‘Thinking by Hands’: Designers’ Field Trip to Yamal

Hello everybody,

In this post I would like to share briefly yet another pile of work in the field of ‘Arctic-based’ design research. My personal fascination with mobility of Arctic nomads, coupled with professional interest in experimentation in the field of design education have recently resulted into the project “Visualizing Arctic Mobility”, funded by Finnish Cultural Foundation and Ella & Georg Erhnrooth Foundation. The central part of this project was a field trip to remote indigenous settlements of Yamal as a form of outdoor artistic practice for art/design students from Finland and Russia. The aim was to deliver new exercises and learning materials as well as new forms of presenting research findings, i.e. in addition to verbal the findings will be further presented through film, drawings and paintings. 


Our team consisted of six people: apart from me as a team leader, there were

–        three BA students from the Department of Industrial Design, Ural State Academy of Architecture and Arts, Ekaterinburg, Russia: Tonya Belyaeva, Ilya Polyanskikh and Radmir Gelmutdinov;

–        A graphic and textile artist/Illustrator and doctoral student from the Department of Design, Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture, Helsinki, Finland, Marjukka Vuorisalo; and

–        A former trainee of the University of Lapland, currently a videographer in Film Production Company Joulupukki TV Nuno Escudeiro.

Our team:  The top row: Ilya, Svetlana, Tonya and Radmir; The bottom row: Nuno and Marjukka
Our team. The top row: Ilya, Svetlana, Tonya and Radmir; the bottom row: Nuno and Marjukka

Of course, such amount of participants is rather big for an expedition with the ethnographic focus. I must admit we were not mobile and flexible at all: it was pretty difficult to engage with the community and, consequently, to immerse deeply into their daily life. On the other hand, however, it was fruitful in terms of variety of ‘thinking hands’, i.e. drawing skills and techniques as well as artistic visions.


All the drawing exercises are divided into three main groups:

–        ‘surface drawings’, i.e. those to present visible reality (an artist/photographer’s observation);

–        ‘analytic/surgery drawings’, i.e. those to reflect upon skills and technologies involved (design/engineering analysis); and

–        ‘unveiling drawings’, i.e. those to reveal the immaterial ‘soul’ of things (artistic imagination)

During the expedition per se, the focus was on making observational drawings: from paintings of surrounding landscapes (though of minor importance), and, of most importance, portraits of people and their belongings. It was critical to draw not ‘an average Nenets sledge’, but the narta of a particular craftsman made at a certain place with certain conditions.

In the women's world: Marjukka and Tonya are making sketches in the chum
In the women’s world: Marjukka and Tonya are making sketches inside the chum
The Narta Day: studying embodied mobility
The Narta Day: studying embodied mobility

Our personal approach (let’s call it ‘the way of visually connecting a product with its maker/owner’) brings the artistic (emotional) vision into the ‘dry’ process of data gathering. In other words, ‘living’ hand drawings will help us further to understand how indigenous craftsmen produce ‘living’ things, in their multiple essences – from physical to spiritual. 

Preliminary results: observational drawings (Photo by L. Kelchina)
Preliminary results: observational drawings (Photo by L. Kelchina)

The work is now moving to the next stage, i.e. to analytical drawings. The first public exhibition is expected to be in December, at Aalto University, Helsinki. I will keep you posted about the progress, and meanwhile, would love to hear any questions, comments and suggestions.

P.S. Many thanks to Lidia Kelchina, the Department of Indigenous Small Peoples of the North, YaNAO, and to Yury Novopoltsev, ‘Yamal Tour’, for the organizational support and invaluable help during our adventurous trip.

Designers go North (travel notes)

Hello everybody,

Glad to be here again in order to share my impressions and reflections on a recent fieldtrip to Northern Lapland (the summer part can be found here: https://arcticanthropology.org/2012/09/07/arctic-design-field-thoughts-and-questions/). This time it was a month-long travel between Finland, Sweden and Norway (as my Sami friends nicely say – the United States of Sápmi).

This trip was full of ‘first time’ experiences, such as spotting Northern Lights and wandering in winter tundra, driving a snowmobile and testing Sámi funky-looking reindeer boots (now I have my own pair!), meeting reindeers ‘in person’ and watching traditional way of slaughtering (cruel? Not at all, very efficient)…

Now looking backwards, I can even say that this trip was my most insightful fieldwork so far: it was full of unique ‘breathtaking moments of discovery’!

In brief, I can divide those moments into three groups:

–       those related to nature;

–       technology-related; and even

–       spiritual.

For the first group, I should probably talk about incredible beauty of Aurora Borealis, how I stiffened in astonishment, in -20C outside, without a jacket and surprisingly didn’t feel cold at all…  But it was winter tundra that impressed me much more: not because of its attractiveness, but vice versa. In my first opinion, it was perhaps one of the most boring landscapes I’ve ever seen. That is why I was so confused by the question of my Sámi friend, whether I could find my way back from here (Sámi people have amazing and peculiar sense of humor, by the way): “Of course not, since everything looks similar, in any direction!”

It was a sincere fascination that came after a couple of days – fascination with people who can see the beauty of these surroundings, who do not just accept this environment, but also interact with it: by talking, reading the signs, getting relaxed, etc.

However, finally, we – the tundra and me – have found our common language and, I think, have understood each other:


The second point in my ‘wow-list’ relates to technologies, both traditional and modern. For the first example, let’s have a look at traditional reindeer boots:


This small piece of outfit contains a great variety of technologies that altogether facilitate a human performance in extreme environment. For now, let’s talk only about funny bent tips. They are well known as ski-hooks, but this one function is just a ‘tip of the iceberg’. In fact, this particular shape is incredibly perfect for keeping toes warm, because it constitutes an internal ‘extra-storage’ of warm air. Even though it might sound quite obvious, it can hardly be figured out and appreciated from looking at the shape, without trying it. When I did my spontaneous ‘field test’, the first impression was a deep astonishment: my feet were warm, and it was such an unusual feeling! It has never happened to me in winter before, I’m always freezing immediately after going out, in spite of any kind of fancy ‘hi-tech’ boots I have ever tried.

This example is just yet another confirmation that ‘traditional technologies’ are far from being simple, primitive, and so on; also their implications cannot be grasped ‘in a glance’. 

These are not boots, they’re my feet. This is not a knife, it’s my sixth finger… Every thing you carry onto your body is a part of your survival kit. (quotes from interviews)

The same about the hay filling: I tried myself several types of insoles and none of them worked as perfect as hay. Hey, Gore-tex and other hi-tech stuff, sorry to tell, but you failed! The real Arctic hi-tech has been born and developed ‘in situ’ thousands years ago, and our modern industry is still far away from this level.

Another example relates to ways of using modern technology. I found out that local appropriation of snowmobiles among Sámi is nowadays a product of ‘beyond design’ thinking: the owners literally separate form and function by detaching the original fancy surface (the engine hood, for example) and replacing it with a handmade cover. The reason for such actions is simply practical: plastic parts are easy to damage during intensive and ‘inappropriate’ usage for reindeer herding. When the one-year guarantee is expired, the owner puts the original cover back, so it is easy to sell the machine and buy a new one, with more advanced technical characteristics.

Generally, it is a kind of ‘x-ray look’ at machines:

I am neither happy with the existing form, nor need a new one. The technology itself is far from being perfect, so what’s the point to conceal it with different shapes? (quotes from interviews)

[Unfortunately I cannot show any pictures here at the moment]

But the most important thing I discovered was that special northern ‘boevoi dukh’ (a competitive spirit, which Florian Stammler mentions quite often when he talks about Nenets people): I found it in Kautokeino. Here the Sámi culture is so strong and lively, that one immediately gets inspired. It was the first time for me abroad, when this spirit was so unmistakable and explicit: while talking, spending time with locals I could easily recognize those adventurous people who went with Fridtjof Nansen to the Greenland Icecap, who spread reindeer herding to Alaska and Canada, who still follow their animals, as thousands of years ago, no matter what other things they do for living nowadays…

I do not mean, however, that in other places of Sápmi people are ‘less Sámi’: the  form of expression is just different. I could compare it to a water flow: at some point it might be a plains river, a quiet lake, but here it’s a waterfall or a fountain… It should be something in the air of Kautokeino!

Instead of conclusion, let me share a quick sketch of ‘peaceful reindeer life’…


by Svetlana Usenyuk

Arctic Design: Field Thoughts and Questions


Hi everybody, this is my second appearance in this blog (see the first one https://arcticanthropology.org/2012/03/07/arctic-design-and-indigenous-knowledge/). I have just finished my summer fieldwork in Northern Lapland; so let me share my fresh thoughts.

…In 2006, in the beginning of August, I was sitting in a big bus, drowning in a blue soft seat, traveling from the railway station of Pyt’-Yakh to the city of Khanty-Mansyisk, where my first fieldwork was supposed to start. Six years later, another bus, but with seats of exactly the same blue plush – what a coincidence! – moved me from Rovaniemi to Inari for my first fieldwork in a foreign country.

My Experience so far

Going to the field, I must admit I did not really know what to expect. I came with a vague idea of ‘indigenous patterns of movement’. I was not sure what particularly ask from people and what to tell them about practical application of my work, so all those things made me nervous. Well, I was also a bit scared of traveling alone for such a long period, i.e. approximately a month. But on the other hand, I was full of energy and, of course, longing for adventures and discoveries. Being over-enthusiastic and, at the same time, very naive, I underestimated the fact of my ‘alienness’: not only in terms of nationality, but also in terms of the very essence of the fieldwork in such an exotic context. Of course, designers also do fieldwork; it is a critical part of many projects; but design ethnographers usually work in teams, and mainly use prototypes to create dialog with the people under study. Also the main actors are users – actual or potential – but hardly ‘vernacular designers’ (let’s call so indigenous people and their material culture). And basically design fieldwork does not last so long.

Lazy morning. Lake Inari

I soon discovered that specific character of the designers’ fieldwork is to say very little about possible practical application, which in the initial stage can be difficult to formulate. While presenting something raw and yet unverified, the intention is to explain and defend what you have already done. However, it seems the first step for a design researcher is to map the ‘research surface’: to put over it a certain multidisciplinary ‘mesh’ and then specify the ‘global coordinates’ of main disciplines…

When I came to Inari, ‘the heart of Sápmi’, having just an idea of possible accommodation (at a simple tourist camping) and a couple of contacts for exact work, my ‘inner adventurer’ was strongly disappointed by the ‘level of civilization’: I noticed hotels, supermarkets, even a pizza & kebab place, instead of a tiny remote indigenous village ‘in the middle of nowhere’ (yes, I am still captivated by my romantic field experience in Russia: small Khanty villages in Western Siberia). So, I ‘landed’ at the camping, in a modest wooden cabin, though with Wi-Fi. First week was probably the hardest: I was struggling with myself, suffering from my uselessness and an unfamiliar difficulty to approach people. But what did I expect? I could almost ‘touch’ and ‘smell’ a huge amount of information around me, but I was so annoyed with inability to get it all immediately. Well, things like that never happen ‘in one go’, I tried to convince myself, and after several attacks of impatience I decided just to get to know the place. After a couple of days I find myself painting the landscape, picking up berries in the forest nearby, swimming in the Lake Inari…

But still the question is open: what do you, experienced anthropologists and fieldworkers, do in case of delay, silence and ‘nothing happens’?

Of the week two, suddenly the ice-breaking period has finished: it happened after the festival ‘Ijahis Idja’ (obviously, such events are the best for approaching people: everybody is relaxed, positive and open).

At ‘Ijahis Idja’ festival. Inari
Catching impressions. Lemmenjoki

In two last weeks, I got most of the material to work with and felt much more relaxed in talking to people. And, though most of the people I met were quite serious and not easygoing, I have had the incredible feeling of being surrounded not by individuals who are putting practical matters first but by friends. Then I discovered another problem, i.e. how to get rid of this emotional attachment (and does it ever necessary?), how to come back to ‘normal life’.

And here comes another question: how you researchers can manage the issue of ‘personal involvement’ or ‘emotional link’ with people under study? There might be plenty of books about researchers’ ethics, but I would like to hear some ‘first-hand’ examples.

I will continue writing about my experiences in the field further on

By Svetlana Usenyuk