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Complexity: Biting the Hand that Feeds

Complexity: Biting the Hand that Feeds

Posted by on Oct 24, 2013 in Featured, manifesto |

I am writing this in the back of a classroom at EPFL on day four of a conference on complexity. Today’s speaker is Italian and he apologizes for his basic French. His slides are in English. The professor organizing the event is squirming visibly and then, perhaps realizing (but probably not) that we can all see him, his positions his hand in front of his face and watches the rest of the lecture stone-faced, tensing a bit when the lecturer drops English phrases into his talk.   Like almost all of my classes at EPFL this began as an interesting promise and ended in disappointment: I came prepared to discuss ideas of complexity and architecture (in particular social complexity and the way contemporary mobile/social technologies have allowed us different modes of interaction with architecture) and found myself attempting to get work done in between arguing halfheartedly that English is not (entirely) a blasted wasteland of nonsense.   There are about ten students, seven of whom have worked together before. On the first day the three students who were not already part of the group were asked to present their work. We were given two minutes each of the nearly 60 hours this course is requiring. After my presentation the professor in charge shrugged dramatically as if to say “Well, that’s a thing…” and asked the class if there were any questions. There weren’t.  Another student in the class (from France, incidentally) argued (in French) that it might be useful to conduct the class in English. What followed was a fairly lengthy debate (in French) about the presence of these foreigners in their class and the definition of the term “English Friendly” which self-evidently requires that everyone be fully capable of speaking French but which “permits some English.” The other American in my class stuck it out a few more hours and then quit, but I’m still here because I’m a stubborn bastard. Also I need the credits. My friend B, a woman fluent in French but whose family is Ethiopian and German and who just returned from a long tour of Africa and China, tells me I’m taking this...

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M&M&M Field Trip, Part I

M&M&M Field Trip, Part I

Posted by on Oct 24, 2013 in Featured, Fieldtrips, M&M&M |

A few years ago my mother took me on an educational tourist trip to Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. We got a private guide for the day in Moscow, and I requested that we visit the Bulgakov Museum. I had done a bit of research before we came, and knew that (according to Wikipedia) there were two competing Bulgakov museums taking up the upper and lower floors of his residence, each claiming to the the real Bulgakov Museum. Apparently I hadn’t done quite enough research, because we discovered that both of the museums were closed that day. I had heard for years about the fan-graffiti-covered walls of the staircase in one of the museums. The graffiti and the museum collection had been vandalized by a religious extremist a few years before, so I’m not sure how much I missed. I satisfied myself with a photo next to a bronze sculpture of a couple of the main characters and a very drizzly visit to the nearby Patriarch’s Ponds, the first scene in the novel. Of course Bulgakov’s memory would be presented by two fighting museums (one official, one not?). Of course the museum would be attacked by a crazy man calling it satanic. What would be more appropriate for the author of this book that examines Russia’s relationship with religion, power, and truth? FRC’s s. forwarded me a reference to a third Bulgakov museum located in Kiev in his childhood home: the Literature-Memorial Museum to Mikhail Bulgakov. I wish I had known about it when I was in Ukraine: it sounds wonderful. The Uncataloged Museum has a great description/review of the place, which blends historical/family items with fictional narrative in a way that looks like it would suit the subject...

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M&M&M: Prologue

M&M&M: Prologue

Posted by on Oct 13, 2013 in Featured, M&M&M |

Several years ago, I was one of four artists commissioned to create a design for a nearby town’s library card. My project manager let me know after I took the assignment that since the funding for the cards came from the city bus department, we were being asked to do a design on the theme of “books and alternate modes of transportation”. After puzzling over the silly assignment for a while, I tried to come up with scenes in classic literature that involved pubic transit. One popped into my head immediately: an early scene in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita where a cat attempts to board a streetcar, pay the fare, gets kicked off, and jumps on the back for a free ride. It was one of my favorite books from a Modern Russian Literature course in college, and the scene had stuck with me. Thinking about the experience of being in two worlds at the same time when reading a book on a bus, I decided to blend the worlds of me on a city bus with the scene from the novel. The result was an image of me, sitting on a bus, reading M&M. The skyline of Moscow can be seen through the bus windows, and the cat looks in, peering over my shoulder at the book. The book’s library call number was printed at the bottom of the card. The public art committee met and approved the card design. The project manager then realized that she had shown the committee an unfinished version of the design, and asked me if I would be OK with using the unfinished version. I told her I would think about it over the weekend. She took the time to look up the book on Amazon, and found several reviews by Christians who called it blasphemous (I told her the general plot of the book before starting the design, but had framed it in terms of a political satire rather than a book about religion). On Monday she called, saying she was afraid that the card would draw protests at the library, and asked me to remove references to the book...

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Feral References : Laurie Penny, Caroline Walker Bynum

Posted by on Oct 12, 2013 in References |

Read Laurie Penny’s Miley Cyrus piece in the NewStatesman this morning. I’m not yet sure if there’s something in the comparison, but reading it caused me to take Caroline Walker Bynum’s Fragmentation and Redemption off the shelf. In the European Middle Ages, women manipulated their own physicality to extremes; they did this in part to gain agency within their world and authority within the church. Women’s relationship to the public presentation of their physicality was complicated. Likely as it’s always been. And, as Penny very eloquently writes about Miley, as it is...

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Feral References : William H. Whyte

Posted by on Oct 10, 2013 in References |

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces is an informative, mandatory read for anyone looking to instigate and/or choreograph interactions in public space of any type. As a hint as to why William H. Whyte has been so transformative for designers, sociologists, and planners, I embed the below video. According to the Municipal Art Society, a sponsor of Whyte’s original work, it’s a “[s]mall fragment of William H. Whyte’s witty and original film about the open spaces of cities and why some of them work for people while others do not.” William H. Whyte: The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces – The Street Corner from MAS on...

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