How might we help visitors to the Walker Art Center take action and engage with the challenges migrating species face in response to climate change?
The Extrapolation Factory, Walker Art Center
Elliott Montgomery, Chris Woebken, Daniela V. Sánchez
Design Strategist, Communication and Exhibit Designer
‘Transition Habitats’, a participatory exhibit that reinterprets the US postal system as a tool for inter-species communication and political action.
The Inter-Species Postal Service office was on view at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden for its reopening on June 2017. It allowed visitors to observe the types of data that could be captured by a set of mail boxes that listens to and tracks indicator species that signal changes in environmental conditions. The post office then helps visitors interpret messages from these indicator species as hand-written letters to local representatives.
Handwritten letters are still considered to be among the most persuasive form of political messaging despite the prevalence of digital communication. The iconic US mail collection box served as a starting point for an inter-species postal service. What if the nation's mail collection boxes were redesigned as dual-purpose message collection stations, for humans as well as another species group? Extrapolation Factory posed this question to a group of about 30 ecologists at University of Minnesota, and collected a broad range of suggestion for how this could work.
Three mail collection boxes were designed based on these conversations, each focused on a group of indicator species which can be used to infer environmental conditions. First, a migratory bird mail collection box serves as a birdhouse that listens to the calls of birds such as warblers and simultaneously allows us to track shifts in their migration patterns in the spring and fall. Second, a pollinator mail collection box photographs monarch butterflies and other insects by alluring them with an artificial flower. These indicators can signal environmental stressors such as pollutants and radiation. Third, a lichen mail collection box straddles a boulder covered in lichen, enabling viewers to observe growth patterns and color changes. Lichens are good indicators of air quality.
Design Strategies - developing communication and interaction strategies for the ‘Transition Habitat’ exhibit at the Walker Art Center.
Communication & Exhibit Design - exhibit, artifact, and communication design of the Inter-Species Postal Office at the Walker Art Center.
The project grew out of Extrapolation Factory's residency at the Walker Art Center, beginning in the fall of 2016.
The first phase of the residency resulted in a four-day participatory visioning exercise in which visitors were asked to propose urban infrastructure modifications that could support species being impacted by changing climates. Visitors to the Walker developed scale prototypes of their ideas, such as rooftops for butterfly feeding, rabbit telecommunications, and bat mating stations. These miniature models were presented on an illuminated map of the areas surrounding the Walker to provide visual context for location and environmental factors.
The resulting proposals ranged from the familiar (ant farm) to the inconceivable, (salamander game station) totaling over 100 designs in all. In an effort to filter and develop the list of concepts, Extrapolation Factory shared these ideas with a community of biologists, ecologists and other researchers to garner expert feedback on the selected species groups, as well as providing insights into climate and ecology data. Conversations also touched on the ethics of intervening with natural systems in urban contexts; an unresolved but provocative line of inquiry.