Mutual Access: Designing Careful Relations (book in project)

Book project, draft idea: version July 2019


This book is an anthropological exploration of inclusive activations of design as an epistemic, material and political concern around careful relations. 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 inclusion 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 more careful relations. 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 inclusion. Put otherwise, rather than understanding what the democratic project of ‘accessibility’ politics is or should be about, I would like to address these initiatives as 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 mutual 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 a concern for mutual access and the careful design of relations could directly impact 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. Hence, 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. For this, 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 will allow me to reflect on their potential impact on anthropology’s aims and practices: What if 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 design practices how to practice anthropology as a material and interventive mode of crafting more democratic modes of togetherness, as an exploratory task of generating ‘mutual access’ with many times known, but sometimes yet to know beings with which to share our worlds? 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 relations with such beings, even at the hinges of unrelatability.


I’m envisioning a book having four sections, each addressing a mode of engagement in itself, hence experimenting with a particular genre to narrate it

I. Introduction: Designing careful relations. A multi-modal inquiry

The how to of the book, developing the reflections of the outline, and introducing an inquiry around multi-modal engagement with inclusive design practices as forms of designing careful relations, as well as an explanation of the choice of style/genre of writing for each mode: through – friendship / of – inclusion / as – mutual access

II. Through / Friendship

An account of the the exploratory and open design collective En torno a la silla: the reasons and circumstances that led to its articulation in the aftermath of the indignados in Barcelona between 2011 and 2012; the ‘technologies of friendship’ (tecnologías de la amistad) that were there created and their impact on all participants, paying special attention to the radicalisation of care they enacted, and the modes of togetherness with bodily diversity that allowed us to explore; but also, an account of the difficulties in continuing to work together in a context of economic scarcity and lack of supports. The account is narrated from the vantage point of the fieldwork devices I helped to set as part of being the documenter of the group, or rather, through them.

This whole section is conceived as running in parallel to the collective’s blog (translating excerpts of it), showing tutorials and documentation and audiovisual stories of our productions and our reflections, as well as displaying a diagrammatic proposal on how to situate ‘around the wheelchair’, potentially in two main sub-sections or chapters:

A. Prototypes for ‘joint problem-making’

  1. Democratising inclusive design practice before and after the 2008 crisis
  2. Bodily diversity in a DIY ecology of diseño libre (free design)
    1. The ‘indignados’ and their obsession with free/open design
      1. Taking the squares, liberating their source-code
      2. Functional diversity commissions
      3. MedialabPrado and the Funcionamientos workstation
      4. Going beyond ‘the catalogue’? Low-cost care arrangements
        1. The independent-living movement in Berkeley
        2. PROJIMO in Mexico
        3. Bajo Coste in Spain and Latin America
  3. En torno a la silla I: Cacharrear (tinkering) with technical aids
    1. Encuentros (joints, connections, meetings), makeshift materials and spatial connections
    2. La rampa no es la solución (the ramp is not the solution): Experimenting with care arrangements at the inclined plane of a ramp
    3. An armrest-briefcase: Materialising alternative relations
    4. Mobilising around tinkering: The Primavera cacharrera (Tinkering Spring), the Cacharratón (Tinkerthon), and the Red Cacharrera (Tinkering Network)
  4. Joint problem-making
    1. ‘Sensitised’ professionals and ‘technified activists’ rethinking urban supports
    2. Fragile prototypes to trouble market-centric inclusive design

B. ‘How to’ access

  1. Beyond Inclusion
    1. Is ‘inclusive design’ the solution?
    2. Experimenting with material modes of being together
  2. Diverse non-normative alliances: Atmospheres of collective self-experimentation
    1. The independent living forum: ‘Functional diversity’ and ‘diversocracy’
    2. A feminist and intersectional debate around ‘care’ and ‘personal assistance’, and the queer-crip frictional alliances
    3. A DIY turn in accessibility politics in and after the indignados
  3. En torno a la silla II: A relation around the ‘how-to’
    1. Tecnologías de la amistad (Technologies of friendship)
    2. Circulating experience 
      1. A-saltos (assaults, jumpy-walking), an interventionist stance
      2. Cualquier sistema (Any System), and the ‘uncommons’ of bodily diversity on display
      3. La suma de nuestras suertes (Adding up our fates), a particular approach to co-design in the design of a removable table
      4. Mundo-valla (fence-world), and other interstitial aspirations 
  4. ‘How-to’ access: Exploring a DIY ecology of support
    1. ‘How-to’ ecologies and their documentation interfaces
      1. Particular epistemic and political ecologies obsessed with ‘how to do’ things and relations,  
      2. Documenting and relating their ways of doing with others in a wide variety of genres, for others to engage with them (activists, technologists, and public administrators) so as to materially put vulnerabilities in common
    2. Accessibility politics in the ‘how-to’ mode: Technologies of friendship as a project for ‘mutual access’

III. Of / Inclusion

Working for four years together with En torno a la silla, I lived through and learnt to appreciate the vast legacy of accessibility activism present in the city of Barcelona: a rich milieu of political and institutional concerns around inclusion and bodily diversity, both from activist collectives as well as public administrations.

After several years of activist mobilisations from 2011 to 2016, paying attention to the role public institutions play became relevant to understand the conditions under which those mobilisations could be sustained and how public actors might also be relevant in opening up spaces so that these frail bodily diverse initiatives could be supported and maintained.

Hence, trying to make that legacy readable at a moment of several concerns for the need to re-democratise institutional settings sent me through a genealogical route: searching to learn how ‘urban accessibility’ had been invented in the city by engineers and architects as a problem of ‘inclusion’ managed by ‘standards’; but also, and more importantly, how these attempts had been severely modulated since the 1980s by the creation of a participatory municipal body–Institut Municipal de Personas amb Discapacitat, the municipal institute of people with disabilities–managing accessibility issues, and sensitising other professionals across a huge city hall to also consider these matters.

The fragmented history of how bodily diversity had emerged as a problem of ‘inclusion’ is here narrated from the external vantage point of public documentary records, and the scarce traces left in them by practices and stories of bodily diverse activists. This section, hence, wishes to evince, on the one hand, the problems of dealing with records ‘of’ past bodily diverse activism when the history has been written by public administrators, and sedimented in socially-inspired by technocratically-managed standards and infrastructural relations that contain yet erase the work of several bodily diverse persons and collectives; but also, it seeks to contribute to understand the present role of these fraught institutionalisation projects, and how they ‘live on’ in the practices of the municipalities public adminstrators and their ’sensitising’ practices.

This is told in two main sub-sections or chapters:

A. The ‘cosmogram’ of inclusion

  1. Sidewalking democracy in an infrastructural style
  2. The Barcelona model of ‘urban accessibility’?
    1. Reclaiming modernism
      1. The long tail of Cerdà’s urbanisation 
      2. Urban infrastructures before and after Franco: Barraquisme, the predominance of cars, and the social-democratic dream of ‘good’ public space infrastructures
    2. Towards systematic, legible, and reproducible public spaces
      1. Oriol Bohigas and his ‘golden pencils’ remake Barcelona
      2. Conceiving a system of ‘urban elements’: Standardising emplacement and repair with noble materials
  3. The ‘cosmogram’ of accessibility: Building the Gual 120
    1. Cosmograms: Paying attention to the particularities of material and political architectures
    2. The Gual 120 in a system of ‘urban elements’
      1. Accommodating ‘different bodies’
      2. Including weather patterns into the mix
    3. The 1995 Catalan Code of accessibility: Standardising Barcelona, and the Gual120-ification of Catalonia 
    4. A city hall under transformation, and a rising milieu of outsourced accessibility experts
      1. The catalogue of urban elements as a market regulator
      2. Accessibility in a world of prizes, normalisation, and city branding 
    5. A clash of accessibility regulations between Spain and Catalonia in the midst of a ‘shared streets’ controversy
      1. A changing context: The state-wide 2010 Orden VIV and its synthetic-aggregating principle
      2. A podotactile clash from 2011
      3. The making of the 2014 Catalan accessibility law
      4. The Carrers per a tothom (streets for all) platform: or the predicaments of direct participation in a ‘technical’ environment
  4. The material and political architecture of an accesible standard
    1. The perils of ‘social-technocracy’ in a state of infrastructural sublime
    2. Why there will always be accessibility revolts? Inclusive exclusion and the paradoxical production of outsiders

B. The infra-statecraft of accessibility

  1. Disability rights advocacy and political representation
  2. Give us an institute and we will raise an accessible Barcelona
    1. From la rebelión de los cojos (cripple’s revolt) to the creation of the Municipal Institute of People with Disabilities (IMPD)
    2. Inclusive policy-making, or accessibility as…
      1. Comparative policy analysis  
      2. Public infrastructure
      3. Intra-/Extra-statecraft
  3. The IMPD’s participatory governance: A genealogy of Barcelona’s approaches to ‘accessibility’
    1. A politics of representation around types of ‘impairment’
    2. Different versions of ‘accessibility’: From ‘barrier-free’ to ‘a city for all’ 
    3. The Transportation and Urbanism Participatory Commissions (1996-2010)
      1. Reassembling street design, public transportation, and citizens’ sensibilities
      2. Experience as evidence: Self-reporting and supervising the work of technicians
    4. In a state of participatory unrest
      1. ‘Too much friction’ and the model’s challenge
      2. Individual spokespeople or organised civil society?
    5. Project supervision: How micro-actors macro-structure a huge and non-coherent city hall
      1. Policing ‘accessible’ public spaces: Of squares, sidewalks, beaches, playgrounds…
      2. The many quandaries of ‘reasonable adjustments’: From the ‘right to the city’ to the ‘right’ politics of materials
  4. The sensitising devices of infra–statecraft
    1. A non-coherent relational complex: Sensitising a huge city hall, and citizens
    2. The importance of ‘sensitised’ administrators in a state of infrastructural sublime

IV. As / Mutual Access

However, the impact of the aforementioned design activist practices–En torno a la silla‘s and those emerging in and around public administration of Barcelona–, accompanied me after relocating to Germany in 2015: first to teach at the crossroads of STS and Architecture, and then in a department of Anthropology. In both these situations I have tried to imagine how the practices around bodily diversity I have sought to study might have an impact on these future professionals: many times charged with the almost impossible task to articulate collective life, either through the implementation of material projects or policies around diversity. Or, to say it in other terms: how the activation of modes of inquiry and intervention they had elicited could be re-enacted and made to emerge by other means, in other situations distant in time and space from the ones I had been working on, so that my teaching practice might contribute to the construction of more shared and liveable worlds.

As a result, I have engaged in the last years in a series the pedagogic experiments with architects and anthropologists wishing to make the classroom into a space where I have acted ‘as’ a designer of sorts: creating situations for the uncertain sensitisation to what bodily diversity makes emerge, in the aspiration that we could learn to cultivate relations of ‘mutual access’.

This section’s style is to be more collage-like (more like a dossier or what the French might call a carnet) showing the experiences that served as inspiration in designing the courses, the syllabi and outlines, as well as telling vignettes from the courses’ experiences and some tentative reflections.

Displayed in three main sub-sections or chapters:

A. Pedagogic intraventions in design

  1. Technical democracy and the training future design professionals
  2. Beyond imported experience, or why go beyond learning accessible building codes
    1. Learning from radical design/architecture pedagogies
    2. Experimenting with pedagogy in design studio settings: Drawing inspiration from Alicante’s school of Architecture
  3. Relearning design in practice: An inventory of ‘sensitising devices’
    1. Sensitising matters in inclusive urbanism: Devices that alter hegemonic design/architectural sensory operations
    2. Mapping and information apps (, App&Town, J’Accede, Wheelmap, BlindMaps), interaction kits (1319x’s Kit Detector de Obstáculos, Modellbaukasten: Taktiles und visuelles Blindenleitsystem im öffentlichen Verkehrsraum, Tracktile), and bodily immersion or simulation devices (Patricia Moore’s full immersion an other bodily simulators)
  4. The practice of relearning design: An inventory of relevant pedagogic experiments in inclusive urbanism
    1. Consultants not users: Raymond Lifchez’s Rethinking architecture
    2. Learning not to see: The BBSB (Bavarian Association of the Blind) training of architects to assist in accessibility advocacy
  5. The Design In Crisis series of pedagogic intraventions
    1. From a ‘predicative’ to an ‘experiential’ pedagogic mode
    2. Pedagogic diplomats: Forging situations of multi-sensory exploration
    3. The ‘coming to our senses’ design studio situation
      1. Following the steps of Chris Downey, a blind architect
      2. Prototyping the ManualCAD
  6. Re-learning design: Sensitising as a form of technical democracy
    1. Raising awareness: Turning the technician into an ally
    2. Transforming how we could design: Opening up other concerns, issues and modes of practice

B. Anthropology as an inclusive art of bridging

  1. Re-learning anthropology
  2. Engaging in careful relations with bodily diversity: An inventory of inspiring anthropological, artistic and activist experiments in multi-sensory and more-than-human appreciation
  3. A pedagogy of the limit? Anthropological experiments with the teaching and exhibition of inclusive design 
    1. Speculative inquiries: Troubling our conceptual categories, producing shaky fields, and changing how we relate
    2. Relating at the hinges of unrelatability
      1. Learning to relate: Sensing diversity below and below the body
      2. Learning to relate in order to relate: An apprenticeship of narrative and storytelling styles and devices
  4. Anthropology as inclusive design?
    1. Engaging in an ongoing re-tooling: From working out concepts to joint problem-making in a non-disciplined manner
    2. Worlding for mutual access: Relearning anthropology as an inclusive art of bridging?

C. A careful design manifesto

A final programmatic and manifesto-like brief text, drawing inspiration from the particular troubled and troubling relearning processes here recounted, opening up Anthropology as an art of design, experimenting with the careful material-political act of producing relations of mutual access.


Picture CC BY NC ND 2014 En torno a la silla