Plantation 1: Bamboo, rabbits, derelict washing machines, 2010

Pencil on paper

Somewhere along the line, we ended up with the idea that design is a kind of conceptual vision residing in the mind of a designer, an immaterial pattern imprinted onto raw matter. This idea generally works fine — if we’re designing a private house, a piece of jewellery, or a table — but it’s a pretty hopeless approach for producing public spaces and shared worlds. In these contexts, there are too many different agencies, intentions, and forces at work. It’s not just that there are lots of participants to keep track of: the list is radically open-ended. It’s also not possible to define who or what is or will be involved at any point. Architectural design methods and human-centred co-design strategies are useful coping mechanisms for organising diversity, but they ultimately centre on the familiar and known. How can the strange heterogeneous assemblages of our shared worlds be respected?

Plantation 1 imagines a world comprised of derelict washing machines, rabbits, and bamboo. As they rust into the ground, the washing machines provide iron and other nutrients for the soil, and habitat for the rabbits. Breeding fast, the rabbits gnaw down the bamboo but it recovers quickly. The washing machines produce toxic materials, like lead, and these are pulled out of the soil by the bamboo, a known bio-absorber. Rabbits aerate the ground with their burrows, and bamboo stabilises the soil. This plantation has little direct benefit for humans. Even if it worked, it would probably be a pestilential mess, but as imagined it has a certain coherency.

Sixteenth-century colonial plantations were the prototype for industrialisation and modernity according to ethnographer Anna Tsing1. Using cloned plants and slave labour, it produced a scalable monoculture, abstracting the world into raw material and stamping its pattern everywhere. By contrast, pests, waste, odd niches, and excessive diversity — bamboo, rabbits, obsolete appliances — are inefficient and non-scalable; but perhaps they hint at other models for imagining shared worlds.

1 Tsing, A. L. “On Nonscalability: The Living World Is Not Amenable to Precision-Nested Scales”. Common Knowledge 25, no 1 (2019): 143–162.

Dr. Carl Douglas is the Head of Department of Spatial, Fashion and Industrial Design at AUT University. Carl’s research focuses on public space (particularly informal, amateur, ad-hoc, and illicit spacemaking) and procedural design techniques (particularly cartography, drawing, and scripting).
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