We are developing a critical visual and verbal language. It is getting sharper
Gert Staal talks with Alice Twemlow,
Head of Design Curating and Writing
Design Curating and Writing (DCW) is the most recent addition to Design Academy Eindhoven’s Masters programme. The introduction in 2014 resulted from a series of talks on the growing relevance of critical reflection, editing and curatorial skills within the design domain in general, and the recognition that for a specific group of master students, design research doesn’t necessarily translate into designs for products or systems. After three pioneering years, how would you describe DCW’s playing field today?
When Justin McGuirk set up the department, he intended to import an academic milieu into what is essentially an art school. I moved to the Netherlands in 2015 and joined him in the department. We set out to introduce cultural theory as a main component of the curriculum. When it became increasingly hard for Justin to combine heading a department with his other activities, I was appointed co-head, and then in the summer of 2017, I took over. I began to rethink theand started to try to . Now DCW is becoming a space for students to experiment with the tools and formats of 21st century writing and curating.
We’re still faced with the odd situation that the department is not directly linked to a museum collection, but we have managed to forge a close and productive cooperation with the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. Our department has five tutors from the museum and although it is an art museum, and these curator-tutors don’t have design curating expertise per se, their critical approach and their deep knowledge of museology and curation in general is extremely valuable. Furthermore, Van Abbe devotes a significant proportion of its programming to creating exchanges with the community through its increasingly ‘porous’ walls. We fully support, and are happy to be a part of this ambitious and experimental curatorial ethos.
The professional context for design writing and curating is changing rapidly. How do you deal with the consequences?
The programme investigates established and emerging practices in which curators operate in between institutions, heading festivals and biennials. The same applies to writing. You just need to look at how fast today’s media landscape is shifting to understand that it doesn’t make much sense to go on teaching disciplinary skills. Design writing has found new platforms and embraces new editorial programmes, which is why our students work with video and chatbots next to their essays and research reports.
Does this mean that DCW takes a different stand on design research, compared to the other departments?
Our approach to design is certainly different. Which makes sense of course, considering that our students reflect on creation instead of what happens for instance in Contextual Design, where students create on the basis of reflection. Students in DCW use their research skills to look out at the world. Their research engages them in a variety of fields, from theory and history to technology, politics and journalism.
I have noticed the difference in the collaborative project during the final trimester of the first year. Students from all departments are mixed in groups to work on a project defined by an external commissioner. I clearly saw how DCW students contributed to their groups a different kind of research—based on rigorous reporting, ethnographic approaches and archival research. I also saw how DCW students benefited from working with students who commit to form much quicker and do their thinking iteratively through prototyping.
The research quality in DCW hasn’t gone unnoticed…
We were proud to see one of last years’ graduates – Nadine Botha – win the Gijs Bakker Award for best design research in the master departments. Her project on The Politics of Shit looks into the design history of the portable flush toilets from their invention as a camping accessory to their current application in the townships of South Africa, where they function as an insufficient alternative to regular plumbing. The research brought her to the townships in Cape Town where she talked to citizens and activists, she interviewed government officials and read policy documents. She researched the history of patents, the protest movement and much more to explore how these toilets actually visualise the hidden psychological, social, legal and political design systems that are at work here.
Why should such a research project be conducted from within a design school?
The quality of being in a school like Design Academy Eindhoven is that it acknowledges how design exists in the nexus of all these domains. Being amongst designers helps you see how design contributes to the creation of social, political and economic conditions that most of us will never associate with design.
Did you ever doubt whether the combination of curating and writing in one programme makes sense?
I can only say that they sit together very well. Especially since the implosion of the design media post-2008, many more writers and editors became aware of the opportunities in the museum space. And now publishing is recovering using new business models and formats. As a result, two practices that used to be quite separate are growing closer together. The tools and skills for both fields are actually different, but we look for ways to connect them in the curriculum. Some students do arrive in Eindhoven with a very clear preference for one or the other, but as we spend half the programme on writing and the other half on curating it doesn’t take long for them to feel comfortable in both.
Because students arrive from all over the globe and most of them will not be trained writers, their knowledge of the English language and the composition of texts could present a major problem.
Ideally our students have a curiosity or even a passion for design. They have been around a bit, done some work, have an inquisitive mind and a willingness to learn new things. It all starts from there. But it is true, the programme demands that students are highly sensitive to language. It forces us to be fierce about our students’ command of the English language, up to the level of details and nuances. Not all our students excel in that respect, but they have the opportunity to explore other formats. Curating can be a little more ‘forgiving’ in terms of language—many aspects of a proposal can be communicated non-textually. And let’s not forget that there are other vehicles of expression, next to language. As John Ruskin has shown it is possible to develop a variant of critical commentary through drawing, for example.
So, you select future students on a number of criteria, ranging from language skills to life experience. Is there anything else you look for?
The balance within the group is extremely important. I have learned to take risks in accepting students from truly diverse backgrounds and even those who may bring challenging perspectives to our discussions. I think this is vital for the group to function well. This year we have accepted a student from South America: a women’s sexuality activist, feminist, and extremely outspoken. We need such voices in our debates to make sure we are connected to the contemporary concerns of the world.
Could you give some insight into the structure of the programme?
For each trimester of the first year we work with a set of themes. The first trimester of this year is dedicated to the relationship between public and private space, and the use of data. We look critically at the concept of smart cities and the way governments and citizens create and use data streams. One of the aspects we are investigating is how the algorithmic turn affects the classic notion of the archive and the role of the archivist, and by extension, the curator. Around such themes we work on two external projects, one of which is currently a collaboration with the Netherlands Institute for Image and Sound (Beeld en Geluid) in Hilversum. We are making a collaboratively edited online reader for them, based on interviews, with its editing processes made transparent, as a form of archiving in itself.
Within the large framework of the themes we present, students will always define their own approach. Because we are a small department we can accommodate personalised approaches and through an intensive process of discussions and written feedback, we can guide students along very tailored pathways. At the end of each trimester in the first year students prepare a portfolio in which they present a selection of projects framed by an introductory statement that demonstrates how they connect to the trimester themes. In fact, the portfolio functions as a first step towards the thesis they will work on during the whole of the second year.
How about the second year?
We look upon the thesis as a research territory in which the individual students define their professional position. First they select their topic and research question, and then they conduct the research, and write a lengthy essay of around 10,000 words, with several thesis tutors to guide this process. As a second step, they develop a curatorial project, which derives from the whole or a part of the research. This project is presented at the Van Abbemuseum and the museum curators there assist students during the preparation. The third and last element is conceived to answer the needs – or should I say the straightjacket – of the academy’s annual Graduation Show. Last year we have asked our students to come up with a graphic translation of their project, especially for that occasion. But honestly, I have serious doubts about the format of an exam show that puts such a strong emphasis on the Instagramability of the projects. It doesn’t do justice to the research quality of many master projects and for DCW it is just too blunt an instrument.
Because the department is relatively small, you said, there is a strong connection between the students, and between students and tutors. But tutors at DAE only meet the students once a week. That can be an obstacle when you try to establish a department culture. Is it?
When I worked in New York in a similar department we created our own world; a place for deep immersion. In Eindhoven we had to define an approach that corresponds with the conditions of this school. Since 2014 we have moved towards developing a critical visual and verbal language within the department. It is getting sharper. Tutors from a variety of different backgrounds have played a huge role in this. They cover the total spectrum, and more importantly, they fit the fluid profile of the contemporary practice in their own professional work, which they bring to the students. In terms of topics we are completely relevant to the design discourse on visible as well as invisible design: systems, social interactions, the complex stuff that is not considered to be design.
How do you evaluate the quality of the output so far? And perhaps: where will your graduates go?
After only three years it’s too soon to say where the students end up, although several of them have found places in publishing or work for events such as the Istanbul Design Biennial. The quality of the output still needs to grow, we have to develop a terminology and strengthen the links with the professional world. Listening to last year’s external examiner Jana Scholze, who is an associate professor and course director of the MA Curating Contemporary Design at Kingston University London, we don’t do so bad. She was quite impressed with the level of work and especially the ‘reality’ of it.
Alice Twemlow is head of the MA in Design Curating and Writing at Design Academy Eindhoven. A design historian, writer, and educator, she is also Design Lector at The Royal Academy of Art, The Hague and an associate professor at Leiden University. Before moving to Amsterdam in 2015, she was the founding director of the SVA MA in Design Research, Writing & Criticism in New York. Twemlow has a PhD from the History of Design program run jointly by the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Royal College of Art in London. Her most recent book, Sifting the Trash: A History of Design Criticism, was published by MIT Press in 2017.
Twemlow writes and lectures on all aspects of design culture, and has contributed essays and reviews to Dirty Furniture, Journal of Design History, Design and Culture, Design Observer, Eye, Frieze, Night Fever: Night Club Design (Vitra Design Museum, 2018), Iconic Designs: 50 Stories about 50 Things (Berg, 2014), Lolita—Story of a Cover Girl: Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel in Art and Design (Print, 2013), and The Aspen Complex (Sternberg Press, 2012), among other publications.