3 October 2022 -
Weaving each day across the town of Izmir, to and from the small kite surfing hotel at which I was staying, I would reflect on the day’s presentations and keynotes, the conversations snatched between sessions, and the warm reunions between international colleagues seen only on Zoom since 2019. Flanked on each stage of my walk by ebbing and flowing groups of the town’s dogs, I thought about how academic conferences are themselves transient spaces of knowledge production and the different perspectives that, in dialogue, could have made this an interesting paper.
My own paper, which I was able to present thanks to the generous support of the DHS Student Conference Speaker Bursary, drew on my doctorate research into the material cultures of the Indian Army in the First and Second World Wars and examined the role immaterial non-human agencies – specifically divine forces and trauma – might play in researching and writing design histories. The paper focused on a collection of different miniature Qur’ans gifted to Indian Army soldiers in the First World War by various British and Indian suppliers, and argued that these objects can be situated in a long lineage of Islamic objects endowed with protective or auspicious properties. I argued that these objects’ properties were activated only at the point of bodily engagement, creating a meeting point between object, bodiliness and the divine, and thus implicating the role of immaterial divine forces in design history narratives. As part of this enquiry, my paper also interrogated the nature of bodiliness in soldiers’ engagement with the miniature scriptures. I argued that letters from the Indian Army soldiers revealed articulations of bodiliness that were unstable – the men spoke of themselves as having metaphorically died, or become someone different, in light of the trauma they had experiences – in ways that suggested non-human, transient forces like trauma had agency to disrupt the very bodiliness then engaging with material cultures of worship, like the miniature Qur’ans. My point was to illustrate how, if we are to speak of bodily engagement with material culture, design historians must be aware of the capacity of bodiliness to change as the result of, say, trauma, with the result that the same person’s engagement with the same object could be very different at different points in time.
Other papers drew out similar themes and took them in fascinating new directions. Dan Slater’s keynote lecture ‘Light as Material and as Metaphor: Designing with Evanescent Stuff’ pushed delegates to think about lighting as a similarly non-human agency, and a substance that resists easy categorization as having material or immaterial properties. Catharine Rossi’s exploration of the shifting interior architecture of Italian nightclubs in her paper ‘The Disappearing Dancefloor: Issues of Temporality in the Nightclub Interior’ raised questions about the multisensorial experience of these spaces, and the potential for Henri Lefebvre’s iteration of rhythmanalytic theory to add to design histories of built environments that are constantly in a state of being (un)built. The Q&A that followed the panel ‘Digital Preservation and Documentation’ problematized the potential for indexical technology in website building and computer science to liberate users from the colonial matrices of power.
Across the conference, then, responses to the theme of ‘transience’ highlighted the pressing concern amongst design historians to stretch categorizations of material culture, and test how the discipline might engage with trace, echo, ambience and digital. As I expand my own research into the materiality of sound, gesture and movement, I am excited to see how I can continue to learn from other scholars’ interventions in the field in this way.