“Design and Displacement” was the theme of the Design History Society Annual Conference 2018 that took place at the Parsons School of Design in New York from the 6th to the 8th of September. My attendance to the conference was supported thanks to the student bursary generously provided by the Design History Society.
The conference united an international audience that had the chance to attend over 110 presentations, curated in thirty-seven panels themselves occurring during seven parallel sessions. While the focus on the topic of displacement urged us to consider the phenomenon of migration in the context of crisis, the lens of design history broadened its horizons, directions and perspectives. During those three days, I found myself virtually displaced through various geographies, temporalities, cultures, scales, textures, readings, and methodologies.
The first place that the conference took me was Detroit with a presentation by Michelle Jackson-Beckett named “From Black Bottom to Lafayette Park: Re-Examining the History and Memory of Displacement and Urban Planning in Detroit.” The Black Bottom neighbourhood designed by Mies Van der Rohe in collaboration with Ludwig Hilberseimer and Alfred Caldwell was the first federally funded black communities housing project. The presentation aimed to understand why the project failed and what happened to its community. The virtual reconstruction of the neighbourhood by the architect Emily Kutil probed a reconnection with the memory of the place through oral histories and archival photographs.
In the second session, “Making Room for more: Creating and Re-Creating the Historical Interior” by Peter Valle took the theme of displacement in surprising ways. This time, we travelled at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Olso. The multiple reconstructions of the museum were considered, focusing particularly on the interior of three rooms of the Solliløkken house. As various iterations of the re-creation of the rooms occurred, their configuration, details, orientation, and adjacencies were modified. The displaced and re-created museum became a lens through which questions of the commodification of history, the authenticity of experience and the objectify of display were explored.
Javier Gimeno-Martínez displaced notions of national identity in the Netherlands with “Subverting the Code: Designed National Symbols Beyond Reverence.” The research looked at the famous figurines of a kissing couple dressed in folkloric Dutch clothes that is typically sold to tourists. Taking Gabriela Bustamante’s work To Kiss or Not to Kiss, the presentation analysed the revised version of the figurines into characters wearing different costumes, thus presenting the multicultural condition of the Netherlands. The tensions between the intention and the reception of the work illustrates conflicting approaches to identities whether they are constructed, portrayed or imagined.
Moving to Rio de Janeiro, Vera R. Tângari, and Flora O. Fernandez presented “Tubiacanga in Rio de Janeiro/Brazil: From Removal to Community Recognition and Participatory Design.” At the intersection of scholarship and activism, their work included the voices of the fishing community of Tubiacanga that was ignored during the proposed planning of the airport expansion for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, thus threatening the community of being displaced. The collaborative work between the local residents and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro gave visibility to Tubiacanga which was officially recognised by the official authorities.
In my presentation “Building in the margins: Decolonial Spatial Practices”, I brought the audience to Kanngiqtugaapik, on the territory of Nunavut in the North-East Canadian Arctic. My take on the theme of dislocation was twofold. First, I unpacked the spatial condition through which the settler-colonial state forced formerly semi-nomadic communities to settle into a sedentary lifestyle. Secondly, I argued that in the face of that colonial apparatus of dispossession, Inuit, through their built environments, operate a second level of dislocation, a dislocation of the agency. It showed multiples examples of tactics employed that resist the logic of the settler infrastructures and buildings.
Moving back to New York, in the last session Timothy M. Rohan presented “Displacement and Alienation in 1970s Films Featuring New York Interiors.” Drawing from an analysis of the interior design of the film John and Mary, inspired by Ward Bennett’s apartment in the Dakota Building, the presentation exposed the heteronormativity and alienation of the characters in juxtaposition with the queerness of those spaces and a critique of the narcissism of their minimalism. He showed how the whiteness and emptiness of the interior design of 1970s films featuring New York interiors was disrupted through the use of “sight gags”. Despite their humor, they illustrate the complex anxieties about displacement and alienation of the time.
To conclude, even if debates about migrations and literal displacement took place, research about movements of population, things and ideas took many shapes and challenged notions of territories and boundaries. Displacement was mostly explored as a design process, a methodological framework and as a conceptual dislocation. This brief survey of the conference shows the diversity, intensity and density of the conversations that took place at the Parsons School of Design.
Émélie Desrochers-Turgeon Carleton University Twitter @EmelieDT