Inter-Species Mailboxes Make a Different Kind of Human-Animal Connection

What do birds have to say about climate change?

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Jun 17 2017, 12:00pm

A mailbox built for lichen and human communication. Images: Extrapolation Factory

Who hasn't wished for Dr. Dolittle powers at least once in their lives? If we could talk to the animals, imagine the replies we'd receive from our pet cats, the birds on our windowsills, or even picnic-invading pests. Fairytale fantasies aside, conversing with creatures on an intellectual level seems like a pipe dream, but but design-based research studio Extrapolation Factory believes people need to learn to listen differently.

A project started last year by Chris Woebken and Elliott P. Montgomery, Transition Habitats creates an environment for humans to interpret messages from local species in Minneapolis, blending qualitative and quantifiable methods of communication with old fashioned mailboxes. The project, currently on view in the Sculpture Garden at the Walker Art Center, asks participants to imagine environmental futures, using the mailboxes as a data collection point for both scientific study and creative public engagement.

"It kind of serves as a beginning opportunity for people to really think about these species as intelligent in their own way," Woebken and Montgomery tell Creators. "When we look around and see non-human organisms around us, we start to think about what we could learn from them. They're really important information channels."

Three pink mailboxes demonstrate the sort of information to be learned, serving as spaces for humans to meet lichen, butterflies, and migratory birds, while recording the data from their encounters.

Designing environmentally responsive mailboxes. Image: Extrapolation Factory

"These organisms seemed to be particularly good indicators to things that we felt might need looking at," say Woebken and Montgomery. "We're looking at lichen as indicators of air quality. If we think about lichen as responding to the air quality, that's a starting point for this messaging. In better air quality, lichen grow faster and sometimes increase in individual count."

Lichen is bacteria, somewhere between a fungus and algae, growing over a boulder straddled by a mailbox. Tracking changes to its biodiversity through time lapse video creates a dataset that could point to growing air pollution, or indicate a type of tree to plant in the area. "These are prototypes for a future where these augmented mailboxes are all over the US," say Woebken and Montgomery. "They might be sitting there for years and, while that's actually a short time for a lichen lifetime, you can still observe a lot of change."

A second mailbox uses an artificial flower to attract insects in order to monitor certain pollutants, while a third records sounds of birds and marks their migration patterns. All produce information documenting what's currently happening in the environment and how these changes may affect those that inhabit it.

Standing at a mailbox, humans are presented with a project overview and beginning illustrations of this data. Visitors can respond by writing their own observations on postcards. "The handwritten message is one of the best ways to persuade a voted representative," say Woebken and Montgomery. "So we started taking some of that thinking and applying it to this idea of communication between species and having humans interpret the data of what the species would want for the future."

Visualizing environmental data is essential in understanding how to build sustainable infrastructure, realizing designs beneficial to the ecosystem. Doing this from a creative lens breaks down the barrier to often complicated datasets and science, forcing an audience to face facts pertaining to a changing climate and maybe enticing them to do something about it.

"One thing that we hope might happen is that they'll [humans and non-humans] develop a relationship of sorts over time," say Woebken and Montgomery. "So, if you walk by a mailbox every morning and there's that lichen there growing, and the lichen has gotten bigger, there's this kind of relationship in your life that might be more impactful than a dataset."

With the US exiting the Paris climate accord, citizen-led science efforts through art projects like Transition Habitats offers a new way forward in local sustainability, allowing for entire communities to truly have a say in what the future could look like for everyone and the different ways it can be built just by listening to our surroundings.

Transition Habitats is on display in the Sculpture Garden at the Walker Art Center. Find out more about the project here.

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