Silas Munro: Bearing Witness: A Designer’s Struggle for Integrity
CCA September 2020
The Design Division at CCA welcomed Silas Munro as our second speaker in the 2020 Fall Design Lecture Series. These lectures bring leading designers, strategists, curators and educators to speak with our community.
The Fall 2020 series speaks to design as a tool for empowerment. An established designer, educator, and founder of the design studio, Poly-Mode, Silas Munro has come full circle. Drawing inspiration from James Baldwin’s 1963 talk entitled, An Artist’s Struggle for Integrity, Munro guides us on a journey through his own search for integrity within the world of design. Throughout the lecture, we get a clear sense that Munro believes that “what he ought to do” as a designer is “bear witness” to the times. His witnessing is a sort of triple vision. With one eye, Munro is witnessing the present – a revolutionary movement for Black lives and against police brutality and systemically entrenched racism. Through his second eye, Munro reaches into the past to witness the history of systems of oppression, to contend with multiple identities – designer, queer, biracial, Black; and to make visible, the identities that have been erased or suppressed from design and data visualization. Munro’s third eye bends its lens towards what’s possible for design futures.
Munro weaves us into a narrative crescendo that amplifies a design ethos that he describes as Polymodal, Du Boisean, and rooted in Lineage. His polymodal way of practicing design—born from his thesis at CalArts—has lent a flexibility that has allowed Munro to work on researching, writing, and designing identities and systems with clients like MoMa, The Venice Biennale, Institute of Contemporary Arts, and Cooper Hewitt, in an effort to present and exhibit the work of a deep lineage of African-American designers. That lineage stretches back to include Black men like Jacob Lawrence, Mark Bradford, Willi Smith, and W.E.B. Du Bois, with the latter two having deeply influenced Munro’s approach to his work. After contributing to design research and design writing for the book, W.E.B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America, Munro’s Du Boisean ethos was born to contend with a reframing and recontextualization of design history, a remapping that uncovers and illuminates design’s historically invisible voices. Munro describes his identity work for the Willie Smith: Street Couture show at Cooper Hewitt as “uncanny but powerful”. In Willie Smith, the queer, Black fashion designer who made “clothes for the people who wave at the Queen”, Munro found lineage, an “ancestral node whose legacy he has felt compelled to honor and memorialize”.
Early in his talk, Munro refers to W.E.B. Du Bois as a designer, an identity not often associated with Du Bois. At one point Munro plays a speech where Du Bois, after having been made aware of a series of lynchings near Atlanta, discusses the impetus for action when knowledge has run its course. Hence, Munro acknowledges that this moving from knowledge to action is indeed the work of a designer. He concludes his talk with images of his newly found connection to surfing and of a paddle-out in honor of Breonna Taylor. Joined by what he saw as “all kinds of people”, Munro says of the experience that he finally felt like he belonged. He calls on designers to design for community and for society, to share in the un-learning and co-creation of what design can be, and to integrate a more embodied self into the design process. It certainly is a strategy of emergence, a strategy for bearing witness to the times with integrity. The struggle is certainly real.