All posts by Kevin Murray

Borderlands – design goes south



How can southern thinking be applied in everyday life? A new publication points towards a new kind of design that might be practiced in the South.
Tony Fry has pioneered a philosophical approach to design, with reference particularly ontological questions of being. With Anne Marie Willis he edited Design Philosophy Papers, which provided a forum for questions of sustainability that went beyond better light bulbs. Fry’s books including the trilogy Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics, and New Practice (2009), Design as Politics (2011) and Becoming Human by Design (2012) offer profound insights into the nature of what it is to design in the world. They articulate the practice of ‘sustainment’ as a means of ‘futuring’ a world. Practical extension of this include reductive design, which seeks to eliminate the affordances for consumption that capitalist design has accumulated.
Until recently, Fry has headed the Masters of Design Futures at Griffith University. With colleague Eleni Kalantidou, he has just published a collection of essays Design in the Borderlands that extend the question of design into a southern context. A key concept is Walter Mignolo’s ‘border thinking’. As they define it, ‘By implication, border thinking breaks out of disciplinary boundaries; it crosses borders, is nomadic, as such it is:  a thinking along, within and about borders rather than a thinking of them.’ Within this framework, the volume includes a refreshingly cosmopolitan approach to design.

Chapters consider what design means in different cultural contexts. Perera and Gillet seek to go beyond the colonial school of Lusotropicalism in African design to consider local practices, such as Luanda’s taxi system. Fry’s own chapter on East Timor champions the embedded knowledge in traditional crafts otherwise eclipsed by the technologies brought in by Western specialists.

From the Middle East, Samer Akkach considers the various ways that design can be understood in an Arabic context. He elaborates the concept of ‘sana’ associated with craftsmanship and its eventual replacement by ‘tasmin’ which associates design with an elite skill influenced by Western models.

To extend this approach to political action, Paul James presents a manifesto of urban design from an ontological perspective. This includes principles of action such as ‘Urban settlements should come to terms with the uncomfortable intersections of identity and difference:’

Design in the Borderlines is an essential link between southern theory and design. It offers the conceptual architecture necessary to connect pluralist epistemology with the practice of design across the South.

Can it be applied in the South? This presents a significant challenge. Its publication reminds us how much more there is to be done. There are many more steps necessary before we can get beyond design philosophy to the practical business of design in the ground, including the concrete ethics of relations between designers and their world.

Echoing Raewynn Connell’s call in Southern Theory for a ‘dirty theory’, we need to hit the road to work out how a new design approach might intersect with daily life. Design in the Borderlines is resolutely anti-development in its crude capitalist sense. Yet there may be situations where local communities might resist a call to return to their craft roots. There needs to be dialogue between the practical aspirations of communities in the South and the political values common in southern thinking. The issue of neo-extractivism in Bolivia is an example of this kind of debate. While Design in the Borderlands is an excellent platform, a dialogical approach seems important to reflect the multilateral nature of the South.

Kalantidou, E & Fry, T 2014, Design in the Borderlands 1 edition., Routledge, New York, NY.

Micronesian Educator – call for papers

The Micronesian Educator publishes scholarly articles that come from a wide range of areas of educational research and related disciplines. The journal serves as a forum to share empirical research findings, literature reviews, theoretical perspectives, and practical applications in such areas and may include as well book reviews, poetry and artistic expressions as well as work done in indigenous/local Micronesian languages.

Note that the next deadline is November 15th, 2014.
Micronesian Educator also invites competent scholars and academicians to voluntarily join its review/editorial board. For more information, please download the call for papers.

Unaisi Nabobo-Baba, editor

Warning: Questions Ahead! Southern dialogues at the beginning of 2013

Southern dialogues are developing strongly at this moment in time, though only to highlight the significant challenges ahead.

The colloquium Diálogo Trans-Pacífico y Sur-Sur: Perspectivas Alternativas a la Cultura y Pensamiento Eurocéntrico y Noroccidental took place on 8-9 January, as part of the grand scale Congreso Interdisciplinario at University of Santiago, Chile. Latin America has been the home of particularly active southern thinking, inspired often by its indigenous cultures. The ‘south’ as a rallying call has been significant given the tangible counter-influence of the United States, to the immediate north.

The Santiago colloquium witnessed a change away from this previously combative north-south argument. The principal perspectives were from Chile, México and Argentina. Much discussion was given to the emerging relations with Asia, specifically China. Alongside this was the growing influence of Brazil across Latin America, reflected in the large number present for the parent congress. In the past, these south-south relations would have been flavoured by a solidarity against USA as the common hegemon. But now there is increasing recognition of a diversity of interests across the south, and the need to reflect this in a conversation which is not reduced to catching up with the North.

One tangible contribution of the colloquium was the title. The word ‘noroccidental’ literally means ‘north-western’. This refers more generally to Western culture in the North, rather than the top left corner of the globe. Such a term accepts that there is a Western culture in the South as well, particularly in countries like South Africa, Australia and Chile. But it differentiates itself from other northern countries, such as Russia and China.

Other emerging terms are ‘Euro-American’ and ‘trans-Atlantic’. The problem with these is that it uses the generic term to represent only one half—North America. ‘Euro-American’ does not include Latin America, nor does ‘trans-Atlantic’ feature exchanges with Africa. The challenge is to find an English equivalent of ‘noroccidental’. Would ‘north-Occidental’ do?

The plenary concluded with a call for a more global understanding of South, reflecting such developments as population flows through the North and the relational identity of North and South.

The challenge is to extend this dialogue beyond Latin America to engage with forums elsewhere in the South. There is much activity in South Africa at the moment around the book by Jean & John L. Comaroff, Theory from the South: Or, how Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa, including the recent critical responses in Johannesburg Salon. In Australia, there is continuing reference to Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory, as well as Indigenous Studies broadly taking on global themes.

The relative lack of connection between these dialogues is, of course, reflective of the condition of the South itself, as a series of spokes connected with each other only via a central hub in the North. Language is an added challenge. The convenor of the Congreso Interdisciplinario Eduardo Devés has developed his own perspective on the Southern condition through ‘periphery theory’, outlined in his publication Pensamiento Periférico, which is freely available in Spanish. The potential reduction of South to the condition of periphery is an important challenge to the broader historical narratives that it carries. To what extent the issues normally identified with South be characterised by the condition of distance from the centre? Such a perspective puts the historical conditions such as settler-colonialism into question.

Though the distances between the southern countries themselves should be identical to those separating northern countries, the ‘hub & spokes’ model works in a very practical way to mitigate against south-south travel. Many academics from outside Chile had to cancel their involvement in the colloquium due to higher than expected air fares. This is obviously compounded by smaller travel budgets for academic staff in southern universities.

The view looking out of University of Santiago, flanked by Allende and Guevara

The view looking out of University of Santiago, flanked by Allende and Guevara

Nevertheless, the University of Santiago is taking a lead in fostering south-south dialogue. In late October 2013, they will initiate an annual forum/workshop to ‘go full circle’ on the Pacific, looking at how a trans-Pacific exchange might be configured to include Latin America. The Asia Pacific is usually conceived as a domain exclusive to Australasia, East Asia and North America. But as with the APEC forum, the south-east arc of Latin America should be an integral part of that. ‘Full circle’ provides a focus on the Pacific as a space for multilateral relations. What would be the intellectual underpinning of this?

The time seems ripe for a major conference on these various strands of southern thinking. Given its position, hosting an international conference would seem one tangible contribution that Australia could make to this emerging paradigm. Alternatively, if it were to be held in a northern university, this paradox of having to go North to talk about South would provide sufficient material for a conference in itself.

One question that tangibly brings the condition of southern thinking home concerns the north-south asymmetry of the academic world. In particular, if someone had the prospect of an academic position in Europe or North America, would there be any value in remaining in a less well-endowed southern university?

Meanwhile, while waiting for such an event to emerge, four Australian academics have generous offered a summary of their work accompanied by a generative question:

As the Zapatistas would say, inspired by Mayan mythology, ‘walking we ask questions’. Thankfully, the path stretches out ahead.

What it takes to tango

Opening of 'Make the Common Precious' in Santiago, 2006, showing links between art from everyday materials in Australia and the poetry of Pablo Neruda

Opening of 'Make the Common Precious' in Santiago, 2006, showing links between art from everyday materials in Australia and the poetry of Pablo Neruda

On 29-30 August 2012, the University of Melbourne hosted a two day event Melbourne-Latin America Dialogue which was designed as a ‘space for high-level exchange of ideas and experiences that brings together Latin American and Australian experts from scientific, technological, artistic, business and educational fields.’ It was indeed an intense series of events, with up to two hundred people, including the full contingent of Latin American ambassadors and many caped volunteers.

After welcome and opening remarks, the dialogue began with a focus on resources, including professors of mining and representatives of business. This marked the main theme of the dialogue – economic opportunities provided by the growth of Latin American countries. Of particular interest was the $65 billion privatisation process recently announced by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, offering a significant opening for foreign investment.

By the final session, ‘Opportunities and challenges for the Australia-Latin America relationship’, participants were very upbeat about future partnerships. But there were issues to overcome. Ronaldo Veirano, Honorary Consul of Australia to Rio de Janeiro and Executive Director of the Macquarie Funds Group, pointed out the obstacles in the way of realising these opportunities. For many Australian businesses, they still see Latin America as a politically unstable continent, while for Latin Americans Australia is barely visible.

Given that cultural stereotypes were raised as a major issue in development partnerships, it was odd that there was no session devoted to culture, arts or ideas in this dialogue. The more or less exclusive focus was on economic opportunity. While this is clearly a limited range of engagement in terms of broader international relations, it is also fraught within its own terms. If the aim is to expand business activity into Latin America, it seems critical to change these stereotypes through broader cultural exchange between Australia and Latin America.

In the final session, Jose Blanco, the Chairman of the Australia-Latin America Business Council, spoke about team Australia-Latin America in competition with team Australia-Asia. If this is indeed the scenario, then it is worth looking at how the competition have been building up their capacities. Ever since the Asian focus was elevated when Paul Keating was Prime Minister, it has been seen as important to develop our regional identity through cultural programs – sending a diverse range of Australian exhibitions and performances to Asia and hosting Asian artists here. Both the Asia Pacific Triennial and Asialink were established as necessary platforms to pave the way for future economic ties.

Much of the exchange currently is being handled by the Council of Australia Latin American Relations. This is largely a back-room body, supporting individual projects. Those businesses that are keen on Latin America could do worse than the Myer Foundation, who largely funded Asialink, and help establish a public body to foster cultural ties. Like Asialink, this could be done through a hosting of exchanges and visitors, publishing thought pieces, and nurturing a broader narrative about cultural partnership.

There are some obvious common interests across the Pacific:

  • the place of Indigenous cultures in a contemporary context
  • impact of globalisation, particularly on cultural diversity
  • intellectual property in the information age
  • impact of mining and development on communities
  • multiculturalism
  • relationship to nature
  • gender in society

There are immediate opportunities for business across the Pacific. But if these are to grow into long term partnerships, then an understanding of common interest would need to be developed.

It may take two to tango. But both have to learn how to dance first.

Art history in the South–it’s time to step out of the quotation marks

A moment of solidarity between Helena Chávez Mac Gregor (Mexico), José Llano Loyola and Paulina Varas Alarcón (Chile) and Mwape J. Mumbe (Zambia)

A moment of solidarity between Helena Chávez Mac Gregor (Mexico), José Llano Loyola and Paulina Varas Alarcón (Chile) and Mwape J. Mumbe (Zambia)

The symposium Mobility, Circulation, Transnationalism: Art History and the Global South concerned the question of art history as it is practiced in the Global South. It was organised by SAVAH (South African Visual Arts Historians) under the aegis of CIHA (Comité International d’Histoire de l’Art) as an opportunity for the Western-oriented discipline to embrace the experience of those in the South. It sought particularly to acknowledge the discrepancy of resources and in doing so fulfil the key aim ‘to bring to the centre that which, throughout history and across nations, has been traditionally ignored, marginalised, displaced and appropriated.’

It was a bold and ambitious move from SAVAH, which attracted academics from across the world, particularly the Americas, Australasia, Europe and other countries of Africa.

The conference began with the CIHA board giving papers about the importance of South in the discipline of art history. This was followed by papers that reflected various corners of the South. Through an analysis of Rorke’s Drift, Elizabeth Rankin identified social critique as a key element in South African modernism. Robyn Sloggett spoke about the Leonard Adam collection in Melbourne and argued that his category of ‘primitive art’ was liberating at the time. Jonathan Mane Wheoki constructed at Whakapapa (genealogy) of Maori modernism which offered an alternative methodology for art history (hopefully one day applied to art outside New Zealand as well).

After this initial positive statement of southness, the panel sessions that followed were dominated by a critique of northern dominance. The main argument was that the major centres of collecting and criticism in the North take a superficial view of the South, which reflects more their own interests than the real experience of artists and audiences from the periphery. This resentment never really had the opportunity to engage with the CIHA position, which served to only confirm its perceived marginality.

While cathartic, this resentment distracted attention away from the key question: How might the methodologies of art history in the South might evolve parallel to those in the North? In South Africa and other countries of the South, the subjects of non-Western influence are not tribes or villages in distant lands, but peoples who co-exist with academics inside robust democratic cultures. From this perspective, the Northern practice of art history can seem rather forensic. It scrutinises the object for signs of lost meaning – precise, but sterile. By contrast, in the South there is the opportunity to engage with artists in a broader conversation that shares the origins of their work.

The contributions to the panel that I organised, ‘Where to put the baskets in an art gallery?’ demonstrated this broader engagement. The panel was prompted by the experience of visiting to the Johannesburg Art Gallery and finding a sharp division between the craft of black rural women in the shop and the works from urban, mostly white, artists in the gallery. How is this still possible in the ‘new’ South Africa?

Though publications like the Journal of Modern Craft are building up a substantial body of scholarship, craft is still perceived as a quite minor element in art history. Yet as an ‘excluded’ art form practiced by communities across the South, it offered the opportunity to make a critical contribution.

Rather than focussing on the objects as such, the papers reflected on the process of craft production. John Steel presented a story of the Eastern Cape potter Alice Gqa Nongebeza, who wood-fires her pots adapting traditional methods to her own distinct personal style. ‘Mastooana Sekokotoana from Lesotho spoke about the Marija museum and associated arts and crafts festival, concluding the need for a ‘living treasure’ program to recognise masters of traditional skills. Though not specifically about craft, Pam Zeplin’s analysis of the South Project pointed to the engaging way its southern events brought together artists and craftspersons through workshops and performances.[1] This was art not as the history of dead objects, but as a living entity with whom one must engage.

In present circumstances, it seems that the southern perspective on art history offers something quite important to the global discipline of art history. There is a sense of declining interest in art history in universities. For good or for ill, the specialist appreciation of art is at odds with the kinds of democratic energies which seek to open up closed fields of knowledge. We see this most dramatically with the breaching of the diplomatic core by Wikileaks. But parallel challenges have appeared in a wide variety of media, including bloggers who challenge the profession of journalism and YouTube performers becoming celebrities. How can art history respond to this energy without losing the invaluable legacy of specialist knowledge, techniques and taste that it has developed over centuries?

One possibility is to engage in a process of consultation with the broader field of art practice. This would involve conversations with the subjects of art history about their own interest in what the field produces. Boaventura de Sousa Santos talks about an ‘ecology of knowledge’ as constitutive of a southern epistemology. There are developments in anthropology such as the Fijian Vanua Framework for Research discussed by Unaisi Nabobo-Baba that identifies protocols for gaining traditional knowledge. Such knowledge is seen as more than a mirror to the world, but a practice with real world implications. The importance of this locally is reflected in the criticism by black South African curator Khwezi Gule of the work by Bitterkomix for the way it confirms the racial fears of white Afrikaners. (Despite the best intentions of organisers, the symposium lacked voices of local black academics. Why would they decline the invitation?) In the colloquium, this spirit was reflected in the inspiring presentation by Zambian Mwape J. Mumbi, which ended with a call to ‘humanise museums’.

No doubt there would be resistance to the idea of protocols for art history. For academics suffering audit-fatigue, it may represent yet another hurdle after ethics committees. For those who have a territorial attachment to their subject, the consultation process may represent an external threat.

But for the discipline as a whole, the development of protocols offers an alternative to both the forensic style of methodology and the impotent sense of resentment from those in the margins. Particularly, in giving a voice to the subject of art history, it offers the chance for the democratic powers that are gathering around us to be a strength growing within the discipline rather than a threat from without.

The day after the colloquium, in Desmond Tutu’s Soweto church, a young woman orator delivered the sermon of the day. She talked about the need to leave behind the ‘comfort zone’ of historical pain and face a new future. To great applause, she urged the congregation to ‘Stop being “black”!’ “Black” was gestured in large quotation marks. Voices like hers are necessary to find a way out of those quotation marks.

Note: Kevin Murray’s travel to the colloquium was supported by the Australian High Commission

[1] Ursula Helg from Vienna was the exception. Due to the tyranny of distance, she was forced to read into objects for meaning, rather than engage with her subject directly. Still, her comparison of beaded works from South African and European contexts offered a promising new formal method of analysis.