“Then comes the motherfuckin’ Christopher Columbus Syndrome. You can’t discover this! We been here. You just can’t come and bogart. There were brothers playing motherfuckin’ African drums in Mount Morris Park for 40 years and now they can’t do it anymore because the new inhabitants said the drums are loud. My father’s a great jazz musician. He bought a house in nineteen-motherfuckin’-sixty-eight, and the motherfuckin’ people moved in last year and called the cops on my father. He’s not — he doesn’t even play electric bass! It’s acoustic! We bought the motherfuckin’ house in nineteen-sixty-motherfuckin’-eight and now you call the cops? In 2013? Get the fuck outta here!
Nah. You can’t do that. You can’t just come in the neighborhood and start bogarting and say, like you’re motherfuckin’ Columbus and kill off the Native Americans. Or what they do in Brazil, what they did to the indigenous people. You have to come with respect. There’s a code. There’s people.”
…”So answering [designer James] Auger’s pressing question — “What is this obsession with class systems?” —, well: we are obsessed with class systems because we can’t help it. Because, in contrast to most of the practitioners in the field of [Speculative and Critical Design], we do not have the privilege of not thinking about issues of race, class and gender.
“In general you could say that research is just an extra tool to produce works of art, another way of being curious about the world. [… ] What the Academy needs is not more theory, but training in how to use theory as practice”
(Jeroen Boomgaard, Gray magazine #3, p5).
From ‘Cultural probes’ (1999) by Bill Gaver, Tony Dunne and Elena Pacenti
In this text the writers explain how they used the ‘cultural probe’ as a research method for understanding the local culture, so that their designs wouldn’t seem irrelevant or arrogant.
“The cultural probes -these packages of maps, postcards, and other materials- were designed to provoke inspirational responses from elderly people in diverse communities. Like astronomic or surgical probes, we left them behind when we had gone and waited for them to return fragmentary data over time.”
“The probes were part of a strategy of pursuing experimental design in a responsive way. They address a common dilemma in developing projects for unfamiliar groups.”….”We wanted to lead a discussion with the group towards unexpected ideas, but we didn’t want to dominate it.”
Postcards (8 to 10): images on front, questions on back (e.g. “Tell us a piece of advice or insight that has been important for you”) concerning attitude towards lives, cultural environment and technology of the elders. Medium is an informal, casual and friendly way of communication, pre-addressing and stamping them bridges the gap of returning them to the researchers.
Maps (±7): with an accompanying inquiry exploring the elders’ attitude towards their environment. Global maps (“where have you been in the world?”) to local maps (“Where do you like to daydream?”). Small dot stickers were provided to mark answers.
Camera (disposable) repackaged to integrate with the other probe materials. At the back a list of required pictures, but also with room to shoot other things the elders wanted.
Small booklet: Photo album (“use 6 to 10 pictures to tell your story”) & media diary (“record your television and radio use, call etc”).
2 year project: first year: opening a space of possible designs; second on developing prototypes to be tested in the sites.
Design as research: “Unlike much research, we don’t emphasize precise analysis or carefully controlled methodologies; instead we concentrate on aesthetic control, the cultural implications of our design, and way to open new spaces for design.”
Inspiration, not information; subjective and ‘inspirational data’. A more impressionistic account of their beliefs and desires. Designers are provocateurs and probes are interventions.
Overcoming distance by tone and aesthetics of the probe material, as visual as possible to cross language barriers. To bridge the generational gap: reject stereotypes (e.g. ‘needy’ and ‘nice’) but opening new opportunities: they represent a lifetime of experiences and knowledge.
Aesthetics are integral part of functionality: appealing, motivating, efficient and usable. Delightful but not condescending.
Elements of collage so that the images open new and provocative spaces, and new perspectives on everyday life. “We decided to present them ourselves to explain our intensions, answer questions, and encourage the elders to take an informal, experimental approach to the materials.
“The cultural probes were successful for us in trying to familiarize ourselves with the sites in a way that would be appropriate for our approach as artist-designers.”… The other half is that the elders learned from the probes. They provoked the group to think about the roles they play and the pleasures they experience…”
“…in this ‘Obama time’ (post-race), everyone wants to be celebrated… I’m hoping we get to a place where, you know, race is a thing of the past. And that we are not so limited in our identifications and what we find beautiful.”
Meshell Ndegeocello responds to the question “What is the meaning of “White Girl”?” (song from the album ‘Devil’s Halo’) on Suite903.com.