art and text in AI (on Chat.openai.com)

I’ve been working with art and Artificial Intelligence image generators recently. Untalented artists are scared of AI image generators since they are tools for making bad art, which is all that is being promoted in the press. All of the image generators—save perhaps for Dall-E 2—are tuned to produce such work in order to generate revenue. Ed Keller calls this “the black light black velvet painting of our time.” AI Art is likely to destroy ArtStation and Deviant Art. But we have a jobs crisis and need people to work in more important positions like food service. Who can argue that this re-allocation of human labor is bad?

Virtually all the work being done with this—even work that is lauded as exemplary—is bad. A few friends do interesting work. I will let them publicize it, although it’s safe to say Ed is interrogating these generators as a medium, pushing their boundaries in ways that are interesting to me. A recent article on the topic in the Architects’ Newspaper highlighted only bad work. Patrick Schumacher has convened a symposium on “futuristic” work indistinguishable from his own, which means that it is midbrow and pedestrian. Archdaily published a piece that gives the impression that AI interior designs are the stuff of nightmares. I could waste my time and yours coming up with more links to bad work.

This should not surprise anyone. Almost everything is bad because intelligent thought in architecture is now nearly extinct.

Making interesting work with AI image generators requires work. It doesn’t take as much time as it might to create a painting by hand, but an AI painting might take hours, a day, or more. One needs a plan and a mind for experimentation. AI art generators are incapable of originality. Neither are almost all artists working today. That should not stop anyone as until the modern era, originality was not valued. In the Renaissance, “genius” did not mean making an unprecedented work, rather it meant the ability to shape something pleasing out of existing sources.

AI image generators create forgeries. One appropriate response, then, is to use them to create explicit forgeries. I undertook this as a project starting this summer with the Lost Canals of Vilnius, the Drowning of Doggerland, and the Witching Cats of New Jersey.

Any good forgery begins a kernel of truth. Basing texts and images on existing sources, I created alternate histories. I used a feedback effect: provocative works created by the image generators inspired my alternate histories and ideas from the alternate histories guided the prompts for image generators. Most of the work was done with Dall-E 2 since it alone is tuned to produces semi-convincing paintings and photographs.

I unintentionally duped some readers. But AI art and text generators are already being used to deceive people for political purposes, to satisfy high school and college requirements, and for work purposes. Convincing people has never been easier. This project was intended to foreground this. I intend to write an essay for this site on the topic, but this one came out first. I am in Vilnius, Lithuania which is not boring like New York City. Visiting here often jars me out of complacency, spurs new ideas, and forces action.

A related route is to use AI art in a surrealist sense. This does not mean prompts for paintings in the style of Salvador Dali. That is kitsch and awful. Rather, this is a way of accessing what Jung called the collective unconscious to produce visual automatic writing: Pinot-Gallizio’s “Industrial Painting” updated for our day. In a sense, the “Witching Cats” project came out of a prompt for a black and white cat that came out gruesomely misshaped, became an amusing diversion for Instagram, led me to read about photography and the occult in the nineteenth century, and that, in turn led to the essay and project. Otherwise, I have not released this work. I may or may not.

Two days ago (30 November 2022), OpenAI released a freely-accessible interface to ChatGPT, a language model capable of conversation in the format of a dialogue. Although it is possible to trip it up, it is also remarkable how effective it is at generating content, even content that can be quite lengthy and complex in nature. I began by trying to produce critical essays.

In all of these, my prompt will come first.

>In 1,500 words, compare “Modernist Painting” by Clement Greenberg and “Art and Objecthood” by Michael Fried.

Modernist Painting by Clement Greenberg and Art and Objecthood by Michael Fried are two important essays that address the question of what constitutes modernist painting. While both essays address this question, they take very different approaches and come to somewhat different conclusions.

In Modernist Painting, Greenberg argues that the defining characteristic of modernist painting is its emphasis on the flatness of the canvas. He argues that the history of painting is one of the progressive flattening of the picture plane, and that modernist painting represents the culmination of this process. According to Greenberg, the flatness of the canvas allows the painter to focus on the formal elements of the painting, such as line, color, and composition, and to create a more intense and immediate visual experience for the viewer.

In contrast, Art and Objecthood takes a more philosophical approach to the question of modernist painting. Fried argues that the defining characteristic of modernist painting is its refusal to be reduced to a mere object in the world. He argues that modernist painting is defined by its ability to transcend the merely physical and to create a “presence” that is distinct from the physical object of the painting itself. According to Fried, this “presence” is what allows modernist painting to truly engage the viewer and to create a meaningful artistic experience.

One key difference between the two essays is their focus. While Greenberg is primarily concerned with the formal qualities of modernist painting, Fried is more interested in its philosophical and artistic implications. This difference is reflected in their respective conclusions. While Greenberg ultimately argues that the flatness of the canvas is the defining characteristic of modernist painting, Fried argues that it is the ability of the painting to create a “presence” that sets it apart from other forms of art.

Another important difference between the two essays is their treatment of the viewer. For Greenberg, the viewer is an essential part of the modernist painting experience. He argues that the flatness of the canvas allows the viewer to engage more directly with the formal elements of the painting, and that this creates a more intense and immediate visual experience. In contrast, Fried is less concerned with the viewer’s experience of the painting and more interested in the painting’s ability to create a “presence” that transcends its physical form.

Overall, Modernist Painting by Clement Greenberg and Art and Objecthood by Michael Fried are two important essays that address the question of what constitutes modernist painting. While both essays take different approaches and come to different conclusions, they both provide valuable insights into the nature of modernist painting and its place in the history of art.

>Write a 2,000 word analysis of the song “Rid of Me” by PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey’s 1992 hit “Rid of Me” is a raw and emotional exploration of the pain and anger that can arise in a toxic relationship. Through the use of aggressive and confrontational lyrics, coupled with her powerful and haunting vocals, Harvey exposes the desperation and helplessness that can arise when trying to leave a harmful relationship.

The song opens with a haunting and intense instrumental introduction, featuring distorted guitar riffs and driving drums that set the tone for the rest of the track. This instrumental introduction immediately establishes the song’s aggressive and confrontational atmosphere, setting the stage for the confrontational and emotional lyrics that follow.

The first verse begins with Harvey’s powerful and haunting vocals, as she sings: “I want you gone / But I want you still.” This opening line perfectly encapsulates the confusion and conflicting emotions that can arise when trying to leave a toxic relationship. On the one hand, the narrator wants to rid herself of her partner, but on the other hand, she still desires their presence and connection.

The chorus, which follows the first verse, features the repeated line: “Rid of me / Rid of me.” This chorus serves as a cry for help and a desire to be free from the suffocating and harmful relationship. The repetition of the line, coupled with Harvey’s powerful and emotive vocals, emphasizes the narrator’s desperation and longing for freedom.

The second verse continues with the narrator’s emotional turmoil, as she sings: “I’m an animal / I’m a dog / I’m a death / I’m a thief.” These lyrics paint a vivid and disturbing picture of the narrator’s state of mind, as she feels trapped and degraded in her relationship. The use of animalistic imagery also highlights the loss of humanity and dignity that can occur in a toxic relationship.

The bridge of the song features the line: “I’m a mess / I’m a wreck / I’m a fault / I’m a scar.” These lyrics further emphasize the narrator’s feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness in the relationship. She sees herself as a burden and a source of pain for her partner, and longs for the release of being free from the relationship.

The final verse of the song features the line: “I’m not a child / I’m not a pet / I’m not a toy / I’m not a doll.” This line serves as a powerful declaration of the narrator’s autonomy and independence. She rejects the idea of being treated as a possession or object, and asserts her own worth and dignity.

The song’s instrumental outro features a repetitive guitar riff that gradually builds in intensity, culminating in a ferocious and powerful finale. This instrumental finale perfectly captures the narrator’s emotional release and liberation as she breaks free from the toxic relationship.

In conclusion, “Rid of Me” is a raw and emotional exploration of the pain and anger that can arise in a toxic relationship. Through the use of confrontational and powerful lyrics, coupled with Harvey’s haunting and emotive vocals, the song exposes the desperation and helplessness that can arise when trying to leave a harmful relationship. The song’s intense and driving instrumentals perfectly capture the narrator’s emotional turmoil and eventual release, making it a powerful and impactful anthem for anyone who has experienced the pain of a toxic relationship.

Unfortunately, ChatGPT can make mistakes. I asked it to write about the relationship between Vytautas Landsbergis and George Maciunas and it stated that while they are both Lithuanians interested in Fluxus and music, they had no direct relationship, which is untrue. ChatGPT receives a failing grade for not meeting the required word count, although adding those phrases produces longer analyses.

Still, the above essays are better than what 95% of graduate students are capable of doing in an afternoon or, usually, a weekend. This should not be surprising as, while ChatGPT is incapable of original thought, so are 95% of graduate students and, indeed, 95% of faculty.

When I did my dissertation at Cornell, a dissertation was defined as a “contribution to knowledge” but the vast majority of such work in the humanities is formulaic: find an obscure topic related to an important topic (an unknown modern architect in Brazil in the 1960s who made middling buildings but met Lina Bo Bardi at a restaurant for dinner once or a failed, uninteresting project by someone who saw Le Corbusier speak) represented in an archive, go to said archive, find some obscure fact of no importance and blather on about how important said find is, add a conclusion in which Foucault is invoked to make the work “political,” and submit as a dissertation. Or at least that was a “good,” Ivy-level dissertation in the 2000s. Today one would have to add some random verbiage about marginalized communities, identity, and oppression to indicate that one is more “political.” Such work is not intended to be original, but rather to indicate that one has been properly disciplined in graduate school and is now capable of independently programming other students to also produce work of no importance whatsoever. If it is true we live in a simulation, most of these people are NPCs. Original thought is almost non-existent.

If an AI can equal or better such work today, albeit only in short pieces, imagine it in a few years.

ChatGPT can also be used to create instruction-based art. A series of these follow.

>produce a textual score by John Cage

0’00”: Silence
0’01”: A single piano note is struck
0’02”: Silence
0’03”: A second piano note is struck
0’04”: Silence
0’05”: A third piano note is struck
0’06”: Silence
0’07”: A fourth piano note is struck
0’08”: Silence
0’09”: A fifth piano note is struck
0’10”: Silence
0’11”: A sixth piano note is struck
0’12”: Silence
0’13”: A seventh piano note is struck
0’14”: Silence
0’15”: An eighth piano note is struck
0’16”: Silence
0’17”: A ninth piano note is struck
0’18”: Silence
0’19”: A tenth piano note is struck
0’20”: Silence
0’21”: An eleventh piano note is struck
0’22”: Silence
0’23”: A twelfth piano note is struck
0’24”: Silence
0’25”: A thirteenth piano note is struck
0’26”: Silence
0’27”: A fourteenth piano note is struck
0’28”: Silence
0’29”: A fifteenth piano note is struck
0’30”: Silence
0’31”: A sixteenth piano note is struck
0’32”: Silence
0’33”: A seventeenth piano note is struck
0’34”: Silence
0’35”: An eighteenth piano note is struck
0’36”: Silence
0’37”: A nineteenth piano note is struck
0’38”: Silence
0’39”: A twentieth piano note is struck
0’40”: Silence
0’41”: A twenty-first piano note is struck
0’42”: Silence
0’43”: A twenty-second piano note is struck
0’44”: Silence
0’45”: A twenty-third piano note is struck
0’46”: Silence
0’47”: A twenty-fourth piano note is struck
0’48”: Silence
0’49”: A twenty-fifth piano note is struck
0’50”: Silence
0’51”: A twenty-sixth piano note is struck
0’52”: Silence
0’53”: A twenty-seventh piano note is struck
0’54”: Silence
0’55”: A twenty-eighth piano note is struck
0’56”: Silence
0’57”: A twenty-ninth piano note is struck
0’58”: Silence

>produce a textual score by John Cage

  1. Open the piano lid.
  2. Place a single sheet of paper on the piano keys.
  3. Using a pencil, randomly draw lines and shapes on the paper, creating a visual score.
  4. Sit at the piano and interpret the visual score, allowing the lines and shapes to guide the movements of your hands on the keys.
  5. Explore different sounds and timbres by experimenting with various techniques, such as striking the keys with different parts of your hand or using the pedals.
  6. Allow the music to emerge naturally and organically, without predetermined melodies or harmonies.
  7. Continue to improvise and explore the piano’s soundscape for a set duration of time, determined by the performer.
  8. When the performance is complete, gently remove the sheet of paper from the piano keys and close the lid.
  9. Reflect on the experience and the unique sounds and melodies that emerged during the performance.

>write the instructions for a new Sol Lewitt pencil wall drawing

  1. Choose a wall in your space that has a minimum height of 8 feet and a minimum width of 10 feet.
  2. Measure the dimensions of the wall and divide it into equal horizontal and vertical sections, creating a grid pattern with a minimum of 10 horizontal and 10 vertical lines.
  3. Using a pencil, randomly select one of the grid squares and draw a line that extends from one edge of the square to the opposite edge, without crossing any other lines or touching the sides of the square.
  4. Repeat this process for each of the grid squares, creating a series of lines that fill the entire wall.
  5. Experiment with different line lengths, angles, and directions in order to create a varied and dynamic composition.
  6. Avoid erasing any lines or making any corrections, and allow the drawing to evolve organically.
  7. When the drawing is complete, step back and admire the final composition.
  8. Optional: photograph the drawing and share it with others.

>write the instructions for a new Sol Lewitt pencil wall drawing

  1. Choose a blank wall in a well-lit area to create your wall drawing.
  2. Using a ruler and a pencil, draw a horizontal line across the center of the wall.
  3. Draw a second horizontal line above and below the center line, each spaced at equal intervals.
  4. Draw a third set of horizontal lines, above and below the second set, at the same intervals.
  5. Continue adding sets of horizontal lines until the entire wall is covered with a grid of evenly spaced lines.
  6. Using a different color pencil, randomly draw diagonal lines connecting the horizontal lines.
  7. Experiment with different patterns and densities of diagonal lines, creating a unique and visually interesting composition.
  8. Step back and observe the overall composition, adjusting and refining the diagonal lines as needed.

>write an instruction piece in the style of a list by Yoko Ono

Choose an everyday object, such as a paperclip, a pencil, or a piece of string.
Place the object in a simple, unadorned setting, such as on a blank sheet of paper or a plain background.
Using a camera or smartphone, take a photograph of the object in its chosen setting.
Share the photograph on social media, along with a simple and enigmatic caption that invites viewers to interpret the object in their own way.
Consider how the chosen object and its placement in the photograph might evoke emotions, thoughts, or memories in the viewer.

>write an instruction piece in the style of a list by Yoko Ono

Find a quiet, peaceful space where you can be alone and undisturbed.
Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, allowing your body and mind to relax.
Slowly open your eyes and look around your surroundings, taking in the details and textures of the space.
Imagine yourself floating in a vast, empty void, free from the constraints of time and space.
Allow your mind to drift and explore, without judgment or expectations.
Listen to the sounds around you, and allow yourself to be present in the moment.
As thoughts and ideas arise, allow them to flow freely, without attachment or resistance.
When you feel ready, write down any thoughts or ideas that emerge during your meditation.
Take your time, and trust in the process.
When you are finished, close your eyes again and take a few deep breaths, grounding yourself back in the present moment.
Reflect on your experience, and let go of any judgments or expectations.
Enjoy the feeling of freedom and openness that comes from exploring your inner landscape.

All of the artists I have chosen employ deliberate repetition, variations within a framework, and an element of chance. I produced these pieces in an hour and yet they are plausible variations on their work. Not all attempts were as successful. It is, however, evident that one could, for example, generate a large number of these to hand out to an audience at a performance so for participants to perform and evaluate the results.

AI has been rapidly developing this year and ChatGPT is only an early step in this decade, likely to be dominated by AI. Serious artists need to ignore the bad art and forge ahead. AI image and text generators are the tools of our time.

Regarding Twitter

I have another, much more interesting and important thing to talk about—e.g. the witching cats of New Jersey—but enough people have asked me for my hot take on the acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk that I’ll take a stab at it. I will get back to my regularly scheduled programming in the very near future, but for now, I am going to celebrate the fact that moving this site to kinsta earlier this week has made a rapid response like this one much easier.

In the 2005-2006 academic year, I led a team of scholars at the Annenberg Center for Communication in researching the topic of “Networked Publics.” This project led to a book of the same name, published by the MIT Press in 2008 and an aborted project on the broader topic of network culture that faced too much opposition from entrenched interests in the academy to see the light of day. Our little group didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but if there was anything we could agree with, it was the grim conclusion of the brilliant politics chapter written by Merlyna Lim and the late Mark E. Kann: although the Internet is a powerful resource for mobilization, it is a poor venue for democratic deliberation.

To this day, we have absolutely no evidence otherwise. The dramatic rise of algorithmically-produced content feeds in the nearly twenty years since our research year has made matters much worse. As algorithms respond to user engagement and reaction, they deliver the content that users want to see, creating a spiral of ever-increasing polarization (for a series of links to studies on this matter, see this piece from the Brookings Institution). Making matters worse are the social media “cops” on both sides who thrive on attacking viewpoints divergent from accepted consensus. If you say that vaccines are important and that the 2020 election was legitimate but your social media “friends” are right-wingers, you’ll get called out by an army of Trumpenproles if you say so. If you say that magic monetary theory is insane or that defunding the police will hurt African Americans more than anybody, you’ll get publicly shamed by the Internet cops on the Left. Then there are things that we know very well not to talk about with our peers. To take one example, virtually no academic would publicly say that doctoral programs are in crisis and universities are producing vastly more PhD.s than there will ever be jobs for just so that doctoral chairs can gain status in the academy and professors can get free research assistants, even though most academics I have spoken to about this agree wholeheartedly off the record. I am outside the academy so I can freely say this. But nobody in the academy can. The cops there have the power to destroy unorthodox thinkers so nobody will say it. Even outside academia, there are positions so politically dangerous that I won’t dare utter them out loud even here, notwithstanding that the vast majority of my peers agree with them privately (you’ll just have to guess, so sorry). Internet cops gain symbolic capital by dismissing ideas that don’t conform to the orthodoxy and it’s been interesting to observe as a few cops have, coincidentally or not, attained positions of minor leadership in the academy (probably because no sane person wants them). Cops tend not to think for themselves, but rather they are guided by what Venkatesh Rao calls beef-only thinkers, who demand unqualified support, folks like Glenn Greenwald, Michael Tracey, or Marjorie Taylor-Greene.

If, on the one hand, we have a social media landscape actively patrolled by cops, we also have a steady-state of outrage from the woke and the trumpenproles: everything is burning, right now/there has never been a more consequent election/there has never been a greater threat to democracy/etc. The news media—particularly TV news, but also online personalities—amp up the rhetoric in order to profit from the clicks. Outrage makes money, even as it makes us stupider. But after years and years of outrage, people are exhausted. It’s very much like pornography, searching for ever-greater stimulus, things got more and more extreme and eventually it wasn’t that people got scandalized, it’s that they got bored. Only the most politically active and the most insane want to the outrage to continue. After the nightmarish calamity following the 2016 election, COVID, the January 6 insurrection, and then the invasion of Ukraine, high levels of cortisol and adrenaline have literally taken their toll on our bodies, creating inflammatory reactions that leave us with no way to absorb more bad news. It may have been funny when a demented old grifter demanded to see Obama’s birth certificate, it was hilarious to see “America’s Mayor” stand up in front of the garage of a landscaping firm, burbling nonsense, his false teeth nearly falling out of his head, but nobody wants to see it again. In an economy sustained by growth, Facebook’s aging user group is down by significant numbers, and analysts are talking about a “death spiral.” Well, thank goodness. Nor is the subject of today’s diatribe, Twitter, immune, its active users are also fleeing, just in time for Musk’s ill-timed purchase. The only solution people are finding to this anxiety is disconnection, leaving all this crap behind. It will likely cause a rout for the Democrats in the 2022 election (I am not, however, entirely convinced of this), but if it does, it will be the far Left’s relentless barrage of alarmist news that will be, in large part, to blame.

What are the options? Clearly not Twitter. Elon probably should fire most of Twitter’s staff. Around 5,000 employees work at Twitter and, judging from the evidence, none of them save the people who make sure the servers don’t go down, do anything. The site has had virtually no innovation since its launch, the code is a notorious mess, and, well what do they actually do all day long?

Journalists like to promote TikTok as an alternative, but TikTok’s growth is limited to a high school and college age demographic in search of diversion. What political content exists there—a Johns Hopkins study suggests— is hardly any better than what can be found at Facebook and, in any event, like YouTube, TikTok is oriented less toward people producing their own content and more toward passive consumption and commenting. Instagram is not dissimilar, although there, the content-production tends to be aspirational and imitative in nature, contributing to body dysphoria and leading young women to seek to surgically reshape themselves into the “Instagram face” look pioneered by Jocelyn Wildenstein. The one healthy (for now) antidote for this is BeReal, an anti-Instagram that values immediacy and promotes looking real, or at least, candid and terrible, it’s only drawback is that virtually nobody except for college-age kids uses it (I know, you can visit mine, I have one follower). TIkTok and Instagram are terrible platforms for political messaging—although some will try—and BeReal is virtually useless for it. This, of course, is their charm.

If there are genuine alternative social media spaces right now, they are Discord and Substack. Both are flawed, but it’s Substack—not Twitter—that holds the only potential for a future social media platform right now.

Discord is a set of “servers” (not really servers, but they are called that, they are virtual spaces for micropublics) dedicated to a given topic, e.g. Minecraft gaming, Roblox, GTA, (Discord started as a space for emergent gaming communities), online generative art generators, techwear, eurorack synthesizers, alt-space, AI generative art, Arduino programming, white supremacism (this has since been banned) or whatever excites you. Discord is growing rapidly, but it has two major limiting factors. The first is that because of the conversation-like organization, unless one is actively engaged with a server, one rapidly loses track of what is being talked about. Catching up is neither intuitive nor, well, interesting. The second is that there is no broader link between these micropublics. Each server is a walled silo and there is no communication between them.

Substack is a platform for content-creators—mainly writers but also some podcasters— in which subscribers pay subscriptions for content and content-creators are promised income directly from their subscribers. Unlike the similar Patreon, however, it is more oriented around discovery and community. Log into the Substack site and you will be shown a sidebar with recommendations for other Substacks that are, shades of Facebook and Twitter, algorithmically recommended for you. Subscribe to a right-wing Substack, you’ll definitely be offered more. So, basically, another Facebook or Twitter. The up side is that Substack allows comments (depending on settings), and also has recently allowed users to incorporate RSS feeds from outside of Substack into their feed. If—and it’s a big if, one that likely won’t take place since it’s only my idea, not Substack’s—the platform can find a way to create glue between Substacks and users—such as making it easier for users to follow each other and talk directly to each other— it has some hope. The reason I hold any hope for Substack is that unlike Facebook or Twitter, it promotes long-form writing. This post makes no sense on Facebook or Twitter, but it will easily work on Substack. The second hitch is that Substack is heavily tied to a subscription economy. Most newsletters, it seems, cost about $10 a month. That’s great but can rapidly become unaffordable in an era where we are already paying for one or two newspapers, a couple of magazines, Netflix, Spotify, Hulu, and you get the idea… People are getting tired of subscriptions, very tired.

This leaves us with with WordPress. WordPress is not only the dominant worldwide blogging platform, it has a reader that allows readers to follow blogs and participate in dialogues in the comments. Again, it’s a long shot, but users are also implicitly encouraged to become bloggers and, well, why not? In the 1970s and early 1980s mass media seemed to be all-powerful, but then we had the Zine revolution and the explosion of the Internet, back when it was still fun and potential seemed everywhere. Substack and WordPress may not be the future, but I still think a platform with some future in it (I am no longer comfortable thinking it will be any lasting solution, let alone a utopian space of deliberative democracy) is coming if we have any hope of talking to each other online.

A final reflection on all this is how deeply sad this is for Elon Musk. Although he has recently shifted from being an icon of the Left to being an icon of the Right, he is the Steve Jobs of this age, having made both electric cars a reality and creating the first successful reusable rocket system. Ten years ago, even five years ago, owning two electric cars by 2022 would have seemed entirely implausible to me and yet, we replaced both our cars with Teslas in 2020. These cars require less maintenance than any other vehicles we have ever owned (thus far, our total repairs involve a heat pump valve on the Model Y and some issues with the rear gate on our Model S, plus some cabin air filter replacements oh, and new tires), have excellent performance (I’m a car guy, but my wife loves driving hers as well), and it is delightful to skip the weekly trips to the gas station. SpaceX’s phenomenal success speaks for itself (not only am I car guy, I’m a space nut) and Starship promises to revolutionize the space industry, and even though I am concerned about Starlink’s impact on astronomy, it has the ability to deliver secure Internet communications at broadband speeds virtually everywhere and has made a big, positive impact in military operations in the Ukraine. That, for whatever reason, Musk is spending his time and money on Twitter is very sad. If he wanted to have fun, wouldn’t it make better sense to just book a flight on a crew Dragon? I would. It’s not like he doesn’t won the only company that ever regularly sent people into outer space; eat your own dog food, Elon. Running Twitter seems incredibly boring. Moreover, Elon has a long list of failures to go along with the successes—Tesla Solar (I just put a new roof on my house, why wasn’t it from Tesla Solar?), Tesla’s Full Self-Driving has been around for almost two years and hasn’t gone anywhere (remember when Elon said we’d have self-driving Tesla taxis by 2020), and Tesla not only hasn’t released a single new vehicle since 2020, it has raised prices on existing vehicles while cutting out features such as front-facing radar and rear-facing ultrasonic sensors but hasn’t found ways to compensate. I own Tesla stock but I think they are in trouble unless Elon spends some time there soon and Twitter is a distraction he hardly needs.

Finally, as far as the future of Twitter. Who cares? It is a dying platform. I have met some great friends on it—many more than on Facebook—but if it dies and Facebook dies, it will be better for everyone. If Captain Dementia joins back up over the weekend, or Monday, or whenever, what does it matter. It’s not like anybody listened to him on Truth Social anyway.

2020 in Review

Grayness in Maine
Grayness on Mount Desert Island, 2020.

According to conventional chronological schemas, 2020—not 2019—is the last year of the 2010s.* This is convenient since, as I pointed out in last year’s premature review of the last decade, the 2010s were “the decade of shit” and 2021 is a stinking pile of shit. The worst decade since World War II ended with the worst year since 1945.

My “year in review” posts are usually almost as late as my taxes and when I finished last year’s post on February 12, we were all well aware that COVID was out there. Now, no question that I missed the severity of the pandemic back then, but I was on the money about its psychic effects. For all of the horror of COVID, it isn’t horrible enough. COVID is banal. Instead of bleeding out through all of our orifices as with Ebola, COVID is “a bad case of the flu” that leaves people dead or with debilitating cardiovascular and neurological ailments. But how different is my diagnosis, really, from what happened?

Now sure, this year [2020] we’ve already had firestorms the size of Austria ravaging Australia, a rain of rockets in Baghdad, Ukrainian jetliners getting shot out of the sky, a deadly pandemic in China caused by people eating creatures that they really shouldn’t, and the failure of the Senate to uphold the rule of law, but the banality of it all is crushing. While the Dark Mountain set drinks wine around a campfire, gets henna tattoos, and sings along to songs about the end of nature, for the rest of us, it’s just an exhausting, daily slog through the unrelentingly alarming headlines.

COVID brought us yet more crushing banality. The Idiot Tyrant is gone, but we are trying his impeachment yet again. Everything changes, but nothing changes. We were all the Dark Mountain set this year, sitting around our campfires, singing songs about the End. It was another atemporal slog, one day bleeding into another, every day a Sunday in a country where everything is closed on Sundays and there is nothing to do, every day stranger and more disconnected than the last, something captured in comedienne Julie Nolke’s series of videos entitled “Explaining the Pandemic to My Past Self.”

Amidst the disconnection, the Jackpot—or William Gibson’s term for a slow-motion apocalypse—cranked up a couple of notches. Just surviving the year was an accomplishment. The balance of life has been thoroughly disrupted and that disruption isn’t going away any time soon. It’s not just COVID: we now feel certain that there will be more pandemics, more massive wildfires, and more superstorms in our future. The Earth isn’t dying (sorry, climate doomers), but there will be huge losses of species worldwide, human population decline is well underway in advanced societies (the US is finally on the bandwagon here), and massive deaths will take place across the planet until the population comes back to a sustainable level decades from now.

But the premise of the Jackpot is that it isn’t a final apocalypse: there will be another side. In his Twitter feed (@GreatDismal), even Gibson focuses on the horrific and unjust nature of the Jackpot, but there will be winners, selected on the basis of wealth and sheer dumb luck. What might this say about the US election and the fact that 46% of Americans voted for a cretin? Now, there is nothing particularly new about melding Tourette’s and dementia into a public speaking style, there are plenty of lunatics sitting on their porches screaming obscenities at their lawn ornaments. Everybody knows that Uncle Scam’s persona as a billionaire—or rather the King of Debt (his own term!)—is an act. The man with the golden toilet is not a successful businessman. He is weak, a loser who can’t stay married or stay out of bankruptcy court. Four years of misrule ended in abject failure: defeat in both electoral and popular votes, being banned from social media and, with his businesses failing, being forced out of office in shame to face an unprecedented second impeachment, an array of civil litigation as well as criminal indictments for fraud, tax evasion, incitement to riot, and rape. But this—not a misguided notion of him as a success—is the real point of his appeal. The short-fingered vulgarian is a life-long loser, a reverse Midas whose every touch turn gold to lead. But in the face of the Gibsonian Jackpot, his appeal was not as a stupid version of Homer Simpson, grabbing whatever scraps he can and, when that failed, LARPing as President, destabilizing society, and just blowing everything up.

LARPing was big in 2020, which saw the attempted kidnapping of Michigan Governor Gretchen Witmer by wingnut idiots, various insane protests by COVID deniers, the attempted coup of the Capitol Insurrection, and the riots developing after the Black Lives Matter protests. BLM was the standout among these, not only a good, just cause, but also because the majority of the protests themselves were peaceful—such as the one in our town of Montclair, New Jersey. None of that was LARPing, but the riots that accompanied it were. For the most part, this was less people with genuine greivances and more Proud Boys, Boogaloos, anarchists, and grifters who came in to loot and burn whatever they could down. Although there were kooky moments on the Left like the Capital Hill Automonous Zone, Antifa, for however much it exists, didn’t do much, certainly proving to be far less trouble than white supermacist-infiltrated police forces in paramilitary gear. Still, the widely-vaunted second Civil War never came about and the arteriosclerotic LARPers on the Right limped off the field in defeat after their they got a spanking at the January putsch.

A number of observers at both the Capitol Insurrection and CHAZ —including some of the idiots who took part in it—noted that these events felt much like a game, specifically an Alternate Reality Game (ARG). In a typical ARG, players look for clues both online—think of the QAnon drops, the Trumpentweets, or the disinformation dished out by the skells at 4chan, 8chan, and so on—as well as out in the world. Jon Lebkowsky, in a post at the Well’s State of the World and Clive Thompson over at Wired compare QAnon to an ARG. Indeed, gaming is taking the place of religion (whichever grifter figures out how to meld this with Jesus and his pet dinosaurs will get very rich indeed), with the false promise that playing the game and winning will deliver one to the other side of the Jackpot. Somewhere, I read that when asked what he would do differently if he had made Blade Runner a decade later, Ridley Scott replied that he would be able to skip the elaborate sets and just point the camera down the streets of 1990s Los Angeles. Today, the same could be said for the Hunger Games today.

But not everything was LARPing. If Cheeto Jesus is an icon for LARPing losers, Biden was elected on the premise of staving off the Jackpot by returning adults to the White House. This is not a bad thing, we might as well try. Still, from the perspective of Jackpot culture, the most interesting political development of the year was the candidacy of Andrew Yang whose cheery advocacy of Universal Basic Income (aka the Freedom Dividend) masked the dark, Jackpot-like nature of his predictions. Let’s quote Yang’s campaign site on this: “In the next 12 years, 1 out of 3 American workers are at risk of losing their jobs to new technologies—and unlike with previous waves of automation, this time new jobs will not appear quickly enough in large enough numbers to make up for it.” No matter how friendly Yang’s delivery, there is a grim realism to his politics, an acceptance that things will never be better for a massive sector of the population. Certainly some individuals will find ways to use their $1,000 a month freedom dividend as a subsidy to do something new and amazing, but 95% will not. Rather, they will form a new and permanent underclass as they fade into extinction. Again, the point of Yang’s candidacy isn’t the cheerleading for math and STEM, it’s the frank acknowledgement that the Jackpot is already here.

On the other hand, toward the end of the year, Tyler Cowen suggested that we might be nearing the end of the Great Stagnation (he is, of course, the author of an influential pamphlet on the topic) and you can find a good summary of the thinking, pro and con by Cowen’s student Eli Dourado here. In this view, advances such as the mRNA vaccine, the spread of electric, somewhat self-driving vehicles, the pandemic-induced rise of remote work, and huge drop in the cost of spaceflight are changing things radically and could lead to a real rise in Total Factor Productivity from the low level it has been stuck at since 2005. Is this a sign of the end of the Jackpot? Unlikely. That won’t come until a series of more massive technological breaks, probably (but not necessarily) involving breakthroughs in health (the end of cancer, heart disease, and dementia), the reversal of climate change, working nanotechnology, and artificial general intelligence. But still, there are signs that early inflection points are at hand.

Personally, we experienced one of these inflection points when we replaced our aging (and aged) BMWs with Teslas. I wound up getting a used Tesla Model S last January and then immediately turned around and ordered a brand new Model Y that we received in June. No more trip to the gas station, and while “Full-self driving” is both expensive and nowhere near fully self driving, it is a big change. Longer road trips—which under the pandemic have been to nurseries on either side of the Pennsylvania border to buy native plants—have become much easier, even if I still have to keep my hands on the wheel and fiddle with it constantly to prevent self-driving from disengaging. But harping on too much about the incomplete nature of self-driving is poor sport: in the last year, Tesla added stop light recognition to self-driving and a new update in beta promises to make city streets fully navigable. Less than a decade ago, self driving was only a theoretical project. Now I use it for 90% of my highway driving. That’s a sizable revolution right there. Also, the all-electric and connected nature of these cars makes getting takeout and sitting in climate-controlled comfort in my vehicle when on the road a delight. Electric vehicles were a big success this year and in our neighborhood which is a bellwether for the adoption of future technology (when I saw iPhones replace Blackberries on the bus and train into the city, I bought a bit of Apple stock and made a small fortune) and Teslas have replaced BMWs as the most common vehicle in driveways.

Back to the pandemic, which accelerated a sizable shift in habitation patterns. Throughout the summer, there was a lot of nonsense from neoliberal journalists and urban boosters about how cities are going to come back booming, but with more bike lanes, wider sidewalks, less traffic, and more awesome tactical urbanist projects to appeal to millennials. Lately, however, those voices have fallen silent and with good reason. In this suburb the commuter train platforms are still bare in the mornings and the bus into the city, once packed to standing room only levels every evening, hasn’t run in five months. A friend who works in commercial real estate says that occupancy in New York City offices is at 15% of pre-pandemic levels. Business air travel is still off a cliff. Remote work isn’t ideal for everyone and every job, but neither was going into the office. For sure, the dystopian open offices, co-working spaces, and offices as “fun” zones are done and finished. People are renovating their houses, or upsizing, to better live in a post-pandemic world of remote work. Another friend who works for a large ad agency told me that they did not renew their lease for office space and do not plan to ever go back to in person work, at least for the vast majority of the staff. When employees gain over two hours a day from not commuting and corporations save vast fortunes on rent, remote work seems a lot more appealing. Retail sales here and in the surrounding towns have gone through the roof, just as they have in many suburbs.

But it isn’t just suburbia that has prospered at the expense of the city, exurbia has returned too. Way back in 1955Auguste Comte Spectorsky identified a growing American cultural class that he dubbed “the exurbanites” made up of “symbol manipulators” such as advertisers, musicians, artists, and other members of what we today call the creative class. Spectorsky observed that many of these individuals eventually tended to drift back to the city. This time may be different. After two decades in the city, the creative class is turning to places outside the city with attractive older houses and midcentury modern properties, walkable neighborhoods (virtually all of Montclair, for example, has sidewalks), good schools (which generally mean high property taxes but are an indicator for a smarter, engaged populace), amenities like parks and places to hike, decent bandwidth, as well as independent restaurants, shops, and cultural attractions. There will always be variations in taste: some people really do want to eat at Cheesecake Factory and live in a Toll Brothers McMansion, but these will appeal to relatively few of the people fleeing cities at this point. Thus, the Hudson Valley—full of older, more interesting architecture, great natural resources and quirky towns—is booming. I predict some reversion to toward the mean after the pandemic ends and some of the people who fled to the country realize they aren’t suited to a place without Soulcycle, but this will be only a partial and temporary reversion.

I predict that even after the pandemic ends, there will be a greater interest in self-sufficiency among young people who move to suburbia and exurbia. Manicured laws will be less important than vegetable gardens. Homesteading, permaculture, and a drive back to the land not seen since the 1960s are under way. It would be a very good thing if the next generation was more in touch with their land and less prone to hiring “landscapers” who treat properties as sites subject to industrial interventions such as chemical fertilizer for lawns, a phalanx of gas-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers to remove any stray biological matter.

As far as cities go, the pandemic is triggering a necessary contraction. The massive annihilation of real estate value it has caused should go a long way to undo the foolish notion that urban real estate is always a great investment. It’s not, just ask anyone who bought a house in Detroit in 1965. Real estate in first and second tier global cities has become wildly expensive, disconnected from the underlying fundamentals. When individuals are paying rents that absorb over 30% of their salaries to investor-owners who are not covering their mortgage with those rents, something is very wrong. This broken system has been able to function due to the perceived hedonic value of restaurants, bars, and cultural events, but these things too have been failing over recent years. Long prior to the pandemic, the cost of rent decimated independently-owned restaurants and retailers, with the latter also hurt by on-line shopping. The golden age of dining out (if it really was the golden age… I would say that better food could have been had in other, less copycat eras) was already declared over in 2019. “High-rent blight,” in which entire streets’ worth of storefronts were empty due to ludicrous rents, has been common for some time now. Tourists made up more and more of the street crowds while loss-leader flagship stores for chains like Nike and Victoria’s Secret replaced local businesses. With the hedonic argument for staying in the city rapidly disappearing, it was only a matter of time before individuals began departing and, in New York, population had begun to drop by 2018 (see more on all of this in Kevin Baker’s piece for the Atlantic, “Affluence Killed New York, Not the Pandemic”). Perversely, this is a good thing as it will likely lead to a bust in commercial real estate prices and a decline in unoccupied or AirBNB’d apartments, thus making global cities like New York places that have potential again. Moreover, many second tier cities such as St. Louis, Kansas City, and Cleveland are experiencing new growth as individuals able to work remotely are looking for places that are less expensive—and thus have more potential—than New York or San Francisco.

These shifts are huge and for the better. As I tried to tell my colleagues at the university, there is no housing crisis, at least not in the US and Europe, there is only an appearance of one because of the uneven distribution of housing: a glut in some areas, a shortfall in others. The pandemic has likely undone this a bit. Of course, places that are too politically Red, too full of chains, too full of copycat McMansions are unlikely to come back anytime soon, if ever. The Jackpot continues.

Still, I’m observing a perversely rosy future for the urban (and suburban and exurban) environment is the Biden administration’s interest in infrastructure. Back in 2008, I shocked design critics when I stated that there would be no progress in infrastructure for the foreseeable future. “But, Obama,” they complained. “But, Obama,” I clapped back, “just appointed Larry Summers as his chief economic advisor and Summers will bail out the banks, not fund infrastructure.” I expect the opposite from Biden who has adopted a “nothing left to lose” position as purportedly one-term President, is a devotee of train travel and is eager to make great progress on climate change. Appointing Pete Buttigieg, one of his two smartest opponents in the primary (the other being Andrew Yang, of course), to Secretary of Transportation is a key move. This will be Buttigieg’s opportunity to prove himself on the national stage and he will fight hard to do that, just as Biden expects. Expect more electrification across the board and, I suspect, more advances with self-driving vehicles. Although certain measures—such as, in the New York City area alone, the Gateway Tunnel between New Jersey and New York, now delayed over a decade thanks to Chris Christie and Donald Trump’s vindictiveness against commuter communities that would not vote for them and the reconstruction of Port Authority Bus Terminal—will help cities, again, I predict more emphasis on decentralization and activity outside the city.

All this may have salutary cultural implications. The global city is played out. Little of interest happens in New York, San Francisco, London, Paris, or Barcelona. These cities are too expensive for the sort of experimentation that made them great cultural centers and the diffusive nature of the Internet, capitalism, and overtourism have made them all the same. Residents of cities that have been victims of overtourism have seen this as an opportunity to reset, while the physical isolation of cities is going to increase reliance on local institutions. With some luck, all this leads to a new underground, with greater difference creating greater diversity and potential. Of fashion, Bruce Sterling writes, “Fashion will re-appear, and some new style will dominate the 2020s, but the longer it takes to emerge from its morgue-like shadow, the more radically different it will look.” The same could be true of all culture. Globalization was an incredibly powerful force but has been played out. I don’t agree with the protectionist instincts of the Trumpenproles but today culture’s hope is to thrive on the basis of the difference between places and cultures, not on greater sameness. Architecture has been very slow to react to all of this, in part because many intelligent young people have drifted into other fields, like startups, but I am optimistic that we might soon get past the ubiquitous white-painted brick walls and wood common table (the architecture of the least effort possible, to match fashion and food driven by the least effort possible), the tired old Bilbao-effect, and quirky development pseudo-modernism.

So much optimism on my part! Even I am shocked that I am so positive. But why not? The end to this exhausted first phase of network culture is overdue. Time for a new decade, at last.

*The reason for this is that there is no Year Zero. 31 December 1BC is followed by 1 January 1AD.

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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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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bowie vs architecture

Yesterday, I discussed Bowie and his prescient understanding of network culture. But what of Bowie and architecture? Shouldn't I say something about that?

Generally speaking, architects have been unwilling or unable to learn Bowie's lessons, stuck in an idea of branding borrowed from business books from the discount table at Barnes and Noble and history borrowed from art historians seeking the hand of the master. Many of the architects who would be the easiest to compare to Bowie in the way their were able to put on different masks—Charles and Ray Eames, Erik Gunnar Asplund, and 1950s Corbusier—preceeded him.

So what of Johnson and Bowie? Of course there is a similarity in that both had a flirtation with fascism in their youth, but in Bowie's case there is no evidence of any actual political involvement. Bowie's coked-up ramblings were meant to scandalize and were dropped soon enough. Johnson's political activities lasted the greater part of a decade and he never rejected them as bluntly as Bowie did in his derision of fascists in Scary Monsters or criticism of imperialism in Let's Dance. But the issue at hand would be the ability to transform. Johnson likely learned from Bowie's shape shifting as he returned to prominence to the 1970s, but in fairness, Johnson was more like an aging crooner and if, like Bowie, he was always a provacateur, he lacked Bowie's technical and formal instinct. With the exception of the AT&T Building, none of his works after his return in the 1970s were "hits."

Then there's Koolhaas. Jeffrey Kipnis mentions Bowie in a reference meant to contextualize Rem Koolhaas, Elia Zenghelis, Madelon Vriesendorp, and Zoe Zenghelis's Exodus or the Voluntary Prisonerso of Architecture: "London's Architectural Association 1970-72: a school awash in sex, drugs, and rock and roll. David Bowie hanging at the bar. …" But this is hardly history, rather it's name dropping meant to build up a myth. Even so, it deserves mention. At one point Koolhaas did seem like Bowie. The early 1970s work followed by Delirious New York, a bad period of terrible work in the 1980s, then a comeback in the 1990s with works like the library at Jussieu, the TGB, the Kunsthal, and Zeebrugge. For a time, it seemed like Koolhaas might wear many masks, but by the early 2000s, his career became less like Bowie's and more like Johnson's. Where Bowie repeatedly put his career at risk to pursue his artistic vision, Koolhaas has been in a nihilist death-spiral for 15 years, out to produce more junkspace than anyone else. No way would Bowie have ever put out a clunky salute to authoritarianism like the CCTV building.

I don't feel comfortable adding myself to this mix, but as I've already publically stated that I've been influenced by Bowie, I suppose I have to. Simply enough, early on in my education I realized that architecture—as conventionally practiced—was too slow and too tied to capital to keep pace with my ideas. Influenced a bit too much by Manfredo Tafuri on the one hand and reluctant to call myself an artist when my father had that market cornered pretty well, I began as a historian of architecture. After about four or five years, I set out to look at urban infrastructure and work with the Center of Land Use Interpretation. Toward the end of this period, I began to work with Robert Sumrell to create AUDC and our Blue Monday project, a book that we consciously conceived of as a sort of historical-philosphical LP.* From 2008 to 2015, I was engaged with a number of participatory projects under the guise of the Netlab at Columbia, such as the New City Reader. Over the last year, with the labs experiment at Columbia's GSAPP—which one day will be seen as a formative moment for architectural education—drawing to a close, I've rethought the Netlab's role as an independent entity and shifted the focus of my attention more toward Europe and less toward the US. There will be new work, which I hope you will find as compelling as I do from Leigha Dennis and myself, operating as the Netlab on exhibit in from early June to August at the Šiuolaikinio Meno Centras/Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius, Lithuania. The focus of my contribution to this exhibit will be large, physical, constructed and something that I think hasn't been seen yet. I'm not suggesting that I'm living up to what Bowie did by any means. But rather, that his ability to transform himself is something that has remained intriguing to me over the years.

As Simon Critchley points out in his book on Bowie, this re-invention was not a lack of authenticity, but rather an understanding that authencity lies at a deeper level than style. It's unfortunate that in instead of being taught to experiment, architecture students are urgerd to relentlessly hone a particular look and even hired on that basis: being able to sum yourself up in a one-liner is more important than depth and the ability to come back and reinvent yoursef. The latter is what network culture demands and the inability of architects to do so is quite boring, isn't it? *Which is not to say that there won't be future AUDC books. Far from it…

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On the Academy

I ran into the following article by Michael Hanlon recently, "The Golden Quarter. Why has Human Progress Ground to a Halt?" Hanlon's thesis is that even if we all have supercomputers in our pockets, the big advances—landing men on the moon, computers and the birth of the Internet, the Pill, feminism, the gay rights movement and so on—all happened in the 25 years from 1945 to 1971. 

This is true enough, I suppose, although we could argue that personal computing, smart phones, self-driving cars (which I believe will be common by 2020), cellular phone access for the entire world, and the (largely illicit) digitization of much of the world's knowledge into freely available libraries are in fact radically new. If Sputnik and Viking were important, the Mars Science Rover is a massive advance as is landing Philae on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and (we hope) flying New Horizons past Pluto. So, too citing the birth of the women's rights movement may be disingenous, its seed having came much earlier, in the suffragete movement. The advances in gay rights during the last five years have been massive. The networked publics that have emerged in the last couple of decades are an unprecedented shift in how we relate to each other and our own decade is likely to be remembered as the one in which knowledge-based artificial intelligence has spread into everyday usage in the developed world, not a minor point in human history. 

But what's interesting to me about this article is that it is so applicable to the humanities. When I went to graduate school, it was an incredibly exciting, even revolutionary time, when French theory was making massive headway and every visit to the academic bookstore promised something new and cutting edge, if sometimes impenetrable, to read. But the humanities have come to a crashing halt. When theory is talked about anymore, it is in terms of concepts like "biopolitics," "postcolonialism," and "the control society," formulated long ago. Maybe I'm grumpy or these fields are no longer new to me, but I suspect something is up. 

Here I think that Hanlon's point really does apply, and that academics in particular has become risk averse. The biggest innovation in academics during the last decade hasn't been in theory, it's been the development of a digital humanities that has largely traded scholarly advancement for funding. With universities increasingly corporatized, academics are expected to fundraise, not to take risks or create innovative theories. Stories of brilliant scholars who don't get tenure due to taking risks and programs being shut down for being too edgy are common.

Moreover, theory itself has become quite conservative. To talk about "accelerationism," for example, or even suggest that we are no longer under a postmodern condition, is widely met with derision by tenured theorists who might otherwise expect to have sympathy with such experimental thought. But no. Take architecture, where a rather pat formula has emerged that everyone seems to follow: find a largely obscure architect or event from the 1950s or the 1960s, head to the archive, make a few conclusions invoking French theory (generally Foucault), and you're done.  

What to do then? Being Samogitian, my natural demeanor is gloomy rather than optimistic. But I'd like to suggest, optimistically, that leaving the academy may be an opportunity, or at least another possibility.

Marx, Freud, and Benjamin, to take only three key intellectuals operated primarily outside the university, as did Clement Greenberg, Le Corbusier, Donald Judd, and Robert Smithson. This isn't to say that it would be necessarily easy outside the university—for one, the conditions of journalism today have become quite difficult as well, so that route is a problem—but it points to a line of flight that it seems to me most worthwhile to explore these days.      

  

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10 Chairs in Baltimore, 4/11/15

I am delighted to be one of ten scholars, writers, and artists speaking at the Baltimore Museum of Art this Saturday about ten chairs from the collection in their newly re-opened American Wing. The event starts at 2pm. If you are in town, please join us. I'd love to say hello. 

I will be talking about the Elastic Chair, produced by Boston manufacturer Samuel Gragg. In 1808, long before Charles Eames or even Michael Thonet, Gragg patented a technique for bending wood with steam. Inspired by the Klismos, an ancient Greek chair, together with the ancient Greek methods of bending wood, Gragg's elastic chair employed the highest technology of its day. As we look at it today, we confront a time that is curiously like our own, faced with a past that forms a massive repository of precedent that we can’t get away from and an obsession with the possibilities of technology as a means of advancing both industry and society.     

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After Empirical Urbanism Symposium Talk, University of Toronto, 2/28/15,

I will be speaking at the University of Toronto's After Empirical Urbanism conference this coming Saturday, February 28th. It's a great treat to be seeing so many of my friends and colleagues and to be in fabulous Toronto again, even in February (not that it's more than a degree or two warmer here in Montclair!). Below is an abstract for my talk, wrapping up many of the thoughts I've been having over the last few years about atemporality and alternative modes of practice against its grain. 

Architectural History for Atemporal Times
Kazys Varnelis

The Last Great Time War is over. * Jean Baudrillard was right; by the time we finished the countdown to the millennium we reached the end of the end of history. Now we face a new condition, in which the phenomenological experiences of simultaneity and acceleration dominate like never before. Fulfilling Baudrillard’s paradoxical prophecy, we live in a time so saturated by information that we can’t orient ourselves within it.

Bruce Sterling describes our attitude toward history as “atemporality.” This stems, he observes, from the philosophy of history itself. We historians have become so averse to the totality, so terrified of master narratives and so obsessed with microhistories (the more micro the better), that we have played into the hands of a culture that is concerned only with the now and the proximate future. Our horizon is measured, not by epochs but by the length of Kickstarter campaigns. Take architectural education. Little by little, history has been whittled away to a bare vestige. Nowhere in NAAB’s accreditation documents is there any mention of critical thought as a skill that architecture history teaches or history as offering anything beyond a survey. But we can’t really lament that historians and NAAB are in step with the times. Such an approach fits the broader culture of atemporality that Sterling observes.

As Sterling suggests, it isn’t merely history that is undone, but chronology and temporal sequence as well, collapsing under the pressures of a computationally enhanced global capital that seeks to execute trades in milliseconds or microseconds but rather in nanoseconds. If the 90s had the Generic City, today we have Generic Time, without any idea of what time we live in. 

But how to react to this condition? Accelerationism would be one option. If there is any one end looming, it is either the end of capitalism, the end of the sustainability of human life as we know it, the technological singularity, or perhaps, as ISIS hopes, the Apocalypse. If accelerationism is one option, it is a difficult one for many of us, especially historians, who generally have problems with those sorts of ideas.

If we historians want to respond to this historical condition, we need to develop new ways of remaining relevant. Turning back to Walter Benjamin’s idea of “history against the grain,” I will conclude by discussing the New City Reader, a project that I did with Joseph Grima at the New Museum's Last Newspaper show and with the Network Architecture Lab at MoMA's Uneven Growth show as a way in which history can be deployed as a critical project in the city, utterly out of step with atemporality as that may be.



*
The Last Great Time War is a name for the war between the Time Lords and the Daleks, occurring between the 1996 “Doctor Who” film and the revival of the series in 2005 and seen in the fiftieth anniversary special. The war results in the Doctor’s home planet, Gallifrey being frozen outside of space and time.

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