Tarcan / A Messy Autoethnographic Documentation of Making with the Environment

A Messy Autoethnographic Documentation of Making with the Environment

Author: Berilsu Tarcan, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Supervisor: Ida Nilstad Pettersen, Associate Professor, Norwegian University of Science and Technology; Ferne Leigh Edwards, Postdoc Fellow Dr., Norwegian University of Science and Technology; Trond Are Øritsland, Associate Professor, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Research stage: Initial Doctoral Stage

Category: Artefact

This submission documents an early-stage investigation that aims to produce knowledge from experiences gathered by working with wool material. The knowledge is gathered from the relationship of human, environment, and materials in a design/making process, therefore theoretical production is influenced by the creation process of artefacts.

The PhD study looks at the intersection of emerging theories of posthumanism and traditional knowledge. Key points are:

  • The inclusion of other-than-humans (nonhumans, more-than-humans) into making and design practices,
  • The integration of nonhuman notions and traditional knowledge into design.
  • The investigation of craft and design by making felt textiles with hands, using wool as material, by studying the associations of these notions.

In this early stage, I investigate other-than-humans and how they are related to making and design practices, through a direct experience of handcrafting, with specific attention on the explorative and processual aspects. Relationship with the environment is another aspect, intended as something that affects the process of working with wool: This stage presents a study that aims to have a better understanding of working with the material, and to study how factors other than the maker and material relate to the making practice. Having a better understanding of the making process and the relations of different environments where I initiate the felting process allows me to know how these environments are a part of the making practice as other-than-human entities. Felting is both a traditional and contemporary technique to make textiles, working with basic fibers with hands, to create surfaces, which involves compressing animal fibers by using alkaline and hot water.

The world is going through many temporary situations, including crises and climate change. The consequences of human exploitation of nature have started the geological age known as the Anthropocene. Human needs have resulted with industrialization and the exploitation of natural resources. The start of the Anthropocene is traced back to the Industrial Revolution 1, which already implies that industrial design as a field should rethink what design processes should include. To shift from this human-centrism and to overcome the problems started by humans (such as the climate crisis, pollution, lack of natural resources, losing tangible and intangible heritages) new methods in design studies that involve other-than-humans are crucial. Designers have possibilities to look from others’ perspectives, and these perspectives may be beneficial in changing worldviews. Starting with the Industrial Revolution, mass production resulting from human needs have initiated industrial design. As design has been technology-centered at first, and human-centered since 1980s 2, my PhD study suggests that looking from other-than-human’s perspectives and studying their relations is necessary for design. Also, even in human-centered design, it is necessary to look at other-than-humans, as humans cannot exist with nonhuman actors.

As in traditional knowledges, human-nonhuman relationship is not binary, the PhD study suggests that looking at traditional knowledges will bring possibilities to bring out nonhumans into design. In other words, it offers ways that traditional knowledge could be applied for the ways of living today. They can also provide guidance on how to learn and integrate with the new world situations. These knowledges can be applied for many aspects, including topics such as craft and design, decolonization of design, experiencing technology in new ways, shifting design processes. Traditional knowledge from Turkey and Norway are investigated in the PhD study. At this stage, nomadic Turkish folk groups, in other words Yoruks lifestyle and felt artefacts are researched.

The study does not romanticize the past or old ways of living, nor does it take technological improvements as enemies. Instead, it points out that these technological improvements could have been made and implemented in different ways, as the world is going through many changes with technological improvements.

Research Through Making-with-Hands

Design, craft and making are related notions that refer to a creation process. Making in this sense is taken as working and producing with a material hands-on to have a better understanding of it. Many related disciplines employ “research through making,” including traditional crafts 3. Here it is applied as a “making-with hands” approach and does not involve any machinery. The research leads to an understanding of how making practice can shift with using emerging theories in design that refer to other-than-humans. Looking at the environment from older ways of knowing could benefit today’s design studies.

This process includes steps that start with obtaining the material (wool), washing and applying pressure on the wool, and making artefacts/textiles with the help of water, soap, hand pressure and additional tools such as cloths and towels. The outcomes of this stage are of explorative nature, as shown in visuals [ 1 ] [ 2 ]. The aim in this phase is not to produce final artefacts but to have ideas on how to implement the process of making, and it is believed that this will contribute to the research process that involves learning to work with several types of wool. Preliminary findings include acquiring the material, shaping the workspace, finding out about wool types, and finding inspirations from resources such as environment and ancient cultures.

Learning about and with the material.

Figure 1: Learning about and with the material.

Making and Environment

This attempt examines a making activity, and its relation to the environment. The tools and materials used in the making process are a part of this environment. However, their surroundings, meaning the workspace, also affects this process. With analyzing making in different environments, the emphasis is trying to learn how to adapt to different settings and even “climates”, and how the making practice relates to them. It consists of a felting practice, which has been carried out in several locations, interior and exterior spaces and geographies. Locations including workshop/studios and outdoors have been the environment of this making practice, and they will be analyzed through the theme of “making-with the environment”. More specifically, the environment consists of different studios, rooms and exterior spaces and they are all taken as elements in the making process. For making, wool material and felting practice is used. I experiment with several wool types, such as unprocessed wool from local farms to have a better understanding of it not just as a resource for producing but also as an equal actor in the act of making.

Documenting wool and making activity.

Figure 2: Documenting wool and making activity.

Decentering Humans in Design

Some examples in design have shown new materialist and posthuman 4 theories as facilitators to reposition the state of humans. These approaches are exemplified as “decentering the human, non-anthropocentrism, and human/ non-human relations” 5, that expand design from human needs to others, such as trees, rocks, animals and machines. In design research, inclusion of other-than-humans can be explored with several methods. In this example autoethnography is taken on, which is the ethnographic study of “self”. This method “humanizes research by focusing on life as lived through in its complexities” 6. As autoethnography is a human-centered approach, studying other-than-humans with this method could be seen as opposing because of the centrality of the “researcher”. This opens an interesting debate on other-than-humans: In this instance, this human-centered approach allows me to experience and acknowledge my own responsibility for other-than-humans in design driven research, and how I approach my surroundings. Processes of research and design have strong parallels between each other 7. As design process is “messy,” he proposes that autoethnography as a method can capture evidence from this process of messiness, as the design process starts and goes on. Autoethnography acknowledges the researcher as central in the research process, and the tools it offers increase reflection and structure 8. Studying making practices with this method offers relevant documentation [ 3 ] for making in varying environments.

Inclusion of Other-than-Humans in Design

Making and design are concepts that refer to a process of creation. When defining other-than-human actors, I refer to the emerging theories of posthuman and notions of nonhuman (e.g. nonhuman agency and Actor-Network Theory), more-than-human 9, other-than-human 10 that are being used in design. Although there are different approaches on these notions, I take nonhuman’s meaning in the most literal sense: It is what is “not human”. These concepts that include nonhuman are also part of indigenous knowledge, that do not distinct human-nonhuman from each other. I use these concepts as a way to include my environment and surroundings into my making process. I acknowledge that in design studies these terms are being used to define several meanings, which refer to decentering humans, and involve themes such as environment, technology and made objects. Wool sources include unprocessed wool from local farms [ 4 ] and processed wool from handicrafts organizations [ 5 ]

Wool source acquired from a local farm.

Figure 3: Wool source acquired from a local farm.

Using processed wool for relations of traditional knowledge. The artefacts belong to a learner’s process, and refer to traditional symbols, such as figures and symbols from old carpets.

Figure 4: Using processed wool for relations of traditional knowledge. The artefacts belong to a learner’s process, and refer to traditional symbols, such as figures and symbols from old carpets.

These emerging approaches are being used to see how a making activity can adapt to new environments, whether it is a making studio or an outdoor setting. The focus on the location also emphasizes the effects of climate and ever-changing circumstances other than the self (the maker), around a making practice. Some examples for these circumstances are,

  • Working environment: I employed the same practice in various locations and started making felt with the same idea and material types but allowed myself to be open to outer circumstances around me to explore what type of artefact would come out. Preparation and temporality of the making practice had impacts, especially for the outdoors, I limited time and tools, including water and wool usage.
  • Acquiring wool and its temporality: For instance, a contact who was supposed to supply me with unprocessed wool informed me that this spring’s wool was short and unclean, and suggested I wait for summer instead. Therefore, I continued working with a darker type of sheep wool I collected before.
Exhibition of felted artefacts in various environments in CA2RE Ljubljana 2021
Exhibition of felted artefacts in various environments in CA2RE Ljubljana 2021

Figure 5: Exhibition of felted artefacts in various environments in CA2RE Ljubljana 2021

Autoethnographic Documentation

I show the autoethnographic documentation to emphasize the experiential knowledge, learning with material in the practice, and how environment plays a central part in this process of making. I do this by analyzing the relationship of the environment and artefacts I created, by using the artefacts themselves, their photos, and written notes from reflective diaries. The documentation is ongoing, therefore the visual is an early attempt of a thematic analysis of making practice, and are themed according to the relationship between environment and making processes/forms.

These trials can also be defined as ideation “sketches” with material. I relate this with thinking through making and materials 11, and connect this approach to materialness of things. Drawing from Ingold’s question, “Why should the material world include only either things encountered in situ, within the landscape, or things already transformed by human activity, into artefacts? Why exclude things like the stone, which have been recovered and removed but not otherwise transformed?” 12 , the environment and other-than-humans in this research consist not only the materials or artefacts, but other things: While studying design-craft and human-material relations, the relationship between the human and material is taken into consideration. However, other elements from the environment that do not belong to human activities can be put forward in these practices as well.

I implement this by not excluding, but observing the changing environment, including the workspace, tools, materials, table, and location. Varying locations also allow surrounding elements from the landscape such as rocks and sea, or the sun to become a part of the thinking-with process. Different trials in several environments and the outcome artefacts in wool material are a part of the documentation. Examples shown as artefacts are demonstrated as a relational process with the environment.

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