Designing engagements with animals to find, imagine, or emphasize non-speciesist practices
Last week I got the opportunity to participate in the Nordic Design Research (Nordes) Summer School, with this year’s theme: Design and Care (in connection to their 2019 Conference with the same theme (the call for papers should be out soon)).
It was such an interesting and meaningful week. I think that this was mostly due to the careful planning and great attention to detail that made participants feel welcome, heard, and cared for by the organizers (Li Jönsson, Kristina Lindstrom, Åsa Ståhl, Mathilda Tham, and Juliana Restrepo Giraldo <3).
Also, all the food was vegan and super tasty… that really helped too.
The starting point for the course content, excursions, and discussions were these three books:
I really recommend them, regardless of your research topics or general interests. They are the kind of books that can help its readers to develop a more flexible mindset about the damaged world we live in. They are really quite dense reads though (!). If you’re looking for something a little more casual, I suggest to start with the Anna Tsing one (Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet), which is an edited collection that includes many short stories that offer different perspectives on the environmental, scientific, (and patriarchal) situations we’re facing today. To me it seems relevant to any kind of research interest.
Maria Puig de la Bellacasa’s book was the one with the most impact on my research from a more theoretical perspective. The meaning and practices of “care” that are outlined by the author provide a very helpful framing for a new kind of “doing ethics” that is mostly done in practice rather than theory. According to the author, this all begins with an understanding of the condition of life on earth as interdependent and requires that we care about things because they are a part of us, and they can help us flourish or they can kill us.
A more accessible line of thinking proposed through this framework: when I touch something, I am being touched by that thing at the same time. Care is reciprocal.
Donna Haraway has been a long time academic role-model to me. Specifically, her ideas regarding the making of “knowledge” largely transformed the way I think about the world and doing research. Also, seriously, I hope this will be me some day:
Though I might not always agree with her previous writings about other animals, her latest book (Staying with the Trouble) provides a provocative and honest account of the earthly troubles we are facing as well as the complexity of figuring out new ways of living together with other humans and non-humans. Her book starts here: our bodies are largely made up of bacteria and other symbiotic relationships. What we refer to as “I” (the individual, the Homo Sapiens), is actually the result of many processes that involves entanglements with many non-humans. How rude of us to call ourselves a ‘species’, and develop all kinds of (scientific) assumptions based on such an arrogant and faulty line of thinking. We’re not humans. We’re more like humus really… and we should be composting more. Everything is messy and imperfect.
These theoretical insights formed the starting point for our discussions and the two main excursions that were part of the program (shorter activities also included recycled food tasting by Rude Food and a presentation by the Feminist Farming project).
On the second day of the program we went farming. It’s interesting to see what happens when a bunch of scholars and/or gardening-videogame enthusiasts actually work in the field together. Everybody came to their own moment of realization of how theory is very different from practice. My moment involved a snail and a pair of scissors:
The Nybrukarna farm collective is a small scale vegetable farm that brings the harvest directly from the land to the share-holders. While Maja, the founder of the collective, explained our farming duties for the day, a snail (actually it was a slug) entered her vision. “Look, when you find a snail…. YOU KILL IT IMMEDIATELY!”, she said while taking out a pair of scissors and cutting the slug in half. “I don’t care how you do it… crush it, squeeze it, cut it… as long as it’s dead”.
“that’s not vegan, is it?”, I whispered to my neighbor in the field.
“Nope, but I suppose it had to be done”, he replied.
I guess this is what all of the authors had been talking about in their books before.
The third day of the course was spend in the area of Orrefors, in Småland, where we visited the remains of the “Kingdom of Crystal”: the local glass blowing industry that was founded in 1898. What is not part of this neat Wikipedia description is the large scale pollution that now troubles this place (and all other glass blowing sites in this region). Higher rates of cancer among inhabitants, uranium pollution, different kinds of metals in the ground and water, etc. People used to trash all sorts of things in these local landfills. We were told that there are about 40 of those polluted landfills in Sweden (and many more in the rest of the world). Researchers and local entrepreneurs are now trying to find new ways of dealing with this urgent matter.
Soon after we arrived things started to get even more complicated.
“Can you please help us turn this park into a tourist attraction?”
“How can we extract glass from these landfills before other companies empty them?”
“We want to bring you recycled glass for high-end design work, so we need to find a sustainable way to extract the pollution.”
“We found a plant that absorbs the pollution, but when animals eat from these plants, it might kill them.”
“Can you please form groups and discuss these issues in relation to your own research. But don’t forget about the group-assignment.”
…A bit overwhelming. But again, I suppose this is what all of the authors had been talking about in their books before.
The next day we reflected on these complexities and found major difficulties with the amount of perspectives (of both humans and non-humans) that have to be taken into account in this more care-ful way of doing ethics that the authors are advocating for.
But if we need to take EVERYTHING into account, what do we put on our banners when we go to our demonstrations, marches, and rallies? We tried to prototype some new slogans that communicate these perspectives (see image above), although I doubt they will take us very far if we stick to the current formats for doing politics.
Perhaps it means that, when so many valid perspectives and difficulties are on the table, we need more flexible ways of making up our minds. To me this is where designers are particularly needed. People that are continuously training the skills that are required to enter a complex situation with care; with an open-mindedness towards all kinds of perspectives and world-views. With the goal to gain more care-ful understandings; those kinds of understandings that more honestly and equally includes different people, their bacteria, the water, the soil, the slugs, the led, and other things that are already inherently part of the situation.
This makes the ‘art of living on a damaged planted’ an easy one to problematize but, when we courageously decide to ‘stay with the trouble’ a great one to master.