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My Dear Berlin Wall

This weekend marks the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and, to commemorate, I thought it would be appropriate to post this chapter from Blue Monday, which Robert Sumrell and I published a decade ago as AUDC.

My Dear Berlin Wall

On June 17, 1979, Eija-Riita Eklöf, a Swedish woman, married the Berlin Wall at Groß-Ziethener Straße, taking Wall Winther Berliner-Mauer as her name. The final piece of heroic modernist architecture, the Berlin Wall was constructed just as the movement’s Utopian political ambitions had begun to wane. By then, with the eastward spread of modernism during the Khrushchev years,  the ideological distinctiveness of modernity had come to an end, making East-West, modern–antimodern harder to distinguish. Still, the architects of the Berlin Wall hoped it would change society.

For a while, it did just that. After the close of World War II, Berlin was a microcosm of Germany. Both city and country were cut into four occupation zones, each overseen by a commander-in-chief from one of the four Allied powers, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. As the geopolitical tide continued to shift in the years after the war, tensions escalated between the Soviets and the Western allies. By the time of the Berlin Blockade of 1948-1949, it became clear that the three allied segments of Berlin would become “West Berlin,” an enclave of the Federal Republic of Germany (or “West Germany”) while the Soviet-controlled sector would become “East Berlin,” associated with the German Democratic Republic (or “East Germany”). Responding to the blockade crisis, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, United Kingdom, and the United States promised mutual military defense through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. In 1955, West Germany joined NATO and, in response, the Soviet Union formed the Warsaw Pact with Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania. East Germany joined one year later as two events cemented the division of the world. The first was the Suez Crisis in which the United States, fearing thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union, forced France and Britain to withdraw from the Suez Canal, a critical piece of infrastructure they had occupied earlier that year to prevent Egypt from nationalizing it. The second was the Hungarian Revolution, crushed by Soviet tanks as the West watched. With the refusal of the Soviet Union and the United States to enter into direct confrontation, it became clear that the world, Europe, Germany, and Berlin had been divided into spheres of influence controlled by the superpowers.

The superpowers fought the Cold War through their display of achievements in science, propaganda, and accumulation. Berlin became the prime place for the two competing rivals to showcase their material culture. In the East, the Stalinallée, designed by architects Hartmann, Henselmann, Hopp, Leucht, Paulick and Souradny, was a nearly 2km long, 89m wide boulevard, lined with eight-story Socialist Classicist buildings. Inside these vast structures, workers enjoyed luxurious apartments, shops, and restaurants. In response, West Berlin held the Interbau exhibit in 1957, assembling the masters of modern architecture including Alvar Aalto, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, Johannes van den Broek and Jaap Bakema, Egon Eiermann, and Pierre Vago to build a model modernist community of housing blocks in a park in the Hansaviertel quarter.

Nor was the battle of lifestyle between East and West limited to architecture. Soviet communism followed capitalism to focus on industrial productivity and expansion within a newly global market. While the United States exported its products—and eventually outsourced its production—throughout the world, the Soviets used COMECON, the economic equivalent of the Warsaw Pact, to eliminate trade barriers among communist countries. Each country produced objects to represent its superior quality of life, validating each system not only to its own citizens, but also to each other and to the rest of the world. The importance of material culture in the Cold War is underscored by the 1959 Nixon-Khrushchev “Kitchen Debate,” played out between the two powers in a demonstration kitchen at a model house during the American National Exhibit in Moscow. At the impromptu debate, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev expressed his disgust at the heavily automated kitchen and asked if there was a machine that “puts food into the mouth and pushes it down.” U. S. Vice President Richard Nixon responded, “Would it not be better to compete in the relative merits of washing machines than in the strength of rockets? ” A Cold War battle was fought through house wares.(1)

The climax of the battle came in Berlin. In the divided city, half a million people would go back and forth each day between East and West. Westerners would shop in East Berlin where products, subsidized by the East Bloc, were cheap. Easterners would shop in the Western sector where fetish items such as seamless nylons and tropical fruits could be found. Overall, however, the flow was westward. The rate of defection was unstoppable: between 1949 and 1961 some 2.5 million East Germaners left for the West, primarily through Berlin. But just as destructive was the mass flight of subsidized objects westward, a migration that pushed the inefficient communist system to collapse. Khrushchev had won the debate: cheap goods from the East were more desirable, but the cost to the system was unacceptable. By this time, production and accumulation in the East Bloc had became goals in and of themselves, devoid of logic and use, no longer tied to the basic needs of the economy. In 1961, Khrushchev launched the Third Economic Program to increase the Soviet Union’s production of industrial goods at all costs. During a meeting that year, COMECON decided that the flow of people and products had to be stopped. On August 13, 1961 the border was sealed with a barrier constructed by East German troops.

The result was a city divided in two without regard for prior form or use. Over time, the Berlin Wall evolved from barbed wire fences (1961-1965) to a concrete wall (1965-1975), until it reached its full maturity in 1975. The final form would be not one but two Walls, each constructed from 45,000 3.6 meter high by 1.5 meter wide sections of reinforced concrete, each weighing 2.75 tons, separated by a no-man’s-land as wide as 91 meters. The Wall was capped by a smooth pipe, making it difficult to scale and was accompanied by fences, trenches, and barbed wire as well as over 300 watchtowers and thirty bunkers. (2)

With its Utopian aspiration to change society, the Wall was the last product of heroic modernism. It succeeded in changing society, but as with most modernist products, not in the way its builders intended. East Berlin, open to the larger body of the East Bloc, withered, becoming little more than a vacation wonderland for the Politburo élite of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact and a playground for spies of both camps. Cut off, West Berlin thrived. By providing a datum line for Berlin, the Wall gave meaning to the lives of its inhabitants. In recognition of this, Joseph Beuys proposed that the Wall should be made taller by 5cm for “aesthetic purposes.” (3)

As the Wall was being constructed in Berlin, Situationists in Paris and elsewhere were advocating for radical changes in cities as a means of preserving urban life. For them, the aesthetics of modernism and the forces of modernity were destroying urbanity itself. During this period working-class Paris was being emptied out, its inhabitants sent by the government to an artificial modernist city in the suburbs while an equally artificial cultural capital for tourists and industry was created in the cleaned-up center. Led by Guy Debord, the Situationists hoped to recapture the city by creating varied ambiances and environments and strategies providing opportunities for stimulation and chance drift. When Situationist architect Constant Nieuwenhuys deployed the floating

transparent layers of his New Babylon to augment the existing city with unique, flexible and transient spaces Debord condemned the project, arguing that the existing city was already almost perfect. Only minor modifications, were necessary, such as adding light switches to street lights so that they could be turned on and off at will and allowing people to wander in subways after they were shut off at night.

In his 1972 thesis at the Architectural Association, entitled “Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture,” Rem Koolhaas found a way of reconciling modernism with Situationism through the figure of the Wall. Suggesting that the Wall might be exported to London and made to encircle it, Koolhaas writes, “The inhabitants of this architecture, those strong enough to love it, would become its Voluntary Prisoners, ecstatic in the freedom of their architectural confines.” Inside, life would be “a continuous state of ornamental frenzy and decorative delirium, an overdose of symbols.” Although officially proposing a way of making London more interesting, Koolhaas’s thesis is really a set of observations about the already existing condition of the real Wall. (4)

In choosing to encircle London with the Wall, Koolhaas recognized that it was not only the last great product of modernism, it was the last work of heavy architecture. Already in 1966, in his introduction to 40 Under 40, Robert Stern observed that an increasingly dematerialized “cardboard architecture” was “the order of the day” in the United States while in England, architects such as Archigram were proposing barrier-less technological utopias.(5)

Built of concrete, the wall was solid, weighty. It hearkened back to the days of the medieval city walls, which were not only defensive but attempted to organize and contain a world progressively more interconnected through communications and trade. Walls acted as concentrators, defining places in which early capitalism and urbanity could be found and intensifying both. So long as the modes of communication remained physical and the methods of making and trading goods were slow, nations retained their authority and autonomy through architectural solidity.

The destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is concurrent with the pervasive and irreversible spread of Empire and the end of heavy architecture. Effectively, the Wall fell by accident. During 1989, mass demonstrations in East Germany led to the resignation of East German leader Erich Honecker. Soon, border restrictions between neighboring nations were lifted and the new government decided to allow East Berliners to apply for visas to visit West Germany. On November 9, 1989, East German Minister of Propaganda Günter Schabowski accidentally unleashed the Wall’s destruction. Shortly before a televised press conference, the Minister was handed a note outlining new travel regulations between East and West Berlin. Having recently returned from vacation, Schabowski did not have a good grasp on the enormity of the demonstrations in East Berlin or on the policy being outlined in the note. He decided to read the note aloud at the end of his speech, including a section stating that free travel would be allowed across the border. Not knowing how to properly answer questions as to when these new regulations would come into effect, he simply responded, “As far as I know effective immediately, right now.” Tens of thousands of  people crowded the checkpoints at  the Wall and demanded entry, overwhelming border guards. Unwilling to massacre the crowds, the guards yielded, effectively ending the Wall’s power. (6)

The Schabowski mis-speak points to the underlying reason for the Wall’s collapse: the lack of information flow in the East Bloc. The goals of Khrushchev’s Third Economic Program were finally met by the early 1980s, but by that point the United States was no longer interested in production. For America, the manufacturing of objects proved to be more lucrative when outsourced to the developing world. By sending its production overseas, America assured the success of its ideology in the global sphere while concentrating on the production of the virtual. Having spent itself on production of objects, as well as on more bluntly applied foreign aid, the Soviet Union collapsed. Manuel Castells observes that, “in the 1980s the Soviet Union produced substantially more than the US in a number of heavy industrial sectors: it produced 80 percent more steel, 78 percent more cement, 42 percent more oil, 55 percent more fertilizer, twice as much pig iron, and five times as many tractors.” The problem, he concludes, was that material culture no longer mattered. The PC revolution was completely counter to the Soviet Union’s centralization while photocopy machines were in the hands of the KGB. (7)

With the Wall gone, and with it the division between East and West undone, the world is permeated by flows of information. Physical borders no longer hold back the flow of an immaterial capital. Indeed, soon after the Wall fell, the European Union set about in earnest to do away with borders between individual nation states.

But through it all, the Wall has had no greater fan than Wall Winther Berliner-Mauer. In her view, the Wall allowed peace to be maintained between East and West. As soldiers looked over the Wall to the other side, they saw men just like themselves, with families they loved and wanted to protect. In this way, the Wall created a bond between men who would otherwise be faceless enemies. But Berliner-Mauer’s love for the Wall is far from abstract. For her, objects aren’t inert but rather can possess souls and become individuals to fall in love with. Berliner-Mauer sees the Wall as a noble being and says she is erotically attracted to his horizontal lines and sheer presence. While Berliner-Mauer is in a seemingly extreme, sexual relationship with the object of her desire, our animistic belief in objects is widespread across society. Adults and children alike confide in stuffed animals, yell at traffic signs, and stroke their sports cars all the time. Many people choose to love objects over their friends, their spouses, or themselves. Berliner-Mauer understands that the role of objects in our lives has changed. Objects are no longer tools that stand in to do work for us, or surrogates for normal human activities. Objects have come into their own, and as such we have formed new kinds of relationships with them that do not have a precedent in human interaction. The Wall is a loving presence in her life, and she loves it in return.

Faced with the tragedy of the Wall’s destruction, Berliner-Mauer created a technique she calls “Temporal Displacement” to fix her mind permanently in the period during which the Wall existed, even at the cost of creating new memories. (8) For Berliner-Mauer, marrying the Wall is a last means to preserve the clarity of modernism and the effectiveness of architecture as a solid and heavy means of organization. To love the Berlin Wall is to dream of holding onto the simple, clear disciplinary regime of order and punishment that came before we were all complicit within the system. In today’s society of control, as Gilles Deleuze writes, we don’t need enclosures any more. Instead, we live in a world of endless modulations, internalizing control in order to direct ourselves instead  of being directed.(9) After the fall of the Wall and the end of enclosures, even evil itself, Jean Baudrillard observes, loses its identity and spreads evenly through culture. An Other space is gone from the world. North Korea and Cuba are mere leftovers, relegated to tourism. There is nowhere to defect to: without the Wall, we must all face our own complicity in the system.(10)

(1) Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 10-12.

(2) Thomas Flemming, The Berlin Wall: Division of a City (Berlin: be.bra Verlag, 2000), 75.

(3) Irving Sandler, Art of the Postmodern Era (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1998), 110.

(4) Rem Koolhaas, S, M, L, XL (New York: Monacelli, 1995), 2-21.

(5) Robert A.M. Stern, ed., 40 Under 40: An Exhibition of Young Talent in Architecture (New York: The Architectural League of New York, 1966), vii.

(6) Angela Stent, Russia and Germany Reborn: Unification, the Soviet Collapse, and the New Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 94-96.

(7) Manuel Castells, End of Millennium, Second Edition (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2000), 26-27, See also the entire chapter on “The Crisis of Industrial Statism and the Collapse of the Soviet Union,” 5-67.

(8) http://www.berlinermauer.se (note from 2019: Eija-Riitta Eklöf-Berliner-Mauer died in 2015 and this site is now some kind of spam site)

(9) Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October, Vol. 59 (Winter 1992), 3-7.

(10) Jean Baudrillard, “The Thawing of the East,” The Illusion of the End (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1994), 28-33.

On Gardening

“If it is true that the next renaissance of human culture will be the reconstruction of the natural world in our cities and suburbs, then it will be the designers, not the politicians, who will lead this revolution. And plants will be at the center of it all.”
—Thomas Rainer, Planting in a Post-Wild World.

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It’s true, I’ve disappeared. It’s time to admit it. Architecture and academics have become boring. There are no new buildings of consequence and academics are plumbing the depths of irrelevance. Star worship killed both.

Few people who knew me in academics knew about my secret life, investing and managing real estate (anyone who ever took my Network City course should have received some good lessons on that) and that panned out well enough that I don’t have to prostitute myself for low-paying academic jobs anymore for the “experience” and “exposure.” There are many things I should do with this freedom: chiefly, proposals for art and museum installations, writing, and my book on the first decade of the Netlab. I am slowly working on all of these, but I found a new secret life, something else that has absorbed me thoroughly, something that I want to do: gardening.

Forget the term “landscape,” a holdover from the days when men wore cargo shorts and baggy T-shirts. Landscape implies finding an earth mover and puttering about with it, treating a plot of land as if it were a building, terracing it without regard to whatever might be living there. Periodically, claims will be made about clever schemes for land reclamation or water filtration but inevitably these will go awry since the designer will have given little thought for the plants and even less for the structure of the soil. Landscape needs a broad area to take into view, which necessitates clear cutting and large expanses, not the minute detail of gardening. Landscape suggests something for a public to view, not something productive for a household. Worst of all, around here, “landscapers” are illiterate madmen with gas-powered leaf blowers, whose sole job is to redistribute wealth into their pockets while driving me out of my goddamned skull. I saw one the other day, “Stone Age Landscapers.” Like something out of a Robert Smithson narrative, the name says it all.

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Early April, Toadshade Trillium (Trillium sessile) is surrounded by fiddlehead ferns and debris. 

Gardening is something altogether different. I embrace the amateur nature of the term, its lack of regard for academics and high art. These things don’t matter anymore. We all know this. But sticking your hands into the dirt every day does. Growing things for a particular area that you know well does. It’s not something you hire someone else to do, it’s something you do yourself.

Gardening is a massive investment of time. Learning plants takes time. When I started I didn’t know Virginia Creeper from poison ivy and took the advice of a friend who suggested we pull it up too. What a mistake, only now is it coming back to cover bare spots. Plants take time, a lot of time. You don’t just put them in the ground and walk away. By their nature, they grow and they grow slowly. One reason I plunged headlong into gardening is that I realized that the temporal nature of the project meant anything I did now would only start paying off years later. There are things I am doing now that won’t have real impact for a decade or two.

After three years of intense gardening, I am only beginning to understand how a half acre garden on the periphery of New York City can be radical in its own way. This hit home to me last night. Notwithstanding their previously dwindling populations, the fireflies came back in force this year. My sixteen year old daughter and I sat on the chairs in our back yard, amidst all the things that I had planted, and delighted in them. Planting pine trees, letting debris in the woody area of the property rot and offering unmown micro-meadows seems to have done the trick.

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A native Mountain Laurel (Kalmia Latifolia) bloomed in early May this year. 

My goal is to build a contemporary suburban pleasure garden, a place to restore some measure of peace to my family, friends, and myself even in a world gone mad. Logic is gone, we held its funeral years ago. In its stead is the raw anger of Brett Kavanaugh on one side and “woke” folk on the other racing each other in a doomsday death spiral. I have little time for that here, where I have gone, just as Diocletian turned to tending his cabbages after retiring from Emperor. My garden is a spiritual place, far from any church and its tired old songs. It stems from an earth-centric spirituality, a celebration of the cycle of life in its raucous abundance, drawing from warring pagan forces of soil, sun, and rain, not of some angry, white-bearded man-god better suited to faraway desert lands barren of living things. I have learned a lot about botany and horticulture, but I have also learned that these things have limits. I am after the deep connection with the living that science denies too often.

I have embraced the native plants that belong to this place, this town of Montclair, New Jersey, but I haven’t embraced the native plant movement and its assumption of original sin, guilt, and the rejection of pleasure. It’s merely more Protestantism in disguise and I read to much Nietzsche in college to revel in guilt. I don’t want to fill my yard with a patch of weedy-looking things. I am not pretending that I will restore a long-vanished landscape, nor do I assume to be primarily working for the pollinators or wildlife (although I did think about the fireflies a bit). Rather, I see such benefits as byproducts, just as habitat destruction and the spread of invasive species have been byproducts of recent landscape design. We can design byproducts into our plans, think about the side effects we want even as we create something for ourselves.

With this in mind, my plants are grouped in terms of the native plant communities indigenous to this place—meadows, woods, moist, dry, sun, and shade—along with a small grouping of native and non-native plants that traditionally have been identified with restorative properties (a “physick garden”) and a few food-bearing plants (sadly, the lack of controls on deer make my dream of a self-sustaining lifestyle difficult here).

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A non-native in my “physick garden,” Borage (Borago officinalis), which makes for an excellent addition to cocktails and is possibly the failure that I lament the most this season. The four foot tall plant fell over and died this week, its lower stem rotten, the victim of too much water early in the season.

I set out to make this garden as a personal project, but I’ve begun to think that it may be more than that, that this project could eventually serve as a model for a new suburban landscape. There is so much land here we could turn to our advantage and yet most of it is a green desert, bereft of both biological diversity and visual appeal. A painful aspect of learning what can be achieved with gardening is that it opens your eyes to the ugliness of most properties. Sad houses are bracketed by sadder yards, at best a forlorn tree or two sits in an unused front lawn, some tired mop-headed hydrangea compete with invasive barberry and euonymous amidst a sea of black-painted “mulch,” all of which telegraphs nothing more than the property owner’s laziness. The lack of intentionality boggles the mind, as does the poverty of it all.

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Early May and our Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) has lost most of its flowers, carpeting the ground around it up by Highland Avenue. It is July now and the ferns and grasses near it have come in thick.   

In the last three years, I have planted some thirty-eight trees on this 1/2 acre, all but three of which have been native (two are apple trees and one is a Norway spruce that my daughter received on arbor day at her school). These species——Carolina Silverbells, White Pines, Magnolias, Paw-Paws, Eastern Cypresses, American Hazelnuts, Redbuds, American Dogwoods, and so on——are a mix of understory and canopy trees, nestled in amidst the tulip-beech-oak canopy that defines the edges of this property. I spray religiously with Deer Out, a non-toxic mix of cayenne peppers, peppermint and eggs and that seems to have largely discouraged the ravenous deer in this suburb. I have let many seedlings thrive where they fall, helping in reforestation. I have planted dozens upon dozens of bushes, at least fifteen native rhododendrons alone. Native perennials now dot my yard, with woodland ephemerals tucked wherever I can find a place for them and ferns——relics from the Carboniferous period when giant dragonflies the size of hawks flew about——by the hundreds. Even a few lycopods, perhaps the most alien and oldest form of land plants, have managed to find homes here. Where before there had been mulch or bare ground, now something grows. Still, the property eagerly absorbs as many plantings as I can throw at it.

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A recent haul. Two carts of native plants purchased on June 25th from the Bowman Hill Wildflower Preserve in New Hope, PA. It would be lovely to find natives from sources closer to home, but there are no nurseries that grow from local stock any closer and the price is right. 

But my race against time this summer has run out. It’s too hot and dry to plant more for now. I’ll have to wait until fall, weed out the invasive plants that infest my land, products of criminal nurserymen and heedless neighbors, and work on my other projects. Perhaps I’ll even blog from time to time, or work on my book and the other things. Soon enough, fall will come, and with her cooler nights and, I hope, quenching rains, another planting season will come.

On Networked Publics and the Facebook

At a recent party, an acquaintance asked where I’d disappeared to. Nowhere, I said, and when I inquired into what prompted their question, they responded by saying that they couldn’t find me on the Facebook. I was a little surprised about this since I am hardly the first person to deactivate or delete an account; in the United States and the European Union, the Facebook’s membership has peaked and has been declining for a few years while engagement is in a steep decline.

Still, the Facebook has effectively replaced most social communication for many people, so I initially had some anxiety about deactivating my account. I thought it would be hard to go without the Facebook since it gathered together people from throughout my life and career and also hosted a few key discussion groups that I enjoyed (mainly pertaining to modular synthesis). Two months later, I don’t feel I am missing out on anything; on the contrary, I am more at ease. Losing the constant noise of the Facebook feed is a joy. If anyone actually wants to get in touch, I am here.

The connections we establish on Facebook are superficial. Birthdays are a case in point: it’s lovely when people remember your birthday, but they don’t really, the Facebook prompts them too. And a couple of happy birthdays doesn’t excuse the toxic impact the site has had on politics, which I find much more oppressive than Twitter, which is used by a large number of journalists and bloggers. My most active Twitter circle is composed of some of the best writers in the architecture and urbanism today as well as a smattering of people involved with digital culture. So, when I mentioned I was quitting Facebook, William Ball sent a link to a scary article by Timothy McLaughlin about how Facebook’s rise in Mynamar fueled genocide while Frank Pasquale lamented that Facebook might wind up like Big Tobacco, accepting the shrinking of its domestic market since it is doing so well overseas.        

This gets me to thinking. Something has changed in network culture: the 2016 election and the end of the Facebook’s growth in the US and EU are indicators that the heady exuberance about the Net has turned to anxiety and dismay. That the methods of communication used by networked publics are fundamentally flawed in a way that earlier publics were not isn’t just something that scholars talk about anymore, it’s something we all face, daily. Back when we took on the term as an object of study at the Annenberg Center for Communications, we understood “networked publics” to refer to a group of individuals with a particular interest in connecting together digitally. Some researchers—not coincidentally sponsored by technology corporations rather than universities—mistakenly depicted social network sites as networked publics in themselves. This is a category error: with few exceptions (the first incarnation of aSmallWorld, intended as a gathering place for the mega-rich and their hangers-on comes to mind), social networking sites act not as publics in themselves but rather as hosts or platforms on which, in theory, individuals could participate in a variety of different publics.

But they don’t. Algorithms ensure posts only reach individuals who “like” similar content, inhibiting the discussion and deliberation necessary to create a public, supplanting it with a brown slime of happy (or angry, or sad, depending on sorts of things one “likes”) posts. Social networking sites profit off of various malignant actors who promote content covertly. Controversy is good, creating more engagement, regardless of the human cost.

If publics can’t form on social networking sites and if, for many people, social networking sites are the primary means of interacting with others, is it possible that publics and public discourse are becoming extinct as a consequence? When I see people saying “it’s time for us to have a conversation” when they really want to shame you into accepting whatever idea they have adopted as their cause that day, I wonder if we have become completely unable to engage in actual public discourse. After all, the modern category of the public is less than four centuries old. Why should we be so bold as to think it will endure?

 

Drones at the New School

I am delighted to announce that I will be presenting Perkūnas at the New School tomorrow during the Sonic Pharmakon conference put together by Ed Keller for the Center for Transformational Media (I am a fellow with CTM this year). See the schedule here. As a modular synthesist and with a sound sensitivity disorder, I am committed to the possibilities of drone and am fascinated to see Sunday’s events (alas, I am on a plane back from Kauai today so will miss the day).

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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2017 in Review (and more)

I begin writing this post to usher in 2018 with a large purring cat on my lap, glad that we are home from skiing in Vermont and doing her best to prevent me from typing. Until 2012 it was a yearly tradition for me to take stock of the state of things, personally, professionally, and in the world at large. The last five years have been something of a whirlwind and even though I have tried, I haven’t returned to this tradition.

Looking back at the last entry, from January 2013, I began with the words:

With the second inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States, we also breathe a guarded sign of relief. The eight years of Republican rule at the start of the millennium were enough to discredit that party for the rest of the millennium, but it also came with a certain weariness. This time around Obama did not run on a platform of hope. And how could he have? He squandered that platform within a month of assuming office the first time around, appointing a boys’ club of advisors that made the early comparisons to Kennedy’s Camelot seem all too prescient. The first Obama administration, backing finance over building infrastructure and helping the poor, turned to the expediency of drone strikes over the messiness of peaceful resolutions, dismissed both single-payer and government options for national healthcare, and stayed quiet about climate change.

Well, those seemed like pretty good times, all things considered. This inauguration was met with shock and dismay by anyone with any wit whatsoever as we start with a President mired in dementia and crippled by narcissistic personality disorder, surrounded by glad-handers, hangers-on and family members more concerned with convincing him into doing their bidding than governing. The bane of the academy, neoliberalism, is gone for now, replaced by outright kleptocracy.

The core of this dysfunction, ultimately, is the infrastructural stalemate of government. By this, I am referring to the condition that I outlined in the introduction to the Infrastructural City, in which competing infrastructures and groups of stakeholders face off against each other, rabidly defending their turf even at the risk of the collapse of the system as a whole. Systems that cannot survive it (for example, AT&T and the Bell System) die or are radically restructured (in that case, the development of competing infrastructures of telematics), even if that process can take decades. By 2012, we could see infrastructural stalemate permeate Congress. Even as the Republican majority not only refused to work with the Democrats, it was internally hamstrung by the uncompromising demands of the Tea Party movement. The ensuing deadlock over budget priorities and the threat of repeated government shutdowns over rising debt led Congress to institute budget sequestration, a series of automatic spending cuts that, once set in motion, operated without the need for direct intervention. Sequestration was the sort of solution that managers of infrastructure often resort to: a jury-rigged system that everyone hates, but that everyone hates less than what competing stakeholders might propose.

In this light, the Republican victory of 2016 could be seen as infrastructural. Recall that in 2008 Obama had promised he would be known as “the Infrastructure President” only to quickly swerve away from these promises in favor of propping up big banks and the financial system. Two terms later, not only had the more familiar infrastructures of roads, bridges, rail, and air continued marching toward collapse, the same sicknesses that affect them had infected government. But, you may ask what about the blatant racism, calls to violence, and other horrors of the 2016 election? What do those have to do with infrastructure? Simple: fascism. The strong man comes in and promises that all that needs to be done is grab the lazy sods by the ears and bash their heads until they listen. Recall that Mussolini bragged he got the trains to run on time while Hitler’s great pride was the world’s first integrated highway system, the autobahn. Similarly, in Turkey Erdogan is undertaking a series of “crazy projects” such as a tunnel under the Bosporus, a new canal connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara to minimize traffic in the Istanbul Strait, a massive new airport in Istanbul, and so on. It’s this identical impetus that animates our current President as he claims he will impose order to the government one way or another.

Apart from his own failings, most notably the collusion with the Russian government during his election campaign, a crime already sinking his presidency, as well as his utter inability to focus or process information, the President faces challenges from the checks and balances that the founding fathers built into the US system; infrastructural stalemate as a Constitutional strategy. Unlikely to be able to turn it into the outright authoritarian rule that he desperately craves, the President faces a political dead end. In the meantime, he and those closest to him have turned to the best option they have: kleptocracy. In the name of infrastructure, the administration does what it can to remove regulations on pet industries (fossil fuel, mining, big manufacturing, e.g. all the old industries that find it difficult to be viable today) and while we hear constant promises about a big infrastructure act coming, I am convinced that it will largely be yet more concessions to specific supporters and, whenever possible, his own failing business ventures.

The one saving grace is that so far, I don’t see an asset bubble of the sort that crippled the markets in 2008. Certainly, some stocks, such as Facebook, are worth far more than they should be, but if on the whole assets are high, liquidity is as well. As markets crashed overnight following Brexit and the 2016 election, banks and other investors bought up the temporarily devalued assets to make a healthy profit. From the perspective of the markets, this is a good thing, as one danger to the Federal Reserve’s timidity about raising interest rates is that it leaves them with precious margin to restart the economy during a correction. Still, there is some likelihood that by increasing corporate profits, the Tax Reform plan (read: redistribution of wealth to benefit the oligarchs plan) will keep the economy going longer without a correction and overheat it, thus leading to Stagflation MK 2, but for now, I am thinking we will be in a similar economic condition a year from now. The markets may be up or down a bit, but likely no great change. Unless, of course, some very bad decision is made about North Korea or Iran or …

Throughout it, the importance of network culture becomes clearer and clearer. If YouTube made ISIS, Twitter (with a little help from Russians running bots and hacking into DNC servers) elected this President. The last two years are entirely unimagineable without social media and e-mail. But alas, any dreams of an online Jeffersonian democracy are long gone. How we will dig ourselves out of this hole is beyond me.

Worse yet, the US retreat from the Paris Accords, the attacks on Affordable Health Care, and the spread of oligarchy suggest that we are now firmly in the early phases of what William Gibson terms “the Jackpot.” Dark Accelerationism is here, with Steve Bannon (Steve Bannon! I mean think about it!) still guiding nihilistic forces in the White House from behind the scenes. Still, humans do have a funny capacity to make do and maybe the orange skies of Blade Runner 2049 will remain confined to that alternate time-line.

I finished my last year in review with the words:

So we end with a paradox. 2012 taught us that the stagnant state of network culture isn’t stasis. Instead, it is accompanied by massive, unpredictable change. It’s up to us to figure out how to harness that unpredictability for good and how to use extreme change and extreme proposals work to better society. I hope that in retrospect I will have something more positive to say about 2013.

Let’s hope for more in 2018 then.

Blogging is an enterprise without hope these days, a dead medium, but in that, it remains something of a form of resistance, hosted on my own server, outside of the censoring eye of any institution. I won’t make any promises about whether I will blog more or not it the next year, but it remains part of my practice. As most of my readers know, in the five years since the end of 2012, I left GSAPP after a new Dean shut down Mark Wigley’s labs project and I recognized that, at least for the time being, universities were too big and dinosaur-like to host the kind of work I am pursuing. That isn’t to say that I might continue with some teaching here and there. Maybe I will even go back to teaching full time, but for now it seems like it’s time to side with nocturnal mammals scampering around furtively as dinosaurs lumber around in their last days (last days take a while, and meteorites don’t always come so don’t hold your breath for that one).

Back in 1980, Robert Fripp posted a manifesto on the back of his album “Let the Power Fall.” It has been reposted on the Discipline Global Mobile site although I had to laugh when my first attempt to find it again led to this post, made just as I was transitioning to Columbia and launching the Netlab. Over the two years since I have left full time teaching, I have found much more time and space to pursue the sort of projects that drive me, not only critical writing, but also exhibitions. If there will be some a few more projects involving my father’s work like the exhibit this year, I am hardly his keeper and can only set that research in motion so that others can take it on to give different insights. More important is my work with the Netlab, AUDC, and on my own. Different versions of these institutions will rise and recede, some may vanish and new ones may take the place. Throughout it, however, I set my intention for the next year and next five years to be a time for deepening my own research, radically interrogating the boundaries of space so as to help us come to an understanding of what this thing called network culture really is.

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