Sorting Network Artifacts, Part 2

Ancient Plumbing, via Ken and Nyetta on Flickr:

In my previous post I recapped the first day and a half’s presentations at last weekend’s Network Archaeology conference. Now I’ll try to move a bit more quickly through the latter day-and-a-half. That last post took me a ridiculously long time; this one’s going to have to be more condensed.

Abandoned Theater near Culver City via

Friday afternoon started off with a nice talk by Brian Jacobson on electrical networks at Gaumont studios in Paris, and the links between cinema’s industrialization and parallel developments in science and engineering. Then James Purdon talked about the representation of pylons in the poetry of Stanley Snaith and Stephen Spender. After that, Veronica Paredes shared her dissertation research on the repurposing and mapping of old movie theaters in LA; I’ve heard Veronica speak about this work on a few occasions, and I’m always excited to hear about her progression.

It was about this time that I started to get a bit nervous about my own upcoming talk, so my note-taking was suspended until after my panel.


Later that evening we had Jussi Parikka’s provocative keynote. I’m afraid if I were to try to crystallize his argument, I wouldn’t do it justice. But Jussi offered several important take-away concepts and messages that resonated throughout the rest of the weekend’s conversations, so I’ll list some of those instead:

  • The concept of micro-temporality — recognizing that seemingly instantaneous processes are actually comprised of a series of micro-temporal steps, e.g., switching, batch-processing, real-time systems
    • Acknowledging a non-human temporality, a “machine time”
      • Likewise, spatiality/addressing can be machine-driven. Systems can be self-learning; a system can “teach itself where to go, how to be routed.” There needn’t be any central control, “just local routing knowledge to go where it needs to go.”
  • Networks are “not about flow, but about managing bursts.”
  • “Publicness has a special relation to time, to machine time,” and is “understood through the switch”; packet-switching involves a form of shared time, determining who speaks, and when.
  • The concept of critical engineering (which some attendees, like Darren Wershler, suggested that we subject to its own critique)

The day closed with some great performances and screenings, including my former thesis student Ben Mendelsohn’s screening of his wonderful and widely circulated short documentary, Bundled, Buried and Behind Closed Doors, and Chris Cuellar’s totally awesome live video performance examining computer vision and first-person films.

The next morning I was really out of sorts, so the only thing I remember — perhaps fittingly, given my spaciness — was John Shiga’s super-fascinating, and devastating, presentation on John Lilly’s dolphin communication experiments. Oh, the terrible things we do to to animals.

via SuperStock:

The highlight of the conference for me was Lisa Gitelman’s “Network Returns” keynote. Lisa’s work has been inspirational to me for years, and I’m always tremendously excited by the creativity of her scholarship. She demonstrates how the tiniest media artifacts — slips of paper, staples, microscopic inscriptions — offer hugely important clues into the way we create, organize, and store information, and how we construct knowledge. Her talk was divided into two parts: one about self-addressing in telegraphy, and the second about the utility pole as neighborhood information hub.

She discussed the 19th-century practice of “having [one’s] name sent” via telegraph as a novelty; people would pay a few cents to have their names sent and returned — a practice that, Lisa says, helped to “make sense of the [new] process” of telegraphy by means of “interpellation.” Interestingly, first and last names had only recently become stable identifiers; before taxation, the draft, credit-reporting bureaus and other bureaucratic institutions required that people have reliable identifiers, there was a great deal of variability in the spelling of their names (she pointed out that, until the late 19th century (?), passport applications made a point of specifying that applicants were to spell their names the same way all throughout the application!). It’s important to consider that proper names held a particular place in telegraphy; because operators had learned to receive messages sonically, and because codes had been developed for routinizing (and abbreviating) messages sent in Morse code, proper names were the only words that had to be spelled out. Self-addressing finds recent-historical and modern-day parallels in the self-addressed, stamped envelope and in DNS debates.

Stapled by pinkcigarette on Flickr:

The second part of Lisa’s talk, which made me giddily happy, was about staple-ridden telephone poles. The pole, Lisa said, is “like a tree undone”; she draws parallels between it and the railroad tie, both creosote-treated wooden supports for 19th-century infrastructure. When I see one of these pierced poles, I have to stop and pay my respects. Despite the pockmarks and weathering, they have an air of nobility and worldliness. They’ve sacrificed themselves to perform a public service: it’s here where people post their most intimate public notices, complete with personal contact info — announcements about lost dogs, yard sales, piano lessons (there’s also of course a bunch of crap about escort services and “work from home” marketing shams). They ride the line of legality; posting leaflets is technically illegal, so each staple represents a violation, another blemish in the wood. Bare staples, meanwhile, “trouble the relationship between storage and transmission”; they remind us that the notices posted here are ephemera; they aren’t meant to last. The poles also serve as a conceptual hinge between multiple scales: at the top, where the phone lines and electric wires are draped, the pole represents our connection to global grids of power and communication; but on the ground, at staple-height, they root us in the local. What a gorgeous metaphor — and what a fantastic research subject.

After Lisa’s talk was a great panel with Alex Ingersoll, who drew connections between contemporary locative media and the divining rod; Brooke Beslisle, who spoke about 19th-century photo sets that represented new global networks of commerce and mobility; and Kris Paulsen on the distribution and preservation of guerilla video in the 70s (including work by some of my New School colleagues).

After that, Darren Wershler gave an awesome, and awesomely entertaining, talk on comic book scans, which raised questions regarding the changing materiality of comics themselves; the politics of digital formats (cbr, cbz); and “specific modes of social organization, attribution, and authorship, etc. I was also happy to hear Wershler (who wrote a great book about typewriting) take to task the Manovich model of studying such huge scanned repositories; the focus on mathematical analysis of visual qualities both contributes to “data mystification” and ignores the highly significant material properties of these objects (even in digital form!). Wershler’s presentation reminded me of the work of another of my past thesis advisees; in 2011 Andrew Nealon finished a great thesis on comic subcultures’ agreements on conventions and values in digital reproduction.

Dennis Ashbaugh, William Gibson, Kevin Begos, Jr., The Agrippa Files

Alan Liu had the last word. He spoke first about the Agrippa Files; I won’t recount his comments here, fascinating though they were, since he’s obviously given some version of this talk before. I will, however, outline his recommendations for developing new methods — for analysis, for preservation, etc. — that treat networks as something other than an abstraction; and new techniques for preserving networks as networks:


  1. Treat individual works of media as proto- or micro-networks: “it’s not the case that first there are individual works which are then networked.”
    • Preserve not a work, but a “swarm architecture”
    • Preserve the relationships among works
    • Create metadata standards to accommodate structural maps of media
  2. Treat micro-networks of individual works as part of a macro-network.
    • Our familiar concepts of the library and archive “collection” are obsolete, as are “finding aids,” shelving, etc.
    • We rarely attend to relationships among works, or with users, or between holdings past and present
    • We need to shift the paradigm of the library to data provenance and data lineage
    • Let’s see what we can learn from open archival information systems, data lineage, actor-network theory, bioinformatics, network archaeology
  3. Treat the past as a network: we must take up the challenge to produce a network archaeology method that can recode our understanding of what a library can be as a network — which might mean RFID tagging loose items, reconceiving of the library as an Internet of Things.
  4. Treat past and present networks differently: practice network-specific analysis (drawing from Katherine Hayles’ medium-specific analysis) that attends to culturally- and historically-specific network typologies.

I’ll leave it at that. I need a Gatorade.


Sorting Network Artifacts, Part 1

from The Lost City

Earlier this week I posted the text and images from my talk at last weekend’s Network Archaeology conference at Miami University. There were so many fantastic talks, and I met so many wonderful people, that I thought I should take some time to transcribe some of my notes — if for no other reason than that I probably won’t be able to make sense of these scribbles a few months down the road.

I should say up front that my notes are far from perfect, primarily because I was a far-from-ideal attendee. I arrived in Oxford, OH, without having slept much the previous two nights, and I was pretty much sleepwalking through the first day. I recovered on Friday, but hit another wall on Saturday. I was so exhausted — through no fault of the presenters! — that I had to find a remote classroom where I could take a nice, long nap on the floor (so embarrassing)! Consequently, I missed some good talks.

Even with the impartiality of my notes, I unfortunately don’t have time here to recount everything, so I need to be selective. My lack of commentary on some presentations shouldn’t be interpreted as a tacit statement about their value. I’m simply focusing on those presentation that have most relevance to my own interests.

The first talk for which I have somewhat comprehensible notes is Adrian Johns’s “The Information Defense Industry and the History of Networks,” whose abstract accurately described the content of his presentation. I couldn’t possibly do justice to his overarching argument or attempt to relay his celebrated research on the topic of piracy, some of which he summarized here, so I’ll simply present a few disjointed points that struck me as particularly interesting:

  • The development of the information defense industry is “not simply a product of a growing network culture”; it has “traced the history of the network” itself — e.g., a “fraternity through guild systems.”
  • The proprieties of linking creativity and commerce parallel the rise of the concept of piracy, a term that had moral, economic, and political meanings.
  • Piracy-preventive measures can be either overt (e.g., encryption, photocopy-proof paper), covert (anti-copying codes, regional codes, genetic triggers), or… [I couldn’t transcribe the slide quickly enough]
  • It’s important to have a “deep” perspective on piracy and “information defense”; the enterprises charged with upholding networks do so “by destabilizing other cultural values” — i.e., you might uphold rights here by compromising privacy there.
    • Sometimes you “may have to conceded on the social contract in order to uphold rights” — but “where to draw the line?”
  • Who guards the guards?
  • Johns declared: “I think radio is the most revolutionary medium.” [Paraphrase] You sit in a studio and speak into a microphone, and you have no idea if anybody’s listening…. You have to develop a new social science to ‘get’ your audience, which in a private system means providing quantitative data for advertisers, and in a public system means demonstrating that you’re serving the public good. (I really need to read Johns’s Death of a Pirate.)

The next morning Liam Young presented a fabulous paper on “the list” (a topic I’m quite fond of). He cited a fantastic quotation from Latour’s “Visualization and Cognition: Drawing Things Together”: “In politics as in science, when someone is said to “master’ a question or to ‘dominate’ a subject, you should normally look for the flat surface that enables mastery (a map, a list, a file, a census, the wall of a gallery, a card-index, a repertory); and you will find it.” Young ranged from the ability of lists to prescribe action (we can cite the work of Cornelia Vismann, who describes how lists “prescribe the algorithmic processes of file”) to lists in programming, like LISP’s dynamic data structures which don’t require that data types be prescribed in advance (as opposed to a language like C:, for which “everything is set up in advance by a human agent”; “everything is included”).

Microfilming, 1950s – via

Sandra Gabrielle, whom I was delighted to get to know, shared a wonderful paper on newspaper archives, in which she focused on the materiality and politics of preservation. Most digital newspaper databases are scans of microfilm, which itself was often made from bound newspapers and subject to the “vagaries of binding.” Our digital access “remains limited to choices made decades ago,” including choices regarding which papers to microfilm; local papers were often left out. What’s more, the limitations of microfilm were “transferred to digital”: we don’t get color, images are often smeary, etc. In short, the digital record “doesn’t reveal much about the newspaper as a form.” We also have to wonder what type of experience of newspaper-reading is embodied in these various preservation formats. What about the “logics that structure the reading of the newspaper?” The newspaper microfilm reinforces linear reading through scrolling, while we’re free to flip through — to randomly access — a print paper. To sum up, both today’s digital scans and yesterdays’ microfilm were/are “bound by earlier preservation decisions.” Is it appropriate to think of digital scans as surrogates, and the databases themselves as instances of either “remediation” or “transfiguration”?

Mnemosyne Atlas – via

Pepper Stetler gave a great talk on Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, which we talk about in my Archives/Libraries class. Warburg approaches history as a “network of recurring visual motifs,” and he “felt most comfortable” practicing art history in the form of panels of images (which Stetler compared to Latour’s “immutable mobiles”). He affixed images to these panels using pins and clips; he wanted to keep the relations between images mobile. Stetler suggested that Warburg’s work raises such questions as: how did visual and pictorial expressions originate; what are the conditions under which they’re stored in archives of memory; and what are the laws that govern their formation or reemergence? She regards Warburg’s project as an effort “to prove photography’s mnemonic and archival potential” — and “to think of [Warburg’s] network,” of the Atlas, “as ‘incomplete’ is to assume that Warburg thought the project could be finished.” Such an assumption “ignores the asymptotic nature of networks.” Ultimately Warburg’s project makes us wonder “how much explanatory burden…the visual [can] carry” — and just how much content matters in network analysis (Stelter questions Galloway and Thacker’s suggestion that analyzing content has given way to analyzing network structure).


After Stetler, Rory Solomon gave a brilliant talk on the “media archaeology of ‘the stack'” (full disclosure: he’s my RA and thesis advisee 🙂 If Wolfgang Ernst advocates for examining the “non-discursive” in our media, “How do we locate non-discursive objects for analysis — especially in software?” Rory talked us through the history of various logical structures in the history of computing; conditional branching and if/then structures, the function call stack and its push/pop operations, the principle of “last in, first out,” etc. He looked at “the stack” — the application stack, the network stack — as a structural and intellectual model that can help us understand computing operations, and the interdependency of different “levels” of technical systems. We see that higher level systems in the stack are always constrained, always dependent on lower-level systems; “you can do only what the lower-level system allows you to do.” So where, then, do we locate the non-discursive or sub-semantic in these technical systems? Given the interdependency of various levels of the stack, Rory argues that finding any purely non-discursive site is tricky: “each level is simultaneously discursive (to levels below) and non-discursive (to levels above).”

via Puck magazine

Richard John then presented a whirlwind of a keynote on “network effects” in telecom history. I had the pleasure of riding from the airport with John and was immensely impressed, both then and during his talk, by his encyclopedic knowledge of telecommunication history and his embodiment of the historian’s historian. As in his book, Network Nation, John emphasized here that understanding network history requires that we also understand the roles of business and government. The telegraph and the telephone followed different evolutionary paths; our “presumption that the network has a [single] logic of its own” only serves to “mystify the actual development of historical narrative.” Network building in the formative era of telecom history “followed no singular logic”; decisions were often based on business strategy, and, contrary to popular narratives, only rarely did they rely on electricity.

My head hurts just from remembering all this material. I need a break.


Archizines’ Fluttering Pages

I was invited to write a review of Storefront’s Archizines exhibition for Arquine‘s 60th-anniversary “Representation in Architecture” issue. I can’t post the entire text because, well, I’m actually getting paid for this article (imagine that!), but I will share a few bits and pieces of the unedited text:

Archizines O P E N I N G from Storefront for Art&Architecture on Vimeo.

On a glorious spring day, when New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture folded open its gallery walls onto Kenmare Street, a breeze rustled thousands of bound, clipped, and stapled pages inside. Perched on metal rods rising from the floor were 80 alternative and independent architectural publications representing a wide variety of formal and editorial formats, countries of origin, topical content, and graphic styles. Some specimens were so slight that a small gust of wind would’ve sent them airborne, so they had to be fastened to their stands. Yet all throughout the gallery, all species of periodicals – magazines, zines, journals, broadsheets – exhibited an animation and restlessness; they flapped their pages in the breeze, hinting that at any second they could take flight….

photo by me

The Archizines exhibition is only the latest in a flurry of recent exhibitions, events, and publications exploring the past, present, and future of architectural periodicals. As the materiality of architectural practice itself has shifted dramatically over the past 20+ years, we’ve witnessed a growth of interest in the materiality and politics of architectural discourse. Much design discussion has moved online, but Archizines, as the exhibition’s organizers suggest, reflects our “residual love of the printed and paper page.” Love, yes – but our interest in these objects isn’t merely about vestigial affection or nostalgia; it’s rooted in the conviction that “printed matter matters.” These objects, waving in the wind and then surrendering in readers’ hands, are vibrant matter; they have the capacity to give rise to public spheres and imagined communities. They’re vital elements of a whole ecosystem of material architectural discourse and mediated representation….


Dirty Media Archaeology

Last weekend Rory and Ben — two thesis advisees (Ben’s actually NYU PhD-bound) — and I took part in the Network Archaeology conference organized by the fabulous Nicole Starosielski and cris cheek at Miami University in Ohio. It was quite a whirlwind of a weekend — full of genuinely fantastic presentations (I’ll write a recap post in a bit), exciting introductions, and lots of lovely conversations with folks I already know and admire. Rory and Ben both did a bang-up job.

I’m posting below my presentation, which I stupidly called, in keeping with my “lame titles” tradition, “Digging Through Archives and Dirt.” It’s about what media archaeology, especially one concerned with the “deep time” of media, can learn from archaeology-proper and architectural history. This, like all my recent talks, was written between 11pm and 5am — just in time to head to the airport.


This afternoon I’m missing a meeting of the “Post-Hermeneutical” Reading Group at NYU. [SLIDE2] They’re discussing a selection of texts on surveillance, the techno-image, and machine-vision: the way cameras and sensors register the activity of humans, cars, and other objects. [SLIDE3] Meanwhile, Studio-X, a satellite lab of Columbia University’s architecture school, has been organizing a series of lectures and workshops on “smart cities,” all of which make use of these same technologies to increase the efficiency of their urban infrastructures and services. [SLIDE4] And next weekend, the Architectural League of New York is hosting an event to celebrate the release of the ninth and final installment in the Situated Technologies pamphlet series; this issue focuses on “big data” and subjectivity in geo-spatial environments. [SLIDE5] Over the past few years, lots of questions have been raised regarding how new, networked technologies might change the ways our cities are designed and how we live in these “sentient” environments.

While the “sentient city” may be a relatively new phenomenon, the “media city” isn’t. Within my own field, media studies, there is a plethora of research on architecture and cities in relation to mechanically reproduced still and moving images. For instance, many photographic, architectural, and cultural historians, inspired greatly by Walter Benjamin, have examined [SLIDE6] the city as a photographic subject; [SLIDE7] photography’s early role in the documentation of urban [SLIDE8] transformation and as an instigator of social change; [SLIDE9] and photography’s influence on particular modern architectural and urban designers. There is also much, much work on [SLIDE10] the city and film as contemporaneous developments; on [SLIDE11] the representation of the city in film; and [SLIDE12] on film’s influence upon architects and planners, and vice versa. In more recent decades, scholars like Lynn Spigel and Anna McCarthy have begun to address [SLIDE13] the synchronous rise of television and post-war suburbs; and [SLIDE14] the politics of screens in public places. [SLIDE15] There’s also been, in recent years, some fantastic work on radio and modern sound technologies’ impact on architecture, urban design, and denizens’ urban experience.

[SLIDE16] The sheer number of books and conferences and exhibitions on the “city in photographs,” the “cinematic city,” and the “digital city” indicates that most recent scholarship focuses on these modern media technologies’ relationships to the city. [SLIDE17] Furthermore, there is in many cases an assumption that the mediation of the city began with these media. [CLICK] Scott McQuire, in his book The Media City, observes that the mediation of urban experience “has been underway at least since the development of technological images in the context of urban ‘modernization’ in the mid-19th century.” He thus acknowledges that the history of urban mediation might stretch before the mid-19th century, yet his, and other media scholars’, relative lack of attention to this earlier period reinforces a filmic and photographic myopia, as well as ocularcentrism. Eric Gordon, in The Urban Spectator, locates the origin of the media city even later than McQuire: [CLICK] “from the hand-held camera at the end of the 19th century to the mobile phone at the end of the 20th, the city has always been a mediated construct.” I argue that that “always” begins well before the late 19th century – that, indeed, as Friedrich Kittler asserts, “The City Is a Medium,” and perhaps it has been since the days of Eridu and Uruk.

Last month I participated in an exciting panel at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference on media infrastructure with Nicole Starosielski, one of our fantastic conference hosts, Lisa Parks, and Jonathan Sterne. There, I argued that we need to look at the [SLIDE18] deep time of urban mediation. [SLIDE19] Media technologies – particularly media infrastructures – have been embedded in and informing the morphological evolution of our cities since their coming into being. [SLIDE20] Yet the literature in media studies (and architecture, which, in the past five years, has focused a lot of attention on infrastructure) unfortunately doesn’t offer a terribly deep historical perspective. If we were to apply media archaeology – as both a theoretical framework and a methodology – to the study of urban media, I think we could dig much deeper. [CLICK] And I suggest we might want to borrow a few trowels from the archaeologists – that’s archaeologists of the Indiana Jones, rather than Kittlerian, variety.

[SLIDE21] In the introduction to their 2011 media archaeology anthology, Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka propose that “[m]edia archaeology should not be confused with archaeology as a discipline. When media archaeologists claim that they are ‘excavating’ media-cultural phenomena, the word should be understood in a specific way.” Yet I suggest that there’s much to be gained in a study of mediated sites by considering how archaeologists understand excavation – how they dig both metaphorically and literally into physical terrain – and by productively “confusing” media archaeology and archaeology proper. I must admit that most of my insight into the “deep time” of urban media infrastructures has come by means of archaeology and architectural and urban history, which offer helpful theories and methods for dealing with artifacts and architectures. The work of archaeologists Christopher J. Witmore and Michael Shanks has proven especially useful. Both advocate for an appreciation of the role of various media technologies in archaeological practice, and for the the multisensoriality and temporal “entanglement” of the material record.

[SLIDE22] Besides, material media infrastructures constitute a layered landscape that simply lends itself to digging into. Historical networks leave material residues – artifacts like pneumatic tubes, telegraph cables, roads for postal delivery, technologies for the production and dissemination of early print forms – that we can unearth. [SLIDE23] Digging into these layers, we often find that various infrastructures have distinctive temporalities and evolutionary paths. Through “excavation,” we can assess the lifespans of various media networks and ascertain when “old” infrastructures “leak” into new-media landscapes, when media of different epochs are layered palimpsestically, or when new urban media “remediate” their predecessors. Richard John, who’s written histories of American telecommunications and the postal system, has found that the infrastructures he’s studied were “complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Telegraphy supplemented mail delivery, and telephony supplemented telegraphy, without rendering either mail delivery or telegraphy obsolete.” [SLIDE24] Various networks also provide material support for one another; architectural historian Kazys Varnelis writes that “[b]ecause of the costs of developing new telecommunications networks, all efforts are made to string optic fibers through water, gas, and sewage ducts; [and] between cities, existing railway, road, and waterway routes are often used.”

[SLIDE25] We find that the historical media infrastructures on the “lower strata” of our cities have lain the foundation for our modern-day media (as per the principle of “path dependency”), but they’re also often very much alive in, and continuing to shape, the contemporary city. This intermingling of temporalities fits archaeologist Christopher Witmore’s definition of “archaeological time”: “the entanglement, the intermingling, the chiasm of pasts and presents.” Our infrastructural cities are a “folded, nonlinear temporal net,” a “complex aggregate mixture of disparate eras, events, achievements which have a durable trace.”

[SLIDE26] Witmore argues that the model of “stratification” is particularly problematic because it “wraps a block of linear temporality up into periods placed into neatly stacked boxes,” separated by “arbitrary divisions.” He proposes genealogy as “one means of breaking up such stratification…. Radical revolutions are not the only explanation for the emergence of new collectives, new hybrids,” he says; “more subtle genealogical shifts, more complex networks of relation are also to be traced behind such processes.” [SLIDE27] He suggests that the metaphor of the palimpsest presents similar conceptual problems: historical layers aren’t simply “written, erased, and rewritten”; instead, there are plenty of “points of connection, proximity and action between various pasts.”

This revision of “revolution”-based history requires that we rethink how the archaeological object – whether an ancient urn or a network of fiber optic cable – is conceived. [SLIDE28] Seemingly “modern” things, Witmore says, are “really [jus]
gatherings of achievements from various times and numerous places.” [SLIDE29] He even draws parallels to the work of Zielinski and Kittler, and uses the daguerreotype, Babbage’s analytical engine, and the Jacquard loom as examples.

Witmore is one of several archaeologists who are struck by the [SLIDE30] “proliferation of ‘archaeologies’ in recent years”: “media archaeologists to archaeologists of knowledge or science, from archaeologists digging around in government archives to excavators of discourse.” In a prospectus for a new book about archaeology amidst the recent “turn to things,” Witmore and three archaeologist colleagues acknowledge that “this proliferation is not just metaphorical,” and they wonder: “Why are archaeologists [themselves] not involved? What could archaeology contribute to these trans-disciplinary discussions…?”

[SLIDE31] In the time that remains, I’ll suggest how we might draw on the work of archaeologists-proper (and, ideally, ultimately collaborate with them) in understanding a dimension of the “media city” that wouldn’t seem to lend itself easily to “excavation.” I’m referring to the “sonic city” – the city of radio waves and public address and everyday conversation. How does one dig into a form of mediation that seemingly has no physical form? How might we ascertain the ways in which radio and sound waves have interacted with, and even shaped, the material city? To write this history, we have to draw on the work of archaeologists and architectural historians (who, I might add, have done some wonderful work on the relationships between urban form and writing technologies and chirographic networks), as well as historians of science and the senses.

How might ancient cities have provided material infrastructures for speech – for “oral culture”? Cities have been places of public address and conversation, and acoustic considerations have informed their design and construction, for millennia.[SLIDE32] “Plato limited the size of his ideal city to the number of citizens who might be addressed by a single voice,” and as Lewis Mumford reminds us, “Mesopotamian cities had an assembly drum, just as medieval cities used a bell in a church tower to call their citizens together.” Witmore acknowledges that, in recent years, archaeologists have begun to pay more attention to acoustics – from the sounds produced in ancient sites by historical musical instruments or tools, to the acoustic properties of various places. [SLIDE33] Some call this sub-field archaeoacoustics. Witmore writes: “Considerations of the acoustic qualities of various locales in the ancient Athenian Agora, for example, might be regarded as of immediate relevance for understanding site-specific issues of performance in Ancient Greece (speech, oral poetics, drama or even clandestine gossip).”

[SLIDE34] In 1872 archaeologists found in the Roman Forum two marble reliefs representing an emperor – either Trajan or Hadrian – standing on the Forum’s Rostra Augusti (speaker’s platform), delivering a public address. Inspired by such finds, architectural historian Diane Favro and classicist Christopher Johanson are creating digital models of the Forum to understand how the space accommodated funeral processions.  [SLIDE35] With further research, they’re attempting to model and understand how the Forum functioned acoustically as a space for speech:  “How did accompanying sounds reinforce the activities?… Where did spectators stand?… What route to the forum was taken by participants?” (15). In short, they want to understand in part how the material landscape functioned as an “infrastructure” for oral communication networks.

Jump forward a few thousand years, to an age when print was widely available – in fact, as David Henkins writes in City Reading, it was plastered all over the city – and the mechanically reproduced image was gaining in popularity. Even then, in the mid-19th century, the city was a place of public address. [SLIDE36] Architectural historian Joanna Merwood-Salisbury examines how the design of New York’s Union Square has been modified repeatedly to either accommodate or contain voices of protest. Samuel Ruggles, one of the Square’s developers, claimed in 1864 that the square was “deliberately designed to support participatory democracy. The triangular parcels of land left over by the imposition of the ellipse on the grid were expressly made for ‘the assemblage of large masses of our citizens in public meetings.’” [SLIDE37] “The recent use of the square for huge rallies in support of the Union” showed the Square to be “a theater adequate to the utterance of the national voice.” Through its continual renovation, planners aimed to use the square as an infrastructure to create “active and informed citizens as well as foster social harmony,” yet it remained, and remains, a site for radical meetings and rallies (including many that integrate a variety of media: locative technologies, text messages, cloth banners, and, still, the bull-horned or naked human voice).

We might imagine future archaeologists conducting fieldwork in our urban centres in order to understand how our 20th– and 21st– century cities provided infrastructures for the transmission of more modern sonic communications. In their work on archaeological approaches to the contemporary past, Rodney Harrison and John Schofield remind us that “excavating” modern sites will most likely not require “digging,” but, rather, surveying the surface-level landscape – and sometimes even looking up. [SLIDE38] The first radio broadcast centers were in cities – which, ironically, presented many material barriers to a radio signal. Because signal strength and the location of stations’ transmitters maximized their broadcasting range, allowing them to either penetrate or circumvent tall buildings, many early broadcasts were transmitted from their cities’ highest points – the top floors of their tallest buildings, which were occasionally hotel rooms. Radio stations in New York were broadcasting from the Metropolitan Life Building and making use of the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings’ antenna spires.

Speaking in 1935 of the New York Police Department’s early adoption of a radio communication system, Chief Engineer Thomas Rochester explained how the city’s mass of tall buildings functioned both as an infrastructure for and an impediment to transmission: “A single 500-watt transmitter station would be hopelessly inadequate for New York because of the absorbing effects of the many tall, steel-framed buildings, elevated railways and bridges, and because of the area to be served. The interference caused by electrical systems and devices adds to the difficulty.”

[SLIDE39] Architectural historian Carlotta Daro acknowledges that new telecommunications technologies gave rise to new infrastructural elements – electricity poles, cables, antennas, transmission towers – “around which cities would be built.” She suggests that the “professional practice of telecommunications engineering was absorbed by modernist architects and urban planners and synthesized as a new kind of technological vision of both town and country.” Lewis Mumford represented one such group of planners – the Regional Planning Association of America. In 1937, he wrote in Architectural Record: [SLIDE40] “The area of potential urban settlement has been vastly increased by the motor car and the airplane; but, the necessity for solid contiguous growth, for the purposes of the intercourse, has in turn been lessened by the telephone and the radio.” These new, liberating technologies – what he called neotechnics – have afforded planners an opportunity to consider alternatives to increasing urban concentration. And he, and the RPAA, of which he was a co-founder and spokesperson, advocated instead for planned decentralization, like what you see here.

What will future archaeologists say of the form of our “radio cities? How will its infrastructures become entangled with those of the “city of speech”? What new sonic media are to come, and how will they embed themselves in our urban landscapes – and integrate with all the sound-making communication technologies that have preceded them? [SLIDE41] Will we need to make space for new infrastructures of sonic warfare? [SLIDE42] How will evolving noise codes – New York’s most recent aims to regulate the sounds of nightclubs, [SLIDE43] ice cream truck jingles, and earbuds – shape zoning practices, which will in turn dictate urban form? [SLIDE44] How will new acoustic engineering strategies, like those under development at Arup Acoustics, allow us to “sound design” entire cities ([SLIDE45] as Arup was commissioned to do in Dongtan, China)? And how will these spaces and networks entwine with those that have been around for a while: [SLIDE46] the spatial networks of formal and informal radio broadcast, [SLIDE47] of religious calls to prayer, [SLIDE47] of the human voice? The city itself is an infrastructure that supports this entanglement of media, old and new. And digging into these material supports for urban communication – picking up spades and digging in the dirt – helps us better understand how these networks emerge, evolve, and integrate, and, in the process, shape the kinds of interactions we’re able to enjoy in our cities, which is where most of us on this planet, and ever-growing numbers of us, live.


Enough ‘New Aesthetic’ Already!

In May of last year James Bridle started The New Aesthetic Tumblr. According to my records, I started following last July. This past March, he organized a New Aesthetic panel at SXSW. Bruce Sterling wrote a critical response — and since then there’s been an explosion of responses: to Sterling, to the panel, to the Tumblr itself, to the responses to responses. Folks are asking:

What’s the new aesthetic? Is it really new? It is an aesthetic? Is it a movement? A manifesto? Is there any coherence to the objects and phenomena Bridle gathers together here? Does he push it far enough? Is it a catalogue, a cabinet of curiosities, an index, a curated collection? What species of assemblage is this Tumblr-that’s-more-than-your-average-Tumblr? It it political enough? It is really just about machine vision? Shouldn’t it be about all object-oriented perception? Why isn’t it about what I want it to be about?

Bridle introduced the project with a statement full of conditionals and, it seems, a good dose of humility:

“For a while now, I’ve been collecting images and things that seem to approach a new aesthetic of the future, which sounds more portentous than I mean. What I mean is that we’ve got frustrated with the NASA extropianism space-future, the failure of jetpacks, and we need to see the technologies we actually have with a new wonder. Consider this a mood-board for unknown products.”

TNA’s been everywhere these past few weeks, and, frankly, I’m a little tired of it — tired of the debate, not TNA itself. I’m also sort-of frustrated with the nature of the discussion: rather than faulting Bridle for not making the mood board you’d make if you had control, why not make your own? You want something weirder, make your own weird. Start your own “Newer Aesthetic” Pinterest or something. I’m sure we’d all love to see it.


Archives, Libraries + Databases, Round 2

Miler Lagos, via

I’m teaching my Archives, Libraries & Databases class again this coming fall (here’s last year’s course website). And once again, I’m a bit concerned that students might think it’s a research skills class. As I pointed out last year,

I’m not going to teach people how to use a library or build a database. Instead, we’re going to talk about the politics and aesthetics and ethics of organizing information…or media…or data…or knowledge — these four terms are not interchangeable, and we’re going to talk about that, too — through these different intellectual architectures. And given my interests, we’ll of course talk about some physical architectures as well.

The course title‘s a bit different this year. Last spring it was Libraries, Archives + Databases — but only because the timing of our various field trips dictated that we start with the libraries section and put archives in the middle. This year, I’m not going to allow field trips to dictate our schedule; I think it’s important for the conceptual integrity of the class to start with archives, then move along  historically (although not teleologically!) as we go through the semester.

Anyway, here’s the course description:

“There has been more information produced in the last 30 years than during the previous 5000.” We’ve all heard some variation on this maxim. As U.S. publishers add 250,000 printed books and close to 300,000 print-on-demand books to our libraries each year; as we find ourselves wading through over 200 million websites; as we continue to add new media – from Tweets to Apps to geo-tagged maps – to our everyday media repertoires, we continually search for new ways to navigate this ever more treacherous sea of information. Throughout human history we have relied on various institutions and politico-intellectual architectures to organize, index, preserve, make sense of, and facilitate or control access to our stores of knowledge, our assemblages of media, our collections of information. This seminar looks at the past, present, and future of the library, the archive, and the database, and considers what logics, priorities, politics, audiences, contents, aesthetics, physical forms, etc., ally and differentiate these institutions. We will examine what roles the library, archive, and the database play in democracy, in education, in everyday life, and in art. Throughout the semester we’ll examine myriad analog and digital artworks that make use of library/archival material, or take the library, archive, or database as their subject. Some classes will involve field trips and guest speakers. Students will have the option of completing at least one theoretically-informed creative/production project for the class.”

As we did last spring, we’ll probably go on field trips to the Reanimation Library, the Morgan Library, and the Municipal Archives. I’ll try to find a couple other sites, too. And I’ll bring in some interesting guest speakers.

Here’s a rough outline of what we’ll do throughout the semester:

  • Historicizing Information Overload: we’ll read some Clay Shirky, Ann Blair, and Borges.
  • Ordering Media’s “Innumerable Species”: We’ll read some Georges Perec (ah, my favorite!), David Weinberger, and some classification and ontological theory.
  • Exploring the Archives: We’ll read some Foucault and Derrida and some archive theory from Terry Cook. We’ll also visit the Municipal Archives this day.
  • What’s in the Archive: For this week we’ll read Wolfgang Ernst and some other stuff TBD.
  • Who’s in the Archive: We’ll read some Ann Stoler and Diana Taylor, and we’ll examine the work of Raqs Media Collective and the Atlas Group.
  • Archival Aesthetics: We’ll read Hal Foster on the “archival impulse” and Susan Stewart on the Wunderkammer, we’ll listen to ta Tate Modern conference on “The Archival Impulse,” and we’ll study the work of some archive-minded artists like Ann Hamilton, who happens to be my hero.
  • Plug-In: We’ll save a week or two in the middle of the semester where we can talk about things, or visit sites, or talk with people, that reflect students’ interests.
  • Libraries: From Mesopotamia to Madison Avenue: This day we’ll visit the Morgan Library, and we’ll read both about that specific library and about the general history of libraries in Matthew Battles’ excellent Library: An Unquiet History.
  • Idiosyncratic and Unorthodox Libraries: We’ll read more Perec, and we’ll examine the Warburg and Prelinger libraries.
  • The Future Library: Because there’s always new material being written on this topic, our specific readings will probably be drawn from current media. It’s likely we’ll talk about the Digital Public Library of America and a couple recently constructed library buildings — and we might read the article I’m currently writing on pop-up libraries.
  • Tabula of Relationships, Orders of Things: Here we’ll read more Foucault and Manuel DeLanda (not my favorite), and we’ll introduce ourselves to Paul Otlet and Vannevar Bush.
  • A Database Episteme: We’ll read some theoretical and practical stuff on databases — including Ted Byfield’s intellectual history of “information,” Alan Liu’s work on “transcendental data,” Eugene Thacker’s work on bioinformation, and some basic histories of databases.
  • A Database Aesthetic: We’ll read Lev Manovich and Christiane Paul, and we’ll examine the work of a few database artists.
  • Final Presentations: We’ll save the final two weeks for students to present their semester projects.

Iconic Images: Photography + Architecture

Iwan Baan’s Bibliotheca Espana, Medellin, by Giancarlo Mazzanti

My past two weeks have been devoted almost entirely to students: lots of grading, several big course preps, final reviews of a few theses and thesis proposals (one of which went through three rounds of revision in the course of a week), three weekend class activities or full-day field trips, lots of advising, etc. I found it quite quite funny when, as I was in the midst of a 70-hour work week last week, someone forwarded to me David Levy’s inane Washington Post article “Do College Professors Work Hard Enough?” Why yes, David, most of us do.

One of my course preps was for the architectural photography lesson in my Media + Architecture class. I wasn’t satisfied with my previous lesson, so I decided to start (almost) from scratch. Since there has been a good deal written about architecture (and cities) and photography, and because there have been many exhibitions of city photography, I assumed I’d find some helpful online resources or collections of photographs. Not really. I still had to spend eight or ten hours pulling together material from disparate sources. What follows is the result. I figure it might save some others the effort that I expended in creating it:


What were some of the early uses to which architectural photography was put?

Architecture was the ideal photographic subject during photography’s early history.

  • Buildings sat still.
  • The photograph captures only what endured – moving objects were not impressed
  • Appealed to a bourgeois population interested in travel.

DOCUMENTATION: Early photographers regarded their work as documentary.

  • Missions Heliographiques: 1851, French government assigned Edouard Baldus, Henri Le Secq, Hippolyte Bayard, O. Mestral, and Gustave Le Gray to document national monuments


Before demolition began, city officials commissioned Charles Marville to create photographic records of the existing avenues.


Role of these photographic documentation programs in supporting nationalism

Marville purposely took the photographs of Paris’s architecture and streets scenes when it was raining, so that the soft diffused light mixed with the rain on the cobblestone produced a PICTURESQUE image that elicited a feeling of perfection.



  • Engravings influenced the vantage points – front-on – from which buildings were initially photographed
  • Camera presented limitations not experienced by the draughtsman: couldn’t capture full façade

Photography had an impact on the way architecture was taught and experienced.



Photographs provided inspiration for designers and proved instrumental to the birth of the new field of architectural history.

  • Architectural history as a collection of images
  • Typology / Style

Haussmannization: Planning for Vistas //


According to Colomina, Le Corbusier sees the house as constructing pictures, or scenes, as about movement through space as the unfolding of a movie or a narrative…. For Le Corbusier, houses built spectacles.


“You enter: the architectural spectacle at once offers itself to the eye; you follow an itinerary and the views develop with great variety; you play with the flood of light illuminating the walls or creating half-lights. Large windows open up views on the exterior where you find again the architectural unity…. Here, reborn for our modern eyes, are historic architectural events: pilotis (piers), the horizontal window, the roof garden, the glass façade.” (Privacy & Publicity, 5)

Joseph Tabbi, in review of Privacy/Publicity: “Houses became mechanisms for seeing, as evidenced by design sketches that begin with postcards pasted to the page (the tourist site/sight) and that figure the human by a large eye. The view was crucial to the house, not for light or ventilation (technology could take care of these needs) but for the vision they allowed. This vision, however, became more detached from the humanist observer, as it was modelled on the mechanical eye of the camera…. Architecture is not only photographed for display in books, exhibits, and magazines…, but is itself constructed to recreate the space of a photograph in its rooms and windows.”

Le Corbusier: staged photos of his work, appropriated advertising imagery


Corb: “We are following somebody, the traces of his existence presented to us in the form of a series of photographs of the interior” – Colomina – voyeurism – gendered spaces

How was Corb using these photos? As documentation, technical and celebratory? As promotion? As a record of occupancy, consumption, lifestyle?


Mies Van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion


  • Existed for less than a year – 1929 – exists instead, and has achieved its status, through the photographs
  • Presents building as objet d’art – user is irrelevant


  • For 56 years, the building existed only in photographs
  • Pavilion rebuilt, using old photographs, in 1986


  • SLIDE: BILL ENGDAHL (of Hedrich-Blessing), MIES, 1956


Targeted at architects: “analytical, abstract, emphatically editorial and self-referential” – function to “describe and catalogue the geometry of a structure; to inform peers of the latest advances in the discipline; to reinforce the professional identity of designers…; to set normative benchmarks in the value judgment of a particular scheme; to establish paradigmatic norms of spatial representation” – tends to obey representational principles of arch drawings (Serraino 127)

Targeted toward consumers: settings become displays of objects of desire; space is staged to appeal to middle- and upper-class taste



(via) In the mid-1940s, as the United States faced the postwar challenge of housing three million returning soldiers, a few architects in Southern California rejected the idea of identical houses in suburban developments. The “Case Study House Program” initiated in 1945 by Arts and Architecture magazine, enlisted the talents of eight architects including Richard Neutra and Eero Saarinen, Charles & Ray Eames.

The program called for the design of eight houses that would demonstrate modern alternatives to tract housing.

The Case Study House Program embraced, first of all, a belief that the modernist ideals could be part of the postwar home. Second, there was a sense that all the new technologies and materials of the war effort could be used to do something besides harm people. Third, and most important, was the name itself: each house would be a “case study” of the needs of a particular client. It would solve the problems of the client, but in as universal a way as possible. Each client would be understood to represent a different type of homeowner, so instead of fetishizing the client’s needs, architects participating in the program would try to achieve the broadest possible solution.

Architectural Photographers’ Rhetorical Choices 
Julius Shulman: How does he use light, props, people? Underlying ideologies in these images?


“Architectural photography prepares you only for the optimum condition, the best time of day, best position, the standard view, the authorized take, the truth against which all other views will seem irredeemably poor approximations” (Janet Abrams)