comprehend all the things that are going on just in order to convert organic matter into dirt. Spending all this time looking into this complex system of connected parts, I started to look at other aspects of our work at SCLT as part of a larger, more complicated web of interconnected parts. In my experience at Southside Community Land Trust, I’ve come to see the importance of our interactions with all of the different people and organizations in the neighborhood. Teaching at Davey Lopes Recreation Complex and at the Center for Southeast Asians twice a weak provides regular contact with the families that use those spaces. We rely on that contact in order to understand what people’s needs and interests are with regards to the realm of growing food. We have also touched base with different organizations in the neighborhood such as Project Weber/RENEW to understand how to safely interact with vulnerable populations that surround our site at Somerset Hayward. It has become increasingly clear to me that in order to thrive we need to actively engage in the variety of organisms that exist in the neighborhood. Like the soil, we are in an ecosystem and there is no denying our inherent connection, whether large or small, to every aspect of the Southside.
I have spent the last few weeks preparing a design thinking workshop for my office (Mayor’s Center for City Services), Office of Innovation, Senior Services, and Healthy Communities Office. My goals are to a. learn how to facilitate a design thinking workshop b. begin to unpack my design process and explore how to share it with others c. wrap up my Maharam Fellowship with my colleagues finally explaining what I do and d. share design thinking with people who work in city hall to infiltrate municipal thinking with the people who execute it. No tall order!
It is reminiscent of another workshop I lead this year during Alternative Spring Break. I also proposed working with a government organization (National Park Service, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area) and had them agree to host a group of RISD students (all majors and years) for a 3-day workshop/volunteering opportunity. They presented us with a problem, and I spent the next few days leading my team through the design process to come up with a solution (here and here for spoilers). It’s so interesting to me that so many people see designing as this impenetrable action, versus the parts needed to analyze, synthesize, visualize and create that we are taught in traditional school.
After facilitating both of these experiences I have learned a ton about my own design process, but even more importantly I have learned about how the design process uncovers one’s values. At its core, working for the government, working in public service (service is a word I like to problematize but I’ll keep it for now) is about improving people’s lives, and in the least-cheesy way making the world better for people. Of course, over time this has mutated from many other types of societies and one should argue that currently big government is not doing this but at this level, in the place, people CARE. It was abundantly clear throughout the design process that the chief concern for everyone was if constituents of Providence would be better served.
There were no mentions of breakthrough ideas (which for the record I would normally go for) that would revolutionize everything, no extreme statements for the sake of statements. Just extremely careful considerations of doing the most good for the most people using the precious resources the city has.
It was so beautiful that each office truly acted as an advocate for the people they represent. The department head of Senior Services told her cohorts when anything proposed would be hard for seniors to navigate. The department head of Mayor’s Center for City Services was determined that city hall would become actually approachable and visitors would have access to the services they need in the way that they need it. Everyone was united in their vision for plain language to be used at every opportunity- breaking down the bureaucratic system one step at a time.
Good design is considered design, and that’s why we need more government workers and designers at the same table.
Recently, we’ve had the opportunity for all the youth staff to have a tour of the Amos House, an impressive social services agency just two blocks from our site. They provide everything from free dining services, clothes and hygienic products to job training and education. We were able to make the intellectual connection between our work urban farming and the existence of hunger in America as an aspect of the larger food system. The amos house provides over 500 meals per day using food they purchase wholesale as well as salvaged produce from super markets. The other important connection we’ve made with the organization is the ability to hire extra helping hands when needed for big jobs like planting, weed whacking or repurposing land. The Amos House is able to connect our organization with people who are ready and willing to do some hands on work.
Having mentioned the Museum in a Box in my last post, I thought I should start here by introducing a bit of background information.
The Museum in a Box is a concept generated in the hope of reaching audiences not often inclined towards visiting conventional museums. The first version was produced at RISD, with the intent of raising awareness and disseminating information about pangolins, an endangered mammalian species. Pangolins are fascinating, yet little known creatures. Here’s an image and a link to the Museum in a Box for Pangolins.
Museum in a Box is not a new concept, It has been used by traditional museums to engage with audiences and have a wider reach. In India, there are beautiful museums, but we don’t have as many as we could possibly need and the ones that exist are not visited or appreciated by audiences as much. As an Exhibition and Spatial Designer I wanted to contribute through the medium of a museum but had the urge to give it a shift from the traditional form. As many of my friends and colleagues work tirelessly to get more people interested in beautiful museums, I try to work towards taking museums (or their parts) to people. For essentially a museum is a learning experience of interactivity and immersion. Hence the need for museums to be put into boxes and shipped.
While the above Pangolin Box was hand made by me and only two pieces have been produced so far, for the current project I had to think differently. I needed to find a way to put information in a box, in an interesting way, yet a form which can be locally produced in multiples. As I conducted my research about the local Urban Biodiversity of Guwahati and started looking at the production possibilities in this city, (economically viable as well as good quality end products), a simple form emerged.
A magnetic box, which folds open, to reveal an accordion book which is about 360 cm long. The box will also contain a map of the city of Guwahati to identify the spots being discussed for viewing certain fauna. The text for the box is aimed at the locals, who are urged to walk around their city and discover some more about their co-inhabitants.
The book starts by cutting through the city in a rough cross section, and then takes people to two nearby wildlife sanctuaries (within two hours of driving distance) and finally to their own backyards, where often some species can be spotted and admired.
Here I share the beginning of the accordion.
Starting with the Gangetic River Dolphin and Golden Langur both of which are endangered species, the book takes its audience through the city and 12 amazing animals, urging them to walk around and spot each of these creatures. Scattered with some ‘did you know?’ questions and some action statements about small changes we can make to help these species, the book tries to increase the curiosity and sense of ownership among locals. I must admit, by no means can this be a comprehensive study of all the species in the region, but this is simply meant to raise awareness and curiosity. I look at my work as that of an intervenor who facilitates the increase of interest. With all information available online one can always find more if they know some basics.
Also to support the dissemination of these boxes, we plan to produce some t-shirts and posters, to share online and locally in the hope of increasing participation and interest.
The future plan primarily includes the sharing of the box with eco-clubs in local schools so that students can be involved in the process of identifying and admiring urban bio-diversity. Having had an initial conversation with the local District Commissioner and received primary interest, my supervisor feels that the project could have a long term impact. More updates coming soon on that front after the governmental pitch. We are busy producing prototypes of posters, t-shirts and the box- to bring along for the pitch.
Here’s a sample image, with an illustration of the Greater Adjutant Stock, approximately 2000 of which remain on the planet. These scavengers depend largely on organic waste for food, so by segregating waste in households and at collection sites, we can save many of these birds from choking hazards. Encroachment of habitat is a problem we cannot immediately solve, but waste segregation can definitely be taken care of, by us, now.
Similar to the one above there are others within the series of ‘I Care. Do You?’ visuals.
Moving ahead, I am working on simplifying the visuals to make them fit for silk screen printing on t-shirts. I am also working towards having a first finished prototype of the Museum in a Box by the next weekend. For the same I am trying to outsource the printing and box manufacturing, for through the prototype we would be able to gauge the quality and cost per piece. We aim to print at least a hundred of these to begin with.
In the meantime, I am informally learning a lot about frogs and am all set to start exploring the pygmy hog in another two weeks or so. My supervisor has been kind enough to offer to put me touch with a local breeding center and another one at the Manas National Park. The progress on this front depends on the successful and timely execution of the box. If not immediately I know it will happen when the time is right.
I might also mention that I am considering sticking around for some time longer even after my promised eight weeks of internship are done, as the organization has given me a window into affecting change, towards reviewing the human relationship with nature.
I sat in on a discussion fostered by O.N.E. Mile in collaboration with the Zimbabwe Cultural Center, who brought various fellows and the band Mokoomba (who were in town for Detroit’s Concert of Colors), as a part of facilitating a connection with Detroit and Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwe cultural center facilitates a residency in partnership with Njelele Art Station in Harare, Zimbabwe; where artists exchange between the respective geographies to execute projects on both sides of the ocean [http://zccd.org/residence/]. We discussed the parallel struggles we share in terms of corruption, class differences, and political suppression. We also discussed the uplift and power of our culture, and how cultural collaboration maintains solidarity and community building.
Entertainment activist, producer, and rapper BRYCE Detroit laid it down best, where he laid out the situation in Detroit at this nexus in time. “Gentrification is a narrative strategy that operates primarily, but is not limited to, the following principles:
1. Corruption is equated to emptiness; the vastness of vacancy is correlated to the race of political leaders. When our leaders are black, there is no hesitation to villainize their leadership. Looking at any post colonial history, we see that darker, and indigenous bodies are criminalized and evalued. A pandemic issue rooted in white colonialism that has evolved decade after decade, but never left.
2. Ruin porn; Detroit’s landscape of vacant buildings and structures had been the best international content for people to continue to appropriate from a city that has given so much to society as we know it. Detroit is not, will never, and has never been dead. Selective depictions of ‘ruins’ in Detroit is a way to signal a final frontier, hence the rapid land grab that is well underway. Contrary to popular media, Detroit has always had people who cared, who fixed, who survived here. Its been 50 years since conspiracy to destroy Black enclaves in the city backfired on whites who have since vacated the municipality. This strategic propaganda leaves out the hundreds of thousands Black folks who have and continue to live here. Who laid the foundation and fixed what no one else wanted to.
3. Savior complex: an invitation has been extended to white folks to reinhabit Detroit, the beginning of a new chapter. We see this in Downtown where the majority of parcels are owned by a single entity. We see this in “Midtown” originally Cass Corridor, where new stadium is being constructed with taxpayer money, while our schools are in a unacceptable state. It goes without explanation when our Mayor touts this city as being “for everyone” but the money trail says otherwise. The city does not need saving, there is plenty of work to be done, but it is an issue of equality not “capability.” It always has been.
So how do we stop *gentrification,* quite a trendy word of the past decade. Well, gentrification is always an issue of a community of peoples laying the foundations for the success and life of their culture, and kinfolk. That community then becomes
. ~ * poppin * ~ .
and outsiders begin to look in. Eventually the creators of the space are pushed out, who bring their culture with them, and what once was becomes diluted or erased . Soon they realize what the came for is no longer, and the cycle continues to the next neighborhood. This narrative is most often disseminated via the internet, or television. What’s necessary is a reclamation of the narrative, and building the stories of those that have not been told. O.N.E. Mile has been building the story of the North End and the residents of the community.
None of this information is groundbreaking or revolutionary, this is basic American history. In every city, in every state, this cycle is happening, its how we break the cycle while upholding values of diversity and cultural exchange.
Alot more to come soon!
Since our last post, we’ve settled into Barcelona, where we’ll be working for the remainder of the internship. We’ve reached a point where, save a few outstanding design decisions, we’re ready to execute the website and publication. In the past week, we’ve finalized the logo and new content organization system, and began building the structure of the website.
Recognizing the increasing difficulties of succeeding in the magazine realm, Low-Tech Magazine’s founder has decided to publish a book instead of an on-going, design-intensive publication. This decision opens up the possibility for us to go deep into certain design decisions that would be more labor-intensive and/or too difficult to sustain for a periodical. For example, we’ve been exploring setting some of the book’s text with a typewriter or printing it with a dot-matrix printer. The typewriter would require more labor on our part as it is much faster to set text in InDesign, but it would allow us to use a forgotten low-tech machine that would minimize the use of our energy-intensive computers and free us from being tethered to walls through a charger. The dot-matrix printer prints with small dots instead of full swaths of ink, ultimately saving ink by leaving small gaps that today’s laser and inkjet printers fill in. We’ll be testing out these low-tech alternatives as well as a few others in the coming days to see if and how they can be integrated into the book design.
We have a number of time-intensive tasks ahead of us (migrating over 100 articles, color-treating hundreds of photos, etc.), but we’re really exciting to have arrived at this state of execution. At every stage, we’ve been able to further our research into low-tech printing and web design, and we’re looking forward to consolidating these findings (some of which we’ve detailed in previous posts) once we get back to the US.
I came to Washington, DC with the overarching goal of merging my interests in industrial design, urban studies and public policy. Now, one month into my time here, the most central realization I have is just how desperately these disciplines need each other and how resistant people can be to interdisciplinary approaches.
My first weeks were filled with tabling events at the Senior Symposium, University of DC Institute on Gerontology Health and Wellness Informational Fair and the Housing Expo, while struggling to gain a sense of direction. During these weeks I worked alongside Age-Friendly DC’s three interns to compile Washington DC’s first report for the World Health Organization (WHO). The report serves to maintain the District’s status, earned in 2012, as an Age-Friendly city.
Each week has a different focus related to a domain used in the report to the WHO. The focus during my first week here was on Communication & Information and the second week’s focus was on Civic Participation & Employment.
In Leah Erica Chung’s talk, Why Designers Need to Run for Congress, at Better World by Design 2016, she spoke of her experiences as a designer working in government—a path she started down through a Maharam Fellowship. During her talk, Chung mentioned that when you are a designer working in government, you should never introduce yourself as a designer. Why? Because people will ask you to take their work and make it look pretty. Nine months after hearing Leah Chung’s advice, I forgot it and made this very mistake. I was consequently asked to make a 4’ x 8’ poster for Age-Friendly DC and the WHO’s presentation at the International Gerontology Conference in San Francisco. The content was better suited for a book than a poster.
In addition to working on the poster, I also used the third week as a chance to take a step back and recognize that my assignments did not complement my Maharam goal. The point of this fellowship is to relate my discipline to a non-design field—this mission could not be accomplished with the original tasks I was assigned. However, my experience with the poster did familiarize me with the preconceived notions people have about designers that cause their involvement in government to be the limited and often purely aesthetic. Now that I am more aware of where familiarity with designers’ skills is lacking, I feel better prepared to propose more solutions for this knowledge gap. Going forward with my time here, I decided to diverge from the collection of information to be used in the WHO report and proposed several projects that would better combine my industrial design background with urban studies and public policy. These projects include a press kit, event kit, redesigned logo, alternate engagement materials and a branded template for the WHO report.
Each week one of the interns is selected as the “team lead,” tasked with the job of being the main point of contact between the Age-Friendly DC supervisor and all other interns. I will be the team lead for the weeks and domains of Outdoor Spaces and Buildings and Housing, in addition to working on my proposed projects.
I’m finally getting adjusted enough here to blog about it! Hello, all! For July and August I’m excited to be out in Arizona, working at Biosphere 2. B2 was built in the 1980s to test the possibility of using large enclosed environments to propel people further into space, using the natural world as a life boat. For 2 years, from 1991-1993, 8 scientists lived inside the totally closed system, growing their own food, making sure the world ran right, and becoming national media sensations. After that experiment, and an additional one, the facility actually fell into disrepair for a number of years. For the past decade, the University of Arizona has been running it, not as a closed system anymore but as an active research facility for Earth Science and education. The whole thing feels similar to a trip to a botanical garden, with an extra layer of utopian dreams and Buckminster Fuller designs.
Some immediate highlights include discovering the old Bat Cave, where 5 bats were supposed to live in the Desert Biome, helping 6th Grader’s catch plankton from the Ocean Biome in boats, and encountering my first rattlesnake last Thursday! I didn’t get bit, and apparently, the larger ones can’t kill you as easily anyway so I had nothing to worry about!
I essentially have three jobs here, and I’ve been referring to myself as the Guinea-Pig-Artist-In-Residence.
The first is exactly that, to do as an artist does in a new space, take in the sights, reflect on it all, produce some work, and show it off. That’s been an interesting endeavor so far as I’m without any usual facilities for doing that. I found a rusty hammer in the Rainforest Biome the other day and it has become a good friend for building sculptures! I’ve been doing a lot with my hands, making some smaller works from beeswax and thorns. I also signed up for a membership at a local ceramics co-op studio in Tucson, where I’m learning some intro things and finding time to produce some more refined pieces! Everything is moving so quickly that I’m feeling like the work I make is going to be a collection of sketches and exercises, and it’s a refreshing way to work through ideas.
My second job is to interact with all of the other people around Biosphere. These groups are essentially the daily visitors, misc visiting groups, middle and high school programs (each a week long), and the researchers here for the summer. My interactions so far have included shadowing a group of 6th graders that were visiting from the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, as they took soil and water samples around the facility, screening a video work to a different group of students that were here for a weeklong summer program, and leading a workshop on Cyanotypes to a group from the Phoenix Zoo.
My Final task is to record all of this and find a way to make it more regular at B2. The funding for an annual residency just isn’t here yet, and my experience would not be possible without the Maharam. But my coworkers at Biosphere and I agree that B2 needs a regular, annual artist-engagement initiative, and that has become the biggest challenge so far. Taking a small amount of money, and finding a way to bring in fantastic artists every year that will grow from the experience, and engage with B2’s visitors in new, exciting ways.
Today was definetly a successful one though. A group of Masters Students I just mentioned was visiting from the Phoenix Zoo and today I talked with them about how Art can be used as a powerful tool in Conservation Ecology. This started with a demo on how to make Cyanotypes in the style of Anna Atkins, a British botanist who became the first female photographer. Atkins is incredible because she was producing some of the first cyanotypes ever, and they still are the best. We all had a hard time improving on what she did 150+ years ago. The workshop I gave revolved around pollinators and how they navigate using UV light. We made Cyanotypes because the process is dependent on UV light activating a chemical reaction that turns the material blue. I also showed some of the work I’m doing now with photochromic beeswax, which I’m engineering here in my little makeshift office-lab-studio. (They actually gave me an office here, and one closer to my house at UofA. TWO OFFICES! I feel like an executive.)
The workshop was exciting and the conversation we had around conservation was one I don’t get to find at RISD easily. I brought up some artists I’m looking at for leading successful projects, including John Gerrard, Agnes Denes, Coral Morphologic, and Mel Chin, and showed my previous work as well.
For the next week or two I’m focusing more on the body of work I’m producing because ideally, I have it installed for a show here ASAP, and can talk about it while I’m here, and take it down and home with me when I leave. Then later in August I’ll finish putting together plans for the future of artist-engagement here at Biosphere 2. It’s a lot more work than I expected but I couldn’t imagine being happier doing anything else!
Not so long ago, my grandparents house had a fully functioning vegetable and fruit garden in the middle of a city. My parents home, even now shares a boundary wall with the State Zoo (it has a larger breeding space inaccessible to visitors)- which means spotting elephant, deer, monkeys and birds from their home windows. When I moved from there, I went to a design school built in the heart of yet another bustling city, which was a pit stop for migratory birds, had its own resident dogs, monkeys, snakes, peacocks and a turtle which would slowly make its journey from one end of the campus to another.
I take the time to write all this because it illustrates a permeable relationship between developed settlements and their natural surroundings. To me, there seemed to never be a need for a boundary. But now that I look objectively, the idea of demarcating human territory has been growing all around me. To further understand and explore these ways of co-existence, after all these years, I moved back to Guwahati. Now that I am settled here, let me take you through a bit of my research so far.
To make one slightly familiar with the structure of the city, here’s a map of Guwahati, with the varying population density, it’s mighty river, islands and other green patches.
I am two and half weeks into the fellowship and under my supervisor’s guidance I have been moving around the city, documenting locations where certain fauna can be spotted. I was super excited to do this, as inspite of having lived in the city, I did not know about most of these animals and birds living in the same space as me.
Here’s another map to help put this in context. Most green patches here are hills, which have preserved much of the habitat for the proliferation of urban fauna.
But this proliferation is not without it’s difficulties. In the past two weeks I have learned to look up at trees and spot nesting birds, to critically look at temple ponds which lack enough land surface for turtles to lay eggs, or even surprisingly come across the Greater Adjutant Stock, the most endangered species of its kind (only 1200 grown individuals are estimated to exist worldwide, 800 of which are said to exist in Assam).
As I saw one fly across the sky, two of them were perched on a rooftop near a small dump-site (in the current rainy season, resembling a swamp); because large trees nears any swamp like bodies (providing food for these scavengers) have all been felled. As I gazed at them, someone standing next to me softly said, “this is patience towards us.”
On a more positive note below is an image of a temple pond being altered through the efforts of the organization I am working with, Help Earth, to create some accessible soft ground for turtles to lay their eggs (this is marked as the turtle pond in the map above).
After extensive surveys, local experts suggest that this pond houses 10 species of turtles, including the Assam Roofted Turtle and the Black Soft-shell Turtle (which has until recently been considered extinct in the wild). This effort does not suggest any hindrance to spatial development, but simply a request to include nature as a part of the built human environment; not as an afterthought but woven within the very fabric of it.
While the above is a parallel project I am getting to learn from as my supervisor works on it, I have been myself working on a taxonomy book on Amphibians of Guwahati and getting my head cracking on ways to entice the local government into starting a campaign revolving around the conservation of local urban biodiversity. Between designing t-shirts and posters, my supervisor has also given me the freedom of working on an educational project of my own choice and design.
For the initial week, he imagined me working on an activity book for school students to increase awareness and conversation. But eventually when he saw some of the work that I have done so far, he was intrigued by my idea of a Museum in a Box. I offered to create a Museum of Local Urban Biodiversity which pops out of a small box. Having played with this concept earlier at RISD, I am super excited to take this idea forward.
The idea has been brewing for sometime, I have been creating prototypes and content simultaneously and look forward to sharing it here in the coming weeks. More visual content with some urban fauna of Assam coming in next time as well. Until then, let us all learn to look up once in a while to spot these creatures who share our cities with us.