Why I would like to walk with the students

With all contact teaching at Aalto University suspended, only those with express permission can access the buildings on campus. Teaching happens online.

No chance then of incorporating walking into my courses this spring as I’d hoped. That means we won’t be able to approach environmental sustainability on foot, using all our senses. No chance to develop my idea of infrastructure walks with the students.

We are having to consider in more cerebral and discursive ways the nodes and lines that connect us here in Helsinki with far-away things, people and processes. Shame, since in one way or another, to support sustainability creatively (it’s in the name of the master’s programme), we need to understand those connections.

Still, a while ago, as part of Helsinki Design Week 2019 I did instigate a small walk on the Aalto campus. Walking seemed a natural fit for the theme, Designs for a Cooler Planet.

Walking is the speed for noticing, as Anna Tsing reminds us, so walking together offered a way of noticing more richly. In the pitch I’d made for the Otaniemi Walk, I boasted that like the Ancients, we would stroll together to learn. No great innovation there, I suppose, walking has swiftly become an approach-of-choice for many of us curious about the environment, and I will continue making notes on it on this blog.

Anna K HDW walk Otaniemi 2019

Photo by Eeva Berglund

And so, with Anna Kholina (above), who has walked, talked, sketched, listened, photographed and videoed most of Otaniemi campus for her doctorate, we ventured into a sunny September (!) evening. We attended particularly to the infrastructures or foundations that our ways of life depend on.

I got to indulge my passion for pipes, handles and boxes. We all got to quiz each other about such things – as experts in ways of life (culture and history you might say, though I take an anthropological view on that stuff – pretty much everything is included!), others as technical experts, still others shared local stories. (The masculine bias of those stories, though, in this hub of Finnish engineering prowess, meant we didn’t dwell on those*.)

Drains at Otaniemi 2019 GJ

Photo by Guy Julier

We were a small but enthusiastic group. I was also glad to have Samir Bhowmik along to share his knowledge of the subterranean supports of our Finnish normal. We need archaeologists of contemporary (and recent) media infrastructures like him, to help us attend to things like underground cables that are ordinarily invisible.

Back in September I was nurturing the idea of attending to such technical networks with the students. We could perhaps work out some grounded and easy-to-point-at examples of how the nearby and far-away are linked in ways that affect their sustainability. We could maybe also develop a new awareness of what it might mean to speak of the environment, nature, infrastructure and so on. We might work out ways to analyze how seamlessly – or not – growing things, manufactured things and ideas are blended into the landscape and how they operate in our everyday worlds.

I thought that if we built up our conversations from the act of walking to notice, the courses would work differently. My hope was that walking might help us all consider the environment as irredeemably historical and surprisingly human without ever ceasing to be natural.

Over the months since then I have found afficionados of learning from the immediate and sensory – walking for example – keen to understand urban networks, whether (easily) sensed by us or not. There are so many papers, books and online references for one to get lost in… I want to indulge in infrastructural tourism.  I’ve even started daydreaming of being twenty-something again, starting university studies over again, since these days it is possible to seriously research such modern things as cables, toxic materials or city streets and still be an anthropologist. Despite its colonial baggage, i.e. an early interest in precisely the non-modern, anthropology can be a fabulous way to study things that are overtly modern, technological and industrial (like waste disposal) in character.

That folks with such sophisticated and up-to-date knowledge of technological innovation are also into walking has been a particularly welcome discovery.

It’s a change from the common tendency for emphasizing the body and the senses in quiet, out-of-the-way or relatively solitary contexts. As beautiful and empowering as such accounts can be, I still get the impression that walking methods  are overwhelmingly for researching worlds and experiences that are earth-bound in a pre-anthropocene way – without cables, wires, magnetic fields and monetizable digital data. Without those, though, it’s hard to acknowledge and analyze, let alone to start redesigning, the normality that industrialism has bequeathed. To turn away from current unsustainability towards real sustainability, it’s the damaging mainstream that needs analysis more – I think.

So it feels sad that I can’t do those infrastructure walks with the students right now.

That being said, student-led initiatives flourish at Aalto. They demonstrate that students already do appreciate the entanglements and connections I wanted to work through by walking. Better still, students are actually acting to change things.

Our September walk, for instance, ended up (see image below) at a student-led experiment in sustainability that is known as the Test Site (I might blog on the irony of that term at some point). Besides the garden, it has a host of initiatives that put into practice design with nature, low-tech systems and social innovation.

I know it’s stupidly late to thank our hosts from September, but it was a wonderful place and a great way to conclude our walk, with food, foot-bath and conviviality and much talk.

Thank you Andrea, Ada, Jinwook and everyone else. A mix of fast and slow, of tech and nature, of infrastructure and event, its a place where learning the here and now goes together with learning the far away. Making those connections, in my view, is precisely what sustainability expertise must be about.

So it’s a pleasure to note that there will be another walk at the Helsinki Design Week this year. Surely whatever Covid19 does, the collective – small – walk will survive through it.

 

Test Site 190912 Jinwook cropped

Photo by Hwang Jinwook

* It’s coming up to vappu, valborg, Mayday eve, that crucial festival of light towards the end of a Nordic winter. It is a fascinating cultural phenomenon whichever way you look at it. Otaniemi campus has a particular role in the festival here in Finland. Otaniemi as Technical University has long been the fount of engineering skills and of a particular kind of masculine student humour and pranks. The students have always also made a publication distributed to the  public, which at least in my experience, has traded in  gendered jokes that are understandably not equally appreciated across the current student body. Anyway, all of the above is noticeable by its absence in this year of Covid19, but anthropologist of technology, Vincent Ialenti noted its salience among technical experts in a short article.

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