Collaborators: Elena Habre, Corey Chao
—Forming a Practice
MiddleTable is a team of transdisciplinary designers using tactical Media, critical frameworks, and collaborative workshops to challenge the human-nature dichotomy toward an ecocentric future. We aim to articulate ways designers might intervene to rethink our relationship with nonhumans. In series of co-speculation sessions, we challenged our audience to envision de-centering of the human and a deeper consideration for the nonhuman in different contexts using speculative design.
Sometimes our organization is confrontational, imposing new languages, other times it is performative, finding new empathy—but we have found, packaged as an institution, our provocations can be followed by deeper engagement.
Middle Table Design Process
Dinner Table, A Theater For Rivers
Dinner Theater was a workshop with designers, technologists, and social activists, in a dinner setting. In this workshop, we used 'anthropomorphization' and 'embodiment' to challenge participants assumptions about the hard mechanics of communicating with rivers.
Participants were asked to embody the role of a river and challenge their Anthropocentric assumptions about nonhumans' rights. In response, four professionals- a Lawyer, a River Doctor, a Spiritual guide, and a Politician- from an alternative world, where rivers have been represented the legal agency, talk to the participants and engage them in a conversation.
In all four cases, the professionals (and the river characters) had to collectively debate how we frame what the river is; what methods we might have to speak with it and judge its preference.
“How are you going to solve the problem with international rights that I’m facing? Because I live between two countries...how are they going to agree about something that pertains to my body and my rights?”
At the end of the session, participants were asked to brainstorm on new communication tools for understanding and representing rivers.
Snapshots of Dinner Table, including participants embodying river roles, the River Doctor and prototypes.
Assumptions in the Anthropocene
How can we deploy an ecocentric perspective—one that considers a larger network of actors—in a way that has staying power? Can we shift common conceptions of nonhumans to acknowledge a certain kind of agency? Intelligence? Sentience? Preference?
We argue that many forms of institutionalized education reinforce a separation between human and nonhuman actors. As a first attempt to explore other ways to represent learning tools and how they shape our perception, we hosted Assumptions in the Anthropocene, a transdisciplinary design workshop hosted at VergeNYC. We led teams of teachers, designers, and other professionals to reinvent the ways we teach about nonhumans, specifically by investigating and subverting the process of othering nonhumans.
We designed frameworks for participants to deconstruct three science models: a flood map, an anatomical diagram of a frog, and the water cycle. First, we asked people to list the human elements (broadly defined) represented within those diagrams, then list the nonhumans. Next, participants discussed the overlap of those categories, discussed our interconnectedness, listed relevant parts of those non/human systems that were not originally represented, and finally redesigned more inclusive models.
To the left is the water cycle taught in so many high school science classrooms. To the right of the water cycle is another diagram that charts water as it interacts with humans and other nonhumans. In it, water loops through the human body, breeds microorganisms in waste streams, boils in the cooling towers of human power plants, absorbs sulfur dioxide in the lower atmosphere, falls into the ocean, and is worshiped along the way. Where its precursor fails, this model represents the exchanges that happen as water evaporates and precipitates, at many different scales.
Isfahan, An Eulogy for River.
What would the city look like without the river?
On the Iranian Plateau, the city of Isfahan spreads out from Zayanderud—literally, “Life-Giving River”—, where damming upstream has left its footprint dry most of the year. This was the case when we traveled to Isfahan to interview locals about their experience of the drought, and the role the river plays in their lives. We centered our research on three questions: What were your memories with the river? Do you still have hope for it to come back? What did the river mean to Isfahan?
“One way of posing the question of who ‘we’ are in these times of war is by asking whose lives are considered valuable, whose lives are mourned, and whose lives are considered ungrievable…An ungrievable life is one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived, that is, it has never counted as a life at all.”
—Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?
These Isfahani women picnic on the shore of the Zayanderud, as they used to when the river was still running.