One Question Quiz

BooksSeptember 23, 2023

Disappointing the past and failing the future


This essay by Emma Ng is from the book Present Tense: Wāhine Toi Aotearoa – A Paper Record, edited by Catherine Griffiths. It’s part of a wider project of posters which aim to ‘record the current landscape of women in design and give visibility to the unsung diversity of Aotearoa design’. 

Is there a pithy word for the bitter feeling of inevitability that comes about when someone reveals their bigotry, when election results disappoint, or when institutional advances towards gender parity are shown to be “a myth”? The feeling can only be described as a kind of disappointment in our own naivety. It’s a defensive pose of weary cynicism that compensates for having bought into the dream of progressive modernism, for having trusted that some mysterious social momentum was hurtling us towards a better tomorrow — or even believing that there was a better tomorrow we’d all agreed on.

Weariness is everywhere. It courses through Marilyn Waring’s book, Still Counting, which finds that today’s “wellbeing economics” still (30 years on from her first book) depends on a value system that does not account for women’s unpaid work. It cascaded from Julie Zhu’s speech to the Power of Inclusion film-industry summit: “I’m sick,” she said, “of words like diversity, inclusion, representation. We’ve heard these words for years and they don’t mean anything anymore if we don’t see meaningful action behind them.” It ebbs through Matariki Williams’ exhibition review, “Change to Come”, in which she highlights the endurance and perseverance of Māori artists still waiting for both recognition and change. And it pulses in so many of the posters submitted to the open call for Present Tense : Wāhine Toi Aotearoa

Mana Wahine, mai i a Ranginui ki a Papatūānuku — te whenua ki te moana(2019). This poster is a collaborative work by nine mana wāhine from Kaikohe-based ĀKAU design studio, where pattern and tohu are composed to form a whare housing the moko kauae of the now late Mere Taylor-Tuiloma.

It’s a feeling that goes beyond being fed up. The catchcry might once have been, “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this anymore!” but now it’s 2019 and placards read, “I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit.” Rather than being regarded as an inspiring moment of unity, the image of Justin Trudeau marching with protestors in the recent climate strikes was mocked as a gloomy cipher of political impotence — for who are we trying to influence if the influential are marching too?

The photo Trudeau tweeted seems like it was dialled up as a fatalist answer to the question “What if you held a protest and everyone came?”— the title of a chapter in Mark Fisher’s 2009 book Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? The book opens with the idea that “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Ultimately, Fisher’s provocative declaration of a crisis of imagination doubles as a call for a kind of deep imaginative work inseparable from the critique that drives it — a call to tear tiny holes in the “grey curtain” with “glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities.”

Others writing for this Present Tense series have also called for radical imagination as they’ve explored the social, cultural, and political landscape of design in New Zealand. Desna Whaanga-Schollum writes, “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. I’m less interested in having more tangata whenua, more wāhine, more POC, more LGBTQI, involved in upholding the same colonised systems we all labour within.”

Imagination is, in theory, one of the working tools of the designer. In critiquing the conditions we occupy, blunt force often comes first — in the form of outrage and protest — but incisiveness and imagination are needed in its wake. To be incisive, we must look beyond symptoms to understand the contributing conditions. When it comes to gender equity in the design industry, for example, it’s important to acknowledge that we are not talking about a lack of women graduating from design schools or working as designers. Instead we are confronting a lack of recognition for women at design’s highest levels — in leadership positions and as the recipients of top-tier awards.

Aray ko (2019) by Alessandra Banal. A poster inspired by the language of Banal’s home in the Philippines, where Rodrigo Duterte has killed thousands in the so-called war on drugs. “Discipline and control, growing up, meant words like ‘kulong’ (imprison) and ‘palo’ (smack). These words amuse me, because of their familiarity. I want to embrace anything that helps me relate to home, even the way I was punished.”

Looking closely, it’s evident that the ability of women to achieve such recognition is limited by systemic issues that affect all of us, but put particular pressure on vulnerable groups including women. As just one example, the career progression of women is sometimes interrupted by childcare responsibilities. Employers sensitive to these needs are able to accommodate them with flexible work practices, the provision of paid parental leave, and opportunities to do meaningful part-time work (the Australian platform Parlour has many resources available to help employers and employees navigate these issues in architecture). But what about those without understanding employers or even steady employment, for whom job security is already precarious? Attention needs to be paid to how these commonplace issues intersect with, and are impacted by, all the conditions of our present tense. For many working in the creative industries today, the challenges they already face — as people of diverse genders, ethnicities and economic realities — are exacerbated by the increasing precarity of their employment arrangements.

Freelance and fixed-term contracts are now endemic in creative industries and tertiary institutions. While there can be benefits to this kind of precarious labour for employees, these benefits are often inaccessible to workers who are already vulnerable, working mothers among them. In the design industry we are observing the symptoms, but we have not yet confronted wider societal questions arising from the long-term trend toward zero-hour contracts and the priorities of a service economy.

When I visit end-of-year exhibitions and showcases, I’m always struck by the range of social issues that students choose to address in their thesis projects. There is a real sense of conviction among these graduating cohorts, and a belief in design as a means to bring about change. Our challenge is supporting and sustaining this sense of purpose beyond design education, even once these designers find themselves in the service of clients.

A book review by gender theorist Judith Butler recently made waves on Twitter for its instantly iconic closing salvo. In the review of New York Times opinion editor Bari Weiss’s book How to Fight Anti-Semitism, Butler criticises Weiss for failing to engage thoroughly with the historical breadth of her subject, allowing her to elide “the issues that make the matter so vexed.” Despite the specificity of the topic, the review is worth reading as a reminder of how easily we can allow important questions to remain unasked because of our blind spots and biases, or because we simply lack curiosity and conviction. So, to borrow Butler’s closing phrase (“More courage, Bari Weiss!”) to close this piece… More courage, all of us!

Present Tense: Wāhine Toi Aotearoa – A Paper Record, edited by Catherine Griffiths ($65) can be pre-ordered online here (for release this month). All of the posters from the Present Tense project can be viewed here.

Keep going!