My Talk on (You Can’t)-Do-It-Yourself Publishing

Yesterday I joined the always-inspiring Tara McPherson from USC + the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture; Alberto Pepe, co-founder of Authorea; and Gregg Gordon, President of the Social Science Research Network, for a panel discussion at Columbia University on DIY publishing. I argued that DIY is, for the most part, a hubristic myth — and I offered instead “5 Lessons [about Publishing] on a Gradient of DIY-ness.” 

Here are my slides, which might or might not make sense without my notes — which I’m not going to share because they’re really sketchy. Sketchy as in “rough” — not “shady.”

Mattern DIYPublishing by shannonmattern


Tomatoes, Texts, Telephones + Totems: I Saw Some Art

Despina Stokou, Google Search: Tomatoes (page 53/162), 2014

At Derek Eller, Despina Stokou created black-and-white paintings based on the source code of a Google image search for the word “tomatoes,” and she made some color paintings based on online horse-betting tips. Kinda hard to wrap your head around — but the work itself is quite compelling, if you can avoid reading the insufferable artist’s statement / press release. Tomatoes, defined in large part by their juicy redness (duh), are here reduced to monochrome code — which, granted, in its layering, takes on a certain textuality. But not a squishy, juicy one.


And speaking of reductive documentation: Jenny Holzer’s Dust Paintings, at Cheim & Read, make use of her standard source material: government documents. A rambling catalog essay suggests that Holzer’s work has some affinity with Arabic “dust writing” — hence the title of the show. But based on what little scholarship I could locate on this chirographic form, the resemblance is merely cosmetic: some of Holzer’s canvases call to mind hastily washed chalkboards, with streaks of chalk-dust constituting a palimpsest. In a different series of paintings,  redactions in the documents are aestheticized, thereby transforming evidence of censorship into Color Fields.

Jenny Holzer
Jenny Holzer





I also stopped by Galerie Lelong for Kate Shepherd’s Fwd: The Telephone Game, which I expected to provide a similarly cryptographic experience. Nah. The work didn’t live up to its provocative title.

Yet continuing with the document theme was Erica Baum’s The Paper Nautilus at Bureau. The printed page is her subject, and in much of her work she highlights the aesthetics of “looking askew” at bibliographic form. “Beyond the narratives and illustrations that these texts present, it is in the margins and gutters, in the textures and contours of these printed objects that Baum finds her subject.” As the press release explains:

Utilizing the mechanical techniques of her Dog Ear and Blanks series, works in the new Stills are similarly composed through the simple operation of folding down the corner of a book page. In those earlier series, Baum’s corners disclose found concrete poetry and elegantly textured geometric abstractions. The Stills focus on fractured imagery and thus relate to Baum’s cinematic Naked Eye works in which fanned-out paperback pages reveal a rhythm of sliced pictures. This expanding aesthetic demonstrates Baum’s consistent skill for unearthing abstract beauty from within the printed page. The Stills are a suite of slightly uneven, bisected squares composed of blown-up halftone illustrations and forms framed by toothy paper grains from the books’ margins.


These aesthetics of the fold (folded, compressed space, that is) — and of forensics — were also present in Roxy Paine’s Denuded Lens. The centerpiece was an almost-life-size wooden forced-perspective diorama of an airport security checkpoint, a product of both computer-modeling and hand-carving. One could say, predictably, that human and machine work in tandem as labor-force in such surveillance zones — as they did in the construction of this particular model of one such zone. While the press release suggests that the re-scaling and compression and “petrification” of this environment in wood “translates a quotidian space into an uncanny one,” I’d suggest instead that it makes an already-uncanny space even uncannier! For more on “uncannied” labor: Labor is a central theme in several other sculptures on display — wooden models of machines and apparatae so intricate that they had to have been made, at least in part, by a machine.

Roxy Paine, Diorama
Roxy Paine, Diorama




And that wasn’t the last of the uncanny labor environments I encountered that day: the late Jason Rhoades’s PeaRoeFoam, a reinstatement of — and amendment to — an installation from 2002…

…was Rhoades’s self-made recipe for a ‘brand new product and revolutionary new material’  created from whole green peas, fish-bait style salmon eggs, and white virgin-beaded foam. When combined together with non-toxic glue, they transform into a versatile, fast-drying, and ultimately hard material that Rhoades intended for both utilitarian as well as artistic use — his detailed step-by-step instructions accompanied do-it-yourself kits complete with everything needed to make PeaRoeFoam.

Rhoades, whose legacy lives on in the form of this immortal-because-it’s-so-not-biodegradable material — puts on display the manufacturing, packaging, and distribution of his mutant product, and all the infrastructures integral to the production cycle.

Jason Rhoades, PeaRoeFoam


Jason Rhoades, PeaRoeFoam


Meanwhile, at Petzel, Walead Beshty’s Performances Under Working Conditions displayed copper desktops patina-ed through use by the gallery staff. “The copper surrogates map the progression of the gallery staff’s immaterial labor: of discourse, transaction and negotiation.” Ah, but of course!

Annoying — but kinda beautiful.

Walead Beshty
Walead Beshty


Returning to the whole “uncanny” theme” was Josh Dorman’s Whorled at Ryan Lee. As the title suggests, Dorman constructs fantastical worlds via collaged — “whorled” — vintage textbook pages, engravings, found images, antique maps, player-piano scrolls, etc. Very 19th-century media-archaeological Pieter Brueghel.

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IMG_6383 IMG_6385

And then the banality of the uncanny — in this case, specifically, our boredom with the increasing realism of computer graphics. Harun Farocki’s Parallel at Greene Naftali traced the evolution of video game graphics, game-space, and characters, via screen captures of game-play and footage of game developers. I found it hysterical that my companions in the gallery were more captivated by their phones than by the supposedly magnetic game worlds suspended just feet from their faces. Pay attention, people! That zombie is about to melt your face off!  



And more banality — specifically the banality, and beauty, of evil (and everyday life): Stephen Shore, at 303 Gallery, documents quotidian objects and spaces in Israel and the West Bank, and in villages of Holocaust survivors in the Ukraine. These banal scenes carry the weight of conflict, history, destruction, loss. I loved the formal and chromatic — and affective and semantic — juxtapositions created in the installation. Damn, he’s good.




Rooftop Infrastructure
Rooftop Infrastructure

Also concerned with formal juxtapositions of quotidian objects in everyday spaces, and with the themes of loss and reclamation, is Andy Coolquitt’s somebody’s place at Lisa Cooley:

Coolquitt specializes in the creation of objects and environments composed of urban flotsam and other peoples’ junk. Eclipsing existing models of economic, cultural or even aesthetic value, his empathetic reuse of found objects is not meant as a conversion of trash into treasure, but rather as an indexing of the irredeemable; the abandoned and the invalid; the wasted and the destroyed.

As a self–proclaimed “artist of exhibitions,” Coolquitt typically works to manipulate the physical and psychological dynamics of his environments (what he often refers to as the “density” or “openness” of the space) by altering the relationships that his objects have with each other, with the viewer, and with the surrounding architecture. For a recent exhibition at 21er Haus in Vienna, the artist chose to cede this control to the local art handlers (who were instructed to “put the stuff in the room”) and curator (whose instructions were to “finish the job”). In somebody place, Coolquitt has altered this method again, this time by pre-arranging the dynamics of the exhibition in the studio, living with the objects and arranging them unconsciously as one would treat functional objects in their home….

Echoing William Carlos Williams’ poetic dictum, “no ideas but in things,” the intelligence of Andy Coolquitt’s work is embedded within the objects themselves, in the accumulated knowledge of stuff that is communicated through use. (We somehow know, Coolquitt likes to point out, that the bed doesn’t go in the kitchen.) The works in somebody place are the result of Coolquitt’s interest in “the intersubjectivity of stuff,” in how the interconnectedness of daily rituals often complicate the boundaries that separate order from chaos, function from disfunction.

Andy Coolquitt
Andy Coolquitt



Yes, deodorant containers.
Yes, deodorant containers.
A little plate o' candy-like-bits under the reception table
A little plate o’ candy-like-bits under the reception table

More play with form: Allan McCollum’s The Shapes Project at Petzel, in which he aims to create a unique shape for every single person in the world — and here, as part of “Perfect Pairs,” he couples those shapes to propose human relationships. They’re relational widgets of sorts.





Matthew Ritchie, in his Ten Possible Links at Andrea Rosen, is also working with semiotics and forms of communication — or, as the headache-inducing press release puts it, variations on “diagrammatic thinking.” I particularly liked how the layered informatic textures, if we can call them that, pulled you back father into the gallery, into a dark inner sanctum.

Matthew Ritchie
Matthew Ritchie


[In an odd transition…] Fred Wilson’s work likewise pulls apart the basic formal structures of our national symbols, institutions, exhibitionary conventions, etc. In his Sculptures, Paintings and Installations at Pace, we see his complete flag series, in which he presents de-colorized flags from African and African diasporic nations — and, nearby, a set of wood placques explaining the symbolic values of these flags’ colors.

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Race is of course a central theme here, as it is in Nick Cave’s work. In his fabulous Made by Whites for Whites at Jack Shainman — probably the best show I’ve seen this month — Cave reframes radically charged historical objects. “The project began when Cave found a container at a flea market shaped like the head of a black man and labeled ‘Spittoon.’ He…began ‘to rehabilitate the problematic, loaded object and find a place of reverence and empowerment through use.” Here, these objects are embedded in topiaries and totems composed of traditional decorative objects — and thereby, ostensibly, “rehabilitated.”










We also get a gallery guide that provides a biography for many of the found objects.



Scaffolding, Hard and Soft: Infrastructures as Critical and Generative Structures

Today in the Parsons “Design for This Century” lecture course — a class that’s required of all first-year Transdisciplinary Design, Design + Technology, and Design Studies students — I’ll be talking about infrastructure. This presentation will later become a chapter in Jentery Sayers’s The Routledge Companion to Media Studies and Digital Humanities, forthcoming 2016.

Mattern DesignForThisCentury by shannonmattern

Scaffolding, Hard and Soft: Infrastructures as Critical and Generative Structures

We’ll start off with a story. I’m not a fiction writer, so please bear with me. Trust me: there is a point to this.

[SLIDE 2] Congratulations! You’re the proud owner – or shall we say host – of a new iDevice! If you’re hearing my voice in your mind’s ear right now, we must assume that you’ve successfully undergone the implantation, or what we like to call “bio-syncing,” procedure. Touch behind your left ear. Careful! We don’t want to loosen the stitches. Feel that little bump? That’s me. Hi!

Perhaps we should get to know each other? Hold on just a sec.[Three seconds of a Muzak rendition of The Girl from Ipanema] [SLIDE 3] There. I’ve just downloaded and analyzed your Comprehensive Informatic and Genetic Profile, and I think I get you. I have a feeling we’ll get along just fine. As you undoubtedly know, all those sensors and scanners that have been embedded in your environment ever since you were conceived – the Birth Monitor in your mother’s womb, the sensors in your toothbrush and refrigerator, the health monitors in your smartwatch, the eye movement trackers in your computer monitor and smartphone screens – they’ve all been capturing little bits and pieces of what make you you. [SLIDE 4] And now, by mashing up all those data streams, I’m able to piece together an fairly comprehensive and accurate picture of every place you’ve ever been, everything you’ve ever eaten, every piece of media you’ve ever consumed, every thought you’ve ever had. Haha. Just kidding about that last bit. Kind of.

But seriously, I’m keeping a close – and don’t freak out: totally benevolent – watch over you: I know what you have done, what you are doing, what’s happened to you and what is happening to you, what’s made you upset or sick, and what triggers your production of dopamine and serotonin, and I can use that info to predict what choices will make you a better, stronger you for tomorrow – and all of tomorrow’s tomorrows. Together, we can make your life as healthy, efficient, and economical as possible!

[SLIDE 5] In order to make this whole thing work, though, I’ll need you to play by a few simple rules. First, always stay within 10 miles of one of our base stations, so our central network can remain in contact with you. We have pretty wide coverage, but for now at least, we ask that you not visit any conflict zones or nations where the GDP per capita is below $3,000. And please don’t do any extreme deep-sea exploration or space travel. Or go spelunking. We haven’t yet extended our network into those regions. Second, always use approved personal technology: not all smartphones and watches and other wearables and implants use the same operating system I use – these discrepancies are of course a consequence of the great Google/Apple Showdown of 2020 – and not all of their databases are structured in the same way that the iEverything family’s is structured. For instance, we all seem to have our own distinctive ways of operationalizing and quantifying “mindfulness” and “productivity.” If we devices are going to be able to share your data amongst ourselves and take advantage of our collective knowledge, we need to speak the same language and use the same measurements. And third, we’ll need to you set the privacy settings on all your devices – and on me, via my web interface – to “Completely and Utterly Open.” You’ll need to register this preference with the National Security Agency, too, just so they know that you know what you’re doing.

Okay. Let’s get syncing!

[SLIDE 6] This speculative, and mildly parodic, vision of a data-driven future resembles the seemingly utopic images of “sentient cities” and “quantified selves” offered by everyone from our tech manufacturers and app developers, to our sci-fi authors and filmmakers, to our Internet service providers and the civil engineers who build our cities and highways. Looking past the marketing rhetoric, however, these scenarios prompt us to ask ourselves questions regarding what roles we want technology to play in our lives. [SLIDE 7] I offer this future-vision here, however, primarily to highlight the number of intertwined and layered networks and protocols and practices that must sync up perfectly in order for our “seamlessly” efficient digital futures to become realities. These systems all constitute interlocking infrastructures.


[SLIDE 8] The term “infrastructure” typically conjures up images of roads, railways, bridges, military structures, and other public works – heavily material stuff. And this is what “infrastructure” referred to when the term was first used in the mid-1920s. [SLIDE 9] By the late 1990s, according to a U.S. Presidential Commission, the term came to encompass “man-made systems and processes that function collaboratively and synergistically to produce and distribute a continuous flow of essential goods and services” — systems like transportation, oil and gas distribution and storage, water supply, emergency management, government services, banking and finance, electrical power, and information and communications.[1]

[SLIDE 10] Yet the heavily material stuff persists even in this “information age. Our seemingly immaterial, ubiquitous and placeless digital networks rely upon data centers, power plants, fiber-optic cables, satellites, mines yielding coltan and copper, and assembly-line workers and e-waste handlers regularly exposing themselves to toxic materials.[2] These are among our digital culture’s myriad material infrastructures. As sociologists Susan Leigh Star and Geoffrey Bowker remind us, though, [SLIDE 11] intellectual and institutional structures and operations – measurement standards, technical protocols, naming conventions, bureaucratic forms, etc. – are also infrastructures. The scenario I painted earlier demonstrated that agreeing on technical protocols, measurement standards and classification systems – all intellectual and administrative infrastructures – is necessary in order for the soft- and hardware to do their jobs.

Star and Bowker suggest too that infrastructure is “inevitably a flexible term, often defined with regard to context and situation.”

[SLIDE 12] They describe infrastructure as “that which runs ‘underneath’ actual structures … that upon which something else rides, or works, a platform of sorts”; but then acknowledge that “this common-sense definition begins to unravel when we … look at multiple, overlapping and perhaps contradictory infrastructural arrangements. For the railroad engineer, the rails are only infrastructure when she or he is a passenger.” In other words, infrastructure can easily flip between figure and ground.[3]

[SLIDE 13] It becomes “figure” especially when snafus occur: when that otherwise invisible platform malfunctions and calls attention to itself – as is the case when we encounter dead zones or suffer natural disasters or carry our locked smartphones into foreign lands, or when our devices won’t sync or operate on different frequencies, or when various stakeholders don’t adhere to the same protocols, or when the legal machinery and bureaucracy codifying these standards collapses under its own weight, or when government firewalls block access or corporations deem a market not sufficiently lucrative to deserve a “hookup.”

[SLIDE 14] INFRASTRUCTURE AS A CRITICAL STRUCTURE: What Critical Tools And Frameworks Does A Focus On Infrastructure Offer Us?

[SLIDE 15] A deeper, networked media history. Even the infrastructural “ground” has its own substrate, its own platform, too. While the term infrastructure wasn’t put into common use until the 1960s, and is thus commonly associated with modern telecommunications, the idea of infrastructure has existed since the dawn of civilization.[4] People have always needed substrates – physical, intellectual, political, economic – on which to build their settlements, and those ancient structures have had residual effects across history. [SLIDE 16]Digital infrastructures follow many of the same paths – the same, or very similar, conduits; similar network structure – as did early telecommunications infrastructure. “Because of the costs of developing new telecommunications networks,” geographers Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin note, “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.”[5] And many early telecommunications hubs are urban centers built up over centuries in part through strength in publishing and a flourishing print culture. Cities thus become magnets for new technological development thanks to capital built up under old media regimes. Digital infrastructures are often predicated on their analog predecessors; old media infrastructures begat new media infrastructures.

[SLIDE 17] I’ve written elsewhere on the deep history and temporal entanglements of media infrastructures – [SLIDE 18] on the ways in which the rise of trade and the need for record-keeping necessarily made early human settlements into infrastructures for writing, with even the buildings’ and cities’ clay walls serving as substrates for written texts; [SLIDE 19] and the ways in which, in the early days of democracy, cities were designed, or emerged through trial and error, to be conducive to public address and interpersonal communication.[6] [SLIDE 20] Thinking about media infrastructure through this deep historical perspective helps us to recognize that media histories are entwined with the histories of our cities and civilizations – and that cities have long constituted infrastructural environments that support their essential role as communicative spaces.

[SLIDE 21] The principle of “path dependency” explains how previous choices and patterns in designing and constructing systems, regardless of the circumstances or conditions under which those choices were originally made, limit our options in future developments: where the cable was lain in the past determines to some degree where we position our new conduits, what file formats have become the industry standard inform our design and production decisions, and how users have come to expect to interact with media – the habitual gestures of flipping pages and swiping screens, for instance – influences how we build familiarity and novelty into interaction design. Yet those previous “paths” aren’t rigidly deterministic. As Edwards et al note, “The eventual growth of complex infrastructure and the forms it takes are the result of converging histories, path dependencies, serendipity, innovation, and ‘bricolage’ (tinkering).”[7] Chance and human agency thus have roles to play in the evolution of our infrastructures and the unfolding of media and technological history.

[SLIDE 22] Media networked across scale. What’s more, thinking about media infrastructure as networked and layered helps us to recognize media “as potentially embodied on a macro-scale, as a force whose modes and ideologies and aesthetics of operation can be spatialized, and materialized, in the landscape.”[8] Today’s media infrastructures encompass hand-held devices and the microchips that make them work, as well as global networks and even extraterrestrial objects, like satellites, which are in turn affected by cosmic forces like sun flares and space dust. When we think about infrastructures, then, we must also think about the granularity of our observations. Graham and Marvin list various scales of infrastructural analysis, including the corporeal, the local, the urban, the regional, the national, the international, and the global.[9] Infrastructures cut across these scales; [SLIDE 23] thinking at the scale of the media object, for instance, or the individual human-media interaction, compels us to [SLIDE 24] “telescope out” and consider how those objects have been shaped across time, and how they’re networked across space. What’s more, scale need not be conceived of as merely a geographic quality, Paul Edwards argues; it is also possible to consider scales of force (from the human body to the geophysical), scales of time (from human time to geophysical time), and scales of social organization (from individuals to governments).[10]

Expanding our unit of analysis, “scaling out” from the page or the screen or the individual media device, helps us appreciate the intermingling of various systems. Media – for their production, distribution, and consumption – rely on the power grid, transportation networks, waste removal systems, and even, in the case of paper production and data storage, the availability of water to power the mills and cool the server rooms. Thus, media infrastructures are inevitably part of infrastructural “constellations” involving myriad other non-media-related networks.

[SLIDE 25] Virtuality’s material scaffolding. As we’ve already discussed, thinking about infrastructures – particularly the fact that these networks are always entwined, mutually evolving, reinforcing and limiting one another – also reminds us that there’s a material dimension, a “heavy architecture,” to even our most seemingly ephemeral, placeless of media technologies. As sociologist Adrian Mackenzie argues in Wirelessness: Radical Empiricism in Network Cultures:

While the notion of wireless networks implies that there are fewer wires, it could easily be argued that actually there are more wires. Rather than wireless cities or wireless networks, it might be more accurate to speak of the rewiring of cities through the highly reconfigurable paths of chipsets. Billions of chipsets means trillions of wires or conductors on a microscopic scale.[11]

And that material scaffolding scales both up and down, in and out: down to the elements mined for those chipsets and conductors, up to the systems of labor that support that mining and our gadgets’ manufacturing and global distribution and sale, out to the global networks of undersea cables and satellites, and the governmental and corporate policies and practices that manage and monetize them.[12]

[SLIDE 26] Human infrastructure. Perhaps paradoxically, while we’re considering the potent forces of “deep history” and path dependency, and the heavy engineering that powers our technologies, an infrastructural framework also leads us to acknowledge the role of humble human agency. People have not been mere beneficiaries of infrastructure; they’ve actually served as integral links within those infrastructural networks, providing labor for material extraction or service delivery, for instance; or filling in, with their own hands, when the pumps and pipes and portals fail, or, as is the case in particular disenfranchised pockets of the world, when that scaffolding is simply absent. [SLIDE 27] As AbdouMaliq Simone argues, today in Africa – and, we must acknowledge, in much of the Global South and throughout the history of civilization – people often compensate for “underdeveloped, overused, fragmented, and often makeshift urban infrastructures.”[13] Identifying these pockets of informal or shadow infrastructural development – practices of jury-rigging, pirating, and bricolaging – highlights the inherently splintered geography of our seemingly universal infrastructures, the political-economics of access, and the infrastructural roles of biopower and human agency.

[SLIDE 28] Yet in thinking across infrastructures’ time and scale, attuned to the entanglement of their hard and soft scaffoldings, we create another role for individual and collective human agency: that of the engaged, critical citizen-consumer. Media scholar Lisa Parks argues that it is our duty as infrastructural “citizen/users” to be aware of the “systems that surround [us] and that [we] subsidize and use.”[14] Might we “devise … ways of visualizing and developing literacy about infrastructures and the relations that take shape through and around them?” she wonders. “Are there ways of representing [infrastructures] that will encourage citizens to participate in sustained discussions and decisions about network ownership, development, and access?”

[SLIDE 29] I’ve written elsewhere (in an article you were encouraged to read for today) about a number of approaches – mapping, touring, sensing, signaling, even playing infrastructure – that various designers and artists have devised to promote infrastructural literacy.[15] [SLIDE 30] Recent years have brought us walking tours of cell-phone antenna networks, interactive maps of transoceanic fiber-optic cables, apps leading us to the nearest public restrooms or farmer’s markets, [SLIDE 31] gallery exhibitions featuring photos of data centers and e-waste deposits, crowd-sourced maps of bike routes and sewage systems, and hacking and circuit-bending workshops where kids explore the guts of their iPhones. And a symposium and screening series at NYU and Anthology Film Archives, scheduled for tomorrow through Sunday, will examine and exhibit a variety of films, interactive projects, photo projects, and maps that make infrastructure sense-able and intelligible.[16] [SLIDE 32] All of these works are a means of promoting infrastructural literacy, of highlighting the value of using infrastructure as a “critical scaffolding” through which we can address critical issues, including those pertaining to environmental health, the distribution of public resources, and social justice.

It’s worth noting, however, that most of these projects, many of which employ mapping in some form and focus on “making visible the invisible,” highlight the “hard,” material dimensions of infrastructure; [SLIDE 33] very few call attention to “soft infrastructures” like technical protocols, naming conventions, bureaucratic forms or measurement standards. This paucity of materials to enhance soft-infrastructural literacy represents a great opportunity for media-makers, artists, and designers, who might develop new pedagogical infrastructures for thinking about intellectual infrastructures. Two recent examples, however, might provide some inspiration. [SLIDE 34] First, Hito Steyerl’s 2013 video How Not to Be Seen: A [Expletive] Didactic Educational .MOV File offers several strategies for “disappearing” oneself from surveillance technologies. After addressing the protocols by which surveillance takes place, Steyerl proposes several means of evading it, some of which require a subversion of protocols or an upending of measurement standards. Those evasion techniques include camouflaging yourself, hiding in plain sight, shrinking yourself down smaller than a pixel, living in a gated community, wearing a full-body cloak, or becoming a female over 50. The slightly tongue-in-cheek message arrives by way of a parodic form: a dark Monty Python-esque take on the educational film.

[SLIDE 35] Second, Adrian Piper’s Probable Trust Registry, which calls into question the ideologies scaffolded into, and naturalized by, our bureaucratic forms and architectures. In the gallery we find three corporate reception environments, each representing a pledge: I will always be too expensive to buy; I will always mean what I say; and I will always do what I say I am going to do. If visitors can pledge to live by these rules, they sign a contract — one copy of which is to be kept, sealed for 100 years, in the Adrian Piper Research Archive in Berlin, and another copy of which goes to the signatories. At the close of the exhibition, all those who’ve signed pledges will receive copies of all the other signed contracts for that particular pledge. These administrative formats and processes call into question what aspects of human existence can be codified in a standardized form, what ethics might be embedded in something as seemingly “neutral” and disinterested as bureaucratic paperwork, and what protocols of privacy and access should define the archive.

[SLIDE 36] Artists, media-makers designers, critical engineers, digital humanists, and their colleagues might investigate other means of highlighting both hard and soft infrastructures, and acknowledging their entanglement. But I propose that these critical-creative practitioners’ engagement with infrastructure should extend beyond the promotion of infrastructural “awareness” and intelligence. This is not to diminish the value of such literacy, but, rather, to recognize designers’ potential to go beyond the representation of infrastructure to the design of infrastructures themselves – more efficient, effective, accessible, intelligible, and just infrastructures. Creative practitioners, I suggest, should approach infrastructure as a generative structure – a framework for generating systems and environments and objects, and cultivating individuals and communities, that embody the values we want to define our society.


I’ll close by looking at a few examples of creative and design challenges posed by infrastructure, which illustrate its relevance to and applications in various media and design fields. First, my New School colleague Christina Moon is studying the global flows of resources and labor involved in [SLIDE 38]fast fashion,” a relatively new industry, emblematized by retailers like Zara and H&M, that rapidly produces inexpensive, “disposable” garments inspired by the latest runway trends.[17] As designers increasingly concern themselves with the ethics of labor and the sourcing of material through which their designs are made material, Moon’s work helps us to recognize the “material intimacies” of fast fashion: the everyday social and cultural practices of designers and garment workers and wholesalers, the potentially meaningful and constructive dimensions of their work, and the potential for transnational social ties and cultural exchange in that work. Rewriting and nuancing the typically pejorative ways we understand “globalization” and “neoliberalism,” Moon calls designers’ attention to the embodied, affective aspects of creative labor – which has the potential to inspire greater cultural and ethical sensitivity throughout the interlocking infrastructures of the global fashion industry.

[SLIDE 39] Second, artist/designer/scholar Mary Flanagan and philosopher Helen Nissenbaum, through their Values at Play project, explore the ethics and ideologies embodied in video game design, and aim to instill, among designers and the games they create, “positive principles” like equity, empathy, diversity, generosity, humility, and negotiation.[18] They’ve conducted interviews with game designers, created a curriculum to encourage designers to critically reflect on the social values that are embodied – and perhaps should be embodied — in their work in various dimensions: through the game narrative, through its mechanics, through interface design, and, echoing Moon’s work, through the labor practices and creative processes in the game industry. Again, the multiple interlocking infrastructures of gaming are considered in relation to one another, and Flanagan and Nissenbaum remind us that the values inherent in any one of those systems informs that values defining the other networks to which it’s tied.

[SLIDE 40] Third, designers and critical engineers are developing new infrastructures for access to information resources in parts of the world that have thus far been un- or under-served, or in regions subject to government or corporate surveillance or barriers-to-access, or as a response to the noted precariousness of existing networks in the midst of natural disasters or other crisis situations. Mesh networks – distributed systems for providing internet access – allow for greater adaptability, resilience, and sustainability, and stronger privacy protections than the centralized systems offered by corporate internet service providers. As Primavera de Filippi writes in Wired,

What’s really revolutionary about mesh networking isn’t the novel use of technology. It’s the fact that it provides a means for people to self-organize into communities and share resources amongst themselves: Mesh networks are operated by the community, for the community.[19]

Again, the infrastructural design embodies a more democratic politics.

[SLIDE 41] An analog counterpart to the mesh network, and our fourth example, is the IdeasBox, a portable media and information toolkit – a mobile knowledge infrastructure – designed for deployment in humanitarian crises. A collaboration among the United National Refugee Agency, designer Philippe Starck, and the non-profit Libraries Without Borders, the project was inspired by efforts to provide access to library resources to victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Each box, which was designed to conform to the size of shipping pallets – a key infrastructure for global distribution – contains tablet and laptop computers, physical and e-books, a satellite internet connection (or technology for 3G coverage), equipment for cinema display or projection, films, board and video games, and materials for classes and workshops. Here we have a physical infrastructure, designed to facilitate its deployment through a global transportation networks, and intended to provide an intellectual infrastructure for access to information and the cultivation of knowledge.

[SLIDE 42] Fifth, returning to our silly iDevice scenario from the very beginning of this talk, we should consider the potential contributions designers can make to the creation of effective, democratic, intelligible infrastructures for our imminent “sentient cities.” I’ve written elsewhere about the need for designers to informthe way that people interact with, and experience, their cities’ technical infrastructures, or “operating systems.”[20] In particular, I’ve considered how the design of “urban interfaces” – screens and installations and gadgets that help us orient ourselves and navigate the city’s various hard and soft infrastructures, track our use of various services and resources, and grant us access to urban data – could “compel us to ask questions about what kinds of cities we want, and what kind of citizens we want to be.” Such an introspective design practice requires collaboration among representatives of the myriad networks that constitute a city.

The creation of a better interface — an interface that reflects the ethics and politics that we want our cities to embody — is necessarily a collaborative process, one drawing on the skills of designers of all stripes, technicians, engineers, logisticians, cultural critics and theorists, artists, bus drivers and sanitation workers, politicians and political scientists, economists, policymakers and myriad others (including women and people of color, who have been egregiously underrepresented in relevant debates). If our interfaces are to reflect and embody the values of our city, the conception and creation of those interfaces should be ours, too — not Cisco’s, not the administrators’, certainly not mine or yours. But ours.

[SLIDE 43] We see a similarly holistic, ecological, cross-infrastructural approach to design reflected in the embrace of “landscape urbanism,” which advocates for looking beyond architecture, beyond individual buildings, to acknowledge that cities are composed of intertwined ecological, political-economic, technological, administrative, and social systems and processes.[21]

[SLIDE 44] Finally, I believe it’s particularly important for advanced undergraduate students and graduate students to consider the infrastructures undergirding and shaping their own fields of study and practice – or what we might call the “cultural techniques” for making knowledge and generating work within a field.[22] We should consider what enables a theory to take hold, a particular theorist or designer to gain prominence, a “movement” (like landscape urbanism or the “sharing economy” or “object-oriented” philosophies) to gain traction, or a method or process to become naturalized. [SLIDE 45] Underlying our theory and design “economies” are particular epistemological and disciplinary values, like “individual genius” and “sustainability”; academic and commercial markets hungry for branded theories and methods (and even old ideas cloaked in neologisms); PR machines; hordes of grad students, like you, who are eager to discover the “new big thing,” which partly fuels the global networks of conferences and tech festivals and art fairs and TED conferences (not to mention the airplanes and travel budgets [and Carbon expenditures] that make those gatherings possible). These are the entangled soft and hard infrastructures that often propel “making” in our fields.

[SLIDE 46] What I often find in these novel movements and among the world of celebrity theorists and designers, however, is that the liberal conceptions of “labor” and “knowledge” and “taste” that many of these theoretical and aesthetic movements actually embody quite often fail to match up to their professed politics. We’re so frequently advocating for more democratic, fluid, inclusive, ethical models of making and thinking in the world – yet the theories and practices we’re building to make sense of these new modes are still often built via “Great Man” – and I stress man – modes of production.

[SLIDE 47] I encourage all of you as students – as the future shapers of your fields of study and practice – to map, deeply and widely, the infrastructures, the cultural techniques, that undergird the work in your fields, particularly the work on the “bleeding edge.” Recognizing the entwined infrastructures that constitute this substrate for practice will ideally cultivate a sensitivity to issues of access, diversity and inclusivity, authorship and attribution, epistemology, and other social values and ethical concerns. [SLIDE 48] Recognizing what’s missing in your field’s current infrastructural ecology might inspire you to contribute to the design of a discursive space or a landscape of practice that embodies a political economy more in line with those liberal values that our theories espouse. You, as critical-creative practitioners, have the opportunity to transform criticality into generativity – to imagine and then construct the hard and soft scaffoldings for tomorrow’s fields of practice.

*   *   *   *   *

[1] See the President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection, Critical Foundations: Protecting America’s Infrastructures (Washington, D.C.: The President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection, 1997).

[2] Jennifer Gabrys, Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011); Anissa Ramirez, “Where to Find Rare Earth Elements” NOVAnext (April 2, 2013),; Sy Taffel, “Escaping Attention: Digital Media Hardware, Materiality and Ecological Cost” Cultural Machine 13 (2012),

[3] Shannon Mattern, “Infrastructural Tourism” Places (July 1, 2013),  See also Bowker and Star’s list of qualities that define an infrastructure: its embeddedness (it’s sunk into, inside of, other structures, social arrangements, and technologies); its transparency (it “does not have to reinvented each time or assembled for each task, but invisibly supports those tasks”); its reach or scope (it “has a reach beyond a single event or one-site practice”); it’s “learned as part of membership” in a community or practice; it “links with [the] conventions of [tha]
practice”; it’s an “embodiment of standards”; it’s “build on an installed base” (“it wrestled with the inertia of the installed base and inherits strengths and limitations from that base”; it is “fixed in modular increments, not all at once or globally”; and “becomes visible upon breakdown” (Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 35).

[4] See my “Deep Time of Media Infrastructure” In Lisa Parks and Nicole anski, Eds., Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures (University of Illinois Press, forthcoming 2015).

[5] Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin, Telecommunications and the City: Electronic Spaces, Urban Places (New York: Routledge, 1996), 329.

[6] See Mattern “Deep Time of Media Infrastructure” and Mattern, “Ear to the Wire: Listening to Historic Urban Infrastructures” Amodern 2(Fall 2013),

[7] Paul N. Edwards, Steven J. Jackson, Geoffrey C. Bowker, and Cory P. Knobel. “Understanding Infrastructure: Dynamics, Tension, and Design.” Workshop on “History & Theory of Infrastructure: Lessons for New Scientific Cyberinfrastructures.” (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, January 2007):, 6-7.

[8] Mattern, “Deep Time.”

[9] Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin, Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition (New York: Routledge, 2001), 411.

[10] Paul Edwards, “Infrastructure and Modernity: Force, Time, and Social Organization in the History of Sociotechnical Systems” In Thomas J. Misa, Philip Brey, and Andrew Feenberg, Eds., Modernity and Technology (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 186.

[11] Adrian Mackenzie, Wirelessness: Radical Empiricism in Network Cultures (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 64–65.

[12] See Andrew Blum, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet (New York: HarperCollins, 2012); Paul Dourish, “The City and the Feudal Internet: Examining Institutional Materialities,” Maynooth University, Maynooth, Ireland, September 4, 2014, Conference Presentation; Vicki Mayer, Below the Line: Producers and Production Studies in the New Television Economy (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011); and the work of Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski – particularly Lisa Parks, Cultures in Orbit: Satellites and the Televisual (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005) and Nicole Starosielski, The Undersea Network (Durham: Duke University Press, forthcoming 2015).

[13] AbdouMaliq Simone, “People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg,” Public Culture 16 (September 2004): 425.

[14] Lisa Parks, “Around the Antenna Tress: The Politics of Infrastructural Visibility” Flow (March 6, 2009),

[15] Shannon Mattern, “Infrastructural Tourism” Places (July 1, 2013),

[16] Lines and Nodes: Media, Infrastructure, and Aesthetics: I contributed to the organization of this event.

[17] Christina Harriet Moon, Material Intimacies: The Labor of Creativity in the Global Fashion Industry, Diss. Yale University, 2011.

[18] Values at Play:; Mary Flanagan & Helen Nissenbaum, Values at Play in Digital Games (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014).

[19] Primavera de Filippi, “It’s Time to Take Mesh Networks Seriously (And Not Just for the Reasons You Think)” Wired (January 2, 2014),

[20] Shannon Mattern, “Interfacing Urban Intelligence” Places (April 28, 2014),

[21] Christopher Gray, “Landscape Urbanism: Definitions & Trajectory” Landscape Urbanism 1 (Summer 2011), reprinted in Scenario Journal,; Michael Miller, “Landscape Urbanism… Decoded? Olin Studio Blog (January 31, 2013),; Charles Waldheim, Ed., The Landscape Urbanism Reader (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006). See also the Landscape Urbanism Bullshit Generator:

[22] These final comment are drawn from and inspired by my presentation, “The Cultural Techniques (+ Political Economy) of Theory-Making,” which I delivered on a panel discussion on October 16, 2013, at The New School with Lisa Gitelman and Jussi Parikka; see



Graduate Institute for Design, Ethnography + Social Thought

Carousel 4 - About Us

I’m pleased to be serving as a faculty fellow in the newly formed Graduate Institute for Design, Ethnography and Social Thought at The New School.

Funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and based in The New School for Social Research, the Graduate Institute for Design, Ethnography & Social Thought incubates transdisciplinary ethnographic research at the intersection of social theory and design and fosters dialogue on related themes across the university. 

I’ll be sharing my research, on “Intellectual Furnishings,” on November 7. Several of my faculty colleagues, as well as a number of fantastic invited guests, will be sharing their work during a seminar series that meets every other Friday from 11 to 2. You can find the schedule here.


Aesthetic Itineraries

The panorama @ Queens Museum
The panorama @ Queens Museum

The art pickings are a bit slimmer (as we all tend to be) over the summer — but in recent weeks I have managed to see a few exhibitions: the “Here and Elsewhere” show of Arab art at The New Museum (exciting and provocative — and so dense I need to revisit at least once more); “Bringing the World Into the World” at the Queens Museum (tiny and charming); the Garry Winogrand show (a big, fat eh) and Amie Siegel’s “Provenance” (ahhhhh) at the Met.


The Reanimation Library's Corona Branch @ Queens Museum
The Reanimation Library’s Corona Branch @ Queens Museum


I quite like these walnut vitrines.
I quite like these walnut vitrines.

But Holy Mary, Mother of God, am I ever looking forward to the fall! Such an embarrassment of riches!

In recent years several students and friends have asked if they might join me on my art outings. So, I figured I’d plan a little something for next weekend — Saturday, 9/13, to be precise. I’m just gonna do my normal thing — which involves packing as much activity into an afternoon as possible, walking myself into the ground, stuffing visions and ideas into my brain until paint starts leaking out my ears — and hope folks can keep up!

Allan McCollum @ Petzel
Allan McCollum @ Petzel

Here’s what’s on the itinerary. It might be insane to pack this all into one day — but by golly, I’m gonna try:


Then, downtown:

And later this month:

  • Gabriel Orozco @ Marian Goodman, 24 W 57th, 9/16 – 10/18
  • The Library Vaccine (very curious about this one) @ Artists Space, 38 Greene, 9/25 – 11/9
  • Thread Lines @ Drawing Center, 35 Wooster, 9/19 – 12/14
  • Bill Morrison @ MoMA, 10/14 – 11/24
Somewhere near the coast of Labrador