Playing with Communication

I came across the work of Kate Hartman while watching a whole bunch of TED talks in preparation for a semester of teaching communication studies to both college students and high-schoolers.  I was hoping to find presentations that would get my classes excited about the possibilities of oral presentations, both through their content and the quality of the speakers’ delivery.  Ideally, these would be examples of innovative, critical thinking, presented to an audience in a creative way, with enthusiasm and well-utilized visuals aids.

That Kate Hartman’s work is all about communication—with oneself, with others, with nature, with inanimate objects—was so much the better.  Hartman creates what she calls “wearable communications” and is a Professor of Wearable and Mobile Technology at the Ontario College of Art and Design.  Here’s an example of one of her designs, the Muttering Hat, which externalizes the process of thinking and also enables you share it with a friend:

Kate Hartman's Muttering Hat

I was first struck by the way that her objects make concrete and a little strange (in a Formalist way—as in making us suddenly aware, making visible) the possibilities and challenges of communication and relationship in various contexts.  I like how her designs experiment at the interface of body and communication device, sometimes seeking to fit the device a little more easily to the flesh by making electronics more cushy and comfortable to wear (see her work on “soft and flexible” circuits) and sometimes acknowledging a huge gulf that needs traversing between our bodies and the natural world.  Her sweet, almost tender design for an interface for communicating with glaciers is an example of the later.  She describes the suits she has designed for this project as “intended for awkward introductory glacier encounters…enabling a person to lie prone on the surface of the glacier and give it a hug.” (See “Initial Investigatory Research for Glacier-Human Communication Techniques.”)  Here are some views of her glacier communication device:

Hartman's Glacier Communication Suit

All of her designs highlight awkwardness is some way, as she brings into view the weirdness and circuitousness of our attempts to listen to/communicate with other beings and natural things, but also the beauty and the vulnerability of those attempts.  But these works are also tapping into some big issues swirling around right now, like the uneasy integration of technology with nature, or how some scholars are engaged in rethinking the position of the human being in relation to the technological and natural worlds—a project driven by urgent ecological and ethical imperatives.  The more I look at and think about her work, the more I notice how it attempts to facilitate communication between humans and the non-human other by utilizing the newer communication tools, like Twitter, that we’ve become so accustomed to—thus throwing the limits and the possibilities of these tools into relief.  (Three of her works are featured in the current exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, “Talk to Me,” which is all about the ways people and things communicate. You can read here, for example, about the “Botanicalls” project she co-created, in which houseplants can send tweets to their owners when they need to be watered.)

Because of how resonant and current I found the ideas behind her designs, I was fairly surprised, during a leisurely scan of the viewer comments under her TED talk, to find so many viewers dismissing her work as childish, frivolous, and unworthy of the platform the  producers had given her.  Yes, she is kind of a funny, irreverent speaker, but her creations clearly are engaging on multiples levels with contemporary concerns.  So I was left with a few questions, which spurned some further musings about how I teach communications.

Maybe what I was reading in the comments speaks to the difficulty of getting different disciplines talk to each other, and to what happens when someone decides to work through a variety of disciplines—between art and design, technology, and teaching as well.  And perhaps because Hartman is playing around with her concepts, as in really being playful and having a good time about it, it might be harder for some to see the heavier intellectual work behind her explorations.  Hartman herself has spoken about the need to balance enthusiasm and criticalness.  She said in an interview: “I think we need both. It’s really important to lower the barrier for entry to get people involved but that shouldn’t subsume maintaining a sense of criticality in the ways in which we use technology and the ways we view art and design.”  So I’m left wondering: is there a way to create spaces in my Comm. 1010 classroom for both play and critical thought?  I often struggle with wanting to encourage my students to become inquisitive, receptive listeners, to be able to let down some of their filters and be open to radically new or different perspectives.  At the same time, I want to give them the tools to be critical listeners, sharp and adept at evaluating claims and assessing evidence.  Because honestly, I think they need help becoming both (as do I).  But don’t students have to master the forms before they can play with them, push at their edges?  I plan to show Hartman’s talk to both my classes, and not just to mine it for examples of good delivery, or strong argumentation, but also to begin a conversation about how to approach novel concepts with both an open and a discerning mind.

Speak Your Mind