Angela Rui

Observing from the margins

How design can display complexity and translate a new point of view on knowledge

— 20 Apr, 2020 —
Angela Rui, photographed by Francesco Barion
Angela Rui, photographed by Francesco Barion

Angela Rui is an Italian curator and researcher based in Milan, working in design theory and criticism. She got her PhD in Exhibition Design at the Politecnico di Milano, Faculty of Architecture (2011). She recently collaborated as researcher with the Het Nieuwe Instituut (Rotterdam) for the Neuhaus project, a temporary trans-disciplinary academy for more-than-human knowledge; among other projects, she co-curated I See That I See What You Don’t See, the Dutch Pavilion for Broken Nature – the XXII Triennale di Milano (2019); the 25th Design Biennial of Ljubljana (2017) and the accompanying book, both titled Faraway, So Close; and the 2015 edition of Operae, the independent design festival held in Turin. She was design editor for “Abitare” magazine (2011-2013), and curated the editorial project of “Icon Design” magazine (Mondadori, 2015-2017). Until 2016, she taught at the School of Design (Politecnico di Milano) and at the Master of Interior Design at NABA (Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti in Milan). She currently teaches at the Social Design Master and will teach at the upcoming Geo-Design Master at the Design Academy Eindhoven. / in conversation with Sara Fortunati, director of Turin's Circolo del Design, ed Elisabetta Donati de Conti, author and curator.

Elisabetta: How is design’s view of itself changing, at the moment?

Angela: I think design is a form of critical practice, able to question the conventional ways we live and experience the world – which, according to what we have inherited from previous generations, are based on human dominance and the exploitation of other beings, in line with a Western vision and forms of knowledge we shaped as far back as the Enlightenment Age. In contrast, today we can say there is no way to enclose, or classify, the world in reductive formulas. This gives designers the opportunity to work in fields that still need their ability to “translate” – I began using the term “translator” instead of “designer” while curating the Ljubljana Design Biennale at the MAO, in 2017. The event brought designers in contact with other figures: from philosopher-criminologist Renata Salecl – Slavoj Žižek’s ex-wife – to an athlete who had crossed the ocean single-handed, and from a scientist to a chef who conducts research on food chains. This helped designers come out of their comfort zone, and put them at the service of a type of thinking based on fields and data, by means of knowledge that does not belong to them, yet they must face. Perhaps, design today sees itself in this critical way, realizing it should formulate new questions instead of trying to come up with answers, overturning the approach we inherited. 

It’s not the first time a debate is sparked on the subject, but what’s different is now we are living in what might be a new Renaissance, as strange as it may seem, in which nature – not man – plays the central role. So in defining the new questions design should reflect upon, we should ask how do we look, what do we look at, where do we come from, what is our perspective, what limits our vision, with whom do we want to look, and for whom? Is anyone blinded by the way we look at things? Is anyone wearing blinders, and cannot see? All of these questions are taken from Situated Knowledges, an essay the legendary Donna Haraway published in The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective in the late 1980s; with its eco-feminist concept, today it has become hugely popular especially in the scientific field, because it introduces the idea of opening up to a multi-species vision.

Elisabetta: For BIO 25, you also tackled the theme of the countryside – and in Slovenia, which is a pretty peculiar place to begin with, for both its history and its hydro-geological features. Right now, there is a deep gap between people self-isolating in the city and those who live in the countryside. Do you think there will be a breakthrough in the rediscovery of the spaces we inhabit – interiors and exteriors, in the broadest sense?

Angela: Today, the concept of interiors somehow resonates through our computer screens, which give us the illusion they are the only window we have towards the outer world – when, in reality, they impact the interior of another interior. That’s how I came up with the metaphor of aquariums. We are all living inside technological fish tanks, but realize they are not the solution to our problems because our body needs stimulation, movement, a breath of the fresh air outside, and contact with the environment around us; thus, our body cannot be confined between the walls of our home.

In Slovenia, nature is extremely powerful and there is a wide range of environments: from an incredible network of caves to the short seashore, from rivers to mountains. It’s a small country, nestled between many others, and was always perceived as a “land in between” which, in some ways, compared to other parts of former Yugoslavia, benefited from the relationships between North and South, East and West. One of the events at the biennale, Countryside Reloaded, analyzed the situation in an almost deserted countryside – just think of the shortage of laborers available to pick fruit and vegetables, and you can imagine how limited human presence is – in contrast to the global image we have of the country as part of a local context. The social fabric has rarefied over time as international markets opened up: duo mischer’traxler organized a tour at the border with Hungary, to investigate the failures globalization has caused in the local dimension that is the farthest from the city. They found a very small food store that had shut down, falling victim of the area’s new shopping malls, and then reopened – and is still active – as a little community center. During the tour, they collected herbs with the help of a researcher and a chef, who then used them to prepare a shared lunch. These examples convey how the whole goal of the project was to bring together very different conditions, to help people understand that the way we look at the world – and therefore to the design world too – is influenced by the moment you are in; overlapping different stories, even over time, helps discover new points of view, breaking free from our personal experiences, and understand whether certain dynamics are accelerated by the present.

Elisabetta: Can you see any dynamics accelerated by the present, from your personal point of view?

Angela: When I curated the Dutch pavilion for Broken Nature in 2019, we presented the country as a Cartesian territory. We started from the assumption that what is designed can always be re-designed according to different codes, if you take the liberty of questioning what you have. We started by observing light pollution in Lombardy and the Netherlands – two areas that are deeply affected by the issue – and stressed the fact we are all impacted by this hyper-bright dimension: in a world that hinges on the concept of constant growth, hyper-development and always being “on”, animals’ circadian cycle is completely muddled – and so is ours. Society never stops: flowers, fruit and vegetables are grown in greenhouses with light-control systems, and in our daily lives technological devices make us always available, erasing the separation between private and social life, between work and leisure. In time, this depletes both our minds and our resources. Starting from this overarching paradigm, we tried to understand what we have lost. So instead of communicating data on light conditions in the world, we explored the power of darkness. We tried to look at the status quo from the margins: this is a method I apply in every project, because by changing your point of view you can observe a problem and identify different effects it has, even beyond the context. Right now, I’m working on a project that analyzes the idea of how we build culture: an exhibition for MAAT in Lisbon, Aquaria, exploring how aquariums are devices that organize and represent marine life, where the vastness of the seas is reduced to an enclosed architecture. When nature becomes culture – and fish tanks clearly translate the sea into an environment that represents it – simplifications are made, so the final image being conveyed is filtered, not real. This reflection extends to a wider concept: whether we are aware of it or not, we are domesticating the world and other species. With this exhibition, we are trying to challenge the rationalist model based on classification or organization of information through dominating science. The climate we are living in is completely new, and allows us to define a new approach to knowledge as a subject, as an ontological value: the constructs that divide culture from nature are not convincing any more.

Elisabetta: Could these projects – which tackle contemporaneity, culture and knowledge in ways that differ from the most established ones – mark the beginning of a paradigm shift that design could trigger? 

Sara: Is design the discipline that might be able to pinpoint a new way of collaborating with science, different from just relying completely on data?

Angela: A holistic vision based on the inclusion of different voices could allow us to wedge ourselves into a governance that regards construction and production. The first thing all of us – including me –have noticed is the need to dialogue with others and trust each other’s field of expertise. So to support a certain thesis you must not only rely on data but on different perspectives, while still communicating in a clear and simplified way. That is the role of design: it translates concepts for which it also must act as guarantor, which it must study and express in a more accessible form, for both scientific and cultural platforms. Design can display complexity in forms that enable awareness and knowledge.

Sara: As you said, design feels the urgent need to build this world and not merely represent it. Could the field’s signature ability to mediate and translate become more present in this moment, as we are called upon to imagine real ways to rebuild and rethink our human relationships? Could this be the right moment to strengthen design’s social role?

Angela: Design, like architecture, is often included only at the end of the process, when there are few tools left for concrete action. One case I had the fortune to see more in depth, and which explains how institutions can work in this direction – although it’s an example taken from contemporary art – is the TBA21 Academy, which was born from a long history of guarantors of culture. Headquartered in Venice’s Ocean Space, TBA21 began its journey by organizing two-week boat expeditions with multi-disciplinary groups; forcing the interconnection between different types of knowledge in this way, at the mercy of the sea, made experiments very effective – to the point this artistic institution is now recognized even within the scientific debate. This example could signify we have to be radical enough to review, in part, the way in which institutions operate, because that is the only way they can nimbly become part of a fabric that is directly connected to governance.

Elisabetta: In this context, what is the goal of education in trying to form a radical thinking not for single individuals, but for groups ready for action?

Angela: Design is part of what we call culture, and has its own field of knowledge. If we assume that, in this moment, culture shares a border with other types of knowledge, then we must believe it has the ability to imagine new forms of knowledge for what already exists but needs to be translated. Design is able to create unexpected connections, and to establish formulas to decode new aesthetics that emerge between the analytical and the ritual; it can explore new languages and new vocabularies, which are able to move amongst vectors that do not communicate in and of themselves. We can formulate these new narratives only by adopting forms of knowledge that do not belong to design, and by acting as connectors and translators. Teaching is crucial in this, because schools of thought form around debates that emerge from specific works – for example those by Studio Formafantasma, which in this sense are giving visibility to a design research method that is proving extremely effective. To go back to our specific case, what perhaps is lacking in Italy is an investment in research and in opportunities for design to go beyond the cosmetics of the world.

Outside Angela Rui’s window at 6am
Outside Angela Rui’s window at 6am

Sara: The students you interact with every day belong to the generations that will have to face today’s challenges, even more than us. Do you think they are better prepared, more open and capable to accept this world?

Angela: Today’s students mostly belong to a generation born during the crisis, so this is a natural state for them. Furthermore, while we inherited forms of vertical knowledge, they are surfers able to put together unexpected information – yet struggle to discuss it analytically. When we are able to activate collective moments, students find the best way to express themselves together; they perceive authority in a different way from us, and feel more at ease, free to present their ideas, build new versions of popular imagination, and be bolder in channeling their vision. Teachers’ role is to accompany them in this journey and help them form connections, offering their time.

However, teachers also have the task to constantly put students in front of different perspectives and to reformulate a vocabulary with them, considering conditions that are more and more extended compared to the ones we tend to have in mind – even in geographical terms. Teaching therefore should always strive to expand perspectives and return to the original questions, i.e. to the ways we look at things. Today, design does not have the answers: it will, but first and foremost it needs to practice formulating new questions, which can unhinge the way we face and look at the world.

Sara: In this moment, popular imagination is missing a foothold, on both the large and small scale, to help us renovate ourselves. What will the challenges be in this?

Angela: The great question is, what can we all give up? What will we give up? Not in terms of objects or purchasing power, but of a good in a broader sense that has to be redistributed. This means we all have to change our lives; for example, we’ve seen we could all stand to slow down a little. But to achieve this type of change we need global coordination. The real failure here stems from the idea of border: an invisible, ultra-terrestrial, ultra-empathetic agent – the virus – has forced us to understand that there can be no separation between nations or continents, and that we all belong to the same, great ecosystem. The real challenge will be to imagine a more centralized coordination, covering everyone with the same policies. Should there be a crisis, we will all have to manage it together.

Elisabetta: Perhaps this theme is also connected to how we, as a society, need to train ourselves to look beyond contingent situations and to think in an interconnected way. What role will cultural institutions have in this?

Angela: My fear is that the idea of culture as a bridge might lead to a reduction in knowledge. If we assume science will embrace other types of knowledge – such as indigenous knowledge or direct knowledge of nature – and contribute to their expansion, simplifying the message may also reduce the focus on everything else, i.e. on the highly imaginative dimension that is just as important. Another aspect to think about is what the new social goods we will need will be, because culture, education, the environment and biodiversity are today’s global common goods, alongside society and the power of communities. In the changes brought about by globalization or neoliberalism, what have we forgotten? What can we recover, in this existential failure? Decelerating is feasible and doable, but it requires we give up something. And I wonder what we can give up. Perhaps design could reflect on these great questions.