Diogenes & Funes, 2011–2017

During the process of researching for my PhD and following from initial exploratory practices,  I became interested in exploring miscommunication within a design process, and began researching whether working miscommunication with intent could alter a design process. I was interested in exploring how, by shifting perspectives I could allow for a redrawing of practices. For this purpose I designed a workshop aimed at mapping the particularities and universals of a design project almost to the verge of nonsense, to the point of paralysed meaning.

The idea was to research practices in communication design by deconstructing, disassembling, fracturing, pulverising or, alternatively, assembling, connecting, merging, combining, moulding, attaching, and interconnecting them. This workshop first took place in the context of a short term learning activity at the MA in Design and Environment at Goldsmiths, University of London, in 2012. The departure point was the fractured account of the world presented by Funes, the main character in writer Jorge Luis Borges’ short story ‘Funes the Memories.’(1) Funes had a prodigious memory and could thus give a name to each thing. For example rather than ‘a tree’ he could name every particular leaf and detail of a particular tree. I contrasted the character’s inability to perceive generalities with the philosophical anecdote of the Platonists and Diogenes(2)—in which the former aimed at defining a human to such a general point (a human is a ‘featherless biped’) that the definition could include, for instance, a plucked chicken, as Diogenes pointed out at the time. Then, practices in communication design were subject to exploration from these distinct, even polarised, points of view.

MA Design & Environment at Goldsmiths, University of London

During the MA we explored a space of tension between sense and nonsense, allowing nonsensical scenarios to take over the design process by deconstructing issues to reposition a practice. During the process, students seemed to gradually break from their sense of responsibility in developing ‘good projects’—projects that would contribute to a better world—allowing the emergence of a new space from which to reinvent practices, by engaging with an issue in terms different than those derived from a rather normative framing of issues. Students’ presentations were filled with humour and ‘crazy’ proposals that brought a different sense of a particular issue but also a concrete practical design proposition.

I later developed a similar exercise with students from the minor in Cultural Diversity, part of the Social Practice course at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam. There, students deconstructed the concepts and projects they had intended to carry out in a neighbourhood in the North of Rotterdam. This exercise allowed them to look into their concepts from different perspectives and, in some cases, put forth new practical approaches and concepts. In some cases nonsensical scenarios gave rise to new approaches. In others, the exercise in particularising allowed concepts to become more focused, sharper, by forcing students to question the position from which they were engaging in design. Once again, by opening their reading of a project to miscommunication, students were able to generate new approaches to practice.

I facilitated the workshop with students of the graphic design course at the Willem de Kooning Academy, whose main project theme was Music. Students were asked to create a map moving from generic to concrete in order to open two levels of miscommunication: the miscommunication contained in the generic description of terms—with space for multiple referents—and miscommunication arising from the specifics of each personal sphere, excluding others from the contexts of interpretation.

More recently, I developed this workshop at the Honours Programme Art and Research, Gerrit Rietveld/University of Amsterdam, where students worked on particularising their final projects to the point of nonsense. Here, my approach to strongly relate this exercise to a Stentorian framework (3), the process allowed for relevant shifts of perspective and fruitful discussions over students projects.

These workshops were important because they looked at how miscommunication can open design processes to inventive modes of practice, where shifts in perspective create the grounds for other different connections and possibilities to be explored in the design process. This different setting contains the potential to create a political scene in the sense that it connects different perspectives and publics emerging from miscommunication, or negotiating miscommunication on practical grounds.

1. Jorge Luis Borges, “Funes the Memorious,” in Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings, ed. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby, (New York: New Directions, 2007).

2. Diogenes Laërtius, “Diogenes,” in Book VI, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853).

3. Isabelle Stengers, “The Cosmopolitical Proposal,” in Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, ed. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005).