Design as multispecies encounter: on plant participation and agency in and through speculative design
thesisposted on 27.07.2020 by Gionata Gatto
In order to distinguish essays and pre-prints from academic theses, we have a separate category. These are often much longer text based documents than a paper.
Art and Design are increasingly used as practices to discuss the current ecological crisis and raise of the Anthropocene. If, on the one hand, this seeks to generate awareness about the political implications of this era, on the other, there is little research on more participatory design perspectives, not limited to human expertise alone but attentive to the role of other species in the production of design. This thesis explores how design can enable a participation of living plants as active agents in design processes and, in that, support occasions of encounter between people and flora.
By theoretically drawing from traditions of Participatory Speculative Design and Multispecies theory, this research considers a practice where a design installation became intertwined with plant research and a series of ethnographies focused on the theme of plant agency in contaminated landscapes. Throughout the research, the growing places of different hyperaccumulating plants are engaged as fundamental sites to learn about environmental contamination from and with those species. In the presented studies, plants are followed across multiple research sites and through the lenses of different actors: labs and scientists; territories and contaminants; exhibition venues and their different publics.
In showing the potential of design to reveal the social life of plants, this thesis also provides an understanding of how human and vegetable worlds are deeply intertwined and ‘made’ through the synergistic effort of multiple actants. The insights from practice, together with the theoretical framework that was employed across the research, led to discuss speculative and multispecies design as one way of encountering plant life in the lands of the Anthropocene. I argue that the mix of methods and tactics that emerge from the combination of the two approaches can led us to particular forms of engagement with more-than-human others, shifting the concept of environment beyond technocentric readings. Second, I contend that the post-human and multispecies turn in design should encourage situated modes of investigation that build on mixed research methods and heterogeneous expertise.
Ultimately, the contribution of this research is three folded. First, it deepens our understanding of other-than-human participation in and through design practice. Second, it extends multispecies studies into the field of speculative design. Last, it contributes to the debate around critical modes of thinking and designing in an age of environmental disruption.