Between undoing and destruction

Where lies the difference between undoing and destruction?
We make, remake, unmake. If we can reuse it, sometimes we try, but we are not above the destruction of things or other humans.

Aims of the research

Destruction takes place everywhere, in art, in business, in conflicts, in manufacturing processes and due to the cycles of nature. We have tools that can be both used to make and unmake, such as hammers and screwdrivers. We have tools that make, like 3D printers. We have tools that mostly destroy, such as hydraulic presses or chippers. But aside from the tools we use, undoing and destruction can be emotional, personal, expressive, and seductive.

Through this research, I want to explore the space between actions of undoing and destruction. I asked what type of actions we associate with destruction and what kind do we associate with undoing? How do our hands operate during these actions? Are our emotional states influencing these movements, or do these movements affect our emotions at any point? Given that phenomenologists argue that objects are not separate from our perception of them, as humans, we assign emotional value to things, so the act of destroying anything expensive, sentimental, or unique brings a different emotional response.

Research methods used

I chose the phenomenology approach to conduct my research, focusing on embodying the experience. According to Merleau-Ponty, the body is a medium for our perception of the world. I decided to analyse and perform actions of undoing and destruction to record my sensations emotions and document dominant hand gestures and movements. Embodying the experience was an approach that helped me understand my subjective thoughts and feelings about destruction.

Phenomenologists argue that it does not make sense to think of objects in the world separately from subjectivity and our perception of them.

(Langdridge 2007, 4)

What I did

I took a note from Tim Ingold’s (2011) work, in which he explains that haptic engagement needs to be practised at ‘close range and hands-on’. Engaging with the environment and materials around in a focused, mindful way allows one to perceive the world through other senses than the sense of sight.

I selected various objects, started taking them apart, and recorded the sensations as notes, sounds, and videos for later analysis. I paid attention to my emotional states, whether destroying things made me feel in a particular way. I focused on the haptic engagement with the objects and tried to recognise my movement’s complexities, sensory experiences, emotion, and fleeting sensations.

Destruction research, video capture

How I did it

I used my hands and tools such as screwdrivers and scissors to destroy several items. I created a working space on the floor of my room and lit the area with a strong daylight lamp. I also placed a camera on a tripod above for visual capture. I recorded some sounds of the experience separately on my phone. I wanted to separate the auditory inputs from the videos for later analysis to experience them without additional visual stimuli. I focused on movements of my hands, on identifying which actions required more pressure or force on my part. I tried to determine which movements I was unused to performing regularly with my hands, such as working with tools. I took apart an old hard drive, a USB drive, a top, a handmade knitted cap, a pen, and a cardboard envelope. While taking them apart, I tried to understand the object and my response to it.

Taking apart the hard drive began as a focused activity. It required that I use tools, and my hands lacked practice and skill with small screwdrivers. A metal textured case covered the drive, and overall, the hard drive required movements such as pulling, throwing, exploring, gripping, lifting and grasping. The hard drive had many tiny screws. I struggled to remove all of them, and the process of destroying the hard drive turned from a focused, organised activity to an act causing me frustration and annoyance. I made indignant noises, I hummed, muttered, and at some point, I gave up and stabbed the drive with a screwdriver and bent some metal elements out of shape with force. Working on the hard drive was more of an act of undoing as I planned to take it carefully apart to examine what components were inside. I was hesitant about destroying the hard drive at first, although it stopped working a while ago; I wondered if it could be fixed as I tend to be frugal about electronics and try to fix things before throwing them away.

Hard drive – process
Hard drive – sounds

Similarly, I also decided to take it apart with the USB drive when it stopped working. It had very little emotional or material value to me. The USB drive was smaller and easier to break, and the plastic casing was easy to bend. The item was smaller than a hard drive, and it did not end up with annoyance or frustration.

USB Drive
Destroying USB drive – sound

The cardboard envelope I tore apart I would usually recycle. I took apart the layers making up the cardboard and tore the paper. It was satisfying to separate cardboard layers because of the variety of sensory experiences, mainly feeling the item’s texture and hearing the sound of torn paper. I consider that taking apart the cardboard envelope was both an act of undoing and destruction. From an object with a purpose, an envelope, the cardboard became impractical scraps of papers.

Ripping cardboard – sound

I also broke two eggs to explore the space between undoing and destruction. Eggs consist of shells, egg whites and yolk. I studied the movement of cracking the egg for cooking or baking to separate the outer shell, the yolk and the whites. I considered that an act of undoing that required some precision. I also smashed an egg, throwing it forcefully on the ground. It was a satisfying feeling but also wasteful.

Eggs, undone and destroyed

I explored taking apart a sentimental handmade knitted cap that my grandmother taught me how to knit. Careful pulling of the woollen string could undo the knitting pattern, and it is a frequent practice to reuse the yarn later to incorporate it into knitting a new item. I cut the knitted cap with scissors to explore destruction, which brought up an emotional response. I knew I was destroying an object I invested hours in creating and could not easily reuse such short pieces of yarn.

Handmade knitted hat

I also cut and tore an old top that held no emotional or material value. It was one of the mass-produced items I bought at a popular retailer, and it was interesting to see how I chose it once and bought it, but it held no meaning for me after a while. It required some force to tear the fabric, and I needed to focus on grasping, pulling, and stretching.

Top and scissors
Ripping the top – sound

Reflection on how to improve it

I believe that using more tools and methods could provide more insightful findings by testing a wider variety of objects of varying emotional and material value. I could also record the textures of the things I touch for more sensory records. The video, photographs, sound clips and notes are helpful but rely on storing the data digitally for a visual or auditory review. Also, to describe my experience to others, I can only use descriptions or subjective videos and show only parts of the experience. Next time, I would create a small collage with pieces of what remained after destroying things so others could touch the different textures and materials.


I wanted to consider the entanglements of things and humans during the process and my research.

I find that actions and motivations are entangled. I identified a variety of types of destruction and types of undoing.

The process of destroying various items was also influencing my emotions. I became frustrated, annoyed, and indignant when taking apart the hard drive when I could not undo the tiny screws. I felt unease about destroying the sentimental cap that I knitted myself. I worried about giving up on my hopes to fix the hard drive and breaking eggs not to use it, which was wasteful. There was a difference in how I felt when destroying an object of little value, like a pen or a cardboard envelope, compared to a hard drive and a USB drive. Although both devices were old and faulty, recycling and reusing metal, plastic and other components are vital for me due to environmental reasons. I mapped my feelings in form of simple emotional arc sketches.

Who else has done something similar in design practice and research

Rage rooms: A rage room, also known as a smash or anger room, is where people can vent their rage by destroying objects.

Destroying objects in a controlled environment is performed with abandon. Visitors are prepared to break boundaries and even pay for the privilege. Usually, Western society promotes more peaceful ways to release emotions, such as meditation or sport. Wilful and pointless destruction is frowned upon by many, as is wastefulness. Accidental damage often causes feelings of guilt and embarrassment in the perpetrator. Exploring commercial venues like rage rooms can help further understand people’s emotional states connected to acts of damage and destruction.

In art: Ai Weiwei and the Gutai group

Ai Weiwei – Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. The art performance explored the connection between the material and the perceived value of an object. Because Al Weiwei destroyed a thing of great historical importance, it was provocative and evoked a range of responses and emotions from the public. Al Weiwei’s piece encouraged me to consider the value we assign to objects, whether material or sentimental.

The Gutai group. After the 2nd World War, painters such as the Gutai group in Japan committed a violent assault on the traditional, two-dimensional canvas plane — ripping, burning, tearing, cutting, puncturing, disrupting and even destroying it. The paintings expressed a creative approach that destruction can be an act of creation. It was also a way of reacting and conveying the post-war pain of those who witnessed the destruction caused by bombings. Nowadays, the popular activity of demolition spotting is another example of how witnessing destruction and undoing can impact people, from feelings of fascination to dread. These examples helped explore the causation between actions and emotions.

In research: Enactivism

Research on embodied cognition by Ward et al. (2017) and O’Reagan (2001) and Noe (2004)

The research I looked at focused on the study of enactivism and its dominant three strands.

Enactivism is the view that cognition emerges from or is constituted by sensorimotor activity. Sensorimotor enactivism is one of the strands of enactivism I explored. This view ‘focuses on explaining the intentionality and phenomenology of perceptual experiences in particular’ (O’Regan and Noë 2001; Noë 2004).

So, according to the research, it is through active investigation of the surroundings that we establish patterns of dependence between our sensory states, movements, and the world. With my activities, I tried to live the experience for a deeper understanding of my environment and focus on haptic sensibility.

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