Building Collective Action Through Food Landscapes
WRITTEN BY DIANA GUO
DESIGNED BY DIANA GUO & TIANWEI LI
In 2001, Senator Frank Murkowski of Alaska stood on the floor of the Senate, arguing for arctic oil exploration by holding up a blank sheet of white paper and saying that this tabula rasa represents the vast, uninhabited resource-rich and “wild” arctic lands unoccupied by people.
Ideas of untamed coldness, the wild, and the sublime were some of the most harmful preconceptions about the northern territories. Along these lines, foreign intervention and design concepts continued to think of Arctic urbanism as a typology requiring defense against the sublime cold, and completely ignored the embedded depth of connections Gwich’in had to the landscape. The importation of foreign structures, vertical food-growing mechanisms, and sunlight-saving machines have always been the status quo pioneered by foreigners attempting to ‘troubleshoot’ arctic food insecurity with “modern” technological advances. The Dempster Highway, which now cuts through the towns of Inuvik and Fort McPherson (Gwich’in First Nations lands) operates under this logic of infrastructural authority. Originally constructed to facilitate oil exploration and mining extraction activities, the shipping of groceries via truck was an afterthought, used as arsenal power to back their construction plans. This approach ignores abundant foodways that already exist in the land, overlooking traditional Gwich’in knowledge of local animal migratory patterns, seasonality, and climate.
The early to mid-20th century was characterized by large-scale planning schemes that sought to impose a shelter mindset onto Arctic lands. Architectural proposals and designs emphasized shielding against the harsh environment, completely ignoring the fact that Gwich’in have lived with the climate for millenia. Those who argue that design can ‘give agency’ to a community have definitely not been there. Two days and they (ourselves included) will certainly freeze, knowing near nothing about hunting for beavers and ptarmigans, or operating a snowmobile.
Professional authority, particularly in architecture, must be destabilized. To paraphrase Bruno Latour, if we have never been ‘Arctic’, then why should we be compelled to subscribe to Arctic modernism today with its clichéd and wrongheaded polarities of traditional/modern, local/global, nature/culture, human/animal?2 It should perhaps come as no surprise that the professionalization of design ‘practice’, which was artificially constructed largely from the sphere of European urbanism, has little influence in places of such different latitudes and cultural/environmental contexts. Food sovereignty for the First Nations, as well as for current and future generations in the Northwest Territories of Canada, is directly related to land sovereignty and environmental adaptation. Matthew Jull articulates this point well when he wrote that “First Nations tribes traditionally located their settlements adjacent to water for ready access to boats used for hunting and fishing”, but today, “modernized towns reduced engagement with the natural environment, promoting greater reliance on food offered in the new town shops.” The urbanization of the Arctic might be better understood as a standardization of the arctic, or a process in which conventional forms and urban artifacts from cities were imposed onto northern lands. The process became more pronounced in the 1960s, coinciding with the ‘heady days’ of architecture and urban design experimentation of modernism. For some designers, the north was a ‘frontier’ site, a tabula rasa, ideal for testing and projecting their ideas on megastructures, modular systems, and insulated city building.
In the northern territories, food accessibility is not a problem that can be solely solved by engineers or the construction of a new grocery store. Climate change itself increases the risk of fresh food insecurity among Indigenous communities across the Arctic, and exacerbates the loss of permafrost and lichen, a main food source for Caribou populations. Indigenous tribes such as the Gwich’in have a commensalistic relationship with Caribou populations, whose herd size and location depend on the fragile ecosystem of the evanescent Arctic and are critical to the preservation of the permafrost. Climate change is repeatedly demonstrated to be impacting the ecosystems supporting both humans and non-human communities.
Culturally, foodways are networks. Caribou, berries, and fish entangle intergenerational Indigenous women; their pathways are vast and interconnected, forming expansive territories of land and water stewardship.
For instance, berry picking and fish camps along the Mackenzie River are critical to the wellbeing and sharing rituals of Gwich’in communities. Agency in communities is not given [by designers], but is embodied in land and in everyday living between both humans and the non-human. Canadian national policy, however, is currently ignorant of this fact. Throwing money every year to subsidize grocery items such as imported kiwis from Australia, these national subsidies are band-aids on a spiraling situation, holding on to an idealized notion of embedding the arctic into the logic of modern capital-product flows. Kiwis from across the planet are being subsidized, while local foodways such as nutrient-rich lichen and generations of local caribou herds are subsequently erased. In the words of Silvia Federici, “by undermining the self-sufficiency of the region and creating total economic interdependence, globalization generates not only recurrent food crises but a need for an unlimited exploitation of labor and the natural environment.”3
These policies are an active and conscious act of modern day genocide to force out traditional foodways, to replace indigenous abundance with foreign-imposed scarcity. $35 for a bottle of industrial orange juice, $28 for a bag of grapes, and $105 for a pack of mineral water is heavily disproportionate to average incomes, which is grossly below national average. As the Gwich’in chef Richie Francis aptly wrote, “if you control the food, you control the people’’. A few months ago, an article titled “The Many Faces of Indigenous Culture and Food” was published. Jennifer Brandt builds upon Richie Francis’s comment, saying that “the attempted eradication of [their] culture has been as horrific as the eradication of [their] people…reclaiming traditional foodways is radically political”.4
In Of Morsels and Marvels, the author Maryse Condé writes that “a country’s cuisine mirrors the character of its inhabitants and transfigures the imagination. Visiting a supermarket is as instructive as going to a museum or an exhibition.” Here, to replace ‘supermarket’ with ‘Landscape’, perhaps rethinking food making as process, materiality, and as rituals embedded in landscape is an initial step towards decolonizing foodways.
The subtext of the role of a designer in places with extreme climates or conditions is vague. In Design School, we are educated to navigate zoning codes within urban governance, to build tactical structures for a paying public (‘pacification by cappuccino’ is what Sharon Zukin calls it), to 3D model varieties of balconies and rooftops. But we are ill-prepared to design in extreme climate conditions. What would it even mean to be a designer for the arctic? Do they even need us, me, or you there? There are already, after all, numerous Gwich’in designers for millenia, building from scratch the resilient structures that invite cold flows of strong winds and the migratory turn and bends of the Peel River. In thinking about food security in the arctic, we have been reflecting on our purpose here and what it is we can offer as an outsider-person. Instead of designing hydroponic growing structures or greenhouses to grow food, it is more critical to look back to the landscape itself and its variety of richness and existing abundance.
preserve vs. reclaim
One keyword/term constantly resurfacing while working on cultural preservation of food rituals in the Northwest Territories was the word ‘preservation’ itself. Tracing the word ‘preserve’, it became widely used in the 1950s by environmentalists in the context of environmental conservation and protection against pollution. The idea that to preserve something there is a protagonist and an antagonist, someone or something to insulate and shelter from. Protecting things against weathering, protecting things from spoiling or going ‘bad’. Protecting things from oxidizing (breathing?) Thinking about the preservative itself as a liquid. Chemicals. Unnatural. Frozen against time. Unchanging. Thinking about foods that are preserved (literally). Pickles? Dried things.
Preservation is a fraught territory with a long, violent history of erasure and sealing up into institutions for display to a foreign public. In this sense, perhaps the term reclaim is more apt. Unlike preserve, which is static and freezing in time, reclaim sounds more active, something that is in process. To reclaim prompts questions around what it means to have a sense of ownership over one’s own culture, a retrieval of identity lost, an actioning emerging from oneself rather than as the result of another’s imposing-over.
Culture, in all its earlier uses, was a noun of process: the tending of something. To inhabit, cultivate, protect, honor with worship. A culture or commons of care, perhaps what Silvia Federici calls communities of resistance that oppose social hierarchies in Re-Enchanting the World. To my knowledge, this notion of care and honor is actively practiced among Gwich’in elders. The teet’lit Gwich’in term ‘gwiinzii kwundei’ refers to the Good Life, of being out on the land as a pivotal source of well being and healing. Three actionings that are, following Gwich’in education, crucial in living the life and form integral practices in being: visiting and sitting with, doing things and working with, and taking care of things.
the idea of undoing
The idea of ‘undoing’. It seems that the design profession has always been about addition and insertion. What if what a place needs is not more design, but less of it? The removal of infrastructures such as the arctic Dempster Highway, which was built and designed to serve one purpose and one purpose only—to bring labor into mining pits to extract gold. Designed infrastructures that cut through abundant lifeways, disrupting animal migrations and fragmenting habitats used for foraging, grazing, and learning.
Can we design a process of undesigning? Can we turn the term ‘design’ on itself? Using the master’s tools to one’s own advantage? In Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing and an interview with the University of Edinburgh, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o talks about how he feels that “English literature itself is imprisoned by English as a language of power and domination.. Shakespeare, for instance, was exported to the colonies, not as the writer who writes marvelous plays, but as an embodiment of Imperial British power. English literature itself came across as a literature of power.” Design is troubled by the same tensions, used as arsenal to further certain political gains, silencing other design languages and visual cultures. Can design language be shifted, reimagined, its foundations and colonial foundations shaken and challenged, to allow other design cultures to speak on equal grounds? For instance, it seems that a lot of work acknowledged as atelier Architecture are either Japanese, Scandinavian, or European in root, while other architecture is framed/dismissed as ‘vernacular’, ‘tribal’, ‘unique’, even. Two V’s. Vernacular, assigned to a lower hierarchy, is violent.
I am reminded of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s reflection on networks vs. hierarchies:
When you crush hierarchy, and replace it with a network, then the cultures held in the different languages generate oxygen. They cross-fertilize. Cultures are able to breathe life into each other. Every culture should be taught with a nod to other cultures. Take the example of Greek mythology. It was often taught as if it was the mother of all mythologies. I think that Greek mythology should be taught comparatively with African, Norse, Scandinavian, Icelandic and Asian mythologies. They are all very exciting and it is not necessary to put them in a hierarchical relationship to each other. Let them network.4
We must shift design pedagogy and practice towards a more equitable form. Pierre Belanger’s book titled No Design on Stolen Land asked compelling questions: Whose lands are you on? Which territorial treaties are they part of? Whose stories and histories are privileged? Who are your collaborators? Are waters, rivers, estuaries, streams, seedlings, beavers, and other beings part of that change?6
The question of what we can bring to the place, and why we are there, resurfaces. What is the form? What visual form can our thoughts take? Initially, we were hesitant to design anything at all. Architecture felt unnecessary, since the Gwich’in have lived for millenia in cold climates and have a very thorough system of structures. Why import the methods of western practice into a totally different context here? With this in mind, we were attracted to Belanger’s idea of undesigning. To support land healing so that renewed lifeways can form and self-organize, we need to establish spatial conditions that can undo infrastructures.
The speculative fiction-imaginary that people like Federici and Haraway talk about is not a projected future or an anachronistic calling for a return to some better imaginary past. I think it is more about re-enchanting the world. This is what Federici calls it, re-enchantment. Not romanticizing the ‘primitive’, but thinking about “the planet of the commons”. Like Raymond Williams, Federici traces the word enchantment: What is enchantment? It is to fall under a rapturous spell of magical influences. By 1917, however, the meanings of the term had changed, losing its connections to the sublime or the sacred, and like similar changes to the meaning of spell, magic, and glamour, its meaning “found a limited discursive home in high fashion, the decorative arts, and Hollywood. No longer expressing powers of the cosmos and the body, these terms became limited to superficialities and superfluities.”3
Can we re-enchant Gwich’in foodways by listening to the muskrat, the caribou, and the migrating whitefish? Can we come to a more reciprocal relationship to the way we position ourselves in relation to the nonhuman and the environment? Rethinking food-making as process, materiality, and as rituals embedded in landscape is an initial step towards decolonizing foodways by shifting the means of circulation from cars and highways towards riverways and sacred waters.
We are thinking about designing with ecology, such as using the broken down pieces of asphalt from the decommissioned highway and arranged in estuaries to support the existing animal mutualisms. A form that doesn’t impose, something that does still have form, but not in terms of architecture or recognizable building; systems that are submerged underwater, invisible to the design eye (and therefore invisible to e-flux and Bustler) and working with the rivers and landscape.
Yet, we are also aware whether the design and form would, then, be read as arguing for a return to some imaginary past by celebrating previous traditions. However, it is critical to push against and question this binary and the illusion of progress: embracing reciprocal living does not mean primitivity. Silvia Federici points out that there is nothing backwards about wanting to rethink celebrating previous traditions. However, it is critical to push against and question this binary and the illusion of progress: embracing reciprocal living does not mean primitivity. Silvia Federici points out that there is nothing backwards about wanting to rethink the way we live. We really have to push and ask: “is the mechanization and robotization of our daily life the best that thousands of years of human labor can produce?” She expresses these thoughts on rethinking design succinctly: “the horizon that the politics of the commons opens up is not the promise of an impossible return to the past, but the possibility of recovering the power of collectively deciding our fate on this earth.”7 This is what she calls re-enchanting the world.
“Landscapes enact more-than-human rhythms, shimmer describes the coming in and out of focus of multispecies knots, with their cascading effects….”– Arts of living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene
DIANA GUO is interested in creating atmospheres through storytelling and poetry and believes in the soft power that stories can bring. She is exploring the translation/transformation of personal narratives in immersive public spaces to incite awareness, emotion, and social change. Moving forward, she will continue researching themes of biopolitics and inclusion/exclusion in design practice and art.
1Bravo, M. (2015). The Postcolonial Arctic. Moving Worlds: A Journal of Transcultural Writings, 15 93-111. https://www.repository.cam.ac.uk/handle/1810/252979
3Federici, Silvia. Re-Enchanting the World : Feminism and the Politics of the Commons. Oakland, CA : PM Press, 2019.
5Raut, Tanuj. “Interview with Professor Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o.” Project Myopia, 1 Feb. 2018, https://projectmyopia.com/interview-with-professor-ngugi-wa-thiongo/.
6Bélanger, Pierre. “No Design on Stolen Land: Dismantling Design’s Dehumanising White Supremacy.” Architectural design 90.1 (2020): 120–127.
7Federici, Re-Enchanting the World : Feminism and the Politics of the Commons.