Precarious objects is a book about activism and design. The context is the changes in work and employment from permanent to precarious arrangements in the twenty-first century in Italy. The book presents design interventions that address precarity as a defuturing force affecting political, social and material conditions. Precarious objects shows how design objects, called here ‘orientation devices’, recode political communication and reorient how things are imagined, produced and circulated. It also shows how design as a practice can reconfigure material conditions and prefigure ways to repair some of the effects of precarity on everyday life. Three microhistories illustrate activist repertoires that bring into play design, and design practices that are grounded in activism. While the vitality, experimental nature and traffic between theory and praxis of social movements in Italy have consistently attracted the interest of activists, students and researchers in diverse fields, there exists little in the area of design research. This is a study of design activism at the intersection of design theory and cultural research for researchers and students interested in design studies, cultural studies, social movements and Italian studies.
This chapter starts with the story of San Precario, patron saint of precarious workers, a design intervention that mobilised counter-precarity activism in 2004. Here, San Precario introduces the theme of the book: design activism in the context of precarity in Italy. While other anti-precarity activists adapted modes of protests already part of labour movements’ contentious repertoire, such as strikes, pickets, rallies and marches, San Precario as a campaigning artefact and redirective practice brought into play designerly elements, recoding the public discourse. The introduction lays out the reasons for a book on activism and design and presents current debates on cultural and design activism. It also lays out debates on precarity as a concept and contextualises it in contemporary Italian history. The Introduction defines precarity as a type of governmentality that impacts on all aspects of life; that (in addition to labour) regulates the production circulation of a wide range of material and immaterial effects; and that functions as a defuturing force that invests social and material life. Finally, the outline describes the three microhistories that constitute the book’s cases.
Visual and material artefacts are central to the organisation of the EuroMayDay parades in Milan, the Mayday celebrations of precarious workers. This chapter argues that the objects designed for the parade, and the processes they engendered, generated spaces where new political subjectivities emerged, and calls these ‘spaces of political affect’. This chapter leans on Doreen Massey’s definition of space as ‘throwntogetherness’, or the coming together of different elements and trajectories, and Ash Amin’s suggestion that the throwntogetherness of humans, non-humans and material and visual cultures in a shared physical space produces social effects. Drawing on activists’ archives, this chapter shows how objects, defined by activists as media sociali (media generating sociality), created a funky visual identity of counter-precarity activism and social relations. Two parades in which designed objects prompted participants to play games are analysed as examples of the role of orientation devices in mobilising a common imaginary and sensorium and in creating a collective form of urban public culture. The chapter argues that the EuroMayDays produced self-representations of precarity and new political subjectivities.
This chapter focuses on fashion design in the context of precarity, drawing from literature on creative labour and Milan as a fashion city. It does so by exploring the making of the fictitious fashion designer Serpica Naro, and of Serpica Naro’s sophisticated intervention in the guise of a fashion show at Milan Fashion Week 2005. The analysis is threefold: first it builds on the literature on the tradition of tactical media, guerrilla communication and multiple-use naming to connect making practices to other genealogies of cultural activism. Second, drawing on literature on biopolitics, this chapter provides a discussion of Serpica Naro’s collection in reference to precarity as an embodied, everyday experience. Third, analysing the activists’ archive, it investigates the theoretical production of Serpica Naro as a social medium: a medium that produces relations and subjectivities, and as a ‘metabrand’, or an open-source brand. The chapter argues that the significance and power of Serpica Naro goes beyond the value of the hoax, disruption and creative conflict produced by their intervention in Milan Fashion Week. Instead, the chapter argues, its significance lies in the articulation of the geometry of power engendered by Fashion Week and of the crucial role of precarious workers in it, and in the critical reconfiguration of the flows of goods and imaginaries generated by Fashion Week.
This chapter extends the analysis to design grounded in activist practices. It focuses on WeMake, a makerspace founded in 2012 with a specific interest in addressing the uneven distribution of making literacies and access to hardware. The chapter argues that making is a redirective practice, drawing on Fry’s definition of design that facilitates knowledge exchange, politically contests the unsustainable status quo, enables the transformation of knowledge into action and generates a community of change-agents. To ground these ideas, the chapter offers specific examples of redirective practices. These include the use of open-source technology to enable a more evenly distributed level of participation; forms of collaboration, cooperation and knowledge sharing to extend individual capacity by networking it with others; and training programmes to redistribute digital fabrication skills and making literacies. To show how these concepts and practices are materialised through making, orientation devices have a cameo role in each section: a Do-It-Yourself aerial mapping kit; open-source pattern-making and laser-cut garments; and a hacked knitting machine that functions with an Arduino microcontroller and interface to extend the possibilities of electronic knitting.
The Conclusion explains that the framework of design activism provides a vocabulary to understand how design objects and practices address precarity as political, social and material conditions. It also clarifies how the three microhistories presented in the book enable a shift between different scales of observation, remixing close-ups on the localised realities in Italy and long shots on global issues brought about by precarity. In detail, the first chapter explores the invention and use of designed objects in parades. The second chapter provides an example of an activist design intervention in the fashion industry that embedded some of the defuturing elements of precarity in the designed objects, and prefigured a different way to produce fashion with the invention of the ‘metabrand’. The third chapter offers examples of design as redirective practices grounded in activist experiences. Lastly, the Conclusion outlines the four threads running through the book: the throwntogetherness of local and global elements; the attention to build collectivities and alliances; the biographical elements; and finally the idea of ‘laboratory Italy’, arguing that the case of precarity, Italy has been a laboratory of early work reforms, mass precarisation and the erosion of workers’ rights, but also of experimentation in design activism.