Ethology/ethnography documentation

orni1

Although the focus on this book I a bit remote from my research interest, "Ornithology" (by Anne Geene & Arjan De Nooy) is one of the most fascinating kind of printed document that arrived on my desk (my kitchen table actually):

"Anne Geene and Arjan de Nooy combine visual tools from the science of birds with the specific characteristics of photography, thereby imparting a fresh look at both. Through their pseudoscientific approach, Geene and De Nooy explore the boundaries between the two disciplines, adding a layer that is usually absent in the representation and science of birds: humour. Their classifications form comical results through creative and associative thinking, and yet they use the scientific method to also create an artistic microcosm that seems far removed from its strictly ornithological counterpart. Together, Geene and De Nooy depart from the “classic” aesthetic of bird representation."

orni2 orni3 orni4 orni5

Imaginaires synthétiques

 

This blogpost is an entry about a new project I'm working on, in the context of the "NONCOMPLIANT FUTURES" exhibit curated by Nicolas Maigret and Maria Roszkowska (disnovation.org) at Musée du Jeu de Paume (Paris).

Intriguing animal-machine collaborations and their design have always been relevant to me. Looking back at old entries on this blog, I realize it's been more than 10 years that I started compiling cases of design/art work such as the "pigeon blog" (Beatriz da Costa), or James Auger's "Augmented Animals". In addition, my interest in design fiction/speculative design/new media art has also led me to observe with great curiosity recent projects about synthetic biology,  genetically-engineered creatures.

"Augmented Animals" by James Auger (2001)

"Augmented Animals" by James Auger (2001)

Over the years, my fascination towards such cases of interactions between machine and "living beings" have slowly changed. What was at first an interest towards the objectification of non-humans led me to a more thorough questioning of the classic nature/culture divide, and the current ecological crisis.

Perhaps it's my old interest in biology (having a bachelor’s degree in Life Science certainly played a role), perhaps it's Donna Haraway's latest book about the Anthropocene that got me back to such matter. Using da Costa's example – among other cases  – she discusses the need for “Science art worlding for living on a damaged planet”. I understand this mysterious phrase as a call for investigating and crafting, through art and art/science collaboration, stories to "stay with the trouble" of living in an environment of global warming, pollution, and species extinction. Why stories? She basically describes the following reasons:

"Each time a story helps me remember what I thought I knew, or introduces me to new knowledge, a muscle critical for caring about flourishing gets some aerobic exercise. Such exercise enhances collective thinking and movement in complexity. Each time I trace a tangle and add a few threads that at first seemed whimsical but turned out to be essential to the fabric, I get a bit straighter that staying with the trouble of complex worlding is the name of the game of living and dying well together on terra, in Terrapolis." (Haraway, 2016, p.29)

"Ursula Le Guin taught me the carrier bag theory of storytelling and of natural-cultural history. Her theories, her stories, are capacious bags for collecting, carrying, and telling the stuff of living. (...) Nonetheless, no adventurer should leave home without a sack." (Haraway, 2016, p. 41-42)

"As Jim Clifford taught me, we need stories (and theories) that are just big enough to gather up the complexities and keep the edges open and greedy for surprising new and old connections." (Haraway, 2016, p.101)

The different projects she discusses in the third chapter of her book can be seen as stories that try to achieve such goals. They reveal how artists, designers and scientists explore (a) the fact that the big divide between nature and culture (or technology) is problematic... (b) that their work – and their ways of doing things – can overcome such opposition, and (c) eventually reveal new imaginaries of a future in the making. New visions of the future that maybe offer a sort of counter-narrative to the discours around "progress" and "innovation" that we always hear about these days.

Reading about the projects presented by Haraway in her book, one also realizes that they can be both gloomy and hopeful, reconfiguring despair and hope in a strange way. In some sense, they reminded me of Timothy Morton's notion of "Dark Ecology":

"What is dark ecology? It is ecological awareness, dark-depressing. Yet ecological awareness is also dark-uncanny. And strangely it is dark-sweet. Nihilism is always number one in the charts these days. We usually don’t get past the first darkness, and that’s if we even care. What thinks dark ecology? Ecognosis, a riddle. Ecognosis is like knowing, but more like letting-be-known. It is something like coexisting. It is like becoming accustomed to something strange, yet it is also becoming accustomed to strangeness that doesn’t become less strange through acclimation." (Morton, 2016, p. 5)

With this theoretical background in mind, I started to revisit my lists and notes about similar projects... and decided it would be relevant to find a way to map such territories. 

The very fact that it's all about animals, and sometimes plants, fungi and geological elements mixed with technological/synthetic matter reminded me of bestiaries of the Middle Ages. Those descriptive treatise on various kinds of animals have always been interesting to me because of their sort of pre-naturalistic character. The "beasts" were described with lots of anecdotes (often presented with a moralizing tone) and a wide-range of material (drawings, notes, dimensions, weird remarks). Comparing the material I compiled (spreadsheets and textfiles full of links and notes... the kind of things one collect of a computer in the 21st Century) and old bestiaries, I found it would be a relevant metaphor to present the material. Besides that, I may also been influenced by Borges' book of imaginary beings and Claude Maillard-Chary's book about the Surrealists' menagerie.

Another interesting aspect of bestiaries lays in the fact that they are never complete and exhaustive. The very idea of a bestiary corresponds to the fact that it should be updated over time... with the help of others.

So? I'm currently building this bestiary of hybrid creatures of the Anthropocene. So far, as I said, it's mostly computer files and handwritten notes in my sketchpad. It's quite diverse at this point, with quite different entries: geological material, new media art projects, speculative design cases, or engineering prototypes. It's an ongoing occupation and it would be great to get some suggestion. The fact that Nicolas Maigret and Maria Roszkowska asked me to participate in their "Futurs non-conformes #3" (NONCOMPLIANT FUTURES) exhibit at Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris certainly helped me to frame the project and I have to thank them for that.

My field research notepad

My field research notepad

What kind of creatures one will find in there? Well, there's plenty beyond Eduardo Kac's rabbit, but here are some examples to be shown in my talk at Jeu de Paume :

Bibliography

Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the trouble, Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham: Duke University Press.

Morton, T. (2016). Dark Ecology, For a Logic of Future Coexistence. NYC: Columbia University Press.

Peripheral ethnographies

(A follow-up to this blogpost, quick notes without the necessary academic framing, for the sake of putting this on the table)

Recently, in different contexts, I've been asked (both by researchers and students) about "my approach" in field research... which feels slightly weird because I wasn't sure I had a definite one. However, given recent projects with the Laboratory, as well as workshops in design schools and talks here and there, it seems there's a common way of doing things. I called it "peripheral ethnography" (or "ethnographie périphérique" in my language) because of my interest in marginal practices, peculiar behaviors, curious rituals, odd appropriation/repurposing of technologies, little things that people talk less about, situations in which technical objects age, things that do not fit, intriguing artifacts ("intriguing to whom?" one might say). All of those could be seen as what futures researchers call weak signals, and that designers might cherish in order to give direction to their work.

The term "peripheral" is relevant here because it means both "relating to or situated on the edge or periphery of something" and "of secondary or minor importance"... which is close to what French sociologist-turned-writer George Perec described as observing what is often overlooked (in "Species of space" back in 1974), what he referred to as the "infra-ordinary".

By saying that I'm interested in peripheral ethnographies, it means that my focus – on any topics I'm looking into – at these little details that seem avoided, weird or overlooked at first glance... as a complement to the diversity of practices (in a very Mauss-ian way). The hypothesis here being that addressing practices and things which be relatively peripheral (and discussing this aspect with informants), and contrasting this to more standard observations, helps to understand cultures "en devenir" (and eventually craft design fiction work).

(to be continued)

Mobile Ordinary Gestures

As I explained few months ago, I'm working on a follow-up to the "Curious Rituals" project. The project focuses on an anthropological perspective on smartphone usage. It's basically a visual ethnography approach and I recently collaborated with Constance Delamadeleine (from Geneva-base design studio Future Neue) to publish this Print-On-demand booklet that describes a typology of gestures and postures adopted when using smartphones. It can be seen as an intermediary steps between the field research and the writing/crafting of a much more text-based documents... which I'm working on currently.

The book can be found at the following URL.

On weird ethnographies

Thinking about my way to approach field research/ethnography, I've re-read today three intriguing excerpts of articles that I find interesting.

The first one is from "The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory" by Norman M. Klein (1997, Verso Books), who I met few years ago when I stayed art Art Center in Pasadena:

"In many ways, the materials I have assembled look like research gathered by a novelist before the novel is written, before the writer turns the contradictions into a character-driven story. Like blending notes with a diary, I plan to leave the chronicle often, to break off into essays on the social history of media, and of Los Angeles. (...) my primary sources are urban planning reports, local interviews, the detritus of neighborhood conversations, urban legends, movie locations, and so on. Primary or otherwise, sources of this type, even when they look more empirical inside scholarly articles, are unstable and fundamentally fictional. Therefore, to be honest, the text I produce must be partly autobiographical. What else can a history of collective memory be but a rigorous diary about unreliable documents? The documents are a mix of history, fiction and urban anthropology: more a form of historicized ethnography, always cooked, certainly never raw." (p.7-8)

The quote describes Klein's modus operandi for his book about the process of memory erasure in the city of Los Angeles: the accumulation/production of material which is then turned into his "docufables". I'm less intrigued here by the semi-fictional character of the book, and instead, it's the fragmentary nature of the documentation that caught my attention. Also, his selective focus on weird insights is interesting... which leads me to the second article. It's from "Toward a Conception Of 'Gonzo' Ethnography" by E. M. I. Sefcovic (1995):

"Gonzo ethnography rejects the notion of any privileged vantage point for observation, insists on recognition of the participatory dimension of the researcher’s role, and urges experiments with research methods and reporting practices that can liberate and empower general audiences."

Sefcovic's article is mostly focused on a rejection of positivism, the need to involve oneself in the action to such a degree that they become central figures of their stories, and to bring a critical stance.. However, I do think there's another aspect of gonzo "approach" that could be relevant too: it's the tendency Hunter Thompson had to pick stories/anecdotes/factoids/stuff which are mostly peripheral to the subject he was supposed to cover as a journalist. I find that aspect important in my work, i.e. the need to consider things out of my perspective. This is close to what Justin Pickard included in his "Gonzo Futurist" manifesto:

"the observation stage of this operational loop looks like some vernacular, ad-hoc ethnography. This kind of observation is shorthand for all kinds of evidence-gathering, so read widely, take photos, and ask questions. Probe. Keep records. If something seems incongruous, it’s probably important. When it comes to observation, your nemesis is the filter bubble — an echo chamber forged by Google and Facebook; a ‘unique universe of information for each of us … which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information’ (Pariser, 2011: 9) It may be comfortable in the bubble, but ‘there’s less room for the chance encounters that bring insight and learning.’ (Ibid.: 15)"

One way to get out of the filter bubble IMO relies (for instance) on finding non-standards informants (such as non-users, extreme users, people involved in intriguing practices) or collecting weird material (documents, fictional elements that can describe the social imaginaire you're interested int, etc.). I call that "peripheral ethnography".

Recurring dream, recurring flops

James, at Crap Futures, blogged last week this intriguing diagram: 

journeyofatechnology

Of course one can always argue about modifications and missing connections, it somehow gives a pretty good outline of "the journey of a technology." When observing it  the other day, I quickly realized it should be less of an arrow, and more of a cycle... considering that it takes many (failed) products to have a technology reaching a sort of maturity (and then obsolescence). But the red "recurring dream" part plays that role in the diagram; I can't help thinking about technological flops that belonged to this category (humanoid robots, smart homes, monorails, VR/AR headsets, etc.) How can we revisit the evolution of <technology> based on this?

Given that the crap futures blog insists on deconstructing smartness, I can imagine that the diagram can be helpful to map the various parameters around which the notion of networked/smart/connected/automated objects are built. Also, this diagram is relevant because it can help to generate (micro-)briefs. Say, you want to work on *teh smart home of teh future*, it would be intriguing to design several versions: the cheap one, the functional one. Alternatively, one can also think about the ingredients to design such technology: what if the smart home of the future was designed sans consideration for science-fiction (you remove that bit from the diagram) and an important emphasis on the sublime/spectacle? What would be the result (beyond an episode of The Simpsons)?

X-Files S10E3: the mobile phone scene

Pasha: What is up with your phone?
Mulder: I don't know, it's this new app, I don't know if it's working right.
Pasha: Are you taking picture or video?
Mulder: I don't know.
Pasha:  Go to Settings.
Mulder: Where?
Pasha: Go to the settings...
(screaming)
Scully: Mulder! Mulder!
(groans)
Mulder: No, I'm okay.
Scully: You've got blood on you.
Mulder: I don't think it's mine.
(groans)