Potential of miscommunication

From Beyond Social

Author: Barbara Alves

—Era o Velutha? (—Was it Velutha?)

—Ãhhhh… nãsim… nhh… nhquase… (—Ãhhhh… noyes… nhh… nhalmost…)

—Tens quase a certeza? (—You’re almost sure?)

—Não… era quase Velutha, quase se parecia com ele… (—No… it was almost Velutha, almost looked like him…)

—Então não tens a certeza? (—So you’re not sure?)

—Quase não (—Almost no).

—Joana Fartaria in ‘Facebook.’

Socially and Political Engaged Design Practices and the Potential of Miscommunication Design

The exchange above took place in Mozambique, a country where the official language is Portuguese, but where different languages proliferate, with people speaking, as mother tongue, Bantu based languages and later learning Portuguese at primary school. Local languages have a strong oral tradition, and co-exist with Portuguese (the language brought by Portuguese colonizers) and English (from neighbouring South Africa). In my experience working in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, the strangeness of communication illustrated in the quote above presented a constant challenge to communicative exchanges and this reflected into my work as a communication designer and teacher. For example, during a workshop I asked a group of participants to translate the word ‘community’ from Portuguese to Xichangana (the local language) so that we could paint a mural. There was no direct translation and this apparently simple question generated a long debate, where in attempting to carry the meaning of ‘community’ into Xichangana, students had to negotiate different perspectives on what community signifies: for example, for some it was people, for others it was village or country, with students strongly disagreeing between each other. This discussion opened multiple interpretations to how ‘community’ is perceived and interacted in a country with a great number of NGO’s presenting and working community development projects. In this sense, impacting the quality of participation within these projects, because understanding community as a village, or ‘the people’ provokes very different modes of engagement with a project, as was visible in the heated discussion taking place within my workshop. But, during my prolonged stay in Mozambique, this strangeness of communication was not only brought in through the discussion of language. For example, at the National School of Visual Arts (ENAV) students approached me asking for lessons in colour, so that they would be able to ‘design.’ I reacted with great surprise, telling them how I was inspired by the combination of colours and patterns around me—stating they should teach me about colour. Their response was to laugh and say, ‘But Teacher! That’s not design! We need to use design colours.’ Significantly, from talking to students, it appeared to me, students felt excluded from design with a capital ‘D’ by needing to adapt and fit into a certain understanding of what the field might entail. My impression was that the notion of ‘Design’ seemed to remain exterior to their environment, and made them feel at the periphery by attempting and failing to comply to the conditions necessary to become a ‘Designer.’ It was as if the concern with becoming knowledgeable of what fosters the terms of a ‘good communication design’—in this case correct colours—prevented students from a profound engagement with the concepts, processes and ideas, which could connect communication design to their daily life. In observing the field of socially responsible design, situations, such as these are recurrent, and thread important questions to the field because it seems that in establishing the terms in which design processes take place, designers are also taking on a set of assumptions, for example, in the case of the word ‘community,’ perhaps overriding the manifold ways in which the idea of community is inhabited and exchanged; in the case of ‘design colours,’ conditioning communication, to the terms in which colours may be appropriately interpreted, and in the example above, excluding the students at ENAV from these. Both in the case of translating community, as with the students at ENAV, it is possible to envision how potential qualities of participation are flattened by the way the terms in which a design process is constructed are understood. My contribution here is drawn from my conviction that it becomes increasingly important to question these assumptions, in particular within learning environments. My proposition is to approach design processes by observing and working from/with the miscommunications emerging from the practical grounding of design. I have been developing this idea within my research, in this text I do not have the space to detail the concept and practice of what I propose as miscommunication design, but would like to generally frame miscommunication in problematising teaching and learning socially and politically engaged modalities of design. An example that allows unpacking ideas further can be found in Permanet, a mosquito net included in the exhibition Design for the other 90% at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, in 2007. In an introductory text to the catalogue of the exhibition Design for the other 90% at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, curator Cynthia E. Smith includes an example of how designers may transport themselves into another environment in order to better a group of people:

imagine you only have 2$ to live on for a day and have to choose among food, shelter, clean water, health, or pursuing an education. An instructor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Amy Smith, asks her students to live on 2$ per day for a full week to help them better understand the choices faced by almost half of the world’s population, 2.8 billion people.

While, on the one hand it is possible to understand this exercise as a movement towards building a sense of solidarity regarding a group of people. On the other hand, this example also highlights how the field is taking on a set of assumptions, by relocating one facet of people’s lives (2$) into a context where almost every single circumstance is different. In this sense, flattening and simplifying the lives and contexts of a group of people (described in far too generic terms). Permanet will be discussed here to illustrate how this generic treatment of the public, context and problems of design projects transport assumptions that hinder a more profound questioning of design processes. Permanet is a long lasting insecticide-treated mosquito net designed by Vestergaard Frandsen and distributed in seventy-two countries located in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and a few countries in South America where there is a high incidence of Malaria, responsible for millions of deaths each year, particularly among children.

IMAGE Left: Permanet 3.0 presentation photo, from its manufacturers (Vestergaard Frandsen) website. Vestergaard Frandsen, "Permanet 3.0," http://www.vestergaard-frandsen.com/permanet/permanet-3 accessed 25 May 2013 Right: Image illustrating Fast Company’s article ‘From Hotel Uniforms To Life-Saving Water Filters: Evolving The Humanitarian Entrepreneurship Model’ by Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen, June 27, 2012. Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen, "From Hotel Uniforms to Life-Saving Water Filters: Evolving the Humanitarian Entrepreneurship Model," Fast Company, http://www.fastcompany.com/1841273/hotel-uniforms-life-saving-water-filters-evolving-humanitarian-entrepreneurship-model

IMAGE Dance company Montes Namuli rehearsing in Quelimane on xx xxx 2009. Photograph by author.

Mozambique is one of the countries where Permanet is widely distributed, as I had the opportunity to personally observe during a prolonged stay in the country. Traveling to the North of Mozambique I stayed overnight in the city of Quelimane, the capital of the province of Zambezia. Quelimane is a small town close to the equator and bordering a natural bay of the river Cuácua. The heat, and the proximity to a large amount of standing water make it a breeding ground for mosquitoes, and the infection rate of Malaria is high in this region. During my stay I met dance company Montes Namuli—who are based in Quelimane—and had the opportunity to watch them rehearse. The company is formed of dancers with classical training and dancers with training in traditional Mozambican dances. Montes Namuli mixes these two styles in choreographies developed to promote awareness regarding matters of concern to the community. This allows them to subsist, funded as a NGO. During the rehearsal, I first observed dancers performing the gestures of people happily fishing, and then watched as many fish died, followed by a dance of people with empty baskets. After the performance I was curious to understand the back-story to what I had just seen. Montes Namuli explained that there was a major problem with Permanet in the area. Permanet mosquito nets had been widely distributed around Quelimane, however, as malaria subsided a new problem emerged: the desertification of the sea. Because families generate low incomes, they used Permanet as a fishing-net. The consequence of using Permanet, rather than other, traditional fishing nets, was that the tight netting and toxins (designed to catch small mosquitoes) killed very small fish and reduced the number of fish growing to maturity. This practice was so widespread at the time (2009) that it constituted a major ecological problem in the region. NGO’s were now funded to sensitise communities regarding this problem. The way in which Permanet was appropriated for a different use than that intended in its original design, is a good example of the complexity in designing within socially and politically engaged design projects. Transporting Permanet into a particular context originated ripple effects emerging from the peculiarities of Quelimane; in prioritising food and an economical activity over malaria protection, residents chose to risk high rates of Malaria in order to provide income for their families. The marketing of Permanet is also worth consideration. The images employed to promote Permanet present mostly smiling people, generally black people, photographed, for example, holding a Permanet package, or pictured with a child at their lap reading a book on a bed where a Permanet is placed. Images framed in settings that, at least to me, seem strangely both familiar and unfamiliar, ambiguous because they are provocative of both empathy and detachment in an assumingly staged sense of reality. From these images, it seems the publics of Permanet, belong to a set of market oriented strategies, rather than the people living in regions such as Quelimane. Naturally, that as a profit oriented product, Permanet positions its communication material within a market directed at NGO’s, development programs, organisations and governments responsible for financing development programs. In this sense, bringing yet another intricate dimension to the reading of such projects: in their relation between markets, products, and publics. Permanet is a valuable and well-designed product that effectively protects from Malaria, but I propose to read Permanet as illustrative of a sort of miscommunication between the planning phase of a project and its implementation, between the people needing Permanet and those designing for them, between a strategic and tactical reading of a product. I am not defending that this miscommunication must or can be solved, but that miscommunication roots a project in a particular situation and becomes an important framework for practice. In 2012, those taking part in the Cross-sectorial agenda for Design, Education and Practice in Social Impact Design at the Cooper-Hewitt in New York, emphasised the ‘potential hazard’ of cultural bias in ‘implementing and sustaining social impact design projects’ within cross cultural settings. In my experience as a communication designer and teacher, my effort towards creating the good terms for a design process to take place, disclosed a realm of miscommunication in sensing that sometimes people said ‘yes’ because they never said ‘no.’ That ‘I will’ (in an indeterminate future) meant ‘no’ and that nodding ‘yes’ with closed eyes meant that I was becoming far too personal. I came to realise that, frequently, the people working with me tried to live up to my expectations regarding a project, rather than contributing their own voice. I intuited that in designing communication in and around a project I was overriding many silences and ignoring what I could not grasp; I sensed that another slower, hidden, challenging dimension inhabited my work. Moreover, that these kind of miscommunication, did not only concern language, meanings and signifiers, but were drawn by an inhabited, experiential dimension, that fact many times encapsulated different and potentially disruptive perspectives, while showing small signals to its existence, apparently leave a design process unchallenged. In ‘A Cosmopolitical Proposal’, Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers proposes a reading of the environment as cosmos, by connecting ethos and oikos (a being to its home) to suggest that all might be rendered equally important, whether subject or matter, human or nonhuman, willingly or unwillingly taking part in political assemblages. In this sense, reminding us that political arenas are actually ‘peopled with shadows of that which does not have, cannot have or does not want to have a political voice’ and proposing an ethico-political and practical staging of the political where:

Political ecology affirms that there is no knowledge that is both relevant and detached. It is not an objective definition of a virus or of a flood that we need, a detached definition everybody should accept, but the active participation of all those whose practice is engaged in multiple modes with the virus or with the river.

In an ethico-political perspective, an ‘objective definition’ becomes fragmented into multiple practical engagements, within a particular situation, rather than presented in generic, equal terms for a generic public, but rather gathering those affected to the situation, to ‘think with’ the situation. This practical mode of redrawing questions around a situation means working with the particular miscommunications affected to a situation. But how to influence this type of approach within an educational setting? I believe miscommunication can be a way forward by contributing to locating terms within the domain of the practical, by focusing on the minor, by observing and working with the performative and material dimensions affected to design processes, which are affected to a positioning and participation of a designer in the ecology of a design project. Then miscommunication design becomes about working from and with miscommunication, it becomes about asking the question what does it mean to miscommunicate within this particular situation in which I am working? And miscommunication can assume a diversity of forms, for example, it may mean that there is only partial communication taking place due to a technical interference, it may emerge from a lack of clarity of the terms being used, or that people are departing from different stands or have different understanding of concepts. Miscommunication frequently emerges within power struggles, where one part is apparently complying to the terms of an exchange but still resisting by producing miscommunication that point to modes of tactical resistance. Miscommunication can be raised from different ways of doing, even when following similar guidelines or departing points, but by inhabiting situations very differently. Miscommunication may be drawn from reading a situation according to existing questions, rather than being able to draw new questions that help render new readings of situations. Miscommunication can emerge from a contrast between planning and implementation, between logistics and meaning, between designing and participating, and from participating in communication from different perspectives and different affects. With this small introduction to miscommunication my hope is that these points can be part of a discussion of what practicing and teaching within the field of social design can be.


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