What I Do and Why

Tying knots and opening worlds.

Januari 2021

When I am asked what I do, an answer of a word or two usually is not enough. Both for me and for the person who was listening. I think that’s what you get when you do several things, have different roles and are operating on a project basis. Very often this leads to beautiful conversations. What I do and who I am are closely related. The incomparable Hannah Arendt wrote: the only answer to the question of who I am is ‘allow me to tell you a story’. That story – which, by the way, will be different each time and is therefore best told in person – I won’t tell here and now. What I do and why I do it I do want to describe here because I believe that it is important, exciting and, in addition to being fun, extremely valuable. This value is especially created when what I do becomes shareable and experienceable. In a nutshell, for me it’s about tying knots and opening up worlds.

Designer, artist, scientific researcher – my interest and drive to better understand life, each other and the world stem from the combination of these disciplines and experiences. The last four years this has manifested itself in Design Research around circular economy, ecology, the role of the designer, the public domain and current social transition issues related to these. The first years I worked with a great team in the design research project RE-source in which I was responsible for, among other things, the scientific reflection and interpretation. Interviews, discussions, literature review, video and visual ethnography, sparring with designers, drawing and discussing together, developing an online platform together and later writing, communicating and sharing with others. The work was varied, not rigidly defined in advance, and choices were sharply weighed in the moment based on solid scholarly and artistic knowledge and experience. In a process of learning-by-doing we not only developed knowledge about our subject of research, but also gradually developed a working method and research practice. In the near future two beautiful articles will appear about this. I am now trying to further develop the research practice that we developed then. An important part of this is the development and staging of situations in which we learn together by doing. Situations in which knowledge can be shared, in which we can become part of each other’s world and discipline and inspire each other.

As a hybrid between artistic-, design- and scientific researcher, I noticed how amazingly beautiful and exceptionally the knowledge and skills of different disciplines can complement and enrich each other. Providing insight into the design practice and together with the designers exploring the work and world of experience of other practitioners we encountered in RE-source was remarkable work. It was remarkable because it opened up the rich world of the other, because we got into positions where we could become part of each other’s world and make each other look at the world around us with different eyes. The municipal gardener experiences the outdoor space differently from the urban planner, the dredger, the tree grower or the urban shepherd. What role you play, what skills you possess and what field you are active in all play a role in how you experience the world. By working together, taking each other seriously and looking at each other and each other’s expertise from the perspective of interest, new insights and relationships emerged. To shape and understand the transition to a circular economy, to fathom the upheaval in our thinking that it will require, we desperately need each other. In addition to the formal role of providing scientific reflection and interpretation, my role and that of the team was also primarily about tying knots. Connecting worlds and facilitating situations in which it becomes possible to step into each other’s worlds. Situations in which we do not ramble on linearly in our own world of experience, but like a knot intertwine with other lines. Compressing, condensing, composing and coming together. To partially re-experience those situations and understand the designer’s role in them, you can wander through RE-source’s online platform or read our book Design Research for the Circular City.

For the past year I have been fulfilling the role of instigator, interpreter, knot knotter and designer together with Ester van de Wiel in a new project, RE-/place. The RE-source project was over, but Ester and I were far from finished with the theme, the method and the exciting ideas and topics that gradually took hold of us. So we wrote a new plan together. In RE-/place we are developing a Public Depot of, with and by the city and are intertwining the city”s maintenance with life in the city. We use the frame of leisure to question current systems and practices, confront them with each other and search for new possible futures. In this way, we try to further explore the idea of a Circular Ecology. No suffocating frame of material efficiency, but an inquisitive eco-systemic view focused on connection. Again, we look at design strategies and RE strategies, revisiting that which is by making, organizing, programming and designing. On our instagram @re.place.online, I regularly write Short Reads or Field Notes about this using themes such as ecosystemic looking and acting, placemaking or interfaces and productive boundaries. In them, we explore the possible role of the designer and the related field. I continue to do so, because looking at the world in an investigative and designerly way can give us so many wonderful things.

The COVID pandemic makes it a difficult time for a project in which we test new forms of public space. At the same time, it remains insanely relevant. The need for new images, new metaphors, and better insight and understanding of the complexity of the world and how we as a society shape that complexity into a narrative is profound. With RE-/place, we hope to contribute a bit to that. From care and co-ownership of public space flows a better understanding and care for each other and the world. By literally and physically combining and confronting fields and practices in the public domain, situations arise that function as a knot. What gives me energy time and again is making these knots public and interpreting and translating the knowledge that emerges so that it becomes shareable. 

Because new lines and possibilities for inspired projects are constantly emerging from this sharing.

The tying of knots is part of a search for alternative routes and possible futures. A future where empathy, wonder and creativity become central. Where we break free from the haste, compartmentalization and efficiency thinking that have flattened and abstracted our world view. But also, a future embedded in the now. For me, the interest and desire to tie knots comes from a love and a sense of wonder for the world. The insane beauty and plurality of the world that unfolds when we open ourselves to something with attention and interest is wild. Whether it’s people’s work practices or the world of migratory birds or trees – just to name a side street – making combinations and intertwining them leads to a greater understanding of each other and the world. As Rob Wijnberg wrote in the foreword to “This wasn’t the news” in 2018, a world you can understand you can also change. And this understanding, I believe, we do together, by being open to each other and being interested.

The role of design researcher can be played out in many ways. I choose to see it as partly anthropological, culturally analytical, designing, interpretive and organizing. But above all practical, physical, experiential and collaborative. The fact that there may not yet be a well-defined framework or crystallized working practice for this is not a problem. The field is in development. The fact that the Stimulation Fund for the Creative Industry, for example, is investing in it is a sign of the social value we see in it. Bearing Rob Wijnberg’s words in mind, it would be nice if this were to spread throughout society. Because by sharing with each other we progress. The belief that things can be done differently, that change is necessary and possible, increases every time we embark on an adventure of wonder.

Communicating that wonder by combining, sharing and opening up worlds is what I am now focusing on. Becoming comfortable with the ‘not knowing’ and adopting an inquisitive and designing attitude to gradually shape the future together and to better understand the world. What forms this will take and what projects will roll out of it I don’t know yet. My grandfather once founded a school with other passionate people. If we stretch the concept of a school a bit and look at it from a design perspective, I could possibly see something in that as well. Meanwhile I keep tying knots and opening up worlds. I am currently doing so in the RE-/place project that I set up with Ester van de Wiel. So follow us on instagram and soon on www.re-place.today which will broadcast from our own solar powered server from our Public Depot in Rotterdam.