Thursday, September 8, 2011

Response to The Slow Design Principles and Autonomy, Participation, And

Autonomy, Participation, And

The first half of Claire Pentecost's article is a sardonic indictment of the museum-gallery-art complex, clearly evoking the themes and imagery of Brian O'Doherty's Inside the White Cube and Robert Smithson's Cultural Confinement. In defining the idea of artistic autonomy as the "special privilege to be free from the demands of utility or any substantive connection to social, political, or economic reality" Pentecost is highlighting the paradoxical cost of achieving autonomy; in producing work that adheres to the rules and requirements of the "clean white room", the artist is, in fact, allowing their output to be subsumed for the social, political, and economic motivations of the host institution. In some ways, the concept of artistic autonomy as a goal seems prescient, as the realization that the reward of autonomy for high performance has only recently begun to gain traction amongst other commercial sectors (as illustrated by RSA Animate - Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us).

The crux of Pentecost's argument is that the goal of autonomy is ultimately counterproductive; her use of the automobile as symbol of autonomy, described in opposition to "the inconvenience of coordinating our needs and desires with a larger populace," demonstrates that autonomy‐at least as defined through the lens of institutional validation‐actually leads down the path of solipsism and isolation from society in general.

Pentecost's use of language in "the idea persists that an aesthetic encounter can change consciousness" can be read multiple ways; is she betraying skepticism about the popular notion of the function of art, or  is she expressing hope that it truly can be realized in spite of attempts to codify success as freedom from  social, political, and economic conditions? Her answer, in the second half of her article, is revealed to be the latter.

Without issuing a manifesto or declaring a Movement, Pentecost effectively outlines an aesthetic that engages the tension between autonomy and participation rather than the requirements of the white cube. In the form of "restructuring participation", she highlights a philosophy of art that is oriented around the bottom-up production and dissemination of knowledge by the unempowered, rather than the embrace and reinforcement of the top-down status quo.

Why would an artist aspire to restructure participation in this way, which inherently requires involvement in the interests of a larger populace, rather than the attainment of their own individual autonomy? The illustrations that Pentecost uses all support at least one of the twin pillars of restructured participation and the distribution of information. Her own Visible Food project, and Natalie Jeremijenko's How Stuff is Made are crowdsourced knowledge bases constructed about commercial processes without the coordinated investment of commercial interest. Nance Klehm's urban agriculture education‐"imparting a vision of abundance where the untrained eye sees generalized green"‐is the closest Pentecost comes to describing her proposed aesthetic in established terms of connoisseurship, but still meets the dual criteria of inviting the local participation for the purpose of spreading knowledge. The Yes Men, while not necessarily involving broad participation from local groups, subvert the information dispersal mechanisms of established commercial media to highlight information that industry and capital prefer to keep hidden. Pentecost suggests that it is through the pursuit of the equalization of information that the aesthetic experience truly can change consciousness. In challenging the "systematic ignorance" that typifies the information age, artists can win autonomy from the "groups who benefit from pervasive opacity and myopia", rather than the appearance of autonomy awarded by an institution.

The Slow Design Principles

The purpose of Carolyn Strauss and Alastair Fuad-Luke's The Slow Design Principles is stated to be an attempt to describe a method of re-imagining the design process in order to achieve the goals of increasing sustainability and environmental responsibility. The mechanism they propose is the use of six "slow" principles for the collection of evidence to evaluate the design process. But how rigorously is the objective defined? What are the criteria against which their evidence is measured? How is the process itself designed to be evaluated?

Some of the works cited by Strauss and Fuad-Luke as examples of the different principles caused me to pose questions that I am not sure they adequately answer in their document. In Franinovic's "Recycled Soundscape", the structure of the project invites people to participate so that "under-observed phenomena of a locality are re-revealed", but are those revelations captured, or does the information simply walk off when the people move on? Is that a desirable goal in and of itself, or is it a missed opportunity to inform the design process? Julia Lohman's sheep stomach lamps in Flock highlight "under-valued" materials that are derived from animals, but how does that relate to the wide variety of animal by-products that are already used in non-obvious ways? Natalie Jeremijenko's How Stuff is Made and Claire Pentecost's currently defunct Visible Foods project are both good examples of projects that seem to be interrogating the hidden production chain behind consumer products, but are they intended to become resources that tie into Slow Design in a systematic way?

Perhaps the issue is that the efficacy of Slow Design principles cannot yet be determined because they are too new and relatively unknown. In contrast to the criticisms and questions I have with the outline of the Slow Design principles, I do think the process could yield valuable results; the Milkota exercise was quite interesting because it highlighted the numerous ways in which the concept of product design can be expanded to include social and environmental impacts in an integral fashion rather than treating those concerns as external to a commercial interest. It will be interesting to see if and how the Slow Design principles are adopted by the emerging class of interaction (or user experience) designers, and if the tenants of Slow Design can be applied to larger industrial projects, such as the design and manufacture of infrastructure or public transportation.

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