Design School Imaginaries in Neoliberal Times

Tuesday 6 June 1730-1900
University of the Arts, 272 High Holborn


Dr Johanna Boehnert
, University of Westminster/EcoLabs
Dr Jamie Brassett, Reader and Course Leader, MA Innovation Management, Central Saint Martins, UAL
Professor Guy Julier, University of Brighton/Victoria and Albert Museum
Professor Lucy Kimbell, Director, Innovation Insights Hub, UAL
Professor Cameron Tonkinwise, University of New South Wales

University of the Arts London,
272 High Holborn,
London WC1V 7EY


What’s the future for design schools within neoliberal universities? Is design accelerating the neoliberalisation of universities or affording pathways to alternatives? Should design schools take the lead or take leave of universities?

In the UK, change is afoot in multiple domains – not just the future of the country, its relation to Europe and its constitutional make-up, but also the ways it enables teaching and learning and does research. Like universities in general, UK design schools in particular face a number of challenges including: falling numbers of student applications, limitations on non-UK students studying and remaining in the UK after graduation, reduced academic autonomy, changes in public funding and the valuing of STEM above STEAM (eg, even while the creative and cultural industries grow at a higher rate than other economic sectors. Current emphasis on teaching excellence, graduate employability, audit culture and demonstrating research impact mask a deeper problem – uncertainty about the roles and capacities of design’s higher educational institutions to produce people equipped to deal with lives of change and disruptions to the nature of work, place, well-being and belonging.

Attempts to articulate the specificity and contribution of design higher education are undermined by ignoring its location within institutions that are increasingly expected to reproduce, rather than question, dominant economic models and thinking. Market models of design education such as Hyper Island, Kaos Pilots and General Assembly, online initiatives such as IDEO U, alongside more critical exploratory approaches such as The University of the Underground or the Free University Brighton indicate emerging futures for design schools – which may not be in universities.

Taking an oblique angle to consider these topics, this panel discussion will share insights on higher education in design informed by innovation studies, design activism, philosophy and social design.

Free event but booking is essential

To book a place please email:

Organised by the UAL Innovation Insights Hub and Design Culture Salon







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Reflections on Beyond Neoliberalism: how might we conceive and reconceive the relationships of contemporary design and economics?

There is always the danger in heated debate that positions get polarised. Clear lines of attack and defence can be useful. But I often wonder if we are exploring the grey areas sufficiently.

When it comes to considering the interweaving of design culture and neoliberalism there are lots of grey areas. Where do we extract the good, the bad and the ugly in this but also acknowledge the compromises and confusions? Can we live with the liminality that design so often produces? In design culture’s constant processes of becoming, is it possible to draw distinct lines of politics and intention within economies?

I don’t have clear answers to these questions. Perhaps all we can do is observe and analyse what is going on in this interweaving and build an anticipatory form of design politics that no longer condemns design to an on-going reactive state.

Design and neoliberalism are both processes of transformation. Indeed, it is probably more accurate to talk of neoliberalisation in this respect, rather than neoliberalism. Rather than think of it as an unchanging, inflexible aim we might read it as a mutable, dodging-and-weaving practice. In bringing a discussion of design and neoliberalisation together, then, we have to acknowledge their multiple possibilities and realities.

l. to r.: Jamie Brassett, Guy Julier, Liz Moor, Louis Moreno, Rosario Hurtado, Roberto Feo. Central St Martins, University of Arts London (picture: Jocelyn Bailey)

Liz Moor described this relationship more viscerally:  design is brought into the firefight of capitalism. It works both to produce asset value while plugging the leaks of the welfare state. In the first of these, it is hoping to make something worth more in the future, either in its use or exchange value. In the second, it is basically there to save money as the state shrinks while attempting to continue to provide some semblance of traditional state provision (education, health etc.).

Roberto Feo and Rosario Hurtado extended the notion of design moving into capitalism’s many spaces suggesting that its seepage everywhere means that it ends up always being about context rather than itself. This forces design practice into a constant state of service rather than into a propositional mode. Even where it is ‘propositional’ this may still be provisional and subaltern to whoever is paying. This service mode continues to be the dominant paradigm for design education — merely producing ‘industry ready’ graduates.

Louis Moreno placed design’s complicity with the commercial marketplace in the framework of Karl Polanyi’s 1944 book, The Great Transformation. Here, Polanyi spoke of the ways by which nature, labour and money get turned into fictitious commodities. These are things that are not specifically created for the market but are turned into commodities. Indeed, they are embedded into social relationships that were, hitherto to capitalism, part of moral control outside the market. Subsequently, however, out of nature, labour and money we get design highly active in turning these into assets: land banks, cultural capital, funds and so on. As a reactive field, design is constrained into the micro-economic whose sense of futurity is compressed into the near present.

There are institutions that lie or attempt to lie outside the neoliberal order. The National Health Service is one of them. I would hazard that the majority of its 1.7million employees and the UK public understand an inviolability of the concept that it exists not to be an active agent within capitalist systems but to do something else. Perhaps we should ask the same of education. To what extent should it function to produce social goods rather than in service to a particular view of the economy? And what would it mean for this emphasis to be revived? Can it do both?




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Beyond Neoliberalism: how might we conceive and reconceive the relationships of contemporary design and economics?

Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts, London
Friday, 17 March 2017
18:30 to 20:00

Granary Square, Granary Building,
Kings Cross, London N1C 4AA


In orthodox circles, design is understood to ‘add value’ within capitalist economies, making goods more saleable and spaces more attractive. But is this too reductive?

In what other ways does contemporary design take part in the making of neoliberal economic, cultural and social processes? How can design reveal and critique its own economic practices? And can alternative economic futures be designed, or is design destined to be eternally co-opted into dominant business models?

Chair:  Jamie Brassett, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London

Robert Feo and Rosario Hurtado, El Ultimo Grito/Goldsmiths University of London
Guy Julier, University of Brighton/Victoria & Albert Museum                        
Liz Moor, Goldsmiths, University of London
Louis Moreno, Goldsmiths, University of London

This event is part of the Victoria and Albert Museum & University of Brighton’s ‘Design Culture Salon’, which has been on tour lately, notably in Vienna and Shenzhen. It coincides with the launch of Guy Julier’s new book Economies of Design (Sage Publications).

This event is free, but if you are not a student or staff at Central St Martins you must book here.



Jamie Brassett is Reader in Philosophy, Design & Innovation at Central Saint Martins, where he has been Course Leader for MA Innovation Management since its inception in 2008. Recently, Jamie co-edited with Betti Marenko the Deleuze & Design collection for Edinburgh University Press as part of their ‘Deleuze Connections’ series. He is currently working on a book with Richard Reynolds on Superheroes & Excess, as well as articles on smart design, a creative philosophy of anticipation, the ontological ethics of design & uncertain futures.

Roberto Feo and Rosario Hurtado are the Post Disciplinary studio El Ultimo Grito. Founded in 1997, their studio is currently based in London. El Ultimo Grito’s work continuously researches our relationships with objects and culture. They teach and research in design at Goldsmiths, University of London. Rosario Hurtado read Economics at Alcala de Henares University in Madrid, before moving to London in1989 where she studied Cabinet Making at the London College of Furniture and completed her BA in Industrial Design at Kingston University. Roberto Feo read Sociology and Social Anthropology at Complutense University in Madrid, before moving to London in 1990. He studied Furniture Design at the London College of Furniture followed by an MA in Furniture Design at The Royal College of Art. He currently co-runs the Space and Communication at HEAD-Genève.

Guy Julier is Professor of Design Culture at the University of Brighton. His books include The Culture of Design, 3rd Revised Edition (2014) and Economies of Design (2017). He has researched and written on design and political transition in Spain and Hungary, design activism, social design and theories of design culture.

Liz Moor is Senior Lecturer in Media & Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is author of The Rise of Brands (2007) and co-editor with Guy Julier of Design and Creativity: Policy, Management and Practice (2009). She is currently writing a book entitled ‘Money and Communication’ for Polity Press.

Louis Moreno’s research, teaching and writing explores the spatial relationships and political economic forces that shape the social and cultural forms of everyday life. Specialising in urbanism and spatial theory, Louis’s academic background spans literature and philosophy, architectural history, urban geography and political theory. Louis’s PhD research examined the urban incubation and architectural effects of financialised capitalism in post-industrial Britain. His current research examines the urban processes and cultural logic of financialised capitalism.

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Reflections on Brexit design: how will it function in and out of Europe?

Twenty-five years ago, I ran a series of talks at the Leeds City Art Gallery called ‘Design into Europe’. 1992 was the watershed year of the Maastricht Treaty that would lead to the creation of the Euro. And on 1 January 1993 the single market and its four freedoms were established: the free movement of goods, services, people and money.

All four of these would set the scene for UK design which was and is very much an export-oriented service industry. For my part, around the time I was also busy springboarding off my first book, New Spanish Design (now available on eBay for £2.80!) in helping UK design consultancies and other creative industries exponents to find their way into the Iberian marketplace. New markets and relationships were promised. And a new aesthetic palette of Europeaneity was coming to hand.

Now, with Brexit, it seems that some designers – but not all – are staring into the abyss of living and working without those taken-for-granted pillars…. and without a certain European ‘look’.

Transition is always painful. It involves processes of grieving and loss that are characterised by those oft-cited five-stages of denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. All five were at work in the Salon and at times it felt more like a group therapy session.

View from the Chair, l. to r.: Franco Bianchini, Alastair Donald, Michael Thomson, Sarah Mann, Robert Mull

View from the Chair, l. to r.: Franco Bianchini, Alastair Donald, Michael Thomson, Sarah Mann, Robert Mull

Franco Bianchini usefully sketched out a cultural history of the UK creative class for us that helped to contexualise the discussion going forwards. He noted how the ‘creative class’ of the 1970s was engaged in trying to look out how cultural practice could address the growing crises of the autonomous working class. Deindustrialisation and economic recession (yes, folks, they’ve been around for quite a while!) were dismantling traditional workerist roles. Then, under New Labour from 1997, the creative industries became instrumentalised as a disciplining system, Franco suggested. Be creative, or face the doldrums was/is the message. The City of Hull, Franco’s adopted home-town, now faces the contradictions and opportunities of both these options, made even more urgent by the vacuum of austerity. As City of Culture for 2017, Hull has the possibility of re-forming itself as an international centre of architecture, design and the arts. Meanwhile, the Brexit Referendum had 68% of its population vote Leave.

Alastair Donald reminded us that Brexit is really happening. The Salon took place just two days after Parliament had voted to allow the government to get Brexit negotiations underway. So, the challenge for design and architecture is to understand how to minimize its worst impacts and maximize the advantages of leaving the EU. Alastair claimed that the malaise of the creative industries sectors in particular, and the UK in general, had gone unnoticed. He argued that Fortress Europe had produced a tick-box approach to the approval of design and planning and that this had also led to a slow down in innovation. His view was decidedly upbeat: Brexit would allow for some radical re-thinking on the role of creativity and open up opportunities for it to reach into new audiences. It seemed that those ambitions of the 1970s, as Franco had sketched out, might have their day still.

Sarah Mann reminded us that her organization, the British Council, pre-dates the EU by a long way. Founded in 1934, its primary aim has always been to promote mutual understanding across borders. Art, craft and design provide ways of both presenting a positive national image and reaching out internationally. With the decline of making and hand-skills, nonetheless other opportunities are available for creative thinking and practice to be active. For example, design in ageing, the circular economy and open source are just three areas for radical re-framing not just of design, but of economic processes. At the same time, these are quite dependent on the free movement of ideas, expertise and people to flourish. Will Brexit close these down? And, more broadly, how does the UK project itself as a creative economy in the new circumstances – whatever these may be?

Speaking from an educator’s perspective, Robert Mull noted how Brexit had already put a brake on applications from European students to come to the UK to study. One result of this would be a loss of diversity amongst the student population. After decades of openness, design education was at risk at falling into a ‘Little Britain’ mentality, losing its outward-orientation. From a personal point of view, Robert was concerned about the impact of Brexit leading to a decreased sense of the social value of design. The scrabble for global market share may dominate the discourse for years to come at the expense of humanitarian values that have built up over decades.

Michael Thomson saw the Brexit vote as a failure of imagination on the part of the Remain camp. Brexit supporters had a very powerful brand strategy. (Even the word ‘Brexit’ is on a par with Persil as a memorable sound.) The Remain campaign had nothing approaching such a strong brand. (Note: this could have been a great student design brief!) In preparation for the Salon, Michael had phoned some of his counterparts in the Bureau of European Design Associations. It seemed that there was very much a ‘wait and see’ attitude in mainland Europe. Panic or, even, planning for post-Brext didn’t seem to be coursing through these countries. The design industry has a long history of dodging and weaving, of adapting to and even thriving in new circumstances. So on both sides of the English Channel, the Irish Sea and the North Sea there will be adjustments. But that is as it ever was.

The rise of design since the 1980s has run in parallel with the steady move towards managerial politics in Europe. Decision-making has become about pragmatic moves to ensure economic growth and social cohesion rather than being driven by explicit ideological programmes. Another way of saying this is that the neoliberal marketplace has come to dominate. (For more on this relationship with design, see my new book Economies of Design.) Design has benefitted in some ways and not in others. The opportunity, at least for Alastair Donald, here is in forging a new narrative for design that is liberated from its service-to-the-market mode.

Not all panelists or audience participants could rise to such optimism, though. One characterization of post-Brexit design and society was that they could be like Berlin after the fall of the wall. There would be a cultural release as new possibilities arise. Another was that they could be more like Eastern Berlin before the wall was taken apart. Isolation and the rise of petty nationalism may close down not just physical borders but also imaginative ones.

Business parlance in past decades has told us to get used to uncertainty. The current uncertainty in the UK was matched by the uncertainty of panelists and participants.

To get psychoanalytic about this and return to group-therapy mode, it seems necessary, in dealing with this uncertainty, to invoke the Freudian trio of the superego, the ego and the id. The superego is that big societal narrative of reason. The design industry’s institutional apparatus seems to be asking us to be grown-up and mature – speak with one voice, show its strong resolve. Meanwhile, the id – the unconscious force of our desire to be creative, violent, angry and many other things – is in a state of rage. Design practitioners want to do stuff but are bewildered as to where to direct this rage, however. Meanwhile, design’s ego is stuck in the middle, trying to mediate between these.

It’s a classic service-role that the ego of British design has been so good at. For a long time. Most crises come to resolution. But it’ll take a lot more honest talk for us to get there.



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Reflections on Alternative Exchange: how does design create alternative economies in contemporary culture?

Within the cool interior of the Angewandte Innovation Laboratory in Vienna (26 January 2017), this Salon unfolded in multilayered ways. This reflects the multiple sites, publics and processes through which alternative exchange systems take place, making them often allusive but always challenging to behold.

Bitcoin and blockchain. Localised hard-currencies. Timebanks. Informal systems of non-currency based reciprocality. Grey economies. Local Exchange Trading Systems. These are just some of the alternative exchange systems that have come to greater prominence in the West.

But beyond the West, it must be remembered that economies that exist outside the mainstream, registered and tax-paying systems occupy their major part. They represent around one-third of GDP in Latin America, the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and Central Asia. They account for two-thirds of employment in South and South East Asia and half in Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa. And it is here that we find various versions of entrepreneuralism that includes tinkering and hacking, and the use of informal social networks. In Brazil this is called gambiarra, in China its zizhu chuangxin, Kenya’s version is jua kali and francophone Africa calls it système D. All of these involve conscious design or design-like decisions. (There’s more on this in my book Economies of Design.)

Whether in these latter practices or among more self-consciously designed systems, other forms of ownership, knowledge circulation and expressions of value are at play.

l. to r.: Guy Julier, Alison Clarke, Matthias Tarasiewicz, Martina Grünewald, Özlem Savas (hidden)

l. to r.: Guy Julier, Alison Clarke, Matthias Tarasiewicz, Martina Grünewald, Özlem Savas (hidden). Photo: Leah Armstrong

Alison Clarke began by briefly referring to her past research on second-hand clothing and how it circulated with alternative economies to produce other forms of value. She reminded us that design had always been closely aligned with attempts to think about the world in terms of non-monetary value. Die Angewandte (Vienna University of Applied Arts) itself was founded 150 years ago on attempts to align material culture with social wellbeing rather than industrialism. She then invoked some of the design thinking of the 1970s by reference to Andre Gorz’s 1982 work Fairwell to the Working Class: An Essay on Postindustrial Socialism — that looked to the possibility of a post-consumer culture. The reflection, here, was that with automation and information technology to undermining traditional notions of labour, how do we have meaningful lives outside work? Following on, alternative economies therefore provide ways by which traditional notions of labour may be reframed around new values.

Martina Grünewald picked up from Alison Clarke’s observation that a challenge, however, lies in how many alternative economies are double-edged. While they may appear to have autonomy, they are always producing data that can get used in the mainstream economy which, in turn, can affect systems of value in the former. Drawing on her work with auctions and second-hand goods, Martina illustrated how these participate in the formation of design value elsewhere, pointing to trends and interests, for example. Alternative economies may weave in and out of mainstream economies and vice versa.

Özlem Savas drew from her research on Facebook groups involved in the exchange of knitting patterns. Here, participants create digital patterns and photo essays to share their skills. As such they are hybrids of producers and consumer (or, as Alvin Toffler had it, prosumers). New understandings of creative citizenship can emerge through such practices as cultural rights are freely circulated. In this context, there emerges a challenge to design expertise as all participants become designers, rather than it being confined to an exclusive ‘club’ of professionals. It isn’t all knitting, though. Such platforms for sharing design, making and repair proliferate through a range of applications and practice.

Matthias Tarasiewicz valiantly made blockchain appear reasonably simple. We have yet to see if the claim that blockchain will be bigger than the internet in terms of social, economic and political change. But it’s looking that way. With its 5,000+ alternative coins, used at both local and global levels, it suggests a radical disembedding of economic practices from those neoliberal ones we are mostly living with — controlled by macro-interests of the global financial systems and nation-states. And once its systems of value get decoupled from dominant financial modes, they enter into other embedded systems of value — social, communitarian, ecological and others. The extent to which these can actually be ‘designed’ — as in configured around new socialities and economic practices — or to which they will emerge with their own straight or twisted logics is still up for speculation.

The view from the Chair, l. to r: Alison Clarke, Matthias Tarasiewicz, Martina Grünewald, Özlem Savas (not hidden this time)

The view from the Chair, l. to r: Alison Clarke, Matthias Tarasiewicz, Martina Grünewald, Özlem Savas (not hidden this time)

Part of the challenge here may be in the anonymity of blockchain. Alison Clarke referred back to the brilliant work of W.F.Haug who wrote of design being a mediator of false values. Do some alternative economies do this still? Blockchain sets value through an alignment of multiple nodes communicating with each other. This may not be far from the social processes of the stock exchange or auctions with the big difference that the algorithms of blockchain do not play transparently into everyday life. Matthias Tarasiewicz would probably disagree here…

A key issue in alternative economies is in their different temporal rhythms and their entanglement networks in everyday life, perhaps. We heard about open source knitting patterns which may be slow-moving (writing and testing the pattern, digitizing etc.) but far-reaching (once uploaded it can move from localised knitting groups to global information flows). Meanwhile, in China the use of the WeChat app speeds transactions up and enfolds a number of different social practices (social media, ordering and payment for goods and services, wayfinding etc.). These weave digital and analogue space in and out of each other. In each of these examples, new geographies of exchange are created, though.

The financial crisis of 2008 has coincided with another hyper-wave of technological development. The invention of digital processes may be going quicker than we can deal with them. Sometimes these may exceed or supersede our ordinary abilities of creative action, as, possibly, in the case of Google Deepdream. Salon participants asked whether a backwash of this tendency would be a return to craft skills of making and deep creative action. It seems like we needed William Morris or John Ruskin in the room. Or to get closer to home, Rudolf Steiner…

Ultimately, design in itself may not produce alternative economies, but there are increasing opportunities for it to be engaged in these and for these to become part of the discourses in design culture.




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Brexit design: how will it function in and out of Europe?

Friday 3 February, 2017
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Clore 55

The Brexit referendum has caused economic and cultural turmoil. What does this mean for European and British design? Is there a distinctly European design culture and, if so, what is this? How might British design and the cultural industries become realigned post-Brexit? What other international alignments are there at work for British design?

ChairGuy Julier, Professor of Design Culture, University of Brighton and V&A / University of Brighton Principal Research Fellow in Contemporary Design. Author of Economies of Design, (Sage 2017).


Franco Bianchini, Professor of Cultural Policy and Head of the Institute for Research on Culture and the Creative Industries, University of Hull

Alastair Donald, associate director Institute of Ideas, co-founder New Narratives, convenor Future Cities Salon

Sarah Mann, Director of Architecture, Design and Fashion, British Council

Robert Mull, Professor of Architecture and Head of School of Architecture and Design, University of Brighton

Michael Thomson, CEO Design Connect and former President, Bureau of European Design Associations

This is a free drop-in event. No need to book.

This Salon coincides with the V&A’s ‘Collecting Europe’ week, supported by the Goethe Institute.

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Alt.Econ: how does design create alternative economies in contemporary culture?

V&A Design Culture Salon in collaboration with Department of Design History and Theory, University of Applied Arts Vienna

26 January 2017, 6pm- 8pm
Angewandte Innovation Lab, University of Applied Arts Vienna


From BitCoin to Timebanks, the emergence of alternative systems of economic value and exchange represents a profound shift in contemporary culture. But what role has design played in delivering this change and what are the possibilities-and values- for thinking about alternative economics in contemporary design culture?


Chair:  Professor Guy Julier, Professor of Design Culture, University of Brighton and V&A / University of Brighton Principal Research Fellow in Contemporary Design. Author of Economies of Design, (Sage 2017).


Dr Martina Grunewald, Postdoctoral Researcher in Design History and Theory, University of Applied Arts Vienna.

Professor Alison Clarke, Chair of Design History and Theory, University of Applied Arts Vienna and Director of the Victor J. Papanek Foundation, University of Applied Arts Vienna.

Dr Ozlem Savas, Assistant Professor, Bilkent University, Turkey.

Matthias Tarasiewicz, new media artsist and technology theorist, co-founder of Research Institute for Arts and Technology

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News: On design and making in China and Season 5

A video of the Salon for 22 April 2016 that was held at London’s ICA with the title of ‘On design and making in China’ is now available to view on YouTube.

I’m hoping to get some of audio recordings of recent Salons on this site in September.

Speaking of September and the new academic year, we’re currently putting together Season 5 of the Design Culture Salons for 2016/17. The new programme will be uploaded toward the end of September.

Have a good summer

Guy Julier


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Reflections on Design Culture Salon 21 ‘Queer Craft…?’

Queer Craft…?
20 May 2016

The brevity of the title for Design Culture Salon 21 — ‘Queer Craft…?’ — belies the complexity of putting these two challenging concepts and practices together and the volume of discussion that this act generates. Both terms — queer and craft — offer destabilisations of categories and categorisation. And thus, the ensuing conversation may best be described as sinuous. It never moved in a straight line.

Left to right: Catherine Flood, Conor Wilson, Matt Smith, Joseph McBrinn, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Laura Carderera, ‘We won’t give it to Putin a third time’, placard by By Seroye Fioletovoe, Alexey Kiselev, Abubakr Khasanov and Nadia Tolokno, carried in a protest rally in Moscow on February 4th, 2012.

Left to right: Catherine Flood, Conor Wilson, Matt Smith, Joseph McBrinn, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Laura Carderera, ‘We won’t give it to Putin a third time’, placard by Seroye Fioletovoe, Alexey Kiselev, Abubakr Khasanov and Nadia Tolokno, carried in a protest rally in Moscow on February 4th, 2012.


Julia Bryan-Wilson, Associate Professor, Modern and Contemporary Art, University of California, Berkeley, therefore kicked-off the discussion with a corkscrew trajectory. Julia quoted an interview with the artist Gregg Bordowitz where he says, ‘I’m very much interested in queer things. Queer things don’t yield easily to comprehension. They refuse to recognize or be recognized. They work from, or occupy a place of shame or embarrassment.’ Extending from this, we might think of links between craft objects and queer objects as being deeply embedded in abjection or lowness, particularly in relation to the category of fine art. We may also see this in relation to both uneasiness and pleasure. To do craft is to doing something queer; to do something queer is to do something crafty. However, perhaps these claims might be too generalising, she suggested. The terms are unstable and by allowing an ellipsis (…) we might also allow a pause to interrogate them and their relationships. Queer craft has, to date, been dominated by textiles, and so by opening up the materials under discussion further, we can push the debate on. Even so, Julia Bryan-Wilson proposed that textiles has a particular relationship to queer politics:  they mediate between private and public and structure bodily relations to the social. We are all experts in textiles, given our intimate and everyday relationships to them. Textiles activate desire.

Joseph McBrinn, Reader at the Art and Design Institute, University of Ulster, began his position statement by arguing that historically, textiles have not always been a feminizing process. Think sailors or soldiers repairing their kit. Thus we need to be more specific about the registers of handiwork that we are engaging with. As Julia Bryan-Wilson had also suggested, Joseph McBrinn acknowledged that the crafts are not always aligned with liberatory impulses. The crafts have been taken up and appropriated into several nationalistic or fascist regimes as oppressive vehicles for ensuring adherence to specific traditions and outlooks. Folk and vernacular art were taken up in Vichy France, for example. A second note of caution that Joseph introduced to the debate was that queer theory, on which contemporary definitions of queer so often rest, is changing twenty or so years after it grew out of the feminist and the lesbian and gay liberation movements. Its continued relevance today, its recent “anti-social turn”, and its origins in elite American universities are widely debated. Definitions of queer should be taken in relation to this context. Meanwhile, the debate has moved beyond reclamation of self-respect, arguably, to discussions of feelings in a fractured world.

Matt Smith, recently Artist in Residence at Victoria and Albert Museum and currently Honorary Visiting Fellow at the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies, argued for queer as having a double definition. First, this may be LGBTQ identification. Second, it describes a deviation from the norm. Craft and queer are both marginal situations in relation, in particular, to fine art and heterosexual normativity. While these marginalities may sit in relation to dominant positions, there is also an exchange that goes on between them. Making something is very personal, and has the ability for personalization; so, Matt argued, craft easily aligns with the making of identity politics. Craft objects can make a space in the world for alternative positions in nuanced ways. This nuancing makes it challenging to map any overall aesthetic sensibility for it. However, appropriation appears to be a common technique in it. It opens up multiple readings in its adaptations. It explores and deconstructs structures in society, allowing people to orientate themselves against these. It also opens up possibilities of hearing different voices and examining what interests are at stake in the construction of normative, dominant views.

Conor Wilson, Artist and Senior Lecturer at University of the West of England, developed on the idea of intimacy in craft making. Closeness to the materials, their performance and shaping in the context of functional objects means, he argued, that they are what they are. They do not necessarily, as in fine art, carry any metaphorical role. This pulls on Object-Oriented Ontology, that Conor mapped out. Here, it is understood that there is a reality independent of human thought or language and we can only access this reality through speculation. Objects have a reality, therefore, and have a relationship with each other. Conor Wilson then drew on an account of loading a kiln with cups that he had made where he had not, as yet, tested his process with these. He was happy to afford the cups their own reality, as it were, and the contingent risk of not being able to fully anticipate how they would turn out. This is where the process, he suggested, gets queered.

Catherine Flood, Curator of the exhibition Disobedient Objects, and Curator, Prints, Victoria and Albert Museum, drew a distinction between what she claimed ‘high craft’ and activist objects. In the latter case, the objects of ‘history from below’ may get left out of museum narratives but might – as LGBTQ objects can – disrupt the value systems of the museum itself. Catherine made reference to a placard that was made by a group of gay rights activists in Russia (see the object to the right of the photo). Taken out onto the streets of Moscow in 2012, it was the first time that the LGBT rainbow had been seen publicly. Clore 55, where the Salon took place, is in the middle of the British galleries, and Catherine Flood was enjoying the disruption of this relatively raw object amidst the high craft of the many objects around it. The placard is quite battered and grubby and is at odds with the highly finished objects normally associated with the museum. We might consider this as a kind of ‘unfinished object’, one that is locked into on-going struggle and, indeed, change of itself rather than a finished piece. (For more on activism and unfinished objects, my article, ‘From Design Culture to Design Activism’ may be of use here.) It may be a failure in terms of the quality of crafting expected in a museum. Or we might turn this round and view other, high craft objects as failing in crafting social change. Objects such as ‘Gaybashers…come and get it’, a banner by L J Roberts carried in the City Dyke March, New York in 2011 can be hybrid, moving between street protest and museums, between being craft and protest objects, queering standard categories.

From there the conversation, expertly guided by our guest chair, Laura Carderera, worked through a number themes. These included:  LGBTQ representation in the museum and normative, heterosexual dominance in curating; whether queer theory has atrophied or has moved into many new areas; the pressure of high expectations following a history of invisibility; varying forms of representation through queer craft. However, in finishing, I want to alight on two issues that emerged in the discussion.

The first initially appeared to come outwith the core of our discussion. This was regarding why there was so little representation of the background makers who are involved in the realisation of many art objects in support of the artist. As an audience-participant observed, at the cinema we get the complete credits of all involved in the production of a film. So why not in the making of the art object? This could not be a more timely question given the very recent publication of Glenn Adamson and Julia Bryan-Wilson’s Art in the Making that considers this in depth. If queer craft includes the disruption of hierarchies and structures and, thus, binary opposites of thinking and doing, acknowledging and exploring the collective work that goes into the production of art and other works may be highly relevant here. It challenges normative identities of individual artists. It may open onto new ways of conceiving of creative labour.

A second issue that was raised came from another field of identity politics, ethnicity. Queer theory has largely been a western discussion, and the need to incorporate non-western views of sexuality and gender was raised, as was the need to discuss the intersectionality between queer and other identity categories, especially race. Be that as it may, I wonder if the kaleidoscopic, shifting and sinuous qualities of queer theory mean that any identity, individual or collective, is transient. As a result, it may be common experience for anyone to feel both inside and outside any given situation. As, currently, a more-or-less straight male, for me parts of LGBTQ politics are sometimes easier to understand or feel than others. Accepting that partiality is more liberating than disappointing. As with craft, it isn’t compulsory to get all of it, all the time. But it is equally impoverishing not to try and get some of it.




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Design Culture Salon 21: Queer Craft…?

20 May, 6:30pm, Clore 55, V&A

Queer Craft…?

Queer has a double meaning: both as an umbrella term for marginalised identities and also as a deconstructive technique. When coupled with craft which also has a fluid meaning, the subject area provides opportunity for debate and multiple readings. Craft has historically been linked to issues of identity since the work of William Morris, through to its adoption by feminist and postmodernist artists.  More recently, craft techniques have been adopted by artists addressing identity politics including Nick Cave, Virgil Marti, Kent Hendricksen, Allyson Mitchell and Doug Jones as well as artists addressing craftivism. Queer Craft both addresses identity and also deconstructs assumptions about craft technique,  explored both explicitly and obliquely in exhibitions including Boys Craft (Haifa Museum of Art) and A Labour of Love (The New Museum, New York) and Boys with Needles (Museum London, Ontario). This Salon aims to explore the debates and multiple meanings that exist in the work of artists using craft and addressing queerness by considering the following key questions: What might queer craft be and what does it look like? Are the labels of queer and craft of use or a hindrance? Can craft learn from identity politics?

Chair: Laura Carderera, Residency Coordinator, V&A


Dr Julia Bryan-Wilson, Associate Professor, Modern and Contemporary Art, University of California, Berkeley
Catherine Flood, Curator of
Disboedient Objects and Curator, Prints, Victoria and Albert Museum
 Joseph McBrinn, Reader, Art and Design Institute, University of Ulster
Conor Wilson, Artist and Senior Lecturer at University of the West of England
Dr Matt Smith, Artist in Residence at Victoria and Albert
Museum and Lecturer at University of Brighton

Laura Carderera oversees the Victoria & Albert’s residency programme, supporting artists, designers and other creative practitioners who are invited to undertake research, develop public programmes and create work inspired by the museum’s collection.  Before joining the V&A, Laura worked as a Projects & Partnerships Manager at Delfina Foundation, where she developed thematic residencies for UK and international artists and curators. Prior to moving to London in 2012, Laura set up a contemporary art production company in Istanbul and also worked at the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo, where she oversaw their educational and public programmes for four years. Laura holds an MA in Arts Administration from Columbia University. She currently sits on the Board of the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo.

Julia Bryan-Wilson has been at the forefront of debates of queer craft since her article “Queerly Made” appeared in 2009 in The Journal of Modern Craft.  She is the author of Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (U California), and co-author, with Glenn Adamson, of Art in the Making (Thames and Hudson, forthcoming). Her book on textiles since the 1970s is due out in 2017 from the University of Chicago Press. She is associate professor of modern and contemporary art at the University of California, Berkeley.

Catherine Flood is a collections curator at the V&A specialising in popular print culture and graphics. She co-curated ‘Disobedient Objects’, a ground breaking exhibition about the art and design of grassroots social movements, at the V&A in 2014. She is currently working on the theme of how design affects our relationship with food.

Joseph McBrinn is a historian, critic and curator currently based in Northern Ireland. Born in 1971 he was educated and has worked in the Ireland, Scotland and France.  He has held teaching positions at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, in the Republic of Ireland, and, currently, at the Belfast School of Art, Ulster University, in Northern Ireland.  He has written articles and reviews for Embroidery, Selvedge, Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture, Homes Cultures, Fashion Theory, Art History, The Journal of Modern Craft, Journal of Design History and Oxford Art Journal.  His current research is focused on masculinity and design.  His book, Queering the Subversive Stitch: Men and the Culture of Needlework, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury.

Matt Smith was the 2015/2016 V&A Artist in Residence in the Ceramics Galleries.  His practice often involves institutional critique and responding to cultural organisations. Solo exhibitions include Queering the Museum at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and Other Stories at the University of Leeds.  He exhibits and also talks about his practice nationally and internationally (Society for Contemporary Craft, Pittsburgh, KHIB Bergen, Konstfack Stockholm, Valand Academy Gothenburg).  He co-founded Unravelled Arts which commissioned contemporary art for National Trust houses in order to explore their marginalised histories. He is an Honorary Visiting Fellow at the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies and has recently completed an AHRC-funded, practice-based PhD in Queer Craft at the University of Brighton. In 2014 he was awarded the inaugural Maylis Grand Young Masters Prize for Ceramics.

Conor Wilson. Having taught theory and practice across a range of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in art and design, Conor Wilson is currently senior lecturer in Interior Design at the University of the West of England. Despite developing a specialist knowledge of ceramics over 25 years, he characterises his practice as a mix of craft and bricolage and veers between various processes and approaches that fall under the broad disciplinary umbrellas of art, craft and design. He was awarded a Jerwood Contemporary Makers prize in 2010 and work is held in many private and public collections around the world. Currently in the final stages of a practice-led doctoral project (Writing_Making: Object as body, language and material, Royal College of Art), Wilson has adopted Tim Morton’s conception of objects as ‘strange strangers’ (and rhetoric as a means of contacting them) and has been exploring craft making as an intimate engagement with, or a form of contact with, another object.

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