Dialogues: Feminisms in designCover story

XXVII.6 November - December 2020
Page: 30
Digital Citation

Feminist design and the relational infrastructures of protest

Anita Chan, Mayar Bakry

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Anita Say Chan: Thank you, Mayar, for joining me in this conversation. It's a real pleasure to have our sites connected—you in Zurich, as a Swiss-Egyptian feminist designer and researcher with rich ties to the Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA) region, and myself in Champaign, Illinois, in the U.S. as a feminist anthropologist and information scientist of Chinese-Filipino-American descent, with research ties to Latin America. It was fascinating to see how quickly we were able to coalesce around a shared object of fascination and concern—which is protest. Or perhaps more precisely, the intersection of global protest and local feminist design.a


As a U.S.-based researcher, protest has certainly been on my mind lately. Perhaps unlike any other time since the 1960s in the U.S., it has been propelled into the national consciousness following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the growth of Black Lives Matter demonstrations. In mainstream liberal news sources here, we're likely to have heard protest framed as an outcry of shared grief, frustration, or defiance among marchers. But I've been struck by how much another key function of protests has largely been overlooked, even in these attempts at sympathetic framings by the national media. And that is, for protest to serve as a key means for populations—especially vulnerable populations—to publicly assess and speak back to knowledge practice. It strikes me, in other words, that protest is not just a means for publics to mobilize around a shared sentiment, but also has been a means for marginalized populations to use the resource of public space to call for new forms of knowledge work.

In recent months, I think we've seen this done in several ways: First, by explicitly exposing the insufficiency of how dominant forms of common knowledge come to be not just defined, but stabilized in mainstream institutions and infrastructures. Second, by producing evidence on the narrowness of what it is that's presumed as given knowns when it comes to vulnerable populations. And third, by suggesting new infrastructures that can test and prototype empirical conditions for building other possible worlds.

Mayar El Bakry: First and foremost, Anita, the pleasure is all mine. Collectively and collaboratively reflecting upon the intersection of global protest and local feminist design, sharing our thoughts on the topic at hand and being inspired by the current moment, I feel a genuine connection and familiarity with you as well.

Things that might seem like a contradiction at first are very much connected, in my opinion. I believe protests are a very necessary form of liberation, as they manifest themselves at this point in history, being informed by the scholarly work of many Black feminist women. These movements are the results of a great amount of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) women and queer people's activism and knowledge production. We wouldn't have the global Black Lives Matter movement without the exceptional labor of Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.

Looking at these global movements—which are carried out by local organizers—I start to question my role as a designer at this moment. I ask myself: What can I contribute to these historical moments? How can I be beneficial and supportive? I'm sure many readers of Interactions feel the same. It's a question about our role in society. What is our use?—if I may evoke the title of Sara Ahmed's book (What's the Use? On the Uses of Use). My attempt to start formulating a possible answer is to actually redefine the term design for myself and, by doing so, reformulate how we define and categorize designers at large.

Even though I would be considered a Designer [1] with a capital D, I do believe the term design is broader than what we learn it to be and how it has been applied in art school and beyond in the past. I understand the term design as an action taken toward imagining and bringing forth these new worlds and futures and actively changing one's surroundings. Therefore, these protests are design and feminist design at that. They embody queer intersectional feminist awareness and consciousness, challenging and changing the current social discourse. They reclaim and redesign public space while holding governmental power structures accountable, thus renegotiating the terms of the contract between those in power and those who have been historically marginalized.

These continuous protests and their goals—be it changing legislation, encouraging law enforcement to prosecute perpetrators, or presenting new forms of knowledge work—have given me a lot to ponder lately. I'm an optimist and believe they are part of a global uprising manifesting itself in the bodies on the street fighting for justice. When I hear the chants, when I see the reclaimed power of these movements, I can't help but imagine what else they can achieve. Maybe they can eradicate injustice on a global scale? I see this spirited activism and the knowledge transmitted in the street smuggling itself back into the classroom—an important and necessary feat. By educating future generations, we can make these changes and societal improvements have longevity and be more sustainable.

I understand design as an action taken toward imagining and bringing forth these new worlds and futures and actively changing one's surroundings. Therefore, these protests are design. — MAYAR EL BAKRY

I've always been fascinated by how knowledge, and which knowledge, can be transmitted through public space—which bodies, images, and conversations are present. I share your observation. The media, and we, as researchers, are often complicit in underestimating the power of these movements. We overlook how the marginalized are very in tune and are experts in claiming these spaces to imagine and reimagine forms of consciousness.

As with most forms of oppression—and here it's worth focusing on the colonial and white supremacist structures inherent in how to transmit and transfer knowledge, and what forms of knowledge society and culture deem more valuable—the dominance of how we, as a society, give value to certain forms of knowledge—academic, written, Western—often render institutions inactive due to their comfort and disinterest in questioning the systems and hierarchies they profit from.

To fully understand the true impact of these protests—or more precisely, these uprisings—we must examine each strategy teaching us, as a society, to transgress oppressive systems [2].

You've laid out a wonderful framework to enable us to do just that: Exposure, Evidence, Imagination, and Prototyping. Exposure and gathering evidence serve the purpose of lifting the veil on the structures and systems in place that are profiting off the people they oppress. This is a very powerful tool. Only through exposing and gathering evidence can we start to build a case and analyze how these systems are upheld to then successfully dismantle them. This research paves the way to the radical practice of imagining these new pluriverses [3] and futures. As a designer, the act of imagining is inspiring and liberating. This pure creative act requires hope and a strong belief in change, as well as a great amount of perseverance.

ASC: I love your observation that the forms of activist practice we are seeing enact a means of transmitting knowledge in the street—one of the few resources that vulnerable populations can access alongside dominant classes—and how they also enact a certain kind of smuggling of knowledge as a decolonial practice between sites when they do so. I'd love to hear you elaborate on this. In my own work, I absolutely see this as resonant. I see it in how protest practitioners use public spaces to transgress the norms and conventional boundaries of dominant knowledge centers by bringing knowledge practice to the street, and in their insisting that knowledge can and should be fundamentally visible, dialogic, and accountable to everyday publics.

I also see it in how protests reveal the dissonance between what dominant cultures take as givens and what vulnerable populations know about their own lived experiences. And even while they are rarely adequately recognized for or credited with this labor, vulnerable publics and grassroots networks have been up to their own forms and formats of knowledge practice and exchange, documenting and taking account of the experiences of the marginalized that are typically just rendered invisible or illegible by and in centers. The symbolic and material forms of exposure that protestors engage in break traditional knowledge practice out of the confines of elite research or corporate centers, processing labs, and institutions, and allow other accounting actors to give voice to the broader forms of expertise and experience that exceed authorized centers.

In other words, protest, I'd argue, can be read as mobilizations around what feminist science studies scholar Donna Haraway called situated knowledges—ones that insist upon the need for other perspectives to offer better accounts of a world, and "a successor science project that offers a more adequate, richer account of a world, in order to live in it well and in critical relation to practices of domination" [4].

That's something that I see too in projects like Data for Black Lives (http://d4bl.org/), founded by Yeshimabeit Milner, and in the Algorithmic Justice League (https://www.ajlunited.org/), founded by Joy Buolamwini.

And it's something echoed in the #NIUnaMenos (Not One Less) movement that I've been studying, and that's mobilized since 2015 to combat gender-based violence in Latin America. The efforts of these continental organizers have made unprecedented strides in calling attention to femicide as a hate crime against women—an in calling out the striking abhorrence of the stark absence of data around it as a grave "matter of shared regional concern." Two years before the U.S. #MeToo movement exploded, international media were covering the flood of feminist forces that had transformed the streets of Buenos Aires [5] and that transfixed larger publics beyond.

In fact, since 2015, #NiUnaMenos has drawn together some of the largest demonstrations in the region—one already known for large protests. In Argentina, these began with a march after the murder of 14-year-old Chiara Paez, who was found buried under her boyfriend's home, beaten to death, and a few weeks pregnant. But parallel protests were launched all across the region: In Peru, more than 50,000 filled highways in Lima in the first national march organized. In Chile, more than 80,000 joined, with marches since 2016 in the nation not only shutting down streets in Santiago but also closing down university campuses across the country. By 2018's march, more than 25 campuses were forced to close, including several high schools, where protesters not only called for accountability around campus harassment cases, but also decried the exclusion of women in leadership, faculty, and assigned syllabi.

So I've been curious about the work of exposure that's undertaken by participants in these movements, and how they not only call for new symbolic and cultural forms of repair and transformation but also call attention to the need for material transformations in the institutions, knowledge work, and infrastructures that underpin the stabilizing of dominant culture. I see this in protestors' strategies and in the use of their bodies to literally—and en masse—directly embody and evidence the scale of indignation. I see it also in the use of their bodies to demonstrate who it is that is left out of standard knowledge practice, and who is part of this largely invisible population that's forced to know the world differently. This of course operates in a critical vein.

The symbolic and material forms of exposure that protestors engage in break traditional knowledge practice out of the confines of elite research or corporate centers. — ANITA SAY CHAN

But like you, I've been taken by how protestors make use of their bodies and embodiment in public spaces (both of which are unique resources that individuals, whether part of dominant or vulnerable populations, are meant to have equal access to or control over) to remake those public infrastructures, roads, gathering spaces, and arteries so that they can no longer be used as they had been before. And so that they dramatically have to be seen, and come to be known, as physically reimagined otherwise. I see this as exactly in line with your framing of feminist design as "an action taken toward imagining and bringing forth" new feminist worlds by actively changing one's surroundings. And I'm struck by how much exposure through protest can operate in these dual veins: one critical to demonstrate what's been missing all along in our accounts of the empirical world, and the other creative, to ignite our imaginations to demonstrate how possible it is to remake the present, toward a world more closely aligned with that imagined in calls for reform.

MEB: To focus more on smuggling knowledge, I first must mention from whom I've learned this concept. During the lecture "How to Infect and Smuggle Feminism in Design: An Experience from Buenos Aires" at the Basel Academy of Art and Design (FHNW) in October 2019 (https://www.fhnw.ch/de/die-fhnw/hochschulen/hgk/aktuelles/imagining-otherwise), Griselda Flesler, chair of design and gender studies at FADU, University of Buenos Aires, introduced her course.

The course is open to all undergraduate design and architecture students of FADU. It's an elective course where students work in groups to develop a project collaboratively. Working in interdisciplinary teams, they analyze different laws with a gender perspective passed in Argentina and develop a corresponding practical design project from their analysis. The aim of this practical course is to make feminist scholarship more approachable to the students and motivate them to integrate queer theory and intersectional feminist thought into their practice. In the particular iteration Flesler presented during her lecture, she spoke about how the faculty were passionately participating in the social feminist movement active in the streets of Buenos Aires. They are inside as well as part of the university. They are members of the teachers unions, and the students are part of the co-government system of the university.

What this program manages to achieve: highlighting the work of Argentinean gender rights activists. The faculty smuggled the body of thoughts from the marches on the street back to the classroom. This particular form of smuggling intersectional feminism and queer theory in design (education) spaces informed Flesler's approach when she wrote about "queering FADU and designing or redesigning university spaces from a gender perspective." The faculty transferred this knowledge and awareness back into the classroom, thus bringing this lively discourse back into the walls of the university as an educational and creative tool. One long-term outcome of this activism within the design education space was to integrate a nongendered bathroom, among other things.

You've talked about the grassroots movement #NiUnaMenos. I think this is a great example for exploring the notion of prototyping more equitable and just futures. Women, trans, inter-, and nonbinary folks, using their presence on the street, are by definition prototyping a new future, where gender-based violence has no place in society. Reclaiming public space with their bodies, chants, and banners, they're not staying silent. They are reshaping public space to make their struggle visible—to make space for their lived experience to take center stage in public debate and discourse, to discuss the erosion of their spaces and their erasure from set public spaces.

These lived experiences are often ignored by the dominant governing bodies. Using this evidence of lived experience, they preserve and resist their oppressors. What can be said: Through making the unseen visible again, they're prototyping through evidence-based methods. Once gender-based violence is no longer at the margins of social debate, trying to eradicate it through education, policies, and new social norms becomes a form of building this more just new world. Reclaiming this political power through uprisings on the street is their form of transgressing. We see similar efforts and modus operandi in many social movements across the globe.

ASC: That's exactly right—the street and public spaces remade under conditions of protest that center the material and cultural realities of marginalized peoples come to represent prototypes of futures reenvisioned through feminist and decolonial ethics. I also see the work of prototyping occurring in grassroots networks, through the innovation of new modes and models for research on social crises that have for too long been ignored by states and dominant institutions. In the face of the widespread inaction of states on issues like femicide and gender- or race-based violence, for example, we see such networks seeking to develop new approaches for responding to problems that have grown into crises, in part due to the entrenched and widespread inaction of states, dominant knowledge institutions, or governing authorities. #NiUnaMenos networks have underscored estimates by groups like Femicide Watch, for instance, that reveal how the number of women intentionally killed in femicide cases—87,000 in 2017—was nearly equal to that of people killed in armed conflict worldwide—89,000 that year. With the main difference here being that the vast majority of femicide victims are killed by people they know. Few states, particularly in the West, however, collect any data on femicide, and even fewer compile comprehensive, countrywide data. This entrenched invisibilization of femicide brings to mind feminist data scholars (https://datafeminism.io/) in the U.S—and the work of Catherine D'Ignazio and Lauren Klein—who have critiqued the long absence of bodies missing from the archives states and corporations do deem worthy of producing.


Organizers have pushed back though, and are not only naming state inaction as complicity in what they call the uncounted epidemic of femicide but also have begun to build their own infrastructures to register data. In Argentina, citizens launched the first National Index on Gender Violence (http://contalaviolenciamachista.com/), designing an 186-question survey for respondees nationwide. Crowdsourcing projects have also begun by researchers elsewhere, like Annita Lucchesi, who was an undergrad in Canada when she launched an archive for murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada and the U.S (https://www.sovereign-bodies.org/). The Women Count project (https://bit.ly/3k1P6rA) was also started by Dawn Wilcox to draw together data in the U.S., with a network of volunteers researching cases, state by state.

But the Argentinian efforts are interesting for creating some of the largest global datasets on femicide. Run entirely by volunteers, the network's first survey received over 60,000 responses, with results showing that over 97 percent of respondees had suffered some kind of gender violence. And while many groups might seek institutional affiliation to credentialize their research, the network remains independent. As they see it, violence against women is indeed domestic violence, but it is also, as they write, "in the violence of the state, market, and capitalist property relations; it is in the violence that results from discriminatory policies against LGBTQ people, from mass incarceration, criminalizing migratory movements, and from abortion bans" [6]. The prototyping around data analysis and research they do thus strives to empower grassroots infrastructures and local accountability, and both insist and imagine that research and knowledge practice can be done otherwise. My own hope is that we in academia and in other established knowledge institutions can not only document such examples, but also learn from such models to imagine boldly for new forms of interconnective research. More than ever, I think there is a broad consensus that this is needed.

MEB: The call to look at, learn, and integrate lived experiences is more pressing than ever. This form of knowledge is accessible and also important in how it provides other accounts to build consensus, and through consensus start dismantling oppressive systems.

We've talked about exposure and evidence gathering, how the marginalized must persevere in their efforts to continue to expose these structures and systems that oppress them. We also talked about the creative force of imagining—specifically imagining through gathered data and research and how this is the starting point by which the marginalized are prototyping spaces and futures to liberate themselves.

I would like to conclude by looking at how we can design these futures further. Indeed, this knowledge must be learned, as well as documented and investigated. I would venture to say we must go a step further and integrate this knowledge in our teachings and practice. Smuggling is one way to do so, but actively and visibly including these diverse forms of knowledge in the curriculum and research approaches is more beneficial for long-term sustainable change.

The framework you've laid out gives us designers a tool to critically question our approaches and impact on society. Most important, this framework allows us to go beyond the classic paradigm of problem-solving modernist design practices.

If we as designers start to interrogate our roles in society by exposing dominant forms of common knowledge and how they came to be—in our case, how male, heteronormative, and Western-centric aesthetic, visual, and formal languages and styles are considered the norm—we can convincingly make the argument that the design canon, through its narrow definition of design, renders many practices as other and makes them invisible. These margins are where we can find inspiration, novel ideas, and perspectives. Accessing these diverse forms of knowledge, we can eclipse the dominant knowledge structures inherent within our practice, thus imagining new ways of designing based on more fair and inclusive approaches. This critical lens paves the way to give and make space for female, Black, Indigenous, and queer ways of designing, break the hierarchies of what the canon considers good design, and ultimately redefine the term design entirely.

ASC: That's so generative! And I so look forward to any future collaborations to further this work, Mayar! Thank you!

MEB: Thank you, Anita, for this wonderful conversation. I would also like to thank Daniela Rosner for her editorial support on this article.

back to top  References

1. Attfield, J. Wild Things. Bloomsbury, 2000; https://doi.org/10.5040/9781350036048.0006

2. hooks, b. Teaching To Transgress. Routledge, New York, 2014; https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203700280

3. Escobar, A. Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Duke Univ. Press, 2018; https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822371816-006

4. Haraway, D. Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies 14, 3 (1988), 575–599. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3178066

5. López Levy, M. #NiUnaMenos: 'Now that you see us.' Latin American Bureau. Jun. 5, 2018; https://lab.org.uk/now-that-you-see-us/

6. http://contalaviolenciamachista.com/

back to top  Authors

Anita Say Chan is an STS scholar and associate professor in information sciences and media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where she studies networked peripheries and feminist and decolonial approaches to digital technologies. She is an affiliate of the Data & Society research institute. [email protected]

Mayar El Bakry is a Swiss-Egyptian graphic designer and design researcher based in Zurich. She likes to work in and around the peripheries of design, merging diverse practices in her work and approach. Currently, she's focusing on food and cooking as a means to create spaces of discourses, exchange, dialogue, and communal reflection. Within her research, she emphasizes the importance of cross-cultural exchange, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and decolonial and intersectional feminist pedagogies. [email protected]

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