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Politics meets design, for an urgent new way of understanding borders


Combining political discourse and design to progress our knowledge of migration is the focus of a dissertation by a Malmö University PhD student.

Mahmoud Keshavarz_ dissertation coverMahmoud Keshavarz argues that designers have previously ignored politics as something that belongs solely to the state and not as a matter of everyday life. His thesis argues that for many of the problems we face today, a theoretical as well as practical recognition of the mutual relations between design and politics is urgently required.

He said “My thesis is quite transdisciplinary. In this sense, it does not represent any department or discipline, but rather it studies, problematises and discusses concepts and effects produced by different practices in the context of mobility and migration.” 

“This is done through a series of arguments, whether I talk about how passports regulate people’s ability to move or when I present a design project that intervenes in the ways we see, perceive or approach borders. 

Looking beyond politics

“The main argument is that the politics of migration is not only a discursive one as it dominates the field of migration studies. Its source is not merely politicians’ decisions and state regulations. 

“Instead, much of the politics are historically shaped by material objects, structures and systems; things that designers give shape to frequently in their everyday work. On the other hand, it calls for much more political understanding of the contexts with which designers work.” 

The thesis, ‘Design-Politics : An Inquiry into Passports, Camps and Borders-, states that designers have to develop a complex political understanding of the world to which they constantly give shape, and migration researchers need to pay attention to how migration politics is produced, represented and communicated through material objects and spaces - such as passports and refugee camps.

“My thesis argues that the alternative is to pay attention to the very material realities and actual lived experiences encountered with these materials, and mundane things.

How paths may differ

“They make paths of movement joyful and smooth for some, while making it very lethal and deadly for many others. My argument is that beyond discussing parliamentary politics, we need to look at concrete sites, objects and spaces and how they make sense of preventing some groups from moving and migrating while letting other groups pass without even noticing the former being stopped.”

Mahmoud became interested in this field six years ago when he was involved in an activist campaign in Gothenburg. Back then, he said, there were a lot of migrants and refugees on the move and frequently being stopped, deported and harassed but it was not discussed widely as today. 

“I hesitate to use the word ‘crisis’ for the current situation of migration as it frames the extreme discrimination in freedom of movement as an exceptional and temporary event that needs to be managed by experts and politicians quickly without that much reflection on the deep and structural unequal distribution of wealth, capital and freedom of movement. 

Looking at the bigger picture

“We need to see recent catastrophes within a broader history of violation of freedom of movement which has strong links to colonialism and capitalism.”He talked to different people throughout the course of his research but mostly brought to the fore the stories of undocumented migrants residing in Sweden. 

“These stories are not quantitative data but rather a shared history and struggle against the violence produced and generated by design and materiality of the current regulation of movement and migration." 

Mahmoud Keshavarz will be defending his dissertation on Friday, September 9 at 13.15.

Text: Adrian Grist

Last updated by Amanda Malmquist