Mutable Matter


Category Archive

The following is a list of all entries from the Project Updates category.

New articles in Theory, Culture & Society and Geography Compass

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Two of my articles have just come out. A commissioned piece on ‘experimental geographies’ and a theoretical article, which also talks about experimentation – with the inhuman.

Angela Last, ‘Negotiating the Inhuman: Bakhtin, Materiality and the Instrumentalization of Climate Change’, Theory, Culture & Society.

Abstract

The article argues that the work of literary theorist Mikhail M. Bakhtin presents a starting point for thinking about the instrumentalization of climate change. Bakhtin’s conceptualization of human–world relationships, encapsulated in the concept of ‘cosmic terror’, places a strong focus on our perception of the ‘inhuman’. Suggesting a link between the perceived alienness and instability of the world and in the exploitation of the resulting fear of change by political and religious forces, Bakhtin asserts that the latter can only be resisted if our desire for a false stability in the world is overcome. The key to this overcoming of fear, for him, lies in recognizing and confronting the worldly relations of the human body. This consciousness represents the beginning of one’s ‘deautomatization’ from following established patterns of reactions to predicted or real changes. In the vein of several theorists and artists of his time who explored similar ‘deautomatization’ strategies – examples include Shklovsky’s ‘ostranenie’, Brecht’s ‘Verfremdung’, Artaud’s emotional ‘cruelty’ and Bataille’s ‘base materialism’ – Bakhtin proposes a more playful and widely accessible experimentation to deconstruct our ‘habitual picture of the world’. Experimentation is envisioned to take place across the material and the textual to increase possibilities for action. Through engaging with Bakhtin’s ideas, this article seeks to draw attention to relations between the imagination of the world and political agency, and the need to include these relations in our own experiments with creating climate change awareness.

Angela Last, ‘Experimental Geographies’, Geography Compass.

Abstract

The proliferation of the term ‘experimental’ in human geography has given rise to the question of how geographers experiment. Given the range of different examples – from explorations of sensory methods to attempts at transforming the role of publics in decision-making – it becomes clear that one cannot talk about a unified experimental geographical approach. While projects share common themes such as challenging methodological limitations or wishing to play a more active part in the ‘production of space’, they also show fundamental differences in their attitude towards knowledge-making and intervention in the world. A starting point for further research and debate, rather than a comprehensive survey, this article outlines themes, differences and productive tensions within the discourse, and highlights the need to examine the wider politics that experimental approaches are embedded in.


Mutable Matter @ AAG 2013


Image source: Michael C.C. Lin from the forthcoming book Architecture in the Anthropocene: Design, Deep Time, Science and Philosophy, edited by Etienne Turpin (Hong Kong: MAP Office/MAP Books Publishers, 2013)

Next year, I will be participating in an AAG session entitled ‘Re-evaluating the Anthropocene, Resituating ‘Anthropos” (session abstract posted below). The session is organised by  Harlan Morehouse (University of Minnesota) and Elizabeth Johnson (University of Wisconsin). Am very much looking forward to the discussions! Here is my presentation abstract:

We are the World: Ideologies and material representations

For the majority of social theorists, human relations with materiality, the world and the cosmos have been connected to fear and alienation, and to the instrumentalisation of these sentiments to gain political influence. At any moment in history, representations of materiality have been used politically to deny aspects of human/world relations and to undermine productive responses. Current examples include the denial of anthropogenic climate change and, conversely, calls for the abolition of democracy, deemed ‘unable to deal’ with the consequences of future planetary transformations, in favour of more authoritarian structures.
The work of authors such as Hannah Arendt, Mikhail Bakhtin and Simone Weil acknowledges the importance of thinking at and beyond the planetary scale to counter the instrumentalisation of alienation and the construction of ‘preferred realities’. For these authors, identification with the world and the cosmos has nothing to do with escapism or ‘materialising’ humans, but with warding oneself against being reduced to passive matter by ideologies that deny certain material relations through idealised constructions. For Weil, for instance, to identify with the universe means to cultivate a preoccupation not with tangible materialism, but with an intangible one, focused on thoughts and ‘the perpetual exchange of matter’, in which humans take part.
Bringing together past and present writing on materiality, this paper seeks to highlight the significance of representing human-world relations for constructions of political agency and to propose early and mid-twentieth century conceptualisations of ‘great reality’ as one potential pathway for thinking the human as a geological political agent.

Call for Papers: Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers (Los Angeles, April 9-13, 2013)

Re-evaluating the Anthropocene, Resituating ‘Anthropos’

Organisers: Harlan Morehouse and Elizabeth Johnson.

In 2000, Crutzen and Stoermer gave name to a new geological epoch. The “Anthropocene” demarked a post-Holocene present and future in which human activity was understood to be the dominant agent of change in the global environment (2000). Understandably, such a sweeping claim has been viewed unfavorably within critical geographical and environmental scholarship, generating arguments that Crutzen and Stoermer’s concept only offers a new, albeit negative, story of human’s mastery of the earth’s processes. Nigel Clark (2011), for example, has suggested that the term neglects the presence – and force – of terrestrial processes that exist independently from human relationships. Similar criticisms have emerged from the substantial and diverse literature on more-than-human geographies, which aim to dislodge anthropocentrism by granting nonhuman actors and processes more prominent positions in everyday events as well as the meaning and experience of social, political, and historical change (cf. Latour 2004, Serres 2010, Bennett 2011, Badmington 2000, Braun and Whatmore 2010, Castree et al. 2004).

These perspectives have been instrumental in shaping critical responses to Crutzen and Stoermer’s hyperbolic claims. However, recent work in philosophy and the humanities invites an alternative reading of the “Anthropocene,” one that that is more sympathetic to these critiques and that does not elevate or reinscribe humanity as the principal agent of global environmental change, but rather situates it as one force in a field of material processes (Morton 2012). Further, such a reading would recognize unique states of affairs that signal the “collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history” (Chakrabarty 2009) – a sentiment paralleling the suggestion that the Anthropocene announces a shift from the human as biological entity to that of humanity as a geological agent. In these sessions we wish to revisit the idea of the Anthropocene in order to work towards a politics capable of responding to the epistemological and ontological challenges posed by 21st century environmental uncertainty. In spite of its originary hyperbole, the idea of the Anthropocene nevertheless compels us to rethink life amongst the myriad and strange mixtures of social, natural, and socio-natural processes, and in doing so come to terms with materialities that far outstrip the relative inconsequentiality of a human experience of space and time. Or, to echo Morton, it inspires us to ‘think big, and maybe even bigger than that’ (2010). Framing questions include, but are not limited to:

• How does the introduction of global, geological humanity as a singular subject challenge, complement, and/or modify discourses of critical environmental thought?

• If we identify the ‘anthropos’ of the Anthropocene with something as ‘massively distributed in space and time’ (Morton 2010), what limitations do we (as individuals) experience? And what are the implications for considering issues of environmental ethics, responsibility, and politics?

• In what ways does the meaning of “human” change in the movement between biological and geological agency?

• How might critical environmental thought acknowledge the crucial role independent terrestrial processes play in the constitution and experience of material realities while acknowledging humanity’s capacity to shape the earth at multiple scales and in numerous ways?

In light of the above, the organizers of this session welcome novel socio-ecological perspectives that critically reflect on the idea of the Anthropocene, examining its impacts on 21st century environmental thought and politics. Please send inquiries / abstracts of no more than 250 words to Harlan Morehouse (more0206@umn.edu) and Elizabeth Johnson (erjohnson9@wisc.edu) by October 5th 2012.

References:
Badmington, N. (2000). Posthumanism. New York, Palgrave.
Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant Matter. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Braun, B. and S. Whatmore (2010). “The Stuff of Politics: An Introduction.” Political Matter. Minneapolis, MN: U. of Minnesota Press.
Castree, N., C. Nash, et al. (2004). “Mapping posthumanism: an exchange.” Environment and Planning A 36: 1341-1363.
Chakrabarty, D. (2009). “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35(Winter): 197-222.
Clark, N. (2011). Inhuman nature : sociable life on a dynamic planet. Los Angeles ; London, SAGE.
Crutzen, P.J. and Stoermer, E.F. (2000). “The Anthropocene.” IGBP Newsletter 41(17): 17- 18.
Latour, B. (2004). Politics of Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Morton, T. (2012). “On Entering the Anthropocene.” A lecture at the Environmental Humanities Symposium, University of New South Wales, August 23, 2012. Available at http://ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.com/2012/08/on-entering-anthropocene-mp3.html
Morton, T. (2010). The ecological thought. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.
Serres, M. (2010). Biogea. Minneapolis, MN: Univocal Press.


Geography Podcasts/Sounds Like Detroit

While uploading my Sounds Like Detroit podcast, I also created an open Soundcloud group called Geography Podcasts. This imaginatively titled group seeks to function as a resource and discussion platform, to to share and bring together geographically informed sound work, including landscape recordings, lectures, commentary, educational programmes, fiction, experimental pieces. Please share, if you know any sonically minded geographers.

The first track on there is my Sounds Like Detroit podcast for the Imaging Detroit project:

For those who are more on the visually attentive side, the film version of Sounds Like Detroit can be found here:

Sounds Like Detroit from MutableMatter on Vimeo.

(for some reason this low res version has a glitch in the end titles that the hi res version doesn’t…)

Here is the blurb from the Imaging Detroit programme:

Sounds Like Detroit operates at two levels. Playing with the visual and musical representation of Detroit, it asks: what is generic and what is unique about Detroit? Does its uniqueness perhaps lie in its ability to reflect back the commonalities people want to see? What is the ‘spirit of Detroit’ and can it be present in other places?’

For more information on the project, please visit MODCaR.org.


Counter-Experiment Detroit

‘So, what brings you to this place of Post-Fordism?’ Somewhat confusingly, I was asked this question not in Detroit, but at a Jamaican food stall in Hulme, Manchester. Having literally just returned from Detroit, this felt like an odd reprise – as did seeing the ruined entrails of the Hulme Hippodrome where my band was performing at a fundraiser for Youth Village. It seemed like an apt place to write something on a very different festival, Imaging Detroit, which was put on at Detroit’s Perrien Park by MODCaR, a ‘coalition of builders, writers, designers, photographers, teachers, filmmakers, landscapers, graphic designers and students’ founded by architects Mireille Roddier, Anya Sirota and Jean Louis Farges and sponsored by the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning (TCAUP). Having lost my notes somewhere in the dark while fiddling with the film projector, I have to reconstruct things from memory. (I hope I do get the chance to listen back to all of the panels, although there were many irretrievable informal conversations going on in the park, between and amongst Detroiters and visitors.)

For those who have not read my earlier posts, I participated in the Imaging Detroit festival as a MODCaR fellow, contributing a short ‘illustrated podcast’ called ‘Sounds Like Detroit’. The festival aimed to draw attention to – and discuss – what could be described as a ‘representation war’ over the city. So far, the people at MODCaR have unearthed over 150 documentaries on the birthplace of Fordism, most of them produced in the last few years: by activists, artist, film-makers from inside and outside Detroit, and, more recently, by big corporations.

About fifty of those films were debated by the Imaging Detroit audience and so called ‘discourse jockeys’ (moderators/discussants) under the six most prominent film themes: Culture Now!, Productive Pastoral, Reboot, Post-America, Do-it-together and Pride. Since these representations continue to affect Detroiters in a myriad of ways, the discussions often became very agitated and emotional. Due to my inability to give a summary of the entire event, I will focus on the term that most stuck with me: experimentation – a term that is currently proliferating in academic and activist circles, an empassioned example being Doreen Massey’s recent call for experimentation at the ‘Maps for an Island Planet’ event.


Discourse jockeys Brandon Walley, Miguel Robles-Duran, Andrew Herscher, Cornelius Harris, Cezanne Charles, David Adler on the ‘Culture Now!’ panel.

Detroit has often been described as a socio-economic experiment. Its mythical chief experimenter, Henry Ford, has become associated with the proliferation of a new mass production system, technological innovation, intrusive worker control (through the company’s own ‘Sociological Department’), encouragement of working class property ownership and the staging of Ford’s own version of industrial history in the Greenfield model village. Detroit’s infrastructure, characterised by isolated neighbourhoods (dis)connected by freeways, counts as a combined experiment in car culture promotion and racial segregation.

At Imaging Detroit, experimentation featured strongly as a theme in both panels and films. While some people saw themselves as victims of capitalist/corporate/white American experimentation, others asserted the role of the experimenter. Those that regarded themselves as experimented on often voiced hope for an influx of either large or small businesses in order to normalise the city. The experimenters, on the other hand, made clear that Detroiters were not powerless guinea pigs, but in fact leading the way in matters such as civil rights, workers rights and alternative imaginaries against corporate America. Obviously, no neat separation between experimenters and experimented could be traced, as people frequently felt part of both positions: as victims of a ‘shock doctrine’ approach to public services (to use the words of activist Shea Howell who, I think also suggested that ‘those people who keep arguing for less government involvement in their lives should all move to Detroit!’*), and as people who are honing tactics against and beyond it.  –* a reader has pointed out that the ‘less government involvement’ comment was not made by Shea Howell, but by Margi Dewar. Apologies!

So why Detroit? Coming across to me from the different and differing voices during the festival was a sense that it is exactly this history of inequality and aggressive advertisement of individualist consumer culture that serves as a provocation to try something else. Audrey Hunter, an interviewee in the film ‘Détroit, un rêve en ruine’, gave an example of the inspiration that many black activists in the city draw on: the tension between the concepts they associate with ‘African’ and ‘American’. For experimenters such as her, the African symbolises the ‘we/us/our whereas the American signifies ‘I/me/mine’:

‘As long as you keep functioning as an individual, we can’t even take advantage of the blight to take control of our community, to build what it is that we won’t build.’

This image was occasionally evoked against the perceived media stereotype of Detroit as being ‘full of enterprising young white people and… then there are these ‘soulful’ black people’ (discourse jockey Cornelius Harris). The question of control, or rather the struggle over control of representations of the city, was crucial to many debates.

This struggle, to me, was particularly made present through the series Detroit: Overdrive: loud, fast and ultra-high definition (the biggest file size in the whole programme), this adrenaline-inducing documentary comes as slick and corporate as it gets. Sponsored by General Motors and aired by the Discovery Channel’s ironically titled Planet Green, this documentary is clearly produced as a counter-narrative to both economic blight and alternative economics. It is interesting that, while many ‘blight’ stories seem intended mostly as cautionary fables for audiences outside of the city, Detroit: Overdrive sought to inspire both inside and outside. Advertised in downtown Detroit on huge billboards, the posters claimed: ‘This is your story – we are just telling it!’ And what is the story? Detroit as the continued seat of All-American commerce and innovation, now turning out products such as Kid Rock’s ‘Badass’ beer and Motor City themed designer jeans.


Image: Sven Gustafson, A Healthier Michigan

This strategy, to quote ‘discourse jockey’ and photographer Noah Stephens, can be summarised as: ‘Gentrify the popular imagination of Detroit.’ This may raise alarm bells with people in cities such as London where gentrification has very negative associations with misguided development, rarely benefitting those it claims to support, e.g. Docklands-like social segregation or higher rents forcing out the original population, something which, according to local film-maker Oren Goldenberg, is already happening in some parts of Detroit. In the case of Detroit: Overdrive, and documentaries in this vein, it felt as if the over-the-top, big budget representation of innovation as a driver of prosperity had been wheeled out as a piece of heavy artillery against the ramshackle army of comparatively lo-fi images of ridicule, doom and utopian visions (although, it has to be said, some low budget ‘gentrification’ attempts also exist). Like the media wars during the American presidential elections, the struggle for the supremacy of visions appears to be in full swing: whose vision will take hold of the popular imagination? Will alternative experiments stand a chance against the corporate PR machine? And what do these experiments consist of?

The latter question seems to be the most difficult, as it became evident from listening to all of the panels. There was a feeling that people from outside Detroit were attracted to the city precisely for this experimentation, but often just ‘parachuted in, talking and doing nothing’ (audience comment). In the first panel, the suggestion was made for Detroiters to network with other ‘experimental spaces’ in the world, to learn from one another’s unique strategies against common problems, and to disseminate this knowledge (e.g. discourse jockey Miguel Robles-Duran). Here, Sabine Gruffat’s film ‘I have always been a dreamer’, an unlikely comparison (at first glance) of Detroit and Dubai, provided food for thought. In this sense, Imaging Detroit did feel like a moment of learning and experimentation, albeit on a small scale. How much experimentation took place and will take place by its participants? This is difficult to track and perhaps an irrelevant question. What seems, on the other hand, more relevant, is that Detroit, as a place of exchanging and working on visions is, indeed, ‘open for business’.

Big THANK YOU to the whole MODCaR team for having me & to all who came and participated!

(Dear Readers: Feel free to post links to related projects/media in the comments!)


Imaging Detroit @ MODCaR


Image source: MODCaR

Here is a preview of summer project No.2, my fellowship at the Metropolitan Observatory for Digital Culture and Representation (MODCaR). MODCaR describes itself as a ‘nomadic Michigan based non-profit research organisation’ that examines the relationship between the production of images and the production of city publics. To quote from their ‘mission':

‘Our charge is to explore visual narratives at the national and international scale and to render explicit the complex relationship between experience, the constructed image, meaning and the public.’

This statement resonates with my interest in the construction of particular spaces and their impact on the agency of publics (the nanoscale, the climate). Working with the ‘observatory’ seemed like an exciting platform to try out some new ideas.

Apart from analysing lots and lots of films on Detroit, MODCaR is organising a free, public film festival in Detroit showing documentaries on the city non-stop for two days. Entitled ‘Imaging Detroit’, the festival is intended to allow Detroiters to reflect upon the various forms their city has taken on in different contexts. Anyone can participate with a film, from established film-makers to primary school kids. The call for entries can be found here. I am also making a short film, with audio recordings of Londoners talking about their associations with Detroit. The festival will also feature discussions chaired by so-called ‘DJs’ (discourse jockeys), a mix of Detroit and non-Detroit based film makers, policy makers, urban analysts, art critics, activists, economists etc.


Image source: MODCaR, from ‘The MODCaR Guide to the Picturesque’

Below are the festival details, if you are planning on coming (you can also volunteer to help set up the festival grounds). A flyer/poster can also be downloaded here.

Imaging Detroit will open on September 21st at 6pm at Perrien Park,
between East Warren Avenue and East Hancock, Grandy and Chene streets
in the Near East Side neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan.
The event will run until midnight on Saturday, September 22nd
and is free and open to the public. 

Contact information: questions@modcar.org
MODCaR pamphlet downloadable here


DIY City Branding @ Cities Methodologies 2012

The article revisions marathon has been completed, so now I can proceed with my summer experiments, of which ‘DIY City Branding’ is the first. The project draws on my research on public engagement with environmental controversies and new technologies, as well as my activist work in London. It emerges from an interactive photography project called ‘DIY Skyline’, in which people modify the skylines they can see from their windows and balconies. By placing objects of their choice in these places and photographing them against the sunset, a ‘home-made’ skyline is produced. ‘DIY Skyline’ could have been restaged with projectors in the gallery in a shadow puppet theatre like manner, but in the end I decided to take the opportunity to emphasise the discussion on city branding a bit more clearly.

What is city branding? After witnessing the success of New York’s ‘I love New York’ campaign’, which has been described as ‘a city branding itself out of a crisis’ (a great book on that is Miriam Greenberg’s ‘Branding New York: How A City In Crisis Was Sold To The World’), other cities are trying to follow this example (e.g. ‘I AMsterdam’). City Branding is not always connected to crisis management, but also to the desire to fix or change a city’s image in the public perception. The website ‘City Mayors’ states that there is nowadays an imperative for cities to become ‘successful brands’ (there is also a short article on the Guardian website here). If you google ‘city branding’, you will find many publications on the subject, including books, free leaflets and critical commentaries. The film ‘This Space Available’, recently screened and debated at the Open City Docs Fest at UCL, gave the example of Houston, Texas, which banned billboards and other excessive advertising signage in order to turn itself into a brand – a brand emphasising quality of life (‘even a tree becomes part of the brand’).

So how does ‘DIY City Branding’ work? Actually, part of it didn’t work! The idea was to put down several coats of a metallic primer (the black paint) which would allow us to paint over it and affix ‘iconic’ buildings made from magnetic sheet (the same that is used for fridge magnets). Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the same paint we used in the trial, so naturally, the paint was too weak and the magnets didn’t stick. We had to make do with white tack. Basically, I took pictures of the London skyline from different places (the initial idea was to take them from ‘privileged views’ and ‘unprivileged views’, but that proved too confusing) and made stencils from them. These stencils were transferred onto the wall and painted over with white, so that, after the masking take was removed, only the black skyline(s) could be seen.

Next, a collection of ‘iconic’ skyscrapers, used in city branding, were turned into stencils (to scale with the skyline, so that sizes could be compared). These stencils were then used to make the magnetic buildings that people could add to the skyline to signify certain characteristics (‘progress’, ‘romance’ etc). They could also ‘commission’ new iconic buildings from one of the architects at the exhibition. Some visitors also used crayons (see last image in the post).

Underneath the skyline, a set of instructions called ‘City Branding in 10 easy steps’ could be found. Based on city branding leaflets available in the public domain, these ironic instructions sought to provoke debate about a very real issue: the role different publics in city branding. City branding publications emphasise the necessity to involve as many stakeholders as possible and not let big money rule (‘brand partnership’) – otherwise the brand is unlikely to work. At the same time, the reality often looks very different. The project tried to ask what could potentially be done with this zone in between: can different groups of Londoners use their role in city branding? Should it be a goal to participate in branding at all? What are the alternatives?

DIY City Branding was shown as part of UCL’s UrbanLaboratory’s Cities Methodologies 2012 exhibition, also accompanied by a public talk called ‘The ImageTM of the City’, which was jointly given by myself and Mireille Roddier from the University of Michigan (more about this in another post – you can see some of Mireille’s images from the exhibit on her Paris Je t’M blog). The talk was recorded for a podcast, so if it becomes available, I will link to it from here. For now, feel free to engage in your own ‘city branding’ discussion – no matter what shape it may take….

PS: Does anyone need any giant fridge magnets of iconic skyscrapers?? ;)


Mutable Matter@AAG 2012

Just wanted to remind everyone about the two sessions I am participating in: ‘Ruinations’ (followed by a panel and ‘Design, Design Activism and the Democratic Production of Future Social Natures’ where I shall boldly present in the ‘Radical Democracy, Alternatives, Utopia in Architecture and Design’ section. The ‘Design Activism’ sessions are pursuing a productive dialogue between designers and geographers, whereas the ‘Ruinations’ sessions are bringing together geographers, artists and architects. Both sessions address social change, and how we are – or could be differently – implicated in it.

The ‘Ruinations’ sessions draw attention to the social violence that is committed through certain forms of artistic/commercial/academic exploitation of urban decay. Participants seek to illustrate how even some well-intentioned projects can disempower local residents and lead to further displacement. By contrast, ‘Design Activism’ intends to explore possibilities for positive change through design or related strategies. An ambitious aim, but we’ll see what we can come up with… Looking at the offical post-session plans, brain storming in local bar might indeed lead to unexpected ideas!


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