Mutual Access: Designing Careful Relations (book in project)

Book in project – Tentative description, draft version: February 2019


This book is an anthropological exploration of inclusive 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 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, inclusive design could then be accounted 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 inclusive 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 inclusive 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, describing in detail the impact they 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, hence opening up to the many forms of joint problem-making there present; but also, how I tried to inherit from these moments in my pedagogical approach to design studio settings when having to teach architects, 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 inclusive design 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 sometimes known, but many times 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 inclusive 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.


Picture CC BY NC ND 2014 En torno a la silla