In order to cover the topic of “design activism”, I will divide the topic into three subchapters; Design Activism, Design Agonism and Design Alternatives. I see these three components as integrated parts of this strategy of change. So let me start with a perspective on what the core of design activism can be, and let’s first start with design.
Design is the designation of action. To select, appoint and amplify, and point out one preferable behaviour or track of action. It is to optimise one system for the user, help her to eat, sleep, dress, move, read and live. Today, almost everything we encounter in life is designed. All aspects of our lives are designated by someone else and we may have very limited possibilities to change the parameters of our everyday. Like on highways, we feel we are free, and we can seemingly go anywhere. But we are constantly on the road, following rules designated by the system, and most of us can only go where someone else has made a road for us.
Activism, which may span vigorous political involvement as well as civil operational manoeuvres, is a way to address a political issue outside the designated bureaucracy and chain-of-command. In a democracy this usually means actions outside the mere act of voting, such as demonstrations, protests, sit-ins, media engagements. In this way, activism means challenging the consensus-based vectors of bureaucracy.
Design activism is, in one sense, an inherent part of design, as it may expose the political nature of design and challenges the designated paths. Taking action may be an act of self-defence, confronting a status quo or dominant protocol of action. It may suggest new possibilities, often from a position of autonomy or self-definition.
One perspective on design activism in consumer society would be that of cultivating capabilities. This would mean acting outside the designated formats for consumer “democracy”, for example “voting with one’s dollars”. Even in such “democracy” the consumer is left passive and can merely vote on already existing alternatives or brands.
Design activism through fashion traces new paths through the fashionscape of everyday life. It is a practice of hands-on engagement, often collaborative and with a sense of urgency, taking on the build of new vehicles by which we can transverse terrain beyond the designated paths. It is about integration of action into new grids, connecting practices, making new sense of the world, often far beyond the sights usually met along the well travelled highways, where most of us are stuck on the way to the fashion outlets. Fashion activism shows us ways beyond our everyday commuting paths; vistas untraveled and sights unseen.
The Italian OpenWear-platform for open source fashion could be an example of design activism. In a recent conversation with one of the founders Zoe Romano, a Milan-based media activist and designer, she emphasised how the initiative grew out of an intersection of several media activism campaigns. On the one hand it was the political engagements around the Euro Mayday demonstrations on precarious work and the creation of the figurehead San Precario (the Saint of precarious workers). On the other hand it was about tapping into the designers mobilized for the Serpica Naro (anagram of San Precario) fashion-hoax at the Milan Fashion Week in February 2005. Here a group of activists created a fake-brand in order to stage a protest on the catwalk, primarily about labour conditions, in front of the international fashion press. These two streams of engagement resonated well with the emerging open source scene and new form of self-organization and critique of current labour conditions within the “creative industries”. The participants shared a profound commitment to social engagement and protest, but also made the events into a locus of attraction for young creative individuals looking for other ways to work together and network their practices.
Today OpenWear is an experimental on-line platform for sharing patterns and production methods, but the founders also hosts workshops and work on setting up production labs, similar to the “hacklabs” and “fablabs” (fabrication labs) which have emerged around the world over the last decade. The one currently under construction by the people behind OpenWear is called “WeFab”, where they put a playful emphasis not only on the matter of making, but on the micro-ethics of production: to “make the right thing”. Using fashion as an attractor and platform for expression, OpenWear brings together ideas on how to shape new creative industries based on ideas of sharing and dissemination of ideas and patterns, combined with local production.
Besides their experiments in new modes of production in fashion, OpenWear also proposes new economic ecologies of how to support independent and small-scale entrepreneurs. By facilitating collaboration and dissemination of patterns, shared orders to get better prices, pooling of equipment and also skill-sharing workshops, they change some of the basic protocols of what it means to run a small business. They offer an environment of what design theorist John Wood would call “entredonneurs” rather than “entrepreneurs”, where the main incentive in the platform is a spirit of contribution rather than extraction.
In this way OpenWear uncovers new routes, far from the habitual highways of fashion, and addresses some of the crucial social and political issues of today, such as precarious work and the conditions of immaterial labour. OpenWear also forms a platform that facilitates small-scale collaborations, drawing up complementary paths for action within the field of fashion, beyond the everyday designations of “McFashion” and ready-to-wear consumerism. OpenWear thus not only questions the habitual routes of fashion design, but also builds their own network of roads, a shared space for other types of fashions to emerge.