When we talk about queering design pedagogy we need to talk about reproduction(s). Design is the rhetorical sleeve by which ideology is expressed in material form. Each time the work we create is published it reproduces not only itself but the beliefs and conditions of the people who produce it. Inevitably, this act of reproduction also reproduces the power relations that yield these conditions. If the purpose of design education is to prepare students for this aim, then in order to queer the discipline we have to first reevaluate the histories, principles, and social dynamics that we reproduce within learning environments. It follows that we then ask ourselves what, and who, has been left out.
For starters, we’ll take cues from marginalized histories that offer alternative methods of knowledge production and circulation. Consider, for example, the queer anarcho-punk zines of the ’80s and ’90s. Pissed off and disillusioned, many young queers turned to zines as a way to resist the definitions imposed on them by society at large as un(re)productive sexual deviants. Zines became a vehicle of expression for queers who didn’t see themselves reflected in mainstream capitalist gay media (let alone popular culture) and who were eager to connect with like-minded anti-assimilationist fags and dykes. These hostile documents continue to resist the cultural amnesia common to LGBTQ+ history as much as they resist reductive historical periodization.
As counter-cultural publications go, zines have long utilized détournement as a form of wry political commentary by appropriating images produced by dominant culture and recontextualizing them for subversive ends. But by the mid-1980s, punk music and publications were increasingly reproducing the racist, classist, misogynistic, and homophobic values of the society that they claimed to so passionately oppose. Responding to this subcultural dissonance, queer zines like J.D.s began using détournement to critique the punk scene itself. First published by G.B. Jones and Bruce LaBruce in Toronto in 1985, J.D.s took punk to task by repurposing images of scantily clad white punk rockers in service of a homoerotic critique of unchecked hegemonic masculinity. In the last half of the zine, G.B. Jones satirizes Tom of Finland drawings with her uncanny pencil-drawn Tom Girls which swap fetishized policemen with anti-establishment dykes as its protagonists. One drawing features two biker babes on a motorcycle riding away from a police-woman they’ve just tied to a tree. Her back faces the viewer, bare-assed, with her pants tied around her legs. The bike dykes have written on the pants, “I am a fascist pig.”
These early queer zinesters tasked the images they reproduced to do what the originals wouldn’t: to go further, to risk more, to perform new work. I argue for this reproductive action as a model for the queering of design pedagogy. Instead of indiscriminately reproducing the past, we need to stunt double it. Stunt doubles are reproductions that don’t just reproduce history but challenge and elaborate on it in the process. They are willing to walk through the fire and leap from one great height to another. If we find that this doubling reproduces harmful effects or causes us to risk too much, then we must be willing to replace those bad actors with others.
Stunt doubling is a practice that foregrounds embodied experience. Our use of language has material effects on bodies, on communities, and on ecosystems. It produces actions just as much as actions in turn produce language. For this reason, we must be rigorous. We must constantly be testing antagonistic perspectives against each other, and we must insist on doing so within the classroom itself by dissolving the distinctions between educator and student, correcting power imbalances, and hijacking dominant narratives.
This level of critical engagement with the world means that we will have to deal with the contradictions we encounter head on. We will have moments of confusion. But we need to understand confusion as a skill, not as a deficiency. Confusion, the ability to hold multiple differences in one’s mind, is in itself a dialectical position that calls for action: to compare these differences so that we might be able to produce an other position. For this reason, and for the sake of a queerer design pedagogy, stunt doubling the past is our great response-ability.
Nate Pyper is an artist and designer working in publishing, performance, and video. Learn more.