Matthew Kaney at ITP

(Specifically, Ecology of Space projects)

Week 5 Reading Response

Ecology of Space


Michel Foucault casts a wide net in his discussion of heterotopias, describing a vast array of different spaces, with an equally diverse set of social roles and embedded power structures. Still, he’s clearly hit upon a rich idea in human spatial practice, one that we can see at work any time someone wants to (or is forced to) “get away from it all”. Of course, there is no “away from it all”—as Trevor Paglen has discussed, all actions, even “dark” or “invisible” actions have a physical location and leave material traces. Still, Foucault’s interest is in the way such spaces function in our psychology and society, ways in which we make certain spaces invisible through collective social decision.

The one issue that Foucault doesn’t really address is how the experience of heterotopias can be intensely personal. He describes how these spaces fulfill different roles from society to society, but doesn’t describe ways in which these spaces may change from person to person. For example, to the visitor, the museum exists as an accumulation of time in a confined space adrift from everyday life. However, what about the museum director? The curator? The janitor? A museum has a full staff who are intimately aware of the current state of the museum as a physical building and an institution whose funding, design, management and so on is subject to all the economic and cultural trends of the outside world. Do the people in power over such spaces have a self-awareness of how their space functions, or are the wrapped up in the same cultural mythologies they’re creating? In particular, I’m reminded of recent reporting on prisoner abuse in Rikers Island. In this case, prison officers have personally absorbed the ideology of the prison system to violent ends, and I wonder if that’s a behavior of the prison system specifically, or heterotopias in general.

Richard Ross’s photo project, Architecture of Authority is an exploration of such spaces, deliberately collecting images from institutions at all levels of power across the globe and then shuffling them together. What’s especially striking about many of these spaces is how much they conform to a logic of modularity and duplication. Public school classrooms, holding cells, hospital beds, hotel rooms, and so on all exist as copies, often aligned in a grid to make this especially obvious. The motives behind this design are often practical, but I think they have a deeply ideological effect. As Foucault describes, the standardization of spaces creates a sort of paradoxical situation. On the one hand the space seems anonymous and open (that is to say, if I can access one hotel room, then I understand a great deal about the spatial layout and living situations in every room), but on the other, each space is still occupied by individual people in distinct physical locations and circumstances, and can afford a great deal of privacy (either to the occupants, in a hotel, or to those who control the space, as in a prison cell or interrogation room).

Week 4 Reading Response

Ecology of Space


In this reading, Brett Bloom describes a bit of the history of how the last major push for government funding of the arts in the US (in the 1970s and early 80s) fostered a system of “alternative” art spaces that could exist outside of the commercial gallery world and, consequently, open the art world up to new creative forms, ideas, and types of artists (especially artists from various marginalized groups) unwelcome to the art market. The dismantling of public arts funding (as a proxy for the general trend of privatization), means that artists now must create their own radical art spaces, but that there is much potential for these types of projects (some of which Bloom describes).

In general, I find Bloom’s assessment of the situation spot-on, and find the types of spaces he’s discussing very interesting. Still, to me, the piece raises more questions than it answers, and I’m left feeling intrigued but also kind of unsatisfied. Bloom is vague on exactly what makes the spaces he describes radical, other than their lack of commerce. His stated avoidance of a specific ideology (as opposed to explicitly anarchist spaces, for example) makes sense, but does little to argue for why these spaces are successful (or sufficiently radical) and others aren’t.

The biggest unresolved question for me is this: is Bloom interested in using radical space to revolutionize the art world, or is he interested in using art to revolutionize social practice? At the beginning, the article leans more heavily on the former—the commercial gallery/museum system is offered as the institution against which alternative art spaces should be defined. The alternative spaces of the 70s and early 80s, we are told, broadened the art world, ushering in new people and new creative possibilities. Presumably, a wave of radical new spaces would do the same now.

I agree, and for me personally, that’s what makes the Internet (and computer tech) such an interesting subject. Even with its deep flaws, Internet culture has certainly given attention to many otherwise marginalized voices, artists and not. At the same time, the availability of relatively inexpensive computer equipment and the philosophies of open source development offer a strong case for digital technology as a mode for anti-capitalist artistic and cultural production.

These are all still very recent developments, so Bloom can be forgiven for not addressing online communities at all seven years ago. However, beyond his critiques of commercial high art, Bloom doesn’t want to offer much of what alternative, radical art looks like, anyway. It’s unclear what makes these spaces specifically “art spaces”. He explains that art is produced and exhibited in these spaces, but no specific art is described or illustrated. Instead “art” hangs as a sort of loose philosophy over the entire endeavor, a vague justification for why these spaces should be used in unconventional ways. When Bloom gets into specifics, it’s not about art (or the economics of image making or anything), but about much more materialist concerns—recycling and gardening and redistribution of excess clothing and community meetings and food.

I find myself worrying about the mechanics of these spaces. How do you get enough people to come, without drowning out the local community? How do you ensure that there’s enough food and space to share? How do you make yourself accessible, while still attending to basic security? How do you set up a space in an inexpensive building (presumably in a poor or at least working-class area) while staying aware of the role that artists often play in gentrification. Indeed, as a recent transplant to New York City, do I have any business setting up “indigenous” spaces anyway?

But, ultimately, these questions seem to be the exact issues that the people in charge of the spaces in this reading are working through. While the Experimental Station’s Dan Peterman hesitates at whether his organization of the building is itself an artistic practice, Bloom seems more certain, describing “a really exploded notion of how art and highly refined aesthetic sensibility could contribute to a larger, more interesting, constantly unfolding daily situation.” But then, why make art objects at all? By describing the many “more interesting” activities artists could coordinate (activities which, to be honest, do generally sound interesting and beneficial to society), it seems to me that Bloom is walking up to, but never embracing, a dangerous proposition: that the most radical thing an artist can do is not make art.

Week 3 Reading Response

Ecology of Space


“[T]o transform rather than describe”, Jane Rendell’s description of one of the goals of critical theory seems to nicely sum up much of the work and discussion in this week’s reading. Picking up where Debord left off last week, Rendell argues that the primary point of public art should be to create work that inspires people to question and change the world around them. I found her focus on public art (to the exclusion of art inside the gallery) a bit curious. By her omission, Rendell suggests that gallery art (insulated by the status quo of the art institution) is perhaps immune from the type of pressures that can turn a public artwork into an interesting spatial intervention. Can gallery art perform this crisis-making function, or is it necessarily limited? And given the high stakes that Rendell’s laid out, is making such work irresponsible?

Trevor Paglen does a nice job of tying the previous threads of Marx and Lefebvre into the context of contemporary geography. I’ll confess that I didn’t even know that geography was an active academic discipline (for all the reasons that Paglen outlines) until I started reading some David Harvey a couple of years ago. Still, I appreciated Paglen’s concise explanation of geography as a discipline whose two basic tenets—materialism and human spatial production—can be used to examine any field of human activity. By the end, he’s applied this method of critique recursively, arriving at many of the same conclusions that Rendell draws from the “self-reflective modes of thought” she discusses. Paglan is clearly dissatisfied with art that describes, rather than transforms—in his Art21 interview, he identifies this tendency as the major weakness he found with graduate art education. Quoting Benjamin, he discusses how it is impossible to create critical artwork “outside” of politics. Experimental Geography, then, is his approach towards an art practice that actively engages with politics by the deliberate creation of political space. It would have been nice if he went on to offer more specific strategies for applying these ideas, but he lays a solid intellectual foundation for reading his work and thinking about new work.

And besides, the Interventionists catalogue provides myriad interesting examples of artists engaging in all manner of active spatial practice. Although, I’ll admit that I struggle somewhat with how to unpack this sort of work. Reverend Billy makes sense as a stylized, but still pretty conventional protest, and the Yes Men have a clear goal of embarrassing the large institutions that take them seriously. But many of the projects seem caught between existing as sincere socio-political gestures, while being too abstract or esoteric to be viable templates for larger social action. Is Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicle a call to action? A prototype? A design fiction?

To me, the work that seemed the most well resolved was either the work that had small stakes (such as Alex Villar’s videos where he disobeys the spatial logic of walls, fences, and railings) or appropriately audacious methods (such as Yomango’s shoplifting as a lifestyle practice). The work also makes me think of Institutional Critique, particularly Michael Asher’s work, though I worry that his work of modifying art gallery buildings falls prey to some of the pitfalls discussed above. I think his work does take seriously its own production of space, but strictly within an art context, perhaps too insulated from the way that context connects to the wider world. Perhaps that’s why I like it so much: when you’re exposing the historical logic of museum exhibition layouts, there are important ramifications, but it’s mostly a fun conceptual exercise. When you’re trying to tackle homelessness, or commercial exploitation, or surveillance, it seems like you should be taking things much more seriously.

But perhaps my desire to insist upon evaluating the effectiveness of these works as political gambits is misplaced. The focus on “tactics” and “experiments” suggests that these projects won’t necessarily work, and that that’s okay, but that each is an important step pushing toward a broader goal.

Week 2 Reading Response

Ecology of Space


I had a bit of understanding of the Situationist International before this, but these two readings helped clear things up a bit. As a practice, I think dérive holds a lot of potential for interesting spatial exploration.

Debord is clearly developing his ideas in the context of the urban environment. He contrasts the urban dérive with the Surrealists’ project of wandering in the open countryside in 1923. Dismissing that project, he says, “Wandering in open country is naturally depressing, and the interventions of chance are poorer there than anywhere else.” Buy what about the rural space is “natural depressing”? I think there are two aspect of the city that appeal to Debord: its information density and its human-made nature.

On the one hand, I think that the “interventions of chance are poorer” in the countryside not because one has fewer options (in general, you have greater freedom of movement in the countryside), but because the choices one can make have very little effect on one’s environment. In the city, each block might be very different from the next, while in the countryside, the landscape can stretch on unchanged for miles. In terms of the total number of specific, memorable images and sounds that one might experience, the city offers a much higher density of this type of information than that countryside. This is partially physical (i.e. skyscrapers and buildings occupy space that in nature might be occupied by air), but I think it’s also due to the fact that we don’t generally interpret the details of the natural environment, such as differences in plants, rocks, and water formations, as meaningful in the way we draw meaning from human creations.

To this point, the fact that the city is a human construction seems crucial to the Situationist agenda. As argued in Critique of Urban Geography, Debord’s objective is for people to understand the psychological forces in the city that determine our habits. With an understanding of how the city functions, we can then intervene, with the ultimate goal of revolutionary societal change. In this context, it’s helpful to know that the city is already an accumulation of decisions made by people with specific intensions. By understanding the nature of the city as it exists now, perhaps we’ll be empowered to make our own decisions and reshape the city.

In this way, it’s clear to see how the Debord is drawing on the work of Marx. Marx (by way of Joseph Stalin’s reading) is similarly interested in how the practical foundations of a society, especially the production and circulation of goods, determines the lives of those living within it. Capitalism often seems such a thorny, abstract quantity, but at the roots of Marx are very basic questions: as a human, how can I work to get food, shelter, etc? The focus on dialectic materialism grounds this. Also, given that questions of capitalism/socialism are often discussed in terms of ideology and abstraction, it’s striking how much Stalin is working to lay out a practical historical argument for socialism as the next form of societal organization. Given the failure of the Soviet state, his historical formulation seems optimistic and maybe oversimplifying. Even so, it’s difficult to argue that the issues and conflicts Marx raises are at all irrelevant in our contemporary society.

Meanwhile, I’ve had a harder time getting a handle on Henri Lefebvre’s Production of Space, although I think it will be important to revisit as I continue working on virtual computer-generated space. Lefebvre sets up distinctions between space as it is perceived in our day-to-day existence and space as it is conceived in abstract terms. Does this hold true with the move towards virtual reality? Lefebvre writes a length about the move toward abstract space in capitalist society. What about spaces that take as their foundations geometric ideas and abstract, symbolic representations? Does our representation and experience of these spaces collapse into a point?

Statement of Inquiry

Ecology of Space


Broadly speaking, I’m interested in exploring issues surrounding 3d “virtual” space. In terms of personal artistic development, I’ve become increasingly interested in computer generated 3d graphics as a medium for artistic experimentation. To begin with, here’s a brief recap of what I know:

3d virtual space (like all computer software), consists of two components. First, there is data, in this case mathematical descriptions of objects in three-dimensional Cartesian space (usually complex polyhedra with triangular faces, though there are other models). In addition, other objects (such as lights, virtual cameras, physical forces, etc) are represented abstractly and plotted in the same coordinate space. On top of that data are procedures—rules for manipulating these 3d objects and depicting them in a flat image. The traditional set of procedures grew out of mathematics (particularly Euclidean geometry and linear algebra) and were informed both by careful study of real-world optics as well as aesthetic judgements about computer image making.

Historically, the field of 3d computer graphics research emerged primarily as a means to simulate the pictorial space of cinema and photography through a computationally-rigorous application of artistic techniques such as linear perspective. In this context (currently manifest in the ubiquity of CGI in cinema and television), the issues raised by computer-generated 3d space are essentially the same issues of pictorial space already raised by cinema and photography. However, with the real-time processing capabilities of computers, such virtual spaces can now be explored interactively by people and their digital avatars. Rather than merely representational, such spaces now strive to be “immersive”, inviting a new form of spatial analysis.

With virtual 3d spaces, the aim is often some degree of realism. Even when representing worlds of fantasy or abstraction, computer-generated spaces often take for granted much of the organizational logic of “real-world” space. Such spaces attempt to be simulacra of our own space with superficial differences (or without, in the case of projects such as Google Earth). As humanity seems poised to spend increasingly large amounts of time in virtual spaces, a reading of existing spatial practice seems like an important tool for testing the assumptions and affordances of 3d virtual space in the computer.

Some questions come to mind: Given their mathematic foundations, are virtual 3d spaces the ultimate rationalist space (with the corresponding rationalist ideology and politics), or does their artificial nature allow for different geometries? Can virtual spaces be discussed outside of the context of their visual representation? Given that the narrow slice of what the user sees is the only space explicitly rendered, can the remaining environment be said to exist? What is the economic condition of virtual “property”, especially in a video game such as Minecraft where industrial resources are (effectively) infinite? When all information about the virtual world is densely stored in a centralized database, are notions of privacy and surveillance meaningful? What are the politics of a space controlled (and designed) by a single programmer, or a corporate entity? What does occupation or dissent look like in these spaces?

I hope to combine the theory we’ll be discussing in this class with a close “reading” of some of the technological processes underlying 3d graphics engines. The end result will be some sort of virtual space in the web browser (using WebGL) that explores some of these issues. In rough terms, I’m imagining some sort of didactic game—that is, what would an essay about 3-dimensional space look like as an explorable 3-dimensional space.