No Thing Unto Itself: SoundMatter

Tonight I had the pleasure of talking with Noortje Marres, David Turnbull, and Katherine Behar about “object-oriented politics” as part of the “No Thing Unto Itself” panel discussion, itself an event connected to the “And Another Thing” exhibit at CUNY. I’ve had quite a month — including four public presentations in the past week — so, as eager as I was to take part in tonight’s discussion, I felt a little worn down and under-prepared.

I still haven’t broken my bad habit of custom-writing a new paper for every talk I deliver. Re-purposing material still feels like cheating to me. I have to get over that. Regardless, this time, when asked to say something about “object-oriented politics,” I decided I’d visit the exhibition and allow it to generate some ideas for my talk. I was struck by the sonic pieces in the show — and I had been curious about the dearth of discussion of sound within object-oriented discourse (Timothy Morton is one obvious exception) — so I decided to focus on SoundMatter in my talk tonight.

*     *     *     *     *

Sound Matter

I heard it before I saw it. Before I even crossed the threshold of the James Gallery I knew there were small humming, buzzing machines inside. Through the door and off to the left I beheld a light installation – a sort of chandelier “hack” – composed of dozens of flickering nightlights suspended by their electrical cords, swaying and clinking together in the breezes produced by oscillating fans.

I followed their cords up to the ceiling where they heaped upon one another in a seemingly desperate attempt to reach a power supply.

Ruslan Trusewych’s “this is the way the world is” presents the world as a swarm of objects, all subject to variable environmental forces, all fighting for access to necessary sustenance – food, water, or, in this case, electrical current. What became most apparent to me here, however, was the swarm as a sonic entity or event. Sonic cues were as integral as the visual in helping me understand what I was experiencing. My New School colleague Eugene Thacker has written about swarms as sonic. I’ll return to his ideas in a bit.

[A little ad-libbing here] But I’ll be focusing here on acoustic qualities that resounded through several projects in the “And Another Thing” exhibition. I’ll examine what these different projects, and others like them, can tell us about the source of sound, and sound’s relationship to the sounding object and its sonic environment.

Trusewych’s work reminds me of another project:

This is Zimoun’s “30,000 plastic bags, 16 ventilators” – a work whose name implies that what we’re hearing, or experiencing, is simply the sum of its very mundane parts. Yet as with Trusewych’s piece, I sense that this collection of parts is not all there is. The “way the world works” in Trusewych’s this is the way the works can’t possibly be sonically indexed by the sound of blades cutting through air, mechanisms rotating the fan’s head, plastic nightlight shades plinking against one another. In both works we have mechanically circulated air providing the animating force for swarm-like movement – yet the actuality of what we’re experiencing seems to be somewhere in between the two experiences implied by the artworks’ titles – somewhere between the grandiose claim that “this the way the world works” and the reductivist claim that it’s just 30,000 plastic bags and 16 ventilators.

Now, back to Thacker:

If we are to think swarms in a way that does not privilege the visual, it seems that two possibilities immediately present themselves to us…. The atomistic approach suggests that our registering of the swarm by hearing it is correlated to a field of interacting sound atoms that is not visible to us. The Neo-platonic approach gives us an image of incorporeal sound emanating from corporeal entities into a kind of phenomenal density in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Thacker presents cicadas as an example of an organic swarm that could be conceived through either of these lenses. Cicadas, he writes, “are more often heard than seen – indeed, they are quite impossible to locate by sound.”

This leads me to a second piece in the James Gallery, located in close proximity to Trusewych’s, and created by the same artist responsible for “30,000 plastic bags, 16 ventilators.” This is 25 woodworms, wood, microphone, sound system.

Critics of Zimoun’s work – even the projects that don’t involve live woodworms – often use swarm-like references to describe it:

The results, powered by simple DC motors in kinetic musical action, recall some kind of natural, organic colony.

[Zimoun] creates closed systems that develop their own behavior and rules similarly to artificial creatures.

The movement is there, that electric, dynamic sense of disquiet that characterizes insect worlds. It’s an alien movement… They each present a similar kind of movement that is found in the insectoid underbellies of nature all around us (via Zimoun, “About”).

One critic’s description echoes Thacker’s in her acknowledgment of two possible ways of understanding Zimoun’s acousto-mechanical systems. She writes:

Indeed, one of the refreshing elements of this work is the immediacy with which one can understand the sound-making process, where each micro-event is present, visible, and concrete. Yet at the same time the resulting complexity of the total system, conjured before your eyes, defies any attempt to dissect it. You might find yourself feeling there is a prime mover at work behind the scenes, but in fact it is just the characteristic reaction of materials behaving together and in unison with the space of their activity (via Zimoun, “About”).

The “space of activity” is of central importance in these projects. Zimoun describes his work as sound sculptures and sound architectures. Both terms in these pairings – “sound” and “sculpture” – are mutually constitutive: sound constructs an acoustic (or, as we’ll discover in a bit, an (an)acoustic) space, while the material properties of the space within which a sound resounds construct the properties of that sound. This holds true for swarms, too; they’re spatio-sonic, or acousto-spatial events.

Francisco López, a sound artist whom Eugene Thacker pointed me towards, and about whom Timothy Morton and Will Schrimshaw have written, has spoken eloquently about how he negotiates the relationships between organisms and environments – between “objects” and “spaces” – in his audio recordings. While many “environmental” sound artists tend to habitually focus on the sounds of animals, López advocates for focusing on the “environment as a whole, instead of on behavioural manifestations of the organisms we foresee as most similar to us.” The “space of activity” in a sonic environment expands far beyond the sound-producing organism; the environment is instead a consequence of “all its sound-transmitting and sound-modifying elements.”

The birdsong we hear in the forest is as much a consequence of the bird as of the trees or the forest floor. If we are really listening, the topography, the degree of humidity of the air or the type of materials in the topsoil are as essential and definitory as the sound-producing animals that inhabit a certain space (Francisco López, Environmental Sound Matter).

López’s focus on “sound matter” rather than “sound objects” represents, according to Schrimshaw (May 7, 2011), “his preference for the…confusing over the clear and distinct, for environments as a whole rather than the well grounded identities of the individual bodies that compose them.” Rather than emphasizing “the audible representation of a place or individual animals, objects, bodies or events,” he captures “sounds that in their obscurity reveal something of the material capacities underpinning their implication within representation, recognition, and indexical listening” (ibid.).

It’s important to note that that sound environment includes things that aren’t perceptible to the human ear; its “sonic matter” includes matter that does not resound for us – at least not under normal conditions. The sound we hear in “25 woodworms…,” is the auditory index of invisible internal processes – worms consuming wood – which are imperceptibly changing the constitution of the object we can see and identify: the wood. The microphone and sound system provide the necessary tools within this acoustic system to “liberate” sounds from the wood object; as Frances Dyson explains in regards to John Cage’s work, amplification “allows sounds, which otherwise would remain silent, to be heard via the action of electronic ears” (62). [See also the infrastructure projects of Bill Fontana]

But sometimes technical amplification is not enough. Sometimes forces and stimuli in other registers have to be “sonified” before they can be heard. Consider the Institute for Algorithmics, a collective dedicated to finding the “rhythms” in our “algorithms.”

Algorhythms show us that our digital culture is not immaterial, but divided in time. Time + music becomes (sic) important for understanding media. With enough scientific effort the invisible electronic or electromagnetic (wireless) signals can be made hearable. Listening to those digitally modulated signals, you can hear the rhythmic character of the signals of most digitally working devices and also of wireless consumer electronic networks like WLAN, GSM, UMTS, Bluetooth, digital TV and Radio et cetera (“More/About/Readme”). [See also the “wave field” work of Raviv Ganchrow, who visited my “City & Sound” class in 2009.]

Likewise, Detektors, a “brother” collective, sonifies the “electromagnetic emissions produced by everyday electronic devices” in order to “to make audible the hidden infoscapes of our time.” [Below: a Canon camera turning on and off]

everyday electronic devices

The professed goal here is to “make [internal mechanisms] audible” in order to promote our “understanding [of] media,” but perhaps there is also value in these sonifications, as in all the sound pieces in “And Another Thing,” as accounts of “sound in-itself” or “sound-in-space,” outside of its perception? (Schrimshaw, August 24, 2010).  Schrimshaw suggest that such an account would “approach sound according to its bare minimum of internal relations, relations apart from the ear” – perhaps sound simply as vibration.

Seth Kim-Cohen is skeptical of such a notion of “sound-in-itself”; his model of a “non-cochlear” art acknowledges both the audible and the “exigencies out of earshot” – the tactile dimensions of sonic vibration, for instance. Artist Tom Kotik, whose work appears in the exhibition downstairs, plays with some of these ideas. His “Rational Impulse” consists of two nested sound-proofed boxes encasing – and, when closed, silencing – speakers blaring Kotik’s own band’s music. From the outside, it’s a mute, inert wooden box. But lifting the outer lid releases the vibration, and lifting the inner lid releases the cacophony. Kotik constructs an “architecture of silence” – an external silence one can appreciate only when one knows the commotion within. This piece can be said to reveal what Schrimshaw (March 29, 2011) calls the “infraesthetic implications of objective tendencies” – that which is in excess of the threshold of perception. The heard and the unheard are both integral parts of the object or event. It’s when we lift the first lid and cross one threshold that we perceive the “non-cochlear” (and a hint of the cochlear) dimensions of the “sounding object” inside, and when we lift the second, interior, lid that we fully cross the auditory threshold.

Kotik’s more recent work never pushes past that second threshold; he alludes to sound through form and texture. His “Untitled” (2007) is a “music stand fitted with loudspeakers that reproduce a soundless music whose inaudible frequencies cause the compulsive movement of the membranes” (“Tom Kotik’s Architectures…”), and his SoundStudies (2007) are “sculptures” constructed of acoustic materials. He’s even constructed non-sounding, sound-absorbing felt work that, by consuming the gallery’s soundwaves, alters the room’s acoustics.

By being made aware of the thresholds of our own perception, we wonder about the objects or matter on the other side of those thresholds. How do they sound without us? What’s it like inside Kotik’s box? What’s the nature of the interaction between the sounds emanating from his speakers and the sound-proofing material inside the box? What does wood sound like to a woodworm? What does being consumed sound like to the wood? What does swarming sound like from inside the swarm?

[And here I petered out in my writing, so, to conclude, I riffed on this]: In all the works I’ve discussed here, sonic objects – sonic “matter” – interacts within an environment, a constructed or natural space, that includes both sounding and nonsounding matter. What are the politics of these soundings? What are our own relations do them? Yadda yadda yadda.

*          *          *          *

Frances Dyson, Sounding New Media: Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

Seth Kim-Cohen, In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sound Art (New York: Continuum, 2009).


Institute for Algorhythmics:

Francisco López, Environmental Sound Matter, reprinted on (April 1998).

Will Schrmshaw, “Nature Recording and the Broadband World” [blog pos] (May 7, 2011).

Will Schrimshaw, “Toward a Non-Cochlear Sound (August 24. 2010).

Eugene Thacker, “Pulse DemonsCulture Machine 9 (2007).

Tom Kotik’s Architectures of Silence at the Joan Miró (n.d.).


Beyond the Seminar Paper

What follows is the short presentation I delivered tonight as part of the CUNY Digital Humanities Initiative’s fall series. Mark Sample and I talked about “DH in the Classroom.” [Edit: 10/19] Mark has posted the slides and text for his fantastic talk, in which he explored the relationships between “building” and “thinking” — and made me question how I’d translate much of what I do in the classroom into an undergraduate context. The Q&A that followed our talks was among the most spirited and thoughtful of any I’ve had the pleasure of participating in. Thanks to Mark and Matt and Charlie for making the evening possible!


[SLIDE 2]History of practice-based teaching: e.g., Practices of Placemaking at Penn

[SLIDE 3] Came to TNS in 2004 – program that combined theory and practice

  • [SLIDE 4] Theory and Practice often bifurcated – separated into two separate halves of the curriculum
  • Students’ instrumentalist conception of this integration: knowing a little theory will make you a better practitioner, knowing how machines work will make you a better theorist
  • I started to allow students to complete theoretically-informed, research based creative projects in lieu of a mid-term or final paper in my seminar classes
  • Foray into project-based classes
    • [SLIDE 5] 2005: Sound & Space
    • [SLIDE 6] 2005: MSPS
    • [SLIDE 7] Larger 2005-6 MSPS project
    • [SLIDES 8-9] 2006: Media Exhibition Design
    • [SLIDE 10] 2006: Immediacy

[SLIDE 11] Praxis-based Courses: Degree of investment rarely witnessed in traditional seminar courses

  • Students had to not only grapple with, but internalize the course content – the theory – because they’d be held accountable for putting it into action.
  • Did a lot of thinking – especially for the intro-to-grad-studies lecture course I teach – about theories of praxis and theories of craft
    • Questions of STANDARDS

About this time I became aware of HASTAC & MacArthur & DH – not sure I completely identified, for reasons explained in my “DH: The Name That Does No Favors” Post – but I’m sympathetic to a number of values that seem central to the community.

[SLIDES 12-13] McPherson article: Multimodal Humanist – this term, still a mouthful, resonated more with me
[SLIDE 14]
Scrivener on when production is research
[SLIDE 15]
Question about Feedback & Evaluation — not simply so I could assign a grade, but so we could provide meaningful feedback

  • Work – particularly technical skills – were sometimes outside my area of expertise
  • How to balance weighting of form and content – “rigor” in concept or execution?
  • Individual vs. Group Accountability


[SLIDE 16] Fall 2010: Media & Materiality
[SLIDE 17]
Semester Schedule
[SLIDE 18]
Student Projects – Can look during conversation period

[SLIDE 19] Spring 2011: Libraries, Archives & Databases – touches on many DH themes

[SLIDES 20-21] Fall 2010 / 2011: Urban Media Archaeology

  • [SLIDE 22] Semester Schedule
  • [SLIDE 23] PROJECT PROPOSALS – not different from trendy “contracts”
    • Justify choice of “genre” and format – use of media tools as method
  • [SLIDES 24-25] Student Proposed Projects
    • I provide individual feedback; students post to blogs and classmates comment
  • [SLIDE 26] Learn Data Modeling
  • [SLIDE 27] User Scenarios
  • [SLIDE 28] Look inside Black Box – Software Development
  • [SLIDE 29] Pecha Kucha
    • DH projects inherently collaborative – need experts from multiple fields
  • [SLIDE 30] All the while, we’re collectively developing criteria for evaluation:
    • [SLIDE 31] By working in small groups and as a class to evaluate other “multimodal projects” + Hypercities
    • [SLIDE 32] Through individual map critiques
    • Thru Peer Review of one another’s projects
  • [SLIDE 33] Process Blogs – Self-Evaluation
    • Make public their process
      • [SLIDE 34] Discuss work w/ other public/cultural institutions – e.g., archives.
      • This semester, students are working w/ youth media centers, independent bookstores, etc.
  • [SLIDES 35-37] Practice “critical self-consciousness” – about their work processes, choice of methods, media formats, etc.
  • Hold themselves accountable for their choices
  • [SLIDE 38] Peer Evaluation: Paper Prototypes
  • Final Presentation: [SLIDE 39] My Feedback + [SLIDE 40] Students’ Peer Reviews
  • [SLIDE 41] Possible Topic for Q&A: Committee work on implications for the Dissertation



Alliterative Accomplishments: Ben’s Buried, Bundled Behind Closed Doors

My fantastic thesis student Ben Mendelsohn has a new websiteand a final cut of his video on internet infrastructure in Manhattan.This work began in Spring 2009, while Ben was taking my “Media & Architecture” graduate seminar; he drew inspiration from the work of Stephen Graham & Simon Marvin, Kazys Varnelis, and Andrew Blum, who took my Fall 2010 “Urban Media Archaeology” class (which Ben audited) on a walking tour of Lower Manhattan’s physical telecom networks and nodes.

Ben won the Distinguished Thesis Award and the Dean’s Commendation, and he was named our Spring 2011 commencement speaker. In short, he’s awesome.

Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors from Alex + Ben on Vimeo.


Manifesto Lost & Found

Bread & Puppet Theater, 1984

In preparing my presentation for the CUNY Digital Humanities Initiative on Tuesday night, I unearthed some student work from the “Processes of Placemaking” class I taught at Penn in 2003. We were working with the History of Art Department, PennPraxis, and the Center for Community Partnerships to explore what constitutes a public and how one makes a public place, to investigate town-gown relationships in West Philadelphia, and to propose ways to make various places along the 40th Street corridor into effective public places. We ended up working closely with the amazing Andrew Zitcer to create an exhibition in the Rotunda, a Carrere & Hastings-designed former Christian Science church that became an every-now-and-then venue for shows (I saw Mum, Mono, Interpol — while they were still an opening band! — and quite a few other shows there), exhibitions, impromptu gatherings, etc. We created an exhibition of the building’s history in the foyer, and were able to grant our visitors rare access to the sanctuary.

via West Philly Local:

The students — all undergrads from across the university, from Wharton business kids to graphic designers and architects — wanted to create a take-away for visitors. In keeping with the ethos of The Foundation, which was (is?) responsible for programming the space, the students decided to create a manifesto, in zine form. I had completely forgotten about this, and was delighted to stumble upon it tonight. The timing is quite coincidental: it was only about a week ago that I went up to SVA’s D-Crit lecture series to hear Rick Poynor deliver a “Manifesto on Manifestos.”


Urban Research Mobile Media

Here’s my presentation for the Urban Research & Mobile Media panel at Mobility Shifts:



It Didn’t Have to End Like This

Delicious, we had a good run. Four years and two months ago we met, hit it off, and decided we’d be partners. Since then, we worked side-by-side nearly every day. I kept you well fed, you kept me organized. I sang your praises.

Then, late last year, you ran into a bit of bad luck. I stuck by you. But then you started hanging out with a different gang. They decided to make you more “mainstream” — to trick you out all “social media”-like. I never thought you were that type. I liked the original you — the dependable, conscientious, understated you. And when you showed up at school one day with a new avatar, a new Facebook-y-wannabe wardrobe, I was hurt. What about what we had? Didn’t it mean anything to you?

I waited for you to come to your senses. I’d occasionally see little glimmers of hope. You started bundling tags again. You brought back auto-complete. But I just couldn’t get over that makeover. I missed the old, minimalist, clean-cut you — and it pained me too much to look at the mess you’d become.

So, I’m leaving you, Delicious. In fact, I’ve already moved on. I’ve got a new bookmarking site — Pinboard. And it makes me happy. Very, very happy. It’s everything you once were, and more. Gorgeously clean and simple and reliable. Plus, it allows full-text search of all my bookmarked sites! You never did that for me.

We had a good run, Delicious. We’ve just grown apart. I wish you well. Enjoy your new friends.

ah — it takes my breath away!

Thinking Think

A group of my Urban Media Archaeology students organized a fieldtrip to the IBM Think exhibit at Lincoln Center this past weekend. We entered via a vamp bordered, along the east, by a series of panels enumerating the various ways that technology — particularly IBM’s technology, of course — can “mak[e] the world work better.”

Christo and I appreciated this mention of the city’s “legacy systems” — a Kittlerian reference to “city as computer

Along the west side of the entry ramp was a 123-foot “data visualization wall” that animated quite a few of the applications represented on the aforementioned panels. None of my photos do justice to the wall, but there’s a really lovely slideshow on Scientific American‘s website. At the bottom of the ramp we got our free tickets for the 12-minute “immersive film” inside the exhibition space.

Once we got inside — Holy Kubrick! Monoliths galore! We found ourselves sharing the space with 40 seven-foot screens enclosed within mirrored walls, trapping them — and us — in a reflective zone of infinite regress.

via Scientific American

The screens were organized into six-panel “pods,” and we were advised to stand either in the center of one of the pods (there seemed to be three or four separate clusters of screens), affording a view of multiple screens simultaneously; or along the mirrored walls, where we could experience the immersive effect via reflection. Once the show began, we were, as IBM would have it, “enveloped in a rich narrative about the pattern of progress, told through awe-inspiring stories of the past and present.” The imagery was distributed across the screens; we frequently found ourselves spinning around to capture the full dimensionality of the visuals. A train that approached from the south screen could be seen, seconds later, receding into the distance on the north screen. A field of rice — the ‘before” shot — visible on the southeast screen stood opposite a steaming bowl of cooked rice — the “after” — on the northwest screen. (What do trains and rice have to do with IBM, you ask? It should be obvious! Technology touches every aspect of “humankind’s quest for progress!”) Christo pointed out that even the backs of the screens, which faced interstitial spaces where no one was standing, featured unique imagery. The film was as much a kaleidoscopic as an immersive experience.

Once the formal show was over, the 40 screens turned into interactive touchscreens, “transforming the space into a forest of discovery” (!) Each screen featured one of five steps — Seeing, Mapping, Understanding, Believing, Acting — from IBM’s gerund-based “approach to making the world work better.” This, we understood, is the recipe for world-changing — a “distinct, repeatable pattern” for progress. [all quotations via Think website]

Interacting with the screens via a gestural language — swipe, poke, pinch, etc. — familiar to us thanks to our smartphone training, we explored the history of measurement and visualization tools (Seeing); we traced the history of mapping and data visualization (Mapping); we studied models, prototypes, calculations, and other tools that allow us to better understand the complexity of the world’s systems (Understanding); we traveled to various sites of progressive action — attempts to thwart credit card fraud or enhance telecommunications infrastructures or improve health care — around the world (Acting): and we met, via a dozen or so interviews, individuals who believe in the possibility of technological process (Believing).

The entire experience had been overwhelmingly object-oriented and techno-centric — agency implicitly lies with the technology and the techno-social systems they construct — until we got to Believing. Here’s where we heard the human stories, where we saw human faces and heard human voices. Believing: this is what humans do best. We believe in technology’s potential to actualize progress.

Change is easy. It happens by itself. Progress, on the other hand, is deliberate. It won’t take root until someone believes it’s possible and convinces others that action will be worth the effort (via Think).

It’s our belief that transforms change into progress. Yet “sustainable progress requires massive coordination, cooperation, perpetual monitoring and automation. It takes teamwork and technology to manage complexity.” We need to form alliances, assemblages, with IBM’s techno-actants to effect ongoing progress. “Acting is never over,” IBM reminds us, “because our systems are alive.” Yeow. Unpack that sentence.

Repeatable patterns, algorithms, perpetual monitoring, infinite regress. I see where this is going.

After 20 minutes or so of touch-screen interaction, we were guided by attendants in “Think-branded” polo shirts out of the exhibition space — our “forest of discovery” — to make room for the next group. The exit hallway featured an display of 100 iconic moments from IBM’s 100-year history. Paul Rand was very much alive here — as were all kinds of fantastic dead media. This “exit experience” was meant to leave us with the impression that IBM’s historical “faith in science,…[and the] pursuit of knowledge” have fostered a shared “belief that together we can make the world better” — but instead, we Media Archaeologists reconceived this space as an exciting excavation of the strata of media history.

After all that thinking, I needed something a little less intellectually taxing — so I wrapped up the afternoon with a lot of dumb metal at the Richard Serra show at Gagosian.


My Classroom Is Open To You. There Will Be Fireworks.

Just a typical Monday night lecture. I might be the only faculty member with a Pyrotechnics TA — via Flickr:

In my Understanding Media Studies graduate lecture course, we dedicate the second half of the semester to the various “focus areas” within our curriculum, and we open these lectures to the entire School of Media Studies. You’re welcome to join us. All lectures take place in Tishman Auditorium, 66 W 12th Street, from 6 to 7:45 pm.

October 17: Social Media and Social Change: GEERT LOVINK, Director, Institute of Networked Cultures; Introduced by CHRISTIANE PAUL, Media Studies Faculty; with MARIA BYCK, Paper Tiger Television

October 24: Media and International Affairs: CAROL WILDER, Media Studies Faculty, with MAI LIEN TO and ALEXANDRA KELLY, Hanoi Media Lab

October 31: Film Form: MELISSA FRIEDLING and MARCUS TURNER, Media Studies Faculty, with a video introduction by SAM ISHII GONZALES, Media Studies Faculty

November 14: Documentary Studies: DEIRDRE BOYLE, Media Studies Faculty

November 21: Sound Studies & Acoustic Environments: ANN HEPPERMANN, Peabody Award-winning public radio producer and media artist; Introduced by BARRY SALMON, Media Studies Chair; with JIM BRIGGS, Advisor, WNSR: New School Radio

November 28: Media Management: Special Guest TBD; Introduced by PAUL HARDART, Media Studies Faculty

December 5: Media & the Urban Environment: ADRIAN HOPKINS, BENJAMIN MENDELSOHN & TANYA TOFT, Media Studies alum; Introduced by SHANNON MATTERN, Media Studies Faculty


Reading and Listening to Extinction and Vitality

Phonautograph, 1859, via wikipedia:

Wow — that’s a whopper of a headline. But that’s exactly what I found myself thinking about on Sunday, after a weekend full of “born-again” media. It all began at Cabinet, where, on Friday night, the ever-amazing Jonathan Sterne and artist Sari Carel “revisiti[ed] extinct sounds.” Their conversation ranged from the “preservation” of extinct bird species through recordings of their calls; and the role of the phonautograph in the process; to the drive toward ever-expedited extinction, or deletion, in an age of ubiquitous digital archiving.

Then on Saturday we made our fifth annual trip to the New York Art Book Fair, held again this year at PS1. I recognized most of the exhibitors from years past, and I even remembered flipping through many of the same publications last year and the year before…and the year before that. Yet because I was able to provide new contexts for some of this seemingly familiar work this year, projects I might have otherwise walked right past instead pulled me in. I had read a fantastic article in Art Journal this summer on Wallace Berman’s Semina, and was happy to see the publication featured in the “Loose Leaf” exhibition on the first floor. And although I’d enjoyed the busy-ness of Werkplaats Typografie‘s project rooms each year, this year my husband and I were especially taken in by the pedagogical mission of their Mary Shelley Facsimile Library.


I loved e-flux’s chalkboard room last year and was sad to have missed — thanks to a torrential downpour — their Airstream trailer-based book coop in the courtyard. I so regret allowing a little rain (okay, a lot of rain) to prevent me from seeing this.

As much as I love the Jorge Pardo floor in the old Dia space in Chelsea, where the book fair was held for its first few years, PS1, a former school of course, just feels so perfect as a location for the fair. As a site rooted in communal learning and sharing materials, it highlights the vitality, the sociality, the materiality of the publishing, distribution, and reading practices it contains during this fall weekend each year. And of course PS1 itself is a project of Alanna Heiss’s Institute for Art and Urban Resources, which transformed abandoned or underused buildings into artist’s spaces. It’s a space of revival. And inside its walls each year I can’t help but feel the vitality of print — the persistence, the flourishing, of a print culture that many have presumed extinct.


Click, Scan, Bold, Copy, Post

Photo by Me, February 16, 2007

Over four years after first putting pen to paper — and after a pretty brutal editing session, during which I painfully extracted some key sections from my obnoxiously long first draft — I’ve finally received a final e-print of “Click/Scan/Bold: The New Materiality of Architectural Discourse and Its Counter-Publics,” which will be published in the forthcoming issue of Design and Culture. I had a great experience working with the journal staff, and I found the peer-review process to be fairly efficient and constructive, which is certainly not always the case.

I typically post pdfs of my publications here, but I’ve discovered that, according to the RoMEO database of “publishers’ policies regarding the self- archiving of journal articles on the web and in Open Access repositories,” Berg, Design and Culture‘s publisher, does not “formally” support archiving of D&C articles. Drat. In lieu of posting the entire article, which I hope to do eventually, I offer my abstract (which, now, months removed from its submission, seems a wee bit underwhelming; I’ve discovered that I need at least a year away from any writing project before I can fully grasp what I’ve done — and before I can write an abstract that does some justice to the piece):

The past five years have brought several exhibitions, conferences, and other events that examine the past, present, and future of architectural periodicals. Incited in large part by the transformations wrought by new digital and social media in both architecture and publishing, these events reflect a desire among their participants to shape the materiality of architectural discourse – and even to frame the creation of discursive space as a form of architectural design itself. It is often hoped that the creation of new forms of “little” or “subversive” publications will result in the production not only of a designed object or process, but also of new discursive (counter)publics.