Book Review: Design Act - Socially and Politically Engaged Design Today. Critical Roles and Emerging Tactics

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0esign_act_cover_364.jpgDesign Act - Socially and Politically Engaged Design Today. Critical Roles and Emerging Tactics, edited by Magnus Ericson and Ramia Mazé, the founders of the DESIGN ACT project (available on amazon USAand UK.)

Publishers IASPIS and Sternberg Press write: Design Act: Socially and Politically Engaged Design Today--Critical Roles and Emerging Tactics is a project that presents and discusses contemporary design practices that engage with political and societal issues. Since 2009, the Iaspis project Design Act has been highlighting and discussing practices in which designers have been engaging critically as well as practically in such issues. Itself an example of applied critical thinking and experimental tactics, the process behind the Design Act project is considered as a curatorial, participatory and open-ended activity. Design Act has developed through an online archive, public events, and an international network.

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Mine, Everything Is OK caution tape

The book is thus putting the spotlight on 'Socially and Politically Engaged Design'. Design! With a bit of architecture thrown in. If you're into activist, socially engaged art, you might find that many of the projects presented in this book are very reasonable and appropriate. They have less bite than the work of, say, Santiago Sierra (more about him tomorrow) but that shouldn't be held against them. Because these designers are smart. And levelheaded enough to look for practical, witty solutions to very circumscribed issues. There's no 'Design will save the world!' here.

The publication attempts to answer three groups of questions:
- What is socially and politically engaged design today? What are its historical antecedents?
- Which form does it take"? Which strategies does it deploy?
- Where do you find socially engaged design? In which contexts?

This book is the conclusion and digest of the ambitious DESIGN ACT programme produced by Iaspis, the Swedish Arts Grants Committee's International Programme for Visual Arts. It took the form of a series of panels, interviews, an online archive and a research that offered a platform for practitioners and members of the public to discuss how design practices are engaging with political and societal issues.

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New Beauty Council, Knitting House Husby Konsthall, 2010

The undeniable strength of the book is the interviews. Every single one of them contains invaluable insights and reflections. Especially the ones with Doina Petrescu, the co-founder of atelier d'architecture autogérée (aaa) (studio for self-managed architecture), an interdisciplinary network that develops "strategies" and "tactics" for research and intervention into city; with Pelin Derviş, an architect, editor and curator who used to head the Garanti Gallery, one of the most forward-thinking cultural spaces in Europe; Joseph Grima, editor in chief of Domus and former director of Storefront for Art and Architecture; Ou Ning, a Beijing-based curator, artist, documentary filmmaker, activist, designer, and director of the Shao Foundation; Yanki Lee, a young designer interested in methodology for participation and social innovation; designer, resercher and hacktivist Otto von Busch; architect and urbanist Mauricio Corbalan who co-founded m7red, a research platform dedicated to exploring the interactions between information technologies, urban ecologies and public policies; and architect Tor Lindstrand, one half of the brilliant International Festival and of Economy.

The experts interviewed share their opinion, experiences, talk about the difficulties encountered when starting a project and keeping it alive afterwards and questioning the role of design and architecture. Their conversation with the editors touch upon more specific dilemmas and concerns as well. Such as why they chose to operate inside or outside the academia, to put forward self-initiated projects rather than rely on commissions, where they find funding, how they manage to maintain a balanced relationship with sponsors, how to involve local communities, how to put traditional craftsmen in touch with young designers, reach out to various audiences, why they developed ideas in Europe but put them into practice in Asia or the USA, how to express a political position within a collective exhibition or a biennale.

And of course, i had to give you a few examples of what i meant when i wrote that many of the projects in the book are smart and rational:

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Raumlabor, Eichbaumoper, 2009. Foto ©: Rainer Schlautmann

Raumlabor turned a neglected and regularly vandalized metro station into an opera house.

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Unsworn Industries, Telemegaphone Dale, 2008

Telemegaphone Dale stands seven metres tall on a mountain overlooking the Dalsfjord in Norway. When you dial Telemegaphone's number the sound of your voice is broadcast across the fjord, the valley and the village of Dale below.

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m7red, inundacion! inesperadas posibilidades urbanas para Buenos Aires (flood! unexpected urban possibilities for Buenos Aires), 2000-2002

m7red designed a board game that projects disaster scenarios and lets players try their own hand at instant urban planning.

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The Anti-Advertising Agency, PeopleProducts123, 2007

PeopleProducts123 brings consumers the most up-to-date information on the people who make the products we use every day in the form of easy-to-use package labels and stickers. The improved packaging shows images and stories about the workers who make them and is 'shopdropped' in stores.

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Otto Von Busch, The Dale Sko Hack, 2006

The Dale Sko Hack workshop built bridges between designer and producer in an effort to evolve small scale production methods, save work places and develop skills within small scale shoe production.

Before closing the review, i need to add something about the design of the book: it is not even remotely practical. You keep getting numbers in red telling you to flip back and forth in the book to see pictures or just a description of a project discussed in a paragraph. It quickly gets tiring.

Image on the homepage: Piazza Taxingeplan in Tensta by International Festival and FRONT.

Related book reviews: Book Review - Art & Activism in the Age of Globalization, Art & Agenda - Political Art and Activism.

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