Design as a Meme-busting Tool: In Conversation with Geetha Narayanan

Design as a Meme-busting Tool: In Conversation with Geetha Narayanan

Pithamber: So Geetha, going back to design as a – how do I put it – as a conceptual

Geetha: disruption?

Pithamber: apparatus in order to provoke disruption, as you set out to do. How does it compare with other institutions that are also in the pedagogical space of design? Their approach?

Geetha: They are utilitarian, they are functionalist, you know. If I am looking at engineering design, I’m only looking at making my airplane or my fighter jet better, right? Can it land on road or can it not land on a road, (which is from yesterday’s newspaper), my design parameters, my design goals, my design outcomes are measurable against market briefs, product functionality, and that is all that is being taught in any place of design. Architectural design spends less time talking about our cities, and the growth of population and migration, so the human stories about what is happening inside our cities are not part of architectural design. It is about space and ordering space, classifying space and building it to certain norms. If you take that point of view that you have to actually only cater to utilitarian goals (you can have that as one point of view). But it doesn’t have to be the pedagogical reason for why we do it, there’s a difference, you are an instrument – design as an instrument to creating products, services, homes, spaces, is one what other people do. But design can become a cognitive artefact by which we allow ourselves to rethink the pedagogy and practice of education. Then it’s a different thing. I think we are in the latter. Yes we do the former also.

Vivek: To come back to your vision of education, Srishti is practically a university, even though it may not call itself a university, there is this idea of critical disruption, using design as a set of heuristics to fight against any of the memes, whether it’s neo-liberal co-optation of design itself, right, or as you just said “make in India” all these are sort of neo-liberal rhetoric. But at the same time there is an older sense in which you talk about drawing on the Indian tradition for education. So where does that find its place in your thinking?

Geetha: One of the things that I always use in my head, is this phrase: “Everything has a history”. So whenever I personally start looking at something, I say well, what is the historical genesis for this? Let me ground it in the course I am leading now called “Creative Leadership,” which I am teaching at the Masters level. I can go in there and teach creative leadership as a set of do’s and don’ts. I can go to Google, and find people who would say creative leaders are Mandela or Gandhi or whoever it is. This would be just taking popular memes about what are creative leaders and construct the course around it without taking any historical view of it. The point is that leadership is not something new and creative leadership could be as much true in the way colonial power came to look at us as well as how Tipu might have looked at colonial power.

What I would like my students to understand is that there is something constant in all these things that transcends time, and we don’t need to put things into a basket and say “traditional wisdom tells us this” and the contemporary view is something else. I don’t think they are in two baskets. I think there is a unity in us as Indians, in our lives, in our homes, in the way we deal with certain aspects of our lives. And that unity we don’t bring to the class, okay? We might bring it in our homes, but we will not bring into the class

Vivek: There’s a separation?

Geetha: There’s a separation. Historically it’s a colonial construct. Colonial construct said that keep anything that is cultural or familial or community practice outside the institutions and let the institutions have the task of creating either the babus or the accountants the company needed. Or if you want artists or any other cultural practitioners then please make a separate space for it. It is only at the turn of the century that saw Santiniketan. We have been sanitized through years of conditioning of prescribed content and syllabus which says that what we know through tacit practices and our tacit histories are not important.

Vivek: Not valuable…

Geetha: Not valuable. So I am saying that there’s a oneness in us that we have to bring back to the classroom and not say, oh in this class we are going to look at the past and in this class we are not going to look at the past. In every class you have to look at the past, because there is a sense of the past and you will see the past more when you go out of the classroom. When you go to say rural India, further away from globalized media because they have less artifice (though they are gaining more artifice through globalised media), you are more likely to find a unity between the past and the present.

Vivek: So in that sense design again playing another critical function of fighting cognitive separation that has come about in our lives –

Geetha: Be aware of it –

Vivek: Be aware of it and in some sense resist it, and even overcome it?

Geetha: So one of the memes I use, I say that Design is way of making public thinking visible. It’s a memetic phrase now because sometimes it lacks genuineness when it becomes a meme and I worry that this particular phrase now has become one. You know, you may not agree with it, but it brings certain ideas out—patriarchal values, things that you don’t want to accept even in terms of philanthropy. I’m now trying to bust this meme of “smart cities.” Everybody is going around saying, cities must be smart, we have got four new smart cities in Karnataka. Exactly what is this smart city nobody has thought about. Unless you establish that there is traditional knowledge about the city and design will have to use that knowledge to bust certain positions. It’s disruption and creative disturbance.

Pithamber: I want to go back to the earlier point when you talked about the unity that existed in the Indian traditions – how colonialism abstracts it by keeping the traditional or cultural thing at home. So one of the things that happens in education, especially from the 18th century onwards, education or learning gets abstracted out and reified. In the specific historical context the Europeans were coming from, education was something controlled by the Church, and therefore they wanted to separate it out and make it accessible to everybody. Whereas our experience as you rightly pointed out is one of unity. So if we are trying to go back and pick up some of the things from tradition, do you see a conflict, because the system we have currently is based on abstraction and reification, but ones we want to rely on are one of unity.

Geetha: There is a conflict, Pithamber, and that conflict is very alive within Srishti today regardless of the position of the Director. Our community has grown to a significant number. There are 150 practitioners, scholars, teachers, artists and designers. May of them have internalized that separation. I am talking about many of them who are younger and who have probably done a fresh Masters with one or two years of practice. They are products of a certain India that I am not. They are products of a certain India where their education has not asked them to question all these kinds of things. So they have not been, in my view, part of the thing that we experience as unity. They don’t see that unity.

I believe that there is unity. I do believe very strongly that the bunch of new, young faculty can discover this unity. We must provide experiences for them to discover it. I think that we now at 20 years of age have to clearly define what this unity means in terms of the practice of being a scholar, a theoretician, a designer who could also be a scholar or creator of artefacts. All of them should be able to take the reification, take the artefacts that are created and subject them to a critique – critique for unity.

We need to have some harmony inside what we do. Otherwise we are going to have fractured students. Because the University accreditation has shaken us a little bit we are going through a slight tense time. I also feel that we have to be open in a post-university recognized state to what we will not do.

Vivek: It has destabilized us…

Geetha: But it’s a disruption, in my view a good disruption, we can embrace it, but we have to go back and search for that harmony. At the moment, I would say that finding that harmony, searching for that inner balance and the long-term sustaining, nurturing unity is possibly something that Srishti will have to go through in the next four or five years. So that people will look at us and come to us both to work and to study that understanding.

Right now students and faculty know that we are not going to do placement. But will we always in a post-Geetha Narayanan world not do placement? How fast will Srishti become a neo-liberal enterprise if there is a change of director? So you have to ask whether this resistance is part of our DNA or not. At this moment that is the question in my head. How much of it is in the DNA of the organization, which means that it defines our identity. It’s a subtext by which we operate. This DNA that has a certain substance will give us some immunity in the long term against neo-liberalism. It can’t just be that because of Vivek Dhareshwar a certain knowledge-system is alive. It has to be that a certain kind of environment is created and a certain identity is established which encourages diversity and plurality, and seeks harmony, balance, stability and hence unity.

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