The Design Challenges
This was a very large project of which continent. was only a part. We were invited to join this team by the exhibition curator, Rebekka Kiesewetter.
The first challenge to address was how to understand ourselves as a team.
In the States most of us know the country as “Switzerland” but since the middle of the nineteenth century the country has often used “Confoederatio Helvetia.” Although I attended graduate school in Switzerland, I have lived a significant amount of my life in the southeastern United States, which has its own legacy of confederation.
But I was the only member on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Many of the other members of the team were based in some proximity to Basel or Zürich, thus enabling meetings for ideation. This proximity was crucial for development meetings and so there were frequent meetings among the team in those areas.
The issue of proximity was not necessarily such a hurdle for the continent. crew, however, because we had been working together remotely since 2010. We’ve come to embrace spontaneity, mutual arisings, and deep, generative pauses that allow us to negotiate a plurality of sometimes contradictory opinions about what we ought to do next. We’ve come trust one another, implicitly.
Because Rebekka’s decision to include us was in part based on a reading workshop we had previously organized at the Centre Culturel Suisse–Paris, “Reading Friendships” (2016) we decided that our efforts toward the exhibition should be focused on doing what we do best: synthesizing a plurality of perspectives into a cohesive whole.
The London Design Biennale’s theme, Emotional States, was selected “to provoke a broad interpretation across design disciplines, with immersive and engaging installations that interrogate how design affects every aspect of people’s lives the way we live and how we live but also influences our very being, emotions and experiences.”
In our early conversations as a team we began discussing the myriad ways in which “who we are” is often misunderstood. As an expert on Chinese Philosophy I am constantly seeking ways to explain how a “self” is imagined is not a universally-shared concept. Most people have a sense of self (after the reach certain neurodevelopmental marks), but how that self is understood is typically a result of the culture in which that person has been raised.
To illustrate my point about the cultural basis of selfhood, look to the ways in which we address a crowd in English versus in Chinese. In English we typically say something like, “hi everyone,” or, “hi everybody,” and in both sentences we are addressing individuals (every one, every body). But in Chinese we would say “大家,” (dajia), literally meaning, “big family.” In the Chinese context, “who we are” is a matter of filial obligations, not individuals collected.
Not only is “who we are” a cultural matter, if we look at the biology, things get murky as well, as we see when we consider the microbiome. Initially the microbiome was often introduced by noting that there were orders of magnitude more bacterial cells in a human body than there were nucleated cells (although this is not substantiated any longer). The prevalence of microorganisms around us, in us, transferred between us, and literally sculpting our physical forms led the group to explore matter further. Rebekka had landed on “Body of Us” as an articulation of the problems she saw in how countries argue for their necessity.
Combining the insights generated among us led the team to ultimately create an enormous petri dish in which microscopic parts of our bodies could be cultured together.
While the installation team worked through their ideas the continent. team began to generate responses. We revisited the materials we’d collected in Paris in 2016 and particularly the relationships between the English terms “kith,” “kin,” and “kenning.” An English speaker will sometimes refer to others as their “kith and kin,” and this intimates that they feel a deep connection to the persons in that discussion. “D’ye ken it?” has largely been an isolated question among English speakers in northern England and Scotland. To “ken” something is to know something about the object. A “kenning” is a way naming something through metaphor. For example, “the whale’s bath” is a way of naming an ocean or sea.
In our friendships all kinds of kennings happen. Nicknames, inside jokes, and so on point to a kind of intimate knowing that is mutually informing. We decided to generate a printed and online publication focused on friendship as a mode of artistic creation.
Below are some images of the print publication and you can also visit the website www.bodyofus.com to read the materials we collected.