DESIS PHILOSOPHY TALK #7.6 The Politics of Nature – A Conversation with Annemarie Mol

Tuesday May 24th 202210am-12pm cet

Z33, House for Contemporary Art, Design & Architecture in Hasselt.
The talk can be viewed here.

In this “DESIS Philosophy Talk #7.6 The Politics of Nature – A Conversation with Annemarie Mol”, organised by UHasselt, LUCA School of Arts (EMA Genk)/KU Leuven, PXL-MAD and Z33, we explore the idea of “Valuing in Practice”. It re-frames the idea of values in design and artistic research as being closely connected to the situated context in which one operates, as proposed by Mol in her paper “Not quite clean: Trailing schoon and its resonances” (2020). The question we put forward concerns how designers and artists can engage with the complexity of meanings, values, and different forms of materiality, embodiments and wordings belonging to different actors that together shape the situated context in which they work. How can they shape processual, open-ended, situated, embodied, patchy forms of knowledge?

The debate will be followed by a presentation of the newly released book “Reframing the Politics of Design”, published by Public Space with support from the Flemish Government, UHasselt, the cities of Hasselt and Genk (BE) and LUCA School of Arts.


10h30 – 11h30: Conversation with Annemarie Mol,  followed by a debate with: Griet Verbeeck (Sustainability, ArcK, UHasselt), Andrea Wilkinson (LUCA School of Arts, EMA), Francesco Vergani (POLIMI DESIS Lab, Politecnico di Milano), Anneleen Swillen (PXL MAD), Ils Huygens (Z33), Breg Holemans, PhD candidate (RAAD/KU Leuven), Patrizia Zanoni (Faculty of Social Sciences, UHasselt) 

11h30 – 12h00 Launch of book: “Re-framing the politics of design”

12h00 – 13h30: Lunch

Mol’s understanding of language and of its hidden resonances is connected to the different forms of materiality, embodiment and worldings from which they stem. This understanding can help us as designers and artists to more consciously address the (political) value of language in design and artistic research. For instance, when working to include a broad range of voices in a participatory design process, our designing needs to come to terms with the hidden resonances echoing within the words we use, to recognize them, to translate them, and bring them into dialogue. As much as “wordings”, those “resonances” can be revelatory of different ideas of “worlding”, different cosmologies, diverse values and meanings, but also of different matters of materiality and spatiality. This is particularly relevant when working with communities which are un(der)represented, which are silent or silenced. When their voices – and hidden “resonances” – are insufficiently recognized and listened to, also their meanings and values, their world making projects, cannot be recognized. When this occurs, “dominant meanings gain prominence and others are marginalised or lost.” (Mol 2020, 399) Mol’s thinking is therefore an invitation to listen to the unspoken in the words of others, and to engage in a process of deep listening, moving beyond the explicit and learning to commit to a politics of translation. 

As meanings of words are not stabilized, but forever in motion, neither are their underlying values which vary from situation to situation. Taste, morality, materiality, inequality, work, values … might mean different things in different contexts. This means that in designing we also need to resist the temptation to “freeze” the meanings and values we encounter, and engage with an open-ended interpretation process with the actors for and with whom we design/create. Our perspective can but be partial, non objective, non scientific, fallible. To acknowledge this situatedness, might enable us to escape universalism and the obsession with evaluation and scientificness somehow today still ‘haunting’ the design and artistic research discourse. 

Design and artistic research as a discourse should not have to care so much to be as “coherent as possible” (Ibidem), but rather to “care for equivocations” (Ibidem), to “attend upfront to things that do not fit” (Ibidem) – without pushing the extreme to a forced convergence that would cut away what is at the fringes (which is often the most interesting, original and promising point of view). This means that designing should care not to be objective of impartial (as an impartial place from where to speak probably does not exist after all), but rather to craft “patchwork” (Ibidem), “in which the thread that connect the pieces together are clearly visible” (Ibidem): “To sing tunes that are polyphonous” (Ibidem), “to keep diverse resonances audible, even if they are dissonant” (Ibidem) To keep those dissonances, resisting the temptation of shortcuts and oversimplifications, is probably one of the most relevant challenges for design and artistic research practices today. 

If we follow Mol’s proposal to engage with dissonances rather than trying to escape them, research in arts and design – and particularly those design practices working with and for people, such as design for social innovation and participatory design – necessarily need to be situated practices. Those practices need to resist the temptation to mimic the rigidity, universality and objectivity of the scientific paradigm and cease to follow the chimera of coherency at all costs. These practices rather need to come to terms with their intrinsic, necessary situatedness and their patchy, polyphonous character. By embracing those dissonances and engaging with dissensual practices, design and artistic research practices can finally help to contribute to a more inclusive, collaborative, rightful and democratic society, and help to make more conscious the politics of our designs. Mol’s philosophy moves us to further question the political agency of our work and the politics of translation it entails. How do we consider situatedness in our own practices? Are we aware of the politics of translation processes in our design and artistic (research) processes? How do we concretely consider these translations and the “resonances” beyond the diverse voices we listen to in our design and artistic practices? These are some of the key questions to be explored during this DESIS Philosophy Talk, in which design researchers and curators from four organizations (UHasselt, Luca School of Art/EMA Genk, Z33 and Public Space) will address those issues and enter in conversation with the philosophy of Annemarie Mol and the politics it entails.