Studio Dialogue #3 – Pauline van Dongen
Solar Sister – Introducing the Solar Biennale
Pauline van Dongen is a designer that creates and develops smart textiles that integrate solar technology into clothing. We met for the first time in St Petersburg during a conference about the Sun; we had an immediate click not only personally but more importantly, we share the same vision. We work with the sun. From that moment on we call each other Solar sisters.
MvA: Would you call yourself a solar designer and what is a solar designer?
PvD: I guess you pointed me to that term, as you call yourself a solar designer and of course it’s in some sense different because I do not only design with solar technology but in some ways, the things that I do are related to solar design of course. So I guess I could call myself a solar designer. I do try to merge solar technology into design more specifically in textiles and clothing. But I think for me working with solar technology is always tied to design they cannot be separated. So in that case I guess that makes me a solar designer as well if I can use the term.
MvA: Why do you think it is necessary because you talk about solar technology but why do you think solar design is necessary?
The problems that we are facing, or the issues, the crisis that we are facing today. Maybe this is “vloeken in de kerk” (cursing in the church) but they are not so much technological related problems. Of course, there are still a lot of technical problems in relation to solar technology such as storage or making materials more thin and stretchable, more affordable and more democratic. So I don’t want to overthrow that whole discussion per se. What I think is more important at this point in time are the social and cultural dilemmas and aspects that we often overlook when we are working with technology. Or that are often being overlooked, I don’t think you and I as designers don’t necessarily overlook them because for us it’s very important to connect to the people that are eventually interacting, using, enjoying and engaging with these products especially when it comes to a daily grounded context. Of course, you can talk about solar design in so many different contexts. But the technology in the way we see it in the fields and on the roofs and the big parks, of course, they serve a certain purpose but eventually if we want the energy from the sun to be used abundantly and used in a way that also inspires us and creates some wonder and joy. I think we should also approach the technology from a different angle and I think design is the way to do that as design opens up visions, new practices and new rituals and connection with people and their environment.
MvA: That is maybe a nice link to the solar movement because maybe you can explain a bit more about the solar movement.
PvD: Well.. yeah it’s our little baby
MvA: Haha yeah I know it but not everyone knows.
PvD: We were having White Russians in a bar and we were both quite startled that we weren’t connected before. We had such a similar vision and there are so many people working in this space that are of course trying their best to put their ideas on the agenda and mobilise people and policymakers and so on. We both saw that there is a need to create more connections and to rise up together and that is kind of the idea of starting a solar movement came about. Initially, we wanted to create a new narrative as our first aim with the group gathered in the beginning. The movement is there to show that beyond these technocratic, economic drivers for solar energy, there is a whole other world that is maybe even a better way to excite the larger audience and to get everyone involved in this transition. Because we can all talk about numbers and efficiency and as much as they are important for the technology to develop that’s not the main issue when it comes to integrating all these systems and design into our daily lives, so that is what the movement is all about. To create a movement by gathering people that believe in the same idea and that also can be activated through activities that the solar movement organises.
MvA: It’s a group that started with us and now there are already 15 people and is expanding quite rapidly. We need to rapidly change the narrative and awareness around solar energy.
PvD: There are also other alternatives to the existing paradigms and exciting ways of talking about solar energy. We are not the first in that sense, as there are other designers and activists around the world that have a similar message and hopefully we can bring everyone together.
MvA: What will be the first outcome of the solar movement. How are you going to do this? Or how are we going to do this?
PvD: It’s quite a large ambition which is great of course you should aim high. Well, one of the first things that we discussed is how are we gonna get this new narrative across. How can we portray it, imagine it and make people part of this new narrative? This is how organising this solar biennale came about. We wanted to have a large event where people can take part in but also that it is reoccurring over time, as organising one event doesn’t change the narrative overnight and its also then too limited as it is in one place only but this concerns the whole world. We both also believe that solar design has different qualities, appearances and also emerges differently in other places around the world simply because the living conditions and the way that the sun is present is different. So that is also very interesting to explore more deeply and research, how are different countries and cultures, dealing or relating to the sun and solar energy. What kind of solar design comes out then?
MvA: It is an event that will take place next year, it starts with an exhibition but it also has different workshops and it’s really about expanding this network and bringing different narratives again on solar energy and to show the potentials on how a post-fossil fuel time is going to look like. And how can we transition to a period of the sun?
PvD: Yeah it will be really exciting to see all these different voices coming together like what we have now created with the movement that we have designers, researchers, philosophers, architects and engineers coming all together to discuss all these questions that are being raised and that we will make first a proposal of the upcoming solar biennale and then in the second addition we will answer new questions again. It’s a constant unfolding process that I think is very nice because we cannot give only one answer and that we should be aware of that, that there is not only one answer to this ginormous problem that we are facing.
Mva: What do you hope will happen after the solar biennale or during the solar biennale?
That’s a good question. My biggest hope is first of all that the movement in itself will grow, that we will be able to set up a platform both online and off-line where people get the chance to meet and find each other and that they can start working together for example, and that this movement is actually like an instigator for new projects in the solar design space. That is probably most important that we are serving this connection between people all over the world. And overall especially when it comes to the larger public not just the professionals working in this scene. That the larger audience, well the citizens that they are given this new perspective that inspires them, even if it’s a little shift that is already a good start with us.
MvA: How can people contribute to this then?
PvD: Well, I think what we would like is a lot of involvement, so we would be organising a kick-off event first of all where we would invite stakeholder from the solar industry but also again from research and design. It will be great if these kinds of stakeholders can share what is on their agenda and what they think is important so that we can consider all these things and bring it in the format of the biennale whether it through exhibition, lectures or the workshop program that we will organise together with partners from Rotterdam but also from outside of Rotterdam. I think also maybe we should get a concrete format for this but maybe we should be able to offer a stage for more grass route initiatives so that also the broader public feels invited to respond or to engage in a dialogue or to share their experiences, maybe even stories from people that already live fully solar-powered, what does that mean. How do you relate differently to your environment when you live fully solar-powered? I think these kinds of personal anecdotes are also very valuable for our narrative. So yeah we should find out a way for people to bring those stories in as well.
MvA: There is a lot of sharing and bringing stories together and forming a force together
PvD: Kind of finding a format or system for people to do so because that is one of the challenges with the biennale that it can be quite a large event. So for people to be able to navigate that and understand where they can contribute to and what is their place in this that is suited for them. That is where we should guide them and be able to focus.
PvD: I am tended to ask a question back…
MVA: Okay yeah you can ask a question back.
PvD: How do you think people should get involved. Do you have ideas about that?
MvA: We are formalising the program now so the program will be at the main location of the exhibition which is at The New Institute, and we will showcase what is this potential future with examples and also knowledge about the history. We will have different locations as well where we will have dialogues and also call to action them. We can talk about it but what we both I think are doing in our work is to show this future by making things and that we will come up with an action plan to start doing this. Do we need to change regulations? How can we accelerate this energy transition because it needs a lot of change from a lot of different angles and disciplines and that is why the solar movement is also so important, that it is not only from the design perspective or from the industry or the technology itself but it is all these aspects together that can accelerate this.
PvD: Having this call to action I think will be a very good way, during the solar biennale and afterwards to make sure that the momentum is continuing afterwards.
MVA: Well I am looking forward to it! It is very nice to work with you and I get a lot of energy from you.
PvD: I totally feel the same and it’s nice to build something like this together.