I’m half way through my time in NYC. The time has sped by at a startling pace, inducing acute panic and anxiety. What have I achieved? What have I to show for these weeks?! It’s clear that I’m struggling to ‘lean in’ to having time to think, idle and reflect. I have this nagging voice in my head demanding productivity; a number of words written, a set of projects developed, a range of outcomes produced with the idea of deep personal and intellectual transformation (!!!).

I’m know that I should resist, I should give my mind space and time to drift in a new landscape; allowing my thoughts to catch the wind, find serendipitous connections, follow things that capture my imagination. But it’s hard. Maybe I need to meditate or maybe I need to medicate.

One thing I’m currently caught on is the split between reflection and production, moving forwards or looking back. I came to New York with a mission to develop a project (a book) about design education. This has been in the pipeline for years and I’ve not had the time to fully engage. The book will allow me to ‘capitalise’ on the effort, work, time and energy I’ve put into teaching over the last 17 years. I have a hope that it will act as a way to move my thinking on, whilst creating a vehicle to communicate the amazing work that my colleagues and I have achieved at Goldsmiths. It’s my opportunity to shout loudly about what we’ve done, creating a record that I think is important at this point in the history of design education. However, as with most of these moments in my life; capitalising on something that I’m in  prime position to do so, is something I rarely do.

I end up feeling bored by the ideas I’ve already thought, annoyed at the banality of my brain, and with this come the loss of curiosity and excitement. I want to move to new pastures, think new things and imagine a different set of possibilities. This is made worse  because I’m away from teaching and away from Goldsmiths; so the book feels like I’m making a prison for myself. A way to remain in the past.

As I write, Herbie is on a plane, over the Atlantic. A brave boy, flying on his own, heading to me and the promised land of endless pizza and ice-cream. I think his presence will help… or at least distract me from my privileged purgatory (only joking here… being overly dramatic… I’m still loving NYC).

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Pesce

So my diary isn’t going too well… there’s a temporal disjunction between the amount of sensory and cultural input I’m receiving and my ability to write it down. This maybe due to my poor writing skills, my lack of routine and discipline or it could be that I’m being over-stimulated and my fingers are too slow.

I do however, need to record my encounter with Gaetano Pesce. I went to a lecture he gave at Columbia on Monday and it was an incredible experience. It was perfectly timed for me; I was desparate for a type of input that would uplift me and make me have hope in design and design education.

I’ve been a long time fan of Pesce. I first came across his work during a period in my design education when I tried to deconstruct my aesthetic values. I looked for work that I didn’t ‘like the look of’, that challenged the norms of my aesthetic sensibilities and I found Pesce and Sottsass. Both of which, I had instant aesthetic responses against, both I have grown to love. I’ve been lucky enough to hear them speak, had they’ve had a massive impact on my understanding of the world and the world of design.

Pesce’s lecture at Columbia Architecture was full of humor and insight. He spoke passionately about what he felt was worth while in architecture. He made the distinion between ‘architecture’ and ‘building’… he said that most of the constructed environment today – the buildings that the architecture press sell as Architecture (with a big A) are merely buildings. Because true architecture both reflects the context in which it sits, but also moves it forward – it speaks of a future. He beleives many of today’s star-hitect buildings are BORING!

He has a joyful playfulness combined with grand scale hopefullness that I feel is missing from much of todays design culture. He really gives NO FUCKS. I went along, aware that I could be disappointed with an old, white, italian man who was likely to be sexist and old fashioned. I came away wanting him to adopted me. He talked about gender politics, a tricky thing for an old man to do in the age of #metoo, but he sent a clear message: the male ego has fucked things up, we need to give all positions of responsibility to women.

In an age of post-disciplinary, post-industurial design practice that engages with the knotty problems of the 21st Century, it’s hard for us to remain connected to a material practice, a sense of simplicity, or humour in the face of desparation. There’s very little to smile about in the world. As we look through our tiny media windows we see things that feel too big to ‘solve’, too advanced to restore. But Pesce remained hopeful, he remained humble and he remained deeply individual in his aesthetic evolution.

One of the things I worry most about is how, as designers, we manage to evolve a sense of humour (what, in conversations with Fiona Raby & Tony Dunne call), a ‘lightness of touch’, in response to the complexities of our world. At the moment I see a bifurcation; where funny, joyful and light work sit in the realm of meaningless, excessive consumption. Whilst social engaged, community focused and politically meaningful design work is often humourless, austere and self satisfied. We need to stop being so binary. We need to be multiple.

In the questions after, I was a little too overwhelmed and intimidated to ask a question, but after the lecture, talking to a colleague we thought of loads. The two most important are; how does Pesce make decisions about his ideas? And, does he think it’s possible to teach the sense of self confidence needed to produce work that bucks the trend – that reaches outside of the aesthetic norm?

A student asked about his working process; he answered by saying it’s simple – he has an idea, then makes it. Although I laughed, I’m not convinced this is true, he must have a way to work though an idea, to understand if it’s worth pursuing. He must have a way to make decisions within his process. I’d like to try and understand this process a little more.

As for the pedagogy of confidence, I’m a bit stuck. My hope is; if you are an educator and you support the learning of students to understand (self actualise), to be revolutionary in their understand of the world, to transgress the social, political and aesthetic norms, to help support them in understanding their agency… then this confidence will come. But I’m not too sure… I hope it does.

The Friday before last (21st Oct 2018) I went to a GIDEST seminar with Siri Hustvedt. I discovered Hustvedt’s work through her husband, Paul Auster, 24 years ago.  On seeing and listening to Hustvedt, the significance of Auster’s work on my life suddenly hit me. Zac Baker, a dear old friend of mine, gave me Mr. Vertigo at a very dark point in my life. In my first year at University, my best friend died. I couldn’t sleep and I was spiralling into a black hole. The book saved me. It changed my relationship to reading and opened a new world to me. A world, where words… stories… books… fiction could be a place to escape to. A world where I could process my feelings and thoughts. All these years later, I’m sat at a table across from Siri, with a feeling of excitement and intellectual giddiness.

Siri Hustvedt is an amazing woman; a creative thinker who possesses razor sharp intelligence, her ideas are expressed with a poetic clarity, which is unusual for someone who draws on such a diverse set of references. She manages to move smoothly across disciplinary boundaries, without care for their formal and superficial barriers. She has the feeling of a person from a different era; driven by curiosity and a desire to understand the world around her, somehow avoiding the politics and trappings of the modern ‘public intellectual’.

We were given three pieces of her work to read before the seminar; an excerpt from The Blazing World, and the chapters; Becoming Others and My Louise Bourgeois from A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind. All three pieces were fascinating; I particularly liked Becoming Others where Hustvedt examines her mirror touch synesthesia.

The most fascinating aspect of mirror-touch synesthesia maybe precisely that it lies at, indeed appears to cross, the border between self and other, but does so in a way that forces us to examine the limen itself and what it means for empathic and imaginative experience.

Hustvedt goes on to make links between phenomenology, psychology and neurobiology  through Merleau-Ponty’s intercorporeality, Winnicott’s transitional objects and Gallese’s we-space.  It was the ‘we-space’ (Gallese, 2001), the space of relational agency, that fascinated me. In my talk at Critical by Design earlier this year, I spoke about my Fathers dementia and how fiction became an intersubjective tool of translation and mediation for his madness. I spoke about how stories became a way for us to engage, care and comfort him during his distress. Reading Hustvedt, it made me think of the semi-fictional reality that we co-created with my dad as a ‘space of the imagination’. A space to make empathy possible.

Much has been written about design and empathy (the original phrase was developed by Dorothy Leonard-Barton and Jeffrey Rayport, Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design, in 1997) and how, as designers, we need to develop empathetic techniques to understand our users. User Centred Design has become a common approach and method for designers to consider people in a systematic manner throughout a design process. However, I’ve always found the use of personas problematic in their representational limitations. Often, the fictional characterisations are thin and generic characterisations of human complexities and identities. My question to Hustvedt centred around how the intersubjective space, the we-space of imaginative potential, could be tapped, enriched and furnished with complexity. Ultimately, creating fictions – our projections of ourselves into the we-space – to enable alternative spaces of potential without the horrors of cultural assimilation and colonisation. This starts to sound a lot like Anne Galloway‘s Fantastic Ethnography, in particular her reflections on the brilliant Ursula K. Le Guin‘s challenge for us to go beyond-realism.

Ultimately, my question fell a little flat. Not due to Hustvedt’s lack of engagement in the idea or her generous attempt to understand what the hell I was saying, but more due to her understanding of the word / discipline DESIGN. The disciplinary elephant in the room… I’m sure many of you have been there; the conversation is going well, non-designers are speaking to you as smart, intelligent humans, then you drop the D-bomb and it all goes wrong. Suddenly the world collapses as the person you’re speaking to suddenly can’t think of anything but throw-cushions, fancy bathroom taps, ‘designer’ handbags, ‘problem solving’ and Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen (thanks Jimmy!).

The GIDEST seminars are set up to create a space of interdisciplinary discourse, but as those who have tried this know it’s a difficult space to engage in (especially for design); language barriers, disciplinary biases and divergent interests slow the discussions down and often lead to unproductive conversations. For design, it’s a deeper problem, we have a pretty terrible rep. So much of the work we (designers / educators) need to do, is to translate and reposition how design is seen – in both the ‘academy’ and general public.

Reference:

Gallese,V. ‘The ‘shared manifold’ hypothesis. From mirror neurons to empathy’.  Journal of Consciousness Studies, Volume 8, Numbers 5-7, 1 May 2001, pp. 33-50(18)

 

<<Written on the 21st Sept 2018>>

Lots of things change when you move to a new city, the rhythms of your routine are disrupted to allow for new activities and interactions, one of the things that I’m enjoying is starting to listen to podcasts. This is mainly due to me walking and running a lot more that I would do in London. The podcasts are a perfect way to allow your mind to drift amongst the architecture as you walk.

I’ve mainly been listening to the Adam Buxton podcast, which I love! It’s made me reflect on the podcast as a format – I know that I’m really late here and millions of people have probably written deep, thoughtful and clever pieces about the podcast form, but here’s my dumb reflections; the podcast produces a different type of intimacy, I think this due to the reduction in scale of the production team. It feels like an intimate chat with an interesting person. It allows for type of content that I wouldn’t normally listen to. I guess the barriers to entry are just high enough to make sure the most of them are ‘ok’, but it gives really creative people, access to voice based broadcast to produce amazing things, that you would normally hear on national radio.

Adam Buxton really surprised me, after years of people suggesting the show, I hadn’t got around to listening to it.  I think it was because I had a different idea of what it would be; in my head it was more sketch comedy less chit chat. He is obviously from a really privileged background and this comes through in many of the shows… he’s the typification of middle-aged, white, privileged, liberal, smart man, but completely aware of it and is lovely, brilliant and very funny with it.

One of the things I enjoy, is seeing the mechanics under creative work – the conversations about the struggles for creative people to produce work. It’s pretty inspiring.

Today is a day of lunches and dinners with interesting people, first was a lunch (nice Israeli Falafel place in Greenwich Village) with Michel Morgensen. Michael studied at Goldsmiths on the MAID programme during its last year. It was lovely to see him and reflect on how crazy 2016-17 was. Our conversation focussed mainly on how there was still a mis-match between industry’s expectation of design and how more critically informed programmes positioned the practice. We talked about tactics to overcome and survive in these times.

We also spoke about the Gulf states, the strange cultural and economic paradoxes they face (all the resources to achieve interesting things, but so much of their ambition ends up feeling like shopping; culture bought, transplanted Western ideas and cultural practices, that ultimately don’t self sustain).

After lunch I learnt that Pat Loughrey, the Warden, was stepping down. I was surprised at how much the news affected me. I really like Pat and think he’s been a positive force in Goldsmiths. Any change of leadership at that level brings with a level of risk. In our current political and economic times in HE, it’s particularly risky to find someone with the same understanding and ethos.

This sparked an interesting conversation later with Tony about the politics of US Universities; how finding the people at the top was a very difficult thing to do… a process fraught with risk. I think it’s really sad that many of the people in top leadership positions in education lack a sense of intellectual vision about education. I hope to God we find a good one.

In the evening I had dinner with Tony, Fiona and Tim Marshall (the provost of the New School). We had some great conversations about the ambitions and intricacies of design education. How many academic and professionals end up hold lines (on what should be taught, how elements of design learning are important) even though they never learnt that way themselves.

The end conversation was an amazing story, told brilliantly by Tim, about the trials and tribulations of the New School – it’s political history and the traumas of a President that didn’t fit with the schools philosophy. Many of the stories, the political action of staff and students, felt very familiar, more evidence that Goldsmiths and New School are connected in a deep way.

Written on 19th September 2018

Although I’ve been in New York for 19 days, I’ve decided to start a diary. This is partly due to having floating thoughts and observations whizz by me, without any real reason to record them. Some of these things seem a little inconsequential, but I want to keep them to enable me to remember what being here in NYC was/is like and some of them may develop into other ideas.  I may share them at some point, or make a blog or a newsletter of something.

I’ve never written a diary before, so I’m not sure what voice or tone to use. It seems very strange to me to be writing to myself, but I guess this is part of a practice to make me understand myself and the experiences I’m going through. I hope that writing it will help me with the practice of writing itself. To write without a big pressure that it’s something smart or interesting or important to academic life and future of design and design education.

Today Laura mentioned that Corinne had used WhatsApp to record little videos for her family whilst she was abroad, I thought I’d give it a go. I was a little surprised by its effect on me, I instantly enjoyed the process and loved getting little comedy moment from Herbie. It’s been difficult to keep in touch with Herbie since I’ve been here. This is because of a range of different issues, the first is time zone and habit – this is easy to overcome with a routine and all of us getting used to how to deal with me being away. The second is technology. Everyone, when I expressed concern about not seeing Herbie, said “it the 21st century, we have Skype and facetime.”, what they didn’t mention was; you need all your devices up to date, network providers are a bit shit and the technology, although amazing in the global sense of things, is still not fully worked out.

Anyway, I made a little video today and sent it to Herb. I like the process of doing it, I felt I could be a little silly and it was low pressure. It means that as I see something, that I think he’d like, I can make a little video. They instantly make me think of Alice Bartlett and her instagram stories, which I enjoy immensely. It also means that he can understand that I’m thinking of him during my day; not just a small moment, every fews days when we arrange for a big video chat.

The surpising thing about the videos, both making and receiving them, is that they evoke a different, more casual conversation between us. As an 8 year old, it’s quite hard for Herbie to enter the ‘serious chat’ of speaking to me and giving me an accurate, interesting or consistent account of what he has been doing. But making videos, seems to come far more easily… the youtube generation hey!

Today I decided not to go into Parsons. This is partly because I seemed to have replaced my ‘guilt’ of not being productive and working hard at Goldsmiths, with the (incorrect) assumption that I need to be in the office 9-6, 5 days a week. Which is not true. I think a big part of what I’m struggling with is with my expectation to ‘be productive’.

So today, I woke up, went for a run… which I’m loving… but am continuously surprised at how hard I’m finding the first 1km. I soon forget that after it’s over and what to be running again. I guess this is why people say it’s addictive.

I then had a wonder about the neighbourhood that I’ll be staying when Herbie is here. It’s a bit closer to Bedford Av, and therefore lovely. Then for coffee.

I went for lunch to Sweetgreen, a healthy and hip food chain that exists across the city. I ate a good salad, sat outside and people watched. I sat next to a table, three people, two men and a woman. The scene felt distinctly New York. A gruff New Yorker, born in the Bronx, probably in his late forties, tattooed lightening bolts on his forearms. He held himself with the confidence of a man that was very handsome in his younger days. A man who’d been through a lot, a life lived through drink, drugs and sex.

He monologued through the lunch, over a kale salad. He had a range of philosophies about life. About the end of Western culture and how it was important to focus on equipping oneself with the knowledge to thrive in the enevitable event of the apocalypse. I wonder if characters like this are particular to our time, their ‘deep thoughts’ fueled by late night googling and mining the deep dark parts of wikipedia. Or have men like this always held court. Middle-aged men with strong opinions… not sure that that’s a new thing… but the internet has fuelled their conviction in their own ‘reckonings’.

I’m reading a short story by Johnathan Letham called Procedure in Plain Air. Like many moments, when I’m on my own, with space to think, the world’s experiences collide and connect. The story tells of municipal workmen, digging a hole and burying a bound person. As I read, I see similar group of workmen, digging the road. I’m also writing a short story about a municipal worker who is trapped in an algorithmic employment hell… A Singaporean intensely socially engineered nightmare.

After lunch I discovered The West, a cafe / restaurant /bar on Union. It’s possible dangerous, it’s built to be like a ‘hotel lobby bar’ where people can work whilst drinking coffee or beer. It’s super relaxed and lovely. So I had a pint at 4pm, continued to write.

There 10 people in here, all tapping away, working remotely, the digital nomads, working without offices in different ways. There should be a phrase for the coalescence of digital activity that is produced in a specific environment. It would be great to see if certain places (cafes, hotel lobbies, public parks, bars) have different levels of productivity. A digital output to judge the environmental conviviality.

I often get a strange sense of overwhelming intregue seeing other peoples lives that pass me buy. This is focused a bit more in a place like this. What are these people working on; are there great works of fiction in the making, podcasts, code being written that’ll change the world, HR decisions that make peoples lives worse.

For those who don’t know, I’m currently on sabbatical. To kick off my year, I’ve come to NYC for three months as a visiting scholar at Parsons New School with the wonderful Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby in the Designed Realities Lab . D+R have kindly given me a desk as well as the space and time to reflect on my practice as a designer and educator. During this time, I’ll be doing some research for an upcoming book, whilst meeting and talking to interesting people in one of the greatest cities in the world.

Three weeks into my visit, I tentatively started writing a diary. I set up a separate blog, and began to capture my activities and thoughts as I embark on this new experience. However, I’ve just had a change in mind. I’m going to write here on SB129. I don’t want to get too precious about a blog that isn’t read by many people and is massively neglected by me. So be aware, the forming posts will be more diary like; scrappy, autobiographic and not fully thought threw.

Here we go….

“The spreadsheet’s unreality is dangerously doubled because, while their ordered data and formulae always comfort you that you have authored a controllable certainty, most spreadsheets are mere conjectures, provisional plans, ideas or hopes. Spreadsheets are dreams.” Rod McLaren, Spreadsheets are dreams

When Beeker published the brilliant essay, by Rod McLaren in 2015, I was blown away by the poetry of Rod’s writing. At that point in my career, I had a growing reliance on Excel as a mode of planning and organising of education. Since becoming Head of Department, the creation and interpretation of spreadsheets has become an important part of my daily life. I often joke to colleagues and students about being lost down the spreadsheet mines.

It’s a bit of a cliche to highlight that the ivory towers of academe have been felled by over burdensome educratic bullshit. The common cry of privileged academics protesting that time spent ‘doing admin’, taking them away from ‘important scholarly work’, is not the point of this post. It’s also not a post from a designer, with a dramatic level of autonomy, moaning about the realities of daily work, where management, accounting and funding proposals (bureaucreativity as Silvio Lorusso calls it) takes them away from real creative labor.

What I’d like to explore is the aesthetic, political and educational possibility and problematics of Excel; the narratives we tell through it; the realities we bring into being through the rows and columns of quantified possibility; a place where dreams become educational reality; a tool to distance educators from education…

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