“How does the world appear to a being with different senses and instincts from our own; and if such beings postulated a reality behind these appearances, what would they regard as real?”
– J. B. S. Haldane, Possible Worlds and Other Essays*
There is much talk in design about the ‘more than human’, ‘decentring the human’, ‘multi-species world building’ and other ‘related ideas’. But what does this actually mean for design practice? All too often it appears to simply be a welcoming of non-humans into a still-human world, or an expanding of the range of stakeholders in a project to include different species, or even the extension of co-design strategies to the other-thanhuman. This is all good, of course, but it still feels like a oneworld world, a human world.
Having spent many years living and working in cities, when we moved to the US we became fascinated by its many large areas of land rarely entered by humans. They feel like separate worlds where a different, non-human logic prevails. To spend any time in these places requires a great deal of preparation. You begin to see yourself not as human, but as stuff, material, part of the environment. At the same time, we moved from the city to a woodland where the walls of the house define a threshold between worlds. Inside is the human part, but directly outside is a multi-species zone, shared with many other creatures – bears, beavers, eagles, bugs, mycelia and the most extraordinary fungi.
Then, in spring 2022, we taught a class called Who Comes After the Human? with cultural theorist Dominic Pettman, for a mix of design, art and liberal studies students. It explored how design and theories concerned with the more than human might enter into dialogue and allowed us to think more abstractly about our experiences in the wilds. One idea stayed with us: that we can only ever experience an edited version of whatever is out there – what we think of as reality – filtered through our senses, and that each life form experiences its own unique world based on its senses and cognitive apparatus. In his 1934 book A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, the biologist Jakob von Uexküll called this sensory world an umwelt – the main point being that as humans, we assume there is only one world, and that all animals share that world.
We began to wonder what it would mean if we took von Uexküll’s idea of an umwelt more seriously. Rather than thinking about how to invite non-humans into a human world, maybe first we need to undo how we imagine the human, at least in terms of how we appear, or are present in, non-human worlds – how we are transformed, materially and conceptually, if we acknowledge that non-human worlds exist, based on different senses – olfactory, electrical, seismic, magnetic, auditory. Things that are invisible to us, for example, might be concrete and tangible in other worlds, and what is seemingly solid to another animal might be imperceptible to us. In some situations, the waves and air disturbances we create as we move through space might be as important as our meatiness, or more important. From a modernist point of view, we think of air as empty space, but it is of course fulsome, teeming with life and different materials at a microscopic level.
In a world of many worlds, a teapot might be less present than the air around it. Electrical fields, sweat, warmth and other materialities, invisible to humans, might modify the form of the body for those who experience the world through different senses, so the human appears more like an atmosphere than a solid mass. We read that bears can smell food up to a mile away. Does this mean that we extend through their world as delicate molecular strands entering their bodies to become entangled with them? Instinctively, it feels like these traces should be represented in a delicate way – floaty, barely there. But that is a human perspective. Although it was counterintuitive, for our project Designs for a World of Many Worlds: After the Festival, 2023, on display at NGV Triennial 2023, we began to explore materials that would suggest solidity.
Of course, attempting to materialise how humans are present in non-human sensory worlds is full of contradictions. It is impossible to truly imagine what this would be like; we are always limited by our human imagination and senses, as the philosopher Thomas Nagel argued in his now famous paper ‘What is it like to be a bat?’
But our project is not about seeing the world as a bat would. Nor is it about trying in a shamanistic way to become other than human. It is about shifting perspective and seeing ourselves and the human world differently. And, hopefully, making us better co-habitees and neighbours by helping us appreciate the nature of different non-human worlds and how we might be present in them.
In order to move beyond simply illustrating this idea, and to ground it in the everyday, we framed the project as a festival – one that celebrates the contradictions of working with non-human umwelten while challenging what we think a festival is, or could be – muted, quiet, slow, careful, deliberate. There were many things we could design for a festival – costumes, movement, sounds – but one aspect that caught our attention was the many kinds of poles that people carry in festivals – staffs with effigies on them, for example. Often made locally, they can be highly crafted and made to last, or DIY, or made from more transient biomaterials. In between festivals, the poles and other accessories, like headwear, footwear and backpacks, might live in the home, passed down through generations, serving as daily reminders – amid tables, chairs and other domestic objects – that the human world is just one of many. Like the best utopias, the festival is not meant to be realised – it is intentionally impossible, and that is its value. The fact it is not real allows us to move beyond practicalities to discuss other ways of seeing the world, made tangible through design.
So, what does it mean to design for a world of many worlds?
For a start, all worlds are equally real. Our senses edit what is out there, as do those of every creature.
Some life forms live in worlds where the human-body shape is meaningless. We appear more like clouds, atmospheres or energy fields, as our meatiness fades into insignificance.
Our breath forms chemical swirls drifting through multiple umwelten. Strands of you stretch for miles, caressing the nervous systems of innumerable life forms.
Every footstep sends minute waves through the ground, disturbing life within.
A click of the fingers travels further than one might think.
If travelling with others, you become a many-legged, many-armed, human mass.
Our communication media forms dense, electrical features in landscapes navigated by birds and other migrating creatures.
The sound of a boat creates underwater acoustic masses as solid to some life forms as mountains are to us.
And, ultimately, once we leave the human world behind, we become little more than biomass to be recycled and processed by a multitude of life forms for which we are simply calories, nutrition, raw material or a home.
*J. B. S. Haldane, Possible Worlds and Other Essays, Chatto & Windus, London, 1927.
This is an edited version of a talk given as part of the Prada Frames – Materials in Flux event in Milan, Italy on 18 April 2023.
The project was co-commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne and Museum of Contemporary Design and Applied Arts, Lausanne. This project is produced in collaboration with RMIT School of Design