Critical Design and Tactical Media

Adversarial design does not exist in a vacuum of cultural production, and instances of it span different fields, subjects, styles, and movements. In fact, one motivation for this inquiry is to provide a broad and coherent framework for describing and analyzing a range of contemporary designed things that seem to do the work of agonism. Critical design and tactical media are two modes of cultural production that exemplify many qualities of adversarial design and warrant attention. They also raise important issues concerning the confluence of art and design and provide an opportunity to clarify the role of adversarial design as a theoretical construct—a tool to think and make with—rather than as a means of naming a movement.

Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby coined the term critical design in the mid-1990s to describe a practice of design that uses products to ask questions and raise issues in society and culture. Critical design is now an established body of work that originates and operates from within the professional fields of design and expresses a critical, if not always political, stance through designed things. As Dunne and Raby (2001, 58) describe it:

Critical design is related to haute couture, concept cars, design propaganda, and visions of the future, but its purpose is not to present the dreams of industry, attract new business, anticipate new trends, or test the market. Its purpose is to stimulate discussion and debate amongst designers, industry, and the public about the aesthetic quality of our electronically mediated existence. It differs too from experimental design, which seeks to extend the medium, extending it in the name of progress and aesthetic novelty. Critical design takes as its medium social, psychological, cultural, technical, and economic values, in an effort to push the limits of the lived experience, not the medium.

Early instances of Dunne and Raby's critical design work focused on information technology. Products within the Hertzian Tales 1994-1997 series (Dunne and Raby 1997) explored the implications of increased radio and magnetic waves in the environment as a consequence of the increasing numbers of digital and electronic devices. The prototype products in these series took a decidedly dark tone, embodying what Dunne and Raby referred to as "design noir" to explore issues of product development and use often unaccounted for in the mainstream design festivals and product press releases (Dunne and Raby 2001). For example, the Faraday Chair, which appears like a human-size amber aquarium, is designed to provide a respite from the otherwise ubiquitous presence of radio waves and their unknown effects on the body, offering "a retreat, a new place to dream, away from the constant bombardment of telecommunication and electronic radiation" (Dunne and Raby 1997). More recent work by Dunne and Raby has focused on the future uses and implications of biotechnology and robotics and continues to use the design of prototype products to prompt questions about the kinds of experiences and lives we are or may soon be encountering through technology. The project Is This Your Future? (2004) explores the possibilities of home bioenergy production, including the harvesting of energy from dead animals and the recycling of human waste, and Technological Dreams Series: No.1, Robots (2007) explores alternate forms of human-robot interaction, such as neurotic or needy robots.9

Tactical media is a term used to describe diverse works and practices that manipulate technology to produce artifacts, systems, and events that critique contemporary society. Tactical media is an example of a practice within the arts that engages in the practice of design and the production of designed things. As described by media theorists David Garcia and Geert Lovink (1997), "It is about a form of art that meets activism with a positive attitude towards contemporary digital technology." In contrast to critical design, in which a political stance is not explicit and the political aspects of the work are often unaccounted for, tactical media put forth an overt and unambiguous political, often agonistic, perspective. This is political action of a certain kind, as Rita Raley describes in her book Tactical Media (2009, 1): "These projects are not oriented towards the grand, sweeping, revolutionary event; rather, they engage in a micropolitics of disruption, intervention, and education." These micropolitical works cross media and technology boundaries, taking a variety of forms from performance to software to workshops. For instance, the collective Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) has produced several installations and performance events about issues surrounding biotechnology. In collaboration with artists Beatriz da Costa and Claire Pentecost, CAE produced the installation Molecular Invasion (2002-2004) on the subject of genetically modified organisms—corn, soy, and canola plants engineered by the Monsanto Corporation. The installation consisted of various stands of the plants on display in a grow- room environment, interpretive materials (wall texts and an interactive computer kiosk), and participatory science-theater events in which the artists worked together with students in the gallery space to attempt to reverse engineer the Monsanto plants.10 As another example, the Institute for Applied Autonomy (IAA), a collective, created the software application iSee (2001), which maps all of the known surveillance cameras in New York City. It allows users to mark starting and ending points and then generates a "path of least surveillance" through the city.11 Leveraging the capabilities of interactive maps, iSee provides a clear and familiar function (route planning), raises awareness of the ubiquity of surveillance, and also provocatively provides a means for attempting to circumvent this surveillance.

Critical design and tactical media provide incentives for developing ways of articulating agonism through design to better understand, describe, and analyze the political qualities of such work. Critical design and tactical media also surface art as a potential issue. For some, critical design veers close to art, and it certainly draws from art practices and history. And as tactical media is art, can it be spoken about from the perspective of adversarial design?

There is a long-standing tension between art and design. Since the inception of modern design, the two fields have regularly drawn from each other, while also endeavoring to maintain distinctions. The term designart has been put forward to describe works that operate in the interstices of the fields, which, as art critic Alex Coles (2007, 10) notes, "form[s] more of a shifting tendency than a fixed movement or category." Rather than trying to carve distinctions between the fields of art and design, however, it is more productive to allow their practices to overlap and intermingle, as seems to be their character in contemporary culture (Coles 2007). Within this book, works of art—works described by either their makers as art or placed within the cultural category of art by critics and theorists—are woven into the exploration of adversarial design, just as these works themselves incorporate design practices. Likewise, works from within the field of design that draw from art will not be shown any prejudice. Directly stated, the issue is not whether a work is categorized as art or design proper but rather how works employ design in an adversarial manner.

Adversarial design is a theoretically informed construct for understanding, describing, and analyzing a range of objects and practices. Critical design and tactical media are two contemporary practices that produce some work that could be characterized as doing the work of agonism. But not all work falls within these categories. For instance, Million Dollar Blocks would not be readily characterized as critical design or tactical media. Thus, adversarial design does not just name (or rename) a movement or genre. It provides a means of characterizing and discussing practices and objects that brings to the fore the agonistic qualities of the work across a multitude of movements and genres. Asserting the claim that some designed things do the work of agonism, the charge of this inquiry is to elucidate how they do so. But getting at more precise descriptions of how adversarial design does the work of agonism requires more specificity in analysis. One way to achieve that specificity is by focusing on a particular medium, and computation is a timely and robust medium to explore.

 
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