JAMES THOMAS

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Archive for October 2010

Experimental Geography: From Cultural Production to the Production of Space

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Read at: The Brooklyn Rail by Trevor Paglen

When most people think about geography, they think about maps. Lots of maps. Maps with state capitals and national territories, maps showing mountains and rivers, forests and lakes, or maps showing population distributions and migration patterns. And indeed, that isn’t a wholly inaccurate idea of what the field is all about. It is true that modern geography and mapmaking were once inseparable.

Renaissance geographers like Henricus Martellus Germanus and Pedro Reinel, having rediscovered Greek texts on geography (most importantly Ptolemy’s Geography), put the ancient knowledge to work in the service of the Spanish and Portuguese empires. Martellus’s maps from the late 15th Century updated the old Greek cartographic projections to include Marco Polo’s explorations of the East as well as Portuguese forays along the African coast. Reinel’s portolan maps are some of the oldest modern nautical charts. Cartography, it turned out, was an indispensable tool for imperial expansion: if new territories were to be controlled, they had to be mapped. Within a few decades, royal cartographers filled in blank spots on old maps. In 1500, Juan de la Cosa, who accompanied Columbus on three voyages as captain of the Santa Maria, produced the Mappa Mundi, the first known map to depict the New World. Geography was such an important instrument of Portuguese and Spanish colonialism that early modern maps were some of these empires’ greatest secrets. Anyone caught leaking a map to a foreign power could be punished by death.

In our own time, another cartographic renaissance is taking place. In popular culture, free software applications like Google Earth and MapQuest have become almost indispensable parts of our everyday lives: we use online mapping applications to get directions to unfamiliar addresses and to virtually “explore” the globe with the aid of publicly available satellite imagery. Consumer-available global positioning systems (GPS) have made latitude and longitude coordinates a part of the cultural vernacular. In the arts, legions of cultural producers have been exercising the power to map. Gallery and museum exhibitions are dedicated to every variety of creative cartography; “locative media” has emerged as a form of techno-site-specificity; in the antiquities market, old maps have come to command historically unprecedented prices at auction. Academia, too, has been seized by the new powers of mapmaking: geographical information systems (GIS) have become a new lingua franca for collecting, collating, and representing data in fields as diverse as archaeology, biology, climatology, demography, epidemiology, and all the way to zoology. In many people’s minds, a newfound interest in geography has seized popular culture, the arts, and the academy. But does the proliferation of mapping technologies and practices really point to a new geographic cultural a priori? Not necessarily. Although geography and cartography have common intellectual and practical ancestors, and are often located within the same departments at universities, they can suggest very different ways of seeing and understanding the world.

Contemporary geography has little more than a cursory relationship to all varieties of cartography. In fact, most critical geographers have a healthy skepticism for the “God’s-Eye” vantage points implicit in much cartographic practice. As useful as maps can be, they can only provide very rough guides to what constitutes a particular space.

Geography is a curiously and powerfully transdisciplinary discipline. In any given geography department, one is likely to find people studying everything from the pre-Holocene atmospheric chemistry of northern Greenland to the effects of sovereign wealth funds on Hong Kong real estate markets, and from methyl chloride emissions in coastal salt marshes to the racial politics of nineteenth-century California labor movements. In the postwar United States, university officials routinely equated the discipline’s lack of systematic methodological and discursive norms with a lack of seriousness and rigor, a perception that led to numerous departments being closed for lack of institutional support. The end of geography at Harvard was typical of what happened to the field: university officials shut down its geography

department in 1948, as CUNY geographer Neil Smith tells it, after being flummoxed by their “inability to extract a clear definition of the subject, to grasp the substance of geography, or to determine its boundaries with other disciplines.” The academic brass “saw the field as hopelessly amorphous.” But this “hopeless amorphousness” is, in fact, the discipline’s greatest strength.

No matter how diverse and transdisciplinary the field of geography may seem, and indeed is, a couple of axioms nevertheless unify the vast majority of contemporary geographers’ work. These axioms hold as true for the “hard science” in university laboratories as for human geographers studying the unpredictable workings of culture and society. Geography’s major theoretical underpinnings come from two related ideas: materialism and the production of space.

In the philosophical tradition, materialism is the simple idea that the world is made out of “stuff,” and that moreover, the world is only made out of “stuff.” All phenomena, then, from atmospheric dynamics to Jackson Pollock paintings, arise out of the interactions of material in the world. In the western tradition, philosophical materialism goes back to ancient Greek philosophers like Democritus, Anaxagoras, and Epicurus, whose conceptions of reality differed sharply from Plato’s metaphysics. Later philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Karl Marx would develop materialist philosophies in contradistinction to Cartesian dualism and German idealism. Methodologically, materialism suggests an empirical (although not necessarily positivistic) approach to understanding the world. In the contemporary intellectual climate, a materialist approach takes relationality for granted, but an analytic approach that insists on “stuff” can be a powerful way of circumventing or tempering the quasi-solipsistic tendencies found in some strains of vulgar poststructuralism.

Geography’s second overarching axiom has to do with what we generally call “the production of space.” Although the idea of the “production of space” is usually attributed to the geographer-philosopher Henri Lefebvre, whose 1974 book La Production de l’Espace introduced the term to large numbers of people, the ideas animating Lefebvre’s work have a much longer history.Like materialism, the production of space is a relatively easy, even obvious, idea, but it has profoundimplications. In a nutshell, the production of space says that humans create the world around them and that humans are, in turn, created by the world around them. In other words, the human condition is characterized by a feedback loop between human activity and our material surroundings. In this view, space is not a container for human activities to take place within, but is actively “produced” through human activity. The spaces humans produce, in turn, set powerful constraints upon subsequent activity.

To illustrate this idea, we can take the university where I’m presently writing this text. At first blush, the university might seem like little more than a collection of buildings: libraries, laboratories, and classrooms with distinct locations in space. That’s what the university looks like on a map or on Google Earth. But this is an exceptionally partial view of the institution. The university is not an inert thing: it doesn’t “happen” until students arrive to attend classes, professors lock themselves away to do research, administrative staff pays the bills and registers the students, state legislators appropriate money for campus operations, and maintenance crews keep the institution’s physical infrastructure from falling apart. The university, then, cannot be separated from the people who go about “producing” the institution day after day. But the university also sculpts human activity: the university’s physical and bureaucratic structure creates conditions under which students attend lectures, read books, write papers, participate in discussions, and get grades. Human activity produces the university, but human activities are, in turn, shaped by the university. In these feedback loops, we see production of space at work.

Fine. But what does all of this have to do with art? What does this have to do with “cultural production?”

Contemporary geography’s theoretical and methodological axioms don’t have to stay within any disciplinary boundaries whatsoever (a source of much confusion at Harvard back in the mid-1940s). One can apply them to just about anything. Just as physical geographers implicitly use the idea of the production of space when they inquire into the relationship between human carbon emissions and receding Antarctic ice shelves, or when human geographers investigate the relationships between tourism on Tanzanian nature preserves, geography’s axioms can guide all sorts of practice and inquiry, including art and culture. A geographic approach to art, however, would look quite different than most conventional art history and criticism. The difference in approach would arise from the ways in which various disciplines rely on different underlying conceptions of the world. A geographer looking into art would begin with very different premises than those of an art critic.


The Salt Pit (Shomali Plains northeast of Kabul, Afghanistan). Photo by Trevor Paglen.

To speak very generally, the conceptual framework organizing much art history and criticism is one of “reading culture,” where questions and problems of representation (and their consequences) are of primary concern. In the traditional model, the critic’s task is to describe, elaborate upon, explain, interpret, evaluate, and critique pre-given cultural works. In a certain sense, the art critic’s role is to act as a discerning consumer of culture. There’s nothing at all wrong with this, but this model of art criticism must (again, in a broad sense) tacitly assume an ontology of “art” in order to have an intelligible starting point for a reading, critique, or discussion. A good geographer, however, might use her discipline’s analytic axioms to approach the problem of “art” in a decidedly different way.

Instead of asking “What is art?” or “Is this art successful?” a good geographer might ask questions along the lines of “How is this space called ‘art’ produced?” In other words, what are the specific historical, economic, cultural, and discursive conjunctions that come together to form something called “art” and, moreover, to produce a space that we colloquially know as an “art world”? The geographic question is not “What is art?” but “How is art?” From a critical geographic perspective, the notion of a free-standing work of art would be seen as the fetishistic effect of a production process. Instead of approaching art from the vantage point of a consumer, a critical geographer might reframe the question of art in terms of spatial practice.

We can take this line of thinking even further. Instead of using geographic axioms to come up with an alternative “interpretive” approach to art (as I suggested in the previous paragraph), we can use them in a normative sense. Whether we’re geographers, artists, writers, curators, critics, or anyone else, we can use geographic axioms self-reflexively to inform our own production.

If we accept Marx’s argument that a fundamental characteristic of human existence is “the production of material life itself” (that humans produce their own existence in dialectical relation to the rest of the world), and, following Lefebvre (and Marx) that production is a

fundamentally spatial practice, then cultural production (like all production) is a spatial practice. When I write an essay such as this, get it published in a book, and put it on a shelf in a bookstore or museum, I’m participating in the production of space. The same is true for producing art: when I produce images and put them in a gallery or museum or sell them to collectors, I’m helping to produce a space some call the “art world.” The same holds true for “geography”: when I study geography, write about geography, teach geography, go to geography conferences, and take part in a geography department, I’m helping to produce a space called “geography.” None of these examples is a metaphor: the “space” of culture isn’t just Raymond Williams’s “structure of feeling” but, as my friends Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Clayton Rosati underline, an “infrastructure of feeling.”

My point is that if one takes the production of space seriously, the concept applies not only to “objects” of study or criticism, but to the ways one’s own actions participate in the production of space. Geography, then, is not just a method of inquiry, but necessarily entails the production of a space of inquiry. Geographers might study the production of space, but through that study, they’re also producing space. Put simply, geographers don’t just study geography, they create geographies.

The same is true for any other field and any other form of practice. Taking this head-on, incorporating it into one’s practice, is what I mean by “experimental geography.”

Experimental geography means practices that take on the production of space in a self-reflexive way, practices that recognize that cultural production and the production of space cannot be separated from each another, and that cultural and intellectual production is a spatial practice. Moreover, experimental geography means not only seeing the production of space as an ontological condition, but actively experimenting with the production of space as an integral part of one’s own practice. If human activities are inextricably spatial, then new forms of freedom and democracy can only emerge in dialectical relation to the production of new spaces. I deliberately use one of modernism’s keywords, “experimental,” for two reasons. First is to acknowledge and affirm the modernist notion that things can be better, that humans are capable of improving their own conditions, to keep cynicism and defeatism at arm’s length. Moreover, experimentation means production without guarantees, and producing new forms of space certainly comes without guarantees. Space is not deterministic, and the production of new spaces isn’t easy.

In thinking about what experimental geography entails, especially in relation to cultural production, it’s helpful to hearken back to Walter Benjamin, who prefigured these ideas in a 1934 essay entitled “The Author as Producer.”

While he worked in exile from the Nazis in Paris during much of the 1930s, Benjamin’s thoughts repeatedly turned to the question of cultural production. For Benjamin, cultural production’s status as an intrinsically political endeavor was self-evident. The intellectual task he set for himself was to theorize how cultural production might be part of an overall anti-Fascist project. In his musings on the transformative possibilities of culture, Benjamin identified a key political moment in cultural works happening in the production process.

In Benjamin’s “Author as Producer”, he prefigured contemporary geographic thought when he refused to assume that a cultural work exists as a thing-unto-itself: “The dialectical approach,” he wrote, “has absolutely no use for such rigid, isolated things as work, novel, book. It has to insert them into the living social context.” Right there, Benjamin rejected the assumption that cultural works have any kind of ontological stability and instead suggested a relational way of thinking about them. Benjamin went on to make a distinction between works that have an “attitude” toward politics and works that inhabit a “position” within them. “Rather than ask ‘What is the attitude of a work to the relations of production of its time?’” he wrote, “I should like to ask, ‘What is its position in them?’” Benjamin, in other words, was identifying the relations of production that give rise to cultural work as a crucial political moment. For Benjamin, producing truly radical or liberatory cultural works meant producing liberatory spaces from which cultural works could emerge. Echoing Marx, he suggested that the task of transformative cultural production was to reconfigure the relations and apparatus of cultural production, to reinvent the “infrastructure” of feeling in ways designed to maximize human freedom. The actual “content” of the work was secondary.

Experimental geography expands Benjamin’s call for cultural workers to move beyond “critique” as an end in itself and to take up a “position” within the politics of lived experience. Following Benjamin, experimental geography takes for granted the fact that there can be no

“outside” of politics, because there can be no “outside” to the production of space (and the production of space is ipso facto political). Moreover, experimental geography is a call to take seriously, but ultimately move beyond cultural theories that equate new enunciations and new subjectivities as sufficient political ends in themselves. When decoupled from the production of new spaces, they are far too easily assimilated into the endless cycles of destruction and reconstitution characterizing cultural neoliberalism, a repetition Benjamin dubbed “Hell.”

The task of experimental geography, then, is to seize the opportunities that present themselves in the spatial practices of culture. To move beyond critical reflection, critique alone, and political “attitudes,” into the realm of practice. To experiment with creating new spaces, new ways of being.

What’s at stake? Quite literally, everything.

When most people think about geography, they think about maps. Lots of maps. Maps with state capitals and national territories, maps showing mountains and rivers, forests and lakes, or maps showing population distributions and migration patterns. And indeed, that isn’t a wholly inaccurate idea of what the field is all about. It is true that modern geography and mapmaking were once inseparable.

Renaissance geographers like Henricus Martellus Germanus and Pedro Reinel, having rediscovered Greek texts on geography (most importantly Ptolemy’s Geography), put the ancient knowledge to work in the service of the Spanish and Portuguese empires. Martellus’s maps from the late 15th Century updated the old Greek cartographic projections to include Marco Polo’s explorations of the East as well as Portuguese forays along the African coast. Reinel’s portolan maps are some of the oldest modern nautical charts. Cartography, it turned out, was an indispensable tool for imperial expansion: if new territories were to be controlled, they had to be mapped. Within a few decades, royal cartographers filled in blank spots on old maps. In 1500, Juan de la Cosa, who accompanied Columbus on three voyages as captain of the Santa Maria, produced the Mappa Mundi, the first known map to depict the New World. Geography was such an important instrument of Portuguese and Spanish colonialism that early modern maps were some of these empires’ greatest secrets. Anyone caught leaking a map to a foreign power could be punished by death.

In our own time, another cartographic renaissance is taking place. In popular culture, free software applications like Google Earth and MapQuest have become almost indispensable parts of our everyday lives: we use online mapping applications to get directions to unfamiliar addresses and to virtually “explore” the globe with the aid of publicly available satellite imagery. Consumer-available global positioning systems (GPS) have made latitude and longitude coordinates a part of the cultural vernacular. In the arts, legions of cultural producers have been exercising the power to map. Gallery and museum exhibitions are dedicated to every variety of creative cartography; “locative media” has emerged as a form of techno-site-specificity; in the antiquities market, old maps have come to command historically unprecedented prices at auction. Academia, too, has been seized by the new powers of mapmaking: geographical information systems (GIS) have become a new lingua franca for collecting, collating, and representing data in fields as diverse as archaeology, biology, climatology, demography, epidemiology, and all the way to zoology. In many people’s minds, a newfound interest in geography has seized popular culture, the arts, and the academy. But does the proliferation of mapping technologies and practices really point to a new geographic cultural a priori? Not necessarily. Although geography and cartography have common intellectual and practical ancestors, and are often located within the same departments at universities, they can suggest very different ways of seeing and understanding the world.

Contemporary geography has little more than a cursory relationship to all varieties of cartography. In fact, most critical geographers have a healthy skepticism for the “God’s-Eye” vantage points implicit in much cartographic practice. As useful as maps can be, they can only provide very rough guides to what constitutes a particular space.

Geography is a curiously and powerfully transdisciplinary discipline. In any given geography department, one is likely to find people studying everything from the pre-Holocene atmospheric chemistry of northern Greenland to the effects of sovereign wealth funds on Hong Kong real estate markets, and from methyl chloride emissions in coastal salt marshes to the racial politics of nineteenth-century California labor movements. In the postwar United States, university officials routinely equated the discipline’s lack of systematic methodological and discursive norms with a lack of seriousness and rigor, a perception that led to numerous departments being closed for lack of institutional support. The end of geography at Harvard was typical of what happened to the field: university officials shut down its geography

department in 1948, as CUNY geographer Neil Smith tells it, after being flummoxed by their “inability to extract a clear definition of the subject, to grasp the substance of geography, or to determine its boundaries with other disciplines.” The academic brass “saw the field as hopelessly amorphous.” But this “hopeless amorphousness” is, in fact, the discipline’s greatest strength.

No matter how diverse and transdisciplinary the field of geography may seem, and indeed is, a couple of axioms nevertheless unify the vast majority of contemporary geographers’ work. These axioms hold as true for the “hard science” in university laboratories as for human geographers studying the unpredictable workings of culture and society. Geography’s major theoretical underpinnings come from two related ideas: materialism and the production of space.

In the philosophical tradition, materialism is the simple idea that the world is made out of “stuff,” and that moreover, the world is only made out of “stuff.” All phenomena, then, from atmospheric dynamics to Jackson Pollock paintings, arise out of the interactions of material in the world. In the western tradition, philosophical materialism goes back to ancient Greek philosophers like Democritus, Anaxagoras, and Epicurus, whose conceptions of reality differed sharply from Plato’s metaphysics. Later philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Karl Marx would develop materialist philosophies in contradistinction to Cartesian dualism and German idealism. Methodologically, materialism suggests an empirical (although not necessarily positivistic) approach to understanding the world. In the contemporary intellectual climate, a materialist approach takes relationality for granted, but an analytic approach that insists on “stuff” can be a powerful way of circumventing or tempering the quasi-solipsistic tendencies found in some strains of vulgar poststructuralism.

Geography’s second overarching axiom has to do with what we generally call “the production of space.” Although the idea of the “production of space” is usually attributed to the geographer-philosopher Henri Lefebvre, whose 1974 book La Production de l’Espace introduced the term to large numbers of people, the ideas animating Lefebvre’s work have a much longer history.Like materialism, the production of space is a relatively easy, even obvious, idea, but it has profoundimplications. In a nutshell, the production of space says that humans create the world around them and that humans are, in turn, created by the world around them. In other words, the human condition is characterized by a feedback loop between human activity and our material surroundings. In this view, space is not a container for human activities to take place within, but is actively “produced” through human activity. The spaces humans produce, in turn, set powerful constraints upon subsequent activity.

To illustrate this idea, we can take the university where I’m presently writing this text. At first blush, the university might seem like little more than a collection of buildings: libraries, laboratories, and classrooms with distinct locations in space. That’s what the university looks like on a map or on Google Earth. But this is an exceptionally partial view of the institution. The university is not an inert thing: it doesn’t “happen” until students arrive to attend classes, professors lock themselves away to do research, administrative staff pays the bills and registers the students, state legislators appropriate money for campus operations, and maintenance crews keep the institution’s physical infrastructure from falling apart. The university, then, cannot be separated from the people who go about “producing” the institution day after day. But the university also sculpts human activity: the university’s physical and bureaucratic structure creates conditions under which students attend lectures, read books, write papers, participate in discussions, and get grades. Human activity produces the university, but human activities are, in turn, shaped by the university. In these feedback loops, we see production of space at work.

Fine. But what does all of this have to do with art? What does this have to do with “cultural production?”

Contemporary geography’s theoretical and methodological axioms don’t have to stay within any disciplinary boundaries whatsoever (a source of much confusion at Harvard back in the mid-1940s). One can apply them to just about anything. Just as physical geographers implicitly use the idea of the production of space when they inquire into the relationship between human carbon emissions and receding Antarctic ice shelves, or when human geographers investigate the relationships between tourism on Tanzanian nature preserves, geography’s axioms can guide all sorts of practice and inquiry, including art and culture. A geographic approach to art, however, would look quite different than most conventional art history and criticism. The difference in approach would arise from the ways in which various disciplines rely on different underlying conceptions of the world. A geographer looking into art would begin with very different premises than those of an art critic.

To speak very generally, the conceptual framework organizing much art history and criticism is one of “reading culture,” where questions and problems of representation (and their consequences) are of primary concern. In the traditional model, the critic’s task is to describe, elaborate upon, explain, interpret, evaluate, and critique pre-given cultural works. In a certain sense, the art critic’s role is to act as a discerning consumer of culture. There’s nothing at all wrong with this, but this model of art criticism must (again, in a broad sense) tacitly assume an ontology of “art” in order to have an intelligible starting point for a reading, critique, or discussion. A good geographer, however, might use her discipline’s analytic axioms to approach the problem of “art” in a decidedly different way.

Instead of asking “What is art?” or “Is this art successful?” a good geographer might ask questions along the lines of “How is this space called ‘art’ produced?” In other words, what are the specific historical, economic, cultural, and discursive conjunctions that come together to form something called “art” and, moreover, to produce a space that we colloquially know as an “art world”? The geographic question is not “What is art?” but “How is art?” From a critical geographic perspective, the notion of a free-standing work of art would be seen as the fetishistic effect of a production process. Instead of approaching art from the vantage point of a consumer, a critical geographer might reframe the question of art in terms of spatial practice.

We can take this line of thinking even further. Instead of using geographic axioms to come up with an alternative “interpretive” approach to art (as I suggested in the previous paragraph), we can use them in a normative sense. Whether we’re geographers, artists, writers, curators, critics, or anyone else, we can use geographic axioms self-reflexively to inform our own production.

If we accept Marx’s argument that a fundamental characteristic of human existence is “the production of material life itself” (that humans produce their own existence in dialectical relation to the rest of the world), and, following Lefebvre (and Marx) that production is a

fundamentally spatial practice, then cultural production (like all production) is a spatial practice. When I write an essay such as this, get it published in a book, and put it on a shelf in a bookstore or museum, I’m participating in the production of space. The same is true for producing art: when I produce images and put them in a gallery or museum or sell them to collectors, I’m helping to produce a space some call the “art world.” The same holds true for “geography”: when I study geography, write about geography, teach geography, go to geography conferences, and take part in a geography department, I’m helping to produce a space called “geography.” None of these examples is a metaphor: the “space” of culture isn’t just Raymond Williams’s “structure of feeling” but, as my friends Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Clayton Rosati underline, an “infrastructure of feeling.”

My point is that if one takes the production of space seriously, the concept applies not only to “objects” of study or criticism, but to the ways one’s own actions participate in the production of space. Geography, then, is not just a method of inquiry, but necessarily entails the production of a space of inquiry. Geographers might study the production of space, but through that study, they’re also producing space. Put simply, geographers don’t just study geography, they create geographies.

The same is true for any other field and any other form of practice. Taking this head-on, incorporating it into one’s practice, is what I mean by “experimental geography.”

Experimental geography means practices that take on the production of space in a self-reflexive way, practices that recognize that cultural production and the production of space cannot be separated from each another, and that cultural and intellectual production is a spatial practice. Moreover, experimental geography means not only seeing the production of space as an ontological condition, but actively experimenting with the production of space as an integral part of one’s own practice. If human activities are inextricably spatial, then new forms of freedom and democracy can only emerge in dialectical relation to the production of new spaces. I deliberately use one of modernism’s keywords, “experimental,” for two reasons. First is to acknowledge and affirm the modernist notion that things can be better, that humans are capable of improving their own conditions, to keep cynicism and defeatism at arm’s length. Moreover, experimentation means production without guarantees, and producing new forms of space certainly comes without guarantees. Space is not deterministic, and the production of new spaces isn’t easy.

In thinking about what experimental geography entails, especially in relation to cultural production, it’s helpful to hearken back to Walter Benjamin, who prefigured these ideas in a 1934 essay entitled “The Author as Producer.”

While he worked in exile from the Nazis in Paris during much of the 1930s, Benjamin’s thoughts repeatedly turned to the question of cultural production. For Benjamin, cultural production’s status as an intrinsically political endeavor was self-evident. The intellectual task he set for himself was to theorize how cultural production might be part of an overall anti-Fascist project. In his musings on the transformative possibilities of culture, Benjamin identified a key political moment in cultural works happening in the production process.

In Benjamin’s “Author as Producer”, he prefigured contemporary geographic thought when he refused to assume that a cultural work exists as a thing-unto-itself: “The dialectical approach,” he wrote, “has absolutely no use for such rigid, isolated things as work, novel, book. It has to insert them into the living social context.” Right there, Benjamin rejected the assumption that cultural works have any kind of ontological stability and instead suggested a relational way of thinking about them. Benjamin went on to make a distinction between works that have an “attitude” toward politics and works that inhabit a “position” within them. “Rather than ask ‘What is the attitude of a work to the relations of production of its time?’” he wrote, “I should like to ask, ‘What is its position in them?’” Benjamin, in other words, was identifying the relations of production that give rise to cultural work as a crucial political moment. For Benjamin, producing truly radical or liberatory cultural works meant producing liberatory spaces from which cultural works could emerge. Echoing Marx, he suggested that the task of transformative cultural production was to reconfigure the relations and apparatus of cultural production, to reinvent the “infrastructure” of feeling in ways designed to maximize human freedom. The actual “content” of the work was secondary.

Experimental geography expands Benjamin’s call for cultural workers to move beyond “critique” as an end in itself and to take up a “position” within the politics of lived experience. Following Benjamin, experimental geography takes for granted the fact that there can be no

“outside” of politics, because there can be no “outside” to the production of space (and the production of space is ipso facto political). Moreover, experimental geography is a call to take seriously, but ultimately move beyond cultural theories that equate new enunciations and new subjectivities as sufficient political ends in themselves. When decoupled from the production of new spaces, they are far too easily assimilated into the endless cycles of destruction and reconstitution characterizing cultural neoliberalism, a repetition Benjamin dubbed “Hell.”

The task of experimental geography, then, is to seize the opportunities that present themselves in the spatial practices of culture. To move beyond critical reflection, critique alone, and political “attitudes,” into the realm of practice. To experiment with creating new spaces, new ways of being.

What’s at stake? Quite literally, everything.

Written by James Thomas

24/10/2010 at 18:49

Posted in 004/ Environment

Jorinde Voigt

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Written by James Thomas

20/10/2010 at 10:40

Posted in 005/ Tunings

J.G. Ballard & Architectures of Control

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http://www.ballardian.com

Author: Dan Lockton • Jan 3rd, 2008 •

by Dan Lockton

Ballardian: Architectures of Control

Ernõ Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower, London W10. “I built skyscrapers for people to live in there and now they messed them up — disgusting.” Photo by See Wah, used under Creative Commons licence).

One of the many ‘obsessions’ running through Ballard’s work is what we might characterise as the effect of architecture on the individual. This is more than playful psychogeography: Ballard dissects architectural influence on his characters with technical precision, both intricate and dynamic, captured at 24 frames per second through a 35 mm lens but replayed in slow-motion, frozen and magnified, projected on the featureless concrete barrier bounding the mainstream carriageway.

I use ‘architecture’ here in a wide sense, including the whole of the constructed environment – physical, technological and social – because while, for example, High-Rise very clearly explores the way that architectural decisions can directly impact on human behaviour, some of Ballard’s more recent works such as Running Wild, Millennium People and Kingdom Come concentrate more on the effects of constructed social and psychological environments on their inhabitants/users, and Crash of course examines intimately the interface between technology and our bodies, and how the technological landscape shapes our own obsessions. Indeed, the phrase “psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments” in the Collins English Dictionary definition of ‘Ballardian’ is, while necessarily broad, impressively concise.

However, the argument is somewhat more complex: to a large extent, much of Ballard’s work makes it clear that he considers the seeds of behavioural change to be latent within every participant and merely drawn out by the environments and situations in which he or she is placed. Concrete Island, some of the elements of The Atrocity Exhibition, ‘The Terminal Beach’, ‘The Enormous Space’, ‘Motel Architecture’ and others all take this to the characteristically Ballardian level of actually reflecting the participants’ mental state in the environment itself:

…throughout The Atrocity Exhibition, the nervous systems of the characters have been externalised as part of the reversal of the interior and exterior worlds. Highways, office blocks, faces and street signs are perceived as if they were elements in a malfunctioning central nervous system.”

The Atrocity Exhibition, annotated edition (JGB’s notes on ‘Algebra of the Sky’).

More and more, the island was becoming an exact model of his head… Identifying the island with himself, he gazed at the cars in the breaker’s yard, at the wire-mesh fence, and the concrete caisson behind him. These places of pain and ordeal were now confused with pieces of his body.

I am the island.

Concrete Island, chapter 9.

Ballardian: Architectures of Control

Culver St, Salisbury, Wiltshire. Photo by Tom Goskar (used under Creative Commons licence).

In terms of conventional ‘architecture’, it is the landscape of highways, the blockhouse and the multi-storey car park (many of them “very large structures”) which recur throughout Ballard’s work, with aspects of their geometries (canted decks, angles between walls, and so on) both a cipher for the possibilities of human relations and a method of reinforcing the obsessive thought-processes of the characters involved.

The architecture also acts as a structure for the story — few writers incorporate the affordances and disaffordances of their fiction’s settings so tightly into the plot as Ballard does: this is especially obvious in High-Rise (and less so in Kingdom Come) where a single edifice is the focus of both the overall plot and everything that happens within it, but even ‘detective story’ details such as (in Super-Cannes) Sinclair searching for and finding Greenwood’s dried blood inside the drainpipe below the top deck of the (multi-storey) car park are integrated inescapably into the nature of Ballard’s narrative. Would the events of, say, Super-Cannes or Cocaine Nights engage the reader to the same extent if the architecture of the locations, both physical and psychological, were not so obsessively explained and expounded?

My own area of research relates to what might be called ‘design with intent’, or, more dramatically, ‘architectures of control’, a term most notably used by Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig to describe the way in which systems (such as the internet) regulate and shape users’ behaviour through the embedded ‘code’ of the system itself, orders of magnitude more powerful than any external legal regulation. Ballard explores consumerism-driving behaviour-shaping most notably in ‘The Subliminal Man’, where, alongside subliminal advertising on giant roadside signs designed to spur ever-faster product replacement cycles, a system of rubber studs embedded in the road surface, the pattern of which is regularly changed, enforce regular tyre replacement by causing damaging resonance — “increasing the safety and efficiency of the expressway… [and also] the revenues of the car and tyre manufacturers.”

Architectures of control in the built environment work on different scales, from the large-scale layouts of cities and campuses to encourage or discourage certain behaviour, to mundane small-scale examples such as benches designed with central armrests to prevent the homeless sleeping on them, anti-skateboarding features on walls and even rough paving to make it uncomfortable to sit down or for barefooted protestors to congregate. Similar ideas have been expressed in different fields, at different times, by different people: for example, for Bruno Latour and Madeleine Akrich, the emphasis is very much on the designer (or architect) ‘inscribing’ intent into a system or environment, prescribing and proscribing what behaviours will be produced, but the architectural effects explored in Ballard’s work are, more often than not, divorced from conscious intent on the part of the architects – part of Ballard’s usual “recognition of unconscious forces” [1] (my emphases):

Take a structure like a multi-storey car park, one of the most mysterious buildings ever built. Is it a model for some strange psychological state, some kind of vision glimpsed within its bizarre geometry? What effect does using these buildings have on us? Are the real myths of this century being written in terms of these huge unnoticed structures?

‘Crash!’ voiceover, 1971.

In most roles the machine assumes a benign or passive posture – telephone exchanges, engineering hardware, etc. The twentieth century has also given birth to a vast range of machines – computers, pilotless planes, thermonuclear weapons – where the latent identity of the machine is ambiguous even to the skilled investigator.

‘Crash!’ in The Atrocity Exhibition.

Ballardian: Architectures of Control

Under the Westway. Photo by Drew Leavy (used under Creative Commons licence).

Ballard in no way tries to imply that the architects and civil engineers who envisaged the Westway, Western Avenue and London’s Motorway Box intended to create or inspire the events of Crash or Concrete Island, but the fact that Maitland (Concrete Island) is, professionally, an architect, is surely significant. Where Ballard does allow us to examine an architect meeting the consequences of his work — Royal in High-Rise — there is an apparent lack of conscious reflection by the architect on the actual architectural effects involved but something of an implication of intent, at least in terms of the whole thing being a perverse experiment on the part of its creator (much like Crawford in Cocaine Nights and Penrose in Super-Cannes, or even Vaughan, the “TV scientist” in Crash).

Oscar Newman’s Defensible Space, a seminal work in modern urban planning, had been published in 1972, three years before High-Rise, and includes studies of real apartment blocks and estates Balkanised and destroyed through escalating architecturally-driven deterioration of the social fabric, although none to quite the level of atavism and collectively self-enforced agoraphobia that Ballard brings us. This distaste for the outside world, the wilful insularity of the residents, is a notable theme in High-Rise, and of course parallels some of the thought processes of the enclave residents of the Residencia Costasol (Cocaine Nights) and Pangbourne Village (Running Wild):

The spectacular view always made Laing aware of his ambivalent feelings for this concrete landscape. Part of its appeal lay all too clearly in the fact that this was an environment built, not for man, but for man’s absence.

High-Rise, chapter 2.

It’s interesting to note Ballard’s own recognition of embedded (or ‘inscribed’) code in architectural design in ‘A Handful of Dust’ [2], an article for the Guardian (emphases mine), where the idea of the planned community also rears its head:

But the modernists maintained that ornamentation concealed rather than embellished. Classical columns, pediments and pilasters defined a hierarchical order. Power and authority were separated from the common street by huge flights of steps that we were forced to climb on our way to law courts, parliaments and town halls… So modernism was a breath of fresh air and possibility. Housing schemes, factories and office blocks designed by modernist architects were clear-headed and geometric, suggesting clean and unembellished lives for the people inside them.

‘A Handful of Dust’, The Guardian, 20. iii. 2006.

This idea is further explored in the notes on ‘Locus Solus’ in the annotated version of The Atrocity Exhibition, (and, specifically with the planned/gated community theme, in ‘The Largest Theme Park in the World’, Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes, Millennium People and Running Wild):

…the peculiar geometry of those identical apartment houses [along the Mediterranean coast] seems to defuse the millenarian spirit. Living there, one is aware of the exact volumes of these generally white apartments and hotel rooms. After the more sombre light of northern Europe, they seem to focus an intense self-consciousness on the occupants.

The Atrocity Exhibition, annotated edition (JGB’s notes on Locus Solus).

Ballardian: Architectures of Control

Tasers and other defence paraphernalia on sale in a Cannes shopping centre, 2005. Photograph by Dan Lockton.

In Super-Cannes, however, there is an explicit link drawn with the totalitarian potential of architectural determinism as a method of social control, which brings Ballard closer to more ‘conventional’ dystopian territory. It’s not comparable with the wartime horrors of Empire of the Sun, but is in keeping with the dark conspiratorial undercurrents of the book (my emphases):

Thousands of people live and work here without making a single decision about right and wrong. The moral order is engineered into their lives along with the speed limits and the security systems.

Super-Cannes, chapter 29.

Surveillance cameras hung like gargoyles from the cornices, following me as I approached the barbican and identified myself to the guard at the reception desk… High above me, fluted columns carried the pitched roofs, an attempt at a vernacular architecture that failed to disguise this executive-class prison. Taking their cue from Eden-Olympia and Antibes-les-Pins, the totalitarian systems of the future would be subservient and ingratiating, but the locks would be just as strong.

Super-Cannes, chapter 15.

This last quote is one of my favourites from all of Ballard’s work, and it’s notable from the ‘architectures of control’ perspective to see the strains of latent suburban fascism being explored in the recent Kingdom Come, entwined with the planned manipulation of populations through mass media and the advertising which Pearson devises; it will be interesting to see if Ballard continues exploring this area of modern totalitarianism, whether he can further develop this perspective, and what direction he takes next.

While this brief article merely scratches the surface of Ballard’s interest in architectural effects on people, I hope it shows that this area, in many forms, is a running theme throughout much of his work — a fascinating thread, evolving yet consistent in its depth, over fifty-plus years of writing.

Dan Lockton, 2008.

Written by James Thomas

20/10/2010 at 10:22

Posted in 001/ Archi Spatial

Mapping Conversation

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Cabinet Magazine:

Issue 2 Mapping Conversations Spring 2001
Utterance Is Place Enough: Mapping Conversation

Frances Richard

­The map image is a synthesis of spatially and temporally registered gestalten, each a synthesis in its own right. No degree of thematic constriction can silence the conversation among map signs.
—Denis Wood, The Power of Maps

A map is a picture, a rendering in two-dimensional space of three-dimensional topography ordered through the filter of four-dimensional experience. A map establishes spatial relations between landmarks, commits these relationships to a particular scale, and aligns the resulting picture so that a view­er (reader, orienteer) can enter it. Its use-value lies in articulating connections: “You Are Here,” “This Is the Place.” Such connections may be situated anywhere along a continuum of quantitative accuracy, from the pristine measurements of a United States Geological Survey plat to the sketch you scribble for a friend so she can find your house from the subway. Like naming and counting, mapping is a method for articulating the existence of things—an operation causing chosen features to rise like newborn islands from the chaotic welter of experience, fixing them in time-space and bestowing (or foisting) upon them a significance that allows these features to be found again, to be approached from new angles while still holding them in the context of previous encounters. Maps index reality in layers.

And conversation? Setting aside the various media in which one might occur—the language of flowers, body language, Morse code—a conversation is a more-or-less unscripted verbal exchange, an ostensibly non-hierarchical talk shared by two or more participants. It is a group endeavor, a multivocal whole that will break down if one voice dominates unduly, or if too many fade away. Conversations do not always happen in real time, but time is inextricable from conversations because they are inherently improvisatory. If every member knows beforehand what each is going to say, speech becomes rote exhibition, not exchange. Sociolinguists are fond of noting that the etymological root of conversation is the Latin convertere, to turn around. To succeed as conversation, shared speech requires such back-and-forth, with its intrinsic unpredictability (being unpredictable, of course, is not the same as being interesting). In their turns, conversants spin a discourse. Their talk creates a mesh of specifically phrased ideas, a tissue of inter-pretation and response in which thought moves from latent to kinetic. Conversation generates reality as temporary and co-operative.

A language is therefore a horizon, and style a vertical dimension, which together map out for the writer a Nature, since he does not choose either.
—Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero

Between “mapping” and “conversation” a third term migrates, now acknowledging the inscribed, representative character of the map, now gesturing to the elementally linguistic condition of conversation. How does “mapping conversation” differ from “writing”? Map and written text are artifacts, experience once (at least) removed. The conversation is experience up front. In its objecthood, the map detaches from whatever landscape it purports to render; it slips into its own register as a freestanding unit, a self-enclosed area operating by reflexively validated rules. The tropes of mapping—including scale, legend, color, the use of contour isobars and other conventions for translating three-dimensional elevation into two dimensions—are no less stylized than the parameters of any other discourse. The cartographer has a Nature too, derived from scientific tradition and perceptual habit, more or less unchosen, not the least bit “natural.” The map is a particular kind of story about reality.

The cooperative unpredictability of conversation forms around its speakers a terrain. Its words are audible and obvious. The dynamic shapes limned by the progressions of those words are subtler. The modulations of tone, timing, and implication form an uneven surface, a topology of group exchange. To write conversation is a word:word transformation—no extra light is shed on shape. In mapping, terrain becomes obvious, the sine qua non, while the semiotic maneuvers undergirding its representation drift into background. To map location is a space:space transformation—no extra light is shed on language. But map!=land, just as conversation!=words. Mapping conversation differs from writing because it literally indexes language as shape. It arranges words across an armature of space.

I call [these drawings] “narrative structures” because each consists of a network of lines and notations which are meant to convey a story, typically about a recent event of interest to me like the collapse of a large international bank, trading company, or investment house.
—Mark Lombardi, “The Recent Drawings: An Overview”

I am mapping the political and social terrain in which I live. Shall we cut it there?
—Mark Lombardi, video conversation with Andy Mann, February 28, 1997

The drawings are graceful, intriguing, eminently readable—but also pleasing to the eye as abstract webs, spangles, clusters. Done in black ink with red accents, on cream or white paper, they signify “diagram” from a distance, well before anything legible enters the viewer’s mind. Anticipating textual focus, the glancing eye understands that some plethora of information is being schematized, presented for maximum accessibility. Unconsciously indoctrinated within the symbol system of (possibly pseudo-) scientific notation, we approach these images expecting to be led through a thicket of data toward a factually supported conclusion. And this is exactly what happens—sort of.

Investing the time required to move from looking at to reading a Lombardi drawing, we depart from the generic “information structure” established by a two-dimensional arrangement of arrows and circles, and enter a “narrative structure” with specific characters, settings, events, and chronologies. What story is being told? Several overlays of interpretation power up together. Most obviously, we are shown that Henry Kissinger, or the Vatican Bank, or Charles Keating, or Flushing (NY) Federal Savings, have been involved in double-dealing, shady finance, inter-national scams. We get dates, patterns of influence, types of transactions. Do we believe?

The answer is probably yes. But this Q&A is a gateway to other layers of the story. Lombardi spends years researching his narratives; every item is culled from the public record as available in books, wire service reports, magazines, etc.; every mark we see is supported by thousands of cross-referenced notes on alphabetized index cards. In other words, like most maps, these drawings posit themselves as truthful documentation, field-tested and verifiable, presented only for the edification of an interested public. In writing terms, Lombardi plays the lone reporter, relentlessly ferreting out secrets and compiling devastating dossiers on the big boys from the modest war-room of his file-strewn apartment. We accept that Kissinger, et.al. are guilty as charged, and the subtextual hum of real-life fact gives the images poignancy and force. But in a sense it would not matter if the whole panorama of Lombardi’s narrative were fabricated from his imagination. Just as his sweeping curves and dotted lines adapt a pre-existing vocabulary of corporate graphing, the archetypes of crusading informer and corrupt V.I.P. are readymades from our cultural milieu, and we receive them as such—the artist makes a remarkable case, but we probably “knew” this stuff already. Growing up post-Watergate, inured to the idea that no one gets rich or maintains power without resorting to espionage, intimidation, and payola, we expect revelations of high-level venality. Lombardi’s work provides them. The visual elegance of his phrasing is analogous to the oratory of a great muckraker, the comeliness of David as he gears up for Goliath. Their ostensibly neutral or indexical format protects the drawings from looking like agitprop—they are too strange and beautiful for that, and yet their social and political content is direct. Free to enjoy the form and be disturbed by the content, we are brought into Lombardi’s orbit as confidants. We become his interlocutors, people on whom the nuance of his project is not lost.

As conversation, then, Lombardi’s diagrams speak in multiple directions. Following the patterns he has traced, from Rome to Havana, Iraq to Tennessee, we can practically hear the buzz of covert phone calls and smoke-filled-room agreements, the blur of accents, guffawed satisfaction and growled threats. We are flies on the wall, bugs in the drapes, righteous surveillants. Moreover, Lombardi shows himself in notational conversation with his sources, eliciting and weaving together disparate voices. As audience, we stand before the work in dialogue with it and our internal chronicles, recalling scraps of news we’ve picked up elsewhere, orienting our attention to take in what Lombardi is telling us.

Mapmaking emerges to facilitate the control of social processes in rapidly expanding societies.
—Denis Wood, The Power of Maps

To create their series “Argument Drawings,” the artists Janet Cohen, Keith Frank, and Jon Ippolito map their own discussions, graphing in color-coded lines the twists and reversals of talks on such topics as “the impossibility of distinguishing art you think is historically important from art you like” and “the danger of Bill Gates.”1 To diagram casual, private interaction in this functionalist way raises issues about the creative potential of argument, and the shift from chat to chart is a clever joke, a toying with the tropes of number-crunching. But the drawings do not leap into statistical overload. They retain the scale of the friendship they delineate. There are three artists; there are the red, green, and blue lines. It is easy to imagine having this conversation your-self; easy, as a viewer, to pretend, “I’ll be the blue,” as if choosing a marker in a board game, easy to enter the map without feeling a time/space distortion press in upon your conception of yourself.

Normally, this is not the case in map-making. Cartographic historian Denis Wood describes a difference between mapping and mapmaking, which corresponds to the degree of centralization and division of labor established in a given society. Mapping, he proposes, is a fundamental act of human cognition. Mapmaking is a function of bureaucracy. In mapping, then, the act of tracing and remembering landscape is its own reward, a total process that does not need to culminate in an external, circulating text called “the map.” Held within the shared consciousness of people who know and use their land intimately, the knowledge construct also remains at a human scale, articulated in direct proportion to the bodies who have gathered and continue to navigate by it.

During field work in 1989, one Inuk elder told me that he had drawn detailed maps of Hiquligjuaq from memory, but he smiled and said that long ago he had thrown them away. It was the act of making them that was important, the recapitulation of environmental features, not the material objects themselves.2

The Inuk elder describes what would normally happen in conversation, where it is the act of voicing that is important, the recapitulation of thought. To append conversation with a material document like the “Argument Drawings” is excessive, a baroque intrusion into an organic event—which is the artists’ point.


Cohen, Frank, Ippolito, Agree to Disagree (Marriage is a great way to ruin a relationship), 1995. Courtesy of the artists.

The difference between internal memory-map and surveyed document also runs parallel to the anthropological (and literary-critical) distinction between storytelling and writing, wherein the artifactual, written text signals a loss of communal interrelation-ship, a shift away from the conversational nature of oral transmission around the fire. According to this particular master narrative of culture, the sign disconnects from the referent—the hill becomes an inkblot and the lore becomes typography—in order to consolidate power in a stratified society. The novel is said to have created the bourgeoisie; in the same way, the map creates property. But Wood also enumerates instances of what might be called subversive mapmaking, the most famous of which is probably the Peters projection map of the world, which allots to each continent a graphic area proportionate to the area it occupies on the globe. By correctly showing Africa larger than North America and Greenland smaller than South America, the Peters projection “distorts” the familiar Mercator projection, stretching it vertically, as though the landmass had sagged, in order to correct the politically-inflected connotations of a world-view in which North America and Europe are the biggest, at the center.

Both the “Argument Drawings” and Lombardi’s work subvert mapmaking in this way. But while Cohen, Frank, and Ippolito keep their maps “actual size” as it were, Lombardi takes on byzantine cases typified by astronomical numbers—of players, of dollars, of references. The Inuk elder who draws his map and then discards it is similar to Cohen, Frank, and Ippolito in that his process retains an intimate scale. He is comparable to Lombardi in that he is managing a gigantic fund of information—a whole region, with its bays and inlets, weather-patterns and wildlife. The difference, obviously, is that the Inuk mapper has no reason to “subvert” a process that supports his existence.

When Wood says that mapmaking arrives with the founding of the centralized state, he implies that the map splits away from the body via the alienation caused by the growth of industrial capital. In capitalism (so goes another master narrative of culture), the work of art becomes commodified, causing a loss of aura that corresponds to the alienated worker’s loss of identification with his or her production. The Inuk elder is imagined as existing in visceral proximity to his landscape—in conversation with it—but organized, science-based mapmaking inspects and records that land while no longer depending on real-time, back-and-forth survival on it: In other words, mapmaking is no longer conversational. In the mass-produced map, a represented landform loses “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”3 Subversive mapmaking tries to reassert the map as a dialogic tool, tries to revive the aura of presence and integration symbolized by the Inuk elder’s memory. But artists like Cohen, Frank, Ippolito, and Lombardi (or Arno Peters, for that matter) can only do this in a self-conscious way. The exchange enacted by subversive map-making no longer takes place between inhabitant and landscape, but between reader and reader, both homeless to a certain degree, sojourners in alien terrain.

The “Argument Drawings” recuperate presence through insouciant personality, by privileging the artists’ own more-or-less unremarkable experience. Lombardi’s handling of the problem of alienation and aura is more complicated. Near the end of his life, he was experimenting with using the Internet as a research aid, and with computer-generated versions of his drawings. The exponential increase in archive-access and the corresponding facilitation of copying and adding to existing pieces would have altered his process significantly.4 But perhaps more importantly, computer-assisted versions of Lombardi’s works would have eroded their nature as unique, handmade interventions into the web of sinister transactions that have become synechdochical for the powerlessness of average citizens. Lombardi’s drawings testify to the overwhelming task of continually reasserting personal perspective in a political and social environment that is not only rapidly expanding, but increasingly imagined as totally digitized, decentered, and manipulable. By illustrating the difficulty one person has in mastering the movements of global capital, his drawings also remind us that the huge distortions of scale endemic to such wealth tend to scramble into nonsense, unless a single interested intelligence sorts them out.

The Conversation Map system is a Usenet newsgroup browser that analyzes the text of an archive of newsgroup messages and outputs a graphical interface that can be used to search and read the messages of the archive. The Conversation Map system incorporates a series of novel text analysis procedures that automatically compute a set of social networks detailing who is responding to and/or citing whom in the newsgroup; a set of discussion themes that are frequently used in the newsgroup archive; and a set of semantic networks that represent the main terms under discussion, and some of their relationships to one another…The Conversation Map system computes and then graphs out who is “talking” to whom, what they are “talking” about, and the central terms and possible metaphors of the conversation.
—Warren Sack, “Conversation Map: An Interface for Very Large-Scale Conversations”

Gigabytes of streaming data and considered, individual opinion; global networks and personal voice: The Interface for Very Large-Scale Conversations (VLSCs) developed by Warren Sack through the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT attempts to order the cacophony of enormous listserv discussions. The interface consists of four parts, or rather, it offers four interrelated filters through which to sort the accumulated messages of a given newsgroup. The social, thematic, semantic, and “message thread” filters isolate and foreground different aspects of the VLSC content, making it possible for a researcher to zero in on chosen facets of the material while de-emphasizing others.

For example, the archive profiled in Sack’s introductory web page, soc.culture.albanian, analyzes more than 1200 messages posted between 16 April and 4 May 1999, a period in which the war in Kosovo was at its height. In the Social Network, we see a graphic model of the frequency with which individual posters spoke and were responded to. With a click of the mouse, we can see who was posting opinions that drew flurries of response, and who was crying in the wilderness at the periphery. Since the Social Network recognizes reciprocal statements only (A quotes B; later B refers to A), those whose messages were not reciprocally engaged do not appear. Basic social math applies—if no one picks up on what you say, you tend to drop out of the conversation. Soliloquy is not “social.”

The menu of Discussion Themes and the Semantic Network sort for what is called “cohesion”—instances of verbal adjacency and association that suggest thematic and semantic import. Algorithms for distilling these “lexical cohesions” are derived from computational linguistics and quantitative sociology:

Specifically, two terms are “talked about in similar ways” if they are often used with the same verbs, appear together with the same nouns, and share a large number of adjectives with which they are both modified… If [two terms] are used in similar ways by the discussants (e.g. “You’re wasting my time,” “You’re wasting my money,” “You need to budget your time,” “You need to budget your money”), then the two terms will show up close to one another in the graphically displayed Semantic Network, and so indicate the presence of a literal or metaphorical similarity between the terms (e.g. “Time is money”).5

In the thematic and semantic panels, the problem of schematizing meaning is solved via simple grammatical parsing, where the equation “time is money” takes as its least common denominator the modular interchangeability of the two nouns. In the last of Sack’s four display panels, the Message Thread Archive, the schematic operation is more complicated. Message Threads symbolize the linked progressions of statement, response, and counter-response that compose evolving segments of the VLSC—this panel offers a chronological overview of the entire archive. Here the mapping procedure moves beyond linguistic adjacency—which comes bundled, as it were, with its own application for sorting, i.e. the rules of English grammar. Diagramming the relationship between successive messages, Sack finds himself fully immersed in the unpredictable realm of actual conversation, and the organic nature of his explanatory metaphors reflects this:

Conceptually, a thread is a “tree” in which the message is the “root” and links between the responses are “branches.” Graphically, a “thread tree” can be plotted as a “spider web” in which the initial post is placed in the middle, responses to the initial post are plotted in a circle around the initial post, responses to the responses are plotted around that, etc. One of the nice features of plotting the “thread trees” as “spider webs” is that, at least in theory, any size “tree” can be plotted within a given amount of space.6

In other words, by playing on the formal similarity between different kinds of ramifying structure (root and branch system; spider web; they-told-two-friends-and-so-on) very large-scale meaning can be shrunk to fit the screen of your Palm Pilot. Underlying this concept is not only a practical methodology for translating prose into symbol, but an implicit assertion about communication as a sequence of traceable pathways, issuing in more or less orderly fashion from a single, knowable starting point.

Sack does not offer a rationale for the practical applications of his program—perhaps because, to anyone who has tried to follow a newsgroup, its uses should be obvious. Critics, theorists, and students of any stripe who want to digest the content of a particular VLSC must quickly be drowned in data without some formula for prioritizing what they read. Net users may be pioneering technological practice, but they are also in the same position as every adventurer in new territory since the Sumerians. Without a means of recording acreage and bushels harvested, the management of a population explosion across a fertile delta is impossible—hence clay tablets, algebra, and (it is postulated) some of the first maps. With only sail and sextant, the ocean must remain for generations splotched with blank swaths, where there may be monsters. Imagine mapping the entire Atlantic coastline from Maine to Florida, traveling on foot, with handheld instruments—as the US Army Corps of Engineers did in the 1850s—to such a degree of accuracy that satellite images laid over them fit precisely. Consider the dizzying number of measurements, calculations, and notations made by surveyors that did not need to be made again in future years by naval officers, fishermen, shipping merchants, and wayfarers—travelers whose transit along the eastern seaboard had stimulated, and now benefited from, the development of the Coastal Survey maps.

The polydirectional exchange of listserv conversation is a comparably emergent phenomenon: Sack’s project unfolds a tiered grid on which this collective polemic can be tracked. Electronic communication is often theorized in terms of a return to epistolary or conversational consciousness, and the opportunity of discussing, say, the Kosovo situation with political scientists, Balkan historians, NATO-watchers, Albanian teachers, and Serb journalists represents a previously unimaginable crucible for spontaneous intercultural and inter-disciplinary debate. The existence of such a collective is so fascinating that the interface seems transparently beneficial, a labor-saving device without which important knowledge would smear into static. Sack’s high-tech browser and Mark Lombardi’s painstakingly low-tech works on paper thus perform similar procedures on the information glut, but their interventions point to opposite feelings about that information. The group Lombardi examines is a suspect elite, and the conversations are presumed to be exploitative and self-serving, ripe for the whistle-blower. News-group and chat-room speech, in contrast, is imagined as vox populi in action. The VLSC map does not expose a closed coterie; it expands an egalitarian fellowship.

Nevertheless, the much-touted democratic connectivity of cyberspace is a prime example of Denis Wood’s rapidly expanding society—that is, a society in which mechanisms for stratification develop apace with the logarithmic expansion of enfranchisement. We are already entering a period where ubiquitous access, nonstop e-commerce, and increasing regulation encourage nostalgia for the rough-and-ready days of geek/hacker prospectors and cyber-cowboys. New frontiers do not resolve into habitual settlement without new maps, and the despoliation brought by crowds is only lamented after a site is on the map so that crowds can find it. Whether you view new maps as helpful tools, as Sack does, or weapons of control, like Wood, or even as organs of resistance à la Lombardi, depends on your perspective as a dweller in the opening environment.

Utterance is place enough.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

As Lombardi’s phrase “narrative structures” tacitly admits, the mapped conversation is a constructed fantasy, a quixotic and intentional mix-up between quantitative and qualitative analysis. Maps belong (or seem to belong) in the domain of numbers and objective physicality, while conversation is a quintessentially subjective, immaterial process. It may be that projects juxtaposing the two invite failure, since they attempt to index the ineffable. But it might be said that we try to do that all the time. Mapping conversation is more unusual, but no more absurd, than composing written descriptions of smells or taking photographs of the Grand Canyon. In a sense, the scalar audacity with which Mark Lombardi and Warren Sack seek to bring their vast fields of study into tangible proximity with individual readers exemplifies the hubris and pathos of all signifying—art, politics, and utterance included. If representation solidifies one and dematerializes the other, what is the difference between a moment and a place?

  1. Janet Koplos, “‘The Argument Drawings’ at Wynn Kramarsky,” Art In America, November, 1997, pp. 130-31.
  2. Wood, p. 40. The author is quoting research conducted by Robert Rundstrom.
  3. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), p. 220.
  4. Lombardi discusses these concerns in a videotaped studio visit with Andy Mann, February 28, 1997.
  5. Sack, http://www.media.mit.edu/~wsack/toc.html (link defunct—Eds.):”Detailed Introduction”
  6. Sack, ibid.

Written by James Thomas

09/10/2010 at 16:53

The Solitary Life of Cranes

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Eva Weber: The Solitary Life of Cranes

WATCH – YouTube Trailer

Part city symphony, part visual poem, The Solitary Life of Cranes explores the invisible life of a city, its patterns and hidden secrets, seen through the eyes of crane drivers working high above its streets.

Within the loose structure of a day, starting with the drivers climbing up at dawn and ending with them coming down after a nightshift, the film observes the city as it awakens with a bustle of activity, through the lull of midday and the manic rush in the evning, until it calms down again deep into the night.

From their airy towers, they do not only have the best overview of the construction site and some of the most impressive panoramic views of the city but also an unparalleled insight into any of the buildings surrounding them.

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Journeyman Shorts: City Of Cranes

WATCH – YouTube Trailer

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Written by James Thomas

07/10/2010 at 13:41

Posted in 001/ Archi Spatial

Reinventing Concrete

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Notes for extending (RE EDIT):

Every morning without fail, inside the railings separating his home and my public right of way, a barrel-bellied bulk of a man stood massaging his shar-pei skull. We had a relationship of sorts – a quick nod in the early hours as our cycles crossed. I was sad to find, one morning that he and his neighbours had moved on.

One day two caravans, two vans, one car and a bus were situated on a large concrete area under the A104. The next day, they were gone. One in a line of successive groups that have taken over the fenced void of no-mans-land that sits underneath the busy main road.

So what now? Are they slowly circumnavigating the inner city? Forming temporary residence in unwanted plots of concrete alongside canal paths and behind bus depots? The search for S.L.O.A.P. sending them in patterns around the middle spread of the city where tower blocks meet dual carriageways, housing estates meet scrapyards, infrastructure and residential layer over one another. I wonder how many years it would take to navigate full cycle.

Previous to their occupation the area had been used as a skate-spot. Concrete barriers dropped to stop vehicle entry tipped and relocated to form obstacles. Bucket mixed cement easily transforming central reservation barriers into quarter pipes. Wax application morphing concrete road-blocks into perfect ‘grind’ targets.  Amazing what you can do with a bit of wax and a leaf blower. [swimming pools/east coast US/dogtown]

At some point this group also got moved on, or just got bored. Venturing on into unknown locations to momentarily possess a concrete bank until over-used or exhausted. [Seek and Destroy]. Moving within circumferences from their local spot, another layer of ‘terrain vague’ pioneers re-inventing forgotten space.

The space now sits in a moment of flux – the ground is clear. Concrete bollards and blocks (previously tables, benches, grind obstacles, chopping blocks and one morning a T’ing off point for a rather bored young man with a rather large piece of timber and a squash ball), accumulated rubbish, leaf/tree/plant debris, the broken folded chair and breezeblock bbq’s are all gone. The space is huge and apparently reclaimed.

JT

Written by James Thomas

02/10/2010 at 13:08

Posted in 002/ S.L.O.A.P

The New Geography

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bookforum.com

The New Geography
A Roundtable
Jeffrey Kastner, Tom McCarthy, Nato Thompson, and Eyal Weizman

The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.
—Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” 1967

The practice of geography is by its nature a ticklish, paradoxical enterprise. It is at once the study of objects and of subjects, of things and of behaviors, of the world around us as a phenomenon producing human activity and produced by it. A realization of the generative potential in such dichotomies—between the material and the symbolic, between places as conceived and places as experienced, between spatial and temporal models of existential understanding—has long influenced the academic discipline of geography. And in today’s world, where the familiar order of things seems increasingly contingent and fluid, destabilized by political and military turmoil, economic upheaval, and rapid technological development, a similar impulse among artists, writers, architects, and other cultural producers to interrogate and reimagine conventional notions of the physical and social landscape we inhabit grows only more vivid.

Each of the participants in this roundtable has developed innovative and unique practices that engage questions of space. Tom McCarthy’s role, since 2000, as a conceptual provocateur in the “semi-fictitious avant-garde network” known as the International Necronautical Society (INS) finds literary expression in his first novel, Remainder (2007), in which an unnamed protagonist, almost killed by a piece of high-tech debris that falls from the sky, awakens from a coma with his worldview permanently altered. Obsessed with finding a sense of heightened authenticity in the world around him, he’s driven to replay, to literally reenact, certain resonant moments that challenge his (and the reader’s) notions of space and time, as well as the kinds of activities—mundane and exceptional—that necessarily take place in both constructs. Nato Thompson’s work as a curator and writer has consistently examined the potential of social space as an arena for the artistic production of meaning. He persistently probes the idea, as he’s written, that, “ultimately, all phenomena resolve themselves in space. Cultural and material production are not simply abstract ideas, but are forces that shape who and what we are, and they do so in places we can walk to, intervene in, and tour.” Architect and theorist Eyal Weizman, meanwhile, has long focused his scholarship on the relationship between architecture and planning and the intractable social, political, and military conflicts between Palestinians and Israelis. Weizman is the author of Hollow Land (2007), which, he writes, “looks at the ways in which the different forms of Israeli rule inscribed themselves in space, analyzing the geographical, territorial, urban and architectural conceptions and the interrelated practices that form and sustain them.”

The four of us, two in London and two in New York, held a conversation within the spatially indeterminate surroundings of the Internet over the course of a week early last February from which the following transcript is taken.

—JEFFREY KASTNER

JEFFREY KASTNER: The initial inspiration for this conversation was that each of your practices involves novel forms of engagement with ideas around “geography”—an expansive and fluid topic, to be sure, but one that (following its linguistic roots, literally “writing the earth”) might be most usefully understood here as an examination of relationships between spatial and discursive practices. Could each of you talk a little bit about your work via this notion of “writing” into existence certain alternative modes of understanding things like mapping, navigation, position/perspective, and the connections between ideologies and the built environment?

TOM MCCARTHY: Writing the earth is absolutely what my work is about: the violence of inscription. I remember flying over the Nazca Lines in Peru as a teenager and seeing this whole cosmogony laid out in earth-scraped geometries and symbols, then reading, a little later, the section in Of Grammatology where Derrida pooh-poohs Lévi-Strauss’s claim that the Nambikwara tribe, who mark the earth in similar fashion to the Nazca, don’t have writing. This type of original inscription is where it all begins for me: It opens up the possibility of literature, politics (the classical polis, after all, is no more than a space demarcated by boundary lines), history—the lot.

In my novel Remainder, there’s a forensic aesthetic, the sense that “everything must leave some kind of mark.” The protagonist spends lots of his time reading these marks or, more precisely, slotting himself into them, like a gramophone needle into a groove, and replaying them through reenactments. Under the banner of the INS, my collaborators and I have looked at issues of cartography, returning to moments of brute inscription: Melville’s Queequeg, for example, copying the tattoos from his body onto his coffin, recarving what’s already carved across his flesh—in this case (as for the Nazca), a cosmogony, a map of the earth and heavens, and a meta-map as well, what Melville calls “a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth.”

NATO THOMPSON: “Experimental Geography,” the show I recently curated, includes artistic practices that consider humans’ relationship to the earth. They range from category-defying groups, like the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Multiplicity, and the Center for Urban Pedagogy, to what I would call more ambiguous practices, like the work of Francis Alÿs and Ilana Halperin. Of course, within this framework there was also room for a myriad of countercartographic practices. But ultimately, the exhibition came out of a simple observation: An extremely com- plicated discipline is emerging, and a new formula is required to understand it.

I borrowed the term experimental geography from my friend Trevor Paglen, whose doctoral work at UC Berkeley combines the tools of urbanism and cultural geography with those of contemporary art. Using both tool sets (and the fields that inform them) allows him to consider knowledge as a complicated performance. Deploying reflexivity and an awareness of the aesthetics of truth telling, his work provides an interesting point of departure for thinking about the land.

EYAL WEIZMAN: I also find useful the cartographic/linguistic idea of writing and reading the earth, undertaken on many scales, although when I examine the logic and performance of spatial violence, there are also things outside the text. Almost all spatial conflicts have rearticulated, in different ways, a certain principle: To be governed, the city/territory must be constantly redesigned. This doesn’t only mean a search for a stable and governable urban form or organization, but also that the constant transformation of space is the way conflicts are played out. Unpredictability and the appearance of anarchy are part of this violent logic of disorder. The nature of the transformation obviously includes the complementary acts of strategic form making: construction and destruction but also the rechanneling of movement—walling and unwalling that are practiced on different scales, from the geopolitical to the domestic—and interference in the symbolic and lived orders of space.

Violence is a kind of performance that does not take place within the fixed grids of space, but actually remakes it. For example, the destruction of homes and other built structures could be understood as an active form of space making, having a cumulative effect on the creation of new spaces and affecting people through trauma. The grid of roads that destroyed homes as it was carved through the fabric of the refugee camps of Gaza has been remade every few years since Ariel Sharon did it for the first time in 1971—a demonstration of the way the military sees the elasticity of space as a mechanism of control. Elastic space does not mean that it is less lethal or that it is to be thought of as benign, but that it is constantly remade, reflecting military and political realities and resistance to them. If the in-consistencies of politics (as with all other aspects of life) are registered in the contours of spaces, then formal and topological analysis is useful in comprehending political/military processes otherwise hidden because of their slower temporalities.

JK: I’m curious to know to what degree you think your disparate approaches dovetail, either theoretically or practically, and on what terms. I wonder if the frag-mentation and elasticity underlying a supposedly stable, static sociospatial envi-ronment, which Eyal discussed, are also at work in Tom’s and Nato’s projects—in the interventions of the INS into systems of communication and bureaucracy and in the psychogeographic distortions of Tom’s novel; in Nato’s “Experimental Geography” exhibition and his “Interventionists” show, which was accompanied by a catalogue titled Users’ Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life. There’s a sense of political stakes in these projects, even though it’s perhaps not as immediate as it is in some of Eyal’s work.

TM: This notion of “disruption” might be key. The INS did an elaborate project at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, where we broadcast a string of messages over the radio, around the clock. They were short lines of poetry or, perhaps, provocations to do something: Each one began with the words “Calling all agents,” a line we took from William Burroughs. The other influence was Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée, in which a dead poet transmits lines of text over the radio. Cocteau got the idea from the wireless messages sent by the British to the French Resistance during World War II: They’d transmit these lines of poetry, most of which meant nothing, but one in every thousand of which meant “Now blow up the bridge!” or “Now assassinate the colonel!” So you’ve got this overlay of the aesthetic, the technological, and the political—territories of occupation and resistance, acts (again) of violence. The historical template is compelling: I like the notion that both occupiers and occupied listened to these lines during the war and that any one of them had the potential to make something catastrophic happen. All poetry should contain that potential, somehow.

NT: I often think that people’s interest in geography (or space, for that matter) came out of a malaise of theory. Academics and artists, particularly those with any desire for social change, wanted to literally ground the abstractions of postmodernism. In this sense, many Marxist geographers would claim that of course ideas happen in space, that subjectivity is produced in space. We can walk to a building that houses a biotech firm, an art museum, or a CIA front company, and we can say that the discursive spaces of biotech, art, and militarism are produced in part at these sites. This is what makes these disruptions so interesting and the idea of occupation that Tom alludes to so compelling. When we consider spatial metaphors in terms of a strategic methodology for how to produce meaning in the world, we use terms like occupation, squatting, trespassing, disrupting, and intervening—all strategies for developing a tangible resistance to formations of meaning. Physical borders are important to transgress because they are representations of power and control that move far beyond space, into the production of a public.

EW: I want to retell an anecdote from the land of elastic control. In 2004, the first cases were filed in which Palestinian farmers took the state of Israel to the local high court of justice. When their lawyer, Mohammad Dahlah, presented the appeal, he used maps and slide presentations to describe the case in all its geographic com-plexities, including a particular issue with the location of olive groves on a slope facing the 1949 border. After listening for a while, the judges said they didn’t understand and asked the petitioners to come back with a model. The petitioners commissioned a company that produces military-training models to make the model and then drew two lines on it: one in red (the path along which the Ministry of Defense contractors had started to build the wall) and the other in blue (their suggestion for a line that, although built within the occupied area, was a little less invasive and left the groves with the villagers).

When the model was finally called for, the porters didn’t know where to place it. Somebody finally brought a table from the cafeteria and placed it in front of the judges’ bench, but they couldn’t see it. So for the first time ever, they stepped down and also asked the parties to step closer. It thereafter seemed that the “object quality” of the model and the situation introduced a new type of legal choreography; the usual legal structure was disrupted, which also changed the discourse and its content. The legal dis-cussion about an alternative, “less invasive” path was undertaken with all parties—judges, villagers, activists, and lawyers for both sides—“navigating the terrain” and demonstrating their points while bending over the model.

The parties designed a new path then and there. The groves stayed with the villagers, but for me, the model is the clearest material embodiment of the “lesser evil” doctrine that sometimes allows human rights lawyers to argue on behalf of Palestinians about the excess of violations without challenging the framing conditions. So I find several relevant things here: First, that the model operated not only as a representation but as an object around which a certain dis-cussion was organized, and second, that the “flexibility” of the wall is what allowed the “participation” of the villagers in the design of the mechanism of their dispossession and their “improvement”—which, in weakened form, is pretty much the case with planning in many contemporary cities.

TM: That’s a great story. It reminds me of what Thomas Hirschhorn did at Documenta some years back: this big papiermâché landscape mapping the thought of Georges Bataille. Your example is much more socially direct, of course—although, interestingly, Hirschhorn made his model in collaboration with an immigrant-worker community on the outskirts of Kassel. Both examples make tangible a set of abstract arguments (justice, law, agency, etc.).

But then maps are always arbitrary and contested. The Situationists understood this arbitrariness and its implications. That’s why they remade maps by superimposing Algeria on France. The Surrealists, too. Their world map is hilarious: The United States is gone completely, and Mexico (thanks to the presence there of Frida Kahlo) is huge. My favorite map is Lewis Carroll’s from The Hunting of the Snark: It’s pure white, “a perfect and absolute blank.”

NT: It’s interesting to think about the way in which spatializing theoretical discussions resolves them in a different manner. This maneuver features prominently in Multiplicity’s project Solid Sea 03: The Road Map, which took place around Jerusalem. By mapping in time and space the road trip of a person carrying an Israeli passport and of one carrying Palestinian identity papers, they were able to show the differences in the experience of space. It’s a fascinating method for making physical and personal these deeply geopolitical conditions. The Center for Urban Pedagogy also uses maps in order to get children to consider methods for trash removal in their cities.

I am particularly intrigued by the idea of making abstract phenomena concrete, in order to consider political solutions to large-scale conditions of injustice. There are, of course, other forms of aesthetic interrogation that I would not put in this category. I suspect some of Tom’s examples of imagi-native cartography would fall under this. To go from an aesthetic interrogation of spatial production in a city to actual policy is a peculiar moment worth thinking about in depth. For example, Trevor Paglen’s work on secret prisons in the United States (while clearly not the sole effort) was part of a large movement to make visible the consequences of the Bush administration’s secret policies.

TM: I think it’s all political. How can a map ever not be? The Hunting of the Snark, to use my earlier example, one that I suspect you’d relegate to the category of the “merely” aesthetic, isn’t just comic entertainment: It’s about the catastrophic collapse of a project that’s at once imperial (setting out across the ocean to capture something), economic (the crew includes a banker and a broker, equipped with a railway share), ontological (what is a snark, anyway?), and so on. Really good art and literature is always political—perhaps all the more so the less directly it seems to be. In a way (I’m being provocative here, but I believe this, too), engaging with the symbolic order directly, with the realm of meaning, hacking right into its source code, is more radical than taking meaning for granted in order to simply make a statement.

NT: I am of two minds on this. First, I agree that everything is political, in the sense that it exists in the world. I also agree that works in the symbolic order can have interesting political consequences. But I am sure we would all agree that not all things working in the symbolic order in fact do have them. I must say that cultural production has made hacking into the symbolic order in any way that has meaningful political results increasingly difficult. I suspect that’s why approaches in geography become more interesting as the symbolic order increasingly becomes a site for capital’s voracious appetite. The question perhaps is, How do problems in space resolve themselves in the symbolic order? Or, conversely, How do skirmishes in the symbolic order resolve themselves in space?

TM: But my point is that the symbolic order is itself political—indeed, the very possibility of political consciousness resides there. (How could you have political thought or action without meaning?) I think perhaps the “resolution” bit is the sticking point here. Art doesn’t resolve anything: I’ll gladly accept that. Instead, it intensifies the problems, producing surplus meanings left, right, and center. That in itself is subversive—subversive toward any dom-inant regime of understanding or interpretation, at the very least.

JK: This distinction between the symbolic and the tangible has obviously long been at the center of conversations about the differences between “artistic” and “political” practices. I doubt we’re going to put it to rest here, but I think we can all agree that the spatial environment is a particularly promising site for working on these prob-lems. Perhaps as a way to bridge this, I can cite a passage from Hollow Land, where Eyal talks about the spatial organization of the occupied territories as “a kind of ‘political plastic,’ or as a map of the relation of all the forces that shaped it”—an array that includes official governmental bodies, the military, corporations, and so forth, but also more discursive things like the media and political activists. What’s intriguing to me about this is not the idea of the map as a symbolic representation of real space, but the notion of actual space itself as a map of the forces acting within it.

EW: I agree that the physical terrain/built environment could itself be thought of as a map. This is obviously a property not of the object/landscape but of the way we decode it. If territories are shaped by a multiplicity of diffused practices and forces, then we could try to read the way these abstract dynamics have slowed into form. I agree with what I sensed as Nato’s skepticism, namely that nothing is political in itself merely because power relationships are at work through it. Maybe we should reserve the term politics for more fundamental actions that change the way social forces come into play, rather than direct participation in the play of forces that structure a situation according to a dominant language.

TM: I’m very taken by this notion of physicality and plasticity. I love the example of the explorer Ernest Shackleton setting out to conquer and map the blank, uncharted space of the southern polar region, and how that very blank space itself, the tabula rasa of sea, turned material: The water froze around him and first trapped, then crushed, his ship. It’s like Deleuze’s notion of haptic space, which he opposes to classical distance and perception. His example is the Eskimo in snow: A spot on which his vision alights could be five miles away or a flake in front of his nose; space becomes tangible, close-up, all around you; you don’t dominate it with your gaze and your perspective anymore.

For me, this type of materiality lies at the heart of the practice of poetry. The prose poems of the mid-twentieth-century French writer Francis Ponge, for example, all revolve around a simple question, How do we depict things through language? He describes trying to “express” an orange, express being a word that has the dual sense of both representing and squeezing. When you do this, you may get some juice out of the orange (which, being globe-shaped, is a stand-in for the world), but you’ll always leave a husk behind, and the orange, given back over to its own plasticity, will resume, or partially resume, its original shape. Matter will always elude attempts to abstract it: There will always be a remain-der. According to this line, what most resists dominant mappings is not alternative map-ping but rather the territory itself, its sheer materiality. Perhaps with Eyal’s story, what was really going on was not people using the model to impose their readings on the land, but rather, through the model, letting the physical landscape mold their understanding and decisions: They became passive in front of its materiality.

EW: I think that Tom’s description of abstract space turning material also captures what war does to space. The historian Stephen Kern thought that WWI should be understood as the shuttering of space and time, and he described the combined effects of camouflage and artillery as the collapsing of the geometric order of front lines and territories. Gertrude Stein described bomb-ings that blended disfigured landscapes with the remains of machines, buildings, and people in terms of Cubism’s undoing of the difference between object and background.

I think that beyond the various justifications Israeli officials have given throughout the years for their destruction of the refugee camps, there is a certain consistent logic. The war against the refugees is undertaken by the reshaping of their built environment. This is done with a combined power to both destroy and affect the construction. It was incredible to hear politicians last winter speaking about “reconstruction” in Gaza while the bombing was still taking place. Destruction is often followed by development attempts that combine welfare and architecture to replace the refugee camp with “housing projects.” One of the aims is to break the historical, spatial, and social continuity of the camp and, with it, the collective political identity of the refugees. So, again, a violently imposed spatiality becomes part of an attempt to affect political subjectivities.

NT: There is a group calling itself Right to the City that is rapidly growing in major urban areas. Borrowing from Lefebvre to some degree, this group is also sorting through political conditions as they manifest in the built environment. It is both an idea and an organization, so the idea of the right to the city becomes somewhat convoluted, but I do find it very exciting.

In March of last year, Daniel Tucker (the editor of a great journal on space in Chicago called AREA) and I took a trip to Baltimore, New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City as part of a large project I worked on for Creative Time called “Democracy in America.” We met in round-table discussions with artists who considered their work a form of activism. What became apparent was that urban renewal and the restructuring of cities was clearly the largest issue in every city. These conditions of “the camp” and reconstruction along racial and demographic lines are endemic to cities across the globe. I believe Ayreen Anastas referred to it as the Israelization of the globe. This might wash over some important dis-tinctions, but I do think that these conditions of political spatialization have the potential to unite a vast array of social-justice move-ments. It’s an interesting line of political dis-cussion that can connect the concerns of Palestinians and Israelis to the gentrification battles in Barcelona, São Paulo, New Orleans, Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, and Pilsen in Chicago.

EW: Although Foucault’s point about the twentieth century being the era of space rather than of time was rhetorical, I still think we should speculate about what political forms of agency are enabled by the foregrounding of spatial practices. For architects—who believe themselves the makers of space—thinking about space in an active and politically enabling manner requires being attuned to the indeterminate nature of political processes. This was one of the reasons for founding the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, which is made up of spatial practitioners—architects, artists, activists, filmmakers, and curators—who are invited to work in a roundtable mode on approaches to research and polit-ical intervention.

With all the love for a multidisciplinary, peer-to-peer culture, I am still rather careful about not undoing expert knowledge as a gesture of democratization and liberation, and I am also not sure how much I am in agreement with a Lefebvrian tripartite division of space or the turning to local practices and daily practices as sites of resistance to power. There is one space as there is one world, and countercartography (also a term I am not sure about—as if cartography is, by itself, the domain of evil powers rather than a tool of action) must not necessarily adopt a less technologically ambitious, more mundane feel that only reinforces the imposed division of colonizer/colonized or state/people. I also think that placing rights versus power could sometimes end up as an appeal for the moderation of power’s excess and replace more fundamental questioning. So a right to the city must be articulated as a program, rather than a critique, and this means it should work not only from the bottom up.

NT: I think this question of what forms of political agency are enabled by foregrounding space is an important one. I suspect the answer, to some degree, dovetails with the concern over specifying local practices as a site of resistance to power. When we found that many artists and activists were working on gentrification issues (a sort of umbrella statement for a myriad of urban issues), I think it was specifically the ability to maneuver agency toward a precise concern. The fact that a specific corner or housing complex becomes a site of resistance can provide a much more tangible framework for action. This, of course, came out of a post-9/11, post-antiglobalization country where many activists had turned toward the local after the fracturing (in the United States) of a large-scale political movement. The opportunity to connect the conditions of power within local issues of space to larger geopolitical conditions of spatial production does have an (almost inevitable) appeal.

Finally, I would also like to add that I am sympathetic to considering forms of spatial production from the vantage of policy (that is to say, not always from below), but I am wary of conditions of oppression that tend to result from any type of logic other than bot-tom up. Often, by the time we have reached the level of architecture or city planning, the questions that are being answered have little to do with the majority of the inhabitants being affected. Recently, one of the founders of the Center for Urban Pedagogy became a planner for the City of Newark. cup dedi-cates itself to a radical pedagogy of urbanism, and I am interested and excited at the possibility of someone like this stepping into the shoes of someone like Robert Moses. What will happen?

Written by James Thomas

02/10/2010 at 11:59

Posted in 003/ Space