Going Real, Marco Petroni’s new book, is a call to action

Discussing what is meant by design today, the critic and curator identifies a cross-cutting approach that can bring disciplines together and stimulate debate, using new methods to construct a broader field.

Going Real, Planar, 2018

Going Real is a call to action. It aims to stimulate debate on topics that I see as crucial at this moment. I believe that we need to rediscover a sense of community and rethink radically the concept of work itself, at a time when design is increasingly focusing its attention on manual processes, sustainable materials and flexible forms.” We met the critic and curator Marco Petroni in Naples, where we discussed at length his most recent work, the book Going Real. Il valore del progetto nell’epoca del postcapitalismo (“Going Real: the value of design in the post-capitalist era”) (Planar Books, Bari, 2018).  

As he explained, “When I talk about design, I’m talking about a cross-cutting gaze that can bring together a range of disciplines, starting from design, the field I work in. Design is a broad area and needs to be defined and constructed using new methods. Its value is not simply economic. It includes all those affective and relational dimensions that are key to reassessing the neo-liberal system in a more horizontal and inclusive way. As many examples in the book show, there’s no need to wait for a client before we do this because design contains within itself the power to transform the society, politics and culture of today.” It is an approach that Petroni pursues by structuring the book itself like a multi-voiced work. It’s no accident that it is being published by Planar, an independent publishing house based in Bari that is also an interdisciplinary research collective. The book started as a platform for connecting different viewpoints and perceptions; it was written in close collaboration with the designer and researcher Giovanni Innella, includes an insightful afterword by Angela Rui and has been illustrated with photographs by Antonio Ottomanelli. The images are more than just straightforward illustrations of the content: they offer an additional level of interpretation, creating a powerful shortcut to the questions tackled by the book.

After the publication of his 2016 work Possible Worlds: notes on a theory of design (Edizioni Temporali, Milan), Petroni has urged us to intervene, not to resign ourselves to a single possible system; his goal is to relaunch an imaginative engagement with the future in the post-capitalist era. He provides us with a “toolkit” to do this: the book proffers questions rather than simple answers to understand the complexity of our time. The book is primarily aimed at the young. For this reason as well the bibliography and references are important: they provide an up-to-date list of literature on the topics covered, broadening further the possibilities for reflection and study. But it also aims to support a broad-ranging debate involving curators, academics and sector professionals, developing opportunities for dialogue – including in public, as the presentations of the book in Bari, Lecce, Rome, Bologna and Milan have shown. Petroni teaches at the Naples Academy of Fine Arts, which was where he first experimented with new forms of resistance and began to rethink traditional techniques: “I believe in the dimension of education and professional training as a privileged sphere for redefining the tools for interpreting the world we live in.” As he explained to us: “The process of knowledge must be open. Its transmission is activated across what the French philosopher Jacques Rancière has defined as ‘ignorance’. If the transformations we have been plunged into are so rapid, we need to rethink collaboratively methods for acting in different contexts. As a teacher, I look to the experience of Global Tools, which is based on the principles of horizontality and the sharing of knowledge – I want to overthrow the traditional hierarchical dynamics of the academic world. We need to free ourselves from all those attitudes that make our scrutiny less flexible and open ourselves up to other cultures and visions.”

The cover of Going Real, Planar, 2018
The cover of Going Real, Planar, 2018

Going Real develops across three chapters, each of which corresponds to a theme: place; the collective; and the individual. Each theme is tackled via a case study, starting with Detroit, the archetype of the failed industrial system – the Motor City vanished, leaving a zero level to start again from. In this dramatic context, some are focused on urban renewal via an economy of sharing based on a rethinking of the public space. The architecture and design collective Akoaki, involving writers, artisans, architects and creatives, has launched a listening practice to determine the real needs of the community.

They are reactivating abandoned spaces in the city with music events, urban farming, and meetings and debates with the local university. The second chapter examines the migrant question and, more generally, the nomadism dictated by the transformation of work. Petroni visited and explored the Calais Jungle, the foundation city of the twenty-first century, where around 75,000 migrants live in the hope of crossing the English Channel.

“I found there a sense of community founded on very basic principles, starting with the construction of a school based on horizontal dynamics or the rethinking of public space to allow small-scale food production on urban gardens. The theme of migration is key because we are currently experiencing a paradoxical situation: on the one hand, we are reducing barriers to the flow of goods, while on the other we are building walls when faced by people. From this point of view, I find the work being done by Marginal Studio in Palermo very interesting. In this frontier city, the collective is working collaboratively with local and international institutions. The goal is for the continuous flow of migrants to enhance the exchange of skills and knowledge, with community projects focused on the development of new artisan techniques based on hybridisation.” The final chapter tackles the theme of biopolitics, starting with the work of Innella, the book’s co-author. As he demonstrated in the exhibition The Life Fair. New Body Products, which the designer curated in 2016 at the Het Niewuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, the body itself is a new field of battle, one subject to the exploitation of the neoliberal system, from cryostasis to cosmetic surgery. The book returns repeatedly to the need for us to work towards the “improved production of the imagination”. But who in Italy is capable of working in this way? “As well as Marginal Studio, which I’ve mentioned, Formafantasma and Maurizio Montalti, who I have always followed, I believe very strongly in the work of Parasite 2.0, a group of young architects who view the public space as somewhere for reflection and as the epicentre of the economic, social and cultural tensions that are essential for design.”

Book title:
Going Real. Il valore del progetto nell'epoca del postcapitalismo
Marco Petroni with Giovanni Innella
Planar Books
19 €

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