DEFINE Reading Ecology of Perception

It has been really hard to get anywhere since the Case Study Review. I know what I don’t want to do, but I’m having such a hard time knowing what to do next. It’s too easy to overthink everything when you’ve spent 2 months doing nothing but thinking. 

For the sake of my sanity I have decided to revisit the cards I made in Applications and Interactions, because I like this as a format.

I was interested in producing something that would function very unlike a map, but that could still help you construct a walk. I imagined users would pick one (or more) cards and go looking for the images on them. Because the cards are self-contained, you could use them in many different ways, playing games with them, making a narrative out of them etc.

I thought I could start by producing some images to go on them, so I drew a plant, a tree, an insect and a bird (a nice variety of things you might often ignore but commonly encounter. Users could take one or more, and go looking for those items on their walks. 

While I was drawing I listened to a really interesting interview with Ecologist David Abram, about the ecology of perception.

…the way the activity of our eyes, of our ears, of our tongue, our nostrils, functions to bind our separate nervous systems into the encompassing ecosystem, as though our animal senses actually work almost like a kind of glue binding our individual neural system into the wider ecology, the wider ecosystem. But I’m also convinced that there are ways of speaking that many of us have inherited from this curious culture into which we were born, ways of speaking that work to stifle or frustrate the instinctive rapport between our animal senses and the animate earth around us. I’m just as convinced that there are other ways of wielding our words that can encourage and enhance that spontaneous reciprocity between our bodily senses and the earthly sensuous.

We speak of things “catching our gaze,” “calling our attention,” “grabbing our focus,” and those are all quite precise ways of speaking, because as we’re wandering the world, things solicit our attention, draw us into dialog, a kind of conversation without words. A fallen leaf on the ground calls my attention, and so I slow down to stop and gaze at it.

This has become a very basic insight to me: that our bodily senses, left to their own devices, are inherently animistic; that sensory perception is participatory; that the senses are gregarious organs that actively participate in the surrounding terrain; and that when we speak of the world around us as a set of objects or objective mechanical processes, we actually frustrate our senses and force our awareness to withdraw from our skin and from our eyes and our ears, and we climb up into our heads and live in a set of verbal abstractions—because the human animal cannot help but experience the world as animate and alive through and through.

And so I began to wonder what it is that writing and the written word does to our senses and to our sensory experience of the earth around us, and what is it that writing and literacy does to our experience of language and linguistic meaning. For one thing, it became apparent that different writing systems affect our senses in very different ways. In the scripts of more pictorially derived writing systems, like the ideographic script of China or the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt or of the Mayan peoples, many of the written characters are sort of stylized pictures drawn from sunrise, sunset—humans and human implements, sure, but the human artifacts are interspersed with animal shapes, rain, storm cloud. And so, the reader is continually reminded of language’s link to the wider, more-than-human earth.

This section in particular got me thinking about how the English Language is connected/disconnected with the landscape. Our written language feels very removed- letters and words are very abstract – and I wonder if there’s a way to make more of a connection through this.

I don’t really know much about type design but I might start with a system like the Galapagos font which began as a series of shapes on cards that could be used to form letters.

There’s also something else here which I haven’t quite figured out, about the words themselves. Language and landscape are often connected, as are landscape and culture in general. I think this thread needs more research though. J recommended Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama in a similar vein.

The other part of the podcast that resonated was this:

We have almost voluntarily been giving up or forfeiting so many of our most basic animal instinctive bonds with the earth. And perhaps the most basic of these is our ability to orient in space, something we’re all born with that enables us to know just which way we’re facing and to feel in the distance where our home is and to be able to make our way there…

When we begin to use smartphones, and then unthinkingly avail ourselves of the GPS that just happens to come with our smartphones, and we start using that to orient…

But how sad this is, that we suddenly lose the very possibility of being lost and the intense heightening of our bodily senses that comes with being lost. GPS short circuits that instinctive rapport between the human body and the sensuous terrain, and by putting it out of play, I think we lose so much of what is most basic to being not just a human but to being one of the animals.

This summarises something I’ve been trying to articulate- that our connection with our surroundings is mediated by technologies such as smartphones, and that something gets lost when we stop getting lost. Which is why I really don’t want to design an app, or some AR, or some kind of map. Lo-fi screenless outcomes feel much more appropriate.

I had a long conversation with my peers on Friday where we talked about this, and how my set of cards could fit in. We discussed how abstract they should be – would a yellow scribble on a card be more interesting than a picture of a dandelion? In some ways yes- if you go looking for a dandelion and there isn’t one on your walk, this might be off-putting. But if you go looking for something yellow you might see a dandelion and you might notice 50 other yellow things. However, I do think there’s some value in knowing the names of things, recognising specific characteristics. It makes it easier to identify, compare and contrast. So at the moment I think maybe some combination of abstract and representational images would be good. Someone suggested you could take one ‘colour’ card, one ‘shape’ card, one ‘plant’ card and use the combination to dictate your route.

I think J also suggested we could give directional cards – left, right, left, left – which I believe was a technique the situationists would use (will double check that). “studies have shown that speakers of languages that use cardinal directions to express locations have fantastic spatial memory and navigation skills—perhaps because their experience of an event is so well-defined by the directions it took place in” so maybe those cards should have cardinal directions on, and come with a compass.

So for now, I am vaguely working on some illustrations and abstractions, and also starting to look at developing an alphabet from natural forms.