A Dancing Manifesto by Isabella von Mühlen Brandalise




Prose


 


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In relation to the technological universe, humans are living in unprecedented times. “The designed, artificial world that envelops us is coming alive with communicative possibilities. We are drifting into a new alignment, in both mind and body, with technology that is far more immersive, encompassing, and confounding.”1 Yet we are still constantly struggling to comprehend technology. We feel a real need to rethink the technological context in order to enable capabilities and actions. There is a general disbelief in the future, leading us to a passive and apathetic de-futuring.2 Design has started to transform itself as an approach to create possible futures, but the dots have not been connected and there is a lot to be done on a collective scale. The confusion and lack of understanding give us reason to believe that a manifesto is inadequate and out of place. Nevertheless, the need for a manifesto persists as a call for action. It does not provide direct solutions, but offers unpretentious reflections for designing for this century. Taking dance as a metaphor, it allows us to think about ways to project and interact with space, time, people and technology. Dancing is a way to deal actively and mindfully with our own reality. It is characterized by constant movement and adaptation of our actions based on the feedback we receive. Additionally, by means of dancing we can build something together – instead of designing for, we start designing with.

 

A complex context

We are in a qualitatively new historical condition, where the artificial in fact constitutes the world. There is a universal infiltration, reach and ubiquity. According to Clive Dilnot, “almost every element in our environment shows evidence of human artifice.”

We cannot directly distinguish people from technology anymore – the latter is far more pervasive, ambiguous and uncanny than ever before.4

 

Am I a man or a machine? There is no ambiguity in the traditional relationship between man and machine: the worker is always, in a way, a stranger to the machine he operates, and alienated by it. But at least he retains the precious status of alienated man. The new technologies, with their new machines, new images and interactive screens, do not alienate me. Rather, they form an integrated circuit with me.5

 

In this sense, technology – understood as “only one aspect of the field of artificial, which is related to the transformation of nature into artifice” – provokes us.6 There is no doubt that “the most important thing about technology is how it changes people.”7

Technology will not dominate us, as long as we do not let it happen. It is already part of our beings. The negotiation between parts is crucial, in order to use it to our benefit – under a globally conscious mentality. We are trying to establish a free relation here. According to Dilnot, “a free relation to technology means being neither determined by it (slaves of it) nor giving ourselves over to it; nor seeing it as a magic potion; nor simply rejecting it as only a disaster.”8

Of course there are drawbacks and dangers. We have to avoid a bounded rationality, for instance, in the sense of making decisions based on individual limited information of the whole, related to short-term interests. Moreover, to deal with the artificial with a prolific agenda, there is an urgency to begin to act collectively. Acting collectively, however, does not mean to freely collaborate in our own exploitation.9 People should be valorized by their contributions and understand the results.

Furthermore, over the last decades we are still struggling with the experiences of our strong capacity for destructiveness, notably with recent wars and even more with evidence of man-made climate changes. As McKenzie Wark points out, the old myths of Prometeus and Gaia no longer make sense. There is no limitless human capacity, much less do we live in a self-correcting world.10

Therefore, we need to disrupt and compose a common universe. The passivity generated by our lack of certainties in the present and confidence in the future creates a continuity in our well-established actions and mindsets. A paradox of our time is that we have the capacity to act more and better but in fact we act less, always demanding more.11 Douglas Rushkoff brings the importance of participation to the table, focusing on the need to: “learn the bases of the technologies we are using and become conscious participants in the ways they are deployed.”12 Participation begins by acting in accordance to the context we face. As we can easily notice, the old-style top-down, outside-in design is simply not working.13 In this sense, our context is in our favor: we are experiencing the emergence of the open source movement, alternative business and local initiatives, diversity and cultural valorization, combined top-down and bottom-up behaviours and community empowerment, just to name a few. We entered a postindustrial culture, within a service and information-based economy, that is a result of the Internet as the main communication technology, combined with the new and renewable energy systems.14 Thus, there is opportunity to invert the paradox and discontinue the inaction.

 

A manifesto

It seems that there is no room for a manifesto in our time, much less for a design-oriented one. The grand narrative of modernism is gone and there is not so much hope in the future. Dilnot names this behaviour as de-futuring – the paradoxical condition in which we place in doubt the certainty of the future.15 It sounds like an inescapable condition of our time: we do not have any infallible universal solution for our questions, there is no straightforward definition for progress and success, and we are not sure about the rules of the game we are playing. Bruno Latour corroborates to this understanding when he mentions that:

 

Today, the avant-gardes have all but disappeared, the front line is as impossible to draw as the precise boundaries of terrorist networks, and the well-arrayed labels “archaic,” “reactionary,” and “progressive” seem to hover haphazardly like a cloud of mosquitoes. If there is one thing that has vanished, it is the idea of a flow of time moving inevitably and irreversibly forward that can be predicted by clear-sighted thinkers.16

 

If we were to trace our contemporary cartography, there would be no clear boundaries defining territories, flows and time. Rather It is composed of different overlapping and fluid layers. Systems are being distributed in horizontal and decentralized rhizomatic networks.17 Uncertainty, complexity and transformation dictate our main perception of what is going on. We feel we can never understand our context, as it is an agglutination of all contexts – always getting more intricate and complex over time.

Nevertheless, we are still moving forward. There is still movement in the scene and the music has not ceased to be played. It may not be as direct and straightforward, as it was perceived in the beginning of the last century, but we can still bring up perspectives and try to conceive a cartography of our context.

Focusing on the design perspective, here is my attempt to manifest – however contradictory it may sound. (Actually, contradiction could be elected as a keyword for today’s actions and thoughts.)

In other words, I am making an effort to learn and understand my universe from outside and think how to project, for and within it, in the close future. According to Giorgio Agamben, “Contemporariness is, then, a singular relationship with one’s own time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it.”18 It is a space in-between, a space for doubt. As a designer – and using the term in a broad meaning, also referring to a reflective practice and mindset – my aim is to change the existing situations into preferred ones.19 A manifesto has the potential to give form to ideas, a means to make invisible thought structures visible through words. At the end of the day, a manifesto may not be that useless within our time.

 

A new design approach

Concerning the design context, a new configuration of the practice is emerging as a result of the status quo:

 

Postindustrial design is a qualitatively different way of designing in this new culture. Three things are propelling this revolution: distributed intelligence, computer-aided design and manufacture, and ecological realities… These new processes of design are more biological than mechanical. They are flexible, adaptable, sustainable, and self-organizing. The “design” will gain energy and vitality through this distribution and circulation, just as genes do. 20

 

Again, we are living in a situation never experienced before. It is time to speculate with our peers and allow ourselves to freely create scenarios of possible futures instead of being constrained to lock-ins, obsolete and mainstream solutions.

More than speculate, we need to intervene. As designers, we are constantly projecting new futures, new possible situations. When these situations are disruptive and provocative, and somehow remain as discourse inside galleries or books, they may be called speculative or critical design projects.21 Regardless speculation and fiction themselves are not enough:

 

As compelling as these projects are, it is clear that they will not, in and of themselves, effect large-scale social change. They are more speculative than interventionist. What each of these projects illustrates is a trenchant blend of a critical analysis of the present with a projection into a possible prototyped future.22

 

The dystopia is already happening, at this moment. Instead of designing for, we are reaching an agreement that we should design with, including the organic emergences generated by people when in contact with the process. We have to be vulnerable to fail, try again, work with, be part of the change.

Change can take place in postspectacular spaces of convergence, enabling active and collective participation. These spaces, however, have almost no similarities with the already in scene Songdo-like test-bed urbanism, where models are the territories themselves,23 a replication of our current neoliberal inaccessibility and corporative mentality. Avoiding outside models and discourses from the past, we need to allow ourselves to speculate new ways to introduce technology and to play with data, as well as to animate localities and to put soft assets of a city at the core. “If the postspectacular city is to be well endowed with social capital, then the most useful use of location-aware communication devices is probably to enable person-to-person encounters.”24 Alterity and coexistence are some of the most empowering tools of our time.

 

A call for dance

Here is where the dance takes place – far from the modern utopia and the scientific method, where acting takes form under a rigid strategy and plan, organized by a set of predefined steps and results. It is time to embrace the humility of not-knowing, let go and dance with the context.

I invoke dance as a mindset of how to use the design tools and approaches we come up with to deal with the complexity and uncertainty of our context and its multiple agents, specially when technology is concerned. It is more a perspective than a stated resolution. In this sense, it does not state immediate acts or praxis, but aims to unveil and inspire ways to reflect about the design practice for the present and close future.

Donella Meadows applies the metaphor very clearly when she relates it to dancing with the systems around us. She suggests that, when you dance, you need to be active and in a wide awake mode, pay attention, give and respond to constant feedback.25 Participation is essential here, as well as some kind of balance between rationality and intuition, control and being controlled. This manifesto is a call for action, but also a call for dance. More than ever, a designer needs to design according to the prevailing circumstances. In a time of fluid interactions and ambiguous limits, there is a need to get the beat of it and embrace the opportunities it opens.

We are a combination of homo faber and homo ludens.26 We not only produce and work with tools, but also play – or dance – in an active and engaged way, creating ludic atmospheres of participation.

The main and enveloping principle is to forget all boundaries; dance different rhythms, mix them, have a diversity of partners. When you are immersed in the music and you have an intense dance partner, you cannot even notice when your movement stops and his or her begins: one is an extension and overlapping of the other.

Dance is based on the elements of relationship, flow, change and, most of all, lightness. John Thackara, quoting Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for a New Millennium, states that lightness does not need to refer to perfection or utopia, but a call for change: ‘‘Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. I don’t mean escaping into dreams, or into the irrational. I mean I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic, and with fresh methods of cognition and verification.”27 Thus, dealing with our complex universe, disbelief in the future and current passivity, I offer the dance as an alternative and optimistic logic for design reflection and action.

Let’s leave the manifesto open-ended and let the music guide us.

“Are we human, or are we dancer?”28 Maybe there is no distinction anymore.

 

Notes:

1 Jamer Hunt, Prototyping the Social: Temporality and Speculative Futures at the Intersection of Design and Culture, in Design anthropology: object culture in the 21st century, ed. Alison J. Clarke (Vienna: Springer-Verlag, 2011).

Clive Dilnot, Reasons to be cheerful, 1, 2, 3…(Or why the Artificial may yet save us).

3 Ibid.

4 Jamer Hunt “Nervous Systems and Anxious Infrastructures”, quoted in Clive Dilnot, Reasons to be cheerful, 1, 2, 3…(Or why the Artificial may yet save us).

5 Jean Baudrillard, “Xerox and Infinity”, quoted in Anthony Dunne, Herzian Tales: electronic products, aesthetic experience, and critical design (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005).

6 Clive Dilnot, Reasons to be cheerful, 1, 2, 3…(Or why the Artificial may yet save us).

7 Jaron Lanier, You are not a gadget (New York: Vintage Book, 2010).

8 Clive Dilnot, Reasons to be cheerful, 1, 2, 3…(Or why the Artificial may yet save us).

9 Jaron Lanier, You are not a gadget (New York: Vintage Book, 2010).

10 McKenzie Wark, “Climate Science as Sensory Infrastructure”, Class lecture, Design for this century from Parsons The New School for Design, New York, NY, September 4, 2014.

11 Jeremy Rifkin, “The Third Industrial Revolution: How the Internet, Green Electricity, and 3-D Printing are Ushering in a Sustainable Era of Distributed Capitalism”, The World Financial Review, March–April 2012.

12 Douglas Rushkoff, Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age (Berkeley: Soft Skull Press).

13 John Thackara, In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005).

14 Jeremy Rifkin, “The Third Industrial Revolution: How the Internet, Green Electricity, and 3-D Printing are Ushering in a Sustainable Era of Distributed Capitalism”, The World Financial Review, March–April 2012.

15 Clive Dilnot, Reasons to be cheerful, 1, 2, 3…(Or why the Artificial may yet save us).

16 Bruno Latour, “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’”, in New Literary History, 41 (2010): 471–490.

17 Nicole Starosielski, Braxton Soderman and Cris Cheek, “Network Archaeology,” Amodern 2 (2013), http://amodern.net/issues/amodern-2-network-archaeology/

18 Giorgio Agamben, What is an Apparatus? And Other Essays (Stanford: Standford University Press, 2009).

19 Herbert Simon, Sciences of the Artificial (Cambridge: MIT press, 2001).

20 Jamer Hunt, “A Manifesto for Postindustrial Design”, I.D. Magazine, December 2005.

21 Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming (Cambridge: MIT press, 2013).

22 Jamer Hunt, Prototyping the Social: Temporality and Speculative Futures at the Intersection of Design and Culture, in Design anthropology: object culture in the 21st century, ed. Alison J. Clarke (Vienna: Springer-Verlag, 2011).

23 Orit Halpern, Jesse LeCavalier, Nerea Calvillo, and Wolfgang Pietsch, “Test- Bed Urbanism”, Public Culture, 25 (2013).

24 John Thackara, In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005).

25 Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems (London: Earthscan, 2008).

26 Johan Huizinga, Homo ludens: o jogo como elemento da cultura (São Paulo: Perspectiva, 2010).

27  Italo Calvino, “Six Memos for a New Millennium”, quoted in John Thackara, In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005).

28 The Killers, Human, 2008.

 

Isabella von Mühlen Brandalise is a MFA candidate in Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons The New School for Design and a MA candidate in Art and Technology at University of Brasília, Brazil.