essay / Elle Loui August
After Lina Bo Bardi
This is the year of space exploration. Man has quit the earth and wants to go to the Moon. But we’re not going to sing the praises of this century of science, or proclaim that a new age has dawned, that we are in awe of recent discoveries.
— Lina Bo Bardi, ‘The Moon’ (1958)¹
The moon is superior to the sun insofar as she has had the night to know he is not the only god in the universe.
— Ariana Reines, ‘The Sand Book’ (2019)²
When the Italian-born Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi wrote ‘The Moon’ in 1958, her words were addressed to arrogance. It was hubris she perceived in the conquest narratives fuelling dreams of human expansion into space, reinforcing a dangerously inflated confidence in the technological accomplishments of the 20th century. For Bo Bardi, such resolute faith in the rational position assumed by technological knowledge did not account for a more ancient continuum of human self-knowledge and experience. What of poetry, vulnerability, and the inevitability of human failings, where was the evidence of advancement when force, coercion and domination were still running the script. The spectre of the H-Bomb stirs in the background of her sentences, ‘And the fruit? — the prospect of self-destruction’, writes Bo Bardi ‘the yawning chasm that has opened up between technical and scientific progress and the human capacity to think.’
In ‘are we human: notes on an archeaology of design’, the companion publication to the 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial (2016), architectural scholars Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley address design and technology as a unified historical enterprise, centering a view of these disciplines as perennial mirror of the human species. ‘Tool and human produce each other’ they write, ‘Brain, body, and artifact cannot be separated. Thinking only occurs in the intermingling between them’³. Their position is informed by wide-ranging multidisciplinary research — traversing the fields of both arts and sciences — from which they seek to draw out historical and ideological intersections in the fields of design and architecture. In are we human, the authors emphasise critical currents within contemporary thought that they see as best able to respond the complex challenges of our historical moment, insofar as they articulate an understanding of the human species as diverse, plastic, and deeply interwoven with all aspects of the world. In their mirror, the industry of “design thinking” is not only a creative effect or set of generative actions with the capacity to shape our brains, rather it is also implicated in shadowy entanglements, reflecting, as it does, a wider state of worldly affairs. They note somewhat matter of factly:
‘The empire of design reinforces the idea that good design is good business that makes good people. This concept has been so successfully promoted that all design is thought to be good design. The word good no longer even needs to be said. The very word design already means “good” — as if we don’t need to think about the fact that the same concept is active in weapons, surveillance, invasions, policing, nationalism, incarceration, and terrorism. Good design might not be such a good thing.’4
The arguments of Colomina, Wigley and Bo Bardi appear to converge here, around questions of what we are to do with the image we are now able to see of ourselves. By their reckoning, this requires that we not only grasp what we have become via that which we have created, but call the knowledge of our past to sit with us in our present, and to really think — as Bo Bardi asserts — through what we are capable of doing, thus, who we might become. For all of its simplicity — and, forgiving the shorthand with which it appears here — the analogy of the mirror might indeed have useful resonance if we can locate in their metaphor an emphasis on relation and agency. If, for example, we are mirrored by what we make, which makes us in return, might we not have the capacity to awaken to our own reflection and err to make otherwise? Might we gather the wherewithal to regenerate our relations and patterns of connection with the many beings, substances and machines of our world? Seasoned nihilists and cycnics might turn their face, poets, philosophers and the determined might act otherwise.
Bo Bardi writes,
‘The Moon has lost her countenance. Her gentle, irrational, poetic aspect has hardened into scientific reality, suggesting that man needs to seek his poetry elsewhere. Not in narcissitic meditations or in an endless revisiting of petty personal problems, but by taking stock of his work and his responsibilities, by giving up “politics” in favour of studying human problems, by replacing philanthropy with a recognition of human rights, by acquiring a grounding in technology that will enable him to tame the mechanism which he himself has created and which now threatens to destroy him.’5
All of this “we”, “him” and “he” however, is an intrinsic part of what is at issue. As philosopher Yuk Hui asserts in his writing on technological diversity writ as cosmotechnics, ‘The misconception that technics can be considered some kind of universal remains a huge obstacle to understanding the global technological condition in general, and in particular the challenge it poses to non-European cultures. Without an understanding of this question, we will all remain at a loss, overwhelmed by the homogenous becoming of modern technology.’6
In 2019 we witness the confrontation at Mauna Kea. If Bo Bardi were writing today, with contemporary thinking partners such as Colomina, Wigley and Yuk Hui, it is likely she again would read arrogance in the forceful manoeures at play in this most recent iteration of the space-knowledge-technology narrative of (largely) Western European science. For one cosmology to seek to exert its destructive force over another, following in pursuit of its own “noble” truth, says much about the world we have inherited.
These are important conversations to continue as Present Tense : Wāhine Toi Aotearoa opens at Britomart this week. Taking place on the edges of Te Moana nui a Kiwa, in the year that commemorates 250 years since the transit of Venus lured Captain James Cook and his crew into the Pacific and to these shores, this exhibition opens in Tāmaki Makaurau only metres from where the Rainbow Warrior was bombed in an act of French espionage in 1985. The myriad astrologers of social media might posit that we ‘are made of stardust,’ the recent nuclear history of the Pacific will have ensured we are made of Stronum-90 and Caesium-137.
While this exhibition may have been initiated under the auspices of interrogating prize culture, by asking what we mean when we say “best” within a cultural setting in which power tends to accumulate around those who seek to win, rule or dominate, or that simply do so by default, its focus as a vehicle for design discourse has shifted. Principles of regenerative exchange have now moved to the centre. As Desna Whaanga-Schollum writes in the previous essay Mauri — An opportunity to connect, ‘I’m interested in conversations that open up a diversity of thought regarding the way we live, ways-of-doing, ways-of-being, systems of value… How might we (re)locate, and (re)connect in this (being-present) tense?’7
To connect a recent and tangible example to this question, late last year local media platform The Spinoff published its first in a series of articles celebrating the resurgence of the maramataka. Authored by Qiane Matata-Sipu, this brief, informative piece includes a printable pdf from which a locally attuned maramataka calendar dial can be assembled. Accessible to anyone with a printer or a library card, what situates this relatively simple design object close to Whaanga-Schollum’s kaupapa as cited above, is not only mātauranga Māori, but process. Rather than an object of knowledge, the maramataka calendar is a tool of inquiry, an invitation to listening, understanding, connection and collective engagement with rhythms and patterns older than our own. It does not rebuke the wealth of other forms of astronomical knowledge. To the contrary, it invites us to observe and imagine from the point of view of a different framework. In this widely accessible, simple form, the maramataka presents a path by which to study the pull of tides and seasons. It also suggests, should we do so, that we might find the Moon reflected in who we are.
Elle Loui August / independent writer, researcher and curator
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1 Lina Bo Bardi, ‘The Moon’, Architecture Words 12: Stones Against Diamonds, Architectural Association, London (2013)
2 Ariana Reines, ‘The Sand Book’, Tin House Books, Oregon (2019), 373
3 Beatrice Colomina & Mark Wigley, ‘are we human: notes on an archeology of design’, Lars Mueller Publishers, Zurich (2016), 52
4 Colomina & Wigley, ‘are we human’, (Zurich, 2016) 58-59
5 Lina Bo Bardi, ‘The Moon’, (London, 2013)
6 Yuk Hui, ‘The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics, Urbanomic’, (Falmouth, 2016) 12
7 Desna Whaanga-Schollum, ‘Mauri — An opportunity to connect’, www.designersspeakup.nz (Auckland, 2019)
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essay / Disappointing the past and failing the future / Emma Ng, October 2019
curatorial text / From Protest to Present / Sophie Davis, October 2019
essay / Towards A Wider Understanding of Design / Michelle Wang, October 2019
essay / Te Marama / The Moon / Elle Loui August, September 2019
interview / Painting the town red / Jeremy Hansen, September 2019
essay / Mauri — an opportunity to connect / Desna Whaanga-Schollum, August 2019
artist text / On being present… / Mere Taylor-Tuiloma, August 2019
essay / Snakes, Ladders and Tables / Chloe Geoghegan, July 2019
curatorial text / No longer the exception / Lucy Wardle, August 2019
essay / Broken record / Lana Lopesi, April 2019
curatorial text / This present future / Wendy Richdale, April 2019
radio / Erin Broughton & Catherine Griffiths / Yujin Shin, August 2019
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return to Present Tense : Wāhine Toi Aotearoa