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Writing about Talking to Me: An Exhibition Review

My review of MoMA’s 2011 exhibition, Talk to Me: Design and the Communication Between People and Objects, has finally appeared in Design & Culture. After I saw the show, twice, I posted my preliminary thoughts here. The published piece is available here.

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Spectacular / Ordinary / Contested Media City Conference, Finland, May 2013

Robot readable world from Timo on Vimeo.

I’m one of the keynote speakers for this conference in May. The conference organizers have just released their CFP; I encourage everyone with interest in the “media city” — and anyone eager for a trip to Finland — to apply! CALL FOR PAPERS

The Spectacular/Ordinary/Contested Media City

May 15–17, 2013 Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, University of Helsinki, Finland In contemporary cities, the effects of advanced telecommunications and  commodified media exist everywhere around us. In both eye-catching and  oblique ways, mass and personalised media forms reshape our spatial  practices and perceptions of specific milieus and the city as a whole. We invite presentations that deal particularly with the following issues:

  • role of media and surveillance technologies in the  spectacularisation of urban public spaces and events
  • the ways in which media technologies and representations become part of the taken-for-granted perceptions and routinised practices and rhythms of urban life
  • the actual and potential contributions of mass and personalised  media forms to the contestation of economic, political and cultural  hegemonies in cities

Throughout the interdisciplinary symposium, the spectacular, ordinary  and contested aspects of the media city will be brainstormed through  questions such as: What is the relationship of materiality of media  and symbolic media representations in the construction of densely  digitalised urban milieus? To what extent and how is media-saturation  steering people’s urban activities towards automated and un-reflected  modes? Or do the “urban media affordances” open room for creative  place-making practices, new amalgamations of technology and  corporeality, and even chances for alternative decoding and political  resistance? In which ways do different forms of art and popular  culture (cinema, literature, theatre, digital games etc.) articulate  and intervene in the media city? What ethical and political issues  lurk behind the pecuniary motifs of the ongoing mediatisation of space? Invited keynote speakers:

  • Anne Cronin, Lancaster University, UK
  • Stephen Graham, Newcastle University, UK
  • Scott McQuire, Melbourne University, Australia
  • Shannon Mattern, The New School, USA

If you would like to present a paper at the  Spectacular/Ordinary/Contested Media City symposium, please send an  abstract (max. 300 words) to mediacity-2013@helsinki.fi by 14 January  2013. A narrative bio (max. 100 words) describing the author’s  background and research interests should also accompany the proposal. For more information, visit:  http://www.helsinki.fi/collegium/events/mediacity2013 The organising committee: Jani Vuolteenaho & Outi Hakola, Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies Seija Ridell & Sami Kolamo, University of Tampere. Contacts / conference secretary: Kirsi L. Reyes-Anastacio / Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies Email: mediacity-2013@helsinki.fi

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Jury-Rig It: Shadow Infrastructures

Generally, these aren’t ideal conditions for telecommunications equipment. Verizon’s headquarters @ 140 West Street after Hurricane Sandy, via the Wall Street Journal 

Our out-of-sight-out-of-mind / ignore-’em-’til-they-break infrastructures have certainly made their presence known this week, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Many of us — including folks perched comfortably in the upper echelons of “First World” Manhattan — have had a bitter taste of some #thirdworldproblems. Consequently, we’ve all been reminded that the infrastructures we rely on for our most basic day-to-day activities are far from smart, seamless, and invisibly ubiquitous. Instead, they’re physical, fallible, easily conquered by falling trees and salt water. And when they fail us, we often have to resort to extreme measures to access the same services they otherwise so unobtrusively provide.

Geographer Stephen Graham reminds us that, in some parts of the world, infrastructural blackouts and break-downs are a common occurrence. This is, of course, assuming that there are existing sewer and power lines and cell phone towers to break down. In what Karen Bakker calls infrastructural “archipelagos” — “spatially separated but linked ‘islands’ of networked supply in the urban fabric” — “[i]nequality of access is literally embodied in urban infrastructure” (“Splintered Urbanisms” in Matthew Gandy, Urban Constellations (2011): 63). She proposes that “splintered urbanisms,” to borrow a term from Graham, are in fact the global norm, and universal access to public goods, which many of us have come to expect, is instead the aberration.

The Global South of course contains many such archipelagos, and it’s also the site of many acts of “undocumented innovation” and “private (non-governmental) strategies” to gain access to water and power and other “staples” (Bakker). AbdouMaliq Simone writes that “African cities are characterized by incessantly flexible, mobile, and provisional intersections of residents that operate without clearly delineated notions of how the city is to be inhabited and used. These intersections, particularly in the last two decades, have depended on the ability of residents to engage complex combinations of objects, spaces, persons, and practices. These conjunctions become an infrastructure — a platform providing for and reproducing life in the city” (“People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg” Public Culture 16:3 (2004): 407-429). Anthropologist Brian Larkin writes of similarly provisional infrastructural practices — jury-rigging, repurposing, pirating — in Nigeria (Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria (2008)).

In recent days, communities in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the Rockaways, and devastated New Jersey coastal towns have developed their own “shadow” infrastructures, many of which re-purpose old technologies and rely heavily on biopower.

Community generator cell-phone-charging station in the East Village, via New York Magazine’s Daily Intel 
Reviving obsolete technology, via ABC News
Collecting water from an open hydrant on the Lower East Side, via New York Magazine’s Daily Intel 
Bodega shopping by candle light, via Wall Street Journal 

While I don’t mean to equate a week-long blackout or mass-transit shut-down with the nonexistence of electrical networks or public transit in some parts of the world, both conditions point to the inadequacy of existing systems. “We have a new reality when it comes to these weather patterns,” Governor Cuomo acknowledged. “We have an old infrastructure and we have old systems, and that is not a good combination.” As Cassim Shepard and Varick Shute wrote today in Urban Omnibus:

Financial, political, and practical collaboration will be vital to creating an infrastructure commensurate with the challenges ahead. The investments necessary won’t come top-down from the federal government in our current political climate. Nor can we rely exclusively on the DIY, bottom-up efforts of community groups and individual citizens to build the infrastructure of the future. Both national leadership and community stewardship will be necessary, mediated by the policies, investments, and interventions of states and cities. To “build it back smarter,” as Governor Cuomo has called for, will require a shift in understanding what infrastructure means, how it performs, and how – when it’s well designed, resilient, and responsive – its public benefits extend outwards across multiple and nested scales of citizenship, from community, to state, to nation, to planet.