Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Institut für Kulturwissenschaft


Kaja Ninnis

The PhD project "(Hi)Stories of Transformation: Tracing Materials in the British Arts and Crafts Movement" by Kaja Ninnis investigates the environmental implications of the sourcing and transformation of ‘raw’ materials in the context of the British Arts and Crafts Movement.

Arts and Crafts objects, or rather the »stuff« from which they are made, form the starting point from which the project traces their material components from the museum, to the workshop of the Arts and Crafts maker and from there to the sites of material extraction and transformation. Tracing material histories through archival research, site visits, material analysis and engagement provides a critical understanding of the object’s relationship to different ecologies across multiple timescales. Looking at design history through the lens of materials resituates the Arts and Crafts movement in relation to Victorian material culture and the global extracitvism of the British Empire.

The project asks how researching material histories as a design historical practice may decentre and transform established linear narratives about the past, present and future. More broadly, it aims to contribute to an emerging ecocritical design history.

As an Associated Member, Kaja Ninnis has joined the Cluster of Excellence »Matters of Activity« in 2023 and is part of the PhD cohort.



Michaela Büsse

"Reclamations. On the Making and Remaking of Sand as a Medium for Design”

In my PhD project "Reclamations. On the Making and Remaking of Sand as a Medium for Design” I am analysing how sand's transformation into land unsettles prescriptive design narratives. To reclaim means to take back something as if it was an original possession. However, reclaimed land usually replaces marshlands or sea with solid grounds treating them as interchangeable. Yet, a closer look at sand's biochemical and physical properties reveals its ambiguous nature: both solid and liquid at once, its granular state defies any mastery.

In my research, I am tracing the tools and practices that render sand material, resource, and asset (such as dredgers, simulations tools, maps, plans, and policy documents). Against the mostly extractive processes linked to sand's transformation I am offering a feminist new materialist reading that utilises its granularity to stage alternative openings. From current day illegal mining sites in the Philippines and Vietnam, to standardisation efforts in geography by US-based researchers during the 18th century, from geopolitical tensions between Singapore and Malaysia, to the recent paradigm of Building with Nature in the Netherlands — my situated fieldwork both traces the making of land and challenges linear histories.

By associating with Lucy Suchman’s “critical anthropology of design” (2011), I am unpacking how design practices bring about materials and how, in turn, material activity constitutes the formation of these practices. Turning sand into a medium and interscalar vehicle (Hecht 2018) allows me to bring together local specificities with transnational narratives. The resulting global assemblage (Grove 2018) oscillates between the scales and emphasises asymmetrical and emergent phenomena.



Sina Hensel

Affective Colour Agencies

This PhD project thinks with microalgae and cyanobacteria as colouring sources regarding their colour shifts as signals of environmental change. Hannah Landecker asks: ‚What colour is the Anthropocene?‘ since the changing earth has created fluxes of chemicals and energy and therefore a myriad of shifting colour flows. Burning and ‚contaminated‘(for whom?) environments produce flaring pigments which operate as both a defence and a signal of intensity, agents of stress and agents of care at the same time.

This PhD research proposes an understanding of colour whereas it refuses to be perceived as a mere decorative feature of matter and is rather seen as an agentic force with a processual nature bearing environmental information. This practice-based research sets focus on the performative and transformative qualities of microalgae and cyanobacteria pigments regarding their lightfastness, their compatibilities with each other, as well as third agents, tested in a climate chamber.

Next to a Colour Catalogue, multiple instructions (‘Handlungsanweisungen’) are developed in order to understand the performative and communicative qualities of these pigments in a design and artistic context. What is the embodied knowledge involved which in return affects our relationship to matter? How can this affect onto the researcher be traced, approached, and understood?

References: Landecker, Hannah; Foreword to Salmon: A Red Herring; Isolarii; 2020

Sina Hensel (*1986 in Mainz/GER) is a visual artist based in Brussels/BE and researcher at RWTH Aachen University/GER, FHNW Academy of Art and Design Basel/CH, KASK & Conservatorium/School of Arts Ghent/BE and University of Arts Linz/AUS




Paula Schuster

Research through Prototyping: A New Materialist Perspective on Epistemic Things in Research through Design

This PhD project investigates prototyping as a mode of knowledge production in Research through Design. Prototypes–may they be in physical, digital, or process-based form–offer a preliminary and tangible experience of future ideas, despite the limited representation. When design researchers use prototyping in research projects they do not primarily design future products. These prototypes are used as instruments to investigate socio-technical research questions, yet conceptual clarity is needed about their role in the research process (Kannabiran & Bødker, 2020).

Adopting a new materialist perspective based on actor-network theory (Latour & Callon) and feminist science studies (Barad; Haraway), I acknowledge the agency of things in design research practices and understand prototypes as co-designers and co-researchers. My empirical study includes ethnographies of design researchers in their work process, as well as co-design formates, to reveal the prototype’s roles as material mediators in social interaction. How do researchers and prototypes work together? What makes a prototype an “epistemic object” (Rheinberger, 1997; Knorr-Cetina, 1998)? Which notion of embodied knowledge comes with it? 

My PhD project contributes to harnessing the iterative potential of prototyping for new research paradigms of transdisciplinary, critical, and practice-based modes of research. With prototypes as research artifacts, the wicked problems of future society can be addressed by simulating, trying out, and discussing scenarios.




Lilo Viehweg

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