By Chiara Alessi

Maybe there is space in Italy for design to emerge as a new specialized agent of political thinking, a tool of social, economic and gender critique.

This is news, of a sort, though it comes in the wake of certain similar experiments in the field of contemporary architecture. To clarify: all this will not take the place of product design, or of the design of processes and production as we known it or as it has developed over the last decade. But with talent and effort, it might find a place alongside such practices, multiplying their results. So we are not talking about political or social design that leads to artifacts (small, medium or large) like the ones we have seen, for example, in two important foreign exhibitions this year – “Disobedient Objects” at the V&A in London or “Design and Violence” now in progress at MoMA New York – nor about design as social and political critique inscribed in the approach to the project and its production, remarkably resolved in Italy during the 1970s and then studied and updated on the way into the 2000s by an ‘engaged’ middle generation. Instead, we are looking at ‘moments’ or occurrences – and it is no coincidence that performance has a lot to do with these episodes – in which design concentrates its character as a medium and as a vehicle for thought in action. It becomes a meaningful concentrate around which to unleash, through tools that belong to design itself, reflections that can have economic, political or anthropological impact. As examples of this ‘good news’ I would like to look at three particular political exercises: the work of Martina Muzi with Cargocollective, that of Giovanni Innella with IoRS – Institute of Relevant Studies, and the research of the Brave New Alps group, already involved (together with the “Cantiere per pratiche non-affermative”) in the important investigation on the economics of young designers (see Designers’ Inquiry, 2012). Three examples of Italian situations that – perhaps not by chance – have developed abroad, while keeping Italy as a favored counterpart in the dialogue. The term ‘exercise’ itself, which some of these designers use spontaneously to describe their projects, is no coincidence, borrowed from the experiential work conducted for several years now by the designer Riccardo Blumer in his university courses: “The whole concept that I call ‘knowledge making’ can be summed up in the sense of designing exercises of truth that school does not teach you, to find elements that constitute a critical capacity regarding the world.” From what they themselves describe as a sort of ‘allergy’ to certain schizophrenic modes of design and its affirmative practices, comes the project COMUNfARE: the practical part of a doctorate ‘by practice’ that Fabio Franz of Brave New Alps started in October 2014 at the Sheffield School of Architecture, with Doina Petrescu as advisor. In this case we are looking at a reflection on community, on relations and on ‘common doing’ as the basis for a “participatory and inclusive path that attempts to confront, in a situation of shared learning, the negative effects of the different types of crisis that are impacting contemporary society, both on a worldwide level and in a local dimension, questioning case by case the capacity of such activities to make the community they address more resilient. ” While the premises of the project spring from considerations that more or less intentionally ride the wave of a timely (and in certain cases exploited) political theme, such as the safeguarding of knowledges, a less predictable wager is that of making the project into research structured around intergenerational, intercultural, anti-racist and gender-aware relationships. Then there are others who instead absorb those schizophrenic dynamics and depict them with the updated tools of the 2010s. This is what is attempted, for example, in the projects of the Institute of Relevant Studies, an informal network opened in Rotterdam by Giovanni Innella and Agata Jaworska, who have been concentrating for some time now on the theme of communication in the cultural industry of design and on the designer as medium. The illustration of some of these dynamics can be seen on websites of ‘design tunes,’ ‘design words’ and ‘design graphs,’ where for example a series of animated graphics shows the results obtained by IoRS by monitoring the flows of certain Twitter profiles during the Salone del Mobile 2013. The graphics for the three projects substantially highlight the mechanisms that regulate the media popularity of designers, of key words of their projects, critical spread, schools and certain design brands. Precisely the way these results are narrated (in the case of ‘design tunes’ a para-compilation with the mixed voices of our ‘favorites’) is quite fascinating and enjoyable on its own, apart from the equally interesting things that are revealed: an ironic, irreverent, absolutely new and satirical way to talk about design. This updating of tones in the direction of a contemporary evolution of the narrative, including sarcasm and playfulness, can also be seen in the thesis of Martina Muzi, a student first at the Sapienza University of Rome, and then at the Design Academy in Eindhoven, with the project “The feminine space in-between.” The subtitle is “From home-place to home-space.” In practice: a point-of-view video in which the protagonist is Martina herself, seen in a ritual of accompaniment from her childhood home (in Rebibbia) to an apartment in Eindhoven, passing through a series of places (or non-places) highly characterized from a spatial viewpoint as social markers: first the courtyard of the apartment house, then the airport, the bus stop, the market, etc. According to Muzi, this is a personal exercise for the production of what she thinks of as a chapter in a work that is necessarily in progress: in this case, the creation of a dress/dowry that her parents, involved in the performance, fill up with objects of affection and useful things to help her through the passage. The result – more finished than Muzi might think – is a video charged with symbolism and dream-like qualities, but at the same time inserted in a narrative realism that is definitively now, and recognizable: the attempt to find a more contemporary and acceptable formula to narrate the evolution of the feminine gender (that of the Italian female born in the 1980s) from the intimacy of domestic spaces, where gender specificities are generated and developed, to the sociality of public spaces. If the history of feminism in Italy is primarily one of an elite, design can become a democratic bridge to imagine that the discourse on feminism can enter the homes of all. Once again: highly political content and a chosen medium (video) that is decisive to transform private reflections and research into a free, public presentation. “I ask the design discipline to consider women in their temporary stage as citizens of passage as the force for a social, cultural and political reproduction, and to celebrate them with the right to a place where expression, sharing and transmission can be public and visible,” says Martina Muzi. “The design discipline, embracing different media, technologies and forces of communication, has to act on everyday life, interpreting social and cultural factors necessary for a change and processing them with the means possessed by design.” We are not that far away from the manifesto of Giovanni Innella: “Welcome to an era of massive change. An era of unprecedented challenges and complexity. At this time, I would like to remind you of the power of design. Design is an agent of world change. It can synthesize complex processes. It can ask the right questions, provide a critical outlook and open up new perspectives.”