Friday, January 16, 2009

What I will be Doing this Semester // Vertical Studio 4B Speed, Territory and Communication

Speed, Territory, Communication
SCIArc Vertical Studio SPRING 2009
Ed Keller, critic
Ken Cameron, assistant critic

“ With the birth of these new technologies and the new economic processes, one sees the birth of a sort of thinking about space that is no longer modeled on the police state of the urbanization of the territory, but that extends far beyond the limits of urbanism and architecture. . . .The Ecole des Ponts et Chaussees and its capital importance in political rationality in France are part. . . .It was not architects, but engineers and builders of bridges, roads, viaducts, railways, as well as the polytechnicians [who practically controlled the French railroads] those are the people who thought out space. [Architects] . . . are not the technicians or engineers of the three great variables - territory, communcation, and speed. These escape the domain of architects. ”

This provactive statement will serve as the basis for our research and design this semester. Although we can find example of architects who did indeed think beyond the limits of their discipline, at least as defined provisionally here by Foucault, we’ll suspend disbeleif for the moment and use his observation as a launching platform for a contemporary engagement with the core concepts he offers: speed, territory, and communication.


Like all strong thinkers, we can understand what Foucault means on several levels. On the one hand, he's describing a set of real world changes in technological and sociopolitical landscapes, which rearranged the way that space functioned as a control system that agents could move through or change. However, on another level, he reveals a polemical position toward what agency, political consciousness, history, and indeed time itself are. Perhaps the most important aspect of his observation is the way it highlights a shift in biopolitical agency, which is part of his larger project charting that same shift through institutions such as the prison, the hospital, the asylum. For us this is important not because we then have architectural typologies we can identify and work with as designers, but because he opens up the way that the formal aspects of any spatial condition can be understood. It is only through studying the spectrum of invisible systems that we can understand the operation of the visible.

To do this we need to consider the technological changes proper to our own time- new forms of networking, new models for capital to flow through, new modes of production, new ways to value and distribute labor and value itself. At the same time we need to consider from a material point of view how to navigate the landscape with this supposedly new set of information at our disposal. And ultimately, I argue that we must- regardless of our attitude towards history and criticality- keep an escape route open at all times, to modes of operation that can still INVENT new relations and new futures, new pasts. If there is a concise outline of what's at stake, it would be this set of questions: What really constitutes a system, a landscape? How can an agent become aware of hidden forces in that system? How can an agent or a population create new relations with the landscape it inhabits?What are the rules of the game, and how can they be changed?

Acceleration, and new access to wider range of speeds of perception and action: Two positionsOf the many theoretical positions that can be used polemically to defend design work, there are two primary ones that we will engage this semester. The first, a practice of purely speculative work that verifies the present and has less intention to project outwards, is typified in work like Archizoom's No Stop City, Tschumi's Manhattan Transcripts, and the work of authors such as JG Ballard in his book and early short film Crash. This work is concerned with building a conceptual model of all the forces and flows that are operative in the present world, revealing hidden aspects of the system of the world that the designer or author is now able to confront.

The second is a practice that looks ahead into the future: science fiction. This work operates as a projective tool primarily attempting to understand how the forces of the present will spin out ahead of us, creating new modalities of existence in the future. Archigram's work was science fictional; contemporary examples of science fiction include Stephenson's Diamond Age and Stross' Accelerando.

Each of these kinds of thinking and practice can reveal an attitude towards time and history. One might say that science fiction works in opposition to the model of time that Walter Benjamin provides us in the image of his angel of history being blown backwards into the future, with history piling up as debris at its feet. Science fiction gazes relentlessly into the future, sometimes missing the accumulated debris of history. In contrast, speculative work that has verification as a goal sites itself in a kind of suspended, eternal present.

Depending on the models of history and time the theorist or designer is using, each of these approaches can take on a different methodological, critical, and polemic value in terms of its hopes and ambitions for design.

There are of course synthetic models as well, which I confess I am most interested in. Work which labors to combine methods- verifying the present, speculating wildly on the future, critically exhuming the past from that pile of debris. As an example: a synthetic model which is often confused with science fiction can be found in the work of the writer Philip K Dick. In his novels UBIK, or Now Wait Until Last Year, he shows us a kind of decaying timespace, where historical reality literally unravels and superimposes with the present and even the future. In these novels, PK Dick was both speculating on the present and extrapolating how the consequences of that irreducible present would unfold into both the future AND the past.

Similarly, JG Ballard's fiction- such as his early novel The Drowned World- uses a hypnotic verification of a very near future of massive global warming to project farther forward to a moment where long buried genetic memories resurface, reclaiming humans and throwing them into an atavistic state, triggered by hardwired biological mechanisms. Ballard's goal with this work was to understand the deep levels of history and time that are embedded in humans on a biological level, that then connect them back to social, cultural, and technological systems.

The bottom line is this: we're starting the semester off by stating that we agree with Foucault's statement that architects, for the most part, long ago lost control of space and time, because the dominant forces Foucault identifies in the world-speed territory and communication- could not be handled by the tools and thinking that architects typically bring to their work. We intend to reclaim those operative qualities by developing a more robust conceptual apparatus, that both allows us to see the invisible and imbricated systems of the present, and also to project forward AND backward in time to negotiate with both history and the incommensurable aspects of the future. For this reason- placing ultimate value on invention- we're looking at precedent materials that can provide protocols for moving across and interacting with a landscape, and the agents in that landscape.

Value of Radically Transdisciplinary thinking. ACCELERANDO as paradigm for architectsAccelerando is an important text for designers: the multimodal way that Stross SEES the world and the lines of connection in that world- this kind of cognitive map is crucial for us to develop as designers. Additionally, he attempts to theorize a set of near future social, political and legal changes all in response to the approaching technological singularity.

SPEED of Perception and of MovementAs we unpack the terms Speed, Territory and Communication certain concerns become apparent. In each case we have to evaluate what scales the term operates at and through which technologies the epistemological threshold it defines is activated. For speed, vision and cinematic techniques are useful, from the highspeed Rapatronic camera [shooting at one millionth of a second to capture nuclear explosions], to current highspeed HD cameras shooting at one thousand frames per second, to the months-long exposure photographs of Michael Weseley; or to the ubiquitous eye of the urban surveillance camera, where the number of lenses supercedes frame rate as a cinematic threshold.

In each of these cases, the technology gains us access to new forms of time, because of the speed it operates within. We need a new set of metrics and tools to distinguish between the nanosecond, the geopolitical timeframe, or the geological timeframe. As well, we need to develop a logic of operation once we have access to these new regimes of perception and relational structures.

TERRITORIAL CONTROLAs for speed, so for territory and communication. What territories do we have access to now that are utterly new? How can new speeds of movement and perception gain us access to those territories? What new forms of information can we transmit and receive? What are the technologies for control and representation? What models can we look to?

One paradigmatic example of invention and logic is Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, which we'll study together with excerpts from Deleuze's book Logic of Sense, which is an extended meditation on sense using Carroll's writings as a counterpoint.

An example from the world of biology is the Mantis Shrimp. This remarkable creature has trinocular eyesight and can see ten times as many colors as a human; in fact, it can see circularly polarized light. However, it does even more than this: its remarkable eyesight is accompanied by incredible physical speed. It is the second fastest animal alive, and can accelerate its claws at 23 m/s. Of course, it looks quite beautiful as well; hence we can use it as a fine case study for morphology and form. Yet the shape of the animal has little to do with its abilities to see, or to move its claws. Relation and potential are hidden systems in this overall systemic envelope.

COMMUNICATION NETWORKS: who communicates with whom?The relationship between reading a territory, studying protocols for interactivity with its contents and potential for transformation of the same, are the creative sets which are to be extracted from the game models we will study. Contemporary network technology offers us many remarkable examples in locative media, such as BrightKite, Google Earth, Photosynth, or Dopplr; and we can look to other paradigms for urban engagement, from Jodorowsky's Panic Theater, to the cacerolozo protests in Argentina or the smart mob, to understand what new modalities of communication are relevant for us as designers.

From Research to Concept to Design- Project PHASESThe studio has been set up so that the development of a theory platform- or more accurately, a platform for research, thinking and designing- informs the act of design itself, and includes a critical investigation of the overall themes of the studio, an identification of sites, and writing the project program.

PHASE 1: The first half of the semester students will team up in groups of 3-5, and research the overall themes of speed, territory, and communication, as they are relevant to a near future redefinition of architecture, urbanism, and infrastructure. An intensive study of precedent will inform this research as well- covering texts, films, and architectural/urban examples. Teams will produce a pdf document summarizing their work, developing a position on the themes, and identifying global sites that are critical to their thinking. The midterm deliverables will include a 'program brief' developed by each team that will serve as a design project brief in the second half of the semester.

PHASE 2: Design projects will be developed from the program briefs written during PHASE 1 research. Students may continue to work in teams or split into individual project design. Deliverables for PHASE 2 will include a typical range of design studio project documents, customized according to the needs of each project. Each project will have an individual website or BLOG, and the work will be summarized in a pdf dossier.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Haven't read much in my life that was THAT far over my head. Except for the shrimp, which made me hungry, and Alice in Wonderland, which made me realize I was late...
    Good luck!