Welcome to the alphabetical pathway

You identified the item we have called as and selected the question:

There is no right answer to this question. Maybe you already knew that. Each theme on this website— technology, ecology, religion, and art—is a socially constructed category. All four themes intersect. They are unstable, emergent, and creative.

Complexity can be difficult so we often simplify information by sorting it into familiar categories. For instance, the academic study of religion was built on the categories of sacred (religious) and profane (secular). The Periodic Table groups chemical elements into blocks with similar characteristics. The Dewey Decimal System organizes books according to pre-selected subjects. And in the natural sciences, Carl Linnaeus’ taxonomy subdivides living things based on morphology.

How we categorize the world matters. It structures how we create knowledge and make ethical decisions. Common categorical systems inherited from Europe and its settler colonies laid the groundwork for democratic states and legal human rights, along with new medicine and sciences. But these systems also ranked people along an evolutionary scale, obscured some forms of knowledge in favor of others, and encouraged a division between humanity and nature.

As scholars and artists in the TERA collective, we wanted to experiment with new organizational systems. Together, we asked: What if we refuse to accept inherited classifications as natural? What if we become knowledge makers and shapers? What if we organize our world differently?

Over a year, we gathered dozens of “artifacts” related to technology, ecology, religion, and art. We included all manner of things: texts, recordings, photos, and objects. Then we mapped our artifacts to classify them in new ways. And then we did it again. And again. Those experiments inspired the pathways that structure this site.

We invite you to think along with us.

Follow one attempt at reclassifying through the pathway by clicking here. Or you use the button below to learn more about the pathway.

This pathway began with a prompt: arrange the artifacts alphabetically. At first, this organizational structure seems unremarkable. Information is often presented alphabetically in bibliographies, indices, encyclopedias, or dictionaries. But right away there was a difficulty: the artifacts had no names. To begin the pathway, we had to first assign each artifact a name based on a physical property or an idea that came to mind as we examined them.

Once named, we arranged the artifacts alphabetically in a grid. Alphabetization may seem obvious, but it is culturally specific; it arises only among people who use alphabets instead of, say, hieroglyphs or characters. Its popularity is also rather new. In pre-modern Europe, information was usually organized hierarchically: encyclopaedias of creation began with God as the primary element, while catalogues of property began with the king’s land. To find information, readers had to understand the theological or political system. Alphabetization was simpler and more accessible. Yet despite its utility, its current dominance can obscure other organizational possibilities. Alphabetization may also create imagined links between items simply because they are filed side by side.

Embracing this aspect of the system, we decided to see if our random process of assigning names and making a grid might reveal unexpected themes that linked artifacts placed close to each other. The first one we identified is called Fake Outs. It runs from Animal Songs in the top left corner vertically through Failing and @Isotope to Portraits. Each item creates an illusion–like a trompe l’oeil–that leads the viewer to question what is real (are cows singing? Is the musician failing? Is an avatar influencer human, digital, or both? Are the beings in Portraits singular or multiple, fictional or ethnographic?) A second theme–Gods and Aliens–runs diagonally up from Portraits to Magic is Afoot to Golden Record and Diviner/Watcher. Each artifact considers communication with Others infinitely greater than ourselves. A final theme–Story telling/listening–-starts at Diviner/Watcher and moves vertically through Hungry Listening to Mother Nature to Sea Thread. Each one includes an element related to listening or telling stories about the human relationship to nature. We also noticed how alphabetization disrupted thematic connections we would have made had we been free to place the artifacts together, such as pairing Caliban with Human Zoo or connecting audio artifacts Talking Rain, Seagrass Sonification, and Animal Songs.

Do you see other themes emerge from the alphabetized grid? If you renamed an artifact, and therefore changed its position, how might it affect the themes? If the same artifacts were arranged alphabetically but in different configurations, such as columns or a list, how would it affect the links between artifacts?