Postnatural Design project 2: Measuring Device
In my current status of data overload (data overlord perhaps) I was very primed to question the current structure of “ ‘what’ ‘counts’ .” I’ve been experiencing an existential crisis over my own participation in the glamorization of digital tech when I feel as though what we need right now is some ecologically holistic empathy. I don’t believe the two to be mutually exclusive, but technological development is currently fueled by ideals of subjugation and power, which is making me feel like I am participating in a propaganda mechanism when I make “cool shareable things” with said tech. I’m trying to get over it. But in the meantime, I am challenged by (am challenging?) the notion that “new media” is the answer to “old questions.” I just can’t make things “blink and beep” for blinking and beeping’s sake—it seems to be a neo-snake oil salesman’s technique, where, just because an expression embodies the semiotics of math or science, it is observed as objective.
So it was hard to design a response at first, in a class (let alone a program) I felt was dedicated to exploring emergent media as a form of engagement—this of course being my own projection. But still, data is historically paramount (lies, damned lies…) and there is something special about the hope of finding an answer. If nothing else, expressed data makes its parsed subject important. My office hours with Tega were especially helpful for reminding me that there is a lot of room to interrogate “ ‘what’ ‘counts’ ” and how data can be collected and expressed.
Three questions: how do I subvert the idea of “data” as a purely observational object? What does interpersonal data look like? How can one experience it, share it? I edited these down to one question: “how can collected data connect place, narrative, and memory?”
Answer: A collectible object in which sharing is inherently built. A sense-situated dataset.
I was inspired by artists such as Ani Liu, Ellie Irons, who engage with data documentation as a form of intimacy. I was also inspired by Ziemba, who often incorporates scent as a form of storytelling in her performances. I thought about the environmental experiences I love—the bats I sometimes hear from my balcony, the conservancy parkland I visit when I need a break from school—and how to express their ecological importance as relationship. I chose to highlight the winner of Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s annual “Greenest Block in Brooklyn” contest, which I get to visit every time I walk to my local cafe or need to head to the subway. A sense-situated dataset seemed especially appropriate for the project, given the diversity in flora lining the block (Lincoln Place between Nostrand and New York Avenues in Crown Heights).
I’d watch the block grow toward winning for the past five and a half years I’ve lived here, each year wrangling more neighbors and even relatives of neighbors who lived in different parts of the city. The block calls itself P.L.A.N.T., Protecting Lincoln’s Abundant Natural Treasures, and has built an entire experience around the idea of promoting green-oriented community organizing. The block became a place to educate (all 27 trees on the block are identified, as are most of the plants; the children’s garden is designed for wonder), to gather (plant boxes are situated in benches, people drawn to the block meet each other creating connections throughout the neighborhood), and to literally pollinate as bees and butterflies are everywhere. It presents as a radical defiance against a trend of isolating real estate development, one which Crown Heights is becoming more and more familiar with. It creates biospheric relationship.
I collected samples of numerous plants along the block. I encountered some volunteer caretakers, who were called in for pruning and watering because “people are still coming by to take pictures” and they graciously helped me with my data collection. I then used a tincture method to draw the scent out of my collected dataset, creating a fragrant memory piece of the Greenest Block in Brooklyn.
As perfume/chosen scent, fragrance is a form of expression. When I choose a fragrance, I’m trying to share something with others beyond the realm of visual, or auditory, engaging a sense in others that directly connects to memory. This question “what are you wearing” is typical in fragrant communication, and so the scent-situated documentation becomes an entry point to sharing the story of the Greenest Block in Brooklyn. Every time someone asks me about my scent, I can share everything I’ve written here. The fragrance also becomes a time capsule, a sort of journal entry about an occurrence or encounter, a way to re-experience a time and place through sense-memory. I also hoped to elevate the movement by celebrating it in a precious collectible object.
Finally, the collection became sort of a field guide to the plants of the winning block, and identifying each before combining them into a tincture becomes a robust knowledge set for plants that grow well (and attract pollinators) in Brooklyn, which is an important resource for future growers.
I'm pleased with my outcome and thoroughly enjoyed the process. I'm seasoned skeptic toward data as a tool for "objective classification," a standard that has driven some of the greater human atrocities over the last few centuries. Still, it's been hard for me to shed that internalized programming given that the imprinting model is well-designed to fit the growing mind into a particular standard. So finding a way to shift data toward the poetic or documenting a collected data set in the form of a visceral narrative was an exercise in breaking that mold. If data is to be a commodity, then I hope it can expand beyond quantifiable surveillance toward shared experience.
Both Emma and Tega brought up the possibility of mapping through a scent collection—Emma specifically suggested perhaps sourcing scents from "undesirable blocks" which I think is especially compelling in that it offers a few avenues to approach (Do we challenge the "undesirability" by cultivating pleasant scent, or does an unfavorable scent bring attention to an issue to be addressed? What are the determinants of "undesirability"? etc).
That's all :)