Things I’ve Seen

Just documenting some interesting things I’ve seen over the past couple weeks:

Dieter Roth, bok 2b, 1961, via MoMA
Dieter Roth, bok 2b, 1961, via MoMA
Dieter Roth, Literaturwurst
Dieter Roth, Literaturwurst, which I mentioned in another recent post

Dieter Roth, “Wait, Later This Will Be Nothing” @ MoMA

Mark Dion @ Tanya Bonakdar
Mark Dion

One of my favorite, favorite artists, Mark Dion, at Tanya Bonakdar








William Cordova
William Cordova

William Cordova: lots of fabulous old media and audio culture. Via Sikkema Jenkins:

The work temporal landscapes (pa’ y.mishima, e.danticat y t.martin) is influenced by the Land Art movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. It references Land Art’s resistance to the logic of consumerist art and the interest in reconnecting to ancient geometric principals and the pragmatic use of materials.

The notion of translation is key in Cordova’s work. The shifting from English, Quechua, Spanish, and even Creole in his titles parallels the shifts, turns and cuts made in his constructions. References similarly have an impact on the blur of original meanings with the creation of new meanings.

temporal landscapes (pa’ y.mishima, e.danticat y t.martin) consists of a makeshift mini-screening room assembled with reclaimed wood, vinyl record monologue, and slide projector with an image that references architecture, spirituality, the magical, science fiction, textiles and modernism found within African, Andean, and Asian Diasporas.






Peter Hutchinson
Peter Hutchinson

I see a little bit of Mark-Dion-meets-Joseph-Cornell in Peter Hutchinson, “The Logic of Mountains,” at Freight Volume — even though Hutchinson preceded Dion.


Susan Phillipsz, Documenta 13
Susan Phillipsz, Documenta 13

Susan Phillipsz, with the Vera List Center and Public Art Fund, at The New School

Ed Ruscha, “Books @ Co.,” at Gagosian. Hyper-vigilant guards, so I couldn’t sneak even a single photo.


James Turrell
James Turrell

James Turrell, “Roden Crater and Autonomous Structures,” at PACE

via PACE
via PACE

And finally, yesterday, while at the Labrouste symposium at MoMA, I also saw “A Trip from Here to There,” a show about walking and wandering:

Mona Hatoum, Routes II
Mona Hatoum, Routes II
Dennis Oppenheim, Highway 20
Dennis Oppenheim, Highway 20

Curating, Conserving + Preserving – Talk @ Cornell

I just returned from a lovely two-day visit to Cornell University, where I was invited by Mary Woods, Oya Rieger, and Mickey Casad to share my work with both Mary and Oya’s “Design and Visual Research in the Digital Era” class in Architecture, Art and Planning, and with the library’s Conversations in Digital Humanities series. Mary and one of her students (who’s doing a fabulous thesis project on high-density trading) gave me a tour of the Johnson Museum, with its Leo Villareal installation (Villareal also has a great project on the Bay Bridge in SF/Oakland right now); and Koolhaas/OMA’s Milstein Hall, which, as Mary rightly put it, is much like a single “unquaked” platform from Koolhaas’s Seattle Public Library.

Embedded video from Cornell UniversityEmbedded video from Cornell University

 Leo Villareal, “Cosmos” @ Cornell’s Johnson Museum of Art (for full video)

The theme for that day’s session of the Design/Research class was “Curating, Conserving, and Preserving” — so I took it as my challenge to suss out the relationships between these three terms, and to tie them not only to my own work, but also to the students’ projects. What follows are the slides and semi-formal notes I used for my class presentation:

[SLIDE 1] Conservation is to spend or use sparingly. Preservation is to keep and maintain what you have.

  • Conserve from Latin conversare, to keep, preserve, keep intact, guard (“with” + “keep watch”)
  • Preserve from Latin praeservare, to guard beforehand (to before “keep safe”)
  • What types of objects or resources – particularly those that you’re addressing in your class this semester – do we typically associate conservation and preservation with? Where do we conserve something, and where do we preserve.
    • We conserve energy and art objects, but we preserve architecture.
  • What does this say about our conceptions of these resources?
    • Resource is in limited supply
    • Object is in perfect, fixed form; need to keep as-is for posterity
  • And what’s the relation between curation (from Latin, curare, to take care of) and these activities?
    • There’s a value system underlying these conservation and preservation efforts, and curation often helps to make those values manifest. Curation serves a rhetorical purpose – to convince others of the value of those values.

[SLIDE 2] Much of my work for the past 15 years has focused on media and architecture: spaces where people access and make media – spaces like libraries, archives, museums, media production facilities.

These are spaces with different approaches to preservation or conservation: In archives, for instance, preservation – not only of the archival object, but also of the context of its acquisition – is paramount. In a media production facilities, much media is often erased and reused.

[SLIDE 3] In some of these spaces, we’re concerned not only with the preservation of its collection, but also of the institution itself – and of its architectural containers. Consider the recent debate over the proposed renovation of the NYPL.

Design projects as an ideal opportunity to reflect on core values — how intellectual infrastructure is manifested and supported materially

Some of the projects I’ve worked on have been historical – involved debates over preservation. I’ll read a bit from a paper I published a few years ago:

[SLIDE 4] The Woodberry Poetry Room boasts a marvelous collection of 20th- and 21st-century poetry books, including many small press editions, pamphlets, magazines, broadsides, and manuscripts “from the entire English-speaking world,” and serves as home to readings from some of the worlds most renowned poets, was designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and opened in 1949 in Harvard University’s Lamont Library, the country’s first undergrad library. The room had originated in 1931, a more formal incarnation, in keeping with the New Criticism then in vogue, in Widener Library. It was dedicated to “bringing alive the poet’s voice and creating a place at Harvard…for the enduring delight and significance of poetry”…

[SLIDE 5] But by 2006, the furniture was worn out, the asbestos in the ceiling had raised concern, and the room’s technical capabilities had become solely apparent – so the libraries planned a renovation. Granted, the renovation was rather hush-hush, and rushed, but the design and preservation communities’ reactions to the project revealed dramatic differences in the way the design community, the library community, and the poetry community regarded the form and materiality of the poetic text and the room that housed them. [SLIDE 6] Critics regarded the renovation as “vandalism”: the “reading room,” the press said, was a “jewel” of a design that should be kept in its perfect, complete form. [SLIDE 7] All those “amenities,” like computers, could simply be placed in an adjacent location. Besides, “reading and listening to poetry are not activities that have changed much in centuries.” The problems are that technology cannot be set aside – even the manuscript is technology – …and reading and listening to poetry have changed dramatically as a result of technological and cultural change….

[SLIDE 8] The room had always been technologically advanced: Aalto – who had a history of experimenting with new forms, and designing spaces that recognized the integration of sensory perception and intellectual cognition in people’s appropriation of architecture – designed these eight “listening stations,” which were the “high tech” of 1949. While preservationists regarded the poetic medium as something static, and the precious “masterwork” that contained those media as something similarly perfect and complete, George E. Woodberry, who bequeathed the gift that established the room, and a long line of the room’s curators, [SLIDE 9] as well as the faculty and students who used it, valued its ability to offer up, in the words of Seamus Heaney, the “living history of modern poetry.” Poetry is a dynamic thing, which can exist as a printed text on a page, a handwritten manuscript, an audiorecording (the room was a pioneer in creating poetry recordings), or a live performance. The poetic “medium” was something multiple – it was Barthes’ “text” – whereas the preservationists wanted poetry, and the room that housed it, to be crystallized as a masterwork

[SLIDE 10] Aalto’s approach to design, one concerned primarily with the user’s embodied experience of both architecture and media, proved consistent with the pedagogical approach implied in the room’s founding mission—an approach that recognizes the integration of affect and cognition, of delight and critical engagement—and the curators’ appreciation of the fluidity and dynamism of poetry’s forms. The controversy over the renovation, it seemed to me, reflected disagreement regarding the fluidity or fixity—the ontology—of the architectural “object” and the poetic text and how users (readers, listeners, writers, inhabitants) engage with those texts.”

[SLIDE 11] I’ve also studied Louis Kahn’s Philips Exeter Academy Library: basic geometric shapes – connection to Platonic ideals; featuring and framing the book; magnificent light – metaphor of illumination

It, like Woodberry, represented an embodied, multisensory engagement with media materials and architectural spaces

[SLIDE 12] Recently celebrated its 40th birthday and has struggled to incorporate new networked media into its very classically geometric codex-inspired design

[SLIDES 13-15] SPL – negotiating shift from analog to digital; a city renowned for reading culture, yet built on Microsoft money

[SLIDE 16] Spaces of Media Production – CCTV, another OMA design – “this steel and glass structure embodies tensions currently gripping the institution — tensions between official ideologies and the market, between the Party and the people, between propaganda and commerce. As the medium of television grows increasingly decentralized through digitization and mobilization, and as China’s state media faces increasing competition from other media in other forms and from other places, the symbolic significance of a huge, monolithic structure will become ever more important in signaling the continuing power of this state institution.”

[SLIDE 17] IAC: fluid exterior hides a highly fragmented, hierarchized interior – Gehry’s attempts to blur the edges between outside and inside, old and new media, materiality and immateriality, instead reveal the awkward tension between old and new political economies (the old-school film studio model, which Barry Diller grew up in; and the supposedly more flexible, democratic new media model)


[SLIDE 18] Gehry’s IAC makes visible the seams [CLICK]: Value in Seemliness

Value of curating “seams,” making people pay attention to hinges, transitions where old/new, physical/analog come together, often creating friction

We don’t want a transparent interface

[SLIDE 19] Timo Arnall, “No to NoUI” – think of a built space as an interface to the “knowledge work” that’s taking place inside

  1. “Invisible design propagates the myth of immateriality: “Intentionally hiding the phenomena and materiality of interfaces, smoothing over the natural edges, seams and transitions that constitute all technical systems, entails a loss of understanding and agency for both designers and users of computing. Lack of understanding leads to uncertainty and folk-theories that hinder our ability to use technical systems, and clouds the critique of technological developments”
  2. “Invisible design falls into the natural/intuitive trap: “The movement tells us to ‘embrace natural processes’ and talks about the ‘incredibly intuitive’ interface. This language is a trap that doesn’t give us any insight into how complex products might actually become simple or familiar.”

Foreground Infrastructure + [SLIDE 20] Promote Infrastructural Literacy

  • Like Aalto and Kahn – and Labrouste, many existing I.L. projects acknowledge the value of hands-on, embodied forms of experience
    • Touching, tasting, smelling
    • Even data-centers have distinctive climatic and sonic conditions
  • [SLIDE 21] Showing the invisible – trace-route
  • [SLIDE 22] Where digital space intersects with, and has real material implications for how we engage with, physical space – mapping WiFi networks
  • [SLIDE 23] Putting behind-the-scenes labor – like conservation in archives – on display – perhaps also show the man- and tech-power that’s necessary to run all the library databases that you access from your dorm rooms and apartments
  • Buildings that display their energy usage, etc.
  • Even small-scale design projects, like those that some of you are undertaking in this class, can incorporate elements that promote infrastructural literacy
    • We can talk in a few minutes about what that would look like

[SLIDE 24] Little Libraries reside on another of those seams

  • One motivation is to preserve book culture + public space in midst of increasing digitization, dematerialization, privatization, atomization, etc.
  • Its incongruity calls attention to the need for us to reassess our values and preserve what’s worth preserving

[SLIDE 25] LFL NY Competition

  • Note misconceptions in proposals – defense of the dying book and anemic libraries

[SLIDE 26] BookCity – preserve print culture, yet provide conditions for analog and digital publishing to co-exist


[SLIDE 27] Labrouste exhibition @ MoMA – keynote Wed night, conference Thursday

Addressing issues of preservation, through curation: I recently wrote on my blog:

Michael Kimmelman, who reviewed the show this past Thursday for the Times, notes that “the exhibition’s arrival seems almost uncanny in the midst of the debate over the renovation of Carrère and Hastings’ New York Public Library building at 42nd Street, whose iron book stacks derive from Labrouste’s.”

Library officials have proposed removing those historic stacks, which support the main reading room, and replacing them with a circulating branch to be designed by Norman Foster. The stacks, they say, are too dilapidated and unsuited to be modernized. But Labrouste’s even-older stacks at the Bibliothèque Nationale have recently been outfitted with modern climate controls and fireproofing and will be opened to the reading public. The exhibition’s last room greets visitors with a large photomural of that space — a pointed rebuke to those New York library officials who haven’t adequately justified their scheme and might now want to investigate more closely what Paris is doing…

[SLIDE 28] Conference this Thursday: Revisiting Labrouste in the Digital Age

[SLIDE 29] Keynote Wednesday night: Alberto Kalach of Taller de Arquitectura X on his firm’s Biblioteca Vasconcelos in Mexico City

[SLIDE 30] Preservation again on the agenda in regard to Brooklyn Public Library’s proposal to sell poorly-performing branch buildings and build new ones as part of private development projects – highly controversial

  • What’s being preserved or conserved here?
  • Value – and trickiness – of involving the public in these debates; helping them understand the infrastructural and political economic variables that drive decisions
  • How to incorporate this democratic dimension not only in the design process, but also in the designed space or object?

What are the seams in your own projects? What are the different forces that are in tension? What’s worth con/pre-serving, and how might you curate that activity? Who are your audiences / collaborators, and how might they be brought into the process?


Stack Aesthetics II: Labrouste’s Bibliothèques

Bibliothèque Sainte‐Geneviève, © Michel Nguyen
Bibliothèque Sainte‐Geneviève, © Michel Nguyen

In my previous post I addressed two recent exhibitions that examine the aesthetics of the analogue stack. Here’s a third, which I thought warranted its own post:

For months I’ve been eagerly awaiting the opening of the Henri Labrouste exhibition, the first American solo exhibition of the architect’s work, at MoMA. I first encountered Labrouste in grad school, when architectural historian Jean-Louis Cohen (before he became a member of my dissertation committee) encouraged me to study both Louis Kahn’s library at Phillips Exeter Academy and Dominique Perrault’s design for the new Bibliothèque Nationale de France — which required that I also know a bit about Labrouste’s design for the original BNF (1859 – 1875). Labrouste is best known for this library and an earlier one: the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (1838 – 1850), also in Paris.

Bibliothèque Nationale (c) Georges Fessy
Bibliothèque Nationale (c) Georges Fessy


The exhibition represents a fabulous feat of scholarship, much of which is captured in the formidable catalogue. There’s little I can add to what the eminent architectural historian Barry Bergdoll and his equally esteemed colleagues have already said — about Labrouste’s role as a progenitor to modernism; his rational use of iron; his taste for ornament, particularly ornamental iron work, stone inscriptions, and symbolic iconography — either in the exhibition or in the book.

But I do want to highlight a few related dimensions of Labrouste’s libraries: his sensitivity to the reading experience; to ambiance, even in the stacks; and to what Martin Bressani, in his essay in the exhibition catalogue, calls a “healing architecture.” These “healing” properties can be interpreted rather literally in some of Labrouste’s other projects, including an asylum and a prison. In regard to the Cantonal Asylum in Lausanne, Labrouste, concerned with the “well-being and soothing of the sick people,”

examined a series of environmental factors affecting their well-being: a pleasant view of the countryside, a good amount of sunlight, continuous circulation of air, protection from noise, and the presence of gardens or greenery in each of the quarters. He even foresees a rudimentary sort of air conditioning… (“The Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève and ‘Healing’ Architecture” In Barry Bergdoll et. al. Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light: 98)

“Healing,” in regard to the libraries, translated into something more akin to the progressive era ideals that inspired Carnegie-era libraries. The Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève was “the only place for study in Paris that remained open after nightfall, thanks to its gas lighting and central heating,” and it “helped maintain order in a Latin Quarter peopled with students who, when they could not stay at home in the evening ‘for lack of fire and light,’ were liable to give in ‘to dissipation and debauchery'” (Bressani 104). While the atmosphere may have been intended to “heal” patrons from temptations to sin, it still represented Labrouste’s attention to the embodied experience of architecture, and of study.

Biblio Ste Genev

He was particularly interested in the transition from day to night, and the theme of illumination was instantiated in a variety of ways — through windows, candelabras, ornament, color — throughout the building. There’s much discussion in the catalogue of Labrouste’s “mastery of climate using new technologies for lighting, heat, and ventilation (pp. 110-15) — but these environmental factors represented far more than mere creature comforts; they were also meant to have intellectual, pedagogical effects. The “atmospheric dress” of the building could “offer a powerful metaphor for the paths of knowledge, leading to utopian thought” (115). Iconography, circulation, illumination, etc. are designed to evoke “the fertile ground of the imagination” (116).


In “The Book and the Building,” an essay I’ve been using in my Media + Architecture class for the past several years, architectural historian Neil Levine writes beautifully about the literary ornamentation of Sainte-Geneviève — how decorative elements “appliqued or printed on the surface… [make] the building look as if it had just rolled off the presses” (In Robin Middleton, The Beaux-Arts and Nineteenth-Century French Architecture: 155). The building itself is thus a book: the facade, with all its literary ornamentation, functions as a sort of library catalogue; and the interior, as one big, inhabitable bookcase (156). Levine’s argument blew my mind when I first encountered it — and I continue to enjoy exploring his essay with my students.

Model of Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève
Model of Nationale
Model of Bibliotheque Nationale

There’s much more to be said here, but rather than saying it — and risking another obnoxiously long blog post (oops! I’m already there!) — I’ll instead refer you to Marc LeCoeur’s catalogue essay on the Bibliothèque Nationale, for which Labrouste used a slightly different set of tools to cultivate this “fertile ground”; and Levine’s catalogue essay on Labrouste’s libraries’ arrival “at the dawn of the new library science.” Levine pays a great deal of attention to the stacks themselves, which were treated differently in the two libraries. In the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, for instance,

students…, seated at long tables between parallel rows of books, …would have felt enclosed by them, as if in a more domestically scaled, individually oriented ‘cabinet de lecture.’ The books themselves thus defined the space at the level they were read, while visually receding in perspective to the plane of the shelving under the arcade windows and becoming, as Labrouste wrote, “the most beautiful ornament of the interior” (170).

It’s worth noting that this “fertile ground of imagination” isn’t purely symbolic; it also happened to constitute a very pleasant place for reading books. Labrouste cared about readers reading. And Bergdoll et. al. attempted to recapture some degree of the experience of reading in Sainte-Geneviève by commissioning drafting tables, modeled after Labrouste’s designs for the library, on which the curators displayed drawings of the libraries. However much I appreciate this gesture — to approximate the feel of reading at one of Labrouste’s tables — I do think the exhibition as a whole is bit too cerebral an experience for an architect so concerned with multisensory comfort, “atmospheric dress,” ambiance. The lighting’s a bit too impersonal, the colors a bit too clinical, and the non-visual senses aren’t engaged much.


Michael Kimmelman, who reviewed the show this past Thursday for the Times, notes that “the exhibition’s arrival seems almost uncanny in the midst of the debate over the renovation of Carrère and Hastings’ New York Public Library building at 42nd Street, whose iron book stacks derive from Labrouste’s.” Kimmelman has been rather vocal in his criticism of the current NYPL administration’s plans, and of Norman Foster’s proposed designs for the renovation:

Library officials have proposed removing those historic stacks, which support the main reading room, and replacing them with a circulating branch to be designed by Norman Foster. The stacks, they say, are too dilapidated and unsuited to be modernized.

But Labrouste’s even-older stacks at the Bibliothèque Nationale have recently been outfitted with modern climate controls and fireproofing and will be opened to the reading public. The exhibition’s last room greets visitors with a large photomural of that space — a pointed rebuke to those New York library officials who haven’t adequately justified their scheme and might now want to investigate more closely what Paris is doing…

But we also have to avoid fetishizing the stacks, and remember how carefully Labrouste considered their integration into the overall library experience — how the stacks, and the books on them, positioned themselves in relation to readers to foster a particular ambiance. And we need to recall Labrouste’s more socially significant accomplishments; as MoMA puts it:

Labrouste made an invaluable impact on 19th-century architecture through his exploration of new paradigms of space, materials, and luminosity in places of great public assembly.

His many architectural innovations were in service of creating “places of great public assembly.” As it has been for over a century, the NYPL is of course one such space, but the proposed renovations — however much in need of revision they might be in their current state — are intended, ostensibly, to make the library an even more inclusive public space, by bringing in the circulating collection from the Mid-Manhattan branch, by making more spaces for people to inhabit. We have to find a way to balance these social obligations, with our appreciation of the stacks as an “engineering landmark,” as Ada Louise Huxtable noted in (one of her?) her last column(s) for the Wall Street Journal. As I’ve seen in so many library renovation projects around the country, it often comes down to a compromise between (1) protecting historically significant architecture and (2) creating a building that better serves its contemporary publics. Sometimes, honestly, landmark architecture — whose value we cannot deny — is an albatross around the neck of an institution that needs to continually adapt to meet its social obligations.


Stack Aesthetics I: Micro Libraries + Airan Kang’s “Luminous Words”

Via  Errata Security
Via Errata Security

I apologize: the luminous image above is only a teaser. I won’t be talking about the network stack, although it certainly does have an aesthetics of its own. As Rory Solomon (full disclosure: he’s my thesis advisee) pointed out in his recent talk at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, there are myriad models for representing “the stack” in all its permutations — the network stack, the application stack, the function stack, etc. — yet they all commonly adopt some variation on the “comforting pale blue systems diagram.”

I’m talking about a stack of another variety: the book stack. It’s not unlike the network stack, though, in that it, too, is a material-epistemic infrastructure. The fact that there have been numerous aesthetic explorations of the book stack in recent years suggests that this once-invisible piece of furniture has finally drawn attention to itself: perhaps because its shelves are emptying, as some folks switch to ebooks; or because those committed to the physical stack and its physical inhabitants are wondering how to rethink, reinvigorate, our systems for organizing, housing, and facilitating access to books.

I’ve seen a few stack-related exhibitions in the past two weeks. I’ll address two here, and a third in a follow-up post.

Occupy Library represented in "Brother, Can You Spare a Stack?"
Occupy Library represented in “Brother, Can You Spare a Stack?”

First, “Brother, Can You Space a Stack?,” at the Center for Books Arts, “presents thirteen art projects that re-imagine the library as a force for social change. Each project constructs a micro library of sorts that serves specific economic or social needs within the community.” I addressed a few of the projects on display here in my “little libraries” article (which those of you who read this blog regularly — anyone?, anyone? — are probably sick of hearing about). All, however, place triple emphasis on the material book, the places those books inhabit (which become public places by virtue of the books’ presence and the gathering of people around them), and the forms of social connection they generate. I have to admit, the wall texts were a bit too intense to read in situ, so I’ll wait to purchase the exhibition catalogue to learn more about the projects I’m not already familiar with.

Airan Kang
Airan Kang

Second, Airan Kang’s “Luminous Words” at Bryce Wolkowitz was a rather uncanny experience for me: what I encountered was essentially my library — seriously: I own at least 70% of the books represented here — rendered in “digital lighting” and LED paintings. These hybrid analog/digital art objects are an obvious representation of the analog-to-digital transition of book-objects — or, as explained on the press release, this work constitutes Kang’s “exploration into the ontology and evolution of the book as a source of knowledge in the digital era.”



I appreciate the different approaches to stacking represented in the three variations on the theme we see above: the stack as bricks in a wall; the stack as variably arranged units of illumination or enlightenment; and the stack as precarious tower — each representing a different take on the state of the book as material object. The subject matter of these books is interesting, too; nearly all are art, theory, urbanism, and architecture books — some of which are among the “genres” best able to justify their continued existence in glossy, oversized print form.

*   *   *   *   *

Before moving on, in the next post, to my third stack-related exhibition, I want to note two non-stack-related shows we saw on the same day we visited the two above — both of which nevertheless highlight themes present in the more book-centric exhibitions: particularly, the material text, historical transitions, social responsibility, and loss. Miroslaw Balka’s “The Order of Things,” at Gladstone, is a “monumental work that draws on historical tragedy to reflect on the limits of the world, continuity, and catastrophe.” Pipes, woven through the ceiling beams, spew a viscous black liquid into two tetrahedral Cor-Ten tubs. Experiencing this work — which felt, for me, very Ellsworth-Kelly-meets-Richard-Serra-meets-Anselm-Kiefer — was a tremendously visceral experience: it felt cold and damp, and it smelled like a mixture of metal and oil. It was like being locked in a room with a huge, imposing embodiment of decay and waste. At least that’s how I read — or, rather, felt — it. Read more about Balka’s show here.

Miroslaw Balka
Miroslaw Balka

We also saw John Mann‘s “Folded in Place,” lovely photographs of “cartographic objects” (my term) at Daniel Cooney. Mann takes maps and restores to them the third dimension of space that is removed when we make collapse space into a flat representation. But then the photographs of these folded, bent, and flagged objects reduce them once again to two dimensions.

John Mann
John Mann

Finally, a slight map-related tangent: check out the interesting infrastructural hieroglyphics I encountered on the Franklin Ave. subway platform last week:



Cage’s “Experimental Composition” and Other New School Curricular Treasures

Cage’s “[Experimental] Composition,” 1956
Tonight an Australian student wrote me to ask if I happened to know anything about the courses John Cage taught at The New School in the ’50s. I’m not sure why she reached out to me in particular, but I’m glad she did. Nearly everyone at The New School knows of Cage’s storied composition course, but very few of us, it seems, knowmuch about it. The email inquiry reminded me that our archivists, led by the fabulous Wendy Scheir, had recently finished scanning all the university course catalogues since 1919 (along with university scrapbooks, the American Race Crisis Lecture Series of 1964, and the Hannah Arendt Papers). So, I skimmed through the 1956-1959 catalogues and located Cage’s “Experimental Composition” course, first offered, as far as I can tell, in the Fall of 1956. You can see the course description above.

As Jacqui Alexander writes in Pedagogies of Crossing, since the inception of its Adult Division in 1919, “The New School was envisioned as a place for new pedagogic practices [and] interdisciplinarity, and as an experiment to place education in the service of transformation… [I]ts reputation derived both from an alternative vision of education and from its outsider status — outside the Ivy League.” Over the years the university has both embraced those ideals and, at the same time, struggled to overcome the liabilities of perpetual “outsider”/”radical” status. It, like all universities, has weathered periods of unrest, and, most recently, suffered some growing pains. Regardless, many of us remain proud to be affiliated with an institution that, throughout its history, has drawn “outsiders” and brave thinkers and creators like Cage, who was preceded by Martha Graham, Edwin Piscator, Aaron Copland …and the following:

Thorstein Veblen, 1919
Thorstein Veblen, 1919
John Dewey, 1919
John Dewey, 1919
Lewis Mumford, 1926
Lewis Mumford, 1926

Also in 1926, what is probably one of the first film studies classes:


Terry Ramsaye, 1926
Terry Ramsaye, 1926
Frank Lloyd Wright, 1931
Frank Lloyd Wright, 1931
Henry Dreyfuss, 1932
Henry Dreyfuss, 1932

1940 seemed to be a particularly vibrant year:

Berenice Abbott, 1940
Berenice Abbott, 1940
Meyer Shapiro, 1940
Meyer Shapiro, 1940
Harold Lasswell, 1940
Harold Lasswell, 1940
Hanns Eisler, 1940
Hanns Eisler, 1940
W.H. Auden, 1940
W.H. Auden, 1940


Lewis Mumford, 1940
Lewis Mumford, 1940

I could’ve spent all day skimming through these old catalogues, but I forced myself to stop around 1940. Yet I had to include this, from 1963:


Kenneth Koch & Frank O’Hara, Spring 1963

Underground Library: Cute Idea, Slightly Shady Premise

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this Underground Library project, developed by a group of students from the Miami Ad School, referenced in various magazines and blogs over the past several days (recent appearances include Atlantic Cities and the Paris Review blog). The concept is quite clever; as Co.Design explains it:

Subway smartphone users swipe at a special poster promoting a curated selection of books on offer, after which the first 10 pages will be automatically downloaded to their mobile device in an easy-to-read ePub or PDF format. Once they reach their stop and emerge aboveground, a map will pop up and direct them to the nearest available NYPL branches to nab the physical copy.

Downloading a sample from NY’s Underground Library

Options for technically realizing such a project (the proposed solution is Near-Field Communication) are addressed and debated in the Co.Design article and on Vimeo. A very similar project was proposed last year — by Vodafone — for the Victorei metro station in Bucharest: users could download selections from a curated collection of books and audiobooks, but rather than being directed to access the complete texts in the public library, users were pushed to the website for Humanitas, a book publisher.

Of course subway libraries aren’t new. We’ve got analog versions here in New York, and in Madrid and Stockholm. Plus, I’m sure some cities and towns are using some form of book vending machine in transit stations.

[Update 4/1: The Philadelphia Free Library announced a QR code-based virtual library at its Suburban Station platforms.]

Vodafone's Bucharest Metro Library
Vodafone’s Bucharest Metro Library
Underground NY Public Library: somebody's getting some Shirky action.
Underground NY Public Library: somebody’s getting some Shirky action.

Also worth a mention is Ourit Ben-Haim’s Underground New York Public Library, “a photo series featuring the Reading-Riders of the NYC subways”; the photos themselves are meant to coalesce as a “visual library.” (See this article about the project in the American Reader. Ben Haim’s work reminds me a lot of Adrian Tomine‘s illustrations of transit-reading.)

All the aforementioned examples are potential case studies for libraries considering more nimble, responsive modes and spaces of service (yes, I’ve written about this before.) But getting back to the project du jour: the NFC Underground Library: as much as I’m charmed by the project itself, I can’t help but be a little irked by the pitch that establishes its context:

Ever since the creation of the Internet, the use of public libraries has been on a decline. Now, with the invention of smart devices, people can learn about anything, anywhere. Well, almost anywhere. …[T]he Internet still does not work underground…

Ah, the converging myths of (1) ubiquitous Internetization of the entirety of the human cultural record and (2) universal public access! The false assumptions about public library use! These misconceptions are dispiritingly prevalent. Quite a few similar “nimble library” or “library outpost” proposals rely on similar false premises, as I’ve written about here:

At a time when digital information is replacing almost every kind of printed document, iPhones, iPads, Kindles and other similar portable devices have become books.

Many people would regard it as an anachronism to think that a library could still have any relevance as an architectural typology in the face of the digital upheaval that has changed the ways we approach information and objects, transforming entire industries, such as the video, music and printing industries.

With the advent of the internet…all of the world’s knowledge is available instantly to anyone who desires it.

We can celebrate these inventive projects without buying their false premises. As I wrote earlier, it’s understandable that the creators of these projects, and those who review them, would want to “ascribe some historical and cultural significance” to the transit or pop-up library “by suggesting, say, that a team of up-and-coming designers [or a group of entrepreneurs, or a telecom behemoth] has revolutionized a thousands-of-years-old institution by proposing a new program and making it mobile [and/or subterranean]; or by painting a really bleak picture of the status quo, to which your featured design offers an alternative.” But why do that? Why not acknowledge the realities — of information access, of library service, of the state of urban infrastructures — within which your proposed project operates? After all, if you’re promoting public reading, why not show that you’re doing a little homework yourselves — that you know your context?


Sounding Smart — or, Knowing Your Medium

Via  Lief Parsons
Via Lief Parsons 

This weekend marked my sixth visit to the Society for Cinema and Media Studies annual conference. I had the pleasure of enjoying a number of strong presentations on remarkably “synergistic” panels: the “Earth Sensing” panel with Janet Walker, Lisa Parks, Nicole Starosielski, and Eva Hayward; the Color TV panel with Jonathan Sterne, Dylan Melvin, and Sue Murray; and the Networked Media panel with Doron Galili, Max Dawson, and Patrick Jagoda were all exemplary (I missed quite a few presentations that, I heard, were equally fantastic). I’ve long been an admirer of Parks’s and Sterne’s work, but the conference reminded me again of what tremendous presenters they are. And in hearing Jagoda’s work performed live, I gained a new appreciation for the beauty of his written texts. The success of these particular presentations and panels made me wonder what it is, precisely, that makes for a good conference presentation.

I may have found a few clues in my own panel, which, if I may say so, was quite provocative, productive…and fun. I was delighted to be on a panel with three bright, energetic graduate students, with whom I explored various approaches to thinking and doing media archaeology. We delved into some deep theoretical territory, but we all seemed to take a similar approach to the task: everyone (I’m excluding myself here, since others are better equipped to say how well my presentation was received) clearly articulated nuanced arguments, conscientiously grounded their theorization in something concrete, and engagingly — even entertainingly —  made their cases. They exploited the distinctive capacities of the conference-panel-as-a-medium not only to advance their individual arguments, but also to explore what the four of us could create together, and in consultation with our audience, when we put our heads together. In short, the form and content of this panel seemed to coalesce tremendously well — which reminded me that, as much as I often dread going to conferences, especially the behemoths like SCMS, there are some things the conference panel — the discursive form in which a small group of folks, assuming a position of humility, share their works-in-progress, and use that work to incite a conversation with a room full of similarly-interested people — can do particularly well.

Just as the conference presentation possesses particular formal properties that we need to learn to exploit, so, too, does academic writing. The qualities of “good writing” have been equally on my mind lately, as I’ve reviewed a few manuscripts for various publishers and a batch of theses and proposals from potential advisees. For years, in my classes and on this site, I’ve discussed the tendency among some graduate students (and, not infrequently, among fellow faculty) to write in a way that, to their minds, sounds academic. They sometimes ape the bombast and evasiveness of our most obscurantist (and self-aggrandizing) theorists. I think the students are genuinely excited and inspired by the seemingly radical and experimental writing styles of these thinkers. It’s a phase most grad students go through — and I suppose we need to allow them this rite of passage. Still, I think it’s important to cultivate among our students an awareness of various discursive conventions, and to help students understand that there are ideologies and politics and economies beneath our discursive platforms, and even our writing styles. Style is far more than a personal aesthetic choice.

In the March issue of Artforum Julian Stallabrass reviews two recently published books on curating, both of which exemplify problematic conventions of curatorial discourse. These conventions aren’t unique to curation; they point to problems in academic writing, too. Of course Artforum itself is always ripe for analysis; it and its fellow perpetrators of “international art English” were subjected to a rather astute critique by Alix Rule and David Levine in triple canopy last year (I excerpted the article here on Pinboard).


Stallabrass identifies several verbal “tics” that he regards as “particular to curatorial language,” but which, again, I say are often present in academic language:

The word interrogates, for example, usually refers to something of which no particular questions will be asked; specific is almost always used to refer to something that will go unspecified. …[C]uratorial prose is often written in ‘almost statements’ that gesture at but fail to achieve meaning.

Rule and Levine acknowledge these same tics as part of their much deeper analysis of contemporary global art-speak’s distinctive vocabulary (coining such overwrought terms as “radical transversality,” “imbrication” and “globality”!), its grammatical characteristics (weighing heavily on paired terms and dependent clauses!), and its genealogy (which we can trace back to October and particularities of the French language). In increasingly widespread acts of “linguistic mimicry and one-upmanship,” art-speak seems to aim for a uniform global style: one that appears to be “written…by French interns imitating American interns imitating American academics imitating French academics.” That sounds an awful lot like a lot of academic papers, too.

Why such “opacity and vacuity” — in both the gallery and the academy? Stallabrass first offers an oft-rehearsed explanation: “One obvious answer involves self-preservation. As in so many fields, the linguistic posture is defensive, a specialist language that protects the elite schooled in its thought from too much outside interference.” A recent article by Stephen Walt in Foreign Policyechoes this explanation:

[J]argon is a way for professional academics to remind ordinary people that they are part of a guild with specialized knowledge that outsiders lack, and younger scholars often fear that if they don’t sound like a professional scholar, then readers won’t believe what they are saying no matter how solid their arguments and evidence are.

I find that students often seek to align themselves with the “masters” of the guild, populating their bibliographies with “Big Man” theorists, regardless of whether or not they’ve actually cited those masters in their work, or whether the “capital-T Theory” is even relevant or useful in their particular projects. Meanwhile, these junior scholars often ignore plenty of smart, useful resources that, while perhaps more modest in scale, or perhaps written by folks with less name recognition, are much more pertinent to, and useful for, the projects at hand.

We can’t ignore the role of ego. The same ego that drives us to associate with alpha males also sometimes compels us to develop rhetorical defense mechanisms. Walt writes, “[M]any academics (and especially younger ones) tend to confuse incomprehensibility with profundity. If they write long and ponderous sentences and throw in lots of jargon, they assume that readers will be dazzled by their erudition and more likely to accept whatever it is they are saying uncritically.” (Of course what some dismiss as “jargon,” others regard as useful specialized language.) Obscurantism brings with it some degree of immunity to critique. If others don’t know what you’re getting at, it’s harder to challenge your argument. Opaque and vacuous writing, Walt argues, are often the product of “a fear of being wrong.”

If your prose is clear and your arguments are easy to follow, then readers can figure out what you are saying and they can hold you to account. If you are making forecasts (or if the theory you are advancing has implications for the future), then you will look bad if your predictions are clearly stated and then fail. If your argument has obvious testable implications, others can run the tests and see how well your claims stand up. But if your prose is muddy and obscure or your arguments are hedged in every conceivable direction, then readers may not be able to figure out what you’re really saying and you can always dodge criticism by claiming to have been misunderstood.

Timing — particularly, where one is in the lifecycle of a project — might have something to do with how her writing takes shape, too. Curatorial statements — much like conference abstracts, thesis proposals, book prospectuses, etc. — are written well before we have a concrete sense of what forms these projects will take. In such “speculative” genres of writing,

…vagueness and complexity may be a register of uncertainty: Such thinking tries to lay out the effects of grouping objects and activities together without the benefit of actually having yet done so. Hence the insistent feeling, in reading curatorial prose, that meanings are being strung together and groped toward rather than grasped, and in that groping, showers of familiar and closely related terms are emitted, each hard on the heels of the other…. (Stallabrass)

We need to reflect on what our discursive conventions and stylistic choices say not only about us as individuals, but also about the ideologies underlying our disciplines, and the academy in general. Stallabrass points out that what are often touted as assets of art’s “new model” — “mobility, flexibility, multiplicity, portability”– are actually “attributes of older curatorial ideals, and indeed of art itself since the Conceptual turn in the late 1960s.” More importantly, these terms have also been central to “business writing as it mutated in response to the revolts of 1968. Thomas Frank, Luc Boltanski, and Eve Chiapello have all famously analyzed how these corporate practices brought management and art closer together in the celebration of mandatory creativity and nonconformity.”

In short, we need to think about the politics and economics of our discursive forms, the ideologies underlying our presentation and writing styles, our dominant theoretical models, our methods, etc. Critical theory and critical discourse — on the page, the conference panel, the screen, etc. — could benefit from a little more critical theorization of their own.


Little Free Libraries / New York Jury

Airan Kang's "Luminous Words," which I saw this weekend @  Bryce Wolkowitzls
Airan Kang’s “Luminous Words,” which I saw this weekend @ Bryce Wolkowitz 

I was tremendously honored to be invited to join the jury for the Architectural League of New York / PEN World Voices Festival‘s Little Free Libraries / New York design competition. Other jurors include the Laurie Anderson, Andy Bernheimer, A.M. Homes, and Peter Mullan.

Which of these is unlike the (illustrious) others? That would be me (or, I).

The commissioned projects will be will be installed on May 4, 2013, as part of the New Museum’s IDEAS CITY festival. The ArchLeague offers more info about the free libraries (which I addressed in a fairly lengthy article about the larger “little library” movement last spring) and the competition:

The Little Free Libraries movement places small-scale book shelters in neighborhoods and is based on the premise of “take a book, leave a book.” Established less than three years ago, Little Free Libraries now populate 5,000 communities worldwide. Initially crafted to resemble miniature one-room schoolhouses mounted on a pole, each library is a unique structure, designed and constructed in a wide range of styles, often utilizing recycled, reclaimed, or salvaged materials… [I, for one, am hoping we’ll see some major typological innovations.]

In keeping with this year’s IDEAS CITY theme of untapped capital, the libraries will facilitate an informal exchange of books in the city’s public spaces, where local residents and visitors may use and contribute to these communal, non-market based resources. Architects and designers interested in creating a library as part of this project are invited to submit their qualifications and describe their interest in the project in response to this RFQ. A jury will select ten teams to each design and fabricate a library, hosted on the property or in the domain of a partnering community organization. Selected design teams will be matched with partner organizations by the PEN World Voices Festival and the Architectural League of New York.

Submissions are due, well, today — so it’s a bit too late to start brainstorming. But our work of adjudication is just beginning, and I’m super-excited to be involved.


ArchaeologyPLUS — This Week @ SCMS Chicago

 via ConstructionDigital
via ConstructionDigital 

Later this week I’ll be heading to Chicago for my seventh (seriously?!) Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, and I’m stoked to be joining a group of super-genius whippersnappers — Laine Nooney from Stony Brook, Jacob Gaboury from NYU, and Rory Solomon from Parsons — on a panel exploring “New/ Media/ Archaeologies: Extensions and Interventions in Media Archaeology” (we got extra credit for using not only the obligatory colon, but also the ever-provocative slash — not one, but two of them!). I’m grateful to Laine for bringing us all together and chairing the panel. She’s offered a nice overview on her website, and I’ll share it here, too:

Rory Solomon | Parsons the New School for Design
“Software Stratigraphy: Media Archaeology of/as the Stack”

Shannon Mattern | The New School
“Echoes and Entanglements: A Sonic Archaeology of the City”

Laine Nooney | Stony Brook University
“Materialist Methods for Mystery House(s): A Feminist Media Archaeology of Early Video Games”

Jacob Gaboury | New York University
“An Archeology of Uncomputable Numbers: Queer Media History”

Panel Abstract:
Over the past 20 years, media archaeology’s emphasis on non-progressive media histories, dead and failed media, and media materialism has refreshed the theoretical domains of media studies. Scholarship in media archaeology has long been united by a methodological focus on the primacy of the technological medium itself, rather than its representational content. However, these methods, by outrightly rejecting questions of discursivity, subjectivity and political economy, produce their own academic difficulties. The anti-hermeneutic tradition of media archaeology has produced a body of scholarship that often leaves unaccounted the ghostly or immaterial components of media studies that do not leave technological registers in our material world.

This panel re-assesses the intersections of objects, subjectivities and environments that typically lie beyond media archaeology’s reach, extending media archaeological methods across disciplinary boundaries. Rory Solomon offers a programmer-oriented view, complicating the notion of a purely non-discursive technical substrate using the software model of the “stack.” The “stack” illustrates that operative layers always exist above and below any substrate; methods are best imagined as “both/and” rather than “either/or.” Shannon Mattern productively confuses the distinction between media archaeology and archaeology “proper,” in an effort to address the very literal “digging” required to write a history of urban sound. Mattern insists media archaeology should learn from actual excavation, as material practices are all the more significant when one must unearth forms of mediation that themselves have no physical instantiation. Laine Nooney continues to focus on material context, arguing that media archaeology remains deeply gendered when scholars privilege objective analyses of media objects that forgo cultural and human materiality. Nooney intersects feminist materialism with media archaeology to highlight the largely “invisible” female affective and material labor at work in video game history. Jacob Gaboury locates a queerness in media archaeology demanding further attention to identity-based critiques. Gaboury suggests that media archaeology’s attention to failed, glitched and re-occurring processes dovetails with queer theory’s turn toward a politics of failure and anti-sociality, and reads computer history against its grain to offer a queer alternative to the telos of “successful” communication.

My presentation will pick up on some ideas I explored in my “Dirty Media Archaeology” talk at the fabulous Network Archaeology conference last April, and in my “Hearing Infrastructures” public lecture at the Canadian Centre for Architecture last June. Since then, I’ve been reading a lot of classics and archaeology, and talking to some archaeologists, acousticians, and engineers — and the insights I’ve gleaned from these resources and encounters will, I hope, allow me to expand both the historical and practical dimensions of this particular talk. Plus, I hope to be able to play some “dug up” sounds, rather than simply talking about them, this time.

If my presentation shapes up decently, I’ll post it here. If not, I’ll keep working on it and perhaps share it later on as a draft book chapter. Regardless, part of this work will emerge this summer as “Ear to the Wire,” an article in the recently-launched Amodern journal.