Friday 9th Sept, 11.30-13.00, Room CG10
Chair: Dr Maya Oppenheimer, Royal College of Art
The formation of the ‘archive’ is a political act: deciding what to keep and how to organize it has a direct relevance for both design historians of the future and for design practitioners of the present. This session addresses the idea of the archive as the physical embodiment of (official) memory, and the idea of memory as an integral part of the design process.
The Time of/for a Queer Design Archive
Dr John Potvin, Associate Professor, Art History, Concordia University, Montreal
What is the queer future of the design archives?
Charles Rice and Beatriz Colomina have importantly claimed that Modernism and its interiors were facilitated by and earned their success almost entirely due to their rich photographic culture. Modernism, however, has been notoriously unforgiving towards marginal communities, not least the queer communities, which have never formed part of Design History (Potvin, 2016).
My research is motivated by the ambition to provide a long overdue intervention into the state of Design History where (male and female) sexuality has been systemically ignored, with queer theory leaving no discernable trace on the field twenty-five years after being coined. Fascinating is how (homo)sexuality is either taken for granted in the case of gay men or simply omitted in the case of lesbians. As architect and essayist Joel Sanders (2002) has asserted: “If the history of the professional decorator has been neglected, the subject of homosexuality and interior decoration has been largely ignored”. Mark Hinchman (2013) has recently noted, in passing, that “[o]ne might think, therefore, that the issues of design, sexuality, and identity would interest historians […] but this […] remains largely unexpressed”. The complex relationship between the practices of design, industrialisation and sexuality remains the love that dare not speak its name. This absence is coupled with an archival architecture that tends toward inhospitality to scholars of marginal histories. This paper seeks to ask, rather than definitively answer, what a queer design archive might look like. As a result, I question:
- Can we talk about designed objects and interiors as possessing a sexuality, and if so, what is the vocabulary and channels through which to do so, without falling pray to still prevalent stereotypes?
- What is a scholar to do faced with an absence of images and notebooks? Is affect an effective means to fill in blanks, as some have suggested?
- How can queer theory and the study of sexuality more broadly help to shape the design archive?
- How might a queer-activist reading and intervention into historico-archival material provide the groundwork for a future design history and praxis?
My ambition is to question, provoke and plea for help in fleshing out a long and sadly forgotten history.
In August 2014, during the violent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, USA, curators of the V&A’s exhibition Disobedient Objects noticed a spike in downloads of its How-To Guides, including How to Build a Makeshift Tear-Gas Mask and How to Make a Lock-On Device, from internet users in that city.
A month earlier, the V&A opened its Rapid Response Collecting curatorial project, with its new gallery of twelve objects, including a 3D printed gun made from a design developed by Texan law student Cody Wilson; a pair of Primark cargo trousers made in Bangladesh soon after the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory; and a box of Katy Perry’s Cool Kitty false eyelashes made from human hair by women in an Indonesian factory.
These two events – a public’s use of a design museum’s supplementary exhibition material to inform them in their political activism, and a design museum placing the complex politics of contemporary design prominently in front of its visiting audience – create a moment that act as a call to arms for design history to set the politics of the contemporary firmly in its sights.
Undoubtedly, the politics of the contemporary are urgent and complex, from global recession and austerity politics to globalised terror, civil unrest and mass migration, and through to irreversible effects of climate change and the implications of the anthropocene. Amidst this, contemporary design practice is popularly situated as a panacea, and as such has become a hyper-commoditised activity in and of itself. For example, as Sarah Teasley notes, design practice has become a central part of government policy, from design thinking and service design being used as a strategy to improve government functionality, to social design to improve service efficiencies, through to its strategy to support innovation in the digital economy. Within this socio-economic and political landscape, how can the design historian contribute and interrogate design? Is there a space for Contemporary Design History?
The topic of a Contemporary Design History is not a new field of investigation; indeed it has been at the subject of the RCA’s Design History of the Now research project, directed by Teasley, since it began in 2014 as a result of two professional roundtables of curators, designers, educators, historians and writers.
This paper contributes to the debates on the practice, methods and archives of Contemporary Design History, with a specific focus on the potentialities and problematics in constructing a design history curriculum for critical design practitioners in order to explore how a design history can be constructed as an active and living tool for critique.
In 2009, Italian philosopher Remo Bodei questioned the relationships between things, subjects and time, presenting the concept of ‘open nostalgia’. According to the author, in open nostalgia, “things are no longer subjected to the unquenchable desire of return to an irrecoverable past, do not adhere to the dream of changing the irreversibility of time, to overthrow or perpetuate the sequence of those events that occur only once for the whole eternity, but they become vehicles of a voyage of discovery of a past full also of possible future.” (Bodei 2009, p.55). Can the idea of open nostalgia be translated in the design process? Is it possible to read the design project in an evolutionary dimension that links past, present and future? Which practices and tools are used by professionals?
To answer these questions, the paper addresses the role of memory in the act of design. Things, artefacts, goods, can be understood as one of the basic materials for the design project. In other words, the heritage of our material culture becomes the object of study by the designer, who makes it his own, reworks it, manipulates it and translates it using tools and processes of his competence. The time of individual memory is thus different from the time of history: by digging the labyrinth of his memory, the designer builds plots of knowledge, semi-finished products, combinations and variations of elements, images, places and figures of his past that become active materials and sources of learning in the production of new artefacts.
Through a phenomenological analysis of contemporary behaviours and practices, the paper documents this process, presenting the activity of Italian contemporary professionals both in the area of product and communication design. The underlying hypothesis implies a series of pre-requisites that combine the analysed cases: the designer acquires motifs and references from the past for innovation; so he produces ‘link-objects’ that establish connection between past and future, generating a dialogue with time; to materialise this process, he creates ‘artifices of memory’, as design processes or semi-finished products.
After the presentation of the main hypothesis and the theoretical background, the paper addresses possible ‘artifices of memory’ implemented by designers: systems and techniques of sedimentation and archiving of memory through the creation of meta-projects. A methodology of search, annotation, selection, acquisition, preservation, interpretation (handling/re-writing) and transformation (creating a surplus value) that is both historicist, hermeneutic and structuralist. The interest of the ‘artifices’ lies in the materiality of collections, regardless of whether they consist of drawings, photographs, technical objects. The first (drawings and photographs) are inserted in the iconographic tradition of Atlas strongly anchored to the architectural matrix, where the image has played a key role and constitutes the cornerstone of memory (i.e. the experience of the Warburg Institute). While the latter, more interesting for the paper, is a more comparable heritage to that of modern Wunderkammer. Moreover, the ordering principles (i.e. the design of the artifice) and the system to use these artifices to produce new projects are also topics of interest for the research.
Formia, E (ed) (2012) Innovation in Design Education. Theory, research and processes to and from a Latin perspective, Allemandi.
Formia, E and Peruccio PP (2012) Storie e cronache del design, Allemandi.
Kristensen, J (2015) ‘Six Women / Art Vapours’, Mnemoscape Magazine, 2: In the Presence of Absence.
Kristensen, J (2014) ‘The Sony Walkman (Nobutoshi Kihara, 1978)’, in: Lees-Maffei (ed.) G Iconic Designs: 50 Stories About 50 Objects, London: Berg.
Kristensen, J (2012) ‘Making Ways of Seeing: An Interview with Mike Dibb and Richard Hollis,’ Journal of Visual Culture 11(2), 59-74.
Potvin, J (2016) ‘The Pink Elephant in the Room: What Ever Happened to Queer Theory in the Study of Interior Design 25 years on?’, Journal of Interior Design, 41:1, 5-11.