A solemn design dialogue

It’s been a week of interesting conversations. My faith in curiosity and an open minded dialogue as the provenance of all human creativity is reaffirmed as I ponder about my interactions with people over the past several days.

The week started with my designer friend Jacob Mathew inviting me to a dialogue with 80+ students and faculty of the Srishti Manipal Design shool to inspire ideas for a design week 2022 in Bengaluru. His request came with an explanation:

“As a poet, philosopher and designer your insights would be valuable for this group of young minds to help shape the practice that they will be part of soon.”

A faculty member at Shrishti, Amitabh Kumar elaborated the purpose behind this dialogue,

“As a group of learners at Srishti Manipal, we wanted to use the context of envisioning the Bangalore Design Week to ask fundamental questions about the role that design can play in instigating possible futures.

In the many aspects that the pandemic has impacted our lives and consciousness, there have been stories of large-scale loss, fissures, and collapses. These have been felt across spectrums of class, context, and nationalities. Through its all-pervasive affect, the Coronavirus has given us the silver lining of this sight. To re-imagine the idea of public as a global construct, to be able to see through the many waves, how local and global are part of the same discourse. A discourse to which we ask — what can design do for this extended period of constantly renewing abnormality?

What this moment of Pandemic twilight allows us to do is invent the apparatus through we see the world around us. Perhaps what the pandemic has made visible are tendencies that were already present — maybe a lot of what we see around the world right now (Climate Change, Global Tensions, Political Developments to name a few) has only been accelerated by the Coronavirus. Connections are more visible now than they were earlier, networks easier to trace.

We hope your conversation with us is a compass that directs the adventure which we are about to set out for — your articles and ideas have been really motivating in terms of the larger vision that Jacob is guiding us with. It is critical that we use this opportunity to ask authentic questions and move towards systems and solutions for the future. We need your help in trying to understand what that means. We hope this could be a start of a dialogue that continues over time”

I had many ideas bubbling in my mind but my first challenge was to calm down and not be guided by my own thoughts. I had to prepare my mind to observe and listen to the students and faculty. I started the dialogue with a request to the students to ask me any question. I also asked the faculty to hold their questions until the students asked theirs.

There was silence at the other end. For five minutes nobody asked any question. I let the silence prevail. I reminded the students that I was not going to speak even if an hour passed in silence and that I have learned to be comfortable with uncomfortable silence.

After seven minutes of silence a student asked: “Can you please explain how you arrived at your interest in imagination and consciousness and what it means to you as a designer?”

That led to a long drawn out dialogue about the difference between design driven by intention and consciousness. I explained to them that expanding our consciousness inwards and outwards helps us discover our connectedness with each other and with nature. That consciousness is like breathing- inhaling and exhaling air helps us be alive, awake, and mindful of life. It helps us engage our energy and create wellness inside and around us.

While imagination makes us aware of what is possible, consciousness makes us mindful of who we are and of the universe we are a part of. With these two capacities we can play our part to our full potential.

It was time to share my video “Universe”. I was inspired to write the lyrics 47 year after first watching the movie “Powers of Ten” by Charles and Ray Eames. The Video was my visual interpretation of A Cappella composition by Ian Kaneko, a student of Music Composition at the Carnegie Mellon University.

The session was originally scheduled for one hour, we kept the dialogue going for two and a half hours. There were several moments during that time when nobody spoke. We relished the silence between musings. Some People told stories of meaningful experiences from their life.

For example, Jacob told a recent experience in Goa. He and his wife took a break at a scenic spot near a restaurant. The owner of the restaurant said he only sold alcohol and no food. Jacob and Neelam told him they were not interested in alcohol but that they stopped by to enjoy the beautiful view.

The owner invited them in and said, “please feel free to enjoy the beauty of the surroundings. You don’t have to purchase anything from me.” Jacob and Neelam found the time spent at the restaurant more meaningful and memorable than any other experience they have had at any restaurant around the world. Jacob’s story sent us all into a moment of silence.

As the dialogue continued we all could feel a new design discourse emerging. Design based on tapping into our connectedness and a practice based on caring for each other.

We kept extending our dialogue until I needed to end it for a meeting. The dialogue created a an atmosphere of serenity and a feeling of closeness and caring in all of us. Before ending the call I played another of my music video “Together” in which a sacred musician from Hawaii, sings four lines from my poem “Pandemic” which was inspired by the endurance and suffering of millions of migrant labor in India who walked hundreds of miles to the safety of their villages when the pandemic broke out. Several thousand died on the way.

As the call ended some had tears in our eyes and love in our hearts.

I have not attended any design event that ended with such a solemn atmosphere.

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A design activist and ethnographer of social imagination.

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Uday Dandavate

Uday Dandavate

A design activist and ethnographer of social imagination.

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