Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 64, feb 2008

The poetics of the derrière-garde

When discussing design we often try to relate and judge it by certain qualities like economics, functions, ergonomics, and lately sustainability. But most important of these qualities has been the dream of the new – the innovation. We use these qualities to critically reflect our work, both product and process, to give it consistency and framing, and to show the direction of our intended change. They are qualities the design professions have learned to use and discuss. They are part of our toolbox in the constant quest for eternal modernization through product development.

However, we have long neglected concerns of more intangible values and qualities, “soft” ones like offering self-esteem and confidence or relations to the systems of meaning. Often this field has instead been explored by less serious approaches, such as new-age style makeovers, as seen in the lifestyle magazines, or entirely focused on aid projects for the developing world. At home we have been less active to instead put our hope on product-based well-being. But there are some inspiring examples and I will discuss two that I think we can use as a point of departure for further investigations.

One of the examples is the home-made magazine “Duplex Planet” by David Greenberger from the US that he started in 1979 and still publishes. When he began to work at the “Duplex Nursing Home” outside Boston he thought of making a small magazine for the institution where the residents could share their stories. The interest at the nursing home was limited, but instead David’s friends showed a much greater curiosity about the stories told by the elderly through the magazine. So the Duplex Planet was developed and has since then been released in over 180 issues, always focusing on portraying a wide variety of real characters who are old or in decline.

Nevertheless, the aim of the magazine is not to focus on their past life, but on who they are as individuals right now, to not let the elderly be stuck in an attitude of only looking back. Instead David’s aim is that we can get to know the residents as they are in the present, without celebrating or mourning who they were before. The texts are direct transcripts of conversations by the residents of the nursing home in response to David’s quite quirky questions, to reconsider their viewpoints and in a way “short-circuit” their memories: “What do you prefer; coffee or meat?” or “What did George Washington’s voice sound like?”


The work resulted in unexpected developments. In 1983 one of the writers in Duplex Planet, 85-year-old Ernest Noyles Brooking, was “discovered” by a publishing house and his poetry released in a book, We did not plummet into space. Thus Duplex Plantet became an energizing media channel for its contributors. People who by modern society were “finished” with their “productive” lives was served a line back into the world, to be seen anew as individuals who were still highly alive and not condemned to only their previous experiences and memories. With the help of David life at the nursing home was no longer the boring and anonymous waiting room for life to end.

Another example that interests me is the pirate-TV station “Disco Volante” that was run in the Italian small town of Senigallia starting in 2002. It was not really a tele-vision as much as a proxy-vision, a low-power, proximity, more local than local street broadcasting service with a radius of about one kilometer, reaching about 400 homes. It was run by a group of handicapped, led by Franco Civelli, suffering from severe post-polio sickness and bound to his wheelchair. Together they documented life for handicapped people in Senigallia, from their own experiences, the problems in everyday life and how they were treated by they surrounding society; as extraterrestrials. Therefore the name of the channel - “Disco Volante”, meaning flying saucer.

This small proxy-channel still challenged the broadcasting dominance from the Berlusconi-controlled media industry and it became a topic of debate as it was “illegal but constitutional”, technically unlawful but a leading voice under the freedom of speech. Civelli even won a major Italian journalist prize for his work, the Alpi award. During its time on the air the channel brought attention to how society treats the voices of its marginal groups, the unseen citizens that are often locked-up by the city’s physical infrastructure more than their actual handicap.

disco volante

None of these two examples are from subaltern or severely oppressed groups, but nevertheless they have lost social agency, are regarded as “unuseful” and have an existence outside the systems of meaning usually promoted in design magazines. They have been treated “mercifully” according to the welfare logic in our system, but still exist without an access to media or power of speech. But in the examples they were helped to reach out with their own voice, and they produced their own channels, their own stories, with the help of others. Small poetical gestures that indeed reflect larger social and political issues.

But can these small voices possibly offer any social change or shift in viewpoints? These examples are not about the politics of a young and radical avantgarde, neither is it about violent and stone-throwing protests to change decision-making processes. It is instead the work of a modest Sisyfos. Not a design process in the corridors of power, nor at the forefront of innovation or exquisite style. It is a design in the low scale, consistent and empowering, and most importantly – objecting the cynicism inherent in the system. In this way such a design practice is engaged in small change, tiny steps. With no general solutions but full of existential hope. However, if successful, this could be a design quite close to the one discussed by Buckmister Fuller, which he called “trimtab”.

Buckminster Fuller referred to the function of a trimtab in nautical and aeronautical design to demonstrate how small amounts of energy and resources precisely applied at the right time and place can produce maximum advantageous change. A small change becoming big.

When a large ship, such as a tanker, moves through the ocean, it has great momentum. Turning the rudder to change the direction of the ship requires great effort. However, turning the trimtab, the trailing edge of the main rudder, creates a small turbulence allowing the main rudder to turn with less effort, thus slowly pulling the whole ship around.

When most change is thought to be done by trying to turn the ship by pushing the bow around, Buckminster Fuller tried to create change by acting in the small turbulence by the rudder, the very last inches of the ship. To create change by acting small, but at the right place.

“I saw that by being all the way at the tail of the ship, by just kicking my foot to one side or the other, I could create the 'low pressure' which would turn the whole ship. If ever someone wanted to write my epitaph, I would want it to say 'Call me Trimtab'.”

And perhaps that is how we should also learn to understand and practice design, at the very back. Not necessarily dreaming of the big system change or the innovative breakthrough at the front. Not the arty avant-garde pushing the borders blindly forward. Not the top sellers or on the glossy pages of the magazines. But instead the home-made and small scale local interventions. Small interfaces like the proxy-channel or the self-published magazine. But still opening another field of action, rebuild an access point to a system of meaning, reveal a line of flight. No need of becoming big, or being the first radical avant-garde, but an honor of being the derrière-garde, the trimtabs, the beacons of hope.


next column >