Dr Livia Rezende has worked as a graphic designer while advancing academic research in design history for the last 16 years. She investigates histories of experimental pedagogies in design education as a strategy for current decolonial purposes. Her key publications investigate Latin American design histories from a global perspective, Brazilian design, and the commodification and gendering of raw materials in World’s Fairs. In 2019, she joined the Art & Design Faculty of the University of New South Wales, Australia. She is Visiting Lecturer at the RCA.
Dr Sarah Cheang is Senior Tutor on the History of Design programme at the RCA. Her research interests centre on transnational fashion, material culture and the body. She has a special interest in the role of Chinese material culture within histories of Western fashionable dress and domestic interiors, a subject on which she has published widely and lectures frequently. Her co-edited collection, Hair: Styling, Culture and Fashion (2008), and continued research and publishing on hair, fashion and identity have also led to contributions to magazines, exhibition catalogues, festivals, radio and television.
Katie Irani is a graduate of the V&A/RCA History of Design MA programme and Curatorial Research Assistant at the Design Museum. Her research interests include dress, war and conflict, the body, and decolonial methodologies. She starts her PhD at the RCA in September 2019.
Dr Shehnaz Suterwalla is a writer and critic who teaches at the RCA. She runs a specialist course on subcultures and convenes College-wide postcolonial reading groups. Her research uses material and visual culture, and literature, to explore the politics of the body, in particular embodied expressions of radical identity in terms of gender and race. She is also researching experimental methods through feminist writing about how to decolonise the curriculum and culture. Shehnaz is working on a new book about how women of colour perceive the future.
Hang Li is a curator and researcher based in London and Beijing. Her research interest is around working curatorially on the Internet concerning the intersection of media study, computation, curatorial theory and activist art.
Having studied curating contemporary art and architectural design, Hang is interested in the means of translation between art and technology. Her works aim at exploring the curatorial role and process in the mediation of contemporary art in the sociocultural, political and technological conditions of the Internet. She starts her PhD at the RCA in 2019 and currently works as a visiting mentor in Curating Contemporary Art, RCA.
EMOTIONAL PRACTICES is an online art programme exploring how emotions shape our work, and how artists position the self emotionally in the process of art creations. The aim is to draw on decolonial thinking to privilege emotions as a critical lens of enquiry into subjectivity and our world views, experiences, feelings and lexicons. The programme was curated by OPEN research initiative.
OPEN draws on decolonial methods to explore how our world views translate. We (re)think individual positions in terms of diversity and difference of experience. Our aim is to discover and develop OPEN art and design practices with transformational capabilities that are inclusive of emotional work, self-care, respect and positionality.
OPEN started in late 2018 as I was leaving the UK for Australia (following a force that guides me places) and we started voicing a feeling of restlessness with our positions as educators in Art & Design institutions. As the debate around decolonizing the curriculum took momentum, we found ourselves asking what the hell are we doing and how are we doing it. Besides questioning our positions, we faced ever increasing conflicting and conflicted positions in the students, contents, readings, artworks, discourses, researches with which we work. OPEN was born out of our recognising and staying with these conflicts and opening up(hence the name) spaces for exchange and holding, allowing for other forms of knowing, thinking and feeling – non-colonial, decolonial – to emerge, in time. We are living extremely conflicted times and to stay with the conflict, to stay at the crossroads, feels important.
OPEN is an opportunity to foreground these conflicts and crossroads not to resolve them.Conflicts and crossroads have been the guiding force and the very condition of existence for many for a very long time. Coloniality has been responsible for increasing the conflictual and crossroads existence of many while paradoxically promising to resolve them. We stop at trying to resolve them with the terms and concepts we have employed until now. One resolution is “no resolution”,co-existence and pluriversality. In OPEN we recognise that the time has come to make sense collectively of new terms, new forms of relations and new forms of knowledge and making. By ‘new’ please also consider ‘old’ forms, since as a historian I am not particularly obsessed with the idea of progress, innovation or revolution. By ‘new’ I mean to say other and the other is not new.
I was born and raised in Brazil, you see, where I lived a privileged start to life. My skin colour, my regional accent, my family history, my everyday experience coincided with those represented on mass media. I was part of the norm. But the relevance, or the real privilege of being born in Brazil, is that you are surrounded by other perspectives, experiences, forms of living, everywhere, and they can become part of you, those multiple indigenous and Afro-Brazilian epistemologies and ontologies, understandings and knowlegdes.
(My word processor application doesn’t like the idea of knowledges in the plural. It underlines the word with a thin red snake and asks me to replace knowledges with knowledge – singular, or knowledge’s – a condition of possession. Do I ‘ignore all’ or ‘add to its dictionary’?)
The strongest responses come through emotional states of being. This should not divide us. Knowing who I am, where I’ve come from and where I’m going, this is part of the same process of realising who other people are, where they’re coming from, where they are going to. OPEN is a place for me to locate the strength in emotion and empathy, and try to better understand how our creativity, thoughts and actions can transform and advocate for a more equal and more inclusive society.
Our experiences and our feelings affect how we receive and process everything that we see, hear, touch, smell, taste and remember, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. The disadvantages and advantages of social bias around gender, sexuality, disability, colonialism have all impacted my life. Being ‘mixed race’, being ‘queer’, being female, experiencing ill-health, at different points of my life have meant different things. Can we try to continuously unpick our assumptions as they arise? This means active labour, work and play. Friendships and a career as an educator, historian, writer, speaker, mother and artist, have helped me to consider how we continuously co-create the world that we live in, with all its joys and sadnesses.
Realisation is a potent word. It implies a process of awakening, a fuller understanding and a bringing into being. People do not come to realisation through being attacked, harangued or coerced. I hope that through OPEN, artists, audiences, designers, curators, performers, writers, readers, activists, thinkers and doers can all find a place to explore life and their place within it, in a different and supportive way. Bitterness seen and shared. Anger heard and accepted. Action through connection and kindness.
Grow a pair.
Be a man.
Boys don’t cry.
Don’t be emotional.
Under the cultural shadow cast by ‘Enlightenment’ ideals of rationality, we are taught from an early age that being – or, more importantly, appearing – emotional is undesirable. There is of course an obvious gendered aspect to this. As a woman, being described as ‘hysterical’ is rooted in centuries-old medical understandings of mental and physical health drawn along the lines of gender binary; being told to ‘man up’ reflects the same assumption that stifling our emotions is preferable, and that gender identity predetermines how we do and should behave.
I’ve witnessed this attitude through my lived experience of womanhood, but I’ve seen it too in the work I’ve done and continue to do. Emotions, feelings, things that are subjective and amorphous and not easily definable tend to be cast into a category of ‘the unscientific’. The Academy, we are told, likes to deal with certainties and empirical findings: funding grants aren’t made on the basis of immeasurables, we want to see results.
Limiting ourselves to this narrow view of what constitutes ‘evidence’ or ‘source material’ ignores a whole swathe of the human experience. As a historian, I deal in a form of storytelling; military records, photographs, balance sheets recovered from the depths of the London Metropolitan Archives are fantastic resources – but so too are the letters, diaries and oral histories that convey individual lived experiences in a way standardised ‘official’ resources do not. Bringing these ‘emotional’ accounts to the fore in academic studies – and beyond – requires a rethink of how we arrange and use ‘knowledge’. It is part of a wider effort to question conventional hierarchies of knowledge, to position ourselves and how we view the world in a wider ‘matrix of colonial power’. This is part of what it means to ‘decolonise’: to recognise and reflect critically on the power structures that have cultivated the world we live in.
I see OPEN as a continuation of this work. By foregrounding emotions in art and design praxis, and more recently in curating the online exhibition Emotional Practices, OPEN for me is part of a movement that recognises the received systems, orders and hierarchies within which it operates – and seeks to be more transparent about how ‘knowledge’ and history is presented.
This is not simply an academic exercise; it has a real-world impact. Particularly in the context of curating, institutions have tended historically to propagate ‘a’ narrative, ‘a’ truth, that belies the individual politics, agendas, blind spots of the curator(s) that created it. In September 2018, I attended an event called Troubling Objects, hosted by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and introduced by its director, Tristram Hunt. The event was brimming with academics, artists, activists and museum professionals committed to developing practices that would situate museum collections in the context of their acquisition and publicly recognise that exhibitions represent just one interpretation of the stories their objects tell.
Fast forward nine months.
In an article published in The Guardian, Tristram Hunt writes that: '[f]or museums like the V&A, to decolonise is to decontextualize […] A more nuanced understanding of empire is needed than the politically driven [sic] pathways of Good or Bad.’
Reductive approaches like this reveal a real misunderstanding of decoloniality – and highlight the need do it. Because to decolonise is emphatically to recontextualise. There is no zero-sum outcome, whereby existing ‘Bad’ structures are cast aside in favour of a ‘Good’ alternative. It is about decentering the heteronormative imperialist white supremacist ableist capitalist patriarchy so that we can acknowledge cultures, histories, practices, voices and viewpoints that have historically been silenced by this system. We need to be OPEN to radical change.
OPEN is for me a reality and a possibility, a gift and a promise.
OPEN is for me a project to think, explore, question and connect with personal experiences. Through OPEN I have been encouraged to free my emotional self so that my work is led by my ‘gut intelligence’, a phrase that I came across through Sarah Ahmed, and to whom I am therefore grateful. Gut intelligence is that thing—feeling feelings—that tells us inside and deep down what-is-what. But until recently it was difficult to locate the thingyness of such intelligence/feelings as a legitimate intelligence; afterall it doesn’t match the tone and style of traditional scholarship; it has rarely been a priority in that type of work. And then--when these kinds of knowledges come from bodies that are Other they form a deadlock with orthodox knowingness. They vye to be heard, to be seen, to be recognised; yet so often they are crushed, pushed aside, swung afield, put out of the way by the powers that be as not relevant nor even real. Patriarchy, Westernism, capitalism remain the main culprits for this.
But: the personal knowledges that we have through our unique experiences, the ones that are cut, shaped, chiselled and polished by our subjective realities, by our emotional labours, our sensitivities and our resilience, are deep forms of knowing and thinking.
The way that we feel is perhaps the most important thing that we have: our emotions and feelings are our embodied truths and here at OPEN we choose to celebrate these as the centre of thinking, feeling, being. By doing so we join arms with decolonial scholars and friends who have taught us so brilliantly—and emotionally—to use our knowledges of otherwise and otherness to our advantage as our truths, and as our politics of social and cognitive justice. Lewis Gordon taught me about otherwise and otherness, and to him therefore I am grateful. His two words continue to guide me in my challenge to Western ideologies presented to me as naturalised truths. Now I choose otherwise: OPEN creates space for our work as emotional, personal, as embodied. Through OPEN we collaborate through self-care—a gift—and care for others’ otherness—which offers the wonderful promise of limitless possibilities.
Emotional Practices is the first online programme I have conducted as a curator/website designer. Having been deeply aware of the colonial tendencies in website design and curation, it was not an easy decision to curate Emotion Practices when the decoloniality comes along as its theoretical buttress.
The decoloniality is just too on point for online curation at this moment.
Before writing about the ‘colonial’ aspect of online curation, it worth a look at how a decolonial approach to online curation makes perfect sense from the perspective of theory. A solid common ground does exist between curating online and practicing on decoloniality. If one traces up to the initial phase when art and digital technology joined force in exhibitions, it is noticeable, that a strong postmodern and post-structuralist critique of modernity was there, which drove curators, scholars and artists to reconsider powers, agencies, and knowledge production and solidification. This critique was signified by Cybernetic Serendipity (1968) and Les Immateriaux (1985) in Europe, and Software (1970) and Information (1970) in America. Similar investigations can be easily found in the research and practice in the decoloniality. The major breach between the postmodern and decoloniality, if there is any, lies in where people argue postmodernism as an extension of the Eurocentric narration and evaluation. I disagree with this argument, since the development of the postmodern consists of diverse voices (see Yuk Hui’s studies), and the term 'postmodern' should not be constrained by its linguistic or etymological meanings.
What I am alarmed of, however, is the obstacle in practices, to resist the canon of website design and curation, which tend to execute power in unbalanced conditions; and triumph in exploiting and capitalise contents and labours in an attention economy today.
Here is an example: the representation of meanings using a collection of logos in the website design (see the interface of our desktops, mobile phones, video games and websites). The graphic design of those logos and the space-time arrangement of logos in a web interface, have become a cultural technique to influence and govern knowledge production. Through a series of translations, graphically, spatially and behaviorally, web designers own a power, which exceeds putting things online.
The translation forges hierarchy, which is dependent on how designers equate content to the viewers' limited and hence precious attention.
What logo is more eye-catchy?
What font, colour and size will be more favourable and thus more click-attractive?
Whose name appears on the top while whose is on the bottom?
Clicks are the capital in this new libidinal economy. In this sense, website designers become currency printers.
With or without consciousness, when we talk about websites referring to the terminologies such as logos, branding, menu, click bate and so on, we relinquish the chance to question a deeply capitalistic ideology grounding websites today.This is just a tip of the iceberg of the Californian Ideology, by which we are colonised while, for which we are addictively celebrating. But how to break down the deadlock of website design, to make information more accessible yet, to also tear down the hegemonic, exploitative process which brings everything online to serve those controlling the digital territory?
Let us shift the focus from website design to curating before looking at curating online, which intersects the two aforementioned fields. For curating, a process of 'open call —> selection —> representation' is just a thin line away from degrading to a centralised control and value exploitation, especially since that under the name of art, the value of labour and creativity is hard to measure and make explicit. How to pay artists and curators fairly — through mutual care, emotional labour, time, energy, intelligence and fees — to declare a ‘collaboration’ away from being predominating and exploitative? Curating, adding up with website design, holds full potential to become a digital dom(a)ination (a domination of digital domains in a colonial sense). By saying this, I do not intend to diminish the value of curating online. Instead, I believe in the opposite:
Acting within the system in searching for the alternatives is called for as a matter of urgency.
I became a member of OPEN when our team was searching for strategies to display the selected artworks online for Emotional Practices. To bypass the nature of representation, which implies an unbalanced power relationship and a shift in the work’s site and status in a show, I altered the idea of 'representation' to 'presentation'. In Emotional Practices, the curators did not represent artwork by displaying their open-call submissions right away in a 'virtual white boxes,’ and then writing labels for them as away of interpretation. Here, there is no such an approach to curating as: 'sending me the final work, and I will install it properly in our space'.
Rather, my job was to help with staging the works — firstly, by breaking them down into units of texts, images, sounds and secondly, reassembling those units according to both the artists’ intended mode of expression online, as well as to the limitations given by our website design platform: Webflow. There were intense conversations between the artists and I; discussing how the work was created, and what information they wished to be delivered online. The webpages in this programme, therefore, mediated and spatialised the discussions, arguments and multiple standing points of the artists and curator. This approach was also applied when I curated/designed the front page of Emotional Practices, during which the theory and ethos of decoloniality were attempted to be embodied in the page.Hopefully, you may perceive our efforts in testing and disrupting the hierarchy, classification and capitalistic representation.
Emotional Practices was a process of making space for all participants.
In parallel, it was also a chance to collectivelyinterrogate our own code of conduct when it came to talking about a website andcurating online.
This process of self criticising and challenging oneself inevitably involved some emotions—
- Redefining what a curator/website designer should and can do;
- The incongruence between some handed-in works and the modality of website design; - Using whilst also fighting against the tool of website design (Webflow);
- The scant but conspicuous bugs and flaws on the webpage, which were in sharp contrast from the massive but hidden labour in prototyping and fixing the faults;
- And certainly, remote communications, which seemingly match an online project, yet ironically amplify the tension and cold netiquette(online etiquette) better than delivering our genuine friendship, warmth and care.
Those feelings are the perfect evidence of how our present life is largely refined by the tools and the ideology behind them. Also, it is proof of our courage and dedication in practicing online to explore and test the decoloniality.
If it is hard, even if all the people involved are amazingly aspirational and committed in the spirit of the decoloniality,
let us dance with those emotions and assimilate them into this Emotional Practices.