What a semester! We studied our digital classroom as a networked field site. Taking inspiration from Sasha Costanza-Chock and the Design Justice Network, we examined, through individual auto-ethnographies, how justice – racial, environmental, digital, and so forth – can be designed into (or out of) our immediate material and digital environments: our apartments and city blocks and phone screens. We also enjoyed visits from designer Ahmed Ansaari, anthropologist Andrea Ballestero, designer-anthropologist Elaine Gan, lawyer-designer-artist-community organizer Rasheeda Phillips, and designer Rosten Woo. And our fabulous teaching assitant, Ramon de Haan, supported and enlightened and entertained us along the way.
We were all impacted by the compounding crises of 2020. Some of us got sick or lost family members; some of us lost work or supported loved ones who did; some of us were held in restrictive quarantine when returning to our home countries; some of us were deeply involved in mutual aid networks and “get out the vote” efforts in our neighborhoods. Coursework was not always our top concern – but still, everyone designed and pursued a project that was personally meaningful, something that engaged with timely concerns and/or allowed for incremental progress on their theses and dissertations. Much of our work spoke directly to the year’s challenges, and to the obstacles it presented to our own ability to concentrate and “produce.” We emphasized mutual support and self-fulfillment over productivity. We sought to do what we could within the limits of the 15-week semester – itself already an arbitrary epistemological container, but this year rendered all the more artificial by the long timelines of the pandemic and the election and the fragility of the world around us.
Still, we created beautiful works in progress:
Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism student Alexa examined consumer genetic testing and how the “design” of identity – as manifested through Ancestry.com’s testing kit, corporate branding, web resources, reports, and advertisements – masks the messiness and ambiguity of family ties and self-definition. Recounting her own fraught engagement with the service, Alexa’s multimedia project mixes criticism and memoir, and it serves as a prototype for her thesis project.
Media studies student Anna is examining, for her MA thesis, the exclusion of BIPOC voices from turn-of-the-20th-c. World’s Fairs, and how immersive interactive environments – incorporating interviews and archival material from these marginalized figures – could produce sensorial counterhistories. Drawing inspiration from Saidiya Hartman’s work, Anna mapped her own research process and sought to acknowledge how so much of our research involves grappling with archival silences, following hunches, and embracing what Walter Mignolo calls “epistemic disobedience.”
Much of anthropologist/designer Ayo‘s research and creative practice has focused on Blackness and temporality. Building on Michelle Wright’s work, Ayo considered how Black temporality encompasses trauma – through repetition, iteration, and recursion – and he tested several “concrete poetry” and wall plaque treatments that explored these ideas.
Environmental Policy student Beatrix, wondering how to give German residents a tool to combat climate change, discovered that many simply aren’t aware of options of green energy suppliers, or the ease of switching providers. So, she designed a traveling exhibition that would, through various interactive exhibits, compare and contrast various energy sources and provide visitors with the resources necessary to make informed choices.
For his thesis in the Theories of Urban Practice program, Blake is examining the spatial politics of Pride. This semester he drew on fieldwork and interviews with Pride leaders to produce a booklet exploring how queer communities have historically created, and continue to build, “soft infrastructures” – including, at the Queer Liberation March, sonic spaces composed of chants and clacking fans – for connecting intergenerational kin and imagining new futures. This publication will later be supplemented with a repository of audiovisual materials (like this video).
Liberal arts student Collin is studying processes and networks of socio-economic exchange. Through auto-ethnography and close readings of a stack of technical documents, Collin pieced together the various hardware, software, institutions, corporations, infrastructures, and protocols necessary to make an electronic purchase. He questioned how the design of these systems informs our understandings of exchange and money – and he’s working to create a “museum” of receipts that capture traces of these networked connections.
Dani, a Design and Urban Ecologies student, is studying mutual aid and networks of care. For our class, she created a zine that aims to “translate basic mutual aid principles into our everyday lives, to integrate them into the ways we form relationships with others, and in the work we do in our respective fields.” Dani encourages interested contributors to map the existing networks of care in their own communities, and to identify where their strengths fit these collectives’ needs. She aims to build on her ongoing fieldwork to create customized versions of the zine for various communities.
Franzi, a Design & Technology student, is studying cultures of misinformation and conspiracy. She focused her semester work on the Querdenken Covid-denier community in Germany, which congregates on Telegram and is “plagued by in-fighting, misaligned agendas and conflicting misinformation.” Franzi sought to clarify this confusing landscape by visualizing some of the movement’s main actors and creating a timeline documenting the November 18 protest against the Infection Protection Act; this timeline illustrates how rumors spread, multiply, and metastasize.
For her dissertation in NYU’s Department of Media, Culture & Communication, Hyo Jung is studying the politics of air as an “infrastructure space” in Vietnam. This semester she began creating a field guide to air in Ho Chi Minh City, examining aerial habitats from the perspective (or altitudes) of motorbikes, trees, and high-rise buildings. The larger project will allow her to examine the material and immaterial dimensions of pollution in various manifestations, and to consider alternative sustainable futures.
Anthropology student Karin has focused her research on energy infrastructures. For our class, she’s created a booklet that introduces us to the entangled systems and technologies composing the “energyscape,” and she maps out these entanglements at various sites throughout Cuyahoga County, Ohio. Karin then looks forward to the smart grid, and how the design of its networks and nodes will impact its intelligibility to patrons.
Anthropology student Léa is studying refugee camps. Drawing on fieldwork, cartographic methods, and the painstaking cross-referencing of numerous datasets and satellite images and other digital resources, Léa has mapped 160 camps around the world. Through this process, she realized that many (temporary) inhabitants of these (similarly precarious) camps were leaving digital traces of their presence on Google Maps. So, Léa created an exhibition, “I Am Here,” that archives these “fleeting moments, suspended in time, forever.”
Responding to mobility restrictions imposed by Covid-19, anthropology student Lilah considered how land art – an art form traditionally defined by its situatedness and necessitating in situ, embodied experience – lends itself to translation in mediated and modified forms. Through a performance / installation project, she redesigned Walter de Maria’s Lightning Fields and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty for her apartment, and considered how this quarantine re-staging – as well as the works’ mediated presence online – structured her phenomenological experience.
Design and technology student Livia has been studying the mechanisms, aesthetics, epistemologies, and politics of machine vision. For our class, she created Coded Portraits, a “workshop framework for understanding and subverting the aesthetics and politics of automated recognition.” The website, which lays out the workshop protocol, outlines various logics of recognition and then, drawing on the work of various BIPOC and non-binary artists, encourages participants to “re-code” their own selfies and thereby build their own understanding of, and defenses against, machine vision and its oppressive (mis)applications.
Anthropology student Mariana is studying the militarization of law enforcement, and for our class she focused on how designed artifacts, equipment, architectures, and protocols, from M14 rifles to first-aid kits, can embody — and often enable — particular militaristic conventions, practices, and values. Drawing on speculative design, Mariana then looked forward to imagine how we might design a different politics of law enforcement; such reform, she proposes, involves redesigning police training and an entire network of support infrastructures.
Photography student Nicholas focused his work on past and present practices of ethnographic photography. He created a booklet that examines two historical case studies – Franz Boas and Beatrice Blackwood – and two contemporary indigenous practitioners, Rapheal Begay and Wendy Red Star, to examine the evolving agencies and contexts of ethnographic photography. Who’s entitled to take the photos, how do they conceive of the ontology of the photograph and the photographic subject, who gets to caption the image – and how do these historical photos “mean” differently when they’re returned to and reinterpreted by the indigenous subjects depicted in them?
Anthropology student Oscar has been studying communication infrastructures. For our class, he prototyped a podcast about mesh networks. This pilot episode includes interviews with several notable technologists, activists, and academics, who address the mechanics, affordances, limitations, and politics of decentralized networks, focusing especially on how these infrastructures are just as much social as they are technical – and how their design embodies a progressive (but precarious) network politics.
Creative Writing student Russell, a professional dancer, has been volunteering with organizations that foster collaborations with neurodiverse individuals. This semester he examined, through participant observation and interviews, how one “designs” a respectful, inclusive collaborative process that centers disability justice. Russell is currently developing a web platform to exhibit some of the work that has emerged from such collaborations, and to feature reflections from both neurodiverse and neurotypical collaborators about their creation processes, in the hope that such insights can foster more justice-oriented future endeavors. We hope to be able to share Russell’s work here at a later date.
Anthropology student Sofi has, like Karin and Oscar, been interested in infrastructure politics. This semester, she focused her work on the FGER federation of community radio stations in Guatemala, and for her final project, she produced a radio show about the Jun Na´Oj Indigenous Women’s Network, which is built on “autonomous” infrastructure and principles of gender equality, and which features not only women’s issues – including street harassment and equal rights activism – but also discussions of broader decolonial “cosmopolitics.” In interviews with Sofi, two broadcasters from the network explain how “Our words are important for us because they are our last weapons to express everything.”
Finally, Design & Technology student Zisiga focused on “invisible borders” – how both physical and virtual thresholds in one’s domestic space cultivate senses of security and vulnerability, or zones of privacy and publicity. Of course many of these domestic security apparatae rely on the kinds of machine vision that Livia examined. In a future phase of her work, Zisiga plans to examine how these borders are manifested in such automated recognition technologies in the public realm in African cities, and how they map onto physical space.