Conversations With the Sea: How Localised Design-things Can Sensitise Communities to the Conditions of the Anthropocene
As we attempt to sidestep ecological collapse, new creative methods of engaging publics with the Anthropocene are urgently required. Yet, public indifference and even climate change denial persist, despite the overwhelming evidence that we are irreversibly changing our ecosphere. Meanwhile, traditional models of communication design do little to motivate collective action and behavioural changes at multi-national, governmental and individual levels. Instead, emotive pleas to “save the planet” or visualisations of scientific information cause us to recoil from the overwhelming scale of the crisis. People then often cognitively distance themselves from a causal relationship between human behaviours and the effects of climate change, including their fundamental interdependency on the earth systems it is altering.
Nonetheless, communication design, as a generator and mediator of culture, can actively connect communities with our ecological moment when combined with emerging lay-design and participatory design practices. This research investigates how a relational design approach can generate local forms of ecological understanding and agency by asking: how can participatory communication-design tools help us to comprehend and become responsive to the Anthropogenic conditions that are altering our world?
To test the efficacy of such an approach, an invitation was issued, in the community of Waiheke Island in Aotearoa New Zealand, to enter into a dialogue with the sea, a key figure and non-human other in the climate-change narrative. Through public video projections and social media at first, I explored how communication design can bring people into closer connection with the sea. From this, participatory workshops evolved to engage community members in design activities founded in more-than-anthropocentric approaches. I combined a situated design inquiry with Haraway’s (2016) notion of sympoiesis, or making-with, as a frame to investigate how participatory communication design might invite us to ‘digest’ climate change. I organised public design events on Waiheke and observed what conditions and interactions became possible through visual communication practices – and what productive crossings occurred during the making of communication 'design things' (Atelier, 2011). The research asks how communication design can sensitise us to the urgency of reimagining human and non-human relations (Boehnert, 2018). Notably, this research emerges from a particular island setting; it is a localised effort to offer a model of relational communication design that encourages social change.