Our back-to-school theme inspired me to revisit my graduate thesis, a document I haven’t looked at in quite awhile, but that I believe still influences my design thinking today. I started by skimming my references and remembering all of the essays that had inspired me while pulling together ideas.

I was taking an art theory class at the time entitled Art and Ecology, and some of the discussions we had really helped me articulate what I thought and felt about being an ecological designer. I remember re-reading one quote in particular, from Timothy Morton’s The Ecological Thought, which is both simple and overwhelming.

“…ecology isn’t just about global warming, recycling, and solar power and also not just to do with everyday relationships between humans and nonhumans. It has to do with love, loss, despair, and compassion. It has to do with depression and psychosis. It has to do with capitalism and with what might exist after capitalism. It has to do with amazement, open-mindedness, and wonder. It has to do with doubt, confusion, and skepticism. It has to do with concepts of space and time. It has to do with delight, beauty, ugliness, disgust, irony, and pain. It has to do with consciousness and awareness. It has to do with ideology and critique. It has to do with reading and writing. It has to do with race, class, and gender. It has to do with sexuality. It has to do with ideas of self and the weird paradoxes of subjectivity. It has to do with society. It has to do with coexistence.”

This quote and the discussion that followed inspired me to think more critically about empathy and affect in ecological thinking. It seemed to me that metrics and data often dominate ecological talk; I was curious about how I could begin to think about ecological design in a different way. My thesis title turned out to be Transparent Animism: A Framework for Participating in Ecological Design as Agonism. Animism became a way for me to talk about humans and nonhumans as subjects, and the political theory of agonism – a political theory that emphasizes the possibly positive aspects of certain forms of political conflict.

As I dug around and tried to better understand the political theories of agonism, a quote by Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe entirely changed the way I thought about ecology. Mouffe stated that, “the fetishization of consensus is an act of silencing”. I suddenly understood that a human idea of a harmonious nature was a fantasy. Rather than emphasizing consensus between humans and nonhumans as a goal, what was required was a platform for ecological design that allows for productive disagreement to take place.

I came up with four design criterias that I believed would help me work towards a more empathetic ecological design process, and I attempted to employ those criteria to four speculative projects. I’ll plug a link to my thesis here, because this ontological brainstorm took me close to a year to complete.

One of the projects, the video shown below, is something I recognize as a relational diagram. It was all about the challenge of exchanging perspectives. The construct is made of layered clear acrylic planes with laser cut holes that I then painted pink and blue. When staked the layers of colors create a visual field with a shifting organization of figure-ground. An understanding of existence as relational proposes that humans and nonhumans are in a continuous process of negotiation with one another.

As a landscape designer today I still feel it is necessary to be critical of and empathetic towards representations of nature and the ongoing discussion of what makes ecological design ecological.

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