DES 3356: Field Methods and Living Collections I Instructor: Rosetta Sarah Elkin

By Samuel Matthew, Hazal Seval, and Prathima Muniyappa

How can the influences between more than human and human ‘actants’ be revealed by blurring ethnographic, archeological and political fact from fiction in an analysis of three organisms in the beech collection of the Arnold Arboretum?

Ethnographic: Nomads migrating along the patterns of the ecological cycle, moving around following seasons, following sources… What does the settlers have to learn from them? Shamans infiltrating into the greater wisdom of the human and non-human worlds, accessing a power of healing bodies and souls… What does the ‘rational mind’ have to learn? The plants inhabited the earth hundreds of millions of years before humans did, still the rational human mind that needs a brain to rationalize intelligence, that needs bodily extremities in motion to rationalize movement believes that the ‘truth’ is only restricted by its own mental capacity. We are sharing a ‘living’ world full of diversities and complexities yet a single universal truth erases all simply by discovering them and assigning a single reality for all. It is time to acknowledge what happens when we embrace a world that is partially comprehensible yet consisting of inter-connected collaborations of diverse ontologies.

Archeological : “How other kinds of beings see us matters”, writes Eduaro Kohn. How we look at other beings influences our ability to perceive and engage their long trail of transformations in tandem to our own. Each organism externalizes its identity in a material way that is not complete until is perceived and embodied in the Other; then it can continue as another effect mark in an ongoing feedback chain, creating a flow, a process, a nested hierarchy formed by the organisms that is the environment itself. Although built in history, each moment is not determined by the past, making each moment an inauguration of time. The project attempted to dismantle a subject object relationship that persists between humans and plants, but it failed to conjure an eternal present to blur thresholds between skin and bark, vein and phloem, intent and consequence, mind and matter, form and formless. Viewed from the right scale, the nature of being and inter-being is seeded in nonduality. We were successful in inverting the nexus of agency, the aim for me however was to dispense with the notion of the agent.

Political : We have learnt that it is not so easy to separate ‘ourselves’ from our ‘surroundings’, and those surroundings from us: if plants can be considered ‘alterity’, in Michael Mardar’s words, so might we in different ways. Yet a challenge which we are still grappling with is how to represent these other entities on their own terms – in their “thingness”?

We must get beyond questions of human subjectivity and anthropomorphizing them as like us (although this can be useful). We must avoid assigning agency where agency does not exist and allowing the beings which we personify to fall into our own guardianship (where we presume to know what is best for “them”). We need to question our human need to theorise and understand. We must transcend our conception of cause and effect, becoming less interested in the “impacts” of human actions, and more interested in the significance of our connections with the more than human. Politics should not primarily be about the distribution of resources and rights but a recognition of different and diffused agencies, creating spheres of influence across different spaces, energies and timescales. It is the recognition that these influences are often contingent and our beliefs are temporary which is key to horizontalizing our relationship with these entities. We can appreciate these invisible networks most by living and doing (not thinking or understanding).

As designers we do not have a duty to create “solutions” to “problems”. Our primary responsibility is to envision and create things, using materials, people, science, technology and narratives. These things can help people (and perhaps more than people) feel, think and do differently. Imagination can create new poles from which we can base new practices of doing and being in our environment.