Thinking Forwards and Backwards

Saturday 10th Sept, 14.30-16.00, Room CG11

Chair: Dr Sabrina Rahman, University of Exeter

Papers in this session look at designers in the moment of making, and consider how both notions of time and notions of performance might be incorporated into their work.

42134488_williams_portraitTowards a Theory of Performative Design
Professor Gareth Williams, Head of Design, School of Art and Design, Middlesex University, London

“If man is a sapient animal, a tool-making animal, a self-making animal, a symbol-using animal, he is, no less, a performing animal, Homo performans.”

Victor Turner (1989)

Increasingly we are aware that contemporary designers incorporate time and performance into their works. These are designers who are usually situated in critical practice, or oriented towards self-generated experimental work in gallery and museum contexts, and who are critics or pioneers of industrial and craft conventions. For them, time is an active agent of the design and production processes, and performance both enacts and records their works.

As a discipline, design history is indebted to histories of art, and design theories owe much to art discourse. This paper seeks to outline a new unifying theory of performative design, drawing upon another theoretical heritage, as a tool for design historians to evaluate design practices.

Since John L Austin (1955) defined ‘speech acts’ in a series of lectures in the 1950s, elaborated upon by John R Searle (1969) and others from the 1960s, notions of performativity have become popular in diverse disciplines, from linguistics to philosophy, art and performance history, and identity politics. Performativity means different things in varied contexts. In 2007 Loxley compared linguistic speech acts with the actions of machines, drawing us close to the realms of design practice and design history.

If machines are understood not only as the tools of human purposes but as means for producing standardised outputs according to repeatable and regular sequences of operations or moves, then the speech act considered in its conventional aspect might claim some affinity with the machine. Such a comparison perhaps seems a little strained or outlandish: if so, we should remind ourselves that this definition of the machine encompasses not just obviously technological processes but also activities we might consider more abstract, like the basic computations of a calculator or even the more advanced procedures of a game of chess.

I propose a theory of performative design as a mechanism for interpreting and connecting diverse contemporary design practices that I define as ‘self-generated’, ‘self-evident’ and ‘self-operated’.

‘Self-generated’ works by designers including Glithero, Anton Alvarez and Simon Heijdens capture the moment of their inception and incorporate time as a material agent. Like Austin’s speech acts, they are time-bound, iterative and repeatable. ‘Self-evident’ performative design works (by, for example, Martino Gamper, Max Lamb, Jólan van der Wiel and Maarten Baas) reinterpret arts and crafts tenets of ‘honest construction’. The difference now is that makers want to show how their works are made instantly from innovative techniques or new technologies. Performative actions, proposed Judith Butler (1990), simultaneously define, create and perform notions of personal identity. In design terms this is akin to ‘self-operated’ practices that seek to record and transmit how and when they have been made, for example works by rAndom International and Cohen van Balen.

42134488_sanchez_morenoThe Emergence of Social Design through Time and Space
Lilian Sanchez-Moreno, Doctoral Researcher, School of Arts and Humanities, University of Brighton
E: T: @LilianSMoreno

It could be argued that the decade of the 1970s was a crucial turning point for the design discipline. During this period, questions regarding the purpose and direction of the field culminated in a series of events that sought to question the ‘social’ contribution of design, such as the Design for Need Symposium, held at the RCA in 1976. Discussions regarding the planning and organisation of an event that would address such concerns can be traced back to 1973, as revealed within the organising documents held at the RCA archives. Initially thought as Design for Survival, it was followed by the idea of Design Action. In this sense, it could also be argued that the issues raised during this period are as accurate to current debates regarding the practice of ‘social’ design, and thus a relevant line of inquiry to the field of Design History, which could help develop a deeper understanding of the shifts in discourse and conceptualisation that lead the future development of the design profession.

Furthermore, the impact that the symposium had on participating organisations such as the Royal Society of Arts, The Design Council, the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers, the Design and Industries Associations, and ICSID, are clearly reflected within their later work. An example of this is the 1985 Design for Need exhibition, held at the Design Centre. Nonetheless, as perceived through this Design Council-organised exhibition, the concept of ‘need’ in this particular instance echoes the agenda of design for ‘development’, and not necessarily the other strands of design for need, on which the 1976 event was originally conceived. Examples of this are design for ‘natural relief’, ageing population, and environmental resources. Additionally, it is also possible that preceding events may also have served for the development of the contemporary design discourse. An example of this is the Japan Industrial Design Association (JIDA) national conference, held in 1975, also under the theme Design for Need, and at which members of the RCA and the DC can be found among the participants.

Thus, by positioning the Design for Need symposium as a study case, this paper will explore the conceptual shifts of the design profession through time. It will pay particular attention to the incorporation and development of the concepts of ‘participation’, ‘community’, ‘need’, and ‘social’ within the design profession, and how they have been articulated into contemporary practice. The paper draws on my current doctoral research, which is informed by various secondary and primary sources. It seeks to address the conference questions of: how can the discipline of design history analyse the theme of time? And how has design incorporated the past into the present and into the future? Set within the work of Reinhart Kosellek, in particular to ‘The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts’, this paper will explore, how meaning has changed over time and space, through the conceptualisation, organisation and realisation of the previously mentioned design events.

unspecifiedHistory Lessons for Our Common Future: Learning from the Past in Deep Ecology and Social Design
Malin Graesse, MA Student, Art History, University of Oslo
E:  W: Institutional Profile

The key to designing for a sustainable future lies in the past – or at least so it has been suggested by ecologically concerned design theorists from William Morris to David Orr. This paper seeks to investigate this claim by taking a close look at how historical technologies and practices informed the social design initiatives of Sigrun Berg and the eco-philosophy of her contemporary and compatriot Arne Næss, and how these two projects combined in turn may provide a history lesson for sustainable design today.

Sigrun Berg, a Norwegian textile designer and social entrepreneur who was looking to the past for technologies, techniques, and knowledge to aid conditions for people in small agrarian communities. Drawing on local knowledge, old techniques, and patterns, Berg managed to mobilise whole communities to weaving rugs and other textiles. In the late 1960s and early 1970s Berg’s quality wool products had become a trademark in the Norwegian capital.

To Berg, the loom was not an archaic, idiosyncratic technology – but a way of combining the past with the present and the future. For years the revenue from the sales of the rugs, clothes, and other textiles was an important source of extra income for the families and communities connected to the projects, thus contributing to upholding sustainable local lifestyles and creating a viable future in rural societies threatened by de-population. For Berg this knowledge, based on tradition and the closeness to the material, was quintessentially connected to these communities. She aimed at directing awareness towards the people and the homes behind the products.

This way of looking to the past for solutions for a more sustainable future resonates in the thinking of Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss. In his book Ecology, community and lifestyle, first published in 1974, he expressed his concern as to how new technologies may lead to an abstraction from nature. He saw that new production techniques were replacing the previous human-object relationship with a human-technology relationship, separating the worker from the milieu where he performed his labour. He suggested an approach to cultural diversity similar to that of bio-diversity, and stressed the importance of cultural anthropology. Næss claimed that the focus had to be on local soft technologies and the perseverance of non-industrialised ways of life. Rural communities had to be able to maintain a self-sufficient way of life.

This paper will explore the implications of looking to the past for future solutions through the eco-philosophy of Arne Næss and the actions of Sigrun Berg. I will argue that, read in the light of deep-ecology, Berg’s calling for a greater appreciation of the individual was also a calling for a move towards a greater unity with nature. By combining the past and the present, they both envisioned a better future.

Further Reading

Austin, JL (1955) How to do Things with Words.

Butler J (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.

Loxley J (2007) Performativity

Searle J (1969) Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language.

Turner, V (1987) The Anthology of Performance, New York: PAJ Publications.

Williams G (2015) Design: An Essential Introduction, London: Goodman Fiell.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *