Trojan Horse: Concrete actions are not necessarily a grandiose intervention
Ivica Mitrović talks with Trojan Horse, an autonomous educational platform from Helsinki, about alternative models of design education.
Trojan Horse is an autonomous educational platform based in Helsinki. Trojan Horse organizes summer schools, live action role-plays, workshops and reading circles in the landscapes of architecture, design and art. Current (2019-2020) organisers of Trojan Horse are producer and curator Danai Anagnostou, architect and writer Kaisa Karvinen and designer and researcher Tommi Vasko.
Your work is not labeled Speculative Design but you use speculations and fictions as an approach or tool in your practice. Could you tell us more about Trojan Horse and your approach in this context?
Trojan Horse is an autonomous educational platform. Practically we are a small group of people working in the fields of architecture, design, and art. We organise gatherings and try out different kinds of collective research methods. Until now we have organized live action role-plays, summer schools, reading circles and exhibitions in order to support diverse, multidisciplinary, and experimental design and architecture culture. The work of Trojan Horse is always project-based, so if someone has a research question that could be tested collectively Trojan Horse can give a context to that.
After our first Summer School, we started to organise Live Action Role Plays. LARPs are collective exercises that take place in a fictional world. LARPs create a space where designers and architects can explore the unconscious preconditions and values hidden under the facade of contemporary design culture; a space that can even break the delusion of invisible everyday normalities. For us role-plays are a hybrid, messy, nonlinear method; a method that plays around with norms. But after all, it’s hard to say where the boundary between fiction and reality can or should be drawn. Maybe that is also the reason why we don’t label our practice explicitly as speculative.
Live Action Role Plays
Trojan Horse is strongly focused on education. How do you see the state of design education now? How has it changed from its modernist roots to today’s “troubled times”?
When we started to organise Trojan Horse events in 2015 we longed for a discursive space that would allow various experimental and diverse ideas as well as less privileged positions in design and designership to be heard. There were not so many critical, feminist, or experimental design discourses in Finland. At least not ones that would be sustained over longer time spans. There was also a lack of discussion on the roles designers can take in society.
During the last five years the culture has changed a bit at least here in Helsinki. It seems that there is more design theory in education and more discussion about political aspects of design than five years ago. Questions about decoloniality, intersectionality, and ecology are being asked more often in academia. It seems still though that we are lacking radical design activism that would be based on a commitment to alternative ways to practice architecture and design. At least in Finland. We still need platforms for a more open and diverse design culture. And we need more support for experimenting without the fear of ridicule and failure; to illuminate the power structures behind taking, building or defining your own or someone else’s role as a designer or an architect. Differences between modernist design education and current design or architecture culture is totally another topic to discuss when the structures of societies are profoundly so different.
Please describe how you transfer your approach / research to the education process. Do you see your education approach as radical practice?
For us organizing educational events, working on research projects, and artistic practices are something parallel and heavily connected. Our learning sequences depend on asking questions, facilitating peer-to-peer education, introducing and testing various research methodologies and caring for each other. These are all equally important parts of our practice.
As Trojan Horse, we ask research questions that we find urgent at that moment. Usually the questions emerge in some relation to our own artistic practices. Events that we organize work then as a structure for collective research around the question. The content of the events is a result of a collective effort, shared between the facilitators, participants, and everyone whose work supports our gatherings. Every year we try to be even more transparent to encourage people to join the discussion, regardless of their positions.
Coming back to your question, we think being radical is something relational. We try to reflect the struggles around us and support architects and designers to sustain more just ways of practicing and being in the world.
Becoming aware of our privileged position in the “system” is one constant struggle. Finding ways to take care and support others is vital.
How can we resist or overcome the situation where avant-garde critical design practices, established as resistance to the dominant system, ultimately become appropriated by the system itself?
This is also perhaps a question of how we understand the context and the temporal scales in which we operate. We have been constantly trying to ask what kind of discussions are lacking and what kind of questions seem to be too difficult to ask. Realising that global inequality, systemic oppression, racism, climate change and other ecological crises are urgent matters and very much related to our everyday lives as designers and as earthlings is vastly important. Becoming aware of our privileged position in the “system” is one constant struggle. Finding ways to take care and support others is vital.
It means we constantly try to become more aware of the processes of how we organize ourselves, where we get funding and how all this could become more open, accessible and sustainable over longer periods of time. For whom do we make our events? How can we make sure our participants feel safe? How do we make sure we ourselves can work in conditions that are okay for us? How can we make sure the structures we make do not support the destruction of our planet? These questions do not have a definite answer. Actually we would love any system to appropriate this questioning.
Reading and resting in Summer School (Foto Maija Savolainen)
Where do you see the potential – if there is any – for critical and speculative practice to generate concrete actions in order to reach different futures? How could this aspect be incorporated into the future of (design) education?
Concrete actions are not necessarily a grandiose intervention, they can be gentler gestures. Each summer we build a temporary camp on an island and aspire for a safer space for discussion, structured around a temporary communal routine outside the structures of our everyday lives. We spend several days living together and we form friendships. We form support structures that cross national and professional boundaries. And of course, the collective events are heavily affecting our own practices as designers, architects, writers, organisers and participants.
When we first started to organize a summer school and came up with the name for it, we thought that our events could work kind of like a Trojan Horse or a virus. Participants would experience a week of solidarity, care, collectivity, theoretical reflection and questioning of what it means to practice design, architecture, art and writing today. And they would take that experience with them and act towards what they find meaningful and urgent in the contexts and communities they call home.