[Image: Pattern from page 168 of “The grammar of ornament” (1868), via the Internet Archive on Flickr, public domain]
Yet another year of pandemic teaching and learning! The first two weeks of the semester made clear that our own pedagogical project was itself a prime candidate for anthropological and designerly analysis and intervention. We originally found ourselves assigned to a cavernous room with a roaring HVAC system, which made it impossible for us to communicate with one another through our masks. We soon found a new, more hospitable home – yet we continued to reckon with the persistent weirdness of our situation: our inability to clearly see and hear one another, our attempts to accommodate hybrid learning with insufficient equipment and bad acoustics, the fact that we were pressing on as if everything were back to normal… when it clearly wasn’t. Our own anomalous classroom experience thus became a site of auto-ethnographic inquiry over the course of the semester.
Our group of 25, representing five different programs, explored anthropology and design in various “prepositional” relationships: anthropology of design, ethnography for design, design in ethnography, and so forth. 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 anthropologist Andrea Ballestero, designer Rosten Woo, community engagement specialist Dhara Shah, artist Suzanne Kite, artist-designer Olelekan Jeyifous, and geographer-ethnographer Brandi Summers.
We took inspiration from these fabulous external guests, from each other, and from a world that was tentatively, cautiously opening back up despite the persistent pandemic. And amidst all the tenacious turmoil surrounding us, we created poignant, playful, poetic, meaningful, insightful, and generative work. Here’s what we made:
Akshaya examined various species of public seating – how we occupy and activate the chairs and benches and fences, and even conveniently placed rocks, that populate the city – and she created gorgeous artist’s book to share her ethnographic fieldnotes.
Anne conducted (auto-)ethnographic research on the New Historia Project’s creation of a phantasmagoria installation that seeks to bring “ghosted” women’s histories into the contemporary city.
Bria studied how LinkNYC kiosks are used in different neighborhoods around the city; she ultimately found that, while various situational and temporal factors inform how – and if – people engage with the kiosks, these apparatae are rarely used for the intended telecommunications or wayfinding purposes, and instead function much like street furniture: as backdrops for street vendors or supports for overflow trash.
In “The Iron Fence of Urban Modernity,” Clemente documented the various kinds of formal and informal fences – physical, virtual, and psychological – we find in our urban environments, and examined how they often function to reinforce our tendencies to divide and stereotype. He ultimately asks: “How could we create fences that allow more than a dual, often reductive separation? How can we design urban settings that foster social fluidity while remaining safe?”
Cori created an intriguing syllabus for a hypothetical course about humans’ relationships to outer space; the class would explore everything from planetariums, space law, and asteroid mining to UFOs, extraterrestrial intelligence, and indigenous stellar interactions.
Cris sought to understand the increasing politicization of public schools through debates over equity and justice in her own town of Montclair, NJ. Through (digital) ethnographic research and interviews with local school advocates and activists, Cris was able to identify a number of critical areas of tension, then prototyped a design deck to facilitate conversations about these fraught topics – and to help stakeholders translate understanding into action.
Gabby, a fashion designer and anthropologist and pageant participant, studied Puerto Rican identity within the U.S. pageant system and designed pageant garments that seek to confront PR’s colonial legacies and the erasure of its Indigenous Taíno people. She asks: “how can Puerto Rican queens adopt decolonial perspectives while working within nationwide pageant organizations to subvert these platforms, [transforming them] into spaces of cultural and political agency?”
Gabriela sought to understand how time is materialized through the design of time-keeping devices and the capitalist regime of “universal time.” She then invited contributors to imagine how time is understood or experienced by various non-human beings, and to sketch their methods or tools for keeping time.
Henry studied the backpack. Drawing inspiration from Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” he documented and analyzed the utilitarian and symbolic functions of these ubiquitous vessels. He finds that the “backpack is not only a tool, or a fashion choice, but an extension of our innate needs, our choices, our livelihood, and much more.”
Isabel, who had begun preliminary fieldwork for her dissertation, sought to explore how she might design various methods to analyze her fieldnotes. What she ultimately realized is that she needed to better understand the affective dimensions of her own thought processes. En progreso, Isabel explains, “is a short film that dwells in the most intimate space of a thinker, offering light for those who are also wondering (and wandering?) in the process of making knowledge.”
Jack, an architect and anthropologist, studied how the material properties of the built world, and the way we organize that world through zoning, orchestrates our soundscape. He created a repository of field recordings from various neighborhoods around the city and identified the various material and formal qualities that make them sound the way they do.
Jason created a virtual photographic exhibition documenting ATM machines around the city: their personalization, their quotidian geographies, their totemic nature, their role in marginal economies, the contradictory roles they play as sites of shelter and exclusion, and even their mechanisms of operation.
Jules and Lesley’s Recipe examined how a recipe functions as a form of knowledge transfer, and what forms a recipe can take. In observing and interviewing several chefs, they came to appreciate the central role that sensory, embodied experience plays in transferring culinary knowledge, so, for our class, they coded and shared a portion of their fieldnotes as an exhibition of the elemental, sensory building blocks of cooking.
Lucas has been engaged in a years’-long study of the material culture of bureaucracy, and, with his research partner, has conducted extensive fieldwork in state offices in Brazil. His Cabinet of Bureaucratic Wonders documents how 14 artifacts – from notebooks and ID badges to protocol forms and coffee carafes – “create, transform, distort, and fabulate bureaucracy and the state apparatus.”
Manú wanted to understand the experience of people with less-visible disabilities as they attempt to navigate the NYC subway system. She conducted ride-alongs and interviews, and ultimately produced a video and, drawing inspiration from the city’s iconic subway mosaics, created her own mosaic that sought to represent disability in a subterranean realm that is so often inhospitable and unaccommodating.
Natalie, an anthropologist and photographer, wanted to understand the phenomenon of shoe-tossing, or the practice of suspending shoes from utility wires – so she documented and mapped dozens of tossed shoes across several Brooklyn neighborhoods, spoke with people knowledgeable about the practice, and addressed the various cultural and urban dynamics of tossed shoes.
Sophie studied how teens and twenty-somethings use the fashion resale app Depop – particularly how they deploy various narrative strategies and evoke memories to enhance the perceived value of the garments they’re selling. Her repository, “Depop Ethnography,” documents how re-sellers invoke fashion history, relay the biographies of their objects, offer styling advice, and document how particular flaws impart character.
Drawing inspiration from Rosten Woo’s Takachizu project, William sought to give the residents of Haywood County, NC – a part of the world to which William has deep connections, and one that’s undergoing rapid transformations – a means of documenting those present changes and taking stock of their values. So, he consulted with local archivists and created the Haywood Wishbook, where local residents can take stock of what matters to them.
Finally, Zoe created a zine that examines the history and culture of queer zines. “For the queer community,” she writes, “zines have been a way we can write ourselves into a historical record and make ourselves ‘legible'” – either to “traditional institutions of knowledge” or, just as importantly, to one another. Zoe then reviewed a sample of queer zines, and she plans to follow up this issue with several more thematic revues.