Decolonizing Ecologies of Time: Towards Speculative and Critical Design Practice in Latin America

Pedro J. S. Vieira de Oliveira and Luiza Prado de O. Martins

PhD Candidates at Universität der Künste Berlin

Keywords: design, speculation, criticality, participation, decoloniality, media, ontology, time

In Latin America, reality is always dangerously touching dystopia. Even though sometimes it feels that we are moving forward, violence and inequality keep pushing us back to realities much akin to our colonial past, and our history seems to repeat itself. The invasion of land, military coups, police brutality, violent regimes, and the genocide of indigenous and Afro-Latin peoples are all integral to the fabric of our reality. The cyclical nature of our history emerges as it becomes clear that the structures of power pushing us back to the past have, in fact, never left. We are left feeling like actors in a play, performing the same scenes over and over again.

The past becomes the present when the very oligarchs who have been in power for centuries in Latin America articulate themselves to seize power through whatever means necessary—a reality as much of the 1960s as it is of the 2000s. [1] History continues to repeat itself when a heavily militarized police intimidates self-organizing movements calling for quality education, public transport, fair distribution of land, or proper water supply. [2] Latin American reality, it seems, is constantly trying to catch up with time, but inevitably falls back to remain “ever more unknown, ever less free, ever more solitary,” as Gabriel García Márquez once said. [3] The past repeats itself in the present, for our historicity and the lenses with which we look at reality were already decided for us by those who hold and enforce colonial power. Speculating about disaster in Latin America is not an exercise of imagination when instability and violence are a part of daily life. Our colonial past is always prefiguring our future—or lack thereof.

Outline of Social and Political Changes in Brazil since 2018, Brazil, July 2038. Digital image. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Outline of Social and Political Changes in Brazil since 2018, July 2038. Digital image. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

The legacy of colonialism has far-reaching consequences; from the way social structures are established, to understandings of what constitutes knowledge and what doesn’t, the ramifications of the “coloniality of power” are extensive. [4] Time itself can be understood as a construct of coloniality, a system in which the colonized are constantly trapped in a cycle of primitiveness, un-development, and decelebration. [5] Coloniality ensures that the motion towards “development” never completes itself, but rather that its terms constantly change and are imposed by economic dependence, denial of rights, and military and/or cultural warfare. In our speculative design practice, we refer to the cycles that keep pushing the colonial past towards the present as “time bubbles” artifacts of the specific, dystopian reality of Latin America.

Wikipedia page on the Brazilian National Genetic Database (BGN), established in 2024. Brazil, July 2038. Digital image. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Wikipedia page on the Brazilian National Genetic Database (BGN), established in 2024. Brazil, July 2038. Digital image. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

News on the killing of a 21-year-old Man, from June 2032, Brazil, July 2038. Digital image. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

News on the killing of a 21-year-old Man, from June 2032, Brazil, July 2038. Digital image. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

New National Identity Cards, introduced in 2033, Brazil, July 2038. Mixed media. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

New National Identity Cards, introduced in 2033, Brazil, July 2038. Mixed media. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Technology plays an increasingly important role in the unraveling of Latin America’s often young and ever-fragile democracies. Particularly in Brazil (despite it being a country where a significant portion of the population still lacks basic infrastructure), social networks have recently become fundamental for the exchange and propagation of information about political matters. While TV broadcasts remain nevertheless relevant, a significant number of people—young and old—choose to be informed through Twitter, Facebook, or WhatsApp. [6] In this context, we believe social media may be a useful medium for speculation about pivotal issues—such as the erosion of the human rights of minorities—and to incite critical reflection as to how these issues might unfold in a probable (though not exactly preferable) future. In constructing speculative scenarios through the language of social and digital media, we are able to create worlds in which individual or particular affordances of (future) technologies are not the foreground. Instead, these affordances help us explore the complex systems that allow time to repeat itself once again.

News on the acquirement of UFRJ by EDUCC, from March 2027, Brazil, July 2038. Digital image. Photo by Omar Uran (CC-BY-2.0). CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

News on the acquirement of UFRJ by EDUCC, from March 2027, Brazil, July 2038. Digital image. Photo by Omar Uran (CC-BY-2.0). CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Conversation between Neighbors, Date Unknown. Digital image. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Conversation between Neighbors, Date Unknown. Digital image. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Colonial and imperial powers have, in the past years, been confronted with the consequences of their very roles in coloniality. Constitutional rights are surreptitiously suspended and a novel, authoritarian juridical order is made sovereign, [7] giving way for rising tides of violence, loss of privacy, and displacement caused by economic and political segregation. However, such a State of Exception has been present for a long time already in the military-occupied favelas of Brazil, or in labor conditions akin to modern slavery in Paraguay, Bolivia, or Peru. It is visible in the emergence of a meritocratic fiction devoid of place for historical reparations, but with enough room for historical revisionism. It is tangible in the maintenance of social segregation systems that subscribe to hetero-cis-normative and patriarchal models and thus negate the right to be human from those who cannot conform. [8]

Found video on civilian acoustic weapons, date unknown. Video. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Found video on civilian acoustic weapons, date unknown. Video. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

News on the conviction from eight policemen, from December 2036, Brazil, July 2038. Digital image. Photo by Mídia Ninja. (Used with permission). CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

News on the conviction from eight policemen, from December 2036, Brazil, July 2038. Digital image. Photo by Mídia Ninja. (Used with permission). CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Children’s sound-making toy, date unknown. Electronics. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Children’s sound-making toy, date unknown. Electronics. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Tony Fry, Clive Dilnot, and Susan Stewart demonstrate that the ontological ability to configure such “systems of compliance”—those in which actions and their agents seem virtually disconnected, thus never exposing the system itself—is but an act of design. [9] In other words, design is what widens the gap between (political) decisions and those who carry them out; it creates the tools with which to exempt actors from the consequences of their acts. As such, design is politics made tangible. At the same time, it cannot allow itself to be distant from any accountability as to how it fosters systems of compliance in which some are rendered “more human than others.” Conversely, by mapping out these ecologies—and expressing them through designerly language—political actions and the agents who enforce them are brought to the fore, and the systems of which they are part are made visible.

With these ideas in mind, in our practice we design spaces that afford counter-actions. Our speculative worlds are presented as incomplete, fragmented stories that tell but one version of the “truth,” and in turn invite interpretation, reaction, and intervention so as to construct other narratives. With that, we do not understand reality to be the product of a single discourse, but rather a malleable fabric within the space, and thusly constructed by plurality. Both past and future are products of the present, and the present might be intrinsically different from individual to individual, and from group to group.

Wearable device from 2038, Brazil, July 2038. Mixed media. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Wearable device from 2038, Brazil, July 2038. Mixed media. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

A design practice concerned with Latin America—and its right to have a future of its own—must cease to strive to “mirror” the colonizer, that is, to become “developed” and “civilized” as they understand it, in what Enrique Dussel has called the “fallacy of developmentalism.” [10] When we do so, our mirror becomes a “mirage”; we seem, at first glance, to have succeeded, but in reality our time bubbles remain there, our social inequalities ever stronger. [11] Instead, we need to foster practices that make use of the devices of our own reality, to create objects for political literacy. Design can denounce the threat of history repeating itself again, and in so doing become an emancipatory tool. To do so, our ontologies and epistemologies must be decolonized, if we truly want to design ways “to render our lives believable,” once and for all. [12]

Appendix: Image Descriptions and Translations

Fig. 1. Outline of social and political changes in Brazil since 2018.

Fig. 2. The BGN is responsible for monitoring the genetic makeup of the Brazilian population. Introduction of SINAChip, an implant required for access to public healthcare.

Fig. 3. New National Identity Cards containing individual Genetic Risk Group information in compliance with new BGN regulations are issued throughout the country. Old IDs are to become invalid in the next 12 months.

Fig. 4. A 21-year old man is bludgeoned to death in Brasília. Self-proclaimed vigilante group Castos publicly claims responsibility. According to the info on his SINAChip, the murdered man belonged to Genetic Risk Group “C-3” (undesirable traits). The reader is prevented from accessing further information, in compliance with bill AL54/2028 (potentially improper/sensitive content).

Fig. 5. After years of political resistance, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) is acquired by conglomerate EDUCC (Civil and Christian Education), in a protest- and turmoil-laden public auction. UFRJ was the last public university in the country.

Fig. 6. Following bill PL2333, so-called non-lethal weapons were authorized for civilian use; this conversation involves the decision of buying several “crickets” (most probably referencing Long-Range Acoustic Devices, to deal with a perceived “problem” in the neighborhood.

Fig. 7. An acoustic weapon can be heard in operation, most probably from a balcony. The video can be watched at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9Ts908vai0.

Fig. 8. Children’s toy based on the functioning principles of an LRAD (Long-Range Acoustic Device).

Fig. 9. Members of PMs de Cristo (a religious organization within the Military Police), involved in a mass killing are convicted of “demonic possession.” They are sentenced with spiritual cleansing sessions and voluntary work for the Church.

Fig. 10. Wearable device presenting real-time news on the upcoming elections of 2038. Candidates advocate for stronger military presence in the streets. Castos have, for the first time, openly declared their support. Protests are scheduled for the upcoming weeks.

References

  1. Mark Weisbrot, “Latin America: How the US Has Allied with the Forces of Reaction,” The Guardian, June 29, 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/jun/29/latin-america-us-allied-forces-reaction.
  2. Miguel Borba de Sá, “A Brazilian Autumn?: An Interview with Miguel Borba de Sa,” Jacobin Magazine, June 2013, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2013/06/a-brazilian-autumn/; and Pablo Ortellado, “Brazil’s Students Occupy Their Schools to Save Them,” The New York Times, December 15, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/16/opinion/brazils-students-occupy-their-schools-to-save-them.html.
  3. Gabriel García Márquez, “Nobel Lecture: The Solitude of Latin America,” Nobel Prize, accessed March 28, 2016, http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1982/marquez-lecture.html.
  4. Anibal Quijano, “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America,” Nepantla: Views from South 1, no. 3 (2000): 533–80.
  5. Walter D. Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).
  6. Marco Toledo Bastos, Raquel Da Cunha Recuero, and Gabriela Da Silva Zago, “Taking Tweets to the Streets: A Spatial Analysis of the Vinegar Protests in Brazil,” First Monday 19, no. 3 (2014); and Raquel Da Cunha Recuero, Gabriela Da Silva Zago, and Marco Toledo Bastos, “Twitter in Political Campaigns: The Brazilian 2014 Presidential Elections,” in The Routledge Companion to Social Media and Politics, ed. Axel Bruns et al., 2015, 518–30.
  7. Giorgo Agamben, State of Exception (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
  8. Maria Lugones, “Heterosexualism and the Colonial/Modern Gender System,” Hypatia 22, no. 1 (2007): 186–209; Walter D. Mignolo, “Delinking,” Cultural Studies 21, no. 2–3 (March 1, 2007): 449–514; and Anibal Quijano, ibid.
  9. Tony Fry, Clive Dilnot, and Susan Stewart, Design and the Question of History, 1st ed. (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 79–81.
  10. Dussel, Enrique, “Eurocentrism and Modernity: Introduction to the Frankfurt Lectures,” Boundary 2 20, no. 3 (1993), 67.
  11. Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1970).
  12. Gabriel García Márquez, “Nobel Lecture: The Solitude of Latin America,” ibid.

Bios

Pedro J. S. Vieira de Oliveira is a design researcher in sound studies and is currently a PhD Candidate at the Universität der Künste Berlin. He holds a BA in Graphic Design from Universidade Estadual Paulista (Bauru, Brazil) and an MA in Digital Media from the Hochschule für Künste Bremen (Germany). He is also one half of the design duo, A Parede (http://a-pare.de).

Luiza Prado de O. Martins is a design researcher in gender studies and is currently a PhD Candidate at the Universität der Künste Berlin. She holds a BA in Graphic Design from Pontifícia Universidade Católica (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), and an MA in Digital Media from the Hochschule für Künste Bremen (Germany). She is the other half of the design duo, A Parede (http://a-pare.de).