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Gemma Copeland

Writing

A few recent contributions to various publications:

Caps Lock

I spoke to Ruben Pater about Common Knowledge for Caps Lock, his new book about graphic design and capitalism. The interview was mainly centred on how Common Knowledge works on a practical level, both internally and in collaboration with others. Ruben’s done such a great job with the book, I’m really proud to be involved and glad that a book like this exists! It’s so important to demonstrate alternatives to traditional design practice, and I think he does a good job of making it super accessible.

A animated GIF showing a person's hands picking up the Caps Lock book and flicking through the pages

There’s More Than One Way to Share Your Design Work

I wrote a short explanation of the design of this very website (meta!) for an AIGA article about alternative approaches to design portfolios.

How to Run a Design Sprint

I gave a very brief explanation of the Google design sprint methodology for Stir To Action’s summer issue, with examples of how we used it in collaboration with Cooperation Town.

 — Unravel from toxic individualism

A few months ago I spoke at a panel discussion for CSM students. It was a partnership with Thames & Hudson and Design Observer to accompany their new edition of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay, Self-reliance. The event aimed to explore what it means to graduate during a crisis after 1+ years of disrupted education.

While I totally agreed with this premise and wanted to contribute, the essay itself and the choice to republish it really grated on me. Of course, it was written in the 19th century, so I can’t really blame Emerson for being a few centuries behind the intersectional feminist, post-colonial and post-humanist thinking. Still, it feels strange to me that the publishers are pointing to the power of individualism as a way to deal with social, political, economical and environmental upheaval. This idea that we’re all individuals and that there’s no such thing as society has been one of neoliberalism’s greatest triumphs.

I wrote a somewhat ranty post about the essay to sort through why I had such a problem with it. I didn’t publish it at the time, but I find myself still thinking about this question of individualism a few months later, so figured I may as well.

Read more

I’ve recently started using Storygraph (thanks Sonia) to track the books I’m reading. It’s a not-Amazon alternative to Goodreads.

When you sign up, you’re asked you a series of questions about the kinds of books you like. It also analyses the mood, pace and genre of the books you read, and then recommends more books based on this. I never actually used Goodreads (I had some low-fi Arena channels for tracking books instead), so I’m really enjoying these kind of features. Apparently I mainly read “slow-paced fiction books that are reflective, informative, and adventurous”.

It seems quite hard to find people you know on the platform, so follow me if you have it (@gemcopeland)!

 — Exploring maps

A collage made from LiDAR imagery of the Amazon rainforest, a map of the video game Subnautica and a Micronesian navigational chart

Maps seem to be the most consistent thing that people ask us to do at Common Knowledge. We don’t know entirely what it is, but people love maps. Not only do organisations love them, they seem to test really well when we do usability testing as well.

We have a couple of particularly interesting mapping projects on at the moment, so while I’ve been ambiently researching interesting maps on Arena for a while, I’ve recently started doing more reading about cartography as well.

Shannon Mattern’s wonderful article How to Map Nothing seeks out the gaps in the map: cartographies of erasure, absence, refusal and exclusion. For something about nothing, it is overflowing with references, projects and ideas. Lots to explore!

We have plenty of maps and data visualizations that trace the macro-scale public health and political-economic forces that precipitated the “Great Pause”; but we have relatively few that show all those under-appreciated agents that are making it possible — all the something anchoring and abetting that nothing, all the pulsing activity powering the pause. So it’s worth exploring the ways in which maps and other forms of indexical spatial data are registering the ambiguities, contradictions, and inequalities inherent in this geography of suspension — an ostensible pause that instead merely extends, and in many ways exacerbates, the injustices of our society and the inadequacies of our ways of conceptualizing and modeling city life.

Mapping’s Intelligent Agents is another great essay, this time focusing on Other approaches to cartography:

Ideally, we should balance or juxtapose different modes of knowledge and production: Western scientific and indigenous epistemologies, human and other-species ontologies, mechanical and organic means of experiencing and representing place, cartographic rationalism and empiricism, projection and retrospection. No single über-map can encompass all such subjectivities and sensibilities. Instead, we can aim for an atlas, a prismatic collection of mappings, that invites comparison and appreciation of the ways in which our world is both known and unknown.

Mattern is currently teaching a class called Mapping the Field, which I wish I could take. Luckily, she’s put the entire syllabus, presentations and reading list online.

In Here Be Dragons, Lois Parshley explores the unknown places that we’re still trying to map: the Arctic, black holes, the ocean floor. She also considers how mapping intersects with health, deprivation and natural disasters. She references Missing Maps, an open, collaborative project where anyone can volunteer to help map areas that are at risk of disaster or crisis.

I also found this offline-first, open-source tool called Mapeo. It allows communities to document, monitor and map data, and was co-designed with indigenous partners in the Amazon.

For a completely different viewpoint, I really enjoyed reading about literary maps and the design of open world video games.

Next, I think I’m going to read Data Feminism by Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein, which I’ve been meaning to read for a while.

 — Hope in work & joy in leisure

Happy May Day!

An illustration from 1895, featuring a barefooted woman surrounded by a May Day garland with slogans woven amongst the flowers and grasses. Some of the slogans include "The cause of labour is the hope of the world" and "No people can be free while dependent for their bread". At the bottom, the text says "A Garland for May Day 1895, dedicated to the workers by Walter Crane".

It’s pretty wild to read about the origins of May Day. Workers had to fight so hard just to get an eight-hour day, which we now all take as given. Happy to see that it was Australian stonemasons who were the first to strike as part of the eight-hour day movement.

Eighteen Black Cats

A TV screen in a gallery space showing a live video feed of the sky above. The sky is mainly blue with some wispy clouds. The video is captioned with a sentence that begins with "As he found no way back…".
Last week How had an exhibition here at Rupert, to show three of the works he’s been developing over the last few months. My favourite was the piece called Wool-gather:

Raising questions about machine consciousness and non-human creativity, Wool-gather brings together aeromancy, day-dreaming and cloud watching through machine learning and image processing. Pointing an object detection algorithm at the sky above Vilnius, the work uses the shapes of the clouds to generate meandering anecdotes and make whimsical predictions about the future.

It was really meditative to watch, very easy to just lie there and have the stories wash over you.

Listening and reading and watching

I watched Crip Camp the other evening, which I found really moving. The amount of fighting that disability activists did (and still have to do) to win the most basic rights is inspiring but also infuriating.

Related: Sonia recommended the Understanding Disability series by Nim Ralph, which unpacks the different models we use to understand disability, how these have developed over time and the impact this has on the lives of disabled people. Highly recommended.

Also thanks to Sonia (who is my main source of reading material these days) is this super interesting reflection on remote work. They argue that working remotely (or, working in distributed teams) removes work as the centre of meaning and fulfilment, allows us to build stronger communities where we live and, ultimately, live fuller lives.

Where and how to live has come up in a lot of conversations lately. Tom has told us about this collective in Sicily that is currently building a community and artist residency, and Anna keeps talking about tiny houses. I guess it’s a combination of the pandemic, being around our early 30’s and not wanting to move around or rent or sublet anymore. How and I still haven’t decided where to move now that we’ve left London, as the second wave has been worse and visas harder to come by than we expected. I really want to find somewhere (in Europe) that is pretty warm, close to nature but well-connected by train to a city… does this place exist?!

A dreamy illustration of a garden, mainly teal, green and dark purple with highlights in pink and blue.
▲ Screenshot from the Arkadia Zoomquilt

I’ve started listening to a lot of super interesting podcasts lately, all circling the same kinds of themes:

New Constellations

Each episode focuses on one person, who talks about their practice, shares their visions for the future, tells stories about their own experiences and approach to life. It’s really well produced and quite relaxing to listen to, because it’s strongly focused on hope and imagination and mutual flourishing.

For All I Care

A series focused on care and healing, presented by Nwando Ebizie. Each episode features a really interesting mix of guests: artists, activists, scientists and care-workers.

Thank you Linsey for the recommendation 🌸

Serpentine

I discovered that the Serpentine gallery has a really good podcast, particularly the episodes created in collaboration with Future Ecologies. Lots of episodes featuring artists and activists who are responding to the climate crisis.

Anything with adrienne maree brown…

I really enjoy listening to her, so I’ve been following How to Survive the End of the World, Octavia’s Parables and the Emergent Strategy podcast.

 — Weaving webs of reciprocity

This week I’m thinking a lot about Braiding Sweetgrass, because the forest floor is now covered in purple and yellow flowers (ground ivy and yellow anenome, I think).

A forest in Lithuania with purple and yellow flowers everywhere. In the background is tree covered in moss and lichen.

That September pairing of purple and gold is lived reciprocity; its wisdom is that the beauty of one is illuminated by the radiance of the other. Science and art, matter and spirit, indigenous knowledge and Western science—can they be goldenrod and asters for each other? When I am in their presence, their beauty asks me for reciprocity, to be the complementary color, to make something beautiful in response.

I really liked the book’s focus on reciprocity as a core principle of nature and means of collaborative survival and much else besides.

How do we refill the empty bowl? Is gratitude alone enough? Berries teach us otherwise. […] They remind us that all flourishing is mutual. We need the berries and the berries need us. Their gifts multiply by our care for them, and dwindle from our neglect. We are bound in a covenant of reciprocity, a pact of mutual responsibility to sustain those who sustain us.

 — Beyond precarity

Just read Brave New Alps’ contribution to Design Struggles. The book is available online in full. Their chapter, Design(ers) Beyond Precarity: proposals for everyday action, explores how to create the social and material conditions that make critical, transformative design practice possible.

I’ve done a handful of talks about my work with Common Knowledge and UVW Designers + Cultural Workers, and this is (unsurprisingly) the question that comes up the most from students. It’s one thing to point out all the problems in the industry and outline alternative ways of working, but how does a new graduate with very little experience carve out a critical practice? Where do you even begin?

A 19th century oil painting of an iceberg. The sky is a mix of reds, pinks, and blues, which are reflected in the water. A wooden ship sails close to the iceberg and looks diminutive in comparison.

Read more

We got some film from last year developed and I love the photos so much. Friendship ended with iPhone camera!

A snow-topped mountain in Wales with wispy clouds just above its peak and a tree in the foreground

A rocky ridgeline silhouetted against a pink and blue evening sky featuring a gibbous moon

A green and blue lake with reeds in the foreground

A tree with puffs of light pink flowers

A woman smiling and picking raspberries after a swim in the river

A cloud-forest in La Gomera, with sunlight streaming through the trees and hanging moss

A wave breaking around a rock on a black sand beach

The top of a mountain in Wales, with low clouds wafting over the grass

A misty road in La Gomera, with forest on either side

Ice crystals on some moss

Most of these are probably taken by HM.

I really enjoy writing alt-text, mainly thanks to the wonderful Alt-Text as Poetry project by Bojana Coklyat and Shannon Finnegan.

On their website they list “three ideas from the world of poetry that we have found to be particularly helpful when writing alt-text”:

1. Attention to Language

Simply by writing alt-text with thought and care, we shift the process. What words are we using? What are their connotations? What is the tone of our writing (the way in which we’re doing the writing)? What is the voice (who the reader hears)? How do these align with, or contrast, the tone and perspective of the image?

2. Word Economy

People who are new to description have a tendency to over-describe images. While there are times for long and lavish descriptions, alt-text usually aims for brevity. For most images, one to two sentences will do. Poetry has a lot to teach us about paring down language to create something that is expressive, yet concise.

3. Experimental Spirit

We have so much to learn from poetry about being more playful and exploratory in how we write alt-text. We are not interested in experimentation for experimentation’s sake — we want a kind of experimentation that moves towards better and more nuanced accessibility for alt-text users. There are lots of complex and interesting questions that come up when translating visual information into text. We need to try out different ways of doing this, learning from each other’s strategies and techniques.

As of this week, I’m living in Vilnius for a few months while HM does the Rupert residency. Feeling very lucky and inspired.

I’ve been drawing lots of Major Arcana cards, which indicates deep shifts and changes. Feels apt.

A desk and two chairs in front of a tall window, looking out into snow and pines, next to The Moon tarot card

I’m simultaneously reading a few books that feel interconnected:

The Ministry for the Future

I really enjoyed Kim Stanley Robinson’s writing style in Red Mars, but felt a bit conflicted reading it because I hate the frontier mentality and techno-solutionism that usually comes along with the idea of colonising Mars.

This book is a near future science fiction novel focused back here on Earth. The eponymous ministry was set up to advocate for the world’s future generations of citizens as if their rights are as valid as the present generation’s. Similar to the seventh generation principle of many indigenous cultures.

As Prem Krishnamurthy summarises in his latest newsletter:

It uses the space of fiction to produce a polyphonic, multi-scalar, politically-essential, and thoroughly engaging thought-experiment: a playbook of prototypes for concrete steps to work against climate catastrophe now.

I haven’t finished it yet but I’m thoroughly enjoying it. Particularly how Robinson weaves together scientific and economic ideas for mitigation and adaptation with compelling human stories.

Parable of the Talents

I just finished Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler. I guess you could say I read a lot about climate change and societal collapse. It’s the sequel to Parable of the Sower, which I read about a year ago and loved, but needed a bit of a break before continuing in that world. Butler’s dystopia is so gut-wrenching and horrifyingly prescient.

I saw that adrienne maree brown and Toshi Reagon have a podcast solely focused on the two books, but haven’t listened yet.

Pharmako-AI

An exchange between K Allado-McDowell and GPT-3. Together they muse upon climate change and cybernetics. Some passages are really eerie, and of course the whole time you’re wondering about what consciousness or intelligence (or even authorship) actually means.

When I look at an animal, that’s what I see: intelligence about a biome, compressed and extracted by evolution into a living form. It takes millions of years for life to coalesce in this way, which is why it’s so tragic when species are lost, that the latent space of ecological knowledge is degraded in this way.

We need to save those aspects, those smarts, the way we do when we save books, before they are lost forever. We need to save them in some kind of ‘intelligence library’ somewhere, along with the ocean’s memory of its place in a stable equilibrium with all other life on this planet. And from that place we can construct a new kind of science, one that is closer to the lessons that living things teach us about themselves, and about life on the planet , Gaia, than we have ever gotten before.

I was originally interested in this after reading The DOOM! Report from Nemesis, which is written in the same way and gives a taste of what this book is like. I find Pharmako-AI much more readable and poetic than that essay, though.

I’m also dipping in and out of the Atlas of Anomalous AI, also published by Ignota and edited by Ben Vickers and K Allado-McDowell. I love anything that references the Mnemosyne Atlas.

An ink drawing of the Tibetan god Yama holding the wheel of life, from the Wellcome collection

Interdependence 40 with Audrey Tang (digital minister of Taiwan)

I was so excited when I saw that the latest Interdependence was with Audrey Tang. This is one of their best episodes so far, imho.

I’ve been so interested in Audrey’s work since reading this article last year. She’s an organiser, coder, politician and poet. Every conversation she has is recorded and published into the public domain. Her approach to politics and what she’s achieved so far is astounding. This episode also really made me want to visit Taiwan.

Some interesting thoughts about how to give non-human entities a say in politics, which reminded me of some of the ideas in Ministry for the Future and also Regen Network.

She mentioned so many interesting things, it was hard to keep up. Including this report from the UN: The Age of Digital Interdependence. I hate reading PDFs on screen but this one looks pretty interesting, if a bit too human-centric.

Going Horizontal

A book about creating non-hierarchal organisations, which we’re reading as part of the inaugural Common Knowledge book club!

Entangled Life

Because I love thinking with mushrooms! They never cease to amaze me. So far, it’s an enjoyable and fascinating book.

A still from Studio Ghibli's Princess Monoke, showing the forest spirit, a giant blue creature made of stars

10 Years with Hayao Miyazaki

A documentary about Miyazaki’s creative process. It’s interesting to see that his talent seems both innate and a lot of hard work. He can capture the energy of an entire story or character in just one sketch, but also has days or weeks where he hates everything that he makes, continuously throws everything out and begins again, or just avoids working all together.

How made me a new avatar using his Supercollager tool, featuring a couple of my previous avatars and one of his.

A collage of images, including fragments of a forest, a woman standing in a glasshouse with plants behind and some colourful, pixelated textures

Feeling fresh 💅🏻

 — Community is a Garden

I came across this toolkit when searching for examples of community-led design practices for a workshop that Sonia and I are currently running (more on that soon).

It explores how artists and communities can work together towards climate justice. It has a few interviews and case studies, accompanied by a few prompts and reflective exercises centred around building collaborative relationships and spaces for dialogue.

I really liked the list of practices at the end, particularly Ambiguity:

Moments of disorientation create space for unpredictable discovery. How can you challenge existing narratives, leave questions unanswered, and introduce new lines of inquiry? Through open-ended practice, how can you create conditions that scaffold communal discovery? How can you begin with questions rather than answers?

It references a few of my favourite writers, adrienne maree brown and Donna Haraway, and has prompted me to finally read Braiding Sweetgrass, which I’ve wanted to do for a while.

I’m collecting more examples of Community-Led Design Practices on Arena.

 — Bells

There is a church on the opposite side of the valley where we’re staying. I’ve really been enjoying hearing the bells, which chime every half hour. Half the time they remind me to stay present and the other half that I need to “jump on a Zoom call”.

I just tried out this great tool made by Javier Arce. It allows you to send your Kindle highlights directly to an Arena channel (something I used to painstakingly do by hand, block by block).

It recognises which highlights are from different books, and you can select which highlights to add or edit.

✶✶

We made a last minute decision to spend a month on La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands. After six months of rarely travelling outside north London, it feels surreal to be in such a different environment*.

The island is small, roughly circular and very mountainous. This weekend we went for a hike in Garajonay National Park, which was such a contrast to the valley where we’re staying.

The mountains catch the clouds blown in by the trade winds, which means the centre is covered in subtropical forest, called laurisilva. This is the largest remnant of the type of forest that once covered much of Europe and North Africa. It’s quite amazing to wander through… the trees are dripping with lichen and water droplets.

Clouds moving across a forest-covered mountain

*This is also the closest you can get to the antipodes of Queensland, so I feel right at home.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been trying to apply the principles of Hyperfocus to my work. Productivity books aren’t the kind of thing I’d usually read, but this one has actually been quite useful.

A lot of it just seems like common sense, like recognising that you have a finite amount of attention you can spend in every moment. It’s basically about applying meditation techniques to daily life to make the most of your attention. It starts with being more aware of the kinds of work you’re doing, which parts are purposeful and which parts are unnecessary busy-work.

Setting intentions

It’s a lot about intention-setting: intentions for the hyperfocus session (an hour or less), for the day and for the week as well.

He summarises the core idea of hyperfocus as:

Keep one important, complex object of attention in your awareness as you work.

You decide what this object of attention should be, set a timer for how long you want to focus on it, eliminate any distractions and give it your full attention.

As with meditation, if you catch your mind wandering, you gently draw it back to the task at hand.

Scatterfocus and recharging

The counterpoint to hyperfocus is scatterfocus, where you just let your mind wander and observe where it goes. This is where the more creative thinking comes in, associations between otherwise unrelated ideas.

There are a number of other techniques in it that I’ve found really useful, like writing down “open loops” that are distracting or worrying you, and scheduling specific blocks of time to check email each day.

I liked the book because it’s ultimately about working less and making sure you allow yourself to recharge. I am definitely someone who tends to work too much, and tends towards anxiety as well. It was so useful for me to read this because it reminded me that overworking and multitasking doesn’t lead to better results.