Master Thesis, MDes Contextual Design, Design Academy Eindhoven, 2013
This reflective document is based on the analysis of myself as a consumer within commercial structures which seem to underlie large parts of what I consider as the basis of ‘my daily life’ – food, housing, clothing, education: culture. The active exploration of an 'outsider's', of an 'extremist's' perspective have helped me to question the extent to which my life is connected to and, therefore, directed by the spectacle of the Commercial.
The reflection upon personal, subjective convictions has informed my rather empathic point of view on the topic of extremism. I choose to explore its productive, socially constructive character rather than focussing on commonly emphasised issues of violence and destruction.
The exploration of strategies of action performed by individuals or groups with marginalised ideas on society and specifically on the system of commercialized culture, leads to a critical reflection upon myself and the discipline of Design as a social practice, which I choose to contribute to.
I am a designer.
During my bachelor degree in Product Design I was educated to create objects with regard to factors such as 'target group', 'user behaviours', 'feasibility', 'brand identity' and 'functionality'. Although I was studying at the University of the Arts, London, which is an art school after all, every project that I worked on had to undergo a ‘reality check’, limiting the margins of possible proposals to those that would, more or less, fit the current market.
Outside of university, designers close to me struggled with the reality of ‘independent practice’. Working on client briefs as self-employed ‘designer-makers’ they were forced to follow the same logic as their commercial clients. As market logics were considered a fundamental value of creative practices, the young designers around me were forced to marginalise human values that opposed economic logics.
This very same way of thinking has directed my initial design education. A standardised 'design process' was applied through branding exercises and client projects, which often enough presented the simple aim to increase profits. Thinking back to this chapter of my education, I feel the sensation of disgust and shame, as if almost violated by a system which enthusiastically and convincingly taught me to take advantage of the observation of other’s behaviours in order to manipulate buying behaviours. I had consented to this violation and practised it myself. I was once enthusiastic about exercising what I can now identify as practices of deception, storytelling, or bluntly said, of lying for the sake of earning money.
After graduating from this course, I decided to continue studying. Maybe, I took this decision because I didn’t know how to deal with my own hypocrisy towards the reality of ‘earning money’. I went on to study a master in a discipline called ‘Contextual Design’, which I perceived as different than traditional studies in Design. Instead of regarding creation as limited to products placed within an environment, 'Contextual Design' relates to situations, frameworks, structures, society – contexts, which give the opportunity to reconsider and imagine, to design those structures which affect human beings living within them. I consider the term and the practice of 'Contextual Design' in its ambiguity and lack of a clear definition as an invitation to open up discourses around the relevance of creation in relation to society, social responsibility and political embeddedness. By default, the discipline of Design is a political, an ideological one. Therefore, creation needs to be understood as a political act.
The correspondence between creation and personal conviction can only be regarded as an ideal. In 'reality', many designers accept to work on commissions without considering socio-political structures and values that lie behind an assignment. Money becomes a corrupting factor.
I am a consumer.
Choices of consumption are ideological choices. This means that whatever I choose to consume has effects on society, others around me. The impact of my choices as a consumer vary in scope while even the most seemingly ‘innocent’ products imply societal effects depending on its origin (production methods, working conditions, materials/ ingredients etc.) and its ‘afterlife’ (recycling, reuse, composting, landfill, burning etc). From this perspective, consumers’ choices imply just as much responsibility as those of designers, manufacturers or other stakeholders.
As a consumer, I need to consider my choices of consumption as expressions of my own principles – if all choices of consumption are ideological and imply effects on others, I need to be aware of the influence that my actions have.
Ideals truly show themselves in actions not words; words are inconsistent. Instead of looking for meaning in words that others use we need to learn to listen to what we feel. We need to abandon the idea of rationality which has created nothing but ambiguous indifference; an attitude which influences our relationships with others; we consider individuals with strong personal beliefs or ideals as inappropriate, as unrealistic, as outsiders by choice; instead we look for others who share our indifferent view on the world.
Empathy is central to human interaction and the formation of a social entity, but can easily be mistaken for the false solidarity central to the anchoring of social authoritarian power. Empathy and solidarity with the Normal is evoked by media of authority to create trust in the prevailing system and its leadership. ‘Public media’, which are not actually accessible for free participation, transport messages in order to support ‘Normality’.
This is why I choose to engage in filling this void of silence with critical events. Individuals, myself and others around me, have come to be in-different, have come to look, act and think – to be – the same. ‘Difference’ has become a general notion relevant to ‘sociality’, questioning elements of identity. Society has come to restrict itself to one ideology, one culture, one identity which is the source of indifference pervading daily life. The realization of this radicalization of political indifference is essential for the execution of strategic acts against this trend. In a way, society needs to reinvent its foundational principles.
Neutrality has become our, society's dictum, however ambiguously we follow illusionary goals. “Aimlessly drifting” through everyday life with an intuitive idea of change but without a clear perspective, without an opinion, without an aim; still, the plan seems fixed as if we knew where we were going. Why is it that you have to keep on walking, why do you hesitate to just turn around and admit to your confusion? Is it because we assume that this is what others expect us to do?
Instead of following notions of success, explore personal convictions.
Instead of continuing to walk blindly, move freely.
I am a social being.
The profound realization of one’s own bias and preconception, and the resulting feeling of insecurity and doubt is necessary to understand the constructedness of society, which paves the way for honest critical thought. Honesty needs to become the basis for action; only then can interaction become meaningful and creative.
Try to look beyond established stereotypes that you yourself, not only the others, the majority, also project and recognize in others. As Raoul Vaneigem (1967) articulates, “[t]he world of isms (…) is never anything but a world drained of reality, a terribly real seduction by falsehood.” This is the blindfold that ideology has brought upon us. “Falsehood”, the distortion and interpretation of reality through defined filters, seduces us to believe in what we ‘see’, or rather, forces us to believe in the rightfulness of the image which we think we see clearly. By now, it is impossible to leave behind those filters that we have grown accustomed. Our view on the world seems determined because we have been educated to believe in it. Just as a person with an impaired sight cannot see clearly without her prescribed glasses, we could only see confusing, chaotic blur without our ideological ‘filters’.
Culture is governed by imagery and symbolism -the content of which is created within social contexts, or, structures. In the film ‘V for Vendetta’ one of the main characters says: “A building is a symbol, as is the act of destroying it. Symbols are given power by people. Alone, a symbol is meaningless, but with enough people, blowing up a building can change the world.” A building is a construct just as any other cultural symbol, just as any other design, therefore, the consideration of a design as an ideological symbol would allow for actions of use, construction or destruction to create profoundly0 political, ideological expressions as opposed to seemingly banal images. There is no such thing as superficiality. Even mediocrity is radical, deeply rooted in our being within this society. Each choice that we make can be regarded as politics, an expression of ideology, a way of thinking and acting. Tino Sehgal articulated a similar thought as follows: “artistic production – like all acts – is always political and critical as well as affirmative towards something in being a performative reaffirmation of, or deviation from, certain existing circumstances.”
Potentially emancipatory events are neutralized and suffocated from public attention. This profound act of censorship needs to be circumvented in order to overcome and escape from the overwhelming impact of one prevailing ideology.
The only way to go beyond static and determined judgements seems to be re-education, self-re-education; and the way this process is triggered needs to be a rupture in the repetitiveness of life, the breaking of routines, the creation of ‘events’, which, after Alain Badiou, make way for reflection on ‘the real’ and, therefore, can be seen as triggers of change.
Looking beyond structures of hierarchy and authority can trigger social actors to freely and creatively act within any accessible space instead of demanding freedom in an area that appears publicly inaccessible. These creative acts of struggle are not necessarily of violent nature. There is no violence in the destruction of dead objects or structures, violence is always directed at others (Zerzan, 2003) and makes clear processes of communication impossible. Non-violent communication is based on the capacity of compassion and empathy, the identification of other’s needs and a process of radical questioning of the nature of actions and interests, meaning, a radical change of habits of thinking and speaking. Society needs to rediscover humanness and return to direct human interaction as the most basic method of communication. (Rosenberg, 2006)
Social Productive Value of Extremist Actions - Triggers of Change
‘Extremist’ actions and behaviours in public have a strong performative character which is clearly recognizable in acts of terrorism, situationism, radicalism or fanaticism, such as, Anders Behring Breivik’s behaviour and defence speech in front of court (2011) or Pussy Riot’s protest and trial in Russia (2012). There are numerous examples of performative actions which can be understood as strategies to create distinctive niches, or, Temporary Autonomous Zones (Bey, 1991) within social structures often thought not to incorporate outsiders’ ideological convictions.
The term 'extremism', or, 'political extremism' expresses a speaker’s ideological positioning within society and is by definition a relational, subjective term which should, therefore not be applied without a thorough reflection on its relational meaning. After being labelled as 'extremist' by mass media, an individual's thoughts and actions tend to be dismissed as socially irrelevant, pushed outside of constructive debates into a preconceived, counterproductive position.
Anders Breivik (2011) expressed a fundamental discontent with current democratic systems during his defence speech in front of court. He pointed out that current democratic structures are only open for one-directional thought, in his opinion, Marxist thought. In the same way, he criticizes current media structures. He suggests that “the system has decided that if you criticize, you be branded, publicly demonized, ridiculed, dehumanized.” If one or a number of ideals are presented as ‘true’ while others are dismissed as wrong, the Wrong seems indisputable.
As Slavoj Zizek (2009) claims, ideology is working at its best when it’s barely visible, when it’s not even noticeable and accepted as ‘normality’ by the majority of society. Then, expressions of ‘ideologies outside of the centre’ which are judged as cases of ‘extremism’ stand out as actions by frustrated madmen. After Zizek’s definition of ideology, all human creations can be regarded as ‘ideological products’. If all production embodies ideology, I myself am, as a consumer, an ideological product and, as a designer, a creator of ideological expressions.
Normality. Moderation. Mediocrity. Indifference
After visiting Erik van Lieshout's exhibition 'Commission' at the museum of modern art in Frankfurt, which dealt with the involvement of designers or arts in the commercial sphere as a stage for everyday life, I went to buy a pair of shoes with my mother and noticed a shop window decorated with huge letters saying “Fill the Void”.
Baudrillard (1993) explains the lack of stimulation of thought, the broadening of a societal, political void as the result of a lack of social engagement of individuals, a lack of interest, a lack of involvement and participation – seemingly, a testimony of failure of 'democracy' practised in society today. Instead, according to Baudrillard, ‘silence’ is practised through individual psychological indoctrination by 'everyone'.
The societal void which Baudrillard describes, mediocrity, has come to be accepted as normality. Structures of ideological authority tend to keep thought processes and width of reflection of the general public within the realms of ‘normality’ and temperateness (Gemäßigtheit). In order to keep the image of ‘normality’ and its definition intact, individuals are presented in oppositions of ‘heroes’ or ‘terrorists’. It seems easy to dismiss opinions and ideas if the individuals expressing them are publicly presented as ‘impossible to discuss with’, morally wrong or destructive by authoritative media. As Zizek (2012) claims, society is continuously practising a behaviour fuelled by ignorance that allows any idea that doesn’t fit into ‘the system’ the be dismissed, ignored and unconsidered in order to prevent the system to be harmed.
Performative Activism and Design
As Giovanni Pezzato (2012) claims, “a word in time“ is “permanent in the instant we pronounce it,“ while “definitions, on the contrary, are dry and incomplete“. Definitions, the striving for ‘objectivity’ and rationalism, seem useless when discussing such essentially subjective and irrational thoughts and ideas on belief or ideology. As context frames content, any change in context alters the meaning of a message. No content can, therefore, be twice the same. ‘Context’ is regarded as a composition of factors regarding environment (global context), time (historical context), heritage (cultural context), societal environment (social context) and personal involvement (personal context). Ideological categorization means simplification, flattening of content which is profoundly complex. This means that every expression, every translation or representation of content is complex by nature. Therefore, no expression could possibly be considered as simple or superficial. Even seemingly irrelevant actions or behaviours form part of an expression of belief which implies a relational meaning through its contextualization. Seemingly superficial elements such as clothing, mood, facial expression, tone of voice, gestures, choice of words, rhetoric or personal expressions originate from an idea or attitude which is profound in nature be its intention, or, its intended effect deceptive or honest.
Can designers explore and express their own subjective conviction apart from authoritative influences in order to create honest interventions? Can designers incite reflection upon the ideologically charged commercial sphere which their discipline shapes and acts within?
From this point of view, design is considered as a political practice of conscious decision making, as an ideological expression. It takes effect in specific political, cultural and ideological contexts. Casting doubt on our socio-ontological constants, our discursive and material routines, which structure our lifeworlds would necessitate us to “overcome the laziness of consciousness” (Beuys, 1979) and to explore modes of thought which cut across convenient totalizations. Rather than regarding design as a rigid discipline the aim is to establish ‘design thinking’ (although this term has been used within highly commercialised design practices) in application to dynamic, flexible, marginalised contents – 'design thinking' as trigger of change.
In his lecture “How to Change the World” Alain Badiou (2013) discussed the word 'change' as “a point of interruption of repetition”, of “natural becoming”. This interruption is caused by an ‘event’ which is bound to a local context, ‘the real’ which the event effects. Badiou stresses that change can only happen locally. Therefore, events need to address locally relevant issues and choose contextually adequate forms.
As designers take an active, political role in society, an awareness of one’s own ideological influences and biases, responsibilities, possibilities and potential effects is essential. Design, therefore, has the potential to facilitate the expression of ideas and ideologies by intervening in the repetitiveness of political structures within or outside of existing systems. Bruno Latour criticises common practices of design in his essay 'A Cautious Prometheus' (2012), remarking that design needs to redefine 'rendering' as a practice of considering an object in its relational and contextual meaning rather than depicting solely an object's shape.
From the analysis of ‘acts of extremism’ as performative actions carrying the potential to enrich and fertilize social discourses – the Situationist International and their protests in France in 1968, Guy Debord's writing and films on society and spectacle, the blending of artistic media and disciplines of the Fluxus movement, Voina's creative interventions in public space in Russia, Femen's 'neo-feminist' actions in Europe representing 'acts of extremism' which influence avant-garde thinkers in society today -design can be considered as a medium of critical situational performance. Performance as designed object; Objects as performing actors.
This exploration of the connection of social theory, performance and design leads to the questioning of the role of designers being, traditionally, fundamentally linked with contemporary materialist, capitalist ideologies. The exploration of the link of the discipline of art with ideological systems can be found within the work of Tino Sehgal who creates “constructed situations” rather than material objects (Stein, 2009). By thoroughly considering and involving the audience in scripted situations Tino Sehgal manages to create something other than theatre, other than performance, experiences which ‘feel’ and, therefore, are real, within the context of cultural institutions.
At an 'Artist Talk' at Tate Modern, London (2012) Tino Sehgal remarked on participatory elements of his piece 'These Associations' which included performers randomly involving the audience in conversations. He pointed out that he considers “crafting” these kind of situations as part of his role as an artist, while allowing performers as participants to act freely within those constructed situations. Could this idea of open construction or 'crafting' be applied in order to catalyse challenging encounters and situations outside of cultural institutions, in 'everyday life'? When leaving the room where the talk with the artist had taken place one of the performers approached me saying “Don’t let his answer [to the question of crafting 'real' experiences] influence the way you look at the experience that you had. For us this is also a quite profound and valuable experience.“ In Sehgal's model of creation, performers consume instead of solely producing, as viewers produce as opposed to merely consuming experiences, therefore, countering the passive ‘spectacle’ (Debord, 1967) of traditional performances.
Towards a strategy
The challenge for society today lies in the re-installation of the right to freedom of speech, freedom to criticise, to voice critique. This task relies on the abandonment of taboos which currently alienate what’s considered outside of ‘the normal’. Only the reinstatement of dialogue as a natural phenomenon of everyday life can cause the ‘un-muting’ of society and take effect against the vulgarization of culture that has been caused by the systematic commoditization of culture. A culture of systematic ignorance has emerged around us which is now to be brought down through acts of creative struggle.
Culture needs to be separated again from the Commercial and reinstalled as a critical social agent. Creative projects need to be used as tools to explore democracy at its essence. Society doesn’t need ready made ideologies but instruments of critical questioning and empathetic interaction which are always of ideological and political nature, but don’t necessarily abide by the laws of reasoning that have gotten used to. The social sphere around us is not shaped by companies or institutions of authority which obey some evil spell and play magic tricks on consumers who are left innocently oblivious to whatever they are fed. People are not stupid. The point is only that ‘the system’ which we are used to feels as if it was too big and too solid to act within freely. This is why most members of society obey the system by default, not necessarily because they believe in it. If we feel imprisoned or violated it’s because we have contributed to the imprisonment and violation of society – by society. It’s a hypocritical position to criticize H&M while shopping at Zara but this is the society we live in; it is hypocritical at its essence and there seems no way out if it. Maybe this is why consumers have stopped caring and instead accept the lies that companies tell us without scrutiny; maybe this is why we accept things as they are, “because you can’t do anything about it anyway”.
The position of the designer within the structure of production is one of relative independence. Design embodies creation. Being a creator puts an individual in a position of power. Therefore, it seems easy to consider the discipline of design, just as the other creative arts, as one of independent, free creation. But design is, unlike most visual arts, bound to its context. This means that the freedom of creation is always compromised by the reality of its context. This makes the position of the designer a highly complex one.
What society needs to counter the tendency of growing indifference which is harmful to its own foundations is re-education to de-banalize its culture. This is not a moralist, nostalgic call for the re-establishment of ‘good, old-fashioned values’ it is a call to engage in a process of negotiating the renewal of sociality and ethics.
It seems invaluable to emphasize here that cynicism is not a constructive tool for the creation of progressive criticism. “Instead of focussing on what you hate, work on what you like”; take a proactive position. Some irony, sarcasm and cynicism might be useful to initiate a process of thought but if thoughts remain on this initial, often shallow and egocentric, stage a design outcome misses its goal of reaching out to address others’ thought and to re-ignite constructive discourses.
As design has taken the role of cultural creation through its fundamental embeddedness in the Commercial, designers may be the right experts to address and criticize the system of commercial consumption and the issue of radicalizing indifference and mediocrity on a cultural level. Maybe a way out of this hypocritical position of the designer lies in its reinvention. Can design be detached from the ideological system that it has grown up within?
Tino Sehgal seems to point towards an alternative in production in the field of art: “Both the appearance of excess supply in western societies in the 20th century, as well as of mankind’s endangering of the specific disposition of ‘nature’ in which human life seems possible, question the hegemony of this mode of production, in which the objecthood of visual art is profoundly inclined. My point is that dance as well as singing -as traditional artistic media -could be a paradigm for another mode of production which stresses transformation of acts instead of transformation of material, continuous involvement of the present with the past in creating further presents instead of an orientation towards eternity, and simultaneity of production and de-production instead of economics of growth.”
The thoughts expressed by Sehgal on the production of art (see 'Towards a Strategy') can be taken as a hint towards the future of design – instead of blindly adhering and decoratively recreating flawed systems designers could aim for the creation of alternatives to existing structures and thereby contribute to political discourses on a practical and theoretical level. Although the discipline of design might superficially relate to stylistic practice which seem to only deal with the decorating the surface of things (Latour, 2008) it can be understood as a rather profound expression of convictions related to essential issues of life in society. The expression of conviction is a fundamental element both for the disciplines of design and within political activities. While politics, as a highly complex discipline involves a variety of actors, who are situated in the centre or at the fringes of a society's objectified democratic consensus, design as a practice seems to engage mostly within fields of unreflected illusions of 'objectivities' which, due to the glorification of economic logical patterns, don't allow for the exploration of potentially fruitful alternative, subjective views on socially relevant issues. Therefore, designers could, just as political actors, explore and take advantage of personal convictions in order to contribute to the creation of alternative socio-political structures. Just as extremist actions, political design interventions can take the shape of local actions/ events by taking advantage of structural niches within given systems – loopholes.
The concept of taking advantage of 'loopholes' within structures implies, on the one hand, a conscious expression of discontent with existing practices whilst, on the other hand, requiring the reliance on this very same structure. The RAF in Germany replied to articles about their actions with statements typed onto photocopies of those same articles which were then, again, published by newspapers. Most probably, this was not a random choice of method. They responded to media reports in a way which was founded on subjective convictions and clearly positioned the group within the social landscape around them. Whilst strongly criticising contemporary political and economic systems, the group addressed its position being embedded and related to these. By using a photocopy of a newspaper's article as paper for a public statement they critically addressed that, on the one hand, the newspaper did not give a sufficiently profound insight into their action and, on the other hand, clearly reveals their reliance on the popularity of the paper to carry their messages to the general population, the newspaper's readers. One could argue that the RAF relied on existing media structures to voice their critique on society which created and supports those very structures, that they needed the distribution network and the basic structure of media in order to successfully act against those elements. This argumentation might seem to reveal a hypocritical foundation of the group's actions when this strategy can also be regarded as honesty and the avoidance of false pretensions.
The same can be said about critical design – most of the time designers make use of the systems they criticize. Personally, I don't regard this as evidence of hypocrisy but rather as a strategy to make first steps to change an existing system.
From this perspective, I consider my own practice as 'steps towards changing existing structures'. I don't believe in 'independence' and, therefore, don't want to follow the naïve idea that I could create strategies to escape or to break out of existing social, political and economical structures. Rather, I look to constructively contribute to the 'evolution' of a system or a structure which is grounded in ideology, belief and conviction by taking advantage, or, strategically using existing patterns and infrastructures to constructively express my subjective convictions and to act according to them. Points of economic, ideological and political openness allow me to act 'more freely' within a frame which might otherwise feel restricting, alienating and destined to endless repetition. As Badiou says, we need to create profound 'events' in order to incite change. This is what I consider my creative and political responsibility.