Utopian Education
Annelys de Vet | DEVET


Open Set Seoul Sessions 2016


20/02 — 22/02


Kookmin University, Seoul

Interview by Jenna Kang (participant Open Set Seoul Sessions 2016)

FFrom February 20-22, I participated in Annelys de Vet her workshop as part of Open Set Seoul. Annelys is a Belgium-based Dutch designer who developed a participatory design method in order to realise her Subjective Atlases. As course director of the Design Department, she works at The Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam.

On the first day of the workshop, students were given the assignment to visualise data about the Kookmin University campus. It was a version of Kookmin University Unmapping the World. After each student’s presentation, we talked about Utopian Education. On the second day, we discussed details about how to build an ‘idealistic school’ in the form of two teams. Lastly, two teams shared and presented a view of each school’s rules and subjects after which we wrapped up the workshop.

The workshop was related to the theme of Memories of the Future from Open Set Seoul this year. We started by questioning and doubting the status quo of the current education system after which we visualised our utopian education. A large number of students from Kookmin University and Sandberg Instituut took part in Open Set. It was easy to compare the educational systems of Korea and the Netherlands. I became more curious about Annelys’ way of working and her way of seeing the world. I interviewed her about her work and thinking.

Why did you choose to be part of Open Set this year with its theme of Memories of the Future?

I was invited to be a tutor in this context. I feel that my work and way of working, has strong connections with the theme of this Open Set session. In my practice I find ways of mapping identity and using design in order to conduct a dialogue and visualise an identity, which is also about belonging and imagining different futures.

What were your initial thoughts on Unmapping the World?

In a former cartographic institution in Portugal, I witnessed an amazing collection of historical maps and realised how the European history of mapping coincides with 17th and 18th century colonial practices. I realised that this mapping practice actually equals Western Colonialism, in a sense that there is a Western way of thinking and mapping the world. There are so many ways of describing the world. What I saw there was the ultimate form of top-down mapping, and not a bottom-up way of mapping. I strive to think beyond traditional status quo within mapping practices. Not to re-map things within the same methodology, but to re-think the methodology with which we map the world, and thus un-mapping. Unlearn what we know.

Why do you think you’ve had such a good response from people with the Subjective Atlases?

It’s not just a project, it’s a way of working, a design methodology. In a way, I offer a model of working, based on the invitation of another cultural organisation. The local organisation invites other people to contribute. During a workshop we organise together, we investigate with the participants what identifies them and how to express that.

What values would you like to share and capture?

There is a lot of humour involved in the project, and the atlas itself. It is beyond ego, not about design as a style. It is really about design as a way to bridge the gap with the other. Design as a tool for intercultural dialogue.

Subjective atlas of Mexico (2011), Annelys de Vet

Would you be happy if someone else used your methodology of the Subjective Atlas?

Yes. I like to see design as a virus, in a positive way. As something that can spread itself. Of course I assume I will be informed or asked, and that things will be done with respect if someone uses my methodology. I see possibilities of people copying it, but they should also find out their own angle, or their own context, or look me up in order to collaborate.

From your interview with Kristian Mandma in the Subjective Atlas of the EU, comes the notion that design is like storytelling. Could you tell me more?

Design is storytelling. What’s interesting in thinking about storytelling is that a story is a more relational thing than a design is per se. A story relates things. There’s a storyline. There’s a beginning. There’s an end. There’s a meaning. There’s a context. If you think about a design as a story, you are triggered to think about it in a more contextual and relational form. If you think more about the layout, typeface, structure, you are thinking of design more as a form, or as a way of structuring information. If you think about design as storytelling, there’s another way of making decisions within the design. In relation to the Subjective Atlas, even though the book is a product of a process, 'It's a tool or strategy in order to have this dialogue regarding identity, to share this with others and come together, a way of giving room to this discussion. More than this book being the best design book, it's a tool within this structure.'

Personally I got to know your name first through Droog Design, can you talk about your products for Droog Design?

For Everything There is Season (Tea Towel Series)
You can consider the tea towel series a bit as a “Subjective Atlas” in a way of thinking and seeing. The set forms a calendar of twelve months. Every tea towel is for one month. It captures a series of words. It maps certain phenomena with words that relate to cultural, natural and geographical aspects of each month. For instance, we have a saying in Dutch: “April doet wat hij wil”, meaning “April does whatever it wants” which refers to the unpredictable weather conditions this month. So in April, we can have freezing cold and stormy weather, while the next day can be a summer day and hot. So I made an overview of words to describe the weather conditions that we can have in April. One can consider it as poetry in the house. Altogether the 12 tea towels narrate about Dutch culture.

My Cup of Thought
What happens often while you drink coffee — is that your philosophical thoughts about the world, environment and politics develop. While drinking coffee, you are usually with others and talk about these thoughts. The cup and saucer is a set of words, such as ‘The illusion of doubts’. If you turn around the saucer, it becomes ‘The illusion of politics’. All the words in the cup relate to democracy and the masses (How mass opinion is being shaped) The combination of words becomes a philosophical statement. They are serious, and yet light-hearted, triggering your thoughts while sipping coffee.

Regarding your thoughts on education, why did you want students to imagine Utopian Education in the workshop?

Initially my idea was a bit different about the workshop, but on the first night and day, we had so many conversations about education — both in Korea and in the Netherlands. My first question during the workshop was to map the students’ environment, but I felt that what the students brought back wasn’t so imaginative, it didn’t trigger or open up thinking. There was not enough abstraction, fantasy and passion included. So I decided to reformulate my question to let the students imagine their education with more passion. The moment when I asked students about what would be the utopian form of their education, immediately I heard enthusiasm and vulnerability in the voices, and fantasy. I realised that that was the right question, which was actually inspired by a quote from Oscar Wilde, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing. And when humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.” The university is already there, but not the utopian version. And that is what we mapped during our workshop.

Subjective atlas of Hungary (2011), Annelys de Vet

Can you talk more about education at The Sandberg Instituut?

My ideal form of education is education without tutors. Students form the education. They do what they feel is important to do. But if there are no tutors or institute, this won’t take place. Even though it is my utopia, at the same time I accept the fact that in order to achieve this, we need tutors and institutes. What I do as department head is figuring out the right balance, where students feel super motivated to initiate and tutors are there to guide them in this self directed process. We as a team support them in their initiatives. Students have to realise that they are studying for themselves, and not to conform to the institute, or to please the tutors. They have to define what they want to learn. In that sense we do not offer a program, we offer possibilities, and it’s up to the students to build their own program with it. They define their own urgencies and curiosities — which is in the end the most difficult part. This methodology confronts students with themselves, they can’t lose or hide themselves behind a program. We educate agenda-makers, and not agenda-followers. We educate them for a self-initiated design practice in which they make individual decisions and collaborate strongly. As a school we give them opportunity to grow in this kind of role.

As a graphic designer, you used to do client-based work. Why did you stop doing this?

In a way, it’s unclear where client-based projects stop and end, but what is important for my practice is to be involved in the full process of a project. I cannot just give form to other people’s information. Additionally I don’t think in terms of a client and a designer. I think in terms of partners in crime. You have different positions and talents, and those are the conditions to collaborate. Everyone has a different role, but a shared responsibility. I choose to work in those kinds of constructions. I am interested in creating content, relating content, and seeing this in a bigger context.

Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?

Yes. Absolutely. I hope all the students also feel the same thing. As a designer you have to realise that what you make is part of a discourse, it has an effect and affect. It’s part of a dynamic and often a system. As a designer, you have to realise which system or ideology you are serving — and if this is what you are willing to do. I do often hear designers say, “oh, I have so much freedom in this assignment”, and of course that is nice, but if you ask further, “who is this client?”, “what does this client stand for?”, and “do you as a person, want to contribute to this kind of mentality?”, then they might reject the freedom they were offered, and see it in a whole different light. Sometimes they want to stick too much to this creative freedom and creative possibilities, and they don’t think of the fact that it’s serving a certain capitalistic or neoliberal system, that they do not want to be part of. Designers need to think on a relational and contextual level, far beyond form and style.

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