As well as being an Embedded Researcher, an initiative exploring and advancing the possibilities of coupling research and design, Riccardo Badano is part of the team behind Cambio. The exhibition explores the global dynamics of the timber industry, and is curated by Formafantasma at London's Serpentine Galleries, with the support of Het Nieuwe Instituut, from 4 March-17 May 2020 [now temporarily closed, but see the extensive project website here]
The Embedded Researcher initiative
In recent years, the widening notion of the designer as researcher has opened up the possibility of a design practice beyond product making. This understanding of design fosters a twofold paradigm change: on the one hand, research is no longer perceived as an isolated, independent act, but rather as a collaborative endeavor; on the other, the practice of design could lead to objects and materials, as well as to open-ended processes, speculations, even policy changes. This state of affairs demands new methodologies and forms of responsibility, as well as a new role for the designer – an ambition that has been previously manifested in several Het Nieuwe Instituut and Serpentine Galleries initiatives. The 2019 Open Call for an embedded researcher was an initiative exploring and advancing the possibilities of coupling research and design. With this Open Call, Het Nieuwe Instituut, the Serpentine Galleries, and Studio Formafantasma sought to engage researchers and designers in the development and dissemination of innovative and critical ideas by being part of a collaborative, transnational, design act.
This particular approach is also at the core of Studio Formafantasma, who presented their project Ore Streams at Het Nieuwe Instituut in March 2017. While still engaging with the production of objects, their work is coded with references to design’s ecological, political and cultural implications. As a design studio, Formafantasma have developed a peripheral position to the industrial production that allows them to pose questions and at the same time make choices. They look at materials and their origins as the central focus for the development of research subjects that aim to offer moments of reflection and analysis on the meaning of production and the transformation of natural resources into commodities. In order to achieve this aim, they establish relationships with different practitioners, from scientists to engineers, adopting a multidisciplinary approach as a way to elicit new ways of interpreting design as a discipline and expanding its potential.
The position of Embedded Researcher was awarded to Riccardo Badano in 2019. With his dissertation ‘Hostile Environment: the design of anti-migrant hostility along the Western Alpine border’, Riccardo used research and design to identify and unpack the complex relations demanded by national borders, the environment and migration in the EU. While being an Embedded Researcher, Badano has played a key role in developing research for Studio Formafantasma's Cambio project. The interview below was carried out by Het Nieuwe Instituut researcher Anastasia Kubrak.
What led you to apply for the position of an embedded researcher at Studio Formafantasma? And how does your background in architecture connect with the practice and interests of a design studio?
When the Open Call was published, I had just graduated from the MA Research Architecture (Goldsmiths University of London) and I was looking forward to starting a new project; plus, I had been following the work of Formafantasma since 2012. Back then, I was an undergraduate in Genoa. I still have the issue of Domus magazine somewhere with the iconic cover Formafantasma designed. So, for me it was really the perfect opportunity.
The connection between my background and the many different kinds of expertise that populate the studio could be expressed as a shared understanding of what space is and how it operates. Using this as an organizing principle for the exhibition materials has come really naturally. Accordingly, Cambio is structured following a scalar progression: the four main sections of the exhibition move from the micro (wood and paper analysis) to the macro (global governance and trade). On a practical note, it has been fascinating to see how designers and architects interpret exhibition display as a meeting point between the two disciplines. There seems to be a productive ambiguity between the architectural features of the gallery space and the support structures, the ‘display’ as it is commonly understood.
The exhibition touches upon the politics of timber industry, forest management, wood anatomy and even philosophy of plants. Which theme resonated most with your interests, and which topic(s) did you get to explore in depth?
Let’s say that, although the exhibition deals with all those themes, I find it very complicated to isolate a single topic; I very much like to think they all resonate together. And this is true beyond the exhibition. I think the feedback we had from all the practitioners we collaborated with highlights how deeply rooted the realization is that to effectively deal with the current scenario – the alarming data about the climate crisis certainly play a central role – it is necessary to work across the disciplines, to really foster a collective effort. We need to thank all of them for their enthusiasm and generosity.
In this sense, what has been interesting to me is the methodology deployed to generate these connections: wood is an entry point into complex dynamics, a way to map out the relations between scales and disciplines. As a consequence, we tried to look at trees as living archives, the medium on top of which reality is encrypted. So, the exhibition is really about what we can ‘extract’ from trees, not in terms of raw material or economic value, but in terms of knowledge, you could say.
In your previous work, you have looked at the environment as an active political agent (for example, in your dissertation titled ‘Hostile Environments’). Did these ideas find continuity within the research for Cambio? And if so, how?
You’re right, the notion of ‘agency’ is always central in my work, and goes in parallel with the re-definition of what we address as ‘nature’. Although my field of interest lies at the intersection between migration studies and radical ecologies, there are many methodological similarities with the work of Formafantasma. Let’s take as an example the video-installation that closes the exhibition, an attempt to inhabit the point of view of a tree by giving it a voice (I don’t want to reveal too much, but: is it really one?). The voiceover written by Emanuele Coccia, author of the book The Life of Plants – A Metaphysics of Mixture, is really effective in contesting the very notion of anthropocentrism. It does so by reversing the relation between humankind and vegetal beings, what some scholars would define as ‘plant-blindness’. Who or what made the world we inhabit? Who or what has agency in relation to the other’s body? Who or what lives more fully? These are only some of the many questions the viewers will have to answer at the end.
In recent years, the field of design has experienced a shift towards more collective research practices and methodologies (as opposed to product making and individual authorship). How does such a collaborative approach manifest in the working process of the studio?
I believe research-based projects are successful in the extent to which they provide a platform, a space for the practitioners involved to share their knowledge and feed conversations that, for many reasons, could not happen elsewhere. So, I tend to look at the discipline of design (but also architecture, graphic design, information design, etc.) as mediator, let’s say facilitator for these encounters. And the work of Formafantasma reflects this attitude in the way the outcome is shared with the public. Indeed, the physical space of the exhibition is only one place where the findings will be presented: all the research material, documents, links, interviews will be available on a dedicated website in the same way as for Ore Streams.
I don’t know if this is the opposite of ‘authorship’, because the modus operandi of the studio is still visible, but, for sure, it reveals Andrea and Simone’s [Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin, founders of Studio Formafantasma] great interest in pedagogies. I think one of the aims of Cambio is to encourage other designers to take over the project, to add to it and - why not - to experiment with alternative paths.
You have worked on and co-edited the catalogue (reader) that accompanies the exhibition. How do you relate the content of the reader to the spatial installation?
The catalogue is organized through an alternation of interviews and texts, related to each other. We [Rebecca Lewin and I] wanted to give space both to materials gathered in the year-long research process and to critical reflections that have been inspiring us. So, you’re right, the catalogue is both a way to make public the exhibition’s findings and a reader that aims to facilitate future reflections on the subject. It must be said that this structure grew quite naturally because Cambio was conceived from the very beginning as a first step in a more extended research project. In this sense, the exhibition is a starting point.
Have you been also involved in the design process, or only focused on research? And where is the line drawn between the two in a project like Cambio?
I am still trying to figure it out myself! I have to say, once we completed the research phase, my main focus shifted to the catalogue. Although Andrea and Simone know how to generate feedback loops between all the members of the studio. I was involved in the design phase the same way the colleagues explicitly dealing with it informed the genesis of the catalogue.
In your view, could this project lead to a change in policy or a legal intervention? If so, what would be an ideal outcome?
This is the kind of transformative outcome every project aims for, and Cambio is no exception. In this regard, we are thrilled to present in the exhibition a section realized in collaboration with Philipp Pattberg, head of the Department of Environmental Policy Analysis at the Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM). It was during the very first meeting that he pointed out that, to date, there are no international agreements dedicated specifically to forest ecosystems. It may sound paradoxical, especially considering the growing evidence that highlights the immense contribution forests provide in terms of carbon sequestration and climate change remediations, to name two of the many benefits provided. What we wanted to do in this installation is to ‘visualize’ this normative gap, to turn it into a space of intervention, if you wish. We worked together to compile four ‘propositional’ documents that explore what would happen if trees were granted progressive rights. The papers are organized following an increasing degree of ‘plausibility’, from the most obvious (but still neglected by the international community) to the most ‘radical’. The aim is not only to make visible the frictions between the language of international governance (a mode of planetary design in itself) and a ‘fictional’ ideal scenario we long for. The documents should also be seen as the starting point for a broader conversation: the main idea is to stretch the current forest-related legislation (or the absence of it) to make room for contributions to come: how would forestry practices and wood sciences be impacted by this legislative turn? What would be the role of philosophers in defining the legal status of vegetal being? And so on. It is going to be very interesting to see what kind of conversations this document will bring about and how the installation itself will evolve to host them.
What’s next for you? Are there topics/methods that you might take away from your experience at Studio Formafantasma, and explore further in your practice?
This experience has been incredibly formative and not only in terms of the many things I learnt working with Studio Formafantasma. The position of embedded researcher, in fact, proved to be a vantage point to participate in a whole series of tasks and arrangements institutions like Het Nieuwe Instituut and the Serpentine Galleries carry out to realize events such as Cambio. This will definitely change the way I approach my practice in the years to come.
Regarding my next steps, I can’t wait to dedicate some time to a couple of projects I now feel I can develop with increased ability and enthusiasm. Hostile Environment is definitely one of them; at the moment I am collaborating with Hanna Rullmann, a talented researcher and video-maker, on a specific case study situated across the Franco-Italian border. We are interested in exploring the capacity of the Roya River - an Alpine stream that crisscross the border - in retaining information of past events and mediating border violence through its liquid matter. In the long term, though, my goal is to expand the geographical focus of the project to the entire Alpine arc. The idea of compiling a comprehensive ‘Alpine border ecology’ is what focuses my attention at the moment.