Stealthy, slippery, crusty, prickly and jittery redux: On design interventions intended to make space inhospitable
From Mitchell Duneier’s Sidewalk, 1999. The context is a discussion of various physical interventions that have been made in the fabric of New York City’s Pennsylvania Station:
On a walk through the station with [director of “homeless outreach” Richard] Rubel and the photographer Ovie Carter one summer day in 1997…I found it essentially bare of unhoused people. I told Rubel of my interest in the station as a place that had once sustained the lives of unhoused people, and asked if he could point out changes that had been made so that it would be less inviting as a habitat where subsistence elements could be found in one place. He pointed out a variety of design elements of the station which had been transformed, helping to illustrate aspects of the physical structure that had formerly enabled it to serve as a habitat.
He took us to a closet near the Seventh Avenue entrance. “We routinely had panhandlers gathering here, and you could see this closet area where that heavy bracket is, that was a niche.”
“What do you mean by ‘a niche’?”
“This spot right over here was where a panhandler would stand. So my philosophy is, you don’t create nooks and corners. You draw people out into the open, so that your police officers and your cameras have a clean line of sight [emphasis added], so people can’t hide either to sleep or to panhandle.”
Next he brought us to a retail operation with a square corner. “Someone here can sleep and be protected by this line of sight. A space like this serves nobody’s purpose [emphasis added]. So if their gate closes, and somebody sleeps on the floor over here, they are lying undetected. So what you try to do is have people construct their building lines straight out, so you have a straight line of sight with no areas that people can hide behind.”
Next he brought us to what he called a “dead area.” “I find this staircase provides limited use to the station. Amtrak does not physically own this lobby area. We own the staircase and the ledge here. One of the problems that we have in the station is a multi-agency situation where people know what the fringe areas are, the gray areas, that are less than policed. So they serve as focal points for the homeless population. We used to see people sleeping on this brick ledge every night. I told them I wanted a barrier that would prevent people from sleeping on both sides of this ledge. This is an example fo turning something around to get the desired effect.”
“Another situation we had was around the fringes of the taxi roadway. We had these niches that were open. The Madison Square Garden customers that come down from the games would look down and see a community of people living there, as well as refuse that they leave behind.” He installed a fencing project to keep the homeless from going behind corners, drawing them out into the open [emphasis added]. “And again,” said Rubel, “the problem has gone away.”
This logic, of course, is immanent in the design of a great deal of contemporary public urban space, but you rarely find it expressed quite as explicitly as it is here. Compare, as well, Jacobs (1961) on the importance to vibrant street life (and particularly of children’s opportunities for play) of an irregular building line at the sidewalk edge.
The notion that the minimally diagnostic criterion of a networked object is that “it knows the right time” is very curious, in that it refers to what may be the primordially alienating regime to which human life is subjected. Is it the case, therefore, that exposure to such objects or abjects cannot help but reinforce an estrangement from the world and from being-in-the-world?
Yes, enumerate the carriage parts — still not a carriage.
When you begin making decisions and cutting it up rules and names appear
And once names appear you should know when to stop.
– Tao te Ching, tr. M. LaFargue. (For the record, I prefer the Stephen Mitchell translation, but this seemed more pointedly relevant to the work at hand.)
The other day I got mail asking me to contribute to something called usesthis, a site that asks a (frankly fairly homogeneous) selection of creative workers to describe their “setup” — or, in other words, the combination of hardware and software they use on a daily basis — as well as their ideal such arrangement.
I’m always happy enough for a prompt to think in this direction. Although usesthis isn’t really (no pun intended) set up to examine these issues, the whole question of a relationship between creative output and one’s choice of tools is inherently interesting, and is kind of an ongoing preoccupation of mine. As a good connectionist, I’m bound to believe that the artifacts we use mediate or allow us to approach the world in certain specific ways. It follows from this that our selection of one particular tool over another conditions the kind of relations we’re able to enter into — but also, that if the tool is functioning properly, we’re ordinarily unaware of its operations, or of this potential it has to constrain or to open.
If we’re inclined to examine that potential, a rigorous accounting for the intermediators we choose can help us rise up out of the usual, unconscious relation we have to them, and restore the sense of interested inquiry Heidegger (at least) calls presence-at-hand — see Peter Erdélyi’s foreword to The Prince and The Wolf for a particularly pungent version of this.
There’s a lot to say, too, about the determinisms implicit in our selection of specific tools. Very often, particular methods and tools tell in the finished work; it’s not simply, then, that mediating artifacts shape our own ability to act in the world, it’s that they indirectly condition the experience of everyone who comes into contact with the result of that action thereafter. (I’m put in mind of Matthew Fuller and Usman Haque’s prescient comment, in their Situated Technologies pamphlet Urban Versioning System 1.0, that “[i]t is often possible to determine, admittedly more so in a building than in a neighborhood, whether it was designed using AutoCAD, Microstation or Vectorworks.”)
I think it’s relatively easy to see what this means for creative domains like fashion, music, or (as the Fuller/Haque quote implies) architecture. Take the work of Issey Miyake, for example. We can trace the very different ways in which A-POC and the superficially similar Pleats Please line are perceived (by the wearer, by the observer) to specific techniques used in their creation, observe that the material qualities of Pleats Please garments result from polyester fabric being subjected to a particular heat-press process. The way the garment drapes on the body is the direct result of the cloth’s having been shaped by a particular regime of temperature, constraint and pressure — a regime which is in turn brought into local being by a highly particularized set of tools. If you’re interested in understanding why the Pleats Please line tends to appeal to women d’un certain âge, some consideration of how the designer’s understanding of the body is mediated to the body via the deployment of those tools seems indispensable.
Similarly, albeit in a rather different register, it strikes me as being very difficult to discuss Stephen O’Malley‘s work without understanding at least a little something about drop-tuning, .68-gauge strings and the performance envelope of the Sunn Model T amplifier. The unique somatic (SOMAtic?) experience of a SUNN 0))) gig is contingent on these elements — these things — being present, assembled and wielded in a particular way. The affordances and constraints of the objects yoked together in the act of production are directly relevant to the phenomenology of the finished product, even if that “product” is a ten-minute excursion in dronespace.
Casting light on the mesh of associations that bring a Pleats Please garment or a SUNN O))) cut into being does tend to construct creativity a little bit differently than we have traditionally been used to, and I think that’s entirely legitimate. Instead of positioning creation as the act of a lone genius, this way of looking at things suggests that the ability to bring novelty forth is, instead, something that’s smeared out across a network of heterogeneous participants, both human and non-human. This is certainly a decentering of the individual designer, but by no means do I necessarily think of it as an insult. It merely suggests that in those domains where creative production does require the enlistment of such ensembles, exceptional designerly talent ought properly be understood as the specific genius of knowing how to activate, and enable the operations of, such an ensemble — something more akin to orchestration than anything else. In this light, there’s still a great deal to be discovered by poking into the specifics of a given ensemble, and asking how each is brought to bear on the task of creation.
For those of us who work primarily in the medium of words, though, the case isn’t as clearcut.
It’s not as if at least some descriptions of the writer’s toolkit aren’t of interest. Here’s John Brunner, in the final words of his 1968 Stand on Zanzibar:
“This non-novel was brought to you by John Brunner using Spicer Plus Fabric Bond and Commercial Bank papers interleaved with Serillo carbons in a Smith Corona 250 electric typewriter fitted with a Kolok black-record ribbon.”
This was a good McLuhanite, speaking to the formal concerns of the Pop moment. That invocation of brands carries along with it a certain zazzy quality, a sense of liberation experienced in and through commodities I associate with Warren Chalk’s 1964 Living City Survival Kit. (In 1968, as four years earlier, you could still plausibly argue that this was fresh and revelatory.) In this case, as it happens, more specific yet is better. So not just any Smith Corona 250, but John Brunner’s Smith Corona 250. It adds something — something ineffable, and if you know anything about Brunner’s life, ineffably sad — to your appreciation of his oeuvre to read what’s on the Dymo-tape labels he affixed to this daily working tool.
But that has more to do with the object as environment, and only invokes the Smith Corona 250’s material properties and other affordances in the rather attenuated sense that its front affords a surface on which to stick a label. This, of course, is a quality it has in common with a great many other objects that might have occupied the same space on Brunner’s desk. And this begins to get to the crux of what I find a little curious about asking writers about their “setup.”
For me, anyway, focusing on getting things just-so is very little other than a way of delaying the moment I actually settle down to do what I need to. Most of us have some such ritual; Matt Jones memorably describes this process of lining up one’s pencils and notebooks (in preference to actually using the former to write in the latter) as “shaving the yak.” I’ll admit that I also find it a little unseemly, at this point in history, to mention specific named brands and commercial offerings. I’m not Warren Chalk, this isn’t London in 1964, and I’m not performing a swingin’ly post-austerity self through my consumption of Canadian Club and Miles Davis sides. So while, yeah, sure, I use such-and-such a text editor, under a given operating system, running on a particular model of laptop, you won’t learn that much about me — or more to the point, develop any particularly salient insight into the structuration of the argument I’m trying to make — by having these specifics revealed to you. The blunt truth of things is that I would almost certainly be expressing these same sentiments were I working in Microsoft Word on the kind of thoroughly generic, commodity Windows machine the “wrong people” use. From this perspective, the ideal setup of tools is nothing but the one that most readily dissolves into intention. ‘Nuff said, yeah?
The following short piece was commissioned by Beeker Northam at Dentsu London, for a Newspaper Club project they were planning to do on the Soho district, but which for whatever reason never happened. Textual references date the piece to some point late in my tenure at Nokia, but it otherwise stands up pretty well, and as it’s never seen the light of day I thought I’d share it with you here and now. Enjoy.
For the past two years, I’ve found myself working for a gigantic and rather dowdy global corporation, an organization whose sterile pile of a headquarters is tidily located on a nowhere-ish expanse of motorway. For better or worse, this is where most days of my life take me.
By way of compensation, perhaps, our London office is nestled in the heart of Soho. For a lover of urban texture, of course, this is nothing less than a dispensation of grace: depending on the particular corporate-approved hotel I happen to be stashed in, my route to work will see me cutting beneath the Pillars of Hercules, past John Snow’s water-pump or the hallowed 100 Club. And not infrequently, loping down a narrow lane lined with Korean restaurants, courier services and “licensed” sex shops, past an unremarkable-looking strip club called the Windmill.
I had some sense of the postwar Italian wave, of course, and the tutelage in coffee, wine, sharp suits and scooters that particular wave of immigrants brought to the district. I knew that Soho, as one of London’s premier red light zones and later its gay ghetto, was a lazy byword for louche. The things that happened in these streets in blistering ’76 and the Jubilee summer of ’77 — these were all stories I learned growing up an ocean away in Philadelphia. And of course, as a consequence of my work, I am unavoidably and intimately familiar with the more recent gloss of ad agencies, consultancies and new-media shops that’s settled over the district like a hip miasma.
But for the lattermost set of circumstances, though, I had all this knowledge intellectually, by way of books and films and an obsessive, near-lifelong interest in the Mod and punk subcultures. It wasn’t and isn’t body-knowledge: in its phenomenological, affective and kinesthetic particulars, I could no more reconstruct an average pill-driven night of Soho 1963 than I could the evening of an Etruscan grove. Except in the most pallid, attenuated way, those sensations and experiences are lost to history.
What happens, then, to places — and this neighborhood more than most is filled with them — where what happens on, at, in and to the body is the very point of their existence? Their stories are lost to history in a most particularly annihilating way. You’d never, ever know it from the sad table-dancing club that currently occupies the site, but in twentieth-century British history, the Windmill turns out to have been one of the more important such places.
Behind the rather aggressive touts stationed at the door of the club lies a place where the daring, the salacious and, I’d argue, a particular modern conception of female beauty were engineered. Like Anna May Wong‘s ferocious performance as Shosho the Chinese Dancer in the 1929 silent Piccadilly, the “girls” of the Windmill moved as though they were willing modernity into being with their bodies, beneath what was then still the high-technology glamour of electric light.
The club’s audaciously nude tableaux vivants just skirted the indecency laws, made erotic entertainment safe for consumption by the middle class. (The gentry, of course, had always had a pass.) The sense you get from contemporary descriptions of the audience is one of delight in their own naughtiness, Thirties London’s equivalent of the nervous, giggling New York couples of 1975, who rushed to see Deep Throat so as to earn their bona fides as true children of the Sexual Revolution.
And there’s no way for any of us who came of age afterward to know what any of that felt like, to experience the deep-down, giddy-electric, liberatory thrill of it. The meaning of the place didn’t stick to the stones, to the point that years later I could walk down Great Windmill Street and not have so much as the foggiest clue of all the things that had transpired mere meters away. Those experiences would have had to have been continuously reanimated, reinscribed with acts of the living body, and were not and are not — today’s strip club, in fact, by offering just about the least interesting gloss on the site’s history, quite thoroughly inverts the meaning of what came before.
Who among us who was not there can really say what this Soho felt like in the bones, whether in the blacked-out days of the Blitz, as it came to an espresso-machine boil at the end of the Fifties, or during the anarchic summers of punk? Those brassy coffee bars, narrow doorways and dark chthonic stairways, even where physically extant, just don’t mean the same thing. Even if we were able to interview them at length, those with the relevant memories would find — no doubt to their own dismay as well as ours — that they can no longer quite conjure up the gestalt.
I point this all out not by way of licensing nostalgia but, if anything, just the opposite. What I’ve understood from my immersion in Soho’s history is that we are all of us making and remaking the places we live in on a constant basis, speaking them into reality through the things we say and the comments we leave on blogs, knitting them into being with bicycles and cars and our own two feet. We bring them to life with our custom and our traffic, our peregrinations and the exercise of our habits. And if we want to leave legends behind, we’d better get busy. These particular streets, richly shrouded in story as they are, demand no less.
It’s been a big week hereabouts. In particular, two pieces of Do projects news to share with you:
– As you probably know, Nurri and I have been running Systems/Layers “walkshops” under the Do aegis for the last year or so, in cities from 65°N to 41°S.
As we define it, anyway, a walkshop is an activity in which anywhere up to about twenty people take a slow and considered walk through the city together, carefully examining the urban fabric and the things embedded in it, and then sharing their insights with one another and the wider world. (Obviously, you could do a walkshop on any particular urbanist topic that interested you, but we’ve focused ours on looking at the ways in which networked information-processing systems increasingly condition the mretropolitan experience.)
We’ve gotten a huge kick out of doing the Systems/Layers walks, but the simple truth is that there are so many competing claims on our time and energy that we can’t dedicate ourselves to running them full-time. We’ve also been encouraged by the result of our first experiment in open-sourcing the idea, the Systems/Layers event Mayo Nissen held in Copenhagen last June.
So when Giles Lane at Proboscis asked us if we’d consider contributing to his Transformations series, we knew right away just what we’d do. We decided to put together a quick guide to DIY walkshops, something to cover the basics of organizing, promoting and executing an event.
Last Monday, with Giles’s patient support, this idea came to fruition in the launch of Do 1101, Systems/Layers: How to run a walkshop on networked urbanism as a Diffusion eBook pamphlet. As with most things we offer, the pamphlet is released to you under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Sharealike license, so we expect that some of you will want to get in there and repurpose the content in other contexts.
We’ll most likely be rereleasing the Systems/Layers material our ownselves in the near future, in an extended dance mix that includes more detail, more structure, and more of Nurri’s pictures. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy the pamphlet, and let us know about the uses to which you put it.
Safety Maps is a free online tool that helps you plan for emergency situations. You can use it to choose a safe meeting place, print a customized map that specifies where it is, and share this map with your loved ones. (As it says on the site, the best way to understand how it works is simply to get started making a Safety Map of your own.)
It’s been a delicate thing to build. Given the entire framing of the site, it and the maps it produces absolutely have to work in their stated role: coordinating the action of couples, households and other small groups under the most trying of circumstances, when communications and other infrastructures may simply be unavailable. They have to do so without implying that a particular location is in fact safer than any other under a given set of conditions, or would remain accessible in the event of disaster. And they have to do so legibly, clearly, and straightforwardly.
These are utilitarian preparedness/resilience considerations, and they’re eminently appropriate. But in the end, the site springs from a different set of concerns: in Nurri’s original conception, the primary purpose of these artifacts is to prompt us to think about the people we love and the utter and harrowing contingency of the circumstances that allow us to be together. We obviously hope people find Safety Maps useful in challenging moments, but we imagine that we’d hear about this either way — whereas it’s difficult, if not impossible, for us to ever know if the site works in the way she intended it to.
Even though it was an accident of timing, Nurri also had some questions about releasing Safety Maps so soon on the heels of the Sendai earthquake/tsunami; she didn’t want us to appear to be opportunists reaping ghoulish benefit from the suffering of others. I think it was the right decision, though: sadly, there are in truth precious few windows between natural or manmade catastrophes of one sort or another. And there may be no more productive time for a tool like this than a moment in which disaster is in the news and fresh on a lot of people’s minds.
From my perspective, there’s been one other notable feature of the journey Safety Maps has taken from conception to release: but for an inversion of name, emphasis and colorway (from “Emergency Maps” in red to what you see at present), the site looks, feels and works almost identically to the vision Nurri described to me in Helsinki in October of 2009. In my experience, this almost never happens in the development of a website, and it’s a tribute both to the clarity and comprehensiveness of her original idea, and to Tom and Mike’s resourcefulness and craftsmanship.
I’m also quite fond of the thoughtful little details they’ve built into every layer of the experience, right down to the animated GIFs on the mail you get when you send someone a map. It’s just a lovely thing, and I’m terribly proud to have had even a tiny role in helping Nurri, Tom and Mike build it. Our thanks, also, to Cloudmade and the entire community of Open Street Map contributors, without whom Safety Maps would have remained nothing more than a notion.
Last night, after ten years of being together and coming on eight years of marriage, Nurri asked me to make explicit my definition of power, as the topic had been coming up quite a bit in our recent conversations.
I thought it was a great question, especially as the subject is going to crop up again in the near future, in my writing and my daily work. Fortunately for me, I’d been thinking about the question for so long that I was able to pop the following out, just about word for word:
To me, power is…
– an ability expressed within an immanent grid of relations superimposed on the phenomenal world, from which it’s effectively impossible to escape;
– the ability to shape flows of matter, energy and information through that grid of relations, and most particularly through bodies situated in space and time (including one’s own);
– the ability to determine outcomes where such bodies are concerned;
– this ability consciously recognized and understood.
By this definition, power can be exerted locally or globally, at microscale or macro-.
In the negative mode, the mode with which we’re all of us most familiar, its prerogatives are enjoyed, to varying degrees, by a schoolyard bully, a rapist, a meeting of technical experts to determine the level to which a brand of cigarettes will be mentholated, the owner of a media conglomerate…the Wannsee Conference.
But power can also be expressed in more beneficial forms: a change in diet, a choice relating to one’s habits of media consumption, the decision to share a link, the decision to bind one’s life with another, even bring a life into the world. Power can take the form of environmental regulations, or the movement of a community toward self-determination.
Power can be resisted. To varying degrees, depending on where in time and space your body happens to be situated, you can claim power over yourself. Power can be shared, extended, used for transformational or liberatory purposes.
There are limits to power: situational, juridical, neurological, endocrine, historical, ethical, practical…
You could probably fairly describe my life project as the reclamation of power over my own body and the effort to help others achieve similar reclamations, to which I would add the renunciation of directly coercive power over another’s body, except in certain strictly delimited circumstances. Beyond that lies the renunciation of indirectly exploitative power over others, and given the particular grid of relations in which I find myself, that’s a much harder thing to achieve.
For those who care about intellectual pedigree, and the process by way of which I arrived at a framing like this: my take owes a little bit to actor-network theory, some to Hardt and Negri, some to Richard Dawkins (!), Gayatri Spivak, David Harvey and Naomi Klein, and a great deal to Foucault. Deleuze & Guattari: inevitably. Earlyish exposure to anarchism, feminism and Buddhism colors just about everything I think. In all cases, I’m sure, we’re talking about my own lazy, mistaken or shallow misreadings of source material, and in one or two, my deliberate twisting of an emphasis to suit my own needs.
Coming up next: some specific, concrete examples of some ways I see power working, on my body and those of others.
A few years ago, when I was speaking at my first gig in France, a friend introduced me as “a genuine cyberpunk.” I don’t mind telling you I was a little taken aback: (a), Chairman Bruce deserves the tag more than I ever will, or could, and (b) I’ve always thought of that word as a descriptor of literary genre, not of people. Maybe it’s different in Europe.
What I will not deny, though, is that the genre which appropriately does bear that name was probably the major formative influence of my adolescence, and my discovery of it while it yet hovered more or less on the margins of popular culture one of only two junctures in my life that I truly felt myself to be close to the epicenter of a Moment. Finding stories like “New Rose Hotel” in my sister’s copies of Omni — devouring them with by flashlight, under my bed, as if they were some species of pornography — then stumbling onto that first Ace Special Edition of Neuromancer at sixteen: these were inflections I experienced physically.
I mean it. Reading these stories consistently and reliably generated in me a precise somatic sensation. It felt like this: like someone had clamped strong hands on my shoulders, forcefully pivoted me forty-five degrees to the left, then planted a solid kick in my ass. My heart would start to hammer. I’d have to get up, go out and do something, anything, just to burn off energy and ease my way down from maximum jouissance. Every new, outré detail — the assassin with a monomolecular whip secreted in a false thumbtip, the smackhead dolphin abandoned by the government that had recruited him, the death-by-pheromoned-cloud-of-smothering-butterflies — set off a fresh detonation of glee.
There were more intellectual pleasures, too. One of the things cyberpunk was relatively good at was suggesting the political economy of the future, the institutional structure that would characterize the way we lived there. Genre authors delighted in attending to details like “Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority” and the “Mare Tranquillitatis People’s Circumlunar Zaibatsu,” and I as a reader delighted in their cleverness and perspicacity. My imagination could churn all day on everything so densely implied by a line like: “His right bicep was tattooed with a geodesic balloon above crossed lightning bolts and bore the legend SUNSPARK 15, UTAH.”
It worked (and I’m only something like the eighteen millionth person to have pointed this out) because it was still recognizably an exaggeration for effect, the Reagan/Thatcher/Nakasone Eighties in a funhouse mirror. No wonder contemporary sf, by contrast, tends to leave me so cold: it’s hard to top the details of a world that’s seen all of this come to pass.
I thought of this the other day when I passed an artifact that seemed to sum up most of cyberpunk’s formal concerns. It was nothing more than a graffiti’d shipping container piled in a maintenance yard, but it:
– represented the fruit of a deeply digitized military-logistic material culture;
– still bore the marks of its native China;
– and, layered atop them, bore the blazons of street identity.
It struck me as occupying an amazing position in material-semantic possibility space, the polemical-made-real. Running past it was something like listening to a digital file of Brazilian speedmetal, or having a woman you meet at a party nonchalantly introducing you to her wife, in that everyday life seemed to have more or less effortlessly remolded itself around tropes which once, and not so very long ago, dripped with futurity.
And a world filled with such objects is in some way almost beyond commentary, or critique. Maybe this is why William Gibson’s own last few books, delightful as they remain — the brand-new Zero History being the most recent case in point — read as yarns told about people we (quite literally) already know, capering through places, scenes and contexts we know all too well. It’s competently constructed entertainment, resonant enough of our moment, and is amusing as something to play the roman-à-clef game with. But it’s not (and cannot be?) revelatory. I’m having a hard time imagining anyone having their ass kicked by Zero History the way mine was by Neuromancer.
As for the earlier work, I can’t for the life of me imagine what a contemporary reader confronting it for the first time would make of it. Any possibility of getting a frisson or lift off of that material would seem to be undermined by the fact that so much of it was first rendered into genre cliché, in the hands of much less capable writers, and then had the bad manners to come true. (Believe me, there was not a single hip thing about the Giger-themed bar in Shirokanedai, even before it went out of business.)
More broadly, I’m having trouble even coming up with any cultural artifact capable of generating that kind of shock’n’awe rewrite of the world. For me, for anyone. And that’s too bad.