Research as world-building & the community formed along the way

Submitted by Sasha Duttchoudhury on

There comes a moment when analyzing and understanding the complexity of what currently is limits the possibilities of what could be. 

In June, five professors and 20 students came together for this year’s Summer Institute of the Arts and the Humanities (SIAH), “Creating Alternate Worlds.” The professors consisted of Phillip Thurtle and Nat Mengist from CHID, Tyler Fox from CHID and HCED, and Audrey Desjardins and Heidi Biggs from design; the students that participated came from even more interdisciplinary backgrounds including physics, political science, and 3D4M, in addition to CHID and design. 

By the last week of August, we had twenty alternate worlds and a new understanding of how to approach our current one. 

We approached the idea of world building through speculative design theory, gaming, philosophy, science, and afrofuturism. Thus, Sun Ra’s jazz brought us into space, we considered the embodied experience of a bonsai tree on a field trip to the Pacific Bonsai Museum, and engaged in generative conversations around how objects implicate a system of relationships. 

But to even begin the process of world building, we had to start off by defining what even constitutes a world. We defined a world as the place where crossings of perspectives are situated, where things can come forth and form relationships. Phillip made sure to emphasize that understanding any world as such comes with a method and a politics to which must be understood as containing relationships that are far from neutral. 

The theory and method behind world building sought to reimagine constrained human relationships that appear to be omnipresent at this moment, and this took place over the summer in both content and form. Our worlds came from personal experience, intuition, and engagement with ideas which led to a radical cultivation of vulnerability and openness in the community participating in SIAH. 

In the earlier weeks of the summer, this manifested in the deep discussions we had about our shared readings, and as we began our individual projects, the support from instructors and peers allowed for a maintained stability that lead to courageous creativity. 

My project started off with the question, what comes after the anthropocentric subject? I found myself easily excited by diving into the theory and challenged by the ‘making’ aspect of the program. The actual building of something was crucial, and I found myself looking to the designers and artists for inspiration. But more than anything, I felt open to taking creative risks and supported in external processing by everyone participating.  

I ended up building a science fiction world in which some subjects undergo a transformation process where their bodies crystalize. My world materialized through sculpture and a sound-experience that placed the viewer/listener into a world that made one’s drive to become inorganic primary. I wanted to better understand human-supremacist frameworks. 

In the final analysis of the world building process, I wrote:  “Ultimately, my experience of building this world was not one of reconciliation or resolution; rather, it has left me a bit uncomfortable. Even as I attempted to make an artefact and worldview that would at once intrigue, unsettle, and prompt the viewer into questions of their own, I did not expect that to be the way that I felt at the end of this process.” 

In retrospect, I think this point gets at what I found most profound about world building; it moves you away from operating on the plane of concepts into a deeper and potentially more unsettling realm of engagement, the difference between learning about a body in anatomy class and a sculptor modeling their own body in clay. The questions I asked in my project weren’t “answered” by the time of the exhibition and presentation, and still, what emerged from mine and all of our worlds were new questions and a creative method for better understanding what is and what could be. 

The summer culminated in two events: a “Worlds in Progress” exhibition, where we displayed our artefacts and world views and a symposium where we all presented an analysis of our research through world building. 

Mira Petrillo, senior in CHID