Letters, Landscapes, Textures + Topographies: I Saw More Art

These past few months have been quite a whirlwind — so many talks!, so much committee work!, so so so many advisees! — but I still managed to squeeze in at least an hour of aesthetic stimulation every week. Way back in early October, after giving a guest lecture on “13 ways of looking at infrastructure” (à la Wallace Stevens) in Bill Morrish’s class, I trekked downtown to P! to see Pangrammar, a show of alphabet art:

Pangrammar, my photo
Pangrammar, my photo
Pangrammar, via P!
Pangrammar, via P!

While in the neighborhood, I also caught Samara Golden’s “A Fall of Corners” — a gravity-defying installation of various fifth-dimension non-places: a wedding reception, a buffet restaurant, a hotel lobby — at CANADA.



A little later, I stopped by James Cohan to see Elias Sime’s Tightrope collages of recycled electronics from the Addis Ababa open-air Merkato. These accidental landscapes of e-waste — both sourced from a landscape of refuse and then, in their newly reconfigured form, resembling an aerial view of coded land-use patterns — could very well constitute the newest of the new New Topographics.







Then more scripts and codes at “Mark my Words” at Gemini GEL / Joni Moisant Weyl:

Allen Ruppersberg
Allen Ruppersberg
Ann Hamilton, wreathe
Ann Hamilton, wreathe

Everybody seemed to like Wolfgang Tillmans’s PCR at David Zwirner, but I found it rather ho-hum. The show’s installation was much more provocative than the work itself.


My favorite pieces in the Tillmans show: two tiny sky-views
My favorite pieces in the Tillmans show: two tiny sky-views

Then I happened to catch two pollination-themed shows: Kelly Heaton’s bee-stuffs at Ronald Feldman and Artie Vierkant’s AN ON MO SA NS — on Montsanto, seeds, genetic intellectual property and patented “life” — at Feuer/Mesler. From the press release: 

As early as 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a life form could be patented. According to The Hastings Center, an independent bioethics research institute, over 47,000 genetic patents have since been filed, 3-5,000 of which are for human genetic traits.

The objects on view are thus intended to redirect a small amount of this regulated material into the space of exhibition. They exist at the intersection of the biological (material), the ethical, and the juridical, and reflect a contemporary sentiment towards nature that is more pasteural than pastoral.

Heaton @ Feldman
Vierkant, Plant expression constructs 4, Soybean MON89788 (Packaging text, Leaf) (Exploit), 2015
Vierkant, Plant expression constructs 4, Soybean MON89788 (Packaging text, Leaf) (Exploit), 2015


Then we spent a lovely fall afternoon at Russell Wright’s Manitoga.




And on my way home the next evening, I happened upon some folks projection-mapping onto the facade of the Brooklyn Public Library. I’ve never been a fan of the Githens & Keally building, but I must admit: its monolithic blankness does make for a great screen!


A few weeks later I caught the Jeff Wall / Rineke Dijkstra / William Kentridge triple-play at Marian Goodman. I particularly love Wall’s “Property Line,” which captures the processes and apparatae through which landscape becomes real estate.

Dijkstra (via Goodman)
Dijkstra (via Goodman)

Then I saw H.C. Westermann’s “See America First” — earnestly pragmatic artifacts and American Techno-Gothic talismans — at Venus Over Manhattan:



Then Matt Magee’s “Paintings and Textcavations” (ouch) at John Molloy: floorplans, diagrams, network maps, systems of arrangement:




Then, a highlight of my past few months’ gallery-going: Cynthia Daignault’s “Light Atlas,” one painting for each of the 360 degrees in the artist’s road trip around the circumference of the U.S.

The resulting document of the journey, the paintings, depicts the breadth of American light and land. Installed in the gallery, edge-to-edge, the canvases align by a shared center horizon, tracing the circumference of America. Light Atlas expands into a metaphorical filmstrip. A zoetrope. A cyclorama. Daignault defines its structure as long-form painting, akin to a novel, film, or epic poem. Often using serial forms, Daignault forges meaning across groups of images, opposing the nihilism ever-present in randomized picture streams of contemporary life. Humanist and non-hierarchal, no single canvas stands above any other and significance rises only from the meaningful whole. At a distance, Light Atlas paints a holistic portrait of America, revealing slow shifts in hue, atmosphere, typology, and topography—a color wheel mapping verdancy to desert, and forest to farm. Its images construct an index of American memes: plant and animal, architecture and industry, wealth and poverty, depth and proximity, wildness and domesticity. Yet up close, as the viewer glides down the row of paintings, as if trailing the long white line of a highway, the frames animate a more intimate, temporal, and filmic account. Daignault weaves a dense narrative, intercutting parallel stories of the journey, the creation of the work, and the grander fiction of America itself, all recounted with an unmistakable love of painting and place.




After that, Brice Marden’s Journals at Karma:




Then Corinne Wasmuht’s labor-intensive paintings of digital aesthetics — which of course “call into question painting’s status in the digital age” — at Petzel. Her subject matter — transitional zones, non-places — resembles Samara Golden’s (above), but the two artists’ divergent treatments of similar sites raise questions regarding how we perceive and experience the myriad pass-through regions we traverse everyday.



And speaking of spatial experience — and the potential to render the mundane fantastic or fanciful — we then saw “Things Around the House,” a Claes Oldenburg / Coosje van Bruggen show at Paula Cooper:


Pie sliding down a ravine. Just because.
Pie sliding down a ravine. Just because.

Also just because: Camille Henrot’s pills-and-cigarettes zoetrope at Metro Pictures (I tend to like telephone art, but didn’t get much out of her room of hotline phones):


Rachel Whiteread’s “Looking In” — concrete and resin windows, either bricked up or shielded with accordion blinds, whose transparency is only illusory — at Luhring Augustine:



Then, back to our textual theme: Zhang Huan’s “Let There Be Light” — ash paintings depicting, in Braille, passages from the Bible and the Star Spangled Banner — at Pace.




Holding the textual line, but moving from ash to neon — and bringing us full circle, back to alphabets and topologies: Joseph Kosuth’s magnificent “Agnosia, an Illuminated Ontology” at Sean Kelly:






Finally, while in Los Angeles, I stopped by the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the Center for Land Use Interpretation, and the Huntington Library, where I toured the lovely gardens and marveled at Chinese typewriters and 16th-century volvelles.




Pageantry of Paperwork: The 1939 World’s Fair, Remington Rand, and Designerly Filing


This past week I gave a talk in the Media Design Practices Program at ArtCenter College of Design. I tend to use my talks as a means of forcing myself to finish writing projects. The idea for this particular project was hatched last summer, when I served as one of the plenary speakers at the Rare Books and Manuscripts librarians’ pre-conference at the American Library Association conference: I spoke with some archivist friends from the NYPL, who mentioned something about the sheer size and unorthodox organization of their 1939 World’s Fair archive. So, I figured I’d look into it.

What resulted is a paper — what I hope will be my next long-form article for Places — that combines World’s Fair history, New York history, urban history, paperwork studies, business history, library history, labor history, media archaeology, and perhaps even a bit of intellectual history. I spent a few afternoons rifling though records at the NYPL and the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, DE. I found myself reading stuff about the history of filing systems and the British Civil Service — certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. Yet what resulted is a piece that, I think, demonstrates the importance of filing history — often feminized clerical work — for the history of computing; draws parallels not only between office work and computing, but also with the histories of navigation, management, manufacturing, and automation; establishes records-management as among the many important city-building techniques and technologies on display at the fair; and extends the genealogy of our data-driven approaches to “smart” urban design and management. And I think it highlights the surprisingly savvy — and, actually, exciting — visual and material culture of records-management, of administration (of course I’m primed to think this).

I’ll post my slides below. I think they (despite the fact that Google Slides squished them) capture a lot of this visual appeal. And I’ll share below a short excerpt from the text. Hopefully, the full piece will be appearing online soon!


The 1939 New York World’s Fair, Leonard Wallack writes, “was the city’s perfected dream of itself.”That dream manifested desires for “scientific rationality, technological progress, modernist aesthetics, industrial design,… consumer prosperity, and… corporate capitalism” in spatial form, via rational urban planning and progressive civil engineering, modernist architecture and sterilized suburbs. Just as important, however, although it rarely warrants a mention in any scholarship on the fairs – perhaps because of its painful banality – was efficient urban administration. Record-keeping and filing, which almost never figure into our reveries, were here central to the World of Tomorrow and its urban imaginary.

In the decades leading up to the Fair, particularly between 1880 and 1920, corporations and cities, merchants and militaries, dentists and teachers embraced records-management as integral to their efficient and profitable operation. “As the amount of operating information being gathered and of policies and procedures being documented increased around them at the turn of the twentieth century, accessible storage became increasingly problematic,” according to management scholar JoAnne Yates. People took their files very seriously, and they relied on an expanding industry to design, furnish, and manage their record-keeping systems. That industry – one built on typewriters, filing cabinets, carbon copies, and card indices – eventually evolved into the expansive world of information technology we know today. Files are our computing history. And the cities and organizations planned and managed through those analog files, and committed to the scientific rationality of records-management, are the precursors to our contemporary data-driven tools and techniques of urban design and management.

Most fair historians and media and cultural historians focus on the 1964 New York World’s Fair – with Eero Saarinen’s spectacular ovoid building for IBM, furnished with its signature Charles and Ray Eames-designed multimedia show – as a focal point in information history. Yet the 1939 fair, positioned restively between the Depression and the Second World War, presented many critical manual and electro-mechanical antecedents to the 1960s’ mainframes, rockets, and atomic reactors, and to today’s “sentient” urban operating systems (about which I’ve written earlier in this journal). Among the key players in that proto-computing world – a prominent exhibitor at the Fair, and a behind-the-scenes consultant on its record-production and -management – was Remington Rand.

While Remington Rand rarely figures into our dominant historical narratives, we’ll see that, throughout its 200-year history, the company’s operations and evolution have been wrapped up in histories of computing, military technology, and navigation; the push toward standardization in manufacturing and management; the rise of the consulting and information services and techno-industrial “R&D”; and negotiations between expanding opportunities for automation and human agency. The 1939 Fair, in which Remington Rand played a critical role both behind the scenes and in public view, also grappled with many of these same issues.


Media Architectures and Archaeologies

Last night I gave a talk in our “intro to grad studies” course. I was invited to talk about my work, and to introduce our first-semester graduate students to the concept of media archaeology. I also snuck in a few exhortations regarding the fashions and politics of theory.

Here are my slides, and below is my text:

[2] Last Wednesday morning I went to a symposium at Brooklyn Poly, recently renamed the NYU Tandon School of Engineering – yet another reminder that all things can be bought at the right price by people who like to put their names on things. [3] We, an audience of several hundred with a male-to-female ratio of probably 9-to-1, were there to talk about [4] the “Coming Age of the Internet of Things” – a title that seemed, to many attendees, to prophesy a utopic block-chained future of exhaustive datasets and bounteous apps and proliferating platforms. For me, it read more as a threat.

Our keynote, Vint Cert, one of the “fathers of the Internet” – and currently vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google – did little to allay my skepticism. [5] He talked about the app through which he can regulate the climatic conditions in his wine cellar back at home, and the RFID tags attached to those precious bottles of vino that allow him to constantly manage his inventory – just in case an unscrupulous house guest, or the help, decides to sneak a bottle. Ah, Silicon Valley: applying genius and capital to solving the world’s most pressing problems.

Yet I don’t want to do Cert an injustice. [6] He did acknowledge myriad other IoT applications: first, we can use our sensors and apps to monitor and report on the status of city services – traffic flow, power, water, gas, road repairs, public transit, communication services, and various government services. Second, the IoT can foster open access to city information (lots of cities, as you probably know, have open data initiatives), which, he stressed, [7] “enables new businesses” to analyze, apply, and (presumably) monetize that open data (did I hear somebody say Uber?). And third, [8] the IoT can prove instrumental in powering a Smart Grid, which both cities and utility companies can use to monitor electricity, water, and gas use ([9] a quick footnote: I wrote about a lot of these potential applications in some of my recent articles for Places, an architecture and urbanism journal). [10] Other possible applications Cert mentioned: optimizing resource management; detecting epidemics; sharing scientific instruments or [11] facilitating remote, “telepresent” medical procedures; and, in his most philosophical offering, “using computing power to interpret the world around [us].”

[12] His two interlocutors during the discussion period – Deborah Estrin from Cornell Tech and Beth Noveck from NYU/Tandon – spoke of their own, equally socially-engaged work with health data and open governance. And all three conversants emphasized the challenges of ensuring security. [13] Yet “security” seemed to hold pretty disparate meanings for the several-hundred folks in that room. To some, it meant the integrity of the network itself – whether or not to allow for individual users to self-configure their devices and apps, for instance – or it was about controlling access. For others, particularly those concerned with health data, security meant user privacy.

[14] But mostly, really, it was about the network itself, that reified entity called the Internet of Things. Much attention was paid to the need to regularize its “chaotic” sets of standards, tame the massive number of devices that want to connect to it, protect it from the people and things clamoring for its attention.

The whole conversation, with its seeming lack of criticality, reminded me of another conversation I had almost exactly a year ago. [15] I moderated a discussion at the “City by the Numbers” conference at Pratt last October. Our panel – composed of Constantine Kontokosta from NYU’s Center for Urban Science + Progress; Colin Harrison from Urban Systems Collaborative; Laura Kurgan from Columbia’s Spatial Information Design Lab; and Jessie Braden from Pratt’s Spatial Analysis and Visualization Initiative – was asked to address the question: “Big Data = Better City?” Even though there were some “smart city” evangelists and/or proponents among us, we ultimately “problematized” the fetishization of big data; critiqued the presumption that a city is reducible to numbers; questioned the methodologies of statistical analysis and data visualization as they’re sometimes used in urban planning and urban governance. And after what was, in my judgment, a fantastic 90-minute discussion, the first audience question we got was: [16] “What’s the best place to get a complete data set?” In other words, where can I find the unicorn of perfect, exhaustive, clean data that enables my computers to spit out perfect decisions, thereby enabling us – and our robots – to build a perfect city where everyone lives perfectly in accordance with the almighty governing algorithm?


[17] For you, graduate students in media studies and design, I’m assuming (safely, I hope) that terms and concepts like cognitive computing, urban sentience, responsive architecture, data-driven sustainability, and the Internet of Things are familiar. Maybe they’re even central to your work. But it’s not just in the labs and design studios and deal rooms where such terms are bandied about: these “cloudy” neologisms and portmanteaus float around the popular, general-interest press with pretty great regularity, too. [18] We’re supposedly living in a new age – the age of the anthropocene; an age of planetary urbanism; an age in which unwritten or unspoken zones and standards and rules – what Keller Easterling calls “extrastatecraft” – “encode” our international relations; an age in which machines communicate with one another just as much as, if not more than, we humans communicate with them or amongst ourselves; an age in which those intelligent objects are posing hard questions about labor and equity and epistemology and other core humanistic values.

Yet the discussions like those I mentioned earlier – and those I see chronicled on the pages of the business sections of the Times and the Wall Street Journal (and it is in the business section where a lot of this discussion takes place) – tend not to question the logic or ethic of these technological developments. They rarely ask why? [19] They tend not to see the absurdity of creating more technology to solve technological problems, or of “app-ifying” and widgetizing the “key performance indicators” that really matter. But what really matters, and to whom?

[20] They’re certainly not asking these questions. A colleague of mine, Daniel Latorre, reminded me of this list when I was tweeting from the conference last week:

  • What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?
  • Whose problem is it?
  • Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?
  • What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem?
  • What sort of people and institutions might acquire special economic and political power because of technological change?
  • What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?

These are among the last published words of one of my dissertation committee members — and a great model of a thoughtful and generous human being – the late Neil Postman. [21] Postman, for whom “high tech” meant a yellow legal pad, predicted, in a book about the 18th century, the arrival of a sentient, voice-activated doorknob – which we have now – and he had a few questions for it:

What problem is solved here? Is it that turning a doorknob is a burden? Is it a question of making doorknobs less vulnerable to burglars? Is it simply a matter of celebrating our own technological genius?

This man who was by no means a designer, and who wasn’t a huge fan of aesthetic variety or innovation – he went to same place down near Washington Square for lunch pretty much every day for decades – posed some questions that would certainly stump a lot of contemporary designers and technologists. He reminds us to ask about purpose, ethics, politics. [22] And history. He reminded us that our media, our technology, our designed objects and landscapes all embody values – and those values are shaped by a very deep history. [23] Even the newest, shiniest object has a history – however much the marketing rhetoric of innovation and disruption wants us to forget that past.

[24] I wanted these critical frameworks – of ethics, politics, and history – to guide a conversation I organized and hosted two weeks ago in the Media Design Practices Program at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. [25] We began with the premise that, as we shape our landscapes, erect our buildings, build our institutions, and develop our technological networks, we impose upon them, or embed within them, intelligences and protocols. We build our terrains of dirt and data, and as an either intentional or accidental consequence, they embody their own operative logics.

[26] These have also been major themes in my own work: I’ve explored smart cities and urban interfaces and pedagogies that help us make sense of contemporary infrastructures. [27] But an even longer thread of my research has focused on much older forms of spatialized intelligence, old-school “code spaces,” like libraries and archives, and the logistical systems that, for hundreds and even thousands of years, have allowed them distribute and cultivate intelligence and, dare I say it?, democracy. [28] I also look at the intellectual infrastructures – the record-keeping and filing systems and storage devices, the analog “operating systems” – behind our knowledge institutions and our cities and our larger infrastructural networks. [29] And I argue that we need to escape the self-satisfying stories we tell ourselves about “innovation” and instead acknowledge the longue durée, the deep time, of urban mediation.

[30] Even without their datified dressings, our landscapes and architectures have long been shaped using techniques and technologies that render them “intelligent” and intelligible – either to we humans who inhabit them, or to the various tools we use to cultivate, navigate, and operationalize them. Our cites have always been mediated. They’ve never not been “smart.” Clay and code, dirt and data – or, in the language of one of the key themes of your course, the “natural” and the “artificial” – have always intermingled.

[31] For our symposium at ArtCenter, we gathered together urbanists, architects, technologists, designers of other stripes, artists, lawyers, criminologists, and historians to serve a particular methodological purpose: through the diversity of their professional work and critical perspectives, we read across various indexical landscapes – from city governments to transit and telecom networks, from stockyards to criminal geographies, from regulated airspaces to urban zoning — so we could identify and question the pervasive logics and values that inform how we’re designing, building, and stewarding our world.

[32] We started off with architect Jesse LeCavalier, who spoke about logistics and supply chains and geography as something that has to be rendered calculable and optimizable. [33] Then Lorie Velard, a police department GIS specialist, discussed her work with crime data; she spoke of a similar “rationalization” of the landscape, but for a different kind of logistics. [34] Then former military intelligence specialist and artist Richard Wheeler shared his own photographic work, which highlights those areas most and least frequently “indexed” by satellites [35], and those “natural” areas “codified” by National Parks administrators and forestry aestheticians [36] as either aesthetically appealing “foreground” or scrub that should be “landscaped” into the background. After that, [37] lawyer and public policy expert Mark Vallianatos spoke about Los Angeles’s fascinating history, through 50s and 60s, as a proto-smart city [38] and his current work on the re:code LA re-zoning project. [39] Then art historian Jason Weems contextualized our current drone-vision fascination by addressing the history of the aerial view and the calculus of industrialized agricultural landscapes in Chicago’s notorious stockyards. [40] Finally, urban historian Emily Bills discussed Los Angeles’s long history as a landscape shaped not only by the car, as the prevailing urban theories propose, but by the spread of its [41] home-grown telephone infrastructures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

[42] What became very apparent to us – and what, I imagine, is quite prevalent in your own practice – is the use of mapping as key diagnostic and design tool. In criminology and planning and design research we often rely on maps to find patterns, to substantiate hunches, to locate opportunities, to trace historical trends – [43] and to project into, and potentially even reroute, the future. [44] In my own “Maps as Media” graduate course this semester, we look at the history, politics, epistemologies, aesthetics, poetics, rhetorics, techniques, and technologies of mapping. We question our contemporary cartographic fetish – our compulsion to map everything, simply because we can – and we wonder what we’re really “indexing” when we translate topographies and topologies into flattened representations.

[45] ArtCenter and Parsons are both great venues to explore these issues of “indexed landscapes.” Students and faculty, both there and here, are the ones who’ll be designing the landscapes, infrastructures, furnishings, linked objects, networked systems, and interfaces that embody the values that define our brave new world. A brave new world that – I’ll say again – seems all too infrequently to question what ideologies it embodies, and that often forgets to look at what’s left behind in its blind pursuit of innovation and efficiency.

What’s left behind is not always a history that should be erased (like an ex-boyfriend). [46] One of my goals in organizing the symposium at ArtCenter was to historicize our supposedly novel, “innovative,” “disruptive” techno-spatial networks. Historicizing the “new” is critical — and not only because it’s always fun to deflate Silicon Valley’s inflated claims of novelty and “disruption.” History is always instructive – and particularly given that the embeddedness and large-scale integration and conventional covertness of our techno-social systems render them really difficult, if not impossible, to renovate or rewire. What came before shapes the path of what follows. Rarely do we build new worlds tabula rasa.

[47] I recognize that most of you are more probably more interesting in thinking about and design for this century. But our presentist and futurist approaches to design – as evidenced in the myopia of our smart cities and “cities in a box” and our Internet of Things – don’t promise to serve us terribly well. These blinkered approaches tend, more often than not, as I see it, to promote hubristic approaches to design enamored with their own novelty (and cultural criticism and theory that overstate the newness of the new). So, in the remainder of my time, [48] I want to focus a how I, in my own work, and how you, in your own work, can better appreciate the richness and diversity and fascinating histories of smartness and newness.

[49] And one way to acknowledge these precedents, precursors – and all the historical protocols and pathways that have shaped, if not dictated, the emergence of our “emergent” media – is through the lens of media archaeology. Anne asked me here today specifically to speak about Media Archaeology. [I then asked the students if they’d heard about it. They hadn’t. I asked if they had any idea what it meant. They didn’t. They weren’t a terribly adventurous bunch.]

I’ve written a bit in this area, and I’ve been a reviewer or “blurber” for a couple of the key books in the field. A few years ago, when I was teaching a class on “Urban Media Archaeology” here in Media Studies, [50] I put together for my students a “crib sheet” that distills some of the key tenets and sensibilities and methodologies from some of the “father figures” – and I do stress father figures – in the field. I’ll review that sheet with you in a minute – but before I do so, I want to share an anecdote and offer a caveat – a rather long-winded one, I’m afraid: For several of the past few weeks, I’ve joined you on Monday nights for some of your guest lectures. I’ve stood in the back – in part because I knew I’d have to duck out before the Q&A, [51] but also because I love scanning the sea of screens – with all their hilarious and sad and incriminating contents – from the back of a lecture hall. While some of you are looking up information about the presenters and tracking down references they make in their talks, my highly unscientific survey tells me that a sizable minority is interested in [52] fashion and the Kardashians. Oh, and shopping for scarves seems to be really big, too. And I’m amazed by how many text threads you can manage simultaneously! My hat is off to you – and I don’t even wear a hat.

Why is this relevant? [53] Because theory is subject to the whims of fashion, too. It’s made by taste-makers; it reflects the cultural milieu and captures certain sparks in the zeitgeist; it’s often “gated” and made exclusive because it’s a form of “intellectual property” and cultural capital; [54] and, in many cases, it’s a commodity composed of some notable substance, wrapped up in effective branding and the personas that choose to embody those brands. Graduate students, who tend to be one of the primary audiences for and enthusiastic champions of, capital-T theory tend to try to keep “on trend.” It can be exhausting. I want to encourage you, as you determine how to allocate your mental energies – or, to echo Malcolm from last week, where and when to open up your attention to new ideas – to consider the politics of theory. I’m not talking about Marxism or theories about how politics work, but the politics of how theory gets made and circulated and taken up. [55] Think about who, in a particular theoretical circle, gets a voice – [56] and what institutional politics or cultural dynamics might allow some people to speak more loudly than others. [57] Do an Orwellian analysis of their discourse. Think about the political economy through which ideas are circulated and catch on – and then watch the brand spread out into myriad venues: master-classes, keynote talks, themed conferences, edited collections, [58] trading cards, leather jackets (this, funnily enough, is the title of Media Studies faculty member Eugene Thacker’s recent books, gone viral).

[59] And here I’m quoting myself from a couple blog posts I did a few years ago: You just might find, as I have, that the liberal conceptions of “labor” and “knowledge” that many of our new theory movements actually embody sometimes fail to match up with their professed politics. We’re so frequently advocating for more democratic, fluid, inclusive models of making and thinking in the world — yet the theories we’re building to make sense of these new modes are still built via “Great Man” modes of production.

I want to suggest that, rather than deifying the Theoretical Gods or the Taste-Makers, assuming that they possess some greater truth that we must adopt wholesale — and warping our conception of the world so as adhere to that “truth” (i.e., so one can do a “Hegelian reading” of existence) — let’s recognize the theory and the theorists for what they are. They’re models to help us make sense of things, frameworks to help us ask questions – and while the thinkers who generate those models are often brilliant, they’re also fallible and often highly hubristic guides (who are sometimes horrible writers). And they’re often women… and practitioners… and more often than not, groups of people who develop their ideas collaboratively, over time, through processes that likely won’t bring glory to any one of them or to any dynamic duos (e.g., Deleuze & Guattari, Hardt & Negri, Adorno & Horkheimer). Theory with a little ‘t,’ like knowledge itself, erupts not from the heads of Gods, but from collectives comprised of folks whose last names, unlike Derrida’s and Deleuze’s, aren’t likely to become adjectives – Derridean, Deleuzian, Balsamic (that’s a joke just for Anne) — in our everyday academic discourse.

[60:B] Amen.

And now you’re probably wondering how that sermon – and the preceding fashion forecast – is all relevant to media archaeology, which is all about history and failure and what seems like patently un-cool stuff. It’s because Media Archaeology has also “trended” – or is trending. I’m not sure which. But it’s also important to acknowledge that, just as fashion repeats itself, so does theory. [61] And while fashion – like journalism and other general-interest writing that’s based on the “popularization” of research – isn’t obligated to cite its sources, we in the academy are. Footnotes and parenthetical citations might seem unnecessarily complicated, tedious and torturous – but, however much of a nuisance the formatting might be, I think the protocol represents a beautiful act of generosity: it’s acknowledging and, in a way, thanking those who have inspired you, those who came before you.

[62] So, I’d say we need to take the term “media archaeology” at face value, dig into the archaeology of media archaeology itself, and recognize that it’s not new: it’s composed of the spoils of other digs, in other fields, of other epochs, reorganized and given a new label. And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s essentially how all knowledge is made. [63] While media archaeology is relatively new to the English-speaking world, many of the foundational texts – primarily from the likes of Friedrich Kittler and Siegfried Zielkinski – were published in Germany in the 1980s, and were only recently translated into English (we also had a concurrent thread of new film history, from people like Thomas Elsaesser). [64] But archaeologists-proper, material culture historians, book historians, bibliographers, historians of technology, geologists, artists, and folks in other fields have long espoused ideas and methods that are now packaged as “media archaeology,” long before we used terms like “media archaeology.” I say this not to undermine media archaeology’s valuable contributions to our field – but, rather, to remind us not to reify it and turn it into some doctrine.

[65] With that in mind, we’ll go back to that crib sheet – soon, I promise! But first: a little history on how the sheet itself emerged:

[66] From 2010 through 2013 I taught a graduate course called “Urban Media Archaeology” with one of our alums, a programmer named Rory Solomon, who’s currently a PhD student at NYU. [I then described the class — its longue durée approach, its archival methods, its focus on collaborative open-source map-building.]

[67] That course grew, in part, from a similarly-structured course I began teaching at the University of Pennsylvania in 2002: “Media + Architecture.” [I then described this course — and how we moved backward in time, from digital designs and “responsive”architectures and media facades, to architectural photography and the architects’ conceptions of the wall as a “lens”; to the history of architectural publications and design criticism; to the history of architectural acoustics and the voice…]

[68] All these diversions might be annoying, but they’re all part of the dig: of establishing the archaeology of the crib sheet itself! And here it – for real this time. I’m going to start off with a wonderfully headache-inducing definition from Jussi Parikka, one of the most influential and prolific scholars in the field – and then we’ll unpack his comments:

[69] Here’s Jussi Parikka’s ‘beta’ definition:

“Media archaeology has succeeded in establishing itself as a heterogeneous set of theories and methods that investigate media history through its alternative roots, its forgotten paths, and neglected ideas and machines that still are useful when reflecting the supposed newness of digital culture. The definitions have ranged from emphasising the recurring nature of media cultural discourses (Huhtamo) to media archaeology as an-archaeology, or variantology (Zielinski) which in its excavation of the deep time layers of the way we sense and use our media always tries to find an alternative route to dismantle the fallacy of linear development.

[70] Furthermore, I see media archaeology as a history-theory enterprise, in which temporal excavation of media functions as a theoretical force as well; a reading of old media and new media in parallel lines. Media archaeology is decisively non-linear, and rigorously theoretical in its media historical interest of knowledge. In a Benjaminian vein, it abandons historicism when by it is meant the idea that the past is given and out there waiting for us to find it; instead, it believes in the radical assembling of history, and histories in the plural, but so that it is not only a subset of cultural historical writing. Instead, media archaeology needs to insist both on the material nature of its enterprise – that media are always articulated in material, also in non-narrative frameworks whether technical media such as phonographs, or algorithmic such as databases and software networks – and that the work of assembling temporal mediations takes place in an increasingly varied and distributed network of institutions, practices and technological platforms.

[71] Indeed, what media archaeology investigates are also the practical rewirings of time, as is done in media artistic and creative practice work, through archives digital and spatial, as well as DIY and circuit bending which recycle, and remix obsolete technology as much as they investigate how technology is the framework for temporality for us. / Media archaeology takes place in artistic labs, laboratories where hardware and software are hacked and opened, but as much in conceptual labs for experimenting with concepts and ideas.” [via Media Cartographies]

[72] What in the cultural milieu might’ve given rise to media archaeology? [And for the next few sections I extemporized based on my notes from the crib sheet.]


Impetus for Zielinski’s book: 1990s: “The shifts, which had become standard practice, were judged to be a revolution, entirely comparable in significance to the Industrial Revolution. Hailed as the beginning of the information society and new economy… Every last digital phenomenon and data network was celebrated as a brilliant and dramatic innovation” (Zielinski 8)
20th c fascination with “all things digital” – “The twenty-first century will not have the same craving for media…they will be a part of everyday life….Thus it is all the more urgent to undertake field research on the constellations that obtained before media became established as a general phenomenon…” (Zielinski 33)

[73] + [74] Ben Millen’s archaeology of iPhone – reprinted in my most recent book

studies of new media often share a disregard for the past… The new media have been treated as an all-encompassing and ‘timeless’ realm that can be explained from within.” – yet “Numerous studies and collections addressing the media’s past(s) in relation to their present have appeared in recent years…. Still, one cannot avoid noticing how little attention has often been devoted to defining and discussing methods and approaches” (Huhtamo & Parikka 1)


[75] Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Giedion, Ernst Robert Curtius, Dolf Sternberger, Aby Warburg, Marshall McLuhan, recent “debate on new historicism” (2) – “Theories of cultural materialism, discourse analysis, notions of nonlinear temporalities, theories of gender, postcolonial studies, visual and media anthropology, and philosophies of neo-nomadism all belong to the mix” (Huhtamo & Parikka 2)

“When classifications of media archaeology have been attempted, a binary division has usually been drawn between the socially and culturally oriented Anglo-American studies and the techno-hardware approach of German scholars, who have taken their cue from Friedrich Kittler’s synthesis of Foucault, information theory, media history, and McLuhan’s emphasis on the medium as the message.
____One way of explaining this division is to see it as a consequence of different readings of Foucault. We find quite different readings of Foucault in the German variant of media archaeology, which was strongly influenced by Kittler’sAufschreibeststeme 1800/1900 (1985)…

[76] Foucauldian Archaeology: on the one hand, German tradition; on the other, Anglo-American

“The old questions of the traditional analysis (What link should be made between disparate events? How can a causal succession be established between them? What continuity or overall significance do they possess? Is it possible to define a totality, or must one / be content with reconstituting connexions?) are now being replaced by questions of another type: which strata should be isolated from others? What types of series should be established? What criteria of periodization should be adopted for each of them? What system of relations (hierarchy, dominance, stratification, univocal determination, circular causality) may be established between them? What series of series may be established? And in what large-scale chronological table may distinct series of events be determined?” (Foucault 3-4)

“how is one to specify the different concepts that enable us to conceive of discontinuity (threshold, rupture, break, mutation, transformation)? By what criteria is one to isolate the unities with which one is dealing; what is ascience? What is an oeuvre? What is a theory? What is a concept? What is a text?’ (Foucault 5)

German Tradition

Kittler argued for the need to adjust Foucault’s emphasis on the predominance of words and libraries to more media-specific ways of understanding culture. According to him, the problem was that ‘discourse analysis ignores the fact that the factual condition is no simple methodological example but is in each case a techno-historical event.’ To be able to understand media technologies from the typewriter to the cinema and on to digital networks an coding paradigms, one must take their particular material nature into consideration – an idea Kittler’s followers like Wolfgang Ernst have adopted for their own work” (8) – Michael Wetzel – “…Kittler has denied any affiliation with the notion of media archaeology” (Huhtamo & Parikka 9)

Anglo-American Tradition

“The Anglo-American tradition has valorized Foucault as a thinker who emphasized the role of discourses as the loci where knowledge is tied with cultural and social power. Material bodies, events, and institutions are all conditioned by discursive formations. The effects of ‘hard’ technology are considered secondary to immaterial forces that differentiate and mediate their uses.” (Huhtamo & Parikka 9)

Anglo-American media archaeologists – “received impulses from the new historicism” – “new cultural history” – “H. Aram Veeser aptly summarized (new historicism’s) ‘key assumptions’ by stating ‘1) that every expressive act is embedded in a network of material practices; 2) that every act of unmasking, critique, and opposition uses the tools it condemns and risks falling prey to the practices it exposes; 3) that literary and non-literary ‘texts’ circulate inseparably; 4) that no discourse, imaginative or archival, gives access to unchanging truths or expresses inalterable human nature; 5) finally…that a critical method and a language adequate to describe culture under capitalism participate in the economy they describe.” (Huhtamo & Parikka 9)

“The German tradition has been claimed to emphasize the role of technology as a primum mobile, which has led to accusations about technological determinism, whereas Anglo-American scholars often assume that technology gets its meanings from preexisting discursive contexts within which it is introduced.” (Huhtamo & Parikka 8)


Discarding the Linear Arrow of Progress

linear successions, which for so long had been the object of research, have given way to discoveries in depth.” (Foucault 3)

[78] “one thing above all others is refined / and expanded: the idea of inexorable, quasi-natural, technical progress…absolute necessity for simple technical artifacts to develop into complex technological systems, or the continual perfecting of the illusionizing potential of media. In essence, such genealogies are comforting fables about a bright future” (2-3) – “The notion of continuous progress from lower to higher, from simple to complex, must be abandoned, together with all the images, metaphors, and iconography that have been – and still are – used to describe progress. Tree structures, steps and stairs, ladders, or cones with the point facing downwards…are, from a paleontological point of view, misleading and should therefore be discarded” (Zielinski 5)

“What is it that holds the approaches and interest of the media archaeologists / together, justifying the term? Discontent with ‘canonized’ narratives of media culture and history may be the clearest common driving force” (Huhtamo & Parikka 2-3) – see Zielinski’s Variantologies

a way of studying recurring cyclical phenomena that (re)appear and disappear and reappear over and over again in media history, somehow seeming to transcend specific historical contexts” (Huhtamo 1997: 222)

[79] Looking at the Margins and Layers

“construction of linear histories runs the risk of leaving important statements, objects, and networks of power in neglected margins” (Parikka & Ernst)

“emphasis is shifting into treating history as a multi-layered construct, a dynamic stream of relationships” (Huhtamo 1997: 221)

[80] Relating the New and the Old

“For…Geert Lovink, media archaeology is by nature a ‘discipline’ of reading against the grain, ‘a hermeneutic reading of the “new” against the grain of the past, rather than telling of the histories of technologies from past to present.’” – “Media archaeologists have challenged the rejection of history by modern media culture and theory alike by pointing out hitherto unnoticed continuities and ruptures. As a consequence, the area for media studies has been pushed back by centuries and extended beyond the Western world. On the basis of their discoveries, media archaeologists have begun to construct alternate histories of suppressed, neglected, and forgotten media that do not point teleologically to the present media-cultural condition as their ‘perfection.’ Dead ends, losers, and inventions that never made it into a material product have important stories to tell.” (Huhtamo & Parikka 3)

“…we will need a different perspective from that which is only able to seek the old in the newIn the latter perspective, history is the promise of continuity and a celebration of the continual march of progress in the name of humankind. Everything has always been around, only in a less elaborate form; one needs only to look. Past centuries were there only to polish and perfect the great archaic ideas….Now, if we deliberative later the emphasis, turn it around, and experiment, the result is worthwhile: do not seek the old in the new, but find something new in the old” (Zielinski 3)

[81] question obsolescence: “If we define obsolescence as something that has fallen out of fashion or has become unwanted, unusable, or outside the mainstream then this definition relies on the constitutive mainstream itself” – “key logic of capitalist production” (Parikka & Hertz)


“My quest in researching the deep time of media constellations is not a contemplative retrospective nor an invitation to cultural pessimists to indulge in nostalgia” (Zielinski 10)


Finding Foucault’s Ruptures, As Well as the Clichéd

“For the anarchaeological approach, taking account of the specific character of media with regard to time has two important consequences. [First,] The field of study cannot encompass the entire process of development; exploring different historical epochs has the aim of allowing qualitative turning points within the development process to emerge clearly. The historical windows that I have selected should be understood as attractive foci, where possible directions for development were tried out and paradigm shifts took place” (31) – 2: “a heightened alertness to ideas, concepts, and events that can potentially enrich our notions for developing the time arts….They appear in the guise of shifts” (Zielinski 32)

“Still, amid all the variety, there is a need to define approaches and perhaps even to crystallize them into ‘methods,’ at least in a local and tactical sense” (14) – Erkki Huhtamo’s “effort to apply the idea of topos”; “The topos approach eschews ‘the new’…emphasizes the clichéd, the commonplace, and ‘the tired’… Identifying new ways in which media culture relies on the already known is just as essential as determining how it embodies and promotes the never before seen. In fact, these two aspects are connected with each other; the new is ‘dressed up’ in formulas that may be hundreds of years old, while the old may provide ‘molds’ for cultural innovations and reorientations” (14) – “the topos approach helps to detect novelties, innovations, and media-cultural ruptures as well” (Huhtamo & Parikka 14)

Foucauldian Archaeology (Discourse Analysis), Minus the Discourse

“Media Archaeology, indebted to the German scholar Friedrich Kittler, as well as the French Michel Foucault and the Canadian Marshall McLuhan, excavates the technological conditions of the sayable and thinkable and strongly critiques narrative media history. As Wolfgang Ernst explains, ‘media archaeology describes the non-discursive practices specified in the elements of the techno-cultural archive. Media archaeology is confronted with Cartesian objects, which are mathematisable things…’ However, if cultural studies has been criticized for not engaged technology rigorously, media archaeologists often appear as ‘hardware-maniac, assembler-devoted and anti-interface ascetics, fixed to a (military) history of media without regard to the present media culture.’ They often seem blind to content and user practices.” (Chun 4)

[83] Rummaging Through Archives

“Media archaeology rummages textual, visual, and auditory archives as well as collections artifacts, emphasizing both the discursive and the material manifestations of culture. Its explorations more fluidly between disciplines, although it does not have a permanent home within any of them. “Such ‘nomadicism,’ rather than being a hindrance, may in fact match its goals and working methods, allowing it to roam across the landscape of the humanities and social sciences and occasionally to leap into the arts.” (Huhtamo & Parikka 3)

[84] Examining False Starts, History’s Losers

Registering false starts, seemingly ephemeral phenomena and anecdotes about media can sometimes be more revealing than tracing the fates of machines that were patented, industrially fabricated and widely distributed in the society – let along the lives of their creators – if our focus in on the meanings that emerge through the social practices related to the use of technology” (Huhtamo 1997: 223)

“mobilizing histories and devices that have been sidelined during the construction of totalizing histories of popular forms of communication” – “lost traces of media technologies” – “’dead’ media technologies and idiosyncratic developments reveal important themes, structures, and links in the history of communication that would normally be occluded by more obvious narratives. This includes tracing irregular developments and unconventional genealogies of present-day communication technologies” (Parikka & Hertz)

“…media archaeology (1) as a ‘history of losers,’ or what linear history of media ‘forget’; as a multilayered resonance with new film history and the multiple connections and modalities of media, (3) as recurring themes (Huhtamo, Bolter, Grusin) (Parikka & Hertz)


“The mere rediscovery of the forgotten, the establishment of oddball paleontologies, of idiosyncratic genealogies, uncertain lineages, the excavation of antique technologies or images, the account of erratic technical developments, are, in themselves, insufficient to the building of a coherent discursive methodology” (Druckery ix)

“danger is often marginalia for its own sake, a curiosity cabinet way of doing media history” (Parikka & Hertz)


“Drawing on Foucault and Kittler, Wolfgang Ernst has suggested that media should be primarily researched as nonsignifying channels. The fact of mediation should be considered before any idea of hermeneutic meaning. The phenomenological content of communication is too often mistaken for the essence of media. For Ernst, media archaeology focuses on the agency of the machine, the ways in which technical media themselves contract time and space. See Wolfgang Ernst, “Let There Be Irony: Cultural History and Media Archaeology in Parallel Lines,” Art History 28 (November 2005): 582 – 603” (Huhtamo & Parikka p. 18, note 36)

[87] “What I want to use from Foucault is a certain neo-materialist mode of cultural analysis that comes up with approaches that touch on the singularity of the material assemblages, of which technology is one component. In other words, specificity and singularity should be some of the key ‘aims’ of a media archaeological excavation” (Parikka & Hertz)

“…the question of singularity and specificity of media in its material qualities for expression is as much a political as an aesthetic question because it points towards thinking of media as potentials for action; what can a medium do? What are its potentials?” (Parikka & Hertz)

Foucault’s dispositif: “What I’m trying to pick out with this term is, firstly, a thoroughly heterogenous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions–in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements.” (Foucault, Confessions)


“Everyday consumer media,…curating practices, representational techniques, and spatial modes of organizing media can borrow heavily from history…rewiring of some of the connections of the past and the present, in order to come up with something new” (Parikka & Hertz)

Media Archaeology has inspired imaginary media, hardware hacking, circuit bending, “operative diagrammatics”

“How can we write such histories of media not historically but more ‘media artistically,’ that is, taking into account the materialities through which history is articulated, not relying on written narrative as the only way of producing historical, temporal knowledge?” (Parikka & Hertz)

“adopting and investigating temporal processes that are either too quick or too slow for the human senses?” (Parikka & Hertz)

“media archaeology needs to be executed, not constructed as a narrative” (Parikka & Hertz)

[89] See the work of…:

  • Paul DeMarinis (“The Messenger,” “The Edison Effect“)
  • Zoe Beloff (“Lost,” “Beyond“)
  • Garnet Hertz
  • Jamie Allen
  • Natalie Jeremijenko

[90] + [91] Re-Lab

  • See also Union Docs, Observatory, Reanimation Library, Eyebeam…


I’ll close by telling you a bit more about my work, and how it either intentionally or accidentally embodies media archaeology’s sensibilities. Keep in mind that I began this work well before such a thing as media archaeology existed – or, at least before we non-German-speakers knew about it – but when it did appear on my radar, I happened to note a resonance.

[92] In keeping with the validation of art as a means of thinking through media theory, I’ve written a number of exhibition reviews and essays about archaeological themes – or issues of history and materiality – that tie together different artists’ work.

[93] Other exhibition reviews have examined work that resonates between the old and the new. While I have examined urban screen art, interaction design, and interactive architectural exhibitions – [94] I’ve also examined exhibitions and events celebrating the resurgence of print, “old media,” in architectural culture.

[95] I’ve also been concerned with the ocularcentrism of media and design theory – these exhibition reviews, and much of my scholarship, has examined the materialities of other forms of sensing – e.g., how we can capture non-audiovisual means of urban sensory engagement

[96] …And how we can mediate those senses in other formats – review of 99% Invisible, episodes of which I’ve been using in my classes for years. I examined the “architecture” of the radio show, and explored its parallels to the graphic novel.

[97] Another of my primary areas of interest has been infrastructures – particularly how physical infrastructures and intellectual infrastructures reinforce, or fail to support, one another. So I’ve explored, in a number of projects, what we can learn by listening to infrastructure. [98] …And by engaging with infrastructure through myriad senses – and by touring it, mapping it, performing it, making playing cards and audio tours and video games out of it.

I’ve examined infrastructures from the scale of the city all the way down to the scale of the interfaces and the data model. [99] And my work on libraries and archives has allowed me to move across these scales, from the macro to the micro. I’ve looked at the aesthetics of digital preservation – and at artwork that takes up these issues – and [100] at the death of our archival objects. [101] I’ve studied the architecture of library and archival spaces, focusing on particular how they balance their obligations to serve as both media spaces and public spaces. [102] I’ve looked also at tiny libraries, artists’ libraries, pop-up libraries, Occupy libraries; [103] and mega libraries – off-site storage facilities with millions and millions of books, that serve multiple institutions, and that are run like Amazon fulfillment centers. [104] And all along I’ve tried to attend to the sensory implications of these spaces – with their media in myriad formats.

[105] In my Archives/Libraries/Databases class we study the aesthetics, politics, and history of our knowledge institutions – how they collect, classify, and store media. And, again, we look at archive art and database art, and think about what practical lessons aesthetics can provide.

[106] I’ve taken these lessons into my work on various library design projects. Despite what you might think, libraries are an increasingly vital – and well used – resource, particularly in cities characterized by tremendous income disparity and commercialization and a persistent digital divide. And I think that as cities come to embody a corporatized, proprietary, black-boxed form of smartness, libraries – as emblems of openness and access – should play an even more important role. [107] I’ve examined, in a series of articles, the rise of urban intelligence – by focusing on our fetishization of data in urban science; and on how cities and corporations design screens and dashboards to monitor urban data. I’m particularly interested in how the aesthetics of those interfaces embody politics. [108] But I’ve also, over the years, attempted to historicize this “smartness” and its data-based diet by exploring the analog operating system – specifically, the colorful and surprisingly fascinating and fashionable history of filing. [109] And a project I “piloted” last year, and will dig into in earnest during a fellowship in Germany in the spring, I explored the history of media-furniture design – bookshelves, server racks, filing cabinets, and desktops – both analog and virtual.

[110] Those furnishings have a deep history; as you can see here, the design of workspaces has been tied to the design of other workplace infrastructures, like pneumatic tubes, which I wrote about several years ago. [111] The tubes are just a conduit to a much deeper dig backward into our mediated spaces. Just this past March I published a tiny book on the history of the media city, and what we can learn about it by mapping it. [112] I’ll continue this work in my current book project – the manuscript of which I hope to finish by the end of this year – on the 6000+-year-history of urban mediation – and what we can learn about it from archaeologists-proper, architectural historians, urban historians, anthropologists, and classicists. [113] A chapter from that book – on the history of mud as both a writing substrate and a building material from the earliest days of urbanization to today – is coming out in the journal Cultural Politics next year.


We might seem a long way from the Internet of Things where we began. But we’re really not. [114] While the IoT might not be made of mud, it is still “of the earth” – of silicon and copper and coltran and tantalum and lots of rare earth minerals. And it, like our analog media and building materials, is still subject to weathering and destruction; in fact, it’s much more fragile than those tablets and temples that still route messages to us from thousands of years ago.

[115:B] Tracing this history – through media archaeology and archaeology of the Indiana Jones variety – also demonstrates that we’ve always lived in cities where our walls talked to us, or where we could use our columns and statues to talk to one another. Our cities have always been about calculation and communication and indexing things and activities. And while, since the days of Eridu and Uruk, our first cities, we’ve added other construction materials to our repertoire, we’re still making mud into bricks. That old-school construction is still among the most economical, energy-efficient, and sustainable. Our ancestors may not have had smart-phones and sensors, but they – and their bricks – were actually pretty smart designers.


Curating Collections + Community (Partly a Response to Manguel)

warburg-library-good-e1338257653967At yesterday’s Library Symposium at Poets House I spoke with Nancy Kuhl, poet and Curator of Poetry for the Yale Collection of American Literature at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and Kevin Young, poet, professor, and Curator of Literary Collections and the Poetry Library at Emory, about collections, curation, and communities. We each read a short prepared statement, then had a really lovely discussion. I was so enthused — and moved, actually — by how many concerns and fascinations resonated throughout our work.

Here’s what I said yesterday:

About two weeks ago in the New York Times Alberto Manugel, author of several lovely books about reading and libraries, lamented the library’s “reinvention.” “Librarians today are forced to take on a variety of functions that their society is too miserly or contemptuous to fulfill”; librarians, once keepers-of-the-book and reading consultants, have now become social workers, babysitters, and career consultants. Such “ill-considered changes,” he proposed, threaten our libraries’ “defining triple role: as preservers of the memory of our society, as providers of the accounts of our experience and the tools to navigate them – and as symbols of our identity.”

While Manguel’s article ruffled some feathers – it felt insensitive, nostalgic, elitist, too prettily poetic – I’d say his typology is fairly capacious. Our various species of library – public libraries and private libraries, medical libraries and poetry libraries, school libraries and law libraries, state libraries and perhaps even seed libraries – can be said to serve this triple-role: memory-preservers, navigators, and cultural symbols. Yet each of these varieties has a slightly different genetic makeup, a different ecology it has to operate within, a different morphology and set of characteristic behaviors; each is a geotypical and phenotypical variation of the species.

For the past fifteen years or so one of my primary research interests has been libraries, broadly defined: public and private libraries and archives; special collections, including poetry libraries; “little libraries” and library art; the design of library buildings and archives; library logistics; how libraries reconcile their roles as both information spaces and public spaces; how they serve as intellectual infrastructures and techno-spatial infrastructures. One of the challenges – not only for me, but for all those who study, plan, administer, and work in libraries – has been to determine what defines a library, and what its proper roles are, in an ever-changing landscape – one marked, particularly in the past several decades, by dramatic technological, political-economic, and cultural changes.

In an article I published last summer, I looked at the variety of informational and social roles that public libraries, in particular, have taken on. As much as their diversifying program has presented challenges of operation and identity, it’s also a testament to their continued cultural resonance: our libraries, as this self-selecting group here today has likely heard often, are among the few remaining free – and freely accessible – public spaces in our privatized, commercialized towns and cities, increasingly operationalized and surveilled by proprietary data-driven networks. That the intellectually hungry or the otherwise disenfranchised should be drawn to the library indicates that these “symbols of our identity” still represent the common good.

Yet, in that article, I also wondered just how far we can stretch the notion of a public library. I asked, ‘Should we welcome the “design challenge” to engineer technical and architectural infrastructures to accommodate an ever-diversifying program — or should we consider that we might have stretched this program to its limit, and that no physical infrastructure can effectively scaffold such a motley collection of social services?’ These are the questions confronting those who bristled at Manguel’s romantic notion of what a library should be.

Yet archives and special collections, like poetry libraries – even if they reside within a public or university or other larger institutional library – function within a different ecology. That’s not to say that they can’t, or shouldn’t, regard the broader library public – including recent immigrants, the unemployed, the homeless, the teenagers or seniors with no one to go home to – as their publics, too. But special collections are, well, special – as Nancy and Kevin and anyone here at Poets House can attest.

On many college campuses, where administrators are often choosing to move the bulk of the book collection off-site, and to repurpose the stacks as group-study rooms, or maker-spaces, or gyms, many librarians are effectively making the case that their special collections are among their most precious and publicity-worthy resources. It’s typically the special collections that embody an institution’s core values and encapsulate its history, as at Smith College, for example, with its strong women’s history collection; or Harvard, with its Woodberry Poetry Room; or the myriad historically-black colleges and universities holding the papers of key figures in African-American history.

Lots of libraries are giving pride-of-place to their special collections and acknowledging the importance of aesthetic experience in the special collections library. These curated collections and their curators, in their intelligently designed spaces, play a critical role in cultivating communities of readers and scholars – and makers. Several years ago I wrote about the renovation of Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room, which has become home to a variety of programs in which the collection is activated. When poet Christina Davis, formerly the Publicity and Marketing Director here at Poets House, became curator of the room in 2008, she introduced group listening sessions and a works-in-progress series, among other events. When these open events are not in session, the uses of the room range from “quiet study, perusal of literary magazines, the research of rare material (broadsides, manuscripts, chapbooks), listening to archival recordings,… and (yes) writing poems…. The latter is, to my mind,” Davis told me, “the surest sign of the success of the room: It means that scholarship and the art-form it hopes to perpetuate have come full circle.” Of course Poets House espouses the same philosophy.

Special collections, with their programming and their curators’ singular expertise, are among libraries’ most distinctive offerings – offerings that can’t be outsourced or replicated online. With the material diversity of their holdings, their integration of performance and generative activity, and their cultivation of community, special collections – like poetry libraries – show what it means to take full advantage of the library as a place – a place that is activated space.

While it’s intellectually and affectively satisfying, and empowering, to think of libraries in such poetic terms, we can’t ignore the very real, and seemingly un-poetic, functions the library species-at-large is called upon to serve. In that article I published last summer, I suggested that libraries – in order to sort out their diversifying functions – need to establish an “epistemic framing” that lends coherence to its program as a knowledge institution, and to all the infrastructures that support it. Manguel likewise proposes that any library reinvention has to be undertaken

consciously from an intellectually strong institution that recognizes its exemplary role, and teaches us what books can do: show us our responsibilities toward one another, help us question our values and undermine our prejudices, lend us courage and ingenuity to continue to live together, and give us illuminating words that might allow us to imagine better times.

Seen in this light, we might say that all those resume workshops and voter-registration drives and homeless services become a natural extension, an enactment, of the lessons our great books teach us. These supposedly superfluous acts of public service embody the capacious etymology of the term poetry, which embraces myriad forms of making, composition, and creation. If reading novels and poems cultivates empathy, libraries translate that empathy into care. Libraries take up our social scientists’ calls for justice. They take the lessons of those great books and use them not only to imagine better times, but to make a place of exception governed by social responsibility and philanthropy and poetry, in all its myriad manifestations.



Cartographic Archive

David Garcia Studio, Manual of Architectural Possibilities
David Garcia Studio, Manual of Architectural Possibilities

Tomorrow I’ll be guest-presenting in Joseph Heathcott’s Archive/City class, which shares many interests with my own Archives/Libraries class and my various map-related and urban-history-related classes. Joseph asked me to talk about archives and cartography, so I figured we’d address the relationship between those terms in seven variations:

  • archives of maps;
  • the “archive” of cartographic epistemology, or how the Foucauldian “archive” that maps embody has evolved over the centuries;
  • carto-archival art;
  • how history is “mapped” or “archived” on maps themselves (or, maps as material objects that trace the passing of time);
  • the use of maps to archive — or as a substrate for archival arrangement;
  • curating and mapping archived data not to trace history, but for purposes of prediction; and
  • using maps as forensic tools.

Here’s what we might discuss:

Map Archives

History of Cartographic Epistemology (Wood)

  • Statism (“seeing like a state”) –> positivism (maps as indexical representations of the world) –> constructivism
  • Presumed “primitivism” of indigenous cartography (Wood) and materiality of the “map archive” in a non-print-based culture
  • Critical Cartography: questioning the “indexical” quality of maps, the objectivity of GPS, and the reification of data
  • Maps as living documents
  • Deep mapping (which we’re discussing in my Maps class this week) as a form of archival mapping:

Carto-Archival Art

  • Joseph’s students were asked to read Benjamin Buchloh on Gerhard Richter’s Atlas, which Richter began in the 1960s
    • Atlas = book that organizes geographical or astronomical knowledge
    • Montage as construction of meaning, rather than mere arrangement of forms
    • Perceptual shock / trauma / ruptures between objects and their representations creates “mnemonic desire”
      • mid 1920s: shift toward archival and mnemonic functions of photo collection
    • Buchloh’s article’s myriad allusions: Benjamin, Kracauer, Warburg, Rodchenko, Hannah Hoch, Barthes…
    • Richter mixes amateur found photos, journalistic and advertising photos: allows for juxtaposition of various themes — say, “family” — as they’re privately and publicly/commercially
    • Reina Sofia Atlas exhibition
    • Deep Storage exhibition
    • Lots of map art
    • Much interest in the materiality of the map itself, which leads us into…

History “Mapped,” or “Archived,” on Maps Themselves

Using Maps to Archive – or As a Substrate for Archival Arrangement

Curating + Mapping Archived Data for Purposes of Prediction

Using Maps as a Forensic Tool