Infrastructures for Thinking About Infrastructures

Jennie Olofsson, Umeå University, on the dis-assembly of media screens
Jennie Olofsson, from Umeå University, on the dis-assembly of media screens

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Media Places: Infrastructure | Space | Media conference at HUMlab in Umeå, Sweden. As I mentioned before, I was very much looking forward to this conference because it would afford a rare opportunity to think, with relatively few distractions, about issues that have been central to my own work for the past decade-and-a-half — and it would allow me to do that thinking in the presence of folks whom I’ve admired and enjoyed working with for nearly as long.

It ended up being one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended — so well organized (thanks in large part to Patrik Svensson and his excellent staff), so thought-provoking, with such lovely facilities and such smart and friendly people. I cemented some friendships, and made quite a few new friends. Of course you can’t have an academic event without a few egos, and there were a few moments of abrasion — but amidst the collegial surroundings, they were fast forgotten.

Umea's Arts Campus
Umea’s Arts Campus

For the benefit of those who weren’t able to attend (it was an invitation-only event), and in order to help myself jog my own memory in the future, I’ll recount some of the highlights. This isn’t an exhaustive recounting. The time-zone shift rendered me a bit out-of-sorts for part of the conference — particularly the mid-afternoon panels, when my energy waned majorly — so I don’t have reliable notes for some of the presentations.

Okay. Here goes.

The always-inspiring Tara McPherson started out with a characteristically lovely keynote about publishing infrastructures. She noted that, in the academy, we used to emphasize (even fetishize, I’d add) “deconstruction,” but now we’re turning our attention, necessarily, to a more productive, generative activity: building infrastructure. Focusing on her own work in building the Vectors journal and the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture‘s Scalar platform, she examined how these and other platforms “bring together multiple and diverse agencies” — and how the construction and use of these platforms enables us to think about the knowledge we produce and share with others. I’ll paraphrase one of her key points: Our infrastructures are us; their materiality matters. Looking to the future, she wondered how vast archives — particularly of popular cultural resources — can impact our scholarship. Can our analyses and writing live productively alongside our data? Can we combine the machine and the human more productively in interpretation?

Cecilia Lindhé
Cecilia Lindhé, via her website

Then Cecilia Lindhé shared her totally fascinating work on digital ekphrasis in the study of medieval religious spaces. In her words, she’s “rethinking the dynamic relationship between word and image with a special focus on how digital technology shapes, transforms and reconfigures literary representation.” Many digital representations of medieval environments, she notes, excise crucial dimensions of its performativity and materiality; we lose the sense of touch, movement, etc., and the everyday contexts of these envrionments’ and objects’ use. Referencing the rhetorical concepts of memoria, ductus, and ekphrasis, she then showed some of her own digital installations of medieval spaces, which incorporate recorded sounds, references to smell, and other means of engaging the sensorium; and interfaces that allow users to compare and zoom into images. These installations emphasize the processes through which the user passes through and experiences the historical environment; they “orchestrate” relations between the space and the body, between memory and performance. Lovely, lovely work.

I have to note that the concept of ductus, which, according to Mary Carruthers, refers to the “flow” of a composition, or “the conduct of a thinking mind through a composition,” totally blew my mind. What an incredibly useful concept — particularly if, for my purposes, rethought spatially, perhaps in relation to Bourdieu’s habitus. Ductus is dope!

Thinking about ductus in the Bildmuseet, which we had the pleasure of exploring one evening.
Thinking about ductus in the Bildmuseet, which we had the pleasure of exploring one evening.

Then Johanna Drucker, with her usual shrewdness and eloquence, talked about mapping in relation to the “creeping new positivism” within the digital realm. She reminds us that everything created within the digital environment is a fabrication, an interpretation with an ideology. Consider, for instance, the Google Art Project’s “singular monocular point of view”; or the Rome Reborn project’s presumption to use fragmentary evidence in creating a simulacrum of a whole city. Furthermore, we have to consider the contradiction inherent in representing Rome via a God’s eye view, when such a view would have been inaccessible to inhabitants of the ancient city (“I challenge you to find a single Roman account of a position from space.”) We make space according to our own conventions, she said, but we are “conveniently blind to these reifications.” Not only do we need to be cognizant of the biases built into our representations, but we also need to make another shift in our conception of mapping: we need to move toward regarding “partial knowledge” as a good thing — “good” not as in “this is good enough,” but good in that it represents a valuable “push-back against positivism.”

More fabricating place -- Jiminez Lai, whom I saw last year at SVA, @ the Bildmuseet
More fabricating place — Jiminez Lai, whom I saw last year at SVA, @ the Bildmuseet
Garnet Hertz's Critical Making Zine Set
Garnet Hertz’s Critical Making Zine Set

Garnet Hertz, an artist-scholar to whom I was introduced by Jussi Parikka a few years ago, then shared his fabulous work in the realm of “critical making.” He was inspired by the “back to the land” existence of his grandparents in rural Canada, where life was characterized by a “lack of infrastructure,” where “hacking” and “DIY-ing” were necessary for survival. “I’m inspired by doing things the wrong way,” Hertz admitted; intentional subversions and DIY practices, he said, can “un-black-box” our technology and help to reveal the infrastructures (or lack of particular infrastructures) undergirding our creations. He then offered a smart, and welcome, ideological critique of maker culture and its variants (critical making, critical design, disruptive change, adversarial design, etc.), contrasting “utilitarian” and “hedonized” projects. This critique flows through a series of ten lovely zines he created. I managed to score a set (Thanks, Garnet!).

A lovely collaborative mapping project on display in the Communitas exhibition at the Bildmuseet.
A lovely collaborative mapping project on display in the Communitas exhibition at the Bildmuseet.

Later, Chris Speed presented Comob, a tool for collaborative mapping. What’s interesting here is the ability to map relations between people without referring to geographic place. As explained on the project’s website, “The software allows members of groups to see each others movement in real time on their mobile phones. The group is linked together by a line that shows their relative spatial distribution.”

Katherine Hayles then offered a dense and rich analysis of the economic infrastructure and artificial intelligences in high-speed trading. She started off by addressing the particular temporality and spatiality of high-speed trading, for which co-location and super-fast transoceanic cables can provide traders with millisecond advantages in getting information and making trades, which translate into billions of dollars in profit. She told the story of the “flash crash” of May 6, 2010, which highlighted, as a blog commenter noted, the “facade that industry has anything to do with ‘people’ investing in ‘business’… [It’s] all algorithms, all the time.” We’ve moved, as Neil Johnson has argued, from a mixed human-machine phase of trading to an “all-machine phase characterized by frequent black-swan events with ultrafast duration.” Hayles wondered, “how might we recover a…sense of stability?” Humanists aren’t likely to contribute to highly technical discourse about regulations, but we can ask questions regarding the large social purposes that finance capital is intended to serve. Humanists can help to put finance capital in historical perspective and connect it to social responsibility and economic justice. She proposed a new field: “Critical Studies in Finance Capital and Global Stability,” which would be simultaneously an archaeological media project and a critical/political one. That challenge is for humanists to figure out how to “write in ways legible to the finance community.” My question is: will they care?

via The Atlantic
“The Knife” trading pattern, via The Atlantic

Okay, I’m going to have to start condensing these synopses. Otherwise, this’ll take me all day!

Molly Steenson then shared her exciting dissertation research about the Architecture Machine Group, predecessor to the MIT Media Lab. She highlighted various projects the group had undertaken — the Seek project in Jack Burhman’s 1970 “Software” exhibition at the Jewish Museum, the Media Room, the Aspen Movie Map, Mapping by Yourself — that ultimately led to their focus on “a machine that can appreciate the gesture.” I wish I had more time and space to explain how we arrive at “the gesture,” and what that means — but, alas, I don’t, and I can’t.

After that, Finn Arne Jorgensen presented briefly on Cabin Porn, which is exactly what it sounds like, and is awesome; and Eric Robes-Anderson shared her work — which I had seen, and enjoyed, on several occasions in the past — on the Crystal Cathedral.

via  Telegrography
via Telegrography 

Patrik Svensoon, the conference’s host, then talked about humanities infrastructures, including learning spaces. He used his own HUMlab, a space that many of us New Yorkers envied, as an example. Later in the panel, Nicole Starosielski talked about her fascinating work on undersea cables. We imagine the spaces where these cables land on shore, she said, as “friction-free zones,” but we need to acknowledge the unique geographies of international signal traffic. Those geographies are — contrary to our assumptions about the digital landscape — semi-centralized, territorially entrenched, precarious, and rural and aquatic. Nicole’s writing a book, for Duke UP, about this research, so rather than fleshing out her argument here, I’ll recommend that you buy the book when it’s available!

Kennedy & Violich's Soft House
Kennedy & Violich’s Soft House

Architect Sheila Kennedy then presented some of her own work, which involves a great deal of materials research, and very skillfully integrates technology — electronics, inflatables, etc. — into environmentally- and socially-conscious design.

Then Jennifer Gabrys, author of the fantastc Digital Rubbish, gave a smart talk about smart cities. She acknowledged that the integration of digital technology can of course allow cities to run more efficiently, but wondered how relationships between Cisco, IBM, and city governments can change how we inhabit our cities. What does it mean when inhabitants can exploit these technologies to become civically involved — by practicing “citizen sensing,” for example — while, at the same time, those technologies turn inhabitants into “data points”? Smart cities are constituted of a series of “programmed environments” — material-political spaces — in which “particular narratives of sustainability are carried out,” and those narratives are bundled up with governance.

via WebEcoist
via WebEcoist 

Keeping with the sustainability theme, Jennie Olofsson then turned Latour’s Reassembling the Social on its head by exploring the ethics and politics of dis-assembling technologies — particularly screens. She demonstrated how policies and practices for “end of life” treatment of screens, including recycling guidelines, can raise ontological questions about “what a screen is.

Later that evening, we were introduced to, and allowed to wander through, the university’s beautiful Bildmuseet. I particularly enjoyed the Dayanita Singh and Communitas exhibitions.

Communitas @ Bildmuseet
Communitas @ Bildmuseet
VanDerBeek's Movie Drome, via  UNL
VanDerBeek’s Movie Drome, via UNL 

The next and final day, we started off with Fred Turner on multimedia exhibitions as democratic propagandistic devices. He traced a lineage through the Bauhaus, the Committee for National Morale, the Eameses, happenings, Bucky Fuller’s dome, Stan VanDerBeek’s environments, etc., and argued that these multi-screen environments aimed to liberate the senses of the “viewer” and promote “democratic personality.” I wonder, though, about the contrary aims of deeper-historical precedents, like the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk and Futurist and Constructivist performances and stage environments. I look forward to Turner’s forthcoming book, but I’d like to supplement his history with Chris Salter’s Entangled: Technology and the Transformation of Performance and other tales of installations with alternative political aims.

 Public Farm 1 @ PS1
Public Farm 1 @ PS1

Sylvia Lavin then blew the roof off (how appropriate!) with her talk on the architectural pavilion. She had written about this topic in a recent issue of Artforum, so I was expecting a talk that simply expanded on the argument she laid out there — but her performance offered so much more. Addressing the global phenomenon of “pavilionization,” she argued that these structures serve as “symbolic forms,” emblems of an epistemic dilemma incited by the digital. The projects can be organized into two categories: the super high-tech variety (which, ironically, often only superficially engage with the digital) and the low-tech “intervention-through-applied-sociology” variety. Again, I wish I could say more, but in the interest of time, I’ll refer you to her Artforum piece.

Then Erica Robles-Anderson presented again about the orientation of the screen — upright vs. landscape — and its parallels to debates over the orientation of the window. Both offer a form of “epistemic framing.”

Oh, boy — I’m running out of steam. So I’ll have to apologize for failing to capture the energy and creativity in our closing discussion, led by David Theo Goldberg. Much of our time was devoted to thinking about the consequences of humanities’ adoption of the “lab” as a pedagogical space. What are the affordances of this particular “infrastructure” for knowledge production? How does the lab create its objects of analysis, and how well do these practices apply in humanistic research? What gets enabled, and what gets disabled?

I could go on — but I must stop. Check out the Storify for each day on HUMlab’s blog, expertly updated by Jim Barrett.

4 replies on “Infrastructures for Thinking About Infrastructures”

Thanks, Jim! It was a pleasure meeting you, too! I could always rely on your tweets to catch up after my attention wandered. And the personal interviews were such a nice addition to the event. I hope our paths will cross again!

You’ve done a wonderful job of capturing the presentations that made the conference such a variegated and provocative event. And in typically modest fashion, you have left out your own excellent presentation on “Inhabiting Knowledge: Physical and Intellectual Infrastructures for Knowledge-Production,” which ranged across some of the issues covered in your book. It should not be forgotten!

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