A design historian at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers


My disciplinary identity is complicated. Most commonly I describe myself as a historian. But I am carrying out my PhD research in a geography department and my historical interests are best described as material and cultural. Often inspired by the work on my contemporary historical geographers, I have on occasion found other geographers refusal to engage with the agency (power and influence) of material objects frustrating.

Chicago, © Ruth Mason, 2015

Chicago, © Ruth Mason, 2015

As such, as I planned to attend the 2015 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Chicago (21st-25th April 2015), I was confronted by a dilemma. Would I wade through many panels on economic, environmental, mobility and political and geographies or would I explore the many gems of art and design that are scattered through Chicago’s grid system?

Ultimately, I came to realise during my time in Chicago that my choice was not as stark as it first appeared. There were days where the conference’s schedule left me cold and the streets of Chicago became overbearing appealing (watch out for future posts about the objects I saw and exhibitions I went to!). However, I gradually became pleasantly surprised by the material issues that are increasingly being discussed within geographical circles and attended various sessions that made interesting points that could profitably be incorporated into design historical thinking.

There were moments of obvious interest in the conference’s schedule. On Tuesday morning I attended a session about the intersections of geography and design, where papers considered how geographical, architectural and landscape design practices could be combined and integrated to make more imaginative approaches to public spaces, mobile homes, America’s ports and the representation of rivers on China’s maps.

I personally contributed to a series of sessions of ‘Geographical Encounters with Odd Objects’, in which presenters discussed the problems and potentials of researching strange material things from alternative angles. Discussions about American yards, public libraries in Toronto and an Evangelical LGBT church in Canada were full of a design historical spirit; engaging with often overlooked material objects and designed spaces and thinking about the alternative insights that they can provide into specific social and cultural contexts.

However, some of the most insightful discussions came out of sessions that on first impressions seemed to have very little apparent interest in design or material things. In a panel on Geographies of Activism there were some interesting discussions about the physical spaces in which protests have been conducted and the material objects and stuff that contributed to the construction of these places as ‘spaces of protest’. Presenters illustrated how protestors and political leaders enter into battles over spaces: leaders making designs and redesigns to allow these spaces to be better controlled, but protestors nevertheless finding ways to subvert their leaders and appropriate these spaces for their own purposes. Others discussed how material things were used to create barricades, spook police horses and facilitate better communication between protestors. In all of these discussions, material things were fundamental to the process of making and controlling spaces of protest and at times even becoming key features in the protest process itself. The agency of material things was recognised.

But perhaps the most interesting conversation that I engaged in was not about objects at all, but about animals. I attended one session on ‘Animal Historical Geographies’, in which presenters talked about wolves, tigers, osprey, mosquitos, horses and pigs (amongst other things). They discussed how ideas about these animals have changed in different places over time, how these animals have created their own spaces and how they have been used by humans to define geographical areas and the dangers associated with them.

What struck me about these papers was that they were all engaging with the agency of animals. However, their discussion was not only about the agency of physical living animals, but also the agency of representations of animals and the material things that are made out of their dead bodies. This made me think about relative agency. Do humans, animals and objects all have equal agency as suggested within the theories of Actor Network Theory? Or do they each have a different agency, a different amount of power and a different way of affecting human thoughts and actions, as recently suggested by Tim Ingold? Their conversations may have been about animals, but it made me think once again about objects and the role we allow them to play in influencing and determining human behaviours.

Further Reading:

Ingold, Tim, ‘Towards an Ecology of Materials’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 41 (2012), pp.427-42

Law, John, ‘Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics’, version of 25th April 2007, http://www.heterogeneities.net/publications/Law2007ANTandMaterialSemiotics.pdf

© Ruth Mason, 2015