Aleksandra Kasuba, 1926-2019

Artist and designer Aleksandra Kasuba passed away on March 5. Kasuba was a brilliant force and I knew her throughout my life. Among my earliest memories is crawling around in her Lived-In Environment, a radical transformation of the first floor of the Upper Western Side brownstone that she and her husband owned through tensile constructions. My parents were friends with her and her husband, the sculptor Vytautas Kasuba and we would see each other periodically.

 

Although I lost touch with her after I went to graduate school and then moved to Los Angeles, we reconnected on the occasion of my giving a lecture on her work at the National Gallery of Art in Lithuania to accompany the exhibition of Spectrum: An Afterthought. During those 25 years she had kept tabs on me and agreed that I could give the lecture—apparently other historians had failed to understand her work properly—and I took copious notes on our discussions. Last week I wrote her obituary for the Architects’ Newspaper. See it here. I am revising my talk for the catalog of the retrospective of her work to take place there in 2020.

Year in Review 2018

The Year in Review 2018

I let six years go by without a Year in Review post, restarting the tradition last year. Not this time, although, with the frenetic pace of news this year, it seems like we have all aged six years in 2018.

Things are in a profound state of in-between. On the one hand, the Trumpian kleptocracy is accelerating. With Kelly and Mattis leaving in December, the “adult day care center” has closed, leaving only a pre-school version of Lord of the Flies in the White House. And yet, the end seems to draw near for this vexed time. Voters gave a resounding rebuke to Republicans in Congress, one that may ultimately be generational in nature and that gives Democrats subpoena power. Expect action soon. What’s in those tax returns? How much crony capital have Jared and Donald received over the years? By this time next year, we should know. Moreover, the Mueller investigation is accelerating, drawing closer and closer to the great kleptocrat’s inner circles even as we are left guessing at what sort of revelations we will learn in the months to come.

But that said, massive global instability is the price we pay for Trump. Authoritarian forces are on the rise throughout the world. It would be easy enough to say that these forces have been there all long, but its more accurate to say that the actions of individual players still matter. Trump was a colossal misfire, an eruption of senile admirers of fascism who think that a country of coal miners, machine guns in every classroom, and Christian sharia law will bring Jesus back, no doubt riding on a dinosaur. But with the markets on a rolled coaster ride that ultimately ended down in almost all sectors worldwide, we have to wonder how long business will find the radical Right palatable. Constant turmoil and increased tariffs are making CEOs wonder how useful Trump really is. It’s time to take gramps out of the White House and put him in a nursing home.

Beyond the rise of authoritarian power, 2018 was the year in which the rapid pace of climate change became obvious to anyone with a pulse. I am not a big fan of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (democratic socialism is a ticket to another right-wing victory), but her Green New Deal just makes sense. The US has spent trillions upon trillions subsidizing oil in various ways (from outright subsidies to the construction of roads which are, of course, paved in oil) and fighting wars in the Middle East to safeguard fossil matter, why shouldn’t we treat this as energy independence as matter of national security? There are 50,000 coal miners in the United States, less than the 89,000 employees of Sears who will lose their jobs this year’s and far less than the 1.6 million university faculty in the USve. If the Democrats want to win in 2020, running of a platform of stopping the rise in temperatures worldwide and the ballooning national debt while restoring basic rights and freedoms taken away during the Trumpic regime would be a good place to start (given that the GOP has forgotten about the deficit now).

As for architecture. What is there left to say about it anymore? Starchitecture has faded, nobody gets excited about cool forms anymore. How can we be surprised? No starchitect is making interesting buildings, in fact the whole movement has been something of a bust. Second, architecture is no longer the profession that shapes space, digital technology is. Failing to recognize this dooms the profession to irrelevance, like heraldry in the days of mustard gas.

But architecture isn’t the only institution without purpose. Silicon Valley, it seems, has finally met a time in which nobody cares about what it makes or promises. People are not only tired of big tech, they are tired of startups that promise the world when their only business plan is to be acquired as soon and possible. In fact, for all its promises,startup culture was a bust and it is far smaller than it was two decades ago. Apple made its best products ever (I am typing this on one of the amazing third generation iPad Pros that I bought), and was punished for it by a massive drop in its stock price.

If any tech became widely accepted by the mainstream in 2018, it was the Internet of Things and the Smart Home. Amazon’s Alexa, Nest and Ring’s video doorbell, and Lutron’s Caseta system were among the winners in this transformation of our interior lives. There is nothing terribly radical about the smart home and, frankly, a lot of the panic about surveillance with the hardware is silly (as if smart phones don’t already do this). But embedded technology is everywhere now.

Still, it’s odd how art (and architecture) misses this change. For want of anything else, we are still in the era of post-Internet art, an idea which, unfortunately, I am somewhat to blame for. If there was some merit to thinking about how network culture permeated art in 2011, talking about “post-Internet art” now simply is about as useful as talking about Abstract Expressionism as “post-automobile” art. Art, like architecture, has lost any purpose or drive forward. Technology and art have drifted apart again and only a few of us hack away at the intersection of the two. Still, art and architecture are always falling into ruin and being reborn. Perhaps this time will be no different and the work we are doing will lead to a rebirth?

The academy is sick as well. Years of poor management practices and bloated administrations have gutted the arts and humanities as faculty were forced to take on heavy teaching loads and real research has been eliminated (in case you wondered, I left Columbia when the new Dean did away with the entire research arm of the school to appease the finance office). Two decades ago, I decried “staff-ism” in schools, but now that is all that’s left.

I left teaching completely this year, resigning from my position at University of Limerick, Ireland after thirteen years and bringing nearly thirty years of teaching to end. In large part, it was the basic inability of universities to function that drove me away. What good is it for me to waste my time trying to jump through hoops to get paid when there are people in finance offices whose job literally is to ensure that faculty don’t get paid (I’ve been told this point blank)? And teaching itself isn’t much fun anymore. Students, for their part, are more interested in looking at their instagram feeds than in listening to what I have to say. It’s the opposite of the 1960s when students proclaimed the irrelevance of their teachers. Now, faculty proclaim the irrelevance of their students. Bah. It’s not worth it. It was a mistake to keep going over the last couple of years. I may come back to education one day—I have many great memories that come from my students and many of them remain my friends to this day—but now is a time when the university is very much irrelevant. Independence is what we need, not sick institutions.

Speaking of sick institutions, there is welcome news this year regarding Facebook: we saw the first signs of that hated enterprise starting to implode. Zuckerberg’s pathetic attempt to get a date by building a Web site has wound up doing tremendous damage to the Internet with its reduction of all content to a general level of idiocracy. Older forms of Internet communication such as blogs, email-mailing lists and Internet forums are dying and since nobody reads books or magazines anymore, we communicate less than we did thirty years ago. Instead, we don’t even get FarmVille, we get social diarrhea. Nobody likes Facebook. Independent voices are needed on the net again. It’s not up to someone else to provide them, it’s up to us.

I rebuilt my Web site last week in hopes of returning to being an independent voice in the field. I finished the last year in review with a similar resolution, maybe this year, I’m getting cranky enough that’ll actually happen.

I am trying to break the Internet

I don’t see how we can remain enthusiastic about network culture. In the decade since the release of the iPhone, the Internet has gone from being a playpen for geeks and outsiders to the primary theater for politics and culture. Even three years ago the thought that a major global leader would use Twitter to announce major policy initiatives would have seemed futuristic and a little naïve. Now we have it and it’s the darkest time most America has collectively experienced in memory. We lurch headlong into a future, but it’s a new bad future.

And, as we seem to be drowning in information, we seem to have lost our ability to communicate and absorb knowledge. Almost nobody reads and writes blogs anymore (please don’t get me started about Medium and the final, thorough destruction of independent content its startup model is premised on). Magazines and journals are well and truly dead. Most books by theorists and academics are soundly ignored too, which is probably a good thing given that theory has become permeated by a neo-fascist identity politics. Outside of the telecocoon of our partners, children, closest friend or two, and immediate work associates, we no longer call each other, we no longer e-mail each other, and we ghost each other as much as we text each other. Earlier forms of Internet culture are also on the rocks: listservs have become replaced by Facebook groups that produce no thought or discussion of any substance whatsoever, and most online forums have died as well. The aforementioned Twitter should be dead, but is kept alive by our desire to see what the lunatic in the White House will say next, and otherwise serves as home to a few misfits and general oddballs. Facebook absorbs everything, reducing all human communication to nothing and algorithmically directs us to only see those posts that give us a fleeting satisfaction. It’s more imagistic spawn, Instagram, is the model of the new Internet, driving us to constantly one up each other with a lifestyle pornography. There are, of course, exceptions—I actually like Reddit and there are some niche online forums that have moments of productivity—but it’s bad out there. I have played my own part in migrating to these awful commercial platforms and regret it. Something must be done. Endless promises and little delivery.

In the case of this site, I’ve resolved to fix matters over and over again, but each time was undone by the content management system, Drupal. Drupal is awful. Way back in 2005, Drupal seemed like a good choice, with its module-based open architecture, and the promise of a content management system that could go far beyond a blog. At the time, I was fascinated with the idea of the networked book and Drupal seemed to offer such functionality built in. Unfortunately, Drupal long ago began to resemble a 1980s American car company, suffering from over-complexity, putting design and user interface last, and unable to got basic features working. A critical flaw is that the development team long ago decided that “the drop is always moving”: each major version of Drupal breaks all the existing plug-ins and themes without which a site is ugly and limited. And therein lies the rub. I should have updated my site eight years ago when Drupal 7 was released, but the horribly botched release of that version would have broken my site thoroughly if it had been possible to update it at all (I am now forgetting if it was Drupal 7 or 8 that did not have upgrade capabilities when first released and the upgrade cycle to Drupal 6 cost me over a month of work). Add to that constant trouble with excessive memory overhead, the obliteration of comments by spambots, together with a general feeling that the whole creaking mess was going to explode like a steam-powered Soviet tractor meant that I knew I’d never be upgrading Drupal. But where to go?

A New Year’s resolution for 2017 had been to redo my site in a new content management system and I upgraded the front end of my site to Kirby. Kirby is fantastic. It took me an afternoon to build the site (I am still running Kirby over at the network architecture lab. In Drupal it would have taken a week. Still, although now I had a decent portfolio together, the blog languished and I made a handful in 2017 and only one post in 2018. In part, this was due to life: I am still cleaning up after the decades of neglect that our house suffered before we bought it, I am spend more time with my family, and I am working on my conceptual art and sound practices. Still, doing anything in Drupal was a nightmare and I stayed away from any substantive blogging.

So it happens that we were away skiing at Smuggler’s Notch in Vermont this week and, as so often happens, we had freezing rain all day. So I decided to finally upgrade this blog and move it to WordPress. I had used WordPress before in Jo-Anne Green’s Networked book project and that had pushed the platform beyond what it was capable of at that time, leaving me with a bad opinion of the platform, but during the intervening years, WordPress has matured into a capable platform (even with the recent growing pains caused by the Gutenberg blogging interface).

Frédéric Gilles’s amazing Drupal to WordPress plugin imported all of the data from Drupal—even comments!—better than I had ever dreamed was possible, better than I would have expected from an upgrade within Drupal. I’ve long loved Indexhibit and use it on AUDC’s site so I was glad to base the new site on Leanda Ryan’s Inxhibit theme (much as  I love Indexhibit, it simply isn’t designed for blogging). A day of work later and, although there are some bugs here and there, I am confident enough to replace Varnelis.net with WordPress.

One of the major impediments to blogging that I faced with Drupal is that inputting text on the Web is a nightmare (I can’t tell you how many posts I’ve lost by accidentally hitting the wrong key on Drupal) and uploading text inevitably seemed to introduce formatting issues, no matter how hard I tried. In the case of WordPress, I knew that there were many more tools available at my disposal so I decided to try iAWriter and found it worked flawlessly. I started writing this post on my Mac, seamlessly picked it to my iPad Pro and posted this entry. This is simple, the way Content Management Systems were supposed to be, without losing the independence that blogs make possible.

I’ve also put Feedly front and center for daily reading on my iPad. There are plenty of great blogs out there are acting as a resistance to the managed content of Facebook, Twitter, and Medium and I am setting out to rediscover them. With these changes to my blog, maybe, just maybe, I may once again join them as well.

 

Network Histories at Michigan, 3/8/18

I am delighted to be delivering the keynote address at the P+ARG Conference at the University of Michigan on March 8, 2018, at 6pm. More details here

My talk is titled "Network Histories: Baran and Milgram in Perspective" and the abstract reads roughly … 

The foundational work done by social psychologist Stanley Milgram and telecommunications researcher Paul Baran on networks in the 1960s remains profoundly influential today, establishing the basis of network theory. But both projects are more complicated than they seem: Milgram’s famous “Six Degrees of Separation” appears to have been largely fabricated while Baran’s plan for a “Distributed Network” is inevitably read within a retrospective mythography. This talk sets out to uncover not so much a theory of networks as an ideology of networks, seeking not a celebration but rather an understanding.

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London and Paris—Midsummer 1939

In today's entry of Philip Johnson's fascist writings, we have his first piece as "foreign correspondent" for Todayʼs Challenge, written in summer of 1939 in London and Paris and published in the August-September issue. This completes my upload of the three pieces Johnson writes for the magazine. Worse is to come.  

This piece puts down the French and English as weak and ineffectual, drawing the implicit conclusion that it will be the Americans who will have to bail them out if their foreign policy leads to war. Nothing too bad, you say? Alright, well here is the conclusion, which hints at what we are going to see in his writing for Social Justice.

"Another serious split in French opinion is that caused by the Jewish question, a problem much aggravated just at present by the multitude of émigrés in Paris. Even I, as a stranger in the city, could not help noticing how much German was being spoken, especially in the better restaurants. Such an influx naturally makes the French wonder, not only about these incoming Jews, but also about their co-religionists who live and work here and call themselves French. The facts that [former Prime Minister and Popular Front leader Léon] Blum and the men around him are Jews, that there are two Jews in the present cabinet, Messrs. Zay and Mandel and that the Jewish bankers Mannheimer, de Rothschild and Lazard Freres are known to stand behind the present government all complicate the situation. 

The position taken by the Daladier government on this question is an interesting commentary on its policies in general. There are two decree laws which concern the press, one against publishing propaganda paid for by a foreign government. Under these laws, the patriotic weeklies Le Defi and La France Enchainee were just recently uppressed, presumably for getting money from Hitler; but LʼHumanité, which no one doubts gives out Russian propaganda, paid for by Russia, has been left alone. What is freedom of the press and for whom is it done, the French ask."

Read it here.

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Inside War-Time Germany

Today's entry from amongst Philip Johnson's fascist writings is "Inside War-Time Germany," published in the November-December 1939 issue of Today's Challenge. Unlike the previous piece, then, this one is written after the outbreak of war, on which we will hear much more from Johnson later.

The essay begins with a reverse echo of the present day, with Johnson condemning the main stream media: "The American newspapers have done their job of indoctrination well…" The piece is worth reading in its entirety, but I will quote one section to introduce you to the sort of mental gymnastics that Johnson makes:

"none of those opposed to Hitler that I know would prefer the liberalism of the Weimar Republic to National Socialism as a system of government. They remember too well the humiliation of the Versailles treaty, the misery of inflation and the later miseries of mass unemployment. They remember that the Weimar Republic brought civil strife, battles of brother against brother; and such civil war to them was more hateful than the World War. They do not like Hitler, but they feel that if Hitler were not Hitler but some imaginary person that would be nice in their own particular way, then National Socialism or rather national socialism, would be a good idea. Such thoughts are not the stuff of revolutions. 

Also, no matter what the objections they have to Hitler, close to 100% of the Germans appear to approve of one particular part of Hitlerʼs work — his foreign policy. … since 1911, Germany has been growing rapidly. Even the bitterest foes of the National Socialist ideology are proud of German greatness. This natural pride in their power and success stultifies foreign criticism of their methods or their morals. Similarly, we Americans would not have brooked any criticism of our doctrine of ʻmanifest destinyʼ in the 19th century when we were busy conquering our empire in the west. So today the Germans are impervious to the moral admonishment that they ought not to conquer their neighbors. Conquest is good or bad, depending on who does it, you yourself or somebody you donʼt like."

Where the Jews are in all this is rather unclear (actually it is perfectly clear… they are suppressed or deemed unfit to testify) although at one point Johnson uses well-known code language, referring to the common "anti-international banker" stance between the Nazis and the Soviets. 

Read for yourself here.

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Philip Johnson’s Fascistic Writings

Given the current political climate, it seems appropriate to go back to my dissertation and look at Philip Johnson's fascist writings from the 1930s. I will be posting these regularly here, one document at a time as a way of helping us understand the genesis of the contemporary "America First" movement in the fascistic "America First" movement of the 1930s. The order of these articles is a bit random, having more to do with what is on top of the pile than anything else.

Before we start, a word on my use of the term "fascistic." These writings will make abundently clear that neither Johnson nor the America First movement was merely Right wing, but rather that each actively sought to create "fake news," especially regarding the plight of the Jews in Europe and the Nazi Blitzkreig. Moreover, this was done with the active support of the Nazi goverment in hopes of keeping the United States out of the war with Germany. 

The first article, "Philip Johnson, “Are We a Dying People?,” was published in Todayʼs Challenge June-July 1939. In this piece Johnson rehearses arguments being made by proponents of the eugenics movement (Johnson invokes eugenics directly in this article). Like Johnson, they saw race suicide in indications that Nordic and Anglo-Saxon Americans bred at a lower rate than African Americans and immigrants from Ireland, as well as Southern and Eastern Europe. Like Johnson, the eugenicists predicted “race suicide,” and “national deterioration” as the consequence of these trends. The final section titled "The Will to Live" makes Johnson's positions on race quite clear. 

"I have heard many educated men talk in this way: 'Well if we are not the fittest to survive, nature will wipe us out. The Japanese may be more fit to survive. Remember Darwin.'

The course of nature is not pre-destined. Human will is a part of the biological process. Our will, for example, interferes, constantly in the world of the lower animals. When English sparrows threaten to drive out our songbirds, we shoot the sparrows, rather than letting nature and Darwin take their course. Thus the songbirds, thanks to our will, become the 'fittest' and survive." 

Today's Challenge, I should add, is the "official organ" of the American Fellowship Forum, an organization first conceived in Berlin by Lawrence Dennis and Freidrich Auhagen. The former was a former employee of the foreign service who had become the intellectual father of an American fascism, the latter a Nazi agent who would eventually would be convicted of violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the same act that Paul Manafort is now accused of violating.  

Find the article here

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On Detachment, General Observations

The Netlab's exhibit in the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius, Lithuania, Detachment [Atotrūkis], opened on Friday the 17th with work by Leigha Dennis and myself. There is a lot to say about it and I'm afraid it isn't really designed around sound bites. That'll probably turn off a bunch of you right away. Sorry (not sorry). 

This show is the first of my ventures after I have (at least temporarily) retired from full-time teaching. While I remain at the University of Limerick part-time, teaching in the United States just doesn't make sense to me presently. Conditions have changed—not only for me, but in the institutions themselves—and the opportunities outside the university seem much greater than the conditions inside. Architectural education, constrained by financial limitations, accreditation, and vested interests, is becoming stagnant fast. Exhibitions allow me to get my thoughts out there to more people and with greater intensity.

So what is this show about? We begin with the following statement:

How do we break from the frenzy of oversaturation? With a wealth of information at hand, we find no time to reflect upon it. Connected to everyone at all times, always aware of the latest news, able to share our thoughts at any moment, we find ourselves unable to engage in meaningful political thought and discourse. Have we traded the feeling of alienation for a hyperkinetic frenzy? Does having more information that we could process in a lifetime available at our fingertips result in an utter lack of meaning?

"Detachment" (Atotrūkis in Lithuanian) refers to two processes. The first is the detachment that mobile networked technologies allow us to make from both the enviroment and the individuals around us. For the first time since the Middle Ages (if not before), we dwell in a world in which we divide our attention between the physical world and an entirely different, invisible but equally omnipresent and real realm. Our religion, however, is technology and the Ether that surrouds us.

The second is a detachment that we may make from the noise that technology produces in our environment, a detachment that can be useful, even critical, in social and political matters. Detaching or disengaging from noise allows us to re-engage with something in depth. Taking time outs from technology, for example, allows us to read more thoroughly, to engage with our friends and family more intensely, and even to sleep more deeply. This sort of detachment is especially critical for politics. As Merlyna Lim and Mark Kann uncovered in the Networked Publics book that I edited, new forms of technology make political mobilization easy (how hard is it to sign a petition at change.org, agree with your friends on Facebook, or get conned into voting for Brexit), but they have as yet been unable to promote democratic deliberation. In this model, Trump is the perfect networked candidate, living in his own Twit-bubble, ignoring anyone who doesn't fit his myopic view. This second meaning of detachment encourages us to pause from the relentless circulation of information around the globe at light speed in order to give considered thought to issues that matter to us.

Two photographic components document these conditions and their effects. The first set of photographs is inspired by Manwatching, a 1977 book by Desmond Morris, the curator of the London Zoo and surrealist artist. We were struck by the new gestures that individuals make when they use their mobile technological devices and have documented them in the streets of cities worldwide since 2009. This set of photographs underscores the detachment produced by technological devices.

In contrast, a second set of photographs documents conditions in which detachment from the noise of technologized life brings heightened awareness. These photos look at the National Radio Astronomical Observatory in the United States National Radio Quiet Zone (where cell phones, wifi networks and even digital cameras are banned to allow radio astronomy to take place), the Kerry International Dark-Sky Reserve in Ireland (where lights are restricted in order to allow individuals to enjoy the only "gold star" dark sky reserve in the Northern hemisphere), and the Murray Hill Anechoic Chamber, Bell Labs in New Jersey (the first anechoic chamber ever built, which sucks up echoes in order to allow researchers to better understand the characteristics of sound). 

The photographic exhibits are complemented by two installations. The first is Perkūnas [the Lithuanian name for the (god of) thunder]. Perkūnas is a large structure built of commonly available sheet-metal ducting used for ventilation. It is both a found object and the product of architectural design. A ventilation fan, installed outside the room in an alcove, passes air through the duct, producing noise. A microprocessor secretly sniffs for active wifi enabled electronic gadgets and controls the amount of air and noise produced by the duct. If there are no gadgets present, the duct makes little or no sound. With a couple of gadgets, it will make a louder sound. The more gadgets, the more sound. Our ability to communicate verbally is directly affected by the amount of gadgets. If we leave our gadgets behind, Perkūnas will stay quiet, although it also reacts to the electromagnetic weather produced by stray signals in other parts of the museum and the street outside. Perkunas is neither art nor architecture. Like Aleksandra Kašuba’s curved surfaces and Valdas Ozarinskas’ installations, it occupies another conceptual space. Like Vladas Urbanavičius’s “Krantinės arka (Arch on the Quay),” it occupies a position between infrastructure and art. No matter that this exhibit is entirely about technology, this is not a work of new media. There are no screens to look at, there is no interface to play with. Invoking the name of the Perkūnas suggests an affinity with magic; in a world of technology, we once again believe things have spirits.

 

 

The final component is two instances of Leigha Dennis's Pleasure Box, a project that she previously developed as a fellow at the University of Michigan. These boxes are steel lockers similar to those found outside embassies, government offices, and other secure zones into which individuals can place their networked devices. Pleasure Box is an installation that gives users a choice to disconnect, creating temporary relief from the oversaturation of network culture. By locking smartphones and other gadgets inside, users are detached, left to ponder other pleasures including the exhibition.

Inside each compartment is a video screen displaying surveillance footage taken throughout the CAC, along with a stand to prop phones upright for recording this video footage while locked inside. Today we experience much of the world mediated through our devices. We use them to document our lives, sharing videos and photographs on social media. Yet while we willingly exchange these personal details to the public and social spheres, our gadgets are also transmitting vast amounts of personal information into the atmosphere where surveillance systems can freely detect them.
 
The instructions read:
 
1. Choose a lock-box
2. Turn your smartphone camera on and place inside facing the back
3. Close and lock the box—it will automatically lock for 3 minutes
4. Once the lock expires (or wait even longer), retrieve your device and return the key
 
 

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