: as pedagogical devices performing an ‘intravention’ into architectural practice with the potential of having an impact on our students’ future professional practice and allowing others to follow their steps.
Intraventions, hence, whereby students were exposed to forms of designing more carefully, activating the possibility of alternative architectural modes of designing.
But En torno a la silla or Design in Crisis are just some of the many examples of a potential design practice understood as a form of care for the possible. That is, a form of designing so as to activate other forms of designing. But I am sure you could contribute with many others.
In times of planetary distress and complex future prospects for any form of living together, perhaps we need render ourselves amenable to activating our modes of designing in unforeseen ways.
As I would have liked to propose, perhaps the best thing we could do is to decidedly engage in the design of situations to explore different speculative engagements, demanding from us to engage beyond the strict role of ‘advocates’ or ‘activists’: sites, venues or forums to problematize the worlds we live in by making and provoking distinct registers of appreciation of complex conditions in a wide variety of aesthetic registers and design genres, from the parodic to the fictional. Hence acting as ‘careful troublemakers’, un-doing or un-designing the conditions of those whose actions have the potential to be harmful, so that we could attempt to create uncertain practical openings into the possible, where we might experiment and learn to engage in alternative and hopefully better ways of living together.
I am particularly happy to take part in this Winter Semester’s Public Lecture Series of the Center for Metropolitan Studies (TU Berlin), under the theme “Technologies of the City”.
Hence, next February 5th 2019 I will be presenting the following talk:
Infrastructure as ‘the people’: The social-technocracy of Barcelona’s accessible sidewalk standards
Disability rights activists have for a long time advocated for cities hospitable to bodily difference: de-stigmatizing, enabling, and supportive of their bodily diversity. Since the 1970s protests, many cities of the Global North have developed processes to sensitize architects, engineers, and civil servants so that such environments could be made to exist, creating the conditions for urban infrastructures to embody concrete arrangements of ‘sidewalk democracy.’ Drawing from archival, interview and observational work in the city of Barcelona, I would like to show different attempts at this: from the instalment of ‘free-barrier’ policies and architectural standards to more contemporary problematizations around ‘cultural’ and ‘multisensory’ approaches. Grounding on STS and Anthropology works, I would like to provide an account of the particular ‘infrastructural style’ of these undertakings, and the challenge it poses: or how a de-stigmatizing agenda is predated by its very mode of implementation.
To exemplify, I would like to reflect on the ways in which the city’s accessible sidewalks and crossings have been made and implemented to stand as infrastructures for ‘the people’. First, I will delineate the participatory governance processes–involving several representatives and associative movements of people with disabilities–through which the system of ‘urban elements’, including accessible sidewalks, was developed by the city hall. Second, I will show recent civic, techno-legal and techno-political controversies that have arisen after the enactment of a newer state-wide regulation, entailing an alternative sidewalk configuration: this will allow me to pay special attention to a ‘shared streets’ implementation in the iconic Passeig de Gràcia, which created as a response a united front of disability rights activists self-denominated ‘streets for all’, whose articulate demands were put on hold because ‘a technical solution was needed’.
In paying attention to the contested modes of composing those accessible urban infrastructures, I would like to analyze the relational architectures there arising, also reflecting on the challenges they pose to urban democracy. Even though the aspiration is openly and overtly social-democratic–these infrastructures standing for an aspiration to achieve an inclusive society for all, undoing and reworking the stigma of bodily diversity–, I call this infrastructure of public space and mobility an instance of ‘social technocracy’. In order to democratically respond to the many social demands of different stigmatized collectives and activist initiatives wishing to further use the city and move around, the only available strategy is a very paradoxical one: to produce an expert-managed, materially sealed, and procedurally closed-down to public scrutiny type of urban infrastructure. Rather tragically, in seeking to provide urban infrastructures and practices to tackle with manifold forms bodily stigma and social cohesion, newer versions of ‘inclusive exclusion’ are invented, of technocratic origin. Or, put otherwise, the material mode of expression and urban articulation of these political aspirations foregrounds infrastructures as ‘the people’. Against this background, alternative politicizations around accessibility, both intra- and extra-institutional might show us a way through: how, rather than engaging in classic political contestation, a technical democratization of these urban infrastructures is needed to avoid redoubling technocratically the harsh effects of stigma.
The Chilean journal DISEÑA has just published its latest bilingual issue (Spanish & English), a detailed reflection on the relations between Politics & Design (DISEÑA #11), carefully edited by Martín Tironi.
I collaborate with a reflection (pp. 148-159) on the ‘politics’ of design–in a Rancièrian sense–undertaken by ‘functional diversity’ activism after the 15-M uprisings, and my participation in the En torno a la silla collective.
¿La diversidad funcional como una política del diseño?
Este artículo es una indagación sobre el activismo de la “diversidad funcional” tras la ocupación de las plazas del 15-M español, y, más concretamente, acerca de cómo a partir de ella la diversidad funcional se convierte en un repertorio que politiza el diseño (particularmente el mercado de ayudas técnicas y entornos accesibles desarrollados de acuerdo con el modelo social de la discapacidad). Para apuntalar una lectura de la política del diseño —en el sentido de la filosofía política de Jacques Rancière— que ahí aparece, tomaré como caso un pequeño proyecto colaborativo desarrollado por el colectivo de diseño abierto radicado en Barcelona En torno a la silla.
15-M _ Diversidad funcional _ En torno a la silla _ política del diseño _ Rancière
Functional diversity as a politics of design?
This article is an inquiry into the activism around ‘functional diversity’ after the public square occupations of the Spanish 15-M movement; and, more specifically, how, in them, ‘functional diversity’ developed into a repertoire for the politicisation of design (notably, the market of technical aids and accessible environments created according to the social model of disability). To underpin the particular reading of the politics of design —in the sense developed by political philosopher Jacques Rancière— that appears there, I will describe a small collaborative project put together by the Barcelona-based open design collective En torno a la silla.
15M _ En torno a la silla _ Functional diversity _ Politics of design _ Rancière
The presentation of the unfinished audiovisual project will tell the story of our several years’ exploration in En torno a la silla (Barcelona) with digital forms of documentation (namely, blog and audiovisual platforms).
En torno a la silla is a Spanish non-profit association operating from Barcelona. In En torno a la silla we co-create and fabricate collaboratively between people with diverse knowledges and modes of functioning with the aim of transforming and intervening urban environments, seeking to improve the conditions of accessibility, inclusiveness, and care in the urban world.
En torno a la silla is a collective that works at crossroads of open design and functional diversity. All our material explorations in recent years have sought to go beyond a world built for standard bodies, opening up design processes to the consideration and incorporation of the different experiences and needs of diverse bodies.
However, even though the material ‘tinkering’ with our environments through activities like building objects or generating co-creation events has constituted the essential focus of the collective, an important part of our activities has had to do with ‘tinkering’ with the use of different registration tools for the reflection, representation, and communication of our small objects and findings: tutorials and construction manuals, video-documentation of processes or interviews, poetic or political reflection texts, etc.
What role does this opening up of the design processes play when we think about documentation processes? Through the presentation of some our ‘tinkering with documentation’–including the conception and prototyping of diverse non-linear web-video projects–, we wish to delve into the central importance of representational processes, and discuss in what way our different successes and errors in tinkering with them might have contributed to a wider learning process, as well as different transformations of the collective.
About BIdeOtik 2017: From January to December 2017 Azkuna Zentroa hosts BIdeOtik 2017, a video festival / series that highlights different ways of recording and representing all that surrounds us using other audio-visual narratives. The object of this series is to showcase video-creation works and projects generated in a local, national and international context by people from the fields of art, creation and culture who use audio-visual language in a more personal, intimate and familiar way.
Next Wednesday, April 19th – 12:00 – 2:00 pm I will have the great pleasure and honour to show my work at a STS/CSIS Food For Thought event at UC Davis (many thanks to Marisol de la Cadena for her invitation!).
Venue: STS/CSIS Conference Room (SSH Building #1246) | For those of you around, please register here
Technologies of friendship: In search for a diverse common world
The intense co-existence afforded in Spanish indignados protests by public space occupations had the unexpected effect of forging unprecedented relations and forms of affective politicisation. This had a huge impact in the activism around ‘functional diversity:’ transforming a self-representational fight by independent-living activists to substitute ‘dis/ability’ and ‘residential care’ framings into a wider exploration on how to enjoy and do things together with previously strange others. Drawing on my ethnographic engagement in the activist design collective En torno a la silla (ETS) emerging in that context, I will explore the register of friendship to narrate the intimate entanglements developed thereon: reclaiming the means to increase the conditions of access between bodily diverse people they delved into processes of collaborative prototyping and spatial intervention to remediate disabling body-environment nexuses impeding them to develop stronger bonds; and crafted meetings and documentation interfaces to articulate or share the experiences there made available, making newer alliances possible. From the very beginning their aim was not just the ‘inclusion’ of ‘disabled people’ through newer ‘technical aids’, but the sheer experimentation with spaces of encounter, bringing to the fore what ETS referred to as ‘technologies of friendship.’ Far from referring to ready-made commodities enabling a distinctive and static ontology of relations, this term designates frail and careful cosmopolitical explorations of the appropriate forms of relatedness, a recursive material opening up of friendship between bodily diverse strangers who might otherwise never meet were it not for their troublesome search for inhabiting and forging a diverse common world.
Next 9 Nov 2016 from 4-6pm, I will be sharing bits and pieces of my recent ethnographic work and reflections at the Goldsmiths Anthropology research >< practiceseminar series at RHB 256, Richard Hoggart Building
This seminar series explores the currency of practice research within and without anthropology. It will unpack some of the ways in which the relationship between these two “modes of engagement” has been understood and articulated, from militancy to co-design, from enskillment to collaborative art projects. Drawing from their first-hand experience in the field, the speakers will consider the epistemological challenges and opportunities of practice-led and practice-based research (as well as research-led practice).
Moderator and Organiser: Dr Isaac Marrero-Guillamon
‘Technologies of friendship’: Independent-living activism, open design and the refiguration of the social and the ethnographic
What stories–and more specifically ethnographic stories–would open design allow us to tell? Whereas open design is commonly associated with a multifarious transformation of knowledge-production and economic practices in and around design, in this presentation I will focus on their effect on the practice of ethnography and on the materialisation of forms of relatedness. To do this, I will draw from my engagement since 2012 as ethnographer/documentator in the Barcelona-based activist design collective En torno a la silla (ETS), whose primary principle–resonating with other aspects of the independent-living movement it is part of–is to grant value to experience as a form of knowledge to be used in processes of collaborative alteration of our material surroundings, engaging in the auto-fabrication of open design objects. Operating in a harsh context of austerity measures, fighting for accessibility for ETS has always implied reclaiming the necessary material means to increase the conditions of access between bodily diverse people. Hence, the interest is not to create ‘inclusive objects’–that seek to ‘integrate’ or, rather, open up the gates of an already existing community to those who had been formerly expelled from it–but to produce what they have usually referred to as ‘technologies of friendship’ (tecnologías de la amistad): this term does not bring to the fore a distinctive and static ontology of relations, but thanks to the reflexivity afforded by the investment in documentation, it signals a recursive interstitial form of probing into alternative material forms of relatedness to the ones offered by the state and the market.
This presentation reports on ethnographic and archival work undertaken in 2014 and 2016 at a very small and peripheral institute, part of Barcelona’s City Hall, the Institut Municipal de Persones amb Discapacitat (IMPD): enforcing and supervising the city-wide planning and implementation of accessible urban and transport infrastructures. Allegedly, the IMPD has been crucial for Barcelona’s huge transformation into one of the most accessible cities in the world. Officially founded in 1990–merging disability-specific management units (patronats) that emerged after the disability rights struggles in the late 1970s–this institute’s main objective has been that of offering a way for disabled people to take part in the city’s planning. Indeed, the IMPD’s council is jointly managed by civil servants–mostly social workers–and disabled people’s representatives elected every 4 years. But how could such a small entity have a lasting impact on a huge and extremely complex municipal structure? And how, in doing so, could it grant the ‘material expression’ of accessibility rights for its most vulnerable citizens?
In this presentation I will seek to explain this paying particular attention to the ‘documentary interfaces’ put together to articulate interesting relationships between the technicians and the accessibility advocates. To be more specific, not only will I seek to report on (a) on the role of topic-specific ‘commissions of participation’, where experiential and embodied knowledge from the disabled is documented and brought together to sensitize the architects and engineers in charge of implementing wider municipal projects; but also on other ‘smaller interventions’, such as: (b) its regular publications, sensitization campaigns and outreach leaflets; and (c) the work of its technicians, constantly supervising and writing reports on the designs, materials, and implementation of different urban accessibility projects. Building from this, I seek to foreground the IMPD as a ‘sensitizing device’, affecting in different modes the wider implementation of an ‘accessibility culture’ within the City Hall’s urban professionals’ planning and interventions. A fragile and fallible diplomatic task of affecting peripherally the multifarious sociomaterial articulation of accessibility arrangements, where many compromises have to be made with the goal of making Barcelona a city ‘for all’.