Cathrine and Michiko: Plant Life (Project Process)
June 17th, 2010

Cate: My interest in participating in Interventions is two fold. As a social anthropologist, I have sought in my work to explore ways in which everyday expertise can be celebrated and also to find ways in which to explain why and how social science matters. Ethnography, my research method, is arguably a way of seeing and perceiving the world. It is a way of recalibrating one’s own perspective and orientating instead via the worldviews of the people that the ethnographer is working with. I am an ethnographer, a social anthropologist, and most recently I have been working with British gardeners.

Plot with flowers and vegetables growing

Gardening is not simply a neutral set of practices or a past-time – it is a set of practices and form of knowledge that is also embedded in highly significant social, cultural and historical parameters. Celebrating the supposedly mundane, such as gardening, for the rich cultural set of practices that it is is one way of bringing my two objectives of celebrating everyday expertise and finding ways to explain why social science matters together. Interventions struck me as a unique opportunity to collaborate with colleagues who are also interested in horizontal thinking, interested in shifting perspectives, and in engaging with other disciplinary traditions.

Initially, I wasn’t sure what to expect but I do remember wondering before I met her how Michiko and I would be able to talk about our interests across disciplinary divides – what would our shared language be? Would we find one? Michiko then sent me the link to her web portfolio and I was intrigued by how similar our interests were and also by how beautiful her design and art is.

Michiko Nitta:

I aspire to achieve beauty in my writing, but it felt much more tangible in her design work. When we had our first meeting, we spent an initial block of time walking and describing our respective research interests and research methodologies. I brought some examples of material culture from my gardening research (one, a beautiful gift that had been made for me; others were historical photos; and some of my writing) and we looked at some of Michiko’s portfolio of previous design work (especially her Extreme Green Guerrillas). This exchange of stories and sharing of artefacts really set fire to both our imaginations.

Some of the ‘material culture’ of Cate’s fieldwork

We then began brainstorming different possible design collaboration scenarios by trying to identify a shared problem that we wanted to address, and settled on troubling expert knowledge and on beginner gardeners. Getting to design ideas was easier than I had imagined because ultimately it wasn’t an object per se that Michiko wanted to build but rather a process of opening up opportunities to question and challenge that were more important.

Throughout, I have been astonished and delighted by how similar our perspectives and understandings are. We may work in different ways, but we are both deeply motivated by similar fascinations with the social and cultural worlds in which we live. One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed is how we organise our thoughts. I must write and take notes; Michiko needs to draw along with writing short words:

Michiko on left, Cate on right

More of Cate’s organising scribbles

Michiko: My initial purpose in joining Interventions was to widen my range of experience in my design portfolio. I also wanted to move away from mundane ways of working and normal methods in design by collaborating instead with social scientists. By doing so, I wanted to challenge myself to develop meaningful design outcomes, rather than just a visualisation of data.

During the first brainstorm session on the first day of our work together on Interventions, I was impressed that we both are interested in creating poetic stories to engage with the public, even though the method or outcome might be different. Every time we have met, I have been inspired and excited by Cate’s stories and thinking methods. This in turn has helped me come up with proposals for research design outcomes. I was also astonished with the emotional experience Cate goes though with participants as an anthropologist, and found out how “real” her research outcomes are. As a designer, this resonates very much with me because I believe that designers should be designing for real publics, not for some idealised (but perhaps non-existent) persona.

As an outcome, I originally wanted to design some sort of concrete object. However I realised that neither of us wanted to just produce something for the sake of it and end up with a shallow concept. Instead, we both seek to extend our collaboration relationship beyond Interventions. This made me think instead about how we could develop an exhibition piece which inspires the audience to join our project, rather than just produce something as a passive installation. Gradually, I started to feel more comfortable ending up with research design outcome rather than concrete design solution.

Browne, J. 1996 “Botany in the boudoir and garden: the Banksian context”. In: D. Miller and P. Reill (eds) Visions of empire: Voyages, botany and representations of nature. Cambridge: CUP.

We talked a lot during that first day about gardening in Britain: the social relationships expressed through gardening, the relationships gardeners have with plants that express more than a simple metaphorical connection between humans and non-humans, the ways in which plants are described and explained in everyday gardening practice, and the historical context of flower and vegetable gardening in Britain. This interconnectedness between human and non-human realms gave us a lot of food for thought…an example of this is the 18th century illustration (above) that Cate brought in to share.

In all the ferment of excitement over exchanging ideas about our research (and discovering all their points in common), we were also working during that first day to a strict time schedule. We needed by the end of the day to begin articulating concrete directions to our work together, and to present these to the rest of the group. One way of finding a shared language was to pull key themes out of our discussion and to map them. Some of the results of this are shown below in the figure with all the post-it notes…Working in this way (reviewing ideas by talking together whilst simultaneously drawing them down in icons and then sticking them to a larger sheet) was Michiko’s suggestion and forte, and not something Cate had done before (nor something she was sure she could do!). However, from Cate’s perspective, drawing rather than writing ended up being extremely liberating. It made a potentially difficult situation of figuring out what we were going to do much more enjoyable, and helped us both find a way to represent our delight at the great potential our collaboration promised. The project ideas were only just germinating at this point, and over the next few weeks we kept exchanging revised and polished versions of how to bring them to life, such as in the final image below.

Leave a Reply