Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, in his influential book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, remarks that, very often, oppressions become sedimented, imprinted into the minds of those subjected to its various forms; this, according to Freire, is part of the very process through which they are stripped of their humanity. In order to counteract this insidious aspect of oppression, he proposes a pedagogy of the oppressed: a humanist approach to learning which must be formed “with, not for the oppressed (whether individuals or peoples) in the incessant struggle to regain their humanity” (Freire 2005, p.48). Such a pedagogy “makes oppression and its causes objects of reflection by the oppressed,” (ibid.) fostering the political engagement that constitutes the necessary foundation for liberation. Freire warns us that emancipation and liberation cannot, however, be imposed upon the oppressed by others; rather, they must emerge as a result of the oppressed’s conscientização (ibid., p.67) – that is, the process of gaining conscience about one’s own humanity, even in face of adverse circumstances.
Freire reasons that in order to combat systemic and persistent inequality, a radical shift in educational models is crucial. He thus proposes the educational project as an alternative to traditional education. Educational projects are problem-posing (as opposed to problem-solving) endeavours, in which “people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation” (ibid., p.83). Revolutionary education cannot subscribe to what he calls the “banking concept of education”, in which the educator deposits knowledge that the students subsequently collect (ibid., p.72); instead, the authoritarianism that constructs a hierarchy between student and teacher must be left behind, so that all involved parties may to become responsible for the educational process.
Design researchers have long overlooked how systemic oppressions related to issues of gender, race, nationality, coloniality, or class might impact research. By avoiding these topics, design discourse often fails to acknowledge the complex negotiations of political power in which the discipline is implicated; as a result, design researchers to patronizingly assume the role of “conflict-solvers” within cultural contexts that are far more complex than their approaches seem to assume. The research and practice apparatuses particular to the field of design that validate it as a research method empower designer researchers to regard themselves as a “neutral” agents which “fix” what is to be seen as “broken”. In other words, the mere agency of design – or the very idea of design being necessary in certain contexts – configures in and by itself a form of politics. This research project is driven by a dissatisfaction with how design research methods overlook the role of the researcher subject in relation to the object of research by subscribing to models of knowledge in which the researcher occupies a position of authority over the researched, and which assume that knowledge may be generated from a ‘neutral’ standpoint.
Inspired by the radical pedagogical strategies outlined by Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal, as well as those implemented in Zapatista communities, we have developed a series of projects and workshops that explore ideas within the realm of design education. In this broad project, our aim is work together with participants to unpack our positions as simultaneous observers and actors, situating ourselves and our research tools within the world we study. We explore the politics of artifacts, examine the power imbalances triggered by design decisions and suggest novel strategies for conducting research. In these experiments, we look into methodologies and strategies stemming from feminist, queer and decolonial studies, and assess how they might translate to a design context.
Yarn Sessions were collaborative educational experiments, carried out between 2015 and 2016 in various locations in Europe, as well as in Brazil. The name of these sessions stems from “tricotar”, a popular term in Brazil that may mean to yarn with thread, or to engage in long, open-ended conversations and gossip. The name was also inspired by the ideas of feminist philosopher Donna Haraway, who once remarked that complex systems often behave like balls of yarn – chaotic masses that may be loosened, pulled out. These sessions were conceived as experiments in untangling balls of yarn, educational projects that make use of design as their chief language. Later on, through conversations with fellow members of Decolonising Design Matt Kiem and Tristan Schultz, we learned that to aboriginal Australian communities yarning circles are, in Tristan’s words, “community (group and individual) inquiry model wherein positive and negative narratives can be explored in terms of group futures”.
In these sessions we use storytelling as a primary strategy for the generation of knowledge. All those present are encouraged to become actors in the stories being told, and take the power to suggest and enact changes. In this process, which we call “designing through yarning”, participants negotiate the understanding that individuals can only possess a fraction of knowledge that directly relates to their personal engagement with said knowledge. Listening for how knowledge and understanding is produced across difference breaks with the usual claim of design to be a transposable and universally applicable endeavour. In that sense, we see storytelling as a form of political intervention; these sessions encourage us to design nearby – a form of producing knowledge which, paraphrasing Vietnamese-American scholar and filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-Ha, does not seek to objectify nor distance itself from the matter at hand, but rather come in dialogue with it understanding where the boundaries cross, and where they merely touch.
In a session, yarning may occur through a variety of outlets: oral storytelling, drawings, sounds, performances, prototypes, whatever allows each actor to express their own stories and perspectives. Traditional speculative proposals – props, fragments of stories, semi-fictional accounts, photos, sound – are only starting points offered by the authors: participants are confronted with fragments of one version of a story to be explored. From the moment these proposals are introduced in the session, participants are free to untangle and weave them into any direction they see fit.
In these Yarn Sessions, we strived to foster environments that allowed for education to be a shared and collective process; all those present in the sessions – including us, as facilitators – were not there in a fixed capacity of teaching or learning; the idea was for everyone to be able to do both. Yarn Sessions are meant to be dynamic, perpetually evolving projects; they are not finite in themselves, and do not follow one specific format; rather, we adapted them to the conditions in which each project was carried out. By sharing knowledges through yarning, we are able, as a group, to extend our conscience on the subject matter of each session.
Yarn sessions are not workshops, nor theatre pieces; they cannot be understood as seminars or courses either. They are, in fact, the projects themselves, in which the process of speculation unfolds collectively, simultaneously, and may or may not reach a common point. These sessions do not seek to produce a set of fixed outcomes, but rather to devise paths on which to go forward together; hence they are to be understood not as participatory nor collaborative design endeavours, but rather as a pedagogical framework which uses storytelling as its main device.
Read more details about specific Yarn Sessions by clicking here.