Flowing with …

, , , , , , , January 12th, 2017

In collaboration with Rocio von Jungenfeld I’m conducting an experimental workshop series that explores how century old low-tech techniques can be adapted to gain deeper understanding of the complex environments today’s design problems are embedded in.

For our first workshops we have chosen stick chart maps that have been used for millennia by the Polynesian seafarer as one of the guiding tools to cross the vast emptiness between the Micronesian Islands. We will take this simple, albeit over time refined, tool as starting point for an exploration into another sea. The one of flows, relationships, and resonances that constitute our multi-layered techno-natural-cultural environment.

Large Stick Cart (which was not taken to sea)

With the stick charts – a mapping technique that uses simple materials such as sticks, threads, and shells – the Polynesians did not necessarily represent the geospatial surrounding but the phenomena which can only be perceived by the trained eye: the complex interactions of wind, waves, and islands. Each map was unique, representing the personal perceptions of the maker, the frictions between materials and what was to be represented, and was often closely guarded by the owner to protect the knowledge.

The stick charts are representing various phenomena that can be observed in the Micronesian Pacific

  • Predominant and very regular swells. Over the large open sea the wind’s force creates clearly distinguishable swells that flow in regular intervals from the same direction.
  • Diffraction patterns. Land mass diffracts these swells to create a rhomboid pattern, which after some training can help to even see an island behind the horizon.
  • Currents below the surface, which can be detected via deflections of the steering oar

Formation of diffraction patterns

Satellite image of diffraction patterns around islands

Our workshop will explore this low-tech mapping techniques can reveal the complexity of flows that constitute our environment and make these flows accessible to interested parties. In this context, we do not aim to focus on the (visual) representation of quantifiable data (e.g. traffic, rain, geo-location) but on the often invisible and highly subjective representation of existing flows, relationships, or processes that constitute the environment.

Based on exemplary techniques, we will discuss and test how simple technologies can be used in the pre-design phase to gain tacit knowledge of the flows in the environment. It is our assumption that once brought to the surface, by means of our workshop methodology, the knowledge about the flows of humans, objects/matter, energy, or information will enable participants to make informed decisions about how these flows are used and how they can be re-channelled, altered or reinforced to design flows in a way in which they, the involved, want them to flow.

During the workshops we aim not only to teach a mapping technology but also to discuss underlying motivations, such as that in an increasingly complex world of design and designers we might need novel approaches to gain, not only quantitative but also qualitative understandings of the environments we inhabit. Furthermore, we examine aspects of making physical objects, its advantages and disadvantages, and how the manipulation of matter (the building materials of the stick charts), with its physical properties and constraints, can actually aid the process of learning about an environment. Here, we especially do consider the necessity and advantages of gaining a visceral non-lingual/symbolic understanding of the interrelations constituting the context in which design processes take place. Lastly, we investigate, the co-creation and presentation of such physical maps aid the development of mutual understanding and the connections between a group and its participants.

As artists and designers we feel that our environment as a whole is more than quantifiable data, it is a techno-natural-cultural entanglement in constant flux, a sea of flows and interrelations, navigated by its inhabitants and based on decisions coming from subjective experiences. One of the prerequisites of being able to design for the future is to be able to understand this environment in its complexity, and this might mean simplifying by abstraction in order to unpack the different levels of complexity.


20.08.17: 1 day workshop as part of the Balance-Unbalance 2017 conference in Plymouth, UK
We’re very pleased that we are invited to explore making/mapping/knowledge/understanding in the beauty of Devon’s country side. Join us to explore the conferences notion of Sense of Place.
More infos:

21.03.17: 1 day workshop as part of the Research through Design (RDT2017) conference in Edinburgh

25.6.16 – 26.6.16: 2 day research workshop, with M.A. students, at the University of Edinburgh, School of Design.

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