Luiza Prado de O. Martins is a force of nature. We first got in touch while contributing with Oniria, a powerful speculative parafiction work about reproductive rights in Brazil, that was published in the book “The Responsible Object: A History Of Design Ideology For The Future“, edited by Marjanne Van Helvert. The piece was also “imagined as a critique to the ways in which design for social innovation is frequently deployed as a strategy to normalize situations of oppression, rather than address them”.
She is a designer, artist, and activist based in Berlin. Her work is a great inspiration for us and a reminder of how crucial it is to address the politics and systems of power embedded in our reality. When inventing anything, real transformative innovation or meaningful change can’t avoid the political layer — it would be like creating in the vacuum. It is particularly essential when we talk about our imagination about the future.
IMOFT: You were recently invited to participate in a project titled Library for Social Design, initiated by artist Friedrich von Borries. There you were asked to “nominate” one book that you consider fundamental to today’s design education and to “eliminate” one from the existing collection. Can you tell your choices and share more about your perspective on them?
LP: Choosing a book for this project was not easy. When I was first asked to do it, I was very excited; books are things with deeply personal histories, and of course we grow attached to them. Not only intellectually, but also emotionally. An exciting book, a good book is something you can talk about endlessly; an object around which a myriad of histories can come into being.
But then of course I was stumped. Only one book! Which book should it be? There are so many books that have shaped the way I think about design — and think about the world, really — in profound ways. I considered nominating Borderlands, by Gloria Anzaldúa; Habeas Viscus, by Alexander Wehelyie; The Poetics of Relation, by Édouard Glissant; Kindred, by Octavia Butler; Decolonising Methodologies by Linda Tuwahi-Smith; The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula LeGuin; and The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon. Now, note that these are all books that somehow deal with issues related to the bloody legacy of colonialism. Ultimately, I decided to nominate Sara Ahmed’s “Queer Phenomenology” — a book that encompasses a lot of these complex discussions, unravelled by Ahmed with her characteristically approachable way.
And of course, I have a personal history with this book. I first came across the idea of orientations, proposed by Ahmed here, in the last year of my PhD, through a paper written by her titled “Orientations Matter”. In it, she offers a somewhat condensed version of her argument in this book; in both book and paper, she starts her discussion by engaging with the concept of the table and its place in the activity of philosophy. Who gets a seat at the table (cue Solange Knowles)? Who gets to have the time to sit down and write, free from all the other work — domestic and otherwise — necessary to sustain that moment of concentration? What lurks in the background of this moment — what is being seen from this table, and what is not? Who is being seen, and who is not? Whose body is allowed to sit at that table and write?
“[o]rientations shape how the world coheres around me” and as such they “‘matter’ in both senses of the word ‘matter’.” Ahmed’s idea of orientations implies two things: first, that the researcher needs to position herself in the world, clarifying the perspective from which she sets out to analyze a specific phenomenon. Second, that although the phenomenon that is being analyzed can be perceived to coalesce in a certain manner, this process is informed by the angle from which the researcher chooses to observe it; by the focus that she chooses to give to certain aspects of the phenomenon; by the intentions underlying her engagement with that phenomenon; and by how she plans to proceed from that moment of observation.
By asking these questions, Ahmed elicits us to think about the orientation of phenomenology itself; a queer phenomenology, she writes, “might be one that faces the back, which looks “behind” phenomenology, which hesitates at the sight of the philosopher’s back.
Choosing the book to eliminate was quite easy, though. I chose “Speculative Everything” by Dunne & Raby, for the simple reason that I think the book has nothing to offer for the advancement of the conversation on design, societies, and futures. It ends up setting a canon for SCD — a canon that is overwhelmingly Western, white, and middle class. And I have zero interest in that.
IMOFT: Since you started your work and collaboration with the Decolonising Design group and engaged in several conversations around critical design, what are still the most problematic issues around these topics and the mainstream discourses? Conversely, what are the directions that you are either interested in seeing more or you already see happening?
LP: Honestly, I don’t think critical design has anything left to offer. I’ve said this several times by now, and I know that my comrades at DD agree. I still think that Dunne’s original proposal on Hertzian Tales is interesting, but the field has taken its own path long ago.
There are so many things more interesting and relevant than design’s foolish, self-serving pursuits. The practices that have emerged in Brazil as a response to the rise of the far right, for instance. We are living a very difficult moment, of course, with the defunding of education and social benefit programs, persecution of minorities, and mindless exploitation of natural resources (all of which precede the Bolsonaro regime, but intensified since his ascent to power). And yet, to each of these issues new forms of resistance emerge. One of the most fantastic things I’ve seen in years, for instance, was the student-led school occupation movement that happened in 2016. Those kids were taking their education into their own hands: they set up systems where they would request classes on topics they found relevant, and qualified people could volunteer to teach them. They organized cleaning and cooking; they had a set of coherent, strong political demands. Them and their schools shouldn’t have been so deeply neglected by the State in the first place, but what they did was truly extraordinary.
IMOFT: Your work sits — or maybe it’s always standing and moving — between design, art, research, and activism. Your doctoral dissertation, called “Technoecologies of Birth Control: Biopolitics by Design”, reveals such a potent perspective on what can emerge from that. It had a huge impact on us and the ideas around the designer’s role. What kind of reactions have you received, and what do you see as the key learnings you got from the interaction with academia and the worlds you navigate with this work?
LP: My experiences with design academia haven’t been the best, to be quite honest. Since I finished my PhD, I have managed to extricate myself from the grip of design academia — a decision I am very, very happy about. The key learning, for me, is that those who hold power will never, ever let it go easily. You’ll always have to force it on them. And I am perfectly fine with that.