Vol. 3 | Aporetic Propositions on Citizen, Artist, and Participation, or, the Claim of Design | Michael Stone-Richards

Aporetic Propositions on Citizen, Artist, and Participation, or, the Claim of Design*
/ Michael Stone-Richards

*This text was delivered as an introduction to the panel Citizen-Artist – The Role of Participation convened by Amy Deines, then Dean of Cranbrook Academy, and moderated by me, Michael Stone-Richards, at the 2018 AICAD conference held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

1. Unless “we” fall into a state of exception we are all citizens and any and all ethical or political responsibilities befall us qua citizens.

2. There is no political or ethical responsibility that the artist or designer qua artist or designer has that the citizen does not first possess qua citizen, and we cannot design citizenship, we can only sustain a fragile culture of citizenship.

3. When Beuys wrote that Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler – Every person is an artist – this was in part a statement about radical democratic potentiality, akin to Simone Weil: We are all capable of creative action. What pre-empts or interrupts the flowering of such action remains the question of questions that no traditional idea of art or design can comprehend methodologically or epistemologically.

4. Participation is existence. Its opposite is alienation. If so, why so much talk of participation? What impedes participation? To speak of participation here is first to draw upon the etymological sense of participation, namely, to have a share or a part in something; but participation is also a movement – intentional, affectively expressive – by which we grasp possibilities and meanings always a part from the locus of movement; above all, participation is world-building practice. Here participation reveals an important feature of our existence, namely, that human existence is always existence or movement in a world beyond bare life, beyond, that is, the Cave. We should more properly speak of an event of participation between partners in the community of being, that is, the City, and as such a phenomenon of shared and complex creation. The restriction of movement is the restriction of existence itself, and this is the basis of being able to say that participation is existence. If though what is also intended is political participation, as must be the case, and all participation is conflict, it should be realized à la Hegel, as Charles Taylor put it succinctly, that the aspiration to total and complete participation is rigorously impossible, and would only serve to magnify the conflict inherent in all human activity. Markus Miessen has made much of this Hegelian insight in his meta-thinking on design. What kind of participation and in what kind of community of affect or shared interests are questions that might point to an emerging conception of the artist / designer as thinker / interrogator in need of new institutional expressions.

5. It is thus ethically required that any restriction of movement, any pre-emption of shared movement that would impede or restrict the modes of existence of any human existence seeking the community of being, the City, should be challenged.

6. But is it as artists or designers, that is, in the name of the artist or the designer, that the ethical and concomitant political challenge should be made?

7. First, what the great Harvard, French scholar Paul Bénichou called the sacralization of the artist / writer, namely, the idea that the artist qua artist had a special calling or vocation, that is, a secularized but still priestly role, is not something that can any longer be taken seriously. Strictly speaking, it was not first and foremost a Romantic idea. It was an idea born of the French Revolution but it expired with Late Romanticism and was critically buried with the various New Art Histories and Cultural Historicisms of the post-1968 generation of critical theorists.

8. And what if design, the pre-critical idea of design as solution to problems of efficacious structure, is part-and-parcel of the problem?1An idea implicitly linked to the domination of knowledge as commodified, as something departmentalized. Cf. the British anthropologist and journalist … Is there a competence unique to designers that entitles a generalization to the level of practice as the Marx of the “Theses on Feuerbach” understood practice, that is, as the dynamic totality of embodied social relations? As Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley put it in their recent critical history of design, Are we Human? Notes on an Archeology of Design:

The nineteenth-century dream of “total design” has been realized. The famous slogan of the 1907 Deutscher Werkbund “from the sofa to city planning,” updated in 1952 with Ernesto Rogers’s “from the spoon to the city,” now seems far too modest when the patterns of atoms are being carefully arranged and colossal artifacts, like communication nets, encircle the planet. Designers have become role models in the worlds of science, business, politics, innovation, art, and education but paradoxically they have been left behind by their own concept. They remain within the same limited range of design products and do not participate fully in the expanded world of design. Ironically, this frees them up to invent new concepts of design.2Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley, Are We Human? Notes on an Archeology of Design (Zürich: Lars Müller, 2016).

Ironically, that is, the expanded world of design would free up designers to leave behind the lazy emphasis upon products, making things, stuff, and designing places for stuff to occupy. Colomina and Wigley quote Lina Bo Bardi as saying that “The grand attempt to make industrial design a motor for renewing society as a whole has failed – an appalling indictment of the perversity of the system.”

9. Design in the expanded field, let us call it – why not! – does not have its pedagogy and is emerging without designers or institutional base in design schools. It is not merely 3-D replicators that will soon make definitively redundant traditional ideas of the skill of making, so, too, will the emergence of self-organizing, self-replicating auto-poietic systems. The question of what participation, an event of participation between partners in the community of being, will then mean will have a new urgency.

10. Again, to quote Colomina and Wigley:

Designers are always understood as solving a problem. Artists, intellectuals, and writers are expected to ask questions, to make us hesitate, to see our world and ourselves differently for a moment, and therefore to think. Why not design as a way of asking questions? Why not design that produces thought-provoking hesitations in the routines of everyday life rather than simply servicing those routines? Why not design that encourages us to think? Design as an urgent call to reflect on what we and our companion species have become?3Colomina and Wigley, Are we Human?

At the very least such an expanded conception of design as interrogation would not only jettison the concern with stuff, it would expand its thinking into a Care beyond the human – our companion species with which we also participate – and become part of a critical activity of biopolitical thought and the non-alienating activity alone worthy of being called participation.

11. It is not as artists or designers that we change the world, but as citizens who will not give up our desire to flourish.