QUINCY CHILDS is wearing the Polly no.005. She is a researcher in climate change and society at the University of Oxford living in Oxford, England.
Can you share some daily habits or rituals?
Routine evades me, but I am enjoying reading about the daily rituals of others in a book by Mason Curry. Some of the most entertaining hacks have been Igor Stravisnky’s signature headstand if he ran into composer’s block or Thomas Wolfe who would start writing at midnight and use his refrigerator as his desk. Maya Angelou could only work in a hotel room: ‘a tiny mean room with just a bed, and sometimes, if I can find it, a face basin.’ She’d keep a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards, and a bottle of sherry. Of this solitary process she wrote, ‘it’s lonely, and it’s marvelous.’ I also love how Samuel Beckett described a period of intense creative activity as the siege in the room.
What makes you nostalgic?
Lily of the valley and tree swings. Cider doughnuts and leaf piles.
What is dear to your heart?
Anything that visualizes time: ammonite, a journal that becomes a palimpsest, or Japanese glass fishing floats with net imprints.
What do you collect?
Collect might be a euphemism for sentimental hoarding in my case. I tend to keep tickets to films, performances, exhibitions, and the sort. Detailed maps of fictional places. Redundant mechanisms once pioneering. Pressed flowers. Dioramas. Jotted notes on synchronicities. Found playing cards (I’m working on an entire deck). I love vintage postcards, especially those with intimate exchanges. I’m always amazed by how yearning for a loved one is so universally resonant and timeless, be it from Sappho, Neruda, or a certain Mildred from Brooklyn circa 1930.
Who is an inspirational figure?
My list is endless. To name a few who’ve been top of mind lately:
Ada Lovelace, b. 1815, wrote the world’s first algorithm designed to be run by computers. Her prescient concept of ‘poetical science’ led her to ask questions about how individuals and society relate to technology as a collaborative tool. This was a visionary concept that has only taken off in the design world in the last century.
Carter G. Woodson, b. 1875, lobbied extensively to establish Black History Month and dedicated his career to publishing African American history. I recently read his proposal to the NAACP to boycott racially discriminatory businesses in 1915, which resonates so acutely today: ‘I am not afraid of being sued by white businessmen. In fact, I should welcome such a lawsuit. It would do the cause much good. Let us banish fear. We have been in this mental state for three centuries. I am a radical. I am ready to act, if I can find brave men to help me.’
Rachel Carson, b. 1907, was a marine biologist and writer hailed as one of the most important conservationists in history. Recognized as the mother of modern environmentalism, her research led to the nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides. Silent Spring is a book close to my heart and her persistence, along with many others, is what has inspired me to pursue a career in environmental justice.
Ana Mendieta, b. 1948, was a Cuban performance artist, sculptor, painter, and video artist best known for her ‘Silueta Series’ that express a resonant second-wave feminist sensibility. I read a book by Genevieve Hyacinthe called Radical Virtuosity (2019) that connects her work to the cultural aesthetics and sociopolitical currents of the Black Atlantic. This is an insightful read for those who might not associate her work beyond the periphery of the art world.
Mae C. Jemison, b. 1956, is the first African American female astronaut. Before joining NASA’s training program, she worked as a medical officer for the Peace Corps. I admire how she changed careers to pursue her childhood dream of going to space, making history as she soared above the atmosphere. She’s a great example that it’s never too late in life to do something extraordinary and break glass ceilings along the way.
Sheila Watt‐Cloutier, b. 1953, is a Canadian Inuit climate change activist and International Chair for Inuit Circumpolar Council. I recently learned she was publicly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize alongside Al Gore in 2007, only to be dropped before the prize was later awarded to Gore and the IPCC. However, making a nice parallel to this list, she won the Rachel Carson Prize that same year, and numerous accolades since. More representation of Indigenous leaders and activists, especially where socio-environmental issues are concerned, is desperately needed across academic, political, and cultural spheres.
Anasuya Sengupta, b. 1974, is an Indian poet, author, and activist for representing marginalized voices. She writes with compelling clarity on the importance of decolonizing the internet and the pervasive dangers of disinformation for democracy and social justice: “Accuracy is based on context and power. We need to recognize that in a post-truth world, it is not a simple binary between a fact and a non-fact. It is a spectrum from fact, multiple truths, propaganda, and lies.’ Mic drop.
What does your house smell like?
I like to have a bouquet and try to buy what’s local and in season. But I am most partial to fragrant, night blooming flowers like gardenia, jasmine, tuberose and I’m rather nocturnal so perhaps that’s why I like flowers that are, too.
Where do you find good design?
It’s all around us in nature.
Plant intelligence. I think we can take a leaf out a plant’s book for a lot of collaborative design concepts. One example is how plants process information from their environment through forms of integrated signaling. This system includes long-distance electrical signals and mycorrhizal networks of underground hyphal systems that connect individual plants. These networks also transfer water, carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients and minerals. This research topic is very compelling because it opens new ground (excuse the pun) for thinking about the complex agency of more-than-human life.
Railroad worms. Although these look like caterpillars, these are actually the female larviform of adult beetles. Through bioluminescence they can glow two colours: either yellowish-green from the abdomen, which warns predators they are toxic to consume, or bright red from head. Since other insects cannot see red, they can essentially camouflage themselves as invisible, nocturnal hunters with a headlamp. (The male beetles are not born as larviform and instead possess fancy feather-like antennae with the sole purpose of detecting female hormones; no light shows required!)
Shark skin. The skin of a shark is covered with so-called ‘dermal denticles’ that are basically flexible layers of small teeth. These create a low-pressure zone when the shark is in motion, enabling the shark to move with less resistance. It also provides antimicrobial protection from micro-organisms to prevent infection. With the lifespan of certain shark species reaching 400 years, scientists are at the cusp of learning the secrets to longevity through mitochondrial genome sequencing. Maybe their denticle skin holds part of the answer?
The Stenocara beetle. This critter can literally create water from thin air. Living in the arid Namib desert, it’s back is lined with nodes that collect moisture from the morning fog. The droplets then slide down those bumps into small rivets towards the beetle’s mouth. Researchers are currently using this anatomical design to develop biomimetic patterns that can harvest water from the air.
Beehives. From a design standpoint, a hexagonal shape applies to almost everything we build. It’s the most scientifically efficient packing shape because of how it distributes weight, affording even lightweight materials extra strength. What’s more, it can tessellate, which is noteworthy because it can circumscribe the largest area for a given perimeter. Beyond this, bees are responsible for pollinating almost a third of the food we eat! And their hives are the center of the action. Despite their importance, wild bee populations are at risk from climate change, toxic pesticides, and a loss of flowering habitat.
What is your favourite representation of simplicity?
J.M.G. Le Clézio describes the moon, as it is illuminated by the sun, as a prototypical film projector. This is such an enchanting way of thinking about nightfall as performing a camera obscura lit by other worlds. It is a simple concept that incorporates the vastness of space and time immemorial.
I love the opening lines of William Blake's “Auguries of Innocence” for how they capture the grandiosity of the world in simple objects:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
What is your favourite representation of complexity?
The mathematician John Conway’s Game of Life, which he described as a ‘no-player, never-ending game.’ He narrated a documentary Thoughts on Life that juxtaposes the deterministic game versus the Free Will Theorem that he proved in 2006.
- Hint.fm has created a mesmerizing real time map of the wind patterns across the US.
What should we be reading?
Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (2006). Hartman retraces the history of the Atlantic slave trade by narrating a journey she took along a slave route in Ghana. Along the trail of captives she confronts the gaps of her own genealogy and examines how slavery has shaped three centuries of African and African American history. Hartman is one of the most talented writers I’ve encountered, and her book is testament to the ways in which storytelling ‘can fill in the blank spaces of the historical record’ and ‘represent the lives of those deemed unworthy of remembering.’ I couldn’t recommend a text more.
Anna Tsing, et al., Arts of living on a damaged planet : ghost of the anthropocene (2017). This book starts with a compelling question—can humans and other species continue to inhabit the earth together? The editors offer urgent “arts of living” through critical and creative tools for collaborative survival in a more-than-human Anthropocene. I closed this book with a deeper appreciation for our entangled histories and situated narratives within wider ecosystems in which we can better understand our own positionality.
Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes (2019). Yusoff challenges the monolithic term ‘the Anthropocene’ by revealing how it wrongly generalises the notion of accountability in climate change. Her main thesis critiques the very grammar of geology and uncovers how extractive economies exploit not only natural resources but the communities that surround them, thereby perpetuating the logics of colonialism and slavery.
Arturo Escobar, Designs for the Pluriverse (2019). Bridging autonomous design principles with the history of decolonial efforts of indigenous and Afro-descended people in Latin America, Escobar shows how reformulating current design practices can empower the creation of more just and sustainable social orders.
Sasha Costanza-Chock, Design Justice (2020). An exploration of how design in the hands of marginalized communities can work towards dismantling structural inequality, and advancing collective liberation and ecological survival. As an approach to design, the justice element aims explicitly to challenge, rather than reproduce, structural inequalities. Costanza-Chock shows how this approach has emerged from a growing community of designers working in unison with social movements.
Richard Milner and Whitney Phillips, You Are Here (2020). This book calls for a network ethics that looks beyond fanatic messaging (read: Twitter storms) to investigate the toxic downstream effects of information traffic. It shows how our media environment is in crisis, and how best we can attend to these issues by approaching information ecologically.
You can read these last two books open access here: https://design-justice.pubpub.org https://you-are-here.pubpub.org
What is a rule that should never be broken?
I like to ask for no phones at the table, although it can be difficult to enforce!
What is a rule that should always be broken?
This may sound obvious but bears repeating: any rule designed to discriminate people or things based on prejudicial treatment of different categories is worth defying.
What is your favorite word in any language?
Sila. It’s an Inuit concept translated by many non‐Inuit as climate but stands for so much more. The word has multiple significations from the environment, the weather, the breath, and even wisdom. As Zoe Todd writes: ‘The belief naturally evolved over time. Eventually, Sila became associated with incorporeal power, quite understandable, since not only does Sila — through breath — convey the energy that drives life, but Sila also manifests itself as tangible weather phenomena, such as the slightest touch of breeze, or as the flesh‐stripping power of a storm. Sila, for Inuit, became a raw life force that lay over the entire Land; that could be felt as air, seen as the sky, and lived as breath.’
What is most difficult to find in contemporary culture?
Privacy. In many ways the internet is a wolf in sheep’s clothing (draped in cookies and the like). With a little research, the dangers of data privacy become starkly apparent. On a more interpersonal level, it’s become increasingly difficult to truly disconnect.Growing up, I never thought I would aspire to anonymity and relish in the notion of feeling invisible. But then again, here I am doing an interview! So it’s reconciling this contradiction that can seem challenging at times: the expectation to represent oneself online (as authentically as possible) with the desire to maintain authenticity through privacy. It’s a balancing act. People who strive for fame when privacy is fast becoming gold dust confounds me.
There is also the paradox of our increasing connectivity in that it exacerbates polarity. Ulises Mejias writes about how online networks broaden participation yet also incite disparity, increasing exclusion rather than inclusion. In a similar vein, Costanza-Schock and others write about how algorithmic bias works to further discriminate data and users across neural networks.
What do you find most exciting in contemporary culture?
With careful maneuvering, contemporary culture can provide so many new outlets for emancipatory self-expression, especially for historically underrepresented voices and stories. Breaking down the barriers of mainstream media to allow minority stories become a majority would have to be the most exciting prospect for me. There is so much we can learn about history alone through its retelling from different perspectives. Just imagine the kind of kaleidoscopic future we could realise with a truly diverse chorus of cultural creators.
The best arthouse film(s)?
Within Our Gates (1920) by Oscar Micheaux. It’s a stunning rebuke of The Birth of a Nation with its undaunted portrayal of racial violence under white supremacy. As Patricia Mellencamp writes, the film shows ‘what Blacks knew and Northern Whites refused to believe’, turning the ‘accusation of “primitivism”... back onto White Southern culture.’
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939) by Kenji Mizoguchi. Sayat-Nova (1969) by Sergei Parajanov. Visual poetry. Every film by Tarkovsky, but especially Andrei Rublev: the scene with a pinhole image via a hole in the door of a medieval room. The first scenes of flight. The splattering of red paint in the chapel. The ringing bronze bell. The film is referenced in Mirror and Solaris, as if a biographic pinhole to Tarkovsky’s worlds within worlds. His book Sculpting in Time is also dear to me.
Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification (1979) by Barbara McCullough.
Losing Ground (1982) by Kathleen Collins and the fantastic short film it inspired: An Ecstatic Experience (2015) by Ja’Tovia Gary.
A Different Image (1982) by Alile Sharon Larkin
Sugar Cane Alley (1983) by Euzhan Palcy
Un jour Pina à demandé (1983), Nuit et jour (1991), and D’est (1993) by Chantal Akerman
Stormé: The Lady of the Jewel Box (1986) by Michelle Parkerson
Tongues Untied (1989) by Marlon Riggs
The Body Beautiful (1991), And Still I Rise (1991) and Welcome II the Terrordome (1994) by Ngozi Onwurah
Everything by Julie Dash. Her feature Daughters of the Dust (1991) vividly captures Gullah Geechee culture. Her shorts are also phenomenal, especially Four Women (1975) and Illusions (1982).
Orlando (1992) by Sally Potter, adapted from Virginia Woolf’s eponymous novel
Blue (1993) and Wittgenstein (1993) by Derek Jarmon
The films of James Benning are interesting for how they convey ‘landscape as a function of time’.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) by Apichatpong
House in the Fields (2017) by Tala Hadid
A Love Song for Latasha (2019) by Sophia Nahli Allison. The latest film I watched on this list and I’m still living inside of it. The director creates what she likens to a spiritual archive, or a re-imagining of Latasha Harlins that is poignant beyond description. She writes, “[w]hat does it mean to reimagine or rebuild an archive when that tangible evidence doesn’t exist, and how often that happens for Black women and girls, when their stories and their histories haven’t been properly preserved outside of oral history?” It’s on Netflix, watch it right away.
What was the first piece of cultural work that really mattered to you?
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I read this at twelve or thirteen and it made a lasting impression on me. The story has so many layers to pick apart; as you turn the pages, those layers then peel to reveal themselves like the wallpaper itself. The descriptions of the nursery are still imprinted on my mind. Its patchy wallpaper with its ‘almost revolting’, sulphur tint. (‘A smoldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight’.) The barred windows. The floor scratched, gouged, and splintered. And the great immovable bed that the narrator believes to be nailed down.
Its significance as a seminal piece of feminist literature escaped me at the time, but it nonetheless struck me as a radical indictment about oppression. There’s the physician husband who knows there is no reason for his wife to suffer, and ‘that satisfies him.’ So he confines her to a nursery room atop a ‘hereditary estate’, where the very architecture connotes an unsettling, colonialist hauntology. This adds to the mental entrapments of the husband’s machination in an attempt to stamp out her ‘imaginative power and habit of story-making.’ It’s in this setting that she writes entries in her diary sub rosa.
An acutely farsighted work, The Yellow Wallpaper didn’t gain a following until nearly a century after its publication, which I think is why it cuts across so many contemporary talking points today. For all its prescience, it highlighted for readers then how discrimination of women subtended the blanket diagnosis of ‘hysteria’ in the 19th century. Today, it remains a powerful cri de cœur to normalize conversations around mental health and challenges the biases of positivism. I think the takeaway that resonates most, however, is that it’s a story about being silenced, and therein shows the importance of telling suppressed stories. In asking what threat those stories pose to the metanarrative, one can better see what subversive truths they yield about established constructs and assumptions. There will always be power in amplifying marginalized stories, be it through publishing, film, or other cultural media. Besides, delayed reception is often a trademark for great works because it indicates an initial resistance or discomfort to what those peripheral stories uncovered about the metanarrative at the time.
What is still a mystery?
Living rocks. There are these rocks called thrombolites in Western Australia that are believed to be amongst the earliest forms of life on earth.
Lunar phenomena. There are so many fascinating, unnoticed ways the moon influences life on Earth that still mystify me. It concerns time, tides, and light. The lunar compasses of crustaceans like sand hoppers. The mass spawning of coral reefs under a full moon. The Ephedra foeminea plant in bright moonlight that ‘weeps’ so that its droplets of pollen-fluid are lit up to attract insects. So much of the planet relies on a stable lunar rhythm, making light pollution a growing threat for species survival and also poses a range of negative effects to human health.
Ingenious examples of mimicry in nature. Of course this process can be explained through evolution as positive adaptation, but exactly how natural selection develops mimicry only insofar it successfully deceives predators, and is then considered complete, is mind-boggling to me. Some captivating examples include the Strymon melinus butterfly with its extra ‘head', the larva of elephant hawkmoth with alarmed ‘eyes’, the ‘four eye’ butterflyfish, the inter-sexual beta male Paracerceis sculpta, parasitic cuckoo eggs, the pseudocopulation exhibited by orchids, and the harmless milk snake that resembles the deadly coral snake. I think there is so much poeticism in this process of mimicry as survival, as did Nabokov, whose writings on the tele mechanistic process of mimicry as a critique of Darwinism are worth looking into.
What do you still wish to learn?
How to make time feel slower.
What does progression mean to you?
Decolonizing every aspect of the planet. To see Indigenous communities empowered. To see the climate as a commons. To see global governance transcend an imperialist desire to dominate other communities, cultures, and ecosystems.
To approach understanding others through what Marisol de la Cadena calls ‘co-laboring,’ which yields ‘a cosmopolitical vision that prefigures the possibility of respectful dialogue among divergent worlds.’ Importantly, this also comes with ‘an awareness of the limits of our mutual understanding and... of that which exceed[s] translation and even stop[s] it.’
Where is happiness found?
In my dog when he sees me in the morning. He greets me as if it’s been an eternity since the day before. He would probably agree with what Blake says about eternity in an hour come to think of it. Perhaps I’ll read the poem to him after this.
What are you currently working on?
My graduate dissertation on how to ensure net zero initiatives, such as carbon capture, are opportunities to provide tools for social justice.
I’m researching the rise of data centers in the Arctic circle through a decolonial lens; I will juxtapose this with the imagined space of post-extractive modernity.
A film and essay about the colonial occupation of Jeju over the 20th century.
An online publication called the Commonplace where we invite media researchers to discuss collaborative modes of knowledge creation and dissemination.
I think this past year has thrown into stark relief the slippages that have persisted across scales: the interdependence of communities and ecosystems alike. The pandemic, social inequality, racial injustice, and the climate crisis are all deeply intertwined. It’s essential we care for everyone as well as the planet we all share. We can only do so through abolitionist and decolonial paradigms, through which we can uproot exploitative systems and replace them through co-labouring to create new forms of community design, interpersonal governance, an infrastructure for privacy, and respect for the commons. To create a future in which all people and life forms are empowered with dignity and care. This notion of care is often scoffed at for its tender associations, but it’s the foundation for values that are still deemed radical in parts of the world, values such as equality, diversity, and inclusion. So I suppose my last words would be an earnest appeal to care, to care defiantly and without limits, because there’s power in giving oneself to the cause for others.