A conversation with Francisco Laranjo

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In 2018 Francisco Laranjo wrote about the H&D Summer Academy in the book Extra-Curricular. In his text “Brief History of the Summer School” Francisco critically interrogates the neo-liberal promise of many summer school projects. According to Francisco the ‘design summer school’ “became a popular format for the discipline. It was borne out of easy profit. The emergence of low-cost airlines and the rise of Airbnb created the foundations for the exploration of alternatives or complements to academia. Summer is the obvious period of the year in which this can happen—an opportunity to practice a foreign language, hone a technical skill and visit a different country.” While his text is unforgiving of shallow “techno-utopian” programmes, summer schools such as HDSA, as well as Trojan Horse, are recognized as initiatives that try to challenge “such propositions, forming a growing network of projects with shared agendas.”

Nevertheless we were intrigued by the rigorous reflections in Francisco’s text and invited him to join a conversation about what it means to practice collaboratively, horizontally and critically. Besides speaking ‘about’ design organizations critically, how can we ‘do’ the work of designing and organizing critically?

This interview was conducted by Anja and Juliette over Jitsi. This is the full transcription, with minor edits for clarity.

H&D: You are the initiator of Modes of Criticism, which is a design criticism journal featuring design researchers who really take a stand. They formulate positions and oppositions and contribute to a critical design discourse. The way we relate to discourse and critical discourse with H&D is that we understand it as a form of dealing with each other, orienting towards each other. Your platform, in a way, is like a collective or a collaboration even if it's a critical approach to discussing work. We are wondering if you consider Modes of Criticism as a collective endeavour? We would be curious to hear your thoughts about the notion of collectivity and if you feel like you are part of a collective body of critical designers.

FL: There is a differentiation to make here, especially with the physical object which has been very important. The project started from academic research but also with the intention to scrutinize the work that was being done by opening the research to other researchers and other designers—to be able to expand the work that was being done and also to expose what is normally a very solitary work, a PhD. In this sense, a central goal was to create a tool that could challenge that solitude, using the physical object to build some form of a network of solidarity. I found people who had research projects that were intersecting my own or who were researching fields that I had very little knowledge of and that my research could benefit from being exposed to that body of knowledge.

Initially the project had a very practical function, especially the physical book. It allowed my work to be exposed as it was being developed. This commitment was important, because the research was publicly funded so I didn't want to publish something only when it would be finished: I wanted to be open to debate and scrutiny as work was being developed. Opening up to different researchers from different continents was a way to make that work accountable and improved by trying to bridge gaps that were inevitable. The physical object still allows a kind of community-building that is more difficult with digital platforms. Not that the latter can not also produce communities but they still are substantially different. The importance of physical presence lays in the kind of commitment that you have when you say or do things together. When you say or do things remotely, the bonding is different. This is especially important against the structures that we either try to resist, change, subvert, or hack. They are structures that don't need substantial physical presence because of their scale and automation—with their symbols often protected by police. The journal, with varying degrees, has allowed that to happen with different readings around a specific volume, even using specific publications to connect to other publications, allowing detours of what the actual subject was dealing with. In this sense, it functions also as a point of departure for students, designers and educators to talk about issues that were important to them or their community. It's important that a physical object can help congregating people and can also question its own position and merits when seen in relation to other publications. This has been the case for most of the volumes, including the one Anja contributed to on Radical Pedagogy. There is a history of this terminology, and it was intentional that the title of the fourth volume forces that comparison to the past when it's in libraries, collections and reading lists. It exists in dialogue and allows it to be compared, and to be influenced by what was written forty/fifty years ago and how it is contributing to the issues we are dealing with today. The journal is fundamental for community-building. It has allowed us to meet so many people and to travel to different places and make friendships along the way, and make some long term allies too, which I think is very important to continue and sustain the work we are doing.

H&D: You just talked about physical presence and this connects to the events you organise where you invite people from different backgrounds. Something we are considering at H&D is formulating some sort of code of conduct for the Summer Academy in 2020 and for other events and workshops that we do, so we have a shared and transparent value system. We were wondering if that is something you are dealing with for your events but also for organising in general: do you have a protocol that makes explicit values and boundaries?

FL: The content of the body of work that has been produced, the last five volumes, generate the boundaries and the ambitions of the people we want to gather, as well as the discourse and responsibility we want to have. In that sense it's very open, it allows detours, it aims to be diverse, plural, and inclusive. There's an effort to have a mix of experienced contributors and young ones—some of whom are writing or publishing for the first time—in an attempt that there is a representation from different continents and backgrounds addressing the same issue to allow different perspectives. So far we have more female than male contributors, seeking diversity and representation in the contributors as a way to live up to the ambitions of what is published in the journal. There is an open attempt to not stipulate rules, as if I was writing some form of rules or guidebook. It's more the body of discourse that shapes the framework that we want to work towards.

H&D: It's very interesting, I think we are always struggling with how far we should formalize our organisational structure. Do we need any rules? Informality works fine as long as it goes well but if something happens then we don't have a protocol... Can you maybe say a few words about how Modes of Criticism has evolved and how it's organised practically: do you select contributors? How do these topics occur? How do you financially organise the publication?

FL: The first two volumes were self-funded, indirectly, through the scholarship which was EU funded through the Foundation for Science and Technology. Out of the scholarship I was able to print the first volume, a small run: 250 copies. The sales of the first paid for the printing of the second volume, still sitting within academia, with some contributors being friends and acquaintances, and some people who I met through the publication itself. It's interesting how the publication can be used as a method. To a great extent, what we are exposed to as researchers, is what the internet and algorithms organise for us. You get suggested by Academia, thesis databases that categorise research projects, suggested new titles by publishers, and institutional websites that tell you what PhD students are doing so you can get a bit of exposure through these organised supermarkets. It's very different from the kind of exposure you have if you have a book on a library shelf and you see other books that are placed a few centimeters next to it. In that sense it was important to be exposed to research that I wouldn't be aware of. One researcher bought the first volume and I could only discover his work, which was unknown to me and wasn't online in any form then, because he bought the book and because I engaged with him via email and eventually he contributed to the second volume with a work on Brecht and defamiliarization in design. This is an example of how we are prevented from having access to important knowledge by the standardization, and the hegemonic dissemination of knowledge. Before the third volume, the Dutch publisher Onomatopee approached me with interest in the project. And because they are partially funded by the EU through the Noord Brabant province, they would be willing to produce a bigger run, 1000 copies, and see if it could be exposed to a wider audience. The fourth volume was the last one in which contributors were not paid for their work. From the fifth volume on, we could already pay each contributor 250€ and aim to break even. It's definitely not to make money, but it allows Onomatopee to go to book fairs and organise debates in different cities. It's still symbolic in terms of payment but at least it's a gesture of appreciation for the time and generous effort that people are putting into it.

The editing process is organic. In the first two volumes it followed a literature review on recent terminology (such as ‘design fiction’), in which criticism was either scarce or inexistent. The goal was, from the outset, to challenge hegemonic discourse, offering diversity and try to challenge more canonical contributions. There was always an intentional adversarial standpoint, not necessarily polite, politically correct, or safe because in any case most of the people that are dealing with these issues were not concerned with this safeness—they were concerned in being more radical and realising that it would only be with this kind of approach that they could work towards the change they wanted. There is therefore an alignment of interests, even though the journal welcomes a multiplicity of tones of writing and style, fact and fiction. This exists in tandem with the concern of representation and misrepresentation, geographic locations and vantage points. These are elements that affect the choices of who to invite, identifying how they are dealing with subjects. The reader is not exposed to a continuous linear narrative but a constant struggle around an issue.

H&D: At H&D we have a strong hands-on approach, and often try to not theorize too much but dive in and get our hands dirty. We are wondering what your position is with Modes of Criticism as a practice led research, and how you deal with knowledge-sharing and building a better understanding of practice?

FL: Practice almost never lives up to the ambitions of theory—it’s a constant struggle. It should be a constant commitment because it's much easier to articulate in words or to congregate various authors than to put something into practice. One doesn’t exist without the other. This opens up a recurrent discussion: the idea that you may meet for a few days and do a series of workshops, recognising how important it is to temporarily share and develop knowledge. But what kind of consequence does it have in the long term when we are trying to work towards more systemic or infrastructural change? How disappointed sometimes can we be by the little effect they produce in the long term? You can argue that you can change a student's perspective during 10 days and completely shift their approach (and yours) to design. But we also have the ambition of doing more structural change and often realise the limitations of what the design discipline can do—change normally comes about through voting. In the case of Hackers & Designers, semantically, ‘hackers’ has a history within design of subverting or slightly shifting reality: is hacking enough in the times that we are living? Can hacking be scalable to some form of wider impact, not only within the discipline, but also local communities? Or is hacking inevitably a small, temporary act that can have significant repercussions but is not necessarily doing the more structural change we aim for? This is something that is not only applicable to you but to many other pedagogical experiments.

H&D: Thinking about this format we use, the workshop, these temporary encounters, there is a lot of expectation management also in the work we do as an organisation. We are not interested in seeing the workshop as a form of production or an alternative way of producing design work. We always have to make sure that everyone understands that the idea that there has to be something at the end is not what we are aiming for. One of the things we do within these temporary encounters is playing with defamiliarization, using tools differently, not necessarily breaking them but doing something unintended and confronting ourselves with the habits that we have as designers. How do you think the tools that we use as designers shape the work that we produce? How much agency do we actually have as designers to produce what we want to produce?

FL: It's different to think about self-initiated projects, research, or pedagogical experiments and commercial or academic work. In my case, both by experimenting with the tradition of graphic design and print, it’s possible to see that in the different volumes of the journal, we try to deal visually with these issues of defamiliarization in multiple ways and with different political issues at stake. The second volume, for example, was published 6 months before the Brexit Referendum, and the third not long after Trump’s election. In both volumes, there is an open intention of dealing visually with these events. All these end up often feeling like pointless visual gestures—perhaps too literal, too illustrative, and then of course not living up to the ambition of what is discussed inside the journal. That's why the workshops started here, at the Shared Institute, from where we run Modes of Criticism, as a way to bring people together. Some of the contributors of Modes of Criticism worked in residency and for us to work together and be able to use the library and discuss some of the issues we worked on some years ago and to also open up to the public through conversations and workshops is very important. For instance, last year the Porto Design Biennale opened up the opportunity to materialise some of those workshops into installations in different metro stations in Porto. This was a way to test some of the potential, but also the limitations, of this kind of articulation of design. The kind of knowledge-building you can have in a 3 or 4 day workshop is much richer and nuanced than what you have in a more polished, more synthesized installation in a metro station, with all the budget and physical limitations that such a project inevitably has. The work we have been doing with Modes of Criticism—and I should reinforce we because it involves the work of many contributors—manifests itself in different ways: symposia, publications, readings, debates, installations, exhibitions. It embraces not only the limitations, but also the contradictions of institutional powers. When you are connected to a major design event or a big museum, or a gallery, or city hall, there are inevitable contradictions between different political aims and affiliations, and where money comes from, for example. There is no ethically pure context. All these power structures are always questioned, and each case provides a different context to be evaluated. We will try to use the opportunities available, when appropriate, to make space for the people who deserve or don’t have it, or who are not given a voice. And we will try to articulate and offer this to the public in a way that is beneficial for the understanding of different worlds. The commitment to some form of building the world that we want together, and not imposing our world view, is fundamental in our work.

H&D: With H&D we see that the people who join our activities come from different backgrounds. It's not all designers or hackers, it's also sometimes both, or theoreticians, or artists, or others whose career paths are very different. We realise when we are in these situations of working together, it becomes less and less relevant what we know, what previous education you had, what knowledge is... We feel like we often touch upon a lot of topics in relation to technology and society, but we only touch the surface, it's not very indepth research. It's really about the encounter of these people and working together on something and being amateurs together. We were curious to hear your opinion on how much you need to know in order to be critical?

FL: There isn't a single structure or miracle tool to offer criticality to a practitioner or student, even though schools might try to do that by formatting a general structure or program. And such a project can’t be achieved in 3, 5 or 10 days. There are so many dimensions affecting the critical formation of a student and designer: their culture, race, gender, class, sex, the family sphere, all the political conditions that surround us, the institution that they're in, the department in which they are studying. And if we keep zooming out: the financial system that we live in, and so on. That's why it's very challenging to try to do a 3 or 10 day program and see if we can do something that is relevant, when criticality is a lifelong commitment. If we want to have some form of substantial contribution to students’ lives, it can't just be some punctual workshops every now and then, where someone comes and injects a "criticality" token from a researcher who comes from the global south or with experience in political activism. I'm talking obviously from a European context. It's also difficult if you aim to become an institution, running the risk of becoming what you are trying to challenge. At the same time, it’s only through continuous commitment that criticality can be nurtured—you can't just be submersed in 3 days of criticality and then rest for months and come back to it occasionally because you've been doing some branding to pay your rent. It can only be done together. There are many pedagogical experiments, and to a certain extent they are still a bit atomized, of a small scale and needing to take care of their survival, more than being able to join forces which is a much larger endeavor and more time consuming. As soon as scale becomes an issue it's immediately off-putting. It's only through this kind of cooperation between small-scale initiatives that it's possible to challenge the way institutions stipulate how criticality should be achieved and what are the minimum parameters for a student or a practitioner to be considered critical… which is obviously always contextual. Institutions tend to see it in an universalising manner, they have generic criteria that are connected to learning outcomes, and charts that allow criticality to be measured. Therefore, everything ends up being formatted, and ultimately almost pointless because it doesn't consider the specificities of each person and how they are related to a specific community, or to the different groups they live and work with. There is no single magic potion, it can only be done together, not something that is imposed from the top or from the structure in which we are learning.

H&D: How do you see Modes of Criticism developing in the future? You were talking about organising activities and installations, is there something you have in mind where it could be heading towards?

FL: I'm working on the sixth volume and I can see it finishing with the tenth volume in a few years—perhaps even before. It’s a consequence of disciplinary developments and societal and political issues. But it’s also the result of seizing opportunities and optimising resources: the latest volume on design systems is an example, with a collaboration with the Porto Design Biennale facilitating residencies, workshops and a public program. The sixth volume will continue to expand the research on systems: how can we imagine other worlds, and how technology and design tend to sell us the idea that our future is inevitable. Is this our inevitable future, should we embrace it and never question why it should be so ubiquitous? It's only once we finish a volume and do a series of events around it that we are able to shape a position or a coherent perspective. In this sense, there are no plans beyond the seventh volume. There is an inevitable commitment to respond to emerging political or social phenomena, which counters the idea of trying to have some kind of publishing plan—it’s not an obligation. The goal is to have something flexible enough to act more strategically whenever something is happening rather than planning ahead as a traditional publishing project. The goal is that this becomes a springboard to allow other kinds of writing, research and practice.

We started, at the end of last year, the first design writing residency with a series that is not completely shaped yet but will address the idea of design capital and how design is used to support capital and how design capital is used for personal improvement in a capitalist society. The goal is to allow a series of young researchers to come to Porto and to provide a lens that challenges the narrative of design and production as an inevitably good proposition. It's connected to degrowth. There's always an overlap between all these issues and the first volume, which will be written by Hannah Ellis, questions design biennales, design festivals, and design weeks as a mode of standardizing design practice across the world. These design events often exist for promoting the visibility of municipalities, regional development and the strategies and actors (curators) that are behind them. It is a powerful tool to reaffirm the status quo. Within this wider umbrella, the goal is to offer the space, which is why it's literally called ‘the shared institute’. Just like Modes of Criticism, the name functions as a compass of its ambitions. It's often a reminder of what I'm doing. On a very basic level, they are structures that nurture the space to encounter the people we want to build the future with. They help create networks of solidarity to come up with future paths, either for exhibitions, interventions, pedagogical experiments, or some form of cooperative nomadic possibilities, allowing action and to think beyond resistance. This kind of work tends to function as resistance. It's more ambitious to aim for systemic change but inevitably, because of our scale, it's a privilege to even think of being in a position where we can influence systemic change—our scale and our discipline often offers limited resources, tools, knowledge, and visibility. It's difficult to do more than resistance. Resistance is already an achievement, but still a small gesture. When we see the debacle around us, especially as we start this new decade, it seems that resistance is both absolutely necessary and not enough. I don't have an answer to it, but it's something that I struggle with on a regular basis and it motivates me to envision strategies and try to find ways to join forces to go beyond tickling the system or preaching to an already converted choir, which is often what we do. The only certainty is that we can only achieve it together, reaching out, supporting and challenging people with shared agendas—that’s what we and H&D are trying to do.

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This text was published in Coded Bodies Publication in 2020