Dash N’ Dem: Speculative Design needs to become more accessible

March 18, 2021

Sara Božanić talks with SpeculativeEdu team member Dash Macdonald and his partner Demitrios Kargotis on the importance of critical thinking and design activism.

Dash N’ Dem (Dash Macdonald and Demitrios Kargotis) are a design action group whose wide-ranging participatory projects centre on political education and engagement. Ideas inhabit varied media and platforms as a vehicle for agitation, using co-creation as a form of activism that provokes diverse audiences to speak out and think critically and creatively. Dash Macdonald is a lecturer in the Department of Design at Goldsmiths. Demitrios Kargotis is Program Leader, MA Art and Design: Interdisciplinary Practices at The School of Art, Birmingham City University.

You focus on designing on a local, micro-level, involving the public to participate in the design process and act in the public sphere. Why is that so?

Taking inspiration from the history of political theatre and collective creativity, particularly, Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, we are interested in reclaiming co-creation as a form of activism – rather than optimization. A question we keep coming back to is, how might a “Design of the Oppressed” function and how can participation be used to empower people and promote social change?

In the In Your Hands project, created in 2007, you proposed a radical concept in which the control of Dash’s life was in the hands of an audience. Can you tell us more about the project and the ethical parameters it challenged? How do you see this project today, almost fifteen years later?

In Your Hands was inspired by the book Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View by Stanley Milgram. After reading participants’ reflections of how their behaviour was shaped by the design of the experiment, we wanted to test how an experience can be developed as a form of conscious raising.

The production of In Your Hands as a carnivalesque counter-spectacle that collided social experimentation with street theatre played a really important role in the development of our practice. It informed our approach to combining critical theory and pop culture to create work that is accessible and agitational.

In Your Hands, Dash N’ Dem, 2007

In Grime up the River (2017), you deal with local teenagers, politics and social history of the River Lea through music. Can you tell us more about it? What is the process and thinking behind it?

It was a collaboration with Slix and Prince Rapid, original members of the pioneering East London Grime crew Ruff Sqwad, and young people from Spotlight Creative Youth Space.

When researching the political actions of working people on the River Lea, we came across a protest song that was chanted by the Match Girls during their strike action in 1888, as they marched against the inhumane working conditions at the Bryant and May match factory: “…We’ll hang Old Bryant on the sour apple tree, as we go marching on …”

This public shaming of Bryant and May steeped in the folk traditions of “rough music” resonated with the area’s contemporary Grime culture and the diss track. How Grime could be used as a young people’s political language and way to engage teenagers from Newham and Tower Hamlets with issues like workers’ rights, inequality and corporate greed that connect the river’s past and present.

Where does your own practice sit within Speculative Design?

Since 2018 we have been working with Nicholas Mortimer as Post Workers Theatre (PWT), a design troupe researching historic forms of political theatre and collective creativity and how they can be reimagined in a contemporary context. We hope to challenge the scope of Speculative Design by considering a broader history of radical participation and amateur creativity.

For example, researching how agitprop theatre became a public forum in the 1920s, involving workers in the analysis of social issues through a rich profusion of forms has encouraged us to explore how we can create folk narratives for our age or AI capitalism, collectively written stories of hope and resistance that challenge dominant corporate narratives of progress.

Protesteroo, Post Workers Theatre with Dr Nuria Querol and Dr Red Chidgey, 2019

In your opinion what are the limitations of Speculative Design?

Speculative Design was based on emancipating design from its reliance on commercial demands, but has as yet failed to escape from competitive and individualistic models of production that exist within exclusionary academic and professional markets. Speculative Design needs to become more accessible and develop collective strategies to engage people in confronting and rethinking their social reality.

What is the future of Speculative Design education and design education in general?

The right to speculate and be critical is something we need to fight for. It’s frightening to see critical thinking being censored and removed from mainstream education systems as we have seen in the UK, with the Tories’ recent ban on anti-capitalist resources in schools. Or, how universities now behave more like businesses than places of learning. As university workers, we feel it is now more important than ever to resist and challenge marketisation, consumerism, audit culture and the colonisation of the corporate academic. It’s time to place the emphasis on intellectual study flourishing rather than being regulated.

Grime up the River, 2017. Image courtesy Annie Kruntcheva

Next post

Previous post