We recently caught up with Amy for a more in depth conversation on her work, her thoughts and projects to come. The following discussion took place largely via a shared google doc on 9/18/20.
Ned: Good morning Amy, or I guess I should be saying good afternoon. How are you?
Amy: Good morning Ned! I’m well thank you. How are you?
Ned: I’m doing quite well – all things considered. Strange times… no? I want to thank you for your time to discuss your work. I find it fascinating and at the edge of so many relevant trends and thoughts related to ecology, humanism and equity. How did you get into this space? What was the impetus behind your work. What brought you here? How do you find yourself doing ecological art?
Amy: I’m glad you’re well. It’s definitely a difficult time. Thank you for chatting with me.
My journey to this space was a bit messy. It involved studying Art & Design at foundation level, then BA Graphic Design – my professional career started in the videogame industry at PlayStation London Studio, then moved into the museum sector for institutions like the V&A, with some time in post-production as a Photographic Retoucher. I recently went back to uni for a third time to study MA Information Experience Design at the Royal College of Art. I used that course to start making 3D work and generally to play around with unfamiliar technologies.
In terms of ecology––that interest has been with me since I can remember. The ways in which people live amongst nonhuman animals, how we co-exist and interact… I think animals allow us to imagine new worlds, or different ways of seeing things. There’s something so frustrating and compelling in the fact that all species share the same physical space, and yet the void in communication between us is so infinite. That leaves so much room for imagination. I see what I’ve been doing as a type of ecological storytelling based on my collaborations with other people and with nonhuman beings. Ultimately, the work attempts to facilitate the creation of new narratives involving human––animal interaction.
Ned: Fascinating! Having had somewhat of a wandering path myself I can appreciate the patience and exploration that is involved in working with animals. And if it’s one thing that I think is universal about any work within the sphere of animal studies is that it’s so relatable. Everyone has a story of an animal companion or a “wild” encounter. It’s an immediately relatable field. But, moving on… One thing that has immediately struck me about your work is the language you use to describe it. “Intermediate objects”… “compromised”… Can you expound a bit more on the words you have chosen to describe your work? What media are the objects in between? What do you mean by a “Compromise object”?
Amy: ‘Artefact’ (over ‘object’), for me, word references the fact that the object was designed/created intentionally. It suggests the idea of it existing as a cultural/historical item, or a specimen/tool.
‘Intermediate’ as in, an in-between, between two (or more) worlds, or to mediate between worlds. As a noun it talks about being at a middle level of knowledge/skill, this is not the primary meaning in my context but still is useful for me as it talks in the same vein as ‘compromised’ (explained below).
‘Compromised’ – I know this has negative connotations, but I somehow hope to challenge those. The idea of the artefact being ‘compromised’ suggests that it is not fully/’correctly’ formed. It references the idea that the object came from one place/form—e.g. a spoon came from human culture initially—and then was (de)formed into a compromised place (e.g. the twisted spoon. This reminds me of your writing on ‘monsters’ in some way). It becomes something that doesn’t fully function for either species (but tries to) and therefore is a physical manifestation/celebration of similarities and differences in species’ umwelten.
Ned: Well, connotations aside, I think both “intermediate” and “compromised” are quite useful concepts when speaking of interworlding or bridging between animal worlds. Do you think that perhaps, all objects may be “intermediate” or “compromised” in a sense?
Amy: I think a product designer generally attempts to create uncompromised objects. Objects that function correctly for a chosen audience. (I’m referring to design intentions rather than the reality of the object’s ‘usefulness’ once created. The Intermediate Artefacts are compromised by design, because the chosen audiences are so far from each other in every sense).
Ned: Hmm… but if the use of the object is somewhat relational or relative… like the chess piece could be used by a human or a bower bird, isn’t that somewhat outside of the designer’s hands? And I really like this other reading of compromised that isn’t faulty but is shared. As in “we make a compromise”. No?
Amy: I would say that all objects are always somewhat incidentally intermediate, yes. Because they are part of the physical world that we all inhabit. However, the metaphysical ‘meaning’ behind the chess piece (to use this example) doesn’t translate at all across species, the concept of ‘chess’ is meaningless to a bowerbird, and the chess piece isn’t compromised by design because it works (in theory) for a human hand and eye. With my compromised artefacts, the metaphysical meaning is the same for both species, and in order to achieve this, we must accept a level of sacrifice in regard to its practicality. The form of the object is compromised, so it is less ‘useful’ for both species, yet it speaks the same metaphysical language. (Again, I’m referring to design intentions only).
Ned: Yes. Totally. For sure the “meaning” of the objects will be almost entirely subjective. From you to me, and from us to the Bower Bird. But that the objects have meaning at all is I think what we’re getting at. That objects have this interesting meaninglessness in a way that allows them to be accessible and “useful” to others. Do you recall Uexkull’s description of the spider web? How it’s this kind of perfect bridge between fly space and spider space? On the one hand it’s a structure to spider, and on the other its a perfectly invisible snare to the fly. Of course the strands are physically the same. But, more on meaning… you’ve spent considerable time researching the shape and colors of the artefacts that you design. Can you talk more about your process?
Amy: Yes, for sure.
When designing objects for animals (in my experience) there’s a balance to be found between traditional ethological research and art-or-design-based research methods. So part of the work is designing the research methods to collect useful data. And of course, everything needs to be done ethically.
For example, for Artefact_02, I read a lot of books and papers on the Parus major (Great tit), researched the species’ average body measurements, behaviours, etc. But I also used my camera to film them in slow motion, recorded my own audio of their calls, I attached rulers to trees to understand their bodies in motion, and collected their footprints using clay on tree branches. Later in the process, I conducted research into their colour preferences––there’s not much research done in this area for this species––but I needed to understand how the colour of the artefact was going to effect the birds’ use of it. All of this research was unforced and took place in the birds’ natural habitat with food as an incentive.
I think it’s also important to note that I was researching with a very specific group of individuals––both human and animal. With the Great tits, it was with a family of birds living in an area of Hampstead Heath (in London). From the human side, I used myself and some colleagues. Of course, every individual uses a spoon differently.
For Artefact_01, I worked with the public in central London (Trafalgar Square). The public didn’t want to touch the artefacts until I added a sign inviting them to, after the sign was in place they started playing with them, stacking them and taking photos of them. I was so excited watching that! Most people used them in ways I didn’t consider.
I don’t know if it’s useful to explain in more detail on the research I did into aesthetic preferences in human culture—
Ned: Yes, please go in to the Human-centric research.
—for example understanding the human history of the blue pigment Errol the Bowerbird is attracted to. This involved researching the associations of the pigment throughout time and place. I took a small sample of Errol’s existing object collection to various museums and tried to physically compare their properties to museum collections (in person and online). This process helped me to understand how I could begin to create an object that held aesthetic value for a specific human audience as it did for Errol.
Ned: And I love that you landed on that deep color blue… which, yeah, maybe not surprisingly is a very resonant hue throughout human culture – one of the reason that St. Mary is often shown with a blue dress/robe…
Ultramarine was the finest and most expensive blue used by Renaissance painters. It was often used for the robes of the Virgin Mary, and symbolized holiness and humility. It remained an extremely expensive pigment until a synthetic ultramarine was invented in 1826.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultramarine)
An amazing insight that other animals find resonance in this hue as well!
Amy: Yes! Throughout human history (in many cultures) similar pigments have been associated with beauty and value. However, today, arguably, the general (human) association (at least in this time and place) is with a lack of cultural and financial significance––small blue plastic objects can be seen discarded throughout London streets. Again, I wanted to ensure these artefacts were seen as valuable.
Through my research, I eventually came to the idea of enhancing the aesthetic value of the small blue object to the public through the concept of a ‘souvenir’. I used London street furniture from around the site (Trafalgar square, where the artefacts would be presented to the public) to inspire the artefacts’ forms. These pieces of street furniture were also chosen for their physical shape, so Errol would be able to pick them up and carry them.
Ned: There may be more here to discuss about the universality of Ultramarine but I can’t think of it specifically now…. Do you mind if we jump to the next one?
Ned: The spoon, Artefact_02 is my personal favorite. It combines many fun and rewarding aspects of cross-species interactions. Not only is the utensil shared by two species but it’s shared in an act of eating. I mean, in a way the humans and Great Tit’s are literally communing together. Can you speak a bit more about your use of Artefact_02 to specifically bring two species to the same table – so to speak?
Amy: The artefact is designed for the bird to be used in the same way a person would, and therefore understood (metaphysically) in the same way. I always over-make that point as the months of research was done in order to ensure that the bird ‘held’ the spoon by the handle and ate from the spoon’s bowl, in the same way as it is designed to be used by people. This is one of the key places that Affordance Theory comes in as it suggests that the handle ‘affords’ holding and the bowl ‘affords’ eating, for both species. This also meant ensuring that the spoon remained recognisable to people as a ’spoon’, that the familiar shape wasn’t pushed too far, and that it still functioned for an individual person’s hand (mine in this case).
An example of the types of places this took me, and to talk again about the unexpected element of working with others: I didn’t expect that the birds would try to bypass the handle of the spoon at all costs, so they didn’t have to land on it. Instead, they tried to take the food from the bowl whilst holding the tree, they’d do all kinds of acrobatics in order to pull this off. This was (perhaps) because they didn’t trust the spoon handle, so that became a huge load of work; making sure it looked and felt right for the bird to land on. There was also an element of learning and watching in the family here––one bird would copy another once they’d found a more efficient way of using the spoon—this became a whole new dimension of the work—learnt interactions with human-made designs. But I didn’t really go into that much, it’s a whole new topic.
Ned: Fascinating, yes I can see there would be much more to observe as the birds “learned” to use the spoon artefact. Stories of animal adaptation to human environments are through-out the work on the Expanded Environment, Sarah Gunawan’s work really works within this space, but generally any synanthropic species embodies this kind of co-habitative spirit…
Amy: Yes! Sarah Gunawan’s work is so interesting.
Ned: I’m curious if you have other projects in mind or see other applications to your work? Are there other areas that you would like to explore?
Amy: There are a few projects and experiments on my mind at the moment, ranging from the more tangible to the completely speculative.
On the more practical side, I’m currently prototyping a birdhouse design we’re calling the Two-Part Home, alongside Alex Cashmore (an industrial designer from Australia). We’re creating something that’s easy for a person to assemble and comfortable for a bird to use, whilst also being cheap and environmentally-friendly. We want to use this for an open-source/citizen science project; share it with local communities and ask for feedback on their experience with the birds. Like I mentioned before, using design to facilitate the connection between human and animal lives, especially in cities, where wildlife is not always accessible.
A more speculative project I’m thinking about at the moment centers around the digitisation of ecosystems. I’ve started by looking at trees, using photogrammetry to create a digital arboretum. This is at the very beginning phases currently. I’m often interested in applying or morphing new technologies for use in areas of ecology, to see if anything interesting appears. There are so many things I’d like to explore. I’m also looking for collaborators from different disciplines and backgrounds to work on these types of projects with me.
Ned: Amy, this is all great work. Will you commit to sharing again with us when you’ve completed your other endeavors? 🙂
Amy: Of course! I’d be happy to.
Ned: Excellent. Thanks for your time and thank you for sharing with us.
Amy: Thank you so much! 🙂