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Design pedagogy, the body, and solidarity in designing commons

Podcast interview for the Commoning Design & Designing Commons show, an initiative from the Interest Group Commons and Commoning of the IT University of Copenhagen.

Listen to the podcast on Anchor.


Speaker Key – GP Giacomo Poderi; FA Frederick van Amstel; SM Sanna-Maria Marttila; JS Joanna Saad-Sulonen

GPOkay, welcome to this first episode of the Commoning Design and Designing Commons podcast with our first guest Fredrick Van Amstel from Brazil. I’m here, Giacomo Poderi, in the IT University Copenhagen podcast studio with Sanna-Maria Marttila and Joanna Saad-Sulonen.
 And, as I said, Frederick is with us directly connected from Brazil. So, the topic of today as a first episode will focus on design pedagogy, the role of body and effective relations, and in particular, solidarity in relationship to design and commons.
 And we are very glad and happy that Frederick is here with us. Just a brief introduction about Frederick, he is Assistant Professor of Service Design and Experience Design at the Industrial Design Academic Department of the Federal University of Technology in Paraná, Brazil. And he’s a transdisciplinary scholar with backgrounds in social communication, designs in technology studies and design.
 Broadly his work, as he writes about himself, is about having a role of design educator and researcher who enables people from different social backgrounds to work, learn and play together. While designing technologies such as websites, electronic products, games, environments. But also, other interactive media.
 One, for instance, quite a relevant outcome of his work and collaborations in Brazil is this Corais Platform was launched in 2011 as an open-innovation platform and collaboration with the Faber-Ludens Interaction Designing Institute.And since 2012, If I’m correct, he’d become an independent-cooperative platform that supports collaboration among cultural producers in Brazil.
 And recently Frederick has started to focus most of his work on approaches for overcoming of oppressive relations and oppression, and other kinds of systemic contradiction. One aspect that he’s currently concerned with is trying to focus on approaches that support, how he calls it, design for liberation.
 So, welcome, Frederick, and we’re happy you’re here.
FAThank you, Giacomo, thank you, Sanna and Joanna, for having me this first episode. It’s an honour.
GPSo, let’s maybe start with some more content.
 You say that your focus on design for liberation is something that directly connects with, of course, oppression, the two things are somehow tightly connected. And, as you also told me when we first discussed the idea of this episode, your pedagogical focus is a lot relying on the work and tradition of Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal works.
 So, their legacy from their critical Pedagogy of Oppressed and, in particular, the Theatre of Oppressed. They were quite… They’re still quite influential, I would say, in Brazil but also internationally. But they were not strictly speaking designers, so I wonder or maybe we wonder how does their work fit into critical pedagogy and in design pedagogy which you are particularly engaged with?
 Why is it so interesting for you and for your work?
FANice question, Giacomo, to start with. So, I was in Brazil, I just came back from my doctoral degree in 2015. And Brazil was in a political turmoil where the left government has been criticised for trying to share privileges among the low-income population.
 And the high-income population were very angry with that and they didn’t want to share airports or aeroplanes with the low-income populations. So, they overthrown the Brazilian president of that time, Dilma Rousseff. And I was just arrived and seeing this situation, even working with Dilma’s teams to develop some participatory-design policies, which of course were interrupted by the situation.
 I then started to reflect and understand what through participatory design that I have learned, in Scandinavia and also in the Netherlands, could be applicable to the Brazilian situation. And I found zero applicability, I had to somehow rethink. But while trying to go back to the roots of participatory design I found some references.
 I found earlier references to Paulo Freire’s work in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and I dug into his work and also the connected work of Augusto Boal, who also wrote about similar situations. So, what is interesting about them is that they framed reality as something which is an influx, in transformation. And some people get to have a better hold of these realities than others.
 Because they have so much power, they have some influence, and they develop historically a relationship that other people not being able to see reality as it is to ideology through policies, through all kinds of different structures that become naturalised. As if reality was curtailed in that way, in the way they want, the powerful people.
 And this concept of oppression started to become really interesting to understand that we lived in an oppressed reality. And the only way to transform that reality will be to overcome that oppression. And then comes the concept of liberation which is, somehow, an original contribution of Paulo Freire and the circle of researchers and philosophers who are interested in the theology of liberation.
 Although it’s not necessarily a theological concept it has gotten some influence from Christianity and concepts such as overcoming this material life and heading for something else, which is somehow transcendental. However, Augusto Boal was not religious at all and he said, liberation for us means fulfilling our desires that have been denied over and over.
 And creating a situation, a structure in society, where this fulfillment will be normal, be naturalised. So, we would have all needs of all different kinds of populations fulfilled. And that became a very interesting motivation for my work since then.
GPOkay, thanks. Boal was also, if I remember correctly, quite politically active so he was mashing together some, maybe, philosophical and pedagogical principle behind his approach for theatre.
 But also there was a lot of activism also behind his approach and ideas and objectives, if I can say so.
FAYes, that’s so important because both Boal and Freire were in prison during the 60s and 70s. I think it’s the 60s, in Brazil, and then later had to go into exile and that’s where they developed their ideas.
 And even, I guess, Paulo Freire was in exile and giving a lecture in some way where Pelle Ehn, for example, attended, and he got really excited about the Pedagogy of the Oppressed in the situation. And a lot of people also got in touch with Theatre of the Oppressed, especially in France through the work of Augusto Boal. So, there’s quite some historical connection between those times in Brazil for example where we had this military dictatorship.
 And current times where this far-right wing politics especially Jair Bolsonaro, who’s the current Brazilian president.
GPYes, but also talking about this, maybe, circulation of ideas and influences. I also was… The first time that I took part in a session that was trying to convey the principles of the theatre of oppression was actually in one of the Participatory Design Conferences in 2012, maybe, or 2010.
 So, it was also something that… Maybe, the influences of Freire and Boal are still quite present in the community. And somehow they still travel and influence people from different contexts and backgrounds and geographical locations.
FAIt might not be just a specific thing about Brazilians’ of the 70s would be similar to the Brazilians’ of the 2020s. But also in the world history does currently have a rise of far-right-wing politics in many other countries. And also has been a rise in anti-oppression movements such as Black Lives Matter and other ones that have been also influential in design fields.
GPYes, thanks, Frederick. But then I’m also thinking more about the challenges of actually trying to put in practice a design course that follows these principles.
 Because, if we think from our perspectives here in Europe, Nordic context, I would say that it is quite critical and provocatory in a sense to try to bring this kind of teachings to the student within, maybe, a traditional…
 I mean, traditional master’s course is a bit of a vague concept. But, anyway there is a certain expectation that is conveyed by universities as institutions and students as people who inhabit and practise within these institutions.
 And receiving this kind of education, this is my hunch, that could be rather challenging and provocatory. So I’m wondering also, what are the practical implications for you? How challenging it is for you to deliver a course on Critical Design in the Brazilian context? And what shape does your course or your education take when you try to do these courses and convey these ideas for liberation and the problems of oppression?
FAIt is provocative anywhere in the world, I would say because that’s the point. In this ontology of oppressed reality, they believe that if we don’t do any special strategies or tactics to revert and repair oppression then we are oppressing, even if we are not totally conscious of that.
 And being not totally conscious is also part of the oppression being covered by an ideology that says for example that we are not an oppressive society, we are not an oppressive institution, we are not an oppressive-design education. And if you start from this premise are already being an oppressor. Because you are not acknowledging that this reality has been constructed based on oppression.
 Historical oppression such as exploitation of women’s work, of black people that have been forcefully enslaved. And other kinds of work that have been exploited throughout the years to construct these institutions that always try to privilege the already privileged. So, oppression means, first of all, becoming self-critical. If we want to have this critical-design education, we want to acknowledge that design education in the past has been an oppressive education.
 And it still is, and we have to go through society and create a reality that is less oppressive, where perhaps there will be no oppression. I mean, that’s a renewed version of participatory-design eutopia, I would say. Where we live in a society where everybody can interact without framing differences, bodily differences especially, as negative.
 That’s something that is already ingrained into our cultural frames of reference. We see a different body and we inherit a negative concept and prejudice against that body so we don’t want to include that body, we don’t get next to that body, and we don’t want to be like that body. And that’s oppression in a nutshell.
GPThanks Frederick. Yes, Sanna, you wanted to say something?
SMYes, I wanted to go back to the point of being self-critical and reflective. And in one of your writings or presentations, you have also said that you want to support the design students to discover who they want to become in the worlds that they produce. And that really resonated with me and my approach with my also service-design students.
 But I was thinking could you share your insights and practical ways of how to encourage this self-critical reflection in service-design field.
FAIt is very challenging to do that because it’s not just about acquiring technical skills to become who you want to be but really losing some oppressive skills.
 So, to learn how to be a less oppressive person they need to work together with oppressed people. You have to unlearn how to be an oppressor. And that’s painful because we take advantage, especially university as an institution that privileges the already privileged. So, it is quite oppressive place, and you learn how to be a good oppressor and you get grades if you are oppressing well.
 But, if you want to have a Critical Design education we have to do the other way around. And there are multiple ways of doing the following critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire and also Theatre of the Oppressed by Augusto Boal. But in a nutshell, I’d say, it starts from learning about your history, and who you were constructed to be based on the work of your ancestors in society.
 The amount of work that has been done for you to be at the place where you are and understanding that most of this work has been also done at the expense of someone else’s work in exploitation relationships. So, in a way, the first part of it, it’s to understand that we sit on top of privileges that we don’t have merit for. And we have to be aware, acknowledge that, and then try to share those privileges with other underprivileged people. And that means hearing and listening to them, especially their criticism, especially once they raise their voices in angry mobs.
 They make us feel uncomfortable, that’s what we need to really go through this transformation of understanding who we can, not just be, but how can we be in the future. Because we want to be less oppressive, we want to be liberating people, and then we have to lose the oppressive part, the oppressors that live inside ourselves.
GPThere was also Joanna wanted to say…
JSYes, I just remembered that I was really impressed when I heard last summer when you had this open course, Designs of the Oppressed. I was impressed how you used different channels for the students to take part in this course, paying attention to issues of limited internet access, etcetera.
 But also that this course was distributed onto an open Creative Commons attribution share license. And I think that’s also a strong message to give, and linking a bit with this idea of the commons that we going to talk a bit more about, and the course also as a commons in a way.
 So, yes, I don’t know if you want to say something but I just wanted to bring it up and encourage our audience to go and check the material that’s online on Designs of the Oppressed.
FAThat’s good that you mention it, Joanna, because that course was a relief from two years of remote education at our university that had been very unfulfilling because we couldn’t go through this process meaningfully.
 Because the whole staff was so oppressive that students didn’t even want to answer back to any prompt that we invite them to join, they didn’t open their mics or even their cameras during the conferences. We didn’t have the proper tools because they didn’t have even the internet at home or a place to study. And the university was so insensitive, pushing them to work so hard and so fast on an unusual schedule.
 They were terrified by this remoted-design education. And in this international course, we offered we didn’t want to reproduce the same oppressive structure. So we made something very inclusive using the lowest bandwidth requirements we could use. And also having a lot of dialogue, an open space for anyone to say what they think about what we’re discussing or reading.
 And having interactive moments where we would draw together and make some aesthetic expression of our feelings about oppression and so on. So, I hope that in the future we have more opportunities to do Critical Design education over the internet because then we can reach places in the world that haven’t even had access to Boal’s and Freire’s writings.
JSRight, yes, great work.
GPYes, thanks, Frederick, for sharing. Well, maybe we want to open another aspect of this discussion today. Because, of course, I go back with my experience to the first time I encountered the Theatre of the Oppressed at the PDC a few years back. It was a lot about, of course, mobilising your body but also trying to make your body and the bodies who interact with each other say something that usually you’re not even aware to do in the everyday practice.
 And these approaches are certainly very powerful and effective in achieving that kind of awareness. But at the same time if we think about it bodies are usually something that we do not think about much, at least not in the mainstream design education or design work.
 We think about, perhaps, the artifacts, the objects, the bodies of the object but not the bodies of people who are actually engaging in the processes and what engagement in design processes and actual outcome of those design processes are doing to the body.
 And the area of your work is also on the role of the body. So, can you say from your experience or your opinion, why do you think on one end, perhaps, the body is usually neglected in design. And it’s maybe now coming back or should, maybe, be coming back more centred in the design discourse.
FAWell, there are already some critical perspectives over the body in design that would say we inherit a Cartesian tradition of mind-body dichotomy or dualism. And I wouldn’t question that, I agree with that. However, there is something more substantial to that, which is why we have this dualism, it’s not just a philosophical choice or a lack of understanding, a lack of knowledge. It’s precisely ideology at work.
 If you say that the mind rules over the body, you are also saying that there are some things in the world, nature, which is not having its own willing’s, not having its own soul, not having its own self-determination, so that you can appropriate. And if you say that another person’s body is part of nature you treat that person as if it was an instrument for your work.
 Then you are denying that that person has a body, you are just seeing, not a body but an object in front of you, or in your design process, or in your outcomes, or in your schedule and your resource management. And that’s a contradiction that has been unacknowledged for most of the time in this capitalist society where we live in.
 So it’s not just a philosophical thing, it’s really a capitalist thing that has some different frames. For example, in colonialism, the specific body that is different from the coloniser is transformed into an object, like the indigenous and the black who are forced immigrant-slaved labour. And also the women have been transformed, somehow, into an instrument for the man’s realization of power.
 And then if we see the body in this political perspective, in this historical perspective, it’s also a source of liberating power. Over there, there is a lot of angriness and wishing to transform the reality that we can harness in workshops and design projects. But then we have to be careful because we have different bodies and we might not be able to understand what it is to have lived in another’s body.
 Because it’s really a situated experience and we have to acknowledge the difference and try to see those privileges in relation to different bodies. Some bodies have been able to develop fully to their potential. But other bodies have been denied that full-potential development. Then how do we repair, how do we feel solidarity for those who haven’t been able to do so.
 And what is the role of design in that? Because design is pretty much about defining abstract science that is imposed over bodies through ideology, politics, and matter. But then, we can also do it the other way, that’s the liberating perspective of design. You can also do design for highlighting people discover these unfulfilled potentials.
GPYes, I was thinking just now, when you were mentioning, are these things that are also aspects that when we, that relates to, maybe these… Let me take it one step back. We both, me, you, but also Sanna and Joanna work a lot with digital technologies.
 And one of the things that somehow they do when we design for platforms, for apps, for digital or technological infrastructure, then there is this understanding of things as immaterial. But also the bodies themselves disappear because somehow they become mediated by this infrastructure, whatever that will be, an app, a platform, or another technology.
 So, it’s very difficult sometimes to remind ourselves that in the end, as some activists say, for instance, there is no cloud computing, it’s just someone else’s computer. And these appearances of bodies behind the screens and behind the digital environment are something that is maybe challenging and problematic to unpack and make visible and bring to the centre.
 And, maybe, focus on bodies and reminding us that we’re not just users as ideal-typical concept but we are actual specific material and bodily person, then it’s something that is relevant and important.
FAYes, this invisibility of work and workers is really an important being for coming to criticism of digital technology. And I use to tell my interaction design students that they should be aware that every interaction starts from the human body and ends up in a human body. So it affects human bodies, and that’s the most concrete understanding of interaction design that one can get.
 It can go through mediation, and it can be very complex and abstract, with many, many, many layers of different technologies and middleware. But, in anyhow, in a way, if we acknowledge that we are affecting each other’s bodies then we must be careful, right? Because we might hurt other people. And we may also do the other way around, take care of other people if are you care about their bodies. So, that’s something that completely changed how do we design technology?
 Should we just design technology to reproduce the kind of oppressive structures that make invisible work and workers then we are working on the side of the oppressors. But then if we try to make this work visible and work with the oppressed in a participatory way and try to put their needs and their wishes, their desires to be fulfilled with our projects then I would say we are walking on the side of the pressed.
GPYes, thanks. You wrote this paper, Monster Aesthetics, as an expression of decolonising the design body which I would be happy to hear a little if you want to share, what was this about?
FAYes, this is a funny paper, I loved writing it with Rafaela Angelon.
 Well, the history behind this paper is that Rafaela and I were working with our design students to write a collective manifesto on political design. And at those times, in 2019, our students were divided between those who supported the Brazilian government and this far-right politics, and there were students that didn’t support it at all, that had more left orientation or at least a democratic right orientation. And they couldn’t agree on anything. But then we decided let’s do something that we can do together that we agree that we don’t agree.
 Let’s write and make a manifesto. So, we had all kinds of different activities going through, for example, a Parangolé-artistic activity where we sewed together a wearable manifesto that had all kinds of pieces, strange ones that looked like a monster while wearing that manifesto.
 And you would look from a fairly-traditional more modern-fashion design approach, you would see that as a horrible design. But then the aesthetics, was the aesthetics of the oppressor in this judgment? If we take the aesthetics of the oppressed and the need for the oppressed to join forces together to fight for their claims, then we would see this as an aesthetic of the oppressed and then we realise that being a monster was not so bad because we could scare the oppressors out.
 And another interesting thing about this research is that we also tried to understand how does it relate to the concept of the body in design. And we saw in literature, they had a lot of discussions on design activity, design space, so people understand this pretty much well. So you are designing an activity and then you are creating this abstract space where there are many possibilities. But who is designing this?
 There’s little discussion in design research about the agent who designs. And we developed this concept of design body precisely to address this notion of the agent. And I mean agent not just in a sense of an individual but also in a sense of a collective being, such as this student group that brought the manifesto.
 But also any kind of design team, and they can work in a company or a design association, an NGO. Or someone who’s taking care of a commons, they can also be considered a design body in this more institutional understanding of the world, right? We have for example the government of bodies, these are pretty much talking about collectives and also emphasizing these concrete people that have a real existence. And they might not exist if we don’t safeguard their desires, their needs, and so on.
GPYes, I fully agree, thanks for the example and experience. Maybe we move to the last key topic of today. You already, basically, touched about when saying that if we look how one body gets affected throughout the mediation and affects another body.
 Then we are already, somehow, focusing on what, in relational ways, is also understood as an affective relationship. But there is the issue of, for instance, an affective relationship such as solidarity. And these are particularly important when we want to talk about or think about designing for and towards the commons.
 So, what is your thought on that? How do you see solidarity or this inclusive and empowering and strengthening kind of effective relationship, in the context of Designing for Commons?
FAWell, there is a lot of discussion in commons and commoning literature about the rationality behind commoning. That is more rational for replenishing the resources that we are taking from nature.
 So, you leave them time to grow up and then you have the local community take care, so that they do not exploit it too early. That’s fine, I agree with that. However, the motivation for individuals to keep their commons is usually not a rational motivation, solely. It’s, basically, the relationship they have with other people that they care about in that same place in the same locality.
 So, they want to take care of the commons because they care about other people that depend on that same common-pool resource. And then if you extend this beyond traditional common-pool resource situations then we can see that people do things together because they care about each other. But they might also care about someone that they don’t know, a stranger, and that unexpected other which can be an amenity in general, right?
 So, if you for example choose to use a Creative Commons license or any kind of open license, then you work for humanity and any other person who might use it. However, it depends on what you are living as well.
 For example, license a design-technical drawing for a 3D gun that you can print anywhere. That’s not being solidary to other people. And that’s the contradiction because it’s not just about having the tools for maintaining the commons but also discussing what is the purpose of being together? Why are we here together doing this?
 And solidarity’s an interesting concept that many social movements in Brazil have been using to express this attempt to form collective bodies. And keep them together based on this basic-human emotion of feeling that the other, the different, is not an enemy. It’s precisely the opposite, it’s a possible friend.
 And also someone who can join forces to fight the real enemy who was the oppressors. Solidarity’s not necessarily good for anyone. Solidarity means those who are oppressed, should join forces together even if they are different. For example, if they work on the women’s liberation front, they should have solidarity with the people working on the Black liberation forefront.
 And those should be bind together by this same situation where they share some oppression but they also share solidarity, share sources. They share anything that could enrich their common goods.
GPYes, I think it’s very interesting, but also a complex notion. In my work, I try to bring an effective perspective on this way of managing resources, let’s say it in brackets.
 It opens up the issue of when is an effective relationship, perhaps, negative or positive? Maybe this is something that we should not ask. But it’s something that, in any way, emerges and it makes it complicated for people from the outside who are trying to understand or do something in support of those commoning efforts that make them sceptical about it.
 For instance, the tensions that often happen in these commoning efforts or struggles within these collective movements that people outside of those movements take as excuses to, somehow, undermine the movement themselves. And it’s something that sometimes I wonder and I struggle with, how we make these effective entanglements or relationships in their whole entirety important.
 But without giving the oppressor other weapons, in their rhetorical weaponry, to disempower these kinds of movements.
FAYes, Freire and Boal, were adamant that we should not confuse this work of more ontological-philosophical work with a sentimental work, where we are just dealing with any kind of emotion, and then we are trying to be very subjective.
 They were very objective, they said, look, these emotions are not subjective, they are shared, we are feeling this because the oppressors want us to feel bad, to feel that we are inferior. And then if we work together, objectively, again, then we can overcome and not have this feeling any longer because it’s withholding us. It’s not just about subjectivity, it’s really much about objectifying shared subjectivity which is the internalized oppression.
 For example, in the case of our students, that I mentioned before, they just internalized the idea that politics and design are not up for debate. We should not discuss our basic-political standpoints or basic-design standpoints, because we won’t agree. But then we decide we will discuss this because that’s precisely what the oppressors want, they want to fragment us into pieces so we cannot form collective design bodies.
 So, we have to resist this feeling of frustration of not finding someone who’s equal to us. Because there’s this ideology telling us that we will only be happy if we find someone who’s equal to us. It’s a never-fulfilling promise because we will never find someone who’s exactly like us, and that’s a trouble that is also a contradiction.
 Which is also explored wide well by these digital platforms that have dating and systems that try to match the perfect person for you that you can never find. This is definitely something that we have to actively work to survive and endure because it’s considered to be a natural saying to find the equal, to find the similar one. But in reality, people are different, they have different histories.
 And if we want to have a good relationship with other people we have to accept this basic premise and then join. Transform yourselves through difference, which is the concept of our therapy, which is also fundamental to understanding Critical Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed.
GPThanks, Frederick. Basically, maybe, last prompt for discussion.
 Still in this aspect of the solidarity, you have also worked on this project for redesigning money as a tool for self-management and cultural production. How did solidarity playout there, or what was the role of solidarity in that kind of project?
FAYes, that’s a very interesting story about the cultural producers who appropriated this Corais Platform that you mentioned in my introduction. This platform was designed for designers.
 We expected that designers would embrace open design and Designing for Commons and Commoning, at the beginning of 2010. But the real users were cultural producers who already had discussed these issues in their own areas, not necessarily in the design field. And they were searching for free software that could support them.
 And they were also interested in the solidarity economy because they had got in touch with this Landless Movement in Brazil, MST. And they were using a solidarity economy for decades trying to resist capitalist limitations in trying to build a business and manage a property and share goods and services. And these cultural producers, wanted to do solidarity economy across borders, across territories, because they were geographically distributed.
 Each of these members lived in a different city or a different region of the city and they wanted to share resources and share task force online. And they come to Corais Platform and they said, well, don’t you have anything for creating digital money or so?
 And we didn’t at that time but then we went to the Drupal modules archive, and then we search for any kind of neutral-credit systems. And we found that someone in another free software project has developed a module. We installed it on our platform, and we customized and tailored it to the needs of these specific cultural producers. And they also joined the designing and adaptation of these interfaces. And it became a very successful module for our platform that has been used by many collectives.
 They are still using it as of today, 2022.
GPWell, that’s an interesting story. Thanks, Frederick. I think we’re coming to the end of this episode. I was very happy to listen about your experience, Frederick. And also get the chance to hear from you directly about what it is that you are doing in terms of trying to provide this critical design pedagogy. And how it can be put in practice, both in design projects, but also more concretely in design education.I hope that our listeners enjoyed the topic of today and the conversation that we had.
 And I’m just saying goodbye to all. And, as we said in the last episode and introduction, if you want, feel free as to leave us a message in the podcast platform and tell us what your think about our work. Thank you for listening, and bye.

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