Martin Avila: Speculating is a duty rather than a privilege

May 20, 2019

The designer, researcher and Professor of Design at Konstfack in Stockholm talks with Ivica Mitrović and James Auger about the state of Speculative Design.

Martín Ávila is a designer, researcher and Professor of Design at Konstfack in Stockholm, Sweden. His postdoctoral project Symbiotic Tactics (2013-2016) was the first of its kind to be financed by the Swedish Research Council. Martin’s research is design-driven and addresses forms of interspecies cohabitation.

What is your opinion on Speculative Design today, with a specific focus on its purpose and goals?

In my view, what today is understood as “Speculative Design” is a very valuable approach for pushing some limits, somewhere, somehow. Yet, I’d like to say that I don’t use the term “Speculative Design” in my own work, but I always discuss it or touch upon it while teaching. One of the reasons that I do not speak of “Speculative Design” is because I prefer to think of degrees of speculation, or criticality towards a given issue and avoid the many qualifiers to the word design – “speculative”, “critical”, “transition”, and others. All these elements are present in any design work, but in different degrees, always. Students that use the label “Speculative Design” nowadays have a tendency to avoid intervening concretely on something now, as if the present would not be already part of the future. The problem is often not really about degrees of speculation, but rather of not being conceptually coherent to be able to pull off a convincing proposal, thus diluting the value of the speculation as such.

Having said this, then, I believe that “Speculative Design” must continue to push critical agendas, renewing itself by challenging its assumptions, methods, epistemologies … but always in a design-driven way and under the name (category) “design”. Things qualify differently if they are named “art”, “philosophy”, “engineering”, or other. The word design still relates to the question “what does it do?”, “how does it affect us?” Then what follows with this is the work of disentangling what that “it” can be, who is “us”, and many other considerations.

Your last project Symbiotic Tactics was carried out in the contexts of Sweden, South America and Africa. First, could you say a little bit about this fascinating project, and second, describe how the approach changed (if it did) from place to place? Was the project also received differently?

Symbiotic Tactics was a postdoctoral project financed by the Swedish Research Council between 2013 and 2016. It was a collaboration with researchers at the Multidisciplinary Institute of Vegetal Biology (IMBIV) in Córdoba, Argentina and the African Centre for Cities (ACC) in Cape Town, South Africa. These two research centres connected then to my own institution, Konstfack (the School of Arts, Crafts, and Design) in Stockholm, Sweden.

Symbiotic Tactics (2013-2016), Doomestics

The project studied and speculated upon alternative forms of cohabitation with other-than-humans. Although I had originally planned to base one of the projects in Cape Town, the final proposals were all based on local ecosystems of the province of Córdoba. Their reception is certainly different at each of these (institutional) places, partly because of the audiences, for example, biologists and ecologists at the IMBIV, sociologists and anthropologists at the ACC, and artists and designers at Konstfack. But also this is partly due to the agendas driving the research at each of these institutions, for example, a more “scientific” and “positivistic” agenda at IMBIV, a more political agenda at ACC, and a research through practice agenda at Konstfack. All the projects that I did have an overlap of these three agendas, if we can call them that, and for this reason the plan was never to change approach, but certainly to emphasise one over the other, depending on where the projects were developed and how, in relation to what the projects involved.

We have to ask: the speculation of what, when and for whom? This is where the political dimension of design becomes explicit, and where “Speculative Design” has great potential in all kinds of contexts.

Regarding the criticism of Speculative and Critical Design (for example the discussion that was initiated by MoMA’s Design and Violence project) – as a non-European practicing in Europe you are in a good position to evaluate the impact this had (if any) on Speculative Design. How can such non-commercial approaches escape the tags of “privilege” or “elitism”?

I believe that the criticism is relevant. In a sense it is a result of the fact that a high percentage of so-called Speculative Design projects come from private schools with privileged students and teachers but, in my view and more importantly, also because most of them embrace technological views that take for granted too much (psychologically, socially, environmentally) in order to simplify and make a point about a particular issue. I understand the critique as not being about speculation per se, of course, but a critique of that technology that originates in certain European environments. We have to ask: the speculation of what, when and for whom? This is where the political dimension of design becomes explicit, and where “Speculative Design” has great potential in all kinds of contexts.

Perhaps what is more fundamental here is that those of us who are able to speculate at all, are part of a cultural dimension which is in its own manifestation a surplus, an excess and thus a privilege. But I disagree that this privilege comes from being “non-commercial”. First, in a cultural sense, there is a huge economy (thus a commerce) for the circulation of these types of (“Speculative Design”) artefacts. It could be equally argued that most design firms engage in design for the few, being not only privileged but extending and reproducing the privileging by imposing the norms and ways of being of those that design. Besides, in an academic environment, I would say that speculating is a duty, rather than a privilege. We have to critically assess and speculate upon alternative versions of reality.

To go back to Symbiotic Tactics, in all of these projects I speculated upon the possibility of creating less anthropocentric artefacts, in everyday contexts, and acknowledging ways of knowing environments that are not only less anthropocentric but also less Eurocentric (see: https://www.martinavila.com/projects/spices-species/). In any of these projects, the political, the ecological and the social/psychological are always addressed, something that I am continuing with as much as I am able to be articulate about these. I doubt that people would call them “Speculative Design”, yet, they have a high degree of speculation, made possible by the very privilege of being a researcher that works with ecologists and others to try to imagine alternative versions of everyday life.

What about Speculative Design (and related approaches) in Sweden – is it a widely adopted practice or just employed at a few educational institutions?

I believe that in Sweden Speculative Design projects are quite well known, even outside of academic environments, but I am not aware of institutions (and few people) that would explicitly claim to be doing that.

What is the ideal level of education in Speculative Design (bachelor, master, PhD)? What kind of previous experience provides a good background for a potential candidate?

I believe that, in general, the degree of awareness required to do “Speculative Design” as a coherent practice demands people with at least a BA. In this sense, MA and PhD students would be more likely to be asking the kinds of questions that can be triggered by design responses that confront us with alternative realities. Yet, we shouldn’t underestimate anyone’s capacities. Now that “Speculative Design” has become part of the cultural landscape, new generations (of students that come into contact with “Speculative Design” through teachers that have been working with these types of issues) are able to build upon them even at earlier stages of education because of the framings provided by educators.

Where do you see the potential of critical and speculative practice in generating concrete actions in order to reach different and better futures? How could this aspect be incorporated into education?

I really believe that there are no limits for this. Dunne and Raby’s Speculative Everything already suggested that, and although the book is far from speculating about everything, it pointed in this direction and contributed to the maturity of today’s interpretation of the concept of “Speculative Design”. The potential of critical and speculative practice should be applied to all areas. My preferences lie in the kind of speculation that confronts humans with alternative possibilities of relating to ecosystems in all their diversity, that is, in material cultures that produce a diversity of responses capable of tuning to biological and ecological diversity.

I believe that this can be incorporated into education by transdisciplinary work, provided that the agenda is design-driven and that the practice of design is of prominence for its capacity to engage (at least entertain intellectually) in alternative material and systemic realities that might influence the way we become humans collectively.

Symbiotic Tactics (2013-2016), Spices/Species



Next post

Previous post