"In the master programme `Social Design - Arts as Urban Innovation` in Vienna, we coach the students in their projects, initialize cooperations, but we also provide a safety net so that projects could even productively fail on a high level."
Vienna is one of the most liveable cities in Europe, scoring high on social-economic factors like available housing, good educational and medical programmes, public transportation, just as a good social climate. The master program ‘Social Design – Arts as Urban Innovation’ definitely contributes to this the city’s environment. We are very curious on how City Makers can actually be educated and how a university can contribute to their professional growth. Brigitte Felderer, one of the senior lecturers of this master program at the ‘University of Applied Arts‘ in Vienna shares her insights.
What is the core of the master program ‘Social Design – Arts as Urban Innovation’?
It’s about developing strategies beyond and in sharing single disciplines. Our study program exists since 2012, but the idea behind is nothing that has been invented in 2012. I would say that the avant-garde in the 20th century has always been curiously experimenting on how to connect different practices and ways of thinking. Social design follows an important interdisciplinary approach which has much urgency nowadays.
In the title of the master program design encounters art. What does that mean to you?
Art and design encounter each other but that doesn’t mean it’s only these two disciplines coming together in our program. We clearly have a very interdisciplinary approach, but actually, we look beyond the disciplines. We care about how to create a productive combination of art, urbanism, design, architecture and theory.
How is the two-year program structured?
The first semester starts with a quite structured set of courses and seminars. The following three semesters are project semesters in order to really make progress on a particular project within a given time frame. The students work in a lab or studio setting, very often we also collaborate with external partners and institutions. Within the projects, we have a high focus on teamwork. That means students form groups within the master itself, but they can also decide to set up a project team with external partners. We as the university also actively contribute to this by creating a network of experts. This kind of external teamwork and network is important and we care about the groups having as much autonomy as possible in their work.
So do you start the studies with a more theoretical focus or are you being thrown into practice immediately?
Practice cannot exist without theory. It is essential to get a certain and thorough overview on current discourses. In the first semester, we strive to offer a stable base – especially since we are a master with students from international backgrounds. This includes that many students relocate to Vienna and have to orientate first. It is also important for them to get to know their colleagues with whom they will work together intensively. But parallel to that we also get started with real projects and collaborations.
Next to their international context is there also a broad range of professional backgrounds that the students bring in?
It is an artistic program that strives to put together an interdisciplinary group — consisting of architects, artists, designers, but also students with a background in political or social sciences or urban studies. We also consider non-academic activities in the urban context, and students can contribute all their expertise.
In the topics that you’re working on, was there content wise a shift of emphasis in the past years?
We really try to pick up topics from our environment. When I think of the last year, for example, I observe that our focus was very much determined by the refugee situation and its ongoing change. It was clear that we would focus on this urgent matter. As a university we elaborate, sharpen and offer certain topics and frameworks and invite students to join us in that. However, if someone has a very specific interest that makes sense in the panorama of social design, we also take that on.
What can an institution like a university contribute to the process of a study? What is its function?
Of course, teachers are there as critical coaches. Additionally, we as teachers endeavour and engage in networking: as said we also involve external partners and institutions and eventually search for funding. We work with a range of partners and realize projects with them. The university is also there to either arrange or support cooperations between students, experts and eventual partners. However, this neither means that we let our students or the studio be commercialised nor instrumentalised. So, we coach the students in their projects, initialize cooperations, but we also provide a safety net so that projects could even productively fail on a high level.
What are the biggest challenges that the students themselves encounter? For example, how do they create a connection between a group that they want to work with and their individual artistic approach?
This is surely a big challenge. But as it is always the case with challenges: it can give you a certain kick and add to your development when you deal with it. So, in social design, within the work we are doing, we always have to reflect upon how to approach a group, a setting or a situation. Do ‘they’ want us at all? When we sense a problem or issue from the outside, that doesn’t mean that it is perceived like that by all the people involved. These challenges sharpen our sensibility and force teachers as well as students to reflect upon about how you actually co-create and also change a situation that you enter. Such challenges can and must be continuously cleared out and become a productive part of the projects.
What is your personal background that brought you into the realm of this master?
My personal background is interdisciplinary thinking and practice. I am a curator and always dealt with projects that were about pulling together very different strings, like culture, cultural history, media science or social and societal questions. I was always interested in bringing together different angles both in the temporary and actual frame of an exhibition. It is enlightening as well as necessary to observe what emerges in the combination of very different angles and perspectives.
I also did a social science study. So for me, it is a matter of course, to always take a political respectively a critical stance. This shouldn’t remain empty phrases, but such a positioning gets visible in any artistic project. No matter how poetic or elegant a project is conceptualized, I don’t believe it could be neutral, I believe that we always respond to society and its and our own actual state of being.
In your work, is there an underlying wish for our current society?
For example, I had been engaged with the topic of politeness. That to me is an urban topic in itself. From antiquity to Renaissance thinkers have been dealing with this idea. How do people act and interact in an urban context, how do they relate to the urban context, to societal questions? And there is a little but important detail to be mentioned: in English, the term politeness doesn’t carry the aspect of the court (as in courtesy or in German ‘Höflichkeit’), an obsolete form of society, but politeness derives from the Greek word ‘polis’, which means city. That includes the idea of how to live together in a city, in a dense and heterogeneous structure. Here, a very central element is respect, creating a form of distance. Not the distance that freezes in ignorance, but the distance that means, ‘I am aware of you, but I don’t want to surpass your limits’. Yet, we can always communally choose to approach each other. To have certain forms and unexpressed regulations – that is an ideal that I like to keep in mind so that encounters in the city don’t have to be negotiated anew all the time. That’s something that is very important to me also on a personal level.
Is there an example of a project, where you are applying this idea?
Maybe the best current example is a project called ‘Urban Knautschzone’ in and about a certain part of the second district of Vienna my colleague Christina Schraml is developing. About 15.000 people are living there, so quite a number of people, and the area is currently facing an urban transformation. In our research, we are exploring what that means for the people living there and what it might mean for the future of the area but also the greater context. We — involving students and teachers — are currently setting up projects in this framework. Everybody brings in what they wish and are able to, in teams and also teaming up with external experts.
My final question is about the professional positioning of the graduates of your master program: as a graduate of an art academy, you often tend to have a quite vague spot in the professional context, with a lack of specific tools or knowledge. Do you consider this in the structure of the course?
We respond to that question for example by using the expertise of our external partners and setting up workshops where they share their skills. These teachings are about training skills and tools. One on-going project, for example, has collected a lot of audio material, so now the project group is working together with a sound engineer — and intensively learning concrete skills along the needs of their project. Next to learning a certain skill, this also helps to build up the students’ network as a base for their future professional contacts. External cooperations are an additional motivation for the students to acquire new abilities and to enlarge their networks.
One other aspect I would like to mention is that the mixed structure of the groups brings in a lot of peer learning. A student from Shenzhen, for example, has excellent knowledge of apps and already had several exhibitions on that topic. In the close future, she will hold a workshop for her peers, which is ideal. By working in group structures, the students are teaching each other, so there is a lot of mutual learning. Since our curriculum is organized freely around the projects and inputs we also have the possibility to do so. Hereby the projects get depth and intensity by sharing and exchange.
Thank you very much!