Paper, Ash & Air: Material Remembering (2011)

As part of The New School’s 9/11 Forum on Memory, Trauma, and the Media (which commemorated the 10th anniversary of 9/11), I said a few words about the material memory of dust, scraps of paper, and other ephemeral media. You can find my full presentation here.


Paper, Ash & Air: Material Remembering

Tonight at The New School, as part of the 9/11 Forum on Memory, Trauma, and the Media (which is in honor of the 10th anniversary of 9/11), I’ll be saying a few words about the material memory of dust, scraps of paper, and other ephemeral media:


Lorenzo Ciniglio, Corbis/Sygma

It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night. He was walking north through rubble and mud and there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads. They had handkerchiefs pressed to their mouths. They had shoes in their hands, a woman with a shoe in each hand, running past him. They ran and fell, some of them, confused and ungainly, with debris coming down around them, and there were people taking shelter under cars.

The roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall. This was the world now. Smoke and ash came rolling down streets and turning corners, busting around corners, seismic tides of smoke, with office paper flashing past, standard sheets with cutting edge, skimming, whipping past, otherworldly things in the morning pall. (DeLillo)

At the beginning of his novel Falling Man Don DeLillo describes a scene that looks and feels and smells familiar to many of us. Even if we weren’t here on September 11, we’ve seen it in the videos: the South Tower falls apart around the floors where the plane impacted, its crown topples, and the building cascades to the ground. In some videos, when other structures stand between our videographer and the World Trade Center, it takes a few seconds until we can see the cloud of debris rising above the rooftops – and, sometimes, a few seconds more before it becomes apparent just how massive that cloud is, and how rapidly it’s approaching. [See first 35 seconds of the below]

[See 1:58 – 2:26 of the above.]

A few videographers, perhaps unable to run fast or far enough, or perhaps willing to put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of capturing these scenes for posterity, plant their feet and allow the cloud to envelop them. As we watch and prepare for the wave to hit, perhaps you, like I, draw in a breath and hold it. But then we’re taken aback to see flecks of luminescence preceding the grey. Paper.

Gulnara Somoilova, Untitled

They ran and then they stopped, some of them, standing there swaying, trying to draw breath out of the burning air, and the fitful cries of disbelief, curses and lost shouts, and the paper massed in the air, contracts, resumés blowing by, intact snatches of business, quick in the wind. (DeLillo)

The wind prevailed toward Brooklyn that morning, carrying many of these documents into and even well across the harbor. Writing in the New York Times just three days later, Jane Frisch and David Rohde described how what seemed like a “sweet and peaceful snowstorm” of paper [see Figure 7, below] “floated past the windows of the old P.S. 142 building on Henry Street, metallic pieces catching the glisten of the sun. Some blew into the open classroom windows, where, one administrator said, teachers and students examined it ‘in wonder.’”

Erich Scholz:

That “wonder,” I imagine, emerges in part from the realization that, until 8:45 on Tuesday morning, those very same sheets of paper represented the most pressing reality of the thousands of folks already at work in Lower Manhattan. And within minutes they had been made uncanny; they had become records of a bureaucratic normalcy, an existence, since lost. Yet in contrast to the amorphousness and inscrutability of the dust clouds and “the pile” at Ground Zero, these documents retained their form and legibility. Their status as “records” was clear. The students at P.S. 142 knew the value of what they had; Frisch and Rohde report that the teachers and students decided that the documents they intercepted “should be given to the police.”

Via WTC Environmental Organization

Meanwhile, the “cloud of dust” elicited not wonder, but terror – in part because of its inscrutable composition. Writing in a recent commemorative double issue of New York magazine, Steve Fishman says of the dust cloud:

It was one of the indelible images of 9/11: a dark cloud chasing people up Broadway as they fled the collapsing Towers. The cloud turned out to be an aerosolized mix of poisons, thousands of them: silicon, Freon, PCBs, asbestos, lead, pulverized concrete, and on and on. It covered panicked survivors, coated buildings, seeped into ventilation systems, and hinted at the larger problem to come. The acres of rubble quickly became, as one CDC official on site at the time recently explained, ‘a hazmat situation.’” (125)

Indeed, many workers were afflicted with “WTC cough” or diagnosed with RADS, reactive airways dysfunction syndrome, or even cancer linked to prolonged exposure to the toxins on-site.

Dealing with the dust was an ethically charged issue. Workers on the pile were required to wear respirators, but, as Fishman reports, “many resisted. Some felt guilty: After brother firefighters gave their lives, worrying about one’s own health seemed disloyal” (128). These choices determined how one would materially remember what had happened there. Firefighter Adrienne Walsh reported that, amidst the rubble, “I didn’t see victims. They were dust. And I was inhaling them” (58). The material memory of the lost was thus literally internalized by the Ground Zero workers, “archived” in their bodies.

Archival work has long involved the internalization of material records, according to historian Carolyn Steedman. In Dust: The Archive and Cultural History she writes of Jules Michelet’s conviction that he was reviving records in the National Archives of Paris by breathing them in: “these papers and parchments, so long deserted, desired no better than to be restored to the light of day… [A]s I breathed in their dust, I saw them rise up” (quoted on 1171). As a consequence, Michelet, much like those who later breathed in the lives lost at Ground Zero, contracted what Steedman calls “Archive Fever Proper,” sickness brought on by exposure to the dust of organic matter – animals skins, byproducts of human labor – that is an integral part of the archive.


Neither Michelet nor those working on “the pile” in the days after September 11 could have known what they were breathing in. The pile in particular resisted attempts to identify its components. This heap of…what was it? rubbish, detritus, ruins? had collapsed into a pile of indistinguishable materiality. “The towers of the World Trade Center were made of steel, concrete, asbestos, wood, plastic, and glass,” Marita Sturken writes; “they were filled with desks, computers, tables, and paper, and, yet, they crumbled into dust.” They were of course filled with people, too. And as Patricia Yaeger says, “…to think of the bodies of the dead mingling with this debris, to think of the results of the 9/11 explosions as detritus, gives one pause” (187; emphasis added).

Peter Ginter, Science Faction/Corbis

We cannot count on the formal integrity of the objects that once occupied this site. The boundaries between one object and another – and their very material constitution – are called into question. We don’t know how to name them, sort them, classify them, where to store them away in our memories. How do we sift the ashes from the dust, the remains from the rubble? Folklorist Kay Turner writes of Ground Zero as a “frozen zone” where “sudden annihilation had transformed the seemingly permanent into the definitively ephemeral: buildings became dust; work became millions of tiny scraps of paper floating in the air; and people, a total of 2603 of them, became bits and pieces of body parts, traces of DNA, or disappeared altogether, incinerated” (163).

Angel Franco, New York Times
Bill Biggart (1947-2001)

Yet in order to process our grief, to remember, we often need some material trace or some symbol to hold on to. I’m going to quote Turner at length here:

[Ground Zero’s] harrowing ephemeralities of dust, bone, and smoke – ephemeralities of disaster and death – were in stark contrast to a different version of the ephemeral that then prevailed at Union Square. If, as Camille Paglia and Ingrid Sischy suggest, in an instant two of the primary symbols of 20th century modernity – the airplane and the skyscraper – were used as weapons against each other, our first response to that catastrophic collision was a return to the usefulness of ephemeral, and hence incorruptible, symbols. The fragile beginnings of recovery from annihilation – an experience of stopped time, a feeling of the end of time – was initially felt in the human impulse to store time and memory in mundane material objects and simple yet universal symbolic images that could be seen, experienced, and interpreted by all. (Turner 163)

Richard Baker, Corbis
Peter Turnley, Corbis
Seth Cohen, Bettman/Corbis

We see evidence of such an impulse in the “missing” posters that blanketed the city for weeks after September 11; in the flowers and candles marking spontaneous shrines, particularly at Union Square; in the presentation of urns filled with Ground Zero dust to families who had lost loved ones; in the marking, each year, of the Towers’ voided footprints by beams of light. Through these acts we masked the odor of death and destruction emanating from Ground Zero; we reintroduced “flashes of luminescence” into a gray landscape; we gave form to the missing, the dematerialized.

Elena del Rivero, “[Swit – Home: A CHANT” @ The New Museum; photo by me, 9/8/11
Xu Bing, The Dust Project; photo by me, 9/8/11

These acts were in part attempts to sort through and make sense of those inscrutable piles of rubbish and clouds of dust. What we might not have realized at the time was that the dust, toxic and uncanny though it was, may have been an ideal representation of, or medium for, how we would remember the tragedy. As Sturken and Steedman remind us, dust is not “about refuse or rubble so much as it is about a cyclical materiality. It is a reminder of continuity, a vestige of what was that continues to exist” (Sturken 314).

Cynthia Lin, Dust Drawing, 2004


“9/11: One Day, Ten Years” New York Magazine Special Double Issue (September 5-12, 2011).

Eichhorn, Kate, “Archival Genres: Gathering Texts and Reading Spaces” Invisible Culture 12 (2008):

Fritsch, Jane & David Rohde, “After the Attacks: Relics; Trace Center’s Past in a Sad Paper Trail” New York Times (September 14, 2001).

Steedman, Carolyn, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002).

Steedman, Carolyn, “Something She Called a Fever: Michelet, Derrida, and Dust” The American Historical Review 106:4 (October 2001): 1159-1180.

Sturken, Marita, “The Aesthetics of Absence: Rebuilding Ground Zero” American Ethnologist 31:3 (2004): 311-25.

Turner, Kay. “September 11: The Burden of the Ephemeral” Western Folklore 68:2-3 (Spring 2009): 155-208.

Yaeger, Patricia, “Rubble as Archive, or 9/11 as Dust, Debris, and Bodily Vanishing” In Judith Greenberg, Ed., Trauma at Home: After 9/11 (Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 2003): 187 – 94.


Um, excuse me. There seems to be a human at the center of your object-oriented ontology.


I’ll be participating in The Third Object-Oriented Ontology Symposium at The New School on September 15. When I received the invitation a few weeks ago, my immediate response was: “I’m honored to have been invited — but you know I’m not a philosopher, right? Are you sure you want me?” Fast forward a few days, and I find myself on the schedule. I’m working under the assumption that my role is to represent object-focused work from outside the fold — work that might have both something to contribute to, and something to learn from, OOO. Sure, I’m up for that. It’s encouraging to recall these words from Graham Harman in a Mute interview from this past summer:

…OOP will want to say more about numerous concrete topics. Here I’m not as worried, because other people are doing much of the work for us already. It’s not my job to tell anthropologists and video artists how OOP should affect their work. That’s their job. They’re supposed to tell me what they learned, and maybe it will have a retroactive effect on my philosophy.

Perhaps I’m one of those “other people.” Yet my acceptance of these terms doesn’t mean that I’m not shaking in my boots, positively daunted by the prospect of temporarily infiltrating such a tightly-knit and intimidatingly intellectual group.

I’d been observing the evolution of the OOO “movement,” if you will, from the periphery for the past year-and-a-half or so. I became aware of it, or them, when I started developing my Media & Materiality grad seminar early last year, and I’ve been sporadically following some of the key figures’ blogs since then. I’m of course sympathetic to their overall mission — or at least what I understand of it. Ian Bogost offered a “simple, short, comprehensible explanation” on his blog in December 2009:

Ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Object-oriented ontology (“OOO” for short) puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally—plumbers, DVD players, cotton, bonobos, and sandstone, for example. In contemporary thought, things are usually taken either as the aggregation of ever smaller bits (scientific naturalism) or as constructions of human behavior and society (social relativism). OOO steers a path between the two, drawing attention to things at all scales (from atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis), and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much with ourselves. [Here are some other attempts to articulate what OOO is all about.]

Sure, sign me up! This works for me primarily, I think, because I’ve been working under most of the same assumptions — although I might’ve articulated them differently (or not thought to articulate them at all) — for the past decade or more. I say this not in a “Pshaw! I’ve been doing this stuff for years!“-sort-of-way, but in a “Hey, cool, we’re of like minds!”-sort-of-way.

I’m going to be talking about infrastructures — micro and macro, animate and inanimate, concrete and conceptual — in my talk on the 15th. And I’m not going to attempt to ape the philosophy talk; I’d make an utter fool of myself. Instead, I’m going to talk the way I normally talk, and hope that we find some fruitful intersections. Still, for the past week or so I’ve been doing a little cramming with the OOO “primers” in an attempt to find answers to some fundamental questions: How do they define “objects”? And why is the object the “unit” we should use to “package” (for lack of a better term) things as disparate as plumbers, bonobos, and sandstone into a “flat ontology”? (See Bogost’s Latour Litanizer. Harman explains his litanizing strategy in Mute: “In many cases I try to have the lists include one object from the sciences, one living creature, one machine, one compound entity, one human political unit and perhaps one fictional entity, just to enforce the notion of a ‘flat ontology’ in which all objects are equally objects.”)

Because I have infrastructure on the brain, I’m also having a really hard time getting past what seems to me an inherent contradiction in the infrastructure of the OOO enterprise itself — all the blogs; the university-based conferences, and the airplanes and faculty travel budgets that take the geographically dispersed “core” OOO group to those conferences; the doctoral students who lobby their departments to make those conferences happen; the open-access publishers that have helped to popularize the field; the glaring gender imbalance in the community; the linguistic infrastructure, so dependent as it seems to be on neologizing and developing new OOO “versions.” I just can’t get over the contradiction between, on one hand, the desire to remove the human, and human experience, from the center of philosophy; and, on the other hand, the blatant anthropocentrism — I might go so far as to say egocentrism (I’m referring to a systemic characteristic, not to the egocentrism of any particular individual(s)) — of the work involved in developing and promoting this post-/anti-/other-/whatever- humanist framework.

I’m sure I’m putting my philosophical naïveté (or stupidity?) on full display here. Maybe this is simply the way things work in this field: even within a collective enterprise, as OOO seemingly is, one still has to cultivate recognition for one’s unique contributions to the field (which presumes that we’re still looking for “individual genius”). And that responsibility involves coining new phrases; branding new theories; promoting (through either good or bad press!) one’s colleagues’ terminology and ontological flavors; convening the group for international symposia; and writing lots of lengthy treatises debating the merits of different colleagues’ unique OOO variants, while barely mentioning any actual objects at all. Harman, again in the Mute interview, offers a SWOT-based marketing analysis of some of the available brands:

It’s hard to say which brand of speculative realism is the most popular among philosophers (perhaps Quentin Meillassoux’s), but in humanities fields outside philosophy there’s no question that object-oriented philosophy is the dominant version. This is not surprising, given OOP’s highly democratic approach to objects. Those forms of SR which claim that sociology is worthless compared with neuroscience are obviously not going to be useful to sociologists. By contrast, OOP is far less judgemental about the other disciplines and welcomes interaction with them. OOP makes room to an equal degree for electrons, medieval history, literary criticism, and musicianship, so it’s little wonder that we’ve become a quick favourite across the widest variety of disciplines.

This self-reflexivity is endemic to “emerging” fields. I’ve noted before how much writing in the Digital Humanities still seems to be about what the Digital Humanities even are. Yet the emergence of a new field of study, a new method, a new ontology offers up the possibility to create a new discursive space — to design the “infrastructures” through which these developments can take shape. In their introduction to The Speculative Turn, Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Harman acknowledge the roles that a vibrant blogging community, adventurous new journals, and open-access publishing have played in shaping the discursive politics surrounding Speculative Realism. But why don’t we expand the OOO “litany” to call our attention also to other “objects” in the movement itself: disciplinary values (individual genius?), the Carbon footprint for those symposia, gender, the academic market for branded theories, and the politics of its rhetoric — which, from my vantage point, seems to have an anthropocentric bias out of character with the movement’s professed mission.

I offer this observation as a non-expert, as an external observer who’s quite sympathetic to what OOO stands for but not entirely sure that its discursive practices fit me well. And here I have to acknowledge my own biases: I’m not one for neologizing. I’m reluctant to refer to myself as a “theorist” because I’d never presume that I could generate an “original” theory. I’m way too self-effacing to think that the world could possibly need me to invent new language or intellectual frameworks.

The work that I do is simply a product of contact lenses (one object from the sciences), border collies (one living creature), a series of usually trusty Mac computers (one machine), the Dewey Decimal system (one compound entity), Happy Valley (one human political unit), Ferris Bueller (one fictional entity) — and, if you’ll permit me to add my own category to the litany, extreme sleep deprivation (one psychosomatic condition).

What if OOO, as an “institution” or practice, were to think of itself as a “flat ontology”?


Site Object Experience: ICA 2011 Presentation

Via Flickr:

Later this week I’m going to Boston to attend my first ever International Communication Association conference. I’ve never felt particularly at home in any of the “communication associations,” so these conferences have never really been on my annual circuit. But I was invited to participate this year in a panel on design and communication. It’s just a quick trip up to Boston, so I figured, oh what the hell. At the very least I’ll meet the other interesting people on my panel… and the one other design-focused panel on the program.

I’m doing something different — and rather selfish — with this presentation: I’m rehearsing some ideas for the “personal statement” I’ll have to write for my tenure dossier. I hope that’s not a terrible idea. In the statement I have to narrate my research trajectory over the past ten or so years and convince my reviewers, who hold my fate in their hands, that there’s been some coherent purpose to what I’ve been up to. The text still needs a lot of polish for the dossier, but I decided at midnight tonight that this is good enough for a 15+-minute talk.

Site Object Experience: Designing Material Media Spaces

Slides Here 

For decades scholars and critics have been examining design as communication. Their work has addressed [SLIDE2] the symbolism of the manufactured object (Barthes 1957; Candlin/Guins 2009), [SLIDE3] the means by which a built space communicates its function (Venturi 1966; Eco 1968), [SLIDE4] even the communicative action of the design process (Alexander 1987; Mattern 2003). Methodologies emerging from [SLIDE5] the relatively new field of design studies, as well as new theoretical approaches—including [SLIDE6] the “new materialism” (Gumbrecht/Pfeiffer 1994; Miller 2005), [SLIDE7] “thing theory” (Appadurai 1996; Brown 2001), and [SLIDE8] media archaeology (Huhtamo 1997; Zielinski 2006)—offer models through which communication scholars can study [SLIDE9] the design of communicative objects, from codices to ebooks, from pencils to joysticks.

In my own work for over a decade, I’ve drawn on these various traditions, focusing specifically on [SLIDE10] the relationships between media and communication and spatial design practices – at the interior, architectural, urban, and, occasionally, national scales. In what follows I’ll provide a brief overview of the projects I’ve undertaken in an effort to highlight the concepts and theoretical frameworks, the methodologies and interconnected scales of analysis, that I’ve developed for this work. And then for the last few minutes I’ll home in on [SLIDE11] a recent article that focuses on an under-the-radar 1000 square-foot room in a library not far from here: the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard’s Lamont Library. [SLIDE12]

Essentially, what I’m about to present is a sort of intellectual autobiography – a choice of genre that might seem rather presumptuous for someone who’s still junior. But as a junior faculty member who will very soon face [SLIDE13] a major review that will seal my professional fate, I found this exercise – of conceptually and methodologically organizing my work – to be fantastic preparation for the work that lies before me this summer. I hope the following will prove to be of some use for you, too.

I began my academic career wondering why so few media scholars studied [SLIDE14] libraries – which seemed to me the ideal “objects to think with.” They contained media of various formats, spanning a wide stretch of media history. They contained their own networks of media distribution and consumption – and, in some cases, production, too. They embodied particular practices of reading and listening and looking. And the buildings themselves, as Victor Hugo, Walter Benjamin, Lewis Mumford, Marshall McLuhan, and others have shown us, [SLIDE15] constitute among the most massive, resolutely material media in existence. I was for a time in graduate school steeped in the [SLIDE16] Media Ecology tradition – and while I no longer identify strongly with this tradition, the lessons I’ve learned from Innis, McLuhan, Giedeon, and other figures who focused on media “form” and, although some might not have used this term, design, helped to build my intellectual foundation.

In 1999 I set out to study what was shaping up to be one of the most closely watched design projects of the turn-of-the-21st century: [SLIDE17] Rem Koolhaas’s design of the Seattle Public Library. I focused just as much on the design process – I looked at design as multimodal discursive action – as on the designed product. I examined how [SLIDE18] local and international media shaped the discourse surrounding the design of the Library; [SLIDE19] how the architects communicated the design in small-group settings and large-scale public addresses; [SLIDE20] how the building itself functioned as a symbol of civic and institutional identity – which required that I also examine city and regional planning initiatives; [SLIDE21] and, finally, how the architecture informed its publics’ interactions with media in various formats.

In other words, I investigated [SLIDE22][CLICK] the role of communication in design (the role of interpersonal and mass media and various analogue and digital design media – e.g., models, sketches, animated fly-throughs); [CLICK] architectural design as communication (building as symbol, as embodiment of its function); [CLICK] the design (or “architecture”) of various media formats and communication technologies (from microform to Kindles); [CLICK] and design of spaces for those myriad forms of media. [SLIDE23] This work involved interviewing architects, librarians, urban planners, library pages, city mayors, patrons, and other stakeholders; studying design media and documentation (research reports, blueprints, models, meeting minutes); reviewing press coverage and internal communication; observing meetings and public fora; reviewing the design and theoretical work of the various parties involved in these design processes; and of course studying the history of the designer, the city, and the institution and its architecture.

My other research projects have applied similar theoretical models and methodologies in studying the design or renovation of other “information” facilities – [SLIDE24] including Louis Kahn’s Philips Exeter Academy Library, [SLIDE25] which recently celebrated its 40th birthday (and has struggled to incorporate new networked media into its very classically geometric codex-inspired design); [SLIDE26] Alvar Aalto’s Woodberry Poetry Room, which recently underwent a controversial renovation, also in an attempt to accommodate “today’s volume and character of use”; [SLIDE27] and the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, which represents and archival space in limbo, between the analogue and digital.

Recognizing that much of the design scholarship and criticism on these and other buildings was overwhelmingly ocularcentric, over time I expanded my focus to examine how libraries and archives can be designed to accommodate [SLIDE28] multiple sensory “conditions of attendance” – particularly the sonic conditions – necessitated by various media formats and habits of use. [SLIDE29] “Conditions of attendance” is a concern I’ve borrowed from my media ecology background. [SLIDE30] I’ve also found Bourdieu’s habitus to be a useful tool for thinking about how architecture is a structure that structures our interactions with media, and with each other.

Architecture constructs a habitus that informs not only how people consume media, but also how they produce it; so I’ve also looked at how media companies – [SLIDE31] like China Central Television in Beijing and [SLIDE32] InterActive Corporation in New York — can design buildings that communicate their corporate and local identities, facilitate the production of media, and embody particular ideologies and labor practices.

As I’ve examined these individual structures, I’ve recognized that spatial design strategies at different scales, as well as the discourses surrounding them, bleed together. “Scaling up” or “down” the spatial unit of analysis has also helped me to appreciate [SLIDE33] how “spatial design” is often integrated with other design practices, like graphic design or [CLICK] interaction design, or furniture design, or industrial designers’ work in shaping particular media artifacts. For example, we might consider the role of architectural signage in a building’s ability to communicate its function and identity – [SLIDE34] or, at a larger scale, the role played by a custom-designed typeface in “re-branding” an entire nation. There are many other interesting convergences of media design – particularly print publication – and architectural design; [SLIDE35] I recently completed a study on “paper architecture” – the production of little magazines and zines – as an alterative architectural practice.

[SLIDE36] My current project is intended to tackle this integration of scales – the connection of design “nodes” into networks – and the integration of various design practices, including even engineering. I’ve also been particularly inspired by [SLIDE37] recent work problematizing the supposed “immateriality” and “ubiquity” of networked media, [CLICK] and by work on infrastructure. Lisa Parks’ and Brian Larkins’ work has proven inspirational. Over the past few years I’ve begun to examine how [SLIDE38] the “design” of historical media networks and infrastructures, like pneumatic tubes and telecommunications networks, have shaped the material city. [SLIDE39] Drawing on media archaeology – and methods from real archaeology – I aim in my next book to show how those historical media, from the voice to print to telegraphy, have laid the path for contemporary media networks.

[SLIDE40] Through all of this work, I’ve come to appreciate the value of integrating various scales of analysis – how the reading or screening room works with in the building, which itself interacts with its city and region – and examining how various design practices work in tandem. This integrated approach helps to uncover the ontological integration of communication and design: [SLIDE41] in other words, looking simultaneously at communication in design, design as communication, and design for communication, can help us appreciate the mutual construction of material sites for, objects for, and experiences of communication.

[SLIDE42] In my last couple minutes here, I’m going to briefly talk about site that allows us to appreciate this ontological integration. The Woodberry Poetry Room boasts a marvelous collection of 20th- and 21st-century poetry books, including many small press editions, pamphlets, magazines, broadsides, and manuscripts “from the entire English-speaking world,” and serves as home to readings from some of the worlds most renowned poets. It was designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and opened in 1949 in Harvard University’s Lamont Library, the country’s first undergrad library. The room had originated in 1931 in Widener Library, in a more formal incarnation consistent with the New Criticism then in vogue. Yet its founding mission was far from New Criticism: it was dedicated to “bringing alive the poet’s voice and creating a place at Harvard…for the enduring delight and significance of poetry.”

[SLIDE43] But by 2006, the furniture was worn out, the asbestos in the ceiling had raised concern, and the room’s technical capabilities had become sorely apparent – so the libraries planned a renovation. Granted, the renovation was rather hush-hush, and rushed, but the design and preservation communities’ reactions to the project revealed dramatic differences in the way the design community, the library community, and the poetry community regarded the form and materiality of the poetic text and the room that housed them. [SLIDE44] Critics regarded the renovation as “vandalism”: the “reading room,” the press said, was a “jewel” of a design that should be kept in its perfect, complete form. [SLIDE45] All those “amenities,” like computers, could simply be placed in an adjacent location. Besides, “reading and listening to poetry are not activities that have changed much in centuries.” The problems are that technology cannot be set aside – even the manuscript is technology – …and reading and listening to poetry have changed dramatically as a result of technological and cultural change.

[SLIDE46] The room had always been technologically advanced: Aalto – who had a history of experimenting with new forms, and designing spaces that recognized the integration of sensory perception and intellectual cognition in people’s appropriation of architecture – designed these eight “listening stations,” which were the “high tech” of 1949. While preservationists regarded the poetic medium as something static, and the precious “masterwork” that contained those media as something similarly perfect and complete, George E. Woodberry, who bequeathed the gift that established the room, and a long line of the room’s curators, [SLIDE47] as well as the faculty and students who used it, valued its ability to offer up, in the words of Seamus Heaney, the “living history of modern poetry.” Poetry is a dynamic thing, which can exist as a printed text on a page, a handwritten manuscript, an audiorecording (the room was a pioneer in creating poetry recordings), or a live performance. The poetic “medium” was something multiple – it was Barthes’ “text” – whereas the preservationists wanted poetry, and the room that housed it, to be crystallized as a masterwork.

[SLIDE48] Aalto’s approach to design, one concerned primarily with the user’s embodied experience of both architecture and media, proved consistent with the pedagogical approach implied in the room’s founding mission—an approach that recognizes the integration of affect and cognition, of delight and critical engagement—and the curators’ appreciation of the fluidity and dynamism of poetry’s forms. The controversy over the renovation, it seemed to me, reflected disagreement regarding the fluidity or fixity—the ontology—of the architectural “object” and the poetic text and how users (readers, listeners, writers, inhabitants) engage with those texts. In order to arrive at this conclusion, I had to examine the media coverage of the design, how the design communicated a particular pedagogical philosophy and an architectural “character,” and how the room facilitated engagement with poetry in its myriad mediated formats. These variables mutually constructed a material site for, objects for, and experiences of communication.

As my research has evolved, I’ve recognized that, over the past 10 years, it has come to flesh out [SLIDE49] Anna McCarthy and Nick Couldry’s “five levels” of media space, which they outlined in their 2004 book, MediaSpace: Place, Scale and Culture in a Media Age:

  1. Studying media representations (media coverage of design processes)
  2. The study of how media images, texts, and data flow across space and, in so doing, reconfigure social space (how spaces create conditions of attendance, inform practices of looking, hearing, media-making)
  3. The study of the specific spaces at either end of the media process, the space of consumption and the space of production (and the spaces in-between – distribution)
  4. The study of the scale-effects, or complex entanglements of scale, which result from the operation of media in space (each of my projects works across scales)
  5. Studying how media-caused entanglements of scale are variously experienced and understood in particular places (comparative studies – as in my first book, which examined 15 libraries, and my new book project which examines various cities around the world, from various periods in history)

[SLIDE50] We might supplement this list with a few additional concepts: the interaction between physical and virtual spaces; those spaces in-between production and consumption; the material and virtual infrastructures that support these production/distribution/consumption cycles; the roles various media objects play within these networks, etc. [SLIDE51] Thinking across these levels of analysis could help us to better appreciate the multifaceted interactions between spatial design and media – between site, object, and experience.


Site Object Experience: Designing Material Media Spaces (2011)

Presentation at the 2011 International Communication Association Conference (which, I must admit, also functioned as a workshop for the personal statement in my tenure dossier)

For decades scholars and critics have been examining design as communication. Their work has addressed the symbolism of the manufactured object (Barthes 1957; Candlin/Guins 2009), the means by which a built space communicates its function (Venturi 1966; Eco 1968), even the communicative action of the design process (Alexander 1987; Mattern 2003). Methodologies emerging from the relatively new field of design studies, as well as new theoretical approaches—including the “new materialism” (Gumbrecht/Pfeiffer 1994; Miller 2005), “thing theory” (Appadurai 1996; Brown 2001), and media archaeology (Huhtamo 1997; Zielinski 2006)—offer models through which communication scholars can study the design of communicative objects, from codices to ebooks, from pencils to joysticks. In my own work for over a decade, I’ve drawn on these various traditions, focusing specifically on the relationships between media and communication and spatial design practices – at the interior, architectural, urban, and, occasionally, national scales. In what follows I’ll provide a brief overview of the projects I’ve undertaken in an effort to highlight the concepts and theoretical frameworks, the methodologies and interconnected scales of analysis, that I’ve developed for this work. And then for the last few minutes I’ll home in on a recent article that focuses on an under-the-radar 1000 square-foot room in a library not far from here: the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard’s Lamont Library.

You can find the full presentation, including text and slides, here.


Radical Shifts (2011)

As part of Parsons’ Radical Shifts exhibition, which explored the transformation of Interior Design into Environmental Design, I participated in the following roundtable discussion:

Thursday, March 31
Sheila C. Johnson Design Center
Bark Room
2 West 13th Street.

History, Holes, and Institutional Memory
6:30-8:00 p.m.

A discussion on the challenges of putting on history exhibits.

Moderator: Laura Auricchio, School of Art and Design History and Theory

Parsons Panelists: Kathleen Hulser, senior curator, History, New York Historical Society;Shannon Mattern, Media Studies and Film, The New School for General Studies; Wendy Scheir, Kellen Design Archives.


SCMS Mapping Workshop (2011)

We received word last week that our “Urban Informatics, Geographic Data, and the Media of Mapping” workshop has been accepted for the 2011 Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in New Orleans. I’m chairing, and Germaine Halegoua (University of Wisconsin, Madison), Brendan Kredell (Northwestern University), Daniel Makagon (DePaul University), Jesse Shapins (Harvard University), and Nicole Starosielski (University of California, Santa Barbara) are contributing. Should be awesome.

The past several years have seen increasing corporate and educational interest in and major funding for projects that make urban histories, knowledges, data, etc., accessible, visible/audible/tangible, and, ideally, intelligible to urban publics. This workshop, supported by the Cinema, Media and Urban Studies SIG, will examine several such projects, critically addressing their rhetorical and aesthetic strategies and examining their utility as platforms for research, as pedagogical resources, and as political tools for civic engagement. Acknowledging the widespread commitment among these projects to “making the invisible, visible” (and sometimes collapsing “the urban” into “the visible”), panelists will pay particular attention to the media and sensory modes of mapping.

Brendan Kredell will critically reflect on how he’s using tools borrowed from urban and cultural geography—maps, census data, GIS—in his research on the relationships between gentrification and the growth of “sophisticated” cinema venues, like the Landmark Theatres. Germaine Halegoua will examine projects that use RFID, GPS, and other coding protocols to track, annotate, and map information about urban objects—from park benches to trash. Fusing urban informatics with “the Internet of Things,” these maps have the potential to “encourage novel styles of learning the city [and] aid in creating more stable policy initiatives.”

Daniel Makagon will discuss his own and others’ sound-mapping projects, which provide alternatives to traditional sight-centric modes of mapping and serve to represent the complexity of urban sensory experience. Both Makagon and fellow presenter Jesse Shapins pay particular attention to the politics embodied in their projects’ “base maps”: Makagon makes use of wiki-style OpenStreetMaps, while Shapins is developing an open-source toolkit for the creation of “cross-platform, interactive narratives” about urban places. Shapins’ software allows users to remix photos, videos, text, audio, maps, etc., into “database documentaries” that are then tied to places on a map. Finally, Nicole Starosielski will demonstrate a digital mapping project she has created in collaboration with USC’s VECTORS journal. Her “counter-map” uses digital media’s networked capabilities to portray transoceanic cables not as static material infrastructure, as they are presented in traditional cartography, but as “vectors” revealing the “complexity, historicity, and locality” of global media networks.


Critical Futures 3 @ Storefront (2011)

Critical Futures

Tuesday 8 March 2011, 7pm
Storefront for Art and Architecture
97 Kenmare St., New York (NY)

Over the past decade, several transformations regarding media and communication systems, among others, have reshaped the context within which architecture is conceived and debated. The Internet has made images and information free and instantly ubiquitous; magazines, once the undisputed platforms for the criticism of architecture and design, have been challenged to redefine their purpose and economic model in the light of dwindling readerships; blogs have given a global audience, potentially of millions, to anyone with an Internet connection. In all of this, the continued relevance of architecture criticism as practiced today has been put in doubt: as Alexandra Lange writes, “Online, both everyone and no one is a critic, and architecture talk proliferates, often in the absence of buildings.”

Is criticism in the traditional sense still relevant or useful, and can it be more than the legitimation of the new? If the role of the print publication in contemporary production irreversibly declines, what is its future? Will online publishing (from press-release feed blogs to the few bastions of criticism online sites) ever be able to fill this void? What forces might shape architectural production in a post-critical environment?

The event will take place at Storefront for Art and Architecture, a non-profit gallery and events space in SoHo, New York.

Justin Davidson – architecture critic, New York magazine
Eva Franch – Director, Storefront for Art and Architecture
Alexandra Lange – journalist and critic, Design Observer
Shannon Mattern – Department of Media Studies & Film, The New School 
Kazys Varnelis – Netlab, Columbia University GSAPP
Lebbeus Woods – architect and blogger
Mimi Zeiger – writer and blogger
Moderated by Joseph Grima – Editor, Domus


Art Scavenger Hunt (2009)

This is more of an “activity” than a “presentation,” but still…

For Robert’ Kirkbride’s Fall 2009 “Intersections” University Lecture course, I created, with the help of curator Silvia Rocciolo, a scavenger hunt of The New School’s fantastic modern and contemporary art collection. Students broke into groups, and each group was assigned a theme (e.g., machines, portraits, the color purple) to guide their viewing. They documented their finds, then “remixed” their findings into an online exhibition.