Arctic Design and Indigenous Knowledge

Svetlana Usenyuk

My name is Svetlana Usenyuk, I am a postdoctoral researcher at Aalto University School of Art, Design and Architecture, Helsinki. I completed my PhD last summer in Ekaterinburg, Russia, with the topic “Arctic Design: the Principle of Co-creation for Transport Vehicles”. My research experience is rooted in studying Western Siberian indigenous peoples, particularly Khanty and Nenets.

My current project “Arctic Technologies of Adaptation and Survival: Traditions and Innovations” is meant to be an extension of the previous one, with broader consideration of material culture of circumarctic indigenous peoples.

The aim is to reveal their principles of adaptation and survival in extreme environment through man-made things. The research is long-term, comparative, performing in an iterative way. The core idea is to shift the framing of Arctic indigenous knowledge from a theoretical concept that has been of long-standing importance within anthropology and archaeology, to the area of critical design practice.

Arctic vehicles. Students' projects by Alexey Sokolov and Irina Putilova

During the next two years in Finland I will be particularly interested in Sámi people, i.e. on their contribution to circumpolar adaptation technologies.

I know that a big challenge is going to be the link between fieldwork and results from theoretical modeling of human-object coexistence. That is why I am very pleased with the opportunity to work at the Arctic Centre’s anthropology research team as a visiting researcher. I envision my cooperation with the team not only in the studies of humans in an Arctic environment. My project will also hopefully significantly enriched by multiple viewpoints from scientists with different theoretical frames.

And who knows…? Maybe somebody here in the blog or in the team is interested in discussing with me the link between Arctic Anthropology and Arctic Design – my own professional field. I would very much look forward to any feedback!

5 thoughts on “Arctic Design and Indigenous Knowledge

  1. fstammle

    I just listened to Svetlana’s paper, and several questions come up. The project is REALLY interesting as usually incomers have imported so much stuff to the Arctic and indigenous peoples started using it. E.g. rubber boots, snowmobiles, mobile phones, and other material artefacts connected to the movement of people, goods and information. Here she wants to turn this relation upside down and get inspired by indigenous people for design done by incomers.

    But you wanted to have criticism, so here you get it: I would raise from an anthropological point of view several questions:

    1) I think in the designer-field there is a pretty antiquated understanding of culture. I would recommend reading Fox’s edited volume called “anthropology beyond culture” for getting a more balanced view. Mostly, culture is NOT a static system, not a THING consisting of material artefacts impossible to change. To use Ingold’s words, it’s much more a CONVERSATION, and as such enacted as people converse among each other and with their environment. Even material culture actually change. I therefore would challenge Svetlana’s equation of new environment=new culture. Look for example how reindeer herders have changed snowmobiles to make them fit better to their environment. How all the alternative “affordances” (Ingold 1992) that they see in things imported from completely different places. For example, old plastic barrels turned to hooks, and tools for reindeer harnesses.

    2) I would also be careful about focusing only on survival in an extreme environment when talking about the Arctic. Firstly, for indigenous people the Arctic environment is not extreme, it is their home! And it is their everyday lived experience, and as such not exceptional. For them, it is extreme to spend a day on a sunny beach in Turkey! Secondly, if we talk about design, couldn’t we have a focus more on aesthetics, beauty and function? After all, culture is WAY MORE than biological adaptation for survival. And even the social dimensions are not only for surviving. Wouldn’t indigenous people be ‘allowed’ to design something for such reason?

    Now if you are focusing only on suitability of design for non-indigenous people in the Arctic, then would you think that indigenous design is useful for them at all? Because for incomers the Arctic is extreme, for indigenous people it’s home!

    3) It seems that Svetlana defines design as some material artefacts created by professional designers, right? She also says that designers are ‘creators of culture’. In logical thinking, does that mean she wants to suggest that indigenous people did not have design nor culture before indigenous professional designers appeared among them? Any anthropologist would strongly disapprove that.

    I still think this is a fascinating project. Just I would frame some of the theoretical foundations differently.

    Looking forward to a lively discussion on that!

  2. Svetlana

    Thank you for your feedback, Florian! It looks like it took me almost two months to come up with the response (in actual fact, now the time has just come to get back to my research, after all other matters). Your comments were useful and inspiring, but they also gave me quite clear understanding how weak my stance is when I try to go into a field beyond my common expertise. I completely agree with the point that culture is all about interactions (dialogs, conversations?) and everyday experiences; it is always in flux.
    But I still insist on the equation of new environment/new culture and let me explain why. In case of developing material environment for severe natural conditions, the period of time for adapting to artifacts is shrinking dramatically: we cannot afford spending months or years on ‘negotiating’ with objects, waiting for them to become unmistakably familiar and completely comfortable. In today’s Arctic the process of synthesizing ‘new materiality’ goes in a spontaneous way: when human beings find themselves in severe natural conditions, where the technology cannot cope with the tasks and hopes placed on it, they have to start creating in order to survive. They obviously start from adapting ready-made vehicles and other techno-objects, which were imported, i.e. artificially implanted into the environment; they adapt them according to their needs as well as environmental settings. After this stage, by spending lots of time and strengths, they come to realize that it is much easier to create objects ‘from a zero’ rather than adapting existing artifacts (of course, it is conventionally speaking: there are the needs in materials, technologies, tools, etc., but it would be more comfortable to obtain them separately, rather than disassemble ready-made things, which do not properly perform their functions due to the conflicts with the environment and a user).
    One of the clearest examples of ‘creating from a zero’ is karakat (I am sure you know this funny-looking vehicle and maybe even have tried it, but let me say further a bit about it, since other non-familiar people may read this comment in the blog).
    Basically, the original idea of vehicles on pneumatics was not generated by professional engineers, but came directly ‘from commoners’: a so-called karakat was invented in early 1970s in the city of Severodvinsk (Arkhangelsk region) by a couple of friends, passionate ice-fishermen.
    The original karakat is based on a motorbike, slightly modified by attaching four inner tubes taken from truck wheels. In order to prevent over-inflation of tubes during the pumping, they are bound with straps around the entire circumference. Besides maintaining the inner volume, these straps serve as grousers, i.e. prevent wheels from slipping on the snow and ice.
    It is just one of many possible proofs that people are creative in situating technological objects (e.g. transport vehicles) in their everyday practices.
    Reflecting on these phenomena, designers, presumably, should give up creating ‘lock-in’ objects (i.e. objects with totally prescribed functions) and acknowledge the fact of unexpected use (and appearance) of technological objects.
    Actually, I have a question here: may I refer to the concept of ‘affordances’ by Gibson and Ingold in that case? We designers already have such a concept transferred to design by Donald Norman in early 1980s, but the angle of his definition was, in my opinion, completely opposite to what I mean to say now… Norman’s affordances were exactly about prescribed use of things and that designers by their professional virtue create affordances. But the idea of co-creation is to stop speculating what people might need and actually give them a tool to embody their needs. Thus, is that correct to define original affordances as ‘more than one possibility of a certain object, generated (or discovered) by a user’?

    Back to the equation of new environment and new culture, maybe it would be better to say ‘new knowledge’, which implies one different from what designers/engineers have at the moment? In other words, it is a critique for today’s design practice: what professionals know about the Arctic is not enough and not appropriate for designing for people who is going to live in such environment. And here, again, I want to emphasize that all these ‘design interventions’ are aimed at newcomers, i.e. non-indigenous people. That is also why the culture of natives attracts so much of my attention: I am seeking for the answer how to transform extreme and adverse into familiar and comfortable by the means of design.

    It is probably the time to mention my PhD thesis about transport vehicles and co-creation as the basic principle for ‘Arctic design’. First, I have to refer to the term ‘co-creation’ as I used it in Russian: ‘so-tvorchestvo’. It has nothing to do with marketing strategies of how-to-increase-consumption; it is apart and beyond commercial dimension. Generally, it is a process of ‘equal input’, distributing responsibilities, sharing experiences and enjoying oneself by creating something for one’s own use. In case of Artic, and particularly in case of emerging culture, it is a way of local appropriation of artifacts, especially technological objects. And this kind of activity (i.e. creation) is, in my opinion, exactly the means of adaptation and survival.

    In these conditions a designer could (or even should if we are talking about a new agenda for Arctic designers) take a role of a mediator and provoker (i.e. initiator) between Human and Technology. Of course, that has always been so since the time of the origin of design profession, but the key difference now is that designers renounce their professional claims to the ‘meaningful content’ of things: it is a shift from localization (adjusting some features of existing objects to incorporating local characteristics: but the ‘platform’ remains the same) to appropriation. Therefore, any designer critically needs to be assisted by a certain co-author, i.e. a person who would bring a desirable content (put into an artifact his/her heart and soul), while a designer would be able to implement professional skills and knowledge.
    An alternative version of design process requires redefining the role of a user: from a consuming acceptor to a creative donor. But it is not as simple as it sounds, especially for users themselves. And this is exactly the reason for the period of Adaptive Design to exist: to give a user enough time for preparing and awakening of a personal creativity, i.e. a desire to design for him/herself.

    Summary: it is suggested to design objects for the Arctic (particularly vehicles) as open assembly, i.e. to supply users with ‘unlocked’ technologies rather than ready-made objects. This idea makes the subject matter of the co-creation. It is defined as the model of collaboration between the user and different kinds of knowledge, such as: technical knowledge (engineer), indigenous knowledge and artistic knowledge (designer).

    Sorry for the chaotic text above, just wanted to share my thoughts,
    and I am looking forward to continue the discussion!


  3. fstammle

    Thank you Svetlana for these elaborate thoughts.
    I think that Gibson’s / Ingold’s affordances also stand for traits of objects or features in the environment that sort of enable thinking in to a specific direction. So indeed affordances somehow can be seen as a frame of possibilities for human agency. But the point is that it is the agent that has to choose which direction to go for. Let’s take a stone: it has the affordance of being a building material. If you see that, you can build a house. But if you see only its affordance as a weapon, you can’t possibly build a house from it. You can only use it to kill. Or you see its affordance as a very solid material which you can shape, for example sharpen into a knife. THen you use it for cutting things like in stone age. So I would maintain that affordances don’t have to be seen to be restricting people’s creativity. Quite on the contrary, they can be seen as opportunities for people to think in a particular direction for creating something. So affordances may be seen then as the prerogative for co-creation?
    I like the dialogic way in which you frame your co-creation idea, and it seems that affordances are that other side of the dialogue that leads to co-creation.

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