Ana Jeinić: The tendency to read the potential of “salvation” into disaster is questionable in many respects

October 10, 2019

Ivica Mitrović and James Auger talk with the independent architectural researcher, educator, curator, and utopianist based in Graz and Banjaluka.

Ana Jeinić (born 1981 in Banjaluka, SFR Yugoslavia) is an independent architectural researcher, educator, curator, and utopianist. She studied architecture and philosophy in Graz, Venice, and Delft. Upon graduating from Graz University of Technology, she was assistant professor at the Institute of Architectural Theory, Art History, and Cultural Studies in Graz (2010–2015), a guest researcher and lecturer at Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (2014), and a member of the organisational board of Anatomy of Islands Association in Croatia (2014–2018). She co-edited the volume Is There (Anti)Neoliberal Architecture? (2013), led the curatorial project Architecture After the Future (2016/17), and has published numerous articles, essays, and speculations about architecture, landscape, islands, and utopias. Currently, she is finalising her doctoral thesis at the Institute of Architectural Theory, Art History and Cultural Studies in Graz. She has conceived and organised Grazotopia – a year-long experiment in collective utopian urban planning that will take place in the framework of Graz Year of Culture 2020. 

The field of architecture has a rich history in speculation (for example the radical architects of the 1960s and the paper architects of the 1980s). You have commented on the growing interest in design speculation – why has this shift into (the field of) design taken so long to happen and what can be learnt from architecture?

In the 1980s and 1990s, the anti-utopian, “there-is-no-alternative” attitude of neoliberalism, which became the dominant political doctrine of the era, created a rather hostile environment for (socially relevant) utopian speculation in architecture and other design disciplines. At the same time, the political left, which increasingly distanced itself from a Marxist critique of capitalism, as well as from the aspiration to create an egalitarian, classless society, became itself deeply sceptical of comprehensive, large-scale projections of alternative socio-spatial models, seeing them as intrinsically “totalitarian”. As a result, the experimentation in architecture became increasingly restricted to formal gestures, methodological considerations, new materials, and emerging (green) technologies. When the advancing neoliberalisation of the world society revealed its dire consequences, the interest in the political dimension of architectural practice re-emerged – however, the new socially engaged architecture (exemplified e.g. by Berlin-based collective Raumlabor or Paris-based group Atelier d’Architecture Autogérée) was more interested in immediate effects of small-scale ephemeral constructions and tactical urban interventions than in bold future visions. Only recently, when it became evident that the overall destruction of the planetary socio-ecological system was not a question of a distant future, but of a very near one, did speculative projections of alternative future scenarios regain importance and appeal. In my opinion, it is this general shift in cultural imagination that has played a major role in the recent comeback of the future in design disciplines including architecture.

The Kitchen Monument, Raumlabor

From your perspective, what is the role of design in the post-socialist, post-industrial and post-conflict context of ex-Yugoslavia? Do you think that design could be a vehicle for the new start – for “life after disaster(s)”?

The design practice I am interested in is the one that could contribute to the agenda of radical politics by envisaging socio-ecological realities and forms of (co)habitation beyond capitalism. However, design can play such a role only if it is a part of broader social forces striving toward a future horizon that is radically different from the destructive order of exploitation and domination in which we are immersed today. In the post-Yugoslav countries, in which an enormous arsenal of ideological weapons has been used for years to delegitimate the Yugoslav model of socialism, the claim that there exists no desirable and realistic alternative to the system of (capitalist) economic and political relations established in the 1990s is deeply entrenched, causing a permanent crisis of future-oriented imagination among emancipatory social movements. In such a situation, the revival of future-oriented approaches in design disciplines, which is a result of the rising popularity of “speculative” strategies in the international architectural and design culture, can hardly overcome the propensity for (post)catastrophic scenarios. In the absence of a political agent capable of preventing the impending socio-ecological grievances, the emerging speculative architectural and design practices tend to portray the disaster itself as the only possible catalyst of an emancipatory transformation. A vivid example of this approach are fictional future-scenarios for five Croatian cities developed by young members of the local sections of Croatian Architects’ Association (UHA) for the 53rd Zagreb Salon that took place last year – nearly all scenarios were based on the idea that the overall chaos and terrifying living conditions in the cities of the near future would trigger self-organised, spontaneous, egalitarian, and inclusive forms of social cooperation. In my opinion, this tendency to read the potential of “salvation” into disaster, which Ashley Dawson pointedly termed disaster communism, is questionable in many respects.

What is required for unifying projections into a comprehensive utopian horizon is a broader future-oriented political culture and a unified and well-organised global social movement.

Many Speculative Design projects have been criticised for glamourising dystopian future imaginaries – and as such perhaps reducing their critical impact. Where do you see the power of speculation in design and why is it so difficult to imagine more positive futures?

I think that it is not only easier but in a certain sense also more realistic to envisage dystopian than utopian futures today – not least because for many people in many parts of the world the climate apocalypse is no longer a distant future threat but the immanent condition of their everyday life. Acknowledging this fact and envisioning scenarios for the near future that would enable an immediate improvement of living conditions, foster self-organisation, and enhance resilience in such (post)apocalyptic environments presents a vital task for contemporary design. Yet, this is in my opinion still not the reason for surrendering to the devastating force of capitalism and allowing its violent (self)destruction to go on unhindered. Even if it is true that apocalypse bears the germ of an egalitarian social transformation, we should by no means let it become the global environmental condition, because the continued worsening of living conditions around the globe will have billions of human and non-human victims – and the victims will tend to belong to those most deprived, who lack the critical resources to sustain life. This confronts emancipatory design and anticapitalist political activism in general with a rather paradoxical task of being realistic and utopian at the same time – realistic when it comes to interpreting and acting under the present circumstances, and utopian when it comes to envisioning and carrying out long-term scenarios for a post-capitalist, post-anthropocentric, and post-growth habitat.

Certainly, due to the scale and specificity of common design tasks, utopian design speculations will only rarely encompass the totality of larger socio-ecological systems – the practice of design can generate new objects, technological devices, or spaces (and, by that, give rise to new social practices), but it alone can hardly engender new macro-models of socio-ecological relations. What is required for unifying such specific projections into a comprehensive utopian horizon is a broader future-oriented political culture and a unified and well-organised global social movement. Only under these conditions can Speculative Design projects avoid remaining limited to particularist inventions and imaginative – but ultimately impotent – provocations.

Regarding to your talk at XIV Internationales Bauhaus-Kolloquium (https://www.bauhaus-kolloquium.de/programme/ana-jeinic), do you think that contemporary speculative practice tends to neglect the more complex problems of neoliberal capitalism, corporo-political agendas and so on (the systems in which mainstream design exists)? Should it (and could it) adopt a more political/activist role, and how?

The political left of the late 20th century, which provided the conceptual backbone for the critical design practice, tended to either show little interest in or be a priori critical of technological innovation. As a result, not just the majority of political theorists and activists, but many architects and designers as well, were all but illiterate when it came to new technologies. By contrast, the majority of contemporary design strategies that are commonly summed up under the label Speculative Design are related to theoretical discourses that have vehemently rejected the old left’s technological pessimism and showed much interest, or even enthusiasm, for new technologies. I think that this renewed interest in technology is generally a positive tendency considering the tremendous effect that recent technological innovations have not only on our daily life but on quality, structure, and dynamics of socio-ecological relations on both micro and macro scales.

An indisputable merit of Speculative Design and the related theoretical discourses lies in attributing agency to nonhuman (bio)technological entities and asking important questions about possible future entanglements and splits occurring within a complex socio-technological sphere inhabited by such entities. These kinds of speculations contribute significantly to dismantling the anthropocentric biases implied in much of the old-school critical social theory and design. However, what is often missing in the daring, imaginative, interrogative, and provocative design experiments with artificial intelligence, blockchain-based systems, bio-synthetic organisms, machine sensing, additive manufacturing, drones, robots, etc. is the awareness of how all these high-tech objects, assemblages, and protocols are embedded in global economic processes, legal frameworks, ownership patterns, territorial structures, policing strategies, and models of governance typical of contemporary capitalism. The latter produces uneven power relations and unsustainable socio-ecological metabolisms, so that the invention and application of every new technology always takes place within the relational field characterised by profound structural inequality and unsustainability. Certainly, we are not dealing here with a simple, one-way relation, since technology has itself a transformatory effect on the social system in which it is developed. However, if this transformatory potential is to have a truly emancipatory function (that is, if it is to play a role in constructing a more just and sustainable post-capitalist world), design practices dedicated to speculation about alternative technologies should be closely linked to egalitarian social movements. In other words, redesigning, repurposing, radicalising, or questioning emerging technologies, as long as it happens outside the sphere of political organising and debate, can in itself not trigger a meaningful social change. Failing to recognise this fact is in my opinion the main shortcoming of much of contemporary Speculative Design practice.

It is therefore of decisive importance for those designers interested in fundamental social change to distance themselves strictly and clearly from the neoliberal entrepreneurial culture and dismantle its ideological underpinnings.

How can we resist or overcome the situation where avant-garde design/architecture practices, established as a resistance to the dominant system, ultimately become appropriated by the system itself?

If we understand design practices and forms of artistic expression as specific cultural technologies, my position in regard to this dilemma is directly related to the answer to your previous question. Just as technologies (be they material or immaterial; artistic, governmental, economic, or military) that have been developed in the framework of a specific social system can be turned against that very system, the same also applies in reverse: technologies that have been developed to facilitate an emancipatory social change can at any moment be appropriated by the social forces that are opposing the desired change. It is a little bit like in warfare: no one of the parties involved in a military conflict can ever prohibit other parties from appropriating tactics and weapons that it has developed for its own use. This is why I insist so much on political struggle and on connecting critical design practice with emancipatory social movements. Technologies will always change hands, but the balance of power on the battlefield will ultimately depend on the relative magnitude and endurance of each force, on the willingness to build meaningful alliances, and on the capacity to adapt to ever-changing conditions and envisage possible future scenarios. These three factors can be described as power of determination, power of association, and power of speculation. All three are equally important for a critical design practice if it is to serve truly emancipatory purposes and obtain a social importance beyond the narrow professional circles.

While we have already talked about the power of speculation and association (the importance of building meaningful alliances), I would like to add something about determination. If we stick to the warfare metaphor, determination implies in the first place the ability to map the battlefield and position oneself within it – this means, in the context of design, to have a clear picture of one’s own (political) position and an idea of how it can be transformed into practice. This is a difficult but crucially important task, because the practice of design occupies an utmost slippery terrain in regard to political ideologies that it implicitly or explicitly expresses and social consequences that it willingly or unwillingly produces. The slipperiness that I refer to has something to do with the fact that the “progressive” design culture of our time is closely related to a sort of “new age entrepreneurship”, which conflates the interest in emerging technologies with anarcho-capitalist notions of freedom, decentralisation, and self-organisation. This culture and the associated approach to innovation, planning, and governance popularised under the label design thinking have brought about a series of impressive inventions, which are commonly wrapped in the revolutionary rhetoric promising a profound socio-technological transformation (think, for example, of the new generation of blockchain-based platforms like Ethereum). Yet, while it is true that such inventions can and do transform capitalism (for better or worse), they cannot contribute to its overcoming – at least as long as they remain attached to the entrepreneurial milieu within which and in the interest of which they have been developed. It is therefore of decisive importance for those designers interested in fundamental social change to distance themselves strictly and clearly from the neoliberal entrepreneurial culture and dismantle its ideological underpinnings.

Could you tell us more about your forthcoming project Grazotopia which, we hope, will be also connected with the SpeculativeEdu project?

I am very enthusiastic about Grazotopia because it should enable testing in practice many of the concepts that have occupied a central place in my theoretical work for years. It is conceived as a year-long experiment in speculative urban planning and housing policy that will take place in Graz next year in the framework of the city’s comprehensive cultural programme Graz Year of Culture 2020. The first goal of the project is to envisage plausible alternatives to the prevailing trends in urban development that tend to remain entrapped in the economic model based on the imperatives of profitable investment and economic growth. The second goal is to try out a concept of collective utopian planning, the aim of which is to expand the conventional domain of citizens’ participation in planning processes by empowering non-experts to engage in the development of holistic proposals for the future of the city as a whole. In order to achieve the described goals, the project sets the framework for a multi-step planning process involving local and international experts, students, and interested citizens. The envisaged process will include research, education, planning workshops, consulting, publishing, and an exhibition. The thematic focus will be put on degrowth economics, postbiological cohabitation practices, affordable housing models, inclusive and just financing schemes, adaptive reuse of the existing building stock, alternative ownership concepts, community-based decentralised energy networks, and adaptation of blockchain and other emerging technologies to serve equitable distribution of available resources. The project will be realized in cooperation with Gabu Heindl Architektur, House of Architecture (HDA) Graz, Schauraum Magazine, Amateur Cities, and Institute for Cultural Anthropology and European Ethnology at the University of Graz, while the educational programme will be integrated in SpeculativeEdu.

Superstudio, Liebe Grüsse aus Graz von Superstudio