I spent the past week in Umeå, Sweden, and Vienna for two fantastic (honestly!) conferences on “genres of scholarly knowledge production” and the “poetics of infrastructure” (Der Standard wrote up a little review — and quoted me, the “media scientist” (ha!)). They couldn’t have been held in more disparate spaces: In Sweden, we met in HUMlab’s two labs: one featured an 11-screen display system; the other featured a wall screen that allowed for the juxtaposition of three different images or videos, and a huge adjacent floor screen. In Vienna, meanwhile, we met in the Depot, a low-tech “international anerkannten Institution und Plattform entwickelt, in der Wissenschaft und Kunst in einen Austausch treten”!
Each room had its distinct charms and quirks, but the Depot’s aesthetics were more my style (what can I say?: I’m a Cabinetmaker’s Daughter). And while I much preferred the hardwood, analog parquetry at the Depot, I couldn’t help but notice a formal resonance with the fascinating Elizabeth Palmer Peabody pre-printed grid worksheets — an integral part of the feminist history of data visualization — that the brilliant Lauren Klein shared with us in Umeå (see photo above).
I also found some time to explore and, of course, visit museums and see some art. I’ll catalogue my experiences Chinese-encyclopedia style: I saw (1) “natural” stuff; (2) things related to the ego and its analysis; (3) things related to old media and historical modes of representation; (4) things in containers; (5) stuff that is blue; (6) things woven or sewn; and (7) bananas, lions & Loos.
First, Nature: Right after arriving in Umeå — as the sun was setting at around 2:30 — I went straight to the Bildmuseet, a bright, airy museum with remarkably satisfying acoustics, which I happened to remark upon when I last visited a year-and-a-half ago.
Footsteps on pine floors, resounding in the sun-drenched galleries of Bildmuseet, Umeå, Sweden. Such an inexplicably satisfying sound.
The Campana brothers’ Woods is a spartan Dr. Seussian forest of wood-and-flax arboreal sculptures. The dried leaves’ sweet smell — and taste — permeated the gallery air. There was an allergy warning posted outside the gallery, for good reason.
Later, I visited the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien — Vienna’s Natural History Museum — a magnificent time-capsule of 19th-century museology: the vitrines-and-specimen-label approach to classifying and compartmentalizing nature.
Also in Vienna, at Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21), Carsten Höller’s LEBEN installation — which transformed “living” into an experiment — included Gimpelwaage, featuring two cages, each with two bulfinches, all of which were trained to sing a lullaby. The cages were suspended from a scale, which registered slight variations in weight caused by, say, one of the birds taking flight.
In Höller’s installation, even human nature was made the subject of experiment. Those birds were present, in part, to serenade visitors who paid to spend a night in a nearby Elevator Bed. As TBA21 explains:
The hydraulic double bed can be raised to a maximum height of 3.5 meters, allowing guests to quite literally perch high above the exhibition space as they sleep. They are also invited to use the adjacent High Psycho Tank — a flotation bath filled with a high concentration of Epsom salts, triggering a state of weightlessness and isolation from all external influences and inducing an intense feeling of relaxation. Before heading to bed, guests are invited to try Insensatus, a triad of dream-enhancing infused toothpastes created by Höller in collaboration with the renowned perfumer Ben Gorham, generating dreams with a female, male, or infantile orientation.
A set-up ripe for psychoanalysis.
Speaking of psychoanalysis, I also went to the Freud Museum. This was a rather overwhelming experience for me, because the warring forces of destruction and construction, of trauma and healing, were so palpable in that apartment at Berggasse 19. In particular, I was struck by both the horror and sublime goodness of humanity. I read testimony from the Freud household maid, who watched as the benevolent doctor and his family, who “had done nothing but good,” were accosted by the Nazis — and in reading her account, I cried. Then I read scores of letters from British and American government officials and colleagues who did everything in their power to assure the Freuds’ safe escape from Austria — and I cried again. I was afraid one of the museum clerks would see me; I assumed they’d lead me through a secret door for emergency analysis. But I managed to finish my tour and take my leave without incident, my emotions fully sublimated.
Meanwhile, at 21er Haus in Vienna (OMG – what a great venue!), Joseph Kosuth organized “Sigmund Freud and the Play on the Burden of Representation,” in honor of the 75th anniversary of Freud’s death. Excepting all the Paul McCarthy crap, the exhibition featured a fantastic array of psychoanalytically-inspired work: Kosuth’s own language-based pieces; works by Baldessari, Vaneesa Beecroft, Victor Burgin, Mark Dion, Susan Hiller (whose 1994 intervention @ the Freud Museum has long fascinated me), Hans Hollein, Jenny Holzer, Cindy Sherman, Hito Steyerl, Bill Viola, Francesca Woodman, and a bunch of other interesting pieces, including some lovely and new-to-me library photos by Clegg & Guttmann.
Back at the Bildmuseet, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s exhibition gave individual visitors agency in activating his work — a primarily egocentric aesthetic experience. In his Frequency and Volume, you walked through the gallery, passing through intensely bright, broad streams of light generated by two projectors. Sensors detected your presence and filled the shadow you cast on the wall with map coordinates, while fuzzy radio broadcasts associated with those coordinates played over the PA system — faintly if your shadow was small, louder as the shadow increased in size. As Lozano-Hemmer explains on his website:
The piece can tune into any frequency between 150 kHz and 1.5 GHz, including air traffic control, FM, AM, short wave, cellular, CB, satellite, wireless telecommunication systems and radio navigation. Up to 48 frequencies can be tuned simultaneously and the resulting sound environment forms a composition controlled by people’s movements. This piece visualizes the radioelectric spectrum and turns the human body into an antenna. All the receiver equipment used and antennae are exhibited in an adjacent room.
The project was developed at a time when the Mexican Government was very active in shutting down informal or “pirate” radio stations in indigenous communities in the states of Chiapas and Guerrero. The question “who has access to the public space that is the radioelectric spectrum” is one that deserves attention and visualization tools not just in Mexico but also here in the developed world, where there is a remarkable assymmetry in the assignation of frequencies only to government or corporate interests to the detriment of community-building, experimental or artistic uses of the spectrum. This project was inspired by the “Manifesto for Antenna-Man” and the radio poetry experiments by the Mexican estridentista artists in the 1920s.
On another floor, in Pulse Room, users grabbed a metal “handle,” which recorded their heartbeats — and that beat was then translated into a pattern by which ~300 incandescent bulbs were illuminated. The illumination pattern also enacted a memory of previous participants’ pulses. The visual and sonic echoes in both pieces are reflected in the uber-title for the multi-part installation: Draft of Shadows, a reference to a poem by Octavio Paz: “…footsteps / in the mind more than shadows, / shadows of thought more than footsteps / through the path of echoes / that memory invents and erases….”
STUFF USING OLD MEDIA & MODES OF PERCEPTION
“Peter Weibel – Media Rebel” at 21er Haus explored techniques of perception and display (and he experimented at various scales — from the level of typography to macro-scale museological conventions) and materialities of storage (ranging from various media formats to shipping containers). I got in trouble for taking photos, but having this documentation of the cleverly-designed show made the public shaming well worth it.
Downstairs at 21er Haus, Krüger&Pardeller’s “HOMO FABER” installation presented, like the Weibel exhibition, myriad modes of representation and presentation, including a 3-D “audio play” (which I didn’t understand — because Ich spreche kein Deutsch!). Nevertheless, as the museum explains, the show embodies debates about the nature of artistic production — specifically regarding sculpture:
In the 1950s debate focused on the extent to which a sculpture can be autonomous, in other words can be an entity in itself. The issue of the surroundings became increasingly essential, and artists began realizing their work in large, space-consuming installational forms. The crisis in classic sculpture at that time led to environment and installation art.
I certainly got the sense that I was viewing and inhabiting multiple sculptural scales simultaneously: there were drawings of sculptures, texts about sculptures, maquettes, full-scale sculptures; plus, the installation itself was a sculpture of circulation, and the sound components transformed that space into an inhabitable, navigable sonic volume. Even the speakers were sculptural.
THINGS IN CONTAINERS
The abovementioned works certainly fit into this category, too, but this section focuses on works whose subject matter has nothing (or little) to do with nature or media history. Hey, this is a Chinese encyclopedia: the categories are meant to be leaky!
My afternoon at MAK, the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts (or, Österreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst), offered the most pleasant few hours I spent in Austria. The building itself provided a spectacular container for galleries and classrooms — and those galleries reflected some provocative experimentation with display techniques and museological conventions. We begin with a rather traditional Baroque/Rococo/Classicism room, into which Donald Judd was invited to make an artistic “intervention.” Then, in the Asia collection, Johannes Wieninger and Tadashi Kawamata created a rough, sinuous 2×4-and-glass scaffolding, and scribbled labels directly on the glass with magic marker. Buddha sculptures were nested into crevices carved into the walls.
In the Renaisssance/Baroque/Rococo collection, Franz Graf made use of floating structures to convey the transparency and delicacy of the glassware and lace on display. In the Biedermeier collection, Jenny Holzer inserted electric signs along the crown molding — and I liked that the linearity of her signs was reflected in the chairs’ arrangement, in a long row at the center of the room. I was also quite taken by the 1825 Viennese ladies’ writing table, with recesses for flowers and a posh foot cushion.
The chairs all lined up in Barbara Bloom‘s Art Nouveau presentation, too; here, Bloom highlighted the “drama” of bentwood furniture’s evolution and presents the work– referred to as the “Viennese chair,” despite the fact that the style didn’t originate in Vienna — in appropriately dramatic cabaret fashion. Bloom’s approach reminds me a lot of the fantastic Fin de Siècle chair exhibition at the Swiss Institute, which I wrote about last month.
And then, of course, we have the magnificent Viennesse Secession rooms, presented in chronological order to represent the evolution of the style — Josef Hoffmann, Gustav Klimpt, Adolf Loos, Dagobert Peche…. Sadly, I was a few days too early to see their new Ways to Modernism: Josef Hoffmann, Adolf Loos and Their Impact exhibition. Damn.
The innovative containment continued in the exhibition of the 100 Best Posters of 2014 in Germany, Austria and Switzerland; and in the MAK DESIGN LAB space downstairs, which is organized “functionally,” into sections for cooking, eating and drinking, decorating, sitting, transporting, protecting and adorning, collecting, communications — with a few “Chinese encyclopedia” wildcards thrown in for Hoffman/Geometric, Helmut Lang, ornament, and production.
THINGS THAT ARE BLUE
While MAK organized its collection by period, medium, or function, the 21er Haus arranged its bookshop by color. But some exhibitions took this chromatic approach to the extreme.
Kunsthalle Wein’s Blue Timeswas inspired by the ubiqity and popularity of the color blue. The exhibition was designed to juxtapose blue-works to “design an associative social history of the colour that focuses on its psychological, metaphorical and associative power, but also its instrumentalisation for ideological, political and economic purposes.”
There was even a Blue Salon, with blue books, blue music — Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue was on the record player while I was there — blue textiles, blue minerals, and other blue artifacts and texts.
THINGS WOVEN OR SEWN
The Campana brothers, at Bildmuseet, offered these little woven stools outside their flax room. And at Mumok, in Vienna, Rory and I met up to see Cosima von Bonin, whose work was new to me — and who brought to mind Mike Kelly, Jacques Tati, and Rosemarie Trockel. The exhibited work ranged from stuffed-animal tableaux to tapestry/quilts, and each gallery pumped in sound via cartoon-ish early-iMac speakers or through sound-projecting dome speakers suspended from the ceiling.
I wrote about speculative archaeology — the myriad art and design projects that adopt the m.o., method, or metaphor of archaeology — in Places. Among the projects I address are Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe’s Floating Chain (High-Res Toni), Allan Wexler’s Breaking Ground, the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art’s Way of the Shovel exhibition (including Mark Dion’s, LaToya Ruby Frazier’s, and Cyprian Gaillard’s work), the DredgeFest extraction tours, the recent “Lines and Nodes” symposium and screening series (which I helped a bit to organize), David Maisel’s photography, Allan Sekula’s photographer “counter-forensics,” Eyal Weizman’s forensic architecture, and Matthew Kirchenbaum’s and Cory Arcangel’s digital forensics, as well as media archaeology.
This week I head to Europe for two back-to-back and, coincidentally, highly related conferences. My first stop is Umeå, in northern Sweden, for the Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production conference. This’ll be my third trip to HUMlab in Umeå — my second wintertime visit — and I’m super-excited about it. My good friend Patrik, former HUMlab director and the conference’s organizer, asked me to share co-moderation duties with him; this should be fun. Patrik’s assembled a fantastic group: among the participants are Anne Balsamo, Johanna Drucker, Jacob Gaboury, David Theo Goldberg, Ben Kafka, Lauren Klein, Pamela Lee, Cecilia Lindhé, Franco Moretti, Lisa Parks, Miriam Posner, Carrie Rentschler, Matt Ratto, Erica Robles-Anderson, Nishant Shah, Molly Steenson, Jonathan Sterne, Fred Turner — and a bunch of other awesome people. In addition to moderating some of the discussions, I’ll be presenting a short paper on “Critiquing Platform Thinking”; I’ll paste the text below.
After spending Tuesday through Friday in Sweden, I head to Vienna for the Poetics of Infrastructure workshop at the Institut für Wissenschaft und Kunst (Wissenschaft und Kunst: how fun is that to say?!?). My friend and former postdoc Simon Ganahl organized the event in collaboration with Thomas Karpacz, Arndt Niebisch, and Martina Süess. The program features some very promising talks on repair, potholes, grain silos, writing systems, Victor Gruen and the shopping mall, the politics of “the stack,” standards — and my own talk, titled “Sense-able Structures: Infrastructural Aesthetics,” which is really mostly a mash-up of my “Infrastructural Tourism,” “Ear to the Wire: Listening to Historic Urban Infrastructures,” and “Intellectual Furnishings” articles. Here’s my abstract:
There’s been much recent interest in “making visible the invisible,” in manifesting the “optics” of subterranean, covert, and seemingly immaterial infrastructures. In this talk I’ll begin by addressing what we can learn about urban infrastructure by engaging it with our *other* senses – by listening to it, touching it, even smelling and tasting it. I’ll then examine how these aesthetics “scale down” by examining infrastructure of a smaller dimension: that of furniture. I’ll share some preliminary case studies from my current research on “intellectual furnishings,” which explores how the design of our media-organizational devices – from book stacks to computer server racks – scaffolds our media technologies, informs how bodies relate to those media, and embodies knowledge. These infrastructures, both physical and intellectual, are also simultaneously functional, affective and aesthetic.
Critiquing Platform Thinking
Perhaps some of you are familiar with the poetic form of the cento: the term is derived from the Latin word for “patchwork,” and the work is composed of lines cobbled together from other poems. I’m going to start off with a Platform Cento, or at least a free-verse pseudo-cento, drawn from that most accidentally mellifluous of dialects, Silicon Vallese.
[2-17] Your “vision is almost too concrete,” grasshopper.
Take a Zen approach to the launch.
Go lean. Think minimum viable product.
Flatten those verticals.
Combinators and incubators.
Key performance indicators.
Test, test. Pivot, pivot. Build – measure – learn.
Whiteboard. Iterate. Quiet period.
Refract the optics. Do some discovery pivots.
Redeem the failure. Master the redemption space.
Disrupt the disruption space.
Leverage autonomous paradigms. The road less traveled.
Hack growth, growth-hacker. Lead thought, thought leader.
Pivot that platform. Hashtag dirsuptthefuture.
 No doubt you were charmed by my honeyed verse. But I exhort you to resist that siren’s song, for it offers little in the way of enlightenment. It merely lures us to the rocky shores of Anthemusa – or, to reframe the Homeric myth, traps us in a psychotic echo chamber, which is in turn locked inside a Latourian black box.
[19/20] Speaking of echo chambers: Tim O’Reilly, one of the premier pillagers of the English language, has famously proposed that we regard government – and, by extension, a host of other institutions and social enterprises – as platforms. As he said at the beginning of his talk at the 2010 Gov 2.0 Expo, “If you’ve been following what I’ve been writing and speaking about in the government space (ack!), you know I’ve been talking about this idea of government as a platform,” which focuses on “designing programs that are enablers,” constructing substrates that “developers outside of government can build on.” He elaborates in a 2012 post on Google+: “government as platform” is “the notion that… government should provide fewer citizen-facing services, but should instead consciously provide infrastructure only, with APIs and standards that let the private sector deliver citizen facing services.” The implication is that there’s a shift in agency, in empowerment.
 “This platform meme was, of course, inspired by Silicon Valley,” Evgeny Morozov wrote last year in The Baffler. Apple builds the App Store, then relies on third-party developers to stock it. But is this an appropriate model for government? Morovoz notes,
One of the main reasons why governments choose not to offload certain services to the private sector is not because they think they can do a better job at innovation or efficiency but because other considerations – like fairness and equity of access – come into play. “If Head Start were a start-up it would be out of business. It doesn’t work,” remarked O’Reilly in a recent interview. Well, exactly: that’s why Head Start is not a start-up.
The real question is not whether developers should be able to submit apps to the App Store, but whether citizens should be paying for the apps or counting on the government to provide these services.
 Earlier this year I published an essay in Places, a landscape and urbanism journal for which I’m a columnist, asking similar questions about libraries. For the remainder of my time, I’ll share some (slightly modified) excerpts from that essay:
 Throughout their multi-millennial history, libraries have assumed a host of ever-changing social and symbolic functions. They have been expected to symbolize the eminence of a ruler or state, to integrally link “knowledge” and “power” — and, more recently, to serve as “community centers,” “public squares” or “think tanks.” Even those seemingly modern metaphors have deep histories. The ancient Library of Alexandria was a prototypical think tank, and the early Carnegie buildings of the 1880s were community centers with swimming pools and public baths, bowling alleys, billiard rooms, even rifle ranges, as well as book stacks. The library has always been a place where informational and social infrastructures intersect within a physical infrastructure that (ideally) supports that program.
[24/25/26] Now we are seeing the rise of a new metaphor: the library as “platform” — a buzzy word that refers to a base upon which developers create new applications, technologies and processes. In an influential 2012 article in Library Journal, David Weinberger proposed that we think of libraries as “open platforms” — not only for the creation of software, but also for the development of knowledge and community. Weinberger argued that libraries should open up their entire collections, all their metadata, and any technologies they’ve created, and allow anyone to build new products and services on top of that foundation. [27/28] The platform model, he wrote, “focuses our attention away from the provisioning of resources to the foment” — the “messy, rich networks of people and ideas” — that “those resources engender.” Thus the ancient Library of Alexandria, part of a larger museum with botanical gardens, laboratories, living quarters and dining halls, was a platform not only for the translation and copying of myriad texts and the compilation of a magnificent collection, but also for the launch of works by Euclid, Archimedes, Eratosthenes and their peers.
[29/30] Yet the platform metaphor has limitations. For one thing, it smacks of Silicon Valley entrepreneurial epistemology, which prioritizes “monetizable” “knowledge solutions.” As O’Reilly acknowledges, a “platformed” model of government is “designed from the outset… [to] allow for extensibility and revision by the marketplace.” Morovoz, too, notes that “In all of O’Reilly’s theorizing, there’s not a hint as to what political and moral principles should guide us in applying the model. Whatever those principles are, they are certainly not exhausted by appeals to innovation and efficiency – which is the language that O’Reilly wants us to speak.”
[31/32] Further, the platform’s association with new media tends to bracket out the similarly generative capacities of low-tech, and even non-technical, library resources. One key misperception of those who proclaim the library’s obsolescence is that its function as a knowledge institution can be reduced to its technical services and information offerings. Knowledge is never solely a product of technology and the information it delivers.
[33/34] Another problem with the platform model is the image it evokes: a flat, two-dimensional stage on which resources are laid out for users to do stuff with. The platform doesn’t have any implied depth, so we’re not inclined to look underneath or behind it, or to question its structure. Weinberger encourages us to “think of the library not as a portal we go through on occasion but as infrastructure that is as ubiquitous and persistent as the streets and sidewalks of a town.”  It’s like a “canopy,” he says — or like a “cloud.” But these metaphors are more poetic than critical; they obfuscate all the wires, pulleys, lights and scaffolding that you inevitably find underneath and above that stage — and the casting, staging and direction that determine what happens on the stage, and that allow it to function as a stage. Libraries are infrastructures not only because they are ubiquitous and persistent, but also, and primarily, because they are made of interconnected networks that undergird all that foment, that create what Pierre Bourdieu would call “structuring structures” that support Weinberger’s “messy, rich networks of people and ideas.”
[36/37] It can be instructive for our libraries’ publics — and critical for our libraries’ leaders — to assess those structuring structures. In this age of e-books, smartphones, firewalls, proprietary media platforms and digital rights management; of atrophying mega-bookstores and resurgent independent bookshops and a metastasizing Amazon; of Google Books and Google Search and Google Glass; of economic disparity and the continuing privatization of public space and services — which is simultaneously an age of democratized media production and vibrant DIY and activist cultures — libraries play a critical role as mediators, at the hub of all the hubbub. Thus we need to understand how our libraries function as, and as part of, infrastructural ecologies — as sites where spatial, technological, intellectual and social infrastructures shape and inform one another. And we must consider how those infrastructures can embody the epistemological, political, economic and cultural values that we want to define our communities.
 It’s particularly important to cultivate these critical capacities — the ability to “read” our libraries’ multiple infrastructures and the politics and ethics they embody — when the concrete infrastructures look like San Antonio’s BiblioTech, a “bookless” library  featuring 10,000 e-books, downloadable via the 3M Cloud App; 600 circulating “stripped down” 3M e-readers; 200 “enhanced” tablets for kids; and, for use on-site, 48 computers, plus laptops and iPads. The library, which opened last fall, also offers computer classes and meeting space, but it’s all locked within a proprietary platformed world.
[40/41] In libraries like BiblioTech — and the Digital Public Library of America — the collection itself is off-site. Do patrons wonder where, exactly, all those books and periodicals and cloud-based materials live? What’s under, or floating above, the “platform”? Do they think about the algorithms that lead them to particular library materials, and the conduits and protocols through which they access them? [42/43/44] Do they consider what it means to supplant bookstacks with server stacks — whose metal racks we can’t kick, lights we can’t adjust, knobs we can’t fiddle with? Do they think about the librarians negotiating access licenses and adding metadata to “digital assets,” or the engineers maintaining the servers? With the increasing recession of these technical infrastructures — and the human labor that supports them — further off-site, behind the interface, deeper inside the black box, how can we understand the ways in which those structures structure our intellect and sociality?
[BLANK] We need to develop — both among library patrons and librarians themselves — new critical capacities to understand the distributed physical, technical and social infrastructures that scaffold our institutions of knowledge and program our values. And we must consider where those infrastructures intersect — where they should be, and perhaps aren’t, mutually reinforcing one another. When do our social obligations compromise our intellectual aspirations, or vice versa? And when do those social or intellectual aspirations for the library exceed — or fail to fully exploit — the capacities of our architectural and technological infrastructures? Ultimately, we need to ensure that we have a strong epistemological framework — a narrative that explains how the library promotes learning and stewards knowledge — so that everything hangs together, so there’s some institutional coherence. We need to sync the library’s intersecting infrastructures so that they work together to support our shared intellectual and ethical goals.
 Casson explains that when Alexandria was a brand new city in the third century B.C., its founders enticed intellectuals to the city — in an attempt to establish it as a cultural center — with the famous Museum, “a figurative temple for the muses, a place for cultivating the arts they symbolized. It was an ancient version of a think-tank: the members, consisting of noted writers, poets, scientists, and scholars, were appointed by the Ptolemies for life and enjoyed a handsome salary, tax exemption … free lodging, and food. … It was for them that the Ptolemies founded the library of Alexandria” [Lionel Casson, Libraries in the Ancient World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001): 33-34]; Donald Oehlerts, Books and Blueprints: Building America’s Public Libraries (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991): 62
 David Weinberger, “Library as Platform,” Library Journal (September 4, 2012).
 Tim O’Reilly, “Government as Platform” In Daniel Lathrop & Laural Ruma, Eds., Open Government (O’Reilly Media, available under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License).
 In her recent book The People’s Platform, Astra Taylor calls for designing desirable values into our online platforms, for “developing structures that encourage fairness, serendipity, deliberation, and diversity” (The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014).
 For more on “infrastructural ecologies,” see Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies(Berkeley, University of California Press, 2009 ); Alan Latham, Derek McCormack, Kim McNamara and Donald McNeil, Key Concepts in Urban Geography (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2009): 32; Ming Xu and Josh P. Newell, “Infrastructure Ecology: A Conceptual Mode for Understanding Urban Sustainability,” Sixth International Conference of the International Society for Industrial Ecology (ISIE) Proceedings, Berkeley, CA, June 7-10, 2011; Anu Ramaswami, Christopher Weible, Deborah Main, Tanya Heikkila, Saba Siddiki, Andrew Duvail, Andrew Pattison and Meghan Bernard, “A Social-Ecological-Infrastructural Systems Framework for Interdisciplinary Study of Sustainable City Systems,” Journal of Industrial Ecology 16:6 (December 2012): 801-13. Most references to infrastructural ecologies — and there are few — pertain to systems at the urban scale, but I believe a library is a sufficiently complicated institution, residing at the nexus of myriad networks, that it constitutes an infrastructural ecology in its own right.
This coming week Places will be publishing a new article in which I examine two recent exhibitions — Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe’s “Floating Chain (High-Res Toni)” at Marlborough Chelsea and Allan Wexler’s “Breaking Ground” at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts — as emblematic of the myriad “speculative archaeologies” cropping up in the art, design, and academic worlds. I had originally written a long piece solely about Wexler’s work, then decided, with my always-capable editors’ encouragement, to frame the article less as a profile of one artist, and more as an overview of a larger phenomenon, of which Wexler is one key example.
Still, it always hurts to cut paragraphs that I’ve labored over — so I’ll paste the edited-out bits below to afford them a posthumous presence. These passages might also serve as a bit of a teaser for the forthcoming article, and they hint at other directions a more biographical-profile-oriented article might go. So, here ’tis:
* * * * *
Floating on a plinth projecting from the gallery foyer’s wall was a small Plexiglas box. And in that box was a miniature diorama – of what, precisely, I wasn’t sure. There were three objects – a ladder (to where?) supported by braces, a flat rectangular platform notched into four quadrants, and an imperfectly shaped ball attached to a string – all molded from plaster, sitting atop a Kraft-paper-brown base. I wondered, what scene had Allan Wexler set here, in this prelude to his Spring 2014 “Breaking Ground” exhibition?
Rounding the corner into the south gallery, I encountered a series of “prints” of what appeared to be alien archaeological digs – imperfectly rectilinear extractions from a similarly generically brown, though now textured, landscape – and elemental architectures, proto-dwellings, primitive scaffolds and rudimentary engineering intervening in that landscape. These structures and systems sometimes floated atop the all-but-featureless terrain, casting pronounced shadows; sometimes anchored themselves in it; and sometimes carved deep voids into the ground – voids made accessible, perhaps inhabitable, by the same archetypal ladder I saw in the foyer vitrine. The prints’ titles – “Grounded,” “Bridge,” “Second Floor,” “Ascension, “Earthwork, “Gravity,” “Ramp,” “Rock Bottom,” “Repair” – alluded to fundamental actions and structures in the creation of built space.
Examining these prints as a whole, from the threshold between the sound and north galleries, where the series continued, I noted repeated aesthetic tropes: aside from the limited neutral color palette and gossamer tonality that united them, they also shared artificially darkened (“vignetted”) corners, a photo-editing technique often employed to “antique” an image. And scrutinized up close, it became apparent that these images – which Wexler refers to as “photo-based works” – are just as much a striated, engineered construction as are the architectural structures they depict. They’re composed of a grid of panels patched together, with their seams made visible. [I describe the process by which these prints are made in the Places article.] Wexler experimented with similar techniques in his 2009 “Overlook” show at Feldman, for which, he said, “I want [even the digital photos] to be hand-made, constructed images, so they are ambiguously digital and physical simultaneously…. The scars and glue stains are intentional.”
The traces of transformation were apparent in other works on display in the north gallery, including two new sculptures and a 1975 conceptual series, Tree Transformation, seen here for the first time. The latter consisted of cardboard boxes (continuing with the Kraft-paper brown aesthetic) in which twigs, standing in as representatives for our most basic wooden building materials, metamorphose into altered forms, are spliced with metal rods and coated in various colors, and transform into joints and I-beams. As Wexler explains, “I cataloged hundreds of these transformations” – “Cut,” “Spliced,” “Perpendicular,” “Color Copies,” “Becoming I-Beam” – and “placed them in cardboard boxes in a similar fashion to the way I organized my shell and rock collections as a child. Without realizing it, I was creating the missing history of wooden architecture.” This merger of the found and the manufactured, the transformation of the naturally-occurring into the human-engineered, is apparent again in the two sculptures, “Shelter” and “Adam’s House in Paradise” (which I describe in the Places article). We see here, as we did with the tree transformations, how naturally occurring resources become building materials, which in turn become architecture.
In his four-and-half decades of practice, Wexler has returned to the “first principles” of architecture – providing shelter and space for the practice of, and reflection on, fundamental human rituals: sleeping, preparing food, eating, bathing, reading, etc. As an archaeologist he digs down to lower strata than Freeman and Lowe do. And in so doing, he’s resorted repeatedly to the basic elements of architecture – the 2×4, the chair, the table, the hut – and explored how they’ve been molded, often through serial iteration, into architecture’s basic functional units of syntax or grammar. It’s telling that his 1999 “Custom Built” show, a 20-year survey at the Atlanta College of Art and City Gallery at Chastain, was organized not chronologically or typologically, but ontologically – into sections on Buckets, Sinks Gutters; The Shape of Form / Geometry; Built Structures; Function; Construction Process; and Nature and Architecture. Ten years later, in his “Outlook” exhibition at Ronald Feldman Gallery, Wexler positioned his work in alignment with architecture’s urtexts: “I feel I am reinterpreting and perhaps updating Vitruvius’ The Ten Books on Architecture and Alberti’s On the Art of Building in Ten Books…. Some of the basic issues explored ask how to excavate into the earth, how to float a horizontal plane or how to position a chair on a surface.” A similar ontological, genealogical approach is driving Wexler in a new project: the preparation of a monograph.
Much of Wexler’s earlier work operated at the scale of the individual domestic object or appliance, like the garment or garden hose or coffee maker; the individual furnishing, particularly the chair and the table; the mono-functional architectural unit, including his Parsons Kitchen, (1994), Crate House (1990), Little Office Building (1987), and Temple Houses (1977-88); or the urban, as in his “Proposal for the Manhattan Skyline, World Trade Center” (1973 and 1976). “Breaking Ground,” however, seems to pick up on themes introduced in the 1999 show to explore works at a different scale and temporality. Here, rather than focusing on the ways our built spaces choreograph how we eat and sleep and collect water to drink, Wexler telescopes out to explore humankind’s first and fundamental interventions into, and markings upon, an abstracted landscape. Rather than constructing a world of inhabitation – a set of structures or objects one can walk around and try on and experiment with – he builds here a world of projection and speculation that, in my experience, keeps the viewer at a physical and phenomenological distance. While these prints and sculptures (which I describe in the Places article) might be highly textural and seem to invite touch, they’re too “Platonic” (which I don’t mean to sound pejorative), too abstracted in time and place and ambiguous in concrete function, to allow for imaginative inhabitation and use. Wexler, however, convinced me of an alterative reading: this abstraction, rather than imposing distance, instead opens up these works to myriad possible readings and imagined applications. It’s like finding figures in the clouds.
Wexler has long explored the genealogy of building and dwelling. Yet I see this recent show taking a more archaeological turn – both literally, in that it focuses on “the dig,” and methodologically, in the way that philosopher Michel Foucault used the term, to refer to an historiographical approach that moves away from the individual subject to explore underlying rules delimiting the realm of thought within a particular place and time. No longer are we concerned with coffee makers and chairs – objects with which we have immediate experience, and which have a recognizable form, and whose mechanisms of operation we understand in principle. By “breaking ground,” we’re digging into primordial earth, tracing “deep time,” exploring the foundational connections between philosophy and the laws of physics.
“Breaking Ground” is archaeological in other ways, too. [In the Places article I address how Wexler’s work exemplifies media archaeology, too, in its experimentation with and juxtaposition of media formats.] He reinterprets one of his tried-and-true methodologies – an approximation of the scientific method, which, in his work, has traditionally involved “isolating elements, analyzing components, exploring one variable at a time” – and applies it here to modalities of representation.
Wexler thus presents his “invented history of architecture and civilization” – a history in which he invites us to “see the ancient in the contemporary” – through layered and juxtaposed media formats, whose distinctive materialities and temporalities get all entangled. “Breaking Ground” employs sculpture and assemblage and, through the “photo-based works” alone, model-making, photography, digital editing, printing, drawing, mounting, and finishing – each of which constitutes an “editorial” stage, a means of “renovating” the engineered object. In his current work, he explained to me, he’s adding a new tool to his representational repertoire: he’s creating multiple variations on his plaster landscape models, which he can then “accrete… in a narrative or sequential way, almost like a storyboard.” This cinematic addition expands not only the modalities through which landscape can be represented, but also the temporalities – the ancient and the contemporary, the slice in time and the longue durée – through which it can be contemplated.
As Wexler explains in a video accompanying the exhibition, he wants his viewers to “question drawing and photography.” And we do, as we consider how the material “original” becomes virtual, is rematerialized, and ultimately is transformed into altered states of matter. These works are simultaneously painterly, textile, sculptural, photographic, architectural. They’re concurrently objects and architectures and landscapes. They pose ontological questions about the tools and techniques we employ to conceptualize, program, plan, engineer, construct, and represent our “natural” and “built” landscapes.
Wexler’s “Gravity” (2013) depicts individual bricks being extracted, using what seems to be a rectangular-prism-shaped cookie cutter, and stacked upon a flat landscape – a vignette reminding us, as does Tree Transformation, of the deep history behind the standardization of our building materials. In “Sheathing the Rift” (2014) similarly standardized panels coat the edges of a crevice. I couldn’t help but notice this cracked-and-tiled terrain’s formal resonance with a landscape I encountered nearly every day when I lived in north Park Slope, Brooklyn: Atlantic Terminal, a major hub for both the MTA and Long Island Railroad, features a Lego-meets-rock mezzanine-level overhang, a sort of Cubist outcropping. As it turns out, Wexler designed this “pixelated” architectural landform in collaboration with his partner, Ellen Wexler, and he admitted to me that he only recently noted the parallels between this work and “Sheathing the Rift.” “Overlook” (2009), he explains, is meant to function like a scenic off-road viewing station – an infrastructure of directed observation-at-a-remove, a means of framing the “theater of people [and] activity below on the concourse level while you wait for a train.” This overlook-as-ocular-device also cultivates a temporal perspective that’s in line with the archaeological: it “reminds us of the subways’ subterranean existence and speaks about excavation, strata, and geology.”
As Michael Fehr described Wexler’s work, “Overlook” is a “structure for reflection” – reflection not only on the human and machinic activity below, the “content” of the scene toward which it directs our attention, but also on the structure itself: an artwork melding rock and pixel, “nature” and “culture,” geology and computation, deep time and currency. In looking both through and at the installation – as we do with Wexler’s photo-based works, sculptures, and models (and with Freeman and Lowe’s gridded kaleidoscopes) – we recognize it as a tool of representation. It’s a means of directing our gaze and attention toward the pattern and entropy, the instinct and calculation of human behavior; and, at the same time, toward the endless variety of configurations in which we can arrange the basic elements of architecture, to allow for that theatre of human behavior to play out.
 Aaron Betsky, “Furnishing the Primitive Hut: Allan Wexler’s Experiments Beyond Buildings” In Custom Built: A Twenty-Year Survey of Work by Allan Wexler (Atlanta: Atlanta College of Art & City Gallery at Chastain, 1999): 134.
Custom Built: A Twenty-Year Survey of Work by Allan Wexler (Atlanta: Atlanta College of Art & City Gallery at Chastain, 1999).
We’ve wrapped up our fourth semester of my Archives, Libraries + Databases class. And once again, it proved to be the highlight of my fall. We visited the Municipal Archives, the Reanimation Library, the Interference Archive, and the Morgan Library. Kate Eichhorn came to visit to talk about archival theory and feminist archives. Radhika Subramaniam and Brian McGrath visited to talk about “epistmological” exhibitions — specifically, the “future of knowledge institutions” exhibition that Brian, Orit Halpern, Kim Ackert, and I are organizing, with help from Radhika, for March 2015.
And the students once again made me proud and verklempt with their smart and critical and often playful projects — projects that demonstrate their genuine investment in the beautiful and challenging and profound and provocative ideas we chewed on all throughout the semester.
Annie created The Ghost Stories Archive — a collection of, well, ghost stories, collected and organized in such a way as to attempt to find themes and patterns in supernatural experience. Annie plans to keep working on the site, since it informs work she’d like to do in her doctoral research.
Rachel (in collaboration with Laura) created the Ex-Archive, which “collects, stores, and preserves digital copies of materials from break ups and failed relationships, as well as data and information about those relationships.” It takes a parodically “clinical” approach, presenting the act of bequeathing one’s break-up documentation to an archive, and providing the necessary metadata, as a therapeutic experience. Rachel and Laura, too, plan to keep working on the archive; I think it has the potential to be big! (My contributions alone could keep them busy for a while 🙂
Eishin created My Little Library, a periodic documentation of the books that filter in and out of her apartment and the little, situationally-defined, project-based collections they organize themselves into. She, too, plans to sustain this project.
Zack created Trashing, a comparative documentation of the digital trash on folks’ computer desktops and the physical trash in their garbage cans. Examining these two trash bins in tandem can offer insight into the integration of mind and body in various forms of labor. He plans to add more examples from more physical kinds of labor — the trash generated by chefs and woodworkers, for instance.
Ariana, in “Classifying Ephemera,” explored the subjectivity and iterability of classification — particularly the classification of quotidian objects. She went around the city collecting a bunch of ephemera, then explored multiple means of organizing that collection, while also acknowledging the specific contexts in which she originally encountered each item. She plans to expand this project into a website with photo documentation of her various organizational schemes, and the diagrams and notes she created in the act of classification.
Laura is creating an archival system for all the material generated as part of the Architectural League’s and Center for an Urban Future’s Re-Envisioning Branch Libraries design study. She’ll be archiving all the design material — allowing visitors to search by theme, design challenge, and design team — and supplementing that material with statements from and interviews with the designers and project managers (of which I am one!).
Oliver created a video that both examines and exemplifies the “database aesthetics” of Foley (“sound effects”) databases. He “deconstructs” each sound, showing how it might match up with various visual complements.
Fan explored the soundscape of his college town — Chengdu, China — by creating a map that classified various recorded sounds by activity and setting, and then assigned each a color based on ambiance or affect.
Saori is creating an exhibition that examines the mnemonic capabilities of smell, while also experimenting with means of “storing” fragrance itself.
And Nima is working on a HistoryPin-based oral history project with seniors.