International Visiting Research Fellow Dr. Sarah Elsie Baker reflects on her visit to Brighton in May 2023 and its impact on her research Wild Things/Wild Methods.
Text and Images by Dr Sarah Elsie Baker
A watercolour painting of seaweed and sea creatures. Placed over the painting is a passport photo image of three people in a photo booth. The people are Dr Sarah Elsie Baker, Dr Tom Ainsworth and Sally Sutherland.
Design Researchers in the Wild/Water Colour Lesson. Image Sarah Elsie Baker.
When I saw the call for International Visiting Research Fellows at the University of Brighton, I was revisiting two works by Judy Attfield that have strongly influenced my research trajectory. The first was the book Wild Things: The Material Culture of Everyday Life. It’s focus on the richness of material culture and the way that designed objects always exceed classification has been influential in my approach to design since I began my career as an academic. The second, ‘Form/female Follows Function/male: Feminist Critiques of Design’ is central to my work exploring design and gender and continues to be salient 30 years after its’ original publication. As Attfield studied and taught at the University of Brighton, I thought it seemed highly appropriate to visit and explore some of my new research at the centre.
The project Wild Things/Wild Methods returns to Attfield’s work and units it with recent queer theory. It recognises the wild as both a concept that has justified settler colonialism and other forms of violence, and as a challenge ‘to an assumed order of things from, by, and on behalf of things that refuse and resist order itself’ (Halberstam, 2020:3). While historically the wild has been shorthand for anything outside normative sexuality, particularly the supposed savage sexuality of indigenous peoples, wildness also escapes its negative condition as ‘a mode of unknowing, a resistant ontology, and a fantasy of life beyond the human’ (Halberstam, 2020:8). In terms of material things, the wild is the sensed, the unanticipated and the extraneous that is often filtered out of design history, theory and method. Thus, my project turns to the wild as a possible way out of the individualist, solutionist, objectivist and universalist tendencies of twentieth-century design practice (Rosner, 2018:23-41). It asks what design centred on a loss of control, bewilderment and unworlding would look like, and considers whether we as designers and design researchers can abandon our long-standing norms and practices by venturing into the wild.
In May 2023 I made the long trip from Waiheke Island in Aotearoa New Zealand to Brighton. Feeling slightly dazed and confused, I hit the ground running by giving a workshop with the MA Sustainable Design students. Immediately I felt at home. Not just because I grew up near Brighton, nor simply due to the wonderful hospitality of Dr. Tom Ainsworth and Sally Sutherland, but because the students were presenting their responses to a ‘Tangential’ brief. They had been asked to experience something, related, but tangential, to their plans for their final dissertations. I joined the class mid-flow and was privy to some of their wild experiences including encounters with speed dating, religious iconography, and stolen microwaves. It seemed entirely appropriate to follow these discussions with a workshop on wild methods.
I began with a multi-sensory introduction designed to communicate information about me without using typical identity categories. I bought stones, feijoa juice and local honey for the students to interact with while I played images and sounds that I represented my life. I went on to explain my theoretical and methodological perspective and why I thought that wildness has potential to challenge the ‘designerly’ habits that have exacerbated social and environmental injustice. I then asked the students to take part in a task to focus their attention on the binaries reproduced though design, and then to intentionally design activities to disrupt them. One pair picked the cards, ‘mind/body’ and ‘walk’. They hid stones around the campus and asked us to do funny walks while finding them. In a university this felt rebellious particularly because there were architecture exams taking place. Another pair picked ‘rational/emotional’ and ‘recipe’. They asked us to get into pairs, and to look into each other’s eyes and describe what our eyeballs tasted like. The process of staring into a strangers’ eyes and conjuring taste was a simultaneously rational and emotional experience that felt powerfully wild and connective.
A photograph showing a bottle of Apple and Feijoa juice next to a glass of juice. Dr Sarah Elsie Baker is in the background, blurred in the image running a workshop.
Wild Methods Workshop: Photograph Sally Sutherland
A photo showing four rows of white cards with printed text, two cards on each row. The cards are on a grass background. The cards read gay/straight, RITUAL, rational/emotional, RECIPE, man/woman, COMMUNE, mind/body, WALK.
Wild Activity: Photograph Sarah Elsie Baker
Four key reflections emerged from the workshop and have subsequently influenced my approach to the Wild Things/Wild Methods project.
- The strength of the wild to think in and through binaries was reaffirmed by the workshop. Wild things can be both bodies and material objects, and as such the concept enables us to think about the entanglements of humans and non-humans. The wild also allows for both the examination of histories of persecution and the transcendence of those meanings.
- We all experience the wildness of everyday life, but worldviews outside of dominant Anglo-American paradigms offer rich ways of conceptualizing that experience. Presenting my research outside of Aotearoa made me more cognizant of the influence of Te Ao Māori (the Māori world) on my project and reflect upon the ethical responsibilities that engagement involves as a non-indigenous person.
- The interactions and discussions that emerged from the workshop activity highlighted the social anxieties that people feel disrupting binaries and identity categories that have been hard fought i.e. gay/straight.
- The activities involved in the workshop, drinking, feeling, walking etc, highlighted the continued absence of multi-sensory experience in design education. Wild methods, then, often involve designing alternative sensory experiences.
I took these reflections with me when presenting my research to faculty involved with the centre. The presentation went well, and a great discussion ensued. One comment really stood out though: wasn’t there also a binary between the cards I had presented the students with: concepts one the one hand and things on the other? I kept that question in my mind, while going off on my own tangential brief.
I went to wonderful symposia and workshops at the University of Brighton including a participatory mapping workshop and the conference, ‘Making Visible the Storeroom’. I visited the De La Warr Pavilion where I encountered other iterations of the wild: the artwork of Angelo Madsen Minax, a reflection on trans* intimacies; as well as a wild activity for kids that juxtaposed the modernist architecture of the De La Warr with the English countryside. The visit was topped off by an activity organized by my hosts: a water colour lesson in the local pub. It was an enjoyably wild escape from academic pressures and a great way to end my trip.
A simple black line drawing of the De La Warr pavilion, in the foreground a deer, and other wildlife, plants and animals. At the top of the photo text is printed 'Look! Some wild and beautiful creatures have made the Pavillion their new home! Help us make it even wilder by populating the gaps with even more furry buddies!'
Wild at the De La Warr. Photograph Sarah Elsie Baker
On returning home I ran a similar wild methods workshop with the MDes students I teach. Stones from New Zealand were switched with stones from Brighton beach, and the introduction included a bit about me and a bit about the place I had been.
On reflection, I have come to the realization that perhaps the wild is not, and cannot be, a design method as we typically think of one. Wild methods are more akin to a series of interventions: a way of intervening according to context that unravels dominant practices by unmaking our existing conceptions of ourselves and the world around us.
Attfield, J. (1989) ‘’FORM/ female FOLLOWS FUNCTION/ male: Feminist Critiques of Design’, in Walker, J.A. (ed.) Design History and the History of Design. Pluto Press.
Attfield, J. (2000) Wild Things: The Material Culture of Everyday Life. Berg.
Halberstam, J. (2020) Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire. Duke University Press.
Rosner, D. K. (2018) Critical Fabulations: Reworking the Methods and Margins of Design. The MIT Press.