#rp19-speaker Alexis Hope on the interplay of society, technology and design
Alexis Hope is an artist, designer, and researcher based at the MIT Media Lab. She serves as the Design Director for the Make the Breast Pump Not Suck project, as well as the Creative Director of TEN FWD, a design studio focused on creating playful, experimental objects and experiences.
Alexis is currently finishing her PhD at the MIT Media Lab, focused on participatory processes for technology design. She also studies furniture design and woodworking at the North Bennet Street School and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. In her art practice, Alexis has worked on electronics-embedded wearables, sculptural tools for the zero-gravity environment, and audio interfaces for exploring hidden sonic infrastructures.
tl;dr - 3 questions to... Alexis Hope
We asked Alexis about her many projects, her understanding of the role of joy and play for community building and her recommended readings.
What are you currently working on that might be part of your talk at re:publica?
After the second "Make the Breast Pump Not Suck" hackathon last year, I needed a small break from organizing large-scale events, but am now back at it. I'm starting to plan another hackathon at the Media Lab on a different topic: menstrual equity. On average, people who menstruate get their periods for 2,535 days of their lives. This constitutes almost seven years of bleeding. While periods are normal, they remain stigmatized, under-innovated for, and neglected in contexts ranging from corporate workplaces to homeless shelters. We're early in our planning process for this event—called 'There Will Be Blood'—but I will have a lot more to share by the time re:publica comes around!
I'm also working on some ocean-related research as part of the MIT Open Ocean Initiative. The Open Ocean initiative works at the intersection of science, technology, art, and social science to design new ways to understand our mysterious ocean. My role with the initiative is to think of ways we can employ values-driven research principles to empower a global community of explorers. The ocean is for everyone, yet traditionally, ocean exploration is done by those with formal degrees and access to costly equipment. In order to fully explore and understand our vast oceans, we need to work outside of traditional academic structures and build new bridges with communities who have not yet been invited into oceanographic exploration — including underrepresented and non-dominant communities within the United States and developing countries around the world. I'm working on a project called My Deep Sea, My Backyard that aims to develop low-cost technologies for ocean exploration, as well as several other projects in the initiative that seek to incorporate participatory design methodologies into their processes.
In the past few years, I have developed a huge interest in craft. Apart from being a researcher, I'm a furniture maker and woodworker. This has been extremely therapeutic as a way to get out of my head and into my hands. On evenings and weekends, I can usually be found in the woodshop at our local art school carving and building housewares and larger-scale objects. As part of my fascination with craft, I'm working on an art project for the zero-gravity environment called Space/Craft, which explores how we will create things with our hands in a new context. NASA has sent 3D printers to space, but I think people will always want to create things with their hands, even in our sci-fi future. If making artistic works by hand is a fundamentally human act, how will it transform in space? What non-existent forms of artistic expression does different gravity enable? For this project, I've modified a hot-glue gun extruder to create a tool for "drawing" in 3D. I'll be taking my prototype object up on a zero-gravity flight this Spring as part of the MIT Space Exploration Initiative. Very excited about this!
AT MIT, I also teach and write. Most recently I taught a course with Ethan Zuckerman called "Technology and Social Change," and am putting together a new design course for the Fall. I've just started a writing series about 'Narrative Objects': physical artifacts — from the speculative to the functional — that tell new stories about the world we live in. It's been extremely rewarding to speak with designers about the intent behind their work and its impact in the world.
When I'm not working, I sing and play bass for my band, Calico Beach Party. We're about to release our second album, and are in the process of recording the third!
Most of your projects are located at the intersection of social issues and design. How can prototyping and creating playful experiences contribute to tackling systemic problems?
Creating joyful, playful experiences can help people come together and build relationships across lines of difference. Bringing people together with a generative spirt, and ensuring the physical and emotional comfort of participants, is key to both community-building and creative problem-solving. I believe joy and play are strategies of resistance in toxic times — they help restore us so that we can do the difficult work of tackling systemic problems, together.
In the spirit of this year’s motto ‘tl;dr’: What are your Must-Reads/Must-Watches that somehow connect to your research field?
Racism and inequity are products of design. They can be redesigned. — a fabulous article by Caroline Hill, Michelle Molitor, & Christine Ortiz that proposes an equity retrofit for design thinking. How can we mitigate the impact of racism and inequity in design processes by building in moments of reflection and interrogating our own biases as designers?
Designing Motherhood — the Instagram account for an upcoming book and exhibition by curator Michelle Millar Fisher and design historian Amber Winick. This project seeks to investigate designs that make and shape experiences of birth — including deciding not to be a parent, or not being able to. I love that this project demonstrates how design shapes culture, and vice versa. Design history is an increasingly important part of my practice — it is an endless source of inspiration and critical thought.
Shade: The Changing Girl — Okay, this isn't really connected to my research, but in the spirit of joy and play, this is my favorite comic book series! Highly recommended to all. I resonate strongly with the heart-struck teenage bird alien antiheroine. I'm also loving Ironheart and Shuri right now! It's a great time to be a comics fan - there are now so many different perspectives and new kinds of stories being told.
With kind support by the Wunderbar Together Initiative.