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Social And Political Activism In Relation To Experimental And Radical Design

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In her writing, Plant considers the role of Situationalist International “vanguard movement” and theory as an ethnographic catalyst and artefact for revolutionary change in a postmodern world. The group was a revolutionary alliance of European avant garde artists and writers that developed a critique of capitalism based on Marxism and surrealism (Plant 2). Forming from the Lettrist international and the international Union for Pictorial Bauhaus, the group has its origins deeply rooted in radical art and design. According to Plant, Situationalist International theory advocates for the people to shun accepted acedemia, media, and understood conceptions of art and politics (Plant 33). They rejected all art forms that were detached from politics and the artforms that ensued were about using space, and altering it to convey a political or social message to the public. SI pioneered the ‘political collage’, a new form using popular comics with changed content in speechbubbles, calling this misappropriation ‘detournement’. Ultimately the situationism Plant discusses offered artists a new perspective that was applicable to all levels of art making, proving that the radical and experimental avant-garde was far from dead and that artworks were pivitol to our understandings of society and to ennacting change.

In response to Plants writings I have looked critically at my own work. When I look back at my time in highschool its obvious how much we were actually restricted with what we could produce. Constricting not only becuase of the content of the task, but also because of how we were forced to present it. Though I do understand the significance of my previous work as an important piece of my journey, Plant shows me how important it is to abolish old theories, in favour of forging my own. The writing allowed me to engage and reflect on how I have previously engaged with situationalist activity in my own works and way. Plant encourages me to reflect on not only how my art can influence, but what my art is influenced by. I learnt to break the shackles of NCEA design theory in order to forge my own ethos and pathos at university. The writing informs me that the making of artistic work entails the active practices of memory and creativity. Where the product from the process is a new and unique fusion of ideas both conscious and subconscious.

My old artboard raised awareness for our current societies emotional detachment from our environment, highlighting our ever increasing dependance on technology. I realised that I did not challenge or question the issue in ways that Situationalism would have.

In ‘Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the city, Garrett delves into the global community of Urban Explorers as an ethnographer in the literal sense (Garrett, 4). Their exploits at a rudimentary level are selfish, concerned only with tackling challenges in the spirit of freedom, yet on a theoretical level, placehackers are actually pioneers of the unseen. Through blogs, photos and videos brought to the public, the Urban Explorer, albeit often unintenionally, implores us to find a “deeper meaning in the places we pass through everyday” (Garrett 6). UE’s ask us to question our understanding of barriers and boundaries. In this technologically dependent world, the everyday city has a ‘security entertainment complex’ where our thoughts are controlled by a mixture of surveillance and distraction (Garrett 14). Through urban exploration, the ‘place-hackers’ recode our relationships with city space, encouraging us to break away from the shallow sterile and emotionally bare environments we live in. Urban explorers promote their own brand of social and political activism, through the systematic infiltration of secure locations, they dismantle the urban ‘iron curtain’ through photography and moment capture. Although they are not unified, Garrett introduces us to a message from their works. The world may be sterilised in many ways, but it is ultimately up to us to ‘break the mould if we find it lacking’.

Garrett asked the reader to question our understandings of barrriers and boundaries, and whether the barrier is there for privacy and security or simply because the owner does not want to take responsibility for anything that may happen on the otherside of a boundary. This reminded of the Christchurch earthquake and how a vast amount of the iconic buildings of the city were closed to the public indefinitely. After reading Garretts piece I was curious to see if there were any Urban Explorers who had infiltrated such buildings. Researching further, I found more exploits of this band of activists who have opened a door into the secret city of the prohibited and unknown. Above all a passage from Garretts writing has stuck with me and has made me think. Why settle for the banal experience in the places we are told to exist in? The reading has encouraged me to explore and find a deeper meaning in the places I encounter in my everyday experience and when I pass cordoned off areas I intend to ask the question, why.

Markussen examines how previous literature on Design Activism has been inadequate in defining the term in a postmodern society, and advocates for the development of a new framework. The root of the problem, is in understanding how the aesthetic aspects of design come together with the political aspects of activism (Markussen 39). He writes that the focus of design activism, should not be on the techniques used, but instead, on both the effect that they can evoke in people and on how design activism stimulates social change by addressing experience itself (Markussen 50). These effects, he says, cannot be understood through the broadening of ‘art’ that the avante guard movement and its incessant obsession with the radical or unorthadox is known for (Markussen 39). Ultimately, the goal of design activism is the exposition of the existing systems that control and restrict our everyday lives, not a violent realization of a ‘grandiose social utopia’ (Markussen 45). Design activism has a significant potential to promote social change, through its affect on peoples senses, perceptions, emotions, and interpretations. It introduces new, diverse artifacts into the public cone of perception and therefore effects peoples experiences in a certain way.

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This reading resonanted with me the most, as I think of myself apart of a collective of thinkers who aim to produce work that solves a problem or serves a purpose. The reading challenged me to think of other design pieces where the focus was not on the techniques used but on the message and effect it had on societies perception of change. Shepherd Fairey created an iconic campaign image that connected the idea of hope with a political figure which in this case was Obama. This had an effect on peoples interpretation as when they saw Obama, thoughts of hope were simultaneously evoked. Markussen has changed my understanding of activist artifacts and how they influence social change and our experiences. He has also altered my grasp on the scale and focus of my work and has informed me of the ability for design to be used as a tool to form a connection between peoples emotions and the way they react (Markussen 39), much like the connection between Obama and hope from the campaign image.

Avgikos’s writing examines not only the meaning behind art and its role in activism, but also looks at ‘Group Material’, a group of individuals from different demographics who had come together to explore the assumptions that dictated what art is and could be (Avgikos 87). The group wanted to display art that was deemed unmarketable by the ‘official art world’. They were the first in the 20th century to define their practice in opposition to the insitution of art and the idea that art and the society were seperate. Theirs was a crusade that echoed that of the avant-garde movement, they wished break down art and rebuild it with new meaning (Avgikos 88). Avgikos infers that art questions the entire culture that as a community we have taken for granted, and when art is described as political, what more can it do than protest against its own limited status. (Avgikos 86). The group recognised that art, in its purest form, was the whole holistic process of creation. They refused to define art as being independent, instead recognising the entire spectrum of activity involved in the production of art, believing the process was the work (Avgikos 89). The members of Group Material all believed that art was a force for social and political discourse, and held strong critiques of both the institutional standard and dominant culture. Ultimately the group strived to make art that ‘spoke the language of the people’, art that showed its relevance when discussing social and political problems. Rather than the interests of the institution or a single artist.

Although by now art discourse is over saturated with talk of Banksy, this reading evoked ideas about platforms of communication that are under utilised in the quest for social change. For example, street graffiti is a ‘unistitualised’ and radical form of activism that is rarely thought of as marketable in the ‘artworld’. By using the streets as a canvas for his own opinions, Banksy brings his activism to the forefront of the public eye, where his art can more effectively spread his message. Thus, reaching a wider auidence for his protest, echoing the same methods and goals displayed by both Group Material and the avant-garde movement of the 1960’s. As a design thinker, i am taught to take inspiration from established artists and groups and incorporate their techniques into my own work. Avigiko, presents a new way of looking at how I can present my work in order to make the most impact. Later in the text, it is mentioned that Group Materials recognised institutions such as museams and galleries as a source of power and appropriated the authority that came along with it. The text refers to this as “sleeping with the enemy” (Avigiko, #), which made me think about Banksy’s rise from infamy to his current almost celebrity status and how his ideas now marketable and come along with a price tag.

All four texts discuss the ability to create social or political change in an artistic way, though they differ on the how and the why. In ‘The Most Radical Gesture’ and ‘But is it Art?’, both Plant and Avgikos speak of the effect the instution has on socially accepted forms of art. In ‘But is it Art?’ Avgikos focuses on the ‘Group Material’ and their opposition to the seperation of art and society. Going so far as to wish for a complete overhaul and reconstruction of social understanding of how we view, understand and experience art. Plant in the text ‘The Most Radical Gesture’ writes in support of the Situationalist International whose thoughts and theories were likely influencers of the GM. SI introduced radical demands on the imagination, desire and perceptions of the public and encouraged them to critique accepted stimuli (Plant 21) . A common point from both writings was the call for the abolishment of seperation. Plant wrote that the SI did not want to live in a homologous society but to exist in one that emerged from the critique of the old, demanding to do that which was banned by existing society. This sentiment is echoed by Garrett the author of ‘Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City’, who describes his time as an ethnographer for a group of urban explorers. A mantra that echoes that of the Situationalists, urban explorers state that “no one is stopping you from doing what you want”. Mirroring both the SI’s and GM’s disdain for our institutionalised society, the UE lives a life that is about making connections and crossing boundaries. However, in contrast to Plant, ‘place-hacking the city’ is about beating the system unlike the situationalists, who attack it. For the urban explorer to exist, the society must exist too, for the society is what creates the fineline that “rigidly seperates what is possible from what is permitted” and that is where placehackers are (Garrett 14). Plant, Avgikos and Garrett all call for a reform of how we interpret beauty, In ‘But is it Art’ Avgikos plays with the idea that a new system will appeal to our innate sense of curiosity, similar to the desire to explore restricted areas discussed in ‘Urban Explorers’.

In ‘The Disruptive Aesthetics of Design Activism: Enacting Design Between Art and Politics’ Markussen pro actively discusses the definition of a design act, as being less of a boycott or political act, and more of a catalyst of resistance in an artistic way to intervene and improve peoples lives (Markussen 38). Markussen views Design activism as a potential catalyst for the reform of existing systems, instead of being the figurative spark to start a revolution. Avgikos’ ‘But is it Art?’ Parrallels this, Group Material utilised previous elements from earlier projects to support and strengthen the message the artwork was trying to make. What is clear is that both Avgikos and Markussen believed in the importance of art and design processes, and how social and political activism created opportunity for immense creativity and spaces of contest. As a member of a collective of design thinkers, this has encouraged me to think about how I can explore those spaces in my own work in the future. To not only think about the impact of my final works but how the processes I take impact social change. I would like to think about how I could create new spaces and systems for myself within my work rather than opposing the systems already in place.

In an interview with Richard Anderson and Jon Kolko, the relationship between design and activism is discussed. Anderson’s view is that human centered design is the form of activism, whereas Kolko feels the physical aspect of viewing design itself is the force for cultural change. As Markussen discussed, we cannot hope to understand design activism simply from borrowed external ideas (Markussen 38) and thus both Anderson’s and Kolko’s interpretations arent wholely correct. What is clear is that throughtout the years there have been multiple design ‘vanguard’ movements, specifically, The Situationist International and the Group Material. Reflecting on the artists of the early 20th century avant-garde movement who could only see a single option for art. Political. These movements have been focused on the breakdown of our seperated societal spheres, but when all art becomes activism does art as a principle cease to exist? Design does shape society, albeit slowly and less obvious when compared to the images of protests and riots evoked by the word activism (Anderson Medium).

Works Cited

  1. Anderson, Richard, and Richard Anderson. On the Relationship between Design and Activism – Jon Kolko in Conversation with Richard Anderson. Medium, 3 Sept. 2017,
  2. Felshin, Nina. But Is It Art?: the Spirit of Art as Activism. Bay Press, 2006.
  3. Garrett, Bradley L. Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City. Verso, 2014.
  4. Markussen, Thomas. “The Disruptive Aesthetics of Design Activism: Enacting Design Between Art and Politics.” Design Issues, vol. 29, no. 1, 2013, pp. 38–50., doi:10.1162/desi_a_00195.
  5. Matthews, Phillip. “The Art of Urban Exploration.” The Art of Urban Exploration, Stuff, 13 Dec. 2014,
  6. Plant, Sadie. The Most Radical Gesture: the Situationist International in a Postmodern Age. Routledge, 2006.

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