Modes of Engagement in Design for the Living World
An Interview with Marjetica Potrč by Richard Saxton

The artist, designer, and educator Richard Saxton and the M12 Collective which he co-founded, are creating an open-source platform for alternative educational models. Called Emergency Broadcast System: A Network of Unstandardized Pedagogies, its goal is to develop and disseminate new forms of teaching, learning, and knowledge exchange. As part of the project, Saxton visited the class “Design for the Living World”, taught by the artist Marjetica Potrč at the University of the Fine Arts (HFBK) in Hamburg, Germany, in May 2013. In July, he conducted an email interview with Potrč, in which she discussed her class, her approach to design, and her thoughts on teaching.

Working with People and Learning by Doing

Richard Saxton: What is the background of your project?

Marjetica Potrč: Two years ago I accepted an invitation to teach sustainable design at the HFBK in Hamburg. My class is called “Design for the Living World”. My approach is based on my own practice, which I developed over the last ten years in a variety of community-based on-site projects. Located in places of crisis, these projects are characterized by participatory design and a concern for sustainability. They emphasize individual empowerment, problem-solving tools, and strategies for the future. I consider human resources to be just as important as natural resources. So I always work closely with local residents – in such places as the informal city in Caracas or a low-income immigrant neighbourhood in a declining modernist district in Amsterdam. Together we develop tools for making communities more resilient and their environment more sustainable. I believe that when sustainable solutions are implemented and disseminated by a local community, they empower that community and help build democracy from the bottom up.

Such projects are not so much about making physical objects as about “relational objects” – something that helps strengthen relationships between residents and contributes to a more sustainable urban life. The most challenging thing, after all, is to change human habits. It’s much easier to build an object than it is to change the culture of living, and yet this is what we need for a sustainable urban environment. In the La Vega barrio in Caracas, the relational object was a dry toilet; in Amsterdam, in the project The Cook, the Farmer, His Wife and Their Neighbour, it was a community garden.

In the “Design for the Living World” class, the students and I test participatory practices in various settings in different cities and countries. Our tools are “relational objects” and “performative actions”, which we use to help a community become more resilient and more sustainable. Students learn a great deal from the locality and the people they meet there. Participatory projects are, ultimately, about learning by doing, not theory or learning from books. Why? Because I think that what we need today is not the self-indulgent critical eye but direct action and concrete proposals.

RS: Can you describe the project and how it was conceived?

MP: Our class is based on the concept of participatory practice. There are two words here: participation and practice. This means working with the people who live in the locality, and learning by doing while we work with them. By combining different disciplines and different kinds of knowledge we create new practices and new knowledge. Every location we engage with is a new challenge, and as we try to understand it, the challenge becomes more complex, not only in practical terms – the what and how of it, but also the why. We have learned that sustainable solutions are primarily local solutions, not universal ones. At the same time, however, every local solution is part of the greater whole, is part of the world. This is the wisdom of sustainability.

Usually, we are invited by the local community to work on site. This is important – the community must be interested in having us involved. The open-minded, curious community works with us from the very start. We collaborate with local residents and – and what is invaluable – they share their knowledge with us about the local material resources and useful contacts. Of course, you can conceive a project without a specific community in mind and then find one to do it in, but that takes more time.

Either way, on-site participatory projects require a relatively long time. I am not talking about interventions in the public space, where you just drop an object in a community. And then when you leave, the community is stuck with an object that has no meaning or function for them. That’s like what happens when you try to help a community by just giving them things. This strategy doesn’t work in the long run. In participatory projects, you don’t work for the community; you work with the community, who then take over the project and live with it after you leave. We don’t make instant, self-referential objects, and we do not “help” people. We exchange practices and knowledge with local residents, and produce “relational objects” in collaboration with the community. Usually this happens in a community space, not the public space. We call the space we work in a “shared space”.

Relational Objects and Performative Actions

I am frequently asked to explain the terms “relational object” and “performative action”. Relational objects and performative actions are used by people in a community as tools for changing their culture of living. They are catalysts of change. Let me give some examples.

When my students and I worked on the on-site project St. Lambrecht – Gerichte auf Tischen in rural Austria in 2012 , the relational objects we created – apart from a book of local recipes – were a hundred or so tables, which we constructed and placed in the town’s main public space one Sunday in June. We invited local residents to bring their dishes and join us for lunch. About four hundred residents showed up. In this way they reclaimed the main public square, Markt Platz, which had once been the heart of the town but in recent years felt like a desert, with no one around. The Sunday lunch was an act of place-making, of reclaiming a community at a time when it is shrinking dramatically – young people have been leaving the countryside for cities and state-subsidized development is being cut off. After lunch, we had a round-table discussion about the community’s present challenges and future prospects. Can people in a small town come together and draw strength from their locality? We identified bio-farmers as vehicles for the strength and identity of the community. The Sunday lunch was a performative action, and the tables were relational objects.

You can say that relational objects are nouns – “active nouns”, as it were, since they create relationships – and performative actions are verbs. A performative action is an activity performed in public, which then has the potential to grow into a collective action. The Australian designer Tony Frey referred to collective actions that demonstrate the process of cultural remaking as “redirective practices”. We know that if you want to bring change to society for a more sustainable culture of living, talking is not enough. What matters are relational objects as hands-on experiences and performative actions. In our practice we have found that relational objects and performative actions are good and useful communicators.

An important part of the St. Lambrecht project was giving away the tables to local residents in an act of exchange: we exchanged tables for knowledge. After lunch, people carried them off to their homes. The tables found a place in the front- or backyards of their houses. A year later, on a Sunday this past June, people brought the same tables back to Markt Platz and re-enacted the community lunch. They organized it by themselves, without us. Another thing to note is that during the past year they have continued to construct tables on their own initiative. This is what I call a successful project. It keeps working in the community after you – the initiator – leave. The tables became an active monument of the St. Lambrecht community. They are not an abstract passive monument imposed on the community. By the way, the curators who invited us to do this project, for the Regionale12 Festival, were initially hoping we would make a formal monument, not the later-dispersed monument we were luckily able to create against their expectations.

Another example of a performative action was marking the Commune territory in Tromsø, Norway. This took place during the on-site project Tromsø – A City as a Garden in the Arctic in the spring of 2013. We were invited to Tromsø by the Academy of Contemporary Art, which became our base camp. Behind the Academy there is a large piece of land, which is currently used as a parking lot. It is waiting to be developed for a shopping mall, which many residents don’t think is needed. When we looked at a map to find out who owns the land, we noticed that a small section belongs to the Tromsø Commune. We marked out its triangular shape with three poles with the geographical coordinates, and then we all stepped into this territory and thus made it visible. The marking of the Tromsø Commune territory was a simple and effective performative action. Its role was to raise awareness of the importance of citizens’ participation in matters of common interest. The message of the action was: “This is your territory, this is your city. The city is you.”

Participatory Design

RS: Do you have a manifesto, rules, or a written agenda for your programme?

MP: Our practice in “Design of the Living World” proceeds through the following steps: 1. Listening to and talking with local residents before we make a definite plan. 2. Involving the community in the decision-making and design processes. 3. Involving the community in the construction process. 4. Transferring responsibility for the developed project to the community in order to leave behind a sustainable work that benefits the community in the long term.

Participatory design encourages participation and puts users in the foreground. For the students in Design for the Living World, this means working alongside local residents and exchanging knowledge with them. First, before we develop any plan, the students learn about the specific needs and circumstances of the community. They do in-depth research about the place, the people who live there, and the challenges they face. This research naturally leads to preconceived ideas, which students need to be ready to drop when they come into contact with the actual locality and the residents. Second, the community becomes involved in both the decision making and the realization of the project. This is essential. The project must be adopted by the community – it is not imposed on them. It remains in the community and is managed by them for good or bad. At this point, it becomes an organic part of the community life. Participatory design is a slow process, but it benefits for the local communities last a long time.

Why is collaboration so important? Because the complex challenges we face today demand complex solutions, which are found only by using diverse knowledge that is exchanged between people from different disciplines and backgrounds. This exchange helps us arrive at outside-the-box solutions, which I sometimes call “sleepers”: latent solutions that can be awakened by someone from outside the given situation.

Learning Together

RS: Can you describe the specific pedagogy or philosophy of teaching and learning that is connected with your project? What is your educational approach? Do you have a curriculum?

MP: It’s not really about teaching; it’s about sharing experiences and learning together. When we do research for a particular project, when we get involved in a project, we find issues that need to be looked at more closely. To put it simply, every project presents us with a different issue to study. I don’t have any prescribed curriculum that covers the same topics year after year.

The topics we study are usually related to emerging ideas and concepts that academics often take with a grain of salt. Such is the case at the moment with the notion of “the commons”. As everyone knows, language is a living construction; it develops and changes, and so do our topics. If you take the world as an organism, then you accept that when certain ways of doing things, or certain ideas, do not work, people construct new ways or revisit old concepts to help them forge the future. This is the case with the word “commons”. It is worth looking at. During the Tromsø project we analysed the meaning and history of the word and found that it simply refers to a different model for using land than today’s mainstream ownership model. We were inspired by Elinor Ostrom’s “Design Principles for CPR [Common Property Resource] Institutions” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elinor_Ostrom), which provides guidelines for how local communities can manage and govern common land. For us, the idea of the resilient local community is really important. Local communities must always be involved when it comes to developing sustainability. Sustainable solutions need to be local solutions, but together they add up to the entire world.

I believe that participatory design and an awareness about designing communities open a much-needed fresh view on design. Design is much more than product design, which prospered in the age of consumerism. It prospers today, too, of course, but its dominance is being put into perspective. And it’s about time!

In the coming school year the students will organize a third of the curriculum themselves – a task that empowers them and gives them greater responsibility. They will invite doers and thinkers for a series of lectures and workshops to discuss the emerging challenges they feel are urgent in their practices. How can a small-scale company, or open-source production and knowledge sharing survive and prosper at a time of social crisis and neo-liberalism, when we feel that the world must be reconstructed. How can these strategies have a long-term impact?

The Changing Role of Design and the Designer

RS: Can we talk about evaluation? Critique, dialogue, exams, etc. – how are the modes of educational evaluation being thought about within your project?

MP: They say that life is the best school. Students in my programme learn by doing in real-life situations. Some are natural leaders and some need more time, but this is OK. They are all gaining knowledge. You ask about academic evaluation: the students who are involved in the on-site projects pass. This makes me think of Joseph Beuys’s statement that everyone can be an artist. As for institutions, professors whose teaching and evaluation is based on a model of individual authorship find it confusing to evaluate a student’s personal contribution in a group project. We know that institutions change slowly. It remains to be seen whether my attempt to develop a course based mainly on group projects stands a chance in an academic institution. I personally believe that when the culture changes, so should the role of design – and the role of artists and designers – and the way you do things should change as well. Generations of students have been brought up in a consumerist society based on individualist values. Students who join my class understand the idea of co-authorship.

RS: Do you look at your project from a global perspective? Are you thinking about what’s happening in other parts of the world either in relation or in opposition to what you are doing?

MP: When I think about sustainability, I do not see separate worlds. I do not see the First World and the Third World. We are all in it together. But, as I said before, sustainable solutions are local solutions. This is why we seek new knowledge. We don’t want to always have the same curriculum.

July 2013
Boulder, Colorado, and Berlin, Germany