Surface with Mike Anusas

4 min. read (or watch the video)

He brings up American musician Money Mark’s “Insects Are All Around Us.” Copyright prohibits me from cutting to the original here, but you can find it on YouTube. It opens with these words: “Insects are all around us. They produce many sounds at many frequencies and volume levels. We are so accustomed to hearing insect sounds that we seldom listen to them. Crickets produce their chirps by rubbing their wings together. Rough spots on the cricket’s wings produce the chirping vibrations which we hear” (Ramos Nishita 1995 in Anusas 2020).

I first met Mike during his doctoral studies in Aberdeen. He entered our department’s main seminar room carrying a waterproof bike pannier, with welded, instead of sewn, seams — a design that could be converted into a backpack by way of a patented, molded polymer interlocking mechanism. Was it a soft good, such as a piece of clothing or knapsack, or was it a bike accessory, like a helmet or mud guard? Neither. It was transformational. I hadn’t talked to him yet, but I already knew he and I shared a common passion for materials and design.

Today I want to introduce you to product designer and social anthropologist Mike Anusas, who is lecturer at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Mike has recently co-edited a book (2020) with Cristián Simonetti, entitled: “Surfaces: Transformations of Body, Materials, and Earth.” If you’re interested in just how far anthropology can reach beyond the human (without ever losing touch), then get a hold of their book. In it Anusas tells us of his own doctoral research, much of which he spent studying a group of product designers in their creative space on the outskirts of Glasgow.

Anusas likes to draw on the thinking of Brazilian-Czech philosopher Vilém Flusser who speaks of “the gesture of making” (2020:178) as “a force and a decisive power in manipulating and shaping the world” (2020:178). Anusas’ observations show in detail how this so-called gesture “sees the surfaces of the hands reach for many other surfaces, to puncture, tear and distort them in a practice of working towards coherence” (178). According to Flusser, “to work also always means disturbing and destroying” (Flusser 2014:32). Anusas emphasizes that to make is to transform surfaces.

He is curious about the ways in which existing surfaces give birth to new surfaces. In other words, he traces the material outlines of creativity. How do forms come into existence? Is it just the genius of their maker? He studies with equal intensity the landscape harbouring the workshop, the messiness of each designers’ desk, and the final forms that hatch from these settings. But his keenness is not limited to material surfaces. He also follows the manifold sounds that bathe these designers’ minds—from the hum of machinery, to fans, to a radio playing. It’s like Money Mark’s crickets’ rubbing their wings.

But what makes Mike’s work truly anthropological — and this is the part I am passionate about — is his attention to what other observers might consider inconsequential. These are the things we are so accustomed to that we pay them no attention. While the design team’s winning idea is captured by a photograph of a designer holding together materials to simulate the look of a yet-to-be-made product, Anusas draws our attention away from the centre of this focus. He wants us to study the shirt worn by the man holding the materials.

While the designer’s mind may be seen as confined to his brain, his ideas actually spring from a confluence of ignored “chirps,” as we might call them. Anusas and others speak of ‘friction’ — much like the rubbing wings of a cricket. The patterns printed on the textile of this designer’s shirt form another such surface — another cricket’s wing — that contributes to the making of the final ‘chirp.’ Anusas tracks the checked pattern of that shirt to the history of Scottish lattice making, which (believe it or not) becomes a key feature in the studio’s final design.

Check out their book here.

By alexoehler

I am an environmental anthropologist at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.