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Lucena: «Body and design constantly invoke and question one another, thus, originating practices that redefine gestures, techniques, worldviews, and objects which determine the cultural beat of different eras»

Sociologist, professor, and researcher, Daniela Lucena revisits episodes of our cultural history with the aim of reexamining clothing practices and the ever changing relationship between body and design.

Daniela Lucena is one of the most recognized experts on the connections among art, culture, and social change. She holds both a Sociology degree and a PhD in Social Sciences from the University of Buenos Aires (UBA). Lucena is currently a CONICET researcher and she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in different Argentine universities and abroad.

Her research about aesthetic movements and Argentine clothing practices resulted in such publications as Artistic Pollution (Biblos, 2015), Manner beats fashion: Art, body and micropolitics in the 80’s (Edulp, 2016), and Couture and Culture: Sociological Approaches to Clothing (Edulp, 2019). She also has participated in the organization of exhibitions, archives, and catalogues at the Queen Sofía National Museum in Madrid, and, in Buenos Aires, at the Modern Museum, the Muntref, and the Malba, among others. She currently collaborates with the PH15 Foundation.

IDA Foundation invited Lucena to answer the interview devised for the “Expert Opinion” section of the last Old&Newsletter issue of this year. In her responses, she shares her broad perspectives about the links that had tied body and design throughout crucial episodes of our cultural history.

As a result of our ignorance, we waste words. As Nietzsche said, we are amazed by consciousness, but “the body is truly astonishing…” (Deleuze, 1970)

–Can we rethink or redefine the meaning of design from the standpoint of the body? And redefine the body from design’s perspective? Can either one be separated from the other?

–The body is the meeting place of what is individual and what is social, it is the porous boundary between the intimate and the external spheres, a fertile territory for sensitive expression and existence. Our body internalizes social influences and it is through our body that we make sense of the world that surrounds us. With the body we are able to embrace and humanize a universe that is always a shared existence: we can only fulfill our essence and develop our creative abilities as members of a community. If we conceive the body as an interphase between the physical and the symbolic dimensions, we will understand that design and body interact in a permanent and deep way. They invoke and question each other constantly, thus shaping the practice that redefines gestures, techniques, worldviews, and objects which define the beat of different eras.

–What cases, actors, products or elements related to Argentine and international culture embody an uplifting experience of that sort?

–Along the XXth century, several disruptive, aesthetic experiences have defined the way in which we understand the relationship between body and design. In the 1940’s, the avant-garde art movement Concreto, led by Tomás Maldonado, attempted to boost creative abilities through a building art that eventually became the first expression of Argentine design. The combination of disciplines, as well as a comprehensive perception of human beings, was crucial for such an experience while enabling us to envision new, fairer, and more egalitarian realities born of tainted shapes.

During the 80’s, the Buenos Aires underground movement fostered a series of irreverent, precarious, and festive initiatives that tested the limits among art, fashion, and design. In the background of those contra-cultural actions a question posed by Spinoza loudly resonated: what is the power of a body, what affections can it originate? In that respect, the Poor Geniuses group, led by Sergio De Loof and with such members as Marula Di Como, Gabriela Bunader, Cristian Dios, Andrés Baño, and Gabriel Grippo, among others, was iconic. These artists explored, through procedures like deconstruction and recycling, the potentials of the pairing body-garment as a fertile territory for escaping and rebelling, which resulted in the creation of poetic garments that disrupted sex-gender conceptions and boldly redefined hegemonic conceptions of beauty and preferences.

–Has the bond between design and body changed throughout the XXI century as a result of new technologies and new ways of teaching, living, consuming, and interacting?

–Yes. Since Michel Foucault discussed the topic, we are aware of the power that circulates through and from the body. New technologies are key to understanding new ways of body politics. Gilles Deleuze used machines to explain the changes that we have experienced since the last decades of the XXth century: we moved from simple analogue machines composed of pulleys, clocks, and handles to digital and computing equipment that establish a dialogic relationship with us. Such a mutation makes capital to behave in new ways, for example, in its current semiotic-financial stage produces, as it had never done before, a myriad of signs that actively intervene in both individual and group identification and communication. In that way, the physical and emotional body becomes embedded in a non-territorial cartography of multiple experiences that, under the rule of cybernetic rationality, turn into information flows that attempt to capture and encode thoughts, desires, and feelings. However, the same body that is shaped —and drugged— by control devices can block, escape, and resist those same powers that aim to subject it. To meet this challenge, design can function as an interruption or a detour: it can stimulate the dormant body, awaking it from its cognitive numbness, and imagining new material and empathetic coordinates.

–How can we boost the potential of this pairing to produce innovative solutions that foster improvement in such areas as social inclusion, cultural diversity, gender equality, environmental care, and access to education?

–It is imperative to rethink our essential relationship with nature —to which we belong to— and with other human and non-human beings. The pandemic has revealed that “normality was the problem” and made us aware that we do not want to keep living in such a world. New design approaches are already reflecting about the types of connections and commitments that we are willing to abide by in our relationship with the environment and all living beings. Topics like sustainability, diversity, equality, and inclusion invite us to review strategies and create a new collective ethic code for producing and consuming. As the poet Fernando Pessoa claimed: “There comes a time when we must get rid of the old clothes that have acquired the shape of our body and forget the paths that always lead us to the same destiny. That is the moment of passage. If we dare not to embark on the journey, we will stay forever on the sidelines of ourselves”. Maybe this new road will start with the resignification of our singularity, freeing it from the narratives that center on individuality and reconnecting it with our creating essence, which is inextricably linked to the universal, generic life expressed in each activity we perform.


Photograph: Gianni Mestichelli