One day, I found myself studying the methods of an Umwelt researcher, whose goal is to understand the species-specific view of the world, described by Uexküll in his book “A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men”, in a very human-centred environment; the kitchen of my apartment in Reykjavík. It was an autumn afternoon, and I and my flatmate had battled a small plague of houseflies occupying our home for the past few days. My flatmate hated their company and announced loudly that she would kill them one by one, if she had to. I was sitting on a chair, looking at their tiny bodies flying around, listening to the buzzing of the wings, wondering how their world compares with mine.
I proceeded to study houseflies and all the information I found revolved around methods and ways to get rid of them. It led me to ask the following question: “How could I change the function of a housefly in my Umwelt?” And equally importantly: “How could I change the function of myself in the perception of the housefly?”
With these questions in mind I reached out to and exchanged a few letters with semiotician Morten Tønnessen, President of the Nordic Association for Semiotic Studies, asking him about the intimate cohabitation of humans and houseflies. “To change the flies´ role in your Umwelt might not be so hard (cf. my vs. my wife´s relation to flies ... sympathy vs. antipathy will change that relation). To change your role in the Umwelt of the fly might be harder - but maybe worth an experiment?” His answer prompted me to create a tool that would make it possible to switch the functions self and other.
While considering the size-differences between our bodies and pondering how many houseflies could fit onto my head, I came up with the idea of a mask made of flies. The mask would disrupt — very literally — not only my way of seeing the other, but also myself being seen by the other. And so, the headpiece came to life; a glowing square mask — a symbol of the gaze itself, constituting a visual identity for the project.
This mask, which was supposed to stick to the surface of my face, could hold a pile of compost, the food of houseflies. As the compost is where they feel best, they would live on my face and relate my presence to an uncommon function; serving food. Furthermore, I would now get to enjoy their close companionship, looking at them through the coloured glass with its pinkish hue; nurturing feelings of empathy.
Meanwhile, I asked myself: “Do houseflies even want to be my friends?” and: “How can I know if they enjoy my company as much as I want to enjoy theirs?” These were ethically important questions to be asked. However, it did not suit me to answer them, it would have brought me too close to the position of the problem-solving designer that tries to find the solution to a given problem — as if I even had the right answer to a problem which I most probably created myself in the first place. Solving a problem was not my intention — my aim was not to successfully mingle with houseflies, but for us to recognize the presence of each other in two different Umwelten, and maybe for a short moment, I considered naively that the gap between two could be bypassed.
The experiment from its practical side ended as a big fail, the houseflies disappeared from my kitchen before the mask was made. The winter came and there was no flies around whatsoever.