Monday, April 5, 2010

Operation Ambulation

Walking with heightened attention to one’s surroundings, of their meanings at the moment of sentient awareness in relation to a specific context, allows one to spatially locate oneself within a socio-constructed lexicon or urban geography. A body can begin to draw out certain meanings of places: to understand the character of neighborhoods, edifices, space uses and historical evolution. The state of enclosure which defines, to a certain degree, all urban space is the specimen to be observed. Thus, the stroll through nature or through the countryside, regardless of its calming and therapeutic effects, is of no import to psychogeography. Such spaces are attributed a different status, even with the fact that most bucolic settings have been manipulated by the human hand in some fashion, and therefore beyond the scope of enclosure in the metropolitan sense.

Beginning to understand the emotive and cognitive effects of enclosure on the scale of the modern city is a proper theme. Within the early 21st century, urban spaces and their continual transformations, we still struggle to comprehend the amalgamations of forms and objects; just as the number of amalgamations and objects expands exponentially. The fluid nature of human settlement – the constant state of production, renovation and demolition of objects – makes difficult the acquiescence to observation. An ambulatory mode of inquiry seems to be one possible way to discover such mutable spaces.

The scale of the city is of the human form by orders of magnitude. Using observers that conduct experiments, the effects of such enclosure can be viewed as data. This data, being recorded, can later be observed to understand enclosure and used to generate layers of meaning (maps). Such activities can be much fun. They can also be very uncomfortable, depending on the ambient qualities of the enclosures encountered or the climate.

Activities such as this are absolutely essential to the comprehension of urban geography. This comprehension can assist the inhabitants of vast enclosure to find their way and gain identity from objective reality. This understanding may enable them to gain a level of independence from that reality, to humanize their surroundings and their particular lived condition by knowing the language of enclosure.

Derives, as proposed by the Situationists, provide a heightened level of insight of urban geography, as is the sole intent of the derive. “In a derive one or more persons during a certain period of time drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a derive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.” (Internationale Situationniste #2, 1958) By participating in the process suggested by the derive, one begins to move through space by allowing the meaning of such space to move through them.

It is important to call special attention to the fact that the very definition of the derive diminishes the possibility of chance to occur. I argue that chance isn’t possible within an activity such as a derive, much as it’s not possible outside the context of the derive. Chance only exists in the absence of knowledge. Chance is the territory of ignorance and ignorance is a voluntary action. All things happen as the result of previous actions. External forces, of some sort or another, are used to guide decisions and direction in the derive. Direction may be gathered from an action such as the rolling of a six-sided die. The subsequent action will be one of only six possible outcomes. One can be sure that one of six possible actions will be taken. There is no chance that a seventh or eighth or ninth (ad infinitum) action will be taken. If one is to be guided by visual cues, then only visual cues will be followed and not other sensory cues. Only if one is to be foolish enough to deny the laws of physics can one argue for the cause of chance.

Probability is a more likely contender as the driving force of the derive and of the meanings of urban geography. There are a certain number of meanings, roughly proportionate to the number of points of reference used to decipher such meanings. In a city, the meanings of the city may be as numerous as the number of inhabitants though is likely to be less (cities of schizophrenics notwithstanding). Actions of an observer within an enclosure will likely be guided by the sentient excretions of objective forms in combination with the ambient climatic conditions and their resultant impact on the subject. From these actions, a cognitive map can be initiated as a mode of communicating the psychogeographical effects of the city.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Sustainable Ethics & Aesthetics - NOTE

NOTE: Sustainable Ethics & Aesthetics was written while using two images as reference.

Sustainable Aesthetics & Ethics

It is truly difficult to state whether or not there is a readily identifiable sustainable aesthetic. Varying levels of understanding and definitions for the term sustainability would render a broad range of possible aesthetics. For this informed observer, sustainability seems to fit more appropriately as a description for an ethic in regards to the production of architecture and other cultural artifacts, rather than describing the formal arrangement of synthetic volumes and the dialogue created with adjacent organic features. Even within this context, the possible ethics of sustainability can be quite varied but can be framed in strokes broad enough to incorporate differing attributes of sustainable ethics.

Doing a simple image search using a popular internet search engine for “sustainable architecture” produces many results. The two images above are both from the same internet search. It’s quite easy to see the dramatic disparity in the formal aesthetic of these two sustainable edifices. One is a home and the other is a large office building. Both use very similar principles to achieve desired end results. The home on the left is made from earthen materials. The office building on the right is made from modern industrial materials. Still, they both find their way into the category of sustainable design.

When asking a person not deeply engaged in a field concerned with sustainability, many of them may attempt to describe a building resembling the earthen home above. They may casually joke about hippies hugging trees. Another person may describe the contemporary office building as their idea of a sustainable building. Perceptions vary widely in the discussion of aesthetics and sustainability.

Taking a deeper look at the underlying principles, or ethic, used to govern the design process that arrived at two polar results as evidenced above reveals striking similarities. Having the benefit of an education that focuses on forms and practices regarding the creation of occupiable spaces allows one to draw common elements from many different objective forms and conglomerations.

Both of these structures are tuned to the sun. The arrangement and orientation of major building forms allows them both to passively cool interiors through shading. Massive volumes absorb insolation, storing energy to be used for passive heating during cooler evening hours. They are both sensitive to the context of their sites and respond appropriately. Their interior spaces are designed to provide maximum comfort to its occupants. Numerous parallels are quite easy to identify.
What has just been described are similar formal responses that are incredibly different in their physical manifestations. Any number of additional tangible examples could be substituted for the images presented above. How then, are these buildings categorized in the same fashion? The answer, I argue, is in the ethic used to derive their final built form.

The characteristics used previously to describe the similarities of the examples presented are born of an ethic in the production of synthetic objects. Attention to site characteristics and sensitivity to the needs of building occupants are not the only ways that this ethic directs design and production of space. Involving, or in the least, imagining the users’ needs and feelings throughout the design process is another way. Making that very process, which was once only the realm of accredited and licensed professionals, open, democratic and accountalbe to people not considered building professionals is yet another way the sustainable ethic has informed design. Even at the most basic level, perhaps the most important level of all – the bottom line – is being greatly informed by a sustainable ethic. Owners (in terms of AIA documents) are now willing to pay a greater up-front cost for architectural products (!) with the desire to see long-term cost savings. In the market-fundamentalist contemporary world, where instant gratification is currency, poor short-term gains are heretic. This fact, alone, is evidence of an widely accepted and understood sustainable ethic.

Sustainability as an aesthetic belongs to the sentient experiences of individuals. Depening on each individual’s life experiences, a definition of a sustaible aesthetic will be formed. There is the great potential for commonality and overlap in these definitions but they are incredibly personal. This wide range of deeply held understandings of sustainability is a tremendous asset to the possible aesthetics that can be presented and accepted by people across the world. Of course, not all will agree on a pluralistic view of aesthetics, for there exists tyrants even in the field of design. What can be agreed upon is that this very pluralism of ideas, the fair and just evaluation of them before embracing or exclusion, is the very core of the sustainable ethic.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Tea Party 1

Gathered around a table at a local restaurant are seated several aging baby boomers. They're all white heterosexual males. They've never experienced the hurtful alienation of racism. They've never been ostracized or victimized for being homosexual. They've never eaten out of a dumpster or slept beneath a highway overpass. They've never experienced the all-consuming obsession of substance abuse and addiction. They've never had to make the decision between a necessary medical procedure or rent. They've never been to prison. They've never made minimum wage. They've never experienced tragedy due to the use of a firearm.

Perhaps they have. Secretly, they may keep truths of themselves closely guarded subjects. They may be willing to take things to the grave, to live under the incredible burden of shame. They don't understand how to deal with their guilt and, consequentially, lash out in the form of watching others suffer and to perpetuate such. They are morally corrupt for they know not how to cope with their true identity.

Perhaps they're just ignorant as shit.

In any case, they're on their way to a local meeting to discuss the current status of the nation. For years they've harbored resentments towards others. Prejudices flow through them like the blood in their veins. Their ideas are not their own but have been forced unto them, by an abusive parent or a herd of fellow spiritual indigents. They are bereft of compassion, except for those cut from their cloth.

After securing several coffees and pastries, they pile into a vehicle and make way down the county route to the meeting being held at the local fire hall. Their seatbelts are buckled, for safety purposes, and the person operating the vehicle takes notice of posted speed limits and other signage. They signal when making turns. The radio is employed during the trip for some pleasant background noise. The singer/songwriter on that radio station is playing a hit. He learned how to play music from a public school music teacher. His 7th grade english teacher introduced him to Shakespeare and set the course for his love of poetry and performance.

The fire hall is at capacity with others, who benefit from the compassion of those alike. They've all gathered to express mutual disdain for the way things are. Perception is the way things are in this place, as in every human place everywhere. The crowd is nearly homogenous, peppered occasionally by the supportive or curious spouse. The result of the nights' discussion is met with thunderous unanimty. All return home in their domestically manufactured vehicles on the various state and county routes. Their homes are well lit and warm.

It's very beautiful country, theirs is. It's gently rolling hills and sultry meadows are filled, year round, with agriculture processes or left to the processes of nature. It once belonged to another people and will be left to another different group of people. Still, people will inhabit their lands and will inherit those lands in the condition it's left to them. When they moved to this place, it was as beautiful as it is today. The world around them happened and this place seemed to be the same. Invisibly, somewhere on the horizon, ominous clouds gathered and obscured their view of the land and other people. Most notably missing were the people from the past, who once belonged to that land.

Tomorrow, they will wake and continue with their lives. They will drive the same county roads. They will visit the post office and send letters to their children away at State U. They will anticipate the arrival of the government checks that will ensure a more comfortable life in their older years. They will go hunting and spend time in the forests. They will consume the bounty of nature with scant care for the effects. They question their ability to sully God's creation. They will proclaim their patriotism.

They will work against all that is sacred and beautiful.

Monday, February 8, 2010

When can I buy an iMe?

Great observations from an outsider can help shed a guiding light on those mired in the stifling interconnectedness of contemporary techno-centric culture. When an insightful observation is cast over seven decades ago, it surely must cause one to stop and try to think, as objectively as possible, about the implications of such a statement. Wirth argues coherently that cities are less a question of quantifiable values and more a question of modes of communication. Surely, one usually doesn’t understand cities to consist of a hermit living miles from the nearest human though wired more thoroughly than a motherboard; a certain requisite density of human and infrastructural objects currently represents the most commonly understood idea of city form. Urbanism, in the current sense, describes the exponentially increased massing of humans coupled with an overall degeneration of evolved communicative relationships.

Seventy years, or so, from the penning of Wirth’s observations, we live in a time of increasingly degenerate interpersonal communication. Fellow humans that we could describe as being the closest to us – family – generally live tens, if not hundreds or thousands, of miles away from us and are seldom seen in the flesh. Our multitude of friends and colleagues number in the range of a small municipality yet we still maintain some level of connection with nearly every last one of them. This amazing ability to interface with so many humans and maintain relationships with them is all facilitated by ever growing object networks. The communication required to found relationships is stripped from the body.

All this loss of interpersonal communicative ability is both liberating and incredibly dangerous. The very mechanisms that enabled humanity to survive in the wild for thousands of years have already been lost; due largely to extermination of native peoples and the hegemonic oppression of capitalistic forces. Never fear! Such technology is invariably sleekly packaged and marketed so you won’t feel any twinge of remorse for pulling the plug on the hard-wiring that has evolved in your brain thanks to countless generations of ancestors.

Liberation from evolved modes of communication enables us, as humans, to live a more interconnect, de-centered lifestyle. It provides the opportunity for people, as a species, regardless of place (physical, economic or otherwise) to commune – for celebration, for revolution, for entertaining masturbatory activity. Great potential for the human species to evolve beyond our old ways that have created such horrible miseries such as homelessness, poverty and other injustices could be combated on a global scale. Such is a desire held by many people that have a stake in both the technological objects that could facilitate this reality and those that are humanitarian.

True danger resides in the fact that TECHNOLOGY CAN’T/WON’T SAVE US… EVER. Most of the world’s most confounding and dangerous problems are the result of the search for, creation and possession of technological advances. Take the atom bomb, for example. Or, for a less drastic example, remember how your ability to remember phone numbers plummeted after purchasing your first cell phone. Technology is antithetical to the soft, organic, malleable nature of the natural world – animal, plant or mineral. It can’t save us, no matter how we attempt to engender our best characteristics and sensibilities within it.

However, given the fact that technology has the possibility of use for means of manipulation of broad portions of humanity by narrow interests it doesn’t negate the possibility of that same technology to be harnessed for the good of human kind. It can help us connect with one another, to form communities and to learn a sense of place where once the neighborhood or familial unit would have fulfilled that role. In the same breath, it can be used for surveillance, for control, for dominion and destruction. The fact that the most pervasive technological societies are also those responsible for the most tragic crimes against humanity and war should create a sense of disgust and disdain deep within the soul of every human.

A saying states that fiction always precedes reality and the fiction is displaying an antagonistic relationship between technology and humans, regardless of the attempt to make such technologies user friendly (i.e. Robocop, Terminator, Maximum Overdrive, etc.). Technology will never replace human interaction. Sure, it may attempt to supplement human needs but it should never been used to replace interpersonal relationships. In any case, your techno-gadgetry won’t get you into heaven.

Let's go to the mall!

In the valorized object (Stuff), we shall find communion. Let it (Stuff) sanctify our dutiful existence towards its (Stuffs) incessant gathering. With great pomp shall we parade it (Stuff, shiny perhaps) upon our breast, to befall the eyes of others. May it (Stuff) shield our shriveled souls from the many that pass and pry and from those who can only observe, yet never understand, from afar. Finally, upon return to its secure vessel for stowage, we find solace in the Stuff-mandala of the world: boot, trouser, cap, watch, ad infinitum.

Amidst a throng of shrieking tweens, we find the recently exhumed and reanimated corpses of G. Simmel and W. Benjamin strolling rather raucously through the Mall of America, their bodies having long been stripped of their soft tissues. A phantasmagoric scene, undoubtedly, for such a cast of unsuspecting characters. Aghast and disgusted are several nearby tweens: not by the ravages of decomposition or the appearance of two walking skeletons, but by their seriously outdated threads.

“OMG! Those guys are so, like, last century,” proclaims Suzie.

“Totally. Like, how creepy?! Halloween isn’t for like… um, what month is it,” stammers her cohort Jill.

Suzie, unfazed by the morbidity manifest in the motley mega-Stuff-mandala-of-them-all (which she not-so-secretly wants all to herself… well, maybe Jill can partake in the loot) notices Zach, the cute boy from math class, at the vendor just beyond the two teetering theorists. Hurried, the girls brisk past our unfortunate heroes with scant notice that they, our heroes, aren’t crude Halloween props but real life skeletons walking through the mall.

I jest, of course, for I know not the inner workings of the tween mind nor that of the reanimated corpse. An interview with worm may provide insight and, perhaps, a recipe or wine suggestion. Nevertheless, our heroes are reduced to bags of bones – shabby bags at that.

The parallels of Simmel and Benjamin, not in their less-than-stunning appearance decades post mortem, is in the evidence and/or conclusion of spectacle based in objects of the magnitude of human proportion (the garment, the vehicle, the building, the city). Each order of magnitude connotes another layer of stimuli, growing from within the psyche of the individual and spreading beyond the boundaries of flesh to adjacencies and beyond. These truly meaningless orders – they are abstractions of sustenance – pervade the conscious mind of our subject and create a false sense of value. This abstraction of value based monetarily has enabled the mind-numbing cacophony of human conglomeration presented as the city. Wherever the city may provide emancipation, it enslaves exponentially and eschews lucidity.

Space = Me (or you)

Space does not exist but in the context of the mind.

When asked to describe what space is, many have trouble describing, in words, what their understanding of space is. It is easily conjured by the imagination, yet difficult to verbalize. Most commonly agreed upon definitions of space all deal with dimensions of one sort or another, be they time or distance. These dimensions can be singular or multiple, linear or volumetric. Space is both a problem of esoteric proportion and rudimentary physicality. To discover the true meaning of space, one may best seek answers in the shade of a mighty tree, atop a craggy precipice or at the shore of a tranquil mountain pond. Utterance of an answer to a question so simply profound as, “what is the meaning of space?”, ought to bring even the most clever student a smack in the back of the head.

Questions in league with that of the concept of space are easily found in childhood riddles. For example, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Of course, one could argue that, in fact, it does make a sound, and a thunderous one at that! Still, how is one able to prove such a conclusion? Experience would lead one to assume that the falling tree makes a noise. It’s this same feature that allows an individual to understand space. If all the senses are blotted out, does the space about us still exist? Experience would lead us to believe that once the senses are restored we would find that the spaces about us still exist.

Still, this does not pin down what the meaning of space is. Its tangibility, olfactory or auditory features do not describe its state. These sensory stimuli contribute to the construct of space but the location for the assembly of these stimuli, along with associated memories of said stimuli, is in the mind. Aspects of spaces, when filtered through memories, can help ascribe meaning to space and foster comprehension of that space. Linguistic cues, of all manner of form – sounds, sights, smells… especially smells – trigger emotive responses and rememberances that lead us to assume the meaning of a particular space. Through evolution and the course of living our own lives, spatial meanings are programmed to assist in survival functions. Conjuring the meaning of space is inseparable from the core functions of the human organism.

The true meanings of space will differ from person to person, perhaps minutely, and from culture to culture, possibly greatly. Change one of the seemingly endless aspects of space and there too goes its meaning. Space is a state of mind – a forum for the imagination to posit objects, a laboratory to test theories, even a place to call home. It is eveything and nothing, everywhere and nowhere, all at once, for ever and ever.

“In the space which thought creates around itself there is no love. This space divides man from man, and in it is all the becoming, the battle of life, the agnoy and fear. Meditation is the ending of this space, the ending of the me.” – Krishnamurti