“This show is about the aesthetic approach to interpretation of space as a social phenomenon.” -Thompson
Nato Thompson introduced the discussion a little haphazardly to a packed house at CUNY’s Graduate Center Tuesday night. Thompson noted that his experiences with crust punk made Situationism so appealing, and the movement (and Debord more specifically) acted as a common thread throughout the evening’s discussion. He also called our attention to the “tensions in the production of knowledge” between the didactic and poetic, and the physical and nonphysical. He also, naturally, reminded us that the production of culture and space (and knowledge, indirectly) take place alongside the production of capital- and the difficulties this poses.
“In a sense, we are all neoliberals and suburbanites now, without even realizing it.” -Harvey
David Harvey mentioned Engels’ and Simmel’s now classic accounts of the 19th-century metropolis, and the idea of everyone becoming “slaves to the clock” (an idea that would play itself out literally during the audience questions). As an example of Debord’s detournement he suggested that we change each of the clocks in New York by one hour and “see how people function.” He said the work in the show appealed to him because it puts us in touch with the unknown and what he called the “geographical unconscious.” He said that paying attention to this concept is crucial because suburbanization, perhaps the single most important feature of 20th-century American geography, is essential in political and geographical socialization, even affecting dense cities. To this point, he discussed with disdain the new flower beds and walking areas designed to attract tourists and shoppers to areas of Manhattan. He said that cities, more and more, are being organized around spectacles, which are good business in that they are consumed instantly- no turnover time. Harvey said that it’s very easy for radicals to see surface patterns, but it’s far more difficult to change them.
“These expositions, these World’s Fairs, they’re spectacles of culture and commerce- consuming the world” -Mogel
Lize Mogel told us that the ongoing Shanghai World Expo is an example of experimental geography. To illustrate, she showed slides of pieces that blurred the line between minimalist conceptual art and cartography (including one “world map” in which the relative positions and sizes of countries corresponded to the positions and sizes of demonstrations at the expo pavilion). In a style similar to that of Geoff Manaugh, she discussed a few quick geographic vignettes, including the ultimate fate of ships, the related histories of Panama and San Francisco, the relocation of 20,000 people in just 3 years to prepare for the Shanghai Expo- and the replacement of their homes with simulated city streets. Hammering the absurdity of capitalist land use home was a slide of a Chinese real estate ad. The photograph was that of a suburban California-style prefab house, and the copy, in gaudy script, read “Unceasing Development.”
“Rather than art for people, we’re actually making art for beavers.” -Kerr
Iain Kerr was the next speaker, and was focused very much on emerging possibilities of change within our society. He said the task is to figure out not just what is changing, but the processes by which those changes occur. He discussed his work with ecology, pollution, and mine drainage. Mine drainage is when unused mines become filled with water, with the metals and chemicals causing huge bacterial growths that supplant the local ecology with a new one. He discussed the possibility of replacing one ecology with another to control and reverse the pollution, as some bacteria absorb and process the dangerous materials. But these bacteria require wetlands, so instead of spending millions of dollars building wetlands, they thought of attracting and reintroducing beavers, hence “art for beavers.” He also suggested that we must focus more on what knowledge does rather than what knowledge is.
“With geography, many of the problems of poststructuralism turned out not to be problems at all” -Paglen
Trevor Paglen finished the individual talks with the idea that critical and radical academics need to move from a politics of representation to a politics of spatialization. To borrow his term, he “unpacked” the term that Lefebvre made so famous- the production of space. He observed that “production is the interface between humans and the earth’s surface,” and that space itself is a large number of dialectically interrelated processes. In his critique of the semiology of thinkers like Derrida, he noted that their thoughts seemed to come from outside space and time. The underlying idea, I believe, was that geography has the tools we need to understand all of the interrelated processes of space, whereas semiology and textual studies can only approach some of them. He did contend, however, that geography as a tradition of thought needs to be more self-reflective about its interventions in the world.
The discussion brought us toward the possibility of radically different spaces- Harvey mentioned the spatial aspects of the civil and gay rights struggles as examples of heterotopic spaces, while one person from the audience asked about the “geography of the apocalypse.” Kerr replied to this, saying that the very notion carries vestiges of Judeo-Christian morality (with pure beginnings and pure ends) that are unhelpful to our theorizing coherently about the problems we face. He suggested systems theory, or focusing on “possibilities of immanence” as an alternative. Kerr also suggested, as another form of detournement similar to Harvey’s, that we “adjust all the GPS units to be half a kilometer from where they should be.” The last person to ask a question was a bit of a rambler, who was cut off before he could fully articulate his idea- thus proving Harvey’s earlier point about “slavery to the clock.”