This is a personal reflection. I’m not sure anybody else on Earth feels this way, but if you do, or if you have found ways to keep travel alive for yourself, do leave me a note.
I don’t understand the point of tourism anymore.
Call it the existential problem of tourism. Whether Mickey Mouse hat and fanny pack wearing tourist or avant-garde academic, we would leave home to find stimulus in the unfamiliar. But how does that apply today anymore?
Overtourism together with the migration of merchandising and social behavior to online venues has undone difference between places. Will an Irish pub in Ireland be better than an Irish pub in a random town in the US? I’ve been to dozens upon dozens of Irish pubs in Ireland on my many Hibernian trips and quite a few in the US and it’s not clear. If I go into a random restaurant in Rome, will the person next to me be a Roman, an American, or a German?
Residents of city centers worldwide have left in favor of short term rentals and with them, stores have left to be replaced by tourist restaurants and tsotchke vendors. Rents have generally skyrocketed as well. I have observed that the quality of restaurants peaked around 2000, maybe a little after that. It may that when one is young the world is new, but just as much, I suspect, rising rents have priced out quality. If you have to spend your money on rent, how much is there to spend on good labor or on good ingredients? Rising rents have squashed not only innovation, but also old classics. Ideally, a city would have a balance of both. Energetic young bars and restaurants are easy to admire, and it’s easy to say that old bars and restaurants are stuffy and boring, but old they also have distinct character, full of the memories of the city, often providing an experience of going back in time like in Madrid’s La Venencia. That’s hard to do now and La Venencia is one of the few places to guard its status carefully.*
I suppose I was lucky when I travelled in my academic career. As a historian of architecture and network culture, I usually had an excuse to go somewhere: Istanbul, Rotterdam, Valparaiso (Chile), Stockholm, Knoxville, Berlin, Madrid, Auckland, Munich, New Orleans and on and on. Generally, I’d be going somewhere because I’d be delivering a lecture or teaching a course. This would often result in less than ideal conditions for tourism since it’d inevitably take place in the academic year and I’d only have a day or two before I had to head back to teach, sometimes less (I once went to Vancouver for 90 minutes, although in fairness I had already been there for a few days before). Sometimes I’d have specific works of architecture or urban conditions to see. But that too would bring up the central problem of tourism, which is that it is voyeuristic.
As my followers well know, unlike many contemporary academics, I don’t subscribe to the naïve notion that cultural appropriation is inherently bad. On the contrary, it’s at the very heart of the human condition and without it, we would not only be much poorer, much more xenophobic and racist, less likely to see the other side. That said, I find it uncomfortable to walk into a church these days, even the Vatican or the Duomo in Florence. Who are these people? Why are they practicing these strange, superstitious customs? It’s 2021. I went to a Catholic elementary school for a few years but my parents always stressed that they were European Catholics and didn’t practice. As time has worn on, I simply don’t understand them. A stone circle or a sacred altar from pagan Lithuania makes infinitely more sense. Similarly, I couldn’t bring myself to visit the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and I doubt I’ll go back to the Hagia Sofia when it becomes a mosque again. Going to see Buddhist temples only reinforces that most forms of Buddhism are incomprehensible to the largely twentieth century practice of Western Buddhism. It all seems very voyeuristic and as a practice voyeurism is only acceptable when it is a game played with an exhibitionist aware of their practices. Otherwise, it is uncomfortable at best and a form of violence at worst.
And what else does one do when abroad besides look at buildings? You can go see some museums, but a corollary to overtourism is that one has seen too much. There are too many museums today and most are disappointing. Even the storied ones in wealthy cities frequently disappoint. The lighting of Las Meninas at the Prado is a great example. It’s impossible to take in the painting because of the reflections on the surface. I’ve been to many museums in wealthy European cities and been really disappointed. American museums are no different. Going to MoMA is a horrible experience. The new Whitney is deeply unpleasant. These are not good places to see art. The modern and contemporary sections at the Art Institute of Chicago are tragic, victims of short-sighted decisions (notably the third-rate Edlis/Neeson collection which is inexplicably in public display for a stunning fifty years, at which point the whole thing can be properly binned). Dia: Beacon, which used to be one of the best museums in the world, has stumbled dramatically under recent curatorship: two shows of Charlotte Posenske’s oeuvre? One is by far enough. Sometimes I get lucky, the show of Constant’s work that I stumbled upon at the Reina Sofia was a stunning surprise. The Akron Museum of Art has a remarkable collection of postwar art, much more interesting that than at the Art Institute of Chicago. But I find such experiences rarer these days as museums pander to the woke and their similarly privileged friends, oligarchs seeking to launder money.
So why tourism? Modern tourism dates itself back to the 18th century practice of theGrand Tour, when nobles and wealthy British men would go abroad to France and Italy as a rite of passage during which they would radically unsettle their sensorium by seeing cultures quite unlike theirs, together with the great works from the Roman era to the Baroque. The idea was that embodied knowledge was even more important than book knowledge. But what to make of it now? Can one really be invigorated by travel in such a manner except maybe by, as has become the vogue lately, flying into orbit around the Earth? There is no question I would do that, but the cost of space travel is still ridiculously high.
Visiting natural areas is no different. The “wild” places that provided the antidote to civilization have now been thoroughly trampled. Our state parks are full of botanical escapees from home gardens. The selfie stick is as hard to avoid in front of Yosemite Falls as it is in the Colosseum. I suppose that gardens and botanical centers are still worth going to, but I am not terribly interested in formal ones or ones driven by landscaper architecture as they remind me of the damage we have done to the environment.
Can one undo this with alternative spatial practices? I don’t think they are so productive anymore. Debord’s dérive, the “technique of urban passage through spatial ambiances” was meant as an antidote to both urban boredom and to the planned, scheduled tourism of the day, but take a dérive through the city today. Will you really feel that different in Brooklyn or Manhattan? In Queens? I don’t think so. It’s all more of the same. Behind the windows are people watching the same Netflix shows you are.
Mind you, there are places of genuine difference these days, but should we really travel to them? I mean COVID aside, which makes it virtually impossible to travel to Asia these days, do the Japanese really want Americans or Europeans there anymore? They are much less interested in studying abroad these days. Do the Chinese? Rates of English language instruction are falling there. Afghanistan is certainly different, but it’s definitely not a good idea to go there.
COVID may change the nature of tourism. I dearly hope it does. The migration of jobs out of the city may free up space for residents to flock back in, or for more Airbnbs. Cities such as Venice, Amsterdam, and Rome are actively looking for more sustainable ways forward, culturally and ecologically. I certainly hope so. We all need it if we are to find actual meaning in travel again.
*The last time I was at La Venencia a tourist was literally shown the door for trying to order a beer. You’ll also be shown the door if you are dumb enough to try to take a selfie (there are signs on the wall about this), although this is as much resistance to tourism as it is a holdover from the Franco days when it was a Communist hangout and photos could mean the death of patrons.
In February 2020 I had the opportunity to spend a week in Owego, New York for a residency at Signal:Culture. This was a purely research-based residency working on a software tool. For my 2016 project Perkūnas, I developed a Python back end for indexing the number of smartphones (and other WiFi-operated devices) on Eurorack modular synthesis equipment with reasonable precision. During this residency, I refined this back end, optimizing it for video synthesis with LZX modules. There was never any goal of producing anything finished that could be displayed in an art gallery, but the following coarse feedback video displays an instance of how this worked. During one of the many dinners we enjoyed together, I talked to my colleague Martin Back about many things, and during one, we discussed the new plague emerging in China. In one of the dumbest statements I ever made, I said that I thought the Chinese would contain it and it would blow over quickly.
I am honored to be hosting my first garden tour from 9am to 3pm on Friday, May 7 and Saturday, May 8 at my house (and now Saturday, May 15 from 10 to 2), 265 Highland Avenue in Montclair, New Jersey as one of two tours held by the Essex County chapter of the New Jersey Native Plant Society (more at the society’s site here). As chronicled on this blog, the landscape is a work in progress, begun in earnest only three years ago. It is far from done (whatever that means in gardening), but I have bold ambitions to make it a place that people can come to and see what a native garden can be like. It has been raining today, but because this is a garden designed for all weather and all seasons, I thought photographing it in the rain would be an effective way to convey that message.
My goal is to create a landscape to complement our house, not primarily an ecological restoration or wildlife habitat. Ecology is an ethical imperative for me, but initially I set out to create emotional impact. In opposition to the degraded condition of the suburban landscape—as gardener Pat Sutton says “neat as a pin, ugly as sin?”—I hoped to recapture the magic of finding trilliums and ferns, milkweed and coneflowers in the forest and meadows behind my parents’ house by the Ice Glen in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
After some four years of work, the garden is getting there, maybe one quarter finished. While I have conceived of the garden as having year-round interest, from the spring into the early summer, the focus during this tour will be on the woodland ephemerals which bloom profusely in the spring. Later on, during the summer, fall, and winter, patches of meadow will remind us of the great interior of the continent and all it symbolizes. This could be seen as a journey from the Northeast into the interior, echoing the journey that early American settlers took in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Or maybe, as the garden of an exile of Lithuania, the last country in Europe to be forced to stop its earth-centric religious practices, it could be seen as a passage of seasons, from spring to summer, from fern to grain.
For architects, limitations are a frame to react against. I have planted plants native to New Jersey—and largely eschewed cultivars as well…these are usually tacky and don’t thrive well—to produce the effect I want while fulfilling the ethical imperative we have to be stewards to the land. Even so, the palette I have to work with is huge. Our state has over 2,000 native plant species as compared to 1,022 in Ireland, 1,625 in England and 1,460 in the Netherlands. Thus far, I have only planted some two hundred species of native plants here.
With all this variety, why bother with the tired, ugly, and often invasive solutions offered up by big box stores and worn-out garden centers? Why bother with any lawn that doesn’t have a function (our patch of lawn is used for outdoor parties and is slowly shrinking)? Nor is it necessary to resort to a weedy look. In Planting in a Post-Wild World, Thomas Rainer and Claudia West write: “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.”
The two most remarkable American public gardens of the last twenty years, Piet Oudolf’s Lurie Garden in Chicago and High Line in New York are largely made with native plants. Garden designers in Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Germany eagerly make gardens exclusively with plants native to the United States because of the richness and wildness of what we have. What sort of madness is it that Europeans import American native plants for their gardens while we ignore gardening in favor of ugly, unused lawns, pincushion bushes, and have workers blow leaves out of woods with their infernal gas-powered leaf blowers, thus depriving trees of the mulch they need to thrive and dooming the ecosystem of the place?
Unlike the Lurie Garden or the Highline, this project is done entirely without hired help. It has required both money (although a fraction of what it would take to have landscapers involved) and time (but this has been a joy, especially during our plague year). There are still plenty of remnants of the original contractor landscaping that accompanied the construction of the house. I don’t have the heart to cut down the dwarf Japanese red maple in front of the house or the larger Japanese red maple, Enkianthus and the two Kousa dogwoods in the back. Those can remain as specimen plants but I won’t plant any more non-natives. Invasive and overused groundcovers Vinca minor and Pachysandra terminalis still dominate much of the hill above the driveway, even as I slowly replace them with native plants.
With a half-acre of steeply sloped property rising fifty feet, it proves unfeasible to undertake total eradication and restoration overnight, so while keeping an overall vision for the entirety in mind, I have focused on individual areas. In these areas, I have tried to take an approach borrowed from Rainer and West, from Oudolf’s designs, and from James Golden’s groundbreaking garden at Federal Twist, which I visited a couple of years ago. Instead of the “plop a plant” approach, in which a plant is buried in mulch, I am out to create areas in which plants themselves are the mulch, preventing weeds from getting through by their sheer exuberance. Let them climb atop one another, let them compete. I want a riot of life. I’d rather edit out plants than add mulch, even when the plants are six inches tall instead of six feet tall (as at Federal Twist). Imported specimen plants plopped in mulch, surrounded by lawn nobody ever uses are a lazy aesthetic. Surely we can do better.
I was quite busy last week thoroughly rebuilding the network for my studio and home so I didn’t get a chance to post links then. Subsequently, it’s been my kids’ spring break so we have been traveling to various destinations around us to go hiking. Here goes.
“Time’s up” for Communism. Left academia can’t keep pretending it’s ok, that it was somehow perverted by capitalism. If that’s the case, then why is it not equally ok to envision a new, just capitalism? Communism did very bad things and was akin only to Nazism in the evil perpetrated.
The Angry Planet (formerly War College) duo interview Kate Higgins-Bloom, the Strategic Foresight Director for the U.S. Coast Guard, on the future of our planet’s fisheries and the disputes they are causing between countries.
The Tyrant made a big stink about 50,000 coal miners (who largely still have their jobs), but 650,000 jobs have been eliminated in American universities over the past year. But are academics up in arms about this? Of course not, it might endanger their jobs! Precarity is an effective tool to ensure that academics remain only performative Leftists and academics are only happy to oblige.
Expensive homes by the ocean are a huge insurance risk as climate change worsens. Ordering them vacated and even eminent domain is implausible and the moral hazard of inaction will cause a financial meltdown. This article proposes another way.
This is the second in my (weekly?) series of posts on recent reading. I’m finding it lets me reflect on what I’ve studied during that time and that, in itself, is useful, but it also gives back to you, my readers, so I’ll keep doing it as an experiment for a month and maybe longer. I’ve read two books in the last week. The first is Eric Berger’s Liftoff! Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days that Launched SpaceX and the second is 2034: A Novel Of The Next World War by Admiral James Stavridis and Marine Corps veteran Elliot Ackerman which I stumbled into via the pages of Wired Magazine. I’m going to go into these in considerable depth—with a rant about architectural education along the way—so I plan to skip links for this week and aggregate them together next week.
Berger’s Liftoff! is an engrossing account of how radical the now familiar SpaceX project was, how close SpaceX was to failure even after the fourth launch of the Falcon 1 rocket finally reached orbit, and the emotional toll of working at SpaceX. Space exploration is a critical human endeavor and yet, NASA’s annual budget is the same as that of Netflix and nobody has done more to make it more accessible than SpaceX.
Throughout the book, Berger focuses on the differences between SpaceX and old aerospace companies like Boeing or Lockheed Martin (now working together as the United Launch Alliance). I’ve previously written quite a bit on how dangerous complexity is to society because the construction of parasitic entities such as human resources managers, UX architects, SCRUM masters, and all the other bullshit jobs that consume massive amounts of resources and energy. SpaceX cut through all that. For example, the lead avionics engineer Bulent Altan describes how whereas in most companies on the first day of the job it would have been an accomplishment to establish an account with the IT department, at SpaceX he designed a printed circuit board and sent it to manufacturing. This kind of instance is told time and again throughout the book. It’s instructive that Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, founded earlier than SpaceX, still hasn’t been to orbit even as SpaceX has successfully launched the Falcon 1, Falcon 9, Falcon 9 Heavy, sent a crewed capsule to the ISS twice, fully integrated booster recovery into its launches, and is now working on the fully reusable Starship spacecraft. Watching Starship is instructive; whereas proponents of outdated technology like NASA’s Space Launch System have been laughing at the explosions at the ends of the first few Starship flights, SpaceX is churning out one ship after the other, performing iterative tests to refine the design as well as the assembly line. Key to all this has been SpaceX’s ability to attract talented individuals who dedicate themselves to the mission of making space less expensive. At one point, University of Michigan professor Thomas Zurbuchen made a list of the top ten students he taught during the last decade and noted that fully half were at SpaceX. Musk called him and asked who the other five were so he could recruit them. Eighty hour work weeks at SpaceX were normal and the emotional toll on everyone—including Musk—was extreme. But for the individuals involved, the toll was worthwhile to advance the cause. This is a fascinating book and, although Musk is a controversial figure, it puts his achievements and those of the many other individuals involved in perspective. It’s a quick read and I highly recommend it.
The never-ending work and emotional toll described in Liftoff! isn’t foreign to people who studied, practiced, or taught architecture. But there are some critical differences. First, there is rarely any goal to the sacrifices demanded from young architects except for the students’ desire toward running a trendy boutique studio or teaching at a prestigious school. Although I only taught at schools that proclaimed themselves to be innovative and disruptors, goals were never clearly articulated or followed through with. Instead, it was an endless amount of busy work and attempts by faculty to second guess what the heads of school wanted and how to fit their agendas for promotion. Architecture schools are driven by three forces: patriarchy at its worst, a misguided idea of fashion, and university bureaucracy. There is no greater dream, there is no mission, no expectation of real research, only the need to compete and prove oneself in the patriarchy. Rewards do not come to those who accomplish things, but to those who play the game and get lucky. The head of one graduate program once said of young faculty, you use these people up and then they go away. This is the attitude of many administrators at the top schools. They survived, they made it and everyone else has to go through the process of self-exploitation just like them and, like minnows, most will end their journeys before they get very far. Architecture school is insanely patriarchal and I have little illusion about recent efforts to wash that away. Schools inevitably rely on models of the head of school as a Christ-like savior and these administrators see themselves in precisely that role. But usually, heads of architecture programs have, in turn, to answer to university presidents and provosts who have no idea how to judge anything so rather than innovating, the typical response is to make sure school output is the flavor of the day and obscure fashions—like the blob or tactical urbanism or creating startups in schools—take priority. In one program, there was an effort to ask Nobel Prize winners on film about what they like about cities, as if such a thing was worthy of research at a graduate level (or the time of a Nobel laureate), and then a few months later, the whole project was thrown in the toilet. Months of work with nothing to show for it, although in retrospect, it would be worse for all involved if the project had actually been finished and names were associated with it. Since most schools still have tenure, the requirement to publish or perish means that faculty in top schools have to publish at least two books to get tenure, which means that those books will be filler. Busy-work instead of actual research. In turn, accreditation imposes yet another layer of complexity, requiring the development of a shadow curriculum that would then be shown to the accreditors to mask what is actually going on in the school. If architecture students historically had worked extreme hours as part of their initiation into this exploitative system, the importance of admitting and keeping ever-increasing numbers of students to fund more staff to administer all this complexity means that faculty find students who not only wouldn’t put in crazy hours in the studio, but expected top grades with barely work at all, a wild swing of the pendulum in just a few years. “Your project is so amazing,” I remember one faculty member saying at the once formidable midterm studio crits as I stared at the drawings and sought to understand how the student had put more than an afternoon of work into their design and presentation. So a massive disjuncture has occurred in architecture: schools have no direction but still expect faculty to break themselves. Most of the smartest people I know have left the profession. Always have an escape plan, Hal Foster once told me. He was right and my twenty-year side venture in real estate development funded my escape into autonomy.
Now architecture schools are not aerospace companies and I firmly believe that architecture is not just a matter of investigating new materials and the latest software but rather also involves coming to an understanding of how we relate to the spatial world around us, and that’s been my project throughout my academic and architectural career. We can’t just set a destination, but schools could find ways to get the best faculty together and then get out of their way. It’s entirely possible to build a better model for architecture school, but like SpaceX, it’s going to have to be a radical break, one free of fashion, university administration, and accreditation. It’s unclear if such a possibility is out there. Until then, the best students will continue to avoid architecture for more interesting terrain—such as the New Space movement—faculty will continue to lead entirely unsustainable, purposeless lives, and architecture schools will continue their slow slide into obscurity.
On to 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. You can read a good portion of the book in the February Wired. To call the book a novel is probably a bit of a misnomer, it’s an exercise in scenario planning done as a novel and reads as such. The characters are barely developed, but that hardly matters, the book’s purpose is clear. In Wired, Stavridis argues that Cold War works of fiction about annihilation, such as the Day After and the Third World War, may have helped stave off actual war. True enough, that is arguably the purpose of post-WW2 war gaming in the first place and he has hopes that this book might do the same. A few premises animate the book: that globalization is well and truly dead in favor of ever-heightened nationalism, that China develops new levels of stealth technology as well as the ability to hack and control American computer systems at a distance, and also that India becomes much more developed and powerful under Modi.
I found 2034 an enjoyable and provocative read although I found the new technologies to be too magical. For example, in the opening pages, one of the critical flash-points involves an American F-35 fighter outfitted with new electronic stealth technology being remotely captured by the Iranians with the help of Chinese technology. If there is a prospect for a technology for remotely hacking into and controlling a computer system that has no remote login capabilities and no connection to outside networks, I’d love to hear how that might work. This remote control capability is a big part of the book and it’s a flaw for me. There are easier ways to imagine a first strike by a technologically advanced enemy: targeted electromagnetic pulses to knock out facilities or entire regions, attacks on satellites such as the United States GPS system, or hacking of the banking or critical infrastructure systems. And there are more disruptive first strike capabilities possible too; it’s no accident that China and Russia are investing substantial sums on general artificial intelligence research and exploring SETI. First contact with a different, likely superior, intelligence—be it computational or extraterrestrial—could be a phenomenal game changer, leaving the West in the position of the Aztecs facing the Spaniards. This was, by far, the most interesting aspect of Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem, although unfortunately that premise was left behind in subsequent novels of the trilogy, which is certainly a more cautious move if an author lives in China. Or perhaps the Chinese might find a way to produce a new generation of warfighting machines in much, much larger numbers than the West can muster. There are only 195 F-22 Raptors and 375 F-35 Lightning IIs in service in the US military. While there are only 50 Chengdu J-20’s, the Chinese fifth generation fighter, in service, there were over 15,000 P-51 Mustangs in service during World War II. One way warfighting machines could be produced in vast numbers would be if they were autonomous drones rather than human-piloted fighters and attack aircraft. Such drones could attack aircraft carriers en masse, overwhelming defenses and taking them out. That could change the situation for a country like Iran or North Korea rather rapidly, but luckily at present neither seems capable of developing such technology although China certainly does seem capable of that. On a geopolitical front, Russia’s motivations in the book are muddled and India’s rise to superpower status seems improbable. All this makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy the book, but I did. It’s a quick read and provocative. The authors argue that over-reliance on technology is risky, that technology can be blocked, and in an interview at NPR, Stavridis argues for primitivization in modern warfighting, e.g. having a plan B in case our technological measures are defeated, such as navigating with sextants and charts. We need more fiction like that. Even a reader’s disagreement with aspects of the book is productive as it provokes thought. The scenario plan that I produced with the Netlab addressing Hong Kong and China’s future for MoMA may seem wildly wrong right now but may yet prove useful for thinking through what could happen in those places in the future as China’s population collapses. Both Liftoff! and 2034 are quick, worthwhile reads, I recommend them.
I’ve been reading Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabbarok’s blog Marginal Revolution more these days. Most Fridays, Tyler puts up his assorted links. Since I’ve been too wrapped up in work on the studio to post as much as I’d like lately, and since I know that my readers are asking for more content, I thought it would at least be useful to put up some of the links and readings that I’m finding on a regular basis. Well, we’ll see if it’s regular. This whole slow blogging thing may have turned out to be too slow. Plus Facebook is evil.
I listen to a lot of podcasts and the COVID-19 podcast from FiveThirtyEight has been a great source of information (it also has really good theme music). I’ve recently become fully vaccinated and thus I am thinking a lot more about the post-vaccine future. This episode on the end of the pandemic (or the endemic) is particularly good for that. We may never wind up getting rid of COVID-19, but that may be just fine as host Anna Rothschild and Emory University infectious disease researcher Jennie Levine discuss. You can also ready a story on Levine’s research here. I’m certainly not an infectious disease expert, but as an urban historian, I have run into disease in cities many times and this is a compelling argument.
As my students know, the history of architecture begins with the (pre)history of hominids, and I’ve followed advances in paleontology for many years and during the last decade there have been many advances. Among these is a radical shift in the thinking about how our ancestors looked. Here is a piece, “Team Reveals Amazing Reconstructions of Our Ancestors to Correct Mistakes of the Past” that reviews that. Another fascinating research article addresses the “Out of Africa” hypothesis and concludes that after 500,000 years ago, it becomes quite unclear where our last common ancestors were see “Origins of Modern Human Ancestry” at Nature.
Finally, Ben Ryder Howe’s article “Am I in Manhattan? Or Another Sequel to ‘Blade Runner’?” in the New York Times is one of the first truly well-written articles that I’ve read in that paper in a while. He observes that the emptying out of the city during the pandemic coupled by an ever-greater proliferation of signage is making the city more and more Blade Runner-like but enjoy the ride, there’s a lot more to read about.
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  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 1955, Auguste 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.
Recently, a friend mentioned that she believed “natural philosophies” would become more popular in this decade. I responded by pointing out that AUDC’s Blue Monday is subtitled Stories of Absurd Realties and Natural Philosophies. Here is an excerpt from the introduction that gets to the point of what a natural philosophy is and why we employed it.
We are certainly attracted by Deleuze and Guattari’s organizational logics and Hardt and Negri’s tales of Empire as well as Baudrillard’s theories of totalized consumption of the sign and the system of objects, Žižek’s fictionalization of the real, and Jameson’s dissection of late capitalism. These are fascinating explanatory frameworks, but, scandalously, they don’t add up. To weave a coherent whole out of them would be sheer madness. So how to proceed?
During our research into the evolution of art, science, and philosophy we found that these fields were once much more intimately related than they had been in the last century. Prior to the Enlightenment and the development of the scientific method, science was dominated by natural philosophy, a method of studying nature and the physical universe through observation rather than through experimentation. Virtually all contemporary forms of science developed out of natural philosophy, but unlike more modern scientists, natural philosophers like Galileo felt no need to test their ideas in a practical way. On the contrary, they observed the world to derive philosophical conclusions. Taken together, these didn’t necessarily add up. But the lack of metanarrative for natural philosophy is not an obstacle for us, instead it is a strength.
Natural philosophy flourished from the 12th century to the 17th and with it did cabinets of curiosities, sometimes entire rooms, sometimes quite literally elaborate cabinets, filled with strange and wondrous things. These first museums collected seemingly disparate objects of fascination in a specific architectural setting, assigning to each item a place in a larger network of meaning created by the room as a whole. In the cabinet each object would be a macrocosm of the larger world, illustrating the wonder of its divine artifice. Together however, their affinities would become apparent and a syncretic vision of the unity of all things would emerge, as the words Athanasius Kircher inscribed on the ceiling of his museum suggested: “Whosoever perceives the chain that binds the world below to the world above will know the mysteries of nature and achieve miracles.” For the natural philosopher, the cabinet of curiosities possessed a reflexive quality: it was both an exhibition and a source of wonder, a system the natural philosopher built to instruct others but also to coax himself into further thought.[i]
This book, like our web site or an AUDC installation, is a cabinet of curiosities, consisting of a series of conditions that AUDC observes in order to speculate on them in the manner of natural philosophy, extrapolating not theories that could then be applied to architecture but rather philosophies to explain the world. The result is neither the relativist pluralism nor a single monist philosophy, but rather a set of multiple philosophies that almost add up, but being situationally derived, don’t quite.
[i] Patrick Mauries, Cabinets of Curiosities (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002), 25-26. Some further sources on cabinets of curiosities are Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998) and Giorgio Agamben, “The Cabinet of Wonder” in The Man Without Content (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 28-39.
What of art in this plague year? With our isolation compounded by unprecedented political polarization, is there any hope of exploring the commonality of shared experience through art? As many of us head into our lockdown again, we are all too aware that the implementation of “social distancing” has produced a transformation in our society, unprecedented within our lifetimes; how might art reflect on such processes?
Consider the term “social distancing.” This peculiar phrase is currently being used to refer to physical separation between individuals in order to reduce exposure to viruses, but prior to this year it had a long history in sociology, referring to social separation among individuals and groups. Like many sociological concepts, social distancing originates with the foundational writings of sociologist Georg Simmel. In his 1903 “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” Simmel describes the growing distance between individuals as a consequence of modernization and the spatial condition of the city:
This mental attitude of metropolitans toward one another we may designate, from a formal point of view, as reserve. If so many inner reactions were responses to the continuous external contacts with innumerable people as are those in the small town, where one knows almost everybody one meets and where one has a positive relation to almost everyone, one would be completely atomized internally and come to an unimaginable psychic state.
Social distance, then, develops when physical distance is not possible and serves as a means of protecting the psyche. Nor is it done alone. On the contrary, social distance is frequently experienced communally: modern individuals flock with others of their kind and, in doing so, experience distance from those outside the group, those that they perceive as unlike themselves. For Simmel, the stranger is both near and far from us: close enough to provoke anxiety yet isolated and therefore unknown. Hence, this sociological explanation would lead us to understand racism as a product of social distance. Racism, it follows, is not so much a prejudiced encounter with individuals at distant remove, but rather a violent misperception of individuals in close proximity. The increasing polarization of American politics between the “woke folx” and the “deplorables” is further evidence of this, with both groups existing as a defense against a dangerous Other while providing a mechanism for reinforcing their member’s shattered identities. With the dominance of contemporary life by social media, the wounded self becomes a reposting machine for social media outrages as a means for the self to affirming its identity and existence through repetition, much as in a liturgical response. But being based entirely on the external threat of an Othered group, the result is a malfunction of social distance as psychic defense. Not only does political discourse grind to a halt, the self fails to develop as an individual. Facing increasing reliance on social media for human connection leads us toward a feedback loop of dopaminergic rewards for positive social stimuli and, like a chimpanzee in a lab cage punching buttons for cocaine-laced biscuits, we are led closer toward the “unimaginable psychic state” of the completely atomized dividual.
This sociological concept of social distance initially appears quite different from pandemic quarantine. And yet, it’s no coincidence that political and racial tensions have risen to a fifty-year high in the United States: the social distancing of quarantine and the social distancing of the modern city share similarities. The chance encounters of the street, the park, and the pub have largely ended. Endless Zoom meetings with one’s co-workers or classmates reinforces positions in class structures. Reading the news about groups that egregiously flaunt restrictions angers us and sets us against them. Our isolation leads us to become more addicted to social media and as social media algorithms highlight our posts to those people who “liked” our previous posts, we condition ourselves to the rush of “likes,” of feedback from those people who already give us feedback——creating a false sense of belonging and an experience of growing distance from those unlike ourselves. So, then, back to the original question I posed: is there any hope of exploring the commonality of shared experience through art?
Early telematic art offers a direction for us. Forty years ago Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, working as the Mobile Image group, created a series of projects entitled “Aesthetic Research in Telecommunications,” both anticipating and surpassing the videoconferencing that has come to be identified with life under quarantine. In Satellite Arts: A Space With No Boundaries(1977), they connected dancers located three thousand miles apart via low-latency satellite links. Although at times the dancers interacted on split screens, as we might see friends interacting on Zoom or Facetime, Galloway and Rabinowitz also composited them together on the screen visible to the audience, thereby creating a third, virtual space. In Hole in Space (1980), they created wormholes to bring together people from opposite coasts. Unlike our screen-based videoconferencing, Hole in Space employed life-size screens displayed in public spaces (Los Angeles’s Century City Shopping Center and New York’s Lincoln Center respectively). Deliberately unadvertised, Hole in Space was as they put it, “a social situation with no rules,” a new condition that, as a documentary of the work shows, was profoundly moving to the people who participated. In a third project, the Electronic Cafe of 1984, they connected five restaurants—in Korean, Hispanic, African-American, and beach communities—with video equipment and drawing tablets so that individuals in one venue (including artists-in-residence) could exchange ideas and images with unknown individuals in another. Throughout, Galloway and Rabinowitz approached electronic technology as a means of overcoming both physical distance and the social distance between individuals.
It’s possible to imagine what a new telematic art might look like today, outside of the confines of conventional videoconferencing. For example, already yin 2004, AUDC (myself and Robert Sumrell) proposed creating guerrilla versions of the Hole in Space cartable in a backpack that could be deployed at random throughout a network of cities.
At the time we wrote:
Windows on the World is a formulary for a new urbanism that alleviates boredom with the city and encourages communication in public, rather than private settings. It facilitates open, spontaneous, and democratic exchanges between groups while requiring no special skills to operate. Participants share both their differences and similarities through direct interaction, replacing the myth of global hegemony and projected stereotypes with personal experience.
Windows on the World remaps our cities to create a telematic dérive. Guy Debord’s map “the Naked City” is now a map of the world. Each portal becomes what the Situationists called a plaque tournante, a center, a place of exchange, a site where ambiance dominates and planners’ power to control our lives is disrupted. People can wander from portal to portal within their city, experiencing and constructing different situations. Windows on the World changes the experience people have not only of the world, but of their city.
Like the Situationist dérive, Windows on the World operates outside of commerce and planning. There is no advertisement. The project is at its strongest when it is by chance. Some portals are temporary, even hidden. Others are improbable, or not easy to access. In a back alley in Prague, shaded by a Northern exposure, is a portal to a zoo in Sao Paolo. From a dangerous street in the Bronx, a door opens onto the Champs-Elysees. Another portal, in Zurich, looks out onto a busy railroad yard in Rotterdam.
Sixteen years have passed and the widespread adoption of social media during that time has led us to confuse the public and the private. We invite our friends and even strangers into our living rooms and our bedrooms. Formality has fallen away as suit and dress have given way to sweatpants and leggings. But there is no comfort to these forms of sociality or dress. Instead, we understand ourselves to always be on display, to have to perform at all times to receive our dopamine rush both for social interaction and for work, which is ever more subject to bureaucratic projects like “agile frameworks” and “total quality management” offering micro-rewards and micro-punishments for meaningless tasks completed. With this new search for (over) stimulus, there is every chance that a project like Windows on the World will fail as individuals provoke each other like chimps in separate cages at a zoo (or as humans do on Chatroulette). But thinking through how social connections and an appeal to a universal human connection might be made today—however obliquely—is an imperative task for art and technology.
Work in this vein certainly does not always need to provide an affirmative alternative space. Returning to my own work at the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius, Lithuania in 2016, the Perkūnas project aims to make us sonically aware of the social distancing produced by network culture. Visually, this structure is both abstract—a simple architectural form—and a harbinger from another world, hence the name Perkūnas [the Lithuanian name for (the God of) Thunder]. Built of large ventilation ducting commonly found (and heard) in art museums and other large public structures, Perkūnas’s role isn’t to condition the air in the environment, rather it is to produce sound in accordance with the number of Wi-Fi enabled devices in the room.
A microprocessor monitors the space for active Wi-Fi-enabled electronic gadgets, increasing or decreasing the amount of air flowing through the duct and hence, the amount of noise in the room based on the number of gadgets. If there are no gadgets present or if everyone’s Wi-Fi is disabled, the duct makes little or no sound. With a couple of gadgets, it 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 or turn them off, Perkūnas stays quiet. But people don’t read wall text, they look at their phones, distracted by whatever algorithm is guiding them along their day and Perkūnas howls at them, their distraction drowning out their ability to communicate verbally.
Perkūnas doesn’t bring people together, but it suggests one direction for an art that can speak frankly to us about our social media-obsessed world without resorting to parody or false political promises about participation. Finding new ways for art to negotiate the space between social media and social distancing is a task at hand.
After the election of the Tyrant, a strange thing happened to me. I found my drive to make art and to write about culture evaporate. This didn’t happened all at once and, for a time, I kept up a certain level of production, but I noticed my disdain for these activities rising. Somehow, producing for a failed culture seemed wrong. Instead, as I’ve chronicled here, I turned inward, taking on a variety of projects at our house, but also turning to radical gardening with native plants as a process of healing a small piece of land much damaged by human disturbance (notably construction of this property forty years ago) together with the violence of contemporary landscaping. It’s been incredibly valuable to practice radical gardening but it’s also a matter of temporal displacement: the work I have done won’t be visible for years to come: it’s an investment in a better future, optimism that this nightmare would end.
As for art, I continued research as a kind of secret activity, but I’ve definitely felt the need to retreat. At some point, I decided that I’d consciously go on an unannounced art strike while the Tyrant was in office. I couldn’t find a way to return to work that has been, at its basis, a sustained inquiry into how we behave to each other in the public realm. I’ve talked to a few friends about this and apparently this isn’t uncommon at all.
Even if I don’t expect the political polarization crippling the US and the world to stop, with the Tyrant in his twilight, playing golf as performance art and flailing aimlessly about, there’s no question that a certain weight is gone. The world is still damaged, but it’s easier to sleep at night again, there’s room again to breath. If there’s another lockdown—and there should be—I’ll be here, taking notes and experimenting.
Writing and research are both in the works and you’ll be seeing evidence soon.