The return of the real

Four Seasons Total Landscaping backyard view from Melrose

As the pandemic vise tightens, urban histories and visions lose their dye. Awkwardly subdued, cityscapes turn in confusion, groping for the spatio-temporal straws upon which they used to thrive. Even the urban present, that sensational salad bowl that we used to enjoy, is tainted, or perhaps overly sanitized, replaced by new and not only promising blends of reality and myth. 

Recent courses of events have put urbanity in a new and revealing light, exposing not only a virological vulnerability, but a susceptibility to all kinds of more or less contagious, more or less grounded infections. If the polis also previously both relied on and suffered from a factual-fictional friction, the current plague has come to enhance this irritation in the weirdest and most conspicuous of ways, occasionally as bizarrely naked moments of empirical clarity. 

One such moment of urban geographical intelligibility occurred recently on the outskirts of Philadelphia, more precisely in an industrial area aptly squeezed between the Amtrak railway yards and the eight-lane Delaware Expressway. Here, on a quiet November Saturday, as if arriving from outer space, a motley crew of political campaigners pulled into the backyard of a local landscaping firm to stage a press conference targeting national and international media. While realizing this was not the fancy hotel context they had expected, but a somewhat rougher setting, the team made the best of the situation, covering garage doors with campaign banners and posters, mounting microphones and loudspeakers in strategic positions, and hiding landscaping equipment behind politically adorned vehicles, hence giving to the site at least a touch of generic mediascape. And so it happened that Four Seasons Total Landscaping haphazardly came to figure in a political play whose stated aim it was to trim and prune reality to fit its grandiose phantasms.

The political conspiracy dealers might have gotten their message through, but what they forgot to account for was what we might call ‘the total landscaping effect.’ As opposed to a political tactic of zooming in, landscaping has to do with zooming out. And this is what eventually happened. The stage might have been set, however not strictly enough as to prevent gazes from seeking their way outwards, towards the beyond. And as many commentators fondly noted, in this case the back-drop was really the best of it. Rather than a neatly redacted atmosphere, what protruded through the expanded media frame was a messy small business urbanity, besides the backyard of a gardening firm including also other vital segments of that spatial assemblage called ‘reality.’ Unable to perform a check-up in situ, I immediately turned to the online streetview application, which confirmed what the throng of reporters had already pointed out. Beyond the political mirage, besides the Four Seasons facilities, the pruned spruces of Delaware Cremation Center, the yellow awning of Fantasy Island Adult Books; the inobtrusive entrance to the Brazilian Shalom Pentecostal Church, the Zoom Baseball Academy, and further beyond, Rosetti’s Collision Service, Forever Marble and City Wide Roofing. An ordinary streetscape, tucked away but nevertheless breathing.  

What came into view was a repressed and disputed urban present, an infrastructure justified only implicitly, sporadically, in moments of collapse. Yet entangled with everyday life, it is a here-and-now that tends to return, again and again, haunting those who thought they left it behind. It is also a reminder of the energy it takes to shift perspective and to allow for the gaze to seek its grounding beyond flash lightings. The total landscaping effect then, rather than a cover-up, arises from the insistent and recurring questioning of the present as a real, always different from itself, both ahead of and lagging behind the fictions to which it gives rise, yet at times, appearing in its full width. It is a traumatic real, as described by among others American cultural theorist Hal Foster, knowable only in relation to a rupture or a slippage cutting through the layers of representation, yet returning again and again. As political subjects in an urban landscape, we are in fact beholders of our gazes, even armoured with views. Yet at the same time, as spectators, we are obliged to abide by scenic frames, touched only by selected glimpses of the wider landscape. While the real is there, it protrudes only in parallax,as gazes run amok, out of control. And as I roam the screened streetviews of the Philadelphian periphery, it strikes me that I have been here before, that I have in fact slowly pulled into this specific urban landscape through its expanded backdrop, and this on a slow ride with the Amtrak Crescent towards the south. While the total landscaping of that voyage was different, it now returns full force, as the troubled and repetitive line-up of scattered urban presents, pointing towards a future out of control.    

”Tis strange—but true; for truth is always strange/Stranger than fiction, if it could be told” 

(Lord Byron, Don Juan, 1823)

(The text is also published by SLU Urban Futures in their Urban Readings series)


I got a message from my friend and colleague in Belgrade. As in large parts of Europe, outdoor movement is restricted, and completely banned between 5 pm and 7 Am. Violation means a 1500 Euro fine or 150 days in jail. For some, these regulations might just add to arbitrary measures of control. For others, like me, situated as I am in a privileged corner of the world, even small restrictions come as a shock. While still being able to move relatively freely, the limitations appear as hollows, offensive depressions in the texture of the everyday, provoking postponements, deferrals, suspensions. From my point of view there seems to be no sense to what is happening – a reaction that – I reluctantly have to admit – might be due to what commentators now frequently refer to as “our collective unpreparedness.” Spared from crises and wars, embedded in welfare rather than warfare, “we” seem to have developed not immunity but a pathological innocence.

What comes to mind is arbitrary, but also telling. From within my relative confinement, I am hearing the eerie voice-over of the Situationist movie Critique de la séparation (1961):

“ON NE SAIT que dire.”

“WE DON’T KNOW what to say. Words are formed into sequences; gestures are recognized. Outside us. Of course some methods are mastered, some results verified. Quite often it’s amusing. But so many things we wanted have not been attained; or only partially and not like we thought. What communication have we desired, or experienced, or only simulated? What true project has been lost?

Something, everything, is paradoxically unsettling. But amusing? While we ‘ought to’ do something (and I am thinking now of the aspirational dimension of this notion and the way even my relation to it is unsettled); we should indeed turn this sinkhole into a ‘music’ source of energy. What would it mean to not only ‘make use’ of the situation but to ‘muse’ on it – to acknowledge the paradoxical amusement of being locked  up in one’s own artifactual construction, to face the irony of having to accept the introduction of a curfew for humanity, to recognize the burlesque of a ban on embodied encounters, to make the best out of the absurdities upon which ‘our civilisation’ now seems to put its faith?

It is in a way paradoxically logical. Yet, “so many things we wanted have not been attained; or only partially and not like we thought…” The spatial sickening that my friend expresses in her message is amusing only in the negative sense. What does it do to us? Can the flickering glow from endless numbers of screens replace an extinct horizon? Everyday life is drooping, and it makes it hard even to articulate questions. I do indeed lack a language, a vocabulary, to cover experiences that do not at all correspond to preexisting imaginaries of crisis. While the imposed curfew and our obedient shelter-in-place might give the environment out there a break, some respite, I wonder what it does to our ability to interact. In the midst of this, the very performance of questioning the blind spots presented to us as infectious, is such a decisive activity – a matter of self-respect. And yet my friend’s questioning reaches me as a translocal echo, the direction of which escapes my grasp, reverberating beyond location.

It comes down to some basic ‘issues.’ We could for example ask what nature means in this situation of total distancing, or what the ‘music’ art of formulating meanings or translating divides into bridging movements. In the message, my friend raises such questions but hesitates to answer. How does it even sound, she asks, to pose such questions?

Contagious, secluded, surveilling, imprisoning, diverting, austere, transitional, retarded, serious, pleasurable, arresting, confusing – I DON’T KNOW what to say.

translocal drifts

I have always been prone to drifting. A few months ago, however, the circumstances were other and the motivation for drifts across borders different. As it happened, back then, before the virus outbreak, I published an overview of the discourse on translocality. Together with colleagues, I explored current spatial thinking across borders, and across the fields of migration, culture and urban studies ( Our aim was to shed light on emergent cultural and conceptual shifts – potentially also emergent controversies – of mobility and belonging. Two weeks ago, I even managed to submit a related research application on translocal poetics, similarly challenging what I and my artist colleagues have come to see as an increasing fixation with borders, origins, and grounds. The transversal, and in spatial terms, the translocal, we wrote, presents “a different idea of shared space; non-dualistic, non-categorical and non-hierarchical.” Furthermore, in a global political context, the translocal might offer “a new model of dissent” (Genosko 2009:18), prompting a recognition of more politically articulated localities and subjectivities. Translocality, we stated, occurs when attention to local circumstances is intensified and multiplied, co-created and distributed.

All of a sudden, the context has shifted and the entire idea of transversality and translocality is electrified. Crossing borders is now perilous and risky in new and highly ambiguous ways. And perhaps more importantly, reaching across whatever limits has now become a highly questionable practice, object to new forms of regulations and – suspicion. Sticking to one’s place is now not only either privilege or punishment, but a fundamental societal virtue.

There are indeed many different ways of understanding the new situation, the new state of emergency or the new confinement, and being embedded within does not make it easier. While the virus threat is only partly obvious, only palpable or concrete in some geographical locations, it still demands from all of us positioning and distancing. In a newspaper column this morning, a Swedish poet emphasised his conviction that despite involuntary isolation, it is possible “to care for distances.” Following this thought, I am thinking that paying attention to distances, developing a sensibility to distances, making distances matter, or through language establishing relations across distances, is what translocal poetics is about. Turning to quarantine, addressing the situation of spatial arrest, then means evoking a sensitivity as concerns the micro-locations of the everyday. While the current arrest appears out of coercion, it also draws attention to the intimate distances, or distancing intimacies, inherent to symbolic expression. The voyages of Xavier de Maistre comes to mind, his joyful travelling around his room in 1871, that year of unrest, while placed under house arrest somewhere in northern Italy:

“Of these joys, none, to my thinking, is more attractive than following the course of one’s fancies as a hunter follows his game, without pretending to keep to any set route. Hence, when I travel in my room, I seldom keep to a straight line. From my table I go towards a picture which is placed in a corner ; thence I set out in an oblique direction for the door; and then, although on starting I had intended to return to my table, yet, if I chance to fall in with my armchair on the way, I at once, and most unceremoniously, take up my quarters therein. By the by, what a capital article of furniture an armchair is, and, above all, how convenient to a thoughtful man.”

Looking out of the window, I follow the movement of obscuring clouds. While socially distanced, isolated, quarantined, cut off, what comes to mind is the “latitude and topography” that de Maistre was rambling about, the fundamental transversality of location; a quality that, despite dark skies, if taken seriously, can always become even further pronounced.

in times of quarantine

These are virus times, borderless times, times of contagion. The viral, a poisonous secretion, smoothly ignoring or simply suspending a border that always appeared absolute, secured, unsurmountable. From a virus point of view that border never existed more than as a matter of permeability, transition, propagation. Yet from another perspective that only occasionally – we have to admit – appeared to be other than reliable, this border always seemed plausible and sustainable and, should it tear, it would be due to our own transgressions.

The most frequent comment these days is a question: What is really happening? While many of us have become increasingly sensitive to limits, to the fact that current ways of living are approaching the absolute threshold, there is still the lingering reliance upon the nature-culture divide. Nature-culture; a frontier line that has provided and still seems to provide an ontological foothold of sorts, without which existence would simply slip between our fingers.

So, while the border is suspended, we submit ourselves to quarantine, a state of exception by the very disintegrating border. What are the implications of this self-inflicted emergency situation? As humans, we shelter within our own constructions, within our bounded spaces, within forms of our own creation. In quarantine, we dread the conditions under which it would be possible to step outside.

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.
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 tract’s 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

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