after the fact
trying to make sense of what's happening
What is ‘Post-digital’?
Florian Cramer. Reader, Creating 010, Hogeschool Rotterdam
Typewriters vs. imageboard memes
Figure 1. “You’re not a real hipster – until you take your typewriter to the park”
In January 2013, a picture of a young man typing on a mechanical typewriter while sitting on a park bench went ‘viral’ on the popular website Reddit. The image was presented in the typical style of an ‘image macro’ or ‘imageboard meme’ (Klok 16-19), with a sarcastic caption in bold white Impact typeface that read: “You’re not a real hipster – until you take your typewriter to the park”.
The meme, which was still making news at the time of writing this paper in late 2013 (Hermlin), nicely illustrates the rift between ‘digital’ and ‘post-digital’ cultures. Imageboard memes are arguably the best example of a contemporary popular mass culture which emerged and developed entirely on the Internet. Unlike earlier popular forms of visual culture such as comic strips, they are anonymous creations – and as such, even gave birth to the now-famous Anonymous movement, as described by (Klok 16-19). Other important characteristics of imageboard memes are: creation by users, disregard of intellectual property, viral dissemination among users, and potentially infinite repurposing and variation (through collage or by changing the text). As low-resolution images with small file sizes, they can be created and disseminated almost instantly, in contrast with the much slower creation, editing and distribution processes characteristic of traditional publishing media.
The ‘digital’ imageboard meme portrays the ‘analog’ typewriter hipster as its own polar opposite – in a strictly technical sense however, even a mechanical typewriter is a digital writing system, as I will explain later in this text. also, the typewriter’s keyboard makes it a direct precursor of today’s personal computer systems, which were used for typing the text of the imageboard meme in question. Yet in a colloquial sense, the typewriter is definitely an ‘analog’ machine, as it does not contain any computational electronics.
In 2013, using a mechanical typewriter rather than a mobile computing device is, as the imageboard meme suggests, no longer a sign of being old-fashioned. It is instead a deliberate choice of renouncing electronic technology, thereby calling into question the common assumption that computers, as meta-machines, represent obvious technological progress and therefore constitute a logical upgrade from any older media technology – much in the same way as using a bike today calls into question the common assumption, in many Western countries since World War II, that the automobile is by definition a rationally superior means of transportation, regardless of the purpose or context.
Typewriters are not the only media which have recently been resurrected as literally post-digital devices: other examples include vinyl records, and more recently also audio cassettes, as well as analog photography and artists’ printmaking. And if one examines the work of contemporary young artists and designers, including art school students, it is obvious that these ‘old’ media are vastly more popular than, say, making imageboard memes.
Post-digital: a term that sucks but is useful
- Disenchantment with ‘digital’
I was first introduced to the term ‘post-digital’ in 2007 by my then-student Marc Chia – now Tara Transitory, also performing under the moniker One Man Nation. My first reflex was to dismiss the whole concept as irrelevant in an age of cultural, social and economic upheavals driven to a large extent by computational digital technology. Today, in the age of ubiquitous mobile devices, drone wars and the gargantuan data operations of the NSA, Google and other global players, the term may seem even more questionable than it did in 2007: as either a sign of ignorance of our contemporary reality, or else of some deliberate Thoreauvian-Luddite withdrawal from this reality.
More pragmatically, the term ‘post-digital’ can be used to describe either a contemporary disenchantment with digital information systems and media gadgets, or a period in which our fascination with these systems and gadgets has become historical – just like the dot-com age ultimately became historical in the 2013 novels of Thomas Pynchon and Dave Eggers. After Edward Snowden’s disclosures of the NSA’s all-pervasive digital surveillance systems, this disenchantment has quickly grown from a niche ‘hipster’ phenomenon to a mainstream position – one which is likely to have a serious impact on all cultural and business practices based on networked electronic devices and Internet services.
- Revival of ‘old’ media
While a Thoreauvian-Luddite digital withdrawal may seem a tempting option for many, it is fundamentally a naïve position, particularly in an age when even the availability of natural resources depends on global computational logistics, and intelligence agencies such as the NSA intercept paper mail as well as digital communications. In the context of the arts, such a withdrawal seems little more than a rerun of the 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement, with its programme of handmade production as a means of resistance to encroaching industrialisation. Such (romanticist) attitudes undeniably play an important role in today’s renaissance of artists’ printmaking, handmade film labs, limited vinyl editions, the rebirth of the audio cassette, mechanical typewriters, analog cameras and analog synthesisers. An empirical study conducted by our research centre Creating 010 in Rotterdam among Bachelor students from most of the art schools in the Netherlands indicated that contemporary young artists and designers clearly prefer working with non-electronic media: given the choice, some 70% of them “would rather design a poster than a website” (Van Meer, 14). In the Netherlands at least, education programmes for digital communication design have almost completely shifted from art academies to engineering schools, while digital media are often dismissed as commercial and mainstream by art students (Van Meer, 5). Should we in turn dismiss their position as romanticist and neo-Luddite?
Post-digital = postcolonial; post-digital ≠ post-histoire
On closer inspection however, the dichotomy between digital big data and neo-analog do-it-yourself (DIY) is really not so clear-cut. Accordingly, ‘post-digital’ is arguably more than just a sloppy descriptor for a contemporary (and possibly nostalgic) cultural trend. It is an objective fact that the age in which we now live is not a post-digital age, neither in terms of technological developments – with no end in sight to the trend towards further digitisation and computerisation – nor from a historico-philosophical perspective. Regarding the latter, (Cox) offers a valid critique of the “periodising logic” embedded in the term ‘post-digital’, which places it in the dubious company of other historico-philosophical ‘post’-isms, from postmodernism to post-histoire.
However, ‘post-digital’ can be defined more pragmatically and meaningfully within popular cultural and colloquial frames of reference. This applies to the prefix ‘post’ as well as the notion of ‘digital’. The prefix ‘post’ should not be understood here in the same sense as postmodernism and post-histoire, but rather in the sense of post-punk (a continuation of punk culture in ways which are somehow still punk, yet also beyond punk); post-communism (as the ongoing social-political reality in former Eastern Bloc countries); post-feminism (as a critically revised continuation of feminism, with blurry boundaries with ‘traditional’, unprefixed feminism); postcolonialism (see next paragraph); and, to a lesser extent, post-apocalyptic (a world in which the apocalypse is not over, but has progressed from a discrete breaking point to an ongoing condition – in Heideggerian terms, from Ereignis to Being – and with a contemporary popular iconography pioneered by the Mad Max films in the 1980s).
Figure 2. Popular take-away restaurant in Rotterdam, echoing an episode from 19th-century Dutch colonial history, when members of the Chinese minority living in Java (Indonesia, then a Dutch colony) were brought as contract workers to a government-run plantation in Suriname, another Dutch colony.
None of these terms – post-punk, post-communism, post-feminism, postcolonialism, post-apocalyptic – can be understood in a purely Hegelian sense of an inevitable linear progression of cultural and intellectual history. Rather, they describe more subtle cultural shifts and ongoing mutations. Postcolonialism does not in any way mean an end of colonialism (akin to Hegel’s and Fukuyama’s “end of history”), but rather its mutation into new power structures, less obvious but no less pervasive, which have a profound and lasting impact on languages and cultures, and most significantly continue to govern geopolitics and global production chains. In this sense, the post-digital condition is a post-apocalyptic one: the state of affairs after the initial upheaval caused by the computerisation and global digital networking of communication, technical infrastructures, markets and geopolitics.
‘Digital’ = sterile high tech?
Also, the ‘digital’ in ‘post-digital’ should not be understood in any technical-scientific or media-theoretical sense, but rather in the way the term is broadly used in popular culture – the kind of connotation best illustrated by a recent Google Image Search result for the word ‘digital’:
Figure 3. Google.nl image search result for ‘digital’, October 2013
The first thing we notice is how the term ‘digital’ is, still in 2013, visually associated with the colour blue. Blue is literally the coolest colour in the colour spectrum (with a temperature of 15,000 to 27,000 Kelvin), with further suggestions of cultural coolness and cleanness. The simplest definition of ‘post-digital’ describes a media aesthetics which opposes such digital high-tech and high-fidelity cleanness. The term was coined in 2000 by the musician Kim Cascone, in the context of glitch aesthetics in contemporary electronic music (Cascone, 12). Also in 2000, the Australian sound and media artist Ian Andrews used the term more broadly as part of a concept of “post-digital aesthetics” which rejected the “idea of digital progress” as well as “a teleological movement toward ‘perfect’ representation” (Andrews).
Cascone and Andrews considered the notion of ‘post-digital’ primarily as an antidote to techno-Hegelianism. The underlying context for both their papers was a culture of audio-visual production in which ‘digital’ had long been synonymous with ‘progress’: the launch of the Fairlight CMI audio sampler in 1979, the digital audio CD and the MIDI standard (both in 1982), software-only digital audio workstations in the early 1990s, real-time programmable software synthesis with Max/MSP in 1997. Such teleologies are still prevalent in video and TV technology, with the ongoing transitions from SD to HD and 4K, from DVD to BluRay, from 2D to 3D – always marketed with a similar narrative of innovation, improvement, and higher fidelity of reproduction. In rejecting this narrative, Cascone and Andrews opposed the paradigm of technical quality altogether.
Ironically, the use of the term ‘post-digital’ was somewhat confusing in the context of Cascone’s paper, since the glitch music defined and advocated here actually was digital, and even based on specifically digital sound-processing artefacts. On the other hand, and in the same sense as post-punk can be seen as a reaction to punk, Cascone’s concept of ‘post-digital’ may best be understood as a reaction to an age in which even camera tripods are being labelled as ‘digital’, in an effort to market them as new and superior technology.
Figure 4. ‘Digital’ camera tripod
‘Digital’ = low-quality trash?
There is a peculiar overlap between on one hand a post-digital rejection of digital high tech, and on the other hand a post-digital rejection of digital low quality. Consider for example the persisting argument that vinyl LPs sound better than CDs (let alone MP3s); that film photography looks better than digital photography (let alone smartphone snapshots); that 35mm film projection looks better than digital cinema projection (let alone BitTorrent video downloads or YouTube); that paper books are a richer medium than websites and e-books; and that something typed on a mechanical typewriter has more value than a throwaway digital text file (let alone e-mail spam). In fact, the glitch aesthetics advocated by Cascone as ‘post-digital’ are precisely the same kind of digital trash dismissed by ‘post-digital’ vinyl listeners.
Digression: what is digital, what is analog?
Digital ≠ binary; digital ≠ electronic
From a strictly technological or scientific point of view, Cascone’s use of the word ‘digital’ was inaccurate. This also applies to most of what is commonly known as ‘digital art’, ‘digital media’ and ‘digital humanities’. Something can very well be ‘digital’ without being electronic, and without involving binary zeroes and ones. It does not even have to be related in any way to electronic computers or any other kind of computational device.
Conversely, ‘analog’ does not necessarily mean non-computational or pre-computational. There are also analog computers. Using water and two measuring cups to compute additions and subtractions – of quantities that can’t be counted exactly – is a simple example of analog computing.
‘Digital’ simply means that something is divided into discrete, countable units – countable using whatever system one chooses, whether zeroes and ones, decimal numbers, tally marks on a scrap of paper, or the fingers (digits) of one’s hand – which is where the word ‘digital’ comes from in the first place; in French, for example, the word is ‘numérique’. Consequently, the Roman alphabet is a digital system; the movable types of Gutenberg’s printing press constitute a digital system; the keys of a piano are a digital system; Western musical notation is mostly digital, with the exception of instructions with non-discrete values such as adagio, piano, forte, legato, portamento, tremolo and glissando. Floor mosaics made of monochrome tiles are digitally composed images. As all these examples demonstrate, ‘digital’ information never exists in a perfect form, but is instead an idealised abstraction of physical matter which, by its material nature and the laws of physics, has chaotic properties and often ambiguous states.
The hipster’s mechanical typewriter, with its discrete set of letters, numbers and punctuation marks, is therefore a ‘digital’ system as defined by information science and analytic philosophy (Goodman, 161). However, it is also ‘analog’ in the colloquial sense of the word. This is also the underlying connotation in the meme image, with its mocking of ‘hipster’ retro culture. An art curator, on the other hand, might consider the typewriter a ‘post-digital’ medium.
Analog = undivided; analog ≠ non-computational
Conversely, ‘analog’ means that the information has not been chopped up into discrete, countable units, but instead consists of one or more signals which vary on a continuous scale, such as a sound wave, a light wave, a magnetic field (for example on an audio tape, but also on a computer hard disk), the flow of electricity in any circuit including a computer chip, or a gradual transition between colours, for example in blended paint. (Goodman, 160) therefore defines analog as “undifferentiated in the extreme” and “the very antithesis of a notational system”.
The fingerboard of a violin is analog: it is fretless, and thus undivided and continuous. The fingerboard of a guitar, on the other hand, is digital: it is divided by frets into discrete notes. What is commonly called ‘analog’ cinema film is actually a digital-analog hybrid: the film emulsion is analog, since its particles are undifferentiated blobs ordered organically and chaotically, and thus not reliably countable in the way that pixels are. The combined frames of the film strip, however, are digital since they are discrete, chopped up and unambiguously countable.
The structure of an analog signal is determined entirely by its correspondence (analogy) with the original physical phenomenon which it mimics. In the case of the photographic emulsion, the distribution of the otherwise chaotic particles corresponds to the distribution of light rays which make up an image visible to the human eye. On the audio tape, the fluctuations in magnetisation of the otherwise chaotic iron or chrome particles correspond to fluctuations in the sound wave which it reproduces.
However, the concept of ‘post-digital’ as defined by Cascone ignored such technical-scientific definitions of ‘analog’ and ‘digital’ in favour of a purely colloquial understanding of these terms.
Post-digital = against the universal machine
Proponents of ‘post-digital’ attitudes may reject digital technology as either sterile high tech or low-fidelity trash. In both cases, they dismiss the idea of digital processing as the sole universal all-purpose form of information processing. Consequently, they also dismiss the notion of the computer as the universal machine, and the notion of digital computational devices as all-purpose media.
Prior to its broad application in audio-visual signal processing and as the core engine of mass-media consumer technology, computation had been used primarily as a means of audio-visual composition. For example, Philips ran a studio for contemporary electronic music in the 1950s, before co-developing the audio CD in the early 1980s. By this time, audio-visual computing had shifted from being primarily a means of production, to a means of reproduction. Conversely, Cascone’s ‘post-digital’ resistance to digital high-tech reproduction echoed older forms of resistance to formalist, mathematically-driven narratives of progress in music production and composition – particularly the opposition to serialist composition in 20th-century contemporary music, which began with John Cage, continued with the early minimal music of La Monte Young and Terry Riley, and was further developed by improvisation/composition collectives such as AMM, Musica Elettronica Viva and Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra. After all, the serialism of Stockhausen, Boulez and their contemporaries was ‘digital’ in the most literal sense of the word: it broke down all parameters of musical composition into computable values which could then be processed by means of numerical transformations.
Yet most serialist music was not electronic, but composed with pen and paper and performed by orchestras. This demonstrates once again a crucial issue: unlike the colloquial meaning of the term ‘digital’ as commonly used in the arts and humanities, the technical-scientific notion of ‘digital’ can, paradoxically enough, be used to describe devices which would be considered ‘analog’ or ‘post-digital’ in the arts and humanities.
What, then, is ‘post-digital’?
(The following is an attempt to recapitulate and order some observations which I have formulated in previous publications.)
Post-digital = post-digitisation
Returning to Cascone and Andrews, but also to post-punk, postcolonialism and Mad Max, the term ‘post-digital’ in its simplest sense describes the messy state of media, arts and design after their digitisation (or at least the digitisation of crucial aspects of the channels through which they are communicated). Sentiments of disenchantment and scepticism may also be part of the equation, though this need not necessarily be the case – sometimes, ‘post-digital’ can in fact mean the exact opposite. Contemporary visual art, for example, is only slowly starting to accept practitioners of net art as regular contemporary artists – and then again, preferably those like Cory Arcangel whose work is white cube-compatible. Yet its discourse and networking practices have been profoundly transformed by digital media such as the e-flux mailing list, art blogs and the electronic e-flux journal. In terms of circulation, power and influence, these media have largely superseded printed art periodicals, at least as far as the art system’s in-crowd of artists and curators is concerned. Likewise, when printed newspapers shift their emphasis from daily news (which can be found quicker and cheaper on the Internet) to investigative journalism and commentary – like The Guardian‘s coverage of the NSA’s PRISM programme – they effectively transform themselves into post-digital or post-digitisation media.
Post-digital = anti-’new media’
‘Post-digital’ thus refers to a state in which the disruption brought upon by digital information technology has already occurred. This can mean, as it did for Cascone, that this technology is no longer perceived as disruptive. Consequently, ‘post-digital’ stands in direct opposition to the very notion of ‘new media’. At the same time, as its negative mirror image, it exposes – arguably even deconstructs – the latter’s hidden teleology: when the term ‘post-digital’ draws critical reactions focusing on the dubious historico-philosophical connotations of the prefix ‘post’, one cannot help but wonder about a previous lack of such critical thinking regarding the older (yet no less Hegelian) term ‘new media’.
Post-digital = hybrids of ‘old’ and ‘new’ media
‘Post-digital’ describes a perspective on digital information technology which no longer focuses on technical innovation or improvement, but instead rejects the kind of techno-positivist innovation narratives exemplified by media such as Wired magazine, Ray Kurzweil’s Google-sponsored ‘singularity’ movement, and of course Silicon Valley. Consequently, ‘post-digital’ eradicates the distinction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ media, in theory as well as in practice. Kenneth Goldsmith notes that his students “mix oil paint while Photoshopping and scour flea markets for vintage vinyl while listening to their iPods” (Goldsmith, 226). Working at an art school, I observe the same. Young artists and designers choose media for their own particular material aesthetic qualities (including artefacts), regardless of whether these are a result of analog material properties or of digital processing. Lo-fi imperfections are embraced – the digital glitch and jitter of Cascone’s music along with the grain, dust, scratches and hiss in analog reproduction – as a form of practical exploration and research that examines materials through their imperfections and malfunctions. It is a post-digital hacker attitude of taking systems apart and using them in ways which subvert the original intention of the design.
Figure 5. Cassette Store Day: 2013 twist on Record Store Day
Post-digital = retro?
No doubt, there is a great deal of overlap between on one hand post-digital mimeograph printmaking, audio cassette production, mechanical typewriter experimentation and vinyl DJing, and on the other hand various hipster-retro media trends – including digital simulations of analog lo-fi in popular smartphone apps such as Instagram, Hipstamatic and iSupr8. But there is a qualitative difference between simply using superficial and stereotypical ready-made effects, and the thorough discipline and study required to make true ‘vintage’ media work, driven by a desire for non-formulaic aesthetics.
Still, such practices can only be meaningfully called ‘post-digital’ when they do not merely revive older media technologies, but functionally repurpose them in relation to digital media technologies: zines that become anti-blogs or non-blogs, vinyl as anti-CD, cassette tapes as anti-MP3, analog film as anti-video.
Post-digital = ‘old’ media used like ‘new media’
At the same time, new ethical and cultural conventions which became mainstream with Internet communities and Open Source culture are being retroactively applied to the making of non-digital and post-digital media products. A good example of this are collaborative zine conventions, a thriving subculture documented on the blog fanzines.tumblr.com and elsewhere. These events, where people come together to collectively create and exchange zines (i.e. small-circulation, self-published magazines, usually focusing on the maker’s cultural and/or political areas of interest), are in fact the exact opposite of the ‘golden age’ zine cultures of the post-punk 1980s and 1990s, when most zines were the hyper-individualistic product and personality platforms of one single maker. If we were to describe a contemporary zine fair or mimeography community art space using Lev Manovich’s new media taxonomy of ‘Numerical Representation’, ‘Modularity’, ‘Automation’, ‘Variability’ and ‘Transcoding’ (Manovich, The Language of New Media, 27-48), then ‘Modularity’, ‘Variability’ and – in a more loosely metaphorical sense – ‘Transcoding’ would still apply to the contemporary cultures working with these ‘old’ media. In these cases, the term ‘post-digital’ usefully describes ‘new media’-cultural approaches to working with so-called ‘old media’.
DIY vs. corporate media, rather than ‘new’ vs. ‘old’ media
When hacker-style and community-centric working methods are no longer specific to ‘digital’ culture (since they are now just as likely to be found at an ‘analog’ zine fair as in a ‘digital’ computer lab), then the established dichotomy of ‘old’ and ‘new’ media – as synonymous in practice with ‘analog’ and ‘digital’ – becomes obsolete, making way for a new differentiation: one between shrink-wrapped culture and do-it-yourself culture. The best example of this development (at least among mainstream media) is surely the magazine and website Make, published by O’Reilly since 2005, and instrumental for the foundation of the contemporary ‘maker movement’. Make covers 3D printing, Arduino hardware hacking, fab lab technology, as well as classical DIY and crafts, and hybrids between various ‘new’ and ‘old’ technologies.
The 1990s / early 2000s assumption that ‘old’ mass media such as newspapers, movies, television and radio are corporate, while ‘new media’ such as websites are DIY, is no longer true now that user-generated content has been co-opted into corporate social media and mobile apps. The Internet as a self-run alternative space – central to many online activist and artist projects, from The Thing onwards – is no longer taken for granted by anyone born after 1990: for younger generations, the Internet is associated mainly with corporate, registration-only services.
Semiotic shift to the indexical
The ‘maker movement’ – as manifested in fab labs, but also at zine fairs – represents a shift from the symbolic, as the preferred semiotic mode of digital systems (and of which the login is the perfect example), toward the indexical: from code to traces, and from text to context. 1980s post-punk zines, for example, resembled the art manifestos of the 1920s Berlin Dadaists, while 1980s Super 8 films, made in the context of the Cinema of Transgression and other post-punk movements, proposed underground narratives as an alternative to mainstream cinema. The majority of today’s zines and experimental Super 8 films, however, tend to focus less on content and more on pure materiality, so that the medium, such as paper or celluloid, is indeed the message – a shift from semantics to pragmatics, and from metaphysics to ontology.
Technically, there is no such thing as ‘digital media’ or ‘digital aesthetics’
Media, in the technical sense of storage, transmission, computation and display devices, are always analog. The electricity in a computer chip is analog, as its voltage can have arbitrary, undifferentiated values within a specific range, just like a fretless violin string. Only through filtering can one make a certain sub-range of high voltages correspond to a ‘zero’ and another sub-range of low voltages to a ‘one’. Hardware defects can cause bits to flip, turning zeroes into ones and vice-versa. Also, the sound waves produced by a sound card and a speaker are analog, etc. This is what (Kittler, 81-90) refers to, somewhat opaquely, when he argues that in computing “there is no software”. An LCD screen is a hybrid digital-analog system: its display is made of discrete, countable, single pixels, but the light emitted by these pixels can be measured on an analog continuum. Consequently, there is no such thing as digital media, only digital or digitised information: chopped-up numbers, letters, symbols and any other abstracted units, as opposed to continuous, wave-like signals such as physical sounds and visible light. Most ‘digital media’ devices are in fact analog-to-digital-to-analog converters: an MP3 player with a touchscreen interface for example, takes analog, non-discrete gesture input and translates it into binary control instructions which in turn trigger the computational information processing of a digital file, ultimately decoding it into an analog electrical signal which another analog device, the electromagnetic mechanism of a speaker or headphone, turns into analog sound waves. The same principle applies to almost any so-called digital media device, from a photo or video camera to an unmanned military drone. Our senses can only perceive information in the form of non-discrete signals such as sound or light waves. Therefore, anything aesthetic (in the literal sense of aisthesis, perception) is, by strict technical definition, analog.
digital = analog = post-digital…?
A ‘digital artwork’ based on the strictly technical definition of ‘digital’ would most likely be considered ‘post-digital’ or even ‘retro analog’ by art curators and humanities scholars: for example, stone mosaic floors made from Internet imageboard memes, mechanical typewriter installations, countdown loops running in Super 8 or 16mm film projection, but also computer installations exposing the indexicality of electrical currents running through circuits. The everyday colloquial definition of ‘digital’ embraces the fiction (or rather: the abstraction) of the disembodied nature of digital information processing. The colloquial use of ‘digital’ also tends to be metonymical, so that anything connected literally or figuratively to computational electronic devices – even a camera tripod – can nowadays be called ‘digital’. This notion, mainly cultivated by product marketing and advertising, has been unquestioningly adopted by the ‘digital humanities’ (as illustrated by the very term ‘digital humanities’). On the other hand, ‘post-digital’ art, design and media – whether or not they should technically be considered post-digital – challenge such uncritical notions of digitality, thus making up for what often amounts to a lack of scrutiny among ‘digital media’ critics and scholars.
Revisiting the typewriter hipster meme
The alleged typewriter hipster later turned out to be a writer who earned his livelihood by selling custom-written stories from a bench in the park. The imageboard meme photo was taken from an angle that left out his sign, taped to his typewriter case: “One-of-a-kind, unique stories while you wait”. In an article for the website The Awl, he recollects how the meme made him “An Object Of Internet Ridicule” and even open hatred. Knowing the whole story, one can only conclude that his decision to bring a mechanical typewriter to the park was pragmatically the best option. Electronic equipment (a laptop with a printer) would have been cumbersome to set up, dependent on limited battery power, and prone to weather damage and theft, while handwriting would have been too slow, insufficiently legible, and lacking the appearance of a professional writer’s work.
Figure 6. C.D. Hermlin, the alleged typewriter hipster
Had he been an art student, even in a media arts programme, the typewriter would still have been the right choice for this project. This is a perfect example of a post-digital choice: using the technology most suitable to the job, rather than automatically ‘defaulting’ to the latest ‘new media’ device. It also illustrates the post-digital hybridity of ‘old’ and ‘new’ media, since the writer advertises (again, on the sign on his typewriter case) his Twitter account “@rovingtypist”, and conversely uses this account to promote his story-writing service. He has effectively repurposed the typewriter from a prepress tool to a personalised small press, thus giving the ‘old’ technology a new function usually associated with ‘new media’, by exploiting specific qualities of the ‘old’ which make up for the limitations of the ‘new’. Meanwhile, he also applies a ‘new media’ sensibility to his use of ‘old media’: user-customised products, created in a social environment, with a “donate what you can” payment model. Or rather, the dichotomy of community media vs. mass media has been flipped upside-down, so that a typewriter is now a community media device, while participatory websites have turned into the likes of Reddit, assuming the role of yellow press mass media – including mob hatred incited by wilful misrepresentation.
The desire for agency
Cascone and Andrews partly contradicted themselves when they defined the concept of ‘post-digital’ in the year 2000. Though they rejected the advocacy of ‘new media’, they also relied heavily on it. Cascone’s paper drew on Nicholas Negroponte’s Wired article “Beyond Digital” (Negroponte), while Ian Andrews’ paper referenced Lev Manovich’s “Generation Flash”, an article which promoted the very opposite of the analog/digital, retro/contemporary hybridisations currently associated with the term ‘post-digital’ (Manovich, “Generation Flash”). We could metaphorically describe post-digital cultures as postcolonial practices in a communications world taken over by a military-industrial complex made up of only a handful of global players. More simply, we could describe these cultures as a rejection of such dystopian techno-utopias as Ray Kurzweil’s and Google’s Singularity University, the Quantified Self movement, and sensor-controlled ‘Smart Cities’.
And yet, post-digital subculture, whether in Detroit, Rotterdam or elsewhere, is on a fundamental level not so different from such mainstream Silicon Valley utopias. For (Van Meer), the main reason why art students prefer designing posters to designing websites is due to a fiction of agency – in this case, an illusion of more control over the medium. Likewise, ‘digital’ cultures are driven by similar illusions of free will and individual empowerment. The Quantified Self movement, for example, is based on a fiction of agency over one’s own body. The entire concept of DIY, whether non-digital, digital or post-digital, is based on the fiction of agency implied by the very notion of the self-made.
Each of these fictions of agency represents one extreme in how individuals relate to the techno-political and economic realities of our time: either over-identification with systems, or rejection of these same systems. Each of these extremes is, in its own way, symptomatic of a systems crisis – not a crisis of this or that system, but rather a crisis of the very paradigm of ‘system’, as defined by General Systems Theory, itself an offshoot of cybernetics. A term such as “post-Snowden” describes only one (important) aspect of a bigger picture: a crisis of the cybernetic notion of ‘system’ which neither ‘digital’ nor ‘post-digital’ – two terms ultimately rooted in systems theory – are able to leave behind, or even adequately describe.
 (Van Meer); also discussed later in this text.
 Even the piano (if considered a medium) is digital only to the degree that its keys implement abstractions of its analog-continuous strings.
 (Cramer, Post-Digital Writing), (Cramer, Post-Digital Aesthetics).
 In a project on Open Source culture organised by Aymeric Mansoux with Bachelor-level students from the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam, it turned out that many students believed that website user account registration was a general feature and requirement of the Internet.
 It’s debatable to which degree this reflects the influence of non-Western, particularly Japanese (popular) culture on contemporary Western visual culture, especially in the field of illustration – which accounts for an important share of contemporary zine making. This influence is even more obvious in digital meme and imageboard culture.
 For example (and six years prior to the typewriter hipster meme), Linda Hilfling’s contribution to the exhibition MAKEDO at V2_, Rotterdam, June 29-30, 2007.
 (Hermlin) writes: “Someone with the user handle ‘S2011′ summed up the thoughts of the hive mind in 7 words: ‘Get the fuck out of my city.’ Illmatic707 chimed in: I have never wanted to fist fight someone so badly in my entire life.”
 A term frequently used at the Chaos Computer Club’s 30th Chaos Communication Congress in Hamburg, December 2013, and also very recently by (Gurstein).
Andrews, Ian. “Post-digital Aesthetics and the return to Modernism.” (2000) Web. December 2013 http://www.ian-andrews.org/texts/postdig.html
Cascone, Kim. “The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post-Digital’ Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music.” Computer Music Journal, 24.4 (2000): 12-18. Print.
Cox, Geoff. “Prehistories of the Post-digital: some old problems with post-anything.” (2013) Web. December 2013 http://post-digital.projects.cavi.dk/?p=578
Cramer, Florian. “Post-Digital Aesthetics.” Jeu de Paume le magazine, May 2013. Web. December 2013 http://lemagazine.jeudepaume.org/2013/05/florian-cramer-post-digital-aesthetics/
Cramer, Florian. “Post-Digital Writing.” electronic book review, December 2012. Web. December 2013 http://electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/postal
Eggers, Dave. The Circle. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.
Goldsmith, Kenneth. Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age. New York: Columbia UP, 2011. Print.
Goodman, Nelson. Languages of Art, Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hacket, 1976. Print.
Gurstein, Michael. “So What Do We Do Now? Living in a Post-Snowden World”, January 2014. Web. January 2014 http://gurstein.wordpress.com/2014/01/01/so-what-do-we-do-now-living-in-a-post-snowden-world/
Hermlin, C.D.. “I Am An Object Of Internet Ridicule, Ask Me Anything.” The Awl, 18 September 2013. Web. December 2013 http://www.theawl.com/2013/09/i-was-a-hated-hipster-meme-and-then-it-got-worse
Kittler, Friedrich. “There Is No Software.” Stanford Literature Review 9 (1992): 81-90. Print.
Klok, Timo. “4chan and Imageboards”, post.pic. Ed. Research Group Communication in a Digital Age. Rotterdam: Piet Zwart Institute, Willem de Kooning Academy Rotterdam University, 2010: 16-19. Print.
Manovich, Lev. ‘Generation Flash.’ (2002). Web. December 2013 http://www.manovich.net/DOCS/generation_flash.doc
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2002. Print.
Negroponte, Nicholas. Beyond Digital. Wired 6.12 (1998). Web. December 2013 http://web.media.mit.edu/~nicholas/Wired/WIRED6-12.html
Pynchon, Thomas. Bleeding Edge. London: Penguin, 2013. Print.
Van Meer, Aldje. “I would rather design a poster than a website.” Willem de Kooning Academy Rotterdam University, 2012-2013. Web. December 2013 http://www.iwouldratherdesignaposterthanawebsite.nl, http://crosslab.wdka.hro.nl/ioi/C010_folder.pdf
(With cordial thanks to Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Nishant Shah, Geoff Cox, Søren Pold, Stefan Heidenreich and Andreas Broeckmann for their critical feedback, and to Aldje van Meer for her empirical research.)
Posted in Post-digital Research
“Post-Digital Research.” 3.1(2014)
“In/Compatible Research.” 1.2(2012)
“Public Interfaces.” 1.1(2011)
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• 9 July 2014 • 2 notes • View comments
Karen Mirza & Brad Butler
16mm b/w, sound dur: 15 mins.
We are ever increasingly in transit through ‘non places’. Corners that lurk at the edge of activity. Passageways where activity occurs but the relationship between use and place remains unnamed. Places where names are incidental, meaningless because the need for communication – or the passage of time spent – is already deemed to be transient, insignificant, minimal, empty. Street corners, bus stops, shopping malls, motorways, airport lounges – new forms of solitude. But, if the city is truly a place saturated with meaning, “it is also a place where meaning and value are distributed evenly” [Rogers]. Non places are not just empty passageways devoid of significance because the city is ‘traced’ with the echo of events, silent marks made by personal memories that reverberate in and around public space.
Extract begins 11 minutes into film.
This film is concerned with those ‘non places’ that have become unalterably connected to an individual’s personal memory, a personal memory that when shared, will change the collective perception of that ‘non place’. Put another way, this film is concerned with those ‘non places’ that trigger a memory causing the past, present and future to collide into a collapsed sense of time and space.
• 11 March 2014 • 1 note • View comments
from the academy
The Kula Ring
of Bronislaw Malinowski
A Simulation Model of the Co-Evolution
of an Economic and Ceremonial Exchange System
Vorgelegt in der Sitzung
vom 12. Dezember 2003
The Kula ring described by Bronislaw Malinowski in 1922 is an often cited and analyzed system for the ceremonial exchange of gifts among a number of tribal societies inhabiting various island groups in the Massim region east of Papua New Guinea.1 In his famous “Essai sur le don” Marcel Mauss (1969)2, the nephew of Emile Durkheim, formulated the threefold principle of reciprocity – to give, accept and reciprocate –, pointing out its function for creating and sustaining solidarity and emphasizing the non- economic character of social exchange. Scholars have been fasci- nated by the specific pattern of the exchange network, which links numerous partners directly and indirectly in a ringlike structure, and where two ceremonial gifts (vaygu’a) continually circulate in opposite directions. The whole structure has not been intention- ally designed by either the individual actors or a central authority. It is the unintended by-product of many actions and at the same time provides favorable conditions for its reproduction.
1.1 Embeddedness of Economic Trade in Social Relations
The ceremonial exchange of the Kula and the work of Bronislaw Malinowski have been cited and analyzed by anthropologists (e.g. Firth 1957, 1967; Lévi-Strauss 1969; Sahlins 1965, 1974) as well as sociologists (Blau 1964: ch. 4; Cook 1987; Emerson 1976; Gouldner 1960; Gross 1961; Homans 1958, 1961, 1974; Mauss 1969). It is considered to be a paradigmatic example of the difference between “economic exchange” and “social exchange” (Ekeh 1974; Heath 1976) and between “commodities” and “gifts”
1 The bibliography of Martha Macintyre (1983a) contains 625 publi- cations that have dealt with the phenomenon of the Kula.
2 The essay was first published in L’Année sociologique (1923/24).
6 Rolf Ziegler
(Gregory 1982; Carrier 1991).3 While economic exchange is voluntary and overtly self-interested, ceremonial exchange is a pretense of disinterested generosity and no haggling takes place. The transaction itself is based on obligation. The gift received puts the recipient in debt to the donor, and failure to meet the “norm of reciprocity” (Gouldner 1960) by not making an equi- valent return lowers his reputation and status. Gift exchange transforms the relationship between the partners, creates trust and establishes a bond of solidarity between donor and recipient. While economic transaction is “restricted exchange” among (isolated) dyads on an (anonymous) market, social exchange is “generalized exchange” with a diffuse obligation to reciprocate perhaps not only to the donor but to a (yet unspecified) third person.
Malinowski argued emphatically against a simplistic inter- pretation of the ceremonial exchange as economic trade, empha- sizing what he called its social and psychic functions; never- theless he stressed the close relationship between economic and ceremonial exchange: “barter of goods and services is carried on mostly within a standing partnership, or is associated with defi- nite social ties or coupled with a mutuality in non-economic mat- ters. Most if not all economic acts are found to belong to some chain of reciprocal gifts and counter-gifts, which in the long run balance, benefiting both sides equally” (Malinowski 1951: 39-40). According to the prevailing interpretation in anthropological literature (Leach 1983) the main function of the Kula is to create social order by establishing a network of stable, peaceful relation- ships among stateless tribal societies, thereby fostering economic trade among them.
The theoretical interpretations of the Kula have mainly con- centrated on the functions of this institution, which could also
3 There are other ceremonial exchange systems of gifts and counter- gifts among different Melanesian tribal communities described in ethno- graphic literature: e.g. the Melpa moka in Mount Hagen of Papua New Guinea (Strathern 1971, 1983), the Enga Tee on the highlands of Papua New Guinea (Meggitt 1972, 1974) or the traders of the Vitiaz Strait (Harding 1967). However, none of these exchange systems received as much attention in the general social science literature as the Kula.
The Kula Ring 7
help to explain its maintenance. However, an unsolved problem remains:
What kind of starting mechanism could account for the spontaneous emergence of a peaceful exchange that builds only upon the strategic situation of dyadically interacting potential partners who have incentive to trade but uncertainty about the intentions of potentially hostile foreigners and who (at least in the beginning) are not bound by a universally accepted “norm of reciprocity” that applies to clan members as well as strangers?
We follow the advice of Mark Granovetter (1985: 493) by avoid- ing the oversocialized approach of generalized morality and the undersocialized approach of impersonal, institutional arrange- ments, modelling instead the emergence of concrete patterns of social relations.
Analyzing the generalized exchange of women among Aborigines of Groote Eylandt, an island off Australia, Peter Bearman deals with the same kind of problem: “the identification of possible microlevel sources of cyclic exchange, focusing first on identifying operators that work to reproduce existing cyclic exchange structures, and second, on identifying operators that may be tied to the generation of such systems” (1997: 1410, emphasis added). We combine both problems by asking whether the generating mechanism produces stable configurations.
1.2 Outline of the Argument
After a brief description of the social system of Kula exchange, we discuss three processes underlying the development of such a complex macro-structure: the development of an economic trading network, the spread of peaceful relationships and the evolution of a ceremonial exchange system. Before elaborating the assumptions of our simulation model in detail, we present the methodological approach and describe the explanandum – the “observed” Kula ring – and the empirical boundary conditions.
In the following chapters we discuss the three processes in detail. The behavioral assumptions are derived from game-theore-
8 Rolf Ziegler
tic reasoning.4 Special emphasis is given to the importance of cheating and trust and the controlling influence of reputation. We then ask how such a macro-structure may have arisen out of the individual actions of multiple groups of actors. A simulation model of the starting mechanism is developed to account for the emergence and stability of the observed pattern of peaceful trade and the circular exchange of the two ceremonial gifts. Differen- tiating among separate “historical phases” improves the empirical fit of the simulation model. Results are then presented to demon- strate the implications of “counterfactual” assumptions about the empirical boundary conditions. Thereafter, we briefly discuss changes of the historical Kula ring observed in the 1970’s and describe how these may be explained. In the concluding section, we summarize the basic argument, discuss limitations of our approach, and close with some open problems for further research.
Our basic aim is twofold: (1) to theoretically derive the behavioral assumptions of a starting mechanism for the emer- gence and co-evolution of a peaceful system of economic and ceremonial exchange and (2) to use simulation as a methodo- logical device in order to demonstrate the macro-social con- sequences of a multi-level, multi-agent, dynamic system.
￼4 Görlich (1992) discusses various theoretical approaches for explain- ing ceremonial and economic exchange processes and puts these in a game-theoretical perspective.
• 20 February 2014 • 1 note • View comments
image: Trobriand Islanders with Bronislaw Malinowski
Why Liberal Academics and Ivory Tower Radicals Make Poor Revolutionaries
by Nicole Ouimette
The revolution will not be cited. It will not have a bibliography, or a title page. The revolution will never happen in the seclusion of the ivory tower built by racist, sexist, and classist institutions. Professional academic researchers in the social sciences of many colleges and universities exploit the struggles of oppressed peoples. Oppressed peoples are left stranded with little to no resources after researchers leave their communities high and dry.
Researchers steal value from oppressed peoples by making them the subjects of theoretical research without lending them access to information that could better help their communities. Articles, books, and dissertations written about marginalized populations are written for academics, not working people, and as such have little impact on the people whose lives are the subject of this research. Liberal academics and social scientists are more concerned about developing the wealth of academic literature than addressing the immediate material concerns of the communities they research.
Penelope Herideen is a Sociology researcher in Western Massachusetts (MA) and a professor of Sociology at the local community college from which I recently graduated. Herideen has written about the importance of critical pedagogy in community colleges. “Policy, Pedagogy, and Social Inequality: Community College Student Realities In Post-Industrial America” was the title of Herideen’s research discussing the realities that community college students face as they navigate their social and academic worlds. Herideen’s research is important, and yet, she was hardly involved in student organizing campaigns against budget cuts that affect low-income students. Community college students need resources developed through research like Herideen’s. This is a major flaw in academic research in the social sciences.
Liberal academics and social scientists need to understand their effect on the communities and people they study. Oppressed people who are put under the magnifying glass of academic research have to live with real consequences after the researcher leaves. This is especially true in the field of women’s and ethnic studies — where class, gender, and race consciousness are a part of the research process. Researchers leave behind a stranded community with little to no resources to help them organize movements that will create real change.
Tim Wise, a well-known anti-racist writer and activist receives thousands of dollars for speaking at various colleges and universities about the impact that white privilege and white supremacy have on communities of color. Wise has yet to give back to these communities in any real or substantial way, such as offering resources and support to the various communities he speaks of in his writings.
Researchers in the fields of women’s and ethnic studies entering oppressed communities without any desire to change serious inequities are in direct contradiction of their supposedly “progressive” fields. Women’s and ethnic studies were created out of the social movements of the 1960s. The aims of the people who started these fields of study were to catapult a movement of better access to education for people of color, poor people, and women.
These goals were met in conflict with a desire in academia to concentrate knowledge among groups of specialized elites, instead of a focus on popularizing this knowledge for the greater good. Try reading any academic text from your local women’s studies, ethnic studies, post-colonial studies, or anthropology department. The texts are almost always written so that only academics can understand. Some students and scholars call it “acadamese.” It is writing that needs to be decoded before it can be understood. This is what inaccessible language looks like in academic texts written about oppressed groups, but not for them.
Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy discusses the importance of “ordinary language” in social justice work in her speech given at Hampshire College in 2001:
I think it’s vital to de-professionalize the public debate on matters that vitally affect the lives of ordinary people. It’s time to snatch our futures back from the ‘experts.’ Time to ask, in ordinary language, the public question and to demand, in ordinary language, the public answer.
Roy purposefully writes for oppressed groups of people by writing in “ordinary language.” Ordinary language becomes extraordinary when groups of people who have been historically “othered” are able to read something that connects to their lives. Academics who use “ordinary language” are able to encourage oppressed groups to consider their own agency in the fight for social, economic and political justice. Their advisors and colleagues constantly berate academics that attempt to write in ordinary language because their writing is “too accessible.”
Academics use academic language and jargon to centralize knowledge and power in their hands. Academics would lose a certain amount of power if everyone had access to the same knowledge that they do. The division of labor in the ivory tower reinforces capitalist modes of production through individualized research and study that is hardly ever shared with those it most affects. This is how academia operates knowledge in the form of transactions that create restricted, instead of shared knowledge.
Liberal academics become gatekeepers of knowledge by reinforcing ideas that knowledge should be bought and sold instead of shared among communities that are studied. In turn, serious activists who wish to create a world without capitalism and other forms of oppression are secluded from their communities through work in the non-profit sector. INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence Collective’s’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded” touch upon the issue of revolutionary praxis among intellectuals in Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO):
Progressive NGOs use peasants and the poor for their research projects, and they benefit from the publication - nothing comes back to the movements, not even copies of the studies done in their name! Moreover, peasant leaders ask why NGOs never risk their neck after their educational seminars - why do they not study the rich and powerful? Why us? The NGOs should stop being NGOs and convert themselves into members of socio-political movements.
The fundamental question is whether a new generation of organic intellectuals can emerge from the burgeoning radical social movements which can avoid the NGO temptation and become integral members of the next revolutionary wave.
It is time to stop depending on NGOs and academia to create revolutionary praxis for us. They won’t. It’s up to us, the oppressed peoples of the world to demand resources for our communities that are being studied by those whose lives are spent in ivory towers. The revolution starts from below and works its way to the ivory tower. Only then will education be free and accessible for all.
• 20 February 2014 • View comments
Urbanity, in the nineteenth century, became synonymous with good manners, learn- ing and cosmopolitan cultivation. It required civility, appropriate dress and a certain esprit that was informed by the ideals of the French Revolution. Until then, cities had been more or less adapted to those who lived there. With the advent of the industrial revolution, at the latest, and the demographic chang- es it wrought, such adaptation was no longer possible. Cities were positively bursting at the seams – the population of London, for instance, increased fivefold between 1800 and 1900. Mass manufacturing facilities, infrastructural improvements, modern forms of transport and a wide range of urban functions – predominantly public build- ings – that were previously non- existent began to spring up. They were the manifes- tations of a new bureaucracy within the spatial order of power. And they offered the possibility of governing society in an entirely new way, or rather, of shaping and dis- ciplining society as described by Michel Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish1. Foucault cites such examples as kindergartens, schools, clinics and prisons, which conjured up frightening visions of total surveillance on the one hand, while on the other representing the impact of power on the individual. The city became a space of discipline in which built and public spaces, according to Foucault, were as carefully controlled and arranged as school desks and benches in a classroom (or cells in a prison). It was a strategy, he writes, “to transform the confused, useless or dangerous multitudes into ordered multiplicities”2 and that corresponded precisely to nineteenth century urban development, or rather, to the urban redevelopment of that era in the interests of the bourgeoisie. The structures of the medieval city were destroyed in the name of hygiene, beauty and modernization. The transformation of Paris under the auspices of the city’s prefect Georges-Eugène Baron Haussmann, commissioned by Napoléon III, made it abundantly clear, if it was not evident before, that such drastic changes were driven primarily by economic interests (real estate speculation) and military zeal. These measures were also aimed at thwarting another kind of public – the revolutionary public that had raised the barricades in 1830 and 1848.
Under the slogan “Paris embellie, Paris agrandie, Paris assainie,” Haussmann le- gitimized ploughing broad swathes (boulevards) through the existing medieval core of Paris between 1853 and 1870, having officially declared the narrow lanes to be detrimental to both hygiene and traffic. The result of this modernization was a new urban order encapsulating the basis of everything we now tend to associate, some- what romantically, with the European city – wide boulevards, railway stations, shop- ping centers, grands magasins (department stores), grands cafés and grands hotels– while at the same time pushing industry and the working classes into the outskirts of town. What remained was an urban culture featuring the wealthy bourgeoisie on the boulevards and squares of an artificially staged and aesthetified public space. Nowhere is this better described than in Charles Baudelaire‘s Spleen de Paris 3 or in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, 4 which, on completion, was to be given the title Paris, Capital City of the XIXth Century. Benjamin places a special focus on the architecture of the arcades and on the flaneur who strolls at a leisurely pace through the urban spaces of Paris. The good manners mentioned earlier were henceforth acted out on the stage provided not only by the trottoir, but also by the interior spaces of public buildings, in particular, which became the forums of public communication.
Seeing and being seen was evident in the foyer and grand staircase of Charles Garnier’s opera house in Paris – as it still is today. The flaneurs of the nineteenth century were elegant people of leisure, urban wanderers whose daily lives were like a passive form of the dérive described by the Situationist Guy Debord – aimlessly strolling through the spectacle of the boulevards, squares and parks. Public build- ings and department stores, too, served the staging of the bourgeoisie; the arcades being a prime example:“It is not the economic origins of culture that will be pre- sented, but the expression of the economy in its culture. At issue, in other words, is the attempt to grasp an economic process as perceptible Ur-phenomenon, from out of which proceed all manifestations of life in the arcades (and, accordingly, in the nineteenth century).” 5
For Benjamin, the arcade was a kind of hybrid – an architectural cross between street and interior. In the arcade, there was no contradiction between the public and the private, for salon-style comportment simply continued seamlessly in this collective external space, sometimes even in defiance of such realities as mobility or the sensory overload of commodity fetishism. Writing of the flaneur’s customary behavior, Benjamin notes that “In 1839 it was considered elegant to take a tortoise out walking. This gives us an idea of the tempo of flanerie in the arcades.” 6 Aptly enough, the term “public” can refer not only to that which is visible, but also to its viewers. In that respect, Paris was both the stage and the auditorium for the bour- geoisie. It was a system that excluded those who did not conform to this behavior and who disturbed its aesthetic: the working class.
Today, it is no longer a question of a single heterogeneous public, but of several dif- ferent kinds of public. However, there is little point in comparing Benjamin’s analy- ses of the nineteenth century city and its inhabitants with today’s situation. Society and the city have changed too much for that. The arcade, the European city and flanerie may still be firmly anchored in a kind of collective nostalgia, but they are just a marginal part of today’s reality. Public space is no longer quite so easy to create. Everything appears to be public; every undeveloped space, every blank zone within a built-up area, everything outside the private sphere is perceived as available and public. The spatial equivalents of the arcades, in terms of variety and density, are the (open-air) inner-city pedestrian precincts and the (covered) shopping malls. Par- adoxically, most car-free pedestrian precincts were actually devised from the 1960s onwards, at the very height of the era when the car-friendly city was the ultimate goal. The rest of the city was for cars – a poor exchange!
Examples of public urban spaces that really are designed to be car-free include the Lijnbaan shopping precinct in Rotterdam by architects Van den Broek and Bakema and the Barbican Centre in London. These have nothing whatsoever in common with German pedestrian zones, which are neither social nor identity-forming, but primar- ily transit areas for consumption and culture. They are still streets – just without the cars, and with lots of planters instead. So much for public life in in-between spaces.
If we look at buildings designed to create a public space, we find that these are dominated primarily by semi-public or private structures such as shopping malls, department stores and museums.
In 1977, some 150 years after the construction of the first Parisian arcade, the Centre Georges Pompidou7 was opened. Designed by architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers to house a museum, art gallery, cultural center, experimental spac- es, library, theater, cinema, archives, bookstore, museum shop and restaurant under one roof became famous for its machine aesthetic. In addition to the steel frame, the technical and utility functions and connections are outwardly visible on every side of the building. The Centre Georges Pompidou is the very apex of this kind of archi- tecture, and its radical load-bearing structure is strongly influenced by the faith in progress that still reigned in the years before the 1973 oil crisis. Although the sheer scale of the building and its machine aesthetic were highly controversial, it was posi- tively overrun by visitors at first. Sociologist Jean Baudrillard even encouraged the onslaught: “Do it! It is the best way of destroying it.” 8 He described this phenomenon as the “Beaubourg Effect”. According to Baudrillard, the demise of the building and, ultimately, mass culture, would be brought about by the crowds themselves, for, as he put it, “Their number, their stampede, their fascination, their itch to see everything is objectively a deadly and catastrophic behavior for the whole undertaking.”9 What may have been a curse for the public building proved a blessing for the city. The urban qualities of the Centre Georges Pompidou are impressive. The footprint of the building takes up only half of the available site and gives the other half – a generous 10,000 square meters back to the city in the form of unbuilt public space. The result- ing piazza serves occasionally as an extension of the Centre Pompidou’s foyer, but for the most part it is an undefined open space, meeting place and point of connec- tion to the city, generating and stimulating a variety of events and public happenings, but never forcing them.
Piano and Rogers took their inspiration from a 1961 project that was planned for London but never built: the Fun Palace – A Laboratory For Fun & A University Of The Streets, designed by Cedric Price. Price’s design had a great influence on the young- er generation of architects at the time, but it fell into oblivion, and is only now being rediscovered.
Joan Littlewood, who founded the Theatre Workshop at the Royal Theatre, had com- missioned Price to design a kind of leisure center for cultural and creative events. His Fun Palace took the form of an open steel-framed structure with slot-in steel beams, freely suspended event spaces, and flexible walkways, walls, floors and ceilings. In contrast to London’s predominantly monumental buildings for the edification of the bourgeoisie, the Fun Palace was to be completely open and capable of a flexible response to the wishes of the visitors. A gantry crane inside the structure, ready to transport structural elements from one position to another, was intended to enable any and every change of spatial function.
This “enforced improvisation” as Rem Koolhaas puts it, would have been an astound- ing alternative to public buildings: a constantly changing megastructure in which, contrary to convention, the functions determine the public interior and exterior space instead of the other way around.10 In addition to Price’s highly visible obsession with technology – even though it was really only of secondary importance – what the Fun Palace design reveals is, above all, his social concept of architecture and the city. He wanted to create space for human activities. Or not, as the case may be: “If someone comes to you expecting a new house to transform their life, you should ask them if they’ve considered getting a divorce instead,” said Price.11 But, let us return to the Fun Palace. Vast and solid as its omnipresent structure might appear, the potential for spatial and programmatic flexibility dissolves the architecture and subordinates it to the given situation. What remains is a publicly accessible network – an anti-archi- tecture without external walls. Not far from the East End site that had been envisaged for the Fun Palace, there is a spot on the north-eastern edge of Hyde Park known for its soapbox oratory, where people step onto a crate or a ladder to create their own public platform. But Speak- ers‘ Corner, as it is called, is famous only for the activity itself, and not for the design of the space wedged between four streets, a small patch of grass, a monument and a tube station.
Similarly, in the case of spontaneous grass-roots protests, the design of the places where the protesters gather is of little interest. Cairo’s Tahrir Square or Taksim Square in Istanbul have become social spaces irrespective of their architecture, irrespective of their commercial or cultural appeal and in spite of their heterogene- ity. The Istanbul protests were triggered in May 2013 by the Turkish government’s urban redevelopment plans involving the construction of a semi-public shopping mall on the public space of nearby Gezi Park. The subsequent occupation of the park by demonstrators, the harsh crackdown by police, and widespread social unrest turned a local controversy into a nationwide political protest. Seeking to destroy an existing public space such as Gezi Park is evidently not a good idea. When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tried to play the role of Haussmann, he found that resistance to his plans evolved into resistance against the state’s treatment of its citizens. Taksim Square thus became a socially generated symbol of the res publica and an example of life lived freely in the public space.
The attempt to recreate public spaces for social action is doomed to fail because processes of appropriation cannot be planned. It would seem that producing inner- city buildings and squares for the general public is possible only in the context of shopping, culture and sport. But a revolution has never started in a shopping mall. People still take to the streets to demonstrate for what they really believe in.
Mathieu Wellner, building public(s), in:
Ingar Dragset, Michael Elmgreen, Nan Mellinger, Eva Kraus (editors), A Space Called Public/Hoffentlich Öffentlich, published by Walther König, Cologne, 2013, p.260-269
Jean Béraud, Boulevard St.Denis, 1875
“The camp is the diagram of a power that acts by means of general visibility. For
a long time this model of the camp or at least its underlying principle was found in urban development, in the construction of working-class housing estates, hospitals, asylums, prisons, schools: the ‚nesting‘ of hierarchized surveillance. The principle was one of ‚embedding‘ (encastrement). The camp was to the rather shameful art of surveillance what the darkroom was to the great science of optics.” Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, Knopf Double- day Publishing, New York 1978, pp. 171‒172.
Charles Baudelaire, Spleen de Paris, first published (posthumously) in 1869
The most characteristic building projects of the nineteenth century – railroad sta- tions, exhibition halls, department stores (according to Giedion) – all have matters of collective importance as their object. The flâneur feels drawn to these ‘despised everyday’ structures, as Giedion calls them. In these constructions, the appearance of great masses on the stage of history was already foreseen. They form the eccen- tric frame within which the last privateers so readily displayed themselves.” Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Har- vard University Press Massachusetts, 2002, p.455.
Ibid., p. 460 (Benjamin is attempting here to clarify the Marxist concept of a causal connection between economy and culture in relation to the arcade.)
“It is our belief that buildings should be able to change, not only in plan but in sec- tion and elevation. A framework which allows people freedom to do their own things; … The framework must allow people to perform freely inside and out, to change and adapt, in answer to technical and client needs. This free and changing per- formance becomes an expression of the architecture of the building, a giant ever changing meccano set rather than a traditional static doll’s house with its cosmetic non additive shop-fitting detailing.” Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, in: GA 44 Global Architecture Centre Beaubourg, Paris 1972–1977, A. D. A. Edita, Tokyo, 1981.
Make Beaubourg bend! New motto of a revolutionary order. Useless to set fire to it, useless to contest it. Do it! It is the best way of destroying it. The success of Beau- bourg is no longer a mystery: the people go there for that, they throw themselves
on this building, whose fragility already breathes catastrophe, with the single goal
of making it bend.”Jean Baudrillard, “The Beaubourg Effect” from Simulacra and Simulation (translated by Sheila Glaser), Ann Arbour / MI,. 1994, reproduced in: The Jean Baudrillard Reader, ed. Steve Redhead, Columbia University Press, New York 2008,p. 66
“There is a masterly grasp of the propositions of independence of structure and services, of flexibility and multiplicity in use and the anticipation of undreamt of use. There is the sheer delight in creating a building which can be enjoyed, added to, taken to pieces, even eaten! It is controlled, serious and non-puritan.” David Allford, “The Creative Iconoclast”, in: Cedric Price – Cedric Price: Works II, Architectural As- sociation, London, 1984, p. 7.
“Cedric Price, cited in Kenneth Powell, “Interview with Cedric Price, Think the unim- aginable”, in The Telegraph, London, April 26, 1997.
• 9 December 2013 • View comments
or-bits.com presents quarterly web-based group exhibitions accompanied by a rolling blog. Each exhibition originates from the exploration of a word and culminates in a media crossover, in which the editorial and miscellany of artists’ works are what remain visible of the process of production. The aim is to suggest links between various cultural areas; creating a system in which the artworks and their idiosyncratic languages, the blog posts and their critical trajectories, stand for themselves while being connected to a centre point.
or-bits.com’s mission is to support the production of new works and writing and instigate an exploration of the creative and critical possibilities of the web as language, medium and subject. Its activity spans from web-based exhibitions to related OFFSITE PROJECTS, curatorial collaborations and talks.
• 9 December 2013 • View comments
Arts Collaboratory is a platform for transnational exchange and cooperation made up of over 20 arts organizations from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. The mission of Arts Collaboratory is to promote collaborative, inventive, and open visual arts practices that are socially engaging and transformative.
Cooperativa Cráter Invertido
Arts Collaboratory was co-initiated in 2007 by DOEN and Hivos, two Dutch foundations, as a financial support structure and program of exchange for art initiatives in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. After the experience of the last seven years, Arts Collaboratory will now have an increased focus on socially innovative arts processes in which various methods and dilemmas around the role of art in social change are publicly shared and critically explored. Furthermore, Arts Collaboratory aspires to be a unique form of transnational network for art and organizational practices that experiment with different collaborative structures, and is committed to working closely with all the participating organizations. To help enact this process, we are pleased to welcome Casco — Office for Art, Design and Theory, an Utrecht-based organization for artistic research and experimentation, as associate partner.
The diverse organizations of Arts Collaboratory develop a broad array of art projects that bring to the fore new approaches, thoughts, and realities in engaging with their respective local contexts, if not intervening in the status quo. They often bring together local artists and other heterogeneous groups to foster a cooperating community while endeavoring to connect it to an international context. Arts Collaboratory will be a platform where these communities meet, enabling the sharing of knowledge across regions, borders, and languages, based on a common ground consisting of an affirmative approach towards a more egalitarian, sustainable, and joyous world.
• 9 December 2013 • View comments
not new york
image :Peter Halley, Indexed, 1997.
Peter Halley, Indexed, 2007.
David Byrne: Will Work for Inspiration.
By David Byrne New York, NY, USA
October 7, 2013
As part of Creative Time Reports’ Summit Series, musician, artist and bicycle diarist David Byrne considers New York City’s present and future ahead of the 2013 Creative Time Summit: Art, Place & Dislocation in the 21st Century City.
I’m writing this in Venice, Italy. This city is a pleasantly confusing maze, once an island of fortresses, and now a city of tourists, culture (biennales galore) and crumbling relics. Venice used to be the most powerful city in Europe—a military, mercantile and cultural leader. Sort of like New York.
Venice is now a case study in the complete transformation of a city (there’s public transportation, but NO cars). Is it a living city? Is it a fossil? The mayor of Venice recently wrote a letter to the New York Review of Books, arguing that his city is indeed a place to live, not simply a theme park for tourists (he would like very much if the big cruise ships steered clear). I guess it’s a living place if you count tourism as an industry, which I suppose it is. New York has its share of tourists, too. I wave to the double-decker buses from my bike, but the passengers never wave back. Why? Am I not an attraction?
New York was recently voted the world’s favorite city—but when you break down the survey’s results, the city comes in at #1 for business and only #5 for living. Fifth place isn’t completely embarrassing, but what are the criteria? What is it that attracts people to this or any city? Forget the business part. I’ve been in Hong Kong, and unless one already has the means to live luxuriously, business hubs aren’t necessarily good places for living. Cities may have mercantile exchange as one of their reasons for being, but once people are lured to a place for work, they need more than offices, gyms and strip clubs to really live.
New York is funky, in the original sense of the word—New York smells like sex.
Work aside, we come to New York for the possibility of interaction and inspiration. Sometimes that possibility of serendipitous encounters—and I don’t mean in the meat market—is the principal lure. If one were to vote based on criteria like comfort or economic security, then one wonders why anyone would ever vote for New York at all over Copenhagen, Stockholm or some other less antagonistic city that offers practical amenities like affordable health care, free universities, free museums, common spaces and, yes, bike lanes. But why can’t one have both—the invigorating energy and the civic, intelligent humanism?
Maybe those Scandinavian cities do in fact have both, but New York has something else to offer, thanks to successive waves of immigrants that have shaped the city. Arriving from overseas, one is immediately struck by the multi-ethnic makeup of New York. Other cities might be cleaner, more efficient or comfortable, but New York is funky, in the original sense of the word—New York smells like sex.
Immigrants to New York have contributed to the city’s vibrancy decade after decade. In some cities around the world, immigrants are relegated to being a worker class, or a guest-worker class; they’re not invited to the civic table. New York has generally been more welcoming, though people of color have never been invited to the table to the same extent as European immigrants.
I moved to New York in the mid-1970s because it was a center of cultural ferment—especially in the visual arts (my dream trajectory, until I made a detour), though there was a musical draw too, even before the downtown scene exploded. New York was legendary. It was where things happened, on the East Coast anyway. One knew in advance that life in New York would not be easy, but there were cheap rents in cold-water lofts without heat, and the excitement of being here made up for those hardships. I didn’t move to New York to make a fortune. Survival, at that time, and at my age then, was enough. Hardship was the price one paid for being in the thick of it.
I don’t believe that crime, danger and poverty make for good art. That’s bullshit.
As one gets a little older, those hardships aren’t so romantic—they’re just hard. The tradeoff begins to look like a real pain in the ass if one has been here for years and years and is barely eking out a living. The idea of making an ongoing creative life—whether as a writer, an artist, a filmmaker or a musician—is difficult unless one gets a foothold on the ladder, as I was lucky enough to do. I say “lucky” because I have no illusions that talent is enough; there are plenty of talented folks out there who never get the break they deserve.
Some folks believe that hardship breeds artistic creativity. I don’t buy it. One can put up with poverty for a while when one is young, but it will inevitably wear a person down. I don’t romanticize the bad old days. I find the drop in crime over the last couple of decades refreshing. Manhattan and Brooklyn, those vibrant playgrounds, are way less scary than they were when I moved here. I have no illusions that there was a connection between that city on its knees and a flourishing of creativity; I don’t believe that crime, danger and poverty make for good art. That’s bullshit. But I also don’t believe that the drop in crime means the city has to be more exclusively for those who have money. Increases in the quality of life should be for all, not just a few.
The city is a body and a mind—a physical structure as well as a repository of ideas and information. Knowledge and creativity are resources. If the physical (and financial) parts are functional, then the flow of ideas, creativity and information are facilitated. The city is a fountain that never stops: it generates its energy from the human interactions that take place in it. Unfortunately, we’re getting to a point where many of New York’s citizens have been excluded from this equation for too long. The physical part of our city—the body—has been improved immeasurably. I’m a huge supporter of the bike lanes and the bike-share program, the new public plazas, the waterfront parks and the functional public transportation system. But the cultural part of the city—the mind—has been usurped by the top 1 percent.
In New York there has been no public
rejection of the culture that led to the financial crisis.
What then is the future of New York, or really of any number of big urban centers, in this New Gilded Age? Does culture have a role to play? If we look at the city as it is now, then we would have to say that it looks a lot like the divided city that presumptive mayor Bill De Blasio has been harping about: most of Manhattan and many parts of Brooklyn are virtual walled communities, pleasure domes for the rich (which, full disclosure, includes me and some of the Creative Time team), and aside from those of us who managed years ago to find our niche and some means of income, there is no room for fresh creative types. Middle-class people can barely afford to live here anymore, so forget about emerging artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, journalists and small business people. Bit by bit, the resources that keep the city vibrant are being eliminated.
This city doesn’t make things anymore. Creativity, of all kinds, is the resource we have to draw on as a city and a country in order to survive. In the recent past, before the 2008 crash, the best and the brightest were lured into the world of finance. Many a bright kid graduating from university knew that they could become fairly wealthy almost instantly if they found employment at a hedge fund or some similar institution. But before the financial sector came to dominate the world, they might have made things: in publishing, manufacturing, television, fashion, you name it. As in many other countries the lure of easy bucks Hoovered this talent and intelligence up—and made it difficult for those other kinds of businesses to attract any of the top talent.
A culture of arrogance, hubris and winner-take-all was established. It wasn’t cool to be poor or struggling. The bully was celebrated and cheered. The talent pool became a limited resource for any industry, except Wall Street. I’m not talking about artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians—they weren’t exactly on a trajectory toward Wall Street anyway—but any businesses that might have employed creative individuals were having difficulties surviving, and naturally the arty types had a hard time finding employment too.
If young, emerging
talent of all types can’t find a foothold in this city, then it will be a city closer to Hong Kong or Abu Dhabi than to the rich fertile place it has historically been.
Unlike Iceland, where the government let misbehaving banks fail and talented kids became less interested in leaping into the cesspool of finance, in New York there has been no public rejection of the culture that led to the financial crisis. Instead, there has been tacit encouragement of the banking industry’s actions from figures like Mayor Bloomberg. The nation’s largest financial institutions are almost all still around, still “too big to fail” and as powerful as ever. One might hope that enlightened bankers might emulate the Medicis and fund culture-makers—both emerging artists and those still in school—as a way of ensuring a continued talent pool that would invent stuff and fill the world with ideas and inspiration, but other than buying blue-chip art for their walls and donating to some institutions what is, for them, small change, they don’t seem to be very much interested in replenishing the talent pool.
One would expect that the 1 percent would have a vested interest in keeping the civic body healthy at least—that they’d want green parks, museums and symphony halls for themselves and their friends, if not everyone. Those indeed are institutions to which they habitually contribute. But it’s like funding your own clubhouse. It doesn’t exactly do much for the rest of us or for the general health of the city. At least, we might sigh, they do that, as they don’t pay taxes—that we know.
Many of the wealthy don’t even live here. In the neighborhood where I live (near the art galleries in Chelsea), I can see three large condos from my window that are pretty much empty all the time. What the fuck!? Apparently rich folks buy the apartments, but might only stay in them a few weeks out of a year. So why should they have an incentive to maintain or improve the general health of the city? They’re never here.
This real estate situation—a topic New Yorkers love to complain about over dinner—doesn’t help the future health of the city. If young, emerging talent of all types can’t find a foothold in this city, then it will be a city closer to Hong Kong or Abu Dhabi than to the rich fertile place it has historically been. Those places might have museums, but they don’t have culture. Ugh. If New York goes there—more than it already has—I’m leaving.
But where will I go? Join the expat hipsters upstate in Hudson?
Can New York change its trajectory a little bit, become more inclusive and financially egalitarian? Is that possible? I think it is. It’s still the most stimulating and exciting place in the world to live and work, but it’s in danger of walking away from its greatest strengths. The physical improvements are happening—though much of the crumbling public infrastructure still needs fixing. If the social and economic situation can be addressed, we’re halfway there. It really could be a model of how to make a large, economically sustainable and creatively energetic city. I want to live in THAT city.
This piece, commissioned by Creative Time Reports, has also been published by The Guardian.
• 9 December 2013 • View comments
Flux Factory, NYC, USA
Dates: 2–24 November 2013
Hours: weekends in November, 13:00-18:00, and during the week by appointment
Reactor will gather, assemble, perform and exhibit a new work over four weekends at Flux Factory to make Log!c ?stem. Rather than a pre-determined, structured methodology – Reactor’s usual way of working – Log!c ?stem will use improvisation as a form of anti-logic. Improvisation cannot be rehearsed, but the Log!c ?stem will create the rules of the game, so that Reactor can actively train to play.
Reactor has not previously considered the objects it produces to be ‘artworks’, but instead functional devices for, and ‘artefacts’ of, a live situation. In contrast, Log!c ?stem will start with the production of objects, gathering and assembling them with no predetermined function. Through a kind of anthropological process Reactor will consider the potential operation or use of these objects, extrapolating how we should or could perform them. Starting at what would normally be the end point, Reactor will create an internal logic structure in reverse – an absurd but explainable narrative – that can then be further improvised with.
The project is split into four phases of activity. Reactor invites others to become involved, both physically in the space, and by joining an amorphous online community of Reactor ‘Remote Members’. This dispersed involvement in the production of the work will amplify the potential for free association and misunderstanding, as we learn how to interpret or intuit the Log!c ?stem.
You can come along while the space is open each weekend or make an appointment to join us at another time by emailing email@example.com
There will be two additional events that will punctuate the project, the first being ‘Gather’ where Reactor invites you to join them for a social occasion to find out more about Log!c ?stem.
Log!c ?stem Events:
‘Gather’ – Saturday, November 2nd, 7-10pm
‘Perform’ – Saturday, November 16th, 7-10pm
The text and images used to describe Log!c ?stem here represent Reactor’s current thoughts on this project; they have been written in such a way as to accommodate correction and revision. This information will be updated as the Log!c ?stem develops.
• 26 September 2013 • View comments
10 Theses on the Archive
April 2010, Beirut.
- Don’t Wait for the Archive
To not wait for the archive is often a practical response to the absence of archives or organized collections in many parts of the world. It also suggests that to wait for the state archive, or to otherwise wait to be archived, may not be a healthy option.
This need not imply that every collection or assembly be named an archive, or that all of art’s mnemonic practices be, once again, cast into an archival mould. It suggests instead that the archive can be deployed: as a set of shared curiosities, a local politics, or epistemological adventure. Where the archival impulse could be recast, for example, as the possibility of creating alliances: between text and image, between major and minor institutions, between filmmakers, photographers, writers and computers, between online and offline practices, between the remnant and what lies in reserve, between time and the untimely. These are alliances against dissipation and loss, but also against the enclosure, privatization and thematisation of archives, which are issues of global, and immediate, concern.
The archive that results may not have common terms of measurement or value. It will include and reveal conflicts, and it will exacerbate the crises around property and authorship. It will remain radically incomplete, both in content and form. But it is nevertheless something that an interested observer will be able to traverse: riding on the linking ability of the sentence, the disruptive leaps of images, and the distributive capacity that is native to technology.
To not wait for the archive is to enter the river of time sideways, unannounced, just as the digital itself did, not so long ago.
- Archives are not reducible to the particular Forms that they take
Archival initiatives are often a response to the monopolization of public memory by the state, and the political effects that flow from such mnemonic power. But attempts at creating an archive are not necessarily supplementing the memory machine of the state. The state archive is only one instance of the archive, they are not the definition of archives, but merely a form. As a particular form, state archives do not exhaust the concept of the archive. The task of creating an archive is neither to replicate nor to mimic state archives but to creatively produce a concept of the archive.
An archive actively creates new ways of thinking about how we access our individual and collective experiences. An archive does not just supplement what is missing in state archives, it also renders what is present unstable.
Nietzsche defined happiness as the capacity or power to live one’s life actively – affirming the particularity or specificity of one’s moment in time. In doing so he refused to subsume the conceptual possibility of what it means to be happy under a general form of happiness.
When we subsume the concept of archives to its known form we are exhausted by it and suffer from archive fevers and archive fatigue. Contemporary archival impulses attempt to realize the potential of the archive as virtuality, and it challenges us to think through the productive capacities of an archive beyond the blackmail of memory and amnesia.
The production of a concept is a provocation, a refusal to answer to the call of the known, and an opportunity to intensify our experiences. The archive is therefore not representational, it is creative, and the naming of something as an archive is not the end, but the beginning of a debate.
- The Direction of Archiving will be Outward, not Inward
We tend to think of archiving as the inward movement of collecting things: finding bits and pieces, bringing them together, guarding them in a safe and stable place. The model of this type of archiving is the fortress, or the burning library. This model already provides a clear sense of the limits, or ends, of the archive: fire, flooding, data loss.
Can we think of the archive differently? When Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinémathèque Française, stated that “the best way to preserve film is to project it”, he hinted at the very opposite philosophy of archiving: to actually use and consume things, to keep them in, or bring them into, circulation, and to literally throw them forth (Latin: proicere), into a shared and distributed process that operates based on diffusion, not consolidation, through imagination, not memory, and towards creation, not conservation.
Most of today’s digital archives seem to still adhere to the model of the fortress, even though, by definition, they no longer preserve precious and unique originals, but provide cheap and reproducible copies. These copies can be “thrown forth” on a much larger scale, and with much greater efficiency, than Henri Langlois — or Walter Benjamin, theorist of analog reproduction, advocate of its technological potential and critic of its practical political use — would have ever imagined. To archive, and to be archived, can become massively popular.
The astonishingly resilient archiving practices around Napster or the Pirate Bay, and the even more virulent promise of actual or imaginary archives far beneath or beyond them — if, for one moment, we could step outside the age of copyright we all inhabit, and fully embrace the means of digital reproduction most of us have at our disposal — not just directly follow the trajectory traced by Benjamin and Langlois, but extend it to a point in the not-so-distant future where we will think of archiving primarily as the outward movement of distributing things: to create ad-hoc networks with mobile cores and dense peripheries, to trade our master copies for a myriad of offsite backups, and to practically abandon the technically obsolete dichotomy of providers and consumers.
The model of this type of archive, its philosophical concept, would be the virus, or the parasite. And again, this model also allows us to make a tentative assessment of the risks and dangers of outward archiving: failure to infect (attention deficit), slowdown of mutation (institutionalization), spread of antibiotics (rights management), death of the host (collapse of capitalism).
- The Archive is not a Scene of Redemption
Important as the political impulse of archives is, it is important to acknowledge that archives cannot be tied to a politics of redemption.
A large part of what may be thought of as progressive impulses in historiography is informed by a desire to redeem history through a logic of emancipation. The resurrection of the subaltern subject of history, the pitting of oral against written history and the hope that an engagement with the residual of the archive will lead to a transformative politics.
Benjamin’s theses on the philosophy of history has served as an important intellectual reference point for such initiatives. Benjamin says that
The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency,
Benjamin does not hide the redemptive messianic thrust in his thesis: According to him ‘Our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption’. Hope, in this formulation is primarily messianic, ‘For every second of time is the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.’ Elsewhere Derrida writes that “Aspectral messianicity is at work in the concept of the archive and ties it, like religion,like history, like science itself, to a very singular experience of the promise”.
Archival initiatives have unconsciously continued this theological impulse. Their desire to document that which is absent, missing or forgotten stages a domain of politics which often privileges the experience of violence and trauma in a manner in which the experience of violence is that which destroys the realm of the ordinary and the everyday.
Thus if you examine the way that histories of the oppressed are written about, it were as if life is always subsumed under the threat of death, and living is forever condemned to a shadowy existence under the idea of a ‘bare life’. The subsumption of life into a condition of bareness is as illusory as aesthetic practices which attempt to redeem experience from the clutches of time and history.
If the archival imagination is to rescue itself from this politics of redemption, it will have to allow for a radical contingency of the ordinary. It will have to engage with ‘forms of life’ which exceed the totalizing gaze of the state as well its redemptive other. Radical contingency recognizes the possibilities of surprise in the archive and in the possibility that a descent into the ordinary suspends the urgent claims of emergencies.
- The Archive deals not only with the Remnant but also with the Reserve
Capitalistic production proceeds by isolating the extract from raw materials, producing the remnant, that which is left behind. And the archive, resisting obsolescence, is constituted through these remnants. This is one common view. But there is another place in the contemporary where the role and responsibility of the archive may lie. That is, in addressing the reserve, that which is not yet deployed. And that which, like residue, is cast in shadow.
In surveillance systems for example, we are forced to rethink the idea of “waste”. Those millions of hours a day of CCTV images, are not just the leftovers of the surveillance machine, they are its constitutive accumulation. They are the mass which waits for the event, and it is this mass that produces the threat.
Following Michel Serres we could describe this mass as having “abuse value”, something that precedes use-value or exchange value. Ofcourse, abuse-value and exchange-value can change hands. The line between residue and reserve can be unstable. Suddenly, the nuclear arsenal is rendered waste, and is sold as junk. Our accumulated ideas expire. But to look to the reserve has a strategic value for the archive. It is a way of addressing capital not only as the production of profit from labour and commodities, but as the accumulation that can be used for speculation, and to extract rent.
The archive in this sense is sympathetic to those practices which sabotage capitalistic accumulation, and those which have an interest in the future, and in the “unrealised”.
- Historians have merely interpreted the Archive. The Point however is to Feel it.
Archives have traditionally been the dwelling places of historians, and the epistemic conceit of history has always been housed in the dust of the archives. But in the last decade we have also seen an explosion of interest in archives from software engineers, artists, philosophers, media practitioners, filmmakers and performers.
Historians have responded by resorting to a disciplinary defensiveness that relies on a language of ‘the authority of knowledge’ and ‘rigor’ while artists retreat to a zone of blissful aesthetic transcendence. There is something incredibly comfortable about this zone where history continues to produce ‘social facts’ and art produces ‘affect’. Claims of incommensurability provide a ‘euphoric security’ and to think of the affective potential of the archive is to disturb the ‘euphoric security’ which denies conditions of knowing and possibilities of acting beyond that which is already known.
Rather than collapsing into a reinforcement of disciplinary fortresses that preclude outsiders and jealously guard the authenticity of knowledge and experience by historians, or resorting to a language of hostile takings by activists and artists, how do we think of the encroachments into the archives as an expansion of our sensibilities and the sensibilities of the archive. Archives are not threats, they are invitations.
Lakhmi Chand, a writer based in the media lab of the Cybermohalla in New Delhi asks “Kya kshamta ke distribution ko disturb karta hai Media?” Does media disturb the distribution of ‘capacity’ or ‘potential’.
The invitation to think of the ability to disturb the kshamta of the archive seems to be marked by a different relation to time. The idea of Capacity marks a time: This time is neither in the past nor in the future though they may be related, it is a marker of the present- or exactly where you are.
Anna Akhmatova writes in the Requiem
In the dreadful years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months in prison queues in Leningrad. One day someone ‘identified’ me. Then a woman standing behind me, blue with cold, who of course had never heard my name, woke from that trance characteristic of us all and asked in my ear (there, everyone spoke in whispers):
- Ah, can you describe this?
And I said:
Then something like a tormented smile passed over what had once been her face.
1st April 1957
The question ‘Can you describe this’ was not a question about the possession of a skill, or even the possibility of language to speak of certain things under certain conditions . It is about a moment or a context that arises in which anyone can be faced with the question of Can you. And they must either answer “I can” or “I Cant”
How do we think through the ways that archives challenge us to think about the experience of potentiality. To dwell in the affective potential of the archive is to think of how archives can animate intensities
Brian Massumi argues affect is critically related to intensity. We are always aware of the our potential to affect or to be affected, but this potential also seems just out of our reach. Perhaps because it isn’t there actually- only virtually. Massumi suggest that
Maybe if we can take little, practical, experimental, strategic measures to expand our emotional register, or limber up our thinking, we can access more of our potential at each step, have more of it actually available. Having more potentials available intensifies our life. We’re not enslaved by our situations. Our degree of freedom at any one time corresponds to how much of our experiential ‘depth’ we can access towards a next step – how intensely we are living and moving.
How do we imagine archival practices as the little practical, experimental and strategic measures that we pursue to expand our sensibilities. The affective potential of archives is a therefore both a political as well as an aesthetic question in its ability to activate ones capacity to act, and it is on the very faculty of imagination and possibility that this conflict is located.
- The Image is not just the Visible, the Text is not just the Sayable
Serge Daney makes a famous distinction between the image and the visual. The image is what still holds out against an experience of vision and the visual. The visual is just the optical verification of what we may know already, or which may be read, or deciphered through reflexes of reading. The image, on the other hand, is alterity.
Ranciere, in the Future of the Image, will develop this by saying that images are not restricted to the visible. He will reject the subordination of the image to the text, of material to history, and of affect to meaning. He suggests that the commonest regime of images is one that presents a relationship between the sayable and the visible, (between image and text, between presence and inscription) a relationship that plays on both the analogy AND dissemblance between them. But, ofcourse, “this relationship by no means requires the two terms to be materially present. The visible can be arranged in meaningful tropes, words deploy a visibility that can be blinding.”
Ranciere thus invents the Sentence-Image. The sentence-image is a form that could appear in a novel, equally as it could appear in a cinematic montage. In it, the sentence-function provides continuity against chaos, while the image-function disrupts consensus.
The sentence-image provides a way to think across the modernist incommensurability of painting, literary works, and films, i.e. their autonomy. It allows us to acknowledge their appropriations, invasions and seductions of each other. The archive assembles another site where we can conceive, differently or similarly, of the connections and the distance between the functions of writing and of images. It suggests the possibility of art, if art is the alteration of resemblances between the two. With the introduction of software, we have yet another possibility for the disjunct: a third heterogeneity, another possible element of surprise. And perhaps to extend our thesis then: the software is not just the searchable, or the database.
- The Past of the Exhibition Threatens the Future of the Archive
What is the relation between memory and its display? Between the archive, “the system that governs the appearances of statements” and a culture of appearances? In a 2002 essay for the journal October, Hal Foster develops three useful stages of the museum as the site of memory, in modern art.
In the first stage, in the mid-1800’s, Baudelaire writes that “Art is the mnemotechny of the beautiful”. Which with Manet for example, has become the art of outright citation. Here art is the art of memory, and the museum is its architecture.
The second moment occurs with Adorno’s essay, the Valery Proust Museum, which marks a point of suspicion of the museum, as the “mausoleum” of art. The museum is where art goes to die. But, it is also the site for a redemptive project of“reanimation”.
The third moment occurs when this reanimation is possible through other means, i.e. through Benjamin’s mechanical reproduction. The key difference here is between Benjamin’s reproduction, which threatens the museum, and Malraux’s, which expands it infinitely. For Malraux, it is precisely the destruction of the aura which becomes a basis for the imagination of the museum without end.
But there are “problems of translation”, gaps, between Malraux’s Musee Imaginaire, its english name the Museum without Walls, and the concept of a Museum without End. Which on the one hand, have fed many a modernist museum architect’s fantasy of endless circulation, and views through the glass, while on the other, continue to offer the promise that art’s institutional structures can have a relationship with the world. Foster’s account of modern western art’s archive ends with a split in art itself, between its display function that appears in spectacular form in the exhibition, and its memory function, which retreats into the archive.
The challenge for the archive, which today threatens the exhibition with its own sensual ability to relink and rearticulate these two functions, is how not to to end up as a spiral ramp, or as flea market. In other words, how to avoid the tyranny of the two historical “freedoms”: one, the (modernist) formal strategies of audience participation in the spectacle, and two, the (postmodernist) eclecticism in which anything, included and curated, could be accorded “exhibition-value”. Or we could put it this way: how does the archive avoid the confusion, that persists in the exhibition (as Irit Rogoff notes about the Tate), between accessibility as entertainment and marketing strategy, and access as something deeper, as something that is “closer to the question”.
- Archives are governed by the Laws of Intellectual Propriety as opposed to Property
As the monetary value of the global information economy gains more importance, the abstract value of images get articulated within the language of property and rights. The language of intellectual property normativizes our relationship to knowledge and culture by naturalizing and universalizing narrow ideas of authorship, ownership and property. This language has extended from the world of software databases to traditional archives where copyright serves as Kafka’s gatekeeper and the use of the archive becomes a question of rights management.
Beyond the status of the archive as property lies the properties of the archive which can destabilize and complicate received notions of rights.
They establish their own code of conduct, frame their own rules of access, and develop an ethics of the archive which are beyond the scope of legal imagination. If the archive is a scene of invention then what norms do they develop for themselves which do not take for granted a pre determined language of rights. How do practices of archiving destabilize ideas of property while at the same time remaining stubbornly insistent on questions of ‘propriety’.
Intellectual propriety does not establish any universal rule of how archives collect and make available their artifacts. It recognizes that the archivist play a dual role: They act as the trustees of the memories of other people, and as the transmitters of public knowledge. This schizophrenic impulse prevents any easy settling into a single norm.
Propriety does not name a set of legislated principles of proper etiquette, instead it builds on the care and responsibility that archivists display in their preservation of cultural and historical objects. The digital archive translates this ethic of care into an understanding of the ecology of knowledge, and the modes through which such an ecology is sustained through a logic of distribution, rather than mere accumulation.
It remembers the history of archivists being described as pirates, and scans its own records, files and database to produce an account of itself. In declaring its autonomy, archives seek to produce norms beyond normativity, and ethical claims beyond the law.
- Time is not Outside of the Archive: It is in it
In his history of the book and print cultures, historian Adrian Johns argues against what has traditionally been seen as the ‘typographical fixity’ which was established by the print revolution. Earlier scholars had argued that scribal cultures were marked by all kinds of mistakes of the hand, and the book was therefore not a stable object of knowledge until the emergence of print technology.
Adrian Johns demonstrates the fallacy of this assumption by looking at the various conflicts that erupted with print technology, and far from ensuring fixity or authority, the early history of Printing was marked by uncertainty. For Johns, the the authority of knowledge is not an inherent quality, but a transitive one. It is a question that cannot be divorced technologies that alter our senses, our perception and our experience of knowledge.
Rather than speaking about Authority as something that is intrinsic to either a particular mode of production of Knowledge or to any technological form, John’s work demonstrates how it would be more useful to consider the range of knowledge apparatuses which come into play to establish authority.
The preconditions of knowledge cannot easily be made the object of knowledge. It is a matter of making evident or making known the structures of knowledge itself, which emerge in ways that provide definitive proof of the imperfectability of knowledge.
Archives are also apparatuses which engage our experience and perception of time. This is particularly true for archives of images, since photography and cinema are also apparatuses that alter our sense of time. The traditional understanding of an archive as a space that collects lost time sees the experience of time as somehow being external to the archive itself. It loses sight of the fact that the archive is also where objects acquire their historical value as a result of being placed within an apparatus of time. The imagination of a video archive then plays with multiple senses of the unfolding of time.
In her reflections on the relationship between photography, cinema and the archive, Mary Anne Doane states that photography and film have a fundamental archival instinct embedded in them. And yet this archival nature is also ridden with paradox, because of the relationship of the moving image to the contingent. The presence of the contingent, the ephemeral, and the unintended are all aspects of cinematic time, and the challenge of the moving image as archive is the recovery of lost time, but within the cinematic.
The recovery of the lost time of cinema and the contingent can be captured through an experience of cinephilia, for what cinephilia names is the moment when the contingent takes on meaning- perhaps a private and idiosyncratic meaning, but one in which the love for the image expresses itself through a grappling with the ephemeral.
The archive is therefore an apparatus of time, but its relation to time is not guaranteed or inherent, it is transitive and has to be grafted. The archive of the moving image grasps this problem in an erotic and sensuous fashion, grafting the experience of time as an act of love.
Negri speaks in Insurgencies about the love of time: These two registers, of love- of time, and of cinema allows us to think about the cinematic and archival apparatus of time, and the way they shape our relation to our time and the time of the image.
• 18 September 2013 • View comments
image: Debris around Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty
The Center for Land Use Interpretation’s “Theory of the Present”
art & education
A sound emitting device placed in a dried-out lake bed plays the sound of running water, alluding to the cause of the site’s current desiccated state: the lake was drained when the L.A. aqueduct was built to supply drinking water to Los Angeles. An online searchable database dedicated to documenting the nation’s land use provides information and driving directions to thousands of remote locations across the United States, including the Angola prison and prison museum in Louisiana, the Nellis Range on Nevada’s nuclear test site and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty on Utah’s Great Salt Lake. A quarterly newsletter entitled The Lay of the Land provides readers with a list of new books on land, unusual real estate listings, and site reports highlighting remote attractions on the outskirts of various US cities. An artist residency program and “land use museum” housed in a former military barrack in Wendover, Utah invites artists to find inspiration in a landscape that, the application cautions, is decidedly “not the romantic west.” And guidebooks and bus tours, some of which cover up to 500 miles a day, encourage tourists to visit the “unusual and exemplary” instances of land use surrounding cities like Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City.
This sampling of projects is representative of the diversity of work carried out by The Center for Land Use Interpretation, an artist-run organization “dedicated to the increase and diffusion of information about how the nation’s lands are apportioned, utilized and perceived.” Founded in 1994 by Matthew Coolidge, the C-L-U-I, or “clooey” as it is affectionately referred to, counts within the purview of its address all instances of human interaction with the earth’s surface, whether the subject is manmade lakes or radioactive waste dumps, roadside museums, or military test sites. Dedicated to documenting each of these sites with equal parts heartfelt enthusiasm and scientific objectivity, CLUI presents itself as an unbiased public resource on land use, an institution that, while informed by the tools of the arts, nonetheless goes to great lengths to avoid being restricted to the confines of the art world. Signaling this extra-art world identity in all aspects of its self fashioning—from its administrative name and institutional voice to its to its circular seal and unassuming office front headquarters—the Center presents itself as a new kind of institution, one that finds in the alternatively banal and esoteric details of American land use a better way of understanding the world—a way, as one CLUI guide book explains, of developing a “theory of the present.”
What exactly this theory of parking lots and power plants, oil pipelines, and observation decks is, however, is something the Center is resolute in its unwillingness to define. Coolidge has often repeated in interviews, press releases, and other published documents that “we are not on any specific political mission” and CLUI’s mission statement makes similar claims, identifying it, via a subtle inter-textual nod to Robert Smithson, as “neither an environmental group nor an industry affiliated organization.” Not surprisingly, the Center’s non-committal, even apolitical stance towards hot-button political topics like nuclear testing ranges and hazardous waste facilities has proven to be challenging for many critics, and much of the critical literature on CLUI consists of efforts to identify an “authentic” political motive behind the project. Such efforts, however, tend to overlook a peculiarity about the project that is far more foundational in nature: namely, the belief that the contemporary world can be effectively understood through an examination of land use.
Indeed, such a position flies in the face of much contemporary theory, which often emphasizes the irrelevance of more “grounded” approaches to today’s increasingly globalized world. As Ursula Biemann explains: “the complex processes that constitute globalization take place on a high level of abstraction…How do you document electronic communication, financial capital flow or deregulation?” While most responses to this question, in art and theory alike, respond by paralleling the increasing abstraction of the world around them—the proliferation of images in today’s biennial exhibitions of airport terminals and global maps overlaid with directional arrows are cases in point—CLUI’s response is surprisingly straight-forward. By focusing less on their causes than on the effects these forces have on everyday life, the Center’s work exposes the question of locating—of identifying where exactly we are at any given point—to be one of the fundamental problems of the present world. As Coolidge explains, though “there is no substitute for being there, especially in these increasingly virtual times,” in the end we have “a lot left to learn about being there and not being there.”
Building on this, the discussion that follows offers a reading of CLUI’s work that interprets it as a meditation on the problem of site-specificity in an era of global inter-connectedness—an era, in other words, where the deregulation of global markets, the decline of national sovereignty, and the expansion of world communications has lead to a constant framing and reframing of seemingly straight-forward terms like center and periphery, location and place. Whereas most accounts of site specificity’s encounter with globalization focus on the mobility of the service-providing artist, my discussion, instead, considers the problematic of site in an era when the land itself is in a constant state of reorganization and reconfiguration. CLUI, I argue, pursues its famously elusive yet provocative ambition of developing a “theory of the present” by examining globalization not from the position of the artist “dwelling in travel,” to borrow a term from James Clifford, but, rather, from the inverse position of a place that itself “travels in dwelling,” as it shifts position based on the cumulative effects of the various forces that pass through it.
Using, as a case study, the Center’s examination of Wendover, Utah—the home of its artist’s residency program and a site with particular relevance to the organization’s overall philosophy and mission—the discussion that follows triangulates between CLUI’s interest in Robert Smithson, more recent discussions concerning the relationship between art and place, and contemporary scholarship on globalization from the field of geography, to better understand Coolidge’s suggestion that CLUI’s work offers “a truly new way of experiencing place.”
The Politics of Place
In its efforts to create what the Center has described variously as “a selective, macrocosmic portrait of place” and “a narrative of place that can, if successful, shed light on the human experience,” CLUI’s practice intersects with a model of site-specific art that rose to prominence in the 1990s, at or around the same time that the Center was founded. The relationship of site-specific art to place was in fact the subject of much critical address among curators and art historians at this time. As Miwon Kwon has argued in her groundbreaking study of site-specificity’s evolution, this was in part because the site-based practice that emerged in the 1990s differed significantly from the anti-institutional and anti-commoditization motivations of its predecessors. Re-emerging as a largely commission-driven, institutionalized practice, the new model displaced what was once a largely sculptural concern for the uniqueness and authenticity of the viewing experience onto the question of place itself. Exhibitions like the 1991 exhibition Places with a Past at the Charleston Spoleto Festival and the 1993 exhibition Culture in Action in Chicago accordingly spread art that engaged with the respective city’s socio-historical past throughout the city, using its site-specific qualities to give visibility to repressed histories and to attract tourists to overlooked city spaces.
Responding to this, some critics hailed this work for the way it encouraged historical memory and promoted local belongingness. For others, however—namely Kwon, James Meyer, and Hal Foster—its popularity alone was cause for skepticism. Put simply, what troubled these critics most was the awareness that in an era of economic and cultural globalization, the demand for anything that could draw attention to—even outright manufacture—a sense of local uniqueness was high. The class of itinerant site-specific artists that emerged in response to the proliferation of place-based exhibitions could accordingly result as much from market demand as from aesthetic purpose. It was this possibility that lead Kwon to argue that the task of “product differentiation” was the “hidden attractor” behind site specificity’s newfound popularity.
As much a political problem as it was an aesthetic one, the new alliance between concerns of art and place also brought troublesome political implications. By playing into romantic ideas like those promoted by thinkers from Heidegger to Lucy Lippard about the value of a self-enclosed and intimately experienced understanding of the local, such work risked participating in a false politicization of the local. The danger of this, David Harvey has argued, is that, “place comes into its own as a locus of some potentially un-alienated direct sensuous interaction with environs. But it does so by hiding within the fetishism of commodities and ends up fetishizing the human body, the self, and the realms of human sensation as the locus of all being in the world.” By promoting an understanding of the local as a self-contained retreat, his words suggest, artists, critics, and activists alike participate in masking the extent to which the local is not only intimately intertwined with but is itself a dialectical product of the global.
Against this critical backdrop, CLUI’s engagement with place is difficult to situate. Indeed, there are many ways in which the Center’s work resembles the kind of place-based work that so many critics have called into question. CLUI artists, for example, are often imported into “one place after another,” for a limited amount of time to create projects that address the details of the (broadly defined) local environment through a combination of photo and textual documentation, interactive digital views, and extended bus tours. And like the exhibitions that critics have questioned, the resulting works are intended to expose overlooked aspects of that environment in such a way as to enrich their audience’s understanding of place. Furthermore, as the bus tours demonstrate, these goals are accomplished as an extension of the Center’s commitment to the importance of physical presence at a site. Yet, as the discussion that follows will reveal, if the Center’s work in some ways resembles this model of place-based site-specific practice, it also complicates it in important ways. What model of place, after all, can be assumed to be presented in bus tours that cover 500-mile expanses of space in a single day? And what kind of authentic understanding of place is offered by focusing on generic sites like power plants and water reservoirs? Beyond this, how does the Center’s eagerness to contextualize its sites not only as local investigations but also in a nation-wide database fit in with this model of place-based art?
Answering these questions will require a detour through a discussion of CLUI’s indebtedness to the ideas of Robert Smithson, an artist whose relevance to the CLUI project is often discussed, but seldom fleshed out. In doing so, we will find that, in CLUI’s hands Smithson’s ideas about site, particularly as they are mediated by his interest in questions of scale, marry surprisingly well with contemporary discussions on the impact of globalization on place from the field of geography. These discussions will allow us to then consider a specific examination of a CLUI site investigation—the Center’s analysis of the location of its own exhibition hall in Wendover, Utah—as an example of how the Center’s work makes the case for the contemporary critical relevance of land and place. Approaching site in a manner consistent with geographer Doreen Massey’s call for an appreciation of place outside of “parochialism,” CLUI’s work, I argue, reinvigorates the landscape as a crucial term in discussions of the present.
The Land Art Spill-Over Effect
In October 2004 CLUI conducted a bus tour of the Salt Lake Basin. Participants met in Salt Lake City, boarded a video-equipped luxury tour bus and embarked on a lengthy two-day drive around the lake. Standing at the helm of the bus for much of the drive, Coolidge contextualized the destinations, which included the Spiral Jetty, the Bingham Pit and the Bonneville Speedway, among others, with factual information drawn from the Land Use Database. In each case he presented the information in the Center’s trademark institutional voice–a de-familiarizing model of description that drew as much attention to what was not being viewed as what was. Describing the Salt Lake as a “giant puddle at the bottom of the Great Basin” for example, Coolidge went on to characterize it as a space “on the edge of perceptibility” where “water and sky sometimes merge to create a silvery space-less perceptual chasm, a sort of hole in our sight.” Coupled with the tour’s particular fascination with sites of mineral mining and remove—sites, in other words, of more material “absence”—it was language such as this that justified the tour’s Smithson-inspired title: “A Tour of the Monuments of the Great American Void.”
In thus titling the tour, CLUI made reference both to Smithson’s 1967 essay, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey” and, also to Smithson and CLUI’s shared fascination with voids and empty, un-visitable spaces. No doubt, in part, this concern for Smithson was specific to this particular tour, which was commissioned by the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in conjunction with the 2005 Robert Smithson retrospective. But there are also ways that Smithson’s influence is present, in less directly thematic ways, throughout the CLUI project. Coolidge acknowledges this in a number of ways, explaining that the Center’s goal is “to create this sort of layer on the landscape that makes people interested in it in the same way that they are in Land art…” and going on to suggest that “Land art is—it’s the point of view—the lens of seeing we are ultimately looking through.” More directly he has suggested that the diverse and somewhat eclectic juxtaposition of sites grouped together on a tour are inspired by the experience of visiting the Spiral Jetty. Referring to the legendary landmarks—including a rusted out trailer and adjacent oil jetty—that have long served as invaluable landmarks for visitors in search of the elusive sculpture, Coolidge’s suggestion is that just about anything can achieve a level of intrigue if it is approached with the proper frame of mind. As he explains:
When you get (to the Spiral Jetty), most people, I’ve found walk the Jetty to the end and then step off it and start looking all around it at all the other stuff there…You see the wrecked trailer, the oil jetty, all this debris ends up getting this kind of beauty and significance¾its no longer just junk, its significant cultural forms. You’ve got this sort of land art spill-over effect where the whole world ends up being a little more interesting.
One reading of Coolidge’s discussion of the “land art spill-over effect,” particularly when considered relative to critical accounts of art and place, might find in this statement confirmation that CLUI’s work risks aestheticizing, even sentimentally embracing, just about anything within a given locale. It is my contention, however, that CLUI’s interest in Smithson—and its interest in the Spiral Jetty in particular—stems from a deeper philosophical connection, one related to their shared interest not only in juxtaposing easily overlooked sites, but also in incorporating into their work an awareness of the complexities of scale. Indeed, like place, scale is an interest that arises with some frequency in CLUI literature. Discussing the use of the Internet in the Center’s work, for example, Coolidge has noted the importance of a “scalable system where you can look for new relationships, juxtapositions, and contexts,” he has also referenced CLUI’s fascination with experiencing “the scale of ultra large human artifacts”  like the L.A. aqueduct in describing the bus tours, and he devotes a full chapter in the recent CLUI book to “terrestrial miniaturizations,” the maps, models and globes that allow you to “get your mind around a place…to get the edges in view.” Scale was also a topic of particular interest to Robert Smithson, particularly in his account of the Spiral Jetty and, as we will see, for both Smithson and CLUI alike, the concept depends heavily on the multiplicity of points of view each artist offers on a given site. A better understanding of the concordance between Smithson and CLUI’s respective approaches to questions of scale will accordingly help to shed light on the “theory of the present” that CLUI sets forth today.
A frequently discussed issue in the 1960s, scale was a topic of particular interest to Robert Smithson, especially as his forays out into the landscape turned from rock-gathering excursions and site investigations to the actual construction of Earthworks. Defining scale as a function of “how your consciousness focuses,” Smithson often used the idea of scale as a way of getting away from common associations of earthworks art with monumentality. To this end, he often used the example of looking at an object through both ends of a telescope to show how a mere shift in perception could throw an understanding of an object’s presumably fixed size radically into question. Picking up on this, his film of the Spiral Jetty does a great deal of work in visualizing the shifting sense of scale, fluctuating between close-up views on salt crystals, aerial views of the Jetty as a whole, and grounded views of Smithson running on the sculpture. Smithson also discussed the topic of scale in his essay on the Spiral Jetty, making explicit the significance of the concept, not only to the film, but also to the meaning of the sculpture more generally, when he wrote:
The scale of the Spiral Jetty tends to fluctuate depending on where the viewer happens to be. Size determines an object, but scale determines art. A crack in the wall if viewed in terms of scale, not size, could be called the Grand Canyon. A room could be made to take on the immensity of the solar system. Scale depends on one’s capacity to be conscious of the actualities of perception. When one refuses to release scale from size, one is left with an object or language that appears to be certain. For me scale operates by uncertainty. To be in the scale of the Spiral Jetty is to be out of it…
I will return to the significance of this last sentence— “to be in the scale of the Spiral Jetty is to be out of it” later on in my discussion. For now, however, it is useful to note that, in defining scale as a function of context, Smithson’s statement resonates with Coolidge’s account of one of the central tenets of CLUI’s methodology. Drawing on the same language of uncertainty and de-familiarization, for example, Coolidge adds something that sounds almost like a political impetus to Smithson when he describes of the Center’s work as follows:
Familiar objects, often unseen because they’re so familiar, become more interesting and become something else if you change the context in which they’re presented. It’s in that state of uncertainty that your mind is most active. That’s the space of change, and anything can happen in that space. And if we can get people un-tethered, even briefly, then things change slightly, individually, and perhaps even collectively down the road.
Read in dialogue with Smithson’s Spiral Jetty text, Coolidge’s interest here in context, uncertainty, and un-tethering reads as a question of scale, of the expanded environment an object is exposed to when, as Smithson writes, scale is released from size. Yet such an observation provokes as many questions as it answers. How, after all, is such a notion of “un-tethering” experienced in CLUI’s visits to actual everyday sites? How does CLUI replicate this experience of space compressing or expanding in their visits to physical locations like, in the case of the Center’s tour of Salt Lake City, the Bonneville Speed way and the Bingham Pit?
To begin to answer these questions it is useful to turn to a different context for thinking about scale, this time not from within art and art history but from the discipline of geography.
As a discipline, geography has undergone substantial changes since the 1970s as questions about the ideological content of spatial knowledge have risen to the forefront of its discussions. The development of the practice of human geography in the 1970s resulted in a significant shift away from thinking of geographic space as fixed and measurable in absolute terms to thinking of it as flexible according to how it actually experienced. This new emphasis made it possible to understand concepts like “distance” and “scale” much like Smithson did: as relative terms that shift radically according to who is experiencing them, and the position from which they are being experienced. Such discussions have been particularly important for geographers thinking about the effects of globalization on geographical experience.
Writing of this geographer Neil Brenner draws on Henri Lefebvre’s interest in the way capitalism creates an explosion of spaces and argues that this fracturing of space has only intensified and become more complicated in recent years. Challenging arguments that suggest that the de-territorializing effects of capital will ultimately result in the “end of geography,” Brenner argues, instead, that globalization is an intrinsically geographical concept, one that shows space itself to constantly be in the process of reconfiguration by various forces.  Explaining that this reconfiguration is one that largely takes place at the level of scale, a term that, in geography, denotes the presumed hierarchy governing relationships between terms like “local” “urban” and “regional,” he explains: “The power to reorganize geographic scales—in their role both as containers and hierarchies—has become an essential basis for the power to command and control social space as a whole.” Power, in other words, proceeds by redefining notions of proximity and distance in ways that do not necessarily correspond to traditional (Cartesian) forms of measurement. Attention to the effects of globalization on the fracturing and reconfiguring of geographic scale is therefore crucial to any contemporary study of spatial order.
Building on the scalar analysis of Brenner and others, geographer Eric Sheppard discusses the importance of scale for understanding the impact of globalization on the more intimate level of place, a term which is central to understanding CLUI’s practice today. To make his argument, Sheppard adds the term “positionality” to scale theory, bringing it down to a more micro-level to show the way scale is experienced individually, not only as a function of the economic ties between places but also of the way these ties are experienced by people with different relationships to them. Sheppard’s analysis therefore makes it possible to understand how an Internet-wired house exists on a different scale than the non-networked house next door, despite their physical proximity to one another. As he writes “The positionality of two places should be measured…not by the physical distance separating them, but by the intensity and nature of their interconnectedness.” For Sheppard, as for Brenner, this process of spatial fracturing has intensified with the impact of globalization on spatial experience.
Such arguments suggest that a reading of place in terms of geographic scale means that even the most remote of locations cannot necessarily be thought of as isolated spaces. By the same turn, the remote and the central can coincide, even shift places, depending on what scale they are operating within. If we were to graft an understanding of geographical scale back onto Smithson’s account of sculptural scale, then, we might say that geographic “certainty” to use Smithson’s term, depends on an assumption that terms like local, urban, regional, can be experienced separately in a clearly defined and fixed order. “Uncertainty,” by contrast, lies in the repressed, or “masked” realization that these seemingly separate scales are in fact completely intertwined, shifting, and co-existent—their seeming clarity a product less of fact than, as Smithson might say, of “how your consciousness focuses.”
To return to the question of how CLUI makes space compress and expand in its visits to everyday sites, then, it is useful to note one further point of correspondence between CLUI and Smithson. Indeed, just as Smithson’s depiction of the Spiral Jetty consisted not only of different viewing angles on the sculpture but also of different mediated approaches to it—whether these approaches were textual, cinematic, or photographic—CLUI, too, spreads its documentation of sites out across multiple mediums, including the in-person views of a site enabled by the bus tours, photographic documentation in their exhibitions, and interactive re-scalable Google map views offered in the Land Use Database. Often drawing on the juxtapositions and descriptions enabled by the Internet technology in the tours’ narrations, they ensure that these various approaches are each called upon to inform, enliven, and enrich the other. One of but many examples is the earlier quoted narration, in which Coolidge describes the Great Salt Lake as a “giant puddle at the bottom of the Great Basin.” Though earlier presented as a demonstration of the Center’s characteristically wry tone, we can now also see it as a statement that destabilizes our perspective and sense of scale. It suggests a zooming outward, as in an aerial view, or re-scaleable Internet map, until the giant lake is, indeed, reduced to the size of a “puddle.” By introducing this distant point of view into the minds of viewers literally on the ground, the Center betrays its indebtedness to Smithson and sheds light on the way ideas borrowed from land art function as a central part of its methodology.
Indeed, it was such a methodology of piling up various fragments and points of view that famously lead Craig Owens to argue for an “allegorical impulse” at play in Smithson’s work, one, he argued, that was motivated by Smithson’s belief that the Spiral Jetty was an object “unintelligible at close range.” It was this incomprehensibility from the ground, Owens argued, that necessitated the presence of an intervening document, or series of documents, that collectively came together to grant the viewer a more all-encompassing view. Though such an argument might be easier to take when applied to a complex sculptural object like the Spiral Jetty, for CLUI, too, I want to argue, the multi-media nature of the project is motivated by the sense that the objects, places, and sites the Center studies are also in some ways “unintelligible at close range”—incapable, as it were, of being fully comprehended from a single point of view. By lacing their on-the-ground narration of sites with allusions to perspectives accessible only from more distant vantage points, CLUI borrows Smithson’s interest in “releas(ing) scale from size” to destabilize the authority of either the local or the global. In the process it makes a powerful claim for the importance of a land-based “theory of the present.”
It is with this context in mind, then, that we can now return to the topic of CLUI’s Salt Lake tour, dwelling, in particular on how CLUI’s methodology of multiple perspectives offers a particularly suitable way of engaging the spatial complexities of the present.
Take, for example, the site the Center chose for the first branch of its American Land Museum, a seemingly isolated spot on a former military base in the small roadside town of Wendover, Utah. On one hand, Wendover, which sits directly on the Utah/Nevada border, is described in CLUI’s promotional information as a place that is “out of the way, a place where people wouldn’t want to live,” but in other contexts, Coolidge has described the town as “main street USA.” The two different, and somewhat contradictory, descriptions thus find parallels with two different ways of viewing: one from the ground—where the surrounding expanses of desert and the harsh weather conditions do indeed create a sense of isolation and remove—and the other from above, the aerial or map view, that reveals Wendover’s central location off of Interstate 80, a road which, in connecting San Francisco to New York City, might, quite appropriately, be described as “main street USA.” Such contradictory understandings of Wendover’s location are dramatized even further in CLUI’s textual analyses of its many surrounding attractions. CLUI’s land use museum, for example is housed in a former barrack of the historic Wendover airbase. Once the largest military reserve in the world, as CLUI’s research reveals, the base is now largely abandoned, but is historically significant as the site where the crew of the Enola Gay trained before flying to drop the bomb on Hiroshima. More recently, the military base is also the site where Disney filmed Conair, a historical fact evidenced by the presence of a tower that was originally constructed for the film.
Also of interest to CLUI is Wendover’s proximity to the Spiral Jetty and Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels—two sites built by artists from New York—and the reverse example of the Bingham pit, a site which, as the source of much of the Guggenheim family’s wealth, contributed to the building of the New York Guggenheim. CLUI’s Wendover facility is also close to the Thiokol Rocket Plant, which builds rockets for NASA, as well as a radioactive waste disposal facility and the Bonneville Salt Flat Raceway, a site where numerous speed records have been set. Indeed, Coolidge notes that it is but one of Wendover’s many ironies that a site of such unprecedented speed should be so proximate to the area where the Donner-Reed party once “bogged down” before its journey took its famously macabre turn. Finally, beyond these examples of Wendover’s spatial compressions and expansions, the landscape itself introduces the possibility of another moment of geographic confusion since, as CLUI literature notes, “In appearance, it resembles the Arctic: a remote place of barren rock and snow-white alkali.”
Put together, these various investigations come together to demonstrate that, far from a meaningless roadside town in the middle of nowhere, Wendover can be made to seem like a global center with connections to Japan, New York, Hollywood, outer space, even the arctic, depending on the scale in which it is presented and the point of view one takes on it.
It is here, then, where we can now fully understand the significance of the “multiple perspectives” CLUI offers. By bringing viewers to different remote sites surrounding a particular, clearly defined location, CLUI’s tours ask participants to experience the dizzying effect of spatial uncertainty as they re-contextualize their relationship to notions of region, nation, and globe from one site to the next. Though this experience is replicated, perhaps even more literally for viewers who “visit” CLUI sites in the Land Use Database, by re-creating this experience in real space—for viewers actually “on the ground”—CLUI’s tours expose these shifts in scale to not only be a function of mediation but an actual condition of the spatial organization of the contemporary world. And just as Smithson’s multiple views on the Spiral Jetty came together to complicate the authority of any single viewing angle, CLUI’s investigations of place also come together to suggest that, to paraphrase Smithson, in at least some of these registries, to be in the scale of Wendover is to be out of it.
Conclusion: The Place of Politics
Coolidge has argued that CLUI’s multiple views on a site are designed to offer a “truly new way of experiencing place.” By overlaying the Internet’s logic of interconnectedness with the bus tours’ inherent concern for matters of physical distance, CLUI, I have suggested, shows the seemingly straight-forward notion of “being there” to be a highly contested term today, one consistent with Coolidge’s claim that “we have a lot left to learn about being there and not being there.” What CLUI tours in some ways point to, then, is the unknowability of a contemporary world that, as many theorists of globalization’s paradoxes remind us, is as much the product of spatial expansion as it is spatial compression, as much about new forms of isolation as it is about unprecedented modes of proximity. Far from a retrograde or nostalgic approach to locality, CLUI’s site investigations approach the concept of place as itself a contested terrain, one whose relevance to the present is all the greater as a result.
Though CLUI’s methodology is undeniably indebted to Smithson, then, the motivations for the project are decidedly specific to the contemporary world. Indeed, as many recent theorists have observed—whether understood at the local or national registers—the highly contested nature of place in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has had a profound impact on the organization of daily existence. This is in no small part due to the intertwined presence of extra-local factors—multi-national corporations, borderless forms of virtual communication, international treaties—that influence day-to-day life not only in the dense urban areas of New York, London, and Tokyo—cities that Saskia Sassen has declared “global cities,”—but in smaller, more seemingly isolated places as well. The consequences of this at the level of everyday experience are substantial. As Frederic Jameson writes, “postmodern hyperspace—has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mapable external world.”  When understood as a form of cognitive mapping, CLUI’s engagements with place make a powerful case not only for the possibility for, but also the urgency of, a land-based “theory of the present.”
By way of conclusion, then, it is useful to think briefly about the way the problematic of locating underscores any number of politically urgent issues today. Writing about the future of the environmental movement, for example, Ursula Heise has argued that American environmentalist thinking has long been limited by its restricted commitment to place-bound models of political engagement. Rather than exchange local for global, however, Heise advocates for the value of a third position, one that re-conceives place in more complex, interconnected terms. Similarly, in an essay titled “The Sweatshop Sublime” Bruce Robbins has argued that the challenges faced by a politically conscious consumer of today’s globally produced goods—a consumer having to choose between complicity in a global system he or she disagrees with and an equally politically suspect turn to withdraw and isolationism—requires a more thorough examination of today’s complex networks of social and spatial intertwining. Interesting of these arguments is that, in both cases, the critics stop short of calls to activism to argue instead for the urgency of a more thoroughly descriptive understanding of the present.
It is with a similar mission in mind, I believe, that CLUI carries out its project today. Inspired in part by the words of Werner Heisenberg, whose uncertainty principle Coolidge admits having had a particular influence on him, CLUI’s approach to the present might be summed up using Heisenberg’s own words. He writes: “In the formulation of the causal law, namely, ‘If we know the present exactly, we can predict the future,’ it is not the conclusion, but rather the premise which is false. We cannot, as a matter of principle, know the present in all its details.” By destabilizing place-based knowledge in the present, CLUI stakes its politics on the belief that a disruption of certainty in the present is also, by extension, a disruption of the future. The result is a politics of awareness that, though thematically neutral, is far from apolitical.
Karen Rapp holds a Ph.D. in Art History from Stanford University and is currently a lecturer in art history at Santa Clara University. The submitted paper is drawn from her dissertation, “Not the Romantic West: Site-Specific Art, Globalization, and Contemporary Landscapes” which addresses a renewed interest in land among contemporary artists Andrea Zittel, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Matthew Coolidge, and Francis Alÿs.
1. The Center for Land Use Interpretation. “The Wendover Residence Program – Application,” http://www.CLUI.org/CLUI_4_1/alm/wendapp.htm.
2. The Mission Statement is reproduced in full on the Center’s website athttp://www.CLUI.org/CLUI_4_1/mission/mission.html.
3. Sarah Simons and Matthew Coolidge, Commonwealth of Technology: Extrapolations on the Contemporary Landscape of Massachusetts (Center for Land Use Interpretation, 1999), 1.
4. This language, which comes from CLUI’s mission statement, recalls Smithson’s statement, in a 1972 proposal, “The ecologist tends to see the landscape in terms of the past, while most industrialists don’t see anything at all. The artist must come out of the isolation of galleries and museums and provide a concrete consciousness of the present as it really exists, and not simply present abstractions or utopias.” Robert Smithson, “Proposal” in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1996), p. 379. I will discuss Smithson’s significance to CLUI’s work later in my paper.
5. Roberta Smith, for example, suggests an environmental reading in Roberta Smith, “Art in Review: Center for Land Use Interpretation - Formations of Erasure: Earthworks and Entropy,” The New York Times, sec. E2, May 25, 2001. More indirectly, Sarah Kanouse has argued that CLUI’s work offers a critique of the United States nuclear testing program, among others, in its attention to the human consequences of the program’s experiments. Sarah Kanouse, “Touring the Archive, Archiving the Tour: Image, Text and Experience with the Center for Land Use Interpretation,” Art Journal 64 no. 2 (Summer 2005): pp. 86. .”) Taking a different approach, Pamela M. Lee has compellingly argued that the Center’s “pseudo-collective” identity is a strategic device that allows it to evade designations of either “friend” or “enemy,” a position which, she argues, may be an urgent and necessary response to the political landscape of the Bush years. (Pamela M. Lee, “My Friend/My Enemy,” Grey Room 24 (Summer, 2006): pp. 100-109.) In a similar vein as Lee, Ralph Rugoff attributes CLUI’s “benignly subversive” approach to its embrace of “a post-protest ethic that moves beyond simple binary oppositions.” (Ralph Rugoff, “Circling the Center” in Matthew Coolidge and Sarah Simons eds. Overlook: Exploring the Internal Fringes of America with The Center for Land Use Interpretation, (New York: Metropolis Books, 2006), p. 41.
6. Ursula Biemann, “Touring, Routing and Trafficking Female Geobodies” in Ginette Verstraete and Tim Cresswell, Eds. Mobilizing Place, Placing Mobility: The Politics of Representation in a Globalized World(Amsterdam:Rodopi, 2002), p. 81.
7. Pamela M. Lee, discusses globalization as a representational challenge particularly apparent in biennial exhibitions in “Boundary Issues: The Art World Under the Sign of Globalism,” Artforum (November 2003),pp. 164-167.
8. The first quote comes from The Center for Land Use Interpretation. “CLUI Brochure” (Los Angeles: CLUI,1999), the second from Matthew Coolidge interviewed by Jeffrey Kastner, “True Beauty,” Artforum (Summer 2005), pp. 287.
9. James Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).
10. Coolidge in Kastner, 287.
11. The first quote is from Matthew Coolidge, Back to the Bay: Exploring the Margins of the San Francisco Bay Region (Center for Land Use Interpretation, 2001); the second from Sarah Simons and Matthew Coolidge, Commonwealth of Technology: Extrapolations on the Contemporary Landscape of Massachusetts (Center for Land Use Interpretation, 1999), p.1.
12. Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002).
13. As Kwon writes “Site specificity…finds new importance because it supplies distinction of place and uniqueness of locational identity, highly seductive qualities in the promotion of towns and cities within the competitive restructuring of the global economic hierarchy.” (Kwon, 55). See also See Hal Foster, The Return of the Real (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001), particularly the chapter “The Artist as Ethnographer,” and James Meyer, “The Functional Site; or, The Transformation of Site Specificity” inSpace, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art,ed. Erika Suderburg (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).
14. Kwon, 55.
15. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (New York: Blackwell, 1990), p. 304.
16. Several critics have noted a relationship to Smithson in CLUI’s work, though Smithson’s centrality to the politics of the CLUI project is rarely discussed. See Michael Ned Holte “The Administrative Sublime or The Center for Land Use Interpretation at the Circumference,” Afterall 13 (Spring-Summer, 2006), pp. 20 and Cornelia Butler “A Lurid Presence: Smithson’s Legacy in Post-Studio Art” in Robert Smithson, ed. Eugenie Tsai and Cornelia Butler (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), p. 236-238.
17. Doreen Massey, “Landscape as Provocation: Reflections on Moving Mountains,” Journal of Material Culture 11:1/2 (2006), p. 34
18. It is important to note here that the idea of leading a tour of the Spiral Jetty cannot help but seem antithetical to Smithson’s intent. As Andrew Uroskie has suggested, contemporary tourism to the Spiral Jetty seems particularly problematic given the extensive lengths Smithson himself went to in his documentation of the project to prevent it from “coher(ing) into a single time and place.” See Andrew V. Uroskie, “La Jetée en Spirale: Robert Smithson’s Stratigrahic Cinema,” Grey Room 19 (Spring 2005), pp. 55. I will go on to argue, however, that CLUI in fact is borrowing this model deliberately to offer a representation of place that similarly resists any logic of spatial coherence.
19. These descriptions are drawn from CLUI’s write-up of the tour in its newsletter. “Tour of the Monuments of the Great American Void: A Bus-Centered Circumnavigation of the Great Salt Lake/Day 1” The Lay of the Land (Spring 2005) accessible at < http://www.CLUI.org/lotl/v28/f1.html>
20. Matthew Coolidge, Interview with the Author, December 22, 2005.
21. Matthew Coolidge, Interview with the author, December 22, 2005. Though Smithson himself noted the presence of the oil jetty and other surrounding landmarks in his essay on the Spiral Jetty, few scholars have paid attention to the significance of the site itself in Smithson’s conception of the project. The exception is Jennifer Roberts, in her book Mirror-Travels: Robert Smithson and History, who is unique in offering a reading of the Spiral Jetty that contextualizes it within the history and culture of the surrounding environment. See Jennifer L. Roberts, Mirror-Travels: Robert Smithson and History (New Haven: Yale, 2004).
22. Coolidge in Kastner, 287.
23. Kazys Varnelis, “Introduction,” Points of Interest in The Owens River Valley(Center for Land Use Interpretation, July, 2004
24. Matthew Coolidge and Sarah Simons, Overlook: Exploring the Internal Fringes of America with The Center for Land Use Interpretation(New York: Metropolis Books, 2006), p. 68.
25. Smithson, “Four Conversations Between Dennis Wheeler and Robert Smithson” (1969-70) in Flam, 211.
26. Smithson, in Flam, 147.
27. Coolidge in Kastner, 287.
28. “The end of geography” is Paul Virilio’s term. See Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb (London; New York: Verso, 2000).
29. Neil Brenner, “The Urban Question as a Scale Question: Reflections on Lefebvre, Urban Theory and the Politics of Scale,”International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 24:2 (2000), pp. 374.
30. Eric Sheppard, “The Spaces and Times of Globalization: Place, Scale, Networks and Positionality,” Economic Geography78:3 (July 2002), pp. 324.
31. Craig Owens, “Earthwords” in Beyond Recognition, ed. Bryson, Kruger, Tillman and Weinstock (Berkeley: University of California, 1992), pp. 47.
32. CLUI homepage <http://www.CLUI.org>
33. Matthew Coolidge and Sarah Simons, Overlook: Exploring the Internal Fringes of America with The Center for Land Use Interpretation(New York: Metropolis Books, 2006).
34. The Center for Land Use Interpretation. “The Wendover Residence Program_Application” available online at <http://www.CLUI.org/CLUI_4_1/alm/wendapp.htm>
35. Coolidge in Kastner, 287.
36. Two of the relevant texts are Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990) and David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (New York: Blackwell, 1990).
37. Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).
38. Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism: Or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), p. 44.
39. Ursula Heise, Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global (New York: Oxford, 2008).
40. Bruce Robbins, “The Sweatshop Sublime,” PMLA 117 no. 1 (Jan 2002), pp. 84-97.
41. Heisenberg quoted in Eisberg and Resnick, Quantum Physics of Atoms, Molecules, Solids, Nuclei, and Particles, 2nd Ed. (New York: Wiley, 1985), p. 79.
• 11 June 2013 • 2 notes • View comments
Breaking Barriers to Effective Spatial Communication in Museums
Hosted by Ryerson University.
With the theme “Discursive Space: breaking barriers to effective spatial communication in museums”, the conference provides a forum for deliberation concerning the integration of art, design, and architecture in the creation of memorable and immersive museum experiences, while balancing the public’s expectations of self-directed expression and engagement.
Today’s society is continuously challenged to break down barriers; barriers that stand to separate individuals and ideas. Art and design in their truest forms are created to fracture barriers and initiate dialogue with individuals, internally and socially. How does one make an emotional connection, effect communication, and immersively engage a museum audience with an experience when there are these barriers to be overcome? The issue of how cultural institutions can reconnect with the public and demonstrate their value and relevance in contemporary life has been at the forefront of discussions between scholars, designers and professionals in recent times. In order for the conference to have relevance within the museum community, it has to have relevance for those who work in or study museums, but also to those who visit museums; to those who design museums; and those who see museums as an educational resource.
• 11 June 2013 • 1 note • View comments
Research on Place and Space
Bruce B. Janz
Site Concept & Purpose
These pages pull together work on the concept of place from a wide range of disciplines. The term “place” does not necessarily have the same implications or meanings in the different disciplines. Furthermore, other terms are sometimes used in place of place, such as home, dwelling, milieu, territory, and of course, space. None of these, though, are necessarily equivalent to the notion of place.
The purpose of this set of resources is to try to cross-pollinate the notion of place across disciplines. Philosophy, for example (my own discipline), has much to learn from the way that other disciplines conceive of place, even as those disciplines have drawn on the resources of philosophy in order to reflect on place.
There is no real attempt at a definition here, except perhaps by extension.
Contents and Organization
As can be seen, this set of resources begins from the concept of place, rather than space. I have added some space resources as they seem significant, and will continue to do so, but that may take awhile.
There are several types of resources here. First, I have tried to organize place resources in terms of disciplinary homes or origins. It is very difficult to categorize many of the entries in this resource. Something I have placed in the anthropology section, for instance, may just as well fit in any number of other categories. So, check several sections. If you think something is miscategorized, let me know.
In a few cases I have listed entries on more than one page; this is to facilitate browsing. I try to keep this to a minimum. I do not have a “single category” bibliography, which includes all the entries, so it is not (yet) possible to scan one document for what you want.
A second type of resource is what I have called “related terms”. Place is manifest and discussed in a variety of ways, and stands in contrast to many different terms. I have tried to capture the major ideas connected to place.
A third type of resource is synoptic. On the various pages I have listed things like bibliographies, centres, courses, and so forth. All these resources are collected in one place, under “All…”
There may come a time when this site is turned into a database, but I’m resisting that, as I think it is more useful to browse and discover new work, than simply to look for a specific work or do a keyword search.
If you want to search this site, there is an advanced search engine to the right, or use the basic search box on the top of any sub-page.
The Site as a Portal
Each of the disciplinary sections includes a bibliography. A bibliography such as this can never hope to be completely comprehensive, given the burgeoning literature and the vagueness of the edges of the area; nevertheless, this is prepared in an attempt to collect as many central writings as possible.
Other relevant entries, including on-line papers, are included in the subject areas of this site. Some of these papers are in .pdf format, which requires Adobe Acrobat Reader. You can download the Reader here: There are also abstracts for some of the papers. When you see this icon click on it to see the abstract. As well, in some cases annotations are available for the paper. If you see this button you will be taken to the annotations when you click on it.
As often as possible I have made links to publishers, for further descriptions of books or journals. If these are unavailable, my second choice is a link to Amazon or another bookseller. If you are an author and want to direct me to a good site that promotes your book, I’d be happy to link to it.
Contributing to the Site
If you are the professor or teacher of a course on place, or a student in a course on place, or anyone else who would like to contribute content to this research page, please click here.
This site has not been substantially updated since May 2006. Consequently, many links are no longer valid, and other resources have not been added. I will leave the site in place since it continues to be useful, even in its flawed state. I will also try to find the resources (support, time) to update it, but given current responsibilities, that may take awhile. Thanks for your patience.
Page Location: http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~janzb/place/
• 22 May 2013 • View comments
THE INTERNET AS PLAYGROUND AND FACTORY
Today we are arguably in the midst of massive transformations in economy, labor, and life related to digital media. The purpose of this conference is to interrogate these dramatic shifts restructuring leisure, consumption, and production since the mid-century. In the 1950s television began to establish commonalities between suburbanites across the United States. Currently, communities that were previously sustained through national newspapers now started to bond over sitcoms. Increasingly people are leaving behind televisions sets in favor of communing with — and through— their computers. They blog, comment, procrastinate, refer, network, tease, tag, detag, remix, and upload and from all of this attention and all of their labor, corporations expropriate value. Guests in the virtual world Second Life even co-create the products and experiences, which they then consume. What is the nature of this interactive ‘labor’ and the new forms of digital sociality that it brings into being? What are we doing to ourselves?
The participants in the conference submitted this list of suggested readings in the context of digital labor.
Adorno, Theodore. “Free Time.” The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. Ed. J. M. Bernstein. London: Routledge, 1991. 187-97.
Andrejevic, Mark. “Watching Television Without Pity.” Television & New Media 9.1 (2008): 24-46.
Aneesh, A. Virtual Migration: The Programming of Globalization, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006.
Arendt, Hannah, Responsibility and Judgement, ed and intro Jerome Kohn, New York: Schocken, 2003.
Anzaldua, Gloria E., “(Un)natural bridges, (Un)safe spaces.” In This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation, editor’s preface, 1-5. Gloria E. Anzaldua and Analouise Keating, eds. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.
Arvidsson, Adam. “Ethical Economy - Book.” Ethical Economy. Web. 07 Sept. 2009. http://ethicaleconomy.com.
Clark, Jessica, and Nina Keim. Public Media 2.0 Field Report: Building Social Media Infrastructure to Engage Publics. Rep. Center for Social Media (American University), 2009.
Baran, Paul and Sweezy, Paul. Labor and Monopoly Capital. New Left Review, 1966.
Barbrook, Richard. Imaginary Futures From Thinking Machines to the Global Village. New York: Pluto, 2007.
Barbrook, Richard. The Class of the New. London: Openmute.org, 2006.
Bauwens, Michel. “Michel Bauwens - The social web and its social contracts: Some notes on social antagonism in netarchical capitalism.” Re-Public (2008). Re-Public Re-Imagining Democracy. Jan. 2008. Web. 7 Sept. 2009. .
Bauwens, Michel. Passionate Production and the Happiness Surplus. International Conference. On “Happiness and Public Policy”. United Nations Conference Center (UNCC) Bangkok, Thailand. 18-19 July 2007. Retrieved from http://ppdoconference.org/session_papers/session14/session14_michel.pdf ; (draft version at http://gnh-movement.org/papers/bauwens.pdf )
Beck, John C., and Mitchell Wade. Got Game. How the Gamer Generation Is Reshaping Business Forever. New York: Harvard Business School, 2004.
Beller, Jonathan. The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle (Interfaces: Studies in Visual Culture). New York: Dartmouth College, 2006.
Beniger, James. The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986.
Benkler, Yochai. The Wealth of Networks How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New York: Yale UP, 2007.
Boczkowski, Pablo. Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004.
Butt, Danny. “Local Knowledge: Place and New Media Practice”, Leonardo, vol 39, no. 4 (2006), 323-326.
Castells, Manuel. Communication Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Clark, Gregory. “Tax and Spend, or Face The Consequences.” The Washington Post. 09 Aug. 2009. Web. 7 Sept. 2009.
Clough, Patricia T. and Goldberg, Greg and Schiff, Rachel; Weeks and Aaron and Willse, Craig. “Notes Toward a Theory of Affect-Itself,” Ephemera, 2007.
Coleman, E. Gabriella,Three Ethical Moments in Debian (September 15, 2005). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=805287
Crary, Jonathan. Suspensions of Perception Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (October Books). New York: The MIT, 2001.
Crawford, Matthew. Shop Class as Soul Craft. New York: Penguin Press, 2009.
Crawford, Matthew. “The Case for Working With Your Hands.” The New York Times. 21 May 2009. Web. 7 Sept. 2009. .
Cvejic, Bojana, ‘What Do We Mean When We Say that We Are Transforming Practice into Production of Space?” in Walking Theory, contribution to Documenta 12 Magazine Project (2007)
De Angelis, M. (2002). Marx and primitive accumulation: The continuous character of capital’s “enclosures.” The Commoner, 2 September.
"User-Generated Platforms," in Working Within the Boundaries of Intellectual Property. (Rochelle Dreyfuss, Diane L. Zimmerman, and Harry First, Editors) (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2009).
Dibbell, Julian. Play Money Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot. New York: Basic Books, 2007.
Drew, Jesse From the Gulf War to the Battle of Seattle: Building an international alternative media network. In At A Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet . Edited by N. Neumark and A. Chandler. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005.
Dyer-Witheford, Nick. Cyber-Marx. Cycles and circuits of struggle in high-technology capitalism. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Elkin-Koren, Niva. Governing Access to User-Generated-Content: The Changing Nature of Private Ordering in Digital Networks, in GOVERNANCE, REGULATIONS AND POWERS ON THE INTERNET (E. Brousseau, M. Marzouki, C. Méadel eds.) (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2009).
Elkin-Koren, Niva. Exploring Creative Commons: a Skeptical View of a Worthy Pursuit in The Future of the Public Domain (P. Bernt Hugenholtz & Lucie Guibault, eds., Kluwer Law International, 2006).
Fairfield, Joshua,Virtual Property. Boston University Law Review, Vol. 85, page 1047, 2005; Indiana Legal Studies Research Paper No. 35. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=807966
Fortunati, Leopoldina. “Immaterial Labor and its Machinization” Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization 7(1): 139-157 (2007).
Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics. Lectures at the College de France 1978-1979 Palgrave MacMillan, 2008. (esp. chapter 9 and 10)
Froomkin, A. Michael, ‘Habermas@Discourse.net: Toward a Critical Theory of Cyberspace’ in Harvard Law Review, Volume 116, January 2003. 751-873.
Fuchs, Christian. Internet and Society: Social Theory in the Information Age. New York: Routledge, 2008.
Fuchs, Christian. Information and Communication Technologies & Society: A Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy of the Internet. European Journal of Communication 24 (1), 2009, 69-87.
Fuchs, Christian. A Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy of Transnational Informational Capitalism. Rethinking Marxism 21 (3), 2009. 387-402.
Fuchs, Christian. Some Theoretical Foundations of Critical Media Studies: Reflections on Karl Marx and the Media. International Journal of Communication 3 (2009), 2009. 369-402.
Fuchs, Christian. 2009. Social Networking Sites and the Surveillance Society. A Critical Case Study of the Usage of studiVZ, Facebook, and MySpace by Students in Salzburg in the Context of Electronic Surveillance. Salzburg/Vienna: Research Group UTI. ISBN 978-3-200-01428-2. ICT&S Center Research Report.
Galloway, Alexander R. “Language Wants to Be Overlooked: On Software and Ideology.” Journal of Visual Culture.” 5:315 (2006)
Galloway, Alexander. “We Are All Goldfarmers.” Culture and Communication (2007). http://cultureandcommunication.org/galloway/interview_barcelona_sept07.txt. Web. 7 Sept. 2009.
The Attention Economy and the Net by Michael H. Goldhaber First Monday, Volume 2, Number 4 - 7 April 1997 http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/519/440
Gregg, Melissa. 2009 “Learning to (Love) Labour: Production cultures and the affective turn” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 6 (2): 209-214
Gregg, Melissa. “Banal Bohemia: Blogging from the Ivory Tower Hot-desk” Convergence 15(4) 2009
Mills, C. Wright. The Power Elite. Oxford UP, 1956.
Golumbia, David. The Cultural Logic of Computation, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009. (esp. chapters 6 and 7)
Goodman, Ellen P. Public Service Media 2.0 (2008).
Grimmelmann, James. The Ethical Visions of Copyright Law.
Halavais, Alex. Search Engine Society. Polite. 2009.
Hall, Steve. Winlow, Simon . Ancrum, Craig. Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture: Crime, Exclusion and the New Culture of Narcissism.
Holmstrom, N (1997). Exploitation, in Exploitation: Key Concepts in Critical Theory eds. Kai Nielsen & Robert Ware. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International, pp. 81-102.
Holmes, Brian “Future Map”
Huws, Ursula. (2003), Material World: The Myth of the Weightless Economy, pp. 126-151 in The Making of a Cybertariat: Virtual Work in a Real World (NY: Monthly Review Press).
Interactivity is Evil! A critical investigation of Web 2.0 by Kylie Jarrett First Monday, Volume 13, Number 3 - 3 March 2008
Kane, Pat. Play Ethic A Manifesto for a Different Way of Living. London: Papermac, 2005.
Lazzarato, M. (1996). Immaterial Labor. In P. Virno & M. Hardt (Eds.), Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (pp. 133–50). University of Minnesota Press.
Lazzarato, Maurizio (1997). “Immaterial Labor”
Maurizio Lazzarato, ‘The Political Form of Coordination’, transversal (2004), http://eipcp.net/transversal/0707/lazzarato/en
Lefebvre, Henri, and Michel Trebitsch. Critique of Everyday Life, Volume II. New York: Verso, 2002.
Lessig, Lawrence. Remix. New York: Penguin Press, 2009.
Liu, Alan. The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Malaby, Thomas. Making Virtual Worlds. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009.
Marazzi, Christian. Capital and Language: From the New Economy to the War Economy. New York: Semiotext(e), 2008.
McPhee, Christina. “Bare life as editorial subject: on ‘bare life’ in the network –empyre- soft-skinned space.” DOCUMENTA MAGAZINE. 08 Sept. 2009 .
Mezzadra, S., & Neilson, B. Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor. EIPCP Multilingual Webjournal
Neilson, Brett; Rossiter, Ned. ‘From Precarity to Precariousness and Back Again: Labour, Life and Unstable Networks’, Fibreculture Journal 5 (2005),
Mitchell, Robert; Waldby, Catherine. “National Biobanks Clinical Labor, Risk Production, and the Creation of Biovalue” (Science, Technology, & Human Values, forthcoming)
Nakamura, Lisa, “Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game,” CSMC, 2009.
Neff, Gina, John, Amman, Tris Carpenter. eds. Surviving the New Economy. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2007.
Negri, Antonio; Cascarino, Cesare. In Praise of the Common. Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Nieborg, D. (2005). Am I Mod or Not? - An Analysis of First Person Shooter Modification Culture. Paper presented at the Creative Gamers Seminar, University of Tampere, Finland.
Kücklich, Julian : Precarious Playbour: Modders and the Digital Games Industry.
Loser Generated Content: From Participation to Exploitation by Søren Mørk Petersen
First Monday, Volume 13, Number 3 - 3 March 2008
Postigo, Hector. “America Online Volunteers: Lessons from an Early Co-production Community,” International Journal of Critical Studies.
Postigo, H. (2003b). From Pong to Planet Quake: Post-Industrial Transitions from Leisure to Work. Information, Communication & Society, 6(4), 593–607.
Rettberg, Scott. “Corporate Ideology in World of Warcraft.” In Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader. MIT Press, 2009.
Rodenbeck, Judith. “Creative Acts of Consumption,” commissioned essay for The “Do-it-yourself
Artwork”: Spectator Participation in Contemporary Art, ed. Anna Dezeuze, Jessica Morgan, Catherine Wood (Manchester: Manchester University Press, forthcoming 2010).
Rogers, K. “Capital Implications: The Function of Labor in the Video of Juan Devis and Yoshua Okón.” In: Social Identities. 15, no. 3. (May 2009).
Ned Rossiter, Organized Networks: Media Theory, Creative Labour, New Institutions. Rotterdam: NAi Publications, 2006.
Rushkoff, Douglas. Life Inc. New York: Random House, 2009.
Marie Evans Schmidt and Elizabeth A. Vandewater. Media and Attention, Cognition, and School Achievement Source: The Future of Children, Vol. 18, No. 1, Children and Electronic Media (Spring, 2008).
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• 22 May 2013 • View comments
State of the Commons
CRITIQUE: JOSH WALLAERT
In March 1936, The Chronicle in Hampton, Iowa, published this announcement by the American Farm Bureau:
Are you interested in getting a high line by your farm to enable you to have electricity on your farm? The federal government has made arrangements to finance this program for all interested farmers. To secure this aid we must have enough farmers in the county who are interested to make the construction of the line practical and to organize a cooperative to carry on the work. In order to get some idea of the amount of interest in this project we would like to have each farmer who would like to see this work started send us a card telling us the location of his farm and if possible the names of any neighbors who are interested. As soon the weather and roads permit we will have a series of meetings at which time we will have a representative of the federal government present to discuss the program with you. 
One year after that meeting, the Reeve Electric Association became the first farmer-owned cooperative to receive a loan for the purchase and distribution of electric power from the Rural Electrification Administration, a centerpiece of Franklin Roosevelt’s first term. In four years, the number of electrified farms in the United States more than doubled, from 789,000 in 1936 to 1.7 million in 1940. 
To my knowledge, this is the only online photo of the Reeve Plant that is freely available to publish. It was uploaded to Wikipedia in September by Ann Sullivan-Larson, a graphic designer at a print shop in Iowa, and tagged with a creative commons license that allows others to share and remix the image. Although the plant was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990, the National Park Service has yet to digitize its photographs of the building.
Sullivan-Larson’s photo was entered in the Wiki Loves Monuments USA contest held this fall by the Wikimedia Foundation, which received more than 22,000 photos of registered historic places in the United States. Many people submitted photos of popular monuments like the Jefferson Memorial. But many others documented obscure buildings and landscapes that would otherwise remain unseen. All of the images were released to the public domain or licensed to the creative commons, and many are now used to illustrate articles on Wikipedia. In this slideshow, we present a selection of the best.
While it’s inspiring to see the coordinated release of thousands of photographs of historic places, it’s a shame the contest was restricted to the narrow range of sites that tend to make the NRHP list (colonial mansions, lighthouses, military forts). More generally, the photo contest highlights a crucial problem facing public discourse and scholarship in the United States. Our visual culture, and indeed our public policy, depends on the wide circulation of images that support ideas. And yet most online publications cannot afford the fees charged by wire services and many professional photographers. Like our colleagues at The Atlantic Cities, Next American City, Grist, et al, and like Wikipedia itself, Places relies heavily on images in the creative commons or public domain. 
For most of the last decade, the greatest repository of freely available images has been Flickr, a privately-owned public space that hosts more than 240 million creative commons images, dwarfing the 14 million items in the Prints & Photographs Division of the U.S. Library of Congress. Pick any Wikipedia article at random; if it has an image, there’s a good chance it comes from Flickr.
But Flickr has become a ghost town in recent years, conservatively managed by its corporate parent Yahoo, which has ceded ground to photo-sharing alternatives like Facebook (and its subsidiary Instagram), Google Plus (and Picasa and Panoramio), and Twitter services (TwitPic and Yfrog).  An increasing share of the Internet’s visual resources are now locked away in private cabinets, untagged and unsearchable, shared with a public no wider than the photographer’s personal sphere. Google’s Picasa and Panoramio support creative commons licenses, but finding the settings is not easy. And Facebook, the most social place to share photos, is the least public. Hundreds of millions of people who have photographed culturally significant events, people, buildings and landscapes, and who would happily give their work to the commons if they were prompted, are locked into sites that don’t even provide the option. The Internet (and the mobile appverse) is becoming a chain of walled gardens that trap even the most civic-minded person behind the hedges, with no view of the outside world.
Canton Public Library, 1903, Canton, Ohio; entry in the Wiki Loves Monuments USA contest. [Photo by Bgottsab]
Today it’s hard to imagine coordinated public action on the scale of Roosevelt’s New Deal. The president we re-elected this week — certainly the most socially and economically progressive in my lifetime — has repeatedly missed opportunities to expand public programs and services. Meanwhile, the nonprofit Farm Bureau, which published that 1936 announcement, piddles around fighting enforcement of the Clean Water Act, lobbying for lower capital gains taxes, and challenging the scientific consensus on global climate change, instead of promoting socially responsible farming practices and rural cooperative structures. 
For better and worse, public-making in the early 21st-century has been consigned to private actors: to activists, urban interventionists, community organizations and — here’s the really strange thing — online corporations. The body politic has retreated to nominally public spaces controlled by Google, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, which now constitute a vital but imperfect substitute for the town square. Jonathan Massey and Brett Snyder draw an analogy between these online spaces and the privately-owned public space of Zuccotti Park, the nerve center for Occupy Wall Street, and indeed online tools have been used effectively to support direct actions and participatory democracies around the world. Still, the closest most Americans get to the messy social activity of cooperative farm planning is the exchange of digital carrots in Farmville.
Imagine a Roosevelt Administration in 2012 making massive investments in public information (words, images, data) as a form of infrastructure. What more would Roosevelt do with Data.gov? Imagine Open Street Map supported jointly by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey. Imagine the Federal Writers Project dedicated to expanding stub articles on Wikipedia. Imagine the photographers of the Farm Security Administration — Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Marion Post Wolcott — uploading their work directly to Wikimedia Commons. Many federal agencies do in fact have Flickr profiles where they release images into the public domain; Flickr has even created a special license (“United States Government Work”) for the White House photostream.  But imagine the federal government financially supporting a socially-networked photo-sharing site as it does the Library of Congress and giving it the resources to survive Facebook’s walled-garden challenge. It’s easy to marvel at the powerful new tools the Internet has given us. But let’s not forget how much better, how much more public they could be.
The Chronicle, Hampton, Iowa (March 12, 1936), 12
Robert T. Beall, “Rural Electrification,” Yearbook of Agriculture (1940), 802.
Coincidentally, Places has published photos by members of the Wiki Loves Monuments USA jury. Just last month, the journal published a photo of Camden Yards Stadium by Carol Highsmith, who has donated her work to the Library of Congress since 1992. David Shankbone’s photos have appeared in eight articles. And the Prelinger Archives, founded by a third judge, Rick Prelinger, has been an invaluable resource.
That could change. Yahoo’s new chief, Marissa Mayer, is said to be enthusiastic about reviving Flickr, and she recently installed a former National Geographic photographer to oversee its development. See Michael Zhang, “Flickr’s New Head Used to Be a National Geographic Wildlife Photographer,” Petapixel, November 7, 2012.
Allison Winter, “Farm Bureau Fires Back Against Climate Bill’s ‘Power Grab’,” January 11, 2010, The New York Times. See also the Farm Bureau’s stated legislative priorities.
On the other hand, the 10,000 photos uploaded to Flickr by the National Register of Historic Places are tagged “all rights reserved.”
• 20 May 2013 • View comments