Here’s a video of my “Interfacing Urban Intelligence” talk at the “Code + the City” workshop, which took place in Ireland back in September. My talk was drawn from my article of the same title, which I published in Places last year. I have a habit of giving talks with wet hair, it seems.
So, I saw some art on Friday — mostly pleasant, clever stuff. Nothing that required a tremendous amount of intellectual or affective engagement. (Which is good, because once again I’m a little distracted by a wounded ego and a broken heart.)
Anyway, at James Cohan, Michelle Grabner used household objects — garbage can lids, construction paper, etc. — and kindergarten-craft techniques to transform the trappings of domesticity into decoration. The domestic and the suburban have long been themes in Grabner’s work; she runs an exhibition space, The Suburban, out of her backyard in idyllically suburban Oak Park, IL. Yet the works in this exhibition have no edge, no critical dimension. It’s like looking at pretty tablecloths at Crate & Barrel or Marimekko. All cute and innocuous. Which, I guess, is fine: I could use a little cute and innocuous — rather than adorable yet destructive — in my life right now. Whoa, TMI Alert!!
More cute: these little birds in Jean-Luc Mylayne’s ironically named “Chaos” at Gladstone Gallery:
Moving on with our Charming Kaleidoscopic Aviation theme: kites! Jacob Hashimoto’s “Skyfarm Fortress” at Mary Boone is a most benevolent of bastions — a serene structuralist parapet.
Then I found myself amidst something a bit heavier: Claudio Parmiggiani‘s ghost libraries — Delocazione, traces of absent objects, rendered in smoke and soot — and bronzed bread (whoever eats this bread will live forever) at Bortolami. In order to make the Delocazione, Parmiggiani “builds an installation and sets it on fire with a combustion of tires. When the objects are removed, what remains are their negative outlines in soot, thus revealing their trace and memory.” Maybe I need to burn some tires.
Then, to thwart all this nostalgizing and purge the mnemonic weight, I headed over to Gavin Brown’s Enterprise for Rob Pruitt’s aptly named “Multiple Personalities,” which consisted of three very distinct rooms. I particularly liked the transition from the Surrealist Microsoft Beach room (my title), into the Scribble Cat room (again, my title), where Pruitt displayed enlarged versions of automatic drawings he created during therapy sessions. This back room was presided over by a bunch of paint-splattered cats, which I regarded as little, benevolent guardian angels — the kind that rub up against your leg, drawing you out of your psychic turmoil and back into the warmth of the sandy beach, or that familiar, placating Klein Blue screen.
And finally, extending the absurdity: The Swiss Institute’s Fin de Siècle, an all-chair-cast re-staging of Ionesco’s play “The Chairs.”
In “The Chairs,” an elderly couple recounts the demise of civilization to a stage full of empty chairs. Absent of any sitters, the audience is left to imagine the invisible figures that the increasingly incoherent Old Man and Old Woman address. In Fin de Siècle, the chairs themselves (including pieces by Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, H.R. Giger, Robert Venturi…) speak asynchronously, cast as characters and imbued with life. Directed into small vignettes of imagined conversations and actions that transcend periods and design movements, their dialogue echoes the modernist promise fading away.
Amidst their chiaroscuro-ed mise-en-abyme, the chairs readily take on personalities. You just know, for instance, that that Giger chair is a total jerkoff. And that the Alessandro Mendini NONCHAIR can drive you nuts with his incessant ontological blather.
At this moment the audience would have in front of them … empty chairs on an empty stage decorated with streamers, littered with useless confetti, which would give an impression of sadness, emptiness and disenchantment such as one finds in a ballroom after a dance; and it would be after this that the chairs, the scenery, the void, would inexplicably come to life … upsetting logic and raising fresh doubts. –Eugène Ionesco
Fresh doubts. I know the feeling. For now, I think I’d rather sit in a kite fortress, where all is safe and cheerful.
…Or I could go to the utopic Reanimation Library, where I took my Archives, Libraries + Databases class on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon for our annual field trip. Once again, we had a fabulous time there with Andrew, and afterward, with the folks at the Interference Archive. We then debriefed over pie at Four & Twenty Blackbirds. In all, a lovely day.
My project, “Intellectual Furnishings,” looks at furniture as an espitemic and affective device. That sounds so serious! As I write in the working paper I posted last night to Medium, “I recognize furnishings” — in this draft, I look at the book shelf, the writing desk, Melvil Dewey’s Library Bureau furnishings, the media wall, and the server rack — “as much more than utilitarian equipment; instead, they scaffold our media technologies in particular ways, inform the way human bodies relate to those media in particular ways, and embody knowledge in particular ways.”
They render complex intellectual and political ideas material and empirical. I aim to study how the design of organizational furnishings, both physical and conceptual – like bookshelves and classification systems, for example – gives form to epistemology, politics, and affect.
My exploration will most likely range from the scrinium and capsa that held papyrus scrolls in ancient archives and the archival boxes that contain material in contemporary collections; to the metal chains that tethered books to lecterns in medieval institutions; to the tables at which texts have been written and edited; to the slip cases Melville Dewey’s Library Bureau sold to libraries to keep track of their circulating books; to the “media walls” created to accommodate the explosion of post-war household media devices; to the billions of CD “towers” sold in the 1990s; to the (un)design of the racks that hold our computer servers. I welcome all GIDEST workshop participants’ suggestions for other potentially evocative case studies.
I aim to put into conversation the work of scholars, practitioners and designers from fields that rarely talk to one another, at least not all at the same time – fields including archival and library science, intellectual history, organizational studies, business history, management, design history and design practice, furniture manufacturing and retail, architectural history, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and the list goes on. My methods will include archival research and other forms of historical research; discourse analysis of various forms of design representation – design sketches, architectural drawings, etc. – and marketing materials for library, office, and domestic furnishings and supplies; ethnographic fieldwork in design firms, libraries, and offices; and interviews with contemporary designers, furniture retailers, knowledge workers, and artists whose work grapples with issues related to the spatialization and aestheticization of knowledge.
Ultimately, I hope to make a small historiographic contribution to media and design studies: I’d like to propose a means of rethinking the entwined histories of both fields, and tracing enduring and shifting epistemologies through the longue durée, by examining peripheral material artifacts – the infrastructures that we so typically work on without looking at them. I’ll situate our contemporary digital repositories and libraries and workplaces within their historical contexts, highlighting the continuities and breaks in the physical and intellectual support systems that have undergirded our knowledge institutions and workplaces over time. At the same time, I hope to remind us of the heavy architecture – all the physical and intellectual scaffolding – behind the seemingly placeless, immaterial “Cloud” that hangs over us today. My focus on design also calls attention to the aesthetics of information, and reminds us that the knowledge we derive from the media housed on our bookshelves and the data stored in our servers is informed by our bodily interactions with those structures. Ideally, this study would inspire knowledge institutions to partner more frequently with designers to create physical and virtual spaces that represent a closer, more purposeful integration of the architectural, the intellectual, and the affective.
On Tuesday evening I’ll be joining writer Valeria Luiselli, author of Sidewalks and Faces in the Crowd, and Coffee House Press’s Jay Peterson at Poets House, where we’ll discuss Valeria’s residency at Poets House, and the creative potential of libraries as both source material for and subjects of creative investigation. The residency was supported by CHP’s “In the Stacks” program, which Jay describes as follows: “What we hope to do is to inspire other libraries to collaborate in this way, in a way that provides the writer and artist space and time to work on their own project and create something that helps promote the library and the great things that libraries are able to do for people.”
Much of Valeria’s work (I’ve read, and thoroughly enjoyed, her two books) focuses on the intersection of poetry, architecture, and archives; the organizers saw some parallels to my own interests, which is why I was invited to take part. I’m honored. CHP published a little interview with me late last week. And here’s more info about the Tuesday event.
I was asked a few questions in the interview that didn’t make it into the final, published post. No wonder: I was far too long-winded. Still, I figured I’d share that excised material here:
They asked me about how Poets House is situated in place — particularly how it relates to its neighborhood:
And as for the site: well, it’s complicated. Battery Park City, despite the fact that it’s in the general vicinity of New York’s earliest settlements, is only a few decades old. It’s essentially a massive, master-planned, public-private real-estate development that was built atop sand dredged from the New York Harbor and landfill from the construction of the World Trade Center. It’s got a lot of cookie-cutter high-rise luxury condominiums, and pretty much no affordable housing. That said, it does have resources that serve the entire city, freely. It’s got gorgeous parks; I’m there quite often, since it’s the end-point in my bike rides and walks along the Hudson River. And there’s some degree of cultural energy in the area: they’ve got the Museum of Jewish Heritage; Stuyvesant High School, one of the most selective magnet high schools in the city; the modest and moving Irish Hunger Memorial; some great poetry-infused public art; a beautiful public library (funded in large part by Goldman Sachs, appropriately enough, given Wall Street’s proximity); and the Skyscraper Museum. The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and other public arts organizations organize a lot of great arts programming along the waterfront there, too.
What trends are you seeing in the design/re-design of libraries and archives? In your opinion, are the designers and architects thinking about the creative potential of libraries in the right way? Or in a way that will endure in years to come?
I wrote about this a few months ago. And I’m currently working with the Architectural League of New York and the Center for an Urban Future to oversee a design study of New York’s branch libraries; we’re considering some of these new design trends. I’m seeing much greater focus on community spaces, event spaces, labs, and “maker spaces,” where patrons translate the insight and inspiration they gain from the collection into new knowledge. As I noted earlier, many institutions create opportunities for patrons to “activate” the collection through discussion, or through the creation their own writing, media productions, or artwork. Similarly, archives are incorporating more sophisticated physical exhibition spaces (I discussed this a bit in my plenary talk lat the Rare Books and Manuscript librarians’ pre-conference at the 2014 ALA gathering) and promoting more digital experiments that filter or curate archival material.
While I’m wholly supportive of these efforts to recognize making, doing, craft, etc. as forms of knowledge-production, and to create spaces for this activity in the library, I’m often distraught to hear how often these efforts are framed through the rhetoric of “innovation” and “entrepreneurship.” While I’m all for trying and building new things, I think our pursuit of innovation for innovation’s sake — particularly “innovation” as framed by Silicon Valley ideology — can be toxic Sure, the library can serve as an entrepreneurial hub for some folks; they can research patents, develop business plans for their new web apps, and host hackathons to strategize the monetization of new datasets. But the library also has to carve out spaces of exception from these market ideologies. The thinking and making we do in libraries needn’t always be in pursuit of “the new” and the profitable.
I should also note that some libraries are experimenting with temporary spaces and outposts; they’re occupying storefronts, deploying pop-ups, finding new ways to bring themselves to the community, and encouraging the community to come to the library. I could see special collections taking their show on the road, too.
[There’s absolutely nothing professional about the following post, but who cares: ]
It’s a very sad day for the Mattern family. Today we said goodbye to Rudy, our springer spaniel, who brought us immense joy (…and mild frustration, but primarily amusement, and so many other good things) for 15 years. With his passing he leaves a huge hole in our hearts.
My mom and I found Rudy on an Amish farm road on a cold and soggy Thanksgiving Day in 1999. We were en route to our family’s cabin in the Seven Mountains of Central Pennsylvania, where the extended family had always celebrated the holiday. Rounding a bend, we found a wet, dirty, shivering-cold puppy along the side of the road. As is my inclination, I stopped and picked him up (I have a habit of designating myself caretaker of seemingly-lost dogs). We checked with a few of the local farmers to see if anyone could identify the little guy, but no one could — so we took him with us to camp. To this day, the Matterns love retelling the story of Rudy’s First Thanksgiving: rescued from waterlogged un-belonging and solitude and transported to a warm cabin amidst a dozen dog-lovers, who dried him off and made a place for him on the couch near the wood stove, where he lay all afternoon on his back, waiting for belly-rubs, sighing deep sighs of contentment. We had no dog food with us that day, so he shared our Thanksgiving dinner. Utopia.
We placed ads in the local papers and on the radio station, trying to find his home — but to no avail. So, lucky us, we got to keep him. The vet estimated that he was roughly six months old, so we decided to set his honorary birthdate on April 1, 1999.
For the next few years, during his adolescence, Rudy brought a new, uh… verve to the household. I was already living in New York at the time, so I had the pleasure of experiencing his joie de vivre only on my trips home — but he never failed to put on a show when I was in town. We’d return home from errands to find magazines ripped up and deposited in shreds throughout the house. He’d pulverize his stuffed animals and leave their entrails strewn about, too. And he had quite an adventurous palate: he ate, on different occasions, a whole box of hot chocolate, a pack of razors, and several rolls of toilet paper — and I recall him chewing a few of my multi-packs of gum, then depositing the chewed-up wads on my bedspread.
But in exchange for all the inconveniences he caused, he kept us safe. Especially from birds. If any bird dared swoop low in his vicinity, Rudy would leap high into the air — his long, floppy ears flying and squat legs flailing — and snap at the airborne creature, typically missing by at least 20 feet. Hey, it was the effort that counted.
His love for food was served well by his keen sense of hearing: anytime anyone ventured into the kitchen — even in the middle of the night, even if Rudy happened to be taking a nap in a far corner of the house — within five seconds of the cracking of the refrigerator’s seal, Rudy would magically appear behind the door, waiting for a piece of cheese.
It was through his stomach — and his nose — that he experienced, and took immense pleasure in, the world. When the dogs were outside, we’d frequently find Rudy perched at the top of the backyard bank, his head held high, cute brown nose in the air, nostrils flaring, sniffing in the glory of his domain. He’d often trace the trails of deer, perhaps long since passed through the area, deep into the woods behind our house, where we’d find him an hour or so later, sunning himself on a bank, covered in burrs.
He also had a charming attachment to his dog bed. Whenever the humans decided to congregate in a particular area of the house, Rudy would disappear for a few minutes, then return, dragging his dog bed behind him. He’d position the bed in the middle of the action, and plop down to soak in the conviviality. Even in his older years, when the bed-dragging became too much of a burden, he still followed my mom around everywhere; wherever she was, he was.
He shared that collegiality with his pet siblings, too. When we brought Dugan, our border collie, home in 2000, Rudy stood up from where he had been lying beside the new puppy, retreated into the bedroom, and returned with a stuffed animal, which he set before Dugan, in what we like to regard as a “housewarming” gift (I know — crazy anthropomorphizing).
After many, many good years, he developed cataracts a few years ago. Then some mysterious misfortune befell him on one of his solo treks into the woods, from which he returned one day with missing teeth — and, tragically, a complete loss of hearing. Then, over the past year or so, his back legs stopped synchronizing with the front ones. Stairs became a challenge — and, eventually, simply walking around became quite a chore. Over the past couple months, he’s lost half his body weight, that mischievous spark has left his cloudy eyes, and his beautiful brown button nose — my favorite feature — has dried up, serving as an unmistakable emblem of his irreversible, incontestable decline.
My parents have done yeoman’s work to keep him happy and comfortable. But early this week the vet informed us that it’s time. So I went home.
Our beloved Rudy passed from this world — went gently into that good night — at 11:30 this morning. We stood around him, fighting back tears, trying to ease his transition, knowing that seeing us unhappy would make him unhappy, as it always has. And we wanted him to slip away seeing our smiling faces, knowing he’s brought much goodness into our lives, not afraid of what lay before him.
Yet now he’s gone. And I’m so terribly sad. And I simply can’t believe it. And I’m crying as I type this.
Goodbye, little buddy. Thank you for all the love and joy and loyalty you brought into our lives. We’ll miss you terribly, and we’ll love you forever.
In a paper Wodiczko circulated in advance of the workshop, he describes his work as creating the conditions for communication, confrontation, and exchange “through the use of especially designed performative communicative instruments and through the appropriation of architectural and spatial forms as dynamic screens…” These instruments and projections frequently give voice to representatives from oppressed, disenfranchised, invisible populations; these brave volunteers share stories of trauma and healing.
Wodizcko argues that, in approaching his work as “public art,” most people adopt an “external perspective” — focusing on the work’s impact on spectators, those who witness the work upon its formal public presentation — rather than considering how the project comes into being through a long-term process involving myriad participants — “active agents,” co-creators — who coalesce into an “inner public.” Looking inward, rather than outward, allows us to appreciate the “psychologically developmental, therapeutic, educational and performative procedures of these works.” His primary concern, he argues, is “the meaning and the value of the project to those who choose to speak, perform and address the public through it…. The measure of a project’s success is its capacity to inspire, assist, and protect the development and transmission of the public voice and expression of those who choose to take part in it.”
In the paper, he describes the long, fraught process by which he pitches a project to city and potential local sponsor organizations; describes the project to potential participants; and, with his partners, wins (and occasionally loses) the participants’ trust and instills in them a sense of ownership in the project. Those participants ultimately, in many cases, use the project as a “transitional object” — a site and scene for testimony and therapy. “Becoming a public speaker,” he suggested later on, allows the participants to “get outside [themselves]” and thereby heal. That healing also extends to other peripheral inner publics: social service workers, participants’ family members, etc. Yet the therapeutic effects don’t end there. As the project is being installed and is eventually formally exhibited, various outer publics, intentional and accidental observers, become witnesses to the participants’ testimony and feel compelled to stay and listen, to engage in “fearless listening.” “Viewers are reluctant to walk away from such a blast of truth. Perhaps they feel obliged to stay because what is said is difficult to hear and because it is painfully true.”
In the workshop, the conversation that followed Wodiczko’s presentation was particularly exciting. Radhika Subramaniam, Director of the Sheila Johnson Design Center, served as a respondent. She acknowledged how Wodiczko’s work connects the intimate and the monumental, and how it uses technology as both a prosthesis — an extension of one’s communicative organs, in a McLuhanesque sense — and a prop: a crutch without which the participants might not feel compelled, empowered, sufficiently secure to share their stories. And while Wodiczko’s primary allegiance and concern is with the “inner public” participants, Subramaniam suggested that the primary benefit for the outer public is not, as is so often tritely argued, “raised awareness” about various social issues: abuse, homelessness, PTSD, etc. Instead, witnessing these public airings in public space, she argued, offered a first “ear cleaning,” as Murray Schaefer might call it: a rehearsal, an introduction, which opens the possibility for future instances of “fearless listening.”
My colleague Nitin Sawhney asked a beautiful question about the role of designer as ethnographer — about how Wodiczko’s site-specific, participatory, longitudinal work “in the field,” in preparation for a project, might allow for insight that traditional ethnography doesn’t afford. Wodiczko acknowledged that while he is, in part, an ethnographer-designer, his role as a stranger is equally critical: because the participants “know I’ll disappear” — they know he’ll eventually leave town — “I become a confessional.” Another colleague, Julie Napolin, then noted how Wodiczko transforms public space into the clinic — a huge psychoanalytic couch, if you will.
Debra Singer’s “The Material Image,” at Marianne Boesky’s lovely uptown townhouse gallery, featured work by several artists who play with the physicality of the photograph — the chemistry, the material substrates and framing devices, the indexical relationship between the photographic subject and its representation — and processes and apparatae of its creation. I loved how these very contemporary images tackled issues central to both Modernism and post-modernism, in this quintessentially late-19th-century venue.
Paradoxically, the dimensions of this once-domestic space didn’t allow for photographic documentation of the exhibition itself that did justice to its provocative juxtapositions — I just couldn’t get far enough away from the walls to get everything into the photographic frame — so my own photos turned out rather poorly. Thus, I’m borrowing some of the gallery’s images here:
Derrick Adkins offered his own material images at Tilton Gallery. His “Live and In Color” presented mixed-media collages and wood sculptures caricaturizing Black figures in entertainment. The obvious “constructedness” of the objects parallels the blatant “constructedness” of “Blackness” in media and entertainment — what amounts, often, to its cosmetic colorfulness and multifacetedness, yet ultimate sterotypical flatness and abstraction.
Then, downtown, Artists Space’s fantastic “The Library Vaccine” picks up on some of the themes central to Adams work, but in book form. We see several collections of books — some constituting individuals’ libraries (Helen DeWitt, Colin De Land); others, the creations of particular publishers (Hansjörg Mayer); others, the product of ongoing processes of alteration (the altered library books of playwright Joe Orton and his partner writer Kenneth Halliwell); still others, collections selected by various artists and curators for the purposes of exhibition (Gregorio Magnani’s artists’ books; a collection selected by Mike Glier and Lucy R. Lippard for an exhibition of artists’ books addressing issues of social concern) — which posed, for me, questions about how bibliography relates to biography: how we can glean useful insight into an individual or entity through the patterns by which he/she/it accumulated and collected books. As the gallery states,
The exhibition presents a number of discrete collections of books in order to sample art’s distinctive relationship to the book form in its singularity, and in its states of reproduction, distribution and accumulation. The exhibition addresses the book as a particular technology, and in its collective state of the private collection, reading room or library, as a social machine – registering social and personal histories, and articulating structures of knowledge and value through the relations between its parts.
Such a lovely and engaging and provocative show (…with obvious parallels to the New York Art Book Fair, which I also attended this year, as I have every year (with the sole exception of last year) since the Fair started in 2007. Man, this thing has gone off the hook! Yet so much remains the same: the ubiquitous Ed Ruscha “various small books” influence, familiar folks saying familiar stuff at the panel discussions, etc. The one big development, it seems to me, is all the Germans. So many Germans.)
Seeing all these books in juxtaposition — particularly those laid out on the long table in the SW quadrant of the room — made me wonder about their topical connections to one another. I was drawing all kinds of speculative topic threads. …And speaking of threads: the most interesting thing to me about Cory Arcangel’s tl;dr at Team — a show featuring screen-based “sculptures” “displaying images taken from pop culture to which the artist has applied the Java applet “lake,” which creates a shimmering, seemingly liquid reflection along a horizontal axis” — was the whole messy cord situation on the floor.
After that, there were more threads to be disentangled — and entangled, and woven together, and frayed and knotted and strung around spools — at the Drawing Center’s “Thread Lines.” The show presented “sixteen artists who engage in sewing, knitting, and weaving to create a wide-range of works that activate the expressive and conceptual potential of line and illuminate affinities between the mediums of textile and drawing.”
And from Bengoa’s work, I was able to trace a thread — around the corner, into the Center’s back gallery — to the work of Xanti Schawinsky, a Bauhausian graphic designer who escaped to Black Mountain College during WWII. I couldn’t help but note a resemblance to the composite “fruit heads” of Giuseepe Arcimboldo. But here Schawinsky’s Head Drawings and Faces of Wartie us back to some of the central identity-based themes in Adkins’s work and the Library Vaccine show: how the delicate line of drawing, and the heavy machinery of militarism, are tied together in “the existential struggle of an artist copying with identity and the devastation of war.”