16 February 2019 -
The 2018 Design History Society Conference, organised by Sarah Lichtman and her team at Parsons School of Design, took place in New York City. This was my first visit to New York, and as a lucky recipient of a DHS Conference Bursary, I first and foremost want to express my gratitude to the DHS for this generous funding. This was my third DHS Conference, and as a early career scholar I have enjoyed the experience of seeing how different each event can be.
Under the theme "Design and Displacement", the 2018 DHS Conference brought together talks and papers with topics ranging from virtual reality to the Red Cross Production Corps. Among the many thought-provoking and excellent panels was the session "The Fabric of Cross-Cultural Displacement". Its three participants dealt with histories of textiles in situations of cross- cultural displacements in different ways; the panel was a personal favourite, as the different narratives and approaches to fabric as a mediator of histories of war and cultural displacement complemented each other perfectly. The stimulating discussion at the end of the panel also testified to this fact.
Another personal favourite was the panel "Interior: Public and Private", which consisted of four papers all touching on the theme of interiors, but from different approaches and angles. From Peder Valle's paper on a displaced museum interior, to Catriona Quinn's research on European refugees' influence on Australian post-war interior, the panel as a whole made evident how interiors can be prisms for inquiries into cultural, historical and spatial displacement.
I presented a paper, meanwhile, that drew on the theme of my PhD project. A curious, but oddly well pairing with the two other speakers, Paul Hazel and J. Parkman Carter, the panel was called "Technology as Displacement". Hazel's paper on the evolution of the hovercraft was not the most obvious match for my paper on the combined design efforts of engineers, biologists and fish. However, with Carter's contribution on virtual reality, and enthusiastic and highly competent efforts by Rory O'Dea as chair, the panel came together to offer an interesting frame for the topic of technology and displacement. Carter's paper on issues related to VR design showcased how technology can "re-, dis- or em- place" reality. To my understanding, this deals with how technology and media can be used to question the reality of space. And perhaps this was what bound the three papers together.
My own paper dealt with the de-colonisation of historical research by looking at animals as participants in design processes. When Carter invoked the term emplacement to call attention to the area between representation and reality, the paper also raised questions of knowledge-making and the production of truth. And when Hazel in his paper questioned the supposed linearity in technological development, by analysing the development of hovercraft design from the 1950s to the 1980s, he also raised questions about epistemology. Combined, the three papers exemplified how through the prism of design and technology historical hegemonies can be challenged and displaced.
Lichtman and her team put together an excellent line of keynote speakers. The conference was wrapped up by the third and final keynote by Paul Chaat Smith. Not being familiar with his work beforehand, I was particularly taken by this talk. Smith is a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, and his thoughts on the curatorial process behind the exhibition "Americans", which opened in January 2018, were as inspiring as they were riveting. During the second half of his talk, Smith was joined by curator Carin Kuoni for an equally thought-provoking conversation between the two. The conference was concluded by a well-deserved round of applause for Lichtman and her team.
PhD Fellow, Art History, University of Oslo