What the Hell Is Wrong With You, Delicious?!

What gives, Delicious!? Your juvenile redesign has rendered you pretty much useless as a research tool. I can see only about one tenth of my tags. And when I’m saving new links and adding tags, there’s no auto-complete — so now I have to remember what my list of 300+ tags contains…which I can’t do, since only 30 or so of them are visible. You tell me my comments can’t exceed 1000 characters, yet you give me no character count — so I have no idea how far over the limit I am and how much I have to cut! I can’t update URLs on previously saved links. I can’t search for multiple tags simultaneously (which is essential for research!).

On the other hand, I now have a cute “Keyboard Cat” avatar — and I seem to be stuck with it.

Dammit, Delicious, you jerk. How could you do this to me? I even wrote a nice article about you!

I’ll give you a few days to fix these mistakes before I bail. No offense, Keyboard Cat. I realize you had nothing to do with this.



Microscopes, Woodworms, Overhead Projectors, the Stasi Archive, and Ein Perfektes Paar

I managed to squeeze all of the following into a two-hour between-meeting window last Friday afternoon. I don’t recommend breezing through as I did; but when two hours is all you got, you make the most of it!

And Another Thing @ the James Gallery, CUNY Grad Center

“A paradigm shift away from subject-object relations towards the consideration of humans as no more or less important than any other object is taking place. So posits “And Another Thing,” the James Gallery exhibition that takes its inspiration from the philosophy of speculative realism and object-oriented ontology. Here objects are given their own place. As opposed to deriving their meaning from a proximity to humans, this exhibition presents them as specific, self-contained and non-reducible.”

My favorite pieces involved sound and movement:

via cleopatra’s:

Ruslan Trusewych’s this is the way the world is: oscillating fans aimed at a cluster of nightlights. Had I been permitted to take photos, I would’ve shot the ceiling, where the lights’ electrical cords heap upon one another in a seemingly desperate attempt to reach the power supply.

via CUNY Center for the Humanities:

Zimoun’s 25 woodworms, wood, microphone, sound system: the auditory index of internal processes we can’t see — invisible worms consuming wood.

via ArtDaily:

Tom Kotik’s Rational Impulse: two nested sound-proofed boxes encasing — and silencing — a blaring stereo; lifting the lid releases the cacophony.

What Matters Now? Proposals for a New Front Page @ Aperture Foundation

Via Aperture:

There is no longer a “front page” to act as a societal filter through which, we can learn about important events and trends. Even the role that the physical café once played in our communities—the place we went to discuss and digest what’s going on around us — has become fragmented across a myriad of virtual spaces. Where should we turn for our information? How can we function as a society with so few common reference points? How can we intelligently sort through all the images and information available to us?….

The exhibition What Matters Now? Proposals for a New Front Page will combine the crowd sourcing of images and ideas with the curatorial engagement of six experienced individuals, each hosting a table and a conversation within the space, where on corresponding walls each group will present its proposals for the contents of a ‘New Front Page’. Hosts include a variety of visual image specialists: Wafaa Bilal, Melissa Harris, Stephen Mayes, Joel Meyerowitz, Fred Ritchin (who conceptualized this project) and Deborah Willis. As the exhibition opens, each of the hosts will have a designated space, but the walls will be empty. Progressively throughout the first two weeks of the “exhibition,” the walls will be filled in whatever manner each table decides.

Tris Vonna-Michell @ Metro Pictures

I saw Vonna-Michell a the X-Initiative two years ago and loved his work. The new show continues to investigate materialities of memory. Via Metro Pictures:

…Tris Vonna-Michell exhibits a new sound edit combining hahn/huhn (2003-ongoing) and Leipzig Calendar Works (2005-ongoing), which recalls the peaceful 1989 demonstration of East German citizens at the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi, district headquarters in Leipzig. Merging this with descriptions of a feverish initiative to destroy incriminating documents before citizens stormed the agency’s Berlin headquarters, Vonna-Michell’s chronicle becomes a patchwork account of the months leading up to German reunification. Here, signals and pulses, repetition and overlay are edited in the recording to correspond to the slide sequences he displays on anachronistic projectors. As Vonna-Michell seems to earnestly meander through his monologue he alludes to the crafted structure of the very story he is telling, and suddenly the credibility of the words he speaks and the images he presents are cast into fiction. Vonna-Michell develops his narratives over extended periods of time, altering and adding to them to make each of their iterations unique.

via Metro Pictures
via me

Jennie C. Jones’s Absorb/Diffuse @ The Kitchen

Via The Kitchen:

Jennie C. Jones re-contextualizes the material output of sound recording in order to explore how we listen and how sound operates physically and metaphorically.  This new show centers on a sound score in three movements, titled From the Low, which is a digital “re-composition” from appropriated samples that operate in the psychological and emotional territory of ‘dark notes’, ‘deep chords’, and low frequency. Accompanying this sound score is a new series of “Acoustic Paintings” made with soundproofing materials (also known as absorbers and diffusers) typically used in audio engineering and studio recording. In transforming the resources and products connected to both the industry and act of listening, Jones’s work layers the formal languages of Modernism — abstraction and minimalism — over the conceptual and technical strategies of avant-garde jazz to extend and complicate these parallel legacies of experimentation.


Magnetic [Media] Fields

Uni @ New Amsterdam Market, 9/11/11

On September 11 I took a long walk along the East River to the New Amsterdam Market, near South Street Seaport, to experience the New York debut of Uni, the “portable reading room” developed by Leslie and Sam Davol (of Magnetic Fields fame), funded in large part via Kickstarter, and designed by Höweler + Yoon Architecture. According to the project’s website:

The Uni Project aims to do one thing and do it well: temporarily transform almost any available urban space into a public reading room and venue for learning. We start with the conviction that books and learning should be prominent, accessible, and part of what we expect at street-level in our cities.

To accomplish this, the Uni Project is creating a new kind of portable institution called the Uni, which we will install and operate in parks, plazas, farmers’ markets, and other available outdoor spaces in New York City beginning Fall 2011. The purpose of the Uni is to share books, showcase the act of learning, and improve public space. It is intended to be a new resource for the city, providing residents with a place to gather and contribute to their own well-being and advancement, as well as that of their neighborhood and city.

The collection, comprised of donated materials, is organized into topical “mini-collections” (focusing mainly on poetry, short stories, essays, art, children’s books, and reference) that have to fit within the structure’s 16″ cubes. I kind of like the intentional “design determinism” here; the spatial structure imposes an editorial mandate. In addition, individuals and groups are invited to “curate” modules on special topics. The New Amsterdam Market installation featured modules by 826NYC, New York Bound Books, and Furnace Press.

A few cubes are dedicated to interactive exhibits or activities, thus representing the integration of reading and making, thinking and doing. The Drawing Lab cube provided materials to make a zoetrope, while another offered inspiration and tools for patrons to write their own “flash fiction” — “snapshot” short stories. The Uni also aims to partner with other cultural and educational institutions (they collaborated with the Brooklyn Public Library during the Brooklyn Book Festival last weekend) to develop a “full schedule of public readings, talks, classes, afterschool programs, workshops, and screenings.”

I love how this project has the potential to put learning front and center in public space. As its creators explain, “What we see at street level in many urban neighborhoods does not reflect our aspirations for ourselves and our society. If we’re serious about having a well-educated society, let’s build cities where learning experiences are prominent, accessible, and enjoyable.” Through its innovative design Uni calls attention to itself, and it makes explicit the anomalousness of its program in the midst of highly commercialized, highly distracting environments. I’ve always thought public libraries served a similar function: they might not be in the streets in the same way that the Uni is, but at least the public library’s presence along the street — in buildings that are often among its cities’ grandest — demonstrates the tremendous value a community places in learning. The day our libraries disappear from the urban fabric is the day our cities lose their souls.

I’m convinced by the Uni creators’ explanation of the need for this project: its ability to make learning “prominent, accessible, and enjoyable”; its ability to provide opportunities for unique, spontaneous street-level experiences; its ability to serve as a partner to large institutions, allowing them to provide programming, often on a smaller, more accessible scale, outside their walls. Uni also has the potential to reconnect us with the book. According to Uni’s website: “Many urban residents, especially children, do not have easy access to books and places to read outside of school. Book stores are closing. Public libraries in many cities are struggling.”

That last sentence is the only thing that gives me pause about this project. What is Uni’s relationship to the public library? Is it an alternative, a competitor, a partner,…? There have been a whole host of on-the-street “guerilla library,” micro-library, and distributed library efforts (e.g., the Corner Libraries, Ourshelves, the Underground Library, this thing, etc.) over the past few years. How do they regard their relationship to their bigger, more place-bound institutional siblings?

A recent Wall Street Journal article quotes Queens librarian Lauren Comito, who regards these niche libraries as “perpetuat[ing] the myth that libraries are ‘a bunch of books on a shelf’ and that anyone could be a librarian, you just have to like to read.” She continues:

“At least one of these ‘DIY’ libraries is a doghouse full of books… Well, if people confuse [public libraries] with being just a bigger version of a doghouse full of books, then yes, they could weaken our finances by cheapening our value from a profession to a hobby.”

While I think these portable/distributed/guerilla/niche/alternative/atomized library projects are charming and exciting, and they have the potential to play really vital civic and cultural and educational roles, we can’t come to think that these ad hoc projects — however organized or systematized they might become — could serve as a replacement for our “struggling public libraries.” That big, lumbering institution, fallible though it is, serves critical custodial and infrastructural and civic functions that none of these pop-ups ever could. Could a pop-up manage an archive of thousand of linear feet of archival documents? Could it maintain an insanely complex technological infrastructure and subscriptions to thousands of online databases? Could it provide a physical space where the homeless, the latchkey kids, and the otherwise disenfranchised can come in from the cold on blustery days? No — we still need the public library proper to play these roles.

I’m not saying that these on-the-street projects do regard themselves as viable substitutes to the library-as-institution. I’m just saying it’s important that we consider what their relationship could be, so that both serve mutually beneficial roles.

Uni’s creators acknowledge that “cities need new solutions that are lighter-weight, more flexible, less expensive to operate, and better integrated into our patterns of daily life.” The nimbleness, the portability, the in-the-streetness of Uni offer lessons that our traditional public libraries can learn from. Uni also issues an important reminder of the significance of design — of creating a material infrastructure that enables this flexibility and efficiency. Uni could serve as an R&D lab for the existing public library; it could “provid[e] a place to experiment and learn new engagement strategies that work equally well “back home” in more traditional environments. The Uni [could suppor]
existing institutions.”

I’m all for guerilla tactics, DIY urbanism, and other “interventionist” strategies (Mimi Zeiger’s series of “Interventionist’s Toolkit” articles on Places has been fantastic). But I think it’s important to remember that DIY isn’t necessarily counter-institutional, that it’s possible for institutions to be good guys. The public library is one such protagonist, and I’d hope that these DIY projects would aim to support the good work that the library has always done and to help the institution innovate its way back into “on the street” vitality.


Music for Staring at Ceilings… and Typefaces… and Cities

Back in 2007, when we were organizing our wedding, I suggested to my husband, in all seriousness, that we walk down the aisle to El Ten Eleven’s “Sorry About Your Irony.” He vetoed my proposal. The traditional Episcopal church where we got married probably wouldn’t have gone for it either; I doubt its old speakers had ever heard the likes of post-rock. The song title, too, was perhaps a little foreboding; regret and irony aren’t conditions (if that’s the right word) one typically wants to associate with a wedding. I had also wanted our first dance — a tradition I had no desire to honor, but was forced to uphold — to be to Red House Painters’ “Song for a Blue Guitar,” which is an absolutely beautiful song. If only the first line out of Mark Kozelek’s mouth weren’t “When everything we felt failed….” (What can I say: I have a knack for choosing mood music.) We opted instead for Fauré at the church and Band of Horses for the dance.

But El Ten Eleven remains for me a wonderful maker of soundtracks for sunny-day urban perambulations — for noticing cracks in sidewalks, reflections in shopfront windows, recognizable shapes in the clouds overhead. Perhaps it’s the sometimes math-rocky feel of the music that inspires careful attention to rhythm and texture, that evokes geometric precision.The band’s name is derived from the Lockheed Martin L-1011 TriStar; perhaps appropriately, this is music for cheery engineers of everyday life.

It also makes for a great soundtrack for movies about design. I saw Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica at the Logo Cities symposium in Montréal in Spring 2007. I found myself at dinner with Gary and a few others after the screening, and I think my first question for him, after gushing over the film, was: “Who did your soundtrack?!” El Ten Eleven seemed the perfect choice: their music, full of loops and effects pedals, feels more designed than composed. There’s also a certain levity to their sound that’s consistent with the tone of Gary’s editing. (The Album Leaf and Battles and a few other bands in the same vein also contributed to the film.)

Dave and I saw Gary’s most recent film, Urbanized, last night as part of Urban Design Week. Here the soundtrack felt not only fitting, but almost natural — as if it was an indexical manifestation of the urban rhythms on the screen. The music seemed, to borrow one of the band’s song titles, like an urban “Central Nervous Piston” (see video below) — a simultaneously organic and mechanical index of, and power-source for, urban circulation. In Urbanized, the soundtrack that has undergirded so many of my walks across the Manhattan Bridge, up the Bowery, across 14th Street, is now exported to the streets of so many other cities across the globe, proving that post-electro-math rock is indeed, as we’ve always suspected, the universal spatio-rhythmic language.    ….If only!



Today my husband and I took part in the second edition of the Guggenheim’s stillspotting project, a two-year collaborative undertaking dedicated to finding ways for people to “escape, find respite, and make peace with their space in this ‘city that never sleeps.'” The museum has partnered with Columbia’s Spatial Information Design Lab, where students created “data studies” of urban noise (including this visualization of music-related 311 complaints, this video mapping of the sounds of above-ground and subterranean infrastructures, and this Underground Public Library project, which I like for obvious reasons); and with SVA’s photography/video MFA program, where students created “video studies of the visual, aural, and sociological ecology of the urban landscape in New York.” I’m particularly fond of Jessica Miller’s video, below; its singular focus on scattered shards of glass limits our visual awareness of our surroundings to only the movements reflected in the glass. We’re thus aware of movement behind us, behind the camera — a three-dimensional perception that’s more akin to the way we hear than the way we see. 

Our adventure today took us to several sites around Lower Manhattan (and would’ve taken us to Governor’s Island, too, if we had more time), where we experienced “To A Great City,” a network of “listening installations” (my term) curated by architecture firm Snøhetta and composer Arvo Pärt. We started off walking the labyrinth in Battery Park (see top photo) — at the center of which was a weather balloon, the spatial icon of each stillspot — while listening to Pärt’s “Silentium” on iPod Shuffles. It was a perfect experience to start with — simultaneously centering and disorienting.

We then moved on to the Woolworth Building, which I had only walked past, never entered, before. Oh, the lobby! — the embodiment of the commercial sublime! Again, a weather balloon marked our spot, on the stairs, where we sat for 20 minutes and enjoyed Pärt’s “In Principio.” Unfortunately, we weren’t permitted to take pictures (from what I understand, nobody is), but the following image, which shows just a portion of the ceiling, gives you a sense of just how much there is to look at here.

via Mirka23 @ Flickr:

Our final stop was 7 World Trade Center, where we headed up to the 46th floor, stepped off the elevators, and found ourselves gazing upon this:

Okay, this isn’t what you see immediately upon existing the elevator, but it is the view from around the corner.
More balloons call us over to sit, be still, and listen.

Pärt’s “Hymn to a Great City” was the soundtrack to our perambulatory panorama. I knew what scene awaited us along the south wall, so we decided to walk around the perimeter of the floor counterclockwise, first looking north, toward the Empire State Building; then west, toward the Hudson River pathway I walk every day; and finally, south, overlooking the construction at the World Trade Center and the new memorial.

According to the Guggenheim, “To a Great City” “transports visitors from the hustle and bustle of the streetscape to an elevated urban experience that makes them newly aware of their sense of hearing.” I’m honestly a little tired of hearing this “raising awareness” justification for sound art, soundwalks, and any place-based or site-specific listening activity. We have to develop a better vocabulary to explain what precisely these sound projects do for us, how they function aesthetically and politically.

My husband and I agreed that the rhetorical intention of the soundtrack at the final site was a little too obvious. “Hymn to a Great City” was significantly lighter, airier, more hopeful than the other pieces we had heard that day. It seemed to me that were expected to look down upon the construction — the cranes, the massive piles of I-beams — the beautiful Hudson River parks; the Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Verrazano Narrows bridges and other engineering marvels; and the throngs of people bringing life to Lower Manhattan, and think, “You know what, Dave? Everything’s gonna be okay. Yeah. It’s okay.” And maybe I did think that while walking around the 46th floor, gazing down upon my beautiful city from several hundred feet up. But I also felt just a wee bit patronized.

That’s okay. I still liked it 🙂


Everything Is Infrastructure

Here’s the talk I gave at yesterday’s OOOIII symposium at The New School. I was honored to have been invited to take part! Tim Morton was UStreaming the event, but of course the feed died when I did my bit. Yet he kindly edited the audio and uploaded it to

Archigram, ca. 1970; via V&A Museum 


[TITLE SLIDE] This, as you may know, is a t-shirt that Tim designed to commemorate this very occasion. I could never wear this shirt; it – and the philosophical object it represents – withdraw from me. I am not a philosopher. I simply study things. I’m sure that in the course of my talk I’ll find myself in violation of the OOO Handbook; I’m sure I’ll use terms in ways that offend your sensibilities; I’ll perhaps focus too much on relations; I’ll perhaps not move the human subject far enough out of the way. For these transgressions, I ask for your forgiveness. With that said, let’s begin.

In “The Great Gizmo,” an article published in 1965 in Industrial Design magazine, architectural historian and design critic Reyner Banham explained how [SLIDE] “the most typical American way of improving the human situation has been by means of crafty and unusually compact little packages, either papered or with patent numbers, or bearing the inventor’s name to a grateful posterity.” The class of objects ranged “from the Franklin Stove, and the Stetson Hat, through the Evinrude outboard to the walkie-talkie, the spray can and the cordless shaver.” The portability of these gadgets – the fact that they “can get by without any infrastructure” – has been critical to the American way of life, which he celebrated. [SLIDE] “The quintessential gadgetry of the pioneering frontiersman had to be carried across trackless country, set down in a wild place, and left to transform that hostile environment without skilled attention.”

[SLIDE] Last April, the design-publishing think tank Leagues & Legions organized a networked blogging event dedicated to “remixing, revisiting, and remastering” two classic architectural texts, one of which was Banham’s. Architect Rob Holmes, who has blog called mammoth, was struck by Banham’s description of “the most characteristic” of US products:

[SLIDE] a small self-contained unit of high performance in relation to its size and cost, whose function is to transform some undifferentiated set of circumstances to a condition nearer human desires.  The minimum of skill is required in its installation and use, and it is independent of any physical or social infrastructure beyond that by which it may be ordered from catalogue and delivered to its prospective user.

[SLIDE] I imagine that as I read that passage, many of us were conjuring up in our mind’s eyes a mental image of [CLICK] a sleek, palm-sized white or black device currently resting, in a nest woven from earbud wires, in our messenger bags or back pockets. This of course wasn’t Banham’s vision; he was writing in the mid 60s. But the iPhone seems to be among today’s likely candidates for “the most characteristic” US product. Yet as Holmes argues, it doesn’t completely live up to Banham’s billing. The gadget does indeed fulfill what some regard as advanced capitalism’s era-defining “human desires”: for mobility; self-contained, all-in-one convenience; plug-and-play accessibility (maybe without the “plug”) – but is the iPhone really “independent of any physical or social infrastructure?” [SLIDE] As Holmes demonstrates in his brilliant post, this gizmo is “not only dependent upon highly developed systems in its production…but is also now equally dependent in its operation upon a vast array of infrastructures, data ecologies, and device networks.” He takes us on a trans-scalar tour of [SLIDE] the mines – in Canada, South Korea, Belgium, Russia, and Peru – from which we derive the materials for the gadget’s lithium-ion battery and indium tin oxide conducting solution; [SLIDE] the plant in Shenzhen, China, where a quarter-million people are responsible for the gizmo’s assembly; [SLIDE] the server farms, the network’s nerve centers, in Washington, Florida, North and South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Iowa; [SLIDE] and the cell towers and antennae that make transmission possible.

[SLIDE] A quick aside: just last week architects Michael Chen and Justin Snider, who are mashing up various data sources to map what they call urban “signal space,” took the students in my Urban Media Archaeology class on a scavenger hunt for cell phone towers around The New School.

[SLIDE] Industrial designer Ben Millen offers a “conceptual diagram” that allows us to [SLIDE] zoom in and out and consider the [SLIDE] various scales and geographies that Holmes’s tour reaches – [SLIDE] the interlocking infrastructures that collectively constitute this supposedly infrastructure-independent gizmo.

[SLIDE: VIDEO] Our iPhones thus only seem to be untethered. The entire world of “wirelessness” is, likewise, not what it seems. As Adrian Mackenzie argues in a recent book on the topic, wirelessness “designates an experience trending toward entanglements with things, objects, gadgets, infrastructures, and services, and imbued with indistinct sensations and practices of network-associated change” (5). Wirelessness might even be the exact opposite of what the label suggests:

[SLIDE] While the notion of wireless networks implies that there are fewer wires, it could easily be argued that actually there are more wires. Rather than wireless cities or wireless networks, it might be more accurate to speak of the rewiring of cities through the highly reconfigurable paths of chipsets. / Billions of chipsets means trillions of wires or conductors on a microscopic scale (64-5).

Yet we can’t ignore the continued existence of, and the integral function played by, [SLIDE] massive wires on a super-macroscopic scale – a global Internet infrastructure mapped by telecom market research firms like Telegeography. At the same time, we have Wired correspondent and Metropolis contributing editor Andrew Blum, who’s writing a book about the physical infrastructure of the Internet, [SLIDE] homing in on the particular materialities of specific nodes within that global network. He takes us on a tour leading from oceanside manholes; to 60 Hudson Street in downtown Manhattan, where transoceanic and transcontinental lines converge; to data centers with their sophisicated security infrastructures; and along railroad tracks, which paved the way for long-distance “data pipes.” (Incidentally, Andrew took my Urban Media Archaeology class from last year on a walking tour of the Internet infrastructure of Lower Manhattan.)

Between [SLIDE] the work of InfraNet Lab, a “research collective probing the spatial byproducts of contemporary resource logistics” and [SLIDE] advocates for what they call “infrastructural opportunism;” [SLIDE] to my colleagues Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruze’s recent Geologic City project, which reveals the “forces and flows of geologic material that give form to the built environment of the city”; [SLIDE] to MoMA’s current “Talk to Me” exhibition, [SLIDE] which explores “communication between people and things,” and between things and things, and places and things; [SLIDE] to the walking tours of urban systems organized by design consultancy spurse for the [SLIDE] BMW Guggenheim Lab that’s resided downtown this summer, there’s no shortage of interest in infrastructures and the objects that comprise them. [SLIDE] Former New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff suggested in 2009 that “renewed interest in infrastructure” within the design community has been attributable in large part to Obama’s original stimulus package, which tasked the country’s designers with “rethinking the networks – train lines, freeways, bridges, levees, ports and waterfronts – that bind our communities together.” Ouroussoff noticed a rise, “for the first time in decades,” of new infrastructure-focused graduate architecture studio courses.

I’d argue that the interest began to emerge well before Obama. Hurricane Katrina and other international disasters drew attention to the weaknesses in our existing infrastructures. [SLIDE] And Michael Chen, leader of the Signal Space project I referenced earlier, suggested to me that architecture’s interest in infrastructure has grown with the increased availability of data, not only GIS data, but data “generated by buildings themselves”; that data often covers large swaths of geography, and architects, according to Chen, “aspire to work at scales consistent with the scale of the data.” What’s more, he says, is that working at the scale and within the context of infrastructure, rather than at the scale of the architectural “object,” has the potential to have greater impact on the built environment. What’s interesting to consider, in light of this particular symposium, is how architects have sought explicitly to [SLIDE] move beyond “the object,” which implies, among other things, an appreciation of architecture that looks beyond the subject, beyond the starchitect creator and his masterwork; work within a scale that’s larger than that of the edifice; and a realization of that edifice’s place within a larger network of cultural and political economic, and material forces.[i] This movement beyond the object is actually, in some respects, quite similar to the privileging of the object advocated by object-oriented ontology in that it aims to take the human out of the center of the enterprise.

[SLIDE] While architecture moves beyond the object (although others are simultaneously calling for a return to it), my own field, Media Studies, continues to expand its interest in the media object and media infrastructures. McLuhan and his mentor Harold Innis, along with Lewis Mumford, Sigfried Giedion and many others who have since been claimed by the “media ecology” tradition, long ago inspired interest in media’s material form, its sensory properties, and the larger cultural, political, and even material ecologies that particular media give rise to. While many in media studies are still committed to textual analysis and identity construction and issues of subjectivity, many others – growing numbers – have turned their attention to media as designed objects, to the issue of e-waste, to the spatiality and geography of communication, and to infrastructure.

[SLIDE] This turn to the object or the material network has undoubtedly been inspired over the past few decades by shifting materialities in the media landscape (Bolter 1991, Landow 1991). The early 1990s gave rise to a great deal of scholarship questioning the existence of a new “ontology” of new media; and with the rise of each new “new” – wirelessness, augmented reality, etc. – we’ve repeated the question. Wendy Chun, who presented on a panel examining “object-oriented feminism” at the 2010 Society for Literature, Science and the Arts conference, suggested that the recent rise of object-oriented philosophy and “thing theory” draw inspiration from the same source: these new philosophical enterprises are “themselves responses to – not simply theoretical tools necessary to examine – new media.”

[SLIDE] There are many of us in Media Studies, in addition to Ian Bogost, who are working on media objects and infrastructures. Lisa Parks and [SLIDE] Nicole Starosielski have done innovative work on satellite television and transoceanic cable infrastructures. [SLIDE] My own past work has focused on “media spaces” – libraries, archives, reading rooms, schools, media company headquarters, media production facilities, and a variety of other spaces where media is a key actor – as both conceptual and physical infrastructures. [SLIDE] I’ve been interested in how these physical architectures, the material properties of the media housed within them, and the publics that both design and use them, all act upon and mutually construct one another. [SLIDE] I consider how the form of the technology informs the shape of the building; how those technological forms in turn offer direction regarding how people are to interact with them; which in turn informs the program and plan of the building. And vice versa. The relationship between media technologies and architecture needn’t even be mediated through human users; sometimes media have spatial demands of their own – say, they require lots of power outlets, or they need a climate-controlled environment – which can be directly translated into architectural designs.

[SLIDE] Over the past few years I’ve turned more to German media theory – in particular, media archaeology – to help me in my current study – of historical urban media infrastructures. [SLIDE] There’s a presumption in media studies, and in various design studies and practices, that since the rise of the mechanically produced image, media have served as actants in shaping the material city; thus we have the “photographic city,” “the “cinematic city” and various forms of the “digital city,” including a relatively recent variant that I find particularly interesting, the “sentient city.” [SLIDE] I’m looking instead at the longue durée of urban mediation, focusing on media technologies – telegraphy and telephony, print, writing, and the voice that emerged before the widespread availability of the mechanically reproduced image, yet which have had residual impact on the city through the present day.

Erkki Huhtamo, inspired by Foucault’s archaeological method, describes media archaeology as [SLIDE] “the study of the cyclically recurring elements and motives underlying and guiding the development of media culture” and the [CLICK] “’excavation’ of the ways in which these discursive traditions and formulations have been ‘imprinted’ on specific media machines and systems in different historical contexts” (223). [SLIDE] Adapting Huhtamo’s model to suit an “excavation” at the urban scale, I focus on the recurring or residual media “elements and motives” that guide the development of the material city. I look at, but also beyond the discursive elements of media to focus on what Wolfgang Ernst (2003) calls its “logical structure” and “hardware” (n.p.). These infrastructures include everything from wires and cables and amplifier stations, to the acoustic properties of various building surfaces – and they plug into parallel infrastructures: power and transportation, for example.

[SLIDE] Media archaeology tends to distance itself from archaeology proper, but when we’re dealing with material landscapes and assemblages of material objects, perhaps we could learn something from archaeologists who have experience in dealing with these types of materials, and who know that “excavation” can be more than a Foucauldian-inspired metaphor. In addition, archaeologists’ recognition of the temporal “entanglement” of the material record could prove useful in understanding how various infrastructural networks interact with one another across time (Witmore 2006: 280). Referencing the influential work that geographers Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin have done on telecommunications infrastructures, anthropologist Brian Larkin writes, in his study of media infrastructure in Nigeria: “Newly developed networks do not eradicate earlier ones but are superimposed on top of them, creating a historical layering over time” (6). [SLIDE] Telegraph lines line the railways; fiber optic cables parallel old copper cable laid nearly a century before; public spaces once popular as sites of public address become places for the exchange of new publications after the rise of print, and those spaces later become wireless hotspots. Archaeology – both media archaeology and archaeology proper – could reveal the “entanglement” of infrastructural systems’ lifespans – when old media “leak” into new-media landscapes, when media of different epochs are layered palimpsestically, or when new infrastructures “remediate” their predecessors. Embodied within these “entanglements” are shifts with real-world consequences – increases or decreases in the speed or accessibility of networks; expanding or contracting reach to various geographic areas; the degree of publicness, however you want to define it, of particular sites, both micro and macro scale.

[SLIDE] I’ve also found it helpful to approach this project by thinking through objects, and to so do collaboratively. For the past two years students in my graduate studios have been collaboratively mapping various historical media infrastructures while simultaneously building an object – a database-driven open-source mapping platform – that captures, as much as possible, the distinctive spatial, temporal, and material qualities of the systems we’re examining. Rather than translating the natures of these objects into some linear written form, we’re spatalizing and temporalizing our “arguments” on a map. Our networked mode of representation is in keeping with the networked objects we’re studying. Students are then able to find the spatial juxtapositions of their various networks, to identify the places and times where objects bump up against one another. They’re also speculatively taking on the perspective of the objects they’re researching. One student creating a map layer about carrier pigeons that took the perspective of the pigeon. Another placed herself within the network of newspaper distribution by physically following the path our daily New York Times takes from the printing plant, through several truck and van transfers, to her doorstep. And I’m excited to being imagining how the pneumatic mail system – which is a topic I’ve already written about – functioned from the perspective of a pneumatique.

What are the potentials for knowing the infrastructure if we become the infrastructure? What are the potentials for knowing objects by imaginatively becoming those objects, by interacting with the various other objects with which they come into contact?  An object-oriented methodology might help explode the myth of the gizmo – the infrastructure-free object – and foster an appreciation for the vibrant matter that resides within all of our media, material or immaterial.


Everything Is Infrastructure

OOOIII Symposium, The New School, September 14, 2011

Mattern, Everything Is Infrastructure


Paper, Ash & Air: Material Remembering

Tonight at The New School, as part of the 9/11 Forum on Memory, Trauma, and the Media (which is in honor of the 10th anniversary of 9/11), I’ll be saying a few words about the material memory of dust, scraps of paper, and other ephemeral media:


Lorenzo Ciniglio, Corbis/Sygma

It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night. He was walking north through rubble and mud and there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads. They had handkerchiefs pressed to their mouths. They had shoes in their hands, a woman with a shoe in each hand, running past him. They ran and fell, some of them, confused and ungainly, with debris coming down around them, and there were people taking shelter under cars.

The roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall. This was the world now. Smoke and ash came rolling down streets and turning corners, busting around corners, seismic tides of smoke, with office paper flashing past, standard sheets with cutting edge, skimming, whipping past, otherworldly things in the morning pall. (DeLillo)

At the beginning of his novel Falling Man Don DeLillo describes a scene that looks and feels and smells familiar to many of us. Even if we weren’t here on September 11, we’ve seen it in the videos: the South Tower falls apart around the floors where the plane impacted, its crown topples, and the building cascades to the ground. In some videos, when other structures stand between our videographer and the World Trade Center, it takes a few seconds until we can see the cloud of debris rising above the rooftops – and, sometimes, a few seconds more before it becomes apparent just how massive that cloud is, and how rapidly it’s approaching. [See first 35 seconds of the below]

[See 1:58 – 2:26 of the above.]

A few videographers, perhaps unable to run fast or far enough, or perhaps willing to put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of capturing these scenes for posterity, plant their feet and allow the cloud to envelop them. As we watch and prepare for the wave to hit, perhaps you, like I, draw in a breath and hold it. But then we’re taken aback to see flecks of luminescence preceding the grey. Paper.

Gulnara Somoilova, Untitled

They ran and then they stopped, some of them, standing there swaying, trying to draw breath out of the burning air, and the fitful cries of disbelief, curses and lost shouts, and the paper massed in the air, contracts, resumés blowing by, intact snatches of business, quick in the wind. (DeLillo)

The wind prevailed toward Brooklyn that morning, carrying many of these documents into and even well across the harbor. Writing in the New York Times just three days later, Jane Frisch and David Rohde described how what seemed like a “sweet and peaceful snowstorm” of paper [see Figure 7, below] “floated past the windows of the old P.S. 142 building on Henry Street, metallic pieces catching the glisten of the sun. Some blew into the open classroom windows, where, one administrator said, teachers and students examined it ‘in wonder.’”

Erich Scholz:

That “wonder,” I imagine, emerges in part from the realization that, until 8:45 on Tuesday morning, those very same sheets of paper represented the most pressing reality of the thousands of folks already at work in Lower Manhattan. And within minutes they had been made uncanny; they had become records of a bureaucratic normalcy, an existence, since lost. Yet in contrast to the amorphousness and inscrutability of the dust clouds and “the pile” at Ground Zero, these documents retained their form and legibility. Their status as “records” was clear. The students at P.S. 142 knew the value of what they had; Frisch and Rohde report that the teachers and students decided that the documents they intercepted “should be given to the police.”

Via WTC Environmental Organization

Meanwhile, the “cloud of dust” elicited not wonder, but terror – in part because of its inscrutable composition. Writing in a recent commemorative double issue of New York magazine, Steve Fishman says of the dust cloud:

It was one of the indelible images of 9/11: a dark cloud chasing people up Broadway as they fled the collapsing Towers. The cloud turned out to be an aerosolized mix of poisons, thousands of them: silicon, Freon, PCBs, asbestos, lead, pulverized concrete, and on and on. It covered panicked survivors, coated buildings, seeped into ventilation systems, and hinted at the larger problem to come. The acres of rubble quickly became, as one CDC official on site at the time recently explained, ‘a hazmat situation.’” (125)

Indeed, many workers were afflicted with “WTC cough” or diagnosed with RADS, reactive airways dysfunction syndrome, or even cancer linked to prolonged exposure to the toxins on-site.

Dealing with the dust was an ethically charged issue. Workers on the pile were required to wear respirators, but, as Fishman reports, “many resisted. Some felt guilty: After brother firefighters gave their lives, worrying about one’s own health seemed disloyal” (128). These choices determined how one would materially remember what had happened there. Firefighter Adrienne Walsh reported that, amidst the rubble, “I didn’t see victims. They were dust. And I was inhaling them” (58). The material memory of the lost was thus literally internalized by the Ground Zero workers, “archived” in their bodies.

Archival work has long involved the internalization of material records, according to historian Carolyn Steedman. In Dust: The Archive and Cultural History she writes of Jules Michelet’s conviction that he was reviving records in the National Archives of Paris by breathing them in: “these papers and parchments, so long deserted, desired no better than to be restored to the light of day… [A]s I breathed in their dust, I saw them rise up” (quoted on 1171). As a consequence, Michelet, much like those who later breathed in the lives lost at Ground Zero, contracted what Steedman calls “Archive Fever Proper,” sickness brought on by exposure to the dust of organic matter – animals skins, byproducts of human labor – that is an integral part of the archive.


Neither Michelet nor those working on “the pile” in the days after September 11 could have known what they were breathing in. The pile in particular resisted attempts to identify its components. This heap of…what was it? rubbish, detritus, ruins? had collapsed into a pile of indistinguishable materiality. “The towers of the World Trade Center were made of steel, concrete, asbestos, wood, plastic, and glass,” Marita Sturken writes; “they were filled with desks, computers, tables, and paper, and, yet, they crumbled into dust.” They were of course filled with people, too. And as Patricia Yaeger says, “…to think of the bodies of the dead mingling with this debris, to think of the results of the 9/11 explosions as detritus, gives one pause” (187; emphasis added).

Peter Ginter, Science Faction/Corbis

We cannot count on the formal integrity of the objects that once occupied this site. The boundaries between one object and another – and their very material constitution – are called into question. We don’t know how to name them, sort them, classify them, where to store them away in our memories. How do we sift the ashes from the dust, the remains from the rubble? Folklorist Kay Turner writes of Ground Zero as a “frozen zone” where “sudden annihilation had transformed the seemingly permanent into the definitively ephemeral: buildings became dust; work became millions of tiny scraps of paper floating in the air; and people, a total of 2603 of them, became bits and pieces of body parts, traces of DNA, or disappeared altogether, incinerated” (163).

Angel Franco, New York Times
Bill Biggart (1947-2001)

Yet in order to process our grief, to remember, we often need some material trace or some symbol to hold on to. I’m going to quote Turner at length here:

[Ground Zero’s] harrowing ephemeralities of dust, bone, and smoke – ephemeralities of disaster and death – were in stark contrast to a different version of the ephemeral that then prevailed at Union Square. If, as Camille Paglia and Ingrid Sischy suggest, in an instant two of the primary symbols of 20th century modernity – the airplane and the skyscraper – were used as weapons against each other, our first response to that catastrophic collision was a return to the usefulness of ephemeral, and hence incorruptible, symbols. The fragile beginnings of recovery from annihilation – an experience of stopped time, a feeling of the end of time – was initially felt in the human impulse to store time and memory in mundane material objects and simple yet universal symbolic images that could be seen, experienced, and interpreted by all. (Turner 163)

Richard Baker, Corbis
Peter Turnley, Corbis
Seth Cohen, Bettman/Corbis

We see evidence of such an impulse in the “missing” posters that blanketed the city for weeks after September 11; in the flowers and candles marking spontaneous shrines, particularly at Union Square; in the presentation of urns filled with Ground Zero dust to families who had lost loved ones; in the marking, each year, of the Towers’ voided footprints by beams of light. Through these acts we masked the odor of death and destruction emanating from Ground Zero; we reintroduced “flashes of luminescence” into a gray landscape; we gave form to the missing, the dematerialized.

Elena del Rivero, “[Swit – Home: A CHANT” @ The New Museum; photo by me, 9/8/11
Xu Bing, The Dust Project; photo by me, 9/8/11

These acts were in part attempts to sort through and make sense of those inscrutable piles of rubbish and clouds of dust. What we might not have realized at the time was that the dust, toxic and uncanny though it was, may have been an ideal representation of, or medium for, how we would remember the tragedy. As Sturken and Steedman remind us, dust is not “about refuse or rubble so much as it is about a cyclical materiality. It is a reminder of continuity, a vestige of what was that continues to exist” (Sturken 314).

Cynthia Lin, Dust Drawing, 2004


“9/11: One Day, Ten Years” New York Magazine Special Double Issue (September 5-12, 2011).

Eichhorn, Kate, “Archival Genres: Gathering Texts and Reading Spaces” Invisible Culture 12 (2008):

Fritsch, Jane & David Rohde, “After the Attacks: Relics; Trace Center’s Past in a Sad Paper Trail” New York Times (September 14, 2001).

Steedman, Carolyn, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002).

Steedman, Carolyn, “Something She Called a Fever: Michelet, Derrida, and Dust” The American Historical Review 106:4 (October 2001): 1159-1180.

Sturken, Marita, “The Aesthetics of Absence: Rebuilding Ground Zero” American Ethnologist 31:3 (2004): 311-25.

Turner, Kay. “September 11: The Burden of the Ephemeral” Western Folklore 68:2-3 (Spring 2009): 155-208.

Yaeger, Patricia, “Rubble as Archive, or 9/11 as Dust, Debris, and Bodily Vanishing” In Judith Greenberg, Ed., Trauma at Home: After 9/11 (Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 2003): 187 – 94.


Um, excuse me. There seems to be a human at the center of your object-oriented ontology.


I’ll be participating in The Third Object-Oriented Ontology Symposium at The New School on September 15. When I received the invitation a few weeks ago, my immediate response was: “I’m honored to have been invited — but you know I’m not a philosopher, right? Are you sure you want me?” Fast forward a few days, and I find myself on the schedule. I’m working under the assumption that my role is to represent object-focused work from outside the fold — work that might have both something to contribute to, and something to learn from, OOO. Sure, I’m up for that. It’s encouraging to recall these words from Graham Harman in a Mute interview from this past summer:

…OOP will want to say more about numerous concrete topics. Here I’m not as worried, because other people are doing much of the work for us already. It’s not my job to tell anthropologists and video artists how OOP should affect their work. That’s their job. They’re supposed to tell me what they learned, and maybe it will have a retroactive effect on my philosophy.

Perhaps I’m one of those “other people.” Yet my acceptance of these terms doesn’t mean that I’m not shaking in my boots, positively daunted by the prospect of temporarily infiltrating such a tightly-knit and intimidatingly intellectual group.

I’d been observing the evolution of the OOO “movement,” if you will, from the periphery for the past year-and-a-half or so. I became aware of it, or them, when I started developing my Media & Materiality grad seminar early last year, and I’ve been sporadically following some of the key figures’ blogs since then. I’m of course sympathetic to their overall mission — or at least what I understand of it. Ian Bogost offered a “simple, short, comprehensible explanation” on his blog in December 2009:

Ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Object-oriented ontology (“OOO” for short) puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally—plumbers, DVD players, cotton, bonobos, and sandstone, for example. In contemporary thought, things are usually taken either as the aggregation of ever smaller bits (scientific naturalism) or as constructions of human behavior and society (social relativism). OOO steers a path between the two, drawing attention to things at all scales (from atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis), and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much with ourselves. [Here are some other attempts to articulate what OOO is all about.]

Sure, sign me up! This works for me primarily, I think, because I’ve been working under most of the same assumptions — although I might’ve articulated them differently (or not thought to articulate them at all) — for the past decade or more. I say this not in a “Pshaw! I’ve been doing this stuff for years!“-sort-of-way, but in a “Hey, cool, we’re of like minds!”-sort-of-way.

I’m going to be talking about infrastructures — micro and macro, animate and inanimate, concrete and conceptual — in my talk on the 15th. And I’m not going to attempt to ape the philosophy talk; I’d make an utter fool of myself. Instead, I’m going to talk the way I normally talk, and hope that we find some fruitful intersections. Still, for the past week or so I’ve been doing a little cramming with the OOO “primers” in an attempt to find answers to some fundamental questions: How do they define “objects”? And why is the object the “unit” we should use to “package” (for lack of a better term) things as disparate as plumbers, bonobos, and sandstone into a “flat ontology”? (See Bogost’s Latour Litanizer. Harman explains his litanizing strategy in Mute: “In many cases I try to have the lists include one object from the sciences, one living creature, one machine, one compound entity, one human political unit and perhaps one fictional entity, just to enforce the notion of a ‘flat ontology’ in which all objects are equally objects.”)

Because I have infrastructure on the brain, I’m also having a really hard time getting past what seems to me an inherent contradiction in the infrastructure of the OOO enterprise itself — all the blogs; the university-based conferences, and the airplanes and faculty travel budgets that take the geographically dispersed “core” OOO group to those conferences; the doctoral students who lobby their departments to make those conferences happen; the open-access publishers that have helped to popularize the field; the glaring gender imbalance in the community; the linguistic infrastructure, so dependent as it seems to be on neologizing and developing new OOO “versions.” I just can’t get over the contradiction between, on one hand, the desire to remove the human, and human experience, from the center of philosophy; and, on the other hand, the blatant anthropocentrism — I might go so far as to say egocentrism (I’m referring to a systemic characteristic, not to the egocentrism of any particular individual(s)) — of the work involved in developing and promoting this post-/anti-/other-/whatever- humanist framework.

I’m sure I’m putting my philosophical naïveté (or stupidity?) on full display here. Maybe this is simply the way things work in this field: even within a collective enterprise, as OOO seemingly is, one still has to cultivate recognition for one’s unique contributions to the field (which presumes that we’re still looking for “individual genius”). And that responsibility involves coining new phrases; branding new theories; promoting (through either good or bad press!) one’s colleagues’ terminology and ontological flavors; convening the group for international symposia; and writing lots of lengthy treatises debating the merits of different colleagues’ unique OOO variants, while barely mentioning any actual objects at all. Harman, again in the Mute interview, offers a SWOT-based marketing analysis of some of the available brands:

It’s hard to say which brand of speculative realism is the most popular among philosophers (perhaps Quentin Meillassoux’s), but in humanities fields outside philosophy there’s no question that object-oriented philosophy is the dominant version. This is not surprising, given OOP’s highly democratic approach to objects. Those forms of SR which claim that sociology is worthless compared with neuroscience are obviously not going to be useful to sociologists. By contrast, OOP is far less judgemental about the other disciplines and welcomes interaction with them. OOP makes room to an equal degree for electrons, medieval history, literary criticism, and musicianship, so it’s little wonder that we’ve become a quick favourite across the widest variety of disciplines.

This self-reflexivity is endemic to “emerging” fields. I’ve noted before how much writing in the Digital Humanities still seems to be about what the Digital Humanities even are. Yet the emergence of a new field of study, a new method, a new ontology offers up the possibility to create a new discursive space — to design the “infrastructures” through which these developments can take shape. In their introduction to The Speculative Turn, Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Harman acknowledge the roles that a vibrant blogging community, adventurous new journals, and open-access publishing have played in shaping the discursive politics surrounding Speculative Realism. But why don’t we expand the OOO “litany” to call our attention also to other “objects” in the movement itself: disciplinary values (individual genius?), the Carbon footprint for those symposia, gender, the academic market for branded theories, and the politics of its rhetoric — which, from my vantage point, seems to have an anthropocentric bias out of character with the movement’s professed mission.

I offer this observation as a non-expert, as an external observer who’s quite sympathetic to what OOO stands for but not entirely sure that its discursive practices fit me well. And here I have to acknowledge my own biases: I’m not one for neologizing. I’m reluctant to refer to myself as a “theorist” because I’d never presume that I could generate an “original” theory. I’m way too self-effacing to think that the world could possibly need me to invent new language or intellectual frameworks.

The work that I do is simply a product of contact lenses (one object from the sciences), border collies (one living creature), a series of usually trusty Mac computers (one machine), the Dewey Decimal system (one compound entity), Happy Valley (one human political unit), Ferris Bueller (one fictional entity) — and, if you’ll permit me to add my own category to the litany, extreme sleep deprivation (one psychosomatic condition).

What if OOO, as an “institution” or practice, were to think of itself as a “flat ontology”?


Yes, on occasion it has taken me an entire day to prep for a 2-hour class, but…

…it has its rewards!

These pictures are of previous years’ winners, apparently.

The Distinguished University Teaching Awards will be conferred on September 15th, at the installation ceremony for our new university president. The ceremony begins at 3:30pm in Tishman Auditorium, 66 West 12th Street, and will be followed by a community reception at 5:00 in the Vera List Courtyard.

Thanks so much to the anonymous students who nominated me!