with Saskia van Stein

Design Academy Eindhoven (2020)
by Nadine Botha

What does it mean to design the designer for an future completely different to anything we have ever experienced? Head of the Critical Inquiry Lab, Saskia van Stein discusses why criticality, self-reflexivity, intuition, skills and community are essential in deconstructing and making visible our designed reality. Design as research and research as design is an attitude of unfolding the possibilities of the transition the world is in.

[Nadine Botha]    First as curator at the Netherlands Architecture Institute and then as director of Bureau Europa in Maastricht, as well as an independent curator, moderator and cultural commentator your work has distinguished itself with its pre-science. For instance, through introducing a political discourse into design discussions long before it became trendy, as well as pre-empting emerging evolutions in design — like performance and anthropology. How do you see these topics and directions before they enter the broader discourse?

[Saskia van Stein]    That’s very generous of you to say, and an interesting question... Firstly I think that operating across different disciplines — fine art, architecture, design and broader cultural discourses — expands my perspective and foresight. Within that, my approach is a combination of intuition and curiosity. Intuition is a feeling in the body, and mine is particularly driven by the visual. The curiosity is more cerebral, and entails me questioning everything I see around me. By constantly oscillating between the embodied visual intuition and interrogative mental curiosity, I extrapolate uncertain futures.

[NB]    You seem to be describing an attitude, rather than simply a professional vocation. Is this your approach to students of the Critical Inquiry Lab?

[SvS]    In setting up this Master’s, I found myself asking what I have to say to a generation about what will be their reality to come. There’s a lot of conversation going on around the post- of everything at the moment – the post-human, post-political and so on — and at least in my opinion, most of our belief systems are deeply problematic in their gendered racialized Eurocentricism. We need to examine our reasoning and assumptions. If we think about the post discipline and the expanding field of design, what would the attitude one would need be? What actually constitutes the essence of this discipline? Based on this need to critically analyse the material and immaterial systems that constitute our designed environment, I wanted to create a space that offers safety and support for young minds to develop their own voice and come up with a vocabulary to express it. By this I not only mean literally their voice, but also how to position it within history, within a group of peers and within a public context. So, while the core of the Master’s is research as design and design as research, the curatorial aspect of making the project public can take any suitable form, from a lecture or workshop to an exhibition or even a sculpture. For this reason, even if the course is driven by a higher-level interrogation of the discipline, practitioner and self, it is structured around developing vocational skills and craft — including editing, publishing, interviewing, performance, documentary etc. Although nearly custom-made for each student to find their own tone and talent within these practices, we are not only focused on the individual.
As a small tight-knit group we are very conscious of the power dynamics and hierarchies. For instance, the students and tutors all come from very different socioeconomic, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and we discuss the impact of this on how we work together and the broader discipline. We make a point to not only discuss it, but also explore different ways of collaborating and engaging. It is a process of not only becoming critically aware of oneself as an agent, but integrating this self-reflexivity into one’s work. A lot of the tutors say that they are learning as much as the students. For myself too, it has been a generative experience to return to education after running an institution.

[NB]    Besides posts- everyone is also talking about turns. Perhaps you have gone from the institutional turn to the pedagogical turn, and perhaps the name change from Design Curating and Writing to the Critical Inquiry Lab is indicative of the shift from the curatorial turn to the critical turn.

[SvS]    Being closely involved in the Non-linear Narrative Master’s at KABK (Royal Academy of Art in The Hague), education has given me the opportunity to expand my thinking around the responsibilities we have towards the future generation. Design no longer only follows form, it can follow anything so what do you want to follow and where do you want to make a difference? Much to the dislike of those in power, we are in an immense transition — change is due and change is coming. We can blame capitalism for its unhinging capacity, but it is rooted in so much more — religion, culture, gender, history, language and so on. All these constructs are up for critical revisioning and reinvigoration, and these turns are tools. Design as research and the curatorial aspects of making public remain the foundation of the Master’s, but the emphasis is for students to develop their own autonomous, precise, well-researched position through experimentation, rigour and reflexivity in order to not simply perpetuate the biases, semantics and material reality of how the world is organised at the moment, but to deconstruct it in a way that makes this become visible.

[NB]    Criticality can mean very different things to different people in different contexts, and has even itself been criticized for being divisive. What is criticality in this context?

[SvS]    Of course, there’s not a straightforward answer. We often talk about criticality from a purely cerebral perspective, through a philosophical lens of analytical reasoning, or through the strains of abstraction and deconstruction from the French philosophers. To me criticality is very different to skepticism. We could call it productive doubt, but I like the phrase extended judgment because it introduces the not-knowing and questioning the question. Not-knowing is not a naive position, but a space to see, overview, reconfigure, reread or reassemble the construct of reality. For me, the critical lies in the not-knowing. It’s almost like how poetry lies in the space between the words; criticality lies in the space to oscillate between deep research and questioning everything again.

[NB]    What I’m hearing is that criticality is not only about holding multiple positions at the same time but also about creating a space. How does this space extend beyond the Master’s itself?

[SvS]    There is a curiosity about how we can build a community centred around criticality within the student body o the school. In fact, it’s more than curiosity, it’s human nature to want to bond and have conversations with each other. Throughout the year, the Critical Inquiry Lab students do undertake tasks that encourage an interaction with other students, as well as institutions and people in Eindhoven. Now the students are working towards developing an annual symposium that allows us to share a moment of in-depth reflection on the discipline with a broader professional audience.

[NB]    By extension, if you are inviting students to design their own role and own discipline, are the students designing the designer?

[SvS]    I like the provocation. I would hope to create an open field where the students would position themselves somewhere in that whole span — whether researching design and designing design, or remaining within vocational trajectories like curation and publishing. There are different political realities within all of these fields, and I hope that the Critical Inquiry Lab assists students in unfolding and weaving themselves into different possibilities.