Oct 27, 2010

Design as intervention

I recently attended a series of presentations by designers who were invited to create "interventions" in public space.

I've been thinking about this since then, and especially about the concept of design as intervention. Is "intervention" a valid or appropriate strategy for design?

Interventionism is where one group disregards another group's right to self-determination in order to forward the first group's moral agenda and sovereignty. There are clear cases where interventionism is accepted, e.g. to prevent genocide. However, in the case of a designer intervening in a space or situation through a designed artifact in order to forward that designer's moral (or technical) agenda, we have to be more careful. "Intervention" has an activist ring to it, but when employed by those equipped with the tools of mass production, it quickly becomes hegamonic.

In particular, I wonder what criteria is used for evaluating a given intervention? Designers talk of objective functions for measuring the consequences of an object in line with their agenda. For example, if a designer were to publish a series of leaflets on waste disposal they might adopt an objective function that measures the resulting increase in the use of recycling bins. Although these types of objective measurements are appealing, they are often misleading. I'm reminded of Thomas Midgley's invention of Tetraethly Lead (TEL), a gasoline additive that had important benefits measured in the metrics of the day (it reduced engine "knocking"). It was only years later that we discovered the disastrous secondary and tertiary consequences of this change. Another example is plastic bags, which in the objective measurement function of their day were cheap, lightweight, and strong. Today we have a new artificial island in the Pacific that is made up from this cheap, lightweight and strong.

Interventionism applies a cause-effect analysis that fits well with the service-based ethos of design: Have a problem? Identify a solution, create an intervention, measure the improvements, iterate. How does this address a complex ecosphere? It is unclear, since the designer in this scenario is placed on the outside, as a lone agent with little real accountability for the secondary and tertiary effects of their work.

I realize I am being rather cynical. Certainly I often enjoy encounters with social interventions. I especially relish the bizarre, strange and unexpected. But the strategy of interventionism seems stuck in a colonial imaginary, one that relies on a construction of self and other. What other strategies are possible? What about design for the subaltern, for example?

Thinking about this (and this is very unformed), Daniel Eatock represents one place to start. Eatock is an independent artist with a design practice (or is it the other way around?) He offers a materials-based conceptual take on design. His manifesto on his website is:

Begin with ideas
Embrace chance
Celebrate coincidence
Ad-lib and make things up
Eliminate superfluous elements
Subvert expectation
Make something difficult look easy
Be first or last
Believe complex ideas can produce simple things
Trust the process
Allow concepts to determine form
Reduce material and production to their essence
Sustain the integrity of an idea
Propose honesty as a solution

His approach is deceptively simple. His model is collaborative and at the same time he asserts his independence. He does have large clients (e.g. Channel 4), but he is selective in his choice of clients, and insists that they work within his creative model, rather that designing to a brief. "there is no brief, no description, no guidelines.... If criteria were written down, they would be restrictive." Eatock's approach downscales design and takes it out of a solution-oriented framework. He doesn't make any claims about interventions or about measuring results.

Discussing Eatock in class last year, one student proposed taking the idea of an independent designer further: What about a designer who creates designs for just one other individual? Or a designer who creates artifacts for one very small community or village? Returning to these highly embedded and communal models is a counterstrike against design for the masses.

Finally there is APG. Claire Bishop wrote about the Artist Placement Group in this months ArtForum (link). The APG was a group in the 1960's which placed artists (or "Incidental Persons") within organizations. The motivations of APG's founders, John Latham and Barbara Stevani, were intentionally precarious. Rather than aiming for a specific identifiable outcome, the Incidental Person was viewed as a figure who "takes the stand of a third ideological position which is off the plane of their obvious collision areas." In other words, rather than occupying known positions, it was an attempt to intentionally create unknowable positions.

The APG makes a mockery of activism since, although their aim was to achieve change, they were unconcerned with the ideological direction of that change. Instead they measured the change produced by their placements in terms of what they called the "delta unit", which had factors like the number of people affected by a change, or the length the change lasted. At first this seems absurd - how can you be for any change whatsoever? But what the delta unit does is force us to take a much longer view on assessing change. It prevents us from pre-determining an objective function based on naive causality.

The APG is a call for experimentation that is intentionally unplanned, where evaluations are performed a long time after the fact. If I were an interventionist, this is the kind of agenda I would want to impose on design.

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