Alice Twemlow Reports Back from Qatar

April 5, 2011

MFA Design Criticism Department Chair Alice Twemlow recently visited Qatar for the Tasmeem Doha design conference, and she sent back this dispatch. To view more photos from Twemlow’s trip to Qatar, visit our Facebook gallery, plus see her at Tasmeem Doha here and here.

In late March I spent five days in Qatar, one of the smallest, dustiest and wealthiest countries in the world and, thankfully, one of the few countries among its Gulf-region neighbors currently unaffected by major political uprising and civil war. I had been invited to moderate Tasmeem Doha, a design conference organized by Virginia Commonwealth University Qatar (VCUQ). Every two years the Tasmeem conference gathers international scholars and practitioners in the fields of graphic, interior and fashion design to present their work, discuss critical issues in design and engage with their students and community members.

In addition to yours truly, this year’s conference featured Tom Kelley, General Manager of IDEO; Michael Mauer, Design Chief of Porsche; Fiona Raby of Dunne & Raby; and Natalie Jeremijenko, Director of xDesign Environmental Health Clinic, among others. Much of the four-day conference was devoted to workshops in which participants could design a feast, learn how to give traditional Islamic pattern making a contemporary twist, co-create an exquisite-corpse totem pole from laser-cut pieces of cardboard, explore the role of storytelling in viral media, or find a way to generate awareness for some of the social issues affecting Qatar such as the plight of its proportionately large population of migrant construction workers, who live in truly squalid conditions while building the latest architectural edifice, or the prevalence of inherited genetic blood disorders amongst Arab families.

My job was to moderate the on-stage Q&A discussions and to present a summary of my reflections of the entire event as a closing keynote speech for the conference. That was a daunting task in itself, but the challenge was compounded by the fact this was my first visit to the Gulf region and that I knew very little about Qatari people and their culture. Clearly I had a lot to learn in four days. I crashed many of the scores of workshops taking place all over the school; listened to all the 14 main-stage speakers; talked to as many of the 500 or so attendees as I could corner; ate platefuls of baba ghanoush and hummus; bought saffron, cardamom and dates at the souk; talked to American ex-pats and Sri Lankan bellhops; and even got to ride on a racing camel during training one morning at the racetrack.

The students at VCUQ are mostly female and some of them are traditional Muslims who cover all of their skin and hair. These young women, with their beautifully made-up eyes, were on stage a lot, introducing speakers, presenting their work and clamoring for autographs from regional design heroes like Amal Ameem Al-Mehain, a successful designer and businesswoman and a VCUQ graduate, and Dr. Naif Al Mutawa, founder of The 99, a family of comic superheroes born of an Islamic archetype. The students were poised, clear-sighted about the social issues that surrounded them, passionate about design and determined to change things.

The other visitors and I noted how refreshing it was to be in an irony-free environment for a while. There was no double-speak; these students identified problems, did their research, figured out solutions and presented them with panache. They didn’t second-guess themselves with doubt or try to be cool and detached. They owned their work, and as a result they got great responses; in one case in the Q&A period an investor offered to fund one of their projects.

When it was time for me to sum up I felt I had a responsibility to these students to make some sense of the array of worldviews we had been presented with over the past four days. We’d journeyed from Bokja’s vibrant fabric-covered Beetle in Beirut to Natalie Jeremijenko’s Rhinoceros beetle wrestling equipment in a New York apartment; from portable worker housing in the Qatar desert to Bruce Mau Design’s branding of a gay retirement community in Palm Springs. We had gone from Dunne & Raby’s apocalyptic foragers with DIY digestive systems to Farmville’s perky online cultivators exchanging livestock with their Facebook friends in Mark Heggen’s presentation about the design of social gaming.

While such a breadth of inspiration and diversity of approaches is enriching it can also be bewildering. I pointed out that my summary would be partial since my own point of view was skewed. I find little to get excited about in the tapered lines of the rear end of a Porsche 911, which Porsche’s design director had waxed lyrical about, and IDEO’s fat-handled children’s toothbrushes seemed silly beyond belief next to the work of environmental activist Natalie Jeremijenko, or of Dr. Naif Al Mutawa, who has just been named by the World Economic Forum as one of its Young Global Leaders, and of young Islamic women who set up their own design businesses against considerable odds.

It was the lecture by scientist/artist Natalie Jeremijenko to which I referred back to most frequently in my concluding remarks. Her mediagenic interventions invite us to participate in role playing at a health clinic in the middle of a traffic intersection or floating on the East River on a raft made of soda bottles, or in bizarre scenarios like feeding a pellet of food to a fish, which helps to clear out the mercury and PCBs in its system. Such interactions force us to think again about issues of environmental import and hopefully do something about them. Her Environmental Clinic issues “Prescriptions for Actions,” small, achievable procedures that in aggregate can add up to change. Through showing us how to access knowledge, her work empowers us, or at least upsets the status quo of power distribution. But her prescriptions are not for unpalatable pills; they are entertaining and visually vivid and, even though she subverts the familiar, her work always connects to narrative constructs or everyday encounters that we already understand, like going to the doctor. Natalie issued us all with the “design challenge of the 21st century”—how to use design to improve environmental and human health.

The conference theme was Synapse, Designer as Link. A synapse, in my rudimentary understanding of it, is the location, the juncture, where signals leap from one nerve cell to another. I see these signals strapping on their helmets, a bit like the sperm in the Woody Allen movie Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex, and plunging out there across the synaptic cleft. While designers may not routinely take risks that are as physically endangering as jumping across a chasm, they do take leaps of various kinds throughout the processes and practices of their work. They take financial risks, intellectual risks, risks that affect whole groups of people that they collaborate with. And with all these they take leaps of the imagination. They don’t know if there will be a firm cell on the other side of a crazy idea. And, of course, imagining scenarios and business plans and creatures and devices and mutations takes designers to the future, sometime the immediate and almost-possible, sometimes to the far, out-there future. As Fiona Raby, a tutor in the Royal College of Art Design Interactions department put it, “Designers can open up impossible ideas and worlds.” Design, a futurist activity in essence, can push beyond the already experienced and imagined to build situations, products, and ways of living that are better, funnier, wilder, more complicated, and richer. The students of VCUQ know this and I look forward to the products of their leaps.

Images: Photos by Alice Twemlow.

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