(Counter)Logics and Deep Histories of the Zone (the case of Paju Bookcity)

MRVDV / The Why Factory's "Vertical Village" @ Total Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul, 2012; Model of Paju Bookcity, Photo by Yeong Ran Kim
Two Urban Imaginaries: MRVDV / The Why Factory‘s “Vertical Village” @ Total Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul, 2012, Photo by me; Model of Paju Bookcity, Photo by Yeong Ran Kim

Next weekend I’m participating in a workshop, jointly organized by colleagues at The New School and NYU, on “Zonal Logics of Modernity” — or the special economic zone as a socio-cultural space, one we can perhaps better understand through the lenses of the humanities. Some of the key concerns we’ll be addressing include: whether there’s a particular connection between Asian modernity and the SEZ (given the spatial form’s early arrival and contemporary predominance in Asia); what role aesthetics and materiality play in the marketing and design of the zone; how the zone configures the urban subject and/or citizen; how “zonal logics” impact cultural production; and what epistemologies and ontologies of urbanity are embodied in the zone.

At the Moveable Type Workshop, Paju Bookcity, Photo by me; Books @ Bookcity, Photo by Yeong Ran Kim
At the Moveable Type Workshop, Paju Bookcity, Photo by me; Books @ Bookcity, Photo by Yeong Ran Kim
via Washington Post
via Washington Post

I’ll focus on Paju Bookcity, which I visited in the Summer of 2012 and wrote about for Places last year. I think Paju presents an interesting counter-example because it reflects, at least in its “philosophical” dimension, a counter-logic: rather than embracing global capitalism, technological progress, and other “neoliberal” (I wince every time I say or write that word!) values, Bookcity was conceived in the late 80s (and founded in 2007) to provide a space of exception, an alternative to South Korea’s “growth-driven ambition of the late 20th century.” While the rest of the nation seemed single-mindedly focused on achieving digital supremacy — the fastest broadband, the greatest saturation of smartphones — here we have a haven for analog books.

As I write in my Places article:

This was the complicated urban-cultural and socio-economic context that inspired Korean publisher Yi Ki-ung to found Paju Bookcity, and which shaped his decade-long battle to bring it to fruition: a publishing industry with a deep cultural history facing dramatic changes; a capital city bloated by years of top-down development that had proven unsustainable; and a national psyche recovering from what Yi described as “intense psychological confusion and disorder” brought about by decades of war, colonialism and dictatorship. As [design critic Edwin] Heathcote says, Yi envisioned an alternative future; Bookcity was “a reaction to the rapacious redevelopment of Seoul, the loss of the city’s historic fabric and its rapid embrace of the culture of bigness and congestion.” Bookcity’s self-styled exceptionalism is rooted in this origin story: it was conceived as not just another industrial estate, but as a city that would, in Yi’s words, “recover the lost humanity” of the country, a cultural project sustaining time-honored values and a commitment to the print tradition.

…The Asia Publication and Culture Information Center — one of the signature buildings in Paju and the only one whose designer, Kim Byung-yoon, was chosen by competition — embodied the project’s central values: “preserving the spiritual culture of Korea … bequeathing the value and importance of the Book to the next generation.” …For Yi, who felt “suffocated in Seoul,” Paju was intended to be a breath of fresh air; by bringing together urban designers and bookmakers outside the pressures of the capital city, he hoped to encourage a more reflective practice and richer culture.

The Story of a Dutiful Cow - a parable for Bookcity
The Story of a Dutiful Cow – a parable for Bookcity, Photos by me

Bookcity was, at least in its original conception, explicitly nostalgic; it embraced and embodied what seemed to be a zonal counter-logic. But in order to operationalize this vision, and get the necessary funding, the project’s leaders had to wrap this utopian, and seemingly “pre-modern,” vision in a late capitalist zonal package: they had to sell Bookcity as specialized industrial city that would offer particular efficiencies in national and international book distribution and provide a space for synergistic collaboration — not to mention “reflective practice” — among its publishers. All the standard zonal logics made possible its realization:

The central government provided state-owned land at a discount, built much of the infrastructure, offered low-cost financing to tenants, granted a five-year tax exemption, and funded construction of the Culture Center. [14] But if the “industrial” label was strategically necessary, Yi and other leaders found it unpalatable; as they put it: “We have attempted to overcome the uninspiring characteristics of an ‘industrial development’ by incorporating the dynamic characteristics of a ‘city.’”

The Asia Publication and Culture Information Center, Photo by Yeong Ran Kim
The Asia Publication and Culture Information Center, Photo by Yeong Ran Kim

Depending on how one looks at it, the reflective-thought-in-spite-of-digital-distraction and “old-school”-cultural-production-among-the-rice-paddies vision, along with Bookcity’s potential to serve as a node in a proposed cultural “bridge” between North and South Korea, could be the “conceptual core” of Bookcity, and its rhetorical packaging as a viable economic zone, embracing dominant forms of zonal logic, could be merely a necessary compromise in ensuring its viability. Or maybe it’s the other way around: the “recovery of lost humanity” through the rediscovery of “slow” publishing, the promise of “getting back to nature,” the prioritization of “community above capital” — and the embodiment of these values in ambitious and floridly theorized design that simultaneously embraced the clean lines of contemporary architecture and the inevitable patina and decay of natural materials — maybe this was the aestheticization and marketing of what was, at its core, just another industrial zone.

Bookcity's Architectural Gems" & Booxen Distribution Center, Photos by Yeong Ran Kim
Bookcity’s Architectural Gems” & Booxen Distribution Center, Photos by Yeong Ran Kim

Even the material landscape embodies the tensions between these ideologies: its individual “architectural gems” never coalesce into a coherent community, its workspaces don’t always prove conducive to the type of labor involved in book publishing, and its proposed workers’ housing ended up being created by a developer who priced it well above the means of your typical publishing company employee. So all the assistant editors and distribution facility workers make the half-hour trip north from Seoul every day. As I write in Places,

Some of the challenges Paju Bookcity faces in transforming itself into a “real” city, a vibrant center of literary life, can be traced in part to its urban design; but some are clearly due to its classification as a mono-functional industrial estate. There is, I would argue, a paradox in its founding premises: Paju exemplifies the effort to acknowledge book publishing as an industrial sector in need of special attention; yet it has also resulted in its physical segregation from the dynamic urban life and culture that has historically nurtured its content and reception, its authors and readers…. Book printing and distribution might benefit from consolidating resources on inexpensive land outside the city, but the more social aspects of publishing — interactions between authors, editors, translators, agents and readers; and the way these various interactions draw from and give to the city — will likely be sacrificed by a move to the wetlands near the DMZ.

What seems to distinguish Paju from so many other progress-through-sleek-modernization-oriented zones is its embrace of historical values. So I want to think a bit more about the roles of nostalgia and history in the zone. As I write in the article,

Baek Won Keun explained to me that the country has a huge market in private education, including courses to prepare students for college entrance exams — and the study guides used by private tutors comprise an astonishing 60 percent of the publishing market. This is hardly the classic republic of letters, where a broad readership hungers for great literature and philosophy and political debate; here the book industry is sustained by children cramming for standardized tests…. Perhaps there’s no longer much use romanticizing the centrality of books, periodicals, newspapers, pamphlets and posters to city life and urban form…. Today we no longer live in a world of Habermasian public spheres animated by the circulation of printed matter. The purposes and platforms of reading are changing so dramatically that publishing and literature are bound to occupy a very different physical place in our cities.

From the Moveable Type Workshop, Paju Bookcity, Photo by Me
From the Moveable Type Workshop, Paju Bookcity, Photo by me

But Paju does at least remind us that publishing and literature have long occupied critical places in our cities. Bookcity is merely the latest development in a half-millennium-long tradition of urban zones that arise around print — to support its production, distribution, and consumption; and to foster “print culture.” Jianyang, Leipzig, Lyon and Boston have served as important publishing centers. There’s a solid body of scholarship on the place of place — local institutions and resources, local and regional distribution networks, the role printing has played in constructing local identity — in historical Ming dynasty Chinese publishing centers, including Jiangnan, Yangzhou, Fujian, Sibao, and Nanjing, among others. Bronwen Wilson also writes of early modern Venice as a center of print production — of how the making of books not only shaped the economy and landscape of the city, but also how the creation of new publishing forms influenced the way people explored and experienced their cities, and informed how cities represented themselves to their own citizens and to outsiders. Rose Marie San Juan offers a similar characterization of early modern Rome, paying particular attention to how print and its interplay with the city “proved a crucial site for reworking early modern subjectivities.” And some have written about the arrival of publishers and bookshops and bazaars around mosques throughout the Islamic world in the 16th and 17th centuries: “It was a tradition that stretched across the Indian sub-continent and Central Asia – the mosque, the market square and the story-tellers,” writes Majid Sheikh.

Bookcity is also part of a much longer trajectory in which the creation of media, and the formal and aesthetic properties of those media, have shaped the morphology of urban space. While those centers of print production were cropping up, the formal “zones” of cities were often taking inspiration from the book to make urban form and facades more “legible,” and folks were using book metaphors to explain how cities worked. Anthony Vidler writes of  “the Enlightenment aspiration for the city to read like an open book,” the drive to render the city — Paris, in particular — “legible to its citizens, as if it were a three-dimensional treatise in civic virtue written on the facades of its institutions. To ‘read’ the city, to understand its apparent chaos and bewildering contrasts through the eyes of a writer, whether as topographical, historical, or critical discourse, became by the end of the century the favored mode of city lore.”

Thus, if we look at our historical printing centers, and their print-inspired urban development, as precursors to Bookcity, we might be able to situate the zone — particularly our media- and technology-oriented zones of today — within a much deeper history.


Interface Critique

via CitySDK 

I’m writing a new piece for Places on prospective/speculative “interfaces to the smart city” — or points of human contact with the “urban operating system.” As I explained to the editors,

I’d like to consider these prototyped urban interfaces‘ IxD — with outputs including maps, data visualizations, photos, sounds, etc.; and inputs ranging from GUIs and touchscreens to voice and gestural interfaces — and how that interactive experience both reflects and informs urban dwellers’ relationships to their cities (and obfuscates some aspects of the city), and shapes their identities as urban “subjects.” I’m particularly interested in our single-minded focus on screens (gaaaahh!): are there other, non-“glowing rectangle” / “pictures under glass“-oriented platforms we can use to mediate our future-experiences of our future-cities?


Spaces for Critical Action in Urban Software Art

via Quartier des Spectacles
via Quartier des Spectacles 

Last night I attended a salon on spectacle in urban software art, featuring artists Eric CorrielKacie KinzerRune Madsen, and YesYesNo / Molmol Kuo. The event was hosted by LISA/Isabel Walcott Draves and Tanya Toft, who organized it as part of a curatorial fellowship and her doctoral research at Copenhagen University. Okay, that’s probably more detail than you need. Anyway, Tanya was my former advisee and research assistant at The New School, and I’m now serving a external advisor for her CuratorLab project. The salon marked the launch of her new Urban Media Aesthetics platform, which I announced here earlier this week. She intended for the evening’s conversation to examine how these artists’ works “embody and exercise a form of criticality in public space” — in other words, how they use “spectacle” to do critical work.

Tanya invited me to write up a response to the salon. It’ll be posted to the UMA website [and here it is!] — but I figured I’d share a draft here, too. So…


If capital-S Spectacle implies superficiality, commodity fetishism, and alienation, perhaps little-s spectacular, in its less overdetermined condition, offers at least some possibility for redemption, for the recuperation of thoughtful, critical engagement. Maybe we can still find somewhere in those dazzling urban screens and media facades, or in those captivating interactive maps of sentient urban systems, the means of critique or radical action. We might also discern in all the blinking LEDs a reminder that “to be radical” in the cosmopolitan city – where efficiency, profitability, and growth-for-growth’s sake are prime virtues – might mean, simply, making time for play or contemplation.

At the Urban Media Aesthetics salon on December 4, four computational artists presented work that, while spectacular within its urban contexts, still allowed for some form of criticality. Looking across the oeuvres of these four practitioners, however, it became clear that that critical potential resides in different places in different projects. Sometimes it’s in the conceptualization and execution of a work, and sometimes it’s in its reception or use: in the user’s active manipulation of the work; in the way the work prompts the user to reexamine herself, or her relationship to those around her; in the user’s phenomenological experience of the work – even her resignation to and absorption into the work.

By simply recognizing that there are so many means of engaging with urban media art – that they’re more multifaceted than the totalizing theories of the Spectacle might imply – we’ve already done the critical work of acknowledging that all those glowing rectangles, big and small, are more than flat screens. They represent a layering of infrastructures, a three-dimensional interface between their makers and users, a generator of social space. Rather than erecting superficial “planes of alienation,” Urban Media Aesthetics has the potential to generate environments for purposeful thinking and action.

Written Images from d_effekt on Vimeo.

Rune Madsen began his presentation by talking pedagogy. In “Printing Code,” a class he teaches in NYU’s ITP, students learn graphic design through code, by acknowledging the algorithms behind so many creative, expressive practices – the measurements behind grid systems, the geometry behind typography, the proportional relationships behind color choices, etc. He wants his students not to be “blinded by the tool” or the technique, but, instead, to be aware that those often-invisible infrastructures are present – and have been present for as long as our ancestors have been making art – and informing their creative choices. “Students often don’t know what rules they’re trying to break – or they don’t know the rules at all.” Knowing the rules – then perhaps deliberately breaking them – makes for more thoughtful and critical designers and programmers, he suggested.

via SP_Urban 

In his own work, Madsen aims to highlight, if not break, the rules governing learning algorithms, which learn what we like – in food, in friends, in fashion – and filter the future options placed before us, à la “if you like this, you’ll also like that.” For The Artist is Not Present, which appeared in the SP_Urban Digital Festival in São Paulo in 2013, Madsen created an algorithm that generated iterations of geometric art; then, by rating those works on a scale of 1 to 9, he “trained” his computer to predict his aesthetic preferences for the next generation of designs. As his algorithm generated the 50,000 increasingly complex, unique artworks that were projected on a São Paulo building façade for the three-week duration of the festival, Madsen effectively effaced his agency as the artist. And the software then effaced itself on the last day of the festival. This intentional erasure or disappearing – perhaps, if we’re into awkward neologisms, we could say “de-spectaclization” – also characterizes Madsen’s Tiny Artists series, which, again, grants aesthetic agency to the algorithm. Tiny programs generate geometric poster designs, which are then printed, before the programs delete themselves and their own source code, leaving the analog prints to stand alone, mutely hinting at the process of their generation.

Tiny Artists
Tiny Artists 

In a gallery setting, a visitor would likely be privy to Tiny Artists’ backstory, and might appreciate the critical issues – regarding authorship, originality, materiality, the creative freedom of artistic production, etc. – that Madsen is grappling with in this work. Yet in downtown São Paulo, it’s quite possible that a passerby, unfamiliar with the work’s critical play with aesthetic agency, might see little more than dynamic shapes in vibrant colors flashing on a skyscraper – a scene that might be read, as Christiane Paul suggests, as “an aesthetic visualization of a public social space or as pure visual spectacle.” There’s less control, in this urban context, over the critical context in which the work is perceived – and thus greater chance that the critical intention might be missed. Yet there are at least two cues in Madsen’s work that might enable even the uninitiated to recognize that there’s more here than meets the eye – that this isn’t a gratuitously clever techno-Spectacle. First, the work’s provocative title, The Artist Is Not Present, if displayed or broadcast anywhere in the vicinity of the projection, raises critical questions about Madsen’s intentions; and second, the obvious “pattern language” of the display – the fact that there’s clearly a rhythm, a repetition of certain formal, chromatic, or compositional elements as the designs evolve – could compel passersby to want to “crack the code,” to wonder about the logic driving the artwork’s evolution. The Artist Is Not Present thus becomes a mystery: one of missing persons and secret codes.


There’s a mystery behind Kacie Kinzer’s work, too. When a city-dweller sees one of Kinzer’s tiny, unassuming, good-natured Tweenbots rolling aimlessly through an urban park, he or she likely wonders who’s behind this small-scale spectacle. Who’s manning the robot’s controls? As it turns out, nobody. Well, actually – you are, sort of. As Kinzer explains, “the adorable and helpless-seeming ‘bots,” constructed of cardboard and the most rudimentary of mechanics, “roll along at a constant speed, in a straight line, and have a destination displayed on a flag. They rely on people they meet to read this flag and to aim them in the right direction to reach their goal.” And people do. Kinzer offered up plenty of video documentation of park-goers interrupting their conversations, putting down their guitars and sandwiches, parking their bikes, hanging up their cellphones, and empathetically engaging with this inanimate, yet highly emotive, cardboard object. The improbability and mystery – the small-s spectacle – of this decidedly un-spectacular object led people to choose to perform an irrational, yet compassionate, act. And in making that choice, many people seemed to be visibly vulnerable – aware that they were critically reflecting, in public, on their own code of ethics.

There’s an empathy-inducing vulnerability in much of Kinzer’s practice. She professed unease or distaste for highly scripted interaction design – for the kinds of projects in which designers might develop hypotheses regarding what will happen when they place technological objects in controlled urban environments. Rather than championing this “scientistic” criticality, she prefers a more speculative form of critical action in which the outcome is emergent. Kinzer aims to create contexts in which “connection, serendipity, and play” come together in urban space, and then she “embraces the unexpected” – even if that unexpected result is failure. There is indeed much critical insight to be gained from experiments that fail.

Molmol Kuo and her partners in YesYesNo also use fanciful, rudimentary robots to generate serendipitous encounters – encounters that, despite their seeming mundanity, have the potential to raise critical questions about ethical interaction. Their YesYesBot has the enviable job of roaming around and dispensing candy. Anyone can download the remote control app onto his or her iPhone and dispatch the little retro-style bot to share candy with whomever crosses its path. It might be a stretch to suggest that YesYesBot will inspire its beneficiaries to reflect critically on the nature of the gift economy, or that it’ll compel its remote control operators to ruminate on depersonalized commodity exchange. But perhaps the technology might allow for other applications with more obvious critical dimensions. Consider Kuo’s Walk in Shelter, a walking robot modeled after a goddess’s temple that travels around Taiwan for one week each year, drawing pilgrims who divulge their trials and tribulations. Kuo’s version is embedded with a video display showing documentary footage about sex trafficking and domestic violence. The robot’s sculptural form and animalistic movement create a small-s spectacle on the street, which draws an audience – both to the sculpture and, ideally, to the critical issues it aims to address.

via Connecting-Light
via Connecting-Light 

In “Connecting Light,” a project they created for the London 2012 Festival, YesYesNo strung hundreds of six-foot-diameter weather balloons equipped with LEDs along Hadrian’s Wall in the UK. People could visit the project’s website and post messages, which were then translated into pulses of color and transmitted down the 73-mile line of balloons. As various messages originated from different points along the wall, they crossed paths with one another, and their colors blended. Kuo’s colleague Zachary Lieberman told the Telegraph, “We are imagining a reverse wall – an inverse of the border. The border was built to separate people, and we want to bring them together again.” We’ve seen similar urban media art projects that transmit user-generated messages, or translate them into light or sound. And many of these projects – like those of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Krzysztof Wodiczko – grapple with critical issues, like surveillance and immigration. But again, we must wonder if a public encountering illuminated balloons will see “pure visual spectacle,” pure delight and frivolity – or a form of communication that does critical breaking-down-walls work. As Zimmerman explained to the Telegraph, “We want to create experiences that are magical, and create wonder and surprise – and give people good dreams.” Do good dreams preclude critical engagement? Perhaps not – if those good dreams envision a better world.

Eric Corriel’s Pool Portals, an interactive video installation projected onto a pool of milk, created more of a psychedelic experience, one that carved out a heterotopia, or a space of exception, in the urban environment. There’s no explicit critical message here – but Corriel did tell the story of one little boy who became obsessed with the work; played in it for hours, with his mother on the sidelines, clearly fascinated by her son’s fascination; and emerged from the experience convinced that he wanted to be an artist. This – convincing young people of the value of aesthetic experience – is indeed critical work.

But Corriel also uses his work to convey more explicitly ideological messages. Water Will Be Here, a video installation positioned at street level on building facades, premiered in Dumbo, Brooklyn, in 2010 (it later showed in Atlanta, Toronto, and Southampton). The immersive installation created the sensation of floating in water, and periodically going under. Particularly in the waterfront neighborhood of Dumbo, which was flooded during Hurricane Sandy, the installation made the potential effects of climate change – specifically, the rise in sea levels – palpable. It transformed an abstract concern into something experiential; it made a critical argument phenomenologically. It made aesthetics ideological.

And while not all of the works explored in the salon were overtly ideological, all embodied a criticality – in their making, their reception, their manipulation, even their appreciation. It might be especially critical to recognize that even the “mere” act of contemplation – the bracketing of time to appreciate quotidian beauty and the routines of everyday experience – can itself be a critical act, particularly in an urban environment that demands urgency and productivity and profit. Those spectacular glowing rectangles can, after all, provide deep spaces where we can contemplate purposeful thinking and action.


Tanya Toft’s New “Urban Media Aesthetics” Platform – w/ Events This Tues + Wed


I’m very pleased to announce that the brilliant and talented Tanya Toft — Ph.D. Fellow at Copenhagen University, current participant in CuratorLab at Konstfack Universitet, Stockholm, and my former research assistant (!!) — has launched an exciting new curatorial/research platform, Urban Media Aesthetics, which examines the curation of digital art forms in urban environments. I had the honor of serving as external advisor for the project’s first phase of development.

“Spectacle” is the first of several themes Tanya will explore through the platform. Through invited writings, interviews, and events, she’ll examine how we might develop alternative discourses and aesthetic possibilities for “spectacle,” which don’t reduce it to illusion, commodification, and fetishization.


New Places Article on Data and Methodolatry in Urban Research

MAP Architects, Svalbard Architectural Expedition, 2013. [Photo by MAP Architects]
MAP Architects, Svalbard Architectural Expedition, 2013. [Photo by MAP Architects]

I published a new article in Places on data science, aesthetics, and politics, and the fetishization of method in urban research. Check out “Methodolatry and the Art of Measure: The New Wave of Urban Data Science.”


Bookcity Slides


This afternoon I gave a talk, hosted by the New School Provost’s Office, about my summer research in Korea. I can’t post the paper itself because I’ve committed to publishing it in a journal — but I can post my slides. See above.