Care by Other Means: Knowledge Politics in between Design and Anthropology (book in project)

Book in project, under preparation: version November 2019

OUTLINE

This book is an anthropological exploration of urban accessibility activism as a particular form of knowledge politics of design. Using the figure of ‘care by other means’ it traces a wide variety of design activations: epistemic, material and political. By that I do not just mean a troubled and worrisome exploration into ‘more inclusive’ forms of relatedness, but mainly a perpetual mode of troubling the ways in which we can or could relate, tell and describe the resulting modes of togetherness. Such an exploration gravitates around a re-description of and a multi-modal (in a plurality of modes and media) engagement in a series of activist design initiatives, searching to learn from their hyperbolic aspirations, fraught methods and experimental practices to open up urban accessibility activism not as a solution but as a problem-space. Building on them, design could then be recounted as a peculiar inquiry: a perpetual questioning on what/who counts and how to make that happen through concrete—and usually very troublesome—acts of making and material interventions.

In particular, drawing on field and archival work of independent-living or disability rights movements, together with accessibility struggles taking place since the 1980s in the city of Barcelona, I engage with a wealth of activist initiatives—both intra- and extra-institutional—attempting to design the very possibility of caring by other means. These initiatives have or had at their core the production of singular situations—made out of policy documents and building codes, infrastructures and standards, collaborative design processes and prototypes, and manifold sensitising devices and documentation interfaces—through which designing technologies, urban landscapes or institutions and political spaces is to be attempted from the appreciation and articulation of bodily diversity.

However, rather than describing design as a practice having a clear focus and a procedural take to these problems through ready-made participatory methods—that is, as if their democratising aspiration was just to incorporate in the design process known groups who engage in identity politics and a struggle for their rights using particular public infrastructures or equipments granting social integration, understood as solutions—, I describe these situations as opening up careful, troubled and troubling, experimentations with the practices and materialisations of the very meanings of ‘access’. Put otherwise, together with understanding the ‘inclusion’-driven democratic project of accessibility politics, I also address initiatives prying open interstitial topologies of ‘mutual access’, whereby the relational and material affordances to understand and host not-so-known, if not emergent bodily diversities are devised and tested.

Indeed, by remaining constantly open to the many unknowns populating these practices, a more accurate approach to the meanings of these design practices is here attempted. One that might even exceed bodily diversity as the main target of its activist practice. Taken as a careful design of relations, and understanding it as a technical democratic project to produce conditions of different forms of access, signals a peculiar material, epistemic and political project of permanently building situations to remain attentive to the plural and many times unknown contours of those beings or aspects not taken into account; thus enabling to speculate with alternative knowledge distributions and materialisations of togetherness, in a wide variety of fields.

Interestingly, such concerns also impact directly on the relevance, role and modes of engagement of anthropological inquiries and practices into the worlds of design, pushing us to go beyond just providing ethnographic insights on uses and users for the expert remaking of our everyday worlds. To address this, I also dwell on my intense material and relational involvement in several of these initiatives as part of my work in En torno a la silla. I describe in detail the impact these undertakings had on my own practice: both on the ways in which I had to experiment with designing collaborative fieldwork devices—namely a digital ecology of open documentation—, and how it granted me access to several moments of unlearning and relearning, opening up to the many forms of joint problem-making there present; but also, how I tried to inherit from these moments in my experimental pedagogical approach to the teaching of architects, designers and anthropologists: creating manifold situations foregrounding a conceptual and experiential concern for these issues.

All this allows me to reflect, in closing, on the activation, and the impact that researching in an activated research field had on my anthropological aims and practices. Hence, in the final section I explore whether anthropology sought to venture carefully but decidedly in designing and redesigning relations, from prototyping to pedagogy: What would that mean for other anthropological inquiries beyond this particular field? Could we relearn from these activated design practices how to practice anthropology as a material and interventive mode of crafting more plural modes of togetherness, as an exploratory task of generating relations with many times known, but sometimes yet to know beings with which to share the world?

In these particularly fraught times of ours—with new totalitarian divides and unprecedented more-than-human challenges for common life—there is much to learn from activist design’s variegated forms of carefully putting us in motion: not only from its careful ways of describing, assembling, meeting and groping into the unknown contours of what makes our worlds, but also and more importantly from the detailed attention to the exploratory materialisation of alternative relations at the hinges of unrelatability.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

An inquiry into the knowledge politics of design and anthropology

Prologue: On becoming activated by urban accessibility activism

Introduction: Care by other means?

  1. By other means? How care came to matter in urban design’s material and knowledge politics
  2. An overview of the compilation
    1. Tracing design activations
    2. Activating anthropology through/as design

Design activations, I: Inclusion

Give us an institute and we will raise an accessible Barcelona

  1. Institutionalizing urban accessibility issues
  2. Creating a Barcelona model of ‘urban accessibility’: An infrastructure of urban elements

Infra-statecraft

  1. Normalising inclusion: Accessibility as an extrastatecraft milieu
  2. Accessibility as an infra-statecraft: The importance of sensitized civil servants

Social technocracy?

  1. Sidewalking democracy: The contested urban infrastructuration of disability rights
  2. Why there will always be accessibility revolts? The logic of inequality, or how to turn a problem of representation into one of knowledge politics

Design activations, II: Mutual Access

Functional diversity: A politics of design?

  1. Diverse non-normative alliances: Atmospheres of collective self-experimentation beyond the ontological occupation of design
  2. The ‘indignados’ functional diversity commissions

Radicalising care: En torno a la silla as a platform for joint problem-making

  1. Going beyond ‘the catalogue’? Prototypes to trouble market-driven arrangements
  2. Tinkering (cacharrear) with relations, materials, and environments

Technologies of friendship: Accessibility in the ‘how to’ mode

  1. A relation around the ‘how to’
  2. Mutual access: Exploring a fragile DIY ecology of support

Activating anthropology through/as design

Experimental collaborations

  1. Activated research: Re-learning anthropology with others in times of crises
  2. Ethnography through fieldwork devices: Designing an ecology of open documentation
  3. The pharmakon of collaboration: Thresholds and limits in DIY experimentation

Intravention

  1. Becoming activated in a teaching mode
  2. Learning ‘not to see’
  3. Designing architectural ‘intraventions’
  4. Conclusion: Anthropology as a careful design practice?

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Picture CC BY NC ND 2014 En torno a la silla