Tracing Materials, Rethinking Relations – In Conversation With Michaela Büsse

COTVN Interview #1

02 | 12 | 19

Interview conducted by: Michelle Geraersts | Edited by: Rhian Morris
Michaela’s film is included at the bottom of this interview.

From 9 to 13 September 2019, the Cartographies of the Vanishing Now Lab took place in Amsterdam. This five-day art-science laboratory investigated how sensory art, cartographic design and speculative storytelling can contribute to a better understanding of a new unstable world under the influence of climate change.

More than 40 makers and thinkers – artists, designers, scientists, creative coders, performers, scholars and speculative writers – came together to work on new knowledge development and artistic prototypes. The Lab set out to capture the impact of the growing ecological instability on the way we organise and model our modern world, trace the forces behind environmental change and shift perspectives to relate differently to our past, present and possible futures. This is the first interview in a series of COTVN interviews and essays.


Michaela Büsse’s interest spans design cultures, anthropology and philosophies of technology and ecology. As an editor of MIGRANT JOURNAL — a six-issue publication exploring the circulation of people, goods, information, and even fauna and flora, around the world — she tests new approaches to combine artistic research with the editorial practice.

On 9 September, Michaela hosted a Lab talk about design research, alternative cartographies and transdisciplinary processes of tracing materials. In an interview, we spoke with her about design and cartography in the context of ecological destruction, transdisciplinary efforts in artistic research, and the role of the nonhuman.

The problematic human impact on Earth’s ecology is an important starting point for the COTVN Lab. In your design and editorial practices, you critically assess material flows. How does your work connect precisely to current ecological or environmental issues?

MB: My work is a critical reflection on human-material entanglements. Both at MIGRANT JOURNAL but also in my own research project I am trying to untangle how different lives are implicated with materials and environments in multiple ways. Looking through the lens of the material allows us to see relations that have been ignored for a long time—at least in certain parts of the world. However, more often than not (design) solutions to ecological and/or environmental problems are reinforcing the systems that caused these issues in the first place. At MIGRANT JOURNAL, with our multi-layered approach to migration, we are illustrating that the phenomenon of migration goes well beyond the wave of current migration in the Mediterranean and can’t be separated from economic, ecological and historical contexts. Similarly, in my ongoing research on sand transformations in the Netherlands and South East Asia, I’m challenging the politics behind practices of sustainability.

In your current position as editor of MIGRANT Journal, can you reflect on the cartographic practices and artistic research that you have been engaged in?

MB: With MIGRANT JOURNAL we are trying to map something that is in fact not mappable – migration. It’s a phenomenon that takes place on many different scales, human and nonhuman, and with various ramifications. In order to get a hold of what this might mean we devoted six mono-thematic issues to different realms of migration, such as city vs country side, airborne vs seaborne migration, micro vs macro migration. Of course, you can’t separate these spaces but in temporarily isolating them we can see interesting micro stories emerging. The pieces in MJ span fiction, illustration, essay, artistic work and documentary. Bringing together different approaches to storytelling—historically-framed ones, situated ones, fictional ones, image-based ones and not least our own infographics—provides entry points for different levels of engagement. Over the course of three years we brought together almost 100 voices. Altogether, they might give a hint to what migration means. 

In your ongoing research on sand, where did your focus on nonhuman, abiotic material originate? How did you become interested in sand?

MB: My interest in sand originates from my first encounters with its complexity during a residency I did in 2018 with NTU CCA in Singapore and MCAD in Manila. Sand is a finite geological resource with a formation process that exceeds the human life span many times over. It is one of the five resources with the highest global demand in the centre stage of political, economic and ecological warfare; in the form of quartz and silica it is essential to the technological infrastructures shaping our everyday life; as cement and steel it acts as the literal building blocks of modernity; in the form of land mass it demarcates the poor and the rich—those who mine and export land and those who import and “recover”. From the microscopic scale—sand being a compound of eroding rock, and degrading shells and plants—to the global scale—geological rifts caused by the reallocation of whole islands—sand is a truly planetary medium central to the Western obsession with progress. 

Did theory function as a starting point for your research, or did it rather start from an artistic curiosity?

MB: It goes both ways, I suppose. I started my fieldwork in 2018 with an interest in human-material relationships and how they are shaped by design (when I talk about design, I’m referring to the agency of design and the way it acts within the world and not about processes of designing). However, once I entered the field with my camera, the encounters I had radically altered the direction of my research. So, I had to rethink my theoretical framework as well. I find this a very fruitful and inspiring iterative process, which of course is never completely random because I have a certain sensibility towards topics that interest me but outcomes and directions are rather open. This process is still ongoing and hopefully continues after I submit my dissertation. Trying to dissect what is theory and what is practice in my process doesn’t seem to be appropriate because they are very much entangled, if they are at all different things. 

It must be difficult sometimes for people to understand what your research is about, when you ask them how they relate to sand. Do they know how to deal with such questions? And what is the role of storytelling therein?

MB: Well, I would never ask this question directly. Understanding how different lives in different places are entangled with sand is more of an outcome, something I’m trying to approximate by analysing relationships to the environment. Through dialogues about the way people live or work, or how they think about certain processes, I can distil habits and worldviews and only in juxtaposition with other accounts an idea of difference emerges. Additionally, I do research on the geopolitical, historical and economic contexts that affect how those relationships unfold which allows me to locate personal accounts within their corresponding political narratives. Eventually, what I can do is to collect different stories and bring them in correspondence and in this transposition we (hopefully) learn something about ourselves and the world we live in. 

What is your stance towards the role of technology in the face of ecological crisis?

MB: I don’t have a general stance toward technological solutions to the ecological crisis. When it comes to the Netherlands it’s surely questionable to which extent the Delta Works do good or harm in protecting people. It’s been the same technologies which are supposed to keep the country dry that eventually do ecological damage on different scales. We encountered such an example during the COTVN field trip to Oosterschelde but it’s something that is also very present in the fieldwork I did in the Netherlands: a technological fix here, causes an unforeseen harm there. One solution would be not to live at the coast but due to economic interests in global logistics this is probably not going to happen. I think we need to get rid of the idea of one-way progress, which comes with techno-optimist views and keeping up of the status quo.

How do you think we could get past this human centered thought?

MB: I’m not sure how we, as humans, can or should get past human-centeredness. I think trying to think with and through the other, the nonhuman, helps to look anew at the human. It can be a vehicle to question what we mean when we talk about “the human”.

Finally, as both a speaker and a participant, could you share with us what the lab meant for you as a designer and researcher?

MB: I appreciate interdisciplinary initiatives like COTVN very much because the range of differently informed accounts of a place (in our case Oosterschelde) tells so much more than a single voice could ever do. In a very condensed time frame, we tested multiple approaches to relate theory and field work through practice and it was great to see how everyone developed their own set of tools. The open-ended character of the lab allowed to follow one’s own thread or collaborate at times. I particularly enjoyed this open-mindedness and the explorative character of the week.


Interview conducted by: Michelle Geraerts
Edited by: Rhian Morris