Designing Vulnerabilities

October 12, 2020
Oscar Bray
7 min read

I’m still finding that the best way I can think about design is as an art form. As a result, I found our discussions over the past two weeks on accessibility and vulnerabilities to be fascinating but also familiar. Trauma is a very commonly used word in the classes I’m taking and the limited social events I partake in. We’re all affected in some way by the pandemic and when one has been in isolation for months on end, some introspection is inevitable. Add endless frustration with decisions made by the NYUAD Powers That Be and other already difficult circumstances such as mental health issues or familial conflicts, and it’s easy to see why the melting pot of our student body has reached a boiling point.

So what do we do?

Firstly, I would like to curate some examples of works that I believe were, to some extent, designed to demonstrate vulnerability. It’s all very well to write about your past, but do you want to write a poem or a novel or a memoir? It’s all very well to create art, then throw up your hands and leave it purely to audience interpretation, but if you have a clear message you want to get across, what choices do you have to make in order to accomplish that? How do you design your work with the intention of best conveying your experiences and feelings to others?

Alexander Chee’s essay, The Autobiography Of My Novel, describes the process Chee went through in writing his first novel. He wrote a fictional story of sexual abuse to deal with the abuse and guilt he experienced growing up. When asked why he didn’t just write a non-fiction piece instead, he said: “The things I saw in my life, the things I learned, didn’t fit back into the boxes of my life…My experiences, if described, wouldn’t portray the vision they gave me…I had to make something that fit to the shape of what I saw.”

1. Alexander Chee's Edinburgh cover

In the video “Men. Abuse. Trauma”, Oliver Thorn tells the story of his abusive relationship in a 35 minute one-take video. He sits in front of a white screen, initially wearing a T-shirt with the Superman logo on it. Around 16 minutes in, the emotional climax hits and the camera pans out and does a slow 180-degree turn, revealing that it was pointing at a large mirror the entire time. After the camera spin, we see the ‘real’ Oliver Thorn in a suit and tie. The invincible Superman was finally allowed to become the vulnerable Clark Kent.

2. “Men. Abuse. Trauma”, Philosophy Tube

The Netflix series Hollywood portrays an alternative history of Hollywood in the late 1940s, trying to show what could have happened if people of colour and sexual minorities were accepted and welcomed into the industry sooner. Many critics found the show saccharine and disrespectful to the real abuses committed at the time, but I along with many other queer people found it an empowering escapist fantasy that provides hope that our circumstances and lives could have and can still be better.

3. Hollywood

Deepak Unnikrishnan’s article, “The classroom and the ear”, uses a careful mix of humour, advice and pathos to discuss his hearing disorder and how it has affected his ability to teach over Zoom.

4. Deepak Unnikrishnan

And of course, we have Maya Lin’s Vietnam War memorial and Felix Gonzales-Torres’s “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), which I discussed in another blog post in relation to how they present historical trauma.

5. Maya Lin’s Vietnam War memorial

An Untitled Pile of Symbolic Candy (Also Known As “Ross in L.A.”) | by Jasmin Mazarine De Waele | Daily Dose D'Art | Medium
6. Felix Gonzalez-Torres's “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)

If we acknowledge that as a collective, the people this design will be concerned with are more vulnerable now than ever before, and that some methods of curating, demonstrating and coping with that vulnerability are better than others, then it follows that creating a project that intends to create spaces or circumstances to allow for and acknowledge vulnerabilities is feasible and arguably necessary. Furthermore, the tie between vulnerability and accessibility is evident in the examples I showed above and in the discussions we had in class. To know that there is a problem, typically somebody affected by it must confess that they are vulnerable to that problem, and somebody else must listen to them and want to do something about it. Only then can we plan our designs with an open mind and good faith and end up creating something that truly helps others respond to and function in the world to the best of their abilities


Header Image Source: Maya Lin’s Vietnam War memorial


See more