Small, Moving, Intelligent Parts


I was invited a while ago to write an article for a special issue of Theory, Culture & Society. The theme is, uh… a little hard to explain: we were asked to look at the 50 years leading up to and following World War I, focusing particularly on how the War both absorbed and anticipated various avant-garde movements and technological developments, including mediated sensing, weaponry, and tools for calculation and control. Building upon my research on Remington Rand’s information-management systems at the 1939-40 World’s Fair — which I published in Places this past February — I decided to focus on the arguably un-avant-garde world of filing and record-keeping, and to examine how cards and files — the “small, moving parts” of information — came to represent various fantasies about our urban and global futures. I have a feeling I’ll be asked to make some significant edits — so I figured I’d post the full, feral draft, just in case some of this material never makes it into print.

Small, Moving Parts: A Century of Fairs, Fiches, and Fantasies

Abstract: The great expositions and World’s Fairs of the 19th and 20th centuries were known for celebrating new technological developments. The world of index cards, fiches, and data management hardly seems germane to the avant-garde, one of the central concerns of this special issue – yet the fairs made clear that information management systems were themselves designed, and were critical components of more obviously revolutionary design practices and political movements. Cards and files became familiar attractions at expos throughout the long-20th century. But those standardized supplies came to embody different ideologies, different fantasies, as the cultural and political contexts surrounding them evolved – from the Unispheric “global village” modeled in 1964; to 1939’s scientifically managed World of Tomorrow; and, finally, to the age of internationalist aspirations that led up to World War I. We examine how the small, moving parts of information have indexed not only data, but also their own historical and cultural milieux.



The 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York revolved around a 140-foot-high stainless-steel globe. That globe was itself encircled by three metal rings representing the flock of satellites that began orbiting the earth a decade earlier. Gilmore Clarke’s Unisphere embodied the mission of Robert Moses’s fair: to bring the world together to celebrate “Man’s Achievements on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe,” and thereby promote “Peace Through Understanding.” The 76-year-old Moses, New York’s infamous master builder – the Baron von Haussmann of the 20th century – was winding down his career here; in order to become head of the Fair Corporation, he had to resign from his city appointments. Many of the fair’s exhibits rivaled the scale, ambition and character – more authoritarian than avant-garde – of his half-century rein over countless massive public works. Rockets were everywhere on display, beckoning developers and settlers into new frontiers. General Electric’s Progressland pavilion and the Hall of Science spectacularized the atomic future and predicted a coming age of electricity “too cheap to meter.” Bell System chronicled the history of communications “From Drumbeat to Telstar,” mapped the routes of undersea phone cables, demonstrated “machines talking to machines,” and presented its own touch-tone phones, Picturephone, and Vocoder as future forces in further shrinking the globe and uniting humanity.


Since the car-centric urban visions of their 1939-40 Futurama exhibit had become a reality, General Motors proposed new terrains for mega-scale engineering. In a fifteen-minute ride GM’s visitors traveled to the surface of the moon, the Antarctic, the ocean floor, the jungle, the desert, and the city of the future to see “how improvements in current technology may clear the way for man to enter, exist within and develop lands which lie unused today” (quoted in Dickstein, 1989: 30). Just as Moses bent the city to his will and conquered urban communities resistant to development, GM’s “machines of tomorrow” would subdue obstinate environments. Their jungle road-builder machine, for instance, would “bring a new way of life to an area that has long – and successfully – defied man’s attempts to develop its natural resources and take advantage of its climate and fertile soil.”

Yet many fair-goers failed to see themselves in these colonialist depictions of an engineered universe – whether in a lunar colony, an Antarctic port, an undersea mine, a desert farm, or their own seemingly familiar cities. Critic Peter Lyon commented in Holiday magazine that “I saw no parks, no grass, no trees, though there may have been a few buried away on some sunless level below the soaring belts of concrete. It is a city for machines but not designed for people, not for me” (1964: 54). While images of fantastical technological, extraterrestrial futures were part of the Space Age zeitgeist, this was also an age of new utopian visions – new urban imaginaries. Moses met new rivals, including the indomitable Jane Jacobs and civil rights protesters, who challenged the lack of diversity and discriminatory hiring practices at the fair, as well as Moses’s decades of discriminatory planning practices (see Reitano, 2006: 160-3; Samuel, 2007: 33-41). This new mid-60s utopia, Morris Dickstein explains, was “local and communitarian, suspicious of large-scale planning and regimentation, convinced that Small is Beautiful, and that the ethos of development was blind to fundamental human needs” (1989: 32). The coming age was one of participatory democracy and civil rights, rather than the top-down master plan.


Paradoxically, it was Moses’s fixation on the site’s long-term master plan that led him to exercise a relatively light touch in overseeing the fair’s architectural design. His primary interest in the fair, and its predecessor on the same site in 1939-40, was as a pretext – in his terms, a “gadget” – for the permanent development of Flushing Meadows Park. The fair was a means to reclaim marsh and wasteland and build roads for a park that would be his great legacy. Moses’s 1964 all-star design committee – consisting of Wallace K. Harrison, Gordon Bunschaft, Edward Durrell Stone, Henry Dreyfuss, and Emil Praeger – proposed a single, donut-shaped building that would house all the fair’s exhibits, but a frugal Moses insisted that they exploit the readymade 1939 site and push as many construction costs as possible onto individual exhibitors. Moses rejected the proposal, the design team resigned, and in its place arose a new committee chaired by Major General Thomas F. Farrell. Despite Farrell’s pedigree – he was former chairman of the New York City Housing Authority and deputy commander of the Manhattan Project – his inaptly-named Committee on Conformity oversaw the construction of a kitschy, non-conformist, “messy mélange of buildings” (Bletter, 1989: 107).



Amongst that mélange was another spherical – or, rather, ovoid – structure that embodied another key transformative force of the age: the computer. The IBM Pavilion, designed by Eero Saarinen and completed upon his death by associates Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo, was allegedly modeled after the “typeball,” a small, moving part in the new IBM Selectric typewriter. A steel canopy at the pavilion’s ground-level featured puppets acting out computer logic, displays of computer circuits, and demonstrations of probability and language translation. Visitors perched themselves in the “People Wall” bleachers, which were then hoisted up into the oval for a 15-minute multimedia show designed by frequent IBM collaborator Charles Eames. Using synchronized projectors, multiple screens, and a live host, the Information Machine presented a disorienting, kaleidoscopic mélange of scenarios: planning a dinner party and a football play, calculating a missile trajectory, designing a chemical compound. As these scenes played out across the screens “in fragments and glimpses,” Orit Halpern argues, visitors’ eyes moved “rhizomatically, making unexpected and nonlinear connections” within the “perceptual field” before them (2014: 124, 215).


“Eames did not expect everyone to see everything,” Mina Hamilton proposed in a 1964 issue of Industrial Design magazine, concluding that the spectacle was “too fragmented to be entirely successful” (quoted in Harwood, 2011: 192). Yet architectural historian John Harwood argues that Eames deliberately aimed to promote productive confusion, to “shatter” perspective – perhaps to mirror the binary logic of the computer itself; the spectacle relied upon “breaking down the whole into innumerable bits” (2011: 193). Halpern proposes that Eames presented “information inundation” as a virtue, as a means of training visitors to discern pathways and patterns between fragments and glimpses – to find order (and beauty) amidst the small, moving perceptible units (28). Even the design of the pavilion itself – its labyrinthine stairs, its jumbled queues, its bleachers with no clear point of reference – staged similar moments of displacement and disorientation, yet they all ultimately revealed their logic. Bits and bodies passed through logic gates, and tangled circulation routes straightened into neat rows. The “apparent message,” Rosemarie Bletter proposes, was that “apparent chaos can lead to order” (1989: 110).


Computational order was a prevailing aesthetic throughout the fair. Lists and printouts were especially popular. The National Cash Register pavilion featured displays on the state of paperwork and the historical trend toward miniaturization in record-keeping, as well as interactive kiosks where visitors could print recipes and generate lists of tourist attractions in particular cities and important events on particular dates. Punched cards, among those record-keeping artifacts on display at the NCA pavilion, were also integral to the operation of several fair attractions, including the sound-and-light show at the Fountain of the Planets. According to Lyon (1964), the fair depicted a world of gratuitous automation – “a world computerized to the teeth, a push-button world purveying instant fact and instant wisdom. It is a world proud of its systems of swift communication, sure of its lightning answers.”

The fair showcased computerized intelligence in many novel aesthetic and material forms: satellites and Picturephones, mainframes and multi-channel entertainments, rockets and Antarctic weather stations. Yet the components – the keys and cards and fragments of intelligence – that generated those “instant facts” and “swift communications” were not new: in fact, the manual and electro-mechanical techniques and technologies that made possible the digital Information Age celebrated in 1964 were among the key attractions at New York’s other World’s Fair, just 25 years earlier on the very same site, and by other expos in the preceding half-century. Those information products and processes were profoundly shaped by both world wars, and even by the Civil War before it. If the early 19th century gave rise to many new machines – rifles, machines, typewriters – with small, moving parts, the turn of the 20th century brought myriad new technologies and techniques that allowed for the production, storage, and analysis of information in small, moving parts.

The great expositions and World’s Fairs of the 19th and 20th centuries were known for celebrating new technological developments. The world of index cards, fiches, and data management hardly seems germane to the avant-garde, one of the central concerns of this special issue of TCS – yet the fairs made clear that information resources and information management systems were themselves designed, and were critical components of more obviously revolutionary design and practices and political movements. Cards and files became familiar attractions at expos throughout the long-20th century. But those standardized supplies came to embody different ideologies, different fantasies, as the cultural and political contexts surrounding them evolved – from the networked Unispheric “global village” and computer-engineered worlds of consumption and resource-extraction modeled in 1964; to 1939’s scientifically managed World of Tomorrow, which sat restively between the Depression and the Second World War; and, finally, to the age of internationalist aspirations that led up to, and were revived after, World War I. In this article we’ll examine how the small, moving parts of information – of filing and indexing and computation – have indexed not only data, but also their own historical and cultural milieux.


At the 1939-40 World’s Fair, exhibitions by RCA, Kodak, Westinghouse, and AT&T celebrated (and aestheticized) the communications devices and machines of information management that powered The World of Tomorrow, a world that promised robots and nylon stockings, “picture radio” and speech synthesizers, Plexiglas and 3D film, fluorescent lights and fax machines.[1] The future was imagined to take place within a neo-Corbusian city: streamlined, rational, orderly, efficient. The World of Tomorrow, Leonard Wallock writes, “was the city’s perfected dream of itself” (1988: 20). It 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 (Bennett, 2010: 177-8). Just as important – though much less discussed – was the dream of efficient urban administration. Record-keeping and filing were central to the World of Tomorrow and its urban imaginary, too.


A 1939 article in The New York Times describes an exhibit packed with typewriters, “elaborate computing machines and indexers, sorters and apparatus that seems (sic) almost capable of taking a national census at the push of a button” (“The Exhibits: An Amazing Array”). Exhibitors somehow even found means of dramatizing life insurance and credit analysis. And as the financially struggling Fair continued into its second year, under a new theme — “For Peace and Freedom” — that acknowledged the war in Europe, the World Fair Corporation’s ambitious office manager proposed an exhibit of her own. Katherine Brougher Gray aimed to display the efficiency of the Fair’s administrative operations by pulling her Mail, Stenographic, Addressing and Duplicating Units out from behind the scenes and putting them on stage in a 1500-square-foot demo area. “My personal interest in pushing this plan,” she wrote, “quite naturally arises out of the pride I feel in the efficiency of the Office Management Department here at the Fair” (Gray, 1940). She invited the participation of companies like IBM, Remington Rand, Addressograph-Multigraph, Ditto, Hammermill Paper, Strathmore Paper, and Eagle Pencil, and promised to “show [their] products in actual use on current work in the hands of regular employees – to millions of people.” These were the moving parts facilitating efficient administration of the World of Tomorrow.


In a “panorama” of their contributions to the “World of Business,” Remington Rand’s own exhibit featured four stages where actors would dramatize the use of various types of office equipment, while sound and lighting devices “heightened dramatic effects” (“Remington Rand, Incorporated,” n.d.). Remington Rand’s electric close shavers took center stage, but one full side of the exhibit was dedicated to the company’s “business systems and equipment, including tabulating and accounting machines, adding machines, visible [card filing] and loose-leaf [filing] equipment, record protection equipment, portable and commercial typewriters and supplies” — along with a display of how its Dexigraph photographic technology could be used in the reproduction of business records (New York World’s Fair Inc., 1939). Notably, the company was not located in the “Communications and Business” zone of the Fair, alongside peers like AT&T, Crosley Radio, RCA, Underwood typewriters, Universal Camera, and various publishers; but rather in the “Production and Distribution” zone, next to Westinghouse and its Elektro robot, and Electric Light and Power Companies. Tied to both communication and power companies, Remington Rand seemed to straddle two categories in the Fair’s spatial taxonomy: it represented the electrification of – perhaps even the spectacularization of – the once painful banality of record-keeping.

Remington Rand rarely appears in our shorthand histories of computing, but since the early 19th century the company had played a central role manufacturing the mechanics of the Information Age (for a fuller history of the company, see Mattern, 2016). The three companies that eventually merged in the mid-1920s to form Remington Rand – E. Remington and Sons, the Rand Ledger Company, and the Library Bureau – started off making rifles, typewriters, cash registers, ledger filing systems, filing cabinets, library equipment, and card catalogs: all machines for storing and moving small, moving parts, whether bullets or coins or files. By the 1930s, Rand, through various acquisitions, had expanded its portfolio to include office furnishings, adding and punched-card tabulating machines, and – incongruously – electric shavers. This was the Remington Rand that exhibited at the 1939 Fair – a company eager to distinguish itself from its rising rival, Thomas Watson’s International Business Machines.

While IBM ultimately dominated in the world of bits, Remington Rand and its antecedent companies developed several breakthrough technologies in the realm of analog files. The Library Bureau’s card catalog, originally developed for libraries, eventually proved its utility as an indexing system for any business or professional office, for any kind of record-keeping (see Flanzraich, 1993 and Krajewski, 2011). Compared with the bound ledger, previously the dominant means of record-keeping, the card catalog allowed for greater “ease and speed of reference,” as well as simpler modification, expansion, and removal of records – in other words, easier management of those small, moveable parts – thus producing savings in “time, in labor, in space, and in clerical expense” (Library Bureau, 1909: 7). Moreover, it elevated office work to “scientific” analysis. The Bureau proudly declared in 1909 that its “greatest asset” was the adaptability of the card catalog to the “new Science of Business System” (5). Now a manager could easily compare sales data across categories, identifying weak goods or customers, weak salesmen or territories. The factory owner could track the efficiency of each machine, each operator, each process – each moving part – in the chain: “The reason for every fluctuation in cost and result is known. And these facts are collected, analyzed, compared, by fixed methods of almost automatic simplicity” (13-14). Real-time analysis enabled prediction and preemption: “He can not only check bad conditions before they have done serious harm, but he can generally correct bad tendencies before they have developed” (15). The card index promised “working principles as positive and scientific as the science of war itself” (18).


Thus the Bureau was already advocating for “the principles of scientific management,” two years before Frederick Winslow Taylor published his canonical text on the subject.[2] The company’s martial metaphor proved prescient, too, as small cards – particularly punched cards – became an integral instrument in the early-20th-century’s “mechanization of warfare” (Agar, 2003: 159). In World War I, the U.S. used punched cards to record soldiers’ medical and casualty statistics, for example, and the War Industries Board used them to “control the production and distribution of virtually all goods and services” (Heide, 2009: 64). While the military-industrial complex propelled a dramatic increase in the use of card-based record-keeping systems, these small, moving parts were already in use well before the war. As business and bureaucracies grew in the late-19th century, various entities – corporations and cities, merchants and governments, dentists and teachers – came to embrace records-management as integral to their efficient and profitable operation, and they relied on an expanding industry to design, furnish, and manage their record-keeping systems (see Yates, 1991). After Herman Hollerith’s punched card tabulating machines proved effective in calculating Baltimore’s mortality statistics, the U.S. Census Bureau employed the machines in their 1890 census. Afterward, insurance companies, public utilities, railroads, international governments, and many New Deal agencies adopted the technology to calculate invoices, issue pay slips, and perform more complex data-processing tasks (see Adams, 1995; Agar, 2003: 147-54; Heide, 2009).


While its filing business flourished, Remington Rand returned in World War II to its firearm roots, manufacturing more small parts for the war: bomb fuses, the M1911 pistol, and the Norden bombsight. In 1951, after another acquisition, they delivered a larger-scale contraption – the first commercial computer system, the UNIVAC I – to the U.S. Census Bureau. The following year, Rand acquired Engineering Research Associates, pioneers in drum memory systems. The move into computing represented a logical next step — crossing over the analog-digital divide — for a company that had, since the 1880s, concerned itself with the efficient production, sorting, storage, and retrieval of data; with the management of information’s small, moving parts. When Remington Rand merged with the Sperry Corporation in 1955, it was on the cutting edge of computing, navigation, and automation. Sperry made marine navigation equipment and aircraft instruments, including autopilot. Yet even within the future-tech company of Sperry Rand there were still divisions dedicated to “physical data handling” – that is, files. The old guard hung on until 1978, when the company, which by then had lost considerable market share to IBM, finally sold off the Remington Rand divisions. In 1986, Sperry succumbed to a hostile takeover by the Burroughs Corporation (itself founded a century earlier as a manufacturer of mechanical adding machines), and elements from that merger exist today as Unisys, the global IT company. Remington Rand survives as Kardex Systems, a Swiss company specializing in automated storage and materials handling. That original module, the card file, has grown so big as to encompass logistics writ large. As the 1939-40 and 1964-65 worlds fairs reminded their visitors, those small, moving parts of information technology ultimately made grand visions – the World of Tomorrow, and grand-engineering projects of the Unisphere, the space and computer ages – possible.


Chicago’s great Columbian Exhibition of 1893 brought another filing system to the world’s attention. The Library Bureau, before it was folded into Remington Rand, had been commissioned in 1892 by one Dr. Nathaniel Rosenau, secretary of a charitable organization in Buffalo, NY, to create a special open “briefcase” allowing for the efficient storage of files on-edge. The contraption was then put on display at the fair, and the vertical (or suspension) filing cabinet – which revolutionized the way papers were shuffled in offices and archives across the world – was added to the Bureau’s sales catalog (see Filing Primer, 1921: 3; Krajewski, 2011: 100-1; Yates, 1989: 56-63). Meanwhile, at a series of expositions in Europe, Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine, both Belgian peace advocates and lawyers and co-founders of the International Institute of Bibliography (IIB), introduced their own system of small, moving parts. Just as Melvil Dewey, founder of the Library Bureau, intended for his company’s furnishings and equipment to reinforce adherence to their organizational systems, particularly the Dewey Decimal System, Otlet and Fontaine’s filing system was much more than a bureaucratic mechanism: it was an intellectual and ideological one, too.


Otlet believe that all literature – all books, chapters, articles, lectures, and audiovisual media – could be “winnowed” into (1) facts, (2) interpretations of facts, (3) statistics, and (4) sources, thus revealing what unique contributions each resource made to the world of knowledge (Otlet, 1893: 16).

The ideal…would be to strip each article or each chapter in a book of whatever is a matter of fine language or repetition or padding and to collect separately on cards whatever is new and adds to knowledge. These cards, minutely subdivided, each one annotated as to genus and species of the information they contain, because they are separate could then be accurately placed in a general alphabetical catalogue updated each day (Otlet, 1893: 17).

Otlet thought a medium’s “fine language” and form were extraneous to its intellectual contribution; in fact, he regarded bibliographic form as primarily accidental: the book, he argued, is merely “a single continuous line which has initially been cut to the length of a page and then cut again to the size of a justified line” (Otlet, 1918: 149). “Documentalism,” rather than bibliography, was based on the “monographic principle”: “one work, one title; one title, one card,” each “deal[ing] with a single intellectual element only” (Otlet, 1918: 149; 1920: 186).[3] Because the IIB’s 12.5 x 7.5 cm cards (equivalent to the American three-by-five-inch card) – like Dewey’s – constituted small, standardized, easily moved parts, they allowed for “manipulations of classification and continuous interfiling” (Otlet, 1893: 18). And to facilitate retrieval and interconnections, those millions of cards were housed in specially designed catalog furniture and filing cabinets; partitioned using specially designed, color-coded divisionary cards; and linked together into a Universal Bibliographic Repertory (and later a Universal Iconographic Repertory and Universal Repertory of Documentation) via the Universal Decimal Classification, a faceted (combinatory) system adapted from the Dewey Decimal System (Rayward, 1994: 242).

Belgium sat at the hub of much internationalist activity during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. International organizations arose with various aims: to promote free trade, to unite workers and women in the pursuit of universal rights, to champion world peace, even in some cases to reinforce nationalist interests by establishing particular countries – like Belgium – as brokers of that pax orbis terrarum (see Laqua, 2013). Such ideals and aspirations preceded the first World War, but were reinvigorated after it. Otlet envisioned a publique Mondiale, a Global Republic, served by an international information service, one committed to capturing all the world’s knowledge and promoting global exchange and understanding. He framed his vision in terms that would ideally resonate with the powerful individuals and organizations building and funding international ties. Just as Dewey’s Library Bureau equated their operations with the “science” of business and the machines of war, Otlet validated his bibliographical practice through popular scientific language, via “tropes of facts, atomic elements, laws, and energy circulation”; European documentation, as he represented it, was an “information science” (Day, 2001: 17).


The Institute was a productive business, too. In a sketch from 1937, Otlet depicted a knowledge factory, the Laboratorium Mundaneum, where “mountains of documents” – books, journals, periodicals, correspondence, laws, patents, statistics – were mined and refined into the “purest matter useful for civilization.” Those processed, winnowed resources – packaged on index cards – were then deposited into train cars representing the knowledge classes of the Universal Decimal Classification system, and sent off to be manufactured into new knowledge (see van den Heuvel, 2014: 132).

Starting in the late 19th century, many of the scientists, scholars, and entrepreneurs to whom Otlet appealed for support gathered regularly at professional conventions and trade meetings. The age of internationalism was an age of conventions, and the world’s fairs and expositions were among the movement’s grandest celebrations and instruments of propaganda. Otlet and La Fontaine, champions of such international exchanges (and conveners of many of them), regularly appeared – with or without their cards – everywhere from grand expositions and scientific conventions, to accountants’ and administrators’ meetings. At the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris, they displayed over two million cards from their Universal Bibliographic Repertory, along with various bibliographic accessories and charts and graphs illustrating the Institute’s purpose (Rayward, 1975: 77-8). The cards appeared again at the St. Louis Exposition of 1904 and at the following year’s International Exposition in Liège.[4] At the Universal Exposition of Brussels in 1910 Otlet and La Fontaine hosted the meeting of the World Congress of International Associations, whose members discussed the challenges of international collaboration and debated the standardization of weights, measures, and language. The expo also included an exhibit on the theme of internationalism, featuring parts of the IIB’s collection. Some of those exhibits were then repurposed for Otlet’s World Palace, or Palais Mondial, in Brussels, which displayed myriad instruments of knowledge: model airplanes, maps, diagrams, “projectors new and old, and gadgets drawn from all ages: microscopes, telescopes, navigation devices and printing tools” (Vossoughian, 2011: 97). The collection, which Otlet organized geographically and by research methodology, represented the small, moving parts of epistemological history – and implied that the cards of his Repository were the logical next step.[5]

Many of these global gatherings amounted to meetings about meetings, by associations of associations. At one such gathering – the 1923 meeting of the International Committee on Intellectual Co-operation in Paris – the Sub-Committee on Bibliography recommended a formal agreement between the new League of Nations and the IIB. Yet the committee at large took issue with the IIB’s hubristically universal mission, its incomplete collections, and its “propensity to overrate the value of index cards,” leading it to “mistake the means for the end” (qtd in Rayward, 1975: 278). Undeterred, the very next year Otlet drafted plans for a global Mundaneum, a world city that would incorporate a library, a university, a World Museum, and an International Associations Building. This was to be a global hub – one designed by the architect Le Corbusier – for the organization, preservation, and exchange of all the world’s knowledge. All those small, moving parts scaled up to form the building blocks for a grand architectural vision – a city made to embody “the actual state of the world,…its mechanisms, complexity… the general problems that impose themselves upon the attention of a people and its citizens and its leaders” (Vossoughian, 2003: 85). In its embodiment of pure ideology and its grand-engineered vision, the Mundaneum was not unlike the model cities of the world expos where Otlet began shopping his wares decades before, and where Dewey and Watson displayed theirs. Of course the world into which Otlet sought to insert his repertoires and Cité Mondiale was quite different from the inter-war World of Tomorrow, which Remington-Rand promised to render measurable and predictable and efficiently manageable; and from 1964’s competing global visions: a world of computer-engineered consumption and resource-extraction, and a networked Unispheric “global village.” Yet in all these exhibited cities-of-tomorrow and future worlds, information technology and records-management were central to the urban and global imaginaries and ideologies. Information resources – which, as the fairs made clear, were themselves designed – constituted powerful tools for city- and world-building.



With a bit of a teleological twist, some scholars and critics have likened Otlet’s Repertory to a relational database and his Universal Decimal Classification to a query language, and have added Otlet himself – alongside Great Men like Vannevar Bush and Tim Berners-Lee – to the Internet’s family tree. We could insert Remington, Rand, and Dewey into that genealogy, too, for all were concerned with the production, sorting, storage, retrieval, and networking of data. Books themselves were networked networks, according to Otlet: books “contain and constitute networks or webs (“réseau”), both internally and externally in their relations with one another and to the world at large” (Day, 2001: 14). Otlet even envisioned, years before 1964, many of the technological wonders visitors saw at the fair in New York: he imagined “a system of networked computers,” or “electric telescopes,” “that would allow people to search through millions of interlinked documents, images, and audio and video files”; he “imagined that individuals would be able to upload files to central servers and communicate via wireless networks”; he imagined participatory, multimedia exhibition displays and technologies for transmitting taste and smell (Wright, 2014: 8, 9, 190-4). He also conceived of a workstation that would integrate a radio, telephone, microfilm reader, television, record player, and a collection of personalized documents in myriad media formats; display the relationships between these various documents; and recognize human speech (235-8).[6] His Mondothèque was far more ambitious than Vannevar Busch’s Memex or any of the rudimentary, list-generating kiosks found at the 1964 fair.



The Eames’ “fragments and glimpses” – the whole of knowledge broken down into “innumerable bits” and presented in a multi-stream flow – were prefaced by Dewey’s and Otlet’s indices and repertoires. Of course there’s a much deeper history to this epistemological winnowing and atomization – to the desire to refashion the world’s knowledge into small, moving parts, all easily manipulated and linked. Consider Konrad Gessner’s 16th-century cut-and-paste note-taking technique; Placcius’s stitched paper slips; John Wilkins’s 17th-century combinatory classification system; Leibniz’s scrinium literatum, a closet for organizing notes on little hooks; the index composed of standard-sized playing cards at the Parisian Academia des Sciences in the late 18th century; the hybrid handwritten-index-card-and-printed-paper-slip catalog William Croswell created for Harvard University in 1817; and the half-sheet card index Charles Coffin Jewett proposed at the 1853 worldwide convention of librarians (see Krajewski, 2011; Wright, 2014).


While we might find a formal resonance among these various techniques and technologies – indeed, they’re all composed of small, moving pieces of information – they represent an array of aesthetics and politics. And contrary to Otlet’s conviction, information’s aesthetics, its epistemological forms, are not extraneous to its meaning. The Eames’s “fragments and glimpses,” Halpern (2014) explains, arrived in a post-World War II period defined by the rise of mathematical communication sciences, cybernetic flows, and new management and scientific theories focused on process and pattern and complexity. Within such a context, those fragments and glimpses washed over viewers in a flood – an intentional inundation – as a means of training them to find order amidst the chaotic complexity. The Library Bureau’s and Remington Rand’s card indices and filing cabinets, however, emerged over half-a-century earlier, amidst the rise of systematic management. The companies’ standardized components were meant to promote efficiency and interoperability and support “the new Science of Business System,” with its data-driven, real-time analysis, prediction, and promise of pre-emptive management. The system’s logistical efficiency – “as positive and scientific as the science of war itself” – presaged the mechanized administration of World War I. Meanwhile, Otlet’s cards, inspired by Dewey’s system, embodied a different sort of entrepreneurialism – one driven by an internationalist, even universal, mission, which was only strengthened by the war. Within the IIB, standardization and interoperability were ostensibly more about efficient and effective global intellectual exchange – about utopian visions of universal knowledge and world peace – than about managerial efficiency.


Even a blank card, through its formal and aesthetic properties and its integration into a filing system, can index its political and cultural milieu. As Cornelia Vismann has observed of files, they’re “the mirror stage of any administration. Subsequently, they become the object of desire for a positivist historiography that uses files to deduce their administrative as well as their political background” (2008: 92). Files are not only read or referenced as “evidence” of something having happened, but they are also objects that we think through – and even create with. Cards don’t just record; they generate. Over the decades, cards put to personal use have provided aesthetic and intellectual inspiration to myriad artists, writers, and designers. Jules Verne, Emily Dickinson, Walter Benjamin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Niklas Luhmann, Georges Perec, Raymond Carver, Stanley Brouwn, and Mark Lombardi all captured fragments of thought on cards or slips (see Hollier, 2005; Krapp, 2011: 1-26; Spieker, 2008; “Taking Note”). In his study of Roland Barthes’ card files, Rowan Wilken argues that the cards served as much more than an aide-memoire; they were an “organizational device, a kind of ‘creativity machine’ that served a crucial function in the very construction of his written texts, and shaped his thinking on textuality and the role and operation of literary criticism”; in particular, Barthes’ cards informed his theories on the “fragment” and fragmented writing (2011: 9).



Marshall McLuhan regarded cards as similarly generative. His Distant Early Warning Cards, created in 1969, referenced the real-life DEW Line, a band of 63 radar and communication stations that stretched across 3000 miles in arctic Canada, meant to provide early warnings of invasion during the Cold War (Belonax, 2013). McLuhan regarded artists as a human version of the DEW line – as early detectors of cultural shifts – and his cards were meant to promote such prescient perception. McLuhan’s cards preceded Brian Eno’s and Peter Schmidt’s well-known Oblique Strategies deck from 1975, which was likewise meant to promote creative, lateral thinking. As McLuhan was distributing his DEW cards, critic and curator Lucy Lippard deployed index cards as a curatorial and documentation tool: for her 1969 557,087 exhibition in Seattle – which served as the foundation for her subsequent “Numbers Shows” – she invited 60 artists to submit event-score-style proposals on 4×6-inch index cards. Volunteers executed most of the works – either in the gallery or around the city – and all the proposals were gathered together, in their original index-card form, into an unbound, re-shuffle-able catalog (Foote, 2016; Graves, 2013; Lippard, 2009; Nelson, 2008).


Cards, in punched form, of course played a critical role in computing history, and even today web and software designers commonly use the “card-sorting” method to create or evaluate the information architecture of a website or program (Maxwell and Armen, 2013). Testers list various topics or functions on cards, then ask users to sort those topics into categories, which then inform an application’s structure. Software designers use cards for conceptual and data modeling, and sometimes the index card even becomes a skeuomorphic module within the software, as was the case with Notecards, released by Xerox PARC in 1984, and Hypercard, released by Apple in 1987 – and as is the case with various contemporary note-taking and writing programs, like Evernote, WritersDuet, and Scrivener (see Agile, n.d.; Mattern, 2010).

Yet perhaps the most ubiquitous and persistent – “sticky,” if you will – card-like module within the design world today is the Post-It, released by 3M in 1980. Post-Its are modular, movable, cheerfully colored; they’re intuitive, low-risk, and liberatingly provisional; their small size forces users to deconstruct big ideas into tiny parts; they foster collaboration by giving license to team members to post even their smallest, most disposable ideas; and their tangibility fosters material connections between the people using them (see also Post-It; Lavenda, 2014). Designer Jamer Hunt (2010) notes that their low barrier to entry – a Post-It and a Sharpie are the new basic design tools – democratizes design and makes it accessible to “lowercase ‘d’ designers who are not necessarily skilled in drawing, rendering, or model-making.” Post-Its have many of the material and operational virtues of Dewey’s index and Otlet’s Repertory (minus the comprehensive classification systems) – but their epistemology is much more local, crowd-sourced (amateur?), and provisional – and, I would add, perhaps wastefully disposable.


I’ve encountered many an “ideation” session in which the Post-It collage – itself a mini-World Expo of multi-colored adhesive wall art – seems to be the prime focus. A complex, polychromatic paper geometry creates the semblance of productive “design thinking”; it’s an index of creative labor. As Design Thinking becomes the panacea for so many ailing or stagnant industries, as “creativity becomes the lubricant of the innovation economy,” what says “innovation” more clearly, Hunt asks, “than a crazy quilt of Post-Its?” All those Small pieces add up to something Beautiful. Could it be, as the ICIC said of Otlet’s IIB, that the Post-It’s proponents are fetishizing their methods and instruments, reifying the process, mistaking the means for the end?

However gratuitous, methodolatrous, or wasteful this paper-intensive design practice might be, the Post-It map – even if it produces no concrete vision of a thing that will be materialized in the world – serves as a topological model of the design process, of intellectual work, itself (see Mattern, 2013). Otlet, particularly in his exhibition collaborations with Otto Neurath and Patrick Geddes, celebrated the value of models as pedagogical devices, as means of making abstract, complex forces in the social world both material and intelligible (Vossoughian, 2011). A model was also one of the chief exhibits at the 1964-65 World’s Fair – and it remains today a key attraction at the Queens Museum. Moses commissioned Raymond Lester Associates, a model-making firm he had employed regularly in his urban planning practice, to create a 9,000-square-foot wood, plastic, and paper model of all 830,000 buildings in New York’s five boroughs. The Panorama of the City of New York was intended to celebrate the city’s 300th anniversary – but it also lionized Moses; he shaped many of the urban forms that were immortalized here in miniature. Lester & Associates consulted Sanborn fire insurance maps, aerial photographs, and a host of other city records – undoubtedly indexed in its libraries’ and archives’ card catalogs – in order to construct a model with less than one percent margin of error (Queens Museum).


And it, like Rand’s and Dewey’s and Otlet’s card indices, was meant to be modular and expandable. The model underwent updates in 1967, 1968, 1969, 1974, and 1992. Amidst all the push-button gadgetry and spectacular automation of the fair, these paper buildings – illuminated with a dawn-to-dusk-to-night lighting cycle, animated with moving miniature airplanes, and indexed with colored lights on all municipal facilities – had widespread analog appeal. And today, as our urban imaginaries and epistemological visions are driven by sensors and data and a “Science of Business System” that bests Dewey’s wildest dreams, visitors still flock to that paper and wood model, an index of not only the world they live in, but of the material and mechanical means – the small, moving parts – we devise to understand it.

[1] Much of this section on Remington Rand and the 1939-40 World’s Fair is adapted from Mattern 2016.

[2] According to Yates (1989), “systematic management” was the informational counterpart to scientific management. Systematic management emphasized system and efficiency, and relied heavily on detailed record-keeping and “formal and systematic modes of communication,” flowing “up, down, and across corporate hierarchies”; these systems, mandated by top management, served to “control and coordinate processes and individuals”; and “draw data and analyses up the hierarchy to serve as the basis for managerial control” (xv, 1, 2).

[3] See also the work of Wilhelm Ostwald, Karl Bührer, and the German collective, Die Brücke (“The Bridge”), which named Otlet its honorary president. Die Brücke, like the IIB, sought to connect formerly-isolated knowledge spaces and to normalize the means by which knowledge was created and shared among schools, universities, offices, labs, government agencies, and private citizens. Ostwald believed that the “organization of intellectual labor must begin with the purely mechanical ordering of written and printed documents,” so Die Brücke proposed the World-Formats, including a standardized paper format, in order to both economize on the use of space and ensure that the material form of knowledge was universally transferrable, accessible, and storable (quoted in Vossoughian 2014): 172; see also Krajewski 2012). Ostwald, like Otlet, aimed to “split up scientific communications into very small component parts” (quoted in Hapke 1999: 143). The group sought to standardize publication formats and their modes of distribution, and the furnishings and architectures used to house them. In many of their proposed designs, the standard index card serves as a spatial module that can be scaled up infinitely to generate architectural and perhaps even urban forms.

[4] The American Library Association also appeared at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. They created a small branch of the St. Louis Public Library, featuring Library Bureau furnishings and a card catalog supplied by the Library of Congress. The LOC also hosted an exhibition at the U.S. Government Building, where they displayed the evolution from handwritten to printed catalog cards (Eberhart 2016).

[5] See Vossoughian (2011) and Wright (2014) for fascinating discussions of Otlet’s relationship with Otto Neurath and Patrick Geddes, both fellow pioneers in exhibition design, who carefully considered the epistemological and pedagogical significance of various forms of exhibition media and installation strategies.

[6] Consider, too, Emmanuel Goldberg’s Statistical Machine, a workstation that would use “search cards” to find and retrieve records storage on microfilm. When Vannevar Bush sought to patent his Memex, the Patent Office rejected his application, citing Goldberg’s 1927 design (Wright 2011: 208-9).

Adams, Margaret O’Neill. (1995) “Punch Card Records: Precursors of Electronic Records,” American Archivist 58: 182 –202.

Agar, Jon. (2003) The Government Machine: A Revolutionary History of the Computer. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Agile Modeling. (n.d.) “Class Responsibility Collaborator (CRC) Models”:

Belonax, Tim. (2013) “Distant Early Warning: Marshall McLuhan” Design Envy (January 10, 2013):

Bennett, Robert. (2010) “Pop Goes the Future: Cultural Representations of the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair,” pp. 176-191 in Robert W. Rydell and Laura Burd Schiavao (eds) Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Bletter, Rosemarie Haag (1989) “The ‘Laissez-Fair,’ Good Taste, and Money Trees; Architecture at the Fair,” pp. 104-135 in Queens Museum (ed) Remembering the Future: The New York World’s Fair From 1939 to 1964. New York: Rizzoli.

Day, Ronald E. (2001) The Modern Invention of Information: Discourse, History, and Power. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University.

Dickstein, Morris. (1989) “From the Thirties to the Sixties: The New York World’s Fair in Its Own Time,” pp. 20-39 in Queens Museum (ed) Remembering the Future: The New York World’s Fair From 1939 to 1964. New York: Rizzoli.

Eberhart, George M. (2016) “Meet Me in St. Louis,” American Libraries (February 19, 2016):

“The Exhibits: An Amazing Array,” New York Times (April 30, 1939): 7-8.

A Filing Primer Used by Boston School of Filing, Illinois School of Filing, Philadelphia School of Filing. Philadelphia: Library Bureau, 1921.

Flanzraich, Gerri. (1993) “The Library Bureau and Office Technology,” Libraries & Culture 28(4): 403-29.

Foote, S. (2016) “Lucy Lippard and the Numbers Shows,” National Institute of Creative Arts and Industries:

Graves, Jen. (2013) “Dematerialized: A 1969 Exhibition on Index Cards,” The Stranger (May 8, 2013):

Letter from Katherine B. Gray, to S. M. Knapp, Vice President and Treasurer, Remington Rand, March 19, 1940, New York Public Library, New York World’s Fair 1939 and 1940 Incorporated Records, MssCol 2233, b. 392 f. 14: Remington Rand, Inc. (1940).

Halpern, Orit. (2014) Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason Since 1945. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Hapke, Thomas. (1999) “Wilhelm Ostward, the ‘Brücke’ (Bridge), and Connections to Other Bibliographic Activities at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century,” pp. 139-147, in M.E. Bowden, T.B. Hahn, and R.V. Williams (eds) Proceedings of the 1998 Conference on the History and Heritage of Science Information Systems. Medford, NJ: Information Today.

Harwood, John. (2011) The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945-1976. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Heide, Lars. (2009) Punched-Card Systems and the Early Information Explosion, 1880-1945. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hollier, Denis. (2005) “Notes (On the Index Card),” October 112: 35-44.

Hunt, Jamer. (2010) “Why Designers Should Declare Death to the Post-It,” Fast Company (May 20, 2010):

Krajewski, Markus. (2012) “Die Brucke: A Germany Contemporary of The Institut International de Bibliographie,” Cahiers de la documentation (Feb 2012): 25-31.

Krajewski, Markus. (2011) Paper Machines: About Cards & Catalogs, 1548-1929. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Krapp, Peter .(2011) Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Laqua, Daniel. (2013) The Age of Internationalism and Belgium, 1880 – 1930: Peace, Progress and Prestige. New York: Manchester University Press.

Lavenda, David. (2014) “The Latest Innovation Technology,” Fast Company (March 26, 2014):

Library Bureau. (1909) The Story of Library Bureau. Boston: Cowen Company.

Lippard, Lucy (2009). “Curating by Numbers,” Tate Papers 12:

Lyon, Peter. (1964) “A Glorious Nightmare,” Holiday (July 1964): 50-54.

Mattern, Shannon. (2016) “Indexing the World of Tomorrow,” Places (February 2016):

Mattern, Shannon. (2010) “Notes, Lists, and Everyday Inscriptions: Introduction,” The New Everyday (June 2010):

Mattern, Shannon. (2013) “Methodolatry and the Art of Measure,” Places (November 2013):

Maxwell, John W. and Haig Armen. (2013) “A Bird in the Hand: Index Cards in the Handcraft of Creative Thinking,” Presentation of Canadian Sociological Association Congress, Victoria:

Nelson, Ryan Gerald. (2008) “Friday Finds: 955,000 – An Unconventional Exhibition Catalog,” Walker Art Center (August 5, 2008):

New York Worlds Fair Inc., News Release No. 608, New York World’s Fair Inc., Department of Press, Perley Boone, Director, stamped February 15 1939, New York Public Library, New York World’s Fair 1939 and 1940 Incorporated Records, MssCol 2233, b. 390 f. 15: Remington Rand, Inc., 1939 Jan 1 – Dec 31.

Otlet, Paul. (1920) “International Organization of Bibliography and Documentation,” pp. 173-203 in W. Boyd Rayward (trans.) International Organization and Dissemination of Knowledge: Selected Essays of Paul Otlet. New York: Elsevier, 1990.

Otlet, Paul. (1893) “Something about Bibliography,” pp. 11-24 in W. Boyd Rayward (trans.) International Organization and Dissemination of Knowledge: Selected Essays of Paul Otlet. New York: Elsevier, 1990.

Otlet, Paul. (1918) “Transformations in the Bibliographical Apparatus of the Sciences: Repertory – Classification – Office of Documentation,” pp. 148-56 in W. Boyd Rayward (trans.) International Organization and Dissemination of Knowledge: Selected Essays of Paul Otlet. New York: Elsevier, 1990.

Post-It Collaboration Channel. (n.d.):

Queens Museum. (n.d.) “Panorama of the City of New York”:

Rayward, W. Boyd. (1975) The Universe of Information: The Work of Paul Otlet for Documentation and International Organization. Moscow: All-Union Institute for Scientific and Technical Information.

Rayward, W. Boyd. (1994) “Visions of Xanadu: Paul Otlet (1868 – 1944) and Hypertext,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 45(4): 235-50.

Reitano, Joanna. (2006) The Restless City: A Short History of New York from Colonial Times to the Present, 2nd Ed. New York: Routledge.

“Remington Rand, Incorporated,” Fascimile, n.d., New York Public Library, New York World’s Fair 1939 and 1940 Incorporated Records, MssCol 2233, b. 390 f. 15: Remington Rand, Inc., 1939 Jan 1 – Dec 31.

Samuel, Lawrence R. (2007) The End of Innocence: The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Spieker, Sven. (2008) The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Taking Note:

Taylor, Frederick Winslow. (1911) The Principles of Scientific Management. New York: Harper & Row.

van den Heuvel, Charles. (2014) “Building Society, Constructing Knowledge, Weaving the Web: Otlet’s Visualizations of a Global Information Society and His Concept of a Universal Civilization,” pp. 127-53 in W. Royd Rayward (ed) Information Beyond Borders: International Cultural and Intellectual Exchange in the Belle Epoque. London: Ashgate.

Vismann, Cornelia. (2008) Files: Law and Media Technology, Geoffrey Winthrop-Young (trans). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Vossoughian, Nader. (2014) “Collecting Paper: Die Brücke, the Bourgeois Interior, and the Architecture of Knowledge,” pp 170-80 in W. Boyd Rayward (ed) Information Beyond Borders: International Cultural and Intellectual Exchange in the Belle Epoque. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Vossoughian, Nader. (2003) “The Language of the World Museum: Otto Neurath, Paul Otlet, Le Corbusier,” The Review of the Union of International Associations 1-2: 82-93.

Vossoughian, Nader. (2011) Otto Neurath: The Language of the Global Polis. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers.

Wallock, Leonard. (1988) “Introduction,” in Leonard Wallock and William Sharpe (eds) New York: Cultural Capital of the World, 1940-1965. New York: Rizzoli.

Wilken, Rowan. (2010) “The Card Index as Creativity Machine,” Culture Machine 11: 7-30.

Wright, Alex. (2014) Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age. New York: Oxford University Press.

Yates, JoAnne. (1989) Control through Communication: The Rise of System in American Management. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Yates, JoAnne. (1991) “Investing in Information: Supply and Demand Forces in the Use of Information in American Firms, 1850-1920,” pp. 117-54 in Peter Temin (ed) Inside the Business Enterprise: Historical Perspectives on the Use of Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Equipment for Redemptive Living


Last summer the New York Public Library’s Correctional Services, which offers circulating library services to five city jails and creates resources to help incarcerated people upon re-entry, approached Parsons with a request: for years, they had been making do with jury-rigged equipment — dysfunctional carts handed down from the correctional facilities’ cafeterias or maintenance staffs, cardboard boxes mended with utility tape, etc. They asked if Parsons could help them design new book carts, and Dean Brian McGrath jumped at the opportunity. He asked furniture designer Joel Stoehr to dedicate a fall design-build course to the carts, and enlisted me to help.

Several of us joined the Correctional Services staff last summer to assist with library service at Rikers Island and the Metropolitan Correctional Center. What an illuminating, moving experience — one that prepared us to appreciate the tremendous value these services offer, the incredible dedication of the staff, and the significant challenges they face — and, remarkably, surmount — in providing professional library service to our most marginalized populations. Last fall Joel’s class drew students from all across Parsons; they consulted regularly throughout the semester with the library staff, and I stopped by periodically, too. By the end of the semester, the students had not only designed, but also constructed brand-new, bespoke library carts — with powder-coated steel frames and maple plywood shelves — that are now in operation in New York’s correctional facilities.

The final review for carts designed for the New York Public Library for use at Rikers Jail by students at Parsons under the supervision of Joel Stoehr. Represenatives from the Library and a selection of professors from Parsons were invited to suggest any final changes before delivery at the end of the month to Rikers.

We’re working to produce a book to document and celebrate the process (actually, Joel and a tremendously talented Parsons student designer have done the bulk of the work!). When that book comes to life, I’ll of course post about it here. For now, I thought I’d share the essay I wrote for the book; it’ll be joined by essays from Joel and one of the students:


With two stuffed totes looped over her shoulders, she adeptly maneuvers a wheeled suitcase through the security gate. Once inside, she drags her freight through a maze of hallways toward a closet lined with boxes. Surveying the contents of those boxes, she swaps out some of the wares with fresh additions from her totes and suitcase, then hoists the boxes onto an industrial cart that’s seen better days. With her payload carefully balanced – she’s done this many times before – she makes sure to grab her clipboard, then trundles out into the hallway, mindful of the cart’s temperamental front wheel. Here, she’s joined by a security officer, and together they make their way to an elevator. On one of the upper floors, they muscle the cart over uneven floor tiles and set up shop in a stairwell, positioning the cart so as not to impede circulation, and arranging the boxes on stairs to facilitate browsing. Patrons are then led in two or three at a time. They hungrily yet carefully dig through the boxes, make their choices, and sometimes lodge special requests for materials that will be delivered on a subsequent visit. Our keeper-of-boxes notes her patrons’ selections on the clipboard – and once all are served, she moves on to another stairwell in another house.

Library service in New York City’s correctional facilities is not a high-tech affair. While public libraries across the nation are reinvigorating and networking themselves through the integration of sophisticated design labs and customer-service apps and linked data initiatives, the public libraries in our jails and penitentiaries are significantly more lo-fi – yet no less vibrant and vital. Here, trained librarians have marshaled clipboards and hand-me-down carts, donated books and cardboard boxes to offer incarcerated individuals access to information and entertainment – to extend the basic services of this revered democratic institution to one of society’s most marginalized publics.

Borrowing a phrase from literary critic Kenneth Burke, we can say that these analog accouterments function here, in these less-than-ideal settings, as nothing less than “equipment for living.” Burke used the phrase to explain the purpose of literature, which, he said, arms us “to confront perplexities and risk,” and has direct bearing “upon matters of welfare.”[i] For incarcerated populations, reading materials offer a means to pass the time and imaginatively escape their restrictive environments – to build a “bridge to the free world…with a broader horizon,” as prison educator Austin MacCormick put it in 1950.[ii] They also, Megan Sweeney argues, help incarcerated people “come to terms with their pasts, contextualize their experiences in relation to larger frameworks, and gain inspiration from others as they learn to imagine – and create – new ways of being in the world.”[iii] Correctional services librarians are attuned to the distinctive challenges and needs of this population, many of whom struggle with substance abuse and mental illness and socio-economic disadvantages, who have relatively low levels of education, and who represent a wide variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds.[iv] And librarians can develop their collections, and connect individual patrons to particular books, that address, and aim to redress, these obstacles and injustices.

More concretely, prison libraries – which encompass the collection, the staff, and the programs they organize for their patrons – help to promote financial literacy and cultivate job-seeking skills and other competencies and sensibilities that ease patrons’ eventual re-entry into their communities. They can connect patrons with support services, like local Alcoholics Anonymous chapters or English as a Second Language or GED classes; and prepare them to find a home and get a driver’s license.[v] The New York Public Library publishes an annual Connections re-entry handbook (available in both English and Spanish) that lists precisely these kinds of resources. Perhaps the general public doesn’t always appreciate the value of providing such services to formerly incarcerated people, but by helping them navigate this tricky transition, library services have the potential to reduce recidivism, which both “saves taxpayers money in the long run” and makes our communities safer.[vi] “From a community safety perspective, helping people [who are or had been in prison] make positive changes is important,” argues Daniel Marcou, a correctional librarian in Hennepin County, MN. [vii] And once they re-enter their communities, formerly incarcerated people can turn to their local public libraries to serve as bastions of that hard-won change. As Brendan Dowling explains,

Libraries …serve as a natural place for ex-offenders to transition back into their communities… Libraries are public buildings that are not threatening to them, unlike other government institutions… At the library, ex-offenders find a neutral and anonymous atmosphere in which to go about the business of restructuring their lives.

Inside the correctional facility, however, that transitional “place” rarely commands a dedicated building, or even a room. For the New York Public Library’s Correctional Services, the library exists where the cart resides. A stairwell, a cafeteria, a hallway: each becomes a library when the book cart wheels in. As librarian Brenda Vogel explains, “The book cart is the library totem to a prisoner… This service must not be merely a token, it is representative of the library and in its own form should be of the same quality and have the integrity of the service offered in the library.”[viii] That’s a tall order when librarians are forced to make do with equipment handed down from the prison cafeteria or maintenance staff, when “we match the institutional food carts,” as one librarian explained to me. “We were used to MacGuyvering things” – to relying on the Department of Corrections (DOC) for equipment and access, and then attempting to re-align our professional practice with their way of doing things.

A Fall 2015 partnership with Parsons School of Constructed Environments transformed those MacGuyvers into furniture and service designers, and afforded them an unprecedented degree of freedom and control over their work patterns, conditions, and environments. By aligning the librarians’ experience and expertise in social and informational services, with Parsons students’ experience and expertise in translating clients’ needs into constructed environments, the collaborators produced new, more functional and hospitable “equipment for living” that has the potential to empower both librarians and their patrons. In those often drably analog institutional structures – with their steel-and-cinder-block surfaces, harsh fluorescent lighting, and impersonal acoustics – Correctional Services’ new, custom-designed library carts function as heterotopias, other-spaces or temporary utopian oases, on wheels. Their “glowing” maple plywood shelves “bring sunlight” to drab corners, a group of librarians rhapsodized.

When a new cart made its debut at Rikers Island, one patron asked incredulously, “You did this for us?” The 18- to 21-year-old women on Rikers responded with particular enthusiasm, one librarian reported. “It’s definitely a conversation piece.” Many patrons have asked the librarians about the design process, perhaps signaling a burgeoning interest in design – one that the librarians can then encourage by recommending relevant resources within their collections. And word-of-mouth has distributed news of the carts’ arrival to other houses that aren’t currently reached by NYPL Correctional Services, prompting requests for expanded service.[ix] Those requests are often filtered through the corrections officers, who have for years observed the library staff’s resourcefulness and consistency, and who now express (even if tacitly) greater appreciation for the librarians’ increased autonomy and professionalism. The new carts “raise our profile within the DOC,” the librarians told me.

Before the new carts’ arrival, the librarians were bound by the protocols and practices dictated by their equipment. The battered boxes and wobbly wheels determined how they did their jobs and served their patrons. In order to maximize collection capacity and ensure its secure transit across uneven floors and treacherous thresholds, the librarians boxed up their books by size, packing books of similar dimensions into the same box, and stacked them with logistical efficiency. Because logistics in the environment were so precarious, logistical management thus became a primary operative logic informing their work. Now, with these custom-designed carts – with shelves designed specifically to store and display books, and with greatly enhanced stability and maneuverability – the librarians can organize their collections in ways that are intelligible and accessible to patrons: with shelves dedicated to particular genres, popular fiction displayed on the front, and newspapers on top. Patrons can circulate around the cart, exploring the full extent of the collection. This new equipment for service thus furnishes new equipment for exploring and thinking – and, by extension, living.

The librarians’ lives have changed markedly, too. They welcome a respite from the repeated hoisting of boxes and wrestling with obstinate carts. “We’re now on offense, not defense,” one librarian reported, referring not only to their long battle with borrowed equipment, but also their ongoing struggle with the larger institutional structures within which they work. This new equipment steels them to face those challenges in pursuit of their broader mission: the new carts “elevate the service,” allowing the librarians to roll in and proudly proclaim, “We are the New York Public Library. “We now have a mobile library” that can facilitate and “showcase the work we do.” The staff now more confidently make their claim that Correctional Services, long overshadowed by more prominent brick-and-mortar branches, is the “89th branch of the NYPL” – one deserving of adequate recognition and material support. The librarians now have equipment that allows them to “represent the NYPL at full capacity” – “of the same quality and… integrity of service offered” in the other branches, as Vogel advocates – but in more compact, more nimble fashion. Those “glowing” carts of maple and steel equip the Correctional Services staff to live up to its full capacity – to celebrate the professional service they have always provided, despite their limited resources – and to thereby equip their patrons, many searching for renewal, to live richer, redeemed lives.


[i] Kenneth Burke, “Literature as Equipment for Living,”  Philosophy of the Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action,  3rd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973): 293-304.

[ii] Quoted on Vibeke Lehmann, “Challenges and Accomplishments in U.S. Prison Libraries” Library Trends 59:3 (Winter 2011): 492.

[iii] Megan Sweeney, “Reading and Reckoning in a Women’s Prison,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 50:3 (Fall 2008): 304.

[iv] See Lehmann 2011: 503.

[v] See Brendan Dowling, “Public Libraries and the Ex-Offender” Public Libraries 46:6 (November/December 2007): 44-8.

[vi] Lehmann, “Planning And Implementing Prison Libraries: Strategies And Resources” IFLA Journal 29:4 (2003): 301-7; Lehmann 2011.

[vii] Stephen M. Lilienthal, “Prison and Libraries: Public Service Inside and Out” Library Journal (February 4, 2013):

[viii] Brenda Vogel, The Prison Library Primer: A Program for the Twenty-First Century (Toronto: Scarecrow Press, 2009): 39.

[ix] Because of limited staff, time, and supplies, the Correctional Services staff prioritizes particular houses in the correctional facilities; they prioritize houses with “special populations,” including those with mental health disorders or those under protective custody, who have fewer opportunities to connect with the outside world.



Light and Looms and Libraries: Three Months in Galleries

The past three months have been quite a rush; they encompassed the end of the fall semester, a move to a new apartment, the holidays, another move to Germany for the first half of my Spring 2016 fellowship at the Bauhaus, a few completed articles (on information infrastructures, infrastructural aesthetics, and index cards), several public talks (on media furnishings, epistemological design, sensing infrastructure, and library design), lots of advising, and a completed book manuscript. Still, I managed to squeeze in a few hours in galleries:

First, to celebrate the submission of fall grades, I stopped by Little Sister (Is Watching You, Too), curated by my colleague Christiane Paul, @ Pratt Manhattan Gallery:




Augustine Kofie’s “Inventory” — office-supply assemblages and Charles-Sheeler-meets-the-Constructivists media-archaeological collages — @ Jonathan Levine:







Walid Raad — deconstructions of the exhibitionary complex, anti-archives, Baldessari-meets-Forensic-Architecture bullet-hole mappings, etc.– @ MoMA:












Some great “aesthetics of administration” stuff, especially from John Houck (whom I’d seen before at On Stellar Rays) and David Hartt, in MoMA’s “Oceans of Images” photography show:







Also in December: “Alternative Unknowns” (Elliott Montgomery + Chris Woebken) @ Apex Art:


Then in Berlin, in February: Anette Rose’s fantastic “Captured Motion” — the mechanical and human gestures of automated manufacturing — @ Haus am Lützowplatz:



Back in New York in February: Hiroki Tsukuda’s “Enter the O” @ Petzel:


Tauba Auerbach’s brilliant “Projective Instrument” — featuring a lovely assemblage of glass tools — @ Paula Cooper:



Lari Pittman’s “Nuevos Caprichos” @ Gladstone:



Penelope Umbrico’s excellent “Silvery Light” — which highlights both the indexical relationship between light and photography, and the derivative nature of iconic photos-of-light — at Bruce Silverstein:






Also: “From Minimalism to Algorithm” @ the Kitchen and Doug Wheeler’s “Encasements” @ David Zwirner


Then, Blooks — books that aren’t — at the Grolier Club and Gregory Crewdson’s “Cathedral of the Pines” at Gagosian:



Mark Dion’s “Library for the Birds of New York” @ Tanya Bonakdar:










The symbolism is quite obvious, but still charming. The gallery explains:

Central to the installation is an 11 foot high white oak, referencing a range of important philosophical and scientific constructs: the tree of life, the tree of knowledge, and the evolutionary tree, which serves to illuminate the phylogenic system created by man to understand the structure of the biological world. “The Library for the Birds of New York” also includes artifacts of capture such as bird cages and traps, referencing hunting for the exotic bird trade. Other imagery is symbolic of death, extinction, and the classification of birds as pests or vermin. These historical categorizations position man atop an implied hierarchy, and are juxtaposed with a subtle insistence that birds possess knowledge outside of the human experience, rendering them fundamentally unknowable by man. The birds are uninterested in these objects; thus underscoring the absurdity of a manmade library for birds, which purports to school them in subjects such as geography, navigation, and the natural world, of which they inherently have full command.

Finally, Taryn Simon’s “Paperwork and the Will of Capital” — photos of the floral centerpieces at tables of monumental negotiations and signings-of-business-deals-and-international-agreements — @ Gagosian. I love this idea of the “floral witness.”

In Paperwork and the Will of Capital, Simon examines accords, treaties, and decrees drafted to influence systems of governance and economics, from nuclear armament to oil deals and diamond trading. All involve the countries present at the 1944 United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, which addressed the globalization of economics after World War II, leading to the establishment of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. In images of the signings of these documents, powerful men flank floral centerpieces designed to underscore the importance of the parties present. Simon’s photographs of the recreated centerpieces from these signings, together with their stories, underscore how the stagecraft of political and economic power is created, performed, marketed, and maintained.

Each of Simon’s recreations of these floral arrangements represents an “impossible bouquet”—a concept that emerged in Dutch still-life painting parallel to the country’s seventeenth-century economic boom, which ushered in the development of modern capitalism. Then, the impossible bouquet was an artificial fantasy of flowers that could never bloom naturally in the same season and geographic location. Now the fantasy is made possible—both in the original signings and in Simon’s photographs—by the global consumer market.

Yet I have to wonder: how much did it cost, and how much energy was expended, to source all those flowers?!





Indexing the World of Tomorrow


I wrote a new piece for Places on the aesthetics of administration and the urban imaginary. “Indexing the World of Tomorrow” focuses on the design of administration at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, arguing that filing — efficient urban administration — was a central part of the Fair’s modernist, rational, efficient World of Tomorrow.

The World of Tomorrow, Leonard Wallock writes, “was the city’s perfected dream of itself.” It 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 — though much less discussed — was the dream of efficient urban administration.

I’m deeply indebted to the archivists and curators at the New York Public Library and the Hagley Museum and Archive — particularly Thomas Lannon and Lucas Clawson.

I delivered an early version of this paper at ArtCenter College of Design in November (thanks to Anne Burdick for making this possible!); here are my voluminous slides.


Goodbye, Old Friend, and Thanks for All the Frisbees


I’ve been here in Germany, on a fellowship, for the past few weeks. The people here are lovely, and the fellowship itself is a tremendous gift — but it’s a bit lonely in this small town. I’ve joked with my family that I should inquire about renting a dog.

Tonight, after a long series of cold, grey days, I looked out the window and saw a beautiful sunset — the first I’ve seen since I arrived. Shortly afterward I received a call from my dad: Dugan, the last of our Three Canine Amigos, had suffered some grave and sudden neurological damage and would have to be put to rest. He passed away at 3:45pm EST. He would join Rudy, who left us last October, and Roxy, who departed very unexpectedly this past July. Three great friends gone in 15 months. That’s a lot of loss.



Dugan was the only dog to whom I wasn’t able to say goodbye in-person, and I’m quite distraught that I wasn’t there to kiss him one last time. But he’s always responded to my voice over the phone, so I FaceTimed him at the vet’s (this probably sounds so ridiculous to any non-dog people) and told him how much we love him, and how grateful we are that he gave us 15 wonderful years of his life. Fifteen years is an exceptionally long life for a border collie.


Dugan was the least rambunctious one in a litter of eight-week-old puppies at the farm in Youngstown, Ohio. We drove out to get him in the midst of a severe snowstorm shortly after Christmas in 2000, and I held him in my lap for the duration of our four-hour drive back to Central PA. From then on, every time I came home from New York, he’d always come upstairs and sleep beside my bed (he was the only of our three dogs who preferred not to jump on the furniture; he opted for the cold, hard floor — ideally somewhere “cave-like,” where he could bury his head under a table or bed frame). My mom told me that each time I went back to New York, Dugan would still climb those stairs for another night or two before realizing that I wasn’t there. That mental image always brought a tear to my eye.


Dugan was a bit less emotive than our other dogs; he wasn’t as sappy or excitable or susceptible to getting his feelings hurt. He instead channeled all of his affective capacity — all of his corporeal being — into two extreme settings: full-on intensity, or out-like-a-light. The “intense” setting reflected his hard-wired working-dog inclinations. Dugan essentially had one mission: catching any brightly colored projectile. He’d be happy playing soccer or frisbee from sun-up to sun-down (and then some); we actually had to enforce rests every once in a while so he wouldn’t wear himself out.



Okay, that’s not entirely true: he had a neutral in-between setting, too — but that was merely an “intermission” mode during which he waited for the games to resume. During those hiatuses, he’d sit for hours in the grass off the back porch — even better if it were covered with a couple feet of snow — or amidst the bushes beside my dad’s workshop (yet another of his “caves”).

Dugan Snow from shannon mattern on Vimeo.


Other manifestations of that intensity were a tendency toward adventurous eating and an imperviousness to pain. He liked all kinds of vegetables, had quite a taste for ice, and dined on a range of stuffed animals (Poly-Fil was his great weaknesses), which necessitated several abdominal surgeries. The constant activity also caused a few snapped tendons, from which he snapped back as quickly as possible, so as to resume his rigorous training regimen. Those handicaps were never a hindrance; if we couldn’t run outside, we ran drills in the living room.

And that’s not all: he showed signs of epilepsy within his first year; a daily pill helped to keep that under control. And then he got — and beat — cancer. He always bounced back; just last week the vet told my dad that his blood work was perfect. So, despite the fact that a good quarter of his 15 years was spent either in a cast or stitches (or with some part of his body shaved and stained from surgery), he packed more steps, heartbeats, and thrills into his 11 Prime years than the Laws of Space-Time would seem to allow.



The flip-side of all that Extreme Awakeness: sleep. He did that with all-out intensity — and some athletic grace — too.


My brother and I always joked that if Dugan had a human personality, he’d be a jovial, lovable jock. I imagine that if he ever had to write a personals ad, he’s say that he liked hitting the gym, car rides, and good conversation (Dug had quite an extensive vocabulary and a tendency toward garrulousness). He’d probably also mention his striking heterochromia — one crystal blue eye, and one deep brown — and his increasingly chameleonic coloring: as he aged, his stark black-and-white coloring softened with a bit of amber, a long-hibernating genetic gift from his mother.

DuganTalking from shannon mattern on Vimeo. [password: dugan]



Dugan had a tough shell, but he showed tenderness in his own way. He reserved the hand licks and moments of stillness for special occasions — so when they happened, you knew you earned it. And you knew he meant it.

We were fortunate to live with a force of nature — a dog that lived longer and harder than any dog should or could. With his departure we lose a seemingly inexhaustible source of kinetic energy, a verve and jouissance, that seems to create a little hole in the physical universe.

And as I said to Rudy 15 months ago and Roxy six months ago (and Dexter and Opie before that): Goodbye, my buddy. Thank you for all the love and joy and vibrancy you brought into our lives. We’ll miss you terribly, and we’ll love you forever.

Dugan just last week. Sprightly to the end.
Dugan just last week. Sprightly and regal right to the end.

Maps as Media: Round One

James Corner, Taking Measures Across the American Landscape
James Corner, Taking Measures Across the American Landscape

We’ve wrapped up the inaugural semester of my “Maps as Media” course, a reincarnation of my old “Urban Media Archaeology” studio (minus the explicit focus on urban infrastructure and the collaborative effort to build our own open-source mapping platform). We began the semester by looking at new challenges and opportunities in map-making, and framing those “new” ideas in relation to the history of cartography. Then we investigated what it would mean to study maps as media, and we considered various tools and frameworks for critical cartographic analysis. After that, we discussed cartographic epistemologies and the significance of borders, gaps, and blind spots. We talked about cognitive mapping, critical cartography and counter-mapping, indigenous mapping and alternative spatial ontologies. Then we explored various digital mapping platforms — from arcGIS to Mapbox to CartoDB — and considered the techno-cartographic gaze and satellite imagery, then contrasted and supplemented these data-driven methods with approaches to multimodal, “deep,” sensory, and affective mapping.  We closed out the semester by examining the mapping arts — visual, sound, and performing artists who engage with maps — and the temporality of maps.

Throughout the semester, we all shared lots of map critiques. We took some trips, too: to the NYPL Maps Division, the new Bushwick home of CartoDB, and to a lecture by visiting information architect Dietmar Offenhuber. And we hosted some guests: historian-cartographer Bill Rankin, technologistPeter Richardson from Mapzen, artist Nina Katchadourian, artist-architect Gabi Schillig and her students from the Peter Behrens School of Arts / Düsseldorf University of Applied Science at the Faculty for Design, and the NYPL Labs’ Space/Time Directory team.

We enjoyed a great mix of participants from Media Studies, Parsons’ Urban Ecologies program, and NSSR’s Liberal Studies. Over the course of the semester, the students were charged with creating “atlases” of maps pertaining to any spaces, times or topics of interest. I was really happy to see that many students chose to use their maps to pilot-test ideas for their thesis projects and to explore “back drawer” areas of creative and intellectual interest.

They did fantastic work. Here it is:


Joanna, who’s deeply involved in local politics in Jersey City, used maps to explore the city’s development and the various socioeconomic and cultural shifts that that development has generated. She also offers a look at the role of public art — specifically, murals — in marking and masking various sites of transition.



Kartik studied spatial politics in Sri Lanka — particularly its post-war urban configurations, and the country’s role as an important site of global investment and geopolitical negotiations. Among his many-layered maps are a “discourse map” of the myriad sources collectively determining what Sri Lanka is as a national imaginary; and a deep map documenting the razing and reconstruction of the Jaffna library, an central symbolic and political figure in recent uprisings.



Laura offered a gorgeous tree atlas. She prototyped a street-tree navigation app, charted the various objects and forces — apartment appeal, shade, carbon dioxide, energy costs, etc. — that are impacted by trees; and created a haptic, mobile “video map,” a tree typology map, and a photo series documenting leaves in their geographic contexts.

StreetmapNYC from Laura Salaberry on Vimeo.


Livia followed a trail of people’s “favorite places” in New York. At each site, she documents — through audio, video, contemporary and historical photography, and hand-written notes — its distinctive characteristics. And before leaving, she finds someone to nominate his or her favorite place, thus leading Livia on to the next stop in her journey.


Nelesi mapped the body and examined bodies as cartographic metaphors. She experiments with means of mapping traces of the body’s presence in our environment; catalogues body-centric metaphors for orienting ourselves in the world; and offers a map of New York refashioned as a body with organs and a catalogue of the body as a landscape of parts, each representing a different temporality — of life, death, regeneration.



Rachael mapped our relationships with trash by documenting the trash generated by one person, and one family, over the course of a day or a week; by mapping our imagined landscapes of disposal; by tracing the lifespan of a plastic bag; and by materializing — in the form of a bureau — how we often “preserve” our e-waste in the deep recesses of our desk drawers, simply because we don’t know how to responsibly dispose of it!


Pinhole Viewer; Yarn Map

Shibani mapped population displacement and neighborhood relocation in Mumbai. She used CartoDB to map flows of resettlement and relocation, and to relate those flows to nearby environmental concerns, including toxic industries and sites of infrastructural concentration. She then employed ethnographic research, participatory mapping, and illustration to map residents’ perceptions of their homes at the neighborhood and household scale. And she employed provocative methods and materials — a pin-hole viewer, yarn, etc. — to capture the various phenomenological and affective dimensions of “sense of place” that are often absent in traditional “development” cartography.



Witold offered a brilliant atlas of “libidinal cartographies.” He builds upon psychogeographic methodologies; I’ll allow him to explain:

The libidinal cartographer… has some shiny new tools in her kit, on account of half a century of theoretical work and technological advances. The experiential solipsism that the psychogeographers sought and failed to overcome has since been addressed by, among others, the work of Deleuze and Guattari. They allow the libidinal cartographer to move away from models of the discrete liberal subject and to substitute a vision of the subject plugged into the city as an assemblage or social machine, which continually produces and reproduces itself through circuits of desire and distributions of intensities. Approaching the city as this kind of communications infrastructure does not exactly salvage experiential intersubjectivity, but it allows the psychogeographer to embrace difference while continuing to look for opportunities to decode, deterritorialize, and destratify space on the molecular level. These operations may then modify the flows of (libidinal) intensities within the assemblage, perhaps opening up new lines of flight — that is to say, freeing places to be more than locales for capitalist modes of desiring-production. This post-structuralist re-framing, I propose, thus leaves intact the basic aim of psychogeography, while dispelling the problem of intersubjectivity that led the Situationists to abandon the project.

He offers a sketch-map of a libidinal landscape and documented of an electrophysiological experiment to map affective engagement with various sites along a walking route. Has atlas also contains a topographic sculpture of the city-as-body and a game-space map of Coney Island as a libidinal zone.



And finally, Zanny used maps to explore spatiopolitics in Ecuador — from the continental scale, down to the scale of an individual market in Quito, the site of her fieldwork. Each page of her atlas employs the same four scales of analysis, across four different subjectivities: citizens, explorers, “official” political actors, and tourists.



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.




A Legacy of Critical Comedy: Remembering Jiun Kwon


Late last week one of my thesis advisees, Jiun Kwon, passed away suddenly and tragically. Her loss will be widely mourned — but her legacy lives on in the many lives she touched, and in the beautiful work she has produced and shared with the world.

I never had the pleasure of having Jiun in one of my classes, but over the past two years — as we worked together on her smart and timely thesis — I came to know her as a vibrant, articulate, perceptive, diligent young woman; a gifted writer and media-maker; a lover of performance and comedy; and a widely known and highly regarded champion of social justice. Her myriad passions and talents converged in her thesis, which explores the evolution of stand-up comedy, and its function as a form of social critique, in an evolving media landscape — from minstrelsy through the age of YouTube clips, podcasts, and Twitter. I’ve posted below an excerpt from her introduction.

Jiun submitted a brilliant final draft just as the fall semester began. It seems so unfair: barely a month has elapsed between this celebration-worthy achievement and her untimely demise. And while Jiun’s spectacular work was more than sufficient to fulfill the requirements of an MA thesis, she intended to keep working on the project — to keep adding case studies that explored the evolution of comedy and its potential as a tool for critical discourse about some of society’s most thorny issues.

It was truly a gift to be able to work with Jiun. In a school as large as ours (we’ve got nearly 500 graduate students) I’m often baffled to see so many unfamiliar faces walk the stage at our end-of-year commencement ceremonies: how could I have encountered so few of these people during their two+ years in the program? I hadn’t known Jiun until she sought me out in late 2013. And I’m so grateful she did. Not only have I learned a great deal from her academic work — from her sharp mind and her commitment to critical social consciousness — but I’ve also been enriched and emboldened by the strength and clarity of her convictions, and touched by her kindness.

Jiun designed her thesis on tumblr so she could display the work she was writing about; she embedded dozens of video and audio clips and still images. Because the thesis contains a significant amount of copyrighted material, she chose to keep the blog password-protected. When she submitted it, I knew it deserved a wider audience; it has so much to offer to scholars of media, comedy, social justice, and public intellectualism. So I asked her if I could share her work and publicize the password (comedy). She agreed. 

This brilliant thesis is a significant part of Jiun’s legacy. It represents a great intellectual contribution — and it embodies, through its vibrancy and clarity, Jiun’s spirit. I am particularly moved by the poignancy and timeliness of her chapter on comedian Tig Notaro’s momentous “Hello, I have cancer” set from 2012:

The resulting album, titled “Live” (as in, I live here) is ultimately a document of transgression. It is a space where the threat of literal death confronts the risk of performative abjection, a comedy performance that does not openly seek laughter, allowing tragedy to enter, and where silence nurtures connectedness. It features an audience who meets vulnerability, not with the threat of figurative death, but with a rallying support for life. It is an audience positioned in community, not in opposition. It is a singular work; material of a solitary occurrence that will never be reproduced anywhere else, yet replayed across an entire digital media landscape.

Jiun would want her work to nurture such connectedness. Hers, too, is a singular work. And it deserves to be replayed across the media landscape, in celebration of her singular, exceptional life — and in pursuit of those ties that should connect us all, not only in tragedy and remembrance, but in shared strength and conviction.

Rest in peace, Jiun. We’ll continue the work you started.

From the introduction to Jiun’s thesis:

…Previous studies of standup have primarily focused on live performance (Rutter, Timler), with standup media being examined merely as documents of live performance. But exhibition structures have shifted dramatically over time, and we are now deeply entrenched in what Lucas Hildabrand has dubbed a ‘culture of the clip’, due in large part to the move away from traditional television broadcast in favor of web-based exhibition, and the archiving of popular media in the age of YouTube. Older and contemporary works alike are disaggregated and remediated through an interconnected network that has accelerated our consumption through immediacy and access. These changes have cultivated a phenomenon of ‘non-narrative seriality’ that has reordered the relationship between live performance and the digital record, as well as between performers’ private and public personae. And in this current cultural moment, comedy is thriving. At the time of this writing, the landscape of comedy is notably vast, stretching across various platforms (television, radio, web, podcasts, live performance). Comedians are active across various social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), with audiences interacting directly with them through these tools. People share clips through these platforms as well, creating a climate where exhibition, consumption, and critique are all occurring simultaneously in a shared virtual space.

Essentially, the comedy audience is the media audience.

At the same time, we are also entrenched in a vital political and social movement, at every intersection of race, gender, and sexuality, that is utilizing these same media tools to mobilize and disseminate a message of radical change. The formation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, as a response to sustained violence toward black and brown communities at the hands of the police, has centered discussions of racism with an urgency we have not seen in many decades. Sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, and other forms of discrimination are also at the forefront of our public discourse. These developments, both in access and reception, have only amplified the influence of comedic expression and its role in our social landscape. In a recent piece for The Atlantic, Megan Garber argues that “comedians have taken on the role of public intellectuals,” whose “most important function is to stimulate debates among the rest of us.” And so, it is unsurprising that these tools have also prompted a politicized audience to respond with more than just laughter. We are living in a media ecosystem of critical analysis that no longer points in just one direction, and no longer limited to a few select voices. There have been many instances of pushback from audiences, critics, and other comics, as we acclimate to this new paradigm, with plenty of comics bemoaning what they perceive as a return to ‘political correctness’. Ardent defense of free speech in the face of what is known as ‘outrage culture’ is at odds with the notion that comedy should evolve with its audience. But, despite its reputation for excess, this paradigm has arguably facilitated more inclusion within comedy, by pushing in from the margins, and allowing more diverse perspectives to enter into our cultural discourse. It has also amplified comedy’s reach, through alternative distribution and audience engagement. Consequently, it is more imperative than ever that, when we stop to examine a comedian’s work, we ask:

Who is creating for whom?

This should be a central question of any cultural dissection of comedy. This is not to say that we are required to hypothesize about a comedian’s motives and intentions when crafting a joke. But we must be aware of who is speaking, who is listening, and how the work is being delivered (time, place, and format). Through cumulative analysis, we discover that the media of standup comedy and its relationship with this new media audience, far exceeds the reach of a single piece of joke work or comedic performance, and has cultivated an enhanced form of engagement from its audience that transcends the expectations set in a live comedy space.

This section takes a look at some of the current discourse on the media of comedy, which includes commentary on political correctness, free speech, race and gender.

One of the biggest challenges in comedy is how to talk about race.  In order to address some of the larger questions of representation, we must examine and contextualized the role of media and entertainment in race comedy and its social impact. And so this first of three sections on race, focuses on comedian Richard Pryor, his comedic narrative in the context of his own personal history, and the role of the media documentation of his work.

The following section draws on three separate clips that spotlight the anxiety of anger as expressed through black comedians and distilled through the white media.

The fourth case study attempts to unpack the complexity of one of Chris Rock’s most famous and controversial pieces from his first comedy special, and the inherent conflict of creating visible race comedy.

The following chapter focuses on Louis C.K. I discuss his role in the canon of standup, and his position as a bridge between generations, through his embrace of new forms of exhibition.

And finally the last* chapter on Tig Notaro’s performance at Largo in 2012, through which she publicly declared that she had been diagnosed with cancer, is a deconstruction of performance through its mediatization, both as an audio document, and viral subject.

* The scope of this project currently does not lend itself to a comprehensive history of standup comedy or in-depth inclusion of race/feminist theory, but it is my intention to continue to grow this space to include many more case studies to inspire further critical analysis on the intersectional study of comedy and media.


Maps, Notations, Wave Forms + Flows: More Art

The galleries re-opened after their summer hibernation! Yippee! So, a few weeks ago, I saw a bunch of art — and, as usual, patterns emerged: maps, graphs, notations, diagrams, flows, waves.

First, Mishka Henner’s “Semi-Automatic” @ Bruce Silverstein: Henner aggregates data sets, images from mass media, and the stuff of the Internet. His best pieces mine Google Maps for examples of how the aerial view often reveals the accidentally sublime geometries of our man-made landscapes, and how those “objective” views are often convoluted by various commercial or security concerns.

Mishka Henner, Nato Storage Annex, Coevorden Drenthe, 2011
Mishka Henner, Nato Storage Annex, Coevorden Drenthe, 2011 (photo via Silverstein)
Mishka Henner; photo via Silverstein
Mishka Henner (photo via Silverstein)
Mishka Henner, 18 ways of looking at an oil derrick (my title -- and my photo)
Mishka Henner, 18 ways of looking at an oil derrick (my title — and my photo)

Second, Trevor Paglen at Metro Pictures: In keeping with his ongoing investigation of covert military and intelligence operations, Paglen examines the “geography and aesthetics of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) global surveillance programs.” We see maps of NSA cable-tapping “choke points,” photos of  undersea cables (see also Nicole Starosielski’s book and map on transoceanic cables), a two-channel video highlighting communications infrastructures and sites of covert intelligence operations, text crawlers of cryptographic codes, and other cool stuff.

Trevor Paglen (photo via Metro Pictures)
Trevor Paglen (photo via Metro Pictures)
Trevor Paglen Cable Landing; Choke Point Map (photo by me)
Trevor Paglen Cable Landing; Choke Point Map (photo by me)

Third, Sarah Sze at Tanya Bonakdar: Sze examines the materials, instruments, and conceptual techniques we employ to construct our senses of space — how we frame the fragments of an image (as we frequently do with composite satellite images) in order to grasp the “big picture,” how we rely on a limited set of visual tropes to understand our place within the cosmos, and how our desire for orientation translates across different scales.

Sarah Sze, framing fragments of sky (photo by me)
Sarah Sze, framing fragments of sky (photo by me)
Sarah Sze, windows and shards and screens (photo by me)
Sarah Sze, windows and shards and screens (photo by me)
Sarah Sze, world on a string (photo by me)
Sarah Sze, world on a string (photo by me)
Sarah Sze, lines + spheres (photo by me)
Sarah Sze, lines + spheres (photo by me)

While Sze played with the conceptual and material frames of imagery, Dan Flavin’s “Corners, Barriers and Corridors” at David Zwirner explored (as it always does) light as a means of delineating spatial and perceptual boundaries:

Dan Flavin, untitled (to Dorothy and Roy Lichtenstein on not seeing anyone in the room), 1968; photo via Zwirner
Dan Flavin, untitled (to Dorothy and Roy Lichtenstein on not seeing anyone in the room), 1968 (photo via Zwirner)

Fifth, Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Energy and Abstraction” at David Zwirner examines the tree diagram, the flow chart, and other means of notating process, energy, movement.

Gordon Matta Clark, Energy Tree; photo via Zwirner
Gordon Matta-Clark, Energy Tree (photo via Zwirner)
Gordon Matta-Clark, Tree Forms
Gordon Matta-Clark, Tree Forms
Gordon Matta-Clark, Energy Tree (2)
Gordon Matta Clark, Arrows
Gordon Matta-Clark, Arrows


Gordon Matta Clark, Energy Rooms
Gordon Matta-Clark, Energy Rooms
Gordon Matta Clark, Calligraphy
Gordon Matta-Clark, Calligraphy

And speaking of notation: Paula Cooper featured Carl Andre, Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, and Lawrence Weiner (all dudes!) in “The Xerox Book” — a show based on its namesake 1968 publication by Seth Siegelaub and Jack Wendler. Siegelaub, whose work partly inspired my 2011 article on experimental design publications, worked with the exhibition-as-book (or book-as-exhibition); for this particular project, each artist was invited to contribute 25 pages to the 8.5 x 11″ Xeroxed publication. As Siegelaub told Hans Ulrich Obrist in 1999,

The Xerox Book … was the first [projec]
where I proposed a series of ‘requirements’ for the project, concerning the use of a standard size paper and the amount of pages the ‘container’ within which the artist was asked to work. What I was trying to do was standardize the conditions of exhibition with the idea that the resulting differences in each artist’s project or work, would be precisely what the artist’s work was about.

Xerox Book; photo via Paula Cooper
Xerox Book (photo via Cooper)
Carl Andre's typewriter drawings
Carl Andre’s typewriter drawings (my photo)


Seventh, annotation and textual alteration — particularly process-driven, rule-based transformations — reappeared as themes and practices in “Marginalias” @ Field Projects.


Where to Find It! Brad Thiele's re-visions project
Where to Find It! Brad Thiele’s re-visions project
Gore Vidal's Point-to-Point Navigation (get it?!)
Gore Vidal’s Point-to-Point Navigation (get it?!)

Eighth, textual alteration was again central to McArthur Binion’s “Re:Mine” at Galerie Lelong. While Henner mines the Internet for source material, Binion mines the forms of Minimalism and representations — personal, bureaucratic, etc. — of personal identity. In “Re:Mine,” part of his DNA series, Binion uses his birth certificate and address book, with their regimented, linear forms, to create a gridded “under-surface.” He then applies horizontal and vertical strokes of paint, which serve both to “weave” the documents together into a tapestry, and to partly obscure their data. Thus, by “mining” his own textual DNA, Binion is “both hiding and excavating biographical information in his paintings, claiming and reclaiming personal and cultural history.”

McArthur Binion
McArthur Binion (photo by me)



Ninth, Christian Marclay’s “Surround Sounds”@ Paula Cooper employs text to dramatically different effect. Sharing Marginalia’s preference for puns, Marclay’s flatly onomatopoetic Pop-esque paintings and video installation constitute a mute cacophony.

Christian Marclay, Surround Sounds
Christian Marclay, Surround Sounds (photo via Cooper)

Tenth, Paul Sharits takes the opposite approach — pairing semantically-empty imagery with disjunctive sound — in “Dream Displacement” at Greene Naftali. Sharits’s work emphasizes the physical properties of celluloid and its mechanical apparatae. As he explained in a 1976 interview about this particular work,

I want the films to have a physical presence and there is also a kind of physical adjustment I want to get between the sound and the image. It’s not any rational measure or anything — I’ve just got to figure out how to get it to be the right balance so that one is constantly threatening the other. One element threatens with violence, the other with beauty.

Paul Sharits, Dream Displacement (photo by me)
Paul Sharits, Dream Displacement (photo by me)


Sound becomes physical in La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, and Jung Hee Choi’s “Dream House,” relocated to Chelsea. And in Hitoshi Nomura‘s show at Fergus McCaffrey, sound is employed for methodological, rather than purely affective, purposes. Throughout his career Nomura has sought to make the passage of time, particularly the longue durée, perceptible, in part by employing evanescent materials — oxygen, dry ice, bacteria — and, here, sound. Electromagnetic waves, sonified, index celestial motion.

Hitoshi Nomura (my photo)
Hitoshi Nomura (my photo)


Also seen, and warranting no comment: Mark Grotjahn’s “Painted Sculpture” @ Anton Kern; Robert Overby’s “Persistence. Repeated.” (No. Kidding.) at Andrew Kreps; Josh Smith @ Luhring Augustine.


Sorting Things Out: Writing Workshop @ Art Center [Draft Syllabus]

Hannah Waldron
Hannah Waldron 

Later this fall I’ll be a “critic in residence” (of sorts) in the vibrant and acclaimed Media Design Practices program at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. What this entails is: organizing a speaker series — or, in my case, given my non-local status, a one-night symposium (about which more later!) — and leading a six-part writing workshop for designers. For the workshop, I was invited to use my own practice as a means of encouraging students to articulate their interests and processes as designers. I decided to structure the workshop around the concept of classification — particularly, the myriad ways we can conceptually compartmentalize our bodies of work. Here’s the draft syllabus [update 10/29: you’ll find the final syllabus here!]:


In this module of Critical Frameworks we’ll consider how we might collect, collate, sort, aggregate, intermix, shuffle, juxtapose, isolate, frame, and activate our varying interests, influences, practices, and areas of expertise – and how we can then marshal various experimental writing practices to most effectively and creatively present our multi-faceted selves to the world. Of, if you’d prefer a culinary metaphor, we’ll experiment with recipes – scripts, programs, algorithms, maps and timelines – for marinating, chopping, paring, skimming, trussing, torching, and plating up our ideas and inspirations.

Your Contributions:

  • Participation in on-site and online discussions and workshops: 20%
  • Alpha Finding Aid: 20%
  • Alpha Lists: 20%
  • Alpha Topological Forms: 20%
  • Beta Topological Dossier: 20%
City Landscape, via
City Landscape, via 
OCTOBER 29: The Politics and Play of Organization

To be read for class today:

What we’ll do in our in-person class:

  • Talk about class logistics and gather everyone’s web addresses and contact info.
  • Discuss the epistemologies, politics, and aesthetics of organizational schema.
  • Consider how various designers and artists (Charles and Ray Eames, David Wojnarowicz, etc.) have organized their own personal files, and how those collections have been catalogued by archivists.
  • Study the conventions of archival finding aids.[1]
  • Discuss your cataloguing exercise for the week.

Your exercise for this week:

  • It’s 2115. You’ve passed away (my condolences) and bequeathed your physical and digital files – all your file folders, flat files, reference materials, digital storage devices, etc. – to the Getty Research Institute, which has promised to maintain for posterity a record of your life as a renowned renegade designer. An archivist is processing your materials and preparing a finding aid to document not only what’s in the collection, but also how you structured it: how you organized all your records and notes and clippings into boxes and files and binders, how you sorted your digital materials into folders and programs on your laptop and apps on your mobile device (let’s just pretend we’re still using laptops and iPhones in the 22nd century). The archivist must uphold the archival principal of “original order,” which is based on the recognition that we can learn a lot about you – about your creative and professional practice, about how your brain works, about how you conceive of and “schematize” the world, etc. – by examining how you maintained your records.
    …..Pretend you’re that archivist. You’ll need to step out of your own body, mind, and time to create a (partial) finding aid for your own archival collection. How would your future-archivist draft a one-paragraph (150- to 200-word) “Biographical/Historical Note” for you and your collection, and how would he or she describe – in 600 words or fewer – the “Scope and Content” of your personal analog and digital files, including a list of the “series” of materials in the collection? For guidance and inspiration, seek out the finding aids of your favorite (deceased) artists and designers. In composing your own: no revising or cleaning up, and no self-judgment! Simply list things as they are, in all their glorious (dis)order.
    …..Please post your finding aids to your Cargo websites. Because we won’t be discussing this work, and I won’t be providing written feedback, until our in-person workshop on November 19 (at which point you’ll be sharing all three assignments) you’re welcome to keep returning to and revising your finding aid until then.
Oscar Bluemner, list of works of art, May 18, 1932. Oscar Bluemner papers, 1886–1939, 1960. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution
Oscar Bluemner, list of works of art, May 18, 1932. Oscar Bluemner papers, 1886–1939, 1960. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution
NOVEMBER 5: Keeping Lists, Making Files[2]

To be read for class today:

For the next three copyrighted readings, you’ll be prompted to enter a username (student) and password (seecritfilez).

What we’ll (probably) do in our virtual class:

Your exercise for this week:

  • How many differently-conceptualized and structured lists can you create from the same set of data: your professional projects – all the stuff you’d want to include on your resume and in your professional portfolio (and maybe even some projects you’d rather not include on these more public documents)? Try creating at least five parallel lists: (1) a list of your projects (broadly conceived) in chronological order, or in some other non-chronological-but-still-justifiable(-if-not-completely-sensible) time-order; (2) a list organized according to some geographical or spatial variable; (3) a list of the “series” or “thematics” into which you can lump your individual projects; (4) a list of your work organized according to format or medium or genre; and (5) a list organized by some unorthodox, perhaps insane, wildcard criterion. You’re strongly encouraged to expand on and experiment with the list form: try out different writing styles; incorporate sketches or other forms of illustration (but remember: our primary goal in this workshop is to develop our verbal facility); imagine incorporating some form of interactivity or animation. Don’t just scratch out your lists; design them!
    …..Please post your lists to your Cargo site. Because we won’t be discussing this work, and I won’t be providing written feedback, until our in-person workshop on November 19 (at which point you’ll be sharing all three assignments), you’re welcome to keep returning to and revising your lists until then.
NOVEMBER 12: Topological Forms and Logistical Writing[3]

To be read and prepared for class today:

  • Simon Dawes, “Interview with Celia Lury, Luciana Parisi and Tiziana Terranova on TopologiesTheory, Culture & Society Blog (January 15, 2013).
  • Shannon Mattern, ‘Infrastructural TourismPlaces (July 2013).
  • Shannon Mattern, “The Gaps in the Map [tentative title]” Places (Forthcoming Fall 2015).
  • Dan Hill, “In Praise of Lost TimeDomus (March 6, 2012) [Facebook’s Timeline is old news, but Dan Hill’s critique still resonates.]
  • Carla Nappi, “Translating Recipes 7: Recipes in Time and Space, Part 1The Recipes Project (January 22, 2015) [see also the Art Technology recipes theme].
  • Each student should select one exemplary verbo-graphic (i.e., graphic or interactive, but prominently featuring writing) “topological form” – an exploded-view diagram, a fractal map, a timeline or flowchart, an assemblage model, a verbal (perhaps even sonic?) cloud, a network diagram, a recipe or event score, etc. – that both (1) helps us better understand our contemporary culture and (2) informs, inspires, or challenges your own approach to media design. Post your example to your Cargo site, and be prepared to say a few words – like, two minutes’ worth – in class (and, if you want, on your website, too) about how it clarifies/obfuscates, reveals/hides, makes sensible/sense-able some aspect(s) of contemporary “topological” culture.

What we’ll (probably) do in our virtual class:

  • Discuss “topological culture” and the myriad models – conceptual, linguistic, graphic, pedagogical – we’ve developed to help make sense of it.
  • Peruse Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening.
  • Consider, by examining the examples each of you has shared, what strategies of verbo-graphic representation we might use to map our own networks of experience and influence.

Your exercise for next week:

  • I think it’s important for all of us “cultural producers” – artists, designers, technologists, academics, writers, teachers, etc. – to be able to situate our selves within our fields of thought and practice, not only so we can better understand the traditions in which we’re working and the distinctive contributions we’re making, but also so we can generously acknowledge and express our appreciation for the ideas and people who’ve influenced us. For this final exercise, I’m asking you to look outward, to your “topologies of influence and inspiration.” What ideas, people, communities, anomalous places, movements, historical ruptures, etc., have moved and changed you?
    …..Now, design two topological forms – network diagrams, maps (cartographic or otherwise), timelines, exploded-view diagrams, verbal (even sonic?) clouds, etc. – that represent those forces of influence and your place in relation to them.
NOVEMBER 19: Workshop
  • Before today’s class you should have finalized your finding aid, your five lists, and your two topological forms, and posted them to your Cargo site. You should be prepared to share this work with the class in a ten-minute presentation, in which you first speak briefly about your own practice, then walk us through each of your projects, explaining the intention behind them and how those intentions translated into execution.
    …..We’ll discuss each person’s work, and I’ll then provide written feedback before November 26. You’re to use this feedback to revise your three projects – and structure their presentation on your Cargo site (see below) – by December 3.
NOVEMBER 19: Evening Lecture (by me) on Remington-Rand’s Worlds Fair Filing Systems + “Designerly” Filing
DECEMBER 3: Final “Topological Dossiers” Due
  • By 1:00 pm PST you should have posted to your Cargo site final versions of your three (multi-part) projects. And rather than simply “listing” them mindlessly, design a system by which they should be introduced, ordered, framed (both graphically and conceptually), and linked.
Craig Oldham: Typo Circle Poster, via It's Nice That
Craig Oldham: Typo Circle Poster, via It’s Nice That 

[1] Jefferson Bailey, “Disrespect du Fonds: Rethinking Arrangement and Description in Born-Digital ArchivesArchive Journal 3 (Summer 2013).

[2] American Society for Indexing, “Indexes and Indexers in Fiction”; Ben Highmore, “Listlessness in the ArchiveM/C Journal 15:5 (2012); Shannon Mattern, “Delicious: Renovating the Mnemonic Architectures of Bookmarking” In Trebor Scholz, Ed., Learning Through Digital Media: Experiments in Technology and Pedagogy (2011); C. Wright Mills, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship,” Appendix to The Sociological Imagination, 40th Anniversary Ed. (New York: Oxford University Press [1959] 2000): 195-226; Liam Young, “On Lists and Networks: An Archaeology of FormAmodern 2: Network Archaeology (Fall 2013).

[3] Martin Kemp, Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design (Princeton University Press, 2006); Bruno Laour, “Can We Get Back to Materialism, Please?” Isis 98 (2007): 138-42; Celia Lury, Luciana Parisi and Tiziana Terranova, “Introduction: Becoming Topological of Culture” Theory, Culture & Society 29:4/5 (2012): 3-35; Shannon Mattern, “Intellectual FurnishingsMedium (October 19, 2014); Sharon Oviatt, “Case Study of the Role of Pen and Paper in Serial Innovation” In The Design of Future Educational Interfaces (New York: Routledge, 2013): 125-6.