‘Empty time’

From my earliest childhood I had the problem of empty time, of afternoons as ominous as the gaping mouth of an abyss.

__Cesar Aires, Artforum

In that singular act of literary theft (not to be confused with plagiarism), Aires caught and stole my own dread of vacant time. It’s a sensation I associate with summer afternoons when my mother took us on her visits to her aging parents in Rochelle Park, a lower-middle class enclave in northern New Jersey. It was a regular destination as my mother was of the generation that continued to help out at her parents home, even after she was married with children. In her case, the help was truly needed. My grandfather had had a stroke; her oldest siblings had had polio; and my grandmother couldn’t manage alone. In addition to observing the usual rituals of visiting relatives, my mother was modeling what would be expected of us as daughters when she brought me and my sister Christine along on these trips.

And that’s how I thought of those visits even though they only took a half hour by car. They were trips. I did know that the dentist who lived on the next street over from ours took ‘trips’ to Europe with his family, but it was insinuated that they were almost immorally extravagant. My family took ‘day trips’ to the Jersey shore and, for many years, short trips to Rochelle Park, where my parents grew up. It’s a small town about a half hour from Manhattan, but for a child of the 50s, it might as well have been Aires’ Argentina.  It was another country. But then everywhere outside my house was another country. Even sleep-overs were tinged with anxiety. My limited experience braced me for the possibility that I might have to do something strange like wear socks to bed or deal with the fact that some families thought nothing of drinking soda at dinner.

I loved my grandmother, but her house was an alien sensorium made up of ammonia on linoleum floors, Noxema face cream, fluorescent kitchen lights, dull brown wallpaper, and grainy black and white television operas watched by my grandparents and my uncle who loved to show off his false teeth. You would think that being told to go outside would have come as a relief. But what I really wanted was to stay inside where I could read or draw—activities that to this day can block out the world around me. At the time, ‘the world’ was my grandparents’ microcosm, which hovered just above the poverty line. Nonetheless, at any sign of good weather, we would be chased outdoors and away from adult conversations about insurance, doctors, bills, and fraught exchanges about minuscule sums of money. (“Marie, Please take it.” My mother: No, please keep it.” The ‘it’ being two or three dollars.)

The problem with ‘outdoors’ was that it had no shape, no story—or none that I could see. You had to impose a story onto the geographies of backyards, fields, empty lots, or woods. Some children thrived on it. But for me the outdoors was alien, and it made me nervous.  My imagination shut down outside. I thought it was dangerous. There was always a chance of encountering children and adults you didn’t know, who might be up to no good. I still think I was right to be a bit fearful.

The exception to my aversion to ‘going outside’ was the sandpit at the end of my grandmother’s street. The sandpit had a shape; it had boundaries. A squarish dusty hole in the ground, it was probably a lot waiting to be developed in the postwar housing boom. It’s hard to imagine it being considered child-friendly today. Its banks were so steep that to avoid falling head over heels we had to slide down on our backs. It was kind of like sledding in the summer. That part was fun. But it wasn’t enough to fill the seemingly endless hours before we could leave. It never occurred to me to make the sandpit more entertaining by, say, pretending it was a desert. After all I’d never seen one. I was an extremely literal child.  (Now I wonder if that lack of imagination accounts for why I can’t write fiction, even though most of what I read is fiction.)

Once we’d exhausted the possibilities of sand as we found it (which were few without water to make it hard enough to mound), we made our way back.  By then we hoped we had spent enough time outside to appease the powers inside.  It was time to close the yawning mouth of the abyss of what felt like wasted time. It’s something that still makes me anxious, as much as I try to outgrow the feeling that time is something I need to hoard or there won’t be any of it left for me.

Even into the second year of the Covid pandemic, with almost nowhere to go and nowhere to be, I still fear the abyss of lost time. Or rather time lost. I begrudge the minutes it takes to get dressed (I’m aware of each button buttoned as a task), to change the batteries for my hearing aids, to put the dishes away, to figure out where my pens have gone, and above all, to vacuum. I do all these things—sometimes simultaneously to save time—with a mild resentment that they are robbing me of time that could be spent making something. I’m sure there is something wrong with me that I cannot give in to the minutia of daily living or that I notice these things. And, paradoxically, in addition to thinking of them as thieves of time, I also think of them as accomplishments–boring accomplishments along the lines of paying a bill or making a doctor’s appointment, but accomplishments nonetheless. I take note of these mundane rituals to prove to myself that I’m not really wasting time, at the same time resenting the time they take. I think it’s a genetic malfunction:

I once had an uncle who we all thought was supremely lazy. He would go to Florida on vacation and call my mother before he came back and ask her to open the clothes washer, put in the detergent, and set it to the wash cycle, so all he would have to do is put his dirty laundry in the machine. It was selfish and absurd. But now I think it get it. In his mind, he had better things to do.

Ambitions of Design, or what design hopes to achieve

Schema for four ambitions of design: uni-form, per-form, co-form, de-form

As design practices become more nuanced to increase their relevance and efficacy, the word ‘design’ is at risk of losing its meaning.  Likewise, the value of design, already confused with lifestyle attributes, is also being obscured. The traditional fields of graphic design, product design, fashion, interiors, architecture, and urbanism have now been amplified by communication design, technology design, strategic design and management, service design, social design, transition design, design studies, design anthropology, design research, and design philosophy.  With the best of intentions, design has become simultaneously splintered and bloated. 

This would seem to be an insider’s problem. Surely no one outside of the design community sees their digital devices, the streets they walk on, their social networks, and their homes in terms of the types of practices that inform them.  Though I suspect some people might find it interesting to learn that these things grow out of much the same motivations that govern their own responses to the world—namely, to control, to convince, to come together, and to rebel. 

That said, I believe that the designers and those who think about design might profit from seeing how those four elementary responses to the events of daily life inform the outcomes of design. By examining how design’s ambitions are made manifest in objects, buildings, landscapes, systems, and cities across time, we can see design’s reciprocity with ambitions that govern human behavior more broadly.  There is the ambition to make things uni-form, the ambition to make them per-form, to co-form and to de-form.  These categories, understood as constant through time though variable in their manifestations, allow us to think of design as behavioral and cyclical. It offers a more relevant view of design’s efficacy—one that is not estranged from the present but one that is fundamentally familiar.  The taxonomy of these four notions of form and forming is the opposite of a linear history that begins with, say, the Greeks and comes up to the present, chipping off parts of the past as it goes, deeming them irrelevant to our lives today. Instead it offers formations that are part of a living trajectory while respecting the different ways those ambitions seek and find form.

Of the four, the desire to make things uni-form may be the oldest, as it is about control, and is rooted in keeping us safe from threats. However, it may also be the most pernicious when it’s emphasis on authority tips over to tyranny.

To per-form is to make space for movement and organic growth. Performance operates on the principles of seduction and persuasion.  

Co-forming is a matter of sharing control and rejecting a single author; co-forming is often thought of as democratically social, but it can also be understood as a process of meshing materials, as in weaving.

De-forming is resistance to control, with which it has a symbiotic relationship. It operates in registers ranging from the humorous to the anxious to the rebellious.

Note the use of hyphens in each of the categories of ambition. It is a deliberate nod to design’s essential work of giving form to ideas about our relationships with each other and other sentient and insentient beings—relationships that are negotiated through and by things. Things being inclusive of tangible objects like the common stop sign as well as intangible structures like health care systems. Furthermore, the conceit of using ‘form’ as the second syllable of every ambition alludes to fact that they share in the praxis of shaping matter and matters. In doing so—since no one category of ambition has sole claim to a specific type of form or forming—they also yield hybrid ambitions that work on the principle of dominant and recessive genes. (For example, Antoni Gaudi’s Basilica de Sagrada Familia in Barcelona per-forms a spatial seduction through its iconoclastic ornamentation and winding, sinuous spaces, while secondarily de-forming ecclesiastical conventions.)

Detail, Segrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi,1882

Identifying the character and essence of design ambitions across the centuries, reveals common threads among us as a fallible but hopeful designing species. To elaborate on just one of these, and how it shows up across time, let’s use the example of de-forming. Here, I see commonality among diverse practices from Dunne & Raby’s contemporary speculative design, to Constantin Boym’s critical design to Meret Oppenheim’s surrealism (think fur-lined tea cup), to Renaissance grotesques, and medieval gargoyles. They’re all subversive in one way or another. 

Coming soon: The next installment of this train of thought will put flesh out the ambitions with more evidence than the scant accounting offered so far.


Carlo Scarpa, Brion Cemetery, Altivole, Italy, 1978

This was presented at  International Conference on Design Futures, sponsored by Tsinghua University, Politecnico di Milano, Carnegie Mellon University, November 7, 2020

The future is a shape-shifter. On the one hand, it’s empty, waiting to be filled, and on the other, it is already packed. Ask anyone about the future and they’ll have a scenario, or several, to offer. Only months ago, I’m betting that most of our thoughts about the future had to do with short-term plans with colleagues, friends, and relatives – planning vacations, conferences, birthday celebrations, and the like. That all changed in 2020 with the Covid pandemic. The virus, together with the rising tides of climate crises—not to mention the social crises of racism and nationalism—have all but wiped out small futures, leaving gargantuan and fearsome futures in their wake.  Given the broad rise in depression and anxiety documented in these last months, the shift from small to big futures has happened not just in the minds of thought-leaders, activists, and designers but also in the popular imagination. The future may be ours, but who wants it?  

Certainly not the far right, which would have us enter a time machine and go back to 1950 when women and persons of color knew their place. But no amount of magical thinking can shield us from the ultimate future: death. It is this realization, or denial—literally brought home by the Corona virus—that has made the future much less abstract.  It’s time to write our wills.  And I don’t say this lightly, as you will see.  But first a bit of history.

El Lissitzky and Mikhail Plaksin, Woman With Hammer and Sickle, Agitprop 1928

For much of the 20th-century (where I spent the first 50 years of my life), the future, in design and art circles, was embodied in an avant-garde, celebrated and uncelebrated modernists who made it tangible.

These modernists—from Russian Constructivists like El Lissitzky to American design-inventors like Buckminster Fuller—drew, modeled, built, and staged utopian visions that were meant to be free from the encumbrances of the past. They wanted to build the future sui generis, in other words from nothing—as if that were possible. 

Students from the School of Architecture and Allied Arts designed, fabricated and installed this geodesic dome in seven days in April 1953 under the direction of Buckminster Fuller.

It’s useful to remember that we owe the very concept of the future to such expressions of modernity. But it’s also important to remember that El Lissitzky’s agitprop sculptures and Bucky Fuller’s geodesic domes were part of a much larger zeitgeist that had been brewing since the 17th century and the Age of the Enlightenment. 

In concert with similar developments in music, literature, art, architecture, technology, and philosophy, design’s contributions to modernity and its cult of speed (think telegraphs, telephones, railroads then airplanes and automatic everything) were meant to be “compensation[s] for the loss of the organic continuity of the past.”1 In other words, the expectation of better-things-to come (and come sooner) replaced the predictable and stable character of rituals and behaviors that had been governed by the rhythms of the seasons. Increasingly, life was determined by the artificial, in other words, by design. Just think about the difference made by electric lighting. When the architect Erich Mendelsohn put electric signage on the exterior of the Schocken Department Store in Stuttgart in 1926, he changed nights into days. Faith in technology replaced faith in miracles.

But the future’s compensations—among them, more time to shop—have backfired. We no longer know where to put the casualties of our future-making. All those things we bought, and bought into, are clogging our homes, our landfills, our oceans, and even outer space—which, incidentally now has a fleet of archeologists studying the debris we’ve shot up into the thermosphere. And, of course, the effects of our profligacy can’t be measured solely in terms of the quantity of rubble we produce—be it from endless wars or wasteful consumption. It must also be measured in terms of species extinctions, including, theoretically, our own.  All of this makes it hard to look forward to the future. Once the source of fantasies in which even dystopias were thrilling, the future has become a palpable burden.

Among designers, it is gospel that this is a burden they must assume. But to do so requires another endangered species: Optimism. Not the naive optimism of flying cars, new-and-improved appliances, holographs, or any of the digital animisms that have infiltrated our lives, but the optimism which is intrinsic to design itself—not as the production of the new, but as a matter of the reconfiguration of materials, social relationships, politics, culture and cultures—all of which carry different temporalities, one being the future. 

It is by now a commonplace that design has consequences far into the future—consequences so strong that, for the first time in history, human behavior governs the environment. There are no pockets on our planet, no aspect of our atmosphere that our actions haven’t touched. Nature and nurture are no longer distinct. By nurture, I mean design – the design of literal things as well as the design of systems of things. If we accept this larger notion of design and accept that it operates in webs of power and policies, it follows that practicing designers need to expand their purview in order for their work to have any effect at all. Otherwise it will be strangled by the way things have always been done.  

But before we shift the blame to external forces who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, we also have to admit that the design industry – be it the fashion industry or the building industries – have had a major role in creating the patterns of waste and pollution that currently characterize our condition.  Thus, it follows that professional design (the traditional categories of graphic, product, architecture and urbanism) and design as world-making (addressed by service design, transition design, and social design) both have roles to play in redressing our condition.  

As you can tell from that last observation, I’m not ready to throw the baby (that is, design understood as object-oriented) out with the bath water. Or give into unspoken rivalries about what constitutes the best way to practice design. In my fantasy of design’s future, the two modes of designing would be better integrated, so that when radical structural change happens, aesthetics (by which I mean, the senses) aren’t abandoned.  I sometimes worry that while designers are becoming increasingly adept at working with social scientists, they are less adept at working within the culture of design itself.

That said, I’m optimistic that designing structural change, and the formal and informal design of artifacts, spaces, and communications involved in accomplishing that change, will become complementary (and not contradictory) approaches in acting-towards-the-futureActing-towards-the-future in the present means that instead of inventing the future, designers of conscience, no matter what they call themselves, are excavating and reassessing what we bring to it.  To put it bluntly, designers are rewriting our last wills and testaments. I use the metaphor not fatalistically but hopefully, because wills are acts of generosity and caring. Made while we are living, they compel us to consider what we are bequeathing to others who live after us. But let me be clear, design for the future needs to be thought of as a communal will and designers need to be both witnesses and co-authors.  The witness role will already be familiar to those who work with communities as facilitators of conversations that lead to actions, which may or may not tangible. The role of co-author is closer to the traditional designer’s, who propose (and make) forms and situations that actively shape a dialogue about what might be included in a collective will.  

Of course, these distinctions are not hard and fast, as you will see. But before we get to any examples, I want to assure you that making a will, as I am using the term, is not the sole prerogative of the privileged. While most wills cover private property and personal possessions—and, of course—money, the collective will has no prerequisite of wealth. For example, you can be living in destitute conditions—like a refugee camp or a blighted city—that are devoid of natural beauty and still wish it for others to enjoy in the future. In her book On Beauty and Being Just, the humanist scholar Elaine Scarry poses a thought problem, which I will paraphrase here: Thinking not of ourselves but of people who will be alive at the end of the twenty-first century: would you wish for the continuous existence of plants and blossoms, even if you have none of your own?2  She (and I) believe that most would answer ‘yes.’

Of course, wishing for and actually delivering the goods to the future (be they plants and blossoms, or a home that isn’t a tent) are radically different propositions. Designers can contribute what’s missing from the ‘wishing’—namely, pathways.  Without pathways, our social and physical landscapes would remain a directionless whole. Pathways offer options with which to consider the future. I like this metaphor because doesn’t sound as finite as the word ‘design,’ though certainly pathways are designed with various methodologies. I propose we consider some now.

My first example isn’t so much a pathway or means to seeding the future, as it is a method that is fundamental to every form of design, including futuring, and that is iteration. One of the most relevant demonstrations of the expansive power of scenario building I’ve ever come across is to be found in David Eagleman’s brilliant book Sum: Forty Tales of the Afterlives. In it, he conjures 40 possibilities of what we might experience after death.  So he’s writing about the future after our future is over.  This would be just a silly exercise if it weren’t for the fact that each of his tales shows how the future was pre-determined by our lives on earth.  

In a tale called “Encore,” we learn that our Creators are talented only at creating. “They do not watch our lives unfold. They couldn’t care less.”3 What they do is wait for our lives to end and recreate them from our data. “They take it as a challenge to see if they can recover a good likeness of a person from the piles of evidence they’ve left behind4: namely, phone call records, credit card receipts, ATM withdrawals, magazine subscriptions, tax returns, and every other form you’ve ever filled out. “The Recreators can reconstruct a person so seamlessly that [their] afterlife is essentially a perfect replica of the original.”5 This is a future to which we have bequeathed our virtual selves—our digital doppelgangers, which were accumulating all the while we were living. Moreover we knew it was happening but did nothing to stop it.  This is a will that could have been rewritten, had we only thought to do so.

In another story, called “Microbe,” we die, and our bodies decompose into teaming floods of microbes that return to the earth. It seems there is no god that cared about us as whole individuals. But, in fact, in this scenario, god is a bacterium, a bacterium that is unaware of us because we are at the wrong spatial scale. God and his microbial constituents have no idea of the rich social life we have developed, just as we are unaware of theirs.6 This is a future to which we have bequeathed our ignorance of biology.  The story reminds us that we would do well to consider how germs run the world, especially in the era of COvid.

Of course, projections like these, taken from our behaviors in the present, are the foundation of almost all science fiction, as the writer Bruce Sterling would no doubt attest. And as useful as these fictions are in helping us think about the long-term risks in overlooking things like virtual surveillance and microscopic forms of life and death, designers need other tools.  One, which I find especially relevant, came to my attention courtesy of the aforementioned Mr. Sterling.  It’s called ‘pace layers.’ 

As the word ‘pace’ suggests, the concept is about pacing, or rates of movement.  Anyone consciously trying to affect and perhaps change things for the better in the future would do well to be aware of the ‘layers’ of time or pacing, in which designers, and anyone else for that matter, must operate.  This is because we need to be aware of the systemic forces that, for all our good design intentions, produce inertia and slow change down. I’m thinking of forces like governmental regulations, for example. If you want to read about all six of the pace layers—fashion, commerce, politics, infrastructure, culture, and nature—I commend you to Bruce’s essay on pace layers in my book Design as Future-Making. For our purposes, however, I want to concentrate on just one of these and that is culture, because it is stubborn and perhaps the hardest to change. 

What increasing numbers of designers have learned is that they may not be able change culture (that can take decades, even centuries) but they might open up different opportunities within existing cultures by drawing on insights from anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists. In doing so, together with members of a cultural community, they can alter cultural legacies.

Let’s take an example from Colombia, South America. Colombia has suffered continuing armed conflict since 1964. One of the horrors of any war, civil or otherwise, is the violence perpetuated against women; and it was, and likely is, particularly bad in Colombia. Here we are dealing with not just the socio-political conflict between the government and the rebels known as FARC, but also a long history, one that goes well beyond Colombia, of cultural acceptance that women are less than human, that rape is a soldier’s reward, and that women are acceptable targets for masculine rage. I am aware of several design projects that have tried to address this web of abuse and misogyny, in hopes of restoring dignity and peace.  But I want to talk about a particularly exemplary effort to address Colombia’s future in light of this broad cultural bias against women, by using another dimension of Colombia culture—in this case crafts. 

I learned about this project from Maria Puig de la Bellacasa. She is the author of Matters of Care and a professor in science, technology, and organization at the University of Leicester in England.  More pertinently, she is a co-investigator in the project called Mending the New: A Framework for Reconciliation Through Testimonial Digital Textiles.7 She and her colleagues have been working with communities which have been crafting textiles for centuries—communities that have recently been severely affected by military violence. Maria tells me that rather than just documenting memories of war, textile crafting generates spaces of common reflection that has a healing, restorative, and constructive potential that negotiates between memory and reconciliation. 

Examples from Mending the New: A Framework for Reconciliation Through Testimonial Digital Textiles, published in “How can digital textiles embody testimonies of reconciliation?” By Laura Cortez Rico, Jaime Patarroyo, Tania Perez Bustos, and Eliana Sánchez Aldana. https://dl.acm.org/doi/fullHtml/10.1145/3384772.3385137

The textile crafting she’s talking about involves many people—the most important being the women most affected by the war.  Essentially what happens is that women gather in kitchens and homes and tell their stories to each other while they are weaving.  Those stories are recorded (with their permission, of course) on digital fibers supplied by designers, which the women incorporate into the cloth they’re making.  When finished, each cloth can be activated so that others can hear those stories as well, and the textiles are traded from community to community. The women are the authors of their stories, while the designers contribute organizational skills (bringing women together) and technical expertise (adding sound to an otherwise mute piece of cloth). In essence, the age-old practice of oral history is amplified by the introduction of technology design. In the process, these weavings became the women’s wills. The thing I find most moving about this project is that it combines another culture’s haptic traditions (weaving) and its oral approach to storytelling with designers’ digital ways of sharing stories. In other words, it respectfully combines traditional ways of making with contemporary technology in order to bequeath these women’s stories in hopes for a better future for their daughters.

Another approach to making a will for the future, more along the lines of what most people think of when they think of design futuring, is the process of co-envisioning. This is a process, which another of your guests Nik Baerton, is especially gifted at.  I’ve worked with Nik and his partner Virginia Tassinari and their colleague Elisa Bertolotti, so I know something about their approach to co-creating possible futures. 

Welcome to Seraing, Nik Baerten and Virginia Tassinari, with Yara Al Adib, Elisa Bertolotti, Pablo Ceron Salazar, Henriette Waal, 2015

I’m going to talk about one of their older projects from 2015 so as not to repeat what Nik might tell you when speaks.  It’s included my book Thinking Design through Literature. This project is called “Welcome to Seraing.” It is a storytelling project that Nik’s team led to encourage social innovation in a neighborhood in the Belgian city of Seraing—a city that was once famous for its steel industry and is now facing severe socio-economic challenges. In collaboration with a local puppeteer, the design team worked to foster new forms of civil participation. 

As it was explained to me, the anarchic character of the puppet theatre allowed a tremendous freedom in encouraging audience participation. Specifically, it gave [the puppeteer] the freedom to make the voice of an outspoken working-class character, named Tchantches, to be forthright and honest, and to introduce characters such as the Devil, representing the private owners of industries, and the White Fairy, representing the designers, who arrive with good intentions and a great deal of naivete. (Designers take note: a sense of humor isn’t out of place in future speculations.) Furthermore, an anonymous local hero was created as a surrogate for each and every inhabitant of the neighborhood. The storylines of the puppetry performances were co-created with inhabitants of the neighborhood via a storytelling toolkit, developed by the design team and based on the team’s engagement with the inhabitants during field research.8

Now that’s a fair summary of the project’s strategies and tactics: Namely,  using puppets as surrogate citizens, and using humor to engage the audience in a civic exercise that might have otherwise been tedious. But I also want to point out that there was a larger premise at work, which is designing in a way that redistributes power.  Making the designer seem a bit silly was a stroke of brilliance.

Another important point is the project’s reliance on a very old form of design: the puppet.  Not only did the puppets literally act out the different sources of power within in the community, with an eye to distributing that power more evenly, they were also vivid and effective mediators by virtue of being familiar to the community.  This combination of what I will call ‘old fashioned’ object design (namely the puppets) with service and systems design (conversations with the community) is precisely what is needed to gain the trust of people who are well outside of the culture of designthinking with its over-reliance on post-it notes, brainstorming, and other abstractions.  This integrative design process is very similar to the previous example I offered from Colombia. Both projects involve coping with the past, towards the goal of a more humane future. But while the weaving done by the women in Colombia incorporates very specific and personal stories of violence, the conversations engendered in Seraing were more open-ended. They encouraged the city’s residents to think both poetically and practically. For example, in another phase of this design engagement in Seraing, team member Elisa Bertolotti set up a table outdoors to make business cards for jobs that people wished they had. One man said he wanted to be a postman—a postman who only delivers good news. In this case, what is being willed are hopeful pathways toward a future that is more than just safe and secure but also psychologically and spiritually fulfilling.  

Of course, approaching the future in the ways I’ve just described also requires a different understanding of time itself.  As increasing numbers of designers recognize, design is embroiled in systems that operate in a different time-space dynamic than the one they practice in. Consider the environment:  The particulate of our buildings, our children’s toys, our kitchen appliances, and food containers continue to live, as it were, in new forms that collect in the ocean, in our drinking water, in our bodies, and all other sentient and insentient bodies. All that is solid doesn’t melt into air, it morphs into different solids.  

 But for too many people, who can’t see the destruction that is happening in the present, there seems to be little motivation to act for the future. We are not hard-wired to look out our windows, see the sun shining and trees waving in the breeze, and immediately think:  “Oh, we are in the middle of an environmental catastrophe.” Moreover, we are too easily distracted by a 24/7 news cycle, another destroyer of time. But before we lay the blame on contemporary media, it’s worth noting that human beings have historically been forgetful. As the poet Petrarch wrote in the 14th century:

Anything present is accessible for the minutest fraction of time and then escapes perception, and
consequently foolish people think that it ceases to be relevant to us, or ceases to be ours. This
oblivion prevents life being a unity of past events woven with present ones: it divides yesterday
from today, as if they were distinct, and likewise treats tomorrow as different from today…[.] 9

Now the behavior of forgetfulness may be ancient but it is also true that coming to terms with time is far more complicated today than it was when Petrarch was writing.  To paraphrase Anna Barbara (one of your conference organizers): The future is already present in the ways we inhabit spaces by virtue of the media that operates in those spaces. Conventional spatial coordinates are being warped by the speed and ubiquity of the digital.10

 Another very important thinker on the effects of speed (once valued for making the future closer) is the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. In his book Liquid Modernity, Bauman writes that speed has frayed our social relationships and diminished any sense of security in our working lives. We live in a culture of distraction.  Bauman warns of its dangers, writing: 

    People who do not have even a modicum of hold on their present [much    
    less their past, as they don’t, given the shapelessness of experience] will
    not muster the courage to get a hold on the future.11

You could also say that his is an argument against traditional futuring, which as Petrarch observed, creates a state of oblivion. This is why designers are rethinking the ways we narrate our experiences and, just as importantly, our joint histories. So, in addition to designing wills that offer ways to share experiences (as with the women in Colombia) and reshape them for future generations (as in Seraing), we need to include a codicil—a modification to the will—which insures we pass on this more nuanced understanding of time.  Time isn’t an arrow going forward. It’s more like a DNA helix, with dominant and recessive genes. (If you don’t remember your high school biology, an example of a recessive gene would be a trait like red hair or blue eyes that only appears sporadically and unpredictably throughout the generations of a family.)

With the metaphor of recessive genes in mind, we also have to accept that there will always be unknown variables that we cannot envision, anticipate, or design for. The best illustrations of this aspect of the future (namely its unpredictability) can be found in the films of Todd Twyker.  In each of his movies, the plot revolves around a miniscule change of routine – usually a change with devastating consequences. 

Film poster for “Heaven”

To just give one example, in “Heaven” (made in 2002), a woman seeking revenge against a drug dealer plants a bomb in the wastebasket in his office. But, unexpectedly a cleaning woman picks up the trash before it explodes. It does go off, but not as planned. The bomb explodes in the elevator of the office building where the dealer works, killing four innocent people instead.  Here, chance is the protagonist.

Somehow, despite the number of deaths involved in Twyker’s films, the viewer is left with an affirming sense that things could be otherwise in the future, if only we do something differently. And doing something differently is as good a definition of design as any, as long as when we do something differently, we do it respectfully and collectively. 

It’s humbling to think that even the most thoughtful and generous design is always vulnerable to arbitrary and unexpected forces (which by definition happen in the future). It would be hubris to think otherwise.  But it’s no excuse to despair, or to take no action.  Our bequests will certainly be susceptible to unpredictable events. And they may well be late in coming. But that doesn’t absolve us of our debt to the future. We still have to write, make, and build those wills, and we have to do it together.  We owe it to the future inhabitants of this planet to give them possibilities instead of taking them away.  No one wants to be disinherited, especially by design.

End notes

  1.  “Reasons to be Cheerful, 1, 2, 3…* (Or Why the Artificial May Yet Save Us),” Clive Dilnot in Design as Future Making, eds. Susan Yelavich, Barbara Adams.  (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2014), 185-86.
  2. Elaine Scarry. On Beauty and Being Just, Princeton: Princeton University Press,  1999, 119-121.
  3. David Eagleman, Sum: Forty Tales of the Afterlives (New York: Vintage, 2009) 69.
  4. Ibid, 69.
  5. Ibid, 71.
  6. Ibid, 55.
  7. Puig, Maria de la Bella Casa, Mending the New: A Framework for Reconciliation Through Testimonial Digital Textiles https://gtr.ukri.org/projects?ref=AH%2FR013640%2F1
  8. Susan Yelavich, Thinking Design through Literature, (New York, London: Routledge, 2019) p. 113. 
  9. “On Contentment,” Plutarch Essays, translated by Robin Waterfield (London: Penguin Books, 1992) p. 229.
  10. Forms of Space and Time,” Anna Barbara in Design as Future-Making, eds. Susan Yelavich, Barbara Adams (London: Bloomsbury, 2014) p. 225. 
  11. “Thinking in Hard Times” in Liquid Life, Bauman, (London: Polity, 2013) p.135.

Negotiating the image with pixels and thread

Echo Chamber: Darn (m,b71a,3295,20,4,27,13,31,59-c)
a collaboration between Susan Yelavich and David Young, 2020

I’d been watching the artist David Young’s work with artificial intelligence and machine learning for a while when it occurred to me that the images he and the AI were generating looked very similar to textiles.  Some resembled textiles under a microscope; others were not unlike the coarser stitching I was doing.  

Four photos of darns by the author, fed into the AI

I have always knit, but have recently taken up darning using vivid embroidery floss to transform practical mends into (almost) randomly patterned repairs. I also study the pervasive nature of textiles in the built environment. There is something about the co-dependency of slender threads in forming structures from garments to rugs to architecture that I find compelling. I find it especially absorbing to watch how the movements of fibers (via the techniques of making) gradually bring those structures into appearance and into other dimensions. 

Given these preoccupations, I asked David whether he also saw some resemblance or relationship to textiles in his work. He had and he proposed that we collaborate. He would feed digital images of my embroidered darns into an AI program that trained itself to produce an image of a darn, not unlike the way images of faces are fed into AI/machine learning programs to create facial recognition software. In our case, David had the machine generate new images from the training data (the digital photos of my darns). He then he took the machine generated images, manipulated them with his own custom code, and printed one that we selected together for me to stitch back into an analog state.The image we chose was printed on paper with a black ground but since paper would be impossible to embroider, David also printed it on a square of sturdy, white canvas. 

Digitalized darns

While David thought it would be okay to take some license with the image, I wanted to stitch the AI image as carefully as possible to see how close I could come to depicting its virtual state. So I tried to match each stitch to the lines on the canvas and match the colors as well. However, I soon realized there was a discrepancy between the pattern on the black background and the pattern on white ground. So I began a process of negotiating between the two printed images David had given me, sometimes, ‘deferring’ to the colors indicated on the white ground, but more often to those printed on the black ground, as the original darns were sewn into black and dark green knitted textiles.  

Prints on black and white grounds

When I was done stitching, David pointed out that I was not only creating an echo chamber among the various iterations of the darn, I was also using a process that paralleled the AI’s learning curve by negotiating between two images to produce one. And then there was the factor of light: color choices made working in the evening varied from those made in sunlight during the day. Neither choice was ‘correct,’ each was an option. I realized that there was also another correspondence between the virtual and the analog in that, like the machine, which could have kept going and produced other variations on the ‘darn,’ I also could have kept stitching and refining the sewn surface. The entire notion of “finished” is incorrect in both cases—something I think is quite important because it leaves the process open and recognizes the larger point that things are never finished because of the infinite possibilities for their perception. 

Detail, Echo Chamber

Ultimately, for me, the pleasure of project is in the experience of bringing the work(s) into a state of becoming. Because of that, the title of the project “Echo Chamber” should be understood literally. Echoes are always a bit distorted while remaining related to an originary sound. Likewise, I’d made a hybrid not a copy—a hybrid of the gestures of all three artists: David’s, the machine’s, and mine. Even so, the ‘hybrid’ is not made out of three equal parts. The process of integration wasn’t done on a level playing field. The AI draws on what it learned in a very brief time, while David and I draw on life experiences passed down through time and augmented by our own.

For no apparent reason

At the moment when the most relevant questions in design would seem to be – What can we do in a pandemicWhat we do about systemic racism? – I find myself preoccupied with what seem to be irrelevant questions. Call it avoidance. Certainly, call it privilege. But for no apparent reason, my thinking has taken an introverted turn.  I’m interested in how design – both formal and informal – combines intention, time, materiality, and how together they solicit attention, even epiphanies.  I’m interested in the tension between the designed and the perceived, which, of course, are both the same and not-the-same things. For example, the presence of a book designed by Lorraine Wild and the act of reading the same book exist in tension with each other.  The book is the same but not the same. And given that the book was designed digitally, the accidentally pixelated image of the cover below, right, is also the same but not the same book. (Alas, the cover was not designed by Wild but by the publisher’s designer.) 

Thinking Design through Literature, designed by Lorraine Wild, 2019
left to right: cover, spread, accidentally distorted cover

My long-term preoccupation with approaching design from a place of first principles has recently sent me down the rabbit hole of phenomenology. As I understand it (or misunderstand it), phenomenology is a philosophy that examines the background conditions of experiences that make the world manifest or apparent. It has specific relevance to design and architecture in that it is fundamentally concerned with perception. 

My Virgil on this journey has been my friend and New School colleague, the philosopher James Dodd.  It was this short passage that drew me in:

The questioning germane to phenomenology…aims at something implicated in both use and context, but which only truly emerges in…an understanding that realizes the possibility of reflecting on a life of meaning that is not reducible to use and context, but which is ultimately governed by a characteristic surplus.

James Dodd, Phenomenology, Architecture and the Built World, 54.

He got me at “surplus.” This isn’t the “surplus” that is often loosely referred to as ‘aesthetics.’ Phenomenology attempts to show us how that surplus is experienced and what it might be made of.  It looks at the dynamic of our engagement with the built world, one that involves the movement of the body and the sensations it registers, even and especially, before thought takes over.  

Photo credit: Stefano Mirti

By way of illustration, Dodd uses the example of a bench, which he describes as the embodied knowledge of its maker.  The bench has intentionality; it frames possibilities of encounter. The bench not only puts its surroundings in a frame, it is also a catalyst for experience.  And I would argue that the word ‘catalyst’ is an especially apt description of design because it recognizes the necessary incompleteness of everything made. This incompleteness not only leaves room for our experience but also creates what Dodd describes as an intersubjective visibility, which occurs when two or more subjects—for my purposes, the designer and the person(s) using what the designer made—recognize the value in a space, an object, or system of things. Importantly, this happens not just in the present but also across time and history. Something built or designed centuries ago also has the capacity to trigger an intersubjective experience. For what it’s worth, I parse “intersubjective” accordingly: The sensations created, left, and found by people are the “inter” or the intervening media of experience, and the humans on each side of the experience (the maker and the responder) are equal “subjects.” It is this mutual recognition between and among subjects that can lead to an epiphany:  Epiphany not as a recognition of an abstract idea but epiphany as a rift in the normal. Epiphany as an awakening of a more fulsome consciousness triggered by an object or space. 

Mediterranean Gifts, necklace detail, Anna Barbara, 2015

Let’s take another example: a necklace called Mediterranean Gifts. Designed by Anna Barbara, it’s made of washed-up bits of glass that Anna collected on the beach near her family’s home in Calabria. (She is actually based in Milan.)  The fragments, whose edges have been softened by the tides, are encased in a very basic mesh tube. They appear to float within the tube, jostling each other when moved. The sense of floating is compounded by the lightness with which the curve of the mesh rests on the skin. The stones and the mesh sit in tension, wavering between two states: the necklace as an object and a collection of objects. What we see is a gathering together of elements that allows something else to be present, namely a surplus of ‘meaning.’ And those elements are more various than just the materials: There’s also the intentionality of the designer; the friendship I have with the designer; the long history of Calabria as a point of entry for refugees, who in Anna’s experience, are the true gifts of the Mediterranean.  

So returning to where I started, there is no one apparent reason that brings this necklace into appearance. Instead there are many volatile and often latent elements that contain the possibility of radically igniting the imagination and of fueling a sensation (not a concept) of epiphany.  And if you’re still looking for relevance, I again offer Dodd, who writes: “The built experienced as rendered in so many directions for what we can be, can only be a world of the imagination. The imaginary here is thus not a flight…from the world but the most intimate secret at the heart of all human encounter (269).”  To be part of that encounter through design is no small thing.

N.B. These thoughts were shared at HighGround 2020. HighGround is a design colloquium hosted by Katherine and Michael McCoy. This was the first to be done on Zoom for obvious reasons, a.k.a., COvid.

Who is seen?

Detail, Miracle of the True Cross at the Rialto Bridge, Vittore Carpaccio, 1494

Ever since I took this photo of a detail of the Miracle of the True Cross at the Rialto Bridge by Vittore Carpaccio at the Galleria dell’ Accademia in Venice, I’ve wondered about this elegant man. I wondered about the appropriateness of sharing it on social media, and wondered about whether I was more attracted to the man’s costume than the man. What I didn’t wonder about was whether I was in the presence of beauty.

It took the recent uprisings in the wake of George Floyd’s murder to move me to examine my attraction to the African gondolier. Renaissance scholar Kate Lowe, to whom this reflection is indebted, writes that in Venice the practice of owning slaves – both black and white persons – was common, as was the practice of granting manumission on the death of the owner, or when the slave reached the age when his or her value was outweighed by the cost of their care – if ‘care’ is the proper word at all.

The fate of the freed person was still bound to the reputation of the house to which they had ‘belonged.’ The household’s influence, combined with the skills of the individual – either acquired in Venice or earlier in Africa – were determining factors in any possibility of future employment. Growing up in a port and being familiar with nautical practices from knotting to navigation, for example, would increase the odds of a manumitted slave obtaining work as a gondolier. Indeed, records of the gondoliers’ associations – associations only open only to ‘respectable’ persons who could pay the requisite dues – regularly include persons identified as ethiops or sarasin, indicating that they were African.

Still, it is impossible to say whether the gondolier in Carpaccio’s painting was a free man or not. As Lowe points out, “unless they are portrayed in chains, the legal status of black Africans … is always unclear: slaves cannot be distinguished from servants by their appearance or clothing.” She speculates that the clothing worn by the black gondolier portrayed by Carpaccio (which some have construed as household livery) is equally likely to have been the festival dress of the sestieri or districts of Venice. In and of itself, this tells us little; more revealing is the relative youth of Carpaccio’s gondolier. It leaves Lowe to conclude he was likely still a slave; and it leaves me to conclude that I am guilty of simultaneoulsy exoticizing the gondolier and Italian festive iconography.

With “Le Merchand de Venise” (2010), the artist Kiluanji Kia Henda, “transforms the African street vendors that populate tourist sties across Europe into Shakesperian heroes.” @mmuseumaxxi on Instagram.

Lowe concludes her paper by pointing out that:

“The occupations of the [freed] black Africans range from marble-worker to barrel-carrier to woodworker to boatman, whereas a possible African in another register of the same magistracy was a secondhand clothes-seller. Their involvement in basic manual and selling activity is another indicator that they had integrated into Venetian life, and were living the same sorts of working lives as the mass of other immigrants to the city, and indeed, as their Venetian counterparts.” 

Her impeccably researched piece is valuable for its contribution to the diasporic African history of Venice. However, the assertion that black Africans were “living the same sorts of working lives . . . as their Venetian counterparts” is optimistic. For all that employment as a gondolier might have integrated black Africans into the daily life of Venice, we cannot know how much race continued to factor in the social relations of even the most established of free slaves during the Renaissance. Just ask Othello if race mattered. (Though he was a general in the Venetian military and not a slave, Shakespeare’s “Moor” was still the victim of racial hatred because of his dark skin.)

Over 500 years later, race is still disturbingly central to our social behaviors, so embedded that all too many are stubbornly blind to it. Artists like Kiluanji Kia Henda render it visible. Henda reminds us that we, who are not of African descent, are all too often unlikely to ‘see’ black persons until they assume the trappings of white society – here, in Henda’s photograph, as a shopper not a vendor. (And not even then, as Christian Cooper discovered while birdwatching in Central Park.)

Detail from panel in Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Vittore Carpaccio, 1502-07

I am even more certain now that I didn’t truly see the gondolier in Carpaccio’s painting. I saw his clothes, his pose, his context, but saw nothing of the man. I suspect that for all the dignity with which he painted the gondolier, the same was true for Carpaccio. It would be too much to hope that this son of a leather merchant harbored proletariate sympathies for his subject. That said, he did paint the panels in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni which served Venice’s immigrant Slav community, (which may well have included some of my ancestors). At the very least we can credit him with documenting the vari-complected nature of Venice’s culture, built as it was on its mercenary relations with Africa and Asia – mercenary relations that would also bring out the best possible sense of ‘trade.’ Namely, exchange and hybridization.


I was a very young girl when first understood privilege.  For all the glamor of World War II movies and the clueless jingoism of Westerns that were part of a 1950s childhood, I couldn’t comprehend how boys and men could go to war. My father’s service in the Navy was somehow exempt in my mind, since he only bombed railroad tracks. Besides it was he who made me read Stephen Crane’s fearsome anti-war novel The Red Badge of Courage.

I could not fathom how men and boys could make themselves put one foot in front of the other, leave home, and submit to what looked to me like brutality.  Even more, I could not figure out how they could compel themselves to act, when faced with orders to fight and kill.  I knew I would be paralyzed if I were a boy or a man.  In the late 1950s, I was very glad to be a girl. I still am, despite the cruelty continuously inflicted on women and girls through the ages and the minor slights I’ve sensed and experienced myself.  Those injuries perceived and real offer insight, if not empathy, which I hesitate to claim at the risk of arrogance.

It was roughly the same time that I realized that my whiteness was an exemption from another kind of violence—the violence of the stares, the abuse, and the discrimination, as well as both the subtle and blatant disregard that every black child, woman, and man in the U.S. would be unable to escape. (In hindsight, I’m certain that the aforementioned Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage was an important factor in my nascent awareness of racial injustice.)  It was a sign of my own racism and my white suburban context that it seemed both psychologically immediate and yet physically remote.  I could only witness the infliction of pain on television and in films like “A Raisin in the Sun.” (I watched it years later with my son when he was about 10. It hurt him so much that he told us then that he’d never watch another movie set in the 1950s because it would be racist.)

Back then, I felt something akin to what Henry felt:  sheer panic. I was still a child and as a child, powerless. I sensed a storm was coming and it would tear families up and torment minds and bodies for decades after each violent act. I was a fearful child, afraid of what white men (and women) with wounded egos could do.  I still am. Only now I’m fearful of inaction against them.  We need a renaissance in children’s education, in civics courses, and a renewed commitment to caring for others. Donate. Vote. Talk. Write.

Anna calls me her sister

Anna Barbara and me

Anna calls me her sister, though I am decidedly not Italian. I’m not remotely southern, while Anna most definitely is, coming as she does from Calabria. (Though I suspect my New York bluntness helps transcend our respective geographical markers.) And after all these years, I’m sure to her frustration—it ’s been almost two decades since we met—I still default to English when we’re together. Yet, it seems entirely appropriate that I find myself writing about the work of Anna Barbara. (This essay is, in fact, a prelude to a book we are planning together.) We are both outsiders in a world of specialists, she because of cultural geography and disciplinary unruliness and me because of academic borders, I have no Ph.D., no deep disciplinary tunnel to mine. This is an only partially exaggerated claim, since neither of us are ingénues in the design community. Still it’s true that for both of us each project is new terrain built on old soil. In our case, it is a process that entails talking, rephrasing, and re-explaining across two linguistic frameworks and, it must be admitted, not always coincident design frameworks.

What we do share is the excitement of thinking laterally.  Nothing is sui generis, and yet nothing is immune from (in my case, as a writer) reconsideration, and (in her case, as a designer) reconfiguration. The resonance I feel with Anna’s work is not just a matter of sharing a suspicion that we are slightly out of place; it also has to do with her responses to that condition. Dislocation for Anna means drawing on the unconsidered elements in her surroundings, finding epiphanies in modest gestures and neglected materials, and creating platforms and spaces for others who are displaced by choice or circumstance.

Mediterranean Gifts, Anna Barbara, 2015

In a time when so many are preoccupied with monetizing disruption, it is rare and reassuring to find a designer like Anna who innovates with cultural cues instead of trying to erase those habits of the past which make us human.  Her poetic projects belong within the framework of the politics of small things. She, like George Perec, questions “that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us.”1 In other words, “that which we generally don’t notice, which doesn’t call attention to itself.”2 

77, (orange and red tights) Anna Barbara, 2000

Anna brings the unnoticed into focus sometimes with material haikus and other times with manipulations of everyday objects in projects like “DEA” (a necklace made from her husband’s broken eyeglasses), “Mediterranean Gifts” (a mesh necklace, filled with bits of sea glass she collected in Calabria), and my personal favorite, “77” (an Italian short-hand for women’s legs and the name of her two-toned tights). This is not to say she is yet another found-object fetishist. Her projects work, often performing menial tasks while giving disproportionate pleasure.  

DEA, Anna Barbara, 2015

Now, at the risk of showing my age, I admit it was Anna’s object-based practice that first excited me. Here was someone who came from 21st-century design culture (as opposed to craft culture) who combined the tangible with the conceptual in ways I’d never quite encountered. So when she first started telling me about her work with the senses, I am sure she thought I was a bit dense, asking her questions about the cloying artificial scents that were then becoming popular in stores and malls. These apprehensions were quickly laid to rest by her book Invisible Architecture: Experiencing Places Through the Sense of Smell. Never before had I considered the 20th-century the dry century, desiccated by air conditioning and smothered in deodorant.3 For Anna, the senses are already present; they are design materials no different from pigment (which, in fact, does have a scent). Smell, touch, taste, sound may be invisible but she makes them perceptible by virtue of her gift for what Jacques Rancière calls the “distribution of the sensible.”4 Moreover, Anna engages with what he would call the politics of “sensory inequality.”5 In her case, the politics of migration stand out most obviously but more subtle and equally affective is her work on giving access to the senses where they are obscured by dint of illness or simply the pressures of daily life that immunize us to their affects. 

Invisible Architecture, Anna Barbara, Anthony Perliss, 2006

Whether working with the visible or the invisible, Anna Barbara operates on the principle that we are stronger when we allow ourselves to be susceptible to foreign bodies. She makes it happen in the molecular friction of a scent or the frisson of unexpected encounters with everyday objects. Contamination—constructive cultural contamination—is the essence of her work.   


1.     Georges Perec, “Approaches to What?” in Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and other Places, ed./trans. John Sturrock, (London: Penguin Books, 2008 ) 210.

2.     Highmore, Ben. “Introduction” and “Approaches to What,” [1973] Georges Perec, in Highmore, Ben. ed. The Everyday Life Reader. New York: Routledge, 2001, 176.  

3.     Anna Barbara, Anthony Perliss, Invisible Architecture: Experiencing Places Through the Sense of Smell(Milan: Skira, 2006).

4.     Jacques Rancière frequently refers to the “distribution of the sensible” in his critiques of aesthetic hierarchies. He does so mostly directly in The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible(London: Bloomsbury, 2006)

5.     Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator (London, Brooklyn: Verso, 2011) 70.

(In)exhaustible Objects

Red Wing ceramic vase with Oxalis regenelli

As a title, “Inexhaustible Things” would have been easier on the eye and the ear, but ‘Objects’ is more accurate given that I’m writing about something solid. Though the more I think about it, this vase is already both an indefinite thing and a definite object.  

‘Thing’ encompasses the idea of the vase that resides in its volutes and terra cotta-colored glaze—a romantic’s idea of neoclassicism. ‘Object’ covers the sensory experience of the vase when I touch its curves and watch it as the light changes the relationships between those curves over the course of the day. 

But why ‘inexhaustible?  Partly because this vase never fails to satisfy something in me; partly because it is impossible to not to see something new in it every time I look at it. This is the Mobius strip of  perception(s) which James Dodd describes as “…the fulfillment of form and the stubborn indeterminateness of material existence.”1 He was writing about architecture, but I am going to take the liberty of applying it to artifacts.  Particularly in this case, since this vase is clearly a pilaster hollowed out to hold a plant. Given that the first columns were most likely trees, it seems fitting that this one should host some vegetation.

1. James Dodd. Phenomenology, Architecture and the Built World: Exercises in Philosophical Anthropology. (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2017) 73.