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By Gabrielle Kennedy

Otto von Busch is rebellious from the get-go. He arrives at our time-zone-challenged Skype interview wearing an impressive selection of leather and chain accessories. 

“Nice neck piece,” I say. “Thank you,” he replies — a gentlemanly clash of propriety and rebellion. Von Busch — New York based Swedish designer, academic,and well-mannered hacktivist — talks fashion with verve and political clarity. He translates theory into engaged activism, and condemns current mentality with nary a jaded jab.

Fashion is what it is. Decades of entrenched system building makes revolutionaries interesting, but ultimately unrealistic.Von Busch’s position is more about tinkering with the details, reclaiming energy and making room for fashion lovers to be more involved and influential in how things currently are.

“The problem with us industry critics,” he says, “is that we are the ultimate hypocrites. We say one thing, but we do another. And that won’t change. So we need to create a different
way to engage with the problem.”

Von Busch’s anti, anti stance strikes a chord with his students at Parsons School of Design where he works as Associate Professor of Integrated Design. There in a media driven,
post-modern reality, revolution has lost its edge. “Everyone is anti everything,” Von Busch says. “But what is the effect? We feel enlightened about populism, about climate change, about refugees, but so what? All we ever really do is point a finger at a politician, but can anyone admit that we ourselves may not be able to live up to the ideals we project and talk about?” Rather, Von Busch guides his students towards their own agency, to design alternatives through socially inclusive, collaborative projects and programs.

“The way forward can’t be anti-system,” he stresses. “We still need policy and politicians, assuming they are not fascists.But it is a matter of working out how to hack into what already

And even Von Busch’s position on hacking is well mannered. “It has to be conscious and with systematic implications,” he says. “It is not about trying to mobilise the system against itself, but an intervention, a DIY practice, a constructive endeavor. It isn’t just to crack in, like a bank robber, and steal the money. Of course it may contain an aspect of cracking because one does need to trespass to access the code, but any illegal activity is only part of challenging morality or looking for an ethical improvement.”

Use you skills wisely, is his message. If you know forgery, forge passports that help people escape horror, not season tickets to Disneyland. Find the points of leverage and embrace the critical hack.

Throughout our conversation Von Busch makes constant reference to violence and domination, cyber-shaming and gossip — as an aesthetic, a politics, but also an economical system.
“Industry reproduces micro-violence, and the fashion industry is no exception,” he says. “It has such a shallow interface as well as a bullying mentality. Fashion makes it easy to sneak
the worst sort of discrimination based on race and class into daily life because clothing and appearance are such easy ways to bully and reject people. A bouncer can never say no to someone based on his or her colour. They’d be sued. But he can hide his racism behind a judgment on someone’s sneakers.”

It is a refreshing take on an industry more often attacked for its shallow ambivalence and vanity than its metaphorical whips and violence.

And yet no matter how loud critics scream, the fashion industry bounds forward with gusto and charisma. Fashion has power. We use and abuse it to express and repress; to rebel and to belong.

Which leads us into talk about submission and psychology. “If you say that fashion is a sort of therapy, then designers are actually there to create constant anxiety by undermining the self-esteem of their clients,” Von Busch says. “Because if you constantly feel unhappy you will constantly come back to buy more stuff to make yourself feel better. A designer needs to get you addicted.”

And it’s in achieving this addiction that the media plays a vital role because it’s via the media that we negotiate our own submission and obedience, even allowing it to take over or define our identities. “The media feeds off our biological need to connect with others,” Von Busch says, “which at its core is what creates fashion’s extraordinary power.”

A self-image is a mediatised image, not a pure body. “In my mind I am dressed, and mostly an assemblage of different mediatised images,” Von Busch says. “So what designers need to do is find ways to change our mentalising processes, and open more paths for consumer action, beyond the ready-to-wear paradigm.”

And at Parsons his department’s relationship with the media is tight. “Many students of course come here because of Project Runaway,” he admits. “It is both a blessing and a curse because I have noticed how the competitive element of the show really gets into their heads. They arrive thinking Heidi Klum will be hovering over them telling them they are in or they are out. The school has become extremely mediatised and the biggest problem I see there is that students see their classmates not as collaborators, but as competitors. But really, the whole economy over the past twenty years has been moving in that direction.”

Published: 22-May-2017 13:36


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