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Design Agonism

Dr. Otto von Busch

24 June 2013

Activism means to take action for some end beyond the designated paths for decision-making. To take direct action means to start implementing your ideas of a better society right at the spot, rather than delegate the realization of your goals to someone else. As such steps are taken the action not only challenges the designated path, buy the action is also made in relation to something else (for example maintaining status quo), and it thus claims another perspective on this issue. Thus action also becomes a manifestation of disagreement or dissent. A disagreement takes place.

Dr. Otto von Busch

Posted on 24 June 2013 by Dr. Otto von Busch in:
Design Activism

When approaching sustainability from a consumer perspective we are asked to make the decision to consume or not to consume, that is; to consume sustainable goods and boycott the unsustainable ones. We are asked to vote this or that, or not vote. Consumer democracy is limited to the abstract act of “voting with one’s dollars”. But in political life there are many other ways to influence an open society, like running for office, protesting, pamphleting, lobbying, organising and building powerful assemblies that can overturn the government. Disagreement and dissensus is at the heart of a living debate, but in consumer “democracy” that is easy to forget.

Especially when confronting larger issues such as social justice or climate change, the dominant liberal perspective that individual change of consumption patterns can create large change easily becomes a masking of systemic conflict. Individual composting did not end slavery. The civil rights movement did not become such powerful manifestation of resistance because people stopped using plastic bags or started recycling their garbage at home. Social change happens in the social realm. It affects not only the individual but also the public realm. It is a matter of politics.

Of course social change happens because people act. But while consumerism offers individual characteristics of change, by temporarily owning an incarnation of, for example, fashion-ability, it gives no illusion of any social or structural change. Rather, the individualist and consumer perspective on sustainability has a tendency to mask conflict and push it down to isolated and individual choices. Sure, we can minimise the harm we do in the world, but in order to produce sustainable change we must do that in a systemic and dynamic way, and when we start doing this, this approach produces counter-systems. Counter-systems confront the existing ones simply by being alternatives, and thus produce conflict. It is easy to forget this today as we have fully internalised the liberal consumer paradigm of “There Is No Alternative”. 

This type of counter-system conflict is an example of “agonism” as it highlights disagreement and dissensus. It shows how there is asymmetry of power, and “wrongs” are being committed within the existing system. Agonism highlights how the system is not based on tacit consensus—that all parts are agreeing or everything runs smooth — instead it highlights how the system is a “thing”, an assembly of designed and conflicting parts. The thing is a parliament of different populations of opinion coming together to address the political– the conflict of forces, wills, populations, trajectories and ethics. Agonism is a central concept in “adversarial design”, a strategy of critical designers where design exposes inconsistencies and disagreements, and becomes a type of political design, based on agonism and contestation (DiSalvo 2012:2). In a consumer society agonism is a form of resistance. 

However, in an everyday framing of resistance we tend to overlook its quotidian or domestic forms. “Resistance” usually connotes clandestine guerrilla warriors or angry masses on the streets, and also within academia resistance is usually thought of as violent rebellion, documented outcomes, symbols and rhetorics that fit the theories of power and counter-power. Likewise, there may also be an ideological filter which blocks traces of rebellion with the belief that consumers cannot struggle or resist oppression because of their "false consciousness". However, as noted by political scientist James Scott, there are many forms of everyday resistance, such as silent non-compliance, pilferage, gossip, character murder, reduced effort, petty sabotage, small theft and negotiation (Scott 1985). In his book Weapons of the Weak, Scott contests the Gramscian ideas about hegemony as he means that even through the “weak” everyday resistance, the subalterns contests dominance, and as we will see in the case of YOMANGO, this may happen within the system of fashion consumerism.

YOMANGO is a Spanish counter-lifestyle movement emerging in 2002. As an anarchistic practice it critically comments on consumer culture and the role of consumer lifestyle in contemporary society. The name is a play with the clothing brand Mango, creating the word in Spanish slang for “I steal”. According to the group, stealing is a form of civil disobedience directly aimed at the branding of lifestyles. They state that;

Like all other major brand names, it is not so much about selling concrete stuff but more about promoting a lifestyle. In this case, the YOMANGO lifestyle consists of shoplifting as a form of social disobedience and direct action against multinational corporations. (Smith & Topham 2005: 36)

YOMANGO promotes itself as a counter-lifestyle with the aim of subverting the multinational corporations through the means of a branded lifestyle. But instead of buying into the empty symbolism of lifestyle, YOMANGO encourages its participants to live out the lifestyle itself, and for free. Using as their saint the Hollywood celebrity Winona Ryder, notorious for her shoplifting habits, YOMANGO promotes stealing as the new black.

The de-purchasing of consumer goods is promoted by YOMANGO as a “style” that goes beyond one season and has more to do with social engineering than fashion design. […] The hole left by tearing the locks off becomes a logo in its own right, a symbol of coherence to YOMANGO values. (Smith & Topham 2005: 36)

YOMANGO is not a movement in a traditional sense; they are a loosely connected series of practices. They freely distribute manuals describing different shoplifting techniques and pamphlets discussing the philosophical consequences of lifestyle consumerism. Like fashion brands, YOMANGO promotes a branded lifestyle, except it’s free. They promote stealing as an act of self-fulfilment, full of creativity and with a generous attitude of sharing, and not the least, they promote their “ethical shoplifting” as an act of “liberation”:

YOMANGO liberates objects and liberates your desire. It liberates your desire which is trapped within objects which are trapped inside large shopping malls, the same place where yourself are trapped. YOMANGO is a pact between co-prisoners. (YOMANGO 2004: 152)

In their own way, they celebrate consumerism, but through stealing. They propose a carnival of desire enacted against consumerism, rather than tactics of fashion asceticism. YOMANGO is not an oppositional dialectic force, not neglecting or fighting back against the system in a traditional way, by opposing it or “revealing” the logics of passive consumption. Instead, YOMANGO proposes an agonist stance, building new ways of acting in the world of fashion, but does so by celebrating the desire of fashion, that also fashion wants to be set free: “Dare to desire”.

From a stance of traditional and critical counterculture, YOMANGO is a failure, as it is not radically opposing the “artificial” desire the fashion system produces. From this critical standpoint, “lifestyle” is in itself is a branded myth perpetuated by capitalism as “opium for the people”. Yet, through their lifestyle-approach, YOMANGO’s ideology encourages adventurous shoplifting experiences. Instead of buying into a lifestyle that simulates adventure, you get the adventure for free, on top of the garment you desired. With an ironic touch, the act of dissensus becomes a self-enhancement of the participant, using the powerful mythology of fashion as a new form of counter-system lifestyle. As YOMANGO puts it: “You want it? You got it!” 

Like other traditions of civil disobedience, YOMANGO takes a practical and hands-on stance, promoting their critique by also offering their own “free” utopia through their actions. Branding and freely distributing their actions produces social dynamics beyond the individual, producing questions about social values and life. Thus they offer tools for radical self-reflection concerning the basic protocols of consumer society. They promote action in order to trigger individual, ethical or philosophical self-reflection, and simultaneously a societal, or democratic self-reflection. In this way YOMANGO is exploring what it would mean to institute their own lifestyle as an autonomous act, which resonates well with the ideas of Greek philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis.

According to Castoriadis autonomous societies are those in which their members are aware of the instituted mechanisms that guide them, and where citizens are explicitly self-instituting their own laws. Autonomy is not a question of being independent or totally free, but being aware and taking part in the constituting mechanisms of one’s social environment. In contrast, the members of heteronomous societies attribute their social laws or social imaginary to some extra-social authority, such as God, tradition, ancestors, or perhaps something as ethereal as “the market”. From this perspective, fashion could be seen as a heteronomous regime, it is a law that is being transcendent to society itself, it is instituted outside of the consumer’s reach. What YOMANGO does is to bring back the practices of “lifestyle” into the hands of the (shoplifting) consumers as a provocative act of agonism.

To Castoriadis, autonomy is the act of explicit self-institution, which lies is the foundation of democracy, in which a society questions itself and its own activities in a mode of political self-reflection. Autonomy is the conscious acts of self-determination and self-reflection, where we ask ourselves, on an individual as well as collective level, for example, “what is a good life?”, “are our laws just?” and “does our laws support a good life?” Civil disobedience is an act that highlights these kind of questions through moral action, confronting laws and systems which could be considered unjust or perpetuating social inequalities.

Even if we may not support practise such as shoplifting, YOMANGO provocatively questions fashion beyond the consumption of pre-packaged or ready-to-wear lifestyles, and brings disputes on sustainability outside the flow-charts. Through actions they go beyond the consumer economy, to interrogate the “dictates” of the current trends and their interpreters, such as designers, editors and producers. They propose an autonomous position and suggest an effective freedom in fashion that needs a new mode of self-reflectiveness rather than the consumption cheap mass-produced goods, however accessible, sustainable or “democratic” they may be.

Whatever stance you take on shoplifting, YOMANGO provocatively sets the question as an agonistic counter-system: You want fashion? You want lifestyle? You got it!


DiSalvo, Carl (2012)Adversarial Design,Cambridge: MIT Press

Smith, Courtenay & Topham, Sean (2005)Xtreme Fashion,Munich: Prestel

YOMANGO (2004) ”Illegality”, in Thompson & Scholette (eds) (2004)The Interventionists,North Adams: MASS MoCA