Holly Willats, Art Licks: The Pad Puzzle is an example of how social design and distribution can be used to address concerns around the domestic and society. Could you explain how this sat within your practice at the time (2012), and how this has since developed?
Andrea Francke: It is funny to look back to my contribution to Art Licks with, The Grand Domestic Revolution Pad Puzzle: A DIY Manual, and specifically The Pad Puzzle and to think of how it relates to my practice now. My first thought was that it doesn’t. The Pad Puzzle was part of a larger project called Invisible Spaces of Parenthood. As the ISP name betrays, I was, at the time, quite invested in practices of visibility. I was convinced that most structural and institutional problems found their root cause in ignorance; if only we could find ways to make visible the mechanisms through which they reproduced ingrained inequalities, we could bring about change.
I have since wholly re-thought my practice and given up on visibility as a strategy. I realised the level of wilful ignorance, the effort and work that is actually required for all of us to ‘pretend’ those structural inequalities are not there. These efforts include detracting from inequalities by reframing the oppressed subject of those struggles. My work on visibility was continuously reframed in a way that erased or reduced its concerns, with the labour and experiences of motherhood and care of black and brown women, nursery assistants, nannies, undocumented migrants, domestic worker migrants, queer parents, etc., in favour of an idea of motherhood centred around the white middle-class married woman who are impinged from having it all. “¨(1)
After a period of disillusionment, I reorganised my practice to focus on invisibility and infrastructure development as a strategy. The projects that I am working on now are all concerned with change at an infrastructural level. I’m interested in producing infrastructures; not in a representational way – as utopian ideas presented on the gallery wall, but in a fully functional way. I’m interested in how infrastructure is invisible by nature while at the same time giving form to the world and our understanding of it.”¨”¨ (2)
For example, for the past year and a half, I’ve developed the Evaluation Framework for Participatory Residency at Gasworks with Ross Jardine. The project’s guiding idea is that most evaluation frameworks applied to social practice reify distributions of who the bodies that make knowledge are, and, whose bodies that knowledge is produced upon. Who determines the value or success of a project? Who gets to define what success means, or if it even makes sense as a term, in that context? To me, to develop a new infrastructure of evaluation for social practice is to create a new political and aesthetical object in the world.
Where did the concept for The Pad Puzzle as an object come from?
This is why it is funny to look back at the Pad Puzzle. Because maybe it was already an object that was trying to function as an infrastructure that invisibly promoted a different way of being and thinking in the world. I was, and I still am, interested in how we construct the category of the child as a fetishising/disempowering tool used to justify the fetishising/disempowering of the category of motherhood/parenting/caring as well (3). I wanted to make an object toy that would blend those categories: it is a toy, but it also furniture. What do those differences even mean? It has a weird size and a proposed use that leaves a lot of possibilities open. It is also something that could be made by anyone and that could be shared freely.
During my Invisible Spaces of Parenthood time, I was really interested in manuals from the 1960s/70s that were trying to offer new ways of living, using new models in architecture, furniture, food, etc. They questioned simply reproducing the prevailing common wisdom. They made visible how we are directly responsible for the infrastructures we choose to use in order to sustain our lives: be it building homes for nuclear families, be it creating a ‘meritocracy’ path to higher education that excludes certain communities, or creating then dismantling a welfare state.
My mum had many of those manuals, and she used to build a lot of stuff from them. When I was growing up, she was part of a design collective who would make objects from those manuals and sell them in a shop called Warike, and an art space called La Araña in Lima (Peru). The products helped to fund the non-traditional ways of living by the members of those communities. I always look back at my childhood in that context with something other than nostalgia, but as a moment in time when the potential of building a different future was tangible; which I guess is a bit how the world feels now.
I think that a toy is an infrastructural object that invisibly produces ideas about gender, about consumption, about what is age-appropriate, about what is productive or not, about what intelligence, or capacity, or the lack of it is, etc. I love the manuals for play and toys of the 60s and 70s because at the forefront they show that the adult should also be interested and having fun. They provide objects that are not fetishising the child’s experience or patronising it. They look very grown-up sometimes, in a way that the now accepted common wisdom about children’s interests would consider un-stimulating, but to me, those are just mass culture and marketing assumptions. I used to work as a graphic designer and worked on a lot of marketing development. The experience left me with little respect for that type of work in terms of what it knows, and what it doesn’t. I wanted to make an object that enabled playing with your kid in the spirit of those manuals: that didn’t respond to ‘market knowledge’ or external ideations of what a toy should be or what playing should look like.
The manual and the resulting object are published under a Creative Commons license – can you explain your reasons behind this decision?
I’m not precious about anything I do; or, I am only very precious about specific things. I’m precious about what the work does and how it does it, but I’m not precious about authorship or ownership. I’m interested in circulation and collaboration. I’m fortunate in that I have found a way of working that pays me for the research and development side of things, so I don’t have to depend on the selling of objects, or framing them as art objects for collectors.
In what situations have you found The Pad Puzzle being created?
None, lol. I guess this is where my ego encounters reality. In actuality, the Pad Puzzle is quite hard to make, at least for my level of skills. I’ve built two so far but it took me a while… this really relates to your previous question about Creative Commons and another significant change in my practice: to make objects/infrastructure that would have a life outside of being an art object, I needed to create them through different structures. It wasn’t enough to just do something and expect people to take it further. For example, my work at Gasworks is not an art commission, it is a job that Ross Jardine and I do and that will result in a tangible evaluation framework. It is also evident at this point of the project that the final framework won’t be ‘my work’. There is no way that I can claim authorship or ownership. Its final form is the result of a lot of work and thinking by a lot of people. I think the work of making art is just work.
Recent world events with COVID-19 have highlighted long-existing disparities and inequalities in housing and domestic space; the concept of the GDR (Grand Domestic Revolution) has not lost its relevance. If you were to make a new manual for people to respond to over the next few months, what do you think that could be?
That’s such a great and challenging question. I think that I’ve learned so much since then, especially in terms of expanding my vocabulary of references. Now, when I think about what revolutionary thinking that embraces motherhood and parenthood looks like, I think about “Feminismo Comunitario” in Bolivia, or the “Welfare Rights Movement” in the US, or “Revolutionary Mothering“. “¨”¨I’m also aware that although art institutions see themselves as the places were ideas of radicality are presented to the world, they are mostly quite conservative spaces. They are quite comfortable reproducing disparities and inequalities, especially in terms of how some people hold the knowledge/art, and other people ‘need’ or ‘experience’ it.
On the other hand, there are so many spaces that live those radical domestic practices in their everyday structures, from queer venues and black art spaces to local schools and children centres. For me, those are the spaces that are continually experimenting with different ways of being in the world that blend the domestic and the public, that defy the stale prevailing notions of how we should care for others and allow them to care for us. They are all involved in radical work from the personal level to the policy dimension. I think those are the models I would now refer to.
(1) My favourite analysis of how feminism is used to perform that sort of appropriation are by Lauren Berlant, Angela McRobbie and the Fugitive Feminism programme at the ICA by Akwugo Emejulu.Berlant, L., 1988. The Female Complaint. Social Text 237–259. https://doi.org/10.2307/466188. McRobbie, A., 2008. The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change. SAGE.
(2) This understanding of infrastructure comes from the writings of Susan Leigh Star, which were themselves influenced by feminist thinking around invisible labour. A good place to start is: STAR, S.L., 1999. The Ethnography of Infrastructure. American Behavioral Scientist 43, 377–391. https://doi.org/10.1177/00027649921955326.
(3) My favourite take on children being recognised as full humans, and political beings, is in the Latin American Working Children activist movements. A great place to start is: Taft, J.K., 2019. The Kids Are in Charge: Activism and Power in Peru’s Movement of Working Children. NYU Press.
Andrea Francke is a Peruvian artist based in London. Her work focuses on the political implications of categories constructed through (and for) knowledge-making processes. She is currently developing the evaluation framework for Gaswork’s Participatory Residency as FOTL, her collaboration with Ross Jardine. Previous projects include Invisible Spaces of Parenthood, Wish You’d Been Here, and The Piracy Project.