stop by in nyc and at nyu

5 April 2019. We meet up with former Malmö University and Interactive Institute Fulbright Exchange student (2002-2003) Jennifer Magnolfi at the New York University’s Broadway location and the Tisch School of the Arts. Together with Jennifer, now running Programmable Habitats, an R&D consulting practice specializing in the development of high-tech, future work environments, we are going to meet with Tom Igoe, Professor and head of the physical computing section within the ITP/Interactive Technologies Program at Tisch. This program is especially interesting as it is one of the first in the field of interaction design, now running on its 40th academic year. And through Arduino – Tom Igoe being one of its co-founders – this is an environment that also has a great deal of K3 relevance. 

   

Tom receives us in his office, or perhaps should we say in his lab; a living proof of knowing being situated and material, closely associated with tinkering in the most literal sense of the word. From here, he takes us on a tour of the study areas and ‘social spaces’, shops and labs, seamlessly integrated with one another and a step away from the rooms of teaching staff. In this setting, 220 ITP Master students work, including around 100 IMA (Interactive Media Arts) undergraduates. Together, these two programs, the ITP and the IMA, present a coherent environment with a wide range of opportunities. Roaming through what immediately appears to be an extremely creative space, we discuss present conditions for higher design education. While passing 3D printers in operation lined up next to sewing machines, a stockpile of fabrics, a shelf storing ongoing BioDesigning Future Food experiments, and an abundant number of other, as educative as creative, physically computable stuff. The question of a learning environment is a hot topic also here; the program is facing a move from its present prestigious Manhattan location to the Brooklyn Polytechnic Campus, and the outcome of this move is still highly unclear. What are the material, spatial, relational and transformative challenges today for designerly explorations, and what is waiting around the corner?

a green new deal?

31 March 2019. Leaving Ithaca for New York by the Cornell Campus to Campus Bus. It is a trip that takes me from the highlands of the Finger Lakes downwards towards the east coast, along inclining elevation lines and past a number of more or less permanent dwellings, all of which tell other stories about the land than the official. On one side of the road, the views of the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River National Park, on the other, scattered townships, informal, frayed, and rubbishy. There is, however, a noticeable persistence to these settlements, clinging to slanting roads leading elsewhere, even further away from the center of political and economic attention. The persistence is ambiguous though, a manifestation in the margins of a limitless extractive logic. If unabashed exploitation is often well concealed or often happens elsewhere, here it is, in an elsewhere that marks its presence; a skewed everyday landscape neglected and consumed in favour of forwarded futures.

My reading of the landscape and its asymmetries is most probably colored by academic impressions gathered over the last two months. One such lingering imprint is that of the Labor and the Arts class that I attended, and the discussion about the House Resolution 109, or the so called Green New Deal. Here, Professor Karen Pinkus and her students engaged in a close reading of a document, that will eventually play a major role in American politics in the year to come. A new deal, and a green one too, meeting the sloping planes and pitiless inclinations that characterizes this country. Or a toothless gesture and tactical fallacy with, potentially, fatal results. 

“Whereas, because the United States has historically been responsible for a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gas emissions […] the United States must take a leading role…”

“Whereas climate change, pollution, and environmental destruction have exacerbated systemic racial, regional, social, environmental, and economic injustices (referred to in this preamble as ‘‘systemic injustices’’)…” 

“Resolved, That it is the sense of the House of Representatives that— […] it is the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal— […] to secure for all people of the United States for generations to come— (i) clean air and water; (ii) climate and community resiliency; (iii) healthy food; (iv) access to nature; and (v) a sustainable environment; and to promote justice and equity…” 

Resolved. Yet a non-committal resolution, and an echo of Aldo Leopold, America’s haunting environmental conscience:

“Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land” (A Sand County Almanac – and Sketches Here and There, 1949).

dubious anthroposcene-s

22 March 2019. Anthropocene. A pretentious concept, and all of a sudden, it is flooding public debate. Emanating from early cosmogenetic reflections on human cognition as a geologic force, it is related to ideas of the Noosphere; according to thinkers such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin through its complex energy fundamentally interacting with and transforming other spheres, like the geosphere and the biosphere. Yet while the noosphere was conceived as vital and creative, environing the Earth, it now seems to have sedimented into a concealed stratum crystallising imagination.

The power and effect of humanity on every aspect of earthly existence is now so significant and beyond return that it apparently demands geological designation. Formal scientific acknowledgement is imminent. Influential scientific societies have already proposed to make the Anthropocene a formal unit of geological epoch divisions, a unit the temporality of which is counted in millennia. It is a powerful idea. Drawing attention to the indelibility of the human footprint, it answers to the demands for global if not imaginaries so explanations. It is, however, also a totalising concept, in one epochal sweep petrifying countless spatio-temporal entanglements and transgressions. What does this concept do but create an “a-temporal materiality dislocated from place and time,” furthermore a white-washed mythology disassociated from histories, languages and the movements of bodies over lands?

This is one of the bothering question raised by Professor in “Inhuman Geography” Kathryn Yusoff in her essay A Million Black Anthropocenes or None. I am reading the intense text as part of an Environmental Humanities Seminar organised by Anindita Banerjee in Comparative Literature. Yusoff’s thoughts are compelling, perhaps imperative, demanding positioning. She follows the traces pointed out by poets such as Canadian-Caribbean Dionne Brand and French-Caribbean Édouard Glissant, and she initiates her diffractive thought citing the former: “The problem was gravity and the answer was gravity.” There is a weight to the courses of events that took Earth to where it currently is, a weight that cannot be ignored.

“In its brief tenure,” Yussof writes, [the notion Anthropocene] has metamorphosed.” While widely embraced, it has rapidly been purposed and instrumentalized, “put to work as a conceptual grab,” cautionary, yes, potentially, but also imperially deterministic, an elemental expression of geology as a logic of a grab of lands and histories; a logic legitimating proprietary cuts. The geological cut is a master cut, unveiling earthly potentials and establishing transactional zones, beyond localities and subjectivities. Yusoff explores this cut, and how it presents a division of matter, a decisive division of life and non-life, of organic and non-organic; of raw and enriched. As an extractive cut it is also racial, extractive of certain bodies as part of a mineralogic surplus. The geological disruption therefore is a subjectless material agency of pure earthly force; an agency that lacks human agent, enabling the establishing of inhuman slavery as a geological axiom.

What Yusoff sets out to do is to crack open the mineralising logic of the Anthropocene and unveil its dubious origins. While The Anthropocene Working Group is struggling to define a Golden Spike or temporal marker for the beginning of this -cene, Yusoff draws attention to the ways in which the concept contributes to a monumentalising of the mythic anthropos as world maker/spiker, and also to its function as uncompromising evolutionary narrative of human origins, efficiently silencing its inherent inhuman temporalities and eventualities. But, claims Yusoff, “[t]he Anthropocene cannot dust itself clean from the inventory of which it was made;” the dross of material extraction and bodily chattel, and the extensive fungibility of land and labour that it nurtures as its guiding principle.

Out of proportion, noospheric, anthropo-scenic, Yusoff’s text expands in many directions, at the same time calling into attention current extractive excesses and increasingly aggressive prospective cuts, in South Sudan, in the Arctic region, and elsewhere; cuts, which somehow remain their legitimacy due to the “cold panic” (Isabelle Stengers) currently taking hold; the barbarian grammars of capture played out at multiplied frontiers of irreversibility. Opposing the White Geology of the Anthropocene, Yusoff asks “what different modalities of the human would come to light” through the change of tense, from the atemporal and determinist, to “a future real conditional” which would have, should have, will recognise all the billion abjected Black Anthropocenes? Would that present an “insurgent geology”? Or a “geo-Poethics” of sorts?

Yussoff quotes Glissant: “I build my language with rocks.”

american flipscape

15 March 2019. The other side of the coin, the flip side of the silver dollar, ever-present deficiencies, failures or simply neglects. The border between the privileged campus landscape and its surroundings is sharp. On the one side an ordered ensemble of prominent edifices with proper names – Sage, Olin, Kennedy, Klarman, Rand, and Gates, just to mention a few, including some with supplementary female first names, such as the Annabel Taylor Hall, the Judith Eisner Pavilion, and the Jane Foster Library Addition – all further accentuated by their well-kept exteriors, trimmed lawns, cultivated interstices, well-maintained walkways. The contrast therefore, as you leave the academic realm, is quite palpable: On ‘the other side,’ you run into a more contingent kind of space; a material exteriority of relentless highlights and sharp shadows, as unfitting as emergent, as uncared-for as useful – an appended collegetown, clinging to the steep slopes as by hazard. It is impossible to describe this part of Ithaca in other than diminutive terms; it is indeed a random mish-mash of neglected wooden shingle style houses and oversized apartment blocks, squeezed-in for maximized profit, all irrespective of age in various stages of erosion. This is indeed a border settlement, and of course a privileged one, yet a kind of space for temporary stays, a space that do not call for engagement, a space embroidered with litter, with decorative asphalt crack formations, meandering blown down fences, the patterns and variegations of mould, rotting old couches and discoloured plastic furniture, forgotten holiday decorations, a tangled Brazilian flag, another torn, star-spangled one, bundles of electric cables running along facades, other crossing the field of view like an externalised nervous system…

tree power

13 March 2019. Monday night at the landscape department and Henri Bava from the much praised office Agence Ter is lecturing, providing a fascinating exposé of their work and aim for enhanced responsivity between human and non-human agency. Theirs is an ‘agency’ that tries to consider territoriality, the powers played out by different actors, working through , stratifying rather than layering, that is with the relationship between qualitative and nourishing strata, rather than with structural accumulation. I am caught by Bava’s reference to trees and their functioning already in the Baroque garden as stratifiers, as temporal indicators, as boundary mediators, and hence, as political agents. And I am thinking along my own political ecological aesthetic lines. Trees are not innocent, not neutral. But they are not obedient either.

tract geography

Central New York’s Military Tract townships.
Map from the original by Simeon De Witt.

10 March.
10 March 2019. This country is a land of borders, fixed by a logic of territorial claims; a country with a self-image bound to the straight line that separates what is mine from what is yours, me from you. I already commented on the country around Ithaca, a landscape resolutely and rhythmically cut up into morsels, without pardon. This lack of pardon is military; the tracts of land a compensation to the soldiers of the Independence War. The man who set the pace was also the man behind the plan of Ithaca and that of Manhattan above 14th street – Simeon De Witt – known as “modest, sensible, sober, discreet” and “esteemed a very good mathematician” (George Washington in letter).

Mathematician indeed. Modest and sensible – more doubtful. What is indisputable, though, is the tracts’ violent erasing of former lands in one sweeping gesture, reducing them to bleak yellow patches. These were lands expanding according to a completely different logic; exteriorities continuously shaped and reshaped through what would potentially be described in terms of modest, sensible, sober, discrete interaction. A different spatio-temporal materiality altogether, where borders are neither fixed nor primary; a geography of ranges, purviews, mobility and reach. It is a geography that also results in or requires a different visual expression, a different cartography, and that results in different imaginaries, exemplified in the fascinating Native Land Map that a colleague shared with me.

 

Native Land Map, https://native-land.ca

While native land is one of emergent and responsive boundaries, the tract is definitive, finalised in 1799 (and disputed ever since).

 

wasted

8 March 2019. Besides amazing gorges with streams of virgin water cascading through this particular city, there are also the global flows of trash running through; equally conspicuous runlets of plastic, cardboard, glass and other unidentifiable composite wrapped up stuff, trickling down the sidewalks or dressing the winter shrubbery.

The wasted stuff. Besides all the invisible dissolved and fumed garbage satiating the atmosphere, there is all this useless, drifting matter. While facing the planetary fact that other flows are about to run dry, what can you do? What can we do? What can designers do, as acting custodians of stuff?

These questions were asked in a symposium at the Cornell School of Architecture last week. There are architects and designers out there, facing the challenge, not only giving waste due attention, but trying to make use of it in constructive ways. The symposium came out of courses at Cornell and Harvard and explored the design incentives for a circular economy. With the building sector being somewhat of an environmental black sheep. producing an enormous amount of rubble, the symposium included presentations by architects who have taken on the challenge of changing this image. As for example Peter Van Assche, who like a Lewis Carroll of our times wants to change the logic and dislocate the parameters, in order to show that down the drain, the waste can still transform into “colourful beautiful stuff.” Or the Belgian Rotor architects, who launched the off-spin Rotor Deconstruction in order to take command of the material recycling of old buildings.

While up-cycling of plastic waste, systems shift for waste collection, or a ban on planned obsolescence are all necessary measures, the lingering question that remained largely untouched was the surplus logic behind the messy flows and the paradoxical addiction that these flows have created. For while it is possible to abandon the commodity logic and completely servitize architecture and design; while it is necessary to reeducate starchitects and fancy designers into assemblers-dissemblers, the question remains how to break the dependency, how stop the profitable growth of trash flows, and how to avoid developing new, diverting manoeuvres, no matter how colourful and beautiful.

There are, however, straightforward un-architectural answers.

rurality

Sunday, early March. A colleague is taking me on a trip from Ithaca and Cayuga Lake to Seneca Lake, crossing the plateau in between. We are in the north for sure; the deserted and snowy landscape could as well be ‘Norrlands inland’, that part of northern Sweden that from a southern urban outlook is just some generic form of basic resource.

Urban nature. What kind of power is executed through a concept? The rural is the negative, in a depreciative sense , of the urban. The rustic, that which, according to the dictionary, is lacking in elegance or sophistication. And even more so today; an outside with a backwards predictability. Yet here it comes in sharp, straight lines, a logic of efficiency and perfection.

Or, perhaps this is one of the places in which urbanity reveals itself. The map exposes what the senses already have registered; a land cut up with admirable precision, submitted to an urban geometry. Not a single transecting diagonal or winding line as far as the eye reaches.

Except for those Finger Lakes – clawing and gnawing, cutting through in a different way. The geological forces that created these water accumulating depressions are still present. On the way back, at Steamburg by all places, these forces make themselves known in an almost capricious way, forcing the straight line of the road to jump. A rural road, stretching far, activating childhood memories of car rides in ‘Norrlands inland’ – in the interior of the Swedish North.

reading diffractively

“Diffraction does not produce ‘the same’ displaced, as reflection and refraction do. Diffraction is a mapping of interference, not of replication, reflection, or reproduction. A diffraction pattern does not map where differences appear, but rather maps where the effects of differences appear.”

Karen Barad, ‘Diffracting Diffraction: Cutting Together-Apart,’ 2014

 

2 March 2019. The past week, a library week. I prefer the places by the windows, looking out towards Fall Creek and the artificial Beebe Lake, the dam before the falls. Or from this position perhaps looking ‘inwards’, into a space of scattered bodies, faces, the gazes of which go in multiple directions.

In this boundary position, I feel privileged. I am allowed to engage in this practice known as reading. Several days in a row now, I have been able to roam through texts, confronting voices, making room for that kind of dialogue known as thinking. The stencil graffiti I pass by every morning is one of those texts; a material cry in the passage by Kennedy Hall. I’ll do my best.

The texts I am engaging with are all somehow related to my interest in friction as an environmental and relational notion, also somehow a materialising trope or thought figure that rather than focusing attention, has to do with the heated and tangled, evoking an unsettling and frustrated ‘rubbing’ of unlike opinions, worldviews and bodies against each other. I am looking for friction as a way to explore discontinuities, reverse flows and resistance values, but also the diffractional energy thus produced, the energy that radiates outwards, and so not only embodies but also spatializes thinking.

One late afternoon, on my way from the library, I notice a new imperative message beside the graffiti stencil. The Red Bears, the university’s women’s ice hockey team, have reached the quarter finals in the cup. Ithaca against Troy. A game sure to be as frictional as diffractional.

 

arriving at cornell

25 Feb 2019. Cornell — a university located in the state of New York, five hours northwest of NYC, two hours southeast of Rochester, in the Finger Lake region, in the city of Ithaca at the south tip of one of those fingers, Lake Cayuga, on seized Haudenosaunee land which then became the Ulysseus Township, now close to places Etna, Ovid, Homer and Seneca…

Yet, for most people, Ithaca is Cornell; a campus with a town attached to it. There are other aspects though, including tensions and friction of different kinds. A city disrespectfully erected on top of indigenous burial grounds. An academic mountain overlooking a town in the swamps. A rural remoteness crisscrossed by fairytale gorges with hypnotic waterfalls. A vineyard landscape (believe it or not) swept by Arctic winter winds (as now). A split university, not only by its waterfalls, but divided into on the one hand the private and prestigious faculties and others, with a dubiously public mission… For a newcomer, it is hard to know.

 

Also the town has a certain twisted quality, on the one hand the obligatory shopping mall landscapes, on the other a downtown “commons” where organic hipster beer deliveries bump into four-wheel pickup trucks equipped with home snow plows, right outside of the Víva Taquería… 

OK, I have not been here for more than two and a half weeks so I shouldn’t claim a grip on the environment, not even some corners of it. What I do know though, is that the university campus is vast and sits on top of a very steep hill, the East Hill, and I know this because it means a daily morning mounteneering effort, which sometimes, like this morning, due to snowfall, has to happen, despite limited visibility.  

What I also know is that Cornell has around 23 000 students, 1700 faculty and another 8000 employees; in other words, in student and faculty numbers quite similar to MaU. It feels much bigger, though, and as an “Ivy League” university, it has a pedagogic and research infrastructure of another magnitude. My activities so far have included various contributions, such as to the broad MA program in landscape architecture (including students also from many other fields) run by associate professor Maria Goula, who invited me here. I also took part in studio critique in the course Integrating Theory and Practice  dedicated to the development of a green corridor in neighboring Buffalo (some three hours from here); today a socio-economically strained city suffering from de-urbanization (and from the whimsies of Elon Musk). At the landscape department, I also gave a public lecture on the topic of environmental value and eco-criticism, to be followed up in a second one on “design thinking” and concept development. At the adjacent College of Art, Architecture and Planning located in a fancy Koolhaas building, I will contribute in seminars on similar topics within the course Urban Temporalities: Materiality, Practice, Subjectivity. 

There is of course many other interesting and K3 related things going on here. I am in contact with the Environmental Humanities group, through ass prof Anindita Banerjee at the College of Arts and Sciences, and I will follow their seminars. I also met with Steven Jackson, ass prof in Science and Technology Studies and who is chair at the department of Information Science. His research focus, as some of you already know, is on “critical, interpretive, and historical social sciences” including “repair studies” – from a mundane American as well as Malmoitian perspective is highly relevant.  

One of my hangouts though, is the historical Uris Library, which I imagine will foster grand thoughts…